The threat of a two-pronged attack by Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South is a nightmarish prospect that lingers in the back of almost every Israeli’s mind.
But a group of foreign security students got their first look at such risks during a war game scenario, orchestrated by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), as part of a new summer program called “Israel’s National Security Challenges in the Changing Middle East.”
The war game simulation, which was held last month, gave the visiting students the opportunity to see how an explosive geopolitical conflict could impact Israel and beyond. It was one of the three simulations offered as part of the think tank’s inaugural summer program, in which security wonks from all over the world spend up to three weeks in Tel Aviv learning why the Jewish state is big player in the world of counter-terrorism.
“We understood that something is happening to the turbulent Middle East and anyone who studies the region and doesn’t truly understand Israel is missing a big piece of the equation,” Dr. Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at INSS and the program’s director, told The Jerusalem Post.
The simulation is just one example of real-world expertise regarding Israel’s security that INSS hopes to teach the next generation of foreign policy and security experts.
The hope is that by seeing how conflicts in the Middle East have wide-ranging implications on the ground, these future decision-makers will – once they ascend the ladder in whatever organization they work for – understand the Israeli perspective.
All of the students already have some security or foreign policy experience under their belt and are currently earning their master’s or doctorate degrees in that realm. Students who successfully complete the course will earn up to six credits that can be transferred to any globally accredited institution.
Initially, the INSS team thought most students would be Jews working in the Israel advocacy arena.
While two of the 29 students did fit that the description, most were not Jewish and hailed from some unexpected countries.
Take Arjun Gupta (name changed to protect the student's identity), for example, a former research intern at the New Delhi based Institute for Peace and Conflict studies.
Not many people can say their travels include studies in Tel Aviv and Tehran, but Gupta has delicately navigated that nearly impossible feat. When asked how his classmates in Iran felt about his last stint in Israel, he said that many were genuinely curious to learn about the Jewish state.
“I talked with many native Iranians, as well as Lebanese, Turkish and French students. They expressed deep interest to understand Israel,” Gupta said, speaking from Tehran, where he is currently studying Farsi and Iranian foreign policy. He was drawn to Israel for its warming ties with India and because studying the complexities of the country was crucial to his work in conflict resolution.
Gupta was particularly impressed by how each week was divided into the following themes: past and contemporary upheavals in the Middle East; terrorism and the rise of ISIS; and Israel’s security challenges. The students did not need to rely on textbooks, as they heard from lecturers with practical expertise, such as former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and INSS director Amos Yadlin, a retired general.
The program is also an example of a long-term plan to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
Students from all over the world enrolled, with some even applying from countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel.
Those applicants had to be turned away because the program administrators could not expedite their visas in time. INSS hopes to get the enrollment process underway much earlier for the summer of 2018 so that bureaucratic obstacles can be handled early on.
“We thought this would be a good opportunity, not only from an academic perspective, but a hasbara one as well,” Dr. Michael said, using the Hebrew term for public diplomacy.
“When they saw with their own eyes goods being transferred to Gaza through the Erez Crossing, for example, it gave them a new perspective about Israel,” he added.
Michael McGruddy, a master’s degree student from Georgetown University, said of the program’s weekly field trips: “As an American, you don’t see how close the threats are. It’s such a small country, and there’s a potential threat in every direction.” Those trips took students to east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and to the Gaza envelope – the region of Israel surrounding the Gaza Strip.
“I was surprised by how normal Israeli life is, when faced with such adversity,” McGruddy said.
“While we see this on the news, we become somewhat numb to what’s happening. But when you’re there and see it unfold closely, it gives you a new perspective.”