In Gaza, hand surgery gets remote assistance from Beirut


At a hospital in northern Gaza, a young patient is being prepared for hand surgery as one of the doctors leading the operation watches on – from nearly 200 miles away in Beirut.

In the Lebanese capital Doctor Ghassan Abu Sitta is guiding colleagues at Gaza's Al-Awda hospital via an online interactive platform known as Proximie, which allows the medical teams to communicate and work together via tablet computers.

Doctors in Lebanon attempted remote surgery in the region for the first time at the weekend with the tool. Its makers hope it will help doctors such as Hafez Abu Khousa in Gaza, whose patient needed specialist plastic surgery his team could not provide unaided.

“It is like the consultant is with you in the same room, giving you an opinion so that the surgery can be perfect,” Abu Khousa said after the operation.

He was guided via live video and by his Lebanese counterpart drawing markers over an image of the patient's hand.

Gaza has been run by the Islamist Hamas movement since 2007. Since then, Egypt and Israel have maintained a blockade on the territory, carefully monitoring the flow of goods and people to and fro. Restrictions on imports and fighting in the region have also affected medical facilities.

Hezbollah leader threatens nuclear-type attack on Israel


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to hit large ammonia gas tanks in Haifa that he said would wreak damage and casualties equal to a nuclear attack.

Nasrallah made the threats about a future attack on northern Israel during a speech in Beirut.

“This would be exactly as a nuclear bomb, and we can say that Lebanon today has a nuclear bomb, seeing as any rocket that might hit these tanks is capable of creating a nuclear bomb effect,” he said.

Israel’s environmental protection minister, Avi Gabbai, later told the Israeli media that he had ordered the ammonia storage facility be moved to the Negev Desert in the southern part of Israel.

Nasrallah added that Hezbollah’s military might is preventing attacks by Israel, and Israel would not attack unless it knew it could win and in a short amount of time.

He also accused Israel of planning to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying those plans have failed.

Nasrallah condemned Arab countries that have or are working toward normalizing relations with Israel.

“Do you accept a friend occupying Sunni land in Palestine? Can you become friends with an entity that has committed the most horrible massacres against the Sunni community?” he asked. “You are free to consider Iran an enemy, but how can you consider Israel a friend and ally? This issue must be confronted in a serious manner.”

Israel vs. ISIS


The tragic attacks, first in Sinai, then in Beirut, and now in Paris, should remind us that the fight against ISIS — the fight against Islamic terror — belongs to no one country and no one religion. We are all threatened, we must all fight, and with every means possible.

Then why is it, I wonder, that Europe is fighting terror with one hand tied behind its back?

The havoc the terrorists wreaked upon Paris last week may be new to the West, but it’s old news to Israel. Gunmen shooting unarmed innocents? Ma’alot, 1974. Bombs made of propane tanks and nails? Afula, 1994. Suicide bombers in restaurants? Sbarro pizzeria, Jerusalem, 2001.  

One year ago this week, the Israel Defense Forces announced that undercover agents from its Duvdevan unit uncovered a 30-person Hamas terror network just as it was preparing to carry out a simultaneous attack on numerous soft targets around Jerusalem, including the city’s Teddy soccer stadium.   

Israel has developed a unique expertise in thwarting attacks before they happen. When it comes to fighting Islamic terror, other countries are, to borrow an unfortunate phrase from President Barack Obama, the JV team. Israel is varsity.

So in the international effort to disrupt and dismantle ISIS, why isn’t Israel playing front and center?

To defeat ISIS and the ideology that spawns it will take more than military might. But a combination of intelligence and military power is certainly part of the solution, and Israel could and should be one of the West’s most effective assets.

It’s a lot easier to hit ISIS in the Sinai by taking off from southern Israel, for example, than from Germany or Turkey. The Golan Heights looks down on ISIS positions in what was once Syria. Beyond geography, Israel has decades of experience in human and signal intelligence and counter-terrorism. It also has very cool toys, like the Super Heron drone. In July, an Israeli drone killed two Hezbollah operatives and three members of a pro-Assad militia driving on a road in Syria. It would certainly give ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pause to know he was on an Israeli target list.

In short, those who want to defeat ISIS have a potential front-line ally with equipment, expertise and experience.   

Right now, Israel’s role remains behind the scenes. Following the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left hinting that Israel has been useful in helping France, but clearly its ability to join a gathering international coalition is limited.

The list of countries that wants ISIS dead and gone grows longer by the week: France, Turkey, the NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Russia, Egypt.  Jordan sent fighter planes to carry out bombing raids against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa long before France did.

The problem is that many of these countries find it more useful to cooperate  in the shadows with Israel — a greater demon than ISIS, evidently, in the eyes of their people. The fact that it is Israeli radar that collected telltale signals that a bomb took down the Russian airliner over Sinai has complicated the investigation with the Egyptian government, according to CNN.   

This is frustrating to the governments themselves, which know how effective and useful Israel can be.

Alon Ben-David, the defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, told me the clandestine — but well-known — cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States in fighting ISIS and al-Qaida is a “mistress-like relationship”— it takes place only behind closed doors.

That’s also true, by the way, in areas of agriculture, water and industry. Israeli consultants on non-Israeli passports are a meaningful part of Gulf Arab economies — but all the light they bring remains in the shadows.

As heart-wrenching as ISIS’ attacks have been in Sinai, Beirut and Paris, they may also present an opportunity to shake up the Middle East status quo and bring Israel in from the cold. The old fight was Jew versus Muslim. The new and far more relevant fight is moderates versus extremists, modernity versus medievalism. On that front, Israel is the natural ally of many Arab states (whose degree of moderateness is, of course, relative).

The fight against ISIS, in other words, could become a historic milestone in Israel’s regional legitimacy.

We’ll see if Arab leaders have the good sense to go in this direction. Israeli military and diplomatic experts tell me that what would help, enormously, is for Israel itself to make a public and concerted effort to move toward a rapprochement with its Palestinian neighbors.

“The Gulf leaders are begging for some sort of progress,” a senior Israeli military official told me in early November, before the Paris attacks increased the urgency. “Not even a deal, just movement toward a deal.”

An Israeli-Palestinian thaw would help bring the Israel-Arab cooperation out into the open and begin Israel’s integration in the region and the world.  And it would help knock ISIS back on its heels. For decades, Israel fought alone, or almost alone. How different would the world look if that were to change?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Lebanon goes digital


This article first appeared on The Media Line.
 
“Ironically everything that makes Lebanon a tough place to live makes it a good place for a start-up,” quipped Nasri Atallah, a partner in the Lebanese media publishing firm Keeward. “There are a lot of very talented people who have few opportunities and are pushed into starting their own thing.”
 
Lebanon may not be the ideal place for entrepreneurial growth, but the country has a growing tech-start-up industry that is starting to attract international attention. 
 
At a British Embassy celebration for the Queens’ birthday earlier this month, the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub — a joint initiative between the UK government and the Lebanese Central Bank — announced the winners of a start-up accelerator. Forty-five small and medium Lebanese start-ups had been chosen from over 150 to undertake a 4-month training program. This is on the back of a push by the Lebanese government to foster a healthy tech sector and encourage entrepreneurship. 
 
In a statement at the ceremony, Tom Fletcher, UK ambassador to Lebanon, highlighted the need for the British government to help Lebanese businesses forge strong ties with international firms and networks. 
 
Keeward, who employ around 46 people in Lebanon, was one of the recipients of the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub accelerator. Atallah explained that just a week after being told of their place on the program, the intense program of entrepreneurial MBA style courses, networking and business discussions had already started. At the end of the first phase, 15 of the firms will be taken to London to continue their development.
 
“The education aspect is great and the network angle is great but just having the stamp of approval of the Central Bank and the UK government is a motivating factor,” Atallah told The Media Line.
 
Atallah thinks that the UK government has seen that the next Google, Amazon or Alibaba is going to come from somewhere unexpected, so they are actively looking to support and build links with potential business leaders all over the world. The UK-Lebanon Tech Hub program also has the explicit aim of increasing employment in Lebanon and directly contributing to the country’s economy.
 
Over the last few years the Lebanese government has started to take a proactive approach to developing its own answer to California’s Silicon Valley. The move started in August 2013 when the Lebanese central bank issued a circular providing support for commercial banks and venture capital funds to invest in technology start-ups, incubators and accelerators. Among a large raft of measures, the law assures 75% of the cost of bank loans to start-ups. This lowers the risk to banks for investing in potentially risky but profitable start-ups. The aim was to encourage investment in the sector and to free up credit for entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas. After just 7 months funds in excess of $400 million were available to business leaders with new, inventive ideas. 
 
A second major boon for start-ups came earlier this year with the opening of the Beirut Digital District (BDD). It is located just off the capital’s still recovering downtown area, devastated in the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990. BDD has quickly became the center for the growing digital and creative industries, attracting a number of major business partners such as Touch– a major Middle Eastern telecommunications company. Both small and large firms have moved to the expanding site, which mixes offices, conference space and residential homes into one place.
 
However, despite financing and support there are still challenges ahead for Lebanon’s fledgling tech-firms.
 
Nassib Ghobril, an economist at Byblos Bank – a major Lebanese commercial bank – expressed concerns that the huge funds now available could lead to a bubble. 
 
“Will that encourage creativity and entrepreneurship? I certainly hope so,” he told The Media Line. “I’m fully for this sector but I have concerns – there is too much money for too few deals. You have to assess the quality of the deals and then get the cash to chase them, not the other way around.
 
Atallah also admitted that he too had been concerned about the large scale of the funds the Central Bank were making available. However, when one of the projects that Keeward was running got funding through the system, Atallah says he saw first-hand the rigorous checks and level of due diligence that was required in order to qualify for the money. He says that this went some way to easing his mind that the banks were investing responsibly. 
 
Beyond the scale of the funding now available in Lebanon, Ghobril says Lebanon needs to strengthen intellectual property rights and protection of minority shareholders in venture capital firms. In addition, he said, it is very hard to liquidate a company in Lebanon. “It takes around six years and a large amount of bureaucracy and paperwork,” he said.
 
Ghobril believes the key to fixing these issues is simply political will to improve legislation. However, Lebanon has now been without a president for over a year and parliament is often blocked and inefficient, which doesn’t bode well for changes in these areas. 
 
Despite these concerns, the Lebanese are resilient businesspeople and the achievements to date, even without large levels of assistance, point to a bright future. If these funds and support systems can continue to foster the growing tech start-up economy then Beirut’s Digital District could soon be the home of Lebanon’s answer to Bill Gates. 

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

Hezbollah accuses Israel of slaying its weapons chief


Hezbollah claimed that Israel assassinated its technology and weapons chief near Beirut.

According to the Lebanese terror group, Hussein al-Laqis was shot at a parking lot outside his home south of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday night and died the next morning in a hospital. Israel denied involvement in the shooting.

“The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame,” the Hezbollah statement read, according to Haaretz. “This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this ugly crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denied the Hezbollah claim.

“Israel has nothing to do with this incident,” Palmor said, according to reports. “These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts; they just blame anything on Israel.”

Laqis, according to Haaretz, was a member of the group’s military elite and was in touch with Syrian and Iranian government intelligence. His death is a setback for Hezbollah, which has involved itself heavily in Syria’s civil war, sparking violence in Lebanon.

Suicide bombings kill 23 near Iran embassy in Beirut


Two suicide bombings rocked Iran's embassy compound in Lebanon on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people including an Iranian cultural attaché and hurling bodies and burning wreckage across a debris-strewn street.

A Lebanon-based al Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility and threatened further attacks unless Iran withdraws forces from Syria, where they have backed President Bashar Assad's 2-1/2-year-old war against rebels.

Security camera footage showed a man in an explosives belt rushing towards the outer wall of the embassy in Beirut before blowing himself up, Lebanese officials said. They said a car bomb parked two buildings away from the compound had caused the second, deadlier explosion. The Lebanese army, however, said both blasts were suicide attacks.

In a Twitter post, Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the religious guide of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, said the group had carried out the attack. “It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes of Lebanon,” he wrote.

Lebanon has suffered a series of sectarian clashes and bomb attacks on Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim targets which have been linked to the Syrian conflict and which had already killed scores of people this year.

Tuesday's bombing took place on the eve of more talks between world powers and Iran over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. They came close to agreeing an interim deal during negotiations earlier this month.

The bombs also struck as Assad's forces extended their military gains in Syria before peace talks which the United Nations hopes to convene in mid-December and which Iran says it is ready to attend.

Shi'ite Iran actively supports Assad against mostly Sunni rebels, and two of its Revolutionary Guard commanders have been killed in Syria this year. Along with fighters from the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, Iran has helped to turn the tide in Assad's favor at the expense of rebels backed and armed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

CULTURAL ATTACHE KILLED

A Reuters cameraman at the scene counted six bodies outside one entrance to the embassy compound. Body parts were strewn as far as two streets away and several cars were badly damaged.

The embassy's sturdy metal gate was twisted by the blasts, which Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said killed 23 people and wounded 146.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the bombs were “an inhuman and vicious act perpetrated by Israel and its terror agents”, Iran's IRNA news agency reported.

Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi said his country had played no role. “The bloodshed in Beirut is a result of Hezbollah's involvement in the Syria crisis. Israel was not involved in the past and was not involved here,” he said in Jerusalem.

Iran's ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi identified one of the dead as Ebrahim Ansari, a cultural attaché at the embassy.

A Lebanese security source said the bombers struck just before Roknabadi and Ansari had been due to leave the embassy for a meeting at Lebanon's Culture Ministry, as embassy guards were preparing a convoy of cars to take them.

Fires engulfed cars outside the embassy and the facades of some buildings were torn off. Shattered glass covered the bloodied streets and some trees were uprooted, but the embassy's well-fortified building itself suffered relatively minor damage.

“Whoever carries out such an attack in these sensitive circumstances, from whichever faction, knows directly or indirectly that he is serving the interests of the Zionist entity (Israel),” Roknabadi said.

He did not say whether other embassy officials were among the dead, but Lebanese TV stations quoted Iranian diplomatic sources as saying none of their staff in the embassy was hurt.

CONDEMNATION

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned what he described as a “shocking terrorist attack” and France expressed “solidarity with the Lebanese and Iranian authorities”.

Politicians from across Lebanon's Sunni, Shi'ite and Christian communities also condemned the attack.

In Syria, the government said its soldiers took full control of the town of Qara, which straddles a highway from Damascus to government strongholds on the coast and is also used by Sunni rebels to cross into Syria from Lebanon.

The capture of Qara may mark the start of a wider offensive by the army, which has been backed by Hezbollah and Shi'ite fighters from Iraq, to recapture the mountainous border region of Qalamoun and consolidate Assad's control of territory around Damascus and close to the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah's military role in Syria has helped to inflame sectarian tension there and in Lebanon. Many Lebanese Sunnis back the Syrian rebels, while many Shi'ites support Assad, whose minority Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam.

Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst with Eurasia Group, said the embassy bombing was an attempt by supporters of the Sunni rebels to weaken Hezbollah and Iran's support for Assad, undermine the Qalamoun campaign and possibly pressure Tehran before Wednesday's nuclear talks.

“While sectarian tensions in Lebanon will increase, Hezbollah's retaliatory response will be centered on Syria where (it) will further commit military forces to eliminate the Sunni rebel threat along the Syrian-Lebanese borders,” he said.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigade has strong links in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps as well as connections with the Gulf. Two of its senior military leaders are Saudi nationals, said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

“This attack is a significant escalation. After months and months of speculation, an al Qaeda-linked group has now underlined its involvement in the Syria-related Lebanese theatre,” he said.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi implicitly blamed Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supporting radical militants, who have been blamed for previous attacks against Shi'ite targets.

Footage from local news channels showed charred bodies on the ground as flames rose from stricken vehicles. Emergency workers and residents carried victims away in blankets.

“These kinds of explosions are a new and dangerous development,” said the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, Mohammad Raad.

Southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, was hit by three explosions earlier this year. Those attacks were blamed on groups linked to the Syrian rebels, believed to be in retaliation for the group's military role in Syria.

Three decades ago, Iranian-backed Shi'ite militants carried out devastating suicide bombings in Lebanon that hit the U.S. embassy, as well as U.S., French and Israeli military bases.

Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Mariam Karouny and Stephen Kalin in Beirut and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, Alistair Lyon and David Stamp

Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Israel: Parts unknown


If you like food and you like Israel, this past week’s episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” was a win-win.

And I say that despite the criticism Bourdain has received from the people who profess to love Israel. To them, he presented a biased, pro-Palestinian screed disguised as a food show.

To me, he showed exactly how smart, curious people should engage a complex country — and how Israelis and Palestinians benefit from that approach. 

To food lovers, Bourdain is a star. He wrote the best-selling memoir of life as a professional chef, “Kitchen Confidential,” then took his biting insights on the road, first in the Travel Channel series “No Reservations,” and now for CNN. He travels the world reporting his perceptions of people and their predicaments, always using food as the way into their lives.

His first experience with Israel wasn’t pleasant: Bourdain was filming in Beirut in 2006 when the Second Lebanon War broke out, and he found himself at the wrong end of Israeli rockets.

I wondered in a column if that experience cooled Bourdain to the idea of visiting Israel, despite the fact that the country has undergone a food revolution. I even started a Facebook page to get fans to urge him to go there and see for himself. 

Three years, a dozen destinations, one network and an entire show concept later, Bourdain arrived in Jerusalem. My efforts, clearly, were wildly persuasive.

But it was worth the wait. Bourdain reports like he eats — hungry for it all. And within the confines of a popular, half-hour travelogue, he devours the Holy Land with an open mind and an open mouth.

He starts at the Western Wall with the surprising acknowledgement that he is half-Jewish, despite a non-religious upbringing. At the Western Wall, the man who describes himself as “hostile to any sort of devotion” very publicly wrestles with his feelings as an Orthodox Jew wraps him with tefillin, and he prays, as a Jew, for the first time in his life. 

Leaving Jerusalem, Bourdain shuttles between Israelis and Palestinians, collecting contrasting narratives and the meals that go with them. 

He eats at the table of winemaker Amichai Luria, in the West Bank settlement of Eli, and peppers settlement leader Amiad Cohen with questions about their Palestinian neighbors. 

When he asks why the settlers don’t paint over anti-Arab graffiti sprayed by Jewish vandals, Cohen is momentarily at a loss for words, like maybe he was just expecting Rachael Ray.

He visits Al Rowwad Theatre in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, and just as pointedly asks theater director Abed Abusrour why Palestinians glorify hijackers and suicide bombers. After some equivocation, Abed says that despite the propaganda, young Palestinians actually idolize Mohammed Assaf, the Gazan winner of the singing competition “Arab Idol.”

Just outside of Jerusalem, in the village of Ein Rafa, Bourdain eats at Majda, an idyllic  restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Michal Baranes, an Israeli Jew, and Yakub Barhum, a Palestinian Muslim. They serve Bourdain fried zucchini in goat yogurt and okra with roasted tomato, onion and mint, and Bourdain allows himself to fantasize, for a second, that a divided land could actually come together over food. 

Then, reality: In Gaza, he eats a local delicacy of charred young watermelon with soggy bread — he does a terrible job of feigning delight — and hears the bitterness of old men displaced from their homes in 1948.

Just on the other side of the Gaza border, Bourdain visits Natan Galkowicz, owner of Mides Brazilian Restaurant in the Negev kibbutz Bror Hayil. Galkowicz’s daughter was killed in 2005 by a Hamas mortar.

“I know that my daughter was killed for no reason, and I know that people on the other side have been killed for no reason,” Galkowicz tells Bourdain. “Bottom line is, let’s stop with the suffering.”

Look, it’s not a 13-hour PBS documentary. But this is the way most people come to understand Israel: not through PR, or via professors, but through what’s popular — what’s on television. 

That didn’t stop the pro-Israel watchdog group CAMERA from nitpicking it apart. “Bourdain felt compelled to play to the perceived political orientation and pro-Palestinian sympathies of his audience,” the organization posted on its Web site, citing exactly zero statistics to support its own assumptions about his audience.

But given the limitations of the medium, Bourdain did the right thing. He gathered narratives, tested them against one another and against his own sense of what’s right and wrong. He sat down at tables and let people tell their stories. And only after he had listened, and eaten, with all of them — Israeli and Palestinian — did he venture a conclusion: 

“One can be forgiven for thinking,” he says, “when you see how similar they are, the two people, both of whom cook with pride, eat with passion, love their kids, love the land in which they live or the land they dream of returning to … that they might someday, somehow figure out how to live with each other. But that would be very mushy thinking indeed. Those things in the end probably don’t count for much at all.”

If only the high priests of certainty on all sides would be as willing as Bourdain to sit and hear competing narratives. They might learn something — and get a good meal, too.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

In ‘Zaytoun,’ an unusual alliance


Beirut, Lebanon, 1982, at the dawn of the Lebanese Civil War: A young Palestinian boy living at the Shatila refugee camp forges an unlikely bond with an Israeli fighter pilot. It is this unlikely encounter in the film “Zaytoun,” directed by renowned Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (“The Lemon Tree,” “The Syrian Bride,” “The Human Resources Manager”), that convinced the director he had not, in fact, exhausted his Middle Eastern stories.

“There was something about this simple story of a Palestinian boy who meets an Israeli pilot in kind of extraordinary circumstances,” Riklis mused, speaking from Israel, “which drew me, mainly emotionally, I think, because I felt the potential of having a totally human story set in, kind of, very violent surroundings. 

The boy, Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), would rather play ball with his friends or peddle on the streets than go to school. Tragedy strikes when Fahed’s father is killed in an air raid, leaving him an orphan. He clings to a small olive bush his father had nurtured as the only remnant of the family’s abandoned farm in what is now Israel. Although not explicitly stated in the film, its title, “Zaytoun,” is the Arabic word for “olive.”

When an Israeli pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff), is shot down over Beirut and captured by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Fahed, who hates all Israelis, helps to guard him. The pilot wants to escape with his life and tries to convince the boy to let him go. Fahed agrees, on condition that he can accompany Yoni to Israel so that he might find the farm and plant the olive bush. Yoni reluctantly accepts the deal and sets out with the boy on the arduous and perilous trek to the border. To ensure the Israeli’s continued cooperation, Fahed keeps the handcuffs on Yoni and swallows the key.

During the journey, the two are in constant danger from the various factions at war in Lebanon. As a result, they have to depend more and more on one another, and, in doing so, become increasingly bonded. 

Riklis referred to his film as something of a road movie. “I think when I say road movie, I mean a buddy movie, because all road movies somehow end up being buddy movies, because it’s always two, three, four people on the road, and things are happening. So, I think in that sense it’s war movie meets road movie meets buddy movie meets a little bit of local politics or regional politics.”

Although the director said he wasn’t making a primarily political film, the politics of the region hangs over the action. But Riklis doesn’t favor one side or the other.

“I’m not either trying to portray a sympathetic view toward the Palestinian struggle,” he explained, “or a sympathetic view of the Israeli suffering, or vice versa, because it’s vice versa in the end. Both sides suffer; both sides are guilty; both sides are innocent; and in the end, below the surface of decisions that are taken way beyond the control of what we call the ordinary person, I think there are fragile lives and fragile hearts and fragile emotions, and that’s what I’m looking at.”

He continued, “I think all my films try to observe normal human beings or normal people in extraordinary situations in which extraordinary political decisions or movements, whether local, or regional, or global, affect their lives — and how they react to that.”

In addition, Riklis had a totally integrated cast and crew, including American actor Dorff, as well as Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians.

“A lot of Palestinians are part of my films, whether it’s actors, or technicians, or creative partners as part of my crew,” he remarked. “I think that’s part of the tragedy in the Middle East, between Israelis and Palestinians in particular, because on a personal level, we get along, we come from the same place. Of course, we’re separated by history and blood and issues — the land, and many other things — but we get along. I think once it goes beyond, and it starts to be political, that’s where things go sour and go wrong.”

While the film has received raves from several critics in England, some of the British press found the relationship between a Palestinian boy and an Israeli officer to be more a product of wishful thinking than a real possibility. Asked for his response, the director replied, “I would say, ‘Get a life.’ 

“I think people who write that don’t have a clue about what’s going on in the Middle East, for better or for worse,” Riklis said. “Behind every headline and behind every report people see on television, there’s just life. There are millions of people who have families, who have children, who have hopes, disappointments, who have good days and bad days, and who have extraordinary encounters. And I think everything’s possible, everything’s open.”

Riklis concluded by describing “Zaytoun” as a story “that has its sweet moments, but also has a very sad, basic situation, which is not resolved in this film. I never come with solutions, because I don’t have them, but I do try to kind of highlight the situations and offer human insight into them.”

“Zaytoun” opens Sept. 27.

Israel says it bombed Lebanon in retaliation for rocket attack


Israel's air force bombed a militant target in Lebanon on Friday in retaliation for a cross-border rocket salvo on Thursday, a spokesman said.

An Israeli military source said the “terror site” bombed was near Na'ameh, between Beirut and Sidon, but did not immediately provide further details.

Four rockets fired on Thursday caused damage but no casualties in northern Israel. They were claimed by an al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim group rather than Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that holds sway in south Lebanon.

“Israel will not tolerate terrorist aggression originating from Lebanese territory,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a statement announcing Friday's air strike.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. Israel briefly invaded Lebanon during an inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. The Israelis now are reluctant to open a new Lebanese front, however, given spiraling regional instability.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Bill Trott

Peres: Israel not involved in Beirut car bombing


Israeli President Shimon Peres denied claims by his Lebanese counterpart that Israel was behind a recent deadly bombing in Beirut.

At a press conference Friday in Jerusalem, Peres responded to allegations made Thursday by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who blamed Israel for a car bombing Thursday that killed some 20 people near a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.

“I was surprised by the Lebanese leadership, which once again is blaming Israel for the explosion,” Peres said in an appearance with U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who is visiting Israel. “Blaming Israel is baseless. It is Hezbollah that is stockpiling bombs and killing people in Syria without permission from the Lebanese authorities.”

On Thursday, Suleiman called the attack “a criminal act that bears the fingerprints of terrorism and Israel, and is aimed to destabilize Lebanon and deal a blow to the resilience of the Lebanese,” according to a report in Lebanon’s Daily Star.

A Sunni Islamist group calling itself the Brigades of Aisha claimed responsibility for the explosion, saying it targeted Hezbollah. The group promised more attacks, Reuters reported.

But senior Hezbollah figures said that the blast “has Zionist fingerprints all over it.” Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel suggested that the attack may have been Israeli retaliation for explosions that wounded four Israeli soldiers who allegedly infiltrated southern Lebanon last week.

Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, told Israel’s Army Radio that the bombing, in which more than 212 were injured, was an internal Lebanese matter of state and denied Israel’s involvement as it has “enough problems of [its] own.”

“We have become accustomed to this kind of accusations, they need to be ignored,” he said, adding: ”There is almost no situation in the Middle East that Israel’s opponents do not attribute to Israel, and this is also true in this case.”

Defiant Hezbollah leader says ready to fight in Syria


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused radical Sunni Islamists on Friday of being behind a car bomb that killed 24 people in Beirut and vowed that the attack would redouble his group's commitment to its military campaign in Syria.

In a fiery speech to supporters, one day after the deadliest bombing in the capital since Lebanon's civil war ended two decades ago, Nasrallah raised the stakes by pledging to join the battle in Syria himself if needed.

Thursday's blast in the Shi'ite militant Hezbollah's south Beirut stronghold followed months of sectarian tension and violence in Lebanon fuelled in part by Hezbollah's intervention against Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria's civil war.

“It is most likely that a takfiri group was responsible for yesterday's explosion,” Nasrallah said, referring to radical Sunni Muslim factions linked to al Qaeda, many of whom are fighting with Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad.

“If you think by killing our women and children … and destroying our neighborhoods, we would retreat from the position we took (in Syria) you are wrong,” he said in a combative speech broadcast by videolink from a secret location to his supporters.

“If we had 100 fighters in Syria, now they will be 200. If we had 1,000, they will be 2,000. If we had 5,000 they will be 10,000. If the battle with these takfiri terrorists requires that I and all Hezbollah should go to Syria, we will go.”

Thursday's blast came a month after a car bomb wounded 50 people in the same district of the Lebanese capital – an attack that Nasrallah also blamed on takfiris, who consider all but the most radical Sunnis to be infidels whose blood can be spilt.

Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn said a Syrian man had been arrested for suspected involvement in the July bombing, underlining the extent to which Lebanon has become embroiled in its neighbors' conflict.

Lebanese Hezbollah fighters helped Assad's soldiers retake a strategic border town in June, while Sunni Muslims from Lebanon have joined the rebel ranks. The violence has spilled back into Lebanon, with bombings and street clashes in the Bekaa Valley and Mediterranean cities of Tripoli and Sidon.

POSSIBLE SUICIDE BOMBING

Thursday's explosion engulfed a busy street in flames, reviving memories of the destruction inflicted by Lebanon's civil war.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said investigators were checking CCTV footage taken in the moments before the explosion to see whether the van believed to have carried the bomb had been driven by a suicide bomber or detonated remotely.

Reporters who arrived at the scene minutes after the explosion saw a burnt-out car near the center of the road, suggesting it was being driven when it blew up.

Among the dead were a family of five – a father, mother and their three daughters – who were killed in their car by the blast, which destroyed several vehicles and set fire to the lower floors of adjacent buildings, trapping residents.

Forensic investigators, emergency workers and security forces were still working at the site on Friday, amid burnt-out cars and charred facades of residential buildings.

Nearby, masked men fired in the air as the first funeral processions of victims of Thursday's explosion drove slowly through the subdued streets of densely populated south Beirut.

As the country marked a day of official mourning, social media was flooded with pictures of the victims, and requests for information about people still missing.

Politicians from across Lebanon's diverse communities, including Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druzes, united to condemn the bloodshed in the Shi'ite neighborhood, some visiting the area to offer condolences.

But in a sign of how the Syrian crisis has polarized Lebanon, there was celebratory gunfire in the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli on Thursday night and reports of people distributing sweets.

In an effort to limit sectarian tensions, Nasrallah called on Shi'ites to show restraint and said that takfiri groups were a threat to Sunnis and Shi'ites alike.

“These people kill Sunnis just as they kill the Shi'ites and they send suicide bombers to Sunni mosques just as they send them to Shi'ite mosques,” he said, referring to al Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia.

Speaking in an address to mark the seventh anniversary of the end of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah also said he could not exclude that those radical Islamists were actually working for Israeli interests.

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alison Williams

Kerry urges Israel to ‘look hard’ at Arab peace initiative


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel on Thursday to consider carefully a 2002 Arab League peace initiative that it rejected in the past.

“Israel needs to look hard at this initiative, which promises Israel peace with 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations – a total of 57 nations that are standing and waiting for the possibility of making peace with Israel,” he said in Amman, where he met officials from Arab League member countries.

The plan, put forward by Saudi Arabia at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, offered full recognition of Israel but only if it gave up all land seized in the 1967 Middle East war and agreed to a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees. Softening the plan three months ago, a top Qatari official raised the possibility of land swaps in setting future Israeli-Palestinian borders.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Dan Williams

Fearful Syrian voters will keep Assad in power, Hezbollah deputy leader says


Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to run for re-election next year and win, with Syria remaining in military and political deadlock until then, said the deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, who predicted a year ago that Assad would not be dislodged from power, said the Syrian leader would win a vote because his supporters understood that their communities' very existence depended on him.

“I believe that in a year's time he will stand for the presidency. It will be the people's choice, and I believe the people will choose him,” said the bearded, turban-wearing Shi'ite cleric, speaking carefully and deliberately.

“The crisis in Syria is prolonged, and the West and the international community have been surprised by the degree of steadfastness and popularity of the regime.”

Citing rifts among Assad's foes inside and outside Syria, as well as disagreements among world powers over Assad's future, Qassem said any talk of political solutions was futile for now.

“It will take at least three or four months” for any such solution, he said in a meeting with Reuters editors. “Maybe things will continue until 2014 and the presidential election.”

The two-year-old revolt against Assad is the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings. At least 70,000 people have been killed and the violence has stoked tensions across the Middle East between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah have supported Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam. The mainly Sunni rebels are backed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Some Western leaders have long predicted Assad's imminent demise, but Qassem said he was likely to be re-elected in 2014.

BLACKED-OUT WINDOWS

Wearing brown robes and a white turban, he spoke in a windowless office in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold.

Journalists were driven to the undisclosed venue in a car with blacked-out windows, a security precaution in violence-prone Lebanon. Three Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated in the past two decades; the group blames Israel for the killings.

Hezbollah, the most accomplished military force in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and, with its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies, now holds a majority of cabinet seats in Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.

Mikati has tried to insulate his country from the fighting in Syria but Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have both been drawn into the fighting. Hezbollah denies accusations that it has sent its forces into Syria to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Despite significant and sustained rebel gains, Qassem said the Syrian authorities had scored a string of military successes since insurgents launched attacks in Damascus a few months ago.

“The regime has started winning clearly, point by point,” he said. “And the tensions among the countries supporting the armed (rebel) groups have become clearer.”

Assad's forces still control central Damascus and large parts of the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo to the north. But they have lost swathes of territory in the rural north and most of the eastern towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

In such areas, the Syrian military relies heavily on missiles, artillery and air strikes to pin back rebel advances.

RISK OF DISINTEGRATION

Qassem said Syria only had one viable option: “Either they reach a political solution, in agreement with President Assad … or there can be no alternative regime in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syria might fall apart, he replied: “Everything is possible.”

Syria's population includes Christians, Shi'ites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as majority Sunnis who include mystical Sufis and secularists as well as pious conservatives.

Qassem portrayed authorities as fighting to protect that diversity in the face of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels. “The regime is defending itself in a battle which it sees as an existential fight, not a struggle for power,” he said.

Assad also faced international opposition from countries trying to break the “resistance project,” a reference to the anti-Israel alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, he added.

Israel, which diplomats and regional security sources said bombed a convoy in Syria two months ago carrying weapons which may have been destined for Hezbollah, has warned that military action may be needed to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran is seeking atomic weapons, a charge it denies. Israel says a “clear and credible military threat” against Iran is needed to halt Tehran's work.

But Qassem said the United States was reluctant to get dragged into a “costly” conflict with Tehran.

“It would not halt Iran's peaceful nuclear programme but would just delay it for a few years,” he said. “In return America's interests in the region and those of its allies and Israel would be in great and unpredictable danger.”

Washington's caution over Iran had echoes in what he said was its equivocal position towards Syria.

Although the United States says it provides only non-lethal aid to the rebels, Qassem said the presence of U.S.-made weapons in Syria proved it had at very least given approval for third countries to ship arms to Assad's opponents.

But the prolonged fighting had put Washington in a dilemma about whether to “follow the political path” instead, he said.

“America has lost its way over the steps it wants to take in Syria. On the one hand it wants the regime overthrown, and on the other it fears losing control after the regime falls.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Beirut car bomb kills leading Syrian foe


Senior Lebanese intelligence official Wissam al-Hassan, who led the investigation that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, was killed by a huge car bomb in Beirut on Friday.

The bomb, which exploded in a busy street during rush hour, killed seven other people and wounded about 80, officials said. The attack prompted Sunni Muslims to take to the streets in areas across the country, burning tires in protest.

Rubble and the twisted, burning wreckage of several cars filled the central Beirut street where the bomb exploded, ripping the facades and balconies off buildings. Firefighters scrambled through the debris and rescue workers carried off the bloodied victims on stretchers. The blast occurred when many parents were picking up children from school.

The attack brought the war in neighboring Syria to the Lebanese capital, confirming fears that the conflict would infect it neighbors.

The war in Syria, which has killed 30,000 people in the past 19 months, has pitted mostly Sunni insurgents against President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the Alawite sect linked to Shi'ite Islam.

Lebanon's religious communities are divided between those supporting Assad and those backing the rebels trying to overthrow him.

Hassan was a leading opponent of Assad within the Lebanese intelligence services.

“I can just say that it is true, he is dead,” an official who worked with Hassan told Reuters.

Hassan was also the brains behind uncovering a bomb plot that led to the arrest in August of a Lebanese politician allied to Assad, a major setback for Damascus.

He had been a close aide to Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who was killed in a 2005 bomb attack. He led the investigation into the murder and uncovered evidence that implicated Syria and Hezbollah, Lebanon's pro-Iranian Shi'ite Muslim group.

Hariri supporters accused Syria and then Hezbollah of killing him – a charge they both deny. An international tribunal accused several Hezbollah members of involvement in the murder.

“His killing means striking the head. The (anti-Assad) officials are all exposed now and in danger of assassination. It will be easy to assassinate them now or they will have to leave the country. He was their protector,” the official said.

BLOOD ON THE STREETS

The bombing, which was reminiscent of grim scenes from Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war, ripped through the street where the office of the anti-Damascus Christian Phalange Party is located near Sassine Square in Ashrafiyeh, a mostly Christian area.

Phalange leader Sami al-Gemayel, a staunch opponent of Assad and a member of parliament, condemned the attack.

“Let the state protect the citizens. We will not accept any procrastination in this matter, we cannot continue like that. We have been warning for a year. Enough,” said Gemayel, whose brother was assassinated in 2006.

In the aftermath of Friday's bomb, residents ran about in panic looking for relatives as security forces blanketed the area. Ambulances ferried the wounded to hospitals, which put out an appeal for blood donations.

An employee of a bank on the street pointed to the blown-out windows of his building.

“Some people were wounded from my bank. I think it was a car bomb. The whole car jumped five floors into the air,” he said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the government was trying to find out who carried out the attack and said those responsible would be punished.

The prospect that Syria's war might spread to Lebanon has worried many people here and fighting broke out in February between supporters and opponents of Assad in the northern city of Tripoli.

Syria had long played a major role in Lebanese politics, siding with different factions during the civil war. It deployed troops in Beirut and parts of the country during the war and they stayed until 2005.

In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabie told reporters: “We condemn this terrorist explosion and all these explosions wherever they happen. Nothing justifies them.”

Tension between Sunnis, Shi'ites and Christians in Lebanon has continued after the civil war but has increased with the Syria conflict.

Khattar Abou Diab, a Middle East expert at the University of Paris, said the attack was clearly linked to the Syria crisis and Hassan was one of the few security chiefs protecting Lebanon's sovereignty and independence.

“He wasn't just an ordinary person. Since 2005, he was a close ally of Rafik al-Hariri and it is a major loss for Lebanon.

“This is now revenge against a man who confronted the Syrians and revenge against a district, a Christian district in the heart of Beirut. Regional powers are fighting in Syria and now also want to fight in Lebanon,” he said.

Hezbollah's political opponents, who have for months accused it of aiding Assad's forces, have warned that its involvement in Syria could reignite the sectarian tension of the civil war.

“They warned of the implications of the Syrian crisis and here it comes,” said Nabil Boumonsef, a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar.

“The explosion shows that Lebanon cannot be safe and peaceful in the middle of this situation boiling around it … They are dragging in Lebanon so that it becomes a conflict arena,” he told Reuters.

Bombings were a hallmark of the civil war but the last such attack in Beirut was in 2008 when three people were killed in an explosion which damaged a U.S. diplomatic car.

Beirut has undergone massive reconstruction to repair the damage from the civil war and in recent years has enjoyed a tourist boom, boosted by Beirut's pulsating nightlife. That source of revenue, crucial to Lebanon's prosperity, is now also under threat.

Reporting by Mariam Karouny, Oliver Holmes, Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Giles Elgood

Israeli allowed to visit Beirut


Israel’s Supreme Court has given an Israeli-Arab writer permission to visit Beirut to attend an Arab writers’ conference.

Ala Halihal from the northern Israeli city of Akko appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court after Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused to allow the trip. Asked by the court to respond to the petition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he also opposed the visit, Haaretz reported.

It is illegal for Israeli citizens to visit Lebanon, which is considered an enemy country.

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