By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – On Feb. 19, a crowd of more than 70 gathered at the Willows in Worcester for a briefing about Israel’s current situation in the Middle East.
Samuel J. Crystal, the director of the Department of Political Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Boston, described the current dynamics of the region.
The instability in Syria, accompanied by the increasing presence of terrorist groups at vital spots along the Israeli border, has intensified concerns about security.
Working from https://syria.liveuamap.com/, an interactive map of developments in Syria updated daily, Crystal sketched a grim picture of terrorist enclaves at four major points: Hezbollah, supported by Iran, has a stronghold in Syria and Lebanon. Hamas controls Gaza. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas “encourages terrorism and martyrdom.”
Finally, ISIS has now established itself at Israel’s northern border as well as in Egypt at the southern border. In mid-February, ISIS sent rockets from Egypt into Eilat that were stopped by the iron dome. As a result of the strong relationship with Egypt, Israel was able to step back and let the Egyptians respond.
Yet, Crystal warned, the map makes it clear how close ISIS is to Israel. “If Jordan is influenced by ISIS, there will be terror organizations on every Israeli border.”
Iran, which has been clear and consistent about its drive for hegemony in the region, is a primary concern. It is “the largest state supporter of terrorism in the world,” Crystal noted, and its nuclear weaponry has the capacity to reach Israel.
“When they parade bombs through the streets,” he said, “’Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’ is written on them, sometimes in Hebrew.”
He specifically drew attention to the Iranian Day of Rage held at the end of January.
“In spite of any agreement, their actions are speaking louder than their words to the Israeli intelligence and military,” he said.
Saudi Arabia is also a likely Iranian target, and Israel has been creating what Crystal described as “soft peace accords” with the Saudis.
Crystal emphasized the threat of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Division. Hezbollah, which runs an online crowdsourcing campaign to support jihad, is gaining influence not only in Lebanon but also in Syria and Iran.
The recent naming of Yahya Al-Sinwar as the new president of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is “an even further step to the right toward preparing for war,” he said.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Abbas pushes for incitement against Jews and Israel and has declared that, “’we welcome every drop of blood in Jerusalem’” Crystal reported.
Yet despite the ever-present terrorist groups and concerns about security, he added that, the unrest has led to a better relationship with neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia. And Israeli natural gas and expertise in water technology are also forging new and stronger connections.
Crystal’s presentation was a prime example of outreach and education at the local level.
“It’s important for those living here in Central Massachusetts to understand what is happening in the Middle East and especially when it involves Israel,” says Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. “We want to educate and to lead our community so that we can continue to have a strong relationship with Israel.”
At the Willows, Crystal responded to concerns about American political support for Israel at the national as well as the local level with optimism.
Although “Israel hit a speed bump at the end of the Obama Administration,” he said, referring to the U.S. abstention at the UN Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli construction beyond the 1967 lines, the Israeli government is “confident about the current administration,” he said. Moreover, “No matter who is in the White House, we will have a relationship with Israel.”
There is also bipartisan support in Congress, he said, especially in New England.
Addressing audience concerns about negative attitudes toward Israel, in the press, politics and elsewhere, Crystal stressed greater knowledge through outreach.
“Understanding the relationships that Israel actually has is a way to combat negativity,” he said.