New video of Hebron shooting suggests Israelis thought Palestinian had explosive vest


In a newly public video that documents the scene of Thursday’s controversial shooting of a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, an Israeli can be heard warning that the Palestinian may be wearing an explosive vest.

Army Radio published the video on its website and Twitter feed on Friday. In it, paramedics are seen carrying the soldier wounded by the Palestinian terrorists when someone out of the camera frame, which the army purposely blurred, says, “He apparently has an explosive on him, pay attention! Nobody touches him until bomb disposal arrives.”

Four seconds later, one of the paramedics carrying the soldier — a man who 20 seconds earlier had said, “That terrorist is still alive, the dog. Don’t let him get up!” — cries in a panic, “He’s alive! Somebody do something!”

The video then abruptly ends.

A separate video published Thursday by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem shows an Israeli soldier shot the supine Palestinian in the head while he lay unattended on the pavement.

The incident in Hebron took place shortly after the Palestinian terrorist and a fellow assailant stabbed an Israeli soldier in the area. The other assailant was immediately killed, while the wounded terrorist was felled. In the B’Tselem video, the wounded Palestinian can be seen lying on the pavement and slightly moving his head, which had blood around it. A minute or so into the video, a soldier shoots the prone Palestinian in the head.

The incident triggered an immediate inquiry by the Israeli military police, and the soldier was arrested and questioned in what is being considered a murder investigation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon were among those who condemned the soldier’s actions. Netanyahu said the incident “doesn’t represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces.”

On Friday, the United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said he strongly condemned the apparent “extrajudicial execution” of the Palestinian.

Under questioning, the soldier said he fired at the terrorist because he feared he would set off an explosive device. He said his unit has been briefed three weeks ago on a Hamas team planning to fire on troops and set off explosives. His lawyer said the video proves he acted in accordance with the rules of engagement for preventing immediate threats.

The Ma’an news agency identified the Palestinian terrorists killed in the incident as Abed al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif and Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, both 21-year-olds from Hebron.

 

Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, told Army Radio, “Had the terrorist been wearing an explosive vest, the soldier would have been considered a national hero.”

My dad was in the Army


My dad was like no other. 

He was an accomplished CPA. That in itself might not seem so unusual, but how many accountants do you know who are also adept at wilderness survival? He could identify all of the animal tracks and scat. He knew the differences between poison ivy and poison sumac. He taught me how to climb rocks and tell the time by looking at the sun. He was a wonderful teacher. Out there in the woods, with my father, I felt like Pocahontas. 

One time we were walking along some railroad tracks. We heard a train off in the distance and it was coming our way. Dad took a bunch of pennies out of his pocket and put them on the track. The train thundered by with such force and noise! He picked up the pennies. Now they were flat and paper thin. 

I stared at him in amazement: “Dad, how do you know all this stuff?” 

“The Army,” was his reply.

Then there was that time when Mom was sick and Dad prepared breakfast. My father never, ever went into the kitchen, not even for a Coke. But on this particular morning, Mom had a fever, so there was Dad, hovering over a hot stove, cracking eggs into the skillet.

I was in shock. “Dad, I didn’t know you could cook.” 

“Sure, I can cook. I can do everything.”

“Everything? How did you learn everything?”

“The Army.”

Like many men of his generation, my father’s social circle was the family — immediate and extended. After dealing with all of the aunts, uncles, cousins (related by blood and by marriage), who had time for anyone else? But sometimes, someone from the outside world would penetrate our family cocoon. The phone would ring and a man’s gruff voice — one that I didn’t recognize — would be on the line. 

“Is your father there?”

“Hold on. Dad! Telephone!

“Who is it?” my father asked. 

“I don’t know,” I said. 

“Oh for C’rissakes! Ask who’s calling. Oh, never mind. I’ll take it.” And that’s when Dad would grab the receiver from my little hand and bark into the phone. “Hello? Yeah? Hey! How the hell are you?”

Then Dad, with a dismissive wave of his hand, would tell me, “Clear out. I’m on the phone.” For the next hour, I’d hear raucous laughter, lots of dirty words and more raucous laughter coming from behind the closed door. Then Dad would hang up.

“Who was it, Dad?”

“An old buddy,” he answered. 

“From where?”

“The Army.”

“Dad, was the Army fun?”

“No. It was hell. I hated every minute of it. But they made a man out of me.”

My father, Joseph N. Switkes, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, credited as the turning point in breaking Hitler’s stranglehold on Europe. He served throughout Belgium, France and Germany from March 1943 to November 1945. 

Even when I was only 8 years old, I knew all about Army life … from television: Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. Ernie Bilko sort of looked like my father: Big glasses. Type-A extrovert. Always up to something. I’d sit there, cross-legged, on the carpeted floor of our living room, watching the latest exploits of Bilko and his men. Long after the show went off the air, I could easily picture my father in uniform, kibitzing with Phil Silvers. This image easily coexisted with our family’s suburban life of comfort and convenience. 

But sometimes, a mood crept over my father. He seemed remote and inaccessible. Maybe it was his awesome temper that would flare up when someone did something he deemed foolish. If he got really angry, his glare could freeze the blood in my veins. His eyes, usually so warm and so intelligent, would turn to ice. This steely look showed no mercy, no forgiveness. Sure, physically, he was right there in the living room with all of us, but at these times, his focus was somewhere else. All alone. High up. Silently, standing guard on some distant rocky cliff, protecting everything and everyone he held dear.

And that’s why, when the time came, I wanted to protect him.

After Mom died, my father lived all alone in their home. His house, like him, was falling into disrepair. 

I worried about him, especially as his lung cancer progressed. I would fly in from California every other month, to spend a week with him in Maryland. But that didn’t seem like a really viable plan. We had to talk. 

“Dad. I can’t keep coming back here so often.”

“Who asked you to?”

I looked around the house. Every table surface was covered with mountains of unopened junk mail. In the fireplace there were piles of old newspapers — no, not for kindling, just for storage. The wallpaper was peeling. There was a giant hole in the ceiling, which leaked when it rained.  The tiles on the floor were cracked and chipped. The pull cord on the blinds was frayed. There was an ever-present smell of mold and mildew.

“Dad, it’s dangerous for you to be here.” 

My father looked down. He covered his face with his hands. He took a deep breath and when he looked up, he stared straight at me. The lines and crevices on his face seemed to melt away. He no longer looked old, gray and dusty. For a moment, my father appeared young again. He was red and raw.

“What did you just say?” he asked me.

“I said it’s dangerous for you to live here alone.”

“Dangerous? You call this dangerous?” he demanded. 

“Dad, you could slip on this floor.  A hunk of plaster could fall on your head. The food you eat could kill a moose.”

“You call this dangerous?” He began to pound his chest with his clenched fist. The blue veins in his neck pulsed with rage. He bellowed:

“My home is not dangerous. It’s the world out there that’s dangerous.”

“But, Dad — ”

“I brought Hitler to his knees. So don’t think you’re going to put me in Leisure World.” 

It was at that moment that I finally saw my father in all of his glory. There he was. Clear as day. The power. The rage. The courage. The wit. The temper.

And it was at that moment that I could see through time. I could see my father as a 21-year-old GI, a Jewish kid far from home, trudging through the snow-covered fields of Europe.

And I could also see that against my father, Hitler didn’t stand a chance. Because my dad was in the Army. 


Ellen Switkes writes personal stories for the page and the stage. She also tutors children in language arts.

Iraq asks United States for air support to counter rebels


Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi'ite-led government's army.

However, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a Congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.

Baghdad said it wanted U.S. air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he said: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them.”

In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIL.

While Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible”, he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

The White House has said President Barack Obama has not yet decided what action, if any, to take following the rebel onslaught, and was due to discuss the options with leaders of Congress later on Wednesday.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.

However, any air targets would be hard to identify because the militants did not have traditional supply lines or major physical infrastructure and mingled with civilians.

REFINERY BATTLE

Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a week.

ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but the rebels also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.

Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticised the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shi'ite south and far from the fighting.

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.

In a televised address on Wednesday Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas”.

But so far Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi'ite militia – many believed to be funded and backed by Iran – have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.

Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the insurgents seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.

HOLY SHRINES

Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift dating to the 7th century.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East's main Shi'ite power, which fought a war against Iraq that killed a million people in the 1980s, was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq's great shrines of Shi'ite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

“Regarding the holy Shi'a shrines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” Rouhani said in an address to a crowd on live TV.

He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although he also said Iraqis of all sects were prepared to defend themselves: “Thanks be to God, I will tell the dear people of Iran that veterans and various forces – Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all over Iraq – are ready for sacrifice.”

Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the main Shi'ite shrines. The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam since the Middle Ages.

Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, said Iraq was hurtling towards civil war. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in words clearly aimed at Iran and at Baghdad's Shi'ite rulers, deplored the prospect of “foreign intervention” and said governments need to meet “legitimate demands of the people”.

Maliki's government has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting “genocide” by backing Sunni militants. Riyadh supports Sunni fighters in Syria but denies aiding ISIL.

The Baiji refinery is the fighters' immediate goal, the biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq, which would give them a grip on energy supply in the north where the population has complained of fuel shortages.

The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown out by helicopter.

“The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” an official speaking from inside the facility said.

The government denied the refinery had fallen. Counter-terrorism spokesman Sabah Nouri insisted forces were still in control and had killed 50 to 60 fighters and burned six or seven insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three directions.

Oil prices rose on news the refinery was partly in rebel hands.

FROSTY MEETING

Last week's sudden advance by ISIL – a group that declares all Shi'ites to be heretics deserving death and has proudly distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners lying prone in mass graves – is a test for Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.

Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops and U.S. officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy. However, the White House said more talks with Iran about dealing with the crisis in Iraq, which have taken place on the sidelines of meetings on Tehran's nuclear programme, are unlikely for the time being.

U.S. and other international officials insist Maliki must do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among Sunnis, the minority that ran Iraq until U.S. troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back sending U.S. troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he described as a “civil war”.

Reid and three other congressional leaders – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi – are meeting Obama later on Wednesday.

Western countries fear an ISIL-controlled mini-state in Syria and Iraq could become a haven for militants who could then stage attacks around the globe.

In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood before cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite politician who held the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.

“No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion,” Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of “reviewing the previous course” of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.

Though the joint statement said only those directly employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi'ite militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.

With battles now raging just an hour's drive north of the capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw fierce sectarian street fighting from 2006-2007 and is still divided into Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by razor wire and concrete blast walls.

Addtional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan, Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker, Oliver Holmes, Mark Hosenball, Amena Bakr and Yara Bayoumi; Writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; Editing by Will Waterman and Robin Pomeroy

U.S. honors 24 minority veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam


Two dozen U.S. Army veterans received the country's top military honor at the White House on Tuesday for acts of bravery in World War II, Korea and Vietnam as part of an effort to recognize those whose service may have been ignored because of their race or religion.

President Barack Obama awarded the medals recognizing the 24 Hispanic, African-American and Jewish-Americans veterans – the largest group of soldiers to be honored for the award since World War Two.

Just three of the men honored are still living and were on hand to accept the blue-ribboned award from the president. The others either died in combat or later of natural causes. One veteran is still classified as missing, Obama said.

The review was part of a years-long effort to honor service members despite past discrimination, Obama said.

“Here in America, we confront our imperfections and face the sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal,” he said.

“As one family member said, this is long overdue,” Obama told the audience of wives, brothers, sons and daughters who came to accept the awards in a ceremony at the White House.

The awards followed a 2002 law authorizing a review of war records for Americans who are Jewish or Hispanic. As part of the effort, records of other service members who were overlooked have also emerged.

The three living veterans on hand to accept their award were Melvin Morris of Florida and Jose Rodela and Santiago Erevia of Texas.

The ceremony drew singer Lenny Kravitz, whose uncle Leonard Kravitz was honored posthumously for his service in Korea in 1951.

For a list of those honored, visit whitehouse.gov.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman

The long journey from POW to veterans’ advocate


Harry Corre, held as a prisoner of war during World War II by Japanese military forces in the city of Omuta, was behind a brick building when he saw a “tremendous flash.” Looking around the building, he saw an enormous cloud 30 miles across the bay, above Nagasaki, and assumed there had been an air raid in an oil tank field.

In the work camp the next day, said Corre, who was honored by Union Bank and KCETLink at the 16th annual Local Heroes Awards on Oct. 22. “We knew something big had happened.” His fellow prisoners heard the number 25,000, and then 50,000, and presumed there had been a big battle. But on the third day after the flash, the guards of the work camps disappeared. The war that had made Corre a POW twice over had ended.

Raised Jewish in Boston by a single mother, Corre graduated from school at 16, during the Great Depression. 

At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. “I was out of a job at the time,” he said. “The war was getting pretty fierce in Europe,” so he chose to go to the Philippines, the place he thought was least likely to see any fighting. He was “entirely wrong.”

Before the war, American soldiers in the Philippines enjoyed having services like laundry and cleaning done for $1 a month, Corre remembered. When, in 1941, fighting commenced, U.S. Army supplies were sparse and in very bad condition, Corre remembers. “Unfortunately, 90 percent of what we had was from World War I, and a lot had deteriorated.”

Several months into the war, Corre was transferred to Bataan to train Philippine civilians to be soldiers. He remembers it quickly became “an on-the-job type of training,” because of aggressive attacks by the Japanese military. Corre’s men lived on “one-third rations,” less than 800 calories a day. They ate transportation animals, including horses and mules, and, eventually, snakes and monkeys.

Corre recalls his fellow soldiers maintained good morale, but the superior officers ordered them to surrender. “They just did not realize the difference in the culture between the Japanese and American military discipline,” Corre said. “In the American discipline, a superior cannot lay a hand on an American soldier, whereas the Japanese discipline was very harsh physical abuse, such as beating them, and in many cases they would shoot them or cut their heads off.” Corre said the Japanese emperor had declared they should be treated as less than animals.

The infamous Bataan death march followed. By Corre’s estimate, 60,000 Philippine soldiers and 10,000 Americans were forced on the 100-mile trek without food or clean water in sweltering heat. “The men were in very poor physical condition … to begin with,” said Corre, who marched for 24 hours a day with very few stops. Anyone who stopped for any reason, including to get food or water, was shot, bayoneted or beheaded. 

“I found that, after two days, I thought I would not be able to finish [the] march without getting killed for some reason, so I escaped at night in the middle of a storm,” Corre said. He built a raft of any buoyant material he could find and swam four miles in the middle of the night to Corregidor. As he approached, American Marines shot at him, believing he was an infiltrator. Four days after his escape, he arrived in the city of Mariveles. 

Four months later, Corregidor surrendered, and Corre became a prisoner once again. He was moved to the “zero ward” of a prison camp in the Philippines so that he would not spread his recently contracted diphtheria to Japanese soldiers. The disease made him lose control of his right foot, but he could still walk, and he was made to bury some 50 to 70 bodies a day, sometimes as many as 150. 

In 1943, Corre was transported to Fukuoka, Japan, in “more of a rust bucket than anything else,” to work in the coal mines. He worked for a year and a half in a mine that was so hazardous it had been closed to Japanese soldiers, until the atomic bomb was dropped 30 miles across the bay from him, and the war ended.

After spending two months in the aftermath of the nuclear explosion, Corre found a way to return home by boat. Discharged months later at Long Island, N.Y., he sought out a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to inquire about his benefits. The man sitting at the desk in front of him rudely accused Corre of just wanting a “handout.”

“So I gave him the finger and told him to put it where the sun don’t shine and walked out,” said Corre, recalling that the reputation of VA hospitals at that time was “very bad.” 

Corre worked various jobs while attending night school to become an electronics engineer. He worked in the aerospace business for about 30 years, including helping to launch spacecraft from Cape Canaveral and to develop various types of missiles. His last project was at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, working on the “Star Wars” missile defense project. He worked for 26 years for TRW in Redondo Beach, leaving as an assistant project manager. 

After retiring from the aerospace industry, Corre worked in electric repair, before retiring for a second time. Still, he wanted to stay busy. He became a service officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. After about five years of this work, the director of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center asked him to work part time as a patient advocate for the hospital, a job he has now been doing for more than five years. 

Corre guides veterans through the system, helping them access the care they need. He believes veteran services have “100 percent turned around” since he was first snubbed after his return from World War II. The benefits department is now committed to helping all veterans, he said.

Working for the hospital has even allowed Corre himself to access treatment that he had been missing for decades. He said he did not know he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until he began working in the hospital. Now in his second marriage, he realizes his first wife had a “very, very hard marriage” because of his PTSD symptoms. When asked if he thinks if veterans these days are more aware that they might have the syndrome, he responded, “A crazy man does not know he’s crazy.”

“There is no soldier who has seen any kind of combat action … who has witnessed any kind of horrible scenes of bodies being blown apart, or suicide bombings or IEDs [improvised explosive devices], who can come home without having PTSD,” Corre said. 

Corre knows the war changed his perspectives in many things, including religion. “Yes, I am still Jewish, I will always be Jewish,” he said, but his practice is different from the way that he grew up. “The war changed that. … My viewpoint is very wide open,” Corre said. 

He believes he would now be considered an agnostic. “I have a very dim view of religion and what it can do for you. I will respect everybody for their own views and what they believe in. I have my own views, and now I am 90 years old, and I still feel the same way.”

Palestinian killed after infiltrating Israeli army base


A Palestinian was shot dead after breaking through the gates of an army base near Jerusalem on a tractor.

The Israel Defense Forces is calling Thursday evening’s incident at the Rama base near the Palestinian town of Al-Ram a terror attack.

The Palestinian, identified as Younis Obaidi from the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, broke through the front perimeter of the base and began destroying military vehicles, according to reports.

Soldiers warned Obaidi several times to stop his actions before he was shot by two soldiers, according to the IDF. An Israeli soldier was injured in the incident.

The IDF said Palestitnians were rioting at the scene and that security forces were called to the area to contain the riots.

Last December, two Palestinians infiltrated the same base and stole a soldier’s gun. The base is northeast of Jerusalem and just outside its municipal boundaries.

Grenades fired in Cairo, troops killed near Suez Canal after protesters die


Suspected militants killed six Egyptian soldiers near the Suez Canal and fired rocket-propelled grenades at a state satellite station in Cairo on Monday, suggesting an Islamist insurgency was gathering pace three months after an army takeover.

Dozens of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed in clashes with security forces and political opponents on Sunday, one of the bloodiest days since the military deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July.

The death toll from that day's violence across the country rose to 53, state media said, with 271 people wounded.

The Brotherhood denies the military's charges that it incites violence and says it has nothing to do with militant activity, but further confrontations may shake Egypt this week, with Mursi's supporters calling protests for Tuesday and Friday.

They are likely to be angered by the publication of an interview with Egypt's army chief on Monday in which he said he told Mursi as long ago as February he had failed as president.

Sunday's clashes took place on the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel — meant to have been a day of national celebration. The countries signed a peace agreement in 1979.

Authorities had warned that anyone protesting against the army during the anniversary would be regarded as an agent of foreign powers, not an activist – a hardening of language that suggested authorities would take a tougher line.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused the army of staging a coup and working with security forces to eliminate the group through violence and arrests, allegations the military denies.

Sinai-based militants have stepped up attacks on the security forces since the army takeover and assaults like that in Cairo's Maadi suburb fuel fears of an Islamist insurgency like one in the 1990s crushed by then President Hosni Mubarak.

Two people were wounded in the attack on the state-owned satellite station while medical sources said three were killed and 48 injured in a blast near a state security building in South Sinai. A witness said it was caused by a car bomb.

“Unidentified people opened fire on a satellite receiver station in the neighborhood of Maadi in Cairo,” the Ministry of Interior said in a statement. Security sources said assailants fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the site.

Security sources said gunmen opened fire on the soldiers in Ismailia while they were sitting in a car at a checkpoint near the city on the Canal, a vital global trade route.

TOURISM HIT

Traffic flowed freely in the centre of Cairo where Sunday's clashes had taken place and state radio said security forces were in control of the country.

But attacks in Cairo like Monday's on the satellite station could do further damage to Egypt's vital tourism industry.

David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's, said more explosive devices seemed to be being used in the capital.

“It suggests that Sinai groups are infiltrating in greater numbers in to northern Egypt,” he said. “Either these groups are expanding out of Sinai, he said, “or the capabilities that they have is being used by other groups that may or not be affiliated with the Brotherhood.”

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has promised a political roadmap that would lead Egypt to free and fair elections, said in the interview published on Monday that Egypt's interests differed from those of the Brotherhood.

“I told Mursi in February you failed and your project is finished,” privately-owned newspaper al-Masry al-Youm quoted Sisi as saying.

Militant attacks, including a failed assassination attempt on the interior minister in Cairo in September, are deepening uncertainty in Egypt along with the power struggle between the Brotherhood and the army-backed government.

Neither side seems willing to pursue reconciliation, raising the possibility of protracted tensions in U.S. ally Egypt.

Almost daily attacks by al Qaeda-inspired militants in the Sinai have killed more than 100 members of the security forces since early July, the army spokesman said on September 15.

Security forces smashed pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo on August 14, killing hundreds of people. In an ensuing crackdown, many Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested in an attempt to decapitate Egypt's oldest Islamist movement.

The Brotherhood, which had proven highly resilient after previous crackdowns, has embarked on a strategy of staging smaller protests to avoid action by security forces.

Sisi denied Brotherhood allegations that the army had intended to remove Mursi through a coup, saying it had only responded to the will of the people.

Before Mursi's overthrow, Egyptians disillusioned with his year-long rule had held huge rallies demanding that he quit.

Last month, a court banned the Brotherhood and froze its assets, pushing the group, which had dominated elections held in Egypt after Mubarak's fall in 2011, further into the cold.

Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Maggie Fick; Writing by Michael Georgy

Young olim won’t feel alone


When Avital Avraham, 17, of Sherman Oaks arrived in Israel earlier this month with plans to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces, she said she was “honored that Israel is opening their arms to me even though I wasn’t born here.”

She wasn’t alone. Avraham was one of 331 North American and British immigrants to Israel — including 12 from the Los Angeles area — whose arrival here was celebrated Aug. 13 during a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was among those welcoming the olim, or immigrants under the Law of Return, with words of praise.

“You [make] the biggest and most important decision — to leave your familiar home in different places to immigrate to Israel,” he said vehemently. “This is the core of Zionism.”

The olim arrived from New York on a flight chartered by the organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, which supports aliyah efforts, and they were greeted by more than 1,500 supporters. The audience waved Israeli flags, cheered and even danced as they listened to notable guests. Singer Rami Kleinstein, himself an oleh, also performed.

Avraham, who speaks Hebrew and whose father is Israeli, said she chose to enlist in the IDF because she feels she should contribute — “just as every Israeli would.”

Danielle Tubul, 17, of Tarzana, who is considering remaining in Israel for college and beyond, said she believes it is her “duty” to complete her Israeli army service.

Like both women, Ofir Elkayam, 17, of Oak Park acknowledged the challenges they will experience as Israeli soldiers who are foreign-born. Still, Elkayam, who hopes to be accepted into Shayetet 13, Israel’s version of the Navy SEALs, said he believes the whole process of making aliyah is one big challenge.

“We left our jobs and our families behind, and what could have been a very successful college career,” he said.

This is not to say these teenagers are all alone. Israeli Scouts (Tzofim), for example, has a program called Garin Tzabar that is meant to create a support network for these teens. Tzofim offers lone soldiers, or soldiers whose families live outside Israel, the opportunity to be placed in a group together, or Garin.  The idea is that a Garin becomes a surrogate family for each of the oleh soldiers as they are acclimating to Israel and the army together.

A West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar organized seminars in Los Angeles for these olim with the goal of mentally and emotionally preparing them for military service and life in Israel. Elkayam said these seminars created a familial bond among participants even before they left the United States.

“We all got to know each other at the first seminar we had. Everybody connected,” he said. “It’s been a family ever since. We’ve been hanging out every day.”

Noam Harari, 18, of Agoura Hills said he already feels incredibly close to his Garin. For the next three months, this group from Los Angeles will live together on a kibbutz, where they will acclimate to Israeli life, go through ulpan (a Hebrew study program) and begin being evaluated by the military. Once they are in the army, the kibbutz will continue to be their home, where they can be together on weekends.

It was through the West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar that Harari heard about Nefesh B’Nefesh. Not only does the latter organization charter flights to Israel for olim,  they also aim to provide all types of support for them while they make aliyah and afterward.

Its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, established the group in 2002 after Fass learned that many American Jews decided against making aliyah because of the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles involved. Among its partners is the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Nefesh B’Nefesh isn’t just for immigrants who are enlisting. On this recent flight alone, it also sponsored physicians, lawyers and 41 families. There were physicists who are settling in the Negev.

Fass, during his speech at the Aug. 13 ceremony, said all of these olim are “heroic” for leaving their lives abroad to contribute to Israel.

“I saw a sign that said ‘Welcome Home Heroes.’ I think that encapsulates the whole day,” he said.

The event marked several milestones for Nefesh B’Nefesh, including this flight being its 50th.

Gelbart said afterward that making aliyah will not only benefit the immigrants personally. They, in turn, make Israel a better country.

“It sends a message to the enemies of Israel that people are always coming because they’re coming to Israel. To friends of Israel and people that love Zionism, it gives them adrenaline,” he said. “It gives them power to continue.”

Egyptian army threatens to shoot violent protesters


Egypt's army threatened on Thursday to shoot those who use violence in a stark warning before what both sides expect will be a bloody street showdown between Islamists and opponents of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

An army official said the military had set Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood an ultimatum, giving it until Saturday to sign up to a plan for political reconciliation which it has so far spurned.

The army has summoned Egyptians into the streets on Friday in an intended turning point in its confrontation with followers of Morsi, the elected leader the generals removed on July 3.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has maintained a street vigil for a month with thousands of supporters demanding Morsi's reinstatement, has called its own crowds out for counter-demonstrations across Egypt in a “day to remove the coup.”

Both sides have dramatically escalated rhetoric before Friday's demonstrations. The Brotherhood accused the army of pushing the nation towards civil war and committing a crime worse than destroying Islam's holiest site.

In a Facebook post, the army said it will not “turn its guns against its people, but it will turn them against black violence and terrorism which has no religion or nation”.

A military official said the army had given the Brotherhood 48 hours from Thursday afternoon to join the political process. He did not say what would happen if it refuses.

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called on Egyptians to take to the streets and give him a “mandate” to act against the violence that has convulsed Egypt since he shunted its first freely elected president from power.

The Brotherhood, which has won repeated elections since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, accuses the authorities of stirring up the violence to justify their crackdown.

Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, issued a religious edict broadcast on Al Jazeera television urging soldiers to disobey orders to kill.

“I call on officers and soldiers in the Egyptian army not to listen to what al-Sisi says, or anyone else. Do not kill anyone. Do not kill your brothers. It is forbidden,” Qaradawi declared.

The main anti-Morsi youth protest group, which has backed the army, said it would go to the streets to “cleanse Egypt”.

The West is increasingly alarmed at the course taken by Egypt, a strategic hinge between the Middle East and North Africa, since protests in 2011 brought down Mubarak and ended decades of autocratic rule in the most populous Arab state.

Signaling its displeasure, Washington has delayed delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Cairo. On Thursday, the White House urged the army to exercise “maximum restraint and caution”.

The United States has yet to decide whether to call the military's takeover a “coup”, language that would require it to halt $1.5 billion it sends in annual aid, mostly for the army.

“CLEANSE EGYPT”

For weeks, the authorities have rounded up some Brotherhood officials but tolerated the movement's presence on the streets, with thousands of people attending its pro-Morsi vigil and tens of thousands appearing at its demonstrations.

That patience seems to have run out. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, head of the interim cabinet installed by the army, said there was growing violence by increasingly well-armed protesters, citing a bomb attack on a police station.

“The presence of weapons, intimidation, fear – this causes concern, especially when there are calls for many to come out tomorrow from different sides,” he told a news conference.

After a month nearly 200 people have died in political violence, many fear the protests will lead to more bloodshed.

Past incidents of violence have tended to run through the night and into the following day. Another security official forecast clashes beginning Friday night and stretching into Saturday, the period covered by the army's ultimatum. He also indicated that the two-day period was expected to be decisive.

“The history of Egypt will be written on those days,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Reiterating his group's commitment to peaceful protest, senior Brotherhood politician Farid Ismail accused the security services of readying militias to attack Morsi supporters, adding that Sisi aimed to drag Egypt into civil war.

“His definition of terrorism is anyone who disagrees with him,” Ismail told Reuters. “We are moving forward in complete peacefulness, going forward to confront this coup.”

Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie accused Sisi of committing a crime worse than destroying the Kaaba – the site in Mecca to which all Muslims face when they pray – “brick by brick”.

But many Egyptians are no less passionately backing the army, determined to see the Brotherhood reined in.

“There are men carrying guns on the street … We will not let extremists ruin our revolution,” said Mohammed Abdul Aziz, a spokesman for Tamarud, an anti-Morsi petition campaign that mobilized protests against his rule.

“Tomorrow we will cleanse Egypt,” he told Reuters.

UNCOMPROMISING

Sisi's speech on Wednesday pointed to the deepening confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military establishment, which has reasserted its role at the heart of government even as it says it aims to steer clear of politics.

Saying it moved against Morsi in response to the biggest popular protests in Egypt's history, the army installed an interim cabinet that plans to hold parliamentary elections in about six months, to be followed by a presidential vote.

The Brotherhood says it wants nothing to do with the transition plan. With Morsi still in military detention at an undisclosed location, there is slim hope for compromise.

Egypt remains deeply split over what happened on July 3. The Brotherhood accuses the army of ejecting a democratically elected leader in a long-planned coup, while its opponents say the army responded to the will of the people.

Sisi announced the nationwide rallies after the bombing of a police station in Mansoura, a city north of Cairo, in which a policeman was killed. The government called it a terrorist attack. The Brotherhood also condemned the bombing, accusing the establishment of seeking to frame it.

Since Morsi was deposed, hardline Islamist groups have intensified a violent campaign against the state in the lawless Sinai Peninsula, with near-daily attacks on the police and army.

Two more soldiers were killed on Thursday in an attack on a checkpoint, security and medical sources said.

At the Brotherhood protest camp near a Cairo mosque, Morsi supporters said they expected the army to provoke violence to justify its crackdown. “The army itself will strike. They will use thugs and the police,” said medical student Sarah Ahmad, 24.

Essam wl-Erian, another senior Brotherhood politician, accused “the putschists” of trying to recreate a police state, telling a televised news conference: “This state will never return, and Egypt will not go backwards.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Maggie Fick, Noah Browning, Tom Finn, Shadia Nasralla, Asma Alsharif and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Tom Perry and Matt Robinson; Editing by Peter Graff and Alistair Lyon

Iran says Egyptian army interference is ‘unacceptable’


Iran on Monday called the Egyptian army's ousting of president Mohamed Morsi “unacceptable” and said Israel and the West did not want to see a powerful Egypt.

The comments from Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi were more disapproving than his immediate reaction last Thursday, when he merely called for the Egyptian people's “legitimate demands” to be fulfilled.

Iran welcomed the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, calling it an “Islamic awakening” inspired in part by its own 1979 revolution, and after Morsi's election victory last year it sought to repair its strained ties with Egypt.

However, the two countries now have found themselves supporting opposite sides in the civil war in Syria. While Shi'ite Iran is President Bashar al-Assad's closest Arab ally, largely Sunni Muslim Egypt under Morsi has voiced its support for the mostly Sunni rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad.

On Monday, Araqchi said: “What is important is giving significance to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people,” according to the Mehr news agency.

“However, military intervention in politics is unacceptable and a cause for concern.”

Araqchi warned against greater divisions in Egyptian society, adding: “Certainly foreign hands are also at work, and … the West and the Zionist regime (Israel) will not want a powerful Egypt.”

Several dozen people were killed on Monday when Islamist demonstrators enraged by the Morsi's overthrow said the army opened fire on them at the Cairo barracks where he was being held. The military said a group of armed assailants had tried to storm the compound and soldiers returned fire.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jon Hemming and Kevin Liffey

The power and the mandate in Egypt


Mohamed Morsi is now out, and it is virtually impossible for him to pull off a personal comeback in the near future. His downfall is a result of his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s unsophisticated view of democracy in conjunction with their naïve assumption that they had real power. This combination proved to be a fatal mistake. They mistakenly assumed that once Morsi was elected by a majority of voters (not the majority of the people), he was given both the mandate and the power to rule. The truth of any democracy is that neither of these assumptions is automatically true.

Morsi’s failed mandate

Morsi was given his mandate by a narrow majority, and only of those voting — not the Egyptian people. His mandate was provisional. Many of those demonstrating in Tahrir Square and elsewhere did not vote. Certain activist groups withdrew from the process because they were afraid they would give legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood. Others voted for Morsi but were against the Muslim Brotherhood. Why would they vote for Morsi yet oppose the Brotherhood? Because the election was manipulated to be a vote between the Brotherhood represented by Morsi, and the military represented by Ahmed Shafiq. Many preferred even a Muslim Brotherhood activist to the military. Morsi’s mandate was short-lived because it became obvious to all who are not hard-core Muslim Brotherhood supporters that he was not interested in real democracy. Many of those who had voted for him last year publicly opposed him in recent days. The extraordinary number of demonstrators proved how disappointed the country was with his failure to govern properly.

Where lies the power in Egypt?

The Egyptian military proved without a shadow of a doubt where the power lies in Egypt. Morsi was deposed in five minutes after a 48-hour warning and without really firing a shot. This is a powerful message to the Egyptian people. The power lies with the Egyptian armed forces. If a political leader or party does not please the army, they will eventually be in trouble. Note the parallel, by the way, with Turkey until only recently — but that’s a different discussion.

The military

The military clearly has the power. At this moment, from the clear message of the current round of demonstrations, it also has the popular mandate. The question that needs to be considered most urgently is, what does the military want?

The military does not want to govern directly. It has experienced that, it did it badly, and it wanted out. That is why there were democratic elections. The army allowed elections and supported them.

The army wants Egypt to be functional. That is its bottom line. It does not care much about democracy. The culture of military life does not promote feelings of democracy. Armies can only function properly when officers give orders without discussion and debate. But whether the army is pro-democracy, anti-democracy, or simply a-democracy, it sees its major responsibility to defend the country from outsiders and not insiders. It does not want to deploy on the streets and fight against its own citizens.

The army does not want to govern, but it wants the country to be functional, and it is here where it can be influenced. Those forces or parties that seem most capable of running a functional country, while channeling to the army the resources that it considers its due, will get the support of the army.

The old regime

Mubarak was the person in authority, but he did not really have the power. When it became clear to the military that Mubarak was a liability, he was simply removed. He was no longer able to control the street, so he was eliminated. The military was loved for their act because it was seen as the salvation of Egypt and the source of a new hope for democracy. But remember that democracy is unimportant for the military. They can take it or leave it, as long as their position is protected and the country will be functional. It is certainly not functional now, but the military is the only institution at this point that has the time, patience and resources to work through the ups and downs and stay on top of the situation.

In the meantime, the entire bureaucracy of the Egyptian state was staffed with people who were loyal to Mubarak — who was loyal to the military. The military has always feared and hated the Muslim Brotherhood, so when Morsi took over the leadership of the Egyptian bureaucracy as president, his efforts at running the system were stonewalled. He failed on his own accord to work with anybody who was not Brotherhood, but he failed in the normal bureaucratic running of the country because he was set up to fail. 

The street

The biggest change that the Arab Spring brought to the Arab world is the lesson that the Arab people now, after centuries of lethargy and indifference, are willing to rise up against what they consider to be unacceptable governance. That has been a shock to everybody, including the military two years ago and the Muslim Brotherhood last week. Recall that the Brotherhood only joined the demonstrations when it saw that it had no choice. Brotherhood leaders realized that to hold back would have cost them a sense of legitimacy in Egyptian society. And last week, we saw that Morsi and the Brotherhood completely misread the willingness of the people to rise up in self-sacrifice yet again in order to improve their unhappy lives.

The inherent problem with “the street” is that it is such a big tent that it can only articulate general demands. It cannot deal with specifics. The specifics need to be worked out democratically, but Egypt has no real experience with the process of democracy. That is one of the reasons why Morsi failed. He failed to act like a mature and caring ruler. He failed to work with his opposition. He failed to find solutions through compromise. Like many other Egyptians, Morsi did not understand that once in power a leader still needs to continue to listen to the will of the people.

This, by the way, is a very important observation for those who have said that Egypt will be a democratic country only for the span of one election. Once the Muslim Brotherhood is democratically elected, they said, that will be the end of democracy. The street has proven otherwise, and all Egyptians now understand this. So does the army. It was the will and support of the people that enabled Morsi to sideline the army when he did so some months ago. It was the will of the people that gave the army the opportunity to assert itself once again this week. There is a lot of potential with the street (i.e., the will of the people), but it has to be measured fairly and managed effectively. The current process of calling out the masses for vague demands for change does neither, and so far, its success is only partial.

The military coup

The removal of Morsi was a military coup. Some people call it a revolution because it had the support of the street and probably a significant majority of the Egyptian people. But it was not a popular revolution, and what happened is not really a new phenomenon in Egypt. The “Free Officers Movement” that brought Nasser to power in the 1950s also had the vague support of the street. It was not a revolution either, and the result was a military dictatorship that has endured ever since. 

So we are now at a moment when the military, with the blessing of the majority of the Egyptian people, has actually put a brake on the democratic process. The process was flawed but was nevertheless an important movement in the right direction. The military is now the obvious power in Egypt and will remain so for the immediate future. It is working with various factions, but always with the same goal of remaining at the core of the system.

What has changed?

Actually a lot, in fact a sea change among the Egyptian people as a whole. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians — secular, religious, on the left and right of center as well as in the middle — want more freedom, support for diversity, more economic opportunity and an end to cronyism. They want equal opportunity and a fair chance to build their lives, and many are willing to fight and risk their lives to achieve it. On the other hand, they have not experienced true democracy and they have shown that they do not understand its processes. They have little experience dealing with the difficult life of political barter, and they have virtually no Egyptian role models aside from military or religious leadership, neither of which is particularly interested in democratic ideals. The Egyptian people need to develop their own version of democratic governance, and they are struggling with making that happen. We will see in the next months and years whether the will of the people will translate into a truly functional democracy.


Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of California.

Morsi reportedly ousted by Army


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Egyptian state media reported Wednesday night that the army has deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Earlier, a meeting presided over by the Egyptian military that included representatives from political, religious and national groups was held on Wednesday evening. State media, citing anonymous sources, reported that the army deadline demanding President Morsi’s compliance with opposition demands had been extended in order to reach a peaceful conclusion among the diverse interests. By late evening, tanks were deployed in Cairo and elsewhere in an attempt to prevent chaos.

Rumors from inside Egypt’s military echelon speak of the creation of a ruling council that would include representatives of all relevant sectors – military, political, religious – and allow Morsi to remain in power with the promise of “early presidential elections once the constitution is re-written.”

The Egyptian military took control of state television on Wednesday as the army’s ultimatum to President Mohamed Morsi to reach an agreement with his opponents approached. Morsi issued a plea for calm in remarks aired on Egyptian TV Tuesday night, but his rejection of the army's 48-hour threat to intercede appears only to have heightened tensions in the street with the president offering his people an olive branch that few were prepared to accept.

The situation remained fluid Wednesday morning as the Egyptian people were watching and contemplating the possibility of civil war.

After his speech, clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators resulting in the deaths of at least sixteen of his supporters who were camped out in front of Cairo University. “Heavy clashes are taking place and cars are on fire,” journalist Baher Ghorab told The Media Line.

[Related: Egypt army commander suspends constitution, appoints interim head of state]

Through Tuesday night, the army sought to maintain neutrality between the government and opposition, with no signs of intervention apparent.

“Morsi defied the army's 48-hour ultimatum given to all political factions in Egypt to find a resolution that benefits Egypt,” Egyptian Army Capt. Amr Tolba told the Media Line.

In his speech, the president was adamant in rejecting the ultimatum and asserted that he would remain in office.
Morsi also assured Egyptians that, “Egypt will sustain its production of food, its own defense, and maintain its natural resources.”

On the streets, however, it appeared to observers that the Egyptian people were uninterested in paying heed.  Huge crowds estimated as high as 25 million protesters poured out across the nation in what was the largest mass protest seen since the first day of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

Sky News Arabia reported that anti-Morsi protesters in Alexandria had started blocking the railroad to Cairo, as the army’s deadline loomed.

Several  Morsi supporters interviewed by The Media Line said they are willing to pay with their lives to protect the legitimacy of Egypt's democracy and constitution.

“We will protect the president and those behind him, and if required we will seek martyrdom to protect the Islamic Project,” [referring to a plan calling for Islamic party rule throughout the region]. “We will not allow the immoral opposition to take this dream of a better life away from us,” demonstrator Hamdy Sayed told The Media Line.

On the other hand, liberals who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood's rule, are equally adamant.

“Morsi escaped from prison with the help of foreign militias. Egypt and Egyptians don't support terrorism or terrorists,” anti-Morsi demonstrator Yasmine Khatab told The Media Line from Tahrir Square.

Khatab was referring to the years Morsi spent in prison following allegations that he spied for a foreign country during the rule of Hosni Mubarak when the Moslem Brotherhood was outlawed. Morsi escaped at the beginning of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak in 2011, and in turn, accused the ousted president of corruption and of stifling democracy.

“Some people don't want democracy to succeed because it will not allow them to steal your money,” Morsi said in his rambling late-night speech on Tuesday.

The embattled president added that Egypt is an independent state with challenges that will take time to overcome, claiming that thirty-two families control most of Egypt's wealth. Morsi lamented that supporters of the old regime don't like the democratic experiment going on in the country now.

Morsi’s supporters argue that he was elected through a democratic process and should therefore remain in power.

“The opposition [at the time] shoved an election process in our face — 25 million Egyptians participated in the elections, and Morsi won. Now they are like kids who want to spoil a game because it doesn't go their way,” Mohammed Zahran, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, told The Media Line.

In an effort to defuse the on-going tension in his remarks, Morsi spoke of an initiative for reforms that would include reviewing the articles of the constitution many Egyptians oppose and of bringing a better government to serve their needs. He stressed that he will protect the constitution and will lead an open dialogue with opposition groups for the benefit of all Egyptians.

Morsi also urged Egyptians not to clash with anyone from the army. “The army is the backbone of Egypt and all Egyptians need to respect it and let it protect Egypt from foreign enemies. Don't confront the army and don't use violence against it,” the president admonished his constituents.

Egypt's key geopolitical position as the largest Arab country underscores its importance to the international community. It is the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid, just behind Israel with $3 billion annually. Some in Egypt fear that aid could be jeopardized if Egypt pursues an anti-democratic course.

Egyptians also stress their nation’s importance by referring to the Suez Canal, the vital waterway for global shipping; its strategic position bordering the Gaza Strip; and the importance the world community places in Egypt maintaining the Camp David peace treaty, in force since 1979.

There is concern that unless the Egyptian army remains vigilant and prevents chaos during the current crisis, the United States could reduce or retract its military support and find another player to help protect its interests in the region.

“The country is already divided between different religious and political factions; all they need are guns like in Libya,” Ahmed Seddik, a tour guide who voted for Morsi told The Media Line. He said that, “Egypt is lucky that Egyptians aren't that violent compared to places where similar revolutions took place.”

Sgt. Robert Bales pleads guilty to murdering 16 Afghan civilians


A U.S. Army sergeant who killed 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty on Wednesday to premeditated murder and other charges under a deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted to roaming off his Army post in the Afghan province of Kandahar last March to gun down and set fire to unarmed villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.

“As far as why, I've asked that question a million times since then,” Bales said, in a calm, steady voice, when asked by the judge for an explanation. “There is not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things that I did.”

The slayings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

Assuming that the judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, accepts his plea, a court-martial jury will decide in August whether Bales, 39, is sentenced to life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

Bales, wearing a military dress uniform, stood beside his lawyer, Emma Scanlan, as she entered guilty pleas on his behalf to 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault, as well as to alcohol and drug charges.

Reading through the list of charges himself, one at a time, later in the hearing, Bales acknowledged that he committed 10 of the slayings by shooting and burning his victims and that he killed six others by gunshot only.

“I then did kill her by shooting her with a firearm and burning her. This act was without legal justification,” he said during a matter-of-fact recitation of his crimes, delivered with no visible sign of emotion.

INTENT TO KILL

Asked by Nance if he had acted out of self-defense, or under orders, or whether he had any other legal justification to kill the 16 villagers, Bales replied, “No, sir.”

“Could you have avoided killing them if you wanted to?” the judge asked.

“Yes, sir,” he answered, adding that he “formed the intent (to kill) as I raised my weapon.” Bales said that setting fire to his victims was also done with the intent to kill, and that he was aware it was “against their cultural norms.”

Bales has claimed his memories of the killings are spotty, but he acknowledged seeing a lantern at one point during the rampage and that matches were later found in his possession. He said he learned from previous testimony that kerosene was used in the burnings.

Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his post twice during the night to attack civilians. He is alleged to have returned to base in the middle of the rampage to tell a fellow soldier: “I just shot up some people.”

Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, the father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.

During a nine-day pre-trial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.

Under questioning from Nance, Bales said that his use of illegal steroids, which he admitted taking to improve muscle tone and recovery time from missions, also “increased my irritability and anger.”

Bales' wife was seated behind him in the courtroom benches at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington.

Scanlan told Reuters last week that Bales had agreed to plead guilty to the murder charges against him in return for military prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty.

The plea agreement is subject to final approval by Nance, the presiding judge, who must first determine whether Bales has provided a complete account of the events, understands his plea and accepts the consequences of his acts.

Bales requested in court that one third of the jury panel for the sentencing phase of the proceedings consist of enlisted military personnel, as opposed to officers.

The plea deal outlined by Bales' lawyers was similar to an agreement struck at Lewis-McChord in April, when Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty to killing two fellow U.S. servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq, near Baghdad's airport, in a 2009 shooting spree.

Russell was sentenced to life in prison without parole following an abbreviated court-martial stemming from one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops.

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernard Orr

As world’s largest exporter of drones, Israel looks to transform battlefield


An Israeli soldier sits in an office chair in an air-conditioned metal chamber staring at two screens side by side. One shows a map with a moving dot. The other displays a video feed. Next to the soldier are three more identical stations.

The soldier isn't an air traffic controller but a pilot, and his aircraft is called an unmanned aerial system, more commonly known as a drone.

Welcome to the next generation of the Israeli Air Force.

Israel long has relied on superior air capability to maintain a military edge in the Middle East, and its pilots are among the most respected soldiers in the county.

Now Israel’s drone industry is booming, and experts predict that within decades, manned flight largely will be a thing of the past – especially in risky combat missions. During Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza last year, Israeli drones reportedly played a key role on the battlefield.

“Already today we see that the technology can work faster and better than our five senses, which are limited,” Tzvi Kalron, a marketing manager for Israel Aerospace Industries told JTA in an interview during a recent tour of an Israeli drone facility. “When you take away the human factor in battle and send tools that know how to do it better, it’s easier.”

With two large drone manufacturers — Israel Aerospace Industries, a government company, and Elbit Systems — Israel is the world's second-largest producer of drones, behind the United States, and the world's largest exporter of drones.

IAI began manufacturing drones in 1974, employs 1,000 people in its drone division and sells about $400 million worth of drones per year. The company exports to 49 countries, including NATO allies fighting in Afghanistan, such as Canada and Australia. The client list also reportedly includes some U.S. rivals, such as Russia, and developing countries like Nigeria.

About one-fifth of IAI’s drones stay in Israel. They range from the 5-ton Heron TP, which can fly as high as 45,000 feet and stay in the air for 36 hours, to the handheld Mosquito micro-drone, which weighs less than a pound and travels nearly a mile. The Heron looks like an oversized, gray remote-control airplane, with a radar sticking out of its top and, of course, no space for a pilot.

Along with Air Force drones, the Israel Defense Forces plans to incorporate drones in infantry units. Soldiers may carry a disassembled mini-drone in two backpacks and, when patrolling cities, assemble the drone, launch it by slingshot and monitor it by remote control. The Ghost, as this drone is known, weighs nine pounds and can help the unit eliminate blind spots and, according to IDF spokesman Eytan Buchman, overcome the “fog of war.”

“You can’t see around the corner, you don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill,” Buchman said. “It's definitely helpful when you're facing guerrilla opponents and rely heavily on the element of surprise.”

He added that drones help save civilian lives by identifying civilians near a bomb’s target and helping reroute the bomb to avoid them.

The Ghost's only protruding feature is its most expensive part: a small, round camera that sticks out of the drone's underbelly. To protect the camera, the Ghost flips upside-down before it lands.

Kalron said IAI hopes to expand its drone options in the coming years, developing stealth drones that are harder to see and hear, and working on a micro-drone with wings that flap like a butterfly — a concept known as biomimicry. IAI also is expanding drones’ civilian uses, like surveillance of large crowds and stadiums.

IAI’s drones conduct surveillance, take photographs, and record audio and video, according to Kalron. He would not discuss the drones’ combat capabilities; IAI’s website includes the payload limits for drones.

Drone expert Arie Egozi of the online publication Israel Homeland Security told JTA that “from a technological standpoint, every drone” can shoot missiles. “You put bombs under the wings and it shoots them,” Egozi said.

Some critics argue that the use of drones raises serious moral and legal problems. The debate has been particularly heated on the American use of unmanned vehicles for targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While drones are not without their Israeli critics, they have provoked far less controversy here than in the United States. For many Israelis, a future where planes fly unmanned and pilots are at less risk of death or capture is a welcome development.

“If you can take the pilots out of danger, of course it’s better,” said Uri Aviv, a civilian flight instructor who spent 15 years in the Israeli Air Force. “The moral question is about hitting the target, not the type of weapon. It doesn’t matter if you use a cannon, a tank, a plane or a drone. A pilot can’t see who he’s hitting — it’s the same thing with a drone.”

The biggest concern raised by drones, says Hebrew University philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal, is that their pinpoint accuracy raises the bar for the soldiers operating them. Freed from the stress and uncertainty of flying a plane, Halbertal said, soldiers must take more time to “identify who is a legitimate target” and review the decision before launching a strike.

Halbertal said he doubts that “those who operate drones will be much quicker in using weapons” than traditional pilots.

Egozi said the bigger question for Israel is about the efficacy of exporting to countries such as Russia, which has provided technology to Israeli adversaries like Iran and Syria. Israel’s agreements with Russia have required pledges that Russia not sell certain missile technology to Iran.

Every IAI export deal must receive Israeli Defense Ministry approval before being finalized, according to Kalron.

He said he looks forward to a day when 95 percent of army aviation is unmanned and the Israeli Air Force is not needed.

“In 20 or 30 years they’ll fly drones on commercial flights,” Kalron said. “It’s a trend that’s developing quickly. Technology is superior than all human abilities.”

IDF to tackle Ethiopian troops’ adjustment problems


A new IDF unit will work on integrating Ethiopian recruits, who are over-represented in army prisons.

Army Radio reported that Brig.-Gen. Eli Shermeister, who heads the Israel Defense Forces Education and Youth Corps, set up the unit last month after senior IDF officers learned that half of all Ethiopian soldiers were sentenced to prison at some time during their military service.

Though they account for only three percent of the Israeli army, one in every five inmates of army prisons are Ethiopians, the military radio station reported. Immigrants from families from the former Soviet Union accounted for 16 percent of inmates in 2011.

An earlier report from 2012 by Ma'ariv and other Israeli media quoted the IDF Spokesperson as putting the number of jailed Ethiopian soldiers at 10-11 percent.

“Something happens when Ethiopian recruits enlist and encounter army life,” Major Hila Alperin, the commander of the new Education Corps unit, told Army Radio. “Something goes wrong during their process of adjustment and integration.”

Pentagon lifts U.S. ban on women in combat


The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in front-line combat roles on Thursday in a historic step toward gender equality in the U.S. armed forces after 11 years of nonstop war, during which the front lines were often not clearly defined.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order at a Pentagon news conference rescinding the rule that prevented women from serving in direct combat jobs.

“They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality,” Panetta said, noting that 152 women in uniform had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism,” he said.

The move topples another societal barrier in the U.S. armed forces, two years after the Pentagon scrapped its “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

President Barack Obama expressed strong support for the new policy, as did top civilian and military officials.

“Today every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love,” Obama said, calling the decision a “historic step.”

The decision to lift the ban came with important caveats, and sweeping change will not happen overnight for women, nearly 300,000 of whom have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

The decision could open 237,000 positions to women in America's armed forces and expand opportunities for career advancement. But acceptance into the newly opened jobs will be based on gender neutral performance standards.

“Let me be clear. We are not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job,” Panetta said. “If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.”

“There are no guarantees of success,” he added. “Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.”

OPEN EVERYTHING

A senior defense official said Panetta's goal “is to open everything” to women. Service chiefs will have to ask for exceptions if they want to keep some positions closed, and any exception would have to be approved by the defense secretary.

Panetta made the decision lift the ban after the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded it was time to integrate women “to the maximum extent possible,” according to a statement.

Gender-neutral performance standards will be developed for all the new jobs opening to women, officials said. But whether that means the physical requirements become more or less rigorous remains to be seen, they added, cautioning that they would depend on the actual demands of the position.

An example of a physically demanding job that may be out of reach of women without significant upper body strength could be in front-line tanks, where soldiers need to lift and load heavy ammunition in confined spaces using mainly their arms.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes would be gradual. The service chiefs have until May 15 to offer plans to implement the new policy by Jan. 1, 2016.

“The secretary understands with a change of this magnitude it does take some time,” the official said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban on women in combat, applauded the decision.

For many women service members, the move is belated acknowledgement of the realities of the past decade of war, in which there were often no clearly defined front lines. Of those who served in the wars, 152 have been killed, including 84 in hostile action, and nearly 1,000 have been wounded.

Women serve in combat roles for the armed forces of a few developed nations, including Canada and Israel, but officials say demand from women for such jobs in NATO nations is very low. In 2010, Britain decided after a review that it would not change rules excluding women from infantry or combat teams.

“I feel like it's beyond time,” said Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

The United States is drawing down its some 66,000 remaining forces from Afghanistan through the end of 2014, when only a small residual force is expected to remain. It is possible that some women may see themselves in new combat roles before that withdrawal is complete.

“I don't think we can exclude that possibility,” one senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Editing by Doina Chiacu

Jews and guns: A day on the firing range


Susanne Reyto carefully loaded her rifle and switched the safety off. Peering into the scope attached to the top of the weapon, she pulled the trigger while former U.S. Army platoon leader Charlie Jasper looked on to ensure she was handling her weapon safely.

To their right, 29-year-old Sean Constine loaded bullets into his rifle’s magazine. Then he picked up the rifle and, having located his target — a steel plate attached to the top of a pole approximately 50 yards away — fired away.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Stern, a former member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), corrected the shooting stance of a 20-something who’d never fired a weapon before.

They were among 25 individuals who visited the gun range at the Oak Tree Gun Club in Santa Clarita on Dec. 2 to fire rifles and handguns. Organizers of the daylong event said its purpose was to show that learning how to fire a gun can be a powerful experience that Jews, in particular, can benefit from.

“We wanted an event that was empowering, and we wanted an event that also discussed the moral imperative of Jewish self-defense,” said Orit Arfa, who organized the event. “Learning how to use a gun is, hopefully, not something that every Jew will have to take upon themselves, but we think learning how to use a weapon and not being afraid of using a weapon will influence people toward a certain courage.”

Arfa called the event timely, too, casting it as a way to celebrate Chanukah, which begins at sundown on Dec. 8 and commemorates a “Jewish victory achieved by Jewish warriors who took it upon themselves to rise up in arms.”

Zionists of Los Angeles, a Los Angeles-based ad hoc group created by Arfa, put on the event after the original sponsor, the Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) Western Region, opted out before the event took place, according to Arfa. (A former executive director of the ZOA-Western Region, Arfa was fired from the position last month.)

Jessica Felber, chair of ZOA-West’s young professionals group, helped plan the event, and most of the participants included adults in their 20s and 30s who regularly attend its programs. But others turned up as well, including Reyto and her husband, Robert, who is in his 70s. 

Hired instructors included Jasper, whose service in the Army included a 2008 stint in Iraq, and Stern, a professional shooting trainer who fought in the IDF during the Second Intifada as part of an infantry unit and as a sharpshooter.

Other instructors also had connections to the IDF. Shimi Baras, a shaliach (emissary) for Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, a Zionist youth group, was a former member of the IDF, and several participants claimed that Avichai Perez serves on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal security team. (When asked if this was true, he said it was classified, but showed identification indicating that he works in the Defense Department in the office of the prime minister.)

The instructors weren’t the only ones with prior shooting experience. Some of the participants drew on a range of firearm knowledge.

Constine came in with so much experience firing guns, in fact, that he became a de facto instructor, showing other participants how to hold their weapons properly. A graduate of Emory University, Constine made aliyah in 2005 with the help of Garin Tzabar, a program that facilitates serving in the IDF for Diaspora Jews. He then served in the army.

“The idea of a strong Jew very much appeals to me,” said Constine, who saw combat in Lebanon and in the West Bank while serving in an infantry unit. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Robert Reyto may have been the oldest person in the pack, but that certainly didn’t put him at a disadvantage. Born in Hungary, he suffered through Nazi Germany and communist Hungary. During the ’60s, Reyto served in the U.S. Navy, working as a dentist in a naval construction battalion unit. 

But, for some, it was their first time handling a weapon. That included Paula Perlman, 26, a graduate of California State University, Northridge; Tamar Union, 27, college campus coordinator at the Jewish outreach group Aish Los Angeles; and Susanne Reyto.

The latter struggled to see through her weapon’s scope, everything appearing as a blur. Still, she said, she was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to protect herself. Like her husband, Susanne, 68, who was born in Budapest one week before the Nazis invaded Hungary, lived through the Holocaust, during which she hid in a cellar with her mother. 

Gunshots filled the air as the group walked past the outdoor gun club’s shotgun skeet-shooting range and approached the rifle range. As they waited in a line to rent weapons and ammunition, the gunshots startled those who had never been to a shooting range before.

Before meeting at the gun range — where they took turns firing M4 semiautomatic rifles for nearly an hour, then moved on to handguns — the group gathered at a sports-memorabilia clubhouse owned by Marvin Markowitz, who also owns Factor’s Famous Deli. There, Stern, a member of the National Rifle Association, led a training session on gun safety and spoke in strong support of gun ownership. 

Not everyone agreed. Constine said he is in favor of gun control. 

“Israel and America are vastly different places. In Israel, you need to carry a gun. Here, you don’t,” he said.

Stern also spoke about what he called the problem of American Jews viewing themselves as victims of persecution. Learning how to operate a gun is a way to change that mindset, he said.

The people who participated in the event won’t be turning into Moshe Dayan overnight, he said, referring to Israel’s famous military leader. But, he concluded, this was a step in the right direction.

Economic costs of Gaza fighting


Last Friday, Moshe Ahituv (not his real name) received another call-up from the Israeli army. A captain in the home front command, he had already completed 43 days of army reserve service this year.

Moshe, 40, is an English teacher and the father of two toddlers. His wife is a physical therapist and they are about to purchase their first apartment in Jerusalem. He says the emotional cost of the fighting in the Gaza Strip has already taken a toll.

“The kids aren’t sleeping well, and my three-year-old daughter is behaving badly at nursery school,” he told The Media Line. “It’s also frustrating for me. I spend a lot of time on buses getting from home to my base. I could be home with the kids then or working to bring home money to my family.”

There is also an economic toll. While the government will pay for his missed days at work, he will not receive compensation for the private tutoring hours he has been forced to cancel, which amounts to $400 per week.

Israelis and Palestinians are paying a heavy economic price for the cross-border fighting in Gaza. From orange trees in Gaza damaged during an Israeli airstrike to small restaurants in southern Israel who have no customers, to tourists cancelling trips to Israel and Bethlehem, to destroyed buildings in Gaza, the economic costs on both sides is astronomical.

The business information company IDI estimates the fighting in Gaza will cost the Israeli economy $75 million dollars per day in lost productivity. Many small businesses in southern Israel, in particular, are suffering.

“Usually on the weekends we are full, but this past weekend we had just two tables – both of journalists,” Elad Zaritsky, 35, the owner of Linda, a bistro restaurant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashqelon, told The Media Line. “We’ve already lost thousands of dollars and we simply can’t continue like this. If the fighting continues much longer, we may have to close.”

Zaritsky says small businesses like his operate with only a narrow profit margin. He says the restaurant has been open for five years. Four years ago, during Cast Lead, Israel’s last major ground operation in Gaza, his business also suffered. The government did give him compensation, but he says it did not nearly cover his losses.

Tourism in Israel is also beginning to suffer, although this is the low season for tourism, between the Jewish holidays of the fall; and Chanuka and Christmas in a few weeks.

“Incoming groups for the near future are down 10 percent and individual bookings are down 15 percent,” Ami Etgar, the general director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association told The Media Line. “But groups that are already here have not left.”

Across the border, inside Gaza, life has virtually come to a standstill. While most residents keep a stock of food supplies including flour, oil, sugar and tea in their homes, most shops and businesses remain closed.

“Banks are closed and ATM machines are running out of cash,” Azzam Shawwa, the general manager of the Quds Bank told The Media Line. “But who wants to risk going out when there are airstrikes?”

Shawwa said there is also concern about the electricity supply to Gaza. While Israel has continued to provide power to the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, the electricity must go through transformers to change the voltage. Some of those transformers have been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, and the spare ones are already being used, he said.

“Even before this, some places only had electricity for 12 hours a day,” Omar Shaaban, an economist at Palthink, a Gaza-based think tank told The Media Line. “Now some places only have electricity for six hours a day. Some of us have generators, but there is a shortage of fuel for the generators. I just turned my generator on to answer some emails, but I’m going to have to turn it off soon.”

Shaaban says it’s too early to assess the economic damage caused by the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed at least 95 Palestinians and wounded hundreds. Dozens of buildings in Gaza have been completely destroyed.

“Our economy is losing at least $2 million dollars per day,” Shaaban said. “And that’s in addition to the agricultural sector which has already lost $25 million dollars. The economy has been completely suspended. Agricultural products were supposed to be exported this week from Gaza, but now that didn’t happen.”

Back across the border in Israel, more people seem to be staying home, even in areas that have been relatively free of missile strikes.

“There are many fewer passengers going from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Raof Basila, an Arab citizen of Israel who drives a shared-taxi between the two cities. His colleague, Fadi Abu Katish, agrees. He told The Media Line that while fifty drivers normally transport more than 1,500 passengers each day, the drivers are now alone in their vehicles.

Basila added a pensive note. “People are afraid to go out,” he said. “It is not good for either side. Both sides need peace.”

Lebanon defuses two missiles aimed at Israel


The Lebanese Army defused two rockets aimed at northern Israel.

The Grad rockets, located in southern Lebanon close to the border with Israel, were believed to have been placed there since Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza began six days ago, according to a Reuters report that cited unnamed sources.

They were located less than one mile from an Israeli military site on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights.

Several Palestinian groups operate in southern Lebanon, though the border has been quiet in recent years. The Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah is also based in Lebanon.

Jewish World War II veteran Mort Schecter named Veteran of the Year


As a tail gunner stationed on bombers during World War II, Mort Schecter frequently found himself a sitting duck.

Seventy years later, however, the 89-year-old was standing proudly on the 50-yard line at the Rose Bowl as he received the Veteran of the Year Award from the County of Los Angeles Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The Nov. 3 presentation, made during a UCLA halftime break, recognized a lifetime of accomplishment.

Schecter, a Northridge resident and congregant of Temple Ahavat Shalom, served in the Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1945, after graduating from Fairfax High School. He flew 35 combat missions in France and Germany aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber in the 2nd Air Division, 8th Air Force, manning a weapon underneath the aircraft, which made him an easy target. During his service, he rose in the ranks to become a staff sergeant.

A member of Jewish War Veterans and the American Legion, Schecter also volunteers three times a week at the Sepulveda Veterans Ambulatory Care Center. There he provides clothes for underprivileged veterans.

Every year, the County of Los Angeles Veteran of the Year Award recognizes a veteran who is selected from nominations that are received from veteran service organizations. Last year’s winner, World War II and Korean War veteran Hy Arnesty, nominated Schecter for this year’s award.

“Morton is a war hero, and also he does a mitzvah like you can’t believe,” said Arnesty, who attended high school with Schecter.

Schecter’s military service frequently threw him into precarious situations. He recalled being on a plane that was carrying six 1,000-pound bombs when it made an emergency crash landing and the wheels collapsed.

“The bombs didn’t explode, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

A star athlete during high school, Schecter played semi-professional baseball in Los Angeles after his stint in the military. He said that he could have played professionally, but at the time wasn’t any money in it. Instead, he joined the toy business, spending nearly 40 years with now-defunct wholesale company Pensick and Gordon Toys.

Veterans from around Los Angeles joined Schecter at the Rose Bowl ceremony. In fact, American Legion Post 43 chartered a bus to send veterans to the game. Major Peter Gravett, Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, presented the award to Schecter.

“It was a very nice affair,” Schecter said.

The November award was only the most recent for the local veteran. In October, he received the French Legion of Honor. It is the nation’s highest honor and is generally, although not exclusively, awarded for military service. Elie Wiesel is among its recipients.

Being Jewish did not factor into Schecter’s thoughts when he fought the Nazis, he said.

“I was 19-years-old, and just out of high school. You don’t know from anything.”

Who’s winning the foreign policy debate?


It is often assumed that foreign policy is a field in which deeds matter more than words. But looking at the two presidential candidates in the 2012 election cycle, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, one might end up with the opposite impression: It is words, not deeds, that make their foreign policies seem different. 

When it comes to what to do in the world, the differences between them seem minor and occasional, and the specifics are not always easy to identify. Romney says he wants tougher sanctions on Iran, but does not share with his audience his prescription for getting there. And, in the end, his policies might end up being quite similar to Obama’s. For his part, Obama, for a very long time, has been in the business of advancing peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians without ever managing to prescribe a viable remedy to that familiarly adamant sore. His policies, rhetoric aside, have ended up not far from where Romney’s stated policy might take us.

When it comes to what to say to the world, though, the contrast between Obama and Romney suddenly becomes clearer. “I believe that if America does not lead, others will,” Romney said two weeks ago, bluntly presenting a vision of a United States that is ready to be confrontational in a world-leadership role. Obama, a couple of months before being elected president, had a very different vision: “The world,” he said, “is waiting for the United States to re-engage,” and the U.S. would find it “very difficult for us to meet these 21st century challenges unless we get more effective partnerships with our allies in other countries overseas.” Romney wants the United States to lead, whether the world likes it or not; Obama thinks that for America’s leadership to succeed, it is essential that the world likes it.

 Next week, in their third and final debate of the season, the two candidates will engage in a foreign-policy battle in Florida. This will hardly be the first time for either of them to present their respective philosophies to the public. 

For Romney, there is a problem in any such debate: his lack of a record. All he has is speeches, and one never knows whether he really intends to pursue the policies he now advocates. One never knows if he would really “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state,” as he said two weeks ago — especially so, because just last summer Romney stated that the Palestinians are not culturally fit to have a prosperous state and that chances for any such coexistence are slim. 

For Obama, there is a mirror-image problem: His record of the past four years is full of tactical achievements, but coherent strategies are rare. Yes, he was the president blessed with the opportunity to send troops to kill Osama bin Laden — arguably his greatest achievement abroad — but that achievement doesn’t say much about Obama’s policies, even as he deserves credit for having the courage and the resolve to make the decision. Obama also deserves credit for making good on many of his pledges — gradually disengaging in Iraq and Afghanistan are the prime examples. However, his policies have had mixed results at best. A stable Egypt was lost on his watch (to be fair, there wasn’t much he could do to stop that). Confidence in America’s resolve diminished (that is where his unceremonious abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did play a role). And one never quite knows if Obama has learned the proper lessons from his failures, if he has finally realized that getting the Nobel Peace Prize was premature, and remains so. 

In his “Mantle of Leadership” speech on Oct. 8 at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., Romney advocated for several policies — actual policies — that are different from Obama’s: He said he is reluctant to withdraw troops from Afghanistan based on decisions attached to the calendar. He wants more aid sent to the Syrian rebels, a point repeated by Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate. He would have warm relations with the Israeli government — while Obama rightly argues that his relations with “Israel” are just fine, the “government” is another matter. Romney would also take a tougher position on missile defense, paying the consequent price of tenser relations with Russia. And he would spend more on defense — his only pledge that signals a difference that is both strategically significant and reasonably credible. 

Oddly, as the Asia-Pacific region emerges as an area of much importance — an area that Obama celebrated in 2009 by calling himself America’s “first Pacific president” — neither candidate has thus far engaged in serious statements on the proper policy going forward in that region. The Middle East — the bloody, sticky, rioting, chaotic, treacherous Middle East — is again dominating the foreign agenda. From the blunder over the terror attack on the American embassy in Libya — an embarrassment the Obama administration can’t reasonably escape, but that, in the end, has very little strategic meaning — to Egypt, where Romney would like a more conditional approach “to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel,” to Syria, where Romney wants more aid for the rebels — a move that Vice President Joe Biden claimed is already in the works by the current administration. 

“We are working hand in glove with the Turks, with the Jordanians, with the Saudis and with all the people in the region attempting to identify the people who deserve the help so that when Assad goes  …” Biden said during the vice presidential debate. He also bluntly and accurately answered the question of why intervention was justified in Libya and is not U.S. policy in Syria. Accurately — although not when it comes to some of the details. In the heat of debate, the knowledgeable vice president mixed up his facts when he spoke about geography and population density in the two countries. Alas, Biden got it right when he spelled out the theme that has been evident to all observers of the Obama policies for quite a while: This administration doesn’t do grand strategy in the Middle East — not since its initial strategy of “engagement” collapsed in Iran and in Syria and everywhere else. What the Obama team does is crisis management. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so; sometimes based on a solid analysis, sometimes more on something resembling a hunch. 

In Egypt, the Obama administration decided to side with the revolutionaries, but in Bahrain, it turned a blind eye when Saudi forces crushed any attempt to advance reforms. In Libya, it intervened — leading “from behind” — but in Syria, it has not. In Iran, it pushed for tough sanctions, but refrained from more actively supporting demonstrations against the regime. All in all, it did not make many mistakes as it was watching the old order of the Middle East crumble. That’s an achievement of sorts. On the other hand, its stance was to watch events unfold — not to lead, not to initiate and, in the end, not to have much impact.

Thus, the actual policy differences between Obama and Romney — over aid, security, timetables and budget — pale in comparison to their different outlooks on what America’s leadership role should be in the world. Obama wants his policies to soothe, to cajole, to help him make friends. Romney wants to make a stand, to convey a message of strength. Although both candidates are internationalists, and both say they want America to lead the world, the kinds of leadership they are talking about sound quite different. Obama keeps arguing that his soft-spoken approach has enabled him to gain allies, and even reluctant rivals, on board in his quest to isolate Iran. Romney keeps arguing that isolation is a means to an end — stopping Iran from nuclear armament — which the Obama administration has not achieved. 

When it comes to what their policies for the next four years might look like, the two candidates, in fact, are not as far apart as one might think. When it comes to projecting an image of leading America, they are. And in foreign policy — both seem to think — image counts no less than deeds.


Shmuel Rosner is the Senior Political Editor. He is the author of “Obama vs. Romney: A Jewish Voter’s Guide” (Jewish Journal Books), available at amazon.com.

Editorial Cartoon: I’ve got your back


Your back

As Charedi draft begins, no problems


The controversy had sparked a national debate, raucous protests in the streets and the collapse of a historic government. That came in the months after the Israeli Supreme Court had nullified a law exempting Charedi Orthodox Israelis from military service and giving the government until Aug. 1 to draft a replacement law. 

More than one week after the law’s implementation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting Charedi men through the draft process, according to a military source with knowledge of the issue. 

The IDF had no official comment on the new process.

In previous weeks, thousands of Charedim had gathered in the streets, holding protest signs declaring that they would rather spend their lives in prison than serve in the “Zionist army.” Another protest in Tel Aviv declared that secular Israelis, who had always served, would no longer be “suckers.”

But political stalemate won out. No law was passed, and a broad government coalition created to solve this issue broke up.

The day before the Aug. 1 deadline, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent out a news release stating that the IDF had one month to formulate guidelines on Charedi military service that would accord with the Military Service Law of 1986, which subjects Charedim to the same service requirements as all other Jewish Israelis. Charedim have been subject to the law since Aug. 1, and will remain so until the Knesset passes a new law on Charedi service. 

Under the 1986 law, 18-year-old Charedi boys — until now exempt from the military draft while studying in a yeshiva — are eligible for the draft; their summons may come even before their 18th birthday. The penalty for refusing the summons: three years in prison.

The law includes a clause on religious exemptions from military service for women who observe Shabbat and keep kosher, but they do not apply to men. Men up to the age of 26 may be drafted, Charedi or not.

Now Charedi men born in 1994 and 1995 are or soon will be undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee. The first language of many Charedim is Yiddish, not Hebrew, and their schools do not focus on math or general studies.

The military source could not give any details on the formulation of guidelines for Charedi enlistment, but said the month-long period was granted in part to allow the army time to prepare for absorbing thousands of Charedi soldiers.

According to Haaretz, there are 54,000 Charedi men of enlistment age who have not served in the IDF.

But even as the protests have died down, observers on both sides of the issue do not expect the controversy to be solved or a new law to be passed anytime soon.

“Right now there’s not a general feeling that something major is going to happen because of the political consternation,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, a columnist for Mishpacha magazine, a major Charedi publication.

Rosenblum, of Jerusalem, said that when the coalition broke up, “the sense of panic diminished considerably” in the Charedi world.

Although the Military Service Law is in effect, Rosenblum was not worried that any of his seven sons, including a 17-year-old, would be putting on a uniform. Would the IDF be “subjecting them to military trial and imprisonment? No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think the government has a plan. There was nobody who was talking about putting people in jail.”

During government negotiations on a new law on the matter last month, the major proposals suggested fines for draft dodging, while others eschewed the idea of personal penalties.

A leading official in Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious pluralism and equality, also does not expect new legislation — and a Charedi draft with teeth — to move forward soon, despite his best hopes.

“The government won’t draft one yeshiva student,” said Shahar Ilan, Hiddush’s vice president. “The government isn’t doing anything. “This is a huge violation of the law.”

Ilan said that though most of the Knesset wants to see a new law enacted, no one is willing take the necessary political risks.

“Netanyahu does not want to hurt the Charedi parties” in his coalition, Ilan said. “There’s a majority for a mandatory draft but it’s theoretical because the parties that support a mandatory draft are not ready to break up the government for it.”

Rosenblum said that even were such a law to pass, the IDF would not have the resources or will to absorb so many Charedi youth, whose strict observance of Jewish law puts them in special circumstances.

“There’s no way in the world that the vast majority of Charedi boys are going to go into mixed units,” he said. “There’s no way in the world that the army is going to put in place Charedi-accommodating units within 30 days.”

Pentagon, Lockheed reach agreement on using Israeli systems for F-35s


The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin Corp. have reached an agreement to integrate Israeli systems into the F-35 fighter jet.

The $450 million program will enhance electronic warfare equipment on the jets, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, Reuters reported.

The deal, to be finalized in coming weeks, marks a big step forward for Israel’s $2.75 billion agreement, signed in 2010, to buy 19 F-35 jets; it includes options for up to 75 of the radar-evading fighters, according to Reuters.

The agreement will allow increased participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program by Israeli companies, including Elbit Systems Ltd. and Israel Aerospace Industries, which will start building wings for the radar-evading warplane, Reuters reported.

Senate affirms commitment to Israeli military’s qualitative edge


The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation that reaffirms U.S. security commitments to Israel.

More specifically, the measure says that the U.S. will provide Israel with the capabilities to preserve its military’s qualitative edge, expand military and civilian cooperation, and encourage Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist as the state of the Jewish people.

The Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent last Friday. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) authored the legislation, which had 69 co-sponsors.

In a joint news release, the bill’s authors praised the bipartisanship of the Senate to expeditiously pass the legislation. Boxer said in the statement that the bill “reaffirms the important bond between the United States and Israel, and helps ensure that Israel has the necessary tools to defend itself in this time of dynamic change in the Middle East.”

Isakson added that the quick and unanimous passage of the bill demonstrates the “strong, unwavering commitment to Israel and its security and self-defense” by the United States.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed companion legislation that was sponsored by Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) by a bipartisan vote of 411-2.

The bill will now be reconciled by both houses of Congress in a conference committee before moving to President Obama for his signature.

“I am hopeful that this bill will pass the House with strong support and will be on the president’s desk for his signature very soon,” Isakson said in the news statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for both pieces of legislation during its annual policy conference in March and praised the passage of the Senate bill.

“As the United States faces an increasingly dangerous environment in the Middle East—the mounting threat posed by Iran, instability in Syria and the strengthening of the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, whose reach stretches into the Western Hemisphere—now is the time to enhance our strategic cooperation with our stable, democratic ally Israel,” AIPAC said in a news statement on Friday.

Germany’s Jewish patriots find a home in the military


In an office amid a labyrinth of hallways in Germany’s Ministry of Defense, a short jaunt from where Claus von Stauffenberg was executed in 1944 for trying to kill Adolf Hitler, sits Bernhard Fischer, lieutenant colonel and Jew.

What’s a nice Jewish guy doing in a place like this?

“The history of this place is clear to me. But life is normal today,” said the 59-year-old protocol officer, surrounded by souvenirs from Israel and elsewhere. “Germany is a democratic country and one can live here—and live here well.”

Of course, Fischer would be the first to admit it’s much more complicated than that for Jews in the Bundeswehr, modern Germany’s military. No one knows the exact number, but insiders guess there are some 200 Jews in a military of about 200,000.

Many of them, such as Fischer, have complex family histories. His mother’s family moved from Germany to South Africa prior to World War II. She returned to Germany in 1945 and married a Catholic German. “But our Jewish identity was always there,” he said.

In 1971, while visiting relatives in Israel, Fischer met his future wife, whose family had made aliyah from Tunisia. They moved to West Germany in 1975 and have three children.

Until the postwar obligatory conscription was dropped last year, Germans whose parents or grandparents were victims of Nazi persecution were exempted from military service.

Nevertheless, some chose to serve. Michael Fuerst signed up in 1966 and is likely the first Jew to do so in West Germany. The Jewish community called him “the shmuck from Hanover who joined the army,” he recalls with a laugh.

To Jews from the outside, such patriotism may seem odd. But like all social and legal institutions in West Germany (which carries over to today’s unified Germany), the military was remade in a democratic image.

One major difference is that soldiers are empowered to disobey a command if they believe it would lead to a criminal act. And unlike in Hitler’s day, soldiers do not swear allegiance to the Fuehrer “but to uphold the constitution and defend the freedom of the German people,” Fischer said.

The earliest records of Jews in Germany go back to the fourth century. Lt. Col. Gideon Romer-Hillebrecht, the co-editor with 1st Lt. Michael Berger of a new tome on “Jewish Soldiers-Jewish Resistance in Germany and France,” says Jews may have fought in Germanic troops as early as the 13th century. But it wasn’t until Napoleon’s conquest of the western regions that Jews were granted equal rights—including the right to be drafted, Romer-Hillebrecht told JTA.

In World War I, more than 100,000 Jews served—that was about a fifth of the total Jewish population at the time—and about 12,000 died on the front. Hitler later blamed Germany’s defeat on Jewish soldiers.

Fuerst, an attorney who has chaired the Jewish Association of the State of Lower Saxony since 1980, said his grandfathers and uncles served in World War I, “but nobody was protected by that.” Some of his relatives fled Nazi Germany to the United States, but his paternal grandfather died in the Riga ghetto. His mother survived Theresienstadt.

“I am a German patriot, but you know, I know exactly what happened here,” Fuerst said. “That is the difference between the normal patriot and the Jewish patriot.”

Fuerst was born in 1947 in Hanover, his father’s hometown. In 1966 he signed up to become a paratrooper—the only one of his Jewish friends to join the Bundeswehr.

“I always heard from my other friends that I am German, so there were no discussions in my family about whether I would go to the army or not,” he said.

During the 1967 Six-Day War, he considered fighting for Israel. “For me it was not so easy. I thought, ‘How can I get to Israel?’ But after five days I did not have to think about it anymore,” Fuerst said.

“I have no dual loyalty,” he adds. “I have loyalty only for Germany and for my Jewishness.”

Still, his fellow soldiers sometimes admired him simply because they looked up to Israeli paratroopers, Fuerst says with a laugh.

Fuerst says he rarely experienced anti-Semitism, either before or during his service. But he balked during an early military apprenticeship when a captain told the trainees, “Don’t be so loud: You’re not in the Jew school.”

Fuerst asked to be transferred to another course. The captain responded, “It is good that you request this because I have to tell you, I am an anti-Semite … All the problems we have in Germany were brought to us by the Jews.”

The captain was dismissed from his post the next day.

Romer-Hillebrecht, 46, whose mother was Jewish, joined in part “to heal my own family history.” His Jewish ancestors “lost their whole identity, their belief in the German state.”

While serving recently in Afghanistan, he either received kosher rations from the American forces or ordered frozen meals from a glatt kosher caterer back in Frankfurt.

“Sometimes the others were jealous,” joked Romer-Hillebrecht, deputy chair of the Association of Jewish Soldiers, a 6-year-old group with about 25 members and functions like a “virtual memorial” to the history of Jewish soldiers.

One member, Rainer (Reuven) Hoffmann, 64, has contributed articles in two books the group has published.

Probably the main reason his Jewish mother survived the war, Hoffmann says, is because she married a non-Jew—Hoffmann’s father—in 1933. The rest of her family was scattered throughout Europe. A brother died in Auschwitz; two other siblings survived.

“But my mother did not speak about this time,” he said.

During the height of the Cold War, Hoffmann’s sense of patriotism surged. “We had the Soviet army at the border,” he said. “I felt we needed to defend our country and our political system.”

Like Fuerst, he considered fighting for Israel in June 1967. “I thought perhaps I am serving in the wrong army. But it was over too fast.”

After 15 years in the military, Hoffmann returned to school and became a consultant to various industries. He also took part in political and Jewish life in his hometown of Duisburg, particularly after far-right arsonists attacked a synagogue in Luebeck in 1994.

At the time, his father advised him “to leave Germany because the Nazis will come back. I told him, ‘No, they won’t come back. We will stay here.’ ”

Spiffy in his uniform at the recent book presentation, Hoffmann took the chance to chat with Jewish soldiers whom he rarely sees.

“Even Jews don’t know that there are other Jews in the army,” Hoffmann joked with Batya Goetz, a 35-year-old medical officer specializing in anesthesiology.

Goetz, who converted to Judaism in 2003 after completing a medical internship in Israel, joined the military medical corps at the end of 2010. She is stationed at the military hospital in Berlin.

“Yes, I love my country,” the young doctor said. “I would not want to live anywhere else. But at the same time, I am a European [citizen]. And the Bundeswehr recognizes that. It’s a very international army.”

It’s also a multicultural army, says Goetz, who tries to take off for Jewish holidays. “But I have worked every Christmas since I started,” she says with a smile.

In today’s Bundeswehr, soldiers of all stripes face the same risks. But for many “Jewish patriots,” the past is always present.

“I have had the chance to do all those things that my Jewish ancestors could not,” Hoffmann said. “I feel satisfied. But probably this work of remembering will never be done.”

Israeli army officer suspended for firing on Palestinian demonstrators


An Israeli army officer was suspended for firing on Palestinians throwing stones at a demonstration.

The incident, which occurred June 1 near the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah, was caught on film, and showed that the officer used live fire even though it did not appear that his life was in danger.

None of the demonstrators was hit by his bullets. The residents of Nabi Saleh demonstrate weekly against what they say is the theft of their land for the nearby settlement of Halamish. Demonstrators have been injured in previous incidents.

The Israeli army is still investigating the incident.

Panetta announces $70 million for Iron Dome near term


The Obama administration said it would rush $70 million to Israel in order to enhance its Iron Dome missile defense system, with more money in the pipeline.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Thursday after meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, that he was directed by President Obama to meet Israel’s needs for the system as indicated by Barak.

“My goal is to ensure Israel has the funding it needs each year to produce these batteries that can protect its citizens,” Panetta said. “That is why going forward over the next three years, we intend to request additional funding for Iron Dome based on an annual assessment of Israeli security requirements against an evolving threat.”

Legislation under consideration in Congress, shaped in consultation with administration officials, would deliver $680 million to Israel for the system, which earlier this year successfully intercepted rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

The system was funded in part by $205 million transferred by the United States to Israel in 2011.

Barak in a statement said he “greatly appreciated” the announcement, adding that “This additional funding for the Iron Dome system comes at a crucial time for the Israeli people.”

Barak is in Washington to discuss with Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton efforts to keep Iran from obatining a nuclear weapon. Israel has suggested it could strike soon, seeing Iran as close to achieving the capability of building a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration wants Israel to roll back any strike plans while it pursues a policy of sanctions and diplomacy to get Iran to make its nuclear plans more transparent. Iran denies plans to make a nuclear weapon.

Israel would likely seek to shore up its defenses against attacks on its borders ahead of any conflict with Iran, as Iran would be likely to pressure surrogates in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to attack.

The American israel Public Affairs Committee also praised the Obama administration for its announcement.

“This funding will enable the Jewish state to better protect its citizens, thus preventing a wider conflict,” AIPAC said in a statement. “Missile defense programs are a cornerstone of U.S.-Israel cooperative programs. The two allies work together to develop innovative technologies that advance the security of both nations.”

For new Israeli coalition, haredi army exemptions issue is front and center


Israel’s new unity government may not alter Jerusalem’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program or do much to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it could dramatically change something at home about which a huge number of Israelis care deeply: haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

For years, haredi issues have been something of a third rail in Israeli politics. Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs like the military exemption politically untouchable.

This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.

But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring Kadima and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference—at least, until the next elections, scheduled for October 2013.

The question now is how far Netanyahu will go in taking advantage of a historic opportunity to end this special treatment afforded to haredi Israelis.

The question is likely to hinge on political considerations.

There already is movement on putting together an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted haredi Israeli men military exemptions but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.

Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the top four priorities set forth by the new government coalition. The other three are passing a comprehensive budget, reforming the structure of government and making progress toward peace. The budget issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other, as budgets generally are, but there is something pie-in-the-sky about the other two priorities.

That leaves the Tal Law alternative as the potential historical legacy of this 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.

On Tuesday, that alternative began to take shape.

The Jerusalem Post reported that, under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law—the Israeli equivalent to a constitutional amendment—requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.

Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in one of a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.

The question is whether such a plan—which would radically alter the relationship between the state and its rapidly growing haredi Orthodox population—could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties.

On the one hand, Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.

On the other hand, it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if his Likud party wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.

Those considerations, say political analysts, will mitigate whatever changes are made to haredi exemptions.

There are some other factors at play.

For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defense Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are religiously opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?

For another thing, a sudden, dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset, but from haredi citizens. They would see the sudden change as a broadside against their way of life, and mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. It would make the haredi riots against parking lots opening on the Sabbath and a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh seem like child’s play.

The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army; what Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.

Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption (religious women are currently granted exemptions from army service upon request). That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.

Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls, reduce haredi dependency on welfare and help integrate haredim into Israeli society.

There is great debate within the haredi community about whether or not to welcome these changes. Some haredim see it as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slipperly slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.

Ultimately, whatever change comes to the haredi community is likely to come gradually.

Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year, without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.

For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”

Israel army closes probe into deadly 2009 shelling


Israel’s military on Tuesday closed an investigation into a 2009 shelling of a house in Gaza that killed 21 members of a Palestinian family, saying it did not constitute a war crime and that the civilians had not been targeted purposefully.

The incident occurred during a three-week war in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Witnesses at the time said that on January 4, 2009 Israeli troops had ordered about 100 civilians in the Zeitun district to enter the house and stay there, out of their way.

But the following day the house was hit by Israeli shells and collapsed, killing the members of the extended Samouni family.

Reporting on Tuesday on the decision not to take legal action, Israel’s Channel 10 television described the shelling as “the most serious operational mishap” of the Gaza war.

After an investigation into the shelling and allegations of war crimes, the Military Advocate General “found the accusations groundless,” the military said in a statement.

“The Military Advocate General also found that none of the involved soldiers or officers acted in a negligent manner,” the military said, but added it was making changes to “ensure that such events will not happen again.”

Israel launched the offensive in late 2008 with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket fire that continuously struck southern Israeli towns. Much of the fighting took place in densely populated areas of the small coastal territory. More than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

A report released separately in 2009 by jurist Richard Goldstone under a mandate of the U.N. Human Rights Council said both Israel and the Islamist group Hamas were guilty of war crimes.

Israel refused to cooperate with the inquiry and strongly criticized Goldstone’s conclusions as biased.

The Israeli group B’Tselem, one of the human rights groups that had submitted the complaint, said the response it received from the military did not detail the findings of the shelling investigation or provide reasons behind the decision to close the file.

“It is unacceptable that no one is found responsible for an action of the army that led to the killing of 21 uninvolved civilians, inside the building they entered under soldiers’ orders, even if this was not done deliberately,” Yael Stein, B’Tselem’s head of research, said in a statement.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch Editing by Maria Golovnina

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