Lara Prendergast

Israel Notebook | 16 March 2017

Also in Lara Prendergast’s notebook: the view from the Syrian border, tech obsessions and a soldier’s take on Britain

Israel Notebook | 16 March 2017
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On the Israeli side of the Syrian border, near al-Quneitra, you can watch the war. From my vantage point on the hill, I see a town held by Jabhat al-Nusra and another held by Nusra’s enemy, Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Behind a hill in the distance, I’m told by my Israeli guide, is an area controlled by Isis. Near a road blockade, a sign reads ‘Mortal Danger. Any person who passes endangers his life’ — a point reinforced by the rumble of mortars exploding and the screams that follow. I’ve never heard anything like it. The photographer I’m with is braver than me, or perhaps more foolish. He ventures past the sign for a better view. Almost instantly, a sniper in the distance starts firing in his direction. We both panic and leg it back to our bus.

I’m on a trip to Israel run by Bicom, the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre. Syria is a pressing question for the Israelis right now, and plenty of people want to show us why. The Israelis fear the growing influence of Hezbollah in Syria. Meanwhile Iran is strengthening its position with Russian support. As usual, the Israelis obsess over security and how to defend their borders. ‘Smart wall’ technology is the latest defence mechanism. It’s used along both the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and an IDF adviser is eager to tell us about its ‘touchscreen’ system. If a bird lands on the barrier, one type of signal is transmitted. If a person touches it, a more urgent signal is sent. Turkey and Hungary recently licensed the patent, and the Israelis are keen to cash in on the vogue for physical borders. Any other leader shopping for a big new wall will no doubt be given the hard sell.

Israelis see ‘Trumpportunity’ everywhere. After Obama, who had a difficult relationship with Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli right senses a golden chance. But then so do the Palestinians. They know Trump loves a deal — and Israel-Palestine could be the biggest of all. At the Mukata’a, the Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank, I meet Husam Zomlot, the new Palestinian ambassador to the US, who grew up in Gaza and was educated at the LSE. ‘If Trump seeks the ultimate deal, he needs to know we are the ultimate partners. There will be no deal without us,’ he says. ‘We don’t hate Israel,’ he adds. On a pinboard behind him, there is a cartoon of Netanyahu talking to a soldier. I ask whether someone can translate the Arabic caption. One of Zomlot’s assistants takes it off the wall, screws it up and throws it in the bin. Nobody tells me what it said.

All the manoeuvring over Trump, Russia, Iran and Syria leaves Gaza looking like an old conflict. Israeli locals who live near the large concrete wall rely on more old-fashioned protection: the bomb shelter. The Nirim kibbutz is so close to Gaza that Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ system cannot protect it. Instead, an alarm sounds whenever a missile is fired in its direction. If it’s a Qassam rocket, you have 15 seconds to reach a shelter. For a mortar, it’s seven.

Everyone we meet is after some good PR, yet a little resentful of journalists. IDF soldiers at the Gaza border aren’t keen on the British press. ‘Hamas are using you against the people of Gaza,’ one tells me. ‘Nobody ever gives the IDF credit.’ He’s in his twenties and once lived in Manchester but now thinks the UK is riskier than Israel. ‘IDF soldiers are under threat in Britain,’ he says, although he seems hesitant to explain why. ‘It’s much safer here,’ he adds, before discussing how often Hamas rockets hit this area. ‘When they fire at us, we fire back at them.’ A recent UN report said Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020.

'Tech’ is Israel’s obsession, the constant comfort of a neurotic nation. If they don’t innovate incessantly, Israelis fear their country will be wiped out. If they aren’t a step ahead of everybody else, they start to panic. In Tel Aviv, people talk of almost nothing else: ‘fintech’ (financial), ‘adtech’ (advertising) and ‘medtech’ (medical) are the buzzwords. There’s even a ‘low-tech’ ice cream shop.

In the Old City in Jerusalem, I meet Micky Rosenfeld, a member of the team in charge of keeping the peace between Jews, Christians and Muslims as they visit their holy sites. He has just returned from London, where he has been helping train our security services. ‘In Jerusalem, security cameras cover every corner, every angle, every turn,’ he boasts. ‘If you leave a bag somewhere, within 30 seconds, we will have isolated the area, removed the bag and dealt with it. In London, it would take at least 30 minutes to respond.’ One of our group realises he left a bag of souvenirs in a back street near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Fifteen minutes later, he finds it where he left it. No lockdown.

Along the Via Dolorosa, the stalls sell frankincense, orange juice and mint tea. There are souvenirs for every political taste. ‘Visit Palestine’ posters are displayed alongside T-shirts with slogans ranging from ‘America don’t worry. Israel is behind you’ to ‘I got stoned in Gaza’. ‘What’s really sacred here is money,’ says my guide.

That’s not true everywhere; most Israelis cherish safety most of all. In the northern part of the Golan Heights, I meet Farid al-Sayeed Ahmed, a member of the Druze community. He runs an apple and cherry orchard on the Syrian-Israeli border. Apples have long been grown here, but cherries became popular after Russian immigrants arrived. Farid lived in Syria until the Six-Day War in 1967, during which Israel captured this area. His farm is now divided by landmines between some of the fields. From the hill where we stand, he points to Syrian towns where some of his family still live. ‘We cry every day thinking about what is happening over there.’ He hands me an apple. ‘I pray there will be peace soon,’ he says. I wonder how long he has been saying that.

Lara Prendergast is The Spectator’s online editor.