Two suicide bombers hit Hezbollah bastion in Lebanon, 43 killed


At least 43 people were killed and more than 240 wounded on Thursday in two suicide bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State in a crowded residential district in Beirut's southern suburbs, a stronghold of the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

The explosions were the first attacks in more than a year to target a Hezbollah stronghold inside Lebanon, and came at time when the group is stepping up its involvement in the Syrian civil war — a fight which has brought Sunni Islamist threats and invective against the Iran-backed Shi'ite group.

Hezbollah has sent hundreds of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the four-year-old conflict over the border. Government forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian troops have intensified their fight against mostly Sunni insurgents, including Islamic State, since Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad on Sept. 30.

Syria's civil war is increasingly playing out as a proxy battle between regional rivals, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels. The two foes also back opposing political forces in Lebanon, which suffered its own civil war from 1975 to 1990, and where a political crisis has been brought about by factional and sectarian rivalries.

The blasts occurred almost simultaneously late on Thursday and struck a Shi'ite community center and a nearby bakery in the commercial and residential area of Borj al-Barajneh, security sources said. A closely guarded Hezbollah-run hospital is also nearby.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said 43 people were killed and 240 people were wounded.

Islamic State said in a statement posted online by its supporters that its members blew up a bike loaded with explosives in Borj al-Barajneh and that when onlookers gathered, a suicide bomber blew himself up among them. The group said the attacks killed 40 people.

Hezbollah vowed to continue its fight against “terrorists”, warning of a “long war” against its enemies.

Medics rushed to treat the wounded after the explosions, which damaged shop fronts and left the street stained with blood and littered with broken glass.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said a third suicide bomber had been killed by one of the explosions before he could detonated his own bomb. His body was found nearby.

It was a blow to Hezbollah's tight security measures in the area, which were strengthened following bombings last year. The army had also set up checkpoints around the southern suburb entrances.

'UNJUSTIFIABLE ATTACKS'

A series of bomb blasts struck Lebanon in 2013 and 2014, including attacks on Hezbollah strongholds. Most of them were claimed by Sunni militants in response to Hezbollah sending fighters to Syria to fight in support of Assad.

Hezbollah's involvement has brought many threats against it in Lebanon.

Security forces say they have foiled a number of attacks inside the country recently and dismantled terror cells. A security source said a man wearing a suicide vest was arrested in Tripoli on Thursday, and a bomb dismantled in the northern city.

The attacks drew a wave of condemnation across the country's political spectrum, including some of Hezbollah's opponents. 

Lebanonese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the attacks as “unjustifiable”, and called for unity against “plans to create strife” in the country, urging officials to overcome their differences. France's foreign ministry also condemned the attacks.

The war in Syria, with which Lebanon shares a border of more than 300 km (190 miles), has ignited sectarian strife in the multi-confessional country, leading to bombings and fighting between supporters of the opposing sides in Syria.

Gun battles broke out in Tripoli last year in clashes that involved the army and Islamist militants, and regular infiltrations of Islamists from Syria into a Lebanese border town still draw army or Hezbollah fire.

The bombers also struck as Lebanese lawmakers held a legislative session for the first time in over a year. A political crisis has left the country without a president for 17 months, with the government failing to take even basic decisions.

Religious leaders warned last year that in the absence of a head of state, sectarian strife was threatening a country that was gripped for 15 years by its own civil war.

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

The forgotten refugees of Ghouta, Syria


The most infamous attack over two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria – a silent sarin gassing in the city of Ghouta that killed more than 1,500 and sent allied countries to the brink of world war – came in the middle of the night.

When I woke up, I found that everyone in my neighborhood had died,” said Syrian refugee Alia Wahban, 18, as she tried to warm the hands of her wailing 8-month-old. “Everyone was on the ground, in the street. We brought water to put on their faces, but they didn’t wake up.”

Wahban knew she had to get out of Syria. So she made her way through the Syrian desert with the help of the Free Syrian Army, praying she wouldn’t be stopped at a military checkpoint, where she feared Hezbollah operatives might rape her – or, worse, kill her son.

A few months later, safe yet starving in a makeshift camp in Jordan, Wahban spoke of the hard new reality she faces as a refugee. A single light bulb – dangling from a cord in the center of her United Nations tent, sucking electricity from a nearby Jordanian home – gave dim shape to the two dozen people huddled alongside Wahban. They were perched along a ring of thin sleeping mats that lined the tent, drinking tiny cups of tea and batting at the flies that had taken refuge there, as well.

“We expect to die this winter,” said Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, a mother of four who fled Ghouta seven months ago, just missing the chemical-weapons attack. (Many of her friends and relatives back home, however, didn’t make it.)

Outside, as if on cue, thunder growled across the late November sky, announcing the second rainfall of winter. It was an ominous reminder of the icy storms to come, which meteorologists predict will be some of the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

[Related: Fifteen-year-old Amira al-Hamed, standing, and her little sister are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mafraq. “There are no clothes, no water, no blankets,” she said. “It's very cold at night. … Please send the message to the world to send winter stuff to us.” Photo by Simone Wilson

Rabeit Na’eam nearly doubled in size following the chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta: The camp’s total population now sits at about 300 families, or 1,500 people, according to al-Khaldi. “The main worry for me now is if these organizations stop giving me aid for the camp, [because then] I cannot give any aid to the refugees in the camp,” he said in his office, lined in ornate gold wallpaper and hung with portraits of the Jordanian royal family.

Back at camp, the refugees are becoming anxious. “When it rains, the tent leaks and floods,” said al-Hamdan, mother of four. Her teeth were yellowed, and some rhinestones had flaked off the geometric pattern running down her abaya. “The water also comes up from the ground.”

Al-Hamdan turned from the visiting journalist to the accompanying JRO volunteer, a Syrian refugee himself, and grilled him about when she would receive a caravan to replace her tent.

The JRO volunteer, a friendly twenty-something with a buzz cut and a puffy thermal vest, pulled up a photo on his smartphone of the typical refugee caravan — a small rectangle, five meters by three meters, with double-paneled walls for insulation. “Very nice,” he said.

“Everybody wants a caravan,” said a spokesperson for UNHCR who wished not to be identified by name. “It’s a way of having a roof — literally a roof — over your head. You can lock your door. You can stand up. It’s also raised a little bit from the ground. And it certainly provides, on a psychological level, a sense of more protection.”

JRO director Al-Khaldi said the Rabeit Na’eam camp is currently populated by 300 tents and 20 caravans; however, refugees at the camp told the Journal that none of them had yet received a caravan.

Al-Khaldi also claimed the UNHCR originally promised to help with the camp, but that “the promises ran out.” However, the UNHCR spokesperson said she had never heard of the Rabeit Na’eam camp, nor its parent organization. “There are hundreds of informal settlements, ranging from a few tents to larger numbers,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t help us when people are not in an official camp setting, as they don’t have access to water, to food and non-food items, kitchens, medical clinics, schools, and to other assistance the humanitarian community provides.

“We do make every effort to support all Syrians in need, however the needs are so enormous, that it can be incredibly challenging to identify everyone,” she said.

At the UNHCR’s massive Za’atari refugee camp, 20 minutes east — whose 80,000 residents come mainly from the Syrian city of Daraa — all but 4,000 families live in caravans, and public restrooms dot the city grid. Some enterprising refugees even steal scraps to build their own private stalls. (“Have they stolen it, or have they privatized it?” asked the UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in a YouTube documentary on the camp. “I think they privatized it.”)

Much has been written and observed about Za’atari, a 1.3-square-mile refugee haven equipped with schools, medical tents and marketplaces. Its internal issues are often less aid-related and more city-related: As the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, it sees theft, violence, contagious diseases, in-fighting between communities and other problems that would arise in any cluster of 80,000 people fenced into rows of caravans in the ruthlessly hot-and-cold desert.

“Although a camp situation is not the most desirable, at least we can support them,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

In Arabic, Rabeit Na’eam means a desert oasis — a green “paradise” where water springs from the ground, according to a young Jordanian entrepreneur who helped translate at the camp.

The irony of this did not escape him. Water is scarce at the Rabeit Na’eam refugee camp, and the terrain harsh. One small boy, around 4 years old, padded over the desert rocks in bare feet, his dark toes coated in a layer of white-orange dust.

To go to the bathroom, al-Hamdan explained, she and the other Ghouta escapees must dig holes in the wet ground — which is especially difficult, and humiliating, for the women.

“In Syria, I had a safe life. I was in school, in the sixth grade,” said Amira al-Hamed, a shy 15-year-old girl living at Rabeit Na’eam with her mother and little sister. “I was playing every day with my friends in my neighborhood. My parents owned a house.”

But after Syrian forces destroyed the family home, al-Hamed, her mother and her sister were forced to leave Ghouta and camp Bedouin-style near the Syrian-Jordanian border for a few months. (Her father stayed behind.) Then, in October, they crossed the border into Jordan, where Jordanian soldiers delivered them straight to Za’atari.

However, because members of their extended family were already living at Rabeit Na’eam, they requested to be transferred.

Now, daily life is bleak. “There is no work or school for me. I just sit in the tent and sleep,” the 15-year-old said.

Although al-Hamed said she wishes she had a caravan like the ones she saw at Za’atari, the bigger camp frightened her: “There are many problems there, and violence,” she said. “It’s a dangerous situation. Also, I have relatives here.”

The No. 1 priority for the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam is to live alongside familiar faces from their old neighborhood, according to JRO Director al-Khaldi. “You can see that everyone knows everyone, and the kids play with each other, and everything is OK,” he said. “All of them come from the same family, so no problems will happen.”

The UNHCR spokesperson said another reason for avoiding Za’atari is that refugees aren’t allowed to leave or find work. Despite the Jordanian government’s ban on hiring Syrian refugees, “we do often find that those outside the camp are working informally, on farms for example,” she said. (A hotel manager in nearby Irbid, Jordan, confirmed this, saying he regularly hired Syrian men to work on his house in the cover of night, before inspectors came around at dawn.)

But the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam pay a price for their freedom. “There are no bathrooms here, and no water,” said al-Hamdan. “There are not enough blankets and clothes for the winter. There are no heaters, and no wood to make a fire. There is nowhere to buy bread. There is no money.”

Like most refugees in Jordan, the Ghouta natives at Rabeit Na’eam receive a limited ration of food coupons from the World Food Programme (WFP). But their remote location makes it more difficult for them to use the credit.

Most days, the refugees said, they eat only rice.

Asked what he does for fun, a 12-year-old boy named Hamed said he plays football all day on the desert flats. “But in the winter,” he said, “I’ll just sleep.”

The shelters at Rabeit Na’eam, which sleep around 12 to a room, are made from a patchwork of UNHCR tents and other assorted tarps and canvases. Donated rugs line the inside. Photo by Simone Wilson

As the sun set at Rabeit Na’eam, leaving behind a chill that cut to the bone, the lights of a Syrian border town blinked in the distance, beyond the tents.

“When Obama made the decision to go to Syria, I was very happy,” said al-Hamdan. “But now I think Obama supports Bashar [al-Assad].” A 70-year-old woman with dark, leathery skin who appeared to be the tent’s communal grandmother chimed in. “I thought America would help the Syrian people, but they didn’t,” she said, raising her voice to a shout. “If Obama wanted, he could help us. He doesn’t want to help us.”

The Ghouta survivors stressed that August’s infamous chemical-weapons attack, which they all blamed on Assad, was only one of thousands of assaults that have devastated their homeland. “The helicopters shot my house and my house broke down,” said Mohammad al-Ahmed, 35, a second cousin of al-Hamdan whose red-and-white keffiyeh was secured to his head with a circle of black rope. He crunched a string of yellow beads compulsively in his hand as he described hearing the helicopters overhead, running out of his house and watching as it was bombed to nothing. The same blast killed 13 of his neighbors, including a two-day-old infant.

On his flip phone, Al-Ahmed looked through photos of two happy memories at Rabeit Na’eam: The first, when the camp was gifted an entire sheep to kill and eat at Ramadan, and the second, when Patch Adams came to visit, dancing around in a red clown nose and stuffing kids into his signature pair of giant underwear. Cracks of laughter broke the musty hush in the tent as the refugees told stories about Adams’ visit.

But they can never forget the biting realities unfolding in their hometown, and their new temporary home, for long. Al-Ahmed said his brother recently told him over the phone that the Syrian government is surrounding Ghouta, blocking civilians from leaving the city and barring any food from entering.

A young girl named Noor said her father and her brother, too, are still trapped in Ghouta. “She cries every day and asks when her dad will come,” al-Ahmed said, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. As he said it, tears welled up again in Noor’s eyes. A pickup truck full of whooping Jordanian teenagers roared by on a road that cuts through the camp.

“I hope my father will be able to come here soon,” Noor said, hugging herself from the cold.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

To support the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam and help keep them warm through the winter, monetary donations can be made to the Jordan Relief Organization through the following bank account: Arab Islamic Bank, account number 1060-11065-505, swift code iibajoam200. The most-needed items are currently blankets ($18 each), heaters plus bottles of gas ($141 each) and caravans ($2,260).

Report: Israel attacked two targets in Syria


Israel attacked two targets in Syria, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network reported.

The attacks in Latakia and Damascus on Wednesday night targeted SA-8 portable missiles that were to be transferred to Hezbollah in northern Lebanon, according to the report published Thursday evening, which cited unnamed sources. The missile shipments were destroyed, according to the report.

Syria had not responded to the report of the attacks by Thursday night.

Thursday’s report came after news of a massive explosion Wednesday at the Latakia air base, where advanced anti-aircraft missiles produced in Russia are believed to be stored. Israeli drones were reported to have flown in Lebanese air space earlier in the day.

Israel carried out a July 5 air attack near Latakia, a major Syrian port city, targeting advanced anti-ship cruise missiles sold to the Syria government by Russia, according to reports in The New York Times and other news sources.

In January, Israel reportedly struck a weapons convoy in Syria carrying Russian-made missiles en route to Hezbollah. In May, Israel reportedly hit Syrian missile stockpiles on two occasions.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the attacks, though U.S. officials have identified Israel as the attacker in all three incidents.

Kerry to talk peace, Syria with Netanyahu


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet next week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss peace talks with the Palestinians and the Syria crisis.

“The purpose of the visit it to have an in-depth discussion with the Prime Minister on the final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, following on the Secretary’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in London last Monday,” according to a State Department statement released Friday. “They will also focus on developments in Syria.”

Kerry has managed to keep proceedings on the Israeli-Palestinian talks under wraps since their launch in June, although there have been reports that the sides are still stuck on the parameters of the talks.

The United States has closely consulted with Israel during the recent crisis, precipitated Aug. 21 when the Assad regime allegedly launched a gas attack on a rebel stronghold believed to have killed more than 1,400 civilians, including hundreds of children.

President Obama is seeking congressional authorization to strike Syria, and has also instructed Kerry to investigate a Russian proposal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons.

Assad: Israel should destroy its chemical weapons too


Syrian President Bashar Assad said Israel should be required to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons.

“If we want stability in the Middle East, all countries should adhere to agreements and the first country to adhere to the agreements should be Israel because Israel has nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and all types of weapons of mass destruction,” Assad said Thursday in an interview with Rossiya 24, a Russian state-run television network.

“When we proposed a project to liquidate stores of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, the United States impeded the project. One of the reasons was to allow Israel to have such weapons,” Assad asserted in the interview.

Assad also said during the interview that the Syrian rebels may use chemical weapons against Israel as a provocation, a rumor that has been circulating in the Russian media, according to the Russian news service Interfax.

“Everyone knows that these terrorist gangs and those who run them are trying to incite an attack by the United States. They previously tried to involve Israel in the conflict in Syria,” Assad said.

Assad told Rossiya 24 that Syria has agreed to put its chemical weapons stockpile under international control in deference to Russia and not because of the threat of a military strike by the United States.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday night in Geneva to discuss the Russian proposal for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control.

The plan was initiated to avoid a military strike on Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical gas attack on Syrian citizens by the Syrian military last month which left more than 1,000 civilians, including hundreds of children, dead.

Republican Jewish Coalition endorses Obama’s Syria call


We hear a lot of rhetoric about putting country above politics, but the Republican Jewish Coalition comes through this week with a robust endorsement of President Obama’s call for congressional backing for a Syria strike.

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) issued an Action Alert today to our 45,000 members, calling on them to reach out to their elected officials in the House and Senate, to ask them to support the upcoming resolution authorizing the use of military force against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.

The Action Alert stressed the moral threshold that has been crossed by Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.

We also emphasized that it is in America’s vital national interests that we continue to be able to project – in Syria and elsewhere – a credible military deterrent.

The RJC believes that this not a Republican or Democrat issue. We encouraged our members to reach out in a bipartisan fashion to Republican and Democrat officials to ask for their support of the resolution.

Okay, so the statement does not mention Obama (the action alert does), and the use of “Democrat” as an adjective remains as absurd as ever.

And let me caveat, naturally, that I can’t enter into whether a strike is the right or wrong way to address the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

But what is salient here is that the RJC makes a case that goes against its partisan mission in two ways: It endorses a Democratic president’s legislation (I remember generic praise from Jewish Democrats for past GOP presidents, but I don’t remember a specific endorsement of a legislative initiative.) More significantly, the RJC is wading forcefully into an emerging internecine struggle within its own party. Opposition to a Syria intervention is not confined to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). A number of establishment mainstreamers (including Liz Cheney) are opposed as well.

As Israelis mob gas mask distribution centers, army urges calm


Daniela Hayoum arrived at a Tel Aviv post office at 7 a.m. and took a number.

The line of people waiting for gas masks was long and Hayoum stepped away to run errands. She returned in the afternoon to find hundreds of Israelis crowding under a hot sun on the building’s wide steps, some holding umbrellas and others food.

On the street below, medics treated a woman suffering from the heat. On the sidewalk, men sold cold water and bagels. Hayoum began to push her way through.

“They want me to stand for four hours here,” said Hayoum, of nearby Ramat Gan. “I don’t trust the government or the army. They say we’re prepared, but the Home Front Command won’t answer the phone.”

For two days, Israelis have been descending on centers like this to receive free government-issued gas masks in preparation for a possible Syrian chemical weapons attack. On Thursday, citing the long lines, the government extended the hours of distribution.

The gas mask frenzy signifies a striking mood change here. An alleged chemical weapons attack last week by the Syrian government and subsequent murmurings of a possible U.S. strike have focused Israeli attention on the Syrian civil war like never before.

U.S. officials had harsh words following the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “moral obscenity” and accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of attempting a cover-up after carrying out the attack. The White House reportedly has begun preparations for a strike on Syria in coordination with European allies.

Although the United States appeared to tone down its rhetoric on Thursday, the fear in Israel is that Assad will respond to an American strike by bombing Israel. On Monday, a government official in Iran, which backs the Assad regime, told an official state news agency that “the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”

The Israel Defense Forces called up nearly 1,000 reservists this week. Following his third security consultation in as many days — a rare occurrence — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure Israelis.

“There is no reason to change daily routines,” Netanyahu said Wednesday. “At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario. The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and to respond strongly against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens.”

Still, the IDF is urging calm and says the chances of a Syrian attack are low. An IDF source told JTA that the Home Front Command has not issued any special instructions to civilians and that “what you’re seeing now is a response from the public.”

“Right now there isn’t any sense of panic,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “There isn’t a freakishly high concern. Everybody is relatively calm. If it was clear that there could be a chance that something would happen, we’d see the consequences of that in terms of Home Front Command instructions to the public.”

Daila Amos, a spokesperson for the Golan Regional Council, said life is continuing normally on the Golan Heights, where stray shells from the fighting across the Syrian border have fallen several times in the past year and where residents are used to a heightened troop presence.

“Unfortunately, during this last year the idea that something could happen has been on our minds,” Amos told JTA. “We hear the bombs almost every day. To think that a number of meters from us these terrible things are happening is not easy.”

Several Israeli analysts say that Assad will likely refrain from attacking Israel even in the case of a U.S. strike. Bombing Israel would draw the IDF into the Syrian civil war, which would weaken Assad and could turn the tide of battle decisively against him, they say.

But Meir Elran, director of the Homeland Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says he no longer believes Assad is acting rationally.

“I wouldn’t attack Israel,” Elran said. “But I also wouldn’t use chemical weapons against my own people.”

The timing of a U.S. strike also remains unclear. There is some question over whether Assad himself ordered the attack and United Nations inspectors are still collecting evidence from the site. They are expected to report to the U.N. secretary-general over the weekend.

Still, Israelis aren’t taking any chances.

Hila Kostinsky, who returned to Israel two weeks ago after 12 years in the United States, said she felt a responsibility to get gas masks for her two children.

“We’re still trying to protect them,” she said. “It’s what you expect when you move back to Israel.”

West could hit Syria in days, envoys tell rebels


Western powers could attack Syria within days, envoys from the United States and its allies have told rebels fighting President Bashar Assad, sources who attended the meeting told Reuters on Tuesday.

U.S. forces in the region are “ready to go”, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, as Washington and its European and Middle Eastern partners honed plans to punish Assad for a major poison gas attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians.

Several sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul on Monday between Syrian opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington and other governments told Reuters that the rebels were told to expect military action and to get ready to negotiate a peace.

“The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days, and that they should still prepare for peace talks at Geneva,” one of the sources said.

Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 states in the Friends of Syria group, including Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, at an Istanbul hotel.

United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples on Monday, put off a second trip to rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. Washington said it already held Assad responsible for a “moral obscenity” and President Barack Obama would hold him to account for it.

However, with Russian and Chinese opposition complicating efforts to satisfy international law – and Western voters wary of new, far-off wars – Western leaders may not pull the trigger just yet. British Prime Minister David Cameron called parliament back from its summer recess for a session on Syria on Thursday.

He and Obama, as well as French President Francois Hollande, face tough questions about how an intervention, likely to be limited to air strikes, will end – and whether they risk handing power to anti-Western Islamist rebels if Assad is overthrown.

In France, which took a vocal lead in helping Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Hollande was about to address ambassadors. A French diplomatic source said Paris had no doubt Assad's forces carried out the gas attack and would “not shirk its responsibilities” in responding.

In an indication of support from Arab states that may help Western powers argue the case for war against likely U.N. vetoes from Moscow and Beijing, the Arab League issued a statement holding Assad's government responsible for the chemical attack.

In Saudi Arabia, the rebels' leading regional sponsor, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called for “a decisive and serious stand by the international community to stop the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian people.”

Fears of international conflict hit some financial markets, notably in neighboring Turkey, as well as emerging economies that could be hit hard by a chill in world trade.

U.S. FORCES READY

Asked if U.S. forces were ready to strike Syria just “like that”, Hagel told the BBC: “We are ready to go, like that.”

“We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” he said. A senior U.S. official told Reuters that Obama had yet to decide on military action.

Top generals from the United States and European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war.

Hagel said the United States would have intelligence to present “very shortly” about last week's mass poisoning. But he noted after calls with his British and French counterparts that there was little doubt among U.S. allies that “the most base … international humanitarian standard was violated”.

Turkey, Syria's neighbor and part of the U.S.-led NATO military pact, called it a “crime against humanity” that demanded international reaction.

The Syrian government, which denies using gas or obstructing the U.N. inspectors, said it would press on with its offensive against rebels around the capital.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said U.S. strikes would help al Qaeda allies and called Western leaders “delusional” if they hoped to help the rebels reach a balance of power in Syria.

In Britain, whose forces have supported the U.S. military in a succession of wars, Cameron called for an appropriate level of retribution for using chemical weapons.

“Our forces are making contingency plans,” a spokesman told reporters. London would make a “proportionate response”.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people.

“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity … And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”

How an intervention, likely to be limited to air strikes, would affect the course of Syria's two and half year old civil war is far from clear. The conflict is largely at a stalemate.

Turmoil in Egypt, whose 2011 uprising inspired Syrians to rebel, has underlined the unpredictability of revolutions. And the presence of Islamist militants, including allies of al Qaeda in the Syrian rebel ranks, has given Western leaders pause. They have held back so far from helping Assad's opponents to victory.

REGIONAL CONFLICT

Russia, a major arms supplier to Assad, has said rebels may have released the gas and warned against attacking Syria. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov criticized Washington for cancelling bilateral talks on Syria that were set for Wednesday.

The Syrian conflict has split the Middle East along sectarian lines. Shi'ite Muslim Iran has supported Assad and his Alawite minority against mainly Sunni rebels, some of them Islamists, who have backing from Gulf Arab states.

In Tehran, a foreign ministry spokesman said: “We want to strongly warn against any military attack in Syria. There will definitely be perilous consequences for the region.”

Syrian foreign minister Moualem, who insisted the government was trying to help the U.N. inspection team, told a news conference in Damascus that Syria would hit back if attacked.

“We have means of defending ourselves, and we will surprise them with these if necessary,” he said. “We will defend ourselves. We will not hesitate to use any means available.”

Assad's forces made little or no response to three attacks by Israeli aircraft earlier this year which Israeli officials said disrupted arms flowing from Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

China, which has joined Moscow in vetoing measures against Assad in the U.N. Security Council, is also leary of Western use of force to interfere in other countries' affairs. Beijing's official news agency ran a commentary on Tuesday recalling that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on the grounds that it possessed banned weapons, which were never found.

DAMASCENES ANXIOUS

The continued presence of United Nations experts in Damascus may be a factor holding back international military action.

A U.N. statement said the investigators had put off a second visit to the affected areas until Wednesday to prepare better.

Some residents of the capital are getting anxious.

“I've always been a supporter of foreign intervention but now that it seems like a reality, I've been worrying that my family could be hurt or killed,” said one woman, Zaina, who opposes Assad. “I'm afraid of a military strike now.”

The Syrian opposition proposed 10 targets to the envoys in Istanbul, sources told Reuters. One opposition figure said the rebels were preparing for a possible government collapse:

“The Americans are tying any military action to the chemical weapons issue. But the message is clear; they expect the strike to be strong enough to force Assad to go to Geneva and accept a transitional government with full authority,” the source said.

“If the strike ends up to be crippling, and if they hit the symbols of the regime's military power in Damascus it could collapse,” the source said.

Some American advocates of the rebel cause questioned the merit of a limited offensive using cruise missiles.

Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama in 2008, said it would be “counterproductive”, by leaving Assad in power. He called for providing unlimited weapons supplies to the rebels.

“While we take worse than half measures and the conflict goes on, it becomes more regional, spreading to Lebanon, spreading to Jordan, and of course Syria and Iraq become al Qaeda transit zones as we watch Iraq unravel,” he told Reuters.

Opposition activists have said at least 500 people and possibly twice that many were killed by rockets laden with poison, possibly the nerve gas sarin or something similar. If so, it was the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

Israelis have been claiming state-issued gas masks in case Syria responds to a Western attack by firing missiles at Israel, as Saddam did in 1991. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to “respond forcefully” to any attempt to target it.

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and William Maclean in Beirut, Phil Stewart in Bandar Seri Begawan, Andrew Osborn in London, John Irish in Paris, Timothy Heritage in Moscow, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Seda Sezer and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Lesley Wroughton, Steve Holland and Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff

Alleged Syrian chemical attack against civilians ‘terribly disturbing,’ Netanyahu says


Israel said on Thursday it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in the killing of hundreds of people in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, and accused the world of turning a blind eye to such attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said if Syria is not punished, its ally Iran could be encouraged to develop nuclear weapons.

“Syria has become Iran's testing ground, and Iran is closely watching whether and how the world responds to the atrocities committed by Iran's client state Syria … against innocent civilians in Syria,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

“These events prove yet again that we simply cannot allow the world's most dangerous regimes to acquire the world's most dangerous weapons.”

Opposition activists have accused Assad's forces of gassing hundreds, including women and children, on Wednesday, allegations which government officials deny.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday the international community needed to respond with force if the allegations of a Syrian government chemical attack proved true, although there was no question of sending troops on the ground.

For Israel, the conflict in its northern neighbour is a battle between two evils: Assad – who is allied with two of its most strident enemies, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas – and Sunni jihadists fighting with rebels to oust him.

Wednesday's incident, carried out while U.N. inspectors were in Damascus to look into allegations of earlier chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, was seized by Israel as an opportunity to question international resolve to curb its foes' suspected pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

“It is absurd that the UN investigators, who are right now in Damascus to verify use of chemical weapons, are prevented from reaching the afflicted areas by the Syrian regime,” Netanyahu said.

The Assad government has denied using chemical weapons against Syrians. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons. Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.

Interviewed on Israel Radio, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said that according to “Israeli intelligence assessments”, chemical weapons had been used in the rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs, and “not for the first time” in Syria's civil war.

Steinitz did not provide further details. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon made similar remarks on Wednesday.

“Nothing tangible or significant has been done in the past two years to halt Assad's incessant massacre of his citizens,” Steinitz said. “The world condemns, the world investigates, the world pays lip service.”

Israel has stopped short of urging Western military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Israel has on several occasions taken action of its own, firing into Syria after mortar bombs and shells from battles near the frontier struck inside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war.

Yisrael Katz, Israel's transportation minister, said the alleged horror of gas attacks on Syrians resonated strongly in the Jewish state, founded after the Nazi Holocaust in which many of the six million Jewish dead were killed in gas chambers.

Israel has long conducted a national gas mask distribution programme for the civilian population. It has accused Syria of stockpiling chemical weapons and voiced concern they could be transferred to Hezbollah or other hostile groups.

“Today he (Assad) is murdering his own people, tomorrow he will threaten us and perhaps worse,” Katz told Israel Radio.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; Editing by Pravin Char and Sonya Hepinstall

Syria rebels: Chemical attack killed hundreds


Syria's opposition accused President Bashar Assad's forces of gassing many hundreds of people — by one report as many as 1,300 — on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world's worst chemical weapons attack in decades.

Western and regional countries called for U.N. chemical weapons investigators – who arrived in Damascus just three days ago – to be urgently dispatched to the scene of one of the deadliest incidents of the two-year-old civil war.

Russia, too, urged an “objective” investigation but Assad's biggest foreign ally also heaped skepticism on his enemies' claims. A foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said the release of gas after U.N. inspectors arrived suggested that it was a rebel “provocation” to discredit Syria's government.

Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries.

Reuters was not able to verify the cause of their deaths. The Syrian government denied that it had used chemical arms.

Noting the “criminal act” took place as the U.N. team got to work, the Russian spokesman said: “This cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation … We call on all those who can influence the armed extremists make every effort to end provocations with chemical agents.”

George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas released over suburbs east of Damascus.

“Today's crimes are … not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime's operations,” he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”

An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 – 90 percent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.

If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.

The Damascus Media Office monitoring center said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Irbib.

Residents of the capital said mortars later hit government-held areas in Faris Khoury Street and the Malki district, where Assad has a residence. There were no reports of injuries.

Heavy air strikes continued throughout the day against the rebel suburbs of Mouadamiya and Jobar.

SYMPTOMS

A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, earlier told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213.

“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.

The U.N. team is in Syria investigating allegations that both rebels and army forces used chemical weapons in the past, one of the main disputes in international diplomacy over Syria.

The Swedish scientist leading the team, Ake Sellstrom, said the reports should be looked into, but doing so would require a request from a U.N. member state. [ID:nS3N0EQ023] A U.N. diplomat said France and Britain were about to write to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to make just such a request.

France and Sweden said the mission must be sent to the site to investigate without delay. “They need to immediately get access to this site – it's 15-20 minutes from where they are currently,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia made similar calls. Britain said it was deeply concerned and would raise the issue at the U.N. Security Council, adding the attacks would be “a shocking escalation” if confirmed.

Extensive amateur video and photographs appeared on the Internet showing countless bodies, with victims choking, some of them foaming at the mouth, and no sign of outward injury.

A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighborhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries. About a dozen were wrapped in blankets.

Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic, with no visible wounds. The narrator in the video said they were all members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.

A Syrian military officer appeared on state television and said the allegations were untrue and a sign of “hysteria and floundering” by Assad's opponents. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated”.

The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said Assad's forces had carried out a massacre: “This is a chance for the (U.N. inspectors) to see with their own eyes this massacre and know that this regime is a criminal one,” Ahmed Jarba said.

ACCUSATIONS

Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.

Assad's officials have said they would never use poison gas – if they had it – against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad's forces used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks in the past, which Washington called a “red line” that justified international military aid for the rebels.

Assad's government has responded in the past by accusing the rebels of using chemical weapons, which they deny. Western countries say they do not believe the rebels have access to poison gas. Assad's main global ally Moscow says accusations on both sides must be investigated.

Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.

“The attack took place at around 3:00 a.m. (8 p.m. ET). Most of those killed were in their homes,” Omar said.

An activist working with Ahrar al-Sham rebel unit in the Erbin district east of the capital who used the name Abu Nidal said many of those who died were rescuers who were overcome with poison when they arrived at the scene.

“We believe there was a group of initial responders who died or were wounded, because when we went in later, we saw men collapsed on staircases or inside doorways and it looks like they were trying to go in to help the wounded and then were hurt themselves,” he told Reuters by Skype.

“At first none of us knew there were chemical agents because it seemed like just another night of air strikes, and no one was anticipating chemical weapons use, especially with U.N. monitors in town.”

The timing of the allegations – just three days after the U.N. experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few kilometers to the east at the start of their mission – was surprising.

“It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country,” said Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.

“At the least, it wouldn't be very clever.”

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Thomas Grove in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff and Dominic Evans; Editing by Will Waterman and Alastair Macdonald

Israel accused of attacking Syrian army base, weapons convoy


Syrian rebel groups said Israel attacked a Syrian army base near the Golan Heights border.

The reports follow Arab media reports that Israeli Air Force planes bombed Syrian army posts. In addition, the rebel group called the Military Revolutionary Council in Golan Quneitra said Israel bombed a convoy carrying missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon from Syria.

Western media did not confirm the reports of the alleged attacks over the weekend, which took place east of the Syrian border with Israel on the Golan Heights.

In recent months, Israel has been accused of bombing weapons warehouses and convoys in Syria. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the reports in U.S. and other media.

IDF chief warns Syria against more attacks on Israel


The Israeli military’s chief of staff,  Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, warned that Syria would pay the price if it continues to attack Israel.

Syrian President Bashar Assad “guides and encourages the widening of activity against Israel, in various dimensions and via the Golan Heights,” Gantz said Tuesday, hours after Syria fired on and damaged an Israeli army jeep, and Israel retaliated with a missile attack. “We will not allow the area of the Golan Heights to become a comfortable place for Assad.

“If Assad impairs the situation in the Golan Heights, he will have to bear the consequences,” the military chief warned at ceremony at Haifa University.

No one was injured when Syria opened fire on an Israeli army patrol early Tuesday morning in the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said. It was the third time this week that Syria targeted Israeli positions.

In retaliation, the IDF said an Israeli missile struck the source of Tuesday’s gunfire.

The IDF lodged a complaint with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, a peacekeeping force that was established in 1974.

The Syrian military claimed in a statement issued Tuesday that its military destroyed an Israeli military vehicle and its occupants. The statement said the jeep crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights.

Gantz said that the nighttime patrol was clearly patroling along the border fence and did not cross into Syrian territory. Earlier Tuesday, Gantz toured the Israeli-Syrian border and talked with the soldiers and commanders of the Nahal Brigade who are stationed there.

Israeli troops manning a border observation point in the Golan Heights were fired on Sunday and Monday. The Israelis did not retaliate but lodged a separate complaint with the U.N. observer force.

Also Tuesday, Israel transferred an injured Syrian national from the border to a hospital in northern Israel for surgery to treat shrapnel wounds.

Boston suspect’s web page venerates Islam, Chechen independence


Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted links to Islamic websites and others calling for Chechen independence on what appears to be his page on a Russian language social networking site.

Abusive comments in Russian and English were flooding onto Tsarnaev's page on VK, a Russian-language social media site, on Friday after he was identified as a suspect in the bombing of the Boston marathon.

Police launched a massive manhunt for Tsarnaev, 19, after killing his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a shootout overnight.

On the site, the younger Tsarnaev identifies himself as a 2011 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It says he went to primary school in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, a province in Russia that borders Chechnya, and lists his languages as English, Russian and Chechen.

His “World view” is listed as “Islam” and his “Personal priority” is “career and money”.

He has posted links to videos of fighters in the Syrian civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles like “Salamworld, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts”.

He also has links to pages calling for independence for Chechnya, a region of Russia that lost its bid for secession after two wars in the 1990s.

The page also reveals a sense of humour, around his identity as a member of a minority from southern Russia's restive Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and other predominately Muslim regions that have seen two decades of unrest since the fall of the Soviet Union.

A video labelled “tormenting my brother” shows a man resembling his dead brother Tamerlan laughing and imitating the accents of different Caucasian ethnic groups.

He has posted his own joke: “A car goes by with a Chechen, a Dagestani and an Ingush inside. Question: who is driving?”

The answer: the police.

Elsewhere on the Internet, a photo essay entitled “Will box for passport” shows the older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev practicing boxing at a gym. The captions identify him as a Chechen heavyweight boxer, in the United States for five years.

“I don't have a single American friend,” one caption quotes him as saying. “I don't understand them.”

Reporting by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Ancient Syrian synagogue hit by looting, shelling


Theft and shelling have damaged a 2,000 year-old synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest in the world, Syrian government and opposition activist sources said on Monday.

Syria's historic monuments have increasingly become a casualty of the civil war has killed more than 70,000 people. Parts of Aleppo's medieval stone-vaulted souk have been reduced to rubble, and many ancient markets, mosques and churches across the country are threatened with destruction.

The damage has so far been light at the Jobar Synagogue, built in honour of the biblical prophet Elijah, according to Mamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria's antiquities department.

“Local community officials say the place's sanctity has been violated and there were thefts but I cannot verify the nature of the thefts without investigation,” Abdulkarim told Reuters by telephone.

“Four months earlier they (Jewish authorities) tried to go in and were prevented from entering due to the presence of fighters.”

He said that authorities believed looters have mostly stolen gold chandeliers and icons dating back 70 to 100 years.

But Abdulkarim said he doubted that thousands of priceless manuscripts had been stolen from the synagogue as most of them, including Torahs in filigreed silver cases, had already been moved to the synagogue inside Damascus's Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Jobar Synagogue is inside a run-down outer district of Damascus called Jobar, which was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds of years until the 1800s.

Rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad began moving into Jobar last July and the area has suffered heavy shelling from government air strikes and artillery since then.

Pro-Assad groups blame rebels for damage to Syria's heritage, while the opposition blames the government. Video has shown both sides destroying ancient castles and shrines with shelling, gun battles and targeted explosions.

NO SITES SPARED

“Jobar has been shelled by Assad's forces for more than 60 days … There is no building that has been spared by the shelling in Jobar, whether it is holy or not,” said opposition activist Mohammed al-Shami, who lives in the area.

“But luckily many artefacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” he said, speaking by Skype.

Other Jewish sites remained unharmed and in government hands, according to the Syrian official Abdulkarim.

“We deal with these (synagogues) in their archaeological value as we are dealing with a mosque or church, no differently. It is part of our heritage. Jewish culture is preserved,” he said.

Abdulkarim said Jews still living in Damascus were storing Jewish artefacts in the Old City's Jewish Quarter at a synagogue that dates back to the Ottoman era and where Syria's tiny Jewish community, only a few dozen, still prays.

The Jobar site, built atop a cave where the prophet Elijah was believed to have hidden from persecution, has been a place of pilgrimage for Syrian and Arab Jews.

Activists said at least six mortars had hit the synagogue, but that damage was still minimal.

Video published by opposition groups in early March showed damage to the concrete outer walls surrounding the synagogue and a pile of rubble next to the entrance, which is marked with an inscription in Arabic, Hebrew in English.

Reporting by Erika Solomon and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Jon Hemming

Alleged chemical attack kills 25 in northern Syria


Syria's government and rebels accused each other of launching a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday in what would, if confirmed, be the first use of such weapons in the two-year conflict.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who has resisted overt military intervention in Syria, has warned President Bashar al-Assad that any use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.” There has, however, been no suggestion of rebels possessing such arms.

Syria's state television said rebels fired a rocket carrying chemical agents that killed 25 people and wounded dozens. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said 16 soldiers were among the dead.

The most notorious use of chemical weapons in the Middle East in recent history was in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja where an estimated 5,000 people died in a poison gas attack ordered by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 25 years ago.

No Western governments or international organizations confirmed a chemical attack in Syria, but Russia, an ally of Damascus, accused rebels of carrying out such a strike.

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, said his government would send a letter to the U.N. Security Council “calling on it to handle its responsibilities and clarify a limit to these crimes of terrorism and those that support it inside Syrian Arab Republic”.

He warned that the violence that had engulfed Syria was a regional threat. “This is rather a starting point from which (the danger) will spread to the entire region, if not the entire world,” he said.

The United States said it had no evidence to substantiate charges that the rebels had used chemical weapons.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said it was not in a position to confirm the reports, adding that if either side used such weapons it would be a “grave violation of international law”.

Britain said its calculations would change if a chemical attack had taken place. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said it would “demand a serious response from the international community and force us to revisit our approach so far”.

BREATHING PROBLEMS

A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack.

“I saw mostly women and children,” said the photographer, who cannot be named for his own safety.

He quoted victims at the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital as saying people were dying in the streets and in their houses.

The revolt against four decades of family rule started with peaceful protests two years ago but descended into a civil war after Assad's forces shot and arrested thousands of activists and the opposition turned to armed insurgency.

Assad is widely believed to have a chemical weapons arsenal.

Syrian officials have neither confirmed nor denied this, but have said that if it existed it would be used to defend against foreign aggression, not against Syrians. There have been no previous reports of chemical weapons in the hands of insurgents.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi said rebels fired “a rocket containing poison gases” at the town of Khan al-Assal, southwest of Aleppo, from the city's southeastern district of Nairab, part of which is rebel-held.

“The substance in the rocket causes unconsciousness, then convulsions, then death,” the minister said.

But a senior rebel commander, Qassim Saadeddine, who is also a spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo, denied this, blaming Assad's forces for the alleged chemical strike.

“We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents,” he told Reuters by telephone from Aleppo.

MILITANT GROUPS

Washington has expressed concern about chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant groups – either hardline Islamist rebels fighting to topple Assad or his regional allies.

Israel has threatened military action if such arms were sent to the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Zoabi said Turkey and Qatar, which have supported rebels, bore “legal, moral and political responsibility” for the strike – a charge dismissed by a Turkish official as baseless.

Zoabi told a news conference that Syria's military would never use internationally banned weapons.

“Syria's army leadership has stressed this before and we say it again, if we had chemical weapons we would never use them due to moral, humanitarian and political reasons,” he said.

Syrian state TV aired footage of what it said were casualties of the attack arriving at one hospital in Aleppo.

Men, women and children were rushed inside on stretchers as doctors inserted medical drips into their arms and oxygen tubes into their mouths. None had visible wounds to their bodies, but some interviewed said they had trouble breathing.

An unidentified doctor interviewed on the channel said the attack was either “phosphorus or poison” but did not elaborate.

A young girl on a stretcher wept as she said: “My chest closed up. I couldn't talk. I couldn't breathe … We saw people falling dead to the floor. My father fell, he fell and now we don't know where he is. God curse them, I hope they die.”

A man in a green surgical mask, who said he had been helping to evacuate the casualties, said: “It was like a powder, and anyone who breathed it in fell to the ground.”

“PINK SMOKE”

A rebel fighter in Khan al-Assal, about 8 km (5 miles) southwest of Aleppo, said he had seen pink-tinged smoke rising after a powerful blast shook the area.

Ahmed al-Ahmed, from the Ansar brigade in a rebel-controlled military base near Khan al-Assal, told Reuters that a missile had hit the town at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT).

“We were about 2 km from the blast. It was incredibly loud and so powerful that everything in the room started falling over. When I finally got up to look at the explosion, I saw smoke with a pinkish-purple color rising up.

“I didn't smell anything, but I did not leave the building I was in,” said Ahmed, speaking via Skype.

“The missile, maybe a Scud, hit a regime area, praise God, and I'm sure that it was an accident. My brigade certainly does not have that (chemical) capability and we've been talking to many units in the area, they all deny it.”

Ahmed said the explosion was quickly followed by an air strike. A fighter jet circled a police school held by the rebels on the outskirts of Khan al-Assal and bombed the area, he said.

His account could not be independently verified.

Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in Vienna he had no independent information about any use of such arms in Syria.

Fighting continued elsewhere, with rebels firing mortar bombs into central Damascus, residents and pro-Assad media said.

Security forces have reinforced the center of the capital – home to state offices and the residences of government officials – but rebels pushing into the outskirts of Damascus are staging increased attacks on districts in the heart of the city.

Syrian rebels said on Monday they had fired mortar bombs at the presidential palace, Damascus International Airport and security buildings to mark the second anniversary of the uprising that has left at least 70,000 dead.

A government-run station, Addounia TV, said “terrorists”, a term Assad's supporters use for the rebels, fired bombs at “civilian areas of Damascus, including near the Saudi embassy”. It said there were casualties but gave no details.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Frerik Dahl in Vienna, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Mohammed Abbas in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Michael Roddy

Clinton warns Russia, Iran of Syria conflict spreading


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran and Russia on Thursday to rethink their support for Syria, saying the most dire scenarios of the conflict spilling beyond its borders could come to pass.

Clinton told reporters there are signs Iran is sending more people and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in his 22-month battle against rebels seeking to end his family's four-decades of authoritarian rule.

Speaking on the eve of her State Department departure, Clinton also said Russia continues aid to the Syrian government, including financially, and she appeared skeptical that Moscow was easing in its opposition to Assad's departure.

Clinton declined comment on reports Israel had bombed Syria on Wednesday but she voiced fears that the conflict, in which more than 60,000 people are believed to have died, may worsen internally and spread.

“I personally have been warning for quite some time of the dangers associated with an increasingly lethal civil war and a potential proxy war,” Clinton told a small group of reporters a day before she is to be replaced by Senator John Kerry.

“Therefore, I think it's incumbent on those nations that have refused to be constructive players to reconsider their positions because the worst kind of predictions of what could happen internally and spilling over the borders of Syria are certainly within the realm of the possible now,” she added.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target was a military research center northwest of Damascus and 8 miles from the border.

Syria warned of a possible “surprise” response to Israel over the reported attack while Hezbollah, an Iranian ally that also supports Assad, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

PRAISE FOR ALKHATIB

Clinton said that the United States was worried that Iran had recently increased its support for Assad.

“It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of great concern to us,” she said.

“I think the numbers (of people) have increased,” she added. “There is a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of the weapons, because Assad is using up his weaponry. So it's numbers and it's materiel.”

She made similar comments about Russia.

“We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment,” she said. “They are doing it in the recent past.”

Russia has been Assad's most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.

Moscow has blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed. But Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Clinton appeared skeptical Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's comment this week that Assad's chances of staying in power were growing “smaller and smaller” might herald a fundamental shift in Russia's stance.

“On the Russians, Medvedev included, we have heard rhetoric before over the last now nearly two years that we thought provided an opening … unfortunately, all of that rhetoric has failed to translate into changes in Russian policy,” she said.

Clinton praised the head of Syria's main opposition coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, for saying this week that he was ready to hold talks with Assad representatives outside Syria if authorities released tens of thousands of detainees.

“I thought he was not only courageous but smart in saying that if certain conditions are met we will begin discussing a political transition because you have to you know make it clear that there will be something other than hardened fighters when this conflict finally ends,” Clinton said. “Otherwise, it might not ever end in the foreseeable future.”

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Lisa Shumaker

Syria warns of ‘surprise’ response to Israel attack


Syria warned on Thursday of a possible “surprise” response to Israel's attack on its territory and Russia condemned the air strike as an unprovoked violation of international law.

Damascus could take “a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes”, Syrian ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali said a day after Israel struck against Syria.

“Syria is engaged in defending its sovereignty and its land,” Ali told a website of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Syria and Israel have fought several wars and in 2007 Israeli jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site, without a military response from Damascus.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and regional security sources said on Wednesday that Israeli jets had bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target had been a military research center northwest of Damascus.

Hezbollah, which has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he battles an armed uprising in which 60,000 people have been killed, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

“Hezbollah expresses its full solidarity with Syria's leadership, army and people,” said the group which fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Israel has remained silent on the attack and there has been little reaction from its Western backers, but Syria's allies in Moscow and Tehran were quick to denounce the strike.

Russia, which has blocked Western efforts to put pressure on Syria at the United Nations, said that any Israeli air strike would amount to unacceptable military interference.

“If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the U.N. Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian said the attack “demonstrates the shared goals of terrorists and the Zionist regime”, Fars news agency reported. Assad portrays the rebels fighting him as foreign-backed, Islamist terrorists, with the same agenda as Israel.

“It is necessary for the sides which take tough stances on Syria to now take serious steps and decisive stances against this aggression by Tel Aviv and uphold criteria for security in the region,” Abdullahian said.

An aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that Iran would consider any attack on Syria as an attack on itself, but Abdullahian made no mention of retaliation.

Hezbollah said the attack showed that the conflict in Syria was part of a scheme “to destroy Syria and its army and foil its pivotal role in the resistance front (against Israel)”.

BLASTS SHOOK DISTRICT

Details of Wednesday's strike remain sketchy and, in parts, contradictory. Syria said Israeli warplanes, flying low to avoid detection by radar, crossed into its airspace from Lebanon and struck the Jamraya military research centre.

But the diplomats and rebels said the jets hit a weapons convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon, apparently destined for Assad's ally Hezbollah, and the rebels said they – not Israel – hit Jamraya with mortars.

The force of the dawn attack shook the ground, waking nearby residents from their slumber with up to a dozen blasts, two sources in the area said.

“We were sleeping. Then we started hearing rockets hitting the complex and the ground started shaking and we ran into the basement,” said a woman who lives adjacent to the Jamraya site.

The resident, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity over Israel's reported strike on Wednesday morning, said she could not tell whether the explosions which woke her were the result of an aerial strike.

Another source who has a relative working inside Jamraya reported that a building inside the complex had been cordoned off after the attack and that flames were seen rising from the area after the attack.

“It appears that there were about a dozen rockets that appeared to hit one building in the complex,” the source, who also asked not to be identified, told Reuters. “The facility is closed today.”

Israeli newspapers quoted foreign media on Thursday for reports on the attack. Journalists in Israel are required to submit articles on security and military issues to the censor, which has the power to block any publication of material it deems could compromise state security.

Syrian state television said two people were killed in the raid on Jamraya, which lies in the 25-km (15-mile) strip between Damascus and the Lebanese border. It described it as a scientific research centre “aimed at raising the level of resistance and self-defense”.

Diplomatic sources from three countries told Reuters that chemical weapons were believed to be stored at Jamraya, and that it was possible that the convoy was near the large site when it came under attack. However, there was no suggestion that the vehicles themselves had been carrying chemical weapons.

“The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,” said one Western diplomat, echoing others who said the convoy's load may have included anti-aircraft missiles or long-range rockets.

The raid followed warnings from Israel that it was ready to act to prevent the revolt against Assad leading to Syria's chemical weapons and modern rockets reaching either his Hezbollah allies or his Islamist enemies.

A regional security source said Israel's target was weaponry given by Assad's military to fellow Iranian ally Hezbollah.

“This episode boils down to a warning by Israel to Syria and Hezbollah not to engage in the transfer of sensitive weapons,” the source said. “Assad knows his survival depends on his military capabilities and he would not want those capabilities neutralized by Israel – so the message is this kind of transfer is simply not worth it, neither for him nor Hezbollah.”

Such a strike or strikes would fit Israel's policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of the Assad family's rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.

Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, but its officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Marcus George in Dubai; editing by David Stamp

Israel says Syrian mortar strike was attack on NATO


Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Thursday a deadly Syrian mortar strike on a Turkish town had to be considered an attack on a member of the NATO alliance.

Israel is technically at war with Damascus and occupies the Golan Heights that it seized in the 1967 war and later annexed, but it has generally taken a cautious line on the uprising in its Arab neighbor.

“One has to say that according to the NATO treaty, it was an attack on a member of NATO, and that means France,” Meridor told reporters during a visit to Paris, referring to France's membership of NATO.

Syria and Israel have not exchanged fire in three decades, and a parliamentary briefing in July by the Israeli armed forces chief about the risk of “uncontrollable deterioration” in Syria were interpreted by local media as a caution against opening a new fighting front with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meridor said he did not want to go into details about the incident but said the deaths in Syria had to end.

“Syria is in a horrible situation, a civil war. Each day men, women and children are being killed and it must be stopped,” Meridor said after meeting France's foreign and defense ministers.

“We are in a process that isn't finished. We don't see the end for now.”

Turkey's government on Thursday said “aggressive action” against its territory by Syria's military had become a serious threat to its national security and parliament approved the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders if needed.

Immediately after the incident, Ankara, which has the second-largest army in NATO, called a meeting of the organization's North Atlantic Council.

Syria has apologized through the United Nations for the mortar strike in Turkey and said such an incident would not be repeated.

Israel has been particularly worried that Hezbollah, the Iranian-inspired Shiite militia in neighboring Lebanon, may gain access to the chemical weapons should Assad's grip slip amid a 18-month-old insurgency.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, has close ties both with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, which was originally set up to oppose Israel.

“The alliance with Iran is extremely worrying (for us). Iran on one side, Hezbollah on the other, with Syria in the middle. For us, it's very important that this unholy alliance is broken,” Meridor said.

“If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a vital strike on Iran,” he said.

Reporting By John Irish

Israel tight-lipped over report on strike on Syria reactor


Israel was tight-lipped following Monday’s extensive revelations by The New Yorker magazine about the September 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor which, according to foreign sources, was carried out by the Israel Air Force. Israel has never taken officially responsibility for the incident.

Then-Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi told the Calcalist financial conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, “This morning I got up and I read in the newspaper and I heard [through the media] that in 2007 the IDF attacked some Syrian reactor. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do know that one shouldn't discuss everything.” According to the report, Ashkenazi was the one who recommended a low-profile air strike five years ago.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan appeared to allude to the strike in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday on the issue of a possible Israeli strike on Iran. “According to what was reported, then, too, President [George W.] Bush was not enthused by an attack, did not agree to the United States taking part, and in any event the right step was taken,” Erdan said.

Asked by Reuters when Israel might give an on-record account of what happened at the Syrian reactor at Deir al-Zor, dropping its censorship order, a defense official said there was no such decision pending.

But the official also indicated that Israel no longer felt the same reluctance to offend Damascus, having written off President Bashar al-Assad as the Syrian insurgency deepens.

“Can you imagine what the mess in Syria would look like today if Assad had nukes?” the official said.

According to The New Yorker article, written by David Makovsky, Mossad agents broke into the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, on March 7, 2007. Israel was seeking information on the possibility that Syria had renewed its interest in a nuclear program, a suspicion that originally arose in Israel in 2006.

Othman was in Vienna to participate in a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors. Mossad agents reportedly entered his home, hacked into his personal computer and copied from it several dozen photos taken inside the secret Syrian nuclear facility. The facility itself was very similar to a North Korean nuclear site in Yongbyon.

Israel immediately understood what was taking place at the Syrian facility, which was located near the border with Turkey, and it was clear the Begin Doctrine had to be implemented. According to this doctrine, Israel must not permit any enemy country to obtain nuclear weapons, and the government must act as Prime Minister Menachem Begin did in 1981 when he ordered the IAF to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan and other officials met with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and presented their findings to him, along with the recommendation that immediate action be taken before the nuclear material in the Syrian reactor became active. If an attack was carried out after the material became active, there was a danger that radiation would leak and contaminate the nearby Euphrates River.

Olmert reportedly held meetings with former prime ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak on the matter. These meetings, which took place between the end of March and start of September 2007, were always held on Fridays. The participants were made to sign secrecy agreements.

On April 18, Israel informed the U.S. about the Syrian nuclear reactor during a meeting between then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his American counterpart Robert Gates. The information from this meeting was passed on to the government of then-U.S. President George W. Bush.

The article reported that Peretz, who did not have a good command of English, read from notes prepared in advance as he made the revelation to Gates.

The Bush administration felt that it did not have enough evidence to justify a U.S. attack on the reactor and Israel began to plan an independent strike. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believed that an Israeli attack on the Syrian reactor would lead to a regional war.

Olmert asked Bush to again consider an attack on the Syrian reactor, saying that this would serve American interests. For the Americans, an attack would kill two birds with one stone, as it would deter the Iranians.

On July 12, Bush convened a meeting with advisers. After the meeting, Bush wanted to send a special letter to Assad containing an ultimatum to dismantle the reactor. Olmert warned Bush that the opening of a diplomatic channel would only give Assad time, during which the reactor would become active.

The Israel Defense Forces, Mossad and then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni all supported a low-profile strike on the Syrian reactor. Israel also examined the possibilities of a larger-scale air strike or a commando operation on the ground.

Experts in Israel assessed that a low-profile strike would not provoke a military response from Syria, as Assad would seek to deny he had a nuclear project, the existence of which would have contradicted his past declarations.

In June 2007, an elite IDF unit was sent into Syria. The soldiers collected soil samples and secretly photographed the reactor site from a distance of 1.5 kilometers.

In the meantime, Barak had replaced Peretz as defense minister. According to the article, Barak asked that the attack be delayed to give the IDF more time to plan and prepare the strike.

Six cabinet discussions were held on the matter in the following weeks. Government ministers said these meetings were very dramatic. The final discussion was held on Sept. 5, when Olmert, Barak and Livni were given authority to decide the nature and timing of the attack. Every minister voted in favor of the attack, except Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who abstained.

Olmert, Barak and Livni retired to a side room where they were joined by then-IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, who recommended that a low-profile air strike be carried out that night. Ashkenazi’s recommendation was accepted.

Operation Orchard was launched close to midnight when four F-16s and four F-15s took off from an IAF base. The planes flew north along the Mediterranean coast before turning east and flying along the Syrian-Turkish border. The planes used electronic warfare devices to blind Syria's aerial defense network.

Olmert, Barak and Livni monitored the operation from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. Between 12:40 and 12:53 a.m. on Sept. 6, the planes transmitted the code word “Arizona” to headquarters, indicating that 17 tons of explosives had been dropped on the target.

“There was a sense of elation,” an Israeli official was quoted as telling The New Yorker. “The reactor was destroyed and we did not lose a pilot.”

After returning to his secondary office at the IDF headquarters, Olmert called Bush, who was in Australia at the time.

“I just want to report to you that something that existed doesn’t exist anymore,” Olmert told Bush.

Syria did not officially confirm the attack, saying only that IAF planes had entered Syrian airspace and then exited after dropping munitions in empty areas.

Securing Syria chemical weapons may take tens of thousands of troops


The United States and its allies are discussing a worst-case scenario that could require tens of thousands of ground troops to go into Syria to secure chemical and biological weapons sites following the fall of President Bashar Assad’s government, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

These secret discussions assume that all of Assad’s security forces disintegrate, leaving chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria vulnerable to pillaging. The scenario also assumes these sites could not be secured or destroyed solely through aerial bombings, given health and environmental risks.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to explain the sensitive discussions, said the United States still had no plans to put boots on the ground in Syria. President Barack Obama’s administration has, in fact, so far refused to provide lethal support to the rebels fighting to oust Assad’s regime and the Pentagon has played down the possibility of implementing a no-fly zone anytime soon.

“There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worst-case scenario,” the official said, adding U.S. forces would likely play a role in such a mission.

Two diplomatic sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said as many as 50,000 or 60,000 ground forces may be needed if officials’ worst fears are realized, plus additional support forces.

Even a force of 60,000 troops, however, would not be large enough for peacekeeping and would only be the amount required to secure the weapons sites – despite some of the appearances of a Iraq-style occupation force, the diplomatic sources cautioned.

It is unclear at this stage how such a military mission would be organized and which nations might participate. But some European allies have indicated they are unlikely to join, the sources said.

The White House declined comment on specific contingency plans. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said that while the U.S. government believes the chemical weapons are under the Syrian government’s control, “Given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime’s increasing attacks on the Syrian people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.

“In addition to monitoring their stockpiles, we are actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors – and our friends in the international community – to underscore our common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them,” Vietor said.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

POTENTIALLY DOZENS OF SITES

While there is no complete accounting of Syria’s unconventional weapons, it is widely believed to have stockpiles of nerve agents such as VX, sarin and tabun.

The U.S. official said there were potentially dozens of chemical and biological weapons sites scattered around the country.

Securing them could not be left to an aerial bombing, which could lead to the dispersion of those agents, the official said.

“There could be second-order effects that could be extremely problematic,” the official said of aerial bombing.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that it was important that Syrian security forces be held together when Assad is forced from power, citing, in particular, their ability to secure chemical weapons sites.

“They do a pretty good job of securing those sites,” Panetta said in an interview with CNN in July. “If they suddenly walked away from that, it would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area.”

The United States, Israel and Western powers have been discussing the nightmarish possibility that some of Assad’s chemical weapons could make their way to militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, might try to get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

Precise quantities and configurations of chemical weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tons of agents annually.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are several suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible production site for biological weapons.

Editing by Warren Strobel

Syrian minister says gov’t will not use chemical weapons on rebels


Syria will only use its chemical weapons on threats from outside of the country, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Monday that the country’s chemical weapons are being guarded by the military, and that they would not be used against the rebels, nor could they fall into the wrong hands, according to reports.

Makdissi’s news conference was carried live on Syrian state television.

U.S. Pentagon officials discussed during meetings last week with Israeli defense officials whether Israel could destroy Syrian chemical weapons facilities in the event of the collapse of the Syrian government, The New York Times reported

During a briefing on the Golan Heights late last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is concerned about chemical weapons scattered throughout Syria falling into the wrong hands, and said that Israel is monitoring that possibility.

“We obviously are not the only player in the region that is anxious; anxious about the fact that an anarchic situation will bring about the transfer of sensitive systems into the wrong hands,” Barak said. “There is no small amount of chemical weapons dispersed all around the country, and there is a lot of weaponry in the hands of the civilians.”

U.S. officials discuss possibility of Israeli attack on Syria


U.S. Pentagon officials discussed with Israeli defense officials whether Israel could destroy Syrian weapons facilities in the event of the collapse of the Syrian government, The New York Times reported.

The Obama administration is not advocating an attack, according to newspaper, citing unnamed American officials. The officials said the administration feared that such an attack would breathe new life into Syrian President Bashar Assad’s power, by shoring up support against Israeli interference.

Several top U.S. administration officials have visited Israel in recent days, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. Syria was part of their discussions with Israeli leaders, according to the Times.

The news comes a day after a suicide bomb attack on a meeting of top Syrian officials in Damascus killed several of Assad’s closest allies and advisers, including Syria’s defense minister, and Assad’s brother-in-law, who also serves as deputy defense minister. The attack came after four days of clashes in Damascus between government troops and anti-government activists.

During a briefing on the Golan Heights Thursday morning, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is concerned about chemical weapons scattered throughout Syria falling into the wrong hands, and said that Israel is monitoring that possibility.

“We obviously are not the only player in the region that is anxious; anxious about the fact that an anarchic situation will bring about the transfer of sensitive systems into the wrong hands. There is no small amount of chemical weapons dispersed all around the country and there is a lot of weaponry in the hands of the civilians,” Barak said.

Barak said the military is also monitoring the possibility of a wave of refugees seeking to enter Israel through the Golan, and is prepared to stop them if they do.

“We also estimate that the longer the civil war lasts; the greater the resentment, the greater the will for vengeance, and the greater the anger between the sides. Assad’s fall could therefore lead to a continuous civil war and chaos. In this situation we could also find ourselves with the Golan Heights serving as a new platform from which terrorists could launch attacks against Israel. Therefore we need to have a quiet presence in this area, and be both alert and ready” for every scenario, he said.

On Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi told a Knesset committee that Assad had removed many of his forces from the Golan Heights to the areas of conflict inside Syria, according to news services briefed by a Knesset spokesman.

“He’s not afraid of Israel at this point, but mainly wants to augment his forces around Damascus,” Kochavi reportedly said.

Syria reportedly moving chemical weapons


U.S. officials are warily watching as Syria begins moving undeclared chemical weapons out of its storage facilities.

Syria’s Assad regime may be preparing to use the weapons against rebels fighting its control, or may be moving them to safeguard them against opponents and to confuse western governments, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Opposition leaders and western governments say as many as 15,000 people have been killed by the regime in nearly 16 months of the uprising.

The weapons in transit – which reportedly include serving nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide – are creating increasing concern in Washington and elsewhere.

“This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch,” one U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.”

The Obama administration has begun to hold classified briefings about the new intelligence, the paper reported.

The Syrian government rejected reports that it was moving its weapons.

“This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue,” said Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told the Journal. “If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can’t they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?”

Russia says downing of Turkish plane not provocation


Russia said on Tuesday Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane should not be seen as a provocation and warned world powers against using the incident to push for stronger action against Damascus.

It was Moscow’s first reaction to Friday’s downing of a Turkish military aircraft by Syrian air defenses, which gave a new international dimension to the worsening conflict in Syria.

Turkey’s NATO allies condemned Syria’s action as unacceptable but stopped short of threatening any military response. Turkey also plans to approach the U.N. Security Council.

“It is important that what happened is not viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action (by Syria),” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

Moscow repeated its calls for restraint, warning that any political escalation would be “extremely dangerous” and threaten international efforts to salvage a moribund six-point Syrian peace plan drawn up by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“Once again, we call on all sides to act exclusively in the interests of such an agenda (the peace plan) and not to take steps that go beyond its limits,” the ministry said.

“We believe that the best course of action is restraint and constructive interaction between the Turkish and Syrian sides in order to clarify all the circumstances of the incident.”

Syria provides Moscow with its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars, and hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would attend a meeting on Syria that Annan is trying to arrange on Saturday but suggested it would not produce results without the participation of Iran, a close Syrian ally.

“Iran must be present. Otherwise the circle of participants will be incomplete and will not gather everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides,” Lavrov told reporters, on the sidelines of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Jordan.

Annan has also said Iran should attend, but diplomats say the United States, Saudi Arabia and others objected to the idea.

Putin later on Tuesday also voiced support for involving Iranian officials in talks seeking an end to the violence, saying it would be “counterproductive” to neglect Syria’s neighbor in negotiations to resolve the conflict.

“The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the process the better because almost every neighboring country has some influence on some forces inside the country,” Putin said.

“It is better to involve Iran in this conflict resolution, receive its support,” he said.

Russia has used its power of veto in the U.N. Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international sanctions over Damascus’s crackdown on the 16-month-old revolt.

Moscow has backed Annan’s plan, insisting it is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria and arguing firmly against any kind of military intervention.

So far Annan’s attempts to get the Syrian opposition and government to begin talks aimed at ending the conflict have failed, but he is pushing for a meeting of key regional players and permanent U.N. Security Council members in Geneva on Saturday, hoping to kickstart political negotiations.

Reporting by Gleb Bryansky in Amman and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, editing by Andrew Heavens

Assad says Houla killings monstrous, crisis will end


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned on Sunday the “abominable” massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.

Assad repeated earlier pledges to enforce a crackdown on opponents he says are terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with opposition figures who had avoided armed conflict or outside backing.

His remarks were at odds with those of U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous – that army shelling killed many Houla victims and that pro-Assad militiamen probably killed the others, many of them women and children.

Assad made his comments in a speech to parliament, a rare public appearance one day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the specter of all-out civil war was growing in Syria and the world needed to see action, not words, from Syria’s leader.

In his hour-long address, Assad made no specific response to Annan’s plea for bold steps to end the conflict, and regional power Saudi Arabia accused him of using Annan’s peace plan to buy time for his military offensive against the rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had urged Russia to push harder for “political transition” in Syria, language which Washington uses to mean ending Assad’s rule.

Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.

“This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements,” said a relaxed-looking Assad. “If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near.”

Dismissing worldwide criticism, which includes accusations from U.N. investigators that both government and rebel forces have committed gross human rights violations, the 46-year-old former eye surgeon drew parallels with his earlier profession.

When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound “do we say to him: ‘Your hands are covered in blood’?” Assad asked. “Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”

Last month’s massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria’s relentless bloodshed – undimmed by Annan’s April 12 ceasefire deal – could engulf the Middle East.

Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah.

Western states accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25 Houla killings, a charge Damascus has denied.

Assad said the Houla killings and other bloody incidents were “ugly and abominable” massacres. “In truth even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen, especially the Houla massacre,” he said.

SYRIA FACES “REAL WAR”

He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month’s election for parliament, whose new members Assad was addressing.

“We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political program. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism,” Assad said. “The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside.”

Clinton, who held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, said she told Lavrov there was a need to “focus on a path forward for a political transition.”

“Assad’s departure does not have to be a precondition but it should be an outcome,” she told a news conference in Stockholm.

Russia has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions which could have led to U.N. action against Assad, and has backed his assertion that militants are to blame for Syria’s bloodshed.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has called for international efforts to arm Syrian rebels, said Assad was using Annan’s peace plan to buy time to crush rebels.

“We notice that each initiative presented…has been accepted by Syria but has not been implemented,” Prince Saud said. “I do not think that he will deal any differently with Annan’s initiative.”

He also accused Damascus of stoking sectarian tensions which recently spilled over into Lebanon, where Syria maintained a military presence for nearly three decades until it withdrew in 2005 under international pressure.

Fifteen people were killed in clashes on Saturday in the Mediterranean city of Tripoli, the worst violence to shake Lebanon since the start of Syria’s uprising.

“What happened in Tripoli is without doubt a continuation of what is happening in Syria,” Prince Saud said. “We have noticed for some time that the regime in Syria is trying to turn this into a sectarian struggle”.

In Syria itself nine civilians were killed on Sunday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. That followed the killings on Saturday of 33 civilians and 61 soldiers, the Observatory said, one of the highest death tolls for security forces since the unrest broke out.

Half the soldiers and security forces were killed in attacks on military armored vehicles in the northern town of Ariha in Idlib province, and in clashes near the central town of Rastan, the Observatory said.

Assad said authorities would maintain their crackdown on the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents.

“We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return. I urge those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge.”

His speech failed to win over sceptics. Abdelbaset Sida of the opposition Syrian National Council dismissed it as rhetoric.

“Assad wants to remain the head of a repressive system at all costs. He does not want to admit that his time his over and that the Syrian people do not want him,” he told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul.

Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must take “bold and visible” steps immediately to change his military stance and honor his commitment to cease violence.

Annan criticized Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the crackdown. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut, Arshad Mohammed and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Asma Alsharif in Jeddah; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Tim Pearce

Flame computer bug may have been released by Israel, minister says


A computer virus attacking computers in Iran and the West Bank may have been created with Israeli involvement, a government minister hinted.

Israeli vice prime minister Moshe Ya’alon said in an interview Tuesday on Israel Radio that “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat would be likely to take various steps, including these, to harm it.”

“Israel was blessed as being a country rich with high-tech, these tools that we take pride in open up all kinds of opportunities for us,” Ya’alon also said.

The discovery of the Flame virus was announced Monday by the Kaspersky Lab in Russia. It was discovered in high concentrations in Iranian computers and also in the West Bank, Syria and Sudan.

The virus was created to collect data, and may have lain dormant for several years and is controlled by a remote computer, which can turn it on and off at will. It is being called “the most sophisticated virus of all times,”

It reportedly shares some characteristics with the Stuxnet virus, which damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges before it was discovered in 2010.

Experts believe that it took a sophisticated programming team and state resources to create the program.

Syria forces deploy near Baniyas as regime cracks down on protesters [MAP]


Syrian security forces deployed in the hills around the coastal town of Banyias on Tuesday in preparation for a possible attack on the coastal city to crush the five-week popular uprising in the country, a protest leader said.

“Forces wearing black and carrying AK-47s deployed today in the hills. Armored personnel carriers passed by the highway adjacent to Baniyas at night,” Anas al-Shaghri said from the town, which has seen intensifying pro-democracy protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad.

“We are expecting an attack any moment. We will receive them at the gates with our bare chests,” Shaghri said.

Protests in Syria have spread across the entire country in the weeks since the demonstrations first began in the southern city of Daraa. View Syria protests in a larger map

Read more at Haaretz.com.

World Briefs


U.S.: Syria willing to stop terror

Syria reportedly said it will look into ways to shut down terrorist organizations operating out of Damascus. American officials informed Israel of the new Syrian position after Jerusalem raised the problem of terror in Syria and Lebanon during strategic talks with the United States two weeks ago, Ha’aretz reported. Some U.S. officials reportedly are becoming more receptive to Israel’s request that the United States put Lebanon on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. These sources believe the threat of being added to the list could persuade Lebanon to take a tougher line with Hezbollah.

Rare attack on Israel-Jordan border

An Israeli minister said it’s unlikely the border with Jordan will become a trouble spot, despite a terrorist attack there Tuesday. An Israeli soldier was killed in the ambush, which began when two gunmen armed with hunting rifles fired on an Israeli patrol near the border fence, wounding two soldiers. When other troops came to investigate, the gunmen fired on and threw grenades at them, killing reserve Sgt. Michael Sitbon and wounding two others. The attackers, believed to be Palestinians, were killed when Israeli helicopter gunships gave pursuit. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack. Israel praised the close security cooperation with Jordanian forces on their side of the border during the incident, which occurred just inside Israeli territory.

Terror Cells Uncovered

Israel uncovered three Palestinian cells responsible for shooting attacks in the West Bank. The Shin Bet revealed Wednesday that arrests of at least 17 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had been made in villages between Nablus and Kalkilya. The suspects admitted to three shooting attacks on Israeli cars and attempting to plant a roadside bomb. There were no injuries in any of the incidents.

Bush Issues Terrorism Update

President Bush issued an update on the first 100 days of the war on terrorism. In the report, released Dec. 20 by the White House, Bush discusses freezing the finances of terrorist groups accused of attacking Israel and of American charities accused of funneling money to those organizations. The report does not stipulate new actions that will be taken to combat terrorism in the Middle East.

Poll: Palestinians Support Peace

A majority of Palestinians support a cease-fire and return to

negotiations with Israel. Sixty percent of those surveyed in a new Palestinian public opinion poll support Yasser Arafat’s call for a cease-fire in the conflict with Israel. While 71 percent support a return to negotiations with Israel, only 21 percent believe the armed attacks against Israel would stop and negotiations resume soon. And 61 percent believe the current intifada helped achieve Palestinian political aims. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted the survey Dec. 19-24.

Funeral Firm Accused

The largest funeral company in the United States was accused of desecrating remains in several Jewish cemeteries in Florida.

Several families have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Houston-based Service Corporation International, alleging that its staff broke open burial vaults and dumped the contents in the woods, crushed vaults to make room for others and dug up and reburied remains in locations other than the plots purchased.

Florida’s attorney general is investigating the company and issued a subpoena for all its burial records. SCI owns numerous Jewish funeral homes and cemeteries throughout the United States.

‘The Greatest’ Takes a Hit

Muhammad Ali is coming under attack for making ethnic jokes last week. The Anti-Defamation League said the former boxing great had disappointed them with the jokes. One joke insulted Jews, while the other insulted Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and African Americans. The jokes came before Ali, who is Muslim, was asked to make a public service announcement explaining American policy to Muslims in the Middle East.

S.F. Attack Under Investigation

An Orthodox Jew in a liberal San Francisco suburb says he was punched on his way to Shabbat services. Jason “Yakov” Ashworth says a man dressed like a black Muslim attacked him on a recent Friday afternoon in Berkeley. Police are investigating the incident. Ashworth is a kosher overseer in for the Va’ad Hakashrus of Northern California.

Ex-Iranian Leader: Nuke Israel

The former president of Iran is calling on the Muslim world to develop nuclear weapons to annihilate Israel.

At a Dec. 14 lecture at Tehran University, Ali Hashem Rafsanjani said that if “the world of Islam” obtains nuclear weapons, it should use them against Israel, whose second-strike capability is not enough to destroy the entire Muslim world.

“Nothing will remain after one atom bomb is dropped on Israel, while a similar attack would only hurt Islam,” Rafsanjani said.

Still one of the most powerful leaders in Iran, Rafsanjani described the founding of Israel as “the worst event in all of history.”

Afghans to Welcome Israeli Aid

Afghanistan’s deputy president said her country would welcome Israeli humanitarian aid. But Sima Samar said she would prefer that the aid come from nongovernmental agencies. Samar, the only woman in Afghanistan’s new government, said her country likely would consider diplomatic relations with Israel if Israel and the Palestinians come to a peace agreement.

Jerusalem Post Gets New Editor

The Jerusalem Post newspaper named a new editor. Bret Stephens, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, will become the new editor of Israel’s largest English-language daily. The current editor of the Post, Jeff Barak, will become deputy editor of the Jewish Chronicle in London.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Yom Kippur II


I first met Maurice Singer on the far bank of the Suez Canal during the second week of the Yom Kippur War, soon after Israel had counter-attacked across the waterway. The British-born, 28-year-old machine-gunner was grimy and sweating on his clanking, dust-encrusted half-track, the forerunner of today’s armored personnel carrier. Like all his comrades, he scribbled a phone number and asked our group of reporters to let his family know he was okay.

We talked again last Sunday, just before Kol Nidrei. The echoes of 27 years ago were ringing for every Israeli old enough to remember the surprise attack, launched simultaneously by Egypt and Syria on Oct. 6, 1973. You heard it on the streets, you saw it on national television, you read it in the newspapers.

Israel feels as if it is on the brink of war. If this is another intifada, it is an intifada with guns. The distinction between riot and battle becomes blurred, if not irrelevant. When an enemy comes not just to protest, but to kill, maim and destroy, you don’t give him the first shot.

Singer, now the 55-year-old manager of a job recruitment agency, was called to the reserves after rushing home from synagogue on that earlier Yom Kippur. “They told me to bring a change of underwear and a pair of spare socks,” he recalled ruefully from his suburban apartment in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv. “They thought it would be all over in six days, like the 1967 war.” In fact, 180 days passed before he returned to his young wife, Renee.

On this fateful anniversary, he didn’t relish the prospect of his two sons, Rafi and Mike, reservists aged 25 and 29 respectively, following him on to a battlefield. He frets about his 17-year-old daughter, Sharon, who will be drafted next summer. But, like most of his countrymen of every political persuasion, he is sustained by a conviction that this war, if it comes, will be one Israel has to fight.

The old slogan, “Ein breira” (“No alternative”), reigns again. “Yom Kippur 2000, is one link in a chain that is connected to Yom Kippur 1973,” lamented the dovish columnist Nahum Barnea in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot. “It seems as if the circle of Arab hostility was never broken.”

Singer was doubly disturbed by the resort to violence of Israel’s Arab citizens, by the realization that he could no longer drive through Jaffa, now a predominantly Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, without the risk of being stoned.

“It makes me feel we’ve been covering up the real problems for 50 years,” he said. “The main problem remains that there are two sets of people on one piece of land. We’ve been kidding ourselves that by education, by prosperity, by bringing people into the twenty-first century, you can solve the problem. That’s where we’ve been kidding ourselves. Now we can see it’s not going to work.”

Nor, he argued, had concessions – to the Lebanese or the Palestinians. “The Arab policy is let’s take an inch, then grab a mile. It turned out that the pullout from Lebanon was not the end of hostilities. What we see is that every time the Arabs have a minor victory, it becomes a major victory for them. It just spurs them on.”

Singer knows what it is like having sons on the front line. Rafi served in Gaza during the intifada; Mike spent two and a half years as a conscript in Hebron.

“I wouldn’t want my sons or anybody else’s sons to go off and fight a war, to kill and risk being killed, as we had to do,” Singer agreed. “But we don’t have a choice. If we don’t defend ourselves, we won’t be here any more. Of course, I’d like to sleep at night. But if I sleep at night by giving in to the Arabs, what then? I’d rather have sleepless nights than no nights.”

Singer is not alone. If the mayhem of the past two weeks degenerates into another Yom Kippur war, Israelis will face it with greater solidarity than they mustered during either the intifada or the 18-year war of attrition they hoped had ended with the evacuation of South Lebanon five months ago. The mood is uncertain, but stoic.

On the left there is despair that the dream of peace is hemorrhaging with every gunshot and Molotov cocktail, every tear-gas grenade and every rock hurled in anger. On the right, there is the barely suppressed jubilation of “We told you so.”

While opinion polls show a decline in confidence that the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is up to his job, Israeli frustration is focusing more and more on Yasser Arafat and the Arab world. Many people blame the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, for provoking the Muslims with a demonstrative visit to the Temple Mount. But most of them, including peace campaigners like Amos Oz, believe (with the benefit of hindsight) that the Palestinian leader was only waiting for a pretext. Like Barak, they now doubt whether Israel has a partner for peace.

The Israeli human rights watchdog, B’tselem, endorsed the international complaint that Israeli troops were using “disproportionate” force against Palestinian mobs. But so far B’tselem is in the minority. Restraint didn’t work last Friday, when Israeli policemen pulled back from the Temple Mount during Muslim prayers, and it didn’t help when the army evacuated Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus a day later.

Most Israelis agree with the cabinet secretary, Yitzhak Herzog, who told foreign correspondents: “We have a duty to protect our people and a duty to protect our army. If the Palestinians don’t open fire, there will not be a response.” But, if they do, Israelis feel their soldiers and police have a right to use all necessary force.

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