Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced yesterday to eight months in prison for unlawfully accepting money from a US supporter, capping the dramatic downfall of a man who only years earlier led the country and hoped to bring about a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians. Olmert was convicted in March in a retrial in Jerusalem District Court. The sentencing comes in addition to a six-year prison sentence he received last year in a separate bribery conviction, ensuring the end of his political career.
Olmert’s lawyer, Eyal Rozovsky, was "very disappointed" by the ruling and said he would appeal to the Supreme Court. They were granted a 45-day stay, meaning the former leader will avoid incarceration for now. Olmert also was given a suspended sentence of an additional eight months and fined 100,000 shekels $33,000.
A slew of character witnesses had vouched for Olmert, including former British prime minister Tony Blair and ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan in statements read aloud yesterday. The verdict stated that the court recognised Olmert’s vast contributions to Israeli society and sentenced him to less than the prosecution had demanded. Still, it ruled that "a black flag hovers over his conduct".
Olmert was forced to resign in early 2009 amid the corruption allegations. His departure cleared the way for Benjamin Netanyahu’s election, and subsequent peace efforts have not succeeded. The 69-year-old was acquitted in 2012 of a series of charges that included accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from US businessman Morris Talansky when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and a cabinet minister. Olmert was found to have received about $600,000 from Mr Talansky during his term as mayor, and additional amounts in cash during his term as a minister, but a court did not find evidence the money had been used for unlawful personal reasons or illegal campaign financing.
Mr Talansky, an Orthodox Jew, had testified the money was spent on expensive cigars, first-class travel and luxury hotels, while insisting he received nothing in return.
The acquittal on the most serious charges at the time was seen as a victory for Olmert, who denied being corrupt. He was convicted only on a lesser charge of breach of trust for steering appointments and contracts to clients of a business partner, and it raised hopes for his political comeback.
Olmert’s former office manager and confidant Shula Zaken later became a state’s witness, offering diary entries and tape recordings of conversations with Olmert about illicitly receiving cash, leading to a retrial. In the recordings, Olmert is heard telling Ms Zaken not to testify in the first trial so she would not incriminate him. The judges concluded Olmert gave Ms Zaken part of the money in exchange for her loyalty, and used the money for his own personal use without reporting it. They convicted him on a serious charge of illicitly receiving money, as well as charges of fraud and breach of trust.
In a separate trial in March last year, Olmert was convicted of bribery over a Jerusalem real estate scandal and was sentenced to six years in prison. He appealed and has been allowed to stay out of jail until a verdict is delivered.
With space running out in Jerusalem’s cemeteries, a local burial society is turning to an ancient solution: a $US60 million ($77m) project to build a vast modern-day catacomb beneath a mountain. The crypts, some 22,000 of them, are being carved under Har HaMenuchot, the city’s largest cemetery. The ambitious dig is mostly funded by Jews from the diaspora, who are paying up to $13,000 to reserve a plot.
About 35,000 Jews are buried in Israel each year, 10 per cent of them in Jerusalem. The government does not track exact statistics, but thousands of foreign Jews also choose the holy city as their final resting place, according to the non-profitmaking burial societies that manage Israel’s cemeteries. All of this requires a lot of space in a congested city where land is at a premium. The overcrowding has forced burial societies to seek new approaches — or old ones — in Jerusalem.
Cave burials were once popular among wealthy families, and their ancient tombs still dot the hills around the city. However, the practice fell out of favour 2000 years ago.
The new necropolis will be a bit more sophisticated, with airconditioning and elevators. A computerised boring machine is busy digging the first tunnels beneath Har HaMenuchot. Other burial societies have looked up, instead of down. At Yarkon, the main cemetery on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, workers last year finished the first of 30 terraced burial towers. They will eventually hold 250,000 graves, stacked in niches on top of each other.
Cemetery overcrowding is a problem in big cities worldwide but it is acute in Israel, a small country with a dominant religion that forbids cremation.
Islamist ambitions of Iran are far more dangerous than ISIS
Commentary: Colin Rubenstein
Monday, June 8, 2015
Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council
Should the US and its Western allies in the fight against Islamic State informally ally themselves with Iran, especially in Iraq ?
Yes, Iran hates and fears Islamic State — so there is theoretically a shared interest in fighting it. However, to focus solely on this single supposed "shared-interest" approach is shortsighted, naive and counter-productive for many reasons. The most important is that allowing Iran and its allied Shia militias to conduct the bulk of the battle in Iraq will make it harder to defeat Islamic State in the long run. Furthermore, not only is Iran our enemy in the Middle East just as much as is Islamic State, but it is ultimately the more dangerous of the two. Iran contributed heavily toward creating the Islamic State problem in the first place.
From 2004 to 2006, the insurgency by al-Qa’ida in Iraq — which would later morph into Islamic State — had gained control over large swaths of the Sunni areas of Iraq. However, over the course of 2007, the insurgency was all but defeated. This was in large part due to the "surge" of US troops, and their change of tactics in adopting proven counter-insurgency strategies, but was also due to the Sunni "Awakening" in Anbar province. The US was able to co-opt the Sunni tribes of Anbar, which had been chafing under the religious harshness of AQI rule, and turn them against AQI by offering them support and promising that their interests would be protected by the government in Baghdad.
Sadly, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to last year, Nouri al-Maliki, heavily influenced by Iran, ran a partisan, Shia-leaning government that not only discriminated against and marginalised Iraq’s large Sunni minority, but at times allowed them to be attacked with impunity by Shia militia. This complete exclusion and alienation by Baghdad — with Iranian backing and support — caused many Sunni to see Islamic State as liberators when the militants expanded into Iraq’s Sunni areas last year.
It is difficult to see how Islamic State can be dislodged from western Iraq unless the Sunni tribes again begin to reject their supremacy, and cease seeing the conflict as a Sunni-Shia ethnic war, but the conduct of Iran and the Shia militia it funds and directs have made that all but impossible. The weakness of the Iraqi army has allowed the Shia militia, which in many cases are the same terrorist groups that killed so many US troops, to dominate the battle against Islamic State. In fact, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is widely regarded as the de facto ultimate arbiter of power in Iraq through those militias.
Tragically, the various Iraqi Shia militias have proven to be nearly as bloodthirsty as Islamic State. In areas where they have taken control, atrocities against the Sunni communities have become commonplace, including massacres, torture, destruction of homes and ethnic cleansing. As a result, Iraq’s Sunni population will tend to cling to, and fight for Islamic State, viewing it as their only protector.
Following the fall of the Anbar city of Ramadi to Islamic State, the Iranian-trained and commanded Shi’ites are being used to retake the town. If this happens, most Sunni inhabitants will flee to Islamic State-controlled territory, further strengthening the militants.
Yet even if Iran and its proxies did turn out to be an asset in defeating Islamic State, the outcome would still be detrimental to Iraqi and Western interests. Iran has never shied from its aim of hegemony throughout the Middle East, and co-operation with the West is definitely not a part of its master plan. When Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels recently took over Sanaa in Yemen, Iranian regime figures boasted, more or less accurately, that it was the fourth Arab capital under the control of Tehran, along with Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad. Senior Iranian leaders have asserted that Iran is an "empire" whose natural sphere of influence runs from India to Turkey.
As its proxy militias exert more domination of Iraq, Iran has no intention of relinquishing this hold to allow Iraq to become a progressive democracy friendly to the West. Tehran remains determined to turn Iraq into a Shia-controlled satellite. And Tehran is not doing this to encourage regional "stability".
Iran is still the world’s most egregious state supporter of terrorism, still vilifies the US as the "Great Satan", runs Holocaust-denial competitions, says Israeli destruction is "non-negotiable", and has a horrendous internal human-rights record, while propping up Syria’s barbarous Assad regime.
While it is often alleged that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons for "defensive" purposes, this makes little sense outside Tehran’s conspiratorial world view. There are no regional powers that militarily threaten the survival of the Iranian regime. Meanwhile, Tehran constantly argues that Islamic State is secretly a Western-supported ploy directed against its interests.
In fact, Islamic State and all other extremist Muslim groups in the region, however much they hate the Shia Islamist regime, are in fact following the pattern set by the 1979 Iranian revolution.
In all of our dealings with Iran, whether they be tacit collaboration against Islamic State, or in nuclear deals, we need to remember that the regime’s very legitimacy is based on furthering its extremist goal of establishing hegemony as widely as it can, so it can spread its fundamentalist brand of Shia Islamist "revolution".
The last thing we should do is to throw Iraq and the rest of the Middle East to these wolves for the sake of some likely counter-productive assistance against Islamic State.
Also note the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's declaration that the destruction and chaos in the collapse of both USA and Israel will hasten the return of the Messiah, the 12th Mahdi. Click here for more details.
Egypt has vowed to "purify" the volatile Sinai Peninsula after insurgents allied to Islamic State launched bloody attacks on soldiers and police, killing dozens. Officials said at least 70 had died on the Egyptian side, mostly soldiers, though the military in Cairo admitted only 17 deaths.
Many more gunmen from the Islamic State franchise in the Sinai were reported killed when the Egyptians sent in F-16 warplanes and helicopter gunships to beat back the devastating onslaught. The multi-pronged assault was sudden and tightly co-ordinated, allowing the insurgents to seize control of parts of the town of Sheikh Zuweid in the northern Sinai, near the border with the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
The fierce fighting means Israel is now bracketed by chaos. To the north, the Syrian civil war has encroached on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where al-Qa’ida fighters are involved in a rebel drive against the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad. And now in the south, the long frontier running from Gaza through the rugged Sinai desert is coming under growing threat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country stood as "partners" with Egypt and other Arab states against Islamist terrorism. "We send our condolences to the Egyptian government and the people of Egypt, to the fallen Egyptians slain by ISIS terror," he said, using an alternative name for Islamic State. Agence France-Presse quoted a senior Egyptian officer as saying: "This is war". The insurgency in the Sinai has featured assassinations of government officials and intensifying attacks by the local Islamic State charter, but yesterday’s all-out offensive invites fearsome retaliation by Egypt’s powerful military.
The sunrise assaults on 15 military checkpoints and police stations were made by hundreds of fighters with all the hallmarks of an Islamic State operation. In some places, suicide bombers went in under a barrage of mortar and rocket fire, backed by snipers. Roads were mined to stop Egyptian reinforcements being rushed to besieged outposts.
In Sheikh Zuweid, a Bedouin town about 20km south of the fortified border with Gaza, militants struck targets with truck-mounted anti-aircraft artillery. A 19-year-old non-combatant was killed in the divided city of Rafah, on the Egyptian-Gaza border, when a rocket went astray. Last night, the Egyptian air force was continuing to pound the gunmen, while Egyptian armour clattered into action. Following a meeting of generals, the Egyptian military said: "We won’t stop until we purify the Sinai".
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi suggested a crackdown launched earlier this week in response to the murder of Egypt’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, in a car bombing in Cairo, could extend to the fast-track execution of terrorists convicted of capital offences. The bloodshed in the Sinai comes on top of last Friday’s rampage by a lone gunman on a resort beach in Tunisia that killed 38 people, the majority of them British holidaymakers, and the deadly bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. The Tunisian government said last night it had arrested 12 people in connection with the beach strike, and was hunting two terrorists who had allegedly trained in Libya with the perpetrators of March’s Bardo Museum atrocity in the capital Tunis that left 22 dead, including Australian dual national Javier Camelo.
The extremist group has issued a call inciting followers to violence during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. The push by the Sinai offshoot of Islamic State also coincided with the second anniversary of the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a coup led by Mr Sisi. As fighting raged in northern Sinai, senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Nasser al-Houfi was killed along with eight other members of the banned group during a police raid on a Cairo apartment.
After Iran deal, Obama offers military upgrade to help Israel swallow bitter Iranian deal
Thursday, July 16, 2015
In a phone conversation between the two leaders Tuesday, Netanyahu did not respond to the offer, said the official, who requested anonymity.
US President Barack Obama has offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediate talks to upgrade the Israel Defence Forces’ offensive and defensive capabilities in the wake of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program, a senior US official told Haaretz. In a phone conversation between the two leaders Tuesday, Netanyahu did not respond to the offer, said the official, who requested anonymity.
He said this was the second time Obama had made a direct offer to Netanyahu on launching such talks. The first time was in an April 2 phone call, a few hours after the announcement of the framework nuclear deal in Lausanne, Switzerland.
But Netanyahu did not accept that offer so as to avoid implying that Israel had come to terms with the nuclear deal. Also, in late May, Netanyahu told reporters that Israel would fight the nuclear accord and not seek any kind of reciprocal deal with Washington.
But now Obama has told Netanyahu he understands why the Israeli leader did not accept the April offer, the official said. With the deal with Iran sealed, Obama believes that Israel and the United States should hold talks on how to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge given the changes that could occur in the region as a result of the nuclear accord.
On Tuesday, Obama told Netanyahu he would send Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to Israel for talks next week. Carter is expected to repeat Obama’s offer, but it is too early to predict the response by Netanyahu and his defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon. "We’re still waiting for an Israeli answer. If Israel wants to wait until after the Congressional debate on the nuclear accord that’s fine too," the US official said. "We’ll be ready to hold these talks then too, because the day after the agreement goes into effect the sun will still shine and Israel and the US will continue to work together on security matters."
In an interview Tuesday with The New York Times, Obama said: "I’m prepared to go further than any other administration’s gone before in terms of providing them additional security assurances from the United States." According to Obama, "The thing I want to emphasize is that people’s concerns here are legitimate. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles that are pointed toward Israel. They are becoming more sophisticated. The interdiction of those weapon flows has not been as successful as it needs to be."
Netanyahu told the Knesset Wednesday he intended to keep fighting the nuclear accord and believed he could succeed. "The agreement that was signed in Vienna is not the final word," he said. "We will continue to point out its flaws and dangers, and the danger of making such a deal with a murderous dictatorship." One way Netanyahu plans to fight the agreement is by trying to persuade the US Congress to vote against the lifting of the economic sanctions on Iran.
Obama said Tuesday he would veto any decision by Congress that could block the implementation of the nuclear accord. A two-thirds’ majority is needed to override a presidential veto, so Netanyahu would have to persuade many Democrats to oppose their president. In the interview with The New York Times, Obama said he was confident he could get the accord approved by Congress. "But after that’s done, if that’s what [Netanyahu] thinks is appropriate, then I will sit down, as we have consistently throughout my administration, and then ask some very practical questions: How do we prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more sophisticated weapons ?" he said. "How do we build on the success of Iron Dome, which the United States worked with Israel to develop and has saved Israeli lives ?"
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who will meet with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday, said the Netanyahu government would have opposed any agreement. "Israel wants a permanent state of standoff and I don’t believe that’s in the interests of the region," he said Wednesday, adding that he would try to explain Britain’s position to Netanyahu — not that he expected to convince him. "He has made clear that he intends to fight it all the way and that Israel will seek to use its influence in the US Congress to obstruct the progress of the deal," Hammond said. "I am confident that action will not succeed."
Hammond expressed the hope that Israel would ultimately adopt a pragmatic approach. Once it had exhausted its efforts to stop the accord, it might "seek to engage in a sensible and pragmatic way to deal with the new reality on the ground in the Middle East, to the benefit of everyone." Hammond’s criticism echoed that of his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "This is a responsible deal and Israel should also take a closer look at it and not criticize the agreement in a very coarse way," Steinmeier said Tuesday.
US and Israeli defence chiefs sought to contain a rift over the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, saying they wouldn’t let it get in the way of expanded co-operation against threats posed by Iran’s proxies, particularly Hezbollah. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon took his American counterpart, Ashton Carter, to a hilltop viewing station called Hussein Lookout near the Lebanese border yesterday to show him how close Israeli towns were to Hezbollah’s southern stronghold across the valley below. "Probably, Hezbollah is watching us," Mr Yaalon told Mr Carter.
The tour came as US President Barack Obama hailed the passage of a UN Security Council resolution backing the nuclear deal, saying he expected a sceptical congress to take note. Mr Obama said he hoped the passage would "send a clear message that the overwhelming number of countries" recognise that diplomacy is "by far our strongest approach to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. There is broad international consensus around this issue," he said. "My working assumption is that congress will pay attention to that broad basic consensus."
The UN Security Council late on Monday night unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the deal struck in Vienna last Tuesday and cleared a path to lift sanctions crippling Iran’s economy. Provided Iran respects the agreement to the letter, seven UN resolutions passed since 2006 to sanction Iran will be gradually terminated, the text of the resolution says.
Mr Carter and Mr Yaalon later said at a news conference in Tel Aviv that the security partnership between the US and Israel would continue to expand regardless of divisions over the nuclear deal. Mr Yaalon said he told Mr Carter his government believed the lifting of sanctions under the nuclear deal would unlock vast Iranian resources that Tehran could use to build up its conventional capabilities. He said the money could also further empower Hezbollah and Iran’s other regional proxies, heightening dangers for Israel.
While Mr Yaalon said Israel disagreed with the terms of the nuclear deal and feared "for the future in the aftermath of its signing", his criticism was less pointed than recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Mr Carter was scheduled to meet last night in Jerusalem. In a barbed exchange with visiting British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond last week, Mr Netanyahu called the nuclear agreement fundamentally flawed.
Israeli officials generally have sought to keep the military-to-military relationship with the US on a separate track from other policy issues, including stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, because of the importance both sides say they place on close security co-operation.
The nuclear deal, in addition to ending economic sanctions, includes a provision to lift a conventional arms embargo on Iran. Under the deal, suspensions of arms and ballistic-missiles embargoes are five and eight years away, respectively. Israeli officials said that could make it easier for Iran, and possibly Hezbollah, to get more advanced conventional rockets and increase the threat facing Israel. Israeli military officials estimate that Hezbollah already has hundreds of thousands of rockets hidden in southern Lebanese villages and aimed at Israel.
The Obama administration has offered to increase the $US3 billion ($4.1bn) in annual US military to Israel. But Israeli officials have refused to discuss additional American assistance with the White House until congress completes a two-month-long review of the Iran deal. Israeli officials are concerned that discussing such an aid package before then could be seen by lawmakers as a sign that Israel is prepared to accept the agreement.
Without going into specifics of what additional military assistance could be provided to Israel, Mr Carter said he told Mr Yaalon that additional aid would be provided to Israel as needed to address its security needs. "My own view is there’s a lot more that we can do," Mr Carter said.
Mr Carter is the first US cabinet member to visit Israel since the Iran deal was reached a week ago. On this trip, he will also visit Saudi Arabia, another country that has expressed similar concerns about how Iran will use the cash windfall it would get as economic sanctions are removed.
Jerusalem: Bulldozers began demolishing a contested housing complex in a West Bank settlement yesterday as the Israeli Prime Minister’s office announced the "immediate construction" of 300 units at another location in the same settlement and advanced plans for about 500 flats in east Jerusalem.
Israel initially promised to build the 300 housing units in Beit El three years ago, when it ordered the removal of other buildings constructed on private Palestinian land. The standoff escalated sharply yesterday, after the Supreme Court rejected a petition to overturn its initial ruling to demolish the complex. The complex there was (deemed to be) illegal because it was built without approval. It ordered the destruction be completed no later than last night. The military moved in and removed protesters holed up inside, but hundreds of settlers gathered at the scene and some fought with Israeli forces, who responded with water cannon.
Tempers are high in the settler community as it marks a decade since Israel’s "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip, when it withdrew all civilians and soldiers from all the settlements there and also from two in the West Bank.
The new units announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office yesterday are in Beit El and elsewhere, including in East Jerusalem, which Israeli leaders say are inseparable neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. They say these neighbourhoods will remain a part of Israel under any peace agreement, but the Palestinians consider them settlements and say construction there is illegal, a position backed by (much of) the international community.
In Washington, the State Department said it was deeply concerned by the settlement activity and urged "the Israeli government to refrain from unhelpful actions that undercut possibility of a two-state solution". "The United States continues to view settlements as illegitimate and we strongly oppose steps to advance construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem," deputy spokesman Mark Toner said. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the announcement of the new units. Mr Ban urged Israel’s government to halt and reverse such decisions "in the interest of peace and a just final status agreement".
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of a pro-settler party, welcomed the announcement of the new units even as he criticised the top court’s decision. "The court’s role is to judge; the government’s role is to build," he said. "We will build up the land of Israel, but in a legal and appropriate way." Lior Amichai of Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now criticised the announcement, saying it was intended to "appease the settlers".
On another front, the Shin Bet security agency and the Israeli police filed indictments against two young Israeli activists in connection with last month’s arson attack of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, a Catholic Church near the Sea of Galilee. Three other activists are under arrest in connection with the arson attack. The Shin Bet and police said the activists were part of an extremist group of settler youths seeking to bring about religious "redemption".
The group has vandalised a number of Christian sites in the past two years, tried to disrupt the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land last year, and in the past year committed "more significant terrorist attacks of arson" against Palestinian homes in the West Bank. A month before the attack on the church, group head Meir Ettinger called on his blog for more attacks on Christian sites. Israeli authorities have banned him from the West Bank settlements and Jerusalem for a year.
Israel’s extreme Right has shaky Netanyahu in a bind
Noga Tarnopolsky, The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
The violence emanating from Israel’s extreme Right in recent days has prompted national soul searching and new questions about whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can hold. An ultra-Orthodox assailant is accused of stabbing six people, 16-year-old Shira Banki fatally, at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade on Thursday, less than a month after he was released from prison on parole, having stabbed three people at the same parade in 2005.
On Friday, suspected extremist Jews burned two homes in the West Bank, killing 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsha and injuring three other people. A day later, the Israel troops shot a 17-year-old boy during protests, the sixth Palestinian killed this northern summer.
Even before the violence, which Mr Netanyahu has condemned as terrorism, his erstwhile allies on the Right were calling for his ouster on the basis of his failure to prevent the Iran nuclear deal, despite his lobbying of US congress and vigorous public criticism of the accord.
The mounting criticism, which came amid the Prime Minister’s failure to pass a budget before a parliamentary recess, has turned into a bruising rebellion by former right-wing allies over saddling Israel with what they see as a bad deal. Yair Lapid, Mr Netanyahu’s former finance minister and the head of a centre-right party now in opposition, has called for a commission of inquiry to investigate "the worst diplomatic failure in Israel’s history".
Mr Netanyahu’s former confidant and longtime foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, a right-winger also outside the coalition, called for him to make way for someone else. "Netanyahu cannot handle the Iranian issue," he said.
Mr Netanyahu hasn’t publicly commented on the criticism from the Right. His government has been in office for 11 weeks, and from the start it has been a tall order to govern Israel with the support of only 61 out of 120 members in the Knesset. His own party, Likud, holds 30 seats. Yet the nuclear deal — and a series of other crises — is calling into question whether his razor-thin majority will hold. "It’s a challenge with daily crises," said majority whip Tzachy Hanegby.
Mr Netanyahu’s own Education Minister last week called on Israelis to defy the Supreme Court after it ordered the demolition of two illegally constructed Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog predicted the government would fall by March. He has led the chorus of critics from the Left who say Jewish extremists pose the same threat to national security as their Islamist counterparts — and called for the government to evenly enforce anti-terror laws. That includes the demolition of homes of individuals accused of committing acts of terror. "This is the time for action. Real action," he said. "After we have condemned time and again, we cannot return to our daily routines as if all is normal."
Israel’s right-wing has tried to dissociate itself from extremists who threatened to hijack its religious, nationalistic message. Dan Meridor, a veteran member of Likud who has held numerous ministries, urged perspective. "It’s always one or two — it’s never thousands who perpetrate these crimes," he said. "And these are not people who listen to political leaders."
In a Saturday night rally against violence, President Reuven Rivlin warned of the "flames which are consuming all of us, that cannot be extinguished with weak condemnations". He added: "Every society has extremist fringes, but today we have to ask: what is it in the public atmosphere which allows extremism and extremists to walk in confidence, in broad daylight ?"
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu recalled childhood Sabbath visits to the home of his father’s teacher, who had the words "Judaism" and "humanity" etched over his door. "We are determined to vigorously fight manifestations of hate, fanaticism and terrorism from whatever side. The fight against these phenomena unites us all," he said. "This is not a struggle by this or that faction. This is a matter of basic humanity."
Extract — Opinion: Risks, pluses of Russia in Syria
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Four-and-a-half years of weakness and ineptness by the US and the UN during Syria’s brutal civil war opened the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to step into the vacuum. Mr Putin has increased his influence markedly in Syria, sending 28 combat planes, drones, tanks and attack helicopters. Russia is also upgrading naval and air bases in Syria and building accommodation for 2000 Russian military advisers.
Flat-footed and slow-minded on strategic policy, US President Barack Obama initially declared the Russian deployments were "doomed to fail" and said the Kremlin should "start getting a little smarter". His administration quickly changed its tune, expressing "concern" about Russia’s increased involvement. Now the US has sought out Russia to discuss what a Pentagon spokesman described as "mechanisms for deconfliction" in Syria, emphasising the need to avoid inadvertent clashes between Russian anti-aircraft missiles and US fighter planes and those of its allies, including Australia.
As the northern hemisphere heads into winter, conditions will worsen for hundreds of thousands of refugees and would-be economic migrants crowding into Europe via the Balkans. Many remain stranded in no man’s land at border posts and in makeshift camps. The EU leaders’ agreement to resettle 120,000 people waiting in Greece and Italy will not come close to solving the problem. On Monday, 10,000 newcomers arrived in Austria, stretching facilities to the limit, and 25,000 people have crossed from Serbia into Croatia in a week. Many have been drawn by the strong "pull factor" created by Germany’s pledge to settle 800,000 refugees this year.
Russia’s growing involvement in Syria could have an important upside if it hastens the demise of Islamic State, which controls more than half the area of the country. Beating back Islamic State is essential before any political settlement can be worked out and the refugee crisis resolved at source. At the same time, Mr Putin’s opportunism in establishing a large military footprint along the eastern Mediterranean is fraught with risks given his record of expansionism in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been quick off the mark to raise his concerns. He visited Mr Putin in Moscow earlier this week amid fears that Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah, could be seeking to open a new military front against Israel from within Syria, through the Golan Heights. Israel monitors and interdicts arms transfers to Hezbollah from Syria. After meeting Mr Putin, Mr Netanyahu said Russia and Israel had agreed on a "joint mechanism" to prevent miscalculations between their forces that could trigger a wider war.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry says, commitments by the US and Russia to take on Islamic State in Syria could facilitate fresh efforts towards a diplomatic solution. Mr Kerry has opened the door to a possible settlement that could allow President Bashar al-Assad to remain in place for some time before stepping down.
Netanyahu: Palestinian Temple Mount incitement responsible for terror attack that killed Israeli couple
By Tovah Lazaroff, Danielle Ziri
Friday, October 2, 2015
Palestinian incitement over the issue of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is responsible for the terror attack that killed an Israeli couple, Eitam and Naama Henkin in the Binyamin Region of the West Bank, as they drove home in Judea and Samaria with their four children on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
"The killers knew that they were murdering a mother and father, the children were there [in the car]. It has been proven again that the wild Palestinian incitement leads to acts of terrorism and murder such as we have seen this evening," said Netanyahu. "We’ve witnessed how they have spoken of our ‘cruel acts’ on the Temple Mount, a charge that is baseless. Unfortunately, these kinds of words have consequences."
He added that he was disappointed that the Palestinian Authority had not immediately condemned the shooting death, in the same way that Israel did (of one in July). Israel immediately condemned the July attack by Jewish extremists who torched a home in the Palestinian village of Duma, killing Saad and Reham Dewabsha and their toddler, Ali. Netanyahu explained how he went to the hospital to visit the Dewabsha’s other son, Ahmed, who is recovering from his injuries in the fire. "Compare this to the silence of the Palestinian leadership now, I have not heard their condemnation," Netanyahu said.
The Palestinian killing of Eitam and Naama Henkin came on the heels of a stoning attack against an Israeli vehicle earlier in the day in the Gush Etzion Region, in which the couple with their three children escaped serious harm. It occurred just after Netanyahu spoke against Palestinian incitement at the UN General Assembly in New York and before he met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, where among other things they discussed the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In the months leading up to the General Assembly, the Quartet, composed of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, have spoken of a renewed push to resume peace process which has been frozen since April 2014. But although the Quartet met in New York on the sidelines of the General Assembly, it did not announce a new initiative.
Even before he left for New York, Netanyahu on Sunday called on Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas to hold direct talks without preconditions. In an opinion piece in the Huffington Post on Tuesday, Abbas refused the call and said he could not talk with Israel as long as it was an occupying power. On Wednesday Abbas told the UN General Assembly that he would annul the Oslo Accords that had governed Israel’s relations with the PA for over two decades, unless Israel halted its violations against his people, stopped all settlement activities and released Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
On Thursday, just before the terror attack, Netanyahu once again called on Abbas from the General Assembly podium to hold direct talks for a two-state solution. "I am prepared to immediately, immediately, resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever," Netanyahu said. "Unfortunately, President Abbas said yesterday that he is not prepared to do this. Well, I hope he changes his mind," Netanyahu said. "Because I remain committed to a vision of two states for two peoples, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state," he said.
During that General Assembly speech he also called on Abbas to stop "spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount."
During Netanyahu’s meeting with Ban after the speech, the UN Secretary-General condemned Thursday’s terror attack but asked the prime minister to make "significant policy changes that will have a concrete impact on the lives of Palestinians." Ban also asked Netanyahu to "cease all settlement activity and demolitions while enabling access for Palestinians to a fair planning system."
Netanyahu told Ban that Abbas was "running away" from negotiations to avoid making the necessary concessions such as recognizing that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and that the Palestinians will not have the right of return to Israel. "He is not ready to do so, so he finds excuses," Netanyahu said. He later told reporters, "If Abbas continues to incite and refuse to negotiate course, he pulls himself out of the peace process."
On Thursday night the US condemned the terror attack, extended its condolences to the family and urged "all sides to maintain calm, avoid escalating tensions in the wake of this tragedy, and work together to bring the perpetrators to justice."
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov said, "This tragic incident, once again, highlights the need for significant steps that help stabilize the situation, reverse the current negative trends and restore hope that a just and lasting negotiated two-state solution is possible."
Israel in ‘fight to death against terror’: Bibi
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was "waging a fight to the death against Palestinian terror" yesterday after Palestinians were barred from Jerusalem’s Old City. Mr Netanyahu convened his top security officials immediately after landing back in Israel from delivering a speech to the UN General Assembly.
"These steps include, among others, speeded up demolition of terrorists’ homes," he said in a video address in Hebrew distributed by his office.
The Old City restrictions will be in place until tonight (AEDT), with only Israelis, tourists, residents of the area, business owners and students allowed. Worship at the sensitive al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, was limited to men aged 50 and above. No age restrictions were placed on women.
Israeli security forces were already on alert after recent clashes at the compound and surrounding Old City, as well as the murder in the West Bank of a Jewish settler couple in front of their young children on Thursday.
Threatening to stoke the flames higher still, Israeli troops shot dead an 18-year-old Palestinian man during clashes in Tulkarem in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian police and medics said. Huzeifa Othman Suleiman is the first Palestinian to be killed in a spike of violence in the West Bank after a Palestinian attacker killed two Israelis in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday, prompting an Israeli security clampdown.
Mr Netanyahu said he instructed ministers on steps "to prevent terror and deter and punish the attackers". They would also include broader use of detention without trial for suspects, further reinforcement of security forces in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank and restraining orders keeping unspecified "inciters" away from al-Aqsa.
The Palestinian government denounced "Israeli escalation" after the announcement of the ban, which Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called unprecedented. The Red Crescent reported 77 Palestinians were wounded by live rounds and rubber bullets after clashes in the West Bank in Tulkarem, Jenin, the Hebron area and the outskirts of Ramallah. About 300,000 Palestinians live in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City.
On Sunday, a Palestinian said to be an Islamist militant killed two Israeli men and wounded a woman and a toddler in a knife and gun attack in the Old City. Police shot dead the attacker. In a separate incident later on Sunday, a 19-year-old Palestinian stabbed and wounded a 15-year-old passerby in west Jerusalem before being shot dead by police while fleeing. Video circulated on social media showed what appeared to be the alleged attacker walking as bystanders shouted "shoot him" in Hebrew before a policeman fired and he fell to the ground.
Unrest broke out in the neighbourhood of Issawiya in east Jerusalem where the attacker in Sunday morning’s stabbing was from. There have been fears that the sporadic violence could spin out of control, with some warning of the risk of a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged calm, saying he was "deeply concerned that these latest incidents signal a dangerous slide toward escalation". Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called Mr Ban and appealed for international protection for his people from Israeli settler attacks, Mr Abbas’s office said. In his address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Mr Abbas said he was no longer bound by previous accords with Israel due to violations by Mr Netanyahu’s government. It was unclear what he meant in practice, and it remained to be seen if he would try to calm the latest tensions or abandon longstanding security co-operation with Israel.
The weekend Old City attack saw a two-year-old child wounded in the leg and taken to hospital. A woman was in serious condition, rescue services said. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said it appeared the child had been shot. The two men who were killed were a 41-year-old rabbi and resident of the Old City as well as a 21-year-old who lived in a West Bank settlement and was an off-duty soldier, Israeli media said. The attacker first used a knife, but reportedly took a gun from one of the male victims and fired at police, before he was himself shot dead. Militant group Islamic Jihad said he was one of its members, but did not claim responsibility for the attack. Islamist movement Hamas, in power in the Gaza Strip, praised the attack as "a heroic act of resistance".
Nearly simultaneous explosions targeted a peace rally in Ankara on Saturday, killing at least 95 people and wounding nearly 250 others in what is Turkey’s deadliest attack in years. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were "strong signs" that the two explosions — which struck 50 metres apart — were suicide bombings. He suggested that Kurdish rebels or Islamic State group militants could be behind the attacks.
The two explosions occurred seconds apart outside the capital’s main train station as hundreds of opposition supporters and Kurdish activists gathered for the peace rally organised by Turkey’s public workers’ union and other groups. The protesters planned to call for increased democracy in Turkey and an end to the renewed violence between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces.
Authorities had been on alert after Turkey agreed to take a more active role in the US -led battle against the Islamic State group. Turkey opened up its bases to US aircraft to launch air raids on the extremist group in Syria and carried out a limited number of strikes on the group itself. Russia has also entered the fray on behalf of the Syrian government recently, bombing sites in Syria and reportedly violating Turkish airspace a few times in the past week.
On a separate front, the fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels flared anew in July, killing at least 150 police and soldiers and hundreds of PKK rebels since then. Turkish jets have also carried out numerous deadly air strikes on Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.
Erdogan condemned Saturday’s attacks, which he said targeted the country’s unity, called for solidarity and cancelled a planned visit Monday to Turkmenistan. "The greatest and most meaningful response to this attack is the solidarity and determination we will show against it," Erdogan said.
Critics have accused Erdogan of reigniting the fighting with the Kurds to seek electoral gains — hoping that the turmoil would rally voters back to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Electoral gains by the country’s pro-Kurdish party caused the AKP, founded by Erdogan, to lose its parliamentary majority in a June election after a decade of single-party rule.
The attacks Saturday, which even surpassed twin al-Qaeda-linked attacks in Istanbul in 2003 that killed some 60 people, also drew widespread condemnation from Turkey’s allies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her condolences, calling the attacks "particularly cowardly acts that were aimed directly at civil rights, democracy and peace. It is an attempt at intimidation and an attempt to spread fear," she said. "I am convinced that the Turkish government and all of Turkish society stands together at this time with a response of unity and democracy to this terror."
NATO Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said "there can be no justification for such a horrendous attack on people marching for peace … All NATO allies stand united in the fight against the scourge of terrorism."
The United States said the fact that the deadly bombing targeted a peace rally underscores the depravity of those who carried it out. Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said the US will stand with the Turkish government and its people in the fight against terrorism.
Saturday was the third attack against meetings of Kurdish activists. In July, a suicide bombing blamed on the Islamic State group killed 33 peace activists, including many Kurds, in the town of Suruc near Turkey’s border with Syria. Two people were killed in June in a bomb attack at the pro-Kurdish party’s election rally.
"This attack (Saturday) resembles and is a continuation of the Diyarbakir and Suruc (attacks)," said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party. "We are faced with a huge massacre." He held Erdogan and Davutoglu’s government responsible for the latest attack, saying it was "carried out by the state against the people."
In the aftermath of the Ankara attack, the PKK declared a temporary ceasefire. A rebel statement said Saturday the group is halting hostilities to allow the Nov. 1 election to proceed safely. It said it would not launch attacks but would defend itself.
The government has consistently dismissed any possible Kurdish ceasefire plans. "Our operations (against the PKK) will continue until they lay down arms," Davutoglu (had) said late Friday.
Hundreds of troops were deployed in Israeli cities yesterday to assist police in countering a wave of deadly Palestinian shooting and stabbing attacks that have created panic across the country.
The military’s deployment of six companies of troops came as Israeli security forces began setting up checkpoints in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. A police spokeswoman said the checkpoints were being set up at "the exits of Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods".
The army deployment and the checkpoints mark the first implementation of measures by Israel’s security cabinet to counter the attacks that have intensified dramatically in recent days.
The cabinet met late into the night (Tuesday) and announced steps early yesterday that included allowing police to seal off points of friction or incitement. Many of the recent attackers have come from Arab areas of East Jerusalem, prompting calls to seal off those neighbourhoods to contain potential attackers.
The cabinet also decided to strip residency rights and demolish homes of some attackers and draft hundreds more security guards to secure public transport.
The measures came after a particularly bloody day in which a pair of Palestinian stabbing and shooting attacks in Jerusalem killed three Israelis and another two attacks took place in the normally quiet Israeli city of Raanana. Three Palestinians, including two attackers, were also killed.
The government has thus far been unable to stop the violence, carried out mostly by young Palestinians unaffiliated with known militant groups and apparently acting on their own. Israeli security officials, however, said Tuesday’s seemingly co-ordinated attacks indicated the outburst of violence was starting to take on a more organised fashion, from groups behind the planning and those carrying out attacks. The officials said Israel expected the current wave to last at least a few more weeks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attacks against civilians and said that violence between Israelis and Palestinians "has got to stop". Following talks with Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and their Australian counterparts, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne, in Boston, Mr Kerry called the situation in Israel too volatile and stressed what he called the importance of all people to avoid what he called provocative statements that could inflame tensions further.
"This violence and any incitement to violence has got to stop," he said. Mr Kerry said he had spoken with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stress his concerns.
On Tuesday Mr Netanyahu left a meeting of his security cabinet to tell parliament he would take a series of "aggressive steps" to halt the wave of violence. "Today we will decide on a series of additional aggressive steps in our war against terrorists and inciters," he said in a speech to the Knesset. "We will use, and not hesitate to use, all means at our disposal to restore calm."
The attacks have caused panic in Israel and raised fears the region is on the cusp of a new round of heavy violence or even a third intifada. The violence erupted a month ago over the Jewish New Year, fuelled by rumours Israel was plotting to take over Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, sacred to Muslims and Jews. Palestinians have repeatedly barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City, atop the Temple Mount, hurling stones and firebombs at police.
Israel has adamantly denied the allegations and accused Palestinian leaders of inciting the violence and spreading lies. "I tell the Palestinian Authority, do not turn murderers into heroes," Mr Netanyahu said on Tuesday. Mr Abbas has spoken out against violence, but he is deeply unpopular with his public because of the failure of peace talks and lack of hope for finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Violence was initially confined to East Jerusalem and the West Bank — territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for a future state — but later spread to Israeli cities. Violent protests have also broken out along the Israel-Gaza border. Eight Israelis have died in a string of stabbings, shootings and the stoning of a car, while 29 Palestinians — including 12 identified by Israel as attackers — have been killed.
In Tuesday’s violence, a pair of Palestinian men boarded a bus and began shooting and stabbing passengers, while another assailant rammed a car into a bus stop, then got out of his vehicle and began hacking bystanders with a long knife. The near-simultaneous attacks, along with two stabbings in the central Israeli city of Raanana, marked the most serious outbreak of violence since the current round of tensions erupted.
Israelis brace as Palestinians torch Jewish shrine
Saturday, October 17, 2015
JERUSALEM: Palestinians torched a site revered by Jews in the West Bank yesterday, amid calls for fresh protests after more than two weeks of deadly unrest. Video showed what looked like an extensive blaze at the site in the northern city of Nablus known as Joseph’s Tomb, and the Israeli army called the attack "a despicable act" of desecration.
Palestinians have called for a "Friday of revolution" against Israel and Jerusalem police barred men under 40 years of age from attending the main weekly prayers at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque.
Israeli security forces have been deployed in force in Jerusalem after two weeks of Palestinian attacks across Israel. Arab neighbourhoods of annexed East Jerusalem have been sealed since Wednesday. "Police and border police forces will act with determination and without compromise against any attempt to disturb order or public safety," a police statement said yesterday.
The UN Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting at Jordan’s request early today to discuss the upsurge of violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early yesterday reiterated his willingness to meet Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas, while accusing him of inciting and encouraging violence. "It’s time that President Abbas stops not only justifying it, but also calling for it," he said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also warned the Palestinian leader not to incite violence. "President Abbas has been committed to non-violence. He needs to be condemning this, loudly and clearly," said Mr Kerry, who plans to travel to the region "in the coming days" to try to calm tempers. Mr Abbas has called for peaceful protest, but frustrated Palestinian youths have defied attempts to restore calm.
Israel is to deploy some 300 soldiers from tomorrow to reinforce police stretched thin by the unrest. The last time soldiers deployed in such large numbers was in 2002, during the second intifada.
Joseph’s Tomb, inside a compound in the Palestinian refugee camp of Balata in Nablus, has been the scene of recurring violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Jews believe it to be the final resting place of the biblical Joseph, while Muslims believe that an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Yussef (Joseph) Dawiqat, was buried there two centuries ago.
The shrine is under Palestinian control and off-limits to Israelis except on escorted trips organised by the army. The military said it would make the repairs necessary to allow visits to continue. "The burning and desecration of Joseph’s Tomb last night is a blatant violation and contradiction of the basic value of freedom of worship," spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said.
Seven Israelis have been killed and dozens wounded and at least 30 Palestinians have died and hundreds more wounded in clashes with Israeli forces that began on October 1, when a Hamas cell murdered a Jewish settler couple in the West Bank in front of their children. Those killings followed clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound last month. Israel’s best-selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, carried photographs on Thursday of Jews arming themselves with broomsticks and rolling pins, as gun sellers said demand had skyrocketed.
Netanyahu warns Israelis over vigilante violence
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Israelis against vigilantism following the death of an Eritrean man on Monday, mistakenly shot and beaten by a mob during an attack in which a soldier was killed.
More than two weeks of unrest have raised warnings of the risk of a full-scale Palestinian uprising, while some Israeli politicians have urged residents to arm themselves to fend off the threat of stabbings and gun assaults. The attacks, and violent protests which have erupted across Israel and the Palestinian territories, have prompted a range of security measures, while Israel has rejected a proposal for international observers at a key religious site.
"We are a law-abiding country. No one must take the law into their own hands," Mr Netanyahu told officials from his Likud party yesterday after Monday’s incident in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Some critics accused Israel’s leaders of fostering the charged climate, while others called for the swift prosecution of the crazed mob.
"It is a disgrace to Israeli society, and those that carried out this lynching need to be found and brought to justice," Yaakov Amidror, Mr Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, told Israel Radio. "Even if it was the terrorist himself, by the way, after he was shot, after he was neutralised and lying on the floor, you need to be an animal to torment him."
The mob violence came after a gunman also armed with a knife stormed a bus station in Beersheba, shooting dead soldier Omri Levi, 19, and wounding about 10. The gunman, identified as Arab Israeli Mohannad al-Aqaby, 21, was killed, while a security guard at the bus station shot the 29-year-old Eritrean, thinking he was a second attacker. A mob also beat him, Israeli media reported.
Video that spread online appears to show the Eritrean lying on the ground after being shot and receiving blows to the head and body from bystanders. Police identified him as Habtom Zarhum, with Israeli media describing him as an asylum-seeker, like many Eritreans who have come to Israel. Police promised an investigation, saying they "considered this incident as extremely serious".
The relentless violence has defied an Israeli security crackdown as well as international calls for both sides to calm tensions. Many of the attacks have seen young Palestinians with knives stabbing Israelis before being shot dead.
At least 41 Palestinians have died since the start of the month, including alleged attackers, while eight Israelis have been killed. Clashes at the al-Aqsa mosque compound between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in September preceded the current wave of violence. Muslims fear Israel will seek to change rules governing the site, the third holiest site in Islam, which is in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
It is also the most sacred site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount and who are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions. Mr Netanyahu has said repeatedly he has no intention of changing the rules.
US Secretary of State John Kerry renewed his call for an end to the violence, while adding that "Israel has every right in the world to protect itself". Israel has began erecting a temporary wall between the east Jerusalem Palestinian neighbourhood of Jabel Mukaber and Jewish neighbourhood Armon Hanatziv to protect it from firebomb and stone attacks.
Amid the seemingly random attacks, Israelis have stocked up on mace and pepper spray, and some public officials are openly carrying personal weapons and encouraging the public to do the same. Security has been increased, and especially in Jerusalem. The violence has led to fear and sometimes outright panic.
Following an attack at Jerusalem’s bus station last week, a swarm of security forces and armed civilians ran along a central road in search of a second assailant following a false alarm. Elsewhere, an Israeli man stabbed a fellow Jew after mistaking his dark-skinned victim for an Arab.
Jerusalem: Fresh violence flared between Israelis and Palestinians last night as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to install security cameras at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in a bid to defuse tensions. Palestinian woman was shot and wounded by border police in the southern West Bank city of Hebron last night after attempting to stab officers there, police said.
Earlier, a Palestinian stabbed and wounded an Israeli man in the West Bank and a Palestinian was shot several times by an Israeli settler while picking olives, according to the army and security sources. Knife attacks, shootings and protests have become a near daily occurrence since October 1 in the latest surge of violence in the decades-old conflict, sparking a diplomatic scramble to defuse what many fear may become a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
The focal point of the latest unrest is the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, and on Saturday Mr Netanyahu agreed on new measures to allay Palestinian fears that he plans to change longstanding rules governing the site. He vowed Jews would continue to be allowed to visit but not pray at the compound and agreed that 24-hour surveillance cameras could be installed.
"Israel has an interest in placing cameras on all parts of the Temple Mount," Mr Netanyahu said in a statement yesterday. "Firstly, to refute the claim Israel is violating the status quo. Secondly, to show where the provocations are really coming from, and prevent them in advance."
However Saeb Erakat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the recognised representative of Palestinians, said Mr Netanyahu’s statements were "only words, not concrete actions". "There will not be calm without political prospects to definitively end the occupation," said Nabil Shaath, an official from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s West Bank-based Fatah.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II — whose country is the custodian of the site — that security cameras would be a "game changer in discouraging anybody from disturbing the sanctity of the holy site."
And Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the cameras "will indeed make a difference and a very strong difference at that". He said Jordanian and Israeli technical teams were likely to meet soon "to discuss the implementation of this idea alongside other measures to maintain and enhance public order."
Ties between Israel and Jordan have often been strained by the site in east Jerusalem, a majority Palestinian area that was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never internationally recognised. In September, clashes broke out between Israeli police and Palestinians angry over an increase in Jewish visitors during the Jewish religious holidays, some of whom secretly pray there. Clashes at the site spiralled into a wave of violence that has seen knife and gun attacks against Israelis.
Yesterday an Israeli was stabbed after getting out of his car to confront Palestinians throwing stones at it, the army said. The army said two assailants disguised as ultra-Orthodox men attacked the Israeli, who shot at them before they fled the scene.
Bibi stomps on Likud MP for raising flying flag over al-Aqsa mosque
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambled last night to contain inflammatory rhetoric from his government over Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, at the heart of a wave of deadly Palestinian unrest. With efforts to defuse tensions strained, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely stoked Palestinian fears by saying it was her "dream to see the Israeli flag flying" over the site, which is sacred to Muslims and Jews. "We should raise the flag, this is Israel’s capital and it is the holiest place to the Jewish people," she said in a TV interview to be broadcast last night.
Mr Netanyahu’s office reacted swiftly with a statement recalling his promise to maintain the status quo which allows Muslims to pray at the site, and Jews to visit but not pray there. "Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear that he expects all members of the government to act accordingly," his office said.
Palestinians accuse Israel of seeking to allow Jewish prayer at the hilltop site — known to Jews as Temple Mount — in the walled Old City. An increase in Jewish visitors to the site, some of whom secretly pray there despite it being forbidden, and inflammatory statements by politicians, have fuelled tensions. Ms Hotovely, from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Knesset TV that Jews should be allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa, but later said: "My personal opinions are not government policy".
The surge in violence that since October 1 has left nine Israelis, 56 Palestinians and one Israeli-Arab dead prompted an intense diplomatic drive to douse tensions that many fear herald a third intifada. After meeting EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in Brussels, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas repeated his criticism of Israel’s "non-respect" for the rules at Al-Aqsa. "The situation in Palestine is extremely serious and grave and may even deteriorate. This is my fear," Mr Abbas said. "The main reason is the feeling of disappointment (among) the young generation," who feel there is "no hope".
A flurry of diplomacy last week saw meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry with Mr Netanyahu in Berlin on Thursday, before he flew to Amman to meet Mr Abbas and King Abdullah II. The result was an agreement to install cameras at the Al-Aqsa compound, which Mr Netanhayu said would refute the claim Israel is violating the status quo and show where the "provocations are really coming from". However the PLO rejected the idea as an effort to allow Israel to exercise more control over the site which it will use "against the Palestinians".
The plan ran into trouble when a team sent by the Jordanian-run trust which administers the site to install the cameras was stopped by Israeli police. Amman has retained custodial rights over the site but Israel controls access. Mr Netanyahu said arrangements to install the cameras "were supposed to be co-ordinated at the professional level", as highlighted by Mr Kerry who mentioned technical teams from both sides should meet.
But the Jordanian government hit back, saying: "Israel has nothing to say about the installation of cameras".
Obama gives up on Mid-East deal
Saturday, November 7, 2015
WASHINGTON: US officials say President Barack Obama has made a "realistic assessment" that a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians is not possible during his final months in office. The stark assessment comes ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Monday.
Officials say the leaders will discuss steps to prevent a confrontation between the parties in the absence of a two-state solution. A wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out two months ago with clashes at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, and spread across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu will be meeting face-to-face for the first time since the US and its partners reached a nuclear accord with Iran, much to the fury of the Israeli Prime Minister. As Mr Netanyahu prepared for the Oval Office meeting, his new media adviser came under fire for having accused Mr Obama of anti-Semitism and Secretary of State John Kerry of being childish.
Since Mr Netanyahu’s office announced Ran Baratz’s appointment as the Prime Minister’s head of public diplomacy and media on Thursday, Israeli news sites have dug up a string of explosive comments. In March, Mr Baratz wrote about Mr Obama on Facebook after Mr Netanyahu addressed the US congress to express opposition to the Iran deal, an opposition speech that had drawn heavy criticism from Mr Obama. "Obama’s way of speaking about Netanyahu’s speech — that is the modern face of anti-Semitism in Western and liberal countries," he wrote. "And that comes, of course, with much tolerance and understanding towards Islamic anti-Semitism."
Mr Netanyahu condemned the remarks. "They are inappropriate and do not reflect my positions nor government policy," the Prime Minister posted on Twitter. He would meet Mr Baratz after he returned home from the US. Mr Baratz said they "were written without thinking and sometimes as jokes in language which is appropriate for social networks and for a private person".
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was "readily apparent that that apology was warranted". Mr Kerry spoke with Mr Netanyahu about the matter by phone yesterday. Mr Baratz’s comments "were troubling and offensive," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "We obviously expect government officials from any country, especially our closest allies, to speak respectfully and truthfully about senior US government officials."
Mr Baratz wrote that Mr Kerry’s "mental age" was no older than 12. He also spoke of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in withering terms, saying even Islamic State would not want him as a hostage. Mr Baratz recently wrote on Facebook that Mr Rivlin, whose position is mainly ceremonial, was "such a marginal figure" that he had nothing to fear. "We could send him by paraglider to the Syrian Golan controlled by ISIS" and they would want to send him back, he wrote. Mr Rivlin’s office has asked Mr Netanyahu’s office for explanations regarding the comments about him.
In addition, Ran Baratz, the 42-year-old resident of a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, supported calls in 2004 for the construction of a new Jewish temple at the extremely sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. Both Jews and Muslims revere the compound as sacred. Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions. Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the compound in September preceded a recent wave of deadly violence that has provoked fears of a full-scale Palestinian uprising.
Mr Baratz’s appointment is to be submitted for cabinet approval, and some ministers have said they will oppose it. Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel told Haaretz the comments "undermine the symbols of our government and those of our greatest ally, and may be misconstrued as an official stance."
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed close US-Israeli ties yesterday, during a tightly choreographed White House appearance designed to quiet disputes over Iran and Middle East peace. Speaking in the Oval Office, Mr Obama admitted it was "no secret" the two men disagreed on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, but both sought to end public rancour and focus on areas of co-operation, including a military deal worth more than $US30 billion ($42bn).
Mr Obama offered the combative Israeli Prime Minister a lengthy handshake and hailed the "extraordinary bond" between the two countries. The designed-for-television display of cordiality signalled a willingness on the part of both men to avoid unnecessary drama in the final 12 months of working together. Mr Obama said Israel’s security was a "top" foreign policy priority for his White House.
Officials said the security deal would include the sale of advanced US weapon systems, perhaps including F-35 jets, precision munitions and V-22 Ospreys. The deal will only come into effect after a current accord expires in 2017. "We have closer military and intelligence co-operation than any two administrations in history," Mr Obama said.
Mr Netanyahu tried to bury suggestions — fuelled by his own re-election campaign comments — that he does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. For decades, the prospect of a two-state solution has been the bedrock of peace efforts. Mr Netanyahu had infuriated the White House by suggesting that prospect was dead. US officials feared such comments would only fuel Palestinians scepticism.
"I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace. We’ll never give up our hope for peace," Mr Netanyahu said. "I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state."
Senior US officials admit that a peace deal will not come in 2016, Mr Obama’s final year in office, but they wanted Mr Netanyahu to lay the groundwork for a return to the negotiating table. The White House later described Mr Netanyahu’s comments as "encouraging," but said follow-through was necessary.
Yesterday’s White House summit was the first meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu in more than a year. There was no joint press conference or statements after roughly two hours of meetings. Nonetheless, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the meeting showed the leaders could work together. "It doesn’t mean that they have agreed on every issue and it doesn’t mean that they are the best of friends, but it does mean that they are able to work effectively together to advance the interests of the citizens of their countries," he said.
Mr Netanyahu described the meeting as one of the best he had with the US President. During his last trip to Washington, in March, the Israeli Prime Minister found the door of the White House slammed firmly shut, with Mr Obama refusing to meet him. Mr Obama waited days before phoning Mr Netanyahu to congratulate him on his re-election. The White House had been infuriated by Mr Netanyahu’s decision to appear before the US congress at Republicans’ invitation and urge US legislators to vote against a deal that, while curbing Iran’s nuclear program, lifted economic sanctions immediately and left "Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure".
Mr Netanyahu softened his stance yesterday, saying "we have a common interest in preventing Iran violating the deal that was signed". Mr Obama said the countries "don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon".
Kerry stands with Israel: stabbings are acts of terror
Thursday, November 26, 2015
JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State John Kerry described a wave of Palestinian knife and car-ramming attacks as "acts of terrorism" that must be condemned as he held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on how to end the violence. The bloodshed has been fuelled by Muslim agitation over increased Jewish visits to East Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound — Islam’s third-holiest site and also revered by Jews as the location of two biblical-era temples. The Palestinians are also frustrated by the failure of decades of peace talks to deliver them an independent state.
Flashback: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with a delegation of Muslim and Christian clerics, east Jerusalem activists, on September 16, 2015, in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinians wouldn’t allow Israelis to "desecrate" Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. Referring to the tensions surrounding visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, Abbas said: "Al-Aqsa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet. We won’t allow them to do so and we will do whatever we can to defend Jerusalem."
Abbas said that the Palestinians were determined to prevent Israel from passing its scheme to "divide" the Aqsa Mosque compound. "There will be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem," he stressed. "We are in Jerusalem and we will stay in it to defend our Islamic and Christian holy sites. We’re not going to leave our country."
Abbas praised Muslim male and female worshipers whose job is to harass Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount. "Each drop of blood that was spilled in Jerusalem is pure blood as long as it’s for the sake of Allah. Every shahid (martyr) will be in heaven and every wounded person will be rewarded, by Allah’s will."
Mr Kerry met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, saying they would discuss ways to restore calm in the region. With US-backed talks on a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory frozen since early last year, Mr Netanyahu said there could be no peace while the "onslaught of terror" continued.
With the region’s focus on the conflict in Syria, Mr Netanyahu gave no sign he would acquiesce to the American expectation of concrete measures to ease the situation. Mr Netanyahu had told Mr Kerry that the root of the current wave of violence was Palestinian "incitement on social media", and said that "civilian Palestinian projects" would be allowed to advance only when Israel experiences a "return of the quiet", an Israeli official said. The Prime Minister also conditioned Palestinian construction in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank on international recognition of Israel’s right to build in settlement blocs.
Shortly before Mr Kerry and Mr Netanyahu met in Jerusalem, a Palestinian drove his car into three Israeli soldiers and a paramilitary border policeman in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, injuring all four, the army said. Israeli forces shot and wounded the driver. "It is very clear to us that the terrorism, these acts of terrorism which have been taking place, deserve the condemnation that they are receiving," Mr Kerry said with Mr Netanyahu at his side. "And today I express my complete condemnation for any act of terror that takes innocent lives and disrupts the day-to-day life of a nation."
Later, Mr Kerry met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah in what he described afterwards as "a long and very constructive and serious conversation". He gave no details of steps discussed with either Mr Abbas or Mr Netanyahu to end the violence, and there was no sign progress had been made. "I know that the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, in Gaza is, at this moment, very dire, that there are extraordinary concerns, obviously, about the violence," Mr Kerry said.
Eighty-six Palestinians, many teenagers, have been killed since October 1, some while carrying out assaults and others in clashes with troops. Nineteen Israelis and an American have been killed in the Palestinian attacks. Mr Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of using excessive force to quell attacks, saying that in many cases assailants could have been stopped and detained without being shot and killed.
War knocking on Israel’s door
Jamie Walker, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, January 2, 2016
Syria’s civil war has intensified on Israel’s doorstep, injecting further risk and uncertainty into the conflict as forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad push towards a sensitive frontier with the Jewish state. The offensive launched by the Syrian army and allied militia was the first in the country’s south since Russia joined the war three months ago and revives fighting in the Golan Heights, the fortified border Israel shares with Syria.
In the teeth of the onslaught, Syrian rebel groups claimed the attacks were supported by Russian warplanes, though there was no independent confirmation of this. As an avowed ally of Assad, Russia has been accused of targeting Syrian opposition forces in addition to striking Islamic State, an enemy it shares with the US-led military coalition (involving Australia) as well as the embattled dictator’s regime.
Russian generals boasted this week that aerial bombing had destroyed more than 2000 road tankers smuggling black market oil into Turkey from Islamic State-held territory in Syria and northern Iraq, disrupting a key supply of hard currency to the jihadist group. At the same time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 2371 people had died in the Russian air bombardment of Syria to date, 792 civilians (and 1579 fighters). The number of other opposition fighters killed — 924 — exceeded by half Islamic State’s casualties, the London-based monitor estimated.
Syrian government forces kicked off the ground attack on Thursday under the cover of fog and freezing rain, storming villages near the Israeli border in a bid to claw back territory lost to the rebel alliance during the past two years. "You can hardly (see) someone only a few metres away from you," said Abu Yahya, a spokesman for a rebel group quoted by Reuters.
Israel occupied its portion of the Golan Heights in 1967 and the volatility of the border with Syria’s Quneitra province has been underlined by the bloody civil war that has raged there since 2011. The Israeli military has been accused of reaching an accommodation to keep the peace with Syrian rebel groups, including al-Qa’ida offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as al-Nusra Front, under which injured fighters have been transferred to Israeli hospitals, angering the largely pro-Assad Druze community that has a presence on both sides of the frontier. The Israel Defence Forces denies this.
But Israel’s professed neutrality was brought into open question this week when it was accused by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia militia backed by Iran, another Assad sponsor, of assassinating one of its commanders. The man, Samir Kuntar, was found responsible for leading a notorious 1979 terrorist attack in Israel that killed a father, two children and a policeman.
Kuntar was released in 2008 from an Israeli jail as part of a swap by the Israelis with Hezbollah, which he represented in Syria in defence of Assad’s government. Kuntar died on December 19 when his apartment building in Damascus was levelled by an explosion caused, according to Hezbollah, by an Israeli missile strike.
While an Israeli government minister welcomed his death as "happy" news, officials would not be drawn on whether the IDF was responsible, or claims that Syrian civilians had died along with other Hezbollah field commanders. The organisation’s leader in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly vowed revenge against Israel.
The Syrian government offensive in Quneitra, so close to Israeli military positions in the Golan, risks inflaming the tensions. The commander of one opposition group has accused the Russians of launching dozens of air raids in support. Reeling, the rebels were reported last night to have been pushed out of the village of Samdaniya al Gharbiya near the Israeli border.
The hub of Hamdanieh in the Syrian Golan Heights was a scene of savage fighting, according to local reports. Syrian state media said Kuntar was involved in planning an unsuccessful push by government forces in the area last February. Since then, Islamic State columns have encroached on the Golan, complicating the security outlook for the Israelis.
Israel’s southern border with Egypt in the Sinai desert is also under pressure from insurgents affiliated with Islamic State, arguably the group’s most successful franchise. However, the extremists are losing ground in their heartlands of south and central Syria and central and northern Iraq, reinforced by the recapture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi by Iraqi government forces this week.
The damage the Russians claim to have inflicted on Islamic State’s bootleg oil business will add to the squeeze, though the US disputes the toll Moscow has trumpeted. Islamic State is estimated to extract 44,000 barrels of oil a day in Syria and 4000 barrels in Iraq, which is largely moved to market through Turkey, swelling its war chest.
Israel’s Arab MPs warned of expulsion
Jamie Walker, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Arab members of Israel’s parliament should be drummed out of the Knesset for offering comfort to the families of Palestinian gunmen involved in terrorist attacks. The latest wave of violence was sparked last October by unsubstantiated rumours that Israel intended to extend control over the Noble Sanctuary precinct of the Old City, revered by Muslims. Containing the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosquem, it tops what is known to Jews and Christians as Temple Mount, and is holy to them, too.
The uprising began with random knife attacks on or car ramming of Israeli Jews, but there was no indication the campaign was being orchestrated. After a lull, a number of attacks this year have sounded alarm bells with the authorities. On January 1, a gunman named Nashat Milhem opened fire on a packed Tel Aviv pub, killing two and wounding seven; he was later tracked down and shot dead by security forces.
Last week, a Palestinian youth accidentally blew himself up while approaching Israeli troops outside of annexed East Jerusalem with a homemade pipe bomb. And on Wednesday, 19-year-old border policewoman Hadar Cohen was fatally wounded by gunshots and her female partner critically stabbed after they confronted the three Palestinian attackers outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City. The men were carrying automatic weapons, knives and at least one pipebomb. All three were killed.
At the same time, Hamas was forced to own up to at least three tunnel collapses, some involving the death of diggers, reinforcing Israeli claims that the Islamist group was using international reconstruction funds to re-establish underground lines used for smuggling to Egypt and for attacking Israel. Much of the network was destroyed in the 2014 war.
Shalomi Eldar, a columnist for online newsletter Al-Monitor, says a vicious cycle is in swing, bloodier with each evolution. “One worrying development is already clear: a transition from stabbing attacks by frustrated youths to the use of firearms by those wishing to take revenge for their deaths," he says. “Such shooting attacks threaten to change the nature of the uprising and force Israel to modify its response."
Declaring that Wednesday’s violence outside the Old City “represents an escalation", Jerusalem deputy mayor Dov Kalonivich has asked that the army put more troops on to the streets. Hamas had taunted that the attackers had seemed to have no difficulty penetrating Israeli security to travel from Jenin, on the West Bank, to the gates of the Old City, Israel’s biggest tourist attraction and home to a thriving community of nearly 40,000 people. Mr Kalonivich wants the security forces to be more proactive: read (1) more stop and searches by the Israeli Police and Israel Defence Forces (2) checkpoints on access points to Arab-dominated East Jerusalem (3) more lockdowns in the West Bank territories.
Mr Netanyahu, having visited the surviving policewoman from Wednesday’s attack, took aim at Arab Knesset members who had paid their respects to the loved ones of the Palestinians killed on Wednesday. “Members of the Knesset who go to comfort families of terrorists who murdered Israelis do not deserve to be in the Israeli Knesset. I have asked the Speaker of the Knesset what steps can be taken against them," he said.
His comments have been supported by other hardliners in the right-leaning government, ramping up tensions as the nation comes to grips with that foiled mass-casualty terror attack in Jerusalem’s Old City and heavy jail sentences for Jewish youths who killed a Palestinian boy in a hate-crime ahead of the 2014 Gaza war.
A court in Jerusalem on Thursday sentenced two of the three youths who kidnapped, tortured and burnt to death Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir to unusually lengthy terms: life imprisonment for the older of the attackers, 17, and 21 years’ jail for a second youth, 16. The ringleader, Yosef Ben David, 31, has claimed insanity and is yet to be sentenced.
Khdeir was abducted on July 2 2014 outside a mosque in East Jerusalem, a day after the burial of three Israeli teens, murdered by Palestinians. He was beaten and set alight in a forest outside the city. The post-mortem examination showed the 16-year-old was still breathing when the flames consumed his body.
The murderers admitted the attack was in revenge for the deaths of the three Jewish teenagers who had been kidnapped on June 12 2014, and killed while hitchhiking in the occupied territories. It (also) set in train tit-tor-tat missile exchanges and artillery battles between Israel and Gaza that led to the war of 2014 and the deaths of an estimated 2139 Palestinians and 71 Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Tens of thousands of Syrians flee Assad bombardment in Aleppo
Tens of thousands of Syrians fled their homes yesterday as regime troops pressed a major Russian-backed offensive around second city Aleppo, as Moscow and Ankara traded barbs over the escalating crisis. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking at a conference in London where donors pledged more than $US10 billion ($14bn) in aid for Syrians, said up to 70,000 people were headed towards his country to escape the fighting.
Mr Davutoglu and activists said 300,000 people were isolated in Aleppo after the rebels’ main supply route from Turkey was severed by regime forces backed by Russian warplanes. “The situation in the north countryside of Aleppo is catastrophic," said Maamoun al-Khateeb, an activist from nearby Marea village. “Civilians are now besieged from three sides and have just one road to the Turkish territories," he said. Regime forces threatened from the south, Islamic State jihadists from the east and Kurdish fighters from the west.
As the offensive raged, diplomatic tensions were also rising, with Moscow accusing opposition supporter Ankara of preparing to invade Syria, saying it had spotted troops and military equipment on the border. Hours earlier, Mr Davutoglu had accused supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, which include Russia, of “committing the same war crimes" as the regime.
The push by government forces has been backed by Russian bombings, including strikes that killed at least 21 civilians, including three children, on Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict and more than half the country’s population has been forced from its homes, including more than four million people who fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Western nations have accused Syria’s regime of torpedoing peace talks this week with its military offensive, and Washington demanded Moscow halt its campaign in support of Assad. Negotiations to end Syria’s five-year war barely got off the ground and on Thursday were suspended. Aleppo, Syria’s former economic powerhouse, has been divided between opposition control in the east and regime control in the west since mid-2012.
The rebels’ main supply line to Turkey was severed on Wednesday when regime troops broke an opposition siege of two Shia towns, Nubol and Zahraa, on the route to the border. Regime forces entered the two towns on Thursday to the cheers of residents, who chanted pro-government slogans and showered the fighters with rice.
Elsewhere in the region, the advance prompted tens of thousands to flee for fear of being caught up in the fighting. Mr Davutoglu said 60,000 to 70,000 people were “moving towards Turkey" and 10,000 were “waiting at the door" on the border because of airstrikes and attacks around Aleppo.
A high-ranking Syrian official described the Aleppo advances as important, but said the regime had even more ambitious goals. “The next objectives are to close the borders with Turkey to prevent the arrival of troops and weapons, then taking Aleppo province, then Idlib province, and finally Idlib city," he said.
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