TIME Foreign Policy

FAA Lifts Its Ban on Flights to Israel

Mideast Israel Palestinians
A departure flight board displays various canceled and delayed flights in Ben Gurion International airport a day after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration imposed a 24-hour restriction on flights. The ban has now been lifted. Dan Balilty—AP

The agency says it has "carefully reviewed" new safety measures being taken by the Israeli government

Under pressure from Israeli and American officials, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted a temporary ban on flights by American carriers to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport late on Wednesday night.

The ban, issued midday Tuesday after a rocket fired from Gaza struck within one mile of the airfield, was rescinded 36 hours later, the FAA said in a statement. The move clears the way for U.S.-based airlines to resume flights to Israel’s main international gateway.

“The FAA has lifted its restrictions on U.S. airline flights into and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport by canceling a Notice to Airmen it renewed earlier today,” the agency said.

“The cancellation is effective at approximately 11:45 p.m. EDT. Before making this decision, the FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday evening to rescind the ban, as Israeli officials argued the American government was giving Hamas a victory. The airport is a mere 50 miles from Gaza, the scene of intense fighting between Hamas fighters and the Israeli military, who are determined to halt the firing of rockets into Israel. Many of the rockets have been intercepted by the U.S.-backed Iron Dome missile shield.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg boarded an El Al flight late Tuesday to protest the FAA’s decision, declaring the airport safer than American counterparts in an interview with CNN Wednesday from Jerusalem. “The fact that one rocket falls far away from this airport, a mile away, doesn’t mean you should shut down air traffic into a country and paralyze the country,” he said.

Kerry, who arrived at the airfield Wednesday aboard a U.S. military plane, was apparently not troubled by the security situation. “He and our whole team were very comfortable landing at Ben Gurion Airport,” State Department deputy press secretary Marie Harf told reporters.

The FAA ban followed days after the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukrainian airspace that the FAA had not believed to be unsafe for flight — an oversight that has drawn scrutiny after the deaths of the aircraft’s 298 passengers and crew. The FAA said it would continue monitoring the situation for any continuing security issues.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Texas Sen. Ted Cruz promised to place a procedural hold in the Senate on all Obama administration nominees to the State Department until his questions on the FAA were answered. He accused Obama of using the flight ban to pressure Israel into accepting a ceasefire with Hamas to end the weeks-long conflict.

“The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands,” Cruz said in a statement.

The State Department’s Harf rejected Cruz’s assertions as “offensive and ridiculous.” Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said Tuesday that the White House would not overrule a security decision by the FAA.

TIME Gaza

Why Obama Wants Israel to ‘Do More’ About Civilian Deaths

Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014.
Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

And why Israel doesn't like it

As the death toll in Gaza escalates, so does the pressure from Washington on Israel to limit the killing. President Obama has conveyed his “concern” about Palestinian civilian casualties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Hell of a pinpoint operation,” John Kerry sardonically cracked on Sunday. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN Tuesday that Israel appears to be “over doing it,” and is hurting its “moral authority.”

But while the U.S. is clearly distressed about the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, now at around 650 Palestinian dead, the Obama administration won’t say what it wants Israel to do about it.

“I think probably they could take some greater steps, maybe could do a little bit more,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday.

But when pressed to explain what “do more” actually means, Harf demurred. “I don’t have any specifics for you. It’s a conversation we’ll continue having with them.”

Harf wasn’t going off message. Later in the day, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes also said that Israel “can do more” to curtail the death of innocents. But Rhodes did not elaborate either.

So it’s not quite clear just what the Obama team is trying to say. There are a few ways Israel could “do more” to limit Palestinian casualties, but we have to guess at what Washington means.

One would be for Israel to hold its fire entirely. But that’s clearly not the U.S. position. Obama wants Israel to agree to a ceasefire, but not a unilateral one. U.S. officials repeat over and over that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas’s rocket attacks.

Is it Israel’s ground invasion that America opposes? It is true that the U.S. sought to dissuade it. “Nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put more civilians at risk,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on July 14, days before Israeli troops crossed Gaza’s border. But the U.S. has not appealed for an Israeli ground withdrawal.

That leaves the question of specific targeting decisions. Israel says it is extremely careful in this regard, noting that it takes steps to warn innocents about impending attacks, including evacuation notices, cell phone calls and low-explosive warning “knocks.” But it has still killed numerous Palestinians in their homes. Two weeks ago it killed several young boys playing on a beach. This week, its tanks shelled a Palestinian hospital that Israel said Palestinian militants were using as a base. Both tragic and damaging to Israel’s reputation, these are probably the sorts of incidents the U.S. would like to prevent.

Israeli officials say that of course they don’t want to bomb hospitals—but that they’re in an impossible position. Hamas fighters operate in civilian areas, and store weapons or plan battles from places like homes and hospitals, they say. The Israelis even argue that Hamas actually welcomes and facilitates the death of its people. Hamas has urged Gazans to ignore Israeli evacuation orders. In recent footage from Hamas’s television network shown to TIME by an Israeli official, a Hamas leader says: “We, Hamas, call on our people to adopt this practice” of “sacrificing themselves to defend their homes.”

In this challenging environment, Israeli officials say they analyze every strike, consulting military lawyers as they run a calculation that involves a kind of moral mathematics. As Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer told reporters yesterday, that means weighing the civilian toll of a strike against the potential future harm to Israeli soldiers and civilians that might come from inaction.

That’s obviously an extremely difficult—and highly subjective—calculation. Dermer says Israel would never kill fifty children in a classroom to destroy one Hamas rocket; whereas he says one civilian death would be an acceptable price for destroying 200 rockets. But where’s the line? Would Israel accept the death of one child to destroy a dozen rockets? A dozen children for 500 rockets? Bear in mind that those rockets almost never land with lethal results; two Israelis have been killed by the roughly 2000 Hamas rockets fired this summer. That’s a 0.1 percent fatality rate per rocket. And yet any given rocket could destroy a school bus or nursing home and render that figure tragically obsolete.

Nor are fatalities the only relevant metric. Israel is also trying to measure the impact of those rockets on its society, economy, and tourism industry. And how to weigh the economic and psychological cost of cancelled flights into Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport? Then there’s the additional matter of Hamas’s underground tunnels, meant to enable terrorism and kidnapping within Israel, and the stated reason for Israel’s ground invasion.

When Obama officials ask Israel to “do more,” they seem to be encouraging a revised moral equation. Of course, the U.S. can never micromanage individual targeting decisions. But Obama may want Israel to conduct fewer strikes, perhaps omitting targets like hospitals, even that if it means accepting more risk to its soldiers and civilians. Some philosophers contend that demonstrably accepting more risk to protect civilians is the grim duty of a just combatant against an enemy using civilian shields.

Beyond the humanitarian and philosophical argument for that, there’s also a strategic one. Israel must weigh the Hamas threat against a more intangible threat to its international reputation. The United Nations’ top human rights official is suggesting that Israel (along with Hamas) may be guilty of war crimes. Yes, we’ve been here before: a 2009 U.N. report charged Israel with targeting civilians during its 2006 offensive in Lebanon. Its chief author later recanted that conclusion—but not before real damage was done to Israel’s image.

Which brings us back to Obama. The president doesn’t want to appear indifferent to Palestinian suffering—one senior official recalls how his standing in the Muslim world plunged after he seemed to condone Israel’s December 2008 Gaza incursion—even if he sympathizes with Israel, and might even respond in much the same way. Obama has accepted plenty of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and from U.S. drone strikes elsewhere, after all. But he evidently feels he needs to say something, even if it’s not very clear what he means.

TIME Israel

Michael Bloomberg Blasts FAA for Halting Israel Flights

Bloomberg Flies El Al, Says Travel To Israel "Safe"
Mike Bloomberg, majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP and former New York mayor, second right, and Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, right, speak with member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Gilad Mor—Bloomberg/ Getty Images

"It was an overreaction for the FAA to halt U.S. flights here – and a mistake they should correct"

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said the Federal Aviation Administration overreacted after it canceled flights to Israel for 24 hours. Bloomberg flew to the country himself Wednesday, to “show solidarity with the Israeli people” and to “show that it’s safe to fly in and out” of the country, despite the ongoing crisis in Gaza.

“Halting flights here – when the airport is safe – hurts Israel and rewards Hamas for attacking Israel. Hamas wants to shut down the airport; we can’t let that happen,” Bloomberg said in a statement posted to his website. “I’m a pilot – and I’ve always believed the FAA does a great job – and still do. But on this issue, I think the agency got it wrong.”

The FAA ordered American carriers to stay put on Wednesday, after a rocket hit a mile away from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Flight operations were canceled “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza,” the FAA said.

Bloomberg, who says he has “always been a strong supporter of Israel,” landed in Tel Aviv at 5 a.m. local time on Wednesday via an El Al flight. He applauded Secretary of State John Kerry for also flying into the region on Wednesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“He was right to fly in, and I hope he will report back that the airport is safe and that the FAA should reverse its decision,” Bloomberg said.

TIME

Kerry on Gaza: ‘This Needs to End for Everybody’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 23, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 23, 2014. AP

“We had a good conversation today about how we can take further steps"

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that there has been some progress made over the past 24 hours in achieving a cease-fire in Gaza. Kerry’s comments came following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We had a good conversation today about how we can take further steps, and we’re doing this for one simple reason: The people in the Palestinian territories, the people in Israel, are all living under the threat or reality of immediate violence, and this needs to end for everybody,” Kerry said following the meeting in Ramallah.

As of Wednesday, approximately 635 Palestinians, 77 percent of whom were civilians, have reportedly been killed in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, which escalated last week when Israel commenced a major ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. At least 30 Israelis have also been killed, 28 of whom were soldiers, according to the United Nations.

Kerry is traveling to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv Wednesday in an effort to broker a cease-fire deal. Kerry’s presence in the region comes after militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, rejected a deal presented by Egypt and agreed to by Israel. Kerry said Wednesday he was “very grateful to President Abbas for his leadership, for his deep engagement in the effort to try to find a cease-fire.”

“We will continue to push for this cease-fire,” Kerry said. “We will continue to work with President Abbas and others in the region in order to achieve it. And I can tell you that we have, in the last 24 hours, made some progress in moving towards that goal.”

Following his meeting with Abbas, Kerry was set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

 

TIME Transportation

FAA Grounded Your Israel Flight? Russia Will Fly You There

Mideast Israel Palestinians
A departure flight board displays various canceled and delayed flights in Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 23, 2014. Dan Balilty—AP

Aeroflot still running daily flights from JFK to Tel Aviv via Moscow

Need to fly to Tel Aviv from the U.S.? While domestic carriers such as American, Delta and United continue to temporarily suspend air service to Ben Gurion airport due to rocket fire, there’s at least one European carrier that can get you there: Aeroflot.

Russia’s flagship airline is running daily flights from JFK to Tel Aviv via Moscow, as is another Russian carrier, Transaero Airlines, named “Most Improved Airline” in Europe last year. Flights are as low as $1214 round trip, according to the travel site Kayak.

While the Israeli government was upset by the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to temporarily close off Tel Aviv’s airspace to U.S. carriers, Moscow apparently had no worries about security over Israel.

The Russian government does apparently have concerns about Ukranian airspace, though: both of Russia’s carriers are avoiding eastern Ukraine, taking a roundabout route between Moscow and Simferopol in Crimea, for example, according to flight data provided by Flightradar24.com.

TIME Israel

FAA Extends Israel Flight Ban Another 24 Hours

Cancelled fights shown on a departure board in Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, Israel on July 23, 2014.
Cancelled fights shown on a departure board in Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, Israel on July 23, 2014. Jim Hollander—EPA

The FAA renewed its flight ban a day after a rocket struck near Tel Aviv's airport

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday extended its ban prohibiting U.S. airlines from flying to and from Israel’s main airport for another 24 hours. The renewed ban comes amid escalating violence between Israel and Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip, particularly Hamas.

The announcement came a day after a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip struck about a mile from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. In response to the rocket attack, the FAA stopped all U.S. air travel in and out of the city. Just hours before the announcement, Delta Airlines and United Airlines said they were voluntarily and indefinitely suspending Israel flights. Several major European air carriers, over which the FAA holds no authority, have also voluntarily stopped flying to Israel.

“Due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben Gurion International Airport (llbg) by U.S. operators are prohibited for up to 24 hours,” the FAA said Wednesday in its renewed ban.

The FAA’s renewal of the ban came despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plea to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the FAA reverse it. The State Department said Tuesday it was not involved in the FAA’s decision to implement the ban.

The U.S. State Department issued travel warnings for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip Monday.

Zeke J. Miller contributed reporting.

TIME Palestine

Watch: Paramedics in Gaza Face Incoming Fire to Save Lives

Paramedics work 24-hour shifts under heavy shelling

+ READ ARTICLE

Paramedics are often among those first to a horrific scene. But in the latest flare-up between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, the AFP reports, they are also coming under fire or witnessing the deaths of children and colleagues.

“The ambulance worker is the one who arrives first so he sees with his own eyes what has happened, what the injuries look like, what the situation is, what the truth is,” Adel al-Azbut, 30, a paramedic, told AFP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday condemned the shelling of the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir El Balah that left at least five people dead and added to a growing fear that few safe havens are left in the enclave.

Paramedics had to bury a colleague who was killed this week when his ambulance was hit by an Israeli rocket. “The situation is very hard. We’re in a war that is affecting everyone—the citizens, the paramedics themselves,” said Jihad Selim, a paramedic shift supervisor. “They don’t go home. They’re only able to check on their families by phone—it’s tense.”

At least 632 Palestinians had been killed as of Wednesday, a figure that UNICEF reported includes at least 121 children under the age of 18. Almost 30 Israelis have died in the offensive, nearly all of them soldiers.

TIME Israel

Kerry Cites Progress in Gaza Cease-Fire Talks

Israeli soldiers stand near their tank while smoke due to airstrikes and shelling rises from Gaza on July 22, 2014 near Sderot, Israel.
Israeli soldiers stand near their tank while smoke due to airstrikes and shelling rises from Gaza on July 22, 2014 near Sderot, Israel. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

(JERUSALEM) — Offering the first glimmer of hope for a Gaza cease-fire, the United States on Wednesday said negotiations to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas militants are making some progress even if an end to more than two weeks of bloodshed is nowhere near.

“We certainly have made steps forward,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Jerusalem, where he was meeting for the second time this week with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. “There’s still work to be done.”

He did not offer any specifics about the progress he cited in his third day of talks with Mideast leaders. He was in Jerusalem shortly after landing in Tel Aviv on an Air Force jet — one day after the FAA banned commercial flights into Ben-Gurion Airport because of a Hamas rocket attack nearby.

The U.S., Israel and the European Union all consider Hamas a terrorist organization. But the U.N. does not, and Ban said he and Kerry were jointly lobbying officials in the region to push Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire as soon as possible.

“We don’t have much time to wait and lose,” Ban told reporters before the meeting with Kerry. Neither Ban nor Kerry answered media questions during their brief remarks.

Kerry also offered “profound gratitude” to what he described as 30,000 Israelis who spontaneously lined Jerusalem streets on Wednesday for the funeral procession of Israeli soldier Max Steinberg, a 24-year-old American citizen who grew up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley and was killed in the fighting. “That’s a remarkable statement — we’re very grateful,” Kerry said.

Kerry also planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during what appeared to be a crucial day in the talks. U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

At the least, Kerry’s mission Wednesday sought to define the limits of what each side would accept in a potential cease-fire.

The FAA was going to reassess its ban on Ben-Gurion — which the State Department said does not apply to military aircraft — by midday Wednesday in Washington. The European Aviation Safety Agency also issued an advisory saying it “strongly recommends” airlines avoid the airport. Israeli officials said the precautionary U.S. step was unnecessary and “gave terror a prize” by reacting to Hamas’ threats. It also prompted a complaint to Kerry by Netanyahu.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “The FAA is in close touch with Israel (and) continues to monitor and evaluate the situation.”

More than 630 Palestinians and about 30 Israelis have been killed in the violence. Israel says its troops have killed hundreds of Hamas gunmen, while Gaza officials say the vast majority have been civilians, many of them children.

Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire proposal that has been offered by Egypt, which would be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

But Hamas has rejected repeated Egyptian truce proposals. The militant group, with backing from its allies Qatar and Turkey, says it wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting its fire. In addition to discussions with Egypt officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kerry spoke several times Tuesday from Cairo with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu said the international community must hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting. He has long accused Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, of not wanting a two-state solution.

Egypt has also been negotiating with some Hamas officials, but relations between the two sides have been strained since Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas, after last year’s overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi.

At least some diplomats also see cease-fire negotiations as an opportunity to revitalize stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities that were personally shepherded by Kerry but broke off last April following nearly nine months of frustrated attempts. Both Ban and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri have pushed for broader talks than the cease-fire negotiations, and Shukri on Tuesday specifically called for action “to set in motion once again the peace process that Secretary Kerry has been so actively involved in so as to end this ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

It’s unlikely that Washington is ready to wade back into the morass of peace negotiations that broke off last April after nearly nine months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry. But the new round of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants who control Gaza has reached the level of violence that U.S. officials warned last spring would happen without an enduring truce.

Kerry has stopped short of advocating a new round of peace talks. Still, he has left the door open for broad negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials once a cease-fire is in place.

Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel, and expanded it last week to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. Israel has struck almost 3,000 sites in Gaza, killed more than 180 armed Palestinians and uncovered 66 access shafts of 23 tunnels, its military said.

TIME Israel

The Immigrant Soldiers Dying for Israel in Gaza

The parents of Sergeant Max Steinberg grieve at his coffin during his funeral on July 23, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel.
The parents of Sergeant Max Steinberg grieve at his coffin during his funeral on July 23, 2014 in Jerusalem. Ilia Yefimovich—Getty Images

Young Jews come from across the U.S. and Europe to serve as 'lone soldiers' for the Israel Defense Forces

Max Steinberg was from Los Angeles. Nissim Sean Carmeli was from South Padre Island, Texas. Jordan Bensemhoun came to Israel on his own from Lyon, France.

Each of the young men left his country of origin to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and each was killed in action this weekend in the Gaza Strip, where Israel is more than two weeks into Operation Protective Edge, a military campaign against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. That campaign incorporated a ground invasion as of Thursday night that Israeli leaders say is helping to destroy Hamas’ ability to fire rockets – some 2,160 of which have been fired toward Israel since the latest round of hostilities began July 7 – as well as a network of tunnels that burrow deep into Israeli territory, allowing militants to attack. However effective that strategy might be, it exposes Israel’s soldiers to a higher risk of injury and death than bombardment from afar. The campaign has so far left 29 Israeli soldiers dead, as well as some 650 Palestinians.

Sgt. Steinberg, 24, was buried Wednesday in a funeral in Jerusalem that attracted some 30,000 mourners, including his parents, who are taking their first trip to Israel to bury their son. He was what people in the organized American-Jewish community would consider an Israel success story. He came to Israel with his sister in 2012 on Birthright, a program which brings loosely affiliated Jews from around the world – the U.S. and Europe in particular – on a free 10-day trip to Israel. By the end of the program, he was smitten. After a short time back in the U.S., he decided to join the IDF, and lobbied his superiors to be placed in a combat unit. One of the good friends he met along the way was England-born Josh Grant, who like Steinberg, came here as what Israelis refer to as a “hayal boded,” or lone soldier.

“He was a jobnik for a few months,” says Grant, using the slightly derogatory Israeli slang for someone who has a desk job in the army, “but all he wanted to do was combat. They said no way, but he convinced them.” Grant, who moved to Israel on his own from the city of Birmingham in England shortly after high school, went through intensive Hebrew-language classes with Steinberg as well as a basic training program for soldiers who may not be native Israelis but still want to serve.

Steinberg had to have back surgery this year that forced him to take a few months off from his service, and he was behind the curve of many of his cohort when he came back. While others finished their service in June, he had been due to finish in November. Many of his closest army buddies returned to their home countries weeks ago and “felt guilty,” as one of them put it, for not being around for their fallen comrade. Steinberg himself planned to go back to the U.S. after he finished his service (a fact confirmed by Steinberg’s family) and didn’t have a long-term plan to move to Israel permanently.

“Just before the war started, we were out for the night, celebrating another friend who had finished,” Grant, who as an active combat engineer was not authorized to discuss his opinions about the war in Gaza, told TIME. “I can’t quite believe he’s gone. To lose a friend like Max is heartbreaking. But he didn’t have a boring life, he’s done something worthwhile.”

That desire to do something meaningful, it seems, is part of what motivates thousands of young Jewish people to come to Israel every year and volunteer for the army, many in the context of immigrating and trying to integrate into Israeli society. There are currently 5,100 immigrants from other countries who are serving in the IDF, says Oded Forer, the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Absorption. These soldiers get a small additional monthly stipend and other benefits, Forer tells TIME, to show they are valued and to help them survive without family support.

“We escort them towards their recruitment and help them afterwards,” Forer says, noting that his ministry dedicates 17 million shekels – close to $5 million – for that purpose every year. “We are an immigrant state at the end of the day, so naturally there will be situations like this. Everyone who is part of the people of Israel carries the burden of defending the country, and this has been part of the ethos since the founding of the state.”

Some 30 years ago, for example, Mike Meyerheim left New Jersey to come to Israel and serve in the IDF. His war was the one in Lebanon, starting with Israel’s invasion in 1982. Today he is the director of the Lone Soldier Center, which provides support to up to 6,000 soldiers, numbering among them immigrants and native-born Israelis with no family to rely on. In the past few weeks, they’ve been visiting soldiers on the Gaza border and providing them with things as mundane as clean socks, underwear and additional food. The Israeli army operates so close to home that many soldiers come back each weekend with a bag of laundry, expecting Mom to do it.

“We take care of people year round with the hope we don’t go to war, but when we’re in the situation that we’re in today, we do everything we can to make sure they’re safe and in good spirits,” Meyerheim told TIME.

One of the Lone Soldier Center’s volunteers, Nissim Slama, came to Israel 10 years ago from France, and found himself serving in what is referred to here as the Second Lebanon War, when Israel and Hizbollah went to war with each other in 2006. “The lone soldiers are paying a high price in Gaza for their motivation and dedication,” said Slama, who was on his way Tuesday to the funeral of Jordan Bensemhoun, the dual French-Israeli citizen, in the city of Ashkelon. “They come from abroad and want to defend Israel and ensure the state’s survival…but it’s always a harder life for them, being here without the usual level of family support.”

Bensemhoun came to Israel as a high school student and stayed on, leaving behind his family in southeastern France. He was recruited two years ago, and in February, posted a picture of his uniformed self on Facebook showing his wings and arm-patch of the elite Golani Brigades he had been inducted into, with the optimistic message: “I’ll be back in a few months!”

TIME Israel

Kerry Lands in Israel in Attempt to Broker Cease-Fire

Mideast Israel Palestinians
Relatives mourn Palestinian Mohammad al-Hamaydeh during his funeral in Gaza Strip on July 22, 2014 Eyad Baba—AP

As latest death toll from the offensive rose to 650 Palestinian dead, and 30 Israeli

Updated 7:12am

Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Tel Aviv Wednesday to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as the Israeli offensive into the Palestinian coastal strip entered its third week.

Kerry hopes to broker a deal for what the U.N. described as an “immediate cessation of hostilities” in the escalating war in Gaza. The bloodshed showed little sign of abating throughout Tuesday evening. The Israel Defense Forces reported 30 “terrorists” had been killed in the past 24 hours, while Hamas fired barrages of rockets back into Israel.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 650 Palestinian fatalities, of which 77% were civilians, according to the latest figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 30 Israelis have been killed during the conflict, the majority of which are soldiers. Two Israeli soldiers were killed during Tuesday evening’s operations. An additional 135,000 Palestinians are currently displaced across the Gaza Strip.

The U.N.’s humanitarian chief came close to accusing Israel of perpetrating war crimes by taking insufficient care to avoid killing civilians. “There seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” said Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Analysts say the IDF’s continued onslaught targeting Hamas is unlikely to alter Gazans’ feelings toward the Islamist organization.

“Every time Israel engages in an over-the-top reaction to assaults by Hamas, the more the people in Gaza rally around Hamas and become more sympathetic to it,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, tells TIME. “When civilians are attacked by Israel, the sense of resentment amongst the population in Gaza grows and Hamas can capitalize on the sense of grievance.”

Despite the acceleration of diplomatic initiatives across the region, the conflict showed little sign of ebbing as of Wednesday.

Israel continues to support a cease-fire proposal tabled by Cairo earlier this month, but Hamas has refused to accept a truce until the crippling, seven-year blockade on the Strip is lifted.

In Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s position to Ban Ki-moon and chided Hamas’ refusal to sign an agreement. “In the face of such wanton terrorism, no country could sit idly by,” said Netanyahu. “We did not seek this escalation, Mr. Secretary.”

Ban, who has been traveling across the Middle East for three days attempting to rally support for an armistice, remained unequivocal in his stance.

“My message to Palestinians and Israelis is the same: stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year,” he said. “I urge you to demonstrate fortitude by exercising maximum restraint. Recovery and reconstruction are more needed than ever.”

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