Jewish groups mobilize in Baton Rouge to aid flood victims


At midnight on Aug. 13, the floodwaters began to flow into Ellen Sager’s Baton Rouge home.

Her husband grabbed some important family documents, then the couple gathered some snacks and headed to a room on the second floor with their two teenage children. Sager assumed the waters would recede and the family could return within several hours.

But after spending the entire next day cooped up in the room, the Sagers had to be evacuated from their block by boat. The water had risen to 4 feet outside the house and to 2 feet on the first floor.

Now their belongings sit in a heap on their front lawn. The house has been gutted — baseboards, floor molding and walls all removed — leaving a shell. With flood insurance, the Sagers have rented furniture and moved into a three-bedroom apartment, where they will live for the next six months.

The high school their son and daughter attend has moved into a church. They and their classmates won’t have lockers and will be limited by space to one notebook each.

“People are paralyzed,” said Sager, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge. “People don’t know what to do. You’re watching your life being hauled away into a dumpster and you need to start all over.”

Sager’s was among 34 Jewish families who lost their homes in the flooding that has hit the Baton Rouge area since Aug. 12, when heavy rains led rivers to overflow and fill whole neighborhoods. Thirteen people have died in the floods.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber, a local business group, has estimated that up to 110,000 homes could be affected by the flooding. The affected areas are home to nearly 300,000 people, and the White House has reported that more than 100,000 have applied for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama visited the flood zone.

Local residents have described scenes of destruction in Baton Rouge: roads blocked by mounds of people’s ruined belongings, homeowners searching for help, the remnants of people’s lives being hauled to the trash. Anna Herman, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jacobs Camp in Mississippi, recalled seeing furniture, TVs and fridges on the street.

“You can barely drive down the road because there’s so much stuff,” said Herman, who is filling in for Sager at the Baton Rouge federation. “You saw all these families’ lives on the streets, trashed.”

The city’s small Jewish community, numbering about 1,500, has turned its focus to helping flood victims. The local federation is raising money to help victims and has received an emergency donation of $25,000 from the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

Two social workers have volunteered with the federation to help victims cope with the disaster’s psychological effects, and the federation is hoping to hire a full-time social worker to that end. Once it has assessed the overall need, the federation hopes to assist non-Jewish victims, too.

Meanwhile, the city’s two synagogues and Chabad have worked to help Jewish victims, pairing each affected family with another Jewish “buddy” family that checks in with them daily. Families who have lost their homes have taken up residence with family and friends.

“While we are small, we are a very tight-knit Jewish community,” said Deborah Sternberg, president of the Reform Congregation B’nai Israel. “Everyone knows everyone. We stick together and support each other. It has been very tough for the families that experienced loss. What has been so amazing is how quickly the community has stepped up in Baton Rouge.”

Nechama, a Minnesota-based Jewish disaster relief organization, has mobilized 100 volunteers to work on damaged houses since last week. The group has assessed the damage at 25 houses, and is clearing them out one by one in a process called “muck and gut.”

The volunteers enter houses and clear out any property damaged by the flood. Volunteers described hauling out couches, clothes, dressers and trinkets laden with water. After the property is evacuated, the volunteers strip the house of its drywall, plaster and insulation, down to a dry core that can be rebuilt when the waters fully recede.

“We try to take the house down to the bone so it can be remediated or moved back into or built out,” said Mark McGilvery, a field operations specialist for Nechama. “Another hard thing to do is to keep interest once the news turns the page on whatever the next story is. When volunteers aren’t available, people will be in a real crunch.”

Tana Velen, the NextGen manager at the New Orleans federation, had to clear out individual photos floating on the first floor of a woman’s house while she mucked and gutted last week. Velen brought 15 volunteers from New Orleans on Saturday and hopes to bring more next weekend.

“Every single street is lined with enormous piles of people’s lives they’ve had to discard as trash,” Velen said. “It’s a stark contrast. You come from your home, with everything you have, and see what these people have lost.”

Nepal quake victims still stranded, PM says toll could be 10,000


People stranded in remote villages and towns across Nepal were still waiting for aid and relief to arrive on Tuesday, four days after a devastating earthquake destroyed buildings and roads and killed more than 4,600 people.

The government has yet to assess the full scale of the damage wrought by Saturday's 7.9 magnitude quake, unable to reach many mountainous areas despite aid supplies and personnel pouring in from around the world.

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala told Reuters the death toll could reach 10,000, as information of damage from far-flung villages and towns has yet to come in.

That would surpass the 8,500 who died in a 1934 earthquake, the last disaster on this scale to hit the Himalayan nation.

“The government is doing all it can for rescue and relief on a war footing,” Koirala said. “It is a challenge and a very difficult hour for Nepal.”

In Jharibar, a village in the hilly Gorkha district of Nepal close to the quake's epicenter, Sunthalia dug for hours in the rubble of her collapsed home on Saturday to recover the bodies of two of her children, a 10-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son.

Another son aged four miraculously survived.

HUNDREDS KILLED IN LANDSLIDES

In Barpak, further north, rescue helicopters were unable to find a place to land. On Tuesday, soldiers had started to make their way overland, first by bus, then by foot.

Army helicopters also circled over Laprak, another village in the district best known as the home of Gurkha soldiers.

A local health official estimated that 1,600 of the 1,700 houses there had been razed. Helicopters dropped food packets in the hope that survivors could gather them up.

In Sindhupalchowk, about 3.5 hours by road northeast of Kathmandu, the earthquake was followed by landslides, killing 1,182 people and seriously injuring 376. A local official said he feared many more were trapped and more aid was needed.

“There are hundreds of houses where our people have not been able to reach yet,” said Krishna Pokharel, the district administrator. “There is a shortage of fuel, the weather is bad and there is not enough help coming in from Kathmandu.”

International aid has begun arriving in Nepal, but disbursement has been slow, partly because aftershocks have sporadically closed the airport.

According to the home (interior) ministry, the confirmed death toll stands at 4,682, with more than 9,240 injured.

The United Nations said 8 million people were affected by the quake and that 1.4 million people were in need of food.

Nepal's most deadly quake in 81 years also triggered a huge avalanche on Mount Everest that killed at least 18 climbers and guides, including four foreigners, the worst single disaster on the world's highest peak.

All the climbers who had been stranded at camps high up on Everest had been flown by helicopters to safety, mountaineers reported on Tuesday.

Up to 250 people were missing after an avalanche hit a village on Tuesday in Rasuwa district, a popular trekking area to the north of Kathmandu, district governor Uddhav Bhattarai said.

FRUIT VENDORS RETURN TO STREETS

A series of aftershocks, severe damage from the quake, creaking infrastructure and a lack of funds have complicated rescue efforts in the poor country of 28 million people sandwiched between India and China.

In Kathmandu, youths and relatives of victims were digging into the ruins of destroyed buildings and landmarks.

“Waiting for help is more torturous than doing this ourselves,” said Pradip Subba, searching for the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law in the debris of Kathmandu's historic Dharahara tower.

The 19th century tower collapsed on Saturday as weekend sightseers clambered up its spiral stairs. Scores of people were killed when it crumpled.

Elsewhere in the capital's ancient Durbar Square, groups of young men cleared rubble from around an ancient temple, using pickaxes, shovels and their hands. Several policemen stood by, watching.

Heavy rain late on Tuesday slowed the rescue work.

In the capital, as elsewhere, thousands have been sleeping on pavements, roads and in parks, many under makeshift tents.

Hospitals are full to overflowing, while water, food and power are scarce.

There were some signs of normality returning on Tuesday, with fruit vendors setting up stalls on major roads and public buses back in operation.

Officials acknowledged that they were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.

“The big challenge is relief,” said Chief Secretary Leela Mani Paudel, Nepal's top bureaucrat. “We are really desperate for more foreign expertise to pull through this crisis.”

India and China, which have used aid and investment to court Kathmandu for years, were among the first contributors to the international effort to support Nepal's stretched resources.

Egypt receives Arab billions, names prime minister


Egypt named an interim prime minister on Tuesday and rich Gulf states poured in $8 billion in aid, as the biggest Arab nation sought ways out of a crisis a day after troops killed dozens of Islamists.

Interim head of state Adli Mansour announced a faster-than-expected timetable to hold elections in about six months. Scorned by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, he is under mounting pressure to plot a path back to democracy less than a week after the army overthrew the first freely elected president.

A day after 55 people were killed when troops opened fire on Brotherhood supporters, Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist and former finance minister, was named interim prime minister. Former U.N. diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, now a liberal party leader, was named deputy president for foreign affairs.

News quickly followed of $8 billion in grants, loans and fuel from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Crucially, the choice of Beblawi won the acceptance of the ultra-orthodox Islamist Nour Party – sometime ally of toppled President Mohamed Morsi and his Brotherhood. Nour leaders have been courted by the military-backed interim authorities to prove that Islamists will not be marginalized by the new government.

Yet the worst day of violence in more than a year has left Egypt more divided than ever in its modern history. The Brotherhood is isolated and furious at Egyptians who passionately reject it.

The bloodshed has raised alarm among key donors such as the United States and the European Union, as well as in Israel, with which Egypt has had a U.S.-backed peace treaty since 1979.

Rich Gulf Arab states, long suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, have shown fewer reservations. The United Arab Emirates offered a grant of $1 billion and a loan of $2 billion. Saudi Arabia offered $3 billion in cash and loans, and an additional $2 billion worth of much-needed fuel.

In a further demonstration of its support, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited Egypt on Tuesday, the most senior foreign official to arrive since Morsi's removal.

“EVEN IF THEY KILL US ALL”

The Brotherhood says Monday's violence was an unprovoked attack on worshippers holding peaceful dawn prayers outside a barracks where they believed Morsi was being held.

But in a sign of the country's deep divisions, many Cairo residents seemed to accept the official account and blamed the Brotherhood for its members' deaths. That has left the deposed president's followers isolated and angrier than ever.

Thousands of Morsi followers gathered at the site of a vigil near a mosque in northeast Cairo, where they have vowed to remain camping out in the fierce heat until he is restored to power – an aim that now seems vain.

“Revolutionaries! Free people! We will complete the journey!” chanted a speaker as the crowd held aloft a wooden coffin draped in an Egyptian flag.

Medical sources confirmed at least 55 people had been killed, raising the death toll in the incident, the deadliest in the two and a half years of Egypt's political turmoil apart from a riot at a soccer stadium in 2012.

A year after Morsi took power, millions of people took to the streets on June 30 to demand his resignation, fearing he was orchestrating a creeping Islamist takeover of the state and frustrated by his failure to turn around the crippled economy.

To the Brotherhood, his removal amounted to the reversal of democracy by entrenched interests who would never accept their election victories. The long-banned Brotherhood fears a return to the suppression endured for decades under autocratic rulers.

“The only road map is the restoration of the president elected by the people,” said Hoda Ghaneya, 45, a Muslim Brotherhood women's activist. “We will not accept less than that, even if they kill us all.”

The streets of Cairo were quieter on Tuesday but the Brotherhood called for more protests later in the day, raising the risk of further violence.

Away from the camp, its support is patchy in the capital. Some in Cairo are flying banners from balconies with portraits of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military commander who toppled Morsi.

In an address before Wednesday's start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Sisi made clear who was in charge: “No party has the right to oppose the will of the nation,” he said.

Egyptian media, mainly controlled by the state and Morsi's opponents, praised the army and denounced Monday's violence as the provocation of terrorists. Many Cairenes seemed to agree.

“Of course I condemn this: Egyptian versus Egyptian. But the people attacked the army, not the other way around,” said Abdullah Abdel Rayal, 58, shopping in a street market in downtown Cairo on Tuesday morning.

Yet the Brotherhood still maintains support of many in rural provinces, after decades of dedicated underground organization.

ARAB CASH URGENTLY NEEDED

Saudi and UAE aid provides Egypt with urgently needed funds to maintain the subsidized fuel and food supplies it gives its 84 million people. Its coffers are running desperately short since the unrest of the Arab Spring drove away tourists and investors.

Both Gulf countries had promised aid after former autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, but withheld it under Morsi.

Mansour, the judge named head of state by the army when it brought down Morsi last week, decreed overnight that a parliamentary vote would be held in about six months, faster than many expected. That would be followed by a presidential election. An amended constitution would be put to a referendum.

The Brotherhood rejected the plan. Senior Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian condemned a “decree issued after midnight by a person appointed by the putchists, usurping the legislative power from a council elected by the people, and bringing the country back to stage zero”.

The military-backed authorities seem to be resigned to restarting politics without the Brotherhood. Instead, they are courting the country's other main Islamist group, Nour, which had said on Monday it was pulling out of all political talks as a result of the attack on Morsi supporters.

Nour's signal that it would now support Beblawi as prime minister showed it had not fully abandoned politics.

“We do not object to Dr. Hazem. He is an important economic figure,” Nour Party head Younes Makhyoun told Reuters by telephone. “He has no party affiliations that I am aware of.”

In what appeared to be an olive branch to Islamists – and a move that also angered liberals – Mansour's decree included language put into the constitution last year that defined the principles of Islamic law, or sharia.

Nathan Brown, a leading expert on Egypt's constitution at George Washington University in Washington, said that while the overnight decree laid out a clear sequence for transition, it also repeated some mistakes made two years ago, after Mubarak.

“It was drawn up by an anonymous committee; it was issued by executive fiat; the timetable is rushed; the provisions for consultation are vague; and it promises inclusiveness but gives no clear procedural guidelines for it,” he told Reuters.

The West has had a difficult time formulating a public response, after years of pushing Arab leaders towards democracy while at the same time nervous about the Brotherhood's rise. Demonstrators on both sides in Egypt have chanted anti-American slogans, accusing Washington of backing their enemies.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called Monday's violence “unacceptable” and said it should be investigated.

The military authorities did indeed announce an inquiry on Tuesday. They said they were pursuing 650 unidentified people for offences from “thuggery” to murder and terrorism.

Washington has refrained from calling the military intervention a “coup” – a label that under U.S. law would require it to halt aid. It called on Egypt's army to exercise “maximum restraint” but has said it is not about to halt funding for Egypt, including the $1.3 billion it gives the military.

A U.S. official said on Tuesday that Washington encouraged that the Egyptian authorities had laid out a plan.

The army has insisted that the overthrow was not a coup and that it was enforcing the “will of the people” after millions took to the streets on June 30 to call for Morsi's resignation.

Although Tuesday was comparatively quiet, there were minor violent incidents reported by late morning. Gunmen fired on a church in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal overnight. Two people were wounded, medical sources said.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Maggie Fick, Alexander Dziadosz, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Peter Graff, Patrick Werr, Shadia Nasralla and Tom Finn in Cairo, Roberta Rampton, Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

U.S. to give Syrian rebels medical, food aid, not arms


The United States said on Thursday it will for the first time give non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and more than double its aid to Syria's civilian opposition, disappointing opponents of President Bashar Assad clamoring for Western weapons.

The U.S. cast the aid as a way to bolster the rebels' popular support. It will include medical supplies, food for rebel fighters and $60 million to help the civil opposition provide basic services like security, education and sanitation.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new steps after a meeting of 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the “Friends of Syria” group.

The aid did not appear to entirely satisfy the Syrian National Council opposition, a fractious Cairo-based group that has struggled to gain traction inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.

“Many sides … focus (more) on the length of the rebel fighter's beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed,” Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib said at an appearance with Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.

TALKS ON PRIME MINISTER POSTPONED

In what analysts described as a sign of disappointment, Syria's political opposition has postponed talks to choose the leader of a provisional government, two opposition sources told Reuters in Beirut.

Opposition leaders hoped a Saturday meeting in Istanbul would elect a prime minister to operate in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, threatened by a slide into chaos as the conflict between Assad's forces and insurgents nears its second anniversary.

While one source said the meeting might happen later in the week, a second source said it had been put off because the three most likely candidates for prime minister had reservations about taking the role without more concrete international support.

“The opposition has been increasingly signalling that it is tired of waiting and no one serious will agree to be head of a government without real political and logistical support,” said Syrian political commentator Hassan Bali, who lives in Germany.

Bali said the U.S. and other members of the core “Friends of Syria” nations appeared intent “on raising the ante against Assad but are not sure how.”

A final communique said participants would “coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defence”.

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. has given $385 million in humanitarian aid but President Barack Obama has so far refused to give arms, arguing it is difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.

On Thursday, however, Kerry said the U.S. would for the first time provide assistance – in the form of medical supplies and the standard U.S. military ration known as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs – to the fighters.

A U.S. official told reporters it would give the aid only to carefully vetted fighters, adding the U.S. was worried that “extremists” opposed to democracy, human rights and tolerance were gaining ground in the country.

“Those members of the opposition who support our shared values … need to set an example of a Syria where daily life is governed neither by the brutality of the Assad regime nor by the agenda of al Qaeda affiliated extremists,” the official said.

If sending non-lethal assistance goes smoothly, it could conceivably offer a model for providing weaponry should Obama ultimately decide to do so.

The continued U.S. refusal to send weapons may compound the frustration that prompted the coalition to say last week it would shun the Rome talks. It attended only under U.S. pressure.

Many in the coalition say Western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Assad.

However, a European diplomat held out the possibility of Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the insurgents.

With fighting raging on largely sectarian lines, French President Francois Hollande said at a Moscow summit that new partners were needed to broker talks on ending the crisis, winning guarded support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We think that this dialogue must find a new form so that it speaks to all parties,” said Hollande, giving few details of his proposal.

Putin said Russia – one of Assad's staunchest allies – would look at Hollande's proposal, “which I think we could consider with all our partners and try to carry out.”

REBELS WANT ANTI-TANK, ANTI-AIRCRAFT ARMS

Russia has said Assad's departure must not be a precondition for talks and a political solution, while the West has sided with Syria's opposition in demanding his removal from power.

Kerry's offer of medical aid and food rations fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the tables against Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.

It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armoured personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.

Last week the European Union opened the way for direct aid to Syrian rebels, but did not lift an arms embargo on Syria.

Kerry said the U.S. role should not be judged in isolation but in the context of what other nations will do.

“What we are doing … is part of a whole,” he said. “I am absolutely confident … that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact of the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”

Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Roger Atwood

Protestant churches’ letter on Israel straining ties with Jews


When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it.

Already, one major American Jewish group has canceled its participation in an Oct. 22 annual Christian-Jewish roundtable involving representatives from 12 Jewish and 12 Christian groups in New York. And other Jewish groups are expressing consternation.

“We’re not going to sit around the table and say ‘kumbaya,’ ” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which pulled out of the program and urged other Jewish groups to follow suit. “This is the clearest message I know to say, ‘You don’t get it. Maybe think about what you don’t get, and at a later date we’ll sit down and talk.’ ”

The letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”

In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.

A number of mainline Protestant churches have had fights at recent conventions over boycotting products made in the West Bank, divesting in companies doing business with Israel or harshly criticizing Israel’s rule of the West Bank.

This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. And in September, the Quaker group Friends Fiduciary Corporation voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.

The timing of last week’s letter is further straining ties between American Jewish and Protestant groups. For one thing, it came just weeks before the annual national meeting meant to ensure smoother ties between the two sides. The Christian-Jewish roundtable, as it is known informally, was developed in 2004, when the divestment issue rose in prominence in Protestant circles.

For another, Jewish groups were upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

“Things are not in a good place,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) umbrella group.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, said boycotting the meeting is not the right response.

“As disheartening as this initiative is, it is critical to continue in our wider commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue, because it has contributed in a positive way over time to the betterment of the Jewish experience,” Marans said. “After all, until two generations ago, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon, and today it is marginalized within the churches. That’s a very important historic development. We cannot lose perspective.”

Felson said JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts. He said he has not yet decided if he will attend the roundtable.

“We feel strongly that if you want the parties to reconcile, we should model reconciliation,” Felson said. “But that’s difficult to do when we’re up against this brand of antipathy.”

Suggesting that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Felson said the signers of the letter are “opening up a Pandora’s box.”

Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in addition to national ones.

“Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers,” Marans said. “Once the antipathy toward Israel of some national leaders is communicated in the context of these relationships, the local religious leadership is heard from and communicates to their national leadership their concerns.

“The Jewish community understands that the overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”

Indeed, some Presbyterians are openly angry with their leader, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who signed the letter.

“We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”

He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”

Parsons did not return calls for comment.

David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a largely evangelical group often billed as the Christian AIPAC, called the move by the mainline Protestant churches to reach out to Congress an “accelerating trend” with a message for the Jewish community.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said Brog, who is Jewish. “Christians will be involved in Israel and the Middle East, whether Jews accept that or not. We cannot take Christian support for Israel for granted. We have to actively engage our Christian neighbors and take the case to them, so that when they are active on this issue, they support Israel.”

Claims Conference steps up aid to Greek Holocaust survivors


The Claims Conference is tripling its aid to Greece’s Holocaust survivors in light of the country’s economic crisis and funding an education program on anti-Semitism due to the recent rise of a neo-Nazi party.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which administers Holocaust reparations from Germany, said Tuesday that it would give $272,000 for 2012 to the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece for social services to Nazi victims. The Claims Conference had provided $86,000 in 2011.

Some 5,000 Jews are living in Greece, including more than 500 Holocaust survivors who have seen their living conditions and social services deteriorate rapidly as the country struggles with the fifth year of a harsh recession.

Government pensions have been slashed, income from property rentals have fallen significantly and there have been steep tax hikes and price rises. At the same time, state social services and medical assistance has been significantly reduced.

“Today’s economic crisis has made these survivors more vulnerable than ever at a time in their lives when they most need aid,” Gregory Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, wrote in a report on the new assistance.

“The Claims Conference is taking dramatic and immediate action to help ease their situation as much as possible and to prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe for this vulnerable population.”

Greece’s prewar community of about 78,000, most of whom lived in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, was nearly wiped out entirely in the Holocaust.

The Claims Conference also said that with the rise of the Golden Dawn party—a fascist party with a Nazi swastika-like flag and Holocaust-denying leader—it also would fund an educational program on anti-Semitism for the first time in Greece.

Running on a populist, anti-immigrant platform, Golden Dawn won 18 seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament in elections earlier this month.

An allocation of nearly $120,000 will go to the Jewish Museum of Greece, which is establishing a program on anti-Semitism that includes a traveling classroom version of the museum’s exhibit.

“For survivors in Greece, already grappling with the catastrophic consequences of the government austerity plan, the emergence of this party adds another dimension to the upheaval that has already made their old age more difficult,” Schneider wrote.

Aid groups urge Israel to lift Gaza blockade


Fifty international aid groups and United Nations agencies issued a joint appeal on Thursday calling on Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas Islamists.

“For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: ‘end the blockade now,’” the petition said.

Amongst the signatories were Amnesty International, Save the Children, the World Health Organization, Oxfam, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and five other U.N. bodies.

Israel imposed restrictions on trade to Gaza in 2001 following the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising and tightened them further in 2007 after Hamas seized power in the coastal enclave adjacent to Egypt, which also enforces a blockade.

It has relaxed them over the past two years in the face of heavy international pressure, but insists on checking all goods entering the territory to prevent arms, or weapons-making equipment, from reaching Hamas.

“All cargo going into Gaza must be checked because Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Just this morning an Israeli farmer who was ploughing his field was shot at from Gaza. Is it really fair to expect Israel to remove the restriction on military use items while the regime in Gaza is as hostile and aggressive as it is to Israel?”

Hamas’s founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel, but its leadership has raised the possibility of entering into a prolonged truce with Israel after years of bloodshed.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Opinion: Reconsideration of state aid to Jewish schools is welcome


For decades, the American Jewish community has debated the advisability, constitutionality and necessity of government aid to Jewish (and other faiths’) parochial schools. But with the United States still experiencing tough economic challenges, the American Jewish community finds its schools under greater financial stress than ever. This reality, alongside the solidification of court rulings upholding government aid programs and a current of broader education reform, has positioned 2012 to be a year in which we see signs of a sea change within the Jewish community over this perennial issue.

Since the mid-1950s, the majority view within the Jewish community has opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it diverts funds from the public schools, breaches the “wall of separation” between religion and state, and runs counter to the communal responsibility to support our own institutions.

On the other side, the Orthodox and other conservative segments of the community advocated for public sector support for Jewish schools. This admittedly minority camp contended that as a matter of economic fairness, citizens paying taxes that support local school budgets are entitled to some support in return; that First Amendment principles did not bar carefully crafted and religion-neutral state aid programs; and that in the absence of full communal support for our schools, resorting to state support was warranted.

In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered in the 1990s and 2000s, the constitutional question was clearly settled in favor of state support programs and against the “strict separationists.” The high court approved state-funded special education teachers in parochial schools, state-funded textbooks and technology, and more, culminating in the 2000 ruling upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program as constitutional. Under the program, publicly funded vouchers could be spent on parochial school tuition.

The liberal camp has also, essentially, lost the argument about the “diversion” of funds.  The historically political champions of the traditional public school systems—Democrats—are deviating from longstanding orthodoxy by strongly backing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately administered (and free from unionized teachers). Inner-city mayors and reform-driven governors are denouncing the social injustice of low-income children trapped in failing public schools and pursuing an array of initiatives to offer opportunity to these children. The debate line is no longer over whether to support “school choice” but simply how expansive that choice will be.

This leaves as the last argument standing the question of necessity, and in the context of the economy of the past five years, America’s Jewish day schools desperately require more support—and it is not within the community’s ability to provide it alone. Today, Jewish day schools (of all denominations) amount to more than a $2 billion enterprise annually, according to the Avi Chai Foundation.  A conservative estimate assesses annual scholarship awards at more than $500 million, and that is nearly twice the amount that was being awarded five years ago. Requests for scholarship showing no signs of abating.

If the Jewish community is going to fund its educational system by itself, we have yet to identify where the funds will come from, let alone the will to make the decisions to secure or re-allocate those funds. The need is clear and present.

And so we get to 2012 and several signs indicating a shift in the debate. One prominent sign is the essay recently published in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Beinart making the “Jewish case” for state funding for Jewish education.  While Beinart’s latest book featuring intense criticism of Israel generated a tidal wave of tough responses from Jewish organizational leaders and pundits, Beinart’s Wall Street Journal column received virtually no comment from the community’s liberal stalwarts.

A second notable sign of shift is the recent political debate in Louisiana in which a new and ambitious school voucher program was enacted into law—with the explicit endorsement of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans—making it the first federation in the country to embrace a school voucher proposal. This action in the Bayou State follows on the JCRCs of Baltimore and Greater Washington endorsements of legislation to create a Maryland state tax credit for contributions to school scholarship funds, and active support for analogous public support programs from Jewish federations in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, where they are already in place.

The UJA-Federation of New York is the federation entity with the largest number of Jewish citizens and day schools within its jurisdiction, so it is a significant sign when it hires a new staffer into its Albany lobbying shop tasked with “day school advocacy,” as it did earlier this year.

Finally, a sign we see down the road is the upcoming convention of the JCPA that will launch a renewed examination of communal policy on the topic of government support for Jewish education.  JCPA, the umbrella entity for national and local Jewish organizations throughout the U.S., last “examined” this topic 15 years ago, but those of us who participated in that discussion thought it a sham, with rejection of all forms of state support a foregone conclusion. This time, with the economic landscape at hand and the federation entities directly participating in state aid programs, we have a hopeful sense that the position adopted by the broader community will not be reflexive and dogmatic but appropriately sensitive and nuanced.

As the Jewish calendar has turned from Passover toward Shavuot, we turn our attention from achieving Jewish freedom to understanding Jewish purpose. The fact that our ancestors’ exodus culminated at Sinai is a lesson to us that our central purpose is the transmission of Jewish knowledge and commitment. Today we do that best through Jewish schools, and we must ensure their viability to ensure the next generation. The permissibility and necessity of state support to make our school system viable are clear, and in 2012 we are seeing signs that we might indeed make this prospect a reality.

Nathan J. Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Clinton unfreezes Palestinian aid despite congressional objection


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overruled a hold by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) on Palestinian aid, allowing $147 million U.S. funds to flow to the West Bank and Gaza.

The aid package is expected to move forward even though it is not typical for the U.S. to release funding if any relevant committee lawmakers object.

“The U.S. has given $3 billion in aid to the Palestinians in the last five years alone, and what do we have to show for it?” Ros-Lehtinen said, according to National Journal. “Now the administration is sending even more. Where is the accountability for U.S. taxpayer dollars?”

Palestinian Authority blames Gaza for deficit mess


Paying for the upkeep of the Gaza Strip while its political rival actively blocks revenues flowing back is taking its toll on the deficit-racked Palestinian Authority.

The Western-backed PA, many of whose top leaders belong to the mainstream Fatah movement, says it has poured around $7 billion into the Gaza Strip since its rival Hamas seized control in 2007, but complains that the Islamist group is stymieing its efforts to balance its books.

A barrage of mutual accusations in recent weeks has driven Hamas and Fatah ever further apart as stalled efforts at reconciliation and economic stagnation have jangled nerves on both sides.

Crippling power cuts in the small coastal enclave have only added to the acrimony and lifted the lid on often opaque Palestinian funding.

The PA says it spends $120 million a month, or more than 40 percent of its whole budget, on salaries and services in Gaza despite being driven out in a brief civil war with Hamas five years ago, anxious to show the world that despite the political divisions, the Palestinians remain one people with a single administrative core.

The PA, which continues to exercise limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has never recognized Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip and still pays wages to former PA personnel in the enclave.

Israel maintains a tight blockade on the Gaza Strip with the help of neighboring Egypt.

“In return Hamas does not pay for any of the needs of the people in Gaza. On the contrary, it sells the medicine that we send for free, and keeps the money,” said Ahmad Assaf, a Fatah spokesperson in the West Bank.

Hamas denies this and says the PA is just funneling foreign donations ear-marked for the Palestinian people.

“Vital sectors like education and health do not get support from them … except for bits and pieces that arrive as donations from some countries,” Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said.

The PA, which relies overwhelmingly on foreign donor aid, mostly from the European Union, the United States and Arab nations, is facing a projected $1.3 billion deficit in 2012.

Although most Western countries shun Hamas over its refusal both to renounce violence and recognize Israel, they let the PA use their aid cash to help the Palestinians in Gaza.

The EU says it contributed 837 million euros ($1.1 billion) to the PA since 2008, 34 percent of which went to the Gaza Strip to cover civil servants’ salaries and pensions.

“According to our information, the Hamas government only pays for the salaries of their employees and for their security apparatus,” said an EU official, who declined to be named.

“We are convinced that we must continue paying this money because we know that if we didn’t the Hamas government would do nothing,” Fatah’s Assaf said.

Hamas has tried to build up its own finances by attracting funds from its own foreign allies, such as Iran, while looking to impose a taxation code of its own on trade and business within Gaza.

But analysts say it too faces a budget crunch and is far from ready to take care of Gaza’s 1.7 million-strong population, some 70 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to U.N. statistics.

“Hamas wants to portray itself as being independent financially from the PA,” said Naser Abdelkarim, a professor of economics at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

“But that’s a myth. If the PA stops transferring money to the Strip, the reality in Gaza would deteriorate instantly.”

Hamas agrees it wouldn’t pay all the PA salaries, but says that’s because most of the people concerned don’t do any work after Fatah instructed its civil servants not to cooperate.

Another crucial issue for the PA is the taxes it should be collecting from Gaza. It says Hamas and Gazan traders systematically under-report the value of their imports to the Israeli authorities, which collect custom dues on behalf of the PA, costing the PA $400 million in “tax leakage” since 2007.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Gaza raised 2 percent of all Palestinian tax returns in 2011 against 28 percent in 2005.

Hamas’s economy minister, Ala al Rafati, admitted the group was withholding some $95 million in custom tax forms that the PA needs in order to collect revenues and would continue to do so until the PA agreed to wire the money straight back to Gaza.

“These invoices have not been sent to Ramallah since the split,” al Rafati told Reuters by telephone from Gaza.

Palestinians’ long-running hope of founding a state incorporating both the West Bank and Gaza, territories divided by Israel, has often papered over feuds between rival factions.

The arguments over finances have come out into the open partly because of a fuel crisis that has left much of the enclave without power for several hours each day since early February, sparked by Egypt’s decision to clamp down on the flow of fuel smuggled into Gaza via a network of tunnels.

Critics of Hamas say it is at fault for the emergency for relying so heavily on cheap, illicit fuel, rather than working with the PA to secure alternative supplies.

The PA says it pays more than $50 million a month to an Israeli energy company that feeds power into Gaza, but Hamas refuses to hand over money from electricity bills.

“We have repeatedly asked Hamas to transfer the money they collect so that we can continue to provide them with fuel. But nothing gets sent,” said Omar Kittaneh, the head of the PA Power Authority.

The PA admits that nothing is going to change fast. As with many of the issues that bedevil Palestinian politics, the two sides are stuck in a rut.

“Contributing a large part of the PA budget to the Gaza Strip has become the status quo and this will not change any time soon,” said PA spokesman Ghassan al Khatib.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Sonya Hepinstall

UCLA homeless aid group headed to White House


A UCLA student group that supports the homeless is headed to the White House, one of five initiatives to win the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge. The White House selected 15 finalists from hundreds of applicants, and online voters chose the top five.

“It’s really cool that the president is giving recognition to such a strong movement of student leaders on campus who are trying to make a difference,” said Rachel Sumekh, president of Swipes for the Homeless and vice president for social justice for UCLA Hillel. “All the programs that were nominated were so innovative.”

Swipes for the Homeless, founded at UCLA in 2009, garnered more than 25,000 votes, earning the group’s leaders an invitation (but not airfare) to a March 15 event at the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. The student groups will have the opportunity to work with mtvU, an MTV channel for U.S. college campuses, to produce a short film that will air on MTV and mtvU.

UCLA Swipes for the Homeless, the only West Coast group to place in the top five, was founded by Jewish student Bryan Pezeshki, now a senior. At the end of a quarter in 2009, he and a bunch of friends redeemed unused vouchers on their prepaid meal plan to purchase sandwiches, which they delivered to people living on the streets of Westwood, near campus.

They cashed in about 300 swipes that quarter, then decided to organize and urge other students to donate swipes off their meal cards. Unused meal vouchers don’t roll over at the end of the quarter, so in the past students would either purchase nonperishables, such as drinks and chips, or lose the money.

Last quarter, UCLA students donated 7,400 swipes at redeeming stations set up at the dorms at the end of the quarter. Now, in addition to some prepared food, UCLA Dining Services provides pallets of packaged food, which the students deliver to homeless shelters, to food banks and to people on the streets.

Some of the food also stays on campus, stocking a discreet, unstaffed food closet where any student can pick up free food. Around 50 students a day make use of the closet, said Sumekh, who is also active in keeping the food closet running.

Pezeshki, a senior in neuroscience who is applying to medical school, is now working on taking the concept national. He established Swipes for the Homeless as an independent non-profit, and 10 other universities are running the program.

Publicity from the Campus Champions of Change Challenge has also brought in more phone calls from other universities interested in the program, and from donors, Sumekh said.

Sumekh says a large number of the Swipes volunteers are also active in UCLA Hillel. Under the leadership of its director of Jewish life, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, UCLA Hillel has incorporated more social justice work into its activities through its Repair the World Street Team, which helps students take on leadership roles in the area of social justice.

Sumekh, a Street Team intern, participated in a spring break program that took her to on-the-ground efforts to aid the needy, and she visits schools in disadvantaged areas to talk to students about college.

Sumekh is graduating this year with a degree in history and minor in complex human systems, and plans to do a year of service next year.

The other winners in Campus Champions for Change Challenge were UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative, which turns campus lawns into sustainable, edible gardens; The Full Circle Food Pantry at University of Arkansas, established to help students in financial crisis; The Local Loans Project at Grinnell College, a microfinance initiative to serve rural Iowa; and Moneythink at University of Chicago, where students mentor at risk-teens about financial literacy.

Egypt: U.S. aid cut may force Israel treaty review


The Muslim Brotherhood has warned that Egypt may review its 1979 peace deal with Israel if the United States cuts aid to the country, a move that could undermine a cornerstone of Washington’s Middle East policy.

Washington has said the aid is at risk due to an Egyptian probe into civil society groups which has resulted in charges against at least 43 activists, including 19 Americans who have been banned from leaving the country.

Egypt has been one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid since it signed the peace treaty with Israel, and the Brotherhood, which does not yet hold the reins of power, said any decision to cut that aid because of the investigation would raise serious questions.

“We (Egypt) are a party (to the treaty) and we will be harmed so it is our right to review the matter,” Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The aid was one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties,” added Erian, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the biggest group in the newly elected parliament.

His remarks are likely to increase pressure on all sides to resolve one of the worst crises in U.S.-Egyptian ties since the treaty was signed. In similar comments, FJP leader Mohamed Mursi said in a statement that U.S. talk of halting the aid was “misplaced,” adding that the peace agreement “could stumble.”

He said: “We want the march of peace to continue in a way that serves the interest of the Egyptian people.”

The 1979 treaty made Egypt the first Arab state to forge peace with Israel and underpinned Washington’s relationship with Cairo during Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, during which the Brotherhood was officially banned.

The Sinai peninsula, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, was handed back to Egypt under the agreement, and diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt were established.

The Brotherhood has emerged as the single biggest political force in Egypt since Mubarak was ousted a year ago, winning more than 43 percent of the seats in recent parliamentary elections.

But for now Egypt is ruled by a council of military generals to whom Mubarak handed power on February 11, 2011. They are due to make way at the end of June for an elected civilian president – a post the Brotherhood has said it will not contest.

The military council has repeatedly pledged to honor Egypt’s international obligations, including the peace deal with Israel, a position the Brotherhood has shared until now.

The group has become increasingly outspoken on foreign policy since its parliamentary success, directing harsh criticism at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government over its efforts to crush a revolt against his rule.

CLERIC SAYS FOCUS MUST BE ECONOMY

In his annual budget message to Congress this week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked for military aid to Egypt to be kept at $1.3 billion and sought $250 million in economic aid.

But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday he had told Egypt’s ruling generals that the NGO issue must be resolved satisfactorily to allow military cooperation with Cairo to continue.

A State Department spokeswoman also said that failure to resolve the impasse could endanger the funds.

Charges filed against those accused in the investigation include that they worked for groups not properly licensed in Egypt and received foreign funding illegally. The Egyptian government has said the case is a matter of law.

But Egyptian NGOs accused the authorities on Wednesday of mounting a scare campaign aimed at deflecting attention from what they said was the failure of the army-led administration.

The 29 NGOs issued a statement accusing the authorities of “creating imaginary battles with other states.”

Tensions were further inflamed with the release of remarks made last year by Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga in which she linked U.S. funding to civil society to an American plot to undermine Egypt. She spoke of what she called an attempt to steer the post-Mubarak transition in “a direction that realized American and Israeli interests.”

The rise of Islamist groups since Mubarak was ousted has caused deep concern in Israel. But despite their worries, Israeli officials do not believe the next president of Egypt will tear up the peace treaty.

A cleric seen as close to the Brotherhood said in an interview published on Wednesday that Egypt could not risk any military confrontation with Israel, adding that the country’s main concern must be its economic problems.

“Egypt cannot enter a struggle in the military sense and leave the affairs of building on the internal front,” Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian who lives in Qatar, told Shorouk newspaper. “Now the citizen cannot remain without work.”

Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Israel to send quake aid to Turkey [UPDATE]


Israel said on Tuesday it was launching an airlift of supplies to help Turkey cope with a devastating earthquake, following a request from Ankara, with a first shipment of prefabricated homes destined for shipment on Wednesday.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Ankara had sought the aid via the Israeli embassy there, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered assistance in a telephone call to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan after the quake struck on Sunday.

The humanitarian step taken as more than 400 were reported dead in the disaster that struck southeastern Turkey, was seen as possibly easing diplomatic strains between the allies over the incident involving the Gaza-bound flotilla last year.

A spokesman for Israei Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that “tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon a first aircraft will fly from Israel to Turkey with several prefabricated homes,” suggesting the shipment would be followed by others.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor said Turkey had “relayed a request to the embassy in Ankara for mobile homes” and that Israel was checking into the logistics of shipping these supplies.

“We are checking what we can do, and will do whatever we can,” Palmor said.

In Ankara, a Foreign Ministry official said Turkey had requested prefabricated housing and tents from more than 30 countries.

“We informed all countries who offered help, including Israel, of a request on specific items for post-emergency material, such as prefabricated houses, containers and tents,” the official said.

Israel, geographically close to Turkey, with each country situated on opposite sides of Syria and Lebanon, has sent equipment and rescue teams to Turkey after past earthquakes. Turkey sent fire-fighting planes last December to help Israel battle a brush fire that killed 41 people.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc denied on Monday that Ankara had declined an offer of aid from Israel.

Tensions between the two U.S. allies increased last month when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologise for the Turks killed last year.

Israel said its marines acted in self-defence in clashes with pro-Palestinian activists aboard a vessel bound last year for Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.

Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Turkey quake kills at least 279, hundreds missing [UPDATE]


[UPDATE: 10:43 a.m.]

Rescuers searched the rubble of collapsed buildings Monday for survivors and victims of a major earthquake that killed at least 279 people and injured more than 1,300 in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Rescue and relief efforts focused on the city of Van and the town of Ercis, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, but hundreds were also feared dead in remote villages of mud-brick houses after Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude quake, Turkey’s strongest in a decade.

Desperate survivors cried for help beneath heaps of smashed concrete and twisted metal, some using mobile phones to tell friends they were alive, as earth-moving machines and troops raced against time in Van and Ercis.

Thousands of people made homeless by the quake were forced to spend a second night outdoors in the hilly, windswept Van region, enduring near-freezing temperatures. Families huddled round open fires that glowed in the dark. Some stayed in tents put up on soccer pitches, living on handouts from aid agencies.

The U.N. disaster agency said almost 1,000 buildings had collapsed, many of them poorly built. A Red Crescent spokesman said the agency was preparing to provide refuge for as many as 40,000 people, though it was so far impossible to tell how many would need shelter.

Some residents of Van and outlying villages complained of a lack of government assistance, despite the dispatch of troops, mobile kitchens and up to 13,000 tents.

“We have to fit 37 people in one tent,” said Giyasettin Celen, a 29-year-old who lost three family members in Dogonu Koyu, a village beside Lake Van where he said 15 people died.

“Our lost ones were carried like animals, on top of each other, in a transport van. Our main source of income here is livestock breeding, but we don’t have anywhere to keep them. We will have to sell them now,” he said.

Throughout the day, rescue workers pulled people out alive.

“Be patient, be patient,” rescuers in Ercis told a whimpering boy pinned under a concrete slab with the lifeless hand of an adult, a wedding ring on one finger, visible just in front of his face.

A Reuters photographer saw a woman and her daughter being freed from beneath a concrete slab in the wreckage of a six-storey building.

“I’m here, I’m here,” the woman, named Fidan, cried out hoarsely. Talking to her regularly while working for more than two hours to find a way through, rescuers cut through the slab, first sighting the daughter’s foot, before freeing them.

In Van, an ancient city of one million on a lake ringed by snow-capped mountains, cranes shifted rubble from a collapsed six-storey apartment block where 70 people were feared trapped.

One woman, standing beside a wrecked four-storey building, told a rescue worker she had spoken to her friend on her mobile phone six hours after the quake trapped her in the wreckage.

“She’s my friend and she called me to say that she’s alive and she’s stuck in the rubble near the stairs of the building,” said her friend, a fellow teacher. “She told me she was wearing red pajamas,” she said, standing with distraught relatives begging the rescue workers to hurry.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew to Van to assess the scale of the disaster. It is a quake-prone area that is a hotbed of activity for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.

Erdogan said he feared for the fate of villages with houses made of mud brick, saying: “Almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the death toll had reached 279, with 1,300 injured, and more were unaccounted for.

The quake brought fresh torment to impoverished southeast Turkey, where PKK militants fighting a decades-long insurgency killed 24 Turkish troops south of Van last week.

The area it struck, near the border with Iran, is remote and mountainous, with long distances between villages and people who live off stock-raising, arable farming and trading.

The hardest-hit town was Ercis, a town of 100,000, where 55 buildings crumpled, including a student dormitory.

At one collapsed four-storey building, firemen from the major southeastern city of Diyarbakir were trying to reach four missing children. Aid workers carried two large black bags, one apparently containing a child’s body, to an ambulance. An old woman wrapped in a headscarf walked alongside sobbing.

A distressed man paced back and forth before running toward the rescue workers on top of the rubble. “That’s my nephew’s house,” he sobbed as workers tried to hold him back.

The Red Crescent has delivered 5,000 tents to Ercis alone and a tent city has been set up at Ercis stadium. But residents said tents were being given only to relatives of police and soldiers, a possible source of tension if confirmed.

“The villages have not received any help yet. Instead of making a show, politicians should be visiting them. The Turkish military says they sent soldiers, where are they?” said a municipality official in Van who did not want to be named.

Ibrahim Baydar, a 40-year-old tradesman from Van, accused the government in Ankara of holding back aid. “All the nylon tents are in the black market now. We cannot find any. People are queuing for them. No tents were given to us whatsoever.”

Rescue efforts were hampered by power outages after the quake toppled electricity lines to towns and villages.

More than 200 aftershocks have jolted the region since the quake, lasting around 25 seconds, struck at 1041 GMT Sunday.

“I just felt the whole earth moving and I was petrified. It went on for ages. And the noise, you could hear this loud, loud noise,” said Hakan Demirtas, 32, a builder who was working on a construction site in Van at the time.

“My house is ruined,” he said, sitting on a low wall after spending the night in the open. “I am still afraid, I’m in shock. I have no future, there is nothing I can do.”

The Red Crescent said about 100 experts had reached the earthquake zone to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Sniffer dogs had joined the quest for survivors.

Major geological fault lines cross Turkey, where small tremors occur almost daily. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in the northwest.

The quake had no impact on Turkish financial markets when they opened Monday.

In Van, construction worker Sulhattin Secen, 27, said he had at first mistaken the rumble of the quake for a car crash.

“Then the ground beneath me started moving up and down as if I was standing in water. May God help us. It’s like life has stopped. What are people going to do?”

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Simon Cameron-Moore and Daren Butler; Editing by Tim Pearce

Turkey rejects earthquake aid offers, including Israel’s


Turkey has rejected all international aid, including an Israeli offer, in the wake of a strong earthquake that collapsed buildings and left hundreds dead.

Sunday’s temblor, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale and was centered in southeastern Turkey, was felt in central Tel Aviv, Haaretz reported. At least 239 people are confirmed dead, with many others reportedly trapped in collapsed buildings.

“The State of Israel shares in your sorrow following the earthquake that has claimed victims from among your people,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sunday in a call to Turkish President Abdullah Gul.  “I speak as a man, as a Jew and as an Israeli who remembers, and is well aware of, the depth of the historic relations between our two peoples and thus I send the condolences of the entire nation to the families of those who lost their lives.  At this difficult time, the State of Israel is ready to render any assistance that may be required anywhere in Turkey, at any time.”

Gul thanked Peres for the telephone call, the expression of condolences and the offer of assistance, according to the president’s office, and said that he hoped Turkish search and rescue could handle the emergency alone. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey are now nearly nonexistent.

Israel’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Minister had been in contact with Turkish officials Sunday in order to offer assistance. An Israel Defense Forces search and rescue delegation is prepared to leave for Turkey if it is called upon, according to reports.

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated since nine Turkish nationals, including a Turkish-American dual citizen, were killed in May 2010 during an Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged aid flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Turkey has demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths and compensation to the victims’ families.

Israel has offered its “regret” for the deaths, and has said that its naval commandos fired in self-defense. Relations had been going downhill since the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Turkey sent several firefighting airplanes to Israel last December to help battle the massive Carmel Forest fire.

Putting a price tag on Israel aid


In my last piece, I highlighted a Washington Post column in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Pincus urged that the $3 billion aid package to Israel be re-examined.

Israel, with a population of seven million, receives $3 billion a year from the United States while the entire continent of Africa, with a population over a billion, receives $8 billion. Israel is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, while many countries in Africa languish in poverty and disease, especially HIV/AIDS. Obviously, these relative aid levels are ridiculous.

Nonetheless, I am now having second thoughts about the issue as a result of a call from a friend who works to increase aid levels for Africa.

She agrees that the foreign aid levels disproportionately favor Israel. But she points out that without aid to Israel, there probably would be no foreign aid at all because the Israel aid package is the locomotive that drives the aid legislation forward.

Simply put, the foreign aid bill passes due to AIPAC’s pressured lobbying for it (because it contains the Israel aid package). Needy countries in Africa would probably receive little aid from the United States at all if not for Israel’s inflated aid package and AIPAC’s fevered determination to enact it.

Any doubt on that score would be eliminated by reviewing what the Republican candidates have said about foreign aid in their various debates and by what Republican and conservative Democratic members of Congress say about it.

Virtually all of them oppose foreign aid and would eliminate it altogether. When asked which government program they would cut to reduce the deficit, foreign aid is at the top of their list even though it represents 1 percent of the budget.

Sad to say, the American public tends to agree. According to a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of respondents favored cutting foreign aid. The good news is that they only favor reducing aid because they believe it constitutes a far larger chunk of expenditures than it does: According to PBS, a recent survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes asked Americans, “What percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?”

The median answer was roughly 25 percent, according to the poll of 848 Americans. In reality, about 1 percent of the budget is allotted to foreign aid.

Asked what “would be an appropriate percentage of the federal budget to go to foreign aid, if any,” the average response was 10 percent, at least ten times the actual percentage.

But politicians are something else. Believing that most Americans oppose foreign aid, the common response (especially by Republicans) to any question about budget cutting is to say that first they would cut foreign aid.

For instance, in Tuesday’s GOP debate, Mitt Romney not only urged cutting foreign aid but specifically cited humanitarian assistance (such as feeding kids and providing pre-natal care in sub-Saharan Africa) as frills we can live without or farm out to the Chinese.

Speaking of our aid program, he said, “Part of it is humanitarian aid around the world. I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of [those] people…”

But here’s the thing. Romney cannot flatly oppose foreign aid because he is a vehement, albeit cynical, supporter of aid to Israel, as are all the Republican candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul).

So the GOP presidential contenders, like Republicans in Congress, are in a box. They can’t eliminate foreign aid to the world’s poor and hungry without also eliminating aid to Israel. And so foreign aid survives. Surely, no one believes that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would bring the foreign aid bill to the floor if it did not include the Israel aid package.

AIPAC, for its part, lobbies for the entire foreign aid package not only to preserve aid to Israel but also because it understands that singling out one very prosperous country for our assistance would look very bad. Additionally, AIPAC, in principle, favors foreign aid (except, of course, in the case of Palestinians in Gaza and United Nations organizations that endorse Palestinian statehood). Also, it should be noted there are some fine humanitarian projects in the Israel aid package like Hadassah Hospital, which received the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for its nondiscriminatory treatment of Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

The bottom line is that it will be very difficult to target the Israel aid package without jeopardizing the entire foreign aid program. So what do we do?

My recommendation is that we not focus on wholesale cuts to the Israel aid package but rather link U.S. aid to Israeli behavior (as is the case with other countries).

Israel should pay a financial price for refusing to freeze settlements, evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, allowing settlers to destroy Palestinian olive groves and fields, and maintaining the illegal blockade of Gaza. In short, there should be a “price tag” for actions the Netanyahu government takes to subvert negotiations or increase the suffering of Palestinian people.

By law, aid to Egypt is contingent on maintaining peace with Israel. Similarly, aid to Israel should be contingent on its good faith efforts to end the occupation and achieve peace with the Palestinians.

To be honest, I see no value whatsoever in across-the-board cuts. However, if cuts are to be made, the president and Congress should make their decisions based on the merits — not based on the influence of lobbyists and campaign donors. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening is very slim, especially when it comes to Israel.

Foreign Policy Matters is updated daily. Read more here.

GOP candidates push back on cutting aid to Israel


Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain pushed back against a proposal by Ron Paul to cut funding to Israel.

Paul, a Texas congressman, during the GOP debate Tuesday in Las Vegas repeated his proposal to cut foreign aid, including the $3 billion Israel receives annually in defense assistance.

“That foreign aid makes Israel dependent on us,” he said. “It softens them for their own economy. And they should have their sovereignty back, they should be able to deal with their neighbors at their own will.”

Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, and Cain, a businessman, pushed back.

“We should not be cutting foreign aid to Israel,” Bachmann said. “Israel is our greatest ally. The biggest problem with this administration and foreign policy is that President Obama is the first president since Israel declared her sovereignty who put daylight between the United States and Israel. That’s heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region.”

Cain said, “If we clarify who our friends are, clarify who our enemies are, and stop giving money to our enemies, then we ought to continue to give money to our friends, like Israel.”

The debate was sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

A Las Vegas focus group of likely GOP voters conducted on the eve of the debate by The Israel Project found unanimous support for continuing aid levels to Israel.

Romney would up defense aid to Israel


Mitt Romney said he would increase defense assistance to Israel, raise the U.S. military profile near Iran and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and frontrunner in the bid to secure the Republican nomination for president, delivered the first major foreign policy speech of his campaign Friday at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.

He cast President Obama’s policies as contributing to Israel’s isolation.

“I will bolster and repair our alliances,” he said. “Our friends should never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

The Obama and Netanyahu governments have smoothed relations in recent months, and Israeli officials credit the administration with tightening defense ties and backing Israel at the United Nations. Obama also refers to Israel as a Jewish state, althoug he has not issued a formal declaration of such a recognition.

Romney suggested Israel might be further isolated by 2015 if Obama remains in office.

“Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz?” he asked. “In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world. “By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?”

Romney said that as president he would “enhance our deterrent against the Iranian regime by ordering the regular presence of aircraft carrier task forces, one in the Eastern Mediterranean and one in the Persian Gulf region. I will begin discussions with Israel to increase the level of our military assistance and coordination. And I will again reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.”

He also said he would centralize U.S. Middle East policy to ensure “that the Arab Spring does not fade into a long winter.”

The speech came a day after Romney published a list of his foreign policy advisers, including many who have been active in or are close to the pro-Israel community.

House committee chair places hold on Palestinian aid


U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is holding back nearly $200 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is keeping her House of Representatives committee from considering approval of $192 million in humanitarian program assistance, two Capitol Hill sources said.

The money is separate from assistance to the Palestinian Authority, $200 million of which has already been distributed, and instead is earmarked for nongovernmental groups.

Such holds on NGO money have been held in the past pending oversight to show that the NGOs are not working with terrorist groups. Ros-Lehtinen in recent weeks has expressed concern that a tentative agreement to unite the Palestinian Authority with Hamas is already in effect. Hamas is the U.S.-designated terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

The Americans for Peace Now website is reporting that other House Republicans also are holding the money, and that Republicans in the House and Senate are holding $150 million in security assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Republicans and Democrats have warned that such money may be withheld if the Palestinians do not pull back from their attempt to gain statehood recognition through the United Nations and absent peace talks with Israel.

The Arab League on Sunday called on the Arab states in the region to replace that missing aid with their own donations.

“The Arabs will assist the Palestinian Authority,” Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi said Sunday in Cairo after a meeting with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “This will be the strongest answer” to the U.S. cuts.

Erekat said that “The Palestinian people refuse to allow economic aid to become an instrument of blackmail regarding its rights to membership of the United Nations.”

The U.N.‘s Security Council is now considering the PA’s statehood bid, which the United States has said it will veto.

U.S. scrambles to keep Palestinian aid flowing


The Obama administration is lobbying Congress to unblock $200 million in aid for the Palestinian Authority that was frozen due to its bid for U.N. recognition of statehood over U.S. and Israeli objections.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday the administration was in “intensive” discussions with key lawmakers who had put holds on the money, a financial lifeline for the fledgling Palestinian government-in-waiting.

“We still have some money in the pipeline but the concern is that if we don’t get this going with the Congress in short order there could be an effect on the ground,” Nuland told a news briefing.

“There have been some concerns in some parts of Congress and we are trying to work through those,” she said.

Lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have moved in recent weeks to freeze the flow of aid to the Palestinians that had been appropriated for fiscal year 2011.

Representative Kay Granger, the Republican chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, placed her hold in August “until the issue of statehood is resolved” at the United Nations, her spokesman, Matt Leffingwell, said.

“My boss is watching what is happening at the U.N., and constantly reevaluating,” he said.

FUNDING THE FUTURE

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last month submitted a formal application to the U.N. Security Council for recognition of Palestinian statehood, ignoring a U.S. threat to veto the measure if it is put to vote.

The United States and Israel both say that Palestinian statehood can come through resuming direct peace negotiations that collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu refused to extend a limited moratorium on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Abbas has said he will only return to talks with a new settlement freeze, complicating efforts by the “Quartet” of Middle East peace mediators—the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia—to get both sides back to the negotiating table quickly.

Nuland said the Obama administration viewed U.S. aid as crucial to preparing Abbas’ Palestinian Authority for its eventual role as the government of a Palestinian state.

“We think it is money that is not only in the interest of the Palestinians, it is in U.S. interest and it is also in Israeli interest and we would like to see it go forward,” Nuland told a news briefing.

The Palestinian Authority was already in serious financial straits, highlighting the risks of Abbas’ campaign to press ahead with the statehood agenda.

Last month, both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank said financial problems threatened the state-building program that Palestinian Prime Minister Salman Fayyad has overseen for the past two years.

The authority, which now exercises limited self-governance in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has repeatedly failed to pay salaries to its 150,000 employees on time and in full and remains reliant on foreign aid to fill a deficit projected at $900 million this year.

While Arab countries have made good on some pledges to increase aid and the European Union remains a major donor, a sharp drop in future U.S. funding could spell trouble.

In the U.S. House and Senate, appropriators from both parties already have signaled they may block both economic and security aid for fiscal 2012 if the Palestinians forge ahead with their statehood bid, although these bills have not yet been put to a vote of either chamber.

House warns P.A. on statehood moves


The U.S. House of Representatives threatened to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority if it pursues recognition of statehood outside negotiations with Israel.

A resolution passed Thursday night 406-6 “affirms that Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations and pursue recognition of statehood prior to agreement with Israel will harm United States-Palestinian relations and will have serious implications for the United States assistance programs for the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority.”

The non-binding resolution is similar to one passed last month by the Senate.

It also calls on the Obama administration to review assistance to the Palestinians, which runs to about $500 million a year, in the light of negotiations with Hamas toward a unity government.

The Palestinian Authority has said that absent negotiations, it will bring its case for statehood to the United Nations in September.

Palestinian negotiators refuse to return to talks unless Israel freezes settlement; Israel will not consider talks with the Palestinians unless the P.A. breaks off its talks with Hamas. Israel also wants the framework of the talks to include recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, an end to refugee claims and a longterm Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was urging its activists as late as Wednesday to press Congress, mired in budget debates, to pass the resolution.

In the end, only six lawmakers—three Republicans and three Democrats—voted against.

Among those voting against was a freshman, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is affiliated with the Tea Party conservatives and who is said to be the first congressman of Palestinian descent.

Tea Party candidates were an unknown quanity to pro-Israel groups last year and since then, the Republican leadership has endeavored to secure assurances of support for Israel from the caucus.

Most have done so, although there are holdouts like Amash.

Report: U.S. to offer Turkey major role in Mideast talks if it stops Gaza flotilla


The U.S. government is considering to offer Turkey a deal in which Ankara would stop a second Gaza flotilla that is due to depart later this month in exchange for the opportunity to host an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit in Ankara, the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported Friday.

Israel has been preparing to block the second aid flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza, one year after the Israel Defense Forces’ deadly raid on the first Gaza flotilla in which nine Turkish activists died. Turkey has demanded Israel apologize for the raid in order to restore Turkish-Israeli ties.

Today’s Zaman quoted the Turkish Hurriyet daily as reporting that the U.S. was due to officially ask Turkey to host a major peace conference in return for mending its ties with Israel and preventing the second Gaza-bound flotilla. The proposed peace summit would be similar to past major talks such as the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

‘Navy prepared to board flotilla ships if they don’t stop’


The Israel Navy is prepared to intercept and take control of the ships participating in the new flotilla to the Gaza Strip, a senior Navy officer said Tuesday on the anniversary of the IDF operation to stop the Mavi Marmara that ended in the death of nine Turkish nationals.

“We will order the ship to stop, but if they don’t, we are prepared to intercept and board the ship,” a senior officer told reporters.

The flotilla of 15 ships, organized by the Turkish humanitarian organization, IHH – which is outlawed in Israel due to its ties with Hamas, as well as The Free Gaza Movement – is planning to sail to the Gaza Strip in late June.

Read more at JPost.com.

Israeli military aid delegation to Japan returns home


The Israel Defense Forces’ aid delegation to Japan returned home, leaving medical equipment behind for local doctors to use.

The delegation, which brought 62 tons of medical supplies and 18 tons of humanitarian aid to the city of Minami-Sanriko, hard hit by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March, landed in Israel on Tuesday.

In its more than two weeks in Japan, the team of 50 doctors, communications specialists and search-and-rescue experts established a medical clinic and cared for 220 patients.

The team left behind the majority of the medical equipment, including X-ray machinery and lab equipment.

Netanyahu to UN Chief: Upcoming Gaza flotilla must be stopped


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Friday to stop the impending flotilla that is supposed to set sail to the Gaza Strip in May.

The Israeli prime minister told the UN Chief that the flotilla is being organized by extreme Islamists that are interested only in provocation. He added that the ship’s key goal is to fuel tensions, particularly in light of the fact that the Gaza Strip is open to all types of goods brought in via land.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization and Iranian proxy,” Netanyahu said, adding that “it was just recently revealed that part of Iran’s efforts is to arm [Hamas] and smuggle weapons into the strip.”

The prime minister then reminded the UN Chief of the recent incident of the Victoria ship earlier this month, upon which tens of tons of weapons from Iran were found and confiscated by Israel. Netanyahu told Ban that this is proof that Israel must act aggressively against the flotilla.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Israel sends medical delegation to Japan


Israel has sent a medical delegation to Japan to help victims of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Two doctors and an Israel Defense Forces Homefront Command officer arrived Monday in Japan to determine what is required to send a full-scale medical delegation and the necessary equipment to the devastated area, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Israeli team will be located in the Miyagi prefecture, about six hours north of Tokyo, which was hardest hit by the recent tsunami. The team will establish a field medical clinic geared to handle the casualties and refugees concentrated in the region.

At the request of the Japanese National Disaster Center, the Israeli Foreign and Defense ministries also will send 10,000 coats, 6,000 blankets, 6,000 pairs of gloves and 150 mobile toilets to the stricken area.

GOP House freshmen sign on to Israel aid letter


The majority of Republican freshmen in the U.S. House of Representatives have signed on to a letter committing to current levels of defense assistance to Israel.

Among the 87 freshmen, 65 have signed the letter initiated by Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Austin Scott (R-Ga.) to the party’s House leadership.

“As Israel faces threats from escalating instability in Egypt, Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, Hamas terrorists in Gaza and the existential danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program, full U.S. security assistance to Israel, including supporting Israel’s acquisition of the Iron Dome defense system, has never been more important for our own national security interests,” said the letter asking fellow freshmen to sign, which was still accruing signatures as of Tuesday.

The appeal—and the support it garnered—is significant because it answers questions pro-Israel groups had about the 2011 class of GOP freshmen, many of them spurred to office by the Tea Party movement, which has cost cutting as its central focus.

The letter is a sign that President Obama’s proposal this week to maintain levels of funding for Israel, currently at about $3 billion annually, will be untouched.

Dold joined Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who is not a freshman lawmaker, in sending a similar letter last week to House appropriators.

Egypt ‘working group’ says cut off aid


A “working group on Egypt” that includes prominent conservatives and liberals urged the Obama administration to cut assistance to Egypt if violence continues.

“Until unrestrained thug violence began on February 1, the Working Group was hopeful that the Egyptian military would play a positive role in safeguarding a peaceful transition,” said the statement Thursday, which was first reported by Politico. “If the government continues to employ such violence, the United States should immediately freeze all military assistance to Egypt.”

The “working group” includes Brian Katulis, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank who has counseled the Obama administration on the Egypt crisis; Elliott Abrams, President George W. Bush’s most senior Israel policy figure who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations; and figures who have worked in Democratic and Republican administrations and are members of organizations that are supportive and critical of Israel.

The group was set up in February 2010 to advocate for U.S. pressure on Egypt to democratize.

Israeli soldiers allegedly looted flotilla ships


An Israeli officer and soldier are suspected of selling goods they confiscated from the Gaza flotilla after the May raid.

Military police are investigating whether an officer sold items to another soldier that were confiscated from the flotilla ships while they were docked in Ashdod, Ynet News reported. Three soldiers have already admitted they bought laptops from the second soldier, who was arrested Monday night.

The investigation comes as a number of Israeli and international committees are investigating the incident.

“The investigation has just begun, but as it appears now it will prove embarrassing and shameful,” a high-ranking Israeli officer said, according to Ynet.

The officer under suspicion commands a unit that had access to the ships while they were docked at Ashdod. Police say they think the second lieutenant stole four to six laptops from the ships. The three soldiers who admitted to buying the laptops said they were told the laptops were stolen from the flotilla, but did not report the theft to their commanders.

The officer and soldier have not appeared before court yet. Police say they will make more arrests but did not give details, Ynet reported.

Not long after the May raid, passengers aboard the flotilla ships complained credit cards, cell phones and other equipment had been confiscated and used. At the time, an IDF spokesman said all personal items had been transported from the country.

The IDF confirmed reports of an investigation but, according to Ynet, said the stolen items may not have been from the flotilla. An investigator said if it turns out the items were taken from on of the ships, the activists would be recompensed.

Briefs: Peace process proceeeds, says Livni; Bush waives Palestinian aid rules


Livni Says Peace Process Will Move Forward

Tzipi Livni said the peace process will move forward and that Israel will be able to face challenges better with a stable government.

The Israeli prime minister-designate, who is working to form a new government coalition, made her first national policy address Sunday at the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s conference on policy and strategy.

“Israel wishes to arrive at peace with all of her neighbors — the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and the Arab nations,” Livni said. “We have proven our willingness not only by embarking on diplomatic processes but by evacuating Gaza.”

She added: “The process should continue, and we should press ahead and conduct ourselves correctly. Don’t let incidental dates or political changes get in the way of a responsible process.”

Livni said the government must achieve both financial and political stability. She took a swipe at other political parties that are making budgetary demands in order to agree to join the coalition.

“We must maintain financial stability, and in order to safeguard [the economy], we must also preserve the political balance; we must achieve political stability quickly,” Livni stressed. “Therefore, we are in need of a government that will maintain the equilibrium, a government that can transcend partisan demands.”

Earlier at the same conference, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said that Israel had failed to live up to the commitments it made at the Annapolis peace summit in 2007.

“We believed in what was promised — that this year would be different,” he said. “But we are already in October, and we are losing hope that by the end of the year we will see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and the end of the occupation.”

Al-Maliki warned that the failure to come to a peace agreement would lead to the domination of Hamas and a return to violence.

Bush Waives Palestinian Aid Restrictions

President Bush waived restrictions on direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

“I hereby certify that it is important to the national security interests of the United States to waive” restrictions on direct funding for the Palestinian Authority, Bush wrote in a message Monday to the State Department.

The waiver allows Bush to transfer as much as $75 million to the Palestinian Authority. Such direct funding is otherwise subject to conditions, including proof that the Palestinian Authority has disarmed terrorists and ended incitement.

Bush is making an end-of-presidency push for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Most funding for the Palestinians in recent years has been directed through nongovernmental organizations, partly to avoid the taint of corruption and terrorism that had attached itself to the Palestinian Authority.

The Bush administration has praised the new P.A. leadership for reforms and said it needs the money in part to meet challenges from Islamist extremists.

Obama Campaign Returns Gazans’ Cash

The Obama campaign returned $33,000 to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who purchased a large quantity of campaign T-shirts.

The revelation arises out of a Republican request to the Federal Election Commission to investigate thousands of small donations to the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Republicans claim that some of the donors are from overseas, which is illegal.

Reporting the request Monday, the Washington Post noted that Newsweek, its sister publication, reported that two Palestinian brothers had paid $33,000 for a bulk order of T-shirts. Such purchases from online stores are counted as donations.

The campaign returned the money and said its staff had mistaken the brothers’ address abbreviation for Gaza, “Ga.,” as the U.S. state of Georgia.

Papers Reveal Israel’s Confusion in ’73 War

Top Israeli army officials did not know what was happening in the field during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, according to newly declassified documents. Israel’s Defense Ministry declassified documents Tuesday relating to the investigation of failures of the war.

The deliberations of the Agranat Committee, which was established to investigate the conduct of the military and the government during the war, including testimony of senior officers such as Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan, were made public nearly 35 years to the day after the outbreak of the war.

Former Prime Minister Sharon, who commanded the 53rd Division during the war, told the committee at the time that the higher command “had no idea of what was happening on the ground,” according to a report in the newspaper, Ha’aretz. Sharon also discussed his plan to cross the Suez Canal, which led to Israel’s victory.

Dayan’s testimony was reminiscent of issues that arose following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, including not calling up reservists right away and not anticipating a full-scale war.

U.S. Could Waive Israeli Visa Requirement

The United States could soon waive the need for an entry visa by Israelis. In a meeting in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Israel Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit discussed waiving the need for a visa for Israelis to visit the United States, the newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported Oct. 3.

The change in policy would begin to be formulated later this month. To qualify, Israel would have to switch from a paper to a biometric passport system.

Approximately 313,000 Israelis have traveled to the United States so far this year. The current process for obtaining an entry visa requires a fee, embassy interview and a long wait.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.