By Dean G. Skelos
Last week, I was proud to travel to Israel as a member of the unity delegation of New York State government leaders that included Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein. Our mission was to reaffirm our support for the people of Israel as they defend themselves against the continued threat of brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas.
During our whirlwind 26-hour tour, the delegation of state leaders had a firsthand look at an important moment in Israel’s history. We met with Israel’s top government and military leaders; saw some of the country’s advanced defense systems; toured a terrorist infiltration tunnel; and spoke with Israeli citizens impacted by the fighting about our commitment to stand with them in solidarity.
This was my third trip to Israel and, as always, the Israeli people and the country’s leaders were gracious and welcoming. I brought best wishes for peace on behalf of the people I represent in the 9th Senate District. From the moment the delegation boarded our flight, I was overwhelmed, as many people came up to me just to say that they appreciated the delegation’s understanding of what Israel is going through right now.
Shortly after the delegation arrived, we had the great honor of meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who thanked our New York delegation for “standing clearly with Israel, representing the American people and the people of the state of New York.”
In a separate meeting, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained the Iron Dome defense system that protects the country from Hamas missile attacks. Hamas has fired more than 3,000 missiles at Israel. Often the missiles are launched from locations in Gaza where civilians are used as human shields. The delegation saw footage of their missiles being launched from hospitals and schools.
Delegation members visited an Iron Dome site, a small, mobile arsenal made up of a radar unit and several launchers. The unit is actually located in a field near Ashkelon, rather than at a military base. Lt. Colonel Peter Lerner of the Israel Defense Forces briefed us on Iron Dome capabilities and strategic importance, explaining that Hamas missiles have the capability of quickly striking any part of Israel in less than a minute, and Israel has to be ready to react quickly to protect citizens.
During our visit to the Iron Dome battery, and also during a tour of a Hamas-built infiltration tunnel, our delegation was within only a mile or two of the Gaza border, and we were told that if a missile was released, we would have to get out of the bus and lie on the ground.
I was pleased that former Israeli Prime Minister and former President Shimon Peres joined us for a tour of the tunnel. I previously met Mr. Peres during my first visit to Israel in 1986. Mr. Peres is now 92 years old, and he thought it was critically important that we see what is happening in Israel.
Prior to this tour, I imagined that the tunnels were crude structures in which you’d have to get down on the ground and crawl to get into. However, these are not small, dirt tunnels, but rather large, sophisticated cement tunnels that included electricity. The tunnels, stretching from Gaza to Israel, enabled Hamas to enter the country to commit terrorist acts.
One of the most important commodities to Hamas is the cement used to build the tunnels. They spent millions of dollars to build tunnels to kill people, rather than spending that money to build hospitals, infrastructure, and schools. That clearly illustrates the mindset of Israel’s enemy.
Hamas considers both Israel and the United States as enemies. That is why it is so important that we remain vigilant and continue to invest in our homeland security to protect ourselves, just as Israel is protecting itself today.
Delegation members also learned about some of the procedures Israel uses to protect civilian citizens in Gaza. We were fortunate to listen in as a pilot communicating with people in Israel was being told to abort a mission.
Our unity trip also included meetings with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and United States Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, as well as a visit to the Western Wall with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
The New York unity delegation traveled to Israel bringing words of encouragement that reflect our shared values. We came home with a better awareness of the threats faced by Israel and how the country is protecting itself, as well as an even greater appreciation for the strong ties between our two nations.
We felt strongly that it was important to show support and stand together with our nation’s closest ally in a time of war. As countless others have done, I left a prayer for peace in the Western Wall. Peace for Israel and peace for our country. ϖ
Dean Skelos, a Republican from Nassau County, is co-leader of the New York State Senate.