Avital Leibovitch


“Director of the American Jewish Committee in Israel in an Exclusive Interview for Czech and Slovak Leaders”


How does it happen that a woman from Prague gets to personally interview a former Head of the Interactive Media Branch of the Israeli Defence Forces and current Director of the American Jewish Committee? The process of getting to know Avital confirmed my favourite quotation from Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, who said: “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone. Whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life – all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that create something.” After interviewing H.E. Ivo Schwarz, the Czech Ambassador to Israel, I approached him with my desire to interview interesting Israeli women. Mr. Schwarz kindly sent me a few suggestions. And then on my private visit to Israel, I met Avital and her assistant and so there were three women who met at the end of November, on a sunny day in Tel Aviv, which equals a grey and cold day in Prague, discussing the current Middle East perspective, security challenges and dangers of targeting civilian populations and Israeli lessons learned that could be applied in Europe, going far beyond the testing of sirens…

Your Excellency, Mr. Schwarz, thank you very much! Note to the readers: the fact that the interview took place prior to the Berlin lorry attack does not make it less relevant, quite the contrary!

Mrs. Leibovitch, how do you see the today’s world from the Middle East perspective?

When looking at the Middle East and the lack of stability we have been experiencing during the last couple years, you realise that the Israel’s geographical location serves as a buffer. As a buffer from the extreme wave of terror to cover the entire area. The fact that Israel is stable and does not allow the terror to get inside its boarders truly serves as a physical buffer. And particularly these days, there are many ways that the world can benefit from our experience and I am going to mention a few examples. In 1991, Israel was attacked by Sadam Hussein during the Gulf War. We were standing on the roof tops, watching scuds being red toward our cities. It was then when Israel came to understanding that the real targets for the terror groups – no matter where they are – are the public, the civilians. Despite the fact that there are strategic facilities in every country, the number one aim of terror groups and terror countries is the civilians. That is why Israel established a body called the Home Front Command that deals with civilians, gives them methods of protecting themselves and issues regulations. After tragedies in France and in Germany, we see that these countries lack similar mechanisms, so there is a lot of chaos, misunderstanding and speculation, which is the worst. Speculation often leads to fear. When you have a body, such as Home Front Command, this body conveys messages to civilians, for example, go to shelters, now you can leave the shelters or there will be an update in one hour. Europe can obviously learn this from Israel. This of course requires discipline from the population. So in Israel, we have an annual exercise. During this exercise, every Israeli is required to identify the nearest shelter, whether at work, school, university or at home. By doing this, people are aware and not confused when something happens. The second critical thing is the country division into zones. Each city, each village, has a code number. When that code is being activated, only the residents of the area will be required to behave in a special way. By the way, this can be applied both to natural disasters and rocket attacks. My personal example is that I live in a city called Rosh Ha’ayin and the code number is 170. When that number is activated, mentioned for example on the radio, TV or through sirens, all people in the 170 zone go to shelters, while the rest of the country can behave normally. We do not see that in Europe today. There is a very strong mood of tension after the attacks, everybody is locked at home and it is hard to resume life. In Israel, we also have a red colour application for the mobile phones. This application is synchronised with the alert and siren system. As you can see, there is a 219 area and on October 24, there was a rocket red from Gaza to the 219 area. So the instructions with regards what to do were valid for that area. Likewise, we had another attack on October 6 on the 228 area, and on October 5 on 220. This application also mentions when the Home Front Command drill and emergency sirens testing take place. The system is much wider and our expertise can be shared with Europe and the rest of the world. By the way, I had the opportunity to verify Avital’s words the very next day. While strolling Tel Aviv on a bike, I had the opportunity to witness a spontaneous yet perceived as an organised and efficient reaction of people quickly looking for cover and escaping open public spaces in a situation that eventually proved to be only a café fight but originally was mistaken for a terror attack.

Thank you very much for the expertise and specific suggestions. It seems to me that we started and stopped with the sirens testing. But let us return to the current security situation, what other challenges do you see and we in Europe fail to see?

The next thing I would like to mention is the number of Israelis who went to Syria and joined ISIS, which is very low, less than 50. All they have to do, is to get a car, drive for a few hours, reach the boarder and climb over the fence. Rather an easy way. What do we see in Europe? We see thousands and thousands and thousands people who need to make a lot of effort, find a contact, board a plane and so on…In other words, Israel has been able to control the radicalisation and that is another asset that we have.

A lot of radicalisation is linked to social media, but it takes place also elsewhere, as there can be radical sermons at religious places (sic!), there can be incitements found in religious textbooks at schools and many other options. But the main issue is our ability to contain it and the low numbers indicate that we are successful.

From what you are saying, there seems to be a big gap between the Middle East perspective and the rest of the world.

If you look around, there was not any peace process that has had a Western or a European involvement and has succeeded. It just did not exist. That confirms the big gap between what can be seen from here and what can be seen from other Western countries. Arab spring is an example. In Israel, no one has referred to it as the Arab spring. We never see the spring of a radical organisation such as Muslim brotherhood coming to power. We knew the charter, we knew the agenda and therefore we never called it a spring. So what if one million people went to Tahrir square, but there were still 89 million people who stayed at home! And Muslim brotherhood is affiliated with Hamas and vice versa. Their agenda is certainly not peace, brotherhood and love for all humankind. We knew that because over the last 15 years we have been attacked by 15 000 rockets. As you can see, different perspectives are very confusing and misleading. So we are back to the question where is the Western world and its foreign policy in the Middle East.

Well, the rather sad truth is that the Israeli and Western perspectives are widening instead of coming closer…How do you perceive it?

I feel there is a vacuum in the Middle East and it will be filled with another player. It will not stay a vacuum, this is the rule of the international politics, especially in the Middle East. There are many interests of many countries and many players, interests of oil, gas, territory…I will give you another example. Syria. We call it Syria. We continue to call it Syria. But there is no Syria. It is not really a country anymore. The fragmentation is such that we cannot speak about an entity. Six to seven years ago, the number of terror groups in Syria was around seven to eight, today you have eight times more. Today, the president is controlling two or three areas or cities but not the rest of the country. You have very strong Iranian footprints in the area, in Syria, in Lebanon in the shape of Hizballah, in Gaza in the shape of Hamas who is also trying to reach the West Bank. Israel was affected by the conflict in Syria. Israel was attacked by two types of an attack. One type was an error fire when fighting took place too close to the boarder and spilled over to the Israeli side but there were also incidents of an intentional fire. But Israel having its experience for many years decided to “get even”. The equation is whenever fire is opened, we will retaliate. There were no meetings, parliament discussions and further waiting necessary, as we are here and we need to protect this boarder. So we were shaping the situation, preventing the escalation. This is our experience and it has worked.

From various and differing perspectives, let us now discuss the role of media and particularly social media, as these shape the public opinion.

In September 2015, few extreme Muslim organisations spread a narrative saying that Israel was trying to change the status quo of the Temple Mount, a holy place for all religions. There is a law in Israel from 1967, giving a special status to this and other religious places and the law says that the only ones who can pray there are Muslims. Non-Muslims cannot pray and visit at certain days and hours. We are a democracy and few Kneset members decided to make more noise about their visit, which created some noise on the other side, which resulted in four days of violence at the Temple Mount in which young Palestinians geared up metal rods, wooden furniture which they burned in order to create a big drama. The situation was quiet after four days but the narrative was out in the open. The social media and the conventional media was all filled with the narrative that Israel has tried to change the status quo at the Temple Mount and we found ourselves in situation which led to four types of terror attack. The first type, the most common was stabbing knives. It was all over the country, although most attacks took place either in Jerusalem or in the settlement areas. The second type was running over people at the bus stops with a vehicle. With a knife, you can target just one person, with a vehicle you get “more efficient”. The third type was hurling rocks, when you drive fast and there comes a rock, it can lead to deadly injuries and the last type is about using light fire. As a result of these attacks, 35 people lost their lives and approximately 400 were wounded.

My office is in Jerusalem and most attacks happen in Jerusalem. However, you cannot look back every minute to watch whether someone else is searching in his back pack to take out the knife…Is there a prototype of a perpetrator? No. It can be a 14 year old girl or a 65 year old grand-father or 40 year old lawyer.

Well, it seems to me that we have been a bit spoiled in Europe with regards to the security situation and we also will have to adjust.

This brings me to the point of resilience of people who live here. I think people who live in Israel have in common a lot of optimism, a lot of resilience and patriotism. And one thing that makes Israel different from the region is that Israel is building a country while building a society. It is in the genes, in the mentality. That is why you see a lot of development in the cyber world, in the start-up world, in the agriculture world. This is why if you come here in five years, you will not recognise a lot of the country because of the infrastructure development all the time. This is something which makes us very young despite our age and successful.

By Linda Štucbartová