A Tunnel in Khan Yunis
There is a long list of hot topics that could easily take up much of this week’s column, ranging from the approval of the state budget for 2024 to the rash of mezuzah thefts in Bayit Vegan and from the eliminations of terrorists by the IDF last Shabbos to the protests in Beit Shemesh over the demolitions of shuls. But the topic of attention is still the plight of the hostages in Gaza. Most recently, the focus was on an effort to have medications delivered to the hostages who are in need of them. It wasn’t easy for those arrangements to be made, and international actors had to be involved in the process. Even now, it is still unclear if any of the medications reached their intended destination. All that we can say is that the State of Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu did everything in their power to arrange for the medicines to be delivered.
Meanwhile, on motzoei Shabbos the IDF reported that Israeli soldiers had found an area in Khan Yunis where some of the hostages had been held. This suggests that the army arrived at the location a bit too late to rescue them. This information was both encouraging and painful.
“Soldiers in the 98th Division raided a subterranean tunnel in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip where hostages had been held,” the IDF reported. “The tunnel was about 830 meters long and about 20 meters deep. The entrance to the tunnel was booby-trapped, and it contained many obstacles, explosives, sliding doors, and blast doors. As the forces advanced in the tunnel, they encountered a number of terrorists; the soldiers fought the terrorists and eliminated them. When the soldiers arrived at the tunnel, the hostages were no longer there; they had been transferred elsewhere. During their exploration of the tunnel, they discovered a central area, with five barred cells.
According to the testimonies collected, there were about twenty hostages held in this tunnel at various times. Some of those hostages have been released, others are still being held in Gaza. The tunnel was located in the heart of a civilian area in Khan Yunis, and the entrance was in the home of a Hamas terrorist. The intelligence service believes that millions of shekels were invested in its construction. This tunnel is part of an extensive underground labyrinth excavated by Hamas beneath Khan Yunis. At the end of the investigation, the tunnel was destroyed.”
Meanwhile, the government is coming under intense pressure from both sides of the debate over how to secure the hostages’ freedom. Many of the hostages’ families are insisting that the government must pay any price for their immediate release. On the other hand, a number of families of fallen soldiers agree with the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the government that the only way to retrieve the hostages is to continue fighting and exerting military pressure on Hamas. As I have written in the past, no one should envy the members of the cabinet for being forced to make such wrenching decisions.
Kfir Bibas Reaches His First Birthday
Last Thursday, the country marked the first birthday of Kfir Bibas, the baby boy who was seen being taken into Hamas captivity and whose current status is unknown. Everyone had the same reaction to the occasion, dubbing it the saddest birthday in the world. Kfir has been held captive since October 7, meaning that he has been in captivity for a quarter of his life. But the big question now is whether he is still alive.
The Bibas family was taken hostage in Kibbutz Nir Oz on Simchas Torah: the parents, Yarden and Shiri, and their children, four-year-old Ariel and baby Kfir. Shiri’s parents, Yossi and Margit Silberman, were murdered in the same attack. Immediately after the Hamas massacre, a heartrending video circulated that showed Shiri Bibas and her two children being taken to Gaza. A video that was released later showed the father of the family suffering from a head wound and in Hamas captivity as well. Hamas has claimed that the entire family was killed by an Israeli air strike, but the Israeli government believes that they are still alive. The Bibas family has become a symbol of the current war, and the color orange, representing the children’s bright red hair, has been painted everywhere. Last Thursday, the entire Knesset was lit up in orange as a sign of solidarity with Kfir on his birthday, an occasion marked by various events throughout the country and the world.
This past weekend, President Yitzchok Herzog spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and showed a picture of Kfir to the audience. “Our enemy is celebrating Kfir Bibas’s abduction,” Herzog said. “I call on the entire international community to work for his freedom and for the freedom of all the hostages.” The president of Israel and his wife participated in the forum in Davos as part of the Israeli effort to secure the release of the hostages. Herzog spent the day meeting with various international leaders and was interviewed by the forum as well.
“This is Kfir Bibas,” Herzog said, indicating a picture of the abducted child. “Today, Kfir is celebrating his first birthday. He was born exactly one year ago, joining his parents, Shiri and Yarden, and his brother Ariel. Today, we do not know where he is. We know that he was abducted by the Hamas terror organization. We know that these barbaric terrorists took him, his mother, and his brother, and that his father is being held separately. We know that they are going through Gehinnom. We don’t know where they are being held. Our enemies are celebrating and glorifying terror; they are celebrating Kfir Bibas’s abduction. Here, from this podium, I call upon the entire world not to stop the efforts to secure Kfir’s freedom and the freedom of all the 136 hostages who are there.”
Funds for PA to Be Held by a Third Party
Binyomin Netanyahu is in a most unenviable position. He brought political foes Benny Gantz, Gadi Eizenkot, and Gideon Saar into the government and the cabinet, and they are attacking him without cease. He is also being subjected to strident mass protests that are ostensibly on behalf of the hostages, but those demonstrations are actually being staged by people who have no real interest in helping the hostages; they are protesting against the government simply because they don’t like Netanyahu. The demonstrators exploited the Covid pandemic and the judicial reform for the same purpose, and now they are using the war and the hostages’ plight as another pretext for assailing the prime minister. To make matters worse for the prime minister, the escalation in the north is undoubtedly causing him and his cabinet (not to mention the residents of the north) even more anguish and worry. He deserves to be pitied.
And Netanyahu’s troubles do not end there; the American government is also breathing down his neck. On Friday, Biden and Netanyahu had a talk. The media, with its unabashed bias against the prime minister, reported it as follows: “After a silence of more than three weeks, United States President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu finally spoke.” The press always tends to put the most negative possible spin on everything involving Netanyahu. At Netanyahu’s press conference on Thursday evening, the reporters also hammered away relentlessly at the prime minister, but Netanyahu was able to respond effectively and cogently.
The media quoted an “Israeli source” (which is usually a code word for Netanyahu, just as the American presidents often ask to be quoted as “a senior source in the administration”) as stating that Biden and Netanyahu spoke for forty minutes and that the conversation was good. The prime minister reportedly gave a detailed description to the American president of the IDF’s operations in Gaza and reiterated Israel’s commitment to achieve the goals of the war, including recovering the 136 hostages who have already been held in captivity by Hamas for 105 days. Netanyahu also clarified that Israel does not intend to withdraw from the combat zone.
The conversation took place against the backdrop of Biden’s anger and frustration over the fact that Netanyahu hadn’t transferred financial aid to the Palestinians despite his promise to that effect. On Sunday the cabinet voted to allow the funds to be transferred, albeit through a third party (Norway) which will oversee the funds to ensure that they are not used to finance terror. White House spokesman John Kirby related, “Biden and Netanyahu discussed the possibility of guaranteeing the release of the hostages being held by Hamas. At the same time, there is a lot of hard work ahead of us to gain their release…. President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the situation in Gaza and the transition to the stage of targeted operations that will make it possible for humanitarian aid to be brought into Gaza. The president welcomed Israel’s decision to allow shipments of flour to pass through the Ashdod port, and the teams are working on the possibility of allowing ocean shipments to go directly to Gaza.”
European Parliament Adopts Israeli Position
Meanwhile, Israel achieved at least one thing in the European Parliament. Following intensive diplomatic efforts on the part of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Israeli embassies in Europe, a very problematic resolution in the European Parliament was blocked Thursday and replaced by one that was much more comfortable for the State of Israel. The original resolution called for an unconditional ceasefire in Gaza; however, the Israeli pressure led it to be amended to a call for a permanent ceasefire on the condition that Hamas be dismantled and all the hostages released. The amended resolution, which was adopted by a majority of 312 votes, with 131 opposing votes, also calls for a condemnation of Hamas’s violence. The parliament also criticized Israel for disproportionate use of force and the killing of Palestinian civilians.
This was an important diplomatic achievement for Israel, especially for the embassies in the European Union, in light of the fact that European leftists have been pushing for an unconditional ceasefire. With this resolution, the EU effectively accepted Israel’s conditions requiring a halt to the fighting in Gaza, an unprecedented and important move that grants Israel legitimacy to continue the war. This was the result of a fierce battle behind the scenes against the left-wing parties in the European Union.
Chaim Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the EU, announced, “The call for a ceasefire is an important declaration, the first of its kind, in which the parliament of the European Union has made a ceasefire conditional on the immediate release of all the hostages and the dismantlement of Hamas.” The parliament also criticized Hamas’s exploitation of civilian infrastructure, its construction of tunnels to be used by terrorists, and its use of human shields. The parliament also expressed revulsion at the fact that the leaders of Hamas have amassed huge quantities of wealth at the expense of ordinary Palestinians living in poverty, and denounced the countries that have provided monetary, material, and operational aid to Hamas. Finally, the parliament called for an investigation to determine the sources of the funding and arms amassed by Hamas. Yisroel Katz, Israel’s foreign minister (who recently entered his position as part of a rotation agreement with Eli Cohen, who became the Minister of Energy today), declared, “The European Parliament made a precedent-setting decision today making any ceasefire conditional on the dismantlement of the Hamas terror organization and immediate release of all the hostages, and recognized the right of the State of Israel to defend itself. I congratulate the people of the Foreign Ministry for this diplomatic achievement. We will continue working to promote the interests of the State of Israel.”
The Leaders Who Left No Legacies
I recently came across an announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office concerning the Presidents and Prime Ministers Memorial Council. “The awards for 2024 for tributes to a former president and prime minister will be for commemorating the memories of President Chaim Weizmann and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” the memorial council wrote. “Two prizes will be offered, each with a value of 50,000 shekels…. The prizes will be awarded for works or projects in research, art, or education on social or economic subjects with a direct and close connection to the personality, philosophy, or activities of one of the people being commemorated.” The government practically has to beg for anyone to commemorate its former leaders.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the aforementioned memorial council also have to beg for the public to participate in events marking the “yahrtzeits” of previous presidents and prime ministers. Simply put, no one comes to the events, whether they are at Sdeh Boker (for Ben Gurion), Sycamore Farms (for Sharon), Har Herzl (for all the prime ministers and presidents), or the Weizmann Institute (where President Chaim Weizmann is buried). The “leaders” of the State of Israel have been mostly forgotten, and if anyone ever remembers them, it isn’t in a positive light. What sort of legacy did these men leave for anyone to write about? Should it be written that they abandoned their Jewish brethren to the crematoria? That they went to war or spearheaded the Disengagement or the Oslo Accords? Even if the Prime Minister’s Office begs and pleads with the public, and even if they double the prizes to 100,000 shekels, I have no doubt that they will come up empty-handed. The more time passes, the more it becomes apparent that the country’s former prime ministers and presidents were not worthy of any admiration. There is so little to be said to their credits that their yahrtzeits have been merged into a single day of remembrance. The memorial council announced that this year’s prizes will be awarded by the current president and prime minister at a joint memorial ceremony in honor of the previous heads of state. They seem to hope that combining the dates will ensure that they will assemble at least a minyan at the annual event.
Fatalities on the Front and on the Roads
On January 21, 2024, over 100 days into the war in Gaza, the army reported that 531 soldiers have been killed, the majority of whom were slaughtered in the massacre on Simchas Torah, while the other 195 perished during the 100 days of fighting. These are 531 newly martyred young Jews whose families have now entered the circle of bereavement, having seen their own lives shattered in moments. The sleepless nights spent worrying over their sons on the battlefield have now turned into long torturous nights that the parents will spend racked by sorrow and longing.
Meanwhile, over the past three years, 1,075 Israeli citizens have been killed in road accidents. There were 364 fatalities on the roads in 2021, 351 in 2022, and 360 in 2024. That is more than twice the number of soldiers killed in the recent round of fighting. The National Road Safety Authority released statistics this week that were transferred to the Knesset Economy Committee in advance of a session of the Subcommittee for Road Safety. The chairman of this subcommittee, of course, is Boaz Toporovsky, who has been sounding the alarm every week over the proliferation of fatalities on the roads in Israel, taking advantage of the institution of one-minute speeches to raise awareness of the issue again and again. In every speech, he lists the recent accidents and the victims they have claimed. This leads to an important observation: Everyone in Israel is rightfully heartbroken over the hundreds of soldiers and civilians who were killed in the Simchas Torah massacre and over the ensuing days. But what about the victims of traffic accidents, most of which were actually preventable? Shouldn’t we be grieving over those deaths as well?
There is another point to bear in mind: In the year 2023, 21 percent of the fatalities in road accidents were people who were riding motorcycles or electric scooters, 28 percent were pedestrians, and only two percent were passengers on buses. At the same time, it should be mentioned that some of the pedestrian fatalities were people who were stuck by buses. Ninety-six of the fatalities were people between the ages of 20 and 34, while 75 were over the age of 64, and thirteen were small children under the age of four.
May Hashem protect all of us, and may He grant wisdom and good sense to the motorists on our roads!
New Budget Approved to Cover War Expenses
The revised state budget for the year 2024 was approved last Monday in a special session of the cabinet. The next step is for it to be brought to the Knesset for approval, with the goal of having it pass its first reading by February 19.
The new budget is dramatically different from the original version. The changes, of course, are due to the war. Out of a total of 582 billion shekels, the budget includes 70 billion shekels of extra expenditures to cover the costs of the war, including military expenses, health care expenses (especially for psychological treatments and rehabilitative care), and other costs such as funding for the evacuations of various communities and the restoration of homes destroyed by fire. The approval of the budget triggered a number of attacks on the chareidi political leadership, even though there was no rational explanation for the outcry. The budget for yeshivos was slashed, perhaps even more than the average budget cut, and the chareidi government ministers hold portfolios for which a reduction in funding would have been completely unjustified. If those ministers had fought to avoid even greater cuts to their ministries’ budgets, it would only have been for the benefit of victims of the massacre and the war. The “coalition funds” were cut drastically, with a reduction of 2.5 billion shekels out of a total of 6.5 billion. There should have been no basis for anyone to attack the chareidim for the funding that they have received, but it seems that some of the community’s detractors cannot help themselves.
The chareidi community is facing a longstanding problem: Most of the funding allocated to the average chareidi citizen (as well as the typical right-wing citizen) is not included in the base budget. Even the discounts on property taxes for those who meet the criteria, or the funding for classrooms for chareidi girls or freestanding bomb shelters for religious schools, are not included in the state budget. This is the root of a significant problem. Whenever coalition talks are conducted, the chareidi parties have no choice but to stand guard to ensure that all the services that are automatically given to the average secular citizen are funded for the chareidim as well. If they are not vigilant and determined, the chareidi citizens of this country will be severely shortchanged. There are always arguments and debates during this process, but everyone ultimately accedes to their demands, recognizing that it is a simple matter of fairness.
The clauses in the coalition agreements that pertain to government funding, unlike those relating to religious or ideological issues, are known as the “coalition funds.” Every year, the Budget Department in the Treasury makes sure that there will be a shortage of funds to cover these commitments, and then they announce that the government’s coffers have been emptied. This announcement usually comes at the end of the year, in November or December. This forces the chareidim to fight for the funding that is rightfully theirs, which creates a major stir. The Treasury sometimes manages to save a few pennies through this maneuver, while the chareidim lose much more than mere money, as the battles for these funds provide ample fodder for incitement. The community’s detractors manage to make it appear as if the coalition funds are stolen money, or at least money that is taken at someone else’s expense.
The first chareidi leader to object to the traditional negotiations over coalition funding was MK Avrohom Ravitz, who voiced his displeasure especially during the years of his tenure as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, between 1996 and 1999. He once told a group of colleagues in the Knesset cafeteria, “We are not interested in changing anything about the budget except one thing: Our community’s funding should be included in the main budget.” He also shouted at the Treasury representatives, “Don’t throw us bones!” As was often the case, his concerns were completely on target. Today, almost thirty years later, the chareidi community is still in the same regrettable situation. Last summer, two of the community’s prominent representatives on the Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni and Yinon Azulai, announced that they would not give in on this issue anymore, beginning with the budget for 2024.
Integrating the Coalition Funds into the Budget
Gafni and Azulai were ostensibly successful in this effort. At the end of the cabinet meeting, the following decision was announced: “The prime minister instructs the finance minister, in consultation with the director of the Budget Department and the accountant general in the Finance Ministry, to reexamine the structure of the budget and the method of budgeting for the purpose of eliminating the concept of coalition funds to the greatest degree possible and basing the budget on professional considerations, in accordance with the order of priorities to be determined by the government. These changes are to be made, at the very latest, in the budget for 2025.”
This announcement seems worthy of being celebrated by any intelligent person. There should be no logical objection to reexamining the coalition funds and either reclassifying or discarding every allocation. Any funding that is deemed excessive will be canceled, meaning that chareidi citizens will not receive favorable treatment. At the same time, funding that is not considered excessive will become part of the base budget, which means that the chareidim will not be subject to discrimination to their detriment. If the average student in a chiloni school receives amenities including a table and desk, air conditioning, and a proper classroom, then a student in a chareidi school will receive the same. If a chiloni citizen in Netanya benefits from paved roads, a park, and a well-baby clinic funded by the government, then a chareidi resident of Modiin Illit will benefit from the same services. There will be unified criteria for government services and benefits, which will guarantee equality among all the citizens of Israel. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
For some reason, though, some members of the Israeli press did not see the matter in this light at all. On the front page of one of Israel’s newspapers, I read the following shrill complaints: “This decision has only one implication—that coalition funds will no longer be designated as such. Beginning next year, these funds will be swallowed up by the black hole known as the state budget and will be hidden there.” Inside the same newspaper was a massive article under the headline “Smotrich Plans to Launder Coalition Funds and Hide Them from the Public.” The article concludes with the following line; “His goal is to pass off the creature known as coalition funding in the guise of something kosher, hiding the funds within ordinary budgetary allocations. Behind a veil of professionalism, Smotrich is working to legitimize the serious political corruption of coalition funding.”
It is absolutely astounding to read these heinous accusations. Is it even possible to “hide” something in the state budget? The budget is one of the most transparent documents in the country. It is painstakingly reviewed by all the members of the Knesset, as well as the Budget Department and innumerable legal advisors. That means that the coalition funds will now be scrutinized with a magnifying glass for the first time in Israeli history. They will be carefully examined by the Budget Department, which is known for its rigidity and its habit of digging in its heels to prevent the government from overstepping its bounds by handing out unjustified funding. And all of this will be done under the aegis of legal advisors working for the attorney general. These are actually draconian steps that might be worrisome to the chareidi community under any other circumstances, yet the reactions evoked by this move have been topsy-turvy. Somehow, the chareidim are welcoming this change, while their enemies are going mad with fury. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why.
A Gift for Tu B’Shevat
Tu B’Shevat is upon us and has provided me, at least indirectly, with some new insights. Avi Dichter, the Minister of Agriculture and onetime director of the Shin Bet, has a deputy named Moshe Abutbul, the former mayor of Beit Shemesh. The Ministry of Agriculture is in Kiryat Hamemshalah, and Abutbul has a spacious office with a large staff in the ministry’s headquarters. In honor of Tu B’Shevat, Abutbul arranged for elegant-looking knapsacks containing white caps to be distributed in the Knesset, bearing the emblems of the Ministry of Agriculture. The knapsacks also contained another gift: a kuntres containing an assortment of tefillos for Tu B’Shevat and the rest of the year. The halachos cited in the kuntres were reviewed and approved, according to the introduction, by Rav Yitzchok Yosef, the chief rabbi of Israel.
Abutbul’s booklet contains some tefillos that we all know, alongside a number of tefillos that I had never seen before. For instance, there is a tefillah composed by the Chida to be saved from ayin hara and sorcery, consisting of eleven pesukim that begin and end with the letter nun, followed by a short passage: “May it be Your Will … to be filled with mercy for us and to save us, all of our family members, and all of Israel from ayin hara and all sorts of sorcery, to drive the yetzer hora and the soton away from us. Just as You spread out Your wings over our forefathers in the wilderness and saved them from the evil eye of the wicked Bilam, so may You spread Your wings over us in Your great mercy, and may we be shielded and guided by Your holy Names, Amen….” There is also a collection of tefillos to be recited before the consumption of fruits, as well as a list of the “songs” of various living creatures. For instance, we discover the songs of the goose, the spider, and even the fly. On page 49, there is a tefillah for the protection of the soldiers of the IDF and the return of the missing and captured: “May Hashem be filled with mercy for them; may He save them from any trouble or distress, from any plague or sickness, and send brocha and success to them in all their deeds. May He rescue them from darkness and gloom and return them quickly to their families. Amen.’”
One more comment about Tu B’Shevat: On Friday, I visited Kollel Ohr Leah, which is headed by Rav Eliyohu Cohen, who distributes packages of food and other necessities throughout the year to the needy. Rav Cohen informed me, as he has in the past, that the demand for his distributions has been rising and that he is not capable of keeping up with the mounting needs. This year he distributed thousands of baskets of Tu B’Shevat goodies in memory of Rav Yisroel Abuchatzeirah, the Baba Sali, and as a zechus for the success of Rav Dovid Chai Abuchatzeirah, who supports the organization.
The Baba Sali and the Rosh Yeshiva
I mentioned last week that I joined the tens of thousands of people who traveled to Netivot on motzoei Shabbos to participate in the hillula of the Baba Sali. I arrived when the crowding and pressure were at their highest levels, but it was an expertly organized event that clearly showcased the love and dedication that had been poured into it. Everything was carried out in the most ideal possible way. I even overheard Yehuda Avidan of the religious affairs ministry admonishing the highest-ranking police officer on the scene to ensure that the police behaved properly. The ushers, meanwhile, were Gerrer chassidim.
In retrospect, we discovered that we all benefited from an overt miracle: Hamas terrorists had planned to unleash a deluge of missiles on Netivot on motzoei Shabbos during the hillula, but the deadly projectiles were destroyed by Israeli forces. The next day also brought many miracles, as the numerous rocket launches miraculously did not claim any lives. Hashem’s chessed was enormous. Everyone has come to take it for granted when a missile falls in an open area or fails to cause fatal harm, but every such incident is truly the work of Divine hashgocha.
Let me share a story that I heard at the hillula, which was first revealed by the Baba Sali’s wife and retold by his daughter. The Baba Sali once said to Rav Yissochor Meir, “You know that I have the ability to turn over the entire world.” The meaning was clear, but Rav Yissochor replied, “I ask you to make sure that Torah will grow in the south.” We now know that the Torah did grow in the south and that Rav Yissochor Meir and his wife passed away without having children. The implications of this story are staggering.
While I was visiting Netivot, I also visited Rav Yissochor Meir’s kever, which is in close proximity to the Baba Sali’s. Their yahrtzeits are also within a few days of each other; Rav Yissochor passed away on the 25th of Teves, while the Baba Sali’s yahrtzeit is the fourth of Shevat.
May we all share good news and may the merits of the tzaddikim protect us from harm.