Not since Yitzhak Rabin's funeral has Israel hosted as many senior officials from abroad as it has this year. There was U.S. President George W. Bush (twice), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And yet, the visit by the presumptive American Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, who landed here for a lightning fast stay last week, has aroused more interest than any of them.
McCain visited Sderot and expressed his support for Israel. Obama followed in his footsteps on Wednesday, July 23, while the city was experiencing a rare moment of lull.
© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
American Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama speaking in the rocket-battered southern Israeli town of Sderot, near the Gaza border, July 23, 2008. A collection of spent Kassam rockets appears in the background. Sderot has been the site of frequent Palestinian militant rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. During a visit to Sderot, Obama warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to world security. Earlier, he held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, telling him that he would quickly engage in the Middle East peace process if he is elected president, an aide to Abbas said.
I knew about the visit a week before Obama arrived in Israel and I looked forward to the chance to photograph the man that may be elected the next president of the United States of America and who has raised foreign policy concerns in the Israeli press.
On Wednesday, noon, I prepared my photography gear in my studio that includes: two DSLR Pro camera bodies--Nikon D1x and Nikon D-200 and two lenses. One with AF wide-angle 17-50mm f-2.8 and the other with a telephoto 80-200mm, 2.8 zoom lens, along with Nikon's portable flash unit speed light, four memory cards and spare batteries all placed and secured in the pouches of a street and field belt. On my way out I picked up my wallet that always contains some cash, credit cards, driver's license and my press card and load it all into my car.
It was the middle of the summer here and the heat was unbearable. As I started to drive south towards Sderot where the press conference with Obama was to be held, I wondered what would be my private reaction and impression of the man. As I drove into Sderot I saw the flags of America and Israel waving side by side by the dry Middle East summer wind. I parked my car near the Sderot police station where the press conference was going to be held. Although there is a cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Hamas, a rocket attack from Gaza Strip is still viable at any moment in this town so the dates and times of the event were kept secret from the public to prevent Hamas knowing the exact time of the visit. It also meant that Obama needed to be secured in one of the only buildings around that could accommodate hundreds of people and keep them protected from any rocket attack over the sleepy city.
On my arrival into the Sderot police station I noticed heavy security measures that included many Israeli police officers along with ISA (Israel's internal service commonly known as the Shin Bet or Shabak) and the American Secret Service agents surrounding the building. I was stopped by one of the Israeli security personal that requested to inspect my press card along with my ID and directed me into the back of the police station where the Israeli police bomb squad keeps all the remains of the Qassam rockets that are cataloged by type, terror organization, falling date and location. The information is inscribed on the rocket. This backyard of the Sderot police station has become an icon in recent years of Palestinian terror on Israel, with over 7,000 rockets collected from the city. And now almost every important official and non-official overseas visitor sets aside time in their busy schedules to stop here.
© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
American Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama speaking in Sderot, Israel, near the Gaza border, with a collection of spent Kassam rockets in the background on July 23, 2008. The mayor of Sderot, Eli Moyal (2nd from left.), Minister of Israeli Defense Ehud Barak (3rd from left), and Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni (right.) accompanied Obama at the event.
In the police station backyard the special press conference was almost ready. CNN and Fox News channels, along with many other press services from Israel and around the world, were setting up their tripods, lights, videos and cameras to capture Obama in Sderot.
Because Barack Obama's journeys through the Middle East and Europe have been covered by almost 40 reporters - it was very difficult to fit into the media area and to find the best angle to document the meeting. I tested my equipment in variable light conditions with and without a strobe on, tested my exposures in high ASA and I set up my light measurement and tested the right white balance for the best exposure to document Obama and be prepared in advance to capture the man in the best way I could.
© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mayor of Sderot Eli Moyal and American Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama hold up a t'shirt reading "I love Sderot" in the rocket-battered town of Sderot, Israel, near the Gaza border, July 23, 2008. Behind them is a collection of spent Kassam rockets fired at Israel.
At 5 p.m. after a few hours of waiting under the hot Israeli summer sun, Barack Obama eventually arrived escorted by the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the Minister of Israel Security, Ehud Barak, and Israel's Minister of Public Security, Avi Ditcher.
After he was shown the Kassam rockets, Obama said during his visit to Sderot that Israel should not negotiate with Hamas so long as the Islamist group poses a threat to Israeli citizens and that if someone were firing on his home where his two daughters were sleeping he would do everything to stop the attacks – and that this is how he expects Israel to act as well. He continued, ''America must always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself against those who threaten its people."
Four months ago, presumptive Republican candidate Senator John McCain visited Israel and created a precedent. It was the first time a U.S. presidential candidate had come to the Middle East in the midst of the campaign. But the 2008 race for the White House is different and demands that both candidates state their policies regarding Israel and the region.