Phone tap led police to Belgian ISIS cell, court hears


A series of bugged, coded communications over two months led Belgian police to storm a suspected Islamic State cell in the town of Verviers last year, thwarting an alleged plot, a Brussels court heard on Monday.

One unidentified conspirator used the cover name “Fatty”; another in the plot which Belgian authorities have said intended to target police officers, went by the handle “Big Lanky”.

Among seven accused present on the first day of a terrorism trial that began in Brussels under heavy security seven weeks after suicide bombers killed 32 people in the capital was Marouan El Bali. He survived the gunfight in January 2015 when police shot dead two armed men who had returned from fighting with IS in Syria.

In summarizing the case against the 16 accused, nine of whom are still at large, the judge offered details of how security services had used telephone taps to help combat a potential threat from more than 300 Belgians who have fought in Syria.

In a tapped call in November 2014 an unidentified man told another who was on a police watchlist: “I've got everything.”

Six months after a first Islamist attack in Belgium, when a Frenchman shot dead four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum, that was enough to set off an intensive monitoring operation. It led to the Verviers raid, a week after Islamist attacks on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery had shocked Europe.

The judge said investigators had heard cryptic messages, some from Turkey and Greece, to various alleged members of the Belgian cell, including those named Fatty and Big Lanky.

Among those involved was Abdelhamid Abaaoud from Brussels, who fought with Islamic State in Syria and is believed to have been an organizer of several attacks in Europe, including those in Paris last Nov. 13. Abaaoud was killed in a gunbattle with French police five days after militants killed 130 people.

Criticized by some for failing to prevent the March 22 IS suicide bombings at Brussels airport and on the city's metro, Belgian leaders have highlighted the operation at Verviers, a rundown industrial town near German border, as a major success.

As well as the two dead gunmen, both from Brussels' Arab immigrant community, police found assault rifles, bomb-making material and items of Belgian police uniform. Abaaoud later boasted online that he had eluded capture and returned to Syria.

El Bali, who was found in the safehouse, has protested his innocence. His lawyer told reporters outside the court on Monday that he had merely been visiting a childhood friend.

He is accused of being a leader in a terrorist group, attempted murder, making and keeping of bombs and planning an attack on a non-specified building, his lawyer said. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

NATO approves Israeli representation to its headquarters


NATO said on Wednesday it had agreed to non-member Israel setting up representation at its Brussels headquarters, a tentative sign of rapprochement between the Jewish state and NATO member Turkey.

Israel and Turkey have stepped up efforts to patch up a relationship badly damaged following an Israeli raid in 2010 on a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, which had been trying to breach a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

NATO said in a statement that Israel's ambassador to the European Union, David Walzer, would now also head its mission at alliance headquarters.

The foreign ministry of Israel, which is not a NATO member but has partner status as a participant in the alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue programs together with six other non-NATO countries in the region, welcomed the move.

Turkey's mission to NATO had no comment on Wednesday but Ankara previously opposed some forms of NATO cooperation with Israel following the Mavi Marmara incident.

In 2010, Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara, which was the lead ship in a group of boats trying to break the blockade, and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Ankara has discussed the opening Israeli mission at NATO with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“We said we may welcome this if all countries are treated equally,” Cavusoglu said. “It's important that not only Israel but other southern partners are granted the same right.”

Amid ‘exodus’ from Brussels, my family sings a sad ‘ma nishtana’


I was feeling nervous about coming to Brussels for seder with my family.

Making the 130-mile trip there from my home in Amsterdam meant taking my 5-month-old son on a train that last year saw an attempted jihadist attack, and into a city that is still reeling and on alert from the March 22 Islamist bombings that killed 32 people.

I wasn’t worried about terrorism, though. Having experienced, by the time I turned 19, two intifadas and the Gulf War missile attacks in my native Israel, I was pretty much immune to terrorism’s psychological effects.

No, I fretted over my family’s violent and scary rendition of “Echad Mi Yodea” — the cumulative-verse Passover song that they enjoy hollering, building up to an ecstatic crescendo. By the 13th and final verse, about 35 of them are shrieking, red-faced and hoarse, while pounding fists and cutlery on the table like some prison riot scene.

I have grown immune to this tradition’s psychological effects, too, and on occasion had even used it to test the mental composure of unsuspecting dates. But I feared it would all be too much for little baby Ilai.

Yet as I waited for all hell to break loose last week, I saw my worries were unfounded. My family’s “Echad Mi Yodea” this year was a shadow of its former self in what I suddenly realized was a vivid illustration of the absence of relatives from my age group who, like many Belgian Jews, have left their native country because of its anti-Semitism problem. With each passing year, there were fewer of us around the seder table.

My Belgian relatives have said goodbye to nine young seder rioters over the past 15 years. Six enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and made aliyah. Two immigrated to the United States and one moved to London.

I came to Brussels this year because this seder was the sendoff for a second cousin and his wife, a physician and an architect, who are moving to Florida. His sister and her Belgian Jewish husband already live there.

“This is my last seder as a European,” cousin Mark (not his real name) told me over the phone. We spoke in Hebrew, a language learned by all my Belgian relatives my age at the insistence of aunts and uncles who were born to Holocaust survivors and who always regarded aliyah as a contingency plan in case things went south in Belgium.

“I want you to be there to send me off from slavery to freedom,” Mark said.

He feared for the future of his own two children in a country where Jewish schools are under heavy military guard and where Jewish students are being forced out of public schools because of anti-Semitic bullying.

“Things are bad here and I want a better future for my children,” he told me.

I asked Joel Rubinfeld, the founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCOJB umbrella of group of French-speaking Belgian Jewish communities, whether my family was unusual when it came to its emigration agenda.

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “There is the beginning of an expedited emigration process. Our only statistical view on it is through aliyah, which tells a very partial story in a community with highly educated members who can settle anywhere in Europe and have little trouble getting visas to the U.S., Canada and Australia.”

In 2014, Rubinfeld warned Belgian Jewry was seeing an “exodus” because of anti-Semitism.

Last year, 287 Jews immigrated to Israel from Belgium, which has a Jewish population of about 40,000. It was the highest figure recorded in a decade. From 2010 to 2015, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made aliyah annually — a 56 percent increase over the annual average of 133 new arrivals from Belgium in 2005-2009, according to Israeli government data.

Unlike French Jews, who tend to speak only one native language, Belgian Jews speak two and often three languages fluently. This could mean Belgian Jews have an easier time than their French counterparts immigrating to destinations that are not Israel.

Linda, Mark’s sister, moved to London and had two kids there with an Israel-born husband. She wants to leave Britain for Florida because she doesn’t feel safe in the United Kingdom either.

“Europe is doomed. The bad guys won,” she said. “I’m not going to raise my children in fear just to make a point.”

Her father is a French-born lawyer who was raised Catholic by his mother, a Holocaust survivor, before reconnecting to his Jewish roots. He told me his feeling of personal safety in Brussels was irreversibly shattered when robbers invaded his home a few years ago, tied up him and his wife, and beat him before robbing the couple.

“We may have been singled out by the robbers because we’re Jewish, but at this point, does it matter? It completely changes how you feel just walking down the street,” he said. He and his wife are preparing to join their two children in Florida.

Catching up with other relatives between seder songs, I found myself chatting in Hebrew to Sylvia, an aunt whose three children are living in Israel with their spouses. It took a while before I realized that the last time we spoke Hebrew, she was limited to basic sentences like “I have a yellow pencil.”

Unbeknownst to me, she and her husband have been attending ulpan, Hebrew-language school, preparing to join their children in Israel. They bought a penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv years ago.

Even before the eruption 15 years ago of anti-Semitic Islamism in Europe, Sylvia and her husband said they would leave Belgium if ever the National Front, the far-right party in neighboring France, would come to power.

Another uncle, I learned during the seder, had taken up Israeli citizenship last year like two of his four children, who are currently serving in the Israeli army, but is still living in Belgium.

“It hardly matters if I do it now or in a few years when we actually move to Israel, so I figured, why not?” he explained.

But I recalled the very different attitude of his late mother, my great-aunt and matriarch of my family’s Belgian branch. A Polish-born, steel-willed woman who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Belgium, she was always proud of her adopted country, where she and her husband survived and later prospered.

Though she raised her three children to be very pro-Israel, she enrolled the first two in a public school and strongly encouraged all of them to stay in Belgium, where she mastered impeccable French and integrated seamlessly.

I asked her daughter, the one preparing to follow her two children to Florida, why she doesn’t share her late mother’s attachment to Belgium.

“My mother and her generation felt gratitude to Belgium after coming from Poland, where even before the Holocaust there were limits to a Jew’s social advancement,” said my aunt, a physician. “Belgium was her America. It welcomed her with open arms. We have had a different experience here.”

One of Brussels bombers had worked in EU Parliament


One of the Islamic State suicide bombers who killed 32 people in Brussels on March 22 had worked as a cleaner for a short period in the European Parliament six years earlier, a spokesman for the EU assembly said on Thursday.

In 2009 and 2010, “one of the perpetrators of the Brussels terrorist attacks worked for a period of one month for a cleaning company which was contracted by the European Parliament at the time,” spokesman Jaume Duch Guillot said in a statement which did not name the individual.

An EU official said the person was Najim Laachraoui, a 25-year-old Belgian who prosecutors said blew himself up in the airport attack and is also suspected of making suicide vests for last November's Paris attacks in which 130 people died.

At the time of his temporary work in the parliament, he had no criminal record, the parliament's spokesman said.

Belgian Jew who lost leg in Brussels attack to move to Israel


A Belgian Jew whose leg was amputated in a suicide bombing at Brussels’ main airport said he would immigrate to Israel.

Walter Benjamin plans to make aliyah when he recovers from the injury he sustained in the March 22 attack he told Israel’s Channel 2 Sunday. The attack was part of a series of bombings in the Beglian capital that killed 35 people and wounded hundreds.

“I probably will pack my things, get on a plane and start looking for a small apartment in Israel,” he said, adding that he wants to be near his daughter, who lives, there until she enlists in the Israeli army. “That’s the most important thing in life for me.”

Benjamin said he was walking through the airport to check-in to a flight to Israel, where he planned to spend Purim with his daughter, when he heard a noise he thought was firecrackers.

Twenty seconds later, the second of two explosions at the airport blew off part of his leg. He was shielded from some of the shrapnel because he was holding a large suitcase, he said.

Benjamin recalled seeing a dead person next to him after the blast and realizing he had lost part of his right leg. A Belgian soldier helped stop the bleeding and evacuate him to receive medical treatment.

“I thought I was going to die,” Benjamin said.

Two students from an Antwerp yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, were also among the 300 people wounded in the bombings, the third of which struck a local subway station an hour later. The students were lightly to moderately hurt.

Can Belgium protect its Jews? A community has its doubts


The hundreds of rifle-toting police and soldiers who patrol Isaac Michaeli’s neighborhood have done little to improve his sense of safety.

“When the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, the soldiers might as well be cardboard cutouts,” he said.

A jeweler in his 40s, Michaeli lives with his family in Antwerp’s Jewish quarter, a small neighborhood of 12,000 that is one of the largest haredi communities in Europe.

The troops have been assigned to protect the neighborhood, with its 98 Jewish institutions, since May 2014, after four people were killed in a terrorist shooting at Brussels’ Jewish Museum of Belgium. Since then, their presence has been beefed up at periods of elevated risk — including after Tuesday’s string of terrorist attacks that left at least 31 dead and 300 wounded in Brussels.

Belgian Jewish leaders have praised the patrols and the government allocation of $4.5 million for the community’s protection. But amid reports of repeated failures in Belgian authorities’ counterterrorist efforts, Michaeli’s dismissive attitude is shared by other Belgian Jews. Many feel that their government is less competent in defending civilians, Jews and otherwise, than its neighbors, including France.

On Thursday, Menachem Hadad, a Brussels rabbi, told Israel’s Army Radio, “Belgian authorities have no understanding of security issues — zero.” He said soldiers posted outside a synagogue and the city’s Chabad House told him that for months, they used to guard the area with no bullets in their rifles. “It was just a show. It’s not normal,” he said.

Responding to Hadad’s claim, a Belgian Defense Ministry spokesperson wrote in an email to JTA that the soldiers posted in Brussels “are adequately armed and trained,” adding the ministry is nonetheless looking into the claims about the synagogue and Chabad House.

In Antwerp this week, hundreds of soldiers and police patrolled the Jewish quarter, where children wore costumes for Purim. One of a handful of European cities where the Jewish holiday is celebrated on the street, Antwerp’s Purim event this year paled in comparison to previous ones. Revelers were prohibited from playing music, wearing masks and using toy guns to avoid alarming soldiers and offending a grieving nation.

“We celebrate but we are broken,” said Mordechai Zev Schwamenfeld, 57, a member of Antwerp’s prominent Belz Hassidic community. Holding a basket of sweets he was delivering to friends – a Purim custom — he noted that two Belz yeshiva students were lightly wounded in the Brussels attacks. “It affects everyone, we’re not in a bubble,” he said.

Jewish children in Antwerp, Belgium, dressed as soldiers on Purim, March 24, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz

Following the attacks, Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign over the alleged failure to track one of the attackers, an Islamic State militant, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, expelled by Turkey last year. He blew himself up at Brussels airport on Tuesday. An accomplice suicide bomber struck a subway station less than an hour later. Authorities are hunting for more accomplices, who they fear might strike again, possibly at Jewish targets.

Turkey said it warned Brussels specifically about El Bakraoui. According to Haaretz, Israel told Belgium just weeks ago that an attack was planned at the airport. European Union security agencies recommended airport security measures that were not implemented, according to reports.

The attackers also struck at obvious targets when officials should have been on high alert, said critics. Just four days before the attacks, authorities in Brussels arrested Salah Abdeslam, an Islamist alleged to have participated in a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in November.

The arrest, too, led to charges of incompetence. After four months on the run, Abdeslam was found on March 18, hiding a couple thousand feet from his parents’ home. He escaped police several times, including in November, thanks to regulations prohibiting home searches between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Having confirmed his whereabouts after midnight, police found an empty apartment in the morning.

Albert Guigui, the chief rabbi of Belgium, said that despite these apparent lapses, “Belgian authorities are now doing all they can following the trauma at the museum.” The attack on the unguarded building in 2014 prompted authorities to significantly beef up security “in an unprecedented way,” Guigui said. But asked whether Belgian authorities have the desire and the ability to stop attacks, he said: “I don’t know, I’m not a security expert. I’d like to believe so.”

Guigui’s hedged response differs markedly from that of French Jewish leaders. The heads of CRIF, France’s Jewish umbrella group, have often proclaimed their “utter confidence” in authorities’ ability to combat terrorism and protect the community against jihadism.

“I wouldn’t say I have full confidence,” said Joel Rubinfeld, founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCOJB umbrella of French-speaking Belgian Jewish communities. But after a long period of half-measures, he said, authorities took “robust steps to secure Jewish sites in 2014. It’s a positive step for which we are grateful.”

Amid increases in anti-Semitic incidents and a worsening sense of personal safety, immigration to Israel from Belgium has increased dramatically over the past five years.

People gather to show solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Nov. 14, 2015. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Last year, 287 Jews immigrated to Israel from Belgium, which has a Jewish population of about 40,000. It was the highest figure recorded in a decade. From 2010-2105, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made aliyah annually — a 56-percent increase over the annual average of 133 new arrivals from Belgium in 2005-2009, according to Israeli government data.

France too has a jihadist problem that is driving record numbers of Jewish immigrants to Israel, but “It is also a superpower with a strong army and a determined leadership, which Belgium seems not to have,” said Alexander Zanzer, an Antwerp Jew who runs Belgium’s Royal Society of Jewish Welfare. “I don’t have the same confidence that many French Jews have in their authorities following the attacks in their country.”

While in France, “there is leadership capable of making decisions, in Belgium the [bureaucracy] runs itself,” he said. And while this may be the sign of a functioning democracy in times of peace, he said, “in case of emergency, strong leadership is a necessity.”

Zanzer recalled how for 20 months in 2012-2013, a political standoff prevented the formation of a government in Belgium — a binational federal state of 11 million people divided between the richer Flemish, Dutch-speaking, population and the French-speaking south. Like Michaeli, Zanzer said that what most gives him a sense of security are Antwerp Jewry’s own volunteer neighborhood patrols — a service that is far more robust in Antwerp than in Brussels.

Michael Freilich, the editor in chief of the Antwerp-based Joods Actueel monthly, said the violence and the security presence in the Jewish quarter are taking a psychological toll, though he commended the work of special police patrols. After the Brussels attacks, one of Freilich’s three sons had a mild anxiety attack at his Jewish school, which is under constant military protection.

In their spacious home in the heart of the Jewish quarter, Freilich and his wife, Nechama Freilich, said they are unsure of what they should tell the 8-year-old.

“You want to reassure them that things will be alright and we tell them we’re safer here than in Brussels, but you can’t tell them it won’t happen here. It might,” Michael Freilich said.

Senior Brussels rabbi: Belgian authorities know nothing about security


Amid revelations of perceived failures in Belgium’s handling of terror threats, a prominent rabbi from Brussels said Belgian authorities “have no understanding of security issues.”

Rabbi Menachem Hadad of Brussels’  Shomre Hadas haredi Orthodox community made the remarks in an interview Thursday with Israel’s Army Radio about concerns that Belgium lacks the counterterrorism capabilities of other Western European countries grappling with home-grown jihadism of the kind on display on Tuesday, when a series of explosions in Brussels killed 32 people.

Hadad said that soldiers who were posted outside a synagogue and the city’s Chabad House following the slaying of four Jews in Brussels’ Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014 told him that for months, they used to guard the area with no bullets in their rifles. “It was just a show. It’s not normal,” he said.

Hadad’s rebuke follows reports of omissions in how Belgian authorities handled security issues, including a failure to follow up on warnings by Turkey about one of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s attacks.

Belgium’s interior and justice ministers on Thursday offered to resign.

Belgium’s counterterrorism abilities are limited by a constitutional ban on ethnic profiling and other laws, including a ban on home searches between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Following the attacks, Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said at the Knesset that, “If Belgians continue eating chocolate and enjoying life and looking like great democrats and liberals, and not noticing that some of the Muslims there are planning terrorism, they won’t be able to fight them.”  His remark was widely criticized as undiplomatic and insensitive in Belgian media.

Belgium names Brussels bomber brothers, key suspect on run


Belgium's chief prosecutor named two brothers on Wednesday as Islamic State suicide bombers who killed at least 31 people in the most deadly attacks in Brussels' history but said another key suspect was on the run.

Tuesday's attacks on a city that is home to the European Union and NATO sent shockwaves across Europe and around the world, with authorities racing to review security at airports and on public transport. It also rekindled debate about lagging European security cooperation and flaws in police surveillance.

The federal prosecutor told a news conference that Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, one of two men who blew themselves up at Brussels airport on Tuesday, had left a will on a computer dumped in a rubbish bin near the militants' hideout.

In it, he described himself as “always on the run, not knowing what to do anymore, being hunted everywhere, not being safe any longer and that if he hangs around, he risks ending up next to the person in a cell” – a reference to suspected Paris bomber Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested last week.

His brother Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, detonated a bomb an hour later on a crowded rush-hour metro train near the European Commission headquarters, prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said.

Both men, born in Belgium, had criminal records for armed robbery but were not previously linked by investigators to Islamist militants.

At least 31 people were killed and about 271 wounded in the attacks, the prosecutor said. That toll could increase further because some of the bomb victims at Maelbeek metro station were blown to pieces and victims are hard to identify. Several survivors were still in critical condition.

The Bakraoui brothers were identified by their fingerprints and on security cameras, the prosecutor said. The second suicide bomber at the airport had yet to be identified and a third man, whom he did not name, had left the biggest bomb and run out of the terminal before the explosions.

Belgian media named that man as Najim Laachraoui, 25, a suspected Islamic State recruiter and bomb-maker whose DNA was found on two explosives belts used in last November's Paris attacks and at a Brussels safe house used by Abdeslam before his arrest last Friday.

Some media reported he had been captured in the Brussels borough of Anderlecht, but they later said the person detained was not Laachraoui.

Khalid El Bakraoui had rented under a false name the apartment in the city's Forest borough, where police hunting Abdeslam killed a gunman in a raid last week. He is also believed to have rented a safe house in the southern Belgian city of Charleroi used to mount the Paris attacks.

“BLACK DAYS”

The Syrian-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, warning of “black days” for those fighting it in Syria and Iraq. Belgian warplanes have joined the coalition in the Middle East, but Brussels has long been a centre of Islamist militancy.

A minute's silence was observed across Belgium at noon. Prime Minister Charles Michel cancelled a trip to China and reviewed security measures with his inner cabinet before attending a memorial event at European Commission headquarters with King Philippe, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

“We are determined, admittedly with a strong feeling of pain in our stomachs, but determined to act,” Michel told a joint news conference with Valls. “France and Belgium are united in pain more than ever.”

Valls played down cross-border sniping over security, saying: “We must turn the page on naivete, a form of carefreeness that our societies have known.

“It is Europe that has been attacked. The response to terrorism must be European.”

More than 1,000 people gathered around an improvised shrine with candles and street paintings outside the Brussels bourse.

Belgium's crisis coordination centre kept the level of security alert at the maximum as the man hunt continued. Some buses and trains were running but the metro and the airport were closed, along with key road tunnels in Brussels.

The blasts fuelled political debate across the globe about how to combat militants.

“We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination to succeed Obama in November's U.S. election, suggested suspects could be tortured to avert such attacks.

After a tip-off from a taxi driver who unknowingly drove the bombers to the airport, police searched an apartment in the Brussels borough of Schaerbeek late into the night, finding another bomb, an Islamic State flag and bomb-making chemicals.

An unused explosive device was later found at the airport.

CLOSING IN

Security experts believed the blasts were probably in preparation before Friday's arrest of locally based French national Abdeslam, 26, whom prosecutors accuse of a key role in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.

He was caught and has been speaking to investigators after a shootout at an apartment in the south of the city, after which another Islamic State flag and explosives were found.

It was unclear whether he had knowledge of plans for Tuesday's attack or whether accomplices precipitated their action, fearing police were closing in.

About 300 Belgians are estimated to have fought with Islamists in Syria, making the country of 11 million the leading European exporter of foreign fighters and a focus of concern in France and other neighbours over its security capabilities.

Reviving arguments over Belgian policies following the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed in an operation apparently organised from Brussels, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin spoke of “naiveté” on the part of “certain leaders” in holding back from security crackdowns on Muslim communities.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders retorted that each country should look to its own social problems, saying France too had rough high-rise suburbs in which militants had become radicalised. Valls said France had no place teaching Belgium lessons and had its own security problems.

Brussels airport seemed likely to remain shut for several days over the busy Easter holiday weekend, since the departure hall was still being combed as a crime scene on Wednesday and repairs can only begin once investigators are finished.

Following terrorist attacks, Antwerp Jews told not to wear Purim masks


Following terrorist attacks in Brussels, the crisis management center of the Jewish community of Antwerp urged locals not to wear masks on Purim.

In addition to this instruction, the  Jewish Crisis Management Team in Antwerp requested in an announcement Tuesday that revelers, including children, refrain from carrying toy weapons or using firecrackers or any other device that produces loud bangs.

“With the police and army on very high alert, all these cause confusion and are potentially dangerous,” the announcement reads.

Antwerp’s Jewish quarter is among a handful of areas in Western Europe where the holiday of Purim, often referred to in Belgium as “the Jewish carnival,” is celebrated publicly on the street. Thousands of members of the city’s large Haredi community take to the streets in colorful costumes for the holiday.

The unusual announcement follows bombings Tuesday morning at Brussels’ main airport, where 14 people were killed, and at a Brussels metro station, where another 17 died.

A concert planned for Antwerp featuring the Gat Brothers, popular Hassidic singers from Israel, was cancelled after the singers, who were en route to Belgium when the attacks happened, were redirected to the airport of Liege south of Brussels, the website Kikar Hashabbat reported.

Two large Purim events planned for Brussels also were cancelled.

Palestinian official on Brussels attacks: Europe ‘burning in their own fire’


A high-ranking Palestinian Authority official said on Facebook that the bombings in Belgium that left 32 dead and dozens injured, were a result of American and European policies and that Europe’s “airports and squares are burning in their own fire.”

According to the Times of Israel, Adnan Damiri, the spokesman of the PA security forces, wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday: “Those who prepare the poison will taste it themselves, and now Europe is having a taste of what it prepared with its own hands.”

“While we condemn acts of terror acts everywhere in the world, we the Arabs are the ones who have been burned worst in the fire of terror that was made and exported by Europe and America,” he continued.

In his post, Damiri called for a global effort to fight terrorism, but “first and foremost in Palestine, since the [Israeli] occupation is the ugliest form of terror.”

Damiri’s statement contrasted with the official reaction to the Brussels attacks from PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

On Tuesday, Abbas strongly condemned the Brussels bombing attacks, perpetrated by the Islamic State, and offered his sympathy to families of those killed and injured, the Wafa Palestinian news agency reported. Abbas also “affirmed that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people abhor terrorism and reject attacking civilians.”

Israeli government minister blames Brussels terror on ‘eating chocolate’


An Israeli government minister blamed Belgian officials for “eating chocolate” instead of paying attention to security against terror.

“If in Belgium they continue eating chocolate and enjoying life, and continue to appear as great democrats and liberals, and do not decide that some Muslims in their country are organizing terror, they won’t be able to fight them,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said Wednesday in an interview with Israel Radio. Katz also serves as the country’s transportation minister.

His remarks came a day after twin bombings at Zaventem Airport and at a metro station in central Brussels killed at least 34 people and injured dozens.

“Europe and the U.S. aren’t prepared to define that the war is on Islamic terror,” he also said. “When your definition isn’t right and doesn’t exist, you can’t lead a global war.”

Several Israeli lawmakers criticized Belgium and Europe for lax security and for being hospitable to Muslims, but not integrating them properly into society.

Joint Arab List lawmaker Ahmed Tibi called the attacks “worthy of moral and political denunciation.”

Explosion at Brussels metro station close to EU institutions, says RTBF


An explosion was heard at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, close to the EU institutions, Belgian broadcaster RTBF said, after explosions ripped through the departure hall at Brussels airport.

Metro operator STIB announced on Twitter that the metro was closing.

Islamic State claims Brussels attacks that kill at least 30


Islamic State claimed responsibility for attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital on Tuesday which killed at least 30 people, a news agency affiliated to the group said.

The coordinated assault triggered security alerts across Europe and drew global expressions of support, four days after Brussels police had captured the prime surviving suspect in Islamic State's attacks on Paris last November.

A witness said he heard shouts in Arabic and shots shortly before two blasts struck a packed airport departure lounge at Brussels airport. The federal prosecutor said one of the explosions was probably triggered by a suicide bomber.

Belgian media published a security camera picture of three young men pushing laden luggage trolleys through the airport and reported that police suspected them of being the attackers. They said two were suspected of having blown themselves up while police were hunting the third.

The AMAQ news agency carried the claim of responsibility. “Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the center of the Belgian capital Brussels,” it said.

U.S. President Barack Obama led calls of support to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel after Brussels went into a state of virtual lock-down.

“We must be together regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism,” Obama told a news conference in Cuba. “We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.”

Michel spoke at a Brussels news conference of a “black moment” for his country. “What we had feared has come to pass.”

The blasts occurred four days after the arrest in Brussels of a suspected participant in November militant attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Belgian police and combat troops on the streets had been on alert for reprisal but the attacks took place in crowded areas where people and bags are not searched.

TRANSPORT SHUT DOWN

All public transport in Brussels was shut down, as it was in London during 2005 Islamist militant attacks there that killed 52. Authorities appealed to citizens not to use overloaded telephone networks, extra troops were sent into the city and the Belgian Crisis Centre, clearly wary of a further incident, appealed to the population: “Stay where you are”.

Later, people were told that mainline rail stations would open at 4 p.m. (1500 GMT) to let commuters head home.

British Sky News television's Alex Rossi, at the airport, said he heard two “very, very loud explosions”.

“I could feel the building move. There was also dust and smoke as well…I went toward where the explosion came from and there were people coming out looking very dazed and shocked.”

Public broadcaster VRT said police had found a Kalashnikov assault rifle next to the body of an attacker at the airport. Such weapons have become a trademark of Islamic State-inspired attacks in Europe, notably in Belgium and France, including on Nov. 13 in Paris.

An unused explosive belt was also found in the area, the public broadcaster said. Police were continuing to scour the airport for any further bombs or attackers.

Alphonse Youla, 40, who works at the airport, told Reuters he heard a man shouting out in Arabic before the first explosion. “Then the glass ceiling of the airport collapsed.”

“I helped carry out five people dead, their legs destroyed,” he said, his hands covered in blood.

A witness said the blasts occurred at a check-in desk.

Video showed devastation in the hall with ceiling tiles and glass scattered across the floor. Some passengers emerged from the terminal with blood spattered over their clothes. Smoke rose from the building through shattered windows and passengers fled down a slipway, some still hauling their bags.

Public broadcaster RTBF said police were searching houses in the Brussels area.

A Crisis Centre spokesman issued provisional figures of 20 killed in the metro and 10 at the airport. Public broadcaster VRT had said earlier 20 were killed in the train and 14 at the airport.

Many of the dead and wounded at the airport were badly injured in the legs, one airport worker told Reuters, suggesting at least one bomb in a bag on the floor.

Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, all wary of spillover from conflict in Syria, were among states announcing extra security measures. Security was tightened at the Dutch border with Belgium.

The blast hit the train as it left Maelbeek station, close to European Union institutions, heading to the city center.

VRT carried a photograph of a metro carriage at a platform with doors and windows completely blown out, its structure deformed and interior mangled and charred.

A local journalist tweeted a photograph of a person lying covered in blood among smoke outside Maelbeek metro station, on the main Rue de la Loi avenue which connects central Brussels with the EU institutions. Ambulances were ferrying the wounded away and sirens rang out across the area.

“WE ARE AT WAR”

“We are at war and we have been subjected to acts of war in Europe for the last few months,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.

Brussels airport said it had canceled all flights until at least 6 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Wednesday and the complex had been evacuated and trains to the airport had been stopped. Passengers were taken to coaches from the terminal that would remove them to a secure area.

All three main long-distance rail stations in Brussels were closed and train services on the cross-channel tunnel from London to Brussels were suspended.

Security services have been on a high state of alert across western Europe for fear of militant attacks backed by Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attack.

While most European airports are known for stringent screening procedures of passengers and their baggage, that typically takes place only once passengers have checked in and are heading to the departure gates.

Although there may be discreet surveillance, there is nothing to prevent members of the public walking in to the departure hall at Zaventem airport with heavy baggage.

Following an attempted ramraid attack at Glasgow Airport in 2007, several airports stepped up security at entrances by altering the pick-up and drop-off zones to prevent private cars getting too close to terminal buildings.

European stocks fell after the explosions, particularly travel sector stocks including airlines and hotels, pulling the broader indices down from multi-week highs. Safe-haven assets, gold and government bonds rose in price.

The attacks appeared to be linked to the arrest of French citizen Salah Abdeslam – the prime surviving suspect for the Paris attacks on a stadium, cafes and a concert hall – who was captured by Belgian police after a shootout on Friday.

Belgium's Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said on Monday the country was on high alert for a revenge attack.

It was not clear what failings if any allowed the plan for Tuesday's operation to go ahead and whether the double attack was planned in advance or put together at short notice.

“We know that stopping one cell can … push others into action. We are aware of it in this case,” Jambon said.

Third Brussels airport bomb destroyed in controlled explosion


Security services found and destroyed a third bomb after two explosions at Brussels airport on Tuesday killed at least 10 people and left around 100 wounded, the provincial governor of Brabant Flanders said on Wednesday.

A separate blast at a metro station in central Brussels killed a further 20 people and injured roughly 130 people, according to a provisional toll from the national crisis response center.

Netanyahu links Brussels attacks with terrorism in Israel


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel linked the attacks on an airport and metro station in Brussels to terror attacks in his country.

“The chain of attacks from Paris to San Bernardino, from Istanbul to the Ivory Coast and now to Brussels, and the daily attacks on Israel, this is one continuous assault on all of us,”  Netanyahu said Tuesday morning in an address via satellite to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. “In all these cases, the terrorists have no resolvable grievances.

“What they seek is our utter destruction,” he said. “We won’t let that happen.”

At least 34 people were killed and dozens injured on Tuesday morning in the twin bombings at Zaventem Airport and at a metro station in central Brussels. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it was in response to Belgium’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition fighting against the group.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas strongly condemned the bombing attacks, and offered his sympathy to families of those killed and injured, the Wafa Palestinian news agency reported. Abbas also “affirmed that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people abhor terrorism and reject attacking civilians.”

The attack comes two days after a suicide bomber detonated himself near a group of Israeli tourists at a restaurant in Istanbul. Turkish reports said the bomber targeted the Israelis. Three of the four fatalities were Israelis.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, sent a condolence letter on Tuesday to King Philippe of Belgium.

“Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, whether it takes place in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul or Jerusalem,” Rivlin wrote. “These horrific events once again prove that we must all stand united in the fight against those who seek to use violence to stifle individual liberty and freedom of thought and belief, and continue to destroy the lives of so many. I want to emphasize that this struggle that we all share is against this violent terrorism that continues to kill and maim so many, it is not a fight against Islam.”

Rivlin expressed his condolences to the people of Belgium.

“Sadly, we, in Israel, are no strangers to the horror and grief that follows such murderous attacks and can understand the pain you all feel now,” he said.

Israel’s minister of science, technology and space, Ofir Akunis, said in a Facebook post that European officials have been wasting their time worrying about labeling products produced in Israeli settlements instead of worrying about the growth of Islamic extremism in Europe.

“Many in Europe have preferred to occupy themselves with the folly of condemning Israel, labeling products, and boycotts,” he wrote. “In this time, underneath the nose of the Continent’s citizens, thousands of extremist Islamic terror cells have grown. To our sorrow, the reality has struck the lives of dozens of innocent people, powerfully and fatally.”

Trump urges waterboarding and more after Brussels attacks


Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the United States should use waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques when questioning terror suspects, and renewed his call for tougher U.S. border security after the attacks in Brussels.

The billionaire businessman, in an interview on NBC's “Today” program, said authorities “should be able to do whatever they have to do” to gain information in an effort to thwart future attacks.

“Waterboarding would be fine. If they can expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding,” Trump said, adding he believed torture could spark useful leads for officials. “You have to get the information from these people.”

Waterboarding, the practice of pouring water over someone's face to simulate drowning as an interrogation tactic, was banned by President Barack Obama days after he took office in 2009. Critics call it torture.

“I am in the camp where you have to get the information, and you have to get it rapidly,” Trump said, adding “liberal” laws in Europe had made it hard to counter potential attacks.

Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, also reiterated the need for tougher measures to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, particularly Syrian refugees, across the border.

“As president … I would be very, very tough on the borders, and I would be not allowing certain people to come into this country without absolute perfect documentation,” said Trump, campaigning to become the Republican nominee for the Nov. 8 election that will decide on Obama's successor.

The Brussels attacks brought national security back to the top of the 2016 presidential election agenda, possibly sharpening division between Trump's isolationist approach to foreign policy and his Republican rivals' more traditional interventionist outlook.

On Monday, Trump expressed skepticism about the U.S. role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and said the United States should significantly cut spending on the defense alliance.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for Tuesday's suicide bomb attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital which killed at least 30 people.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton acknowledged Americans have a right to be frightened after a spate of recent attacks but said military leaders have found techniques like waterboarding are not effective.

“We've got to work this through consistent with our values,” she said on NBC, adding officials “do not need to resort to torture, but they are going to need more help.”

SYRIAN REFUGEES

Trump's top Republican rival, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, renewed his call for an immediate halt to Obama's plan to admit thousands of Syrian refugees to the United States and suggested heightened police scrutiny of neighborhoods with large Muslim populations.

“We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” he said in a statement.

Cruz also criticized Trump's call for cutting the U.S. spending on NATO, which he said should join the United States in “utterly destroying ISIS,” an acronym for Islamic State.

Republican rival John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, struck a more diplomatic tone after the attacks, pledging to “redouble our efforts with our allies” and saying the United States “must strengthen our alliances” in the face of acts of terror.

Earlier attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have shocked Americans and pushed security issues to the forefront of the White House campaign debate.

When 130 people were killed in Paris in November, the threat of terrorism jumped from fifth to first on a Reuters/Ipsos poll list of the country's most important problems and remained there until the economy moved back to the top of the list in mid-January.

Walid Phares, named by Trump this week as one of his foreign policy experts, told Reuters the Brussels attacks would force Europe and the United States to “reassess” counter-terrorism strategies in “identifying the radicalized elements and also the type of protection soft targets need.”

Trump looks to take another step toward winning the Republican presidential nomination in contests in Arizona and Utah on Tuesday, aiming to deal another setback to the party establishment's flagging stop-Trump movement.

He has a big lead in convention delegates who will pick the Republican nominee, defying weeks of attacks from members of the party establishment worried he will lead the Republicans to defeat in November.

In Arizona, one of the U.S. states that borders Mexico, Trump's hardline immigration message is popular and he leads in polls, while in Utah Trump lags in polls behind Cruz.

In addition to the temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, Trump has called for the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to halt illegal immigration.

Jewish group on Brussels attacks: ‘Shots at the heart of Europe’


Jewish groups expressed shock and anger following a series of attacks that left at least 34 dead in the Belgian capital.

Kenneth Bandler, director of media relations for the American Jewish Committee, linked the attacks to the slaying of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014.

“What began with the jihadist fatal attack on the Jewish Museum nearly two years ago has now reached the airport and metro,” he wrote in an email about the Tuesday morning attacks in Brussels.

Two explosions at Zaventem Airport, including one by a suicide bomber, killed at least 14 people, and was followed by an explosion at the Maelbeek metro station, where another at least 20 died, the Het Laatste Nieuws daily reported on its online edition.

Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national in his 30s who is said to have fought with jihadists in Syria, is currently on trial in Brussels for the May 2014 museum shooting.

“This is yet another shocking, appalling and deadly attack on innocent Europeans by radical terrorists,” European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said in a statement. Kantor called the attacks “shots at the heart of Europe” that he said should galvanize counterterrorist actions.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, in response to Belgium’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said his organization is “united in prayers at this hour with the families of the victims and the injured.”

Goldschmidt called the attacks, whose perpetrators have not yet been publicly identified, the “latest act of war of Islamic fascism against the capital of Europe,” adding: “As in the biblical story of Esther, which will be read in all the synagogues later this week, evil can and will be destroyed only by recognizing it and fighting it.”

Sources from a Belgian intelligence agency said the attacks may have been carried out as revenge for the arrest Friday in Belgium of Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French Islamist whom authorities suspect had a key role in a series of deadly attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in November. An unnamed intelligence source told the Het Laatste Nieuws daily that the attacks must have been planned a long time ago but may have been carried out earlier than planned to retaliate for the arrest.

Ex-leader of Belgian Jews: Belgium’s airports need Israel-style security


A prominent Belgian activist against anti-Semitism called on his government to follow Israel’s lead in airport security after a series of attacks killed 34 people in Brussels.

Joel Rubinfeld, founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCJOB umbrella group representing French-speaking Belgian Jews, urged authorities to emulate Israel in an interview with JTA on Tuesday, after bombs went off at Zaventem Airport and a metro station.

Calling the free access to the terminal at Zaventem “a security problem,” Rubinfeld said: “We need to rethink on a European level and draw lessons, for example, from counterterrorist measures in Israel, where one is interviewed by police at a checkpoint one kilometer away from the airport — at a safe distance.”

Separately, Pini Schiff, a former security director at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, which is considered among the most secure in the world, said the attacks at the Brussels airport mark “a colossal failure” of Belgian security and that “the chances are very low” such a bombing could have happened in Israel, The Associated Press reported.

The attacks, for which the Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility, came four days after Belgian police arrested Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French Islamist whom authorities suspect had a key role in the series of deadly attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in November, in Brussels.

In recent years, several perpetrators of terrorist attacks against non-Jewish targets went on to target Jews.

Asked whether he has full confidence in the authorities’ ability to stop future attacks, Rubinfeld said security around Jewish institutions was “seriously beefed up” following the slaying of four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum of Belgium, which had been unguarded.

“I wouldn’t say I have full confidence,” he said, “but the authorities have taken robust steps to secure Jewish sites.”

How we must respond to Brussels


I was at European Union headquarters in Brussels last month, before moving on to Paris to discuss anti-Semitic hate crimes, terrorism and thwarting ISIS’ brilliant leveraging of social media.

At the end of our EU meetings, my Simon Wiesenthal Center colleague Dr. Shimon Samuels and I rushed to Brussels’ Central Train Station. “Better get there early,” Shimon advised, “after the Paris attacks and the Brussels connection to the terrorists, there are strict new security measures in place.” When we arrived I found no special security in place, just a few bored soldiers smoking cigarettes and one rail worker who asked for an ID to match up to my e-ticket.

The next day, a senior French Interior Ministry official responded with a diplomatic shrug when I asked “what good were the new strict security measures taken on all outbound rail traffic from Paris when there seemed to be nothing serious in place in Brussels, a mere hour away by train?”

Experts are investigating whether today’s highly sophisticated and coordinated attacks in Brussels are linked to the capture this week of Salah Abdeslam, sole survivor of the 10 men behind the French terror mass murders, or if they were set in motion long ago by another ISIS cell. There are now an estimated 5,000 European-born Islamist terrorists, trained in Syria or Iraq or Libya, who have melted back into cities across Europe.

The tactics displayed are deeply troubling to say the least. ISIS has apparently been able to use its control of the vast territories and vast sums of money it has amassed to upgrade the education of bombers and suicide vest makers and to deploy these weapons across Europe.

What must European leaders do?

First, get rid of the open-borders Shengen Agreement, which allows unencumbered travel between 26 European countries. It has been in place for 20 years, but it clearly allows terrorists to move around undetected. Second, all Western countries must vet all migrants from the Middle East. The decency of European countries has been abused by terrorists, some of whom have entered their nations comingled with legitimate refugees.

France, Germany, Belgium and other democracies also must take control of all urban neighborhoods. No-go zones in Arab and Muslim areas are incubators of Islamist extremism and, as in the case of Brussels, safe haven for terrorists.

Failure on the part of European democracies to fully implement these measures will not only ensure escalating terrorist outrages but will push even more European voters to join the ranks of xenophobic far-right parties.

It is clear that Europe is in for a long and, God forbid, bloody struggle.

The unending terrorist carnage should also force the hi-tech and social media giants, from Apple to Google and YouTube, to develop and deploy technological trip wires to thwart ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Al Shabab’s unfettered access to Internet technologies. If they don’t, many officials across Europe have told me they will use their legal and economic clout to force them to do so.

But even if Europeans undertake all of these steps, they cannot win the day without a global commitment to crush ISIS, kill their leaders, and take back all the territory they currently control.

That war can only be led by one country—the United States of America.

The easy thing to do is to focus our attention on the five remaining presidential candidates and to hear from them what steps they would take to eradicate the enemy, starting in January 2017.

But world events won’t wait for a new leader. Right now, the evildoers are winning.

Here is what President Barack Obama said today while in Havana:

“…and we stand in solidarity with them in condemning these outrageous attacks against innocent people.

“This is yet another reminder that the world must unite,” Obama said. “We must be together regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”

Sorry President Obama, such words are meaningless unless we commit to stop “degrading” ISIS over time, and undertake to destroy them. There is a coalition of the willing waiting to be activated. It will mean putting American, European, Turkish and Arab boots on the ground. All that is needed is leadership from our president.

In sports, we are taught that the best defense is an offense. The same should apply to defeating terrorism.  So after watching the ballgame in Havana, I urge the president to travel to Brussels, lay a wreath in memory of the latest victims, then step up to the EU podium and declare war against ISIS incorporated.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

When Brussels meant freedom from fear for an Israeli


Growing up, trips to stay with my Jewish family in Brussels were a taste of freedom.

In my native Israel, waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks kept me under constant maternal surveillance. Fear of regular bus bombings limited my excursions to biking distance.

On the tranquil streets of the Belgian capital, by contrast, I could wander at will amid the mix of medieval architecture and glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Even riding the tram with my cousin Eli was exhilarating. The rails seemed to stretch out endlessly, and there was the added thrill of potentially getting caught without tickets, which we never bothered to buy.

On Tuesday, a series of explosions killed 34 people — 14 of them at Zaventem airport and another 20 at one of the metro stations that Eli and I used to exploit.

“The anxiety is terrible,” Eli’s father, my uncle, told me, quickly recalling doing a family headcount after learning of the attacks. “But equally horrible is that these attacks reduce you to feeling happy that strangers whom you’ve never met died in them, and not your own friends and family.”

On a visit to Brussels earlier this month, I had sensed a change. The city no longer felt so free.

At a book signing by a Jewish philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, I was shocked to see that he was accompanied by a bodyguard. Outside the building, a dozen police officers stood guard.

Wasn’t this an official overreaction to the May 2015 slaying of four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum? I asked Joel Rubinfeld, head of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism.

 “We are all targets now — philosophers, anti-racism activists, journalists, police officers, the people in this restaurant,” Rubinfeld said.

In a southern district of Brussels the afternoon of the attacks, Rabbi Shalom Benizri was still waiting for word from his loved ones when I called his home. A communications overload had disabled cell service by several providers, leaving many thousands unable to make or receive those crucial calls.

Benizri, who used to head a large Sephardic community in downtown Brussels before its members moved because of the rampant criminality in the heavily Muslim area, recalled the museum shooting.

 “We were the targets then, but now everyone is a target,” Benizri said, echoing Rubinfeld.

During the attack, Benizri was at the airport about to board a flight to Israel, where several of his children live. As chaos broke out and hundreds fled the smoking building, he returned to his car and drove home.

In lockdown at home — a precaution that probably applies especially to Orthodox rabbis like himself — Benizri told me he is among the local Jews who see no future for their families in Belgium.

“There is enormous concern not only among people like me, but also non-observant Jews,” he said. “As for me, my suitcases are packed to go.”

Wishing him a happy Purim, I hung up with a sinking feeling about what was happening to the city I love — which is situated only 130 miles from Amsterdam, where I now live with my wife and 4-month-old son.

Trying to put my finger on when things got out of control in Belgium and Western Europe in general, I remembered a conversation that I had with Eli 20 years ago in a Brussels metro station.

Attuned to an inchoate rise in anti-Semitic violence to which I was oblivious as a foreigner, Eli had asked me to address him as “Ile,” an anagram of his name, when we were on the street. Maybe I should have known then.

Europe should hire Israel, not condemn it


Do you know what European honchos were doing in Geneva recently even as the Islamic State was planning another terror attack on their continent? They were preparing yet another condemnation of Israel, this time with an ironic twist.

They were targeting Israel for its actions in the Golan Heights, the same region where the Jewish state has set up field hospitals to care for Syrian rebels maimed by the venomous weapons of the Islamic State.

You read that right. The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council circulated a draft resolution on Israel’s “systematic and continuous violation” of the rights of “Syrian citizens in the occupied Golan Heights,” in addition to four other draft resolutions censuring Israel.

Hypocrisy on steroids.

When we talk about the proper response to terror attacks like the one we just witnessed in Brussels, we have to start with eradicating the malignant European hypocrisy towards the Jewish state. 

How many thousands of hours have been squandered at the European Union in Brussels discussing the labelling of Israeli products made in Judea and Samaria instead of developing an anti-terror strategy?

How much time has been spent at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands discussing the prosecution of Israeli leaders while ignoring murderous dictators and genocidal war criminals?

How many visits to the Middle East have been initiated by European diplomats to pressure Israel to make peace with terrorists rather than confront a region in violent meltdown?

In other words, when will the powers that be in Europe realize that the Islamic terrorism threatening their continent has nothing to do with Israeli tomatoes being grown in Judea and Samaria or Jewish apartments being built in Jerusalem?

In the wake of the latest atrocity in Brussels that killed 34 people and wounded more than 200, it looks like the reality of evil may have interrupted, at least for now, Europe’s obsession with Israel.  

“We are at war,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. 

“These attacks mark another low by the terrorists in the service of hatred and violence,” said European Union Council President Donald Tusk.

“We realize we face a tragic moment. We have to be calm and show solidarity,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. 

Cutting to the chase, HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher wondered if “Europe will have a little more sympathy for what Israel goes through” instead of being “real a**holes” to them.

Well, that would be nice– I’m also hoping Europe will have more sympathy for Israel, a country that has endured the scourge of terrorism since its very inception.

But what I’m really hoping for is that Europe will come to its senses and realize that the Jewish state is its #1 ally against the Islamic State. I’m hoping Europe will not only stop condemning Israel but will actually hire Israel to help protect and defend the continent against Islamic terrorism.

It’s not just because of the obvious—that no country has more experience fighting this kind of war, and that Israel has developed the most advanced techniques to fight terror at all levels and prevent attacks. 

No, the real reason Europe should hire Israel is because Israel has been winning its long war against terror while maintaining a civil society that protects human rights and the pursuit of happiness.

Faced with a primitive and medieval violence that respects no boundaries, Israel has managed to fight back while maintaining boundaries of law and decency and nurturing a vibrant and creative culture that is the envy of the world. Most countries would have turned into an emergency police state as a mere matter of survival.

In fact, as Eli Lake reports on Bloomberg.com, this is already happening in France: “Since the attacks in Paris last November, the socialist government of President Francois Hollande has placed his country under a state of emergency. France's national guard has been deployed to protect sensitive religious sites and other ‘soft targets.’ The country of Voltaire, Diderot and Camus is in 2016 the police state that critics warn Cruz or Trump would bring about if given the chance.”

Of course, there’s one major caveat to Europe hiring Israel. The continent’s obsession with condemning Israel has resulted in a culture of hatred towards the Jewish state. This means that European leaders would have to be very discreet about any partnership with Israel.

We can only hope that, with time, Europeans everywhere will realize that a good relationship with Israel is in their best interest and they'll be open about an anti-terror alliance with the Jewish state.

After all, if there’s one thing we know civilized Europeans care about, it’s the pursuit of happiness.

Fugitive from Paris attacks arrested in Brussels shootout


The most-wanted fugitive from November's Paris attacks was arrested after a shootout with police in Brussels on Friday, the Belgian federal prosecutor's office said.

Local media reported that Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old French suspect, was wounded in the operation as EU leaders met on the other side of the city to discuss Europe's migration crisis.

Television footage showed armed security forces dragging a man with a sack on his head out of a building and into a car.

“We got him,” Belgium's Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Theo Francken, said on Twitter.

Several bursts of gunfire rang out earlier in the capital's Molenbeek area – the scene of past investigations into the Paris attacks – and police officers were seen surrounding an apartment block there from around 4 p.m. (1500 GMT).

French President Francois Hollande and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel left the EU summit to discuss the operation, officials said.

Two explosions were heard after the arrest, though it was unclear whether they were part of a new operation or the clear-up.

Media reported two people had been arrested, a third suspect may have been involved and Abdeslam had been shot in the leg, though there were conflicting accounts.

FINGERPRINTS

Belgian police had found fingerprints belonging to Abdeslam at the scene of an apartment raided on Tuesday, prosecutors said earlier.

The Belgian federal prosecutor's office also said an Algerian killed during that earlier operation was probably one of the people French and Belgian investigators were seeking in relation to the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.

Public broadcaster RTBF said it had information that Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself up in Paris, was “more than likely” one of two men who police have said evaded capture at the scene before a sniper shot dead 35-year-old Belkaid as he aimed a Kalashnikov.

A man named Samir Bouzid has been sought since December when police issued CCTV pictures of him wiring cash from Brussels two days after the Paris attacks to a woman who was then killed in a shootout with police in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.

She was a cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who had fought in Syria and is suspected of being a prime organizer of the attacks in which 130 people were killed. Both died in the apartment in St. Denis on Nov. 18.

France's BFM television said the fingerprints were found on a glass in the apartment, where four police officers, including a Frenchwoman, were wounded when a hail of automatic gunfire hit them through the front door as they arrived for what officials said they had expected to be a relatively routine search.

Abdeslam's elder brother was among the suicide bombers who killed themselves in Paris. The younger Abdeslam was driven back to Brussels from Paris hours later.

Belgian authorities are holding 10 people suspected of involvement with him, but there had been no report of the fugitive himself being sighted. There has long been speculation in Belgium that he could have fled to Syria.

Investigators believe much of the planning and preparation for the November bombing and shooting rampage in Paris was conducted in Brussels by young French and Belgian nationals, some of whom fought in Syria for Islamic State.

The attack strained relations between Brussels and Paris, with French officials suggesting Belgium was lax in monitoring the activities of hundreds of militants returned from Syria.

Brussels, headquarters of the European Union as well as Western military alliance NATO, was entirely locked down for days after the Paris attacks for fear of a major incident there. Brussels has maintained a high state of security alert since then, with military patrols a regular sight.

Synagogues in Brussels shuttered amid highest state of alert


Synagogues in Brussels were advised to remain shuttered over the weekend after Belgian authorities ordered the country’s capital to remain on the highest state of alert.

The alert level 4 remained in effect into Monday due to the fear of a Paris-style attack. Several of the terrorists in the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, which killed at least 129, had links to Belgium. The alert level was raised after warnings of an “immediate very serious threat,” according to reports.

Some 16 people were detained in 22 raids late Sunday, and five more were arrested in seven home searches on Monday. Police are searching for Belgian national Salah Abdeslam, whose brother reportedly blew himself up in one of the Paris attacks and who is believed to have returned to Brussels from Paris in the hours after the Nov. 13 attacks.

The Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium, the country’s main Jewish umbrella, advised synagogues to close down even for Shabbat, the European Jewish Press reported. The Great Synagogue of Brussels, which also houses the Central Consistory, remained closed, according to the EJP.

Some synagogues reportedly remained open for Shabbat services with additional security in place.

Jewish institutions, including synagogues and schools, were last put on a level 4 alert following a gunman’s attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 that left four people dead.

The rest of the country remained on a level 3 alert into Monday.

“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told reporters on Sunday night. Possible targets were malls, city streets and public transport, he added.

Public transportation in Brussels remained closed on Monday, and many people worked from home due to the lack of transportation and child care, since schools also were closed.

Belgian police mount raids in Brussels and other towns


Belgian armed police mounted raids across the country late on Sunday after the prime minister announced another day of lockdown in the capital for fear a new, Paris-style mass attack may be imminent.

Shortly before midnight, the public broadcaster, announcing several arrests, said the operations had concluded and the mayor of a Brussels borough that is the focus of a manhunt for a key suspect in the Paris attacks said shots had been exchanged.

Prosecutors plan a news conference at 00:30 a.m. (2330 GMT). 

Earlier in the evening, Prime Minister Charles Michel, speaking after a meeting of security chiefs called to review the threat status, said the capital's metro, universities and schools would be closed on Monday.

For the rest of the country, a threat level of three on a four-tier scale would remain in place, Michel said. Brussels would remain at level four, meaning an attack was imminent, as it has been since Saturday.

“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Michel told a news conference.

Armed police mounted searches in several parts of the capital on Sunday evening and cordoned off areas close to the main tourist attraction, the Grand Place around the town hall. Broadcaster RTBF said there were also raids near Liege in the east, Antwerp in the north and Charleroi, south of Brussels.

Helicopters could be heard flying over the capital.

Possible targets were malls, shopping streets and public transport, Michel said, adding the government would boost police and army presence in the capital beyond already high levels.

He said a new evaluation of the situation would be made on Monday afternoon and everything was being done to return the city to normal as quickly as possible.

Commuters trying to get to work on Monday are expected to suffer delays as a result of the metro closure, though some companies had already indicated on Sunday they were ready for staff to work from home.

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead after links with Brussels emerged.

In France, investigators on Sunday extended into a fifth day the detention of a man arrested on Wednesday outside the building where the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks died in a raid. Police also released a picture of a man they said had blown himself up in the attacks and called for witnesses. 

Two of the Paris suicide bombers, Brahim Abdeslam and Bilal Hadfi, had been living in Belgium. Fugitive suspected militant Salah Abdeslam, Brahim's 26-year-old brother, slipped back home to Brussels from Paris shortly after the attacks.

Earlier, Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Salah Abdeslam was not the only security threat.

“It is a threat that goes beyond just that one person,” he told broadcaster VRT. “We're looking at more things, that's why we've put in place such a concentration of resources.”

Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, was quoted by broadcaster RTBF as saying there were “two terrorists” in the Brussels area ready to carry out violence.

Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of Brahim and Salah, urged Salah in an interview on RTBF television to give himself up, adding that he believed Salah was still alive because he had had a last-minute change of heart while in Paris.

The mayor of Molenbeek, where the brothers lived, said there was an exchange of fire in one incident in the borough.

WITHOUT PRECEDENT SINCE WORLD WAR II

Intelligence, police and judicial officials reviewed the alert status during the day. The national security council, including top ministers, convened later on Sunday.

The government has advised the public to be alert rather than panic-stricken. People have been told to avoid crowds in the capital, while authorities have also closed museums, cinemas and shopping centers. Clubs and venues have canceled events.

Brussels' chief rabbi Albert Gigi told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday that the city's synagogues were shut over the weekend for the first time since World War Two.

Soldiers are on guard in parts of Brussels, a city of 1.2 million people and home to institutions of the European Union and the headquarters of NATO.

That said, Brussels on Sunday morning resembled most other Sundays, with the normal limited number of shops, such bakeries and small supermarkets open, and many churches in the largely Catholic country still holding services. However, larger markets were shut.

The latest measures go far beyond those taken the last time Brussels was put on level four alert, for about a month at the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, when authorities intercepted a plot to free convicted Tunisian Nizar Trabelsi from a Belgian jail.

Then the city closed the downtown Christmas market early and canceled its New Year fireworks display.

Belgian connection: from barkeeper to suicide bomber


Two weeks ago, the mayor of Molenbeek ordered the closure of a neighbourhood bar where Brussels police had found young men dealing drugs and smoking dope over the summer.

Last Friday, the owner blew himself up at another laid-back corner cafe, this time in Paris, on a mission of retribution from Islamic State.

Brahim Abdeslam's journey from barkeeper to suicide bomber remains a mystery, along with the whereabouts of his younger brother Salah, now on the run as Europe's most wanted man but until recently the manager of Brahim's bar, Les Beguines.

The brothers sold the business just six weeks ago.

There is a seeming disconnect between the ownership by Muslims – whose religion forbids the use of alcohol and tobacco – of a bar, where drugs were being dealt, on a quiet street in the low-rent Brussels borough of Molenbeek who have become the focus of a manhunt for violent Islamists with ties to Syria.

Yet time and again, investigations after attacks like those that killed 129 people in Paris have uncovered tales of workaday Arab immigrant lives, assimilated to the profane daily cares and pleasures of European cities, that have turned, unseen to family and friends, into explosions of pious, suicidal fanaticism.

“It's shocking, especially when it's people you've hung out with,” said 25-year-old Nabil, as he walked home from work to his apartment nearby, past the cafe on rue des Beguines, now shuttered by court order, which Brahim Abdeslam, 31, had owned.

“They were regular guys, who enjoyed a laugh,” he said, still wearing his workclothes and a Nike baseball cap. “There was nothing radical about them. … They were here just last week hanging out. … I think they were indoctrinated. … There is some mastermind behind it all.”

“LIKE SYLVESTER STALLONE”

Hicham, also 25 and in blue tracksuit and sneakers, echoed that view of Brahim and Salah: “They smoked. They didn't go to the mosque or anything. We saw them every day at the cafe,” he said. Brahim, with a voice “like Sylvester Stallone,” could, he conceded, at times be “a bit crazy”.

“We played cards. We talked about football,” he added. “We talked about the everyday. Nothing jihadist, not about Islam.”

Those sentiments were echoed by family including a third brother, a local council employee, who was released on Monday after two days in custody, and by former workmates of Salah at the tram repair shop – though the latter told public radio that the “joker” Salah lost that job in 2011 for absenteeism.

Belgian media also reported that Salah spent time in jail for robbery five years ago alongside another Molenbeek man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28. French investigators believe Abaaoud may have ordered the Paris attacks from Syria, where he has become an Internet propagandist for Islamic State under the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Belgiki – the Belgian.

Belgian police could not confirm any previous record for the brothers or whether they had been under surveillance.

“STRONG SMELL OF DRUGS”

What is clear is that the bar the brothers ran had annoyed some of its neighbours and, in August, been raided by police.

Details posted on the door, on the ground floor of a typical brick-built 19th-century townhouse and confirmed by police to Reuters, stated: “The premises have been used for the consumption of banned hallucinogenic substances.”

The notice ordered a five-month closure from Nov. 5, and said police found “a strong smell of drugs” and ashtrays containing “partially smoked joints”, while a number of customers were found to be carrying drugs on their persons.

The notice said the manager had been given a chance, on Sept. 4, to object. “But he did not reply to our invitation”.

Molenbeek Mayor Francoise Schepmans has described Molenbeek as a “breeding ground for radical violence”, suffering from high youth unemployment and overcrowding. Belgian ministers have promised to “clean it up.”

The Abdeslams do not appear to have figured among the jobless. Legal documents reviewed by Reuters and first reported by Belgian newspaper L'Echo show that Brahim, a French citizen born in Brussels, formed a company in March 2013 to run the bar.

In December that year, Brahim stepped aside as manager of the company in favour of Salah, but remained the main owner. Two other family members held small stakes at various times.

On Sept. 30 this year, after the closure warning, the family sold out to an individual who gave an address in southern Belgium. That person could not be contacted by Reuters.

The documents listed both brothers' address as the family home in a four-storey house facing Molenbeek town hall across a cobbled square. There, Mohammed Abdeslam, the brother held by police, told reporters the family were stunned by events.

“We've never had problems with the law,” he said on the doorstep. “My parents are in shock and can't quite take in what's happened,” he added, saying they had had no idea Brahim was going to Paris on Friday or where Salah now was.

According to French police, Brahim detonated a suicide vest at the Comptoir Voltaire, a cafe close to the Bataclan music hall where gunmen killed 89. The explosion seriously wounded several other people.

Salah, police say, rented a Volkswagen car that was found near the Bataclan with Belgian plates and he was later checked, but not arrested, near the Belgian border, in a car with two others.

GIVING A FRIEND A RIDE

A lawyer for Mohammed, who works for the town hall, said Mohammed was released because he had an alibi putting him in the French northern border city of Lille, where he was helping renovate a bar.

Lawyers say the two men in the car with Salah when he was stopped by French police early on Saturday near Cambrai are among three people in Belgian custody. The lawyer for one, Mohamed Amri, said he had taken a call from a friend saying he had broken down in Paris and drove south to fetch him. Amri said he had known nothing of any involvement in the attacks.

Outside Les Beguines, just over a mile from Molenbeek town hall, another acquaintance of the Abdeslam brothers, 23-year-old Amir, who works installing shop tills, said a friend had called him on Friday night asking him to drive the 280 km (180 miles) to Paris to pick up Salah. Amir told him he could not go.

He was told Salah offered to pay the fuel costs, but Amir did not want to run up such big mileage on his leased car. “It's incredible,” he said of the arrests of those who did drive Salah. “It could have been me. … I had no idea.”

With television running hours of live coverage on Monday from the armed police siege of a house in Molenbeek in the hunt for Salah, his brother Mohammed stressed that Salah had been found guilty of nothing: “But with things as tense as they are,” he said, “we don't know if he'll dare give himself up.” 

So what took Brahim from running a marijuana-scented beer joint named for a mediaeval order of Christian lay nuns to blowing himself up at a bar named for Voltaire, the 18th-century critic of religion?

His brother Mohammed had seen “absolutely nothing.” Brahim and Salah were, he said, “two brothers who were totally normal.”

Closing in on nuclear deal, U.S. demands ‘tough choices’ from Iran


The United States and Iran inched closer to a political deal that would set the stage for a landmark nuclear agreement, but a U.S. official warned on Monday that Iran must make tough choices to allay fears about its atomic ambitions.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held nearly five hours of talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne before the Iranian delegation headed to Brussels for meetings with European ministers.

After the Lausanne talks, a senior U.S. official said it was not clear if an end-March deadline for a framework agreement between Iran and six major powers could be met.

“We are trying to get there but quite frankly we still do not know if we will be able to,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “Iran still has to make some very tough and necessary choices to address the significant concerns that remain about its nuclear programme.”

The official did not elaborate but added that the Iranian delegation also raised in the meeting with Kerry an “ill-timed and ill-advised” letter from 47 Republican senators to Iran's leadership warning that they could undo any deal President Barack Obama made with them.

“These kinds of distractions are not helpful when we're talking about something so serious,” the official added.

The U.S. official said the sides would work through the end of the month if needed to secure a deal. Talks are expected to resume on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said progress had been made in the talks but “important points” were unresolved. A statement from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a deal could not be struck “at any price”.

STICKING POINTS

With the Iranian new year holiday of Norouz approaching this weekend, officials close to the talks say it will be difficult to complete a political agreement this week. If it is not possible by the weekend, the talks could reconvene in the final days of March.

Zarif said all sides needed to keep talking this week to see what could be achieved.

“On some issues we are closer to a solution and based on this we can say solutions are within reach. At the same time, we are apart on some issues,” he told the Iranian news agency IRNA.

Six world powers — the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — are trying to reach a political framework agreement with Iran by the end of the month that would curb Tehran's most sensitive nuclear activities for at least 10 years in exchange for the gradual easing of some sanctions.

The parties have set a June 30 deadline to finalise all the technical details of an accord. Western officials say privately that overcoming disagreements on some of the remaining sticking points would be very difficult.

Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, echoing Tehran's official view, said “unjust” Western sanctions should be lifted, the official IRNA news agency reported on Monday.

“We are ready to increase the oil export by up to 1 million bpd when the sanctions (are) lifted,” Zanganeh said, adding that the boost “will not have an impact on the crude prices.”

U.S. and EU sanctions that came into force in 2012 prohibit the import, purchase and transport of Iranian petroleum products, crippling the major oil exporter's economy.

The meeting between Kerry and Zarif included U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi.

“I'm very optimistic,” Salehi told reporters afterwards.

But a senior Iranian official doubted whether a deal would be reached this week as there were gaps on some important issues, although the atmosphere at the talks was good.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini told reporters the talks in Brussels had been helpful. “We discussed all the remaining open gaps and the way forward,” she said.

A European diplomatic source, however, said substantial gaps remained and it was not clear they could be resolved in the coming days. “The talks were lengthy and in-depth, but they did not enable us to narrow our differences,” the source said after Zarif met his French, German and British counterparts.

Kerry has urged Iran to make concessions that would allow the sides to reach a political framework agreement for a nuclear deal that would lift sanctions in exchange for tight restrictions on Tehran's nuclear programme and increased monitoring of its atomic sites.

The West suspects Tehran of wanting to create an atomic weapons capability. Tehran denies that and says its research is for purely peaceful purposes.

In Brussels, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also said a framework agreement was still some way off.

“There are areas where we've made progress, areas where we have yet to make any progress,” he told reporters.

PROGRESS AND OBSTACLES

After their meeting in Brussels, the Iranian delegation will return to Lausanne for more talks with the Americans, and will be joined later in the week by senior European officials and possibly foreign ministers, depending on how the talks develop.

In Tehran, former nuclear negotiator and current parliament speaker Ali Larijani said failure to get an agreement would not be a tragedy.

The sides have twice extended the talks on a long-term accord that the United States says must have a duration of at least 10 years. They signed an interim deal in November 2013 that gave Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for some limitations on sensitive nuclear work.

After months of deadlock, there have been areas of progress in the talks recently, Iranian, U.S. and European officials say. The number of enrichment centrifuges Iran wants to operate over the long term, one of the biggest sticking points in the talks from the beginning, is likely resolvable if Tehran can keep around 6,500 of the machines that purify uranium, they say.

There are also discussions about the size of Iran's uranium stockpiles and how much would be relocated to Russia or another country, Western officials say. Originally, Iran wanted to enrich 2.5 tonnes of uranium per year, but could settle at half a tonne, a senior Iranian official said. The remainder would be turned into fuel rods or sent to Russia, he added.

Recently the United States and France agreed to consider the possibility of a swift suspension of U.N. nuclear sanctions at the outset of any deal, in addition to freezing some of the most painful U.S. and European energy and financial sanctions.

The subject of lifting U.N. sanctions has turned into a sensitive one in the United States, where Republicans in Congress opposed to engaging Iran accuse Obama of seeking to bring an agreed deal to the U.N. Security Council first in an attempt to bypass U.S. legislators.

Difficult issues include Iran's insistence on pursuing advanced centrifuge research, Tehran's need to answer questions on past nuclear activities that could be arms-related, and the speed of lifting sanctions. Iran wants all sanctions lifted immediately but Western powers want them eased gradually.

Dutch Jewish school closed after anti-terrorist raid in Belgium


The only Orthodox Jewish school in the Netherlands was closed on Friday as a precautionary measure after an anti-terrorism raid in Belgium left two suspects dead.

There was no concrete threat against the Cheider School in Amsterdam, Dutch national broadcaster NOS said, citing the school's Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs. School phones went unanswered Friday morning.

Jewish schools in Antwerp and Brussels are also temporarily closed after two terrorism suspects were killed in a raid in Verviers, Belgium, on Thursday.

Dutch Jewish schools and prominent Jewish monuments – including Amsterdam's Anne Frank House and Jewish Historical Museum – have had extra security since June, on advice of the country's national anti-terrorism office.

That followed a terrorism-related shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, in May that killed four.

In Brussels, Jewish security professionals train for the next attack


Seventy-two hours after a deadly attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, dozens of Jewish community officials from across Europe were operating a hectic situation room at a hotel in the Belgian capital.

But crisis managers and community leaders were not dealing with the horror unfolding 200 miles away in the French capital.

Rather they were preparing for the next crisis situation, playing out a practice scenario with multiple casualties at a Jewish facility somewhere in Europe. Staffers were training to handle the deluge of queries, pleas, disinformation and even threats that often follow attacks on Jewish facilities.

It was said to be the first pan-European simulation of its kind and was the latest step in a plan by the European Jewish Congress’ Security and Crisis Centre, or SACC, after the killing last year of four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

The drill aimed to prepare communities to manage the consequences of the terrorist threats on a continent with nearly nonexistent national borders and vast disparities in law-enforcement and crisis-management standards.

“Unlike France or Germany or Austria, we have no known jihadist groups,” said Petr Papousek, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not exposed to that risk when Prague is a two-hour train ride away from Vienna.”

The drill comes as many French Jews, reeling from the attack last week that killed four at a kosher supermarket, have publicly questioned whether public authorities are capable of ensuring their security. On Monday, thousands of French soldiers and police were dispatched to protect the country’s 700 Jewish schools.

To Pascal Markowicz, a board member of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, the drill reflected a perceived need for European Jews to develop their own tools to deal with security threats. In the absence of those tools, Markowicz said there could be widespread panic leading to mass emigration.

“This morning, four children did not show up to my son’s Jewish school, which is situated a few hundred yards from where four Jews were murdered on Jan. 9, because their parents were afraid to send them there,” Markowicz said.

“We cannot rely solely on our security on police,” he added. “We need to take our own measures, which need to be pan-European if they are to be effective.”

In the situation room, staffers were prompted to respond to some of the situations that often occur in the wake of an attack. One drill dealt with handling callers who gloat, threaten or give false reports directly after an attack. Another aimed to prepare responders to deal sensitively with distraught relatives, even though urgent demands for information sometimes obstruct efforts to obtain that same information.

“Sadly, none of the people here need to use their imagination,” said Arie Zuckerman, who has overseen the SACC project since its inception. “This is a compilation of variations on situations that occurred in recent years in communities across Europe.”

Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, initiated the SACC project in 2012 in response to the attack on the Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse, after which some claimed the grief-stricken community was caught unprepared. The school had security cameras but no one monitoring the video feed. The school had no guard in place when the killer, Mohammed Merah, began shooting.

Ensuring a coordinated European response, Kantor said, is a “basic duty.” In a meeting later this week with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign relations and security chief, Kantor said he will demand a EU-wide approach to defending Jewish security.

“When the EU wanted to tackle the drug trade, it set up a pan-European agency for it because this was the only effective policy,” Kantor said. “It should do the same with anti-Semitism.”

The effectiveness of a coordinated response was demonstrated last year during the deadly attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium, Zuckerman said. The defendant standing trial for the killings, Mehdi Nemmouche, is a French national who was caught with an automatic weapon several days later in Marseille, home to France’s second-largest Jewish community.

“Within a few minutes, a situation room was up and running and alerts went out to all European communities that a killer was on the loose,” Zuckerman said.

The response of Belgian authorities, on the other hand, was less than exemplary, Kantor said. Following the attack on the museum, which had no permanent police protection, the Belgian government pledged to allocate more than $4 million for security around Jewish institutions. More than six months later the money has not yet arrived.

“When even after a terrorist attack the Belgian government still does not keep its promises to fund and beef up security on communities, this is a scarlet letter and a major lacuna that needs to be addressed immediately,” Kantor said.

 

France’s wake-up call


The kosher supermarket was chosen deliberately. Men, women and children were shopping and preparing for Shabbat. Only two days before the attack, terrorists had left 10 of the best-known satirical journalists and cartoonists dead at Charlie Hebdo. Three French police officers were also struck down, one of them a Muslim. Each Islamist terrorist attack targeted a symbol of the French Republic, seeking to bring the country to its knees.

That Jews were targets of radical Islam was, alas, unsurprising. Four of the hostages — Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, François-Michel Saada — were killed at the kosher market. Survivors of the attack are anguished. So, too, are most French Jews, who again are discussing and evaluating not only the future of our community but the fate of France itself.

Let’s be clear: France is under assault. The enemy is in our midst. Extremists, faithful to a brand of Islam that celebrates violence and martyrdom, have no respect whatsoever for the core, longstanding French values of democracy, pluralism, freedom of expression — and, indeed, for life itself. Traditional forms of protest are alien to them. Instead, as seen in the carnage wrought by ISIS, al-Qaida and other jihadists in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, pure barbarism is their vehicle to achieve their perverted notion of salvation.

Tragically, the events of recent days are not a new phenomenon. The Jewish community, including the American Jewish Committee in Paris, has warned for years about the developing and deepening threat that radical Islam poses to France. In March 2012, a lone, heavily armed Mohammed Merah murdered three French soldiers in cold blood and, a week later, slaughtered a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse. The Toulouse attack was a game changer for French Jews. And although French political leaders voiced outrage, as time passed and the numbers and frequency of anti-Semitic incidents rose, the country seemed to get used to them — even anesthetized to this reality — while many Jews felt a sense of loneliness and isolation.

The recent attacks in Paris have shocked the entire nation, indeed the entire world. What is new this time is the depth and breadth of the reactions, crisscrossing French society, the realization that combating the threat of radical Islam must be, and remain, a national priority. But will this be the necessary wake-up call for France as a whole to confront the danger?

The terrorists who struck in Paris — as in Toulouse and at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May — are not isolated lone wolves. They most likely are the tip of a radical Islamist iceberg, the small visible part. To counter this lethal trend, we must delve deeper and understand the factors that draw certain individuals to radical Islam, and find ways to counter this evil that endangers all of France.

French schools must teach mutual respect and responsibility, a component of the curriculum that today is stunningly missing. Indoctrination in extremist ideologies in prisons demands attention, as does recruitment by radical, violent groups through social media and in mosques. The Toulouse and Paris terrorists spent time not only in prison but also with jihadist groups in Syria and Yemen. Hundreds more are currently in Syria and Iraq, and maybe in other Arab countries. That they could return with French passports to settle back in our communities, or in other European countries, is a nightmare. Their objective is to create fear and division in French society, of which the extreme right and populists may take advantage. So let’s have the courage not to let fear take over.

The French government cannot stop this trend alone; the effort will require the active involvement of political, religious and civil-society leaders. Immediate reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo were inspiring, as millions of French citizens gathered in central Paris and throughout France, communicated their outrage on social media and called for action. Unfortunately, the voices of Muslim community leaders —with some notable exceptions — have until now been barely audible. Those leaders, too, must speak loudly and clearly, as Muslims and as French citizens.

Many of us in the Jewish community regretted that no large solidarity movement rose up after the gruesome kidnap-murder of Ilan Halimi nine years ago, or after Toulouse, or during last summer’s transparently anti-Semitic demonstrations. While the government did speak out after attacks on Jews and firmly decries anti-Semitism, many in French society and in the media refused to see that our French values were at stake and that Jews were indeed a target.

Hatred of Jews never ends with Jews. The menace of rising anti-Semitism threatens French society at large. The future of France will be decided in the coming days, weeks and months. The Charlie Hebdo massacre makes clear that the war against France’s democratic values is in high gear.

Sunday’s mass rally, with more than 3.7 million people across the country in attendance — including, in Paris, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders — was a powerful statement of outrage and solidarity against this barbarism in France and in the rest of the world.

But what happens in the days and weeks ahead will truly test France. Now more than at any other time in its postwar history, the fate of France is entwined with the fate of its Jews. If France loses them, sooner or later it will also be lost. Is this the wake-up call that will help the French people understand the nature of the threat to our country, and will they respond firmly and effectively?

The very soul of France is at stake.

(Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office.)

Brussels synagogue fire was arson, watchdog says


A fire that broke out at a synagogue near Brussels was the result of arson, a Belgian watchdog said.

Three people had to be treated for inhaling smoke on Tuesday at the synagogue on de la Clinique Street in Anderlecht, one of the municipalities that make up the Brussels region, the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism, or LBCA, wrote in a statement. Unknown individuals deliberately set fire to four places so it would catch, according to the report.

LBCA President Joel Rubinfeld wrote that Belgian police confirmed they believed the fire was the result of criminal activity.

The synagogue fire followed an anti-Semitic incident on Sunday at the National Memorial Site for Jewish Victims of the Holocaust in Belgium, also in Anderlecht.

Several people hurled large stones and a bottle at the monument. Several dozen people were standing near the monument, which they visited as part of the events of European Day of Jewish Culture, LBCA reported.

Hours earlier, Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo in an address at the reopening of the Jewish Museum of Belgium in central Brussels had vowed to punish perpetrators of anti-Semitic crimes. The museum had been closed since a May 24 shooting there killed four people.

“The increase of anti-Semitic acts in Belgium in recent months underlines the urgency connected to integrating the fight against anti-Semitism into the government’s plan of action for the future,” Rubinfeld said. “More than ever before, fighting anti-Semitism must truly become a national cause. At stake is our country’s honor and probably its future.”