Sunday, January 18, 2009

the18's Michael Fenenbock Does Gaza

January 15, 2009
Jerusalem, Israel

Michael Fenenbock, veteran political consultant and founder of the18, made a lightning visit to the Gaza war zone yesterday to interact with IDF troops near the front.

Accompanied by senior security personnel, Fenenbock gained access to a zone where reporters are not permitted to enter. Fenenbock’s most striking impression was that morale is extremely high at all levels of command and that the professionalism and commitment of the IDF are impressive.

What follows is Michael’s first-hand report from the front lines.

Rafi, the head of security for 17 kibbutzim bordering the Gaza Strip is an extraordinary man. Of Iranian Jewish origin, he calmly conducts business with an Uzi in his lap, three cell phones, two radios and a walkie-talkie going at the same time; helicopters overhead, Israeli planes thundering in the distance; alarms announcing the firing of Kassam rockets at Ashkelon and the kibbutzim; Rafi calmly races between rocket attack locations.

Nearby, IDF soldiers covered in dust and grime, refit damaged tanks and send them spewing black diesel smoke back into the fray.

At the side of one of the massive IDF tanks I’m introduced to the young men of the tank crew who are taking a brief respite from the battle. “Hi, I’m Michael from New York.” “And I’m Sasha from Moscow,” one tall, fair-haired officer responds.

Another young soldier and I engage in a discussion about the New York Yankees and their prospects this year.

I talk to still more dust covered soldiers from the prestigious Golani Brigade. All express surprise, welcome, and appreciation for our visit and support.

“Are you getting everything you need?” I ask, remembering the dreadful reports from Israeli troops of shortages of supplies and food during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. This time, the answer always comes back the same. ‘Absolutely, we have everything.’

As we continue our tour of the staging area, we stand aside as an officer briefs a group of men while flipping the pages of aerial photographs. Three female soldiers in charge of piloting the intelligence drones drive by in an IDF jeep. They smile and wave.

In an open area next to a cultivated field is a sight not seen in other nations at war — hundreds of parked civilian cars. The cars belong to reservists who have reported for duty from all over the country. Much of the IDF is a civilian army.

Rafi calls a temporary halt to the briefing to take us into a kibbutz hothouse, where he hands us yellow bell peppers fresh off the vine. The kibbutz specializes in the production of bio-organic produce.

We munch away as reports come in that one of the kibbutz vehicles has taken a sniper bullet – Gaza is 200 yards away. Fortunately, the driver is unhurt.

From an observation post looking over Gaza that only a mountain goat could climb, we see smoke pouring from high-rise buildings in Gaza City. Rafi tells us that the city skyline has changed as of late. Many such buildings are used by Hamas as terrorist bases and rocket launchpads and so have been leveled by the IAF. It is a surgical operation.

Back at the kibbutz, Rafi stops to admonish four schoolboys who are outside kicking a soccer ball. “Shai, get back in the shelter and take your friends with you,” he yells.

The kids smile, wave, and continue kicking the soccer ball.

Rafi shares with us that when Israel removed all its citizens from Gaza three years ago he believed in the promise of peace. He had friends on the other side, men he negotiated with about building a maternity hospital that would serve mostly Palestinian women and about how the Karni crossing would become a mecca for trade.

But, Rafi explains, rolling his eyes and sadly shaking his head, it was all a ruse by the Gazans, an attempt to lull Jews into a false sense of security that would make them vulnerable to attack. “So that they could slaughter us,” Rafi says.

To underscore his point, Rafi shows us the last several days’ collection of jagged shrapnel – razor sharp pieces and mean-looking parts of the rockets fired on Israel’s southern residents. As we examine a piece of shrapnel we’re told the rocket it comes from was manufactured in China. Other rocket parts, Rafi tells us, come from Iran.

On the border, we pick up one of the flyers in Arabic that Israel distributed by the thousands to the citizens of Gaza, warning civilians of the impending military campaign.

As we drive out of the war zone and head north back to Jerusalem, we pass a soldier hitching a ride in the other direction, toward the battle. When I glance back, I see a car stop and pick him up.

A little further north we come upon the line up of news crews, trucks, cameras, and satellite dishes. They are only allowed to go as far as this point.

Michael Fenenbock is a long-time American political consultant. He and his wife Daphne are the founders of the18 and the No on Two-State campaign. They live in New York, but spend a great deal of time in Jerusalem.