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Latest News in Israel – 13th May

Israel is counting its blessings on its 68th Independence Day

When Israel entered its 1948 War of Independence, the coastal city of Rishon Lezion was a hardscrabble settlement with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

As waves of immigrants inundated Israel in its founding years, many were settled in temporary camps on Rishon Lezion’s sandy outskirts. The arrivals braved rainy winters in tents and subsisted on the national food rationing program, which limited Israeli consumption of eggs and meat.

Not seven decades later, Rishon Lezion is Israel’s fourth largest city, a bustling hub of nearly 250,000 freckled with malls.

Its rise mirrors the meteoric growth experienced by Israeli society in the 68 years since the nation’s founding. Though Israel faces social, cultural, religious and military challenges, it has burgeoned economically, technologically and militarily. As the nation readies to celebrate its Independence Day on Wednesday, here are six statistics that show how.

Israel’s population has grown tenfold since 1948.

Israel was founded with a population of 806,000. Today there are 8.5 million Israelis, about 75 percent of them Jews.

In 1948, just over a third of Israelis were native born, or “sabras.” The rest were immigrants either from war-torn Europe or the Middle East and North Africa. Today, three-quarters of Israelis are native born.

But immigration, or aliyah, continues to swell the numbers: 30,000 immigrants arrived in Israel in 2015, including almost 8,000 from France, 7,000 from Ukraine and about 3,800 from the United States and Canada. In total, some 2.5 percent of Israel’s population — approximately 200,000 people — are from the US.

Israel’s cities have grown apace. West Jerusalem, in 1948, had less than 100,000 residents. Now the city’s eastern and western halves include more than 800,000 residents. Sixteen Israeli cities boast more than 100,000 residents, and eight have more than 200,000.

Independence Day Ceremony[1]

Independence Day ceremony

A higher percentage of Israelis than Americans own cellphones.

In Israel’s first decades, phone access was a luxury. Through the 1970s, new immigrants sometimes waited years to get a landline in their apartment. In the meantime, they lined up at the local pay phone with a handful of tokens.

Now, 96 percent of Israelis own cellphones, more than the 90 percent in the US. A swarm of Israeli phone companies compete for customers’ shekels, while Israeli technological innovation has made cellphones more powerful.

Since 1948, Israel’s economy has grown even faster than its population. The country’s GDP in its founding year was $6.6 billion in today’s dollars. Now Israel produces about 44 times as much — nearly $300 billion a year. In 2010, the country joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of the world’s most affluent countries.

Standards of living have also risen. Israel’s GDP per capita today is approximately $35,000 — 6.7 times what it was in 1948, adjusted for inflation. Nine years after the state’s founding, just one-tenth of Israelis had an air conditioner for the country’s sweltering summer. Now, thankfully, almost nine in 10 Israelis have the machines at home. The country boasts nearly 3 million cars, compared to 34,000 in 1948.

Israel’s Air Force grew from nothing to be the region’s most powerful.

When Israel’s provisional government declared independence, a militia, the Haganah, was in place to defend it. But the new state had a total of zero combat aircraft. The first shipment of 25 planes came a few weeks after Independence Day from Czechoslovakia.

The Israel Air Force has since established itself as the best in the Middle East. At 680 combat aircraft, it isn’t the region’s largest fleet, but technological prowess, training and Israel’s stability make it the most formidable.

Helpfully, Israel receives more than $3 billion of US. military aid every year, allowing it to maintain its advantage. The countries are now negotiating a new defense assistance package reportedly shaping up to be the largest ever.

Israel’s yeshiva student population is 300 times bigger than in 1948.

When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted full-time yeshiva students from Israel’s military draft, the pass applied to just 400 haredi Orthodox young men studying Torah all day. But Israel’s yeshivas have been fruitful and multiplied. Today, more than 120,000 yeshiva students skip the army, according to the religious pluralism advocacy group Hiddush.

Haredi Jews make up 9 percent of Jewish-Israeli society, and their numbers are growing. According to a March study by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of them have more than three children, while half of secular Jews have two or fewer.

The draft exemption has been a heated political issue in Israel for years, with many Israelis calling on the government to “equalize the burden” of military service. The centrist Yesh Atid party became Israel’s second largest in 2013 by promising draft reform. Its legislation passed in 2014, but was defanged last year after Israel’s most recent election, which swept haredi parties back into power and sent Yesh Atid into the opposition.

The number of women in the Knesset has tripled.

Women fought alongside men in Israel’s prestate battles and the War of Independence. But when the first Knesset convened in 1949, just 11 of the body’s 120 members were women — less than 10 percent. One of them was Golda Meyerson, who would leave her mark on the world as Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister.

While no woman has followed Meir to Israel’s top post, more women than ever are members of Knesset. Women, who make up a majority of Israel’s population, are still underrepresented. But the body now includes a record 32 women, more than a quarter of Israeli lawmakers. That’s compared to the 19 percent of the US Congress that’s female.

Ben Gurion Airport welcomes 16 million travelers a year.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has festered, Israeli fears of international boycott have risen. But you wouldn’t know it from Israel’s main link to the outside world, Ben Gurion Airport. Fifteen million travelers passed through the hub in 2015, up from 10 million in 2010.

Tourism did drop 3 percent from 2014 to 2015, which Israel’s Tourism Ministry attributed to the 2014 Gaza War. But the war also showed the importance to Israelis of international travel. Some of the war’s tensest days came in late July, when many flights to Israel were canceled due to missile threats, severing some links between Israel and the world.                (JTA/Jerusalem Post)

As Independence Day begins, Israelis move from commemoration to celebration

Israel abruptly crossed over from mourning to celebration on Wednesday night, as Memorial Day came to a close at sundown and Israel’s 68th Independence Day began.

Mourning and somber speeches gave way to fireworks, concerts and parties across the country as the nation transitioned to Independence Day, with flags raising from half-staff back to full.

At the country’s official cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the state ceremony marked the transition with a speech from Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and the lighting of torches by 12 Israelis who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society.

The juxtaposition of the two days is a key part of Israelis’ experience of national mourning, ensuring that no commemoration completely excludes the achievement wrought by the sacrifice, and that the elation of independence is never far removed from an awareness of its cost.

The sudden switch is often seen as a difficult transition for bereaved families.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recorded a short video that was screened at the start of the ceremony, just ahead of the speech by Edelstein. President Reuven Rivlin was also in attendance.

In his message, Netanyahu said that the creation of the State of Israel ended the Jewish people’s dependence on others for its protection.

“Sixty-eight years ago the State of Israel was founded; it was a tremendous historic event. For thousands of years, the Jewish people longed to regain their independence and sovereignty. Today, we have it. We control our destiny, we protect our lives,” he said.

Netanyahu also posted a video of his speech in English to the prime minister’s Facebook page.

Acting as the official host of the ceremony, Edelstein warned against the divisions in Israeli society.

“The grave phenomena of denigration and incitement have not, to my regret, passed the Israeli public by,” he said. “The tensions that characterize us, and which are often healthy, have exceeded the boundaries of good taste. Widespread freedom of expression, the lifeblood of democracy, is often characterized by offensive discourse. Utterances have become more and more extreme: sector by sector, belief against belief and worldview against worldview.”

Rona Ramon, the widow of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, was selected by the Culture Ministry along with 11 others to light ceremonial torches during the ceremony, whose theme was “civil heroism.”

Four torch lighters were chosen for acts of heroism carried out during recent terror attacks: Herzl Biton, a Tel Aviv bus driver who fought off a Palestinian terrorist during a stabbing attack last January; Alison Bitton, a Border Police officer who prevented a deadly attack on a fellow officer in the northern West Bank in October; and IDF soldier Osa Roberto, who thwarted a terror attack at the Etzion Junction in the West Bank last month.

Avi Toibin saved Israel’s canoe champion from drowning in a Tel Aviv river in 2009.

Three of the torch lighters were women who have led the fight for equal rights in various realms of Israeli civic life: Rotem Eliseva, an 18-year-old women’s rights activist, started a national dialogue about rape and sexual assault by publicly sharing her own story; Dr. Anan Fala, Israel’s first female dentist from the minority Druze community, and a longtime advocate of women’s rights; and Jerusalem single mother Fainy Soknick, the founding director of a group dedicated to helping ultra-Orthodox women going through a divorce.

The final torch lighters were chosen for their contribution to society through NGOs and volunteering programs they founded: Modi’in-based couple Nili and Moshe Levy, who have worked extensively with a project entitled “Gvanim in Education,” an initiative to promote Jewish pluralism in Israeli high schools; Sderot high school junior Hillel Bareli, a community activist who volunteered to help local kindergarteners and elderly people find shelters during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza; and Yaakov Ehrenfeld, a deaf and mute Holocaust survivor who has worked extensively with the Association of the Deaf and the Deaf Institute for Advancement.

Father Gabriel Naddaf, an Israeli Greek Orthodox priest and head of an initiative aimed at integrating Israeli Christian Arabs in the IDF, also lit a torch. Naddaf’s choice as a touch lighter was brought into question this week following allegations he sexually harassed young people and demanded sexual favors in exchange for helping them. Naddaf has denied the charges and Culture Minister Miri Regev said that despite public outcry, he would not be removed from the ceremony.

Daytime independence celebrations will officially begin at 9:30 on Thursday morning with a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. VIPs and political leaders will be in attendance.

Knesset Fireworks[1]

Fireworks over the Knesset

A flyover of combat planes and helicopters will mark the beginning of the festivities. The president, IDF chief of staff, prime minister and defense minister will sing their favorite Independence Day songs with the IDF band and an accompaniment of singers. The Outstanding Soldier Award will also be presented.       (The Times of Israel)

Beaches, barbecues and Air Force flybys – Independence Day 2016

At dawn Thursday, the morning of Israel’s 68th Independence Day, Israel’s city streets lay quiet, a stark change from the all-night celebrations that dominated the country’s major city centers late Wednesday.

Tens of thousands spent the night on the beaches of the Sea of Galilee, which local authorities said were filled to overflowing overnight with revelers who planned to hold the traditional Independence Day barbecues on the crowded beaches the following morning.

In Ashdod, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Haifa and other major cities, famous (and not so famous) performers entertained crowds through the night.

In Ramat Gan, 12 different stages throughout the city saw performances that lasted into the morning. The city estimated that some 60,000 people took part in the street celebrations.

Fireworks shows, including the largest one held on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem Wednesday evening, lit up the skies.

Wednesday night’s festivities saw only light injuries, some from errant fireworks. In Rosh Ha’ayin, east of Tel Aviv, sparks from detonated fireworks at the city’s traditional Independence Day celebration swept across the audience, leading police to cancel the rest of the fireworks show.

Airforce acrobatics over Tel Aviv beach

Airforce acrobatics over Tel Aviv beach[1]

A surfer watches an Israeli Air Force aerial acrobatics demonstration

In Ramle, a toddler was lightly hurt from sparks and was taken to Assaf Harofe Hospital. And in Yavne, a woman was lightly injured from fireworks sparks that flew into her apartment through an open window. She was taken to Kaplan Hospital.

Thursday’s daytime celebrations will officially begin at 9:30 a.m. with a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. VIPs and political leaders will be in attendance, and the president will award the army’s annual citations for distinguished service to deserving soldiers.

The president, IDF chief of staff, prime minister and defense minister will sing their favorite Independence Day songs to the accompaniment of the IDF band and singers.

A flyover of combat planes and helicopters will mark the beginning of the festivities. Flyovers by the Air Force are a popular part of the day, especially on the Mediterranean beaches, where families bring folding chairs — and, of course, barbecues — to watch the show.

While the day is a holiday for most Israelis, the security services have upped their level of alert and closed off entry to Israel for West Bank Palestinians for the day out of fear that terror groups are likely to seek to puncture the festivities with violence.

Hundreds of extra police officers are deployed in city centers and on the nation’s highways in an effort to prevent injury amid the revelry.  (The Times of Israel)

Happy but skeptical: How Israelis are feeling as the country turns 68

In celebration of the State of Israel’s 68th Independence Day, The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication Maariv produced a wide-ranging poll on attitudes in the country.

The findings show that the majority of the country’s citizens are proud to be Israelis, and believe that Israel is a good place to live. However, there are clear apprehensions about the possibility of a coming war, and low opinions on politicians.

Given the opportunity, Israelis most want to go out for dinner or to a pub with Shimon Peres, and enjoy some nightlife with movie star Gal Gadot or Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

84% of Israelis are proud to be Israeli. More than half of them (54%) are very proud of, with 16% saying that they are proud. 3% of them stated that they are “not at all proud.” Among the religious, 81% are very proud to be Israelis, compared with 50% among the secular.

The main thing that ties Israelis to their country is family (39%). Others point to the historical connection or the Bible (21%), political independence, language, friends and even one percent of responders answered that it’s because of the beautiful weather.

There is a consensus among the public that the state of Israel is a good place to live. 76% believe that Israel really good place to live. 28% of them felt that it is a very good place, and 48% said Pretty good.

In contrast, 24% are disappointed and complain that it’s not good to live in Israel. 4% of them say that it’s not at all good to live here. The average score in that context that the citizens of the country give satisfaction with life in Israel is a 7 out of 10.

69% of Israelis are not considering moving abroad at all, compared to 28% who say that they would likely consider it as an option. The main reason for leaving is a respondee’s personal economic situation (63%). Then, in descending order: the democratic deficit in Israeli society, the increase in the number of haredim in the country, the fear of war and the internal security situation.

The vast majority of those surveyed, 73%, believe that Israel after 68 years of independence is secure, compared to 21% who believe that the existence of the state is faced with an existential threat and is therefore insecure.

Somewhat surprisingly, most Israelis see economic issues as the most pressing problem facing Israel, over security. 27% believe that the cost of living and economic disparities are the main problem facing the nation, compared with 18% indicating the recent wave of terror, and 15% who viewed the threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah as the main problem facing the country.

At least Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon can be happy that only 8% see housing prices as the country’s major issue.

In the same context, 52% of Israelis are pessimistic about the possibility of improving the economic and social disparities in the coming decade, compared to 42% who are somewhat optimistic.

This similarly applies to the security situation. 54% are pessimistic about improvement in the situation over the next decade, compared with 42% who responded that they are optimistic. Perhaps this explains why 48% of the population are quite apprehensive about the possibility of war breaking out in the near term, and another 15% described themselves as very concerned.

This is compared to 28% who are not so afraid, and another 6% who are not at all afraid of the possibility of a war.

Also entering into the national consciousness are concerns over international boycotts and isolation measures imposed on Israel. 32% are concerned to some extent of the possibility of boycotts and isolation, but most of the public, 64%, is not afraid.

Independence Day is not improving Israelis’ feelings toward politicians – the average score given to Israel’s politicians was 4.4 out of 10. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also not seen as performing to a satisfactory standard – he got 4.7 out of 10.

One of the most intriguing questions in the survey was: “Which politician would you most like to have lunch or spend time with in the pub?” Former President Shimon Peres (12%) leads Netanyahu and Lapid (10% each), Naftali Bennett (8%), Isaac Herzog, Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon and Ahmad Tibi (2%).

It also turns out that no one would want to spend time with the Ministers Yuval Steinitz or Yariv Levin.

In contrast, 23% of Israelis would like to spend time in the company of Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, leading by a wide margin over Supermodel Bar Refaeli (15%). In third place was Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked with 11%.

The survey was conducted by Panels Folitiks Ltd. led by Menachem Lazar and consisted of 501 participants, a representative sample of Israel’s adult population. The survey was conducted on Sunday and its maximum sampling error is 4.3%.      (Jerusalem Post)

Netanyahu to diplomats: Help me get a meeting with Abbas

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked heads of diplomatic missions and religious communities on Thursday to encourage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept his offer to talk peace.

Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, said he is willing to sit down with Abbas in Jerusalem, Ramallah or anywhere else he might care to meet.

“You cannot make peace with anyone who refuses to sit down with you,” he said, adding that Israelis and Palestinians deserve enduring peace.

Speaking at the annual reception for diplomats, military attachés, honorary consuls and heads of religious communities that is traditionally held at the President’s Residence on Independence Day, Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, providing that a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish People.

“It’s about time,” he declared.

Vowing that Israel will never give up on peace, Netanyahu said previously hostile states in the region are now forming deep partnerships with Israel, a development that gives hope to the possibility of a solution to the conflict.

He believed the conflict might be resolved with the help of Arab states that now see Israel as an ally in the fight against terrorist forces threatening the entire region.

Netanyahu said he is especially fond of the diplomatic community, because 34 years ago he began his public life as the deputy chief of mission at the Israel Embassy in Washington. At that time, he said, Israel had diplomatic relations with very few countries, but now, despite the consistent attempts to delegitimize Israel, the country enjoys full diplomatic relations with 159 countries.

Hardly a day goes by, he said, that there isn’t a foreign diplomatic, trade, technical or security delegation coming to Israel, because it is the country of innovation and has significantly contributed toward combating terrorism and strengthening common security.     (Jerusalem Post)

‘Israel only country allowed by US to modify new stealth fighter jets’

Israel is unique among America’s allies in that it is the only country on earth that enjoys special dispensation to install modifications on US-made military hardware, according to an Internet report.

The tech magazine WIRED reported this week that not only will Israel be the first US ally to receive the brand-new stealth F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jet, but it will be alone among the Pentagon’s customers that will be permitted to outfit the warplane with its own technological enhancements.

The first Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jet, due to be delivered to Israel in December, has entered an advanced production stage.

Jeff Babione, head of the F-35 program at Lockheed Martin, said the plane would upgrade Israel’s tactical and strategic capabilities, and strengthen relations between the company and the IAF, Defense Ministry, and Israeli defense industries for many decades to come.

Israel has purchased 33 F-35A fighters jets at an average cost of $110 million per aircraft. The first two aircraft are due to arrive at the Negev’s Nevatim airbase in December this year, and the air force is preparing to integrate them into its operations.

According to WIRED, Israel will be permitted to install “customized software and weapons” while also allowing the Israeli Air Force to service the planes independently.

The article states that Israel “gets a pass” because of its successful track record with technological enhancements of American-made weaponry, particularly the F-16 and F-15 model fighter jets.

Israel’s defense industries sell many of these enhancements to the US, including weapons systems, sensors, and communications gear.

Israel’s geopolitical situation in the volatile Middle East also accounts for Washington’s allowing for greater leeway.

“When you might go to war at any moment, the argument goes, you can’t have your best hardware go out of service for weeks at a time for checkouts that can take just a few days on your own turf,” the magazine reported. “What helps Israel helps the United States–and the F-35 will give Israel an overall airpower advantage that could last decades.”

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Rita sing the Hatikvah for Yom Haatzmaut