In the span of about five years Israel has seen monumental changes in its country’s reputation as being sympathetic to human trafficking.

As of 2005 Israel was listed on Tier 3 by the U.S. State Department in its efforts to fight and prevent human trafficking. As the bottom in the scale Tier 3 is reserved for those shame-faced countries whose governments “do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Israel at this time was still considered one of the main destinations for the trafficking in woman – primarily those from the former Soviet Union.

The U.S. State Department’s harsh labeling of Israel as being on the same Tier as non-democratic countries such as Sudan and Somalia shamed Israel into action. Knesset member David Tsur of the HaTenua Party and chairman of the Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women and Prostitution stated, “If I were a seasoned and professional politician, I would say that the decision to act was not related to the Americans, but the reality was that without the whip of the State Department, we would not have taken serious steps. We understood that if we didn’t address the problem, aid funds would be stalled, and very quickly we would have a new center of criminal activity on our hands.”

As the law stood, victims of human trafficking were treated as criminals, making it very difficult and unlikely for them to come forward and report their abuse. This was one of the first things to be changed as Israel began to make anti-human-trafficking a priority. Government-funded shelters were set up for trafficked women who’d filed complaints where they received medical treatment and underwent rehabilitation.

Congruent to decriminalizing the victims, starting in 2006 perpetrators were given 20 year sentences for human trafficking violations. As of the U.S. State Department’s 2013 report on Trafficking in Persons, they declared that this still wasn’t a sentence that “Commensurate[d] with the gravity of the offence.”

The addition to Israel’s pre-existing barrier in 2005 was monumental in preventing the trafficking of people from Egypt, which at one time was the post popular through-country and entrance into Israel for traffickers.

Since prostitution is legal in Israel there are still issues of sexual exploitation and cases of trafficking within the country, but Israel has been hugely successful in abolishing human trafficking across its borders. In a statement to Israel’s Daniel Shapiro a U.S. Ambassador said, “I applaud the Government of Israel for continuing to focus on eliminating the scourge of modern day slavery. Israel has taken an all-of-government approach to tackling this global phenomenon, including legislative action in the Knesset, police training, and providing shelters and services for trafficking victims.”

Other countries stand to learn a lot from Israel’s example. Human trafficking has been reported in nearly every Western country, including each state within the U.S. As Israel has demonstrated, governments must recognize trafficking as a threat and allocate a full-on attack to stand a chance in eliminating it.

– Lydia Caswell

Sources: The Times of Israel, Al-Monitor, Atzum, U.S. Department of State
Photo: Jerusalem Post

Israel announced this week that it had intercepted a ship carrying Syrian-made rockets from Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Tehran immediately denied that is was behind the shipment, with the country’s foreign minister calling the Israeli accusations the “same failed lies.”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Wednesday that it had found rockets on a Panamanian-flagged vessel that it had tracked for several months and seized in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan. Dozens of M-302 rockets, which have a range of 93 to 124 miles, were found on the ship, called the Klos-C, according to Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz.

“The ship may be carrying other weapons as well, but we can only know this when it reaches Eilat,” Almoz said.

In a detailed post about the seizure on the Israeli military’s website, the IDF said the weapons shipment had begun in Damascus, where it had been flown to Tehran and then taken to the southern Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and loaded onto the Klos-C. From there, the Klos-C headed to the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, where containers of cement were added, before the vessel sailed around the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, where it was intercepted by the Israeli navy on March 5.

The ship, whose 17-member crew was apparently unaware of the vessels elicit cargo, was headed for Port Sudan, according to the post on the military’s website.

Israel accused Iran, a longtime enemy of the Jewish state that supports militant groups in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, of being behind the shipment of rockets, which included “numerous advanced weapons,” according to the military’s website. “There is clear and unequivocal information that this came from Iran,” Almoz, the military spokesman, said.

On March 6, Iran denied that it was involved in the shipment, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accusing Israel of concocting the story “just in time” for the annual conference of AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israeli American lobbying group. “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza,” Zarif said in a Twitter post. “Captured just in time for annual AIPAC anti-Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”

Hamas, an armed Palestinian Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, denied any connection to the shipment, with a spokesman for the organization characterizing the Israeli accusations about Iranian weapons shipments to Gaza as a “silly joke.”

Hamas contends that it has not fired any rockets at Israel since a ceasefire between the militant Islamist group and the Jewish state came into fruition in 2012. Israel says that more than 60 rockets have been fired from the densely populated and impoverished coastal enclave since the beginning of the year and holds Hamas responsible for rocket attacks launched by other Gaza-based militant groups.

Israel captured the Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai Peninsula, from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, when the Jewish state also seized the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 and withdrew from Gaza in 2007, but continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home to more than 100 Jewish settlements that are viewed as illegal under international law. In 2005, Hamas seized control of Gaza after beating Palestinian Authority security forces dominated by Fatah, the secular Palestinian faction supported by the west, in a brief war.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, Israel Defense Forces, Twitter
Photo: The Malaysian

Eritrean Refugees
Refugees are fleeing Sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty in search for job opportunities, political freedoms and basic human rights. The sad reality of this situation is many of these opportunities are few and far in-between, and their lives rarely improve above the dire situation they were leaving.

Eritrea is one of the nations many have been fleeing from. Isayais Aferwerki, the despotic dictator who’s ruled Eritrea since its 1994 independence from Ethiopia, is a main reason. The nation is home to rampant poverty, media repression and political oppression. Adult-aged males are regularly conscripted into military service with no definite end-date, and the President was quoted as saying the nation was not ready for free elections for at least another 20-30 years. The constitution has been suspended and Eritrea remains single-party state, with opposition political groups regularly rounded up and jailed.

Around 200,000 Eritreans have left the nation in search of freedom, but it has resulted in a human rights crisis. Eritreans regularly flee to Sudan, Egypt and Israel only to be subjected to discrimination, and in some cases, have fallen into human trafficking. Israel has prevented refugees from entering by building a fence, which has resulted in asylum seekers slowing “to a trickle” of their original amount.

Human Rights Watch published a report detailing the crisis in early February stating that “refugees are commonly kidnapped, and their families extorted to pay for their release.” Those who manage to avoid kidnapping are usually deported back. HRW has focused on the culpability of Egyptian and Sudanese officials in the kidnapping crisis. The allegation has been made that corrupt officials have been benefiting financially from the situation and are actively cooperating with kidnappers.

Physicians for Human Rights released a damning report on the conditions many Eritrean refugees face on the trek to asylum. The imprisonment rate of those interviewed was around 59%, while 52% claimed they were violently abused at some point on their way to the Sinai Peninsula. Slave camps are prevalent in Egypt. In El-Arish, there are camps reported throughout the area, populated with “slave traders” who “demand ransoms” for the release of African refugees.

The report detailed that many of these refugees were tricked through “promises of being led to Israel” but rather held against their will, while other’s detailed “severe abuse.” Twenty percent of those interviewed also described witnessing murders. Israel can be considered culpable in this situation. With the building of the fence, the average of 1,500 refugees gaining asylum each month decreased to only 25 entering “between January and April 2013.”

Israel has also mounted a political campaign to defend their actions, decrying the Eritrean refugees as a “threat to Israeli society.” The public response to these accusations helped allow the government to enact stricter immigration legislation, allowing for slave traders to flourish in the wake.

The Anti-Infiltration Law was passed in January of 2012 by the Israeli Legislature of Knesset, and allowed the Israeli Government to detain any people found crossing the border. The law even prevents many of these refugees from receiving a speedy trail, allowing the Israeli state to detain undocumented immigrants for “minimum of three years.” If a undocumented immigrant is from a state considered belligerent to Israel, such as Sudan, they can be “detained indefinitely.”

It was a crushing defeat for many Africans in search of a new life free of oppression. With no options, many still flee, but they may not find the salvation they are in search of.

– Joseph Abay

Sources: Turkish Weekly, US State Department, Haaretz, The Voice, Sudan Tribune, DW, Physicians for Human Rights, Haaretz

Poverty in Israel
Poverty in Israel? Yes. Israel has one of the world’s more advanced economies. It has a vibrant service industry and the recent discovery of immense natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, which have been estimated to hold billions of dollars of natural gas make Israel’s economic future look quite bright and prosperous.

Given all of this, one would not expect Israel to have the highest poverty rate among developed countries.

The Israeli National Central Bureau of Statistics published a study in which it noted that Israel’s poverty rate stands at 20.9 percent among countries who are members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD.) This places Israel as the country with the highest rate of poverty of the member countries. Israel also placed fifth out of all member countries in terms of income inequality.

While many countries have been hit hard by the global financial crisis, according to the OECD’s report, one of the reasons for Israel abnormally high poverty rate is due to the fact that a large majority of those of the working age in Israel do not in fact work.

The numbers are surprising: about 40 percent of Israeli’s between the ages of 15 and 64 are not working. By comparison, 33 percent of those in other OECD countries are not working.

The number of those in poverty is also expected to rise as Israel plans to cut benefits for child allowances as well. According to the OECD report, 30,000 to 40,000 more children will be placed under the poverty line. This all come on the heels of criticisms of the Benjamin Netanyahu administration due to lavish spending on various items. One particular example given by the Huffington Post is Netanyahu’s spending $127,000 of public funds on a sleeping cabin while visiting London.

The Netanyahu administration has also shot up spending by 80 percent since taking office in 2009, according to the Huffington Post.

The natural gas reserves that have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean are likely to give Israel a boost in both its overall economic rank and the number of jobs it creates.

According to Forbes, it will likely bring over $60 billion in the next 20 years.

Israel is one of the more wealthy countries in the world, and with its natural gas fields in the works, it stands to fundamentally change the shape of both Middle Eastern economics and politics the world over. However, as Israel moves forward with this significant improvement in its countries, it cannot forget its citizens who are falling under the poverty line.

Arthur Fuller

Sources: Forbes, Haaretz, OECD, The Times of Israel, Forbes, CIA World Factbook, New York Times, Huffington Post
Photo: Two Rivers

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians continue as settlement laws are disregarded and violence intensifies. According to the United Nations, the number of attacks on Palestinians by Israelis has quadrupled in eight years.

As per figures recorded by the U.N., the drastic increase in number of attacks jumped from 115 in 2006 to 399  in 2013. Besides attacks on people, there has also been a significant increase in the number of defacing and/or demolishing of buildings. This epidemic seems to be unresolvable with police forces on both sides remaining more loyal to the advancement of their own people rather than the adherence to laws and protection of all from violence.

The settlement of Israelis in the West Bank is against international law, but 500,000 settlers remain there. More needs to be done in order to cease fighting, and while leaders denounce the violence, they tend to be lax on the issue of settlements. As Gadi Zohar, a former Israeli army commander, puts it, “There is not enough pressure from the prime minister, the defense minister, the interior minister to prevent this.”

The Israeli police force, or the IDF, has a duty to interfere and stop any attack by one person on another, regardless of nationality. With such strong negative sentiments toward each other from the Six-Day War in 1967 and conflicts ever since, the judgments of the IDF seem to be clouded as they lean towards protecting Israeli settlers on Palestinian territory.

One of the most recent acts of violence started with Palestinians beating and holding Israeli settlers in the village Qusra, located in the northern region of the West Bank. This provoked and led Israelis to defacing a mosque, writing, “Arabs Out” and “Revenge for blood spilled in Qusra” in Hebrew. The mosque was also set on fire, along with several olive trees and cars.

This violence has been rumored to be a part of what Palestinians call the “price tag” campaign. This name was coined to describe a string of violent actions committed by Israelis against Palestinians, which are carried out with the ultimate goal of seizing the West Bank. So far, the campaign has reportedly gotten half of the land back to Israeli villagers, as soldiers do not really try and stop attacks.

With both Israelis and Palestinians resorting to violence to try to gain control of or keep what land they believe to be their own, a resolution seems far-reaching until strict actions are taken in order to end violence and draw concrete borders. It is rumored that Israel plans to build 1,400 homes in the West Bank in 2014, but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman states that Israel is ready to negotiate and “Israel is making great effort to allow the dialogue with the Palestinians to continue.”

– Danielle Warren

Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, RT News

The Israeli government’s stance on African refugees has recently been called into question and has become an area of controversy centered on human rights.

The Israelis know perhaps better than any nation just how difficult it is for a people without a homeland. However, this is not reflected in the attitudes of many of those in power within the Israeli government. For example, former interior minister Eli Yishai voiced in a statement smacking of racism that the government should “put every single one of the infiltrators in detention facilities, take their work permits, put them on aeroplanes and send them packing to their countries or a third country.” In most cases, this is exactly what has happened.

Yishai is anything but alone. Several other high-profile politicians have been swayed by a wave of xenophobia imbued with hostility. Parliament member Miri Regev went so far as to call Sudanese refugees “a cancer in our bodies.” It is the false belief of many in the Israeli government that the vast majority of African refugees are there not because they are actually refugees, but because they can find a better chance at economic gain in Israel.

This xenophobia is evident in the numbers of African refugees that have gained refugee status in Israel. Whereas nearly half of Sudanese and over 80 percent of Eritreans have found refugee status in other countries, less than one percent of refugees have received it in Israel. In fact, since its independence in 1948, Israel has granted fewer than 200 people refugee status.

In response to this, demonstrations and strikes by thousands of African refugees have taken place within Israel, most in Jerusalem, that ask for a restructuring of Israeli asylum and detention policies. Many more refugees in Israel have found their way into a detention center or have been deported than have found a place of refuge.

Signs at the demonstrations included benign statements such as “We are seeking asylum,” “Don’t split up families” and “We are refugees, not criminals.” Meanwhile, the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth ran the headline “The Infiltrators Conquered the Square,” with the subtitle “An existential problem.”

The square of the headline is Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, roughly 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem, where a demonstration took place that protested the recent amendment of the Prevention of Infiltration Law. Asylum seekers in the country are now under the threat of being placed into detention centers indefinitely. Because of this amendment, refugees must choose between being a prisoner and leaving the country.

However, there are many- refugees and activists alike- who are prepared to persist in their fight for recognition and acceptance as refugees. Only time will tell if Israel will have a change of heart.

– Jordan Schunk

Sources: +927, Capital Eritrea, The Guardian, New Yorker, Pravda, San Diego Jewish World, The Times of Israel

A group of 20,000 people gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on January 5 to protest Israeli migrant laws. Most, if not all, of the protesters are African refugees attempting to draw attention to their desire for asylum and end the laws that could put them in detention or erase their right to work.

Al Jazeera reports that this is the largest such rally by migrants in Israel’s history. The rally transpired after a mass walk-out from a detention facility in December by hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa. These people had been detained there for a night and the following day were banned from work.

The Voice of America News states that, “Israel’s parliament passed a new law last month allowing authorities to indefinitely detain migrants who lack valid documents and ban them from jobs.” Most of the African protesters have come from Eritrea and Sudan and are seeking asylum because of poverty, violence and political chaos.

Haaretz quotes one of the protesters explaining that, “We didn’t come here to stay our whole lives; we want to return to our home countries once the situation improves.” Eli Yishai, former Interior Minister of Israel advised that the Jewish people should be sympathetic to the suffering of others as long as it would not put the state in danger. This is because he firmly believes that the African refugees want to change Israel, despite their claims against his belief.

There are currently 38,000 refugees from Eritrea and 15,000 refugees from Sudan living in Israel. In total 60,000 migrants have, according to Israeli authorities, crossed into Israeli territory from the border they share with Egypt since 2006.

Due to the sheer volume of people entering the country, Israel spent $377 million dollars on a border fence to stem the flow of immigrants in 2013, reports Al Jazeera. This fence evidently did its job because though 10,000 people crossed the border in 2012, only 36 were able to enter in 2013.

Legislation was passed on December 10 allowing authorities to detain illegal immigrants entering the country for up to a year without trial. This did not go over well with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) as they, as well as other groups have already filed petitions against the new law. Despite all of the issues, the new bill had passed by 30 votes in favor and only 15 against out of the 120-member Knesset.

– Lindsey Lerner

Sources: VOA, Times of Israel, Al Jazeera
Photo: Al Jazeera

Over the last several years, Israel has enjoyed economic growth and low unemployment. Unfortunately, that is not all good news. A report recently released by Israel’s National Insurance Institute and the Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that over 1.7 million people, or 23.5 percent of the population, live below the poverty line. Of the 1.7 million people living in poverty, 817,000 of them are children and 180,000 of them are elderly. In addition, one in five households is living at or below the poverty line.

In recent years, Israel has been seen as up and coming in the high-tech sector, drawing international attention. Even though Israel is seeing significant progress, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a statement saying, “Israel’s output growth remains relatively strong, unemployment is at historically low levels…However, average living standards remain well below those of top-ranking OECD countries, the rate of relative poverty is the highest in the OECD area.” The report also adds that the poverty problem is affecting some groups more than others, “Among Arabs and in the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish community poverty is over one in two, mainly due to low employment rates among Arab women and ultra-Orthodox men”

The OECD indicated that Israel surpassed some of the average measures of other OCED members; it ranked far below average in similar social themed categories. These categories included housing, education and skills, social connections, work life balance, environment quality, personal security, and civic engagement. Fixing some of these social problems could help alleviate poverty in Israel. Action that should be taken should target groups that are endemic with poverty and other related problems such as Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

The OECD did offer several options for different solutions that could help alleviate poverty in Israel. One major suggestion was to improve education, especially in areas with severe levels of poverty. Another suggestion was to begin the process of pension and welfare reform to ensure that it is capable of coping with an aging population. Finally, the OECD favored sales tax increases over income tax increases so the tax does not become more of a burden on already cash-strapped families.

Colleen Eckvahl

Sources: Your Middle East, JTA
Photo: Ivarfjeld

Rather than considering himself an advocate for Israel, Neil Lazarus considers himself to be “fighting the de-legitimization of Israel.” Since Israel became a state in 1948, groups of people have made it their lives work to not acknowledge its existence, but according to the Times of Israel, Lazarus will not stand for it.

There are a myriad of questions that are extremely difficult to answer in regards to what it means to be pro-Israel, especially for Americans. Is it good or bad for Israel that more American Jews are questioning its policies? Should a person’s support for Israel be limited by the needs of non-Israelis affected by the conflict? Both questions as well as many others are hardly even approached by scholars or professionals, thus making it rather difficult to determine advocacy for Israel.

The editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, Jane Eisner, explained that, “It is hard not to view this lopsided scene as an incredibly sad commentary on the difficulty of engaging Jews with vastly different views on Israel in civil dialogue.” How does an American Jew balance the occasionally competing interests of Israel, the United States and Palestine?

Neil Lazarus has put it simply by saying, “If we could do for Israel what McDonald’s did for the hamburger, we’d be in a good place. They don’t do hasbara, but they do sell in the language of the people: In China the burger comes with rice; in Italy, pasta; in Germany, beer. But they’re all buying the burger.” Even in Israel the McDonald’s are kosher.

The ability to advocate for Israel lies in the ability to understand that when asking questions about it, issues of identity, politics and personal responsibility all come into play. Different perspectives and sets of facts are hurdles that need to be address to determine the impacts of advocacy on Israel.

Lindsey Lerner

Sources: The Times of Israel, The Washington Post
Photo: Vintage 3D

The U.S. relationship with UNESCO is taking a turn for the worse as the U.S. loses voting rights in the organization. UNESCO voted in Palestine as a member state in 2011 despite U.S. threats of halting funding to the UN organization.

The U.S. boycott resulted in inactivity for two years. As stated in UNESCO’s constitution, two years of member inactivity results in a loss of voting ability.

Formerly, the U.S. provided 22% of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s budget, approximately $80 million a year.  Under U.S. law, organizations that recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as a member state will be denied financial support.

A two-thirds approval vote for membership resulted in 107 to 14 with 15 abstentions, effectively passing Palestine to be the 195th full member. This is differentiated from Palestine’s membership with the United Nations, a bid that Palestine failed to accomplish.

Previously in 2011, shortfall of the $65 million originally pledged by the U.S., UNESCO began emergency fundraising efforts for its 2012-2013 budget. As reported by CNN, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova reevaluated every aspect of the organization from projects to contractual commitments. Currently, the 2014 budget is reduced by $150 million.

Bokova met with legislators in an attempt to change the language of U.S. law, to no avail. Bokova has stated that a second emergency fundraiser from contributing nations is not possible for the following year.

UNESCO establishes heritage sites and propels initiatives that push for education, culture and science worldwide. From education reform, particularly women’s education, to clean water access and tsunami research, UNESCO oversees a wide set of programs.

For its part, the U.S. not only loses soft-power influence through its relationship with UNESCO but misses an opportunity in creating two separate UNESCO sites in the U.S.: Spanish missions in San Antonio and an ancient civilization site in Poverty Point, Louisiana. The ensuing established heritage sites would have increased tourism and established jobs.

U.S. influence and interests are overlooked through inactivity in UNESCO. The U.S.’ relationship with UNESCO began in 1945 through support and funding. A boycott by the U.S. against UNESCO lasted between 1984 to 2003, the former disagreeing with the latter’s supposed anti-Western policies.  Since the U.S. readmission in 2003, the country pushed for greater Holocaust and genocide education.  A mission utilized in Africa to promote ethnic tolerance and educate about nondiscrimination and nonviolence.

In addition to the U.S., Israel has pulled its 3% contribution off the UNESCO budget and equally lost voting privilege. The U.S. criticizes Palestine’s bid for recognition via the UN as a chief hindrance for improving negotiations between Palestine and Israel.

As an organization known for spreading freedom of expression, among others, UNESCO loses a mutually-beneficial donor with its current relation with the U.S.

Miles Abadilla

Sources: CNN, NY Times, NY Times, Al Jazeera, Reuters