Recently in Israel '05 - Part 2: Assaying Category

Poor Role Model

Abbas has ended a three-year moratorium on capital punishment in the Territories. I submit an excerpt from this story without further comment:

Four men who had confessed to murders in a Gaza court were killed on Sunday - three by hanging, one by firing squad.

"These individuals killed innocent human beings and by executing them we applied our law," Palestinian Attorney General Hussain Abu Aasi told the AFP news agency.

"Even the most democratic state in the world, America, invokes this kind of punishment," he said.


A bit of excitement to brighten the otherwise pensive mood in my research group today. Courtesy of the good folks at the National Scientific Balloon Facility (NSBF), BLAST went up, up, and away today. Now we can all watch it float its way around the Arctic Circle at 40 km altitude from Sweden towards Canada. The photos on the grad student blogs (here and here) are perhaps more interesting. There's even videos of the launch process, which looks to have been mercifully smooth after a long string of delays.

Beanfield War?

When I read this piece last week I immediately thought back to The Milagro Beanfield War (John Nichols, 1974, still in print).

The parallels aren't perfect, but in both cases you've got the poor and downtrodden agricultural types being oppressed by powerful people who want their land, you've got harassement and violence by masked goons, you've got the troublemaking activist giving the community hope. I should point out, though, that Nichols' novel was a locally revolutionary tract; this Ha'aretz article is supposed to be a feel-good human interest story about Zionist settlers versus Palestinian cave-dwelling farmers and shepherds in the Hebron hills. Here's the setup:

A 53-year-old plumber from Jerusalem has become a one-man institution dedicated to helping and protecting the Palestinian cave dwellers of the southern Hebron Hills.

Even the Palestinians say they would not have survived in the area - facing pressure from the Israel Defense Forces and harassment from the settlers - without Ezra Nawi.

About two months ago, Palestinian shepherds from the southern slopes of the Hebron Hills noticed a settler spreading poisoned wheat kernels in the pasture fields. They managed to get their sheep out in time - dozens of farm animals were killed in a similar incident - but the next morning the carcasses of two wild deer that had eaten the poisoned kernels were found.

Nawi, a left-wing activist who had arrived as usual that morning to help the Al-Tawani village residents, decided to protest. He took one of the carcasses and placed it in the middle of the road to the Maon settlement, from where the Palestinians claimed the poisoners had come.

Happy (Belated) Debian Day

Another interesting thing that took place while I was off and far from the Internet: Debian Sarge (a.k.a. Debian 3.1) was released. I do try not to let my technogeekery show through too much -- as I've just got so many more unusual flavors of geekiness to showcase, after all. But this one's been in development for just shy of three years, and it's really the only operating system I use these days. I was still in college when the last version was pressed!

(Okay, not true; the Debian project has issued "updates" to the previous version several times since then. But those aren't allowed to make major changes to the installed software. Which is why I've been using the "testing" version for years now.)

Yes, it felt good to get that out of my system. Don't look at me like that, I'm sure you've been crowed to many times by now about that new Apple OS release. And don't even get me started on the degree to which I don't have an opinion on the whole Apple-moving-to-Intel thing.

Spin Damage


While we're on the topic of things I've run across recently, allow me to observe that the fellow who wrote this is an idiot.

So maybe a week ago I happen upon one of these breathless "I can't believe nobody's reporting on ..." blog posts pointing to that article. Here's the setup:

BP Faces Huge Fines Related To Unreported Oil Spills in Alaska; Is ANWR Next?

...It was then, unbeknownst to the federal lawmakers who debated the merits of drilling in ANWR, that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation started to lay the groundwork to pursue civil charges against UK oil and gas behemoth BP and the corporation’s drilling contractor for failing to report massive oil spills at its Prudhoe Bay operation, just 60 miles west from the pristine wilderness area that would be ravaged by the very same company in its bid to drill for oil should ANWR truly be opened to further development.

Truly horrible! Here's Congress debating whether to turn a wildlife refuge over to the wildcatters and all the while -- gasp! -- the evil Big Oil is covering up a Valdez in the making.

Or, well, no.

On Arab MKs

In December 20021, the Knesset Central Elections Committee voted to bar two Arab parties from running in the elections to be held the following month, including the Ta'al list led by Ahmed Tibi. Then-Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein declared that because the leaders of these two parties had failed to adequately declare their support for a Jewish State of Israel, and because some of them had expressed qualified support for Palestinian groups engaged in violence during the Second Intifada, they were unfit to run for office in the government.

The Israeli Supreme Court later overturned that decision2, over the strenuous objections of the political right.

I only mention this because I ran across Tibi's name in the paper today3.

Space Junk

What if the flaming wrecks of space ships crashed in your fields several times a month?

If you happen to be a Kazakh villager living downrange of Baikonur, you learn to live with it. This is why everyone else in the world launches over water.

The next time someone asks you if stuff just vanishes when it "burns up on reentry," the correct answer is "no." Just point 'em at these photos.

Thermohaline Troubles

I've briefly mentioned thermohaline circulation as a mechanism by which oceanic temperatures can be regulated through mixing. The most important example of this is the Global Thermohaline Circulation, which is responsible for warm surface currents like the Gulf Stream that keep Western Europe so pleasantly toasty.

The main driver for this global cycle is a region of forcefully sinking water in the north Atlantic and around Greenland. The water arriving from equitorial regions already has a salinity surplus due to evaporation further south. Upon reaching the Arctic, two new processes kick in. First, the cold air temperature leads to rapid cooling of this water. Second, the seasonal formation of ice shelves expels additional salt into the surface waters. The resulting chilled brine sinks like a stone, and thus keeps the whole "conveyor" moving.

That's why I was rather alarmed when I ran across this.

CLIMATE change researchers have detected the first signs of a slowdown in the Gulf Stream — the mighty ocean current that keeps Britain and Europe from freezing.

They have found that one of the “engines” driving the Gulf Stream — the sinking of supercooled water in the Greenland Sea — has weakened to less than a quarter of its former strength.

Besides a couple of UK papers, I've hardly seen this reported anywhere.

Do You See What I See?

Of this photo, Raed writes: "We went with some friends to Umm Qais, in the north of Jordan. From this really high and cool spot, you can see the occupied Golan Hights, the occupied Jordan River, the occupied Lake Tiberias (known also as the Sea of Galilee and to Israelis as Lake Kinneret), the occupied Shaba Farms in the south of Lebanon." Click the photo to open a larger version.

Okay, so apparently today is Memorial Day back in the U.S. That would nicely explain why I've gotten almost no email from that corner of the globe. Have a nice barbeque or something. As for myself, I got myself invited to an all-you-can-eat sushi extravaganza at one of the nicer restaurants in town tonight, but that has nothing to do with American holidays.

Raed in the Middle is the blog of an Iraqi living in Jordan, who acquired some (very minor) notoriety thanks to his connection to Salam Pax of the Where is Raed? blog made famous during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I don't recall how I wound up at his blog, but this one photo grabbed me.

Before you read on, ask yourself this: looking at Raed's picture, where are your eyes and interest most drawn? To the columns in the foreground? Or to the mist-obscured rolling land beyond?

Weekend Interneting

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Yeah, so what did I manage to do with my weekend?

I discovered that Darth Vader had a blog for a while. He even makes veiled political jabs, just like Lucas, that subversive creator of his:

What crystallized the situation for me was something the Duke of Foulbash said, bringing his brown fist down on the table: "Lord Vader, what is at stake here is a millennium of tradition! That is the heart of this matter."

The Duke was right. I told him so. Then I assassinated the entire royal family, down to the last forgotten bastard.

Still Thinking About Water

Compare and contrast to yesterday's post. From an Albuquerque Trib op-ed:

The U.S.-Mexico border vicinity is arid at best, and several recent years of drought have accentuated this. Complicating the area's water quantity and quality problems are its free-trade-driven industrial and agricultural development, together with a related population boom.

Incredibly, no scientific diagnosis has ever been made on which to base binational water basin management. Among the results of this weak planning position are public health problems and costs, degradation of biodiversity and transgressions against environmental justice.

Border activists have insisted for decades that tribal, low-income and other minority-status communities on both sides of the border are among the hardest hit.

This op-ed was written in connection with the recent resolution of a decade-long water dispute between the U.S. and Mexico. It's worth pointing out that along this border, there are relatively few people who actually don't have enough water to drink. The shortage has mostly been affecting agriculture in the Rio Grande valley since, thankfully, the area doesn't have anywhere near the population density of the Levant.

Then again, if Phoenix doesn't get its growth under control, problems could emerge (Google cache) rather quickly.

In the world outside [Central Arizona Project general manager David S. "Sid"] Wilson’s office, the Arizona development boom continues. Crews in stucco-spattered work trucks finish off legions of new homes in the desert, and bulldozers clear the way for tens of thousands more.

But behind the scenes at the CAP and Arizona’s other water outfits, the true dimensions of the water shortage are beginning to come into focus. The drought could overwhelm the state’s fitful efforts to achieve sustainability, and water managers are grappling with the growing realization that, despite a century’s worth of efforts to engineer water shortages out of existence, nature still bats last.


Perhaps because of the cold I picked up in the (abberantly frozen and sleet-y) north, or perhaps because the dry season is kicking in, I noticed when I got back to Rehovot that the water seems decidedly tasteless1. Now as any resident of any desert in the world will tell you, water is life. So does that mean I'm justified in complaining that life has lost its flavor?

Ba-dum ching.

Contrary to what one might expect for a Middle Eastern nation, Israel has quite diverse supplies of water available to it. Water can be, and is, drawn from the Jordan River, Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee to everyone else), the Coastal Aquifer, and most importantly the Mountain Aquifer System -- which is actually at least three geologically distinct underground effluences with different flow directions. However, all of these supplies combined are barely adequate to accomodate Israel's ballooning population, industry, and agriculture. Water, then, is a sensitive issue.

[Update: I have rewritten and expanded slightly the following to clarify where some of my data are coming from.]

Returning to the Point

On Thursday I return to Israel, after spending Wednesday in Minnesota. (Astronomy folks: we should do dinner somewhere Wednesday evening!) So I should begin catching up on what I've missed.

The most interesting development I'm aware of is the Palestinian municipal elections held last Thursday. Hamas did quite well, as expected, although Fatah remains firmly in political control of the territories. It would be a grave error, though, to interpret this as the Palestinian people voting in favor of the destruction of Israel. Instead, as Ha'aretz writes,

In a sign of the militants' strength even in areas with large Christian populations, Hamas won five of the seven seats alloted to Muslims in the town of Bethlehem, which has a total of 15 seats. Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine will share the eight seats allocated to Christians.

"We are very honest and work much more than the others," said Khaled Saada, a Hamas candidate for Bethlehem town council, citing schools, clinics and orphanages run by his group.

Many voters were prepared to try Hamas after what they saw as a Fatah failure.

"Who will work for our future, for our children?" asked Maalik Salhab, a 24-year-old biology student who was wearing a green Hamas hat in Bethlehem and voted for the group on Thursday.

"If I see the outside world refusing to help us and then call Hamas terrorists, then I have the right to choose Hamas because they are doing all these things for me."

It's about local services, honest government, and frustration with the incumbent political establishment.

White Smoke

Well, that was quick.

Only this morning, the papers were announcing the completely unsurprising puff of black smoke indicating that the first round of balloting in the Sistene Chapel failed to produce a 2/3 majority. Typically, dozens of rounds of voting are required. It takes some time to arrive at a consensus, after all. Plus, some were concerned that the new rules John Paul instituted would give the hardliners an incentive to draw out the process (after 30 rounds of voting, a simple majority can decide).

But no, on only the third balloting, on the very first day of the Conclave for heaven's sake, they elected Ratzinger as the new Pope Benedict XVI. What efficiency. The smart money was right on.

In many ways, this is not an astonishing result, even if the haste with which it was accomplished is unusual. Ratzinger was appointed to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith back in 1981, and is about as close as you can get to a doctrinal duplicate of John Paul II. There's another reason, too. The man is old, already 78. After a long, eventful Papacy, perhaps the College of Cardinals is wary of too-hastily setting the direction of the Church for another 30 years. So we may expect a handful of years with no major changes in direction. Benedict XVI will be seen as an interim Pope.

The rapidity of today's events only means that a large majority of the Cardinals felt the same way.

Bits from the News

It often happens that I get busy for a few days, have stuff going on, and then have to spend a day browsing the web to see what I missed. I confess, I'm a smidgeon of a news junkie. In my defense, this is an interesting part of an interesting world, these days.

I was relieved to hear that the bank strike has been averted. Over the weekend, most of the ATM machines in the country were cleaned out by people worried the banks would be closed this week. Not having money would be inconvenient. Plus, it sounds like the bank workers' beef is with the government, not the banks, in this case.

Weird Press Coverage

A few days ago I blogged about various sorts of fundamentalists, including the really scary ones that think blowing up the Dome of the Rock would be a nifty idea.

By way of Juan Cole, I discover that this is not how the West reported the events of last weekend. Evidently the mainstream coverage played it as a case of dueling protests.

At the End of the Tour

For many days now, I've felt the urge to write something about the passing of Ioannes Paulus II (to fall back on the Latin form now marking his grave). Links have been piling up, scraps of the web pulled almost at random from the passing torrent of media. Some of them might have led to interesting and topical posts in their own right, but in the end, attempting to blog the Week of the Pope felt a little too much like being a mosquitto in Pamplona.

And now perhaps a respectable time has passed, and the stampede is headed elsewhere. Time to reflect, for a touch of catharsis, a first turning of the mulch heap.

I'd have more to say if I'd been there, of course. And don't think it didn't cross my mind. But ultimately, there's little to distinguish my experience of the past week from that of any other Roman Catholic with a web browser and a few newspapers. Except for the fact that the Catholic population of Israel wouldn't fill St. Peter's Square, and if you only count the ones with whom I could plausibly communicate (i.e. non-Arabic speakers) they might not overflow a large church.

Spectrum of Fundies


Fundamentalists. Every place has it's own brand of fundies. The creepier sort are scaring the living daylights out of liberals across America these days. Then again, living as I am in the sort of soft theocracy the Christian Right wishes it could get its grubby hands on, the Israeli fundies are quite a piece of work.

Those who've worked with me at public outreach events for the astronomy department know that I sometimes enjoy myself entirely too much at the expense of the creationist fools who pop up whenever you mention the Big Bang. After all, there I am giving a bunch of kids a slide show about the nine-ish planets or showing them how to use a telescope -- kids who, I should point out, might grow up to be scientists, or at the very least citizens who appreciate that science just might be a useful aspect of modern civilization that deserves a bit of support.

Then up walks some oaf who wants to chat about how he's sure I didn't really mean it when I mentioned that the Earth is several billion years old, and could I please make that clearer next time I give one of these talks. Or the middle-aged mom with the pinched face who's annoyed that she drove her kids out to some park to have fun looking at the stars, only to be assailed by all kinds of talk about evolution. On the whole, nice folks who through no particular fault of their own are egregiously ignorant about the world around them.

Sic transit

Archbishop Leonardo Sandri: "Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father." 19:40 GMT

The New York Times obituary is comprehensive and stirring.

Watch what they say. Some reflect, but others project.

9,665 days is just about a year longer than I've been around. I'm slated to give a journal club talk tomorrow on the 2002 occultation of Pluto. Otherwise I'd head out to Jerusalem or Nazareth or thereabouts.

A Curious Notion of Progress

In this recent Ha'aretz article, it is reported that the IDF and the Gaza settlers have reached an agreement, where

Soldiers and policemen who evacuate settlements under the disengagement plan will be unarmed...

Ezra also said that settlers will be asked to turn in their arms voluntarily shortly before the evacuation begins, but the weapons will not be collected forcibly.

Finally, the police will not employ agents provocateurs among the settlers, while the settlers will try to oust any troublemakers from within their ranks.

What fun, watching negotiations between these two groups that trust each other about as far as Gaza beach is from the sea. You'd think it was another round of Arab-Israeli negotiations. Those, of course, are currently snarled up by local commanders haggling over exactly which checkpoints blocking the road into Tul Karm will be removed. My impression is that the IDF's starting position was none of them, and of course the Palestinians wanted them all gone. So it's taken a while.

In other news, I know His Holiness is in a bad way, but it sounds as though the College of Cardinals is already quietly assembling. I thought they were supposed to wait until after he's dead, at the very least!

(Hmm. On further investigation, it seems that the Cardinals are supposed to be assembled within nine days of the Pope's death. So perhaps haste is not altogether unseemly.)


A reminder to those exhausted by the rantings and doings of the States ... or of Israel, for that matter.

In some parts of the world, even revolutionary politics need not be high-strung. I excerpt:

"We'll close the road until our demands are met", one of the organisers told me firmly, a gold tooth glinting in the sun.

Ten minutes later, there was a flurry of activity. The yurts were pulled down, the roadway was cleared and the backlog of lorries and other vehicles thundered on their way in a cloud of dust.

"Oh", said the organiser, "the drivers were complaining about us holding up their business so we've decide to picket the [government's offices] instead".

That was a few days ago. From today's news, it would appear that the matter has mostly resolved itself without notable violence, or even many raised voices. Although it's not entirely clear that much will change, either.


This essay is rather bitter, but also somewhat beautiful.

My roommate heads back to Boston tomorrow (actually today, my time), so the last couple of days were spent helping him pack and buy souveniers and gifts. I actually rather enjoyed rooming with the fellow, but it'll be nice to have the place to myself for a change.

It must often sound like I'm nothing but down on Israeli politics, but it can also be a quite progressive and humane country from time to time, at least when Arabs aren't involved. For instance, I read this week that the Attorney General has come to the conclusion that Israeli law requires that the state "must allow same-sex couples the same economic rights as heterosexual couples."


For background, I would refer you first to this post on the American Prospect weblog and then to the roundup of international coverage at Peace Now.

The Sasson report is making a big splash internationally for pointing out that not only have over a hundred illegal settlements been constructed over the past few years, and not only have they often been built on land effectively stolen from the local Palestinians, but that the government and military have been intimately involved in making this happen. But as the Prospect rightly points out, that has been common knowledge here for years.

If you've skimmed the links above, read on.



Any given Friday morning, a third or more of the people in my dorm rush around doing last-minute shopping before hopping on a bus or in a cab to spend the weekend elsewhere. Jerusalem is a popular target. This meant that a number of them had the additional fun today of deliberating whether or not it would be worth their time and trouble to attempt to make the journey.

Early this morning, someone, somewhere, received intelligence of a planned terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Suddenly, the country was on high alert. Roadblocks and checkpoints where thrown up along all the routes into Jerusalem; busses were searched and passengers screened. Traffic was evidently backed up for miles.

If that's what was going on here, I'd expect that the Territories were under complete lockdown. But that's not uncommon.

In the end, many of them wound up going, since they'd already made plans. Also, the alert was canceled around noon -- no explanation given, so far as I've heard. I just noticed that Ha'aretz has a fairly uninformative article up now that mentions the alert.

Just another weekend in Israel.


The big story of the past few days is that Lebannon is undergoing some kind of political phase transition, precipitated by the assassination of a popular ex-prime minister, and apparently culminating in a sort of mini-revolution that has brought down the government and stands a fair chance of finally kicking out the Syrians.

Frankly, there's not a great deal I can say about what's going on there that isn't more effectively reported elsewhere. I do, however, follow these things pretty closely (seeing as it's going down not a couple hundred kilometers north of here), so I can summarize while pointing out some of the more useful sources of information.

Politics by Other Means

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Since some of my readers are compulsive worriers and had asked, let me reassure everyone that I was not in Tel Aviv at the time of last Friday's bombing. Although I did spend a lovely afternoon playing with the Tel Aviv Go club, I was back in Rehovot by the evening.

Overall, I would not expect this to become a routine event again, like it was in the early days of the present Intifada.


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The pinnacle of, I believe, the Tower of David poking over the ramparts near the Jaffa Gate. While the present tower is no older than the rest of Sulimain's wall, it stands on the foundations of a far older structure, claimed to date back to the time of King David. Aside from housing a museum, one can also ascend via the tower to take a stroll along the ramparts, but that would have been really unpleasant on this particular day. 2005:02:06 12:17:23

Ash Wednesday today. Well, yesterday my time, but most of you in the audience have seven or eight hours left as I write this. Of course if you're reading this in the archives three months from now -- sorry, it's over.

This was the first time I can recall not attending the dust-to-dust Mass. Sadly, my good Catholic upbringing was no match for a day full of meetings and the fact that I have no idea how to get to a Catholic church and back in less than most of a day. Which is why I made something of a pilgrimage of my field trip last Sunday. Consider this the continuation of my previous post.

Milligan: 1, Weather: 2

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Click above for an expanded view of this road map of central Israel; the route taken by my bus to Jerusalem is highlighted in light blue. The total distance covered from Rehovot to Jerusalem is about 30 km. Just take a moment to really appreciate the settlement density implied by this map.

With my advisor out of the country and the usual Sunday seminar moved to Tuesday, yesterday seemed an ideal opportunity to poke my head up out of Rehovot and survey something. Only having time for a day trip, I decided to take a proper look around the Old City in Jerusalem (i.e. without spending most of my time in shops picking up Christmas gifts). This is absurdly easy to do as, despite Rehovot's diminuitive stature, there are no less than two inter-city bus routes directly connecting the two cities.

The Rehovot central bus station is in the Rehovot mall (every town of more than about 35 people here has a mall), about a 15-minute walk from my dorm. Generally a pleasant walk, especially if breakfast is a pastry from the bakery next door. However, a cold front blew through over the weekend, which in this case meant that it started pouring quite chilly rain about halfway there. Fine, I thought, score 1 for the weather. I put up my hood and figured I'd dry out on the bus.

[Ed. update: lest you think it's just me]

More on the Mechanics of Place

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Juan Cole mentions that there is enlightenment to be had from Ella Shohat's meditation on the implications for identity in being an Iraqi Jew, and an American one at that -- and on the cognitive dissonance this produces in many Westerners.

Fun fact: my first Hebrew teacher here was also a Mizrahi; she retired in December, and I'm sorry to say that her replacement doesn't engage nearly as well with the class. (Contrary to the common usage here, the Mizrahi are not Sephardim.) Apparently we were supposed to be able to tell, from the fact that she can pronounce the letter "ain" correctly, that her mother tongue is Arabic. Of course she was just having fun with us, as she knew perfectly well that a bunch of foreigners in Ulpan Aleph (Hebrew 101 for Immigrants, essentially) would know no such thing. Our new teacher has yet to evidence a sense of humor.

At any rate, only about half of Shohat's essay consists of a fairly standard exposition on an underappreciated and, whether she likes it or not, "ontological[ly] subversi[ve]" (precisely because of the bipolarity she bemoans) multivalent identity. Interspersed with about equal proportion is her, to my thought much more interesting, reflection on the dynamics of place and misplaced boundaries.

This Post Is Not Good For A Chuckle

I was struck last week when the following two articles shared the front page of the Israeli edition of the International Herald-Tribune (itself sort of a "Google-News" from the pre-net era).

Le Pen calls Nazis not so 'inhumane'

Prince Harry's costume draws uproar

Far be it from me to deny that the House of Windsor is often good for a chuckle or a self-righteous tut-tut. And Le Pen is always saying something or other to stir people up. But why pair these two so prominently? Nazis. And maybe Auschwitz.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Israel '05 - Part 2: Assaying category.

Israel '05 - Part 1: Rehovot, Redeux is the previous category.

Israel '05 - Part 3: Excursions is the next category.

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