Conference of Presidents leaders visit Gaza border
Conference of Presidents leaders visit Gaza border Avi Hayun

Participants in the 45th annual Conference of Presidents Leadership Mission to Israel, led by Chairman Arthur Stark and Executive Vice President/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein, toured Israel’s F-35 fighter squadron and the Gaza border as part of a first-hand look at security threats the country is facing, and the IDF’s readiness to confront them.

The group began with the first-ever visit by a foreign group to see construction on the barrier Israel is sinking deep into the ground along its border with the Gaza Strip. Mission participants received a detailed briefing on the threat posed by Hamas tunnels dug to cross into Israel, and the methods being used to prevent this. They also watched some of the heavy machinery in action.

The Deputy Commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division gave the group a strategic overview at the divisional headquarters near the border. Among other security topics, he spoke of the ongoing unrest at the border fence, explaining that more than half of the Palestinians killed since the violence began last May had been Hamas members.

“This a war. This is not a riot. This not the ‘yellow vests,’” he said, referring to the violent social protests taking place lately in France.

The Deputy Division Commander also spoke of the 2.1 million people in the Gaza Strip, as well as the schools and universities they have.

“They educate many professionals, including engineers,” he said. “They are capable of great sophistication. The hand grenades Palestinians throw during these violent confrontations are identical to Israeli grenades, but they are manufactured in Gaza, as are many of the other weapons used against Israel.”

Delegates then went to the Nevatim air base near Arad for a briefing by the base commander, Israel Air Force Brigadier-General Eyal Grinboim, and Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hect, head of the Air Force’s International Affairs Branch.

Hect explained that the IAF’s job was to prevent an all-out conflagration in what he referred to as a “campaign between wars.” He also spoke of ongoing military cooperation and joint training exercises with other air forces, including those of the US, the UK, Germany, Cyprus and Greece, to name just a few.

Also taking part in the briefing was US Air Force Colonel Matthew B. Willis, the American air attaché in Israel, who told the mission participants, “You have contributed much more to Israeli defense than you would think. The MOU [defense memorandum of understanding between the US and Israel] went into effect this year, but allocation has increased from $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion. Our money is well spent in Israel.”

He added that Israel had been the first country outside the US to take direct delivery of the F-35, an ultra-sophisticated, American-built combat aircraft that is the newest in the IAF’s arsenal. The Nevatim base is now home to those jets.

The participants were the first foreign group to visit the F-35 squadron. They received a briefing by Major M., the squadron’s executive officer, and got an up-close look at the stealth jet – witnessing in the process a thunderous take-off by two of the aircraft.

The previous evening, the mission participants heard fascinating presentations by five members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, including its chairman, MK Avi Dichter (Likud).

Dichter referred to the rioting along the Gaza Strip border fence. “It looks as if it’s just riots by civilians,” he said, “but it’s not. We have to confront it. Once they cross, it’s going to be a very problematic situation.”

He also spoke forcefully about another Hamas tactic. “They are building their underground tunnels, but they are also building their underground cemeteries,” he stated.

MK Omer Barlev (Labor), another member of the committee, acknowledged the problems in the Gaza Strip. “The worst enemy is the one who has nothing to lose and no hope,” he said. “That’s the situation in Gaza.”

He added that the short-term issue was the humanitarian crisis there. “There’s no question that we are drifting into war,” he proclaimed. “If you want Israel to be more secure, the situation of the Gazans should be better. It won’t necessarily bring peace, but it will make Israel more secure.”

MK Anat Berko (Likud) saw a more long-term solution. “There should be a confederation between the West Bank and Jordan, and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt,” she said, explaining that prior to the 1967 Six Day War, there had been no connection between the people in the two areas. “We would like to have peace,” she said, “but I would like to be connected to the realities of the Middle East.”

MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) put forth a peace-oriented argument. “The conflict takes an incredible toll on Israel. We cannot continue to look away because it will not go away,” she stated. “Even if we cannot reach peace right now, we have to find some other kind of solution.”

“This government and this prime minister believe that if they don’t talk about the Palestinians, [the Palestinians] will disappear,” she said. “Let me tell you: They will not go away. The Palestinians are the most important issue for Israel’s security. We have to figure out this conflict if we want Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state.”

Last to speak was MK Nachman Shai (Labor), who focused on the role of Diaspora Jews in Israel’s affairs.

“I think that when we talk about Israeli national security, you are part of that security,” he said, addressing the mission participants. “I’m calling for more involvement by you in Israeli internal life. You are eligible to express your views. I believe it’s time for a new paradigm in Israeli-Diaspora relations.”