New Gaza Flotilla plans to set sail Tuesday
A group of activists in Gaza are seeking to set sail Tuesday, July 9, to “break the siege” of Gaza, they claimed on Monday.
The activists timed their sailing to take place after months of the Great Return March failing to make much of an impact and led to numerous wounds as Hamas sought to break through the security fence around the Gaza Strip.
At a press conference Monday, the National Organizing Committee of the Great Return March claimed that a group of small boats with patients and wounded would seek to leave Gaza en route to Cyprus.
According to The New Arab, Salah Abdul Atti, an organizer, called on the UN to protect the group of boats. A similar attempt was made in late May and intercepted by Israel’s navy.
Bassam Manasra, a spokesman for the National Committee for Breaking the Siege, told Anadolu, a Turkish news outlet, that “the flotilla will set out at 11 a.m. carrying sick and injured Palestinians who have been unable to travel abroad.”
At the same time a “Freedom Flotilla Coalition” is seeking to sail another ship, the Al-Awda, to Gaza, which has traveled thousands of miles from Scandinavian ports and was near Corsica on July 8.
In May 2010, a large Gaza flotilla of six ships was intercepted and nine activists killed in clashes. In 2011, a new flotilla stalled after one of the ships mysteriously suffered mechanical problems in Greece. Since then the phenomenon of flotillas has been on hiatus.
Israel maintains a maritime security cordon around Gaza in which Palestinian fishermen are allowed to fish within nine nautical miles of the coast.
Outside of the area, vessels are intercepted by the navy. It is rare that Palestinians have sought to breach this area, which they see as a blockade, and sail out of Gaza.
Israel nixed North Korea offer to stop Mideast missile tech transfer
Israel rejected a North Korean offer in 1999 to pay it $1 billion in cash in return for not selling missile technology to Mideast countries because it felt the US would opposed the arrangement, according to a newly published memoir by a prominent North Korean defector.
Rather than pay cash-strapped North Korea in cash, Israel – according to the book Cryptography From the Third-Floor Secretariat by Thae Yong Ho – offered to provide more than a billion dollars worth of food, agriculture and medical aid. North Korea rejected the offer.
Pyongyang has been a regular supplier of missile and nuclear technology to Iran and Syria, and reportedly supplied Damascus with the technology to build the nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor, which Israel destroyed in 2007.
Kongdan (Katy) Oh, a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Virginia, quoted extensively from Thae’s memoir at a symposium last month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy entitled, “North Korea in the Middle East: A Dangerous Military Supply Line.”
According to Oh, Thae was one of the highest ranking North Korean diplomats to defect when he did so to South Korea in the summer of 2016. In 1999, according to his memoir, he was North Korea’s second ranking diplomat in Stockholm and arranged the first of three meetings between North Korea’s ambassador to Sweden, Son Mu Sin, and Israel’s envoy at the time, Gideon Ben Ami. Thae served as the English interpreter in those meetings, since Son did not speak English.
Oh, basing her comments on Thae’s memoir, said he received a phone call from party headquarters in North Korea asking him to arrange a meeting with the Israeli ambassador, and that he did so at a quiet cafe.
As soon as they sat down, Oh said, the North Korean ambassador said Pyongyang successfully fired a “satellite,” a euphemism for a missile- testing, a few months ago, and that “Iran and Mideast countries” showed a strong interest in procuring that technology.
Son went on to explain that the North Korean economy was in bad shape and needed cash and foreign currency.
He asked the ambassador to imagine what would happen in the Mideast if North Korea exported its missile technology, or even manufactured missiles that would be sent there.
Oh said Son told Ben Ami that the Mideast, “already a hot place, will be even hotter.”
“We don’t want that, because we truly understand your situation, like our situation,” she said, citing Thae’s memoir. “You are surrounded by bigger and very nasty powers. We are surrounded by a similar situation, particularly hostility from the United States. So these are the conditions we are seeing today, and we are very much interested in mutual help. Israel can help us, and we can help you.”
Oh said the Israeli ambassador was “deeply miffed,” but asked for more concrete details about the help North Korea wanted from Israel.
Son replied that his country was in negotiations to transfer missile technology to the Mideast at the cost of $1 billion, and that if Israel would pay instead, “we will not engage in this business.”
Ben Ami was surprised, according to the memoirs, and asked for more time. Ten days later he called the North Korean Embassy and set up another meeting at another Stockholm cafe.
Oh described the scene: “He [Ben Ami] said we [Israel] seriously discussed the matter, but we cannot do this. But we are interested in accepting your offer, because your point is very important – the Mideast is a hot place and a tough place and we don’t want bad countries shooting at us with missiles manufactured by you. So instead of cash, we are offering food – North Korea was going through a famine in 1999, up to three million people died of malnutrition and hunger – and also fertilizer, because your agricultural conditions are so bad because you don’t have fertilizer.”
In addition, she said, Israel offered medicine and “any humanitarian aid up to a billion dollars.” Plus, Israel also offered “special agriculture technology” to improve the food situation in the country and reduce the risk of famine.
Son, according to Thae’s book, said, “we only need cash.”
At that point, Israel withdrew from the negotiations, but 10 days later there was a third meeting. At that meeting, according to the memoir, the Israeli ambassador said Israel’s problem was not with coming up with the billion dollars, but rather “we cannot do it because America will be against the idea, and we are a very important ally of the United States.”
When Son again said North Korea only wanted the cash, the negotiations ended.
Ben Ami urged the North Koreans to be “prudent” in the proliferation of weapons, saying this would be a violation of the agreement signed with the US in 1994, something that would further isolate and could threaten the North Korean regime.
Oh said the reason she was retelling the story was to stress that North Korea will “sell, export, transfer and engage in the proliferation of weapons-of-mass-destruction whenever the price is right, the buyers are right, the timing is right or the conditions are good.”
Last week, Kan 11 interviewed Ben Ami, who said the initial contact with the North Koreans was made at a reception at the Swedish Royal Palace, when his wife received a message from the North Korean ambassador’s wife asking to see him. They met briefly at the event, exchanged pleasantries, and Son said he was instructed to congratulate Ehud Barak on his election victory a month earlier.
Ben Ami said he relayed the message back to Jerusalem, and that it caused a “little excitement.”
“They asked me to go back to him, thank him, and say that we received the message, and would be happy to have contact with him.”
Zvi Gabai, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia division at the time, said Israel’s goal has always been to establish diplomatic ties with all countries of the world.
Gabai did not mention a North Korean demand for payment of a billion dollars, but said Pyongyang wanted assistance in “every area.”
The problem, he said, was they did not offer anything in return. “When we asked them to stop supplying weapons [to Syria and Iran], they denied that they were sending weapons,” he said.
“So there was no reason to get into negotiations with them, because they did not have that much of a desire to establish ties.”
UN envoy urges reopening of Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza
The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East urged Israel to reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza on Tuesday, saying the Strip needed commerce and trade.
Nickolay Mladeno’s appeal comes a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the move in response to the wave of incendiary kites and balloons sent over from Gaza.
“I am concerned by the consequences of Israel’s decision to temporarily suspend imports and exports with the exception of basic humanitarian supplies through the Kerem Shalom crossing,” Mladenov said in a statement. “Humanitarian assistance is no substitute for commerce and trade. I urge the authorities to reverse this decision.”
Kerem Shalom, the only cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel, has been subject to a strict blockade for the past 11 years that Israel says is meant to prevent terrorist groups from bringing weapons into the Strip. Egypt also tightly controls the nearby Rafah border crossing into the Sinai.
Mladenov also called on Hamas, the terror group which controls the coastal enclave, and other Palestinian factions in Gaza to “do their part by maintaining calm, stopping incendiary kites and preventing provocations.”
The envoy said that the UN was working “with Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, as well as regional and international partners, to reduce tensions, support intra-Palestinian reconciliation and resolve all humanitarian challenges.”
He stressed that the latest development “must not divert us from this urgent course of action.”
He called on everyone to “step back” from “confrontation and escalation.”
On Monday Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the closure of the crossing a “crime against humanity.”
He also accused the international community of being silent on “the crime of the suffocating siege on the Gaza Strip,” and called on it to take “immediate action” to end the blockade of the Strip.
The Islamic Jihad terror group said the step was a “new declaration of war” and vowed to respond.
“Once again, the government of Zionist terror announces a war on the Palestinian people by intensifying its oppressive siege that has multiplied the suffering of the Palestinian people for more than 11 years,” it said in a statement.
“We are coordinating with the factions and forces to evaluate all developments, including the occupation’s most recent measures, which we are dealing with as a new declaration of war on the Palestinian people,” Islamic Jihad added.
Earlier Monday, Netanyahu said Israel will be undertaking measures to pressure Hamas, including closing Kerem Shalom, the main commercial passageway between Israel and the coastal enclave.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he had instructed the military “to take a number of steps” to respond to “Hamas provocations” on the border.
“We are not looking for a confrontation or for a military venture, but in the way Hamas operates, the [situation] deteriorates and [Hamas] is liable to pay the full price, a much heavier price than Operation Protective Edge,” Liberman added, referring to the 2014 war with the terror organization.
Over the past three months, weekly clashes have taken place on the Gaza border, with Israel accusing Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover to carry out attacks and attempt to breach the security fence. The “March of Return” protests have also seen Palestinians fly airborne incendiary devices toward Israeli territory, sparking hundreds of fires in southern Israel and causing millions of shekels in estimated damages.
Immediately after Netanyahu spoke, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that Kerem Shalom would be closed to all commercial goods into and out of the Gaza Strip.
The army said humanitarian aid, notably food and medicine, would still be allowed into Gaza, but would require special permission from the military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon.
According to the IDF, the idea of closing Kerem Shalom was proposed by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and was approved by Netanyahu and Liberman.
The military said the closure would continue as long as Palestinians persist in launching incendiary kites and balloons into Israel.
The crossing has been closed a number of times in the past three months, after sustaining damage from fires set by Palestinian protesters.
In addition to closing the crossing, the army said it was prematurely ending the temporary extension to the permitted Gaza fishing zone, which had allowed fisherman to sail up to nine miles from the coast in order to take advantage of the summer fishing season.
Orphaned son marries 16 years after Father’s murder
While most people would have run the other way from the terrorist’s flying bullets, 31-year-old tzaddik, Yosef Twito, who was in charge of security in the Samaria settlement of Itamar, south of Nablus, raced to the Shabo house to help. He was gunned down by the terrorist inside. Twito was murdered along with Rachel Shabo and her three children, Avishai, Zvika and Neria.
The attack, on June 20, 2002, sent shock waves throughout Israel and left four Shabo orphans and five Twito orphans behind.
Nahal Twito was only 4-and-a-half years old at the time of the tragedy. The charity organization Colel Chabad immediately took the Twito family under its care and has maintained a close relationship with Yosef’s widow, Rachel, and their orphaned children ever since.
In fact, at the time, the Twito family was one of the first the benefit from the newly created branch of Colel Chabad, Chesed Menachem Mendel which specifically addresses the needs of orphans in the Holy Land.
“Orphans are particularly vulnerable to emotional breakdowns and academic failure,” explained Rabbi Amram Blau, Director of the Chesed Menachem Mendel Foundation at Colel Chabad. “Our program addresses these challenges and offers customized solutions for orphaned children and lets them know that they are cared for and loved.”
The results are astonishing. Thanks to the individualized care given through Chesed Menachem Mendel, orphans who receive help manifest few of the scars that normally result from the loss of a parent.
As the saying goes, ‘The proof is in the pudding.’ Recently, a group of Colel Chabad representatives attended the emotional wedding of Nahal Twito, 16 years after the organization began helping his family.
Remembering the good that his family received for nearly two decades from Colel Chabad, Rabbi Amram Blau was honored with blessing the new couple under their wedding canopy.
The warm relationship with the Twito family since the terror attack was palpable and the family expressed their deep appreciation to Colel Chabad and particularly Rabbi Blau for their dedication to the family’s welfare over the years.
In an interesting twist of fate, Rachel Twito is a descendant of Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ettinger, a disciple of one of the founders of Colel Chabad, who immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1905.
Colel Chabad’s first priority is ensuring that individuals receive proper daily nutrition and material sustenance. After that, preventing orphans from failing in school and supplying what they need for emotional stability to enable them to have a thriving future becomes of crucial importance.
Historically, orphans have the highest school dropout rate and academic failure. Stopping this process in its tracks is an investment Colel Chabad makes today to ensure a better tomorrow for both orphans and Israel.
Chesed Menachem Mendel takes a holistic approach to helping orphans, including providing psychological evaluation and therapy, intervention with educators and school administration, private tutoring and remedial education. Big Brother or Big Sister companionship, summer camp and extra-curricular activities are also funded by the organization.
Colel Chabad not only helps orphans with their education and family care, they also subsidize weddings for orphaned brides and grooms as well as poor families. “The debt from making even a modest affair can be straining,” said Rabbi Blau. “It’s even more trying when the bride or groom are orphans.”
Though the organization helps all poor brides and grooms, when one is an orphan, they go especially all out covering the entire cost of the wedding. They even provide the newlyweds with furniture, linens, dishes, pots and pans.
Each year Colel Chabad provides for about 200 orphans’ weddings and the newlywed’s household needs. “One way that we raise urgently needed funds to help orphans is by twinning donors celebrating their own wedding with an orphan,” explained Rabbi Blau. “When a person is celebrating their joyous occasion, bringing happiness to others who are needy adds an extra dimension of blessing. Helping an orphaned young couple is a great way to double one’s own joyous occasion.”
British Jewry’s new leader puts her foot down on anti-Semitism
LONDON — Marie van der Zyl’s first weeks as the new president of Britain’s Board of Deputies have been nothing if not eventful.
Only the second woman elected to lead the main representative body of British Jews in its 258-year history, she has already been thrust into a series of controversies.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party last week once again snubbed its nose at Britain’s Jews by announcing a new code of conduct which waters down the working definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
While attempting to wrestle with the ongoing row over anti-Semitism in the main opposition party, the Board itself has come under fire over its handling of allegations of Islamophobia against one of its deputies. Likewise, tensions within the Jewish community surfaced following the Board’s robust defense of Israel’s handling of violent protests along the Gaza border this spring.
But after serving three years as Board vice-president with responsibility for tackling anti-Semitism and interfaith relations, van der Zyl seems unfazed by these challenges.
Her tone may be a little softer than that of her feisty predecessor, Jonathan Arkush, but the Board’s new president nonetheless shows a steely determination not to let Corbyn off the hook.
“We need to see action, not words from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party,” she argues.
Referring to the main slogan of the Jewish community’s unprecedented demonstration against systemic anti-Semitism outside the parliament building this past March, van der Zyl continues: “Enough is enough. We meant that.”
Later this month, van der Zyl and Jonathan Goldstein, chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, are expected to meet with Corbyn to follow up the “disappointing” session the communal organizations held with the Labour leader in April.
“We have made a series of suggestions to Labour, and that represents the minimum — and that’s the absolute minimum — standards that we would expect,” she suggests.
Already, however, Labour seems to be falling well short of these demands.
The party’s decision to adopt a code of conduct for tackling anti-Semitism which, among other things, dropped four of the IHRA’s 11 examples — all of them outlining how criticism of Israel can veer into anti-Semitic discourse — provoked a furious response from van der Zyl and Goldstein.
“The UK Jewish community has adopted in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism, as have the British Government, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, 124 local authorities across the country and numerous governments around the world,” they argued.
“It is impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition. Its actions only dilute the definition and further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour movement.”
“Labour still has a long way to go and they need to stop seeming [like] they know better than us what anti-Semitism is and implement our recommendations without further delay,” van der Zyl argues.
As things stand, the party is trying to “hold itself to a lower standard.”
Labour also pledged to tackle the backlog of disciplinary cases involving allegations of anti-Semitism, agreeing that two of the most high-profile – those of Ken Livingstone, and Jackie Walker, a former vice-chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group – would be handled within three months.
Van der Zyl is unimpressed by Corbyn’s characterization of Livingstone’s resignation from the party in May as a “sad day” and believes the former London mayor “evaded being expelled.”
“We still want to see what’s going to happen with Jackie Walker,” she adds.
Nonetheless, van der Zyl offers an olive branch. She thinks that “there is some hope Labour realizes how serious the Jewish community is and the serious damage that’s been done to [its] reputation.” This was evident, she continues, in May’s local elections when the party polled poorly in areas of north London where there is a sizeable Jewish population.
“I really do want the Jewish community to be in a position where we can move on and talk about other things, but, ultimately, that’s going to depend upon Labour,” she says.
Van der Zyl distances herself from some of Arkush’s more hard-edged rhetoric, dismissing his recent claim that many Jews may choose to leave Britain if Corbyn becomes prime minister.
“No, I don’t say that. Britain is a wonderful place to live and we are much more fortunate than many of our Jewish friends in, for example, France,” says van der Zyl. “We have these concerns which we are raising, but I am not telling people to pack their bags.”
She also defends those Jews who have remained in the Labour party and rejects charges they are betraying the community.
“I don’t think that’s a very fair thing to say. The Labour party isn’t Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, it is all of our Labour party and there are many people who feel that one way of fighting this is to stand your ground and stay and fight within Labour and not to disengage and to continue that fight.
“Look at our MPs, for example, Luciana Berger [and] Louise Ellman, they really are getting over the message and I think that they are doing a very good job,” she argues.
At the same time, van der Zyl makes clear her irritation at the growing sway within the party of the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). Some constituency Labour parties have opted to affiliate with the hard left group, and it has also won the backing of the country’s most powerful trade union leader, Len McCluskey.
“I think JVL was set up to deny anti-Semitism within the Labour party,” she charges, “and they are absolutely being given inappropriate weight within the Labour party and they are in no way representative of the mainstream Jewish community.”
Alongside pledging to tackle anti-Semitism, van der Zyl also made defending Israel a key part of her campaign for the Board presidency.
She strongly backs the Board’s support for Israel’s handling of the Gaza protests, which drew criticism from some corners, including two groups which have delegates on the Board. Yachad, a left-wing Israel pressure group, organized a petition by 500 supporters protesting at the “ill-conceived and unnuanced” tone of the Board’s statement, while Liberal Judaism deemed it “unilateral and ill-judged.”
“The Board was clearly vindicated because nearly all of those who were killed were either members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” van der Zyl responds.
“That’s been well publicized in the news. Every death is a tragedy, there’s no doubt about that, but Hamas leading its people to charge at the border fence is the height of irresponsibility,” she says.
But van der Zyl does not believe it is the Board’s role to quash dissent. Its critics have “given their point and I have given mine and what’s very important is that the Jewish community remains unified and that we learn to disagree with respect.”
“I want the Board to be a place where all people with diverse views can be represented and come and give their views. That’s very, very important, that all Jews have their voice at the Board of Deputies,” van der Zyl says.
At her first meeting as president of the Board, van der Zyl struck out at some of the criticism leveled at a small group of left-wing Jews who gathered outside Parliament to say the Kaddish mourning prayer for Palestinians killed in the Gaza border protests.
While saying she was “appalled” at the “ill-conceived” event, she nonetheless said that some of the criticism directed at protesters had “bordered on hateful and abusive.”
She welcomes the fact that some of the protesters have been elected to the Board and insists that they “should be treated with respect and not personally abused.”
As vice-president of the Board, van der Zyl led the fight against the BDS movement on British campuses. She believes it is important that any discussion about the experience of Jewish students at UK universities is a balanced one.
“I wouldn’t want to see any Jewish student, whether from home or overseas, being put off either from going to university or feeling that they can only go to a certain university,” van der Zyl explains.
There have been “pockets of trouble” at some, mainly London-based, universities. Protests at Israel-related events have “spilled over into aggression” and the Board has tackled both the universities concerned and the Minister for Higher Education. She also credits some major London institutions, such as the London School of Economics and King’s College, for adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in its entirety.
But van der Zyl also notes that the problem largely rests with student unions adopting BDS policies on the back of a vote by “a handful of students” and emphasizes that “the vast majority of Jewish students would agree that they have a stimulating, fulfilling and enriching time on campus.”
As an alternative to BDS, she is an advocate of the Solutions Not Sides education program, with whom the Board is currently working. She wants to see more opportunities for people in Britain to learn about and discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its complexities. Van der Zyl speaks proudly of the Invest in Peace project the Board runs in partnership with the Christian group Churches Together in Britain and Ireland which seeks to support Israeli-Palestinian peace-building.
“It’s a chance for us to export a message of peace and reconciliation,” van der Zyl explains.
Van der Zyl recognizes that the Middle East conflict causes tension between the Jewish and Muslim communities, but says that strengthening interfaith relations is one of the “key priorities” of her presidency.
As vice president, interfaith relations was part of her portfolio and she built a strong reputation, criss-crossing the country to meet with Muslim leaders. She built alliances on issues such as tackling hate crime and defending faith schools and religious freedom.
Van der Zyl was also a vocal opponent of Islamophobia, joining a complaint to the press regulator about an anti-Muslim article in The Sun, Britain’s highest-selling newspaper, and speaking out against the far-right activist Tommy Robinson and media celebrity Katie Hopkins. One of her first public events as president was to join the chief rabbi at an iftar dinner (when Muslims breaks their Ramadan fast) where she pledged to be a “committed ally” of the Muslim community.
That pledge faced an early test with allegations of Islamophobia directed against one of the Board’s own members. The case of Roslyn Pine, who allegedly shared Tweets calling Muslims “the vilest of animals” and describing Arab migrants as “an invading army,” is now before the Board’s constitutional committee.
However, van der Zyl has put forward recommendations to its code of conduct and advocated a “far-reaching review” after it was revealed that the body has no power to suspend or expel members.
The fight against racism and prejudice is personal to van der Zyl. Her grandfather came to Britain on the Kindertransport.
“I think with our history and my personal history refugees are a subject that touches all of our hearts,” she says, noting that her West London synagogue has a large sign saying “asylum-seekers welcome here.”
She recently described Donald Trump’s family separation policy as a “disgrace” and called for Britain to do better in its treatment of refugees.
“I know I owe my existence to my grandfather being taken in as a child refugee,” she says.
Ancient city gate uncovered in the Galilee may have tie to biblical King David
A 10th century BCE Galilee city gate through which King David may have walked to claim a bride was uncovered by archaeologists at the recently finished 2018 season of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, excavation director Prof. Rami Arav told The Times of Israel.
Standing at 3 meters, “it is the largest and the best preserved city gate [in Israel],” said Arav. Likewise, this year’s excavation provides evidence that Bethsaida, an Aramean settlement, houses one of the earliest towers incorporated in city walls in Israel, he said.
“In the entire archaeology of the Land of Israel from 10-8th century BCE, there are no towers on city walls. Israelites did not have this feature. This is the first example of towers surrounding a city in Israel,” Arav said.
Located north of the Sea of Galilee, Bethsaida is famously known as the site of Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and the fishes, as recounted in the Gospels of John and Matthew. Thousands of years earlier, however, Arav hypothesized, it may have been called Tzer (mentioned only once in antiquity, in Joshua 19:35), and was the historical capital of the biblical settlement of Geshur.
The Davidic period gate was in use from circa 11 century BCE to 920 BCE when the settlement was destroyed, said Arav. The Geshur settlement, which became a fortified city with a well-preserved royal palace, was re-inhabited after 875 BCE. “During this approximately 50 year period, the site was laid in ruin and not inhabited,” according to the dig’s 2016 field report.
The excavation is located in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve and headed by Arav, professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who has excavated the site since 1987. He is the head of the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, which consists of scholars from 20 international institutions. This year’s dig was sponsored by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
At the site, one can see the remains of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement, in the form of ancient dolmens (tombstones). According to its website, the excavations have uncovered a prosperous Hellenistic community. In addition to the city gate and wall excavation, this year’s dig also explored under the floors of a Roman temple uncovered in an earlier season. The temple is Phoenician in orientation, said Arav, and was probably dedicated to the worship of Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus, mentioned in Josephus’s “Antiquities.”
The site also displays a Jewish community in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods, occupation in the Early Roman period, settlement in the Mamluk period, and a village in the late Ottoman period.
As early as the late 11th-10th century BCE, the time of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, Bethsaida was the heart of the small kingdom of Geshur, populated by Arameans.
Through the politically-motivated marriage of Geshur King Talmai’s daughter Maachah to King David, 10th century BCE Bethsaida allied itself with King David and his dynasty. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the sole potential evidence for the historical veracity for King David — the Tel Dan Stele, which was written after 870 BCE and mentions a triumph over the “House of David” — was discovered at another Aramean settlement in the kingdom of Aram in northern Israel.)
Maachah was the mother of Absalom, who murdered his half-brother Amnon and fled to his mother’s homeland, Geshur. Ties were reformed when Absalom’s daughter Maachah married Solomon’s son Rehoboam, king of Judah.
Arav amusingly recounted his impression of the royal courtship: King David entered the gate to meet the king of Geshur to ask for the hand of his daughter. Maachah looked at him like a “hill-billy” mountain guy, but for the sake of inclusion into the Bible, went through with it. “So we’re digging the gate where David entered,” said Arav, laughing.
This year’s dig concentrated on the city gate and wall, which surrounded the settlement in the 10th-8th centuries and holds the first example of guard towers. An “unusual feature,” at intervals of 20 meters, said Arav, the city wall builders placed each tower.
It is interesting, said Arav, that the Arameans and Israelites of the period used different architectural styles in the city walls. Israelite settlements, he said, have left no evidence of guard tower use. He said, however, that this use of towers elsewhere in the Holy Land may explain the reference in the biblical verse ostensibly written by David’s son Solomon, in the Song of Songs 8:10: “I am a wall and my breasts are like towers.”
Other biblical connections are a bit more tenuous, such as the name Tzer for the settlement. The word appears only once in a verse from the Book of Joshua. The Septuagint, a mid-3rd century translation of the Hebrew to Greek, changes the spelling of many of the place names in the verse from Joshua. Further, it erases the name “Tzer,” confusingly replacing it with “Tsor” (Tyre).
However, argued Arav, if one were to disregard the vocalization of the Hebrew, and understand that some letters, such as resh and daled, were often confused during the redaction of the Bible, the verse from Joshua could be read as pointing to four fishing villages, including “Tzer” (or, even better, perhaps Tzed), which may be an early form of “Beit-Tzaida,” the Hebrew name for Bethsaida.
Perhaps. It is also possible that, like a large stone which fell off the ancient city wall last week in the spate of earthquakes that rocked the region, this particular theory may crumble.