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Photo: Female IDF Infantry Instructors Prepare for Combat Exercise

While looking for something completely different, I just happened across this photograph of two IDF infantry instructors preparing for a combat exercise. The IDF’s Flickr stream describes their program thus:

The Infantry Instructors Course includes a “Field Week” during which soldiers experience drills, live fire, combat exercises, sleeping out in the open, and other aspects of operational activity. The course is held in the Infantry Training School in southern Israel and is attended mostly by girls.

I could deliver a disquisition here about women in the Israeli army and gender roles in Israel as refracted through the common experience of the army, but we can talk about that another time. I’ll say just that these young women look beautiful and happy, and it looks as though they’re having a lot of fun.

A Closer Look at Israeli Oil Shale Technology

fresh shale IEI site 7 July 2011 photo by Judith Levy

As promised, here is a primer on the oil shale technology that might help Israel become energy independent.

The technology was invented by the serendipitously named Dr. Harold Vinegar during his 32-year tenure at Royal Dutch Shell. Shell is exploring the use of the technology in Jordan, where there are also major oil shale deposits, but opted against exploration in Israel. Vinegar retired from Shell as Chief Scientist and made aliyah to Israel, where he began teaching petroleum science at Ben Gurion University. He then joined Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI), where he is now Chief Scientist. (I am meeting Dr. Vinegar soon and will give you a more detailed and personal account of this history.)

Before we get to the technology, a quick word on oil shale.

There are two general categories of oil: conventional and unconventional. Conventional oil is called crude, the stream of free-flowing hydrocarbons that are drawn out of the ground by the nodding, mantis-like pumps with which you’re familiar. Unconventional oil is oil produced from less easily tapped sources and by methods other than by traditional wells.

One unconventional oil source is extra-heavy crude, which flows about as easily as cold blackstrap molasses and will sink if you pour some into a glass of water. Tar sands, or bituminous sands, contain a particularly viscous variety of heavy crude. Getting it out is labor-intensive, to say the least, and the proportion of usable fuel to be generated from a barrel of tar sands is relatively low. Still, as oil prices rise, tar sand oil production becomes more commercially viable.

Another unconventional source is oil shale, which does not, in fact, contain oil. Oil shale is sedimentary rock containing kerogen, which is premature oil. The rock is the product of organic debris that has been cooking below the surface of the earth for millions of years. When the kerogen in the rock is heated, its long chains of carbons begin to break into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually, oil — among other products — is released.

The oil derived from the shale through IEI’s process is a light synthetic condensate that is easier to refine than conventional crude. The challenge is on the upstream end — getting it out of the rock.

Until very recently, there were two ways of doing this. One is to mine the rock, bring it to the surface, crush it, and heat it in a furnace called a retort. The other — still in the piloting stage of development — is to heat the rock while it is underground to expel the oil and gas from the kerogen, and then pump the products to the surface (in situ retorting). IEI’s method is a variant of the latter technique.

Surface retorting requires copious amounts of water to clean shale waste, cool the retorts, and refine the shale oil. In situ retorting does not require such large quantities of water because no shale waste is generated, no retorts need to be cooled, and the hydrogen needed to refine the oil is generated during the process itself. There is still a water cost, however, when subsurface waters are diverted from their normal flow. And both methods, up to this point, have been more expensive to implement than conventional drilling.

A particular challenge in the US — where 70% of the world’s oil shale deposits are located — is the proximity of the aquifers to the shale. During extraction, the waters are vulnerable to contamination by the hydrocarbons and must be protected. The only way to do so is to construct a freeze wall around the extraction area to prevent contact. And a freeze wall, in addition to adding to overall expense, raises the technology’s carbon footprint.

Israel is a different story. Here, where the shale deposits are uniform, thick and rich, the aquifer is well below the oil shale; they are separated from one another by about 200 meters of impermeable rock. There is therefore no need for a freeze wall. And Dr. Vinegar’s technology, rather than using water to function, actually generates water: the shale contains 20% water, which is produced during the extraction process. According to Dana Kadmiel, the IEI environmental engineer I spoke with, this water can be treated and subsequently used for agriculture.

The hydrogeological conditions here thus yield multiple advantages: lower water consumption, higher energy efficiencies, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and lower costs. Dana estimates that the resource will be extractable at a cost of about $40 a barrel.

IEI’s version of in situ retorting works like this:

Uniformly spaced horizontal heater wells, six inches in diameter, are drilled into the target oil shale. The wells are heated, either by electricity or by a circulating heat transfer fluid, probably molten salts (salts that can be melted at a low temperature and then brought to a very high temperature). The heater wells are maintained at high temperatures for several years, cooking the shale to about 300 degrees Celsius.

Eventually, the heat causes the kerogen to expel several high-value products: oil, water, natural gas (methane and ethane), LPG, and hydrogen. Hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas, is also produced. It will be immediately isolated and treated to make elemental sulfur for use in fertilizer.

Above ground, the gases will be separated from the liquids and the water and oil separated from one another. The water will be sent for treatment and the oil to one of Israel’s two refineries for conversion into fuel.

IEI is currently in an appraisal phase and will shortly move into the pilot phase. If they are able to prove that the technology works, is economic, and is environmentally sustainable, they’ll move into the commercial phase. The appraisal phase involves drilling out samples of oil shale using what amounts to an extremely long apple corer and then testing it in the lab. During the pilot phase, they will drill vertically and use electricity to heat the shale. Once they get to the commercial phase, they will drill horizontally rather than vertically and move from electricity to molten salts, which are much more efficient and environmentally friendly. Natural gas will be used to heat the salts.

Down the road, they’re interested in using the sun to heat the salts, if a way can be found to make solar more efficient and economic. In the meantime, they’ll be able to use the natural gas generated by the process itself for heating purposes.

US Sides With Lebanon Over Maritime Border With Israel; Implications for Natural Gas Finds

Swinging away from the oil story for the moment and onto the natural gas story: Lebanon is attempting to lay claim to natural gas deposits under the Mediterranean by defining its maritime border with Israel and consequently defining its exclusive economic zone. Israel and Lebanon have never agreed where their maritime border lies, so this could get awkward — particularly as the US has apparently decided to avoid conflict by appeasing the Lebanese in advance.

Last summer, Lebanon submitted a “decision” to the UN defining the maritime border, a move that went unchallenged at the time by the Israelis. Lebanon has since hired a Norwegian firm to conduct seismic surveys in the area, causing the Israelis to at last wake up. The Lebanese are not attempting with their border proposal to lay claim to Leviathan or Tamar, the two enormous Israeli finds off Haifa, but the Israeli National Infrastructure Ministry says they are nevertheless claiming areas in Israeli territorial waters.

Haaretz puts the central legal question as follows:

The law of the sea defines an exclusive economic zone as an area in which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources. It stretches from the seaward edge of the state’s territory to 200 nautical miles from its coast. In casual usage, the term may also include a country’s territorial waters and even the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit. If there is more than one country with rights inside the 200-mile zone, the issue is supposed to be resolved through a procedure similar to arbitration in the UN.

But the exclusive economic zone usually applies to what is in the sea, such as fish, and not to what lies under the continental shelf. Thus problems may arise when a continental shelf is shared by more than one country, such as can occur in the Mediterranean.

Lebanon sent its document not only to the UN but also to the US, where it was reviewed by the diplomat Frederic Hof. Hof was responsible for Syria and Lebanon under former US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who resigned recently. According to Haaretz, a senior administration official defined Hof’s brief as the prevention of the border’s “becoming a source of tension between Israel and Lebanon, which could give Hezbollah a pretext for targeting Israeli gas installations.” Hof’s approach to the avoiding of tension is to give Lebanon’s claim an American imprimatur.

Israel, he contends, must cooperate if it’s to avoid the creation of an “underwater Shaba Farms” — a reference to a small area of still-disputed territory between the Golan Heights and Lebanon. He advised Israel to submit its own definition of the border and launch indirect talks with Lebanon at the UN. Israel agreed to the former and scoffed at the latter.

Lest you assume from this that Hof is a benighted, hopelessly biased diplomat, blind to the malignant influence of Hezbollah over Lebanon, consider the following quote, which comes from the Middle East Forum. Hof is speaking here about Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah:

[W]hether most Lebanese Shiites know it or not, [Nasrallah] and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I think this is an important consideration for diplomats of any country that would consider engaging Nasrallah and his inner circle. While I would not necessarily oppose engagement, I think I would keep in mind that the diplomatic center of gravity is located in Tehran, not in some bunker in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah also means something to me personally, and in the interests of fairness and full disclosure I think I should be perfectly open about it, and here I refer to the leadership – not to the thousands of decent Lebanese who have looked to this organization for social services and physical protection. In the late 1980s when I was serving as an army officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a friend of mine – Colonel Rich Higgins – was kidnapped by Hezbollah while he was serving as a UN military observer in Lebanon. I was part of a small team in the Pentagon that tried very hard, through many channels, to secure Rich’s release. As it turned out, he had been tortured and killed months before our efforts to free him finally ended. I am one of a small handful of Americans who knows the exact manner of Rich’s death. If I were to describe it to you now – which I will not – I can guarantee that a significant number of people in this room would become physically ill. When my former business partner Rich Armitage described Hezbollah a few years ago as the “A-Team” of international terrorism and suggested that there was a “blood debt” to be paid, he was referring to a leadership cadre that is steeped in blood and brutality. If Nasrallah and his closest associates come to a violent end in the current crisis you will not find me among the mourners.

I can’t say I support his move regarding the border dispute, but I’d be interested to hear what he has to say in its defense. I hope he speaks soon. If he does, I’ll pass it on.

Israeli Oil Shale — The First Step Toward Energy Independence?

The resources are there. So is a phalanx of home-grown opposition.

oil shale, 7 July 2011 - photo by Judith Levy

This is a photograph I took on Thursday of a chunk of oil shale that had been dug up moments before from 400 meters below ground (1,300 feet, or a bit deeper than the height of the Empire State Building) at a drilling site in the Shfela Basin, southwest of Jerusalem. The shale’s surface is smooth and uniform, like a clay pot, and it has a uniquely earthy smell — something roughly between mud after a downpour, a distant barnyard, and a glass of Campo Viejo Rioja.

Notice the fossils. In the little caravan next to the drilling site, I had a look through a microscope at plankton that had been brought to the surface during drilling.

This chunk of shale is about 70 million years old. It’s part of a deposit with the potential to yield about 250 billion barrels, well beyond Israel’s domestic needs and amply sufficient to transform Israel into an oil exporter. Not far from the patch of land from which it was extracted is the cave of Adullam, in which David hid when he was running from King Saul.

There is a great deal to say about these resources, and I plan to give it to you in installments. For the time being I’ll call your attention to the resistance to the oil shale exploration, which falls roughly into two categories: anxious locals and angry environmentalists.

The locals are apprehensive — understandably — about the introduction of what they fear will be disruptive and destructive technology into a pristine, even idyllic landscape. The environmentalists object on principle to the extraction of fossil fuels, period, regardless of location, and regardless of the implications for Israel of energy independence — Gaia trumps the state, in other words.

Woven into the objections of both constituencies are elements that will be difficult to combat via pilot projects and feasibility studies: reflexive mistrust of the word of any government agency or representative, a residual socialist repugnance against any industry with the potential to create great wealth for individuals, and a zero-sum assumption that any progress that’s made on the oil front must, by definition, be at someone else’s expense.

I hope to speak directly with people on the opposition as well as with key figures in the exploration, which is being run by a company called IEI (Israel Energy Initiatives). I spent all of Thursday deep in conversation with IEI environmental engineer Dana Kadmiel, who gave me exhaustive data on the company’s technology. Stay tuned.


Why Is Greece Obstructing the Gaza Flotilla? A Gassy Theory

The updates on the flotilla grow more and more delightful. First the IHH pulled its boat, sparking a precipitous drop in the number of ships pledging to participate in the stunt. Then the Turks backed up the Israelis by flatly rejecting the claim by the flotilla organizers that the Irish boat was sabotaged by pro-Israel forces while docked in Turkish waters.

Then, the Greek Coast Guard stopped all Gaza-bound boats leaving its waters and brought them back to Greece, prompting irate sound bites from Hamas about the Greeks’ “inhumanity.” And as if all that weren’t enough, Greek authorities arrested the American skipper of the U.S. boat, “The Audacity of Hope” (which, among its other cargo, was toting a deeply confused Alice Walker. Color Purple fans, follow that link at your peril).

The Turkish turnabout in all this is interesting and important, but what about all that love Greece is sending Israel’s way? What’s all that about?

I ran that by Claire Berlinski in an email. She pointed out that the financial bailout of Greece explains a lot, as indeed it does: Greece’s current position as prostrate recipient of a desperately needed cash infusion would explain any number of dramatic gestures, particularly those that might come at the express behest of the Americans (who provide a fifth of the funding of the IMF, which in turn is paying for more than a quarter of the bailout) and the EU. But is that all there is to it?

I suspect there’s something else going on. Something that has to do with a humongous quantity of natural gas.

You’re no doubt already familiar with the massive gas finds at the Tamar and Leviathan fields off Israel’s Mediterranean coast — finds which have just been supplemented by another reported 6.5 trillion cubic feet at the Myra and Sarah fields, bringing Israel’s natural gas discovery to a staggering 31.1 tcf. Last August, PM Bibi Netanyahu suggested to Greek PM George Papandreou that a pipeline be built to transport Israeli gas to Greece, which wouldn’t object to diversifying its 70%-Russian gas imports. But supplying Greece’s gas needs is the least of it. Israel has its eye on supplying Europe, either with gas via undersea pipeline or with liquified gas transported in tankers. In either case, the logical export hubs would be either Turkey — which has queered its pitch with Israel recently — or Greece.

These solutions would be extremely expensive, but have the potential to be very lucrative for all parties. Netanyahu has gone out of his way to cultivate a friendship with Papandreou over the past year and a half that has resulted in a tangible improvement in relations, including diplomatic favors, greater intelligence communication, and — significantly, in view of Turkey’s closure of airspace to Israel last year — joint exercises between the IAF and the Greek air force. Most importantly, Netanyahu has been a vocal advocate for Greece during its financial struggle. “Netanyahu has become Greece’s lobbyist to the European Union,” an Israeli diplomat said, as quoted in Haaretz.

Greece got its bailout, and when the flotilla showed up, Papandreou did his friend a solid. The relationship between the countries has the potential to be long, fruitful and profitable for both sides. And it leaves Turkey on the sidelines, blinking. To the Greeks, that’s gravy.


Fissures Erupt in the Muslim Brotherhood

Haaretz reports that several prominent members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have left the mother ship. Some are establishing new parties — direct rivals to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — and bringing young Brothers along with them. Others are running for president of Egypt, which the Brotherhood has expressly forbidden at this stage.

The wave of defections appears to have been set off by the Brotherhood’s expulsion of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fottouh, according to Hossam Tamam, an Egyptian expert in Islamic groups. Following his ouster, Abul-Fottouh put his own name on the presidential ballot.

This fellow bears watching. According to Haaretz, he was viewed before his expulsion as the moderate face of the Brotherhood. “In many of his writings, he has interpreted the veil not as Islamic dress code but rather a traditional dress like the Indian Sari, more of a national identity than a religious obligation,” they write. “He also supports rights of any Egyptian, even atheist.”

The most recent political party to splinter off from the Brotherhood is al-Riyada, or The Pioneers. It’s run by ex-Brother Khaled Dawoud and consists of members of the Brotherhood’s “reformist” camp. Their platform is the separation of mosque and state. Islam, al-Riyada maintains, is the centerpiece of Egyptian life, so there is no need to impose it politically. “The culture of Egypt is Islamic, why do we need to elaborate?” Dawoud told AP.

The Brothers are promising to expel any members who join competing parties — rather a feeble threat, as the horses are too far off by the time they get to al-Riyada to hear the slam of the stable door. “Al-Riyada is very significant because they are the reformists within the group who were isolated for so long,” Hossam Tamam says. “For the first time, we see an Islamic group that doesn’t identify itself through Islamic Sharia. This is very important.”


Hezbollah Hedges Its Bets and Pulls Its Arsenal Out of Syria

President Obama’s speech last month, in which he handed the Palestinians the unprecedented option of using the 1967 lines as a precondition for peace negotiations with Israel, was viewed by many as evidence of his irredeemable bias — indeed, as a sign of his desertion of Israel. He has also taken heat for his toothless response to the carnage in Syria, where he appears to be cowed by President Bashar al-Assad’s relationship with Teheran. Fear of the Islamic Republic seems to be the only explanation for his wildly inconsistent response to similar outrages in Libya.

Obama’s bias against Israel may well be real, but assertions that he is either hopelessly intimidated by Teheran or flatly opposed to intervention in Syria might be premature.

DEBKAfile has observed that the US military deployed an amphibious assault vessel — the USS Bataan — opposite Syria’s Mediterranean coast two weeks ago. (The Bataan might be familiar to you as one of the “black sites” on which enhanced interrogation techniques were allegedly used against terrorist suspects; it was also the ship on which John Walker Lindh was transported back to the US. ) In addition, the USS Monterrey, which is armed with Aegis surface missile interceptors, has been stationed in the Black Sea. There are reports, too, of a build-up of ship-borne anti-missile strength in the Mediterranean basin.

DEBKAfile concludes from these movements that the US is preparing to defend American and Israeli interests in the event that they are targeted following an American intervention in Syria.

Now, DEBKAfile is notoriously alarmist. But in this instance, Teheran — which has notably kicked up the anti-US rhetoric of late — seems to have drawn similar conclusions.

Evidence of their alarm is to be seen in the reports, emerging this weekend, that Hezbollah — which does not act without orders from its masters in Iran — is taking the risky step of transporting its arsenal out of storage in Syria and into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. As a hedge against its provision of fighters to back up the Syrian regime, Hezbollah is evacuating truck convoys loaded with long-range Iranian ordnance, according to a report in Le Figaro. Several intelligence agencies have spotted the trucks, which are said to contain hundreds of Zilzal, Fajr 3 and Fajr 4 rockets.

The shifting of Hezbollah’s arms out of Syria and into Lebanon serves three tactical purposes for Iran: it pulls the weapons out of range of an American strike on Syria; it keeps them out of the hands of potential unfriendlies should Assad fall; and — provided the arms arrive intact — it strengthens Hezbollah’s hand against Israel. Zilzals are heavy artillery rockets that can carry a 1,300-pound warhead about 130 miles. If they reach Beirut, Tel Aviv will be comfortably within their range.

It remains to be seen whether or not Israel will be able to resist the understandable temptation to strike Hezbollah’s arms while they’re in transit. If she does strike, Iran might accomplish a tidy feat of strategic sleight of hand. All eyes would instantly be shifted to the new Israel-Hezbollah war — a war kicked off by an Israeli attack, no less — and away from Assad’s butchering of his own citizens. From the point of view of both Teheran and Damascus, that’s a dream scenario.

In the days following his speech on the 1967 borders, President Obama did his best to walk back his apparent sellout of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He may have an opportunity — possibly quite soon, by the look of things — to demonstrate that his support for Israel remains steadfast.

Hamas: Shalit Can Rot, But You’re a Criminal If You Deny Our Prisoners Advanced Degrees

This exchange is so manifestly ludicrous on so many levels that it sounds like something that might have come out of an Evelyn Waugh satire, if Waugh had been able to write about Jews without gagging.

Last week, Hamas flatly rejecteddemand by the Red Cross that they provide evidence that Gilad Shalit, the IDF staff sergeant whom they have kept chained in assorted cellars in Gaza for five years, is alive. Not a single person has been permitted to visit Shalit since he was snatched; nor has he been permitted so much as a letter from his mother throughout his captivity.

Speaking a few days ago at the Israeli Presidential Conference, PM Bibi Netanyahu announced that in response to Hamas’s refusal to provide proof of life, he has “decided to change Israel’s policy concerning terrorists in Israeli prisons. We are obliged to respect Israeli law and international law, but we are not bound to anything beyond that, and therefore the over-generous conditions in Israeli prisons will stop…I have for example stopped the absurd procedure whereby terrorists register for academic studies. There will be no more masters in murder and doctorates in terror. This party is over. ”

Hamas has responded by calling Netanyahu’s tightening of conditions a violation of international law.


Is Hezbollah Going to Hit Israel Anytime Soon?

I have a piece up on Pajamas Media assessing the odds of Hezbollah responding to growing pressure by starting something with Israel:

There has been much speculation of late as to the likelihood that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will launch a war against Israel as a diversionary tactic to deflect attention from his brutal crushing of the Syrian popular uprising. A corollary concern is Hezbollah, which is allied with Assad and which uses Syria as a conduit for Iranian arms.

Hezbollah, too, has the capability to divert attention, both domestic and international, from its assorted crises by picking a fight with Israel. And there is little question that the walls are starting to close in on Hezbollah.

Read the rest here.


Who Needs Facebook? Apple Puts Third Intifada App on iPhone

Remember when Facebook was obliged by a storm of outrage to remove a page called “The Third Intifada,” which urged Muslims across the Arab world to descend on Israel together to crush her once and for all?

Well, who needs Facebook?

If you go to iTunes, you’ll discover that there is now an iPhone app called The Third Palestinian Intifada, which updates users in Arabic on upcoming protests, streams Israel-bashing articles and editorials, provides links to nationalistic pro-Palestinian videos and songs, and displays photos of “martyrs”.

Israeli Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli-Yoel Edelstein has sent a letter of protest to Steve Jobs. Good luck with that.

I am typing this on my Mac, of course. And next to me is my beloved iPod. I forbid my kids from touching my computer because God forbid a peanut-butter fingerprint should soil its aluminum perfection. I’m recalling the swooning encomia I’ve delivered to all and sundry about the exquisiteness and effortless superiority of Apple’s products. This is depressing.

The feeling I have right now is distinctly similar to the feeling I had when I heard that Elvis Costello, whom I’ve revered for decades, was canceling his concert in Israel because his “conscience” couldn’t allow him to sing songs to the people who “visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians.” That felt as though he’d shown up at my apartment, rung my doorbell, and spat in my face.