Teenage Girls Released from Prison

The Jerusalem District Court ordered the release Monday of three teenage girls who refused to identify themselves to court officials for nearly a month. The girls were released without condition. 

The girls, aged 13 to 15, were arrested in late December at Givat Ha’Or, a nascent hilltop community near the Samaria town of Beit El, and charged with entering a closed military zone. Since then, they have refused to identify themselves and refused to sign release documents banning them from re-entering Givat Ha’Or. They also say they reject the jurisdiction of the Israeli court system because it does not operate according to the rules of halakha (Jewish law).  

The trio were imprisoned in the Neve Tirza womens’ prison in Ramle and refused parental visits and phone calls. According to some news reports, prison authorities consistently failed to inform the girls’ parents of remand extension hearings at the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, and the prisoners were brought to court through a side door in order to prevent contact with their parents.  

Michael Ben-Chorin, father of 15-year-old Ayala, told Israel National News he was “overjoyed” to learn of the girls’ release, and said the past month has increased his admiration for daughter many times over. “The girls have paid a very steep price for their beliefs,” he said, “but they remained strong throughout. I wouldn’t necessarily have sent her out to do what she did, but once she made her decision, we supported her completely. We’ve raised her to believe in Eretz Yisrael and she’s totally committed to continuing in our footsteps. I couldn’t be any prouder.”  

Ben Chorin said the girls were denied many basic rights granted to prisoners in all democratic societies, including phone and visitation privileges. He said his first substantive phone conversation with Ayala was on January 16 – more than two weeks after her arrest. Before that, he said, contact was limited to 10-to-15 second phone calls.

He also singled out the mainstream media, saying the girls’ plight was roundly ignored, and the National Council for the Child, saying the Council failed to meet his expectations. “It wouldn’t be fair to say the National Council for the Child didn’t do anything to help us,” he said, “but at least in public, their support was lukewarm at best. I would have expected (NCC head Dr.) Yitzhak Kadman to raise hell in the media – not to get them out of jail, but to make sure they received the minimum rights that all prisoners in Israel are entitled to.” 

Kadman rejected Ben Chorin’s criticism out of hand, and told Arutz Sheva he has been criticized by left-wing groups for acting in support of the girls. “The moment we found out (about the arrests), we were the first group to get in touch. We formally asked prosecutors to release them, we have been in constant touch with state and local prosecutors and with the police to try and get the girls out of jail. I’ve published open letters in (left-wing Hebrew-language daily) Haaretz calling for the girls’ release, as well as on Arutz Sheva. I’ve been occupied with the issue non-stop for the past 10 days, and the media has covered it. So I think it’s a bit unfair to be attacked by one side for trying to help, and the other side for failing to do anything.”


Who wants to be president?

This is a bit off-topic, but one way to fulfill my addiction to politics without feeling suicidal is focus on American, instead of Israeli, My prediction? The next president of the United States will be Mike Bloomberg. He’s got everything it takes to get elected – conservative finances, reasonably liberal social policies (he’s not going to move to outlaw abortion or take a strong stand against gay marriage), and the money to finance a campaign.

 More important, he’s more impressive to hear than anybody else currently in the race on either side, and he has waited to the right moment to get in the game. If you look at the recent history of US presidential elections, the folks who were assumed to be headed for their party nomination a year in advance were nowhere to be seen on Election Day. Remember Paul Tsongas, presumed to be the Democratic nominee in 1992? How about 2004 Democratic presumptive Howard Dean? Outside Arkansas, who’d ever heard of Bill Clinton in December, 1991? Bloomberg is poised to throw his hat in the ring and to gain momentum as the election campaign heats up, not to peak 18 months before the big day.  

Both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton fit nicely into this rule and they are exceptions to it. Unless John Edwards pulls a massive surprise on Super Tuesday, it  Obama and Hilary are going to go to the wire for the Democratic nomination despite having been in the race for well over half a year (and having been widely assumed to be in the 2008 race since Bush was re-elected in 2004). But my guess is that Barack peaked last summer, and it’s been hard to discern a real peak for Hilary at all. While one of them appears headed for the nomination in August, there are big question marks surrounding either’s ability to lead the charge towards November.


More substantively, I don’t believe either is an electable option outside hard-liberal states like Massachussetts and New York, in addition to Obama’s home state of Illinois. While Barack’s ideas (tax fairness for the middle class, support for small business, ending US participation in Iraq so the military can concentrate on Afghanistan) may be relevant for many Americans in all regions of the country, his recent mudslinging with Clinton leaves one with the feeling that despite the talk of change, he’s just one more politician. That’s not going to fly for a candidate preaching the gospel of change.


As for Hilary… well, she’s just Hilary. She was an unpopular First Lady and was the subject of derisive opinion page cartoons soon after her husband became president in 1992. Her political career since leaving the White House has appeared to be little more than a stepping stone to the Oval Office rather than a deep sense of service to the people of New York. Above all, and in contrast to her husband, Hilary Clinton – at least the image she portrays in the media – is just not likeable, and therefore probably not electable.


All of this by way of analysis, not opinion. My opinion is that US public opinion of the Republicans is at such a low tide at the moment that the Dems would take the White House in a landslide, if only they could come up with a formidable candidate. George Bush has driven both the economy and the country’s foreign standing to dramatic lows, and my sense (albeit from afar) is that no one’s happy with him, except maybe long-time supporters of the Bush family circle who have walked away with cushy jobs during the last 7 years. But I just don’t see the Dems even talking about anyone serious; the same is true for the Republicans (the sole exception being John McCain).


That’s why my money’s on Mike B.

Jerusalem: Songs, Prayers and a Human Chain

More than 2,000 people braved intermittent showers and cool temperatures Tuesday to form a human chain along the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in order to send a clear, loud message to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush ahead of the latter’s visit to Israel: Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish People, and must not be divided.

The protest, organized by the One Jerusalem organization, included a cross-cultural and cross-generational mix of native and immigrant Israelis, yeshiva students, professionals and blue-collar workers, Jerusalemites and residents of nearly every section of the country. Dozens of participants carried large Israeli flags as organizers stretched flag strings along the Old City wall near Jaffa Gate and passed out gold ribbons – an echo of the orange ribbons associated with the anti-disengagement campaign two-and-a-half years ago. The new ribbons are intended to show solidarity with Jerusalem as a united city and Israel’s capital.

Of course, no protest rally would be complete without appearances by politicians and other public figures, and Tuesday’s gathering was no exception. Notable figures in the rain included former Prisoner of Zion and former Knesset Member Natan Sharansky, current MK Yisrael Katz, Jerusalem City Council Member Nir Barkat and Yechiel Leiter, a former Chief of Staff to Binyamin Netanyahu, One Jerusalem spokesman and veteran Yesha leader.

As the human chain broke into a short rally in favor of united Jerusalem, Leiter stirred the already-energized crowd by quoting former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert’s comments from a protest rally held on January 8, 2001 – eight years to the day (according to the Gregorian calendar) before Tuesday’s gathering. Then, Olmert pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton not to pressure Israel into dividing Jerusalem: “Please, Mr. President. Do not lend your hand to dividing Jerusalem,” he said.

Organizers estimate that 400,000 people attended that rally, making it the largest demonstration the capital has ever seen.

Leiter continued to denounce the current prime minister for not only agreeing to divide the Holy City, but for asking for Bush’s help to implement the plan, and said a majority of Israelis opposed such a move.

“We are here to tell President Bush that Ehud Olmert does not represent the Israeli public with regard to Jerusalem,” he told the crowd. “We are also here to tell our own parliamentarians that we will be watching. In two weeks the Knesset Laws Committee will begin debating a law to require a special parliamentary majority of 80 MKs to approve any changes to Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. We will be watching to see who votes in favor of the law, who votes against and who abstains. And we will act accordingly on Election Day.” 

Leiter’s words clearly found a mark with many audience members. 19-year-old Elisha Breningstall, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota who now studies at the Netiv Aryeh yeshiva next door to the Western Wall, cited both historical and security reasons for coming to the rally.

“I am 100 percent against giving up any part of the Land of Israel, especially in Jerusalem,” he told Israel National News. “For 19 years, the Jordanians controlled our holiest places, and no Jews were allowed to set foot on them. Today, Moslems can visit al-Aqsa Mosque whenever they want. How could we even think about reverting to the former scenario?

“Furthermore,” he said, “look at what’s happened in Sderot. We gave away our land and now there is a constant rain of Kassam rockets on the city. It’s a direct result of disengagement.”

In contrast to many, or even most, political protest rallies, the event had something of a non-political feel, perhaps due to the presence of hundreds of teenagers from Jerusalem and around the country. Many sang songs about Jerusalem and there was even a bit of dancing despite the rain, giving the event a marked sense of joy and celebration, rather than the anger that often grips “traditional” political rallies.

One group of ninth-grade girls who traveled by bus from Rechovot to attend the rally were clearly in awe of the fact they were standing in the shadow of the Jerusalem; another group of teenaged boys organized a minyan (prayer group) for the afternoon service. One man in his fifties or sixties wore a shirt declaring, “I am a settler from Givatayim,” referring to a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv. An uninitiated passer-by could easily have come away with the impression that several thousand people had spontaneously gathered to celebrate Jerusalem, rather than come to deliver a potent political message.

At the end of the day, the most compelling message of the afternoon did not come from the central stage or from any of the polished speeches by accomplished public figures in attendance. Rather, the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people was best expressed by 14-year-old Frima Bubis, a resident of the capital’s Har Nof neighborhood.

“The reality of what our soldiers went through so that we could be here today,” she told Arutz Sheva, “is why I’m here today. When you live in Jerusalem, it’s easy to forget about it or to get all caught up in politics. But when you think about what it was like before those critical six days (the 1967 Six Day War), what they went through for us – it really hits home, and brings the point home for a lot of people.”

In Sderot, defiance and defeat

By Dina Kraft and Andrew Friedman

After enduring years of rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip and no end in sight, the residents of Sderot contemplate whether to stay or leave and the town’s crippled businesses survive on hope and loans.

SDEROT, Israel (JTA) — Once a sleepy Negev town, Sderot has become a place where residents take sedatives to get through the days and sleeping pills to make it through the nights.

After seven years of rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip and no end in sight, the ceaseless barrage is pitting husbands against wives over the decision of whether or not to stay and leaving crippled businesses to survive on hope and loans.

Many of those who can afford to have left.

About 4,000 of the town’s 23,500 people have moved out in the past two years, according to municipal figures. Many more say they would leave if they could.

According to a recent poll published in Yediot Achronot, 64 percent of Sderot’s residents would go if given the financial assistance.

“There are people who are selling, but there is no one to buy,” said Yakov Levy, a realtor in town. “People cannot go, so they feel stuck. If only they could sell their homes they would go.”

Home prices have fallen by 50 percent, Levy said, with the cheapest apartments on the market for just $15,000 and the most expensive houses for about $200,000. Prices were nearly double that in 2000, before the daily rocket fire began.

“We are suffering, not just me, but all of us. The strong ones left, the weaker stay on and everyone complains,” Levy said. “We are waiting for better days but do not see a solution because things have gone on for so long now. If the situation continues, however, the only things left standing here will be the buildings.”

After seven years of ongoing rocket fire, residents of this working-class town seem divided between defiant and defeated.

Although they all speak of the power of Sderot’s close-knit community, some talk openly about their desire to leave to regain some semblance of a normal life. Others say that despite the difficulties, the only home they know is Sderot and to abandon it would show the Palestinians firing the rockets that Israelis’ spirit can be broken.

Last week, Palestinians in Gaza fired an Iranian-made Katyusha rocket that reached Ashkelon, a city of some 120,000 about eight miles north of the strip. The rocket served as a reminder that Sderot is not alone in the danger zone around Gaza.

Sderot’s economic downturn began when it became the target of constant Kassam rocket fire from Gaza. The attacks, which intensified after Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, have thus far claimed 13 Israeli lives.

The damage to residents’ psyches, homes, businesses and families has been far reaching.

Between 20 to 30 percent of businesses in Sderot and surrounding areas have shut down, said Daniel Dahan, a supermarket owner who heads an organization of local businesspeople. Overall sales at the stores that remain open have dropped by nearly 50 percent, he said.

Dahan says families are struggling to get by on reduced salaries and many find themselves divided over whether to stay or leave Sderot.

Often the husband will have taken out several loans and dipped heavily into family savings to keep the business afloat. The wife, distressed at the mounting debt and the danger to their children from the rocket fire, pushes for leaving.

Stories of divorce have become common here, Dahan says.

“What happens is that a business owner comes into work and finds it difficult to manage things because of the pressures from home, concerns over the children and his workers,” Dahan said, describing how the security situation creates a ripple effect of stress. “The wife wants to leave and the husband does not want to because of the business, and the wife says, ‘If something happens to the kids it will be your fault.’ ”

He said the ramifications of the economic crisis have slowly begun to sink in.

“It’s like an illness that has taken over us. At first we businesspeople did not believe it could kill us off,” Dahan said. “We have lived like patients who have been warned of health hazards by our doctor, but now we feel like we have had the heart attack.

“Some of us who have businesses feel it is a condition we can live with and take another loan. Others understand it’s a deadly disease and we have no choice but to walk away.”

Shimon, a grocer in Sderot’s open-air market, says he doesn’t want assistance to leave; he wants the government to strike back at the militant groups in Gaza.

“I’ve been working in the market for more than 30 years,” he told JTA. “I’m not going anywhere now. I raised my four kids here; my wife’s family is from Sderot. There’s nowhere else for us to go.

“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in eight years. I bolt awake at the slightest movement or noise outside the house. I just want the government to make sure that we can get back to living like normal people.”

Israel has stepped up its strikes in recent weeks against Gaza militants, particularly those firing rockets at Israelis and smuggling in weaponry, but the government remains wary of a large-scale invasion of Gaza. A major incursion could cost Israel heavily in terms of its soldiers’ lives, Palestinian civilian lives and international credibility. It also would not put an end to the rocket fire, analysts warn.

Atara Orenbouch and her husband, Orthodox Jews originally from the center of the country, moved to Sderot nine years ago. They said they moved to try to make a difference in the community. Both are educators — she teaches computer science and her husband is a yeshiva principal. They have four children.

Orenbouch says she tries to do all her family’s shopping in Sderot.

“There have been economically terrible times,” she said, recounting a period last spring when a particularly heavy period of rocket barrages sent many residents out of town. “I went to the supermarket and it was empty. I saw a man throwing away unsold vegetables and there were no lines.”

Orenbouch’s children now all sleep in bunk beds in the family’s “safe room,” which is made of reinforced concrete to protect against the crude Kassam rockets.

She says she and her neighbors are doing their best to persevere and stay, but the fear of being caught by a rocket and the question of where to run for cover is never far away.

“It gets to you. You think about it all the time — at synagogue, at lunch with friends,” Orenbouch said. “You are always thinking: If there were an alarm now, where would the safest place be to hide?”