Young Australian Policy Shapers Visit Israel

January 25, 2017 by Ahuva Bar-Lev
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Three delegations of young government officials and political advisors from Australia have come to tour Israel in order to get to know the country and acquire a better understanding of the complexities of life in the country.

During their visit, the delegations joined a KKL-JNF excursion that offered them a first-hand view of life on Israel’s southern border, right next door to the Gaza Strip.

“The idea is to see the realities of life here for ourselves,” explained Josh Koonin, who organized the delegation on behalf of International Political Seminars. “The international media suffers from misconceptions about Israel, and it’s only when you come to visit here that you can really understand the challenges the country is facing.”

The group

During the first few days of their trip, the delegates visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Western Negev. The later stages of their itinerary included an excursion to the Golan Heights, a visit to the Lebanese border and meetings with members of the Knesset and senior Palestinian officials.

Adrien Sin, a civil service economist from Perth who was visiting Israel for the first time, told us that when he arrived in Tel Aviv he was surprised to find himself in a modern, lively, western city. “I’m very interested in international relations, and there is no doubt that Israel is a fascinating country,” he said. “I want to achieve a better understanding of the different aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People from both sides of the conflict told me that I absolutely must come here and visit.”

One of the most memorable days of the visit was devoted to a tour of communities in the Gaza Periphery. In Sderot, the delegates met Kobi Harush, the city’s military security officer, who told them about life in the shadow of a precarious security situation. He described how mothers have to decide which of their children to take to the shelter first when the alert sounds, when they are painfully well aware that they will not manage to get all of them to safety in time. He explained that, apart from people who have sustained physical injury, the city also has to deal with a great many casualties who suffer from shock and anxiety. “We all experience things here that are not easy to deal with, but we are strong and we shall continue to live here for many more years to come,” he said.

The remnants of Kassam rockets fired at Sderot from the Gaza Strip, which are on display at the local police station, provided the visitors with tangible evidence of the impossible reality that local residents have to cope with. Over the past sixteen years, 8,600 rockets have been fired at Sderot, out of a total of over 28,000 fired at the State of Israel as a whole.

However, despite the situation, Sderot is growing and developing. Today it has a population of 30,000 people, and 6,000 new housing units currently under construction have been sold to newcomers. “I would estimate that anyone who comes back here to visit in another five years’ time will find a city with a population of around 50,000,” said Kobi Harush.

“We’re seeing things here that it’s impossible to learn from books or the newspapers,” declared Troy Rowling, a political advisor to a senator from Queensland.

Residents of the Gaza Periphery tend to define their communities on the basis of how much time they have to reach shelter between the moment the alert sounds and the moment the rocket falls. While Sderot residents have a fifteen-second warning, members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which lies just a few hundred meters from the border, have only three seconds to dash to safety.

Kibbutz member Yael Raz-Lahiani told the visitors how the kibbutz was founded over sixty years ago in order to settle the country, strengthen the border region and maintain a communal lifestyle. All these values are just as relevant today as they were back then. While the delegates looked over towards the Gaza Strip and saw for themselves how very close the border is, Yael Raz-Lahiani told them about the good neighborly relations that existed between the two sides in the past. “A great many Palestinians worked in Israel, and we used to travel freely to Gaza,” she recalled.

Today, sadly, the situation is very different. “In times of war, families with small children have to leave the kibbutz for safer parts of the country,” she said. “At these times the older generation keeps the community together and looks after the fields.” The delegates toured the kibbutz and, as they stood below the high concrete wall that protects the kindergarten hidden behind it, they listened to more stories about life under the constant threat from across the border. Nearby, on the grass, a group of kibbutz children ran around playing football.

The visit to Nahal Oz provided an opportunity for the delegates to observe for themselves the importance of JNF Australia’s involvement in Israel’s Gaza Periphery region, as the kibbutz’s old water reservoir is currently in the process of being overhauled with the support of Friends of JNF Australia. Over the years the reservoir’s capacity has dwindled as soil has been washed into it, and it is now being cleaned, restored and upgraded.

Another donation from JNF Australia will be used to develop ecological landscaping that will require a minimum of water. Water-guzzling lawns are being replaced by trees and ornamental shrubs that are better suited to the local climate, and an advanced computerized irrigation system helps to keep water wastage to the absolute minimum.

Kevin Mooney of Sydney visited Israel a couple of years ago as a member of a similar delegation. “It’s very important to deepen ties between Israel and Australia, and I should like to play a part in this,” he said. “We can increase cooperation between the two countries, for example in areas such as water and sustainability.”

The delegates ate lunch in a quiet spot at the entrance to Nahal Oz, at a site established by KKL-JNF in memory of Daniel Viflic, who was killed in 2011 at the age of sixteen by a rocket fired at a school bus. On the other side of the road KKL-JNF’s security plantings are easily visible: these are trees that have been deliberately planted in positions that help to conceal the main highway from the eyes of terrorists on the other side of the border. Daniel’s parents, Tamar and Yitzhak Viflic, helped to plant the trees last year.

At the offices of Shaar HaNegev (“Gateway to the Negev”) Regional Council’s Resilience Center, the visitors met social worker Maya Silberbusch, who explained that the center provides treatment for people suffering from stress and trauma, and offers them tools that help them cope with the difficulties. “Our aim is to help children and adults who are suffering from anxiety and distress as a result of the security situation,” she explained.

The center provides individual treatment, family therapy and group therapy. In times of emergency it is, of course, in greater demand and operates very intensively, but it also serves the community on a routine basis.

“Despite the security situation, the local communities are thriving, thanks to good quality of life, solidarity, excellent educational facilities, the wonderful people who live here and the beauty of the area we call home,” said Maya Silberbusch towards the end of the meeting. “We feel that we are a part of something significant, and regard the growth of the region as our victory.”

Anthony Trimarchi, a lobbyist and public relations officer from Sydney, said that Israel had always fascinated him, particularly on account of its varied culture and rich history. “I was surprised to observe how people from a variety of different cultures live here together, contrary to the picture that is sometimes presented in the media,” he said.

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