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Complex situation

Promised land's difficult future

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ETHNIC CRUCIBLE: Dome Of The Rock and (below) the Jewish quarter in Old Jerusalem. The city symbolises the complex reality of the region

With the Syrian crisis, Iran on the verge of going nuclear and an Arab Spring that is threatening to turn into an Islamic Winter, Israel sees itself plunging headlong into a turbulent period where war is a real possibility.

Along the street leading to Manger Square, Christmas decorations, heavily armed policemen and tourists mingle in the glow of festive lights. The surreal experience of yuletide in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, doesn't last too long on a cold night in this Palestine town.

The restless youth of the Arab Street is a reality that doesn't let us stay the entire duration of the midnight mass in the Church of Nativity. Getting back to Israel is a long walk through a dim-lit barricaded border between Israel and Palestine - the two territories separated by high walls - and a passage from the agitated Arab Street into a sanitised Israel.

The fissures between Israel and the Muslim neighbourhood are only being further complicated by a series of developments within and outside. The Arab Spring is already being treated as a radical Islamic Winter by many in Israel, with the potential to lead into an all-out war.

The Syrian crisis is playing out at the doorsteps of Israel, and Egypt is churning across the border. Iran is only a few months away from possessing a nuclear weapon. The world, according to Israel, is heading fast towards a complex situation where an all-out war is a real possibility.

For Israel, the security challenges are at multiple levels - rockets fired from the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas, fallout of the churnings in Syria, Egypt etc, and the nuclearisation of Iran.

BORDER MANAGEMENT


From Kobi Hill, Gaza Strip is a sprawling urban milieu across the highway, a few metres ahead of the barbed wires. The hill, actually a small hillock on the edge of the Israeli town Sderot, gets its name from Kobi Arush, the chief of security for the town who once used to drive around former prime minister Ariel Sharon when Sharon was the defence minister. Kobi is used to escorting VIPs like Barack Obama around the town, which is an easy target for rockets from the Gaza Strip.

It takes 12 seconds for a rocket launched from Gaza to hit Sderot. This short response time has meant that every facility, including private houses, in Sderot have bomb shelters. Rocket alarms are a regular feature. "You can never feel safe in Sderot. You have 15 seconds from the time the siren goes off to hide in a bunker. In schools, children don't need to run because the schools are protected, " explains Lt Col Moti Numan, who is a part of Sderot's security team.

The threat to such townships from rockets from Gaza also led the Israeli military establishment to look for technological solutions. The result is the Iron Dome, a stunning technological breakthrough, a system that identifies rockets that are whizzing towards populated areas and shoots them down over empty areas, while ignoring those rockets flying into open areas. In November, when Hamas launched a series of rocket attacks, of the 90 that were fired at Sderot, only five hit the town. Iron Dome intercepted the rest.

But Israel's relation with Palestine territories is a far more complex task than just shooting down incoming rockets. At the Karem Shalom (Vineyard of Peace) crossing, the tri-junction of Israel, Gaza and Egypt, the Israeli security establishment has developed an evolved concept of border management. Between sanitised clusters, some 300-350 trucks cross daily, mostly carrying essential items to Gaza.

At the exterior of the crossing the automatic guns are not manned, but controlled remotely from far behind. But such handsoff policies may not help, for Israel exists in a region where there is much hatred, churning and historical disparities. Hamas and other groups inimical to them only need elementary progression in technological capabilities to discredit Israel's complex responses.

It is this realisation that makes Israel fret about Iran's race to become a nuclear power. According to an Israeli diplomat, Iran is just about 18 months away from having enough enriched uranium to make a bomb. "And then there would be no looking back, " he argues. Israel believes all options, including military action, should be on the table to ensure Iran doesn't end up having a nuclear bomb.

Israel is also equally worried about the churnings in Syria and Egypt. In these two countries, as well as in most of the Muslim world, fundamentalist Islam is rising and probably tightening its grip on power. This has Israel really worried and fretting about the future.

A POSSIBLE MODEL


There is probably no other city as magical as Old Jerusalem, of narrow alleys, colourful streets and history etched into every stone. For Jews, Christians and Muslims it is among the holiest places. Under Israeli control, the city also symbolises the complex reality of the region. Between Muslim and Jewish guides, and Palestinian Christian traders, the city lends itself to different narratives depending on who the narrator is.

Israel has implemented a very modern and impressive policing concept to keep peace in the old city. Some 320 cameras keep an eye on every one walking through it, and each camera can backtrack 48 hours to recover past footage. From its control room, police can zoom a camera on to a parked car's number plate. This is backed with a huge network of informers and foot patrolling. Such technology-backed policing has led to impressive returns too.

Yet such advanced technology, backed by one of the world's most vibrant start-up cultures, does not hold assurance of a peaceful future for Israel. But it is not that there are no models of peaceful co-existence available. One of them is Old Jerusalem where Jews, Christians, Muslims, Armenians and others in rub shoulders with each other, protect their own beliefs and let others exist.

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