EgyptAir jet missing after mid-air plunge, Greeks find floating objects


An EgyptAir jet carrying 66 passengers and crew from Paris to Cairo disappeared from radar over the Mediterranean south of Greece on Thursday, with Athens saying the plane swerved in mid-air before plunging from cruising height and vanishing.

Greek state television said aircraft debris had been found in the sea during a search for the missing Airbus A320. Earlier, Greek officials said pieces of plastic and two lifevests were found floating some 230 miles south of Crete.

Officials were reluctant to speculate over the disappearance while the search was underway. Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said it was too early to rule out any explanation, including an attack like the one blamed for bringing down a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai peninsula last year.

But despite the caution, the country's aviation minister said a terrorist attack was more likely to have taken down the aircraft than a technical failure.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama received a briefing on the disappearance from his adviser for homeland security and counter-terrorism, the White House said.

In Athens, Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos said the Airbus had first swerved 90 degrees to the left, then spun through 360 degrees to the right. After plunging from 37,000 feet to 15,000, it vanished from Greek radar screens.

Greece deployed aircraft and a frigate to the area to help with the search. Greek defense sources told Reuters earlier that two floating objects, colored white and red, had been spotted in a sea area 230 miles south of the island of Crete.

According to Greece's civil aviation chief, calls from Greek air traffic controllers to the jet went unanswered just before it left the country's airspace, and it disappeared from radar screens soon afterwards.

There was no official suggestion of whether the disappearance was due to technical failure or any other reason such as sabotage by ultra-hardline Islamists, who have targeted airports, airliners and tourist sites in Europe, Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries over the past few years.

The aircraft was carrying 56 passengers – with one child and two infants among them – and 10 crew, EgyptAir said. They included 30 Egyptian and 15 French nationals, along with citizens of 10 other countries.

Asked if he could rule out that terrorists were behind the incident, Prime Minister Ismail told reporters: “We cannot exclude anything at this time or confirm anything. All the search operations must be concluded so we can know the cause.”

French President Francois Hollande also said the cause was unknown. “Unfortunately the information we have … confirms to us that the plane came down and is lost,” he said. “No hypothesis can be ruled out, nor can any be favored over another.”

With its archeological sites and Red Sea resorts, Egypt is traditionally a popular destination for Western tourists. But the industry has been badly hit following the downing of the Russian Metrojet flight last October, killing all 224 people on board, as well as by an Islamist insurgency and a string of bomb attacks.

NO RESPONSE

Greek air traffic controllers spoke to the pilot as the jet flew over the island of Kea, in what was thought to be the last broadcast from the aircraft, and no problems were reported.

But just ahead of the handover to Cairo airspace, calls to the plane went unanswered, before it dropped off radars shortly after exiting Greek airspace, Kostas Litzerakis, the head of Greece's civil aviation department, told Reuters.

“During the transfer procedure to Cairo airspace, about seven miles before the aircraft entered the Cairo airspace, Greek controllers tried to contact the pilot but he was not responding,” he said.

Greek authorities are searching in the area south of the island of Karpathos, Defence Minister Kammenos told a news conference.

“At 3.39am (0039 GMT) the course of the aircraft was south and south-east of Kassos and Karpathos (islands),” he said. “Immediately after, it entered Cairo FIR (flight information region) and made swerves and a descent I describe: 90 degrees left and then 360 degrees to the right.”

The Airbus plunged from 37,000 feet (11,280 meters) to 15,000 feet before vanishing from radar, he added.

Egyptian Civil Aviation minister Sherif Fathi said authorities had tried to resume contact but without success.

“NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING”

At Cairo airport, authorities ushered families of the passengers and crew into a closed-off waiting area.

Two women and a man, who said they were related to a crew member, were seen leaving the VIP hall where families were being kept. Asked for details, the man said: “We don’t know anything, they don’t know anything. No one knows anything.”

Ayman Nassar, from the family of one of the passengers, also walked out of the passenger hall with his daughter and wife in a distressed state. “They told us the plane had disappeared, and that they’re still searching for it and not to believe any rumors,” he said.

A mother of flight attendant rushed out of the hall in tears. She said the last time her daughter called her was Wednesday night. “They haven’t told us anything,” she said.

EgyptAir said on its Twitter account that Flight MS804 had departed Paris at 23:09 (CEST). It disappeared at 02:30 a.m. at an altitude of 37,000 feet in Egyptian air space, about 280 km (165 miles) from the Egyptian coast before it was due to land at 03:15 a.m.

In Paris, a police source said investigators were now interviewing officers who were on duty at Roissy airport on Wednesday evening to find out whether they heard or saw anything suspicious. “We are in the early stage here,” the source said.

Airbus said the missing A320 was delivered to EgyptAir in November 2003 and had operated about 48,000 flight hours.

The missing flight's pilot had clocked up 6,275 hours of flying experience, including 2,101 hours on the A320, while the first officer had 2,766 hours, EgyptAir said.

At one point EgyptAir said the plane had sent an emergency signal at 04:26 a.m., two hours after it disappeared from radar screens. However, Fathi said later that further checks found that no SOS was received.

FRANCE, EGYPT TO COOPERATE

The weather was clear at the time the plane disappeared, according to Eurocontrol, the European air traffic network.

“Our daily weather assessment does not indicate any issues in that area at that time,” it said.

Under U.N. aviation rules, if the aircraft is found to have crashed in international or Egyptian waters, Egypt will automatically lead an investigation into the accident assisted by countries including France, where the jet was assembled, and the United States, where engine maker Pratt & Whitney is based.

Russia and Western governments have said the Metrojet plane that crashed on Oct. 31 was probably brought down by a bomb, and the Islamic State militant group said it had smuggled an explosive device on board.

That crash called into question Egypt's campaign to eradicate Islamist violence. Militants have stepped up attacks on Egyptian soldiers and police since Sisi, then serving as army chief, toppled elected President Mohamed Mursi, an Islamist, in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

In March, an EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus by a man with what authorities said was a fake suicide belt. He was arrested after giving himself up.

EgyptAir has a fleet of 57 Airbus and Boeing jets, including 15 of the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, according to airfleets.com.

EgyptAir hijack ends with passengers freed


An EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus on Tuesday by a man with what authorities said was a fake suicide belt, who was arrested after giving himself up.

The passengers and crew were unharmed. Eighty-one people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew, were on board the Airbus 320, Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said in a statement.

Conflicting theories emerged about the motives of the hijacker, an Egyptian. A senior Cypriot official said he seemed unstable and the incident did not appear related to terrorism. The Cypriot state broadcaster said he had demanded the release of women prisoners in Egypt.

In the midst of the hijack, witnesses said he threw a letter on the apron at Cyprus's Larnaca airport, written in Arabic, and asked that it be delivered to his Cypriot ex-wife.

After the aircraft landed at Larnaca, negotiations began and everyone on board was freed except three passengers and four crew, Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fethy said.

Soon afterwards, Cypriot television footage showed several people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.

The hijacker then surrendered to authorities.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said the hijacker had threatened to blow himself up and demanded that the aircraft be refueled and head to Istanbul.

“It looks like he realized his demands would not be met, allowing the last two hostages, Britons, to flee the aircraft. He also tried to leave, running out. He was arrested,” said Kasoulides.

“The explosives on him were examined. They weren’t explosives, but mobile phone covers.”

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the hijacker would be questioned to ascertain his motives. “At some moments he asked to meet with a representative of the European Union and at other points he asked to go to another airport but there was nothing specific,” he said.

“ABNORMAL” HIJACKER

Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said the pilot, Omar al-Gammal, had told authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing an explosive belt and forced him to divert the plane to Larnaca.

Reached by telephone, Gammal told Reuters that the hijacker seemed “abnormal”. Sounding exhausted, he said he had been obliged to treat the man as a serious security threat.

Photographs on Egyptian state television showed a middle-aged man on a plane wearing glasses and displaying a white belt with bulging pockets and protruding wires.

Television channels showed video footage of the hijacker, identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa, 59, being searched by security men at a metal detector at Borg al-Arab airport in Alexandria.

Interior Ministry officials said he was expelled from law school and had a long criminal record, including robberies.

Fethy, the Egyptian minister, said authorities suspected the suicide belt was not genuine but treated the incident as serious to ensure the safety of all those on board.

“We cannot say this was a terrorist act… he was not a professional,” Fethy told reporters after the incident.

EgyptAir delayed a New York-bound flight from Cairo onto which some passengers of the hijacked plane had been due to connect. Fethy said it was delayed partly due to a technical issue but partly as a precaution.

The hijacked plane remained on the tarmac at Larnaca throughout the morning while Cypriot security forces took up positions around the scene.

EGYPT'S IMAGE

The incident will deal another blow to Egypt's tourism industry and hurt efforts to revive an economy hammered by political unrest following the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The sector, a main source of hard currency for the import-dependent county, was already reeling from the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai peninsula in late October.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said the Russian plane was brought down by a terrorist attack. Islamic State has said it planted a bomb on board, killing all 224 people on board.

The latest incident raised renewed questions over airport security, though it was not clear whether the hijacker was even armed. Ismail said stringent measures were in place.

Passengers on the plane included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, an Italian, a Syrian and a French national, the Civil Aviation Ministry said.

Cyprus has seen little militant activity for decades, despite its proximity to the Middle East.

A botched attempt by Egyptian commandos to storm a hijacked airliner at Larnaca airport led to the disruption of diplomatic relations between Cyprus and Egypt in 1978.

In 1988, a Kuwaiti airliner which had been hijacked from Bangkok to Kuwait in a 16-day siege had a stopover in Larnaca, where two hostages were killed.

Tense airplane drama dissolves into bedroom farce


Passengers on EgyptAir flight MS181 from Alexandria to Cairo took off into bright skies at 6:30 am, then, rather quickly, noticed the flight veer towards the sea.

There is no body of water between Egypt’s two largest cities which are separated by 179 kilometers of desert.

Thus began a tense episode of time travel back to the 1970s when bell-bottoms, unruly curls, political polemic and dangerous airport standoffs viewed through grainy screens were commonplace.

Initial reports spoke of a man wearing a suicide belt who demanded that the pilots fly to Turkey. After being informed there was insufficient fuel on board, the unlikely hijacker agreed to a diversion to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Witnesses described a jet on a distant runway, Special Forces concealed behind flimsy walls, a jeep driving around, then a slow stream of passengers, initially women and children, descending from the plane. It may well have been 1973.

Terror in the age of the Islamic State is not usually quite so balmy.

Observing the scene, one Greek analyst ventured to report that “it could be a mental disturbance and have nothing to do with terror, maybe a somewhat unstable man…”

Then, Cypriot media began reporting that the man’s motives were, “um, romantic?” He requested that a letter be delivered to his former wife, resident in a nearby Cypriot village.

Aviv Oreg, the former head of the Israeli army’s Global Jihad desk and a former security officer with El Al Airlines, told The Media Line that the events unfolding in Larnaca, Cyprus’ capital, looked like “a personal thing. This happens from time.”

“I’m not shocked,” he said. “Explosives can be things you buy at the supermarket or pharmacy… anyone online can find instructions on how to make a bomb.”

After several misidentifications, including one involving a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Alexandria, who, alarmed, called the BBC to announce that he was not the hijacker but merely a passenger stuck on the plane, the culprit was identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa, an Egyptian living in Cyprus.

He had told the pilot that he was wearing a suicide belt and threatened to detonate it.

He had given Cypriot authorities a handwritten letter in Arabic demanding the release of political prisoners in Egypt and insisting on a meeting with his former wife.

Mrs. Mustafa was duly transported to Larnaca airport and the Internet into high comedy mode.

Khaled Diab, Egyptian author and blogger, posted a personal message to the man he called the #lovejacker: “Next time, send flowers, you idiot!”

“One man's terrorist is another woman's lover-boy. #EgyptAir” he later added.

A tweeter using the handle @IronyisFunny posted “All moderate ex-husbands must now condemn this #EgyptAir Hijacking!”

Holly Dagres, the Iranian-American commentator, added “After #LoveJacking of #EgyptAir flight, bar is now set extremely high for men to show their love. #Egypt

An Egyptian travel agency called Lion’s Trips cheerfully proposed passengers book a flight to the Egyptian resort town of “Hurghada with us and… possibly end up in Cyprus, or, who knows. France or Italy. It’s a crapshoot!”

Speaking with The Media Line, Diab, who was doing French homework with his son, said that “most people seem to be taking it with a mix of relief and humor, especially jokes about the bad internet connection and postal service that forced the guy to deliver his letter by hand, or jokes about passengers grateful to be in Cyprus.”

“Who knows,” Diab pondered. “I mean, he could be like a lot of bigger-than-tragic figures in Arabic poetry, just a hopeless romantic or a terrible stalker or a combination of the two.”

Egypt sees Israel’s (non-existent) hand behind troubling dam


A vote by Egypt’s parliament to oust a maverick media mogul because he hosted the Israeli ambassador at his home in late February laid bare the limitations of the Cairo-Jerusalem alliance and served as the second notice this week that President Abel Fatah el Sisi and his administration will assert full control over the country’s foreign policy.

Tawfik Okasha, who has been dubbed Cairo’s Glenn Beck, was voted out of Egypt’s newly elected parliament Wednesday after a three hour meeting with Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren in which the legislator asked for Jerusalem’s intervention to modify Ethiopia’s construction of a huge dam in the headwaters of the Nile.

“They (Israel) are the ones building the Renaissance Dam,” Okasha  said. “Are we fooling ourselves?”

Okasha has veered between lionizing the Israelis as “real men” and positing a “Zionist- American conspiracy to divide Egypt into 3 or 4 small and weak countries” during broadcasts on his Al-Faraeen “The Pharaohs” TV channel.

In 2014, even the strongest supporters of the Camp David peace accords with Israel winced when Okasha called on the Egyptian army to join the IDF in striking Hamas targets in Gaza.

He’s also been ridiculed for forging a PhD. diploma from a non–existent Florida university.

The week also witnessed the ousting of Egypt’s most senior diplomat, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby after he veered off script on Israeli –Palestinian matters.

As the most populous member state, Egypt traditionally nominates the Arab League’s chief executive and the organization is headquartered directly adjacent to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The surprise announcement by 8o year old Al-Araby that he would not seek another term came just days after he told the daily al-Hayat newspaper that Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades “are not terrorists and have a legitimate right to defend their people.”

In public, Al Araby’s “decision” was handled with diplomatic grace as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed “deep appreciation for the Secretary General’s contributions to support the unity of Arab ranks and protect Arab interests.”

“Al Araby has been deeply unpopular and divisive,” said a Foreign Ministry official on background.

“We are in dialogue with Hamas’ political leadership over Palestinian issues but the Secretary General made a mistake in contradicting our position on terrorism.”

There was no subtlety however in the parliament’s response to Okasha’s freelance diplomacy.

“This is what a traitor deserves,” shouted Nasserist MP Kamal Ahmed as he hit Okasha with his shoe.

While a group of MPs moved to diffuse the brawl on the floor of the Council of Deputies   and described Ahmed’s assault as “vulgar”, momentum gathered quickly to out Okasha for meeting the ambassador without seeking approval from the Foreign Ministry.

Egypt’s constitution stipulates that the legislature will respect all international agreements, but extending current security cooperation with Israel to broadened economic and cultural ties is linked in the minds of the public, and it’s newly elected politicians with a resolution of the Palestinian dispute.

“Okasha’s request for Israeli mediation to solve the problem of Ethiopia’s Grand Nile Renaissance Dam in exchange for providing them with one billion cubic meters of Egypt’s water is a national security violation,” said MP Mustafa Barkri, a fierce opponent of normalization of relations with the Jewish State.

The dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility and anxiety is growing here that the reservoir behind it will divert billions of cubic meters at the source of 97 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water. Conspiracy theorists in the popular press insist Israel is behind it.

A representative example can be found in an opinion piece this month by columnist Haider Mahmoud in the Cairo daily El Badil.

“There is current information about Israel's involvement in the financing of the dam for the purpose of restricting Egypt’s water, but there are no documents to confirm this involvement,” wrote Mahmoud without irony.

“Our last option is military intervention against the dam.”

Now the parliamentarian Okasha seems to have few career options in Cairo- he’s lost his seat in the legislature, been forced to put Al-Faraeen TV up for sale, and reportedly is seeking political asylum either in the United States or Germany.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli security analyst who served the Mossad in Africa, says that while the Egyptian conspiracy theories are baseless, the concerns about the dam are understandable.

“Egyptian decision makers are quite aware that it’s an Italian firm building the dam and they know that we have no connection to the planning, financing, or design of it,” said Alpher, the author of the book “Periphery” which examines Israel’s attempts to forge strategic alliances with Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia as well as with the South Sudanese and the Kurds.

“We could offer the Egyptians water recycling technology and use our access to the Ethiopians to bridge the issues, but effective mediation efforts need to be conducted discreetly,” Alpher said.

Islamic State says Cairo attack was response to leader’s call to target Jews


Islamic State said on Friday its members had carried out an attack on Israeli tourists in Cairo in response to a call by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to target Jews “everywhere.”

The group said in a statement released on the Internet that light arms were used in the attack, which took place on Thursday outside a Cairo hotel.

Egypt's Interior Ministry has said the attack was directed at security forces and was carried out by a member of a group of people who had gathered near the hotel and fired bird shot.

Security sources said the tourists were Israeli Arabs.

Islamic State's Egypt affiliate is waging an insurgency based in the Sinai which has mostly targeted soldiers and policemen.

The tourism industry – a vital source of hard currency in Egypt – is highly sensitive to attacks by militants which have slowed a recovery from years of political turmoil.

Militant violence has been rising since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule. 

Hundreds of members of the security forces have been attacked in suicide bombings and shootings, which persist despite the toughest crackdown on militants in Egypt's history.

BREAKING: Gunmen open fire at Egyptian hotel, wounding foreign tourists


Gunmen opened fire at the entrance of a hotel in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Hurghada on Friday, wounding two foreign tourists, security sources said.

The assailants had arrived by sea to launch the assault, the sources said.

The Islamic State militant group said on Friday an attack on Israeli tourists in Cairo on Thursday was carried out by its fighters, in response to a call by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to target Jews “everywhere”.

Security sources said those tourists were Israeli Arabs. None was hurt and Egyptian authorities said the attack was aimed at security forces.

A Russian passenger plane crashed in Sinai on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board, most of whom were tourists returning home from the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Cairo says it has found no evidence of terrorism in the crash. Russia and Western governments have said the airliner was probably brought down by a bomb, and Islamic State said it had smuggled explosives on board.

Tourism is a cornerstone of the Egyptian economy but has been badly hit by years of political turmoil.

Gunmen fire at Israeli tourists in Cairo, no casualties


Gunmen opened fire on Israeli tourists as they boarded a bus in Cairo on Thursday but there were no casualties, security sources said, while the Interior Ministry said the attack was directed at security forces.

[UPDATE / JAN. 8, 2016: ISIS says attack was response to leader’s call to target Jews]

Egypt declared it would step up security at major tourist attractions last year after Islamist militants carried out several attacks, causing its struggling tourism industry to slump further.

Thursday's shooting took place at the Three Pyramids Hotel, on a road leading to the Giza pyramids southwest of the capital. It is likely to raise questions over President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's repeated promises to stamp out militancy in Egypt.

Security sources said the tourists boarding the bus were Israeli Arabs.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement 15 people who had gathered on a side street near the hotel threw home-made fireworks in the direction of security forces stationed there.

PILLAR OF THE ECONOMY

“One of the loiterers fired a home-made pellet gun in the direction of the security in front of the hotel, causing some damage to the glass façade of the hotel as well as the window of a tourist bus. No injuries occurred,” it said.

Security forces apprehended one person who was hiding behind the hotel, the ministry said.

One gunman was arrested at the scene and security forces surrounded the other attacker in another part of Cairo, said security sources earlier. There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

Bilal Mahajne, deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm, an Arab town in northern Israel, said on Israel Radio that one of his associates had spoken to some of the tourists who were on the bus. Mahajne said: “They are all safe and well, and back in the hotel in Cairo.” He said the group was on an organized tour.

In June last year, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the ancient Karnak Temple in the southern city of Luxor, wounding three Egyptians. A week earlier, gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead two members of the tourism police at Giza.

Tourism is a pillar of the Egyptian economy, which has been struggling to recover from political turmoil that began with the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

In one of the worst attacks, Islamic State's Egypt affiliate has said it planted a bomb on a Russian passenger plane that crashed in the Sinai on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board.

Egyptian jihadists, who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

France’s Orange plans to end brand licensing deal in Israel


Israel protested to France on Thursday after the head of partly state-owned French telecom giant Orange said it intended to end a brand licensing deal with an Israeli firm, drawing accusations it was bending to a pro-Palestinian boycott movement.

Commenting on remarks in Cairo on Wednesday by Orange CEO Stephane Richard, the French company said in Paris that terminating the arrangement with Israel's Partner Communications was a business decision, not a political one.

Richard was quoted by media reports as saying at a news conference in the Egyptian capital that he was willing to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel “tomorrow morning” but moving too quickly would expose his company to legal risks and possible financial penalties.

“I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt … We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries,” he was quoted as saying.

The remarks struck a nerve in Israel, which fears diplomatic and economic isolation because of the stagnation of talks on founding a Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded France “publicly renounce the distressing statement and action” taken by Orange. The French government holds a 25 percent stake in the company.

In public remarks, Netanyahu also urged Israel's allies “to state loudly, clearly and unconditionally that they oppose every form of boycott against the Jewish state”.

In a statement in Paris a day after Richard's comments, Orange said that in line with its licensing policy, it does not want to keep its brand presence in countries where it is not an operator.

“Within this framework, and while strictly respecting existing accords, Orange would like to put an end to this brand licencing,” the statement said.

In a letter released to the media, Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotovely voiced deep concern” at “the possibility of a future withdrawal of the Orange brand from Israel”.

She urged Richard to refrain from being “party to the industry of lies which unfairly targets Israel”. Orange said his comments had been taken out of context.

Israel has said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, sponsored by pro-Palestinian intellectuals and bloggers, is motivated by anti-Semitism and a desire to paint Israel as illegitimate.

The movement accuses Israel of denying basic human rights to Palestinians.

France's Foreign Ministry declined to comment specifically on Richard's comments. But it reaffirmed that France is against any boycott of Israel, while viewing as illegal the settlements it has built in the West Bank, where Partner and other Israeli phone companies also operate.

In a statement, Partner scrambled to head off any public backlash in Israel over Orange's decision, saying “the sole connection between us and France Telecom is the brand”, used by the Israeli company since 1998.

Israeli officials swiftly took to social media to emphasise that Orange has no holding in Partner, which is owned by Saban Capital Group. Partner employees draped a blue-and-white Israeli flag over the Orange logo on the front of company headquarters.

Divers discover huge hoard of gold coins off Israeli coast


Scuba divers have discovered a rare haul of gleaming 1,000-year-old gold coins inscribed in Arabic on the sea bed off Israel, a find archaeologists say may shed light on Muslim rule in that age.

Some 2,000 coins dated to the 11th century, a period when the Fatimid Islamic dynasty dominated the Middle East, have so far been raised from the depths.

The treasure, which was probably exposed during recent winter storms, is thought to have sunk in a shipwreck near the ancient Roman port of Caesarea in the eastern Mediterranean.

“(This is) a great treasure from a (vessel) that was probably taking the hoard, possibly tax revenue, to Cairo but sank in Caesarea harbour,” Jacob Sharvit of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Reuters during a visit to the site.

Sharvit said amateur divers chanced two weeks ago upon a number of coins. At first they thought they were a children's toy, but a subsequent underwater search by experts netted about 1,000 coins, he said.

A second dive on Tuesday in the same spot yielded another, similar amount of coins and the total find weighed in at between five and a half to six kilogrammes (12-13 lbs) of gold. The bullion value in current terms is around $240,000.

Such coins have been found before in the region, but this batch was the largest hoard ever found in Israel, Sharvit said.

He said the coins showed Caesarea was a wealthy area at the time and may give insight into the Fatimid trading practises.

“The Fatimids were the first Muslims to have had a navy and they traded with all the Mediterranean cities, also with the Byzantines and the Christians, even though they were at war with them,” Sharvit said.

The coins, all with Arabic script, were minted during the reigns Fatimid caliphs Al-kim (996-1021 AD) and his son, Al-hir (1021-1036), archaeologists said.

Three denominations were found: one dinar weighing some four grams, half a dinar and a quarter dinar, respectively weighing around two grams and one gram.

The wealth of the Fatimid kingdom, which originated in North Africa, was legendary, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. It had reserves of 12 million gold dinars in the capital's coffers in Cairo.

American Jewish former diplomat speaks in Cairo


Daniel Kurtzer, the former diplomat, continues to be soft-spoken, and his outlook envisions opportunities for conflict resolution. But his assessment for future prospects for a Mideast peace settlement concentrate on Washington’s failure to hold Israel accountable for actions he believes endanger implementation of a meaningful agreement. 

Kurtzer, 66, served as United States Ambassador to Egypt from 1999 to 2001 and to Israel from 2001–2005.  

He is also an Orthodox Jew whose appointment to the senior posting in Cairo during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak elicited hostile responses in Egypt’s popular media, including anti-Semitic caricatures.

“I’ve chosen to talk in Cairo about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, because here it is possible to have a discussion about it,” Kurtzer said during a recent speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“Unfortunately, in Washington, much of that conversation has been stifled over the years by a kind of consensus that runs the gambit from, ‘Its impossible to achieve’ [to] ‘It’s too dangerous to even try.’ ” Kurtzer said. 

“A third Intifada is inevitable without some progress toward resolution of the conflict,” Kurtzer warned his audience.

“Status quos are not static in this region, and at some the point pressure builds up — you either relieve that pressure by showing people there is an avenue to reach agreement, or the situation explodes.

Kurtzer now serves on the board of trustees at AUC, the institution commonly considered to be the premier center of private higher education in Egypt. 

The former ambassador identified Washington’s muted response to continued Israeli settlement activity as the major factor impeding a two-state breakthrough.

“You can’t aspire to a territorial outcome while at the same time settling the territory on which the other side is eventually going to exercise sovereignty … it makes no sense. It sends exactly the wrong signal to the other side, that negotiations are a sham,” said Kurtzer, who believes the administration could jolt Israeli complacency on the issue by excluding goods produced in the West Bank settlements from the benefits of the free-trade agreement with the United States.

Kurtzer was part of George H.W. Bush’s policy team that obtained concessions from former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from using American loan guarantees to build housing for newly arriving Russian immigrants in the West Bank.

“If the president of the United States came along and simply wondered out loud about why we are providing free trade benefits to the settlements, and all of a sudden the question were raised, that would probably be enough to move the numbers,” Kurtzer asserted.

Egyptian novelist and diplomat Ezzedine Fishere expressed admiration for Kurtzer’s persistent pursuit of a negotiated outcome, even as he articulated a widely shared Arab view that the forces in Israel opposed to compromise are too firmly entrenched to move on the core issues.

“At what point are you ready to declare that the two-state solution is dead?” asked Fishere, who spent a year in Tel Aviv as Egypt’s political attaché and is currently a member of the Liberal Arts faculty at AUC. 

Kurtzer responded that it was too early to give up attempts at working out an agreement because, in his view, the U.S. still has not mustered all its negotiation efforts to “get the diplomacy right.”

“John Kerry started out quite positively in his diplomacy because he didn’t just try to get the two sides back to the negotiating table; he tried to create a kind of infrastructure as a safety net for the talks,” Kurtzer said.

Kerry’s “architecture” included getting foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to come to Washington to reiterate the Arab Peace Initiative and appointing Gen. John Allen to pinpoint security issues and propose solutions. 

“[Allen] was there to provide answers when Israel [said], ‘We need defensible borders,’ ” Kurtzer said.

“But at the critical moment, when the two sides had proved unable to reach an agreement on terms of reference, the United States walked away rather than using that moment to put forth an American idea — or, even better, to bring in the international community and put forward a security council resolution,” Kurtzer said in describing the collapse of the Kerry initiative. 

Despite his focus on American and Israeli shortcomings in returning the two-state framework to viability, Kurtzer challenged some common assumptions voiced by AUC graduate students during the audience question period.  

“This summer’s war in Gaza was not an Israeli attempt to regain control of territory or of Palestinian gas resources in the Mediterranean,” Kurtzer said.

“In the past, the United States and Egypt may have had different views of Hamas; we don’t have those differences anymore,” he noted.

“Hamas is now seen by a growing segment of opinion here as a terrorist organization, and not just as an organization that is threatening Israel, but also the security and stability of Egypt, as well. “

The former ambassador also questioned the effectiveness of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, if the intended outcome is meant to change Israeli thinking.

“If you are going to try and punish, you might also think about incentivizing — maybe there are carrots here, even if you are contemplating using sticks.“At the risk of rankling some people in the audience, I believe that if there were more participation in civil society initiatives bringing Arabs and Israelis together even before final status issues were resolved, it would be a lot easier for negotiators to win political support for their efforts.”

Sinai attack reverberates around Israel, Middle East


This article originally appeared on themedialine.org.

The deadliest attack on Egyptian soldiers since the new government of Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi took office is affecting not only Egypt, but Israel and the Palestinians as well. After an attacker drove a car rigged with explosives into a military checkpoint in the Sinai desert, killing at least 33 soldiers, Al-Sisi has vowed to crack down on Jihadi groups to prevent further attacks.

The Sinai Peninsula, which borders both Israel and the Gaza Strip, has long been a center for weapons and drug smuggling. After the most recently attack, Sisi closed the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt. Sisi blamed Palestinians in Gaza for helping the extremists behind the attack and announced that Egyptian-brokered talks on a more permanent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, that were supposed to have started this week, have been postponed. A seven-week war between the two ended with a temporary cease-fire in August, and talks on a more permanent deal have yet to commence.

Some in Egypt say the extremists are gaining ground, and there could be more attacks in Sinai or elsewhere in Egypt.

“The barbarian actions against the state and the region being disguised under Islam mistakenly produce more misunderstanding and raise the Islamophobia inside the Islamic countries itself,” Moataz Abd Elkarim, a professor at Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology told The Media Line.

He says that despite the mixture of anger and frustration following the attack, he believes “the security is getting better.” However, Egypt’s defense plan can always do better to protect its citizens, he adds.

The attack, viewed as a setback for Cairo’s efforts to crack down on Muslim extremists, has prompted the Egyptian National Defense Council (NDC) to discuss setting up a wide buffer zone in the peninsula.

Speaking to a Turkish News Agency, a former senior military official Alaa Ezziddin said that the NDC met to accelerate the ratification of a terrorism law which “includes all the necessary measures on how to deal with security issues, including sentence verdicts for anyone who owns unlicensed weapons, as well as prosecuting anyone who carries weapons and explosives before a military court.”

Abd Elkarim says the frustration only grows because of “the repeated scenarios of the terroristic attacks in Sinai within the same region and the lessons we didn’t learn.”

Palestinians in Gaza expressed frustration that yet again, their interests are being pushed aside by extremist groups in Egypt.

“Egyptian army failures can't routinely be blamed on others, on outside forces and on Hamas,” Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist for Al-Monitor told The Media Line from Jordan.

Following the first visit to Gaza by the new Palestinian National Consensus Government, the plan was to have the Palestinian Authority replace Hamas forces, an agreement which has yet to materialize. Israel, Egypt and the United States have all said that having PA troops running the Rafah border crossing is a condition for allowing large amounts of reconstruction aid into Gaza. Israel worries the cement and iron could be used for weapons or tunnels instead of rebuilding homes.

Palestinians say the Egyptian tendency to blame them for these attacks makes it harder for Egypt to be an honest broker in talks between Hamas and Israel.

“Egypt is creating an atmosphere that is not conducive for meetings, when something happens, they (Egypt) blame Gaza,” West Bank political science professor Abdelsattar Qassem told The Media Line. He expects the attacks to continue, citing the lack of strength among Egyptian security. “In failing to prevent what happened in Sinai, it shows a weakness in the Egyptian intelligence” the political analyst, who teaches at An Najah University in Nablus, said.

While he could not elaborate on the security coordination between Israel and Egypt, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said that the two countries did see eye to eye on the same objective – fighting terrorism. Calling it a “dreadful terrorist attack,” he said that Israel was concerned and was behind Egypt in its fight against terror. “We are in constant dialogue,” he told The Media Line.

The United States has condemned the attack with the State Department saying that “a prosperous and dynamic Egypt requires an environment of security and stability.”

In a surprising move, the Muslim Brotherhood has also condemned the Sinai attack.

“I think the state should open the dialogue with the youth more to reproduce their anger in a peaceful attitude instead of using the ultimate power like what happened in Egypt’s universities in the last couple weeks,” Moataz Abd Elkarim said. Recently, university students, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood damaged buildings in an attempt to provoke a response, but Egypt’s security forces showed restraint.  

The Palestinian President’s top adviser on international affairs Majdi Al Khaldi says Mahmoud Abbas spoke with his Egyptian counterpart Al-Sisi on Sunday and gave him assurances that the Palestinian people “stand firm with Egypt in this war against terrorism.”

As for the buffer zone, Khaldi says “the President and the leadership supports the measures that will be taken in Sinai.”

Khaldi says if Egypt is too busy tending to prevention of attacks, it will be hard to play a key role in ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“We want Egypt to stand with us on this issue so we have to support Egypt to fight terrorism,” he told The Media Line.

The fourth Gaza War: 5 predictions


Now that the international donor conference on behalf of Gaza has wrapped up in Cairo, it is time to make predictions about the next Gaza War.

1. First, let’s try to guess when it will begin. The first Gaza War ran from December 2008 to January 2009, lasting three weeks. The second Gaza War began Nov. 11, 2012 and continued until a Nov. 21 ceasefire 10 days later.  The third Gaza War started July 8 of this year and concluded on Aug. 26. Each war seems to arrive about a year sooner than the one that preceded it. If what’s past is prologue, mark your calendar for June 2015.

2. How many will die? In the first Gaza War, Israel lost 10 soldiers (including four to friendly fire) and three civilians. Palestinian casualties came to 1,166, according to the Israel human rights group B’Tselem, 759 of which were civilians. In Gaza 2, Palestinian deaths numbered 149, of which 87 were civilians. Israelis lost two soldiers. The third Gaza War exacted a much higher price: 66 soldiers and six civilians on the Israeli side; 2,127 Palestinians killed, with 45 to 70 percent of them civilians. By the next war, Hamas weaponry and defenses will improve, as will the quality of its rockets. In 2008, Hamas fired homemade Qassam rockets, whose 18-pound warhead had a range of two miles. By 2014, Hamas targeted Tel Aviv with Syrian-made 302mm Khaibar (M-302), which have a 130-mile range and a 300-pound warhead. One can assume Israel’s Iron Dome technology also will improve — but just one Hamas rocket hitting its target would wreak serious damage. Consequently, Israel’s desire to root out Hamas militants and weapons once and for all — again — will only increase. My prediction? Double the casualties on both sides.  

3. How much of Gaza will be destroyed, and at what cost? The 2008 war displaced 50,000 Gazans, destroyed 4,000 homes and caused $2 billion in damage. The second Gaza War destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings. The 2014 conflict created 273,000 internal refugees in Gaza and caused $5 billion in damage. On Oct. 12 in Cairo, donors pledged about half of that amount for reconstruction. Gaza War 4 will, of course, cost more, if you include the billions spent in vain to rebuild after the last three wars.

4. What will they name the fourth Gaza War? The Israelis called the first war, in English, Operation Cast Lead. Palestinians called it the Gaza Massacre. The Israelis dubbed Gaza War 2 Operation Pillar of Defense. Its Hebrew name was the far more biblical Pillar of Cloud. Hamas named it Operation Stones of Baked Clay. Israel called Gaza 3 Operation Strong Cliff, or Operation Protective Edge. Among Palestinians, it went nameless. For Gaza War 4 I suggest a name everyone can agree on: Operation You Can’t Be Serious.

5. What will the next war’s impact be? Much, much worse.  The calls for sanctions and boycotts against Israel will be louder, especially on college campuses. The protests against Israel in European and American cities will be more violent and spill over into brazen anti-Semitism. Pro- and anti-Israel demonstrators will clash. A sophisticated media war will anticipate and blunt Israel’s every justification. The symbolic vote in this week in the British parliament to recognize a Palestinian state will appear, in retrospect, like the beginning of the end of Israel’s ability to seize the diplomatic initiative.

Hamas, highly aware of its previous success in interrupting international flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport, will make sure it does so again, for even longer. Palestinians in the West Bank, now even more closely aligned with Gaza politically will find it difficult not to join in the war.

After recovering from the loss of tourism, trade and manufacturing following Gaza War 3, Israelis will again face massive economic disruption and relocation.

As predictions go, these are safe ones. Each Gaza war gets more bloody, more vicious and exacts a higher and higher price from the combatants and their supporters abroad — followed by international efforts to rebuild Gaza and seek a political solution. Yet the wars persist. 

Isn’t it time we look for ways to put a stop to the world’s deadliest remake of “Groundhog Day?

The Palestinians have taken an initial positive step of bringing the Palestinian Authority into Gaza. Israel, for its part, must do everything it can to give Gazans hope. Of the 1.8 million residents in Gaza, 50 percent are under age 15 — if they don’t see a chance for a better, more peaceful future, they will throw their youthful rage and energy behind the hardliners.

That may be why before the last war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) urged the cabinet to help “dramatically improve the condition of the civilians of the Strip,” according to veteran Yediot Aharonot defense correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai. Perhaps now the government will heed the IDF suggestion.

Like they say, certain things in life are inevitable, like death, taxes and another Gaza War — if the Palestinians, Israel and the world don’t get to work right now to avoid it.


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

More rockets fired on Israel as communities open bomb shelters


A barrage of rockets was fired from Gaza at southern Israel after a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian groups was broken.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted two of the rockets fired Tuesday evening. Earlier in the day, rockets were fired at Beersheba in violation of the 24-hour extension of a five-day cease-fire. The Israeli military retaliated with strikes on Gaza.

Southern Israeli communities returned to emergency procedures adopted prior to the cease-fire, and communities in southern and central Israel reopened public bomb shelters.

Israel recalled its delegation to the Cairo indirect truce negotiations following the new rocket fire.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum suggested earlier on Tuesday that more rocket fire on Israel was imminent, telling The Associated Press, “If Netanyahu doesn’t understand … the language of politics in Cairo, we know how to make him understand,” referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Another Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, asserted that the organization was interested in an agreement but said that “Israeli attacks are meant to pressure the Palestinian envoy.” Zuhri said that Hamas was not aware of any rockets being fired from Gaza.

Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, said about the resumption of rocket attacks, “When you want to beat a terror organization, you defeat it. When you hold negotiations with a terror organization, you get more terror.

Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, called for a “harsh response” to Hamas.

“Sooner or later Israel will have to defeat Hamas, there’s no way to avoid it,” he said.

 

 

Missiles over Jerusalem experienced by Rabbi Abraham Cooper


24 hours ago, almost everyone in Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah thought they had a deal for a long-time truce in Gaza. Just before midnight on Aug. 20, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, experienced up close and personal what a promise from Hamas means. He, along with his wife and Ehud Yaari – Israel TV’s leading expert on Arab affairs – had just pulled up to an apartment house in Jerusalem where the Coopers are staying. Suddenly the alarm rang out across the city. Rabbi Cooper joined the others in jumping out of the car and hugged a low wall for about four minutes. Just as the sirens went silent a massive boom could be heard, the Iron Dome intercepted a rocket headed towards a neighborhood somewhere in Jerusalem or adjacent Beit Shemesh.

“Nine years Israelis have had to put up with this? No country can survive when an entire section of its population center has its daily routines upended. While they don’t want to do it, it appears only IDF action, not empty words of a terror group, can definitively knockout Hamas’ military/terror capabilities. Then maybe the people of Gaza can rebuild their civilian infrastructure under complete transparency and outside control and Israelis in the south can get back their lives.

This is very personal as my niece is in the Beit Shemesh area with her three day old infant girl and my daughter – just a few blocks from here is in her ninth month – expecting her sixth child.”

– Rabbi Abraham Cooper

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

No sign of Gaza talks breakthrough as cease-fire nears end


Talks in Cairo on ending the Gaza war showed no signs of a breakthrough on Monday, with Israel and the Palestinians entrenched in their demands hours before the expiry of a five-day cease-fire.

The truce is due to run out at 5.00 p.m. EDT. A Palestinian source quoted by Egypt's state news agency MENA said Egyptian mediators were making “a big effort to reach an agreement in the coming hours”.

Both sides said gaps remained in reaching a long-term deal that would keep the peace between Israel and militant groups in the Gaza Strip, dominated by Hamas Islamists, and allow reconstruction aid to flow in after five weeks of fighting.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni addressed the prospect of renewed hostilities, while signaling that Israel would continue to hold its fire as long as Palestinians did the same.

“If they shoot at us, we will respond,” Livni, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, told Israel Radio.

The Palestinian Health Ministry put the Gaza death toll at 2,016 and said most were civilians in the small, densely populated coastal territory. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have been killed.

Late on Sunday, a Palestinian official said Israel's position in the talks, as presented to them by Egyptian mediators, was a “retreat from what had already been achieved and discussions had returned to square one”.

The official, who was not named, told MENA that Israel had toughened its stance and had presented “impossible” demands, particularly on security issues. He said the Palestinians would review the situation and offer their response on Monday.

“We are determined to achieve the demands of our people and foremost is ending the aggression and launching the rebuilding process and lifting the Israeli-imposed blockade of the Gaza Strip,” MENA quoted the official as saying.

SECURITY

Netanyahu said on Sunday that any deal on the territory's future had to meet Israel's security needs. He warned Hamas it faced “harsh strikes” if it resumed its attacks.

Hamas also seeks the construction of a Gaza sea port and the reopening of an airport destroyed in previous conflicts, as part of any enduring halt to violence. Livni said such issues should be dealt with at a later stage.

Israel, which launched its offensive on July 8 after a surge in Hamas rocket fire across the border, has shown scant interest in making sweeping concessions, and has called for the disarming of militant groups in the enclave of 1.8 million people.

Hamas has said that laying down its weapons is not an option.

In Jerusalem, the Shin Bet internal security agency said it had arrested 93 Hamas activists in the West Bank over the past three months who had planned to carry out “serious attacks” in Israel, aiming to destabilize the region and eventually topple the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

The Shin Bet allegations of a planned coup, in a statement that said Israeli authorities had confiscated 30 guns, seven rocket launchers and $170,000 from the group, were met with scepticism by Israeli media commentators.

“Would they have been able to do this? I don't know,” Roni Daniel, the well-connected military affairs correspondent for Israel's Channel Two television, said on-air.

Barak Ravid, the Haaretz newspaper's diplomatic affairs reporter, tweeted: “Israeli Shin Bet claims Hamas tried to take over the West Bank with 6 pistols, 7 RPG launchers and 20 M16 guns. Yeah right.”

The Gaza offensive has had broad public support in Israel, where militants' rockets, many of them intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, have disrupted everyday life but caused little damage and few casualties. By contrast, Israeli bombardment of Gaza has wrought widespread destruction.

The United Nations said 425,000 people in the Gaza Strip have been displaced by the conflict.

Israel and Hamas have not met face-to-face in Cairo, where the talks are being held in a branch of the intelligence agency, with Egyptian mediators shuttling between the parties in separate rooms. Israel regards Hamas, which advocates its destruction, as a terrorist group.

In Gaza, Pierre Krähenbühl, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said he hoped cease-fire talks would lead to substantial change on the ground.

“There has to be a message of hope for the people of Gaza, there has to be a message for something different, there has to be a message of freedom for the people, freedom to move, freedom to trade,” Krähenbühl told reporters.

Additional reporting by Maggie Fick in Cairo; Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; editing by Ralph Boulton

The view from Gaza: A bitter resolve


During the past month of fighting in the Gaza Strip — a rectangle of desert and farmland along Israel’s southern coast, home to 1.8 million Palestinians — a small boy with a shy smile lost his big brother. Now, squinting through the scope of an imaginary sniper rifle, he vows to kill Israeli soldiers as revenge. A curly-topped toddler lost her mother and the tendons in her tiny legs before she ever learned to walk. A young father lost the home he finished building for his family just two years ago. A mechanic lost his auto repair shop — today a sad pile of rubble and crumpled car parts. A Palestinian photojournalist for Agence France-Presse lost his best friend, another journalist, meeting him for the last time at a morgue instead of a cafe.

“Everybody in Gaza has lost something in this war,” said Mahmoud Abu Ghalion, 35, whose family’s tile factory was bombed useless  (for the second time) during Israel’s recent operation.

“If you didn’t lose your son, you lost your house, you lost your business,” he said.

[RELATED: Relatives say 1-year-old Raiga Wahadan, who lost her mother and older sister in strikes on Beit Hanoun, may never take her first steps after an Israeli drone rocket snapped tendons in one leg and blew a hole in the other.

At a high-energy (if slightly under-attended) victory march down one of Gaza City’s main roadways on Aug. 7, the third and last day of a temporary cease fire, Hamas parliament member Mushir al-Masri announced, “We have won the military battle, and with the permission of God, we‘ll win the political battle.” Gazans cheered, waving green Hamas flags. On side streets, young girls could be spotted skipping to the tune of Hamas victory songs pumped from rickety vans speeding through the city.

“We have to keep fighting until we get what we want,” said Misham Nasar, 40, a doctor at Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City who was front-row at the rally.

“Tell your people we are not killers,” Nasar said to an American journalist in the crowd. “We like life, like you. But if we have to die, we like to die standing. We love our resistance — not because we love killing, but because it is all we have to win our freedom.”

Dozens of Gaza residents interviewed by the Journal echoed this sentiment: To them, the fight had become more than a showdown between Hamas and Israel. It had become a war of independence.

“We lost a lot of people and homes. We can’t feel that we lost everything for nothing,” said Ahmad Al Eigla, 22, who had moved to a makeshift refugee camp outside Shifa, Gaza City’s main hospital, after surviving an airstrike on his home.

Naim Al Ghoul, 20, a Gaza City resident studying to become a teacher, said: “We are proud of [the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing] and all the fighters on the ground. We will support them until we get what we want. We need to break the blockade to go out to study, to do business — to have a normal life like everybody in the world. We prefer to die [than to stop fighting] because we feel like we are already dead,” the young man said.

Along with the lives of 64 soldiers and three civilians, Operation Protective Edge reportedly cost Israel up to $3 billion in military expenses and indirect hits to the economy. It also boosted anti-Israel sentiment around the world and Hamas’ popularity in Gaza.

“Israel gave Hamas the life kiss” with this war, said longtime Hamas critic al-Ghoul.

“So if Hamas is our destiny in Gaza, at least give them a chance to be a government,” she said.

That may be one of Israel’s only viable options at this point. Ben-David said that if the IDF had wanted to take out Hamas, it could have — but that Israel knows Hamas is a safer neighbor than even more radical Islamist organizations that could rise to fill its shoes.

“Compared to others in the region, they look almost vegetarian,” Ben-David said of Hamas.

Avi, an IDF combat soldier who fought in Gaza and could not give his last name while in uniform, said Israeli troops understood Hamas wasn’t to be taken out completely. “We know Hamas — we don’t know others,” he said.

However, this made for a confused offensive. “The whole Israeli establishment, the military and political echelon, were looking at it as an operation,” Ben-David said. “But for Hamas, it was a war … and you cannot really fight a war when you announce to your enemy that they’re not going to lose it.”

He and many others have argued that once Israel entered Gaza, ground troops should have pushed all the way to the sea — at which point Hamas would have been forced to play by Israel’s rules.

“We should have avoided this war,” Ben-David said. “But once you’re in it, you can’t go in it without aiming to win.”

Young Palestinian mother Samar Mkat and her three children fled their home in northern Gaza weeks ago, when airstrikes came too close for comfort. The house was later destroyed by Israeli fighter planes, which were targeting Hamas rocket-launching sites in her backyard.

“I wish I could go back to my home, but at the same time, I’m proud [of Hamas fighters],” she said. “We love them more after the war, because they’re taking care of us.”

Mkat now shares sleeping quarters with 10 others in a sweltering elevator nook the size of a broom closet at a United Nations school in Gaza City that has become a shelter for more than 2,000 refugees. She is one of an estimated 250,000 people in Gaza who will have no home to return to when the war finally ends.

But despite her desperate situation, Mkat said Hamas’ end goals — including lifting Israel’s economic and travel blockade on Gaza — were worth the war. “We can’t find food, we can’t find work, we can’t find bread” because of the blockade, she said. “If my husband died and we had no money, what would we do?”

Even in wartime, the gangs of barefoot kids running the streets of Gaza are their usual elfish selves, darting through alleyways and doorways as if powered by jet packs. When asked, many will tell you they want to fight Israel when they grow up.

“Of course I want to be a fighter,” 11-year-old Shedi Al Dawawseh said. “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, it doesn’t matter. We are all one people.”

Shedi and his brother Mohammed, 6, sat on a couch in their family’s stately living room on Aug. 9 as the house grew dark with the night. (Gaza has been without electricity since its only power plant was bombed.) On the walls hung big portraits of Fatah leaders next to photos of men in the Al Dawawseh family, prominent Fatah supporters.

“I’m Fatah,” the boys’ father, Zuheir, said proudly. “But the Israelis can’t differentiate between anyone. All for them is black-and-white.”

The first boom of the evening shook the room — an airstrike nearby, somewhere in Gaza City. Kids shrieked in the streets below, running past the spot where Zuheir’s 10-year-old son, Ibrahim, had been killed a day before — the first fatality after a 72-hour cease-fire dissolved. 

On the morning of Aug. 8, Israel apparently dropped a drone rocket on the Nour al-Mohammedi mosque, still under construction after being destroyed in Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza. It crashed through the scaffolding, killing Ibrahim and injuring other boys who had been acting out an imaginary gunfight at the site.

“The IDF was targeting two rocket-launching sites in the vicinity of the mosque,” an IDF spokesman told the Journal.

Asked if the boys playing at the mosque had been visible, the spokesman said: “Sadly, positioning terror sites near civilian areas such as a mosque is a method often employed by Hamas. The IDF goes to great lengths to avoid harming civilians when fighting in urban areas, while Hamas specifically uses its own population as human shields for its terror activities. In doing so, Hamas endangers civilians on both sides, for its agenda.”

When 2-year-old Baraa Bakroon, pictured here in his demolished home in Shujaiya, hears Israeli bombs falling nearby, he says, “Don’t be afraid, Dad.”

Neighborhood children said they searched through clouds of dust created by the strike for 10 minutes, finding various pieces of Ibrahim before they located his body.

One little boy held up a chunk of Ibrahim’s skull between two fingers to show a reporter. “This is from his head, see?” the boy said.

For the first time in three days, an ambulance screamed through Gaza City and pulled into the roundabout in front of Shifa Hospital. A swarm of photographers rushed to snap a photo of Ibrahim as he was pulled from the vehicle — his forehead peeled back, his head split open.

“We found him without a head,” his father Zuheir said to the reporters, sobbing uncontrollably. “He doesn’t fire a rocket, he doesn’t make anything. There is no reason to kill these kids.”

Zuheir turned his wet face to the sky. “Why did you kill him?” he asked. “What’s your message?” 

Later, at his home, Zuheir said he feared Ibrahim’s death would have long-term effects on his remaining sons. “I wish these kids would take care of me when I’m an old man, but now they are starting to think about being fighters because they can’t forget what happened to their brother.

“The Israeli army puts something inside these kids,” he said. “They give them a reason to be a fighter now.”

Al Monitor columnist Al-Ghoul has fought for women’s rights in Gaza, for her freedom to wear blue jeans in the street and, especially, for unity between the Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah.

But with Operation Protective Edge, she said Israel knocked the wind out of Gaza’s internal struggle.

“Even simple people who never fight, they start to talk about resistance and fighting,” al-Ghoul said over the phone. “This is not Hamas’ fault — this is Israel’s fault. If anybody makes Hamas more strong in the street, and if they win the next election, who did this? Israel and [Abbas].”

Al-Ghoul had just returned to work after taking a week off to grieve. “I still see their faces everywhere,” she said of her family in Rafah.

Despite Israel’s attempts throughout the operation to notify Palestinian civilians when they needed to evacuate, many did not. Some said they never received a warning from the IDF; others said they received one and decided to wait out the fighting like they had in past wars, when the IDF had targeted specific homes but didn’t tear down entire neighborhoods. Still others said they simply didn’t know of a safer place to go.

Kerem Batniji, a 35-year-old doctor at Shifa, said the severity of the war hit him after the first night of the IDF’s tank incursion into Shujaiya — a battle that churned the neighborhood into an unrecognizable gray pulp and reportedly killed more than 60 people. Batniji remembered treating a young boy on the brink of death that night.

“From the front, it looked like nothing happened to him,” Batniji said of the boy. “But his buttocks and back were totally evacuated. So I gave him pain medication and asked my fellow nurses to take him to a nice corner to die in peace. That was the only time I almost cried.”

An old man walking by, hearing the doctor’s story, said quietly: “We do not expect this from a civilized people.”

Some of the war’s most horrific scenes played out in the Khuzaa neighborhood, south of Shujaiya along the border with Israel.

The neighborhood — once among Gaza’s most beautiful, its streets lined with palm trees and its backyards filled with rabbits, chickens and grape-leaf arbors — was crushed to dust over days of fighting.

On Aug. 9, residents wandered the streets, dazed, surveying the damage and setting up blanket forts in the ruins of their homes. The air smelled of unrefrigerated food, sewage and rotting flesh. One group of men started a small fire at a bombed-out gas station to barbecue what remained of their dismembered chickens. A toddler stuck out his tongue under the faucet of a dried-up UNICEF water tank. 

Close by, the war marched on: A Hamas rocket shot up from the earth, followed minutes later by an Israeli airstrike targeting open land. Khuzaa residents were careful not to gather in large groups, saying they feared an Israeli drone that could be heard buzzing above would deem them a threat.

But a few young men took the risk, leading this reporter into a nearby sand pit that they said had been filled with Israeli tanks during the Khuzaa fighting. Heaps of toiletries and old, rotting food with Hebrew labeling — canned fruit, hot-dog buns, cranberry cereal bars, broken eggs — littered the area.

The land had once been a farm belonging to the Qdeih family, said 25-year-old neighbor Khaled Al Karaa. More trash littering the marbled family home indicated Israeli soldiers had been sleeping there; gaping holes in its walls and rubble on its floors indicated they had shelled it afterward.

“They destroyed everything,” Al Karaa said. “It’s like this is not someone’s home.”

A damning report out of Khuzaa from Human Rights Watch quoted Palestinians who said they had traumatic run-ins with Israeli soldiers while trying to flee fighting in the area between July 23 and July 25. In it, witnesses allege that IDF soldiers deliberately shot and killed civilians after telling them they could evacuate. Multiple residents of Khuzaa who spoke to the Journal said they witnessed similar atrocities.

“I was just crying and thinking they would also kill me,” said Mohammed Abu Reeda, a  red-haired 12-year-old from Khuzaa.

(When presented with witness accounts from Khuzaa, an IDF spokesman said the allegations were “still being looked into by the IDF.”)

Ahmad Al Najar, 78, an elderly Khuzaa resident wearing a red-checkered keffiyeh, said that of all the wars he’s experienced in his lifetime, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

As tens of thousands of homes lay in ruins, years from repair, and international organizations race to patch the city’s most essential infrastructure before a public-health disaster, even Gaza’s brightest optimists are struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But al-Ghoul said despite it all, she still believes that, one day, “Gaza will be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I was in Europe just three months ago — I can stay in any country I want with my children. But I believe in Gaza. Even if Israel comes every three years to kill the beauty and the peace, I believe Gaza will help itself.”

She said she thought the only immediate way to escape this cycle would be for Israel and the international community to recognize the Fatah-Hamas unity government — the same union that Israel originally resisted as if “bitten by a snake,” as Yigal Elam wrote in Haaretz.

Elam, a historian and scholar of the history of Zionism, argued in an Aug. 12 op-ed that Israel can’t afford any further operations in Gaza if it wants to retain any international legitimacy.

With violent options exhausted, he wrote, the only road left is diplomatic.

“I do not believe in reconciliation — nations do not reconcile,” Elam wrote. “But states do make peace and sign agreements in order to ensure the safety and well-being of their inhabitants.”

Negotiations progress as cease-fire holds


Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas are moving forward as both sides adhere to a renewed cease-fire.

A Palestinian negotiator in Cairo reported agreement “on many points” Thursday, according to the French news agency AFP.

Rockets were fired from Gaza as a previous three-day truce expired at midnight Wednesday, and Israel responded with airstrikes over the coastal strip. But despite exchanging fire, the sides agreed to extend the truce for five days to continue negotiations in the Egyptian capital over an end to this round of conflict, which began July 8.

Hamas is demanding an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an opening of border crossings with Israel and Egypt, and the construction of a seaport and airport. Israel is demanding that Hamas cease rocket fire and disarm. Egyptian mediators have proposed that Palestinian Authority forces man the border crossings.

Israel, Palestinians pursue Gaza deal with cease-fire clock ticking


The threat of renewed war in Gaza loomed on Wednesday as the clock ticked toward the end of a three-day cease-fire with no sign of a breakthrough in indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinians.

A Palestinian official with knowledge of the negotiations saidEgypt had presented a new proposal for a permanent truce agreement that addressed a major Palestinian demand for a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Egypt harbor deep security concerns about Hamas, the dominant Islamist group in the small, Mediterranean coastal enclave, complicating any deal on easing border restrictions.

It was unclear from the official's remarks how those worries, along with Israel's demand for Gaza's demilitarization, would be dealt with. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said disarming was not an option.

Israeli negotiators returned to Egypt after overnighting in Israel with the truce in the month-old hostilities – which have killed 1,945 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and 67 on the Israeli side – due to expire at 5.00 p.m. ET.

Palestinian delegates and Egyptian intelligence officials reconvened for talks that could go down to the wire.

Azzam Ahmed, an official of the mainstream Fatah party who heads the Palestinian team in Cairo, said the negotiations were at a very sensitive stage and it hoped to reach a cease-fire agreement before the current truce runs out.

Egyptian and Palestinian sources said Israel had tentatively agreed to allow some supplies into the Gaza Strip and relax curbs on the cross-border movement of people and goods, subject to certain conditions. They did not elaborate, and in Israel, officials remained silent on the state of the talks.

A Palestinian demand for a Gaza seaport and reconstruction of an airport destroyed in previous conflicts with Israel has also been a stumbling block, with the Jewish state citing security reasons for opposing their operation.

But the Palestinian official said Egypt had proposed that a discussion of that issue be delayed for a month after the long-term cease-fire deal takes hold.

FISHING LIMITS

As part of the Egyptian blueprint, Israel would expand fishing limits it imposes on Gaza fishermen to six miles (10 km) from the usual three-mile offshore zone.

“It will increase gradually to no less than 12 miles in coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” the official said, referring to a likely expanded role in Gaza affairs for the government of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas of the West Bank.

In addition, the official said, the Egyptian plan calls for reducing the size of a “no-go” area for Palestinians on the Gaza side of the border from 300 meters (984 feet) to 100 meters (328 feet) so that local farmers can recover plots lost to security crackdowns.

A Palestinian official said the Palestinian delegation had agreed that reconstruction in Gaza should be carried out by a unity government of technocrats set up in June by Hamas and Abbas's more secular Fatah party.

The two sides are not meeting face-to-face in Cairo: Israel regards Hamas, which advocates its destruction, as a terrorist group. But the official said once they inform Egypt of their agreement, a cease-fire accord could be signed the same day.

Since Israel launched its military campaign on July 8 to quell cross-border rocket fire from Gaza into the Jewish state, most of the Palestinian dead have been civilians, hospital officials in the small, densely populated enclave say.

Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians. Many of the Palestinian rocket salvoes have been intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system or fallen on open ground, but have disrupted life for tens of thousands of Israelis.

The heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza, where the United Nations said 425,000 of 1.8 million population have been displaced by the war, have stoked international alarm.

On Tuesday, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas's leader in Cairo, described the negotiations as “difficult”. An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said no progress had been made.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, speaking on Tuesday, told Israel's armed forces to prepare for a possible resumption of fighting. A previous 72-hour cease-fire last week expired without a longer-term deal and Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes resumed, although at lower intensity.

“It could be that shooting will erupt again and we will again be firing at them,” Yaalon said.

Israel pulled ground forces out of Gaza last week after it said the army had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border ambushes. It now wants guarantees Hamas will not use any reconstruction supplies sent into the enclave to rebuild the tunnels.

Little progress reported at Cairo truce talks


Negotiators at the Israel-Hamas truce talks in Cairo said they were still far from an agreement.

Palestinian officials said Tuesday that the current three-day cease-fire between the sides will be the final one unless Israel and Hamas make progress toward a truce. The cease-fire, which began Monday, is the second three-day truce between the sides after a month of fighting.

“We’re standing before a difficult negotiation,” Hamas deputy political leader Mousa Abu Marzook said, according to the Times of Israel. “The first truce passed without an acceptable achievement to note. This is the second and final truce. The seriousness right now is clear. What’s necessary is for the delegation to achieve what the Palestinian people wishes of it.”

Israeli negotiators also reported little progress at the negotiations. Israel has called for another three-day truce to allow negotiations to continue.

Hamas is demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and the building of an airport and seaport, and Israel is demanding Gaza’s demilitarization. Palestinian negotiators, including representatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, reportedly rejected an Israeli offer of a seaport in exchange for the demilitarization.

 

 

Palestinians to leave Cairo on Sunday unless Israel resumes Gaza talks


Palestinian negotiators will leave Cairo on Sunday unless Israel agrees to return to Egyptian-mediated negotiations to end the war in Gaza, senior delegation member Moussa Abu Marzouk said.

“Within the next 24 hours, the delegation's presence in Egypt will be determined,” Abu Marzouk, the deputy chairman of Hamas' political bureau, told Reuters in an interview late on Saturday at the delegation's hotel near the Cairo airport.

He said the decision would be made after a meeting on Sunday with Egyptian mediators, who have met separately with each party about at least three times this week.

Delegation head Azzam Ahmed told Al Arabiya television the Palestinian factions in Cairo for the negotiations would leave “if it is confirmed to us that (Israel) will not return except with conditions.”

Israel has said it will not take part in truce talks while violence is ongoing. Its delegation has not returned to Cairo since it left early Friday morning, shortly before a 72-hour cease-fire expired.

The Palestinians refused to extend the cease-fire, saying Israel was stalling and had refused to accept demands including an end to the blockade of Gaza and the opening of a seaport.

Israel launched more than 30 air attacks in Gaza on Saturday, killing nine Palestinians, and militants fired rockets at Israel as the conflict entered a second month.

The diplomatic deadlock suggests that Israel's seven-year blockade of Gaza and intermittent offensives may have had the opposite of their intended effect – the elimination of armed resistance and the marginalization of Hamas, which it denounces as a terrorist group.

“The Palestinian people don't have anything to lose,” said Abu Marzouk in the hotel's lobby flanked by guards.

“The Palestinian people do not have many choices: either be killed under the blockade or be killed by mortar and (war) planes,” he said, suggesting that the blockade has killed more Palestinians than the wars.

Gaza officials say the current conflict has killed 1,890 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have died in the fighting, which started on July 8.

Maher al-Taher from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which does not usually toe the Hamas line, echoed Abu Marzouk's comments.

He told Reuters earlier in the day that Israel's plan to push the Palestinians to rebel against Hamas had backfired.

“Instead the people have gathered around the resistance factions,” he said.

“Palestinians have become convinced that Israel is targeting everyone,” he said. “We believe Israel is digging its own grave and will pay the price.”

Palestinian factions reportedly agree to 72-hour cease-fire


Palestinian factions in Cairo reportedly agreed to a 72-hour cease-fire in the Gaza conflict.

During that period, Egyptian mediators will work to negotiate a truce between Israel and Hamas, as well as other groups firing rockets into Israel.

Israel did not officially confirm Monday’s cease-fire, which reportedly will begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday. On Monday, Israel observed a unilateral seven-hour humanitarian cease-fire.

Egypt has called on Israel to send a delegation to Cairo, where officials from Palestinian factions including Hamas and the Palestinian Authority gathered on Sunday night. Israel refused to attend the talks because of the collapse of previous cease-fire attempts.

On Monday, Egypt presented the Palestinians’ demands to Israel, which include an end to the blockade on Gaza of goods and people; the release of recently rearrested prisoners who had been freed in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange; the reconstruction of Gaza, including the port and the airport; and the extension of Palestinian fishing rights to 12 nautical miles.

Israel on Sunday began withdrawing troops from areas of Gaza after saying that its military had completed a main objective of the ground assault — the destruction of infiltration tunnels from Gaza into Israeli communities on the border with the coastal strip.

Israeli naval shelling kills four boys on Gaza beach, medics say


Israeli shelling killed four boys on a Gaza beach on Wednesday, a local health official said, and Palestinian militants fired a further 70 rockets into Israel after a failed Egyptian attempt to halt more than a week of warfare.

Israel urged the evacuation of several districts in the Gaza Strip where more than 100,000 people live, threatening ground operations to try to stem the rocket attacks.

An Israeli official said the defence minister asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet to authorise the mobilization of another 8,000 reserve troops. The military has said that around 30,000 reservists have been called up since the Israeli offensive began a week ago.

Israeli experts predicted overland raids in the Gaza Strip to destroy command bunkers and tunnels that have allowed the outgunned Palestinians to withstand air and naval barrages and keep the rockets flying.

The Hamas political leadership formally rejected Cairo's ceasefire plan on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Islamist group said, a day after its armed wing spurned it and kept up rocket salvoes at Israel, which held its fire for six hours on Tuesday.

Ashraf al-Qidra of the Gaza Health Ministry said shelling from an Israeli gunboat off Gaza's Mediterranean coast killed four boys – two aged 10 and the others 9 and 11 – from one family and critically wounded another youngster on the beach.

An Israeli military spokesman had no immediate comment. Netanyahu says the armed forces try to avoid civilian casualties but that militant rocket crews deliberately put non-combatants at risk by operating in densely populated residential areas.

Ahmed Abu Hassera, who witnessed the incident at the shore, told Reuters: “The kids were playing on the beach. They were all … under the age of 15.”

Israeli shelling has frequently targeted Gaza beaches, which are suspected staging areas for militants.

“When the first shell hit land, they ran away but another shell hit them all,” said Abu Hassera, whose shirt was stained with blood. “It looked as if the shells were chasing them.”

Reacting to the incident, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza: “These crimes will not succeed to break our will. We will continue the confrontation and resistance and we promise (Israel) will pay the price for all these crimes.”

Earlier, Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip killed at least eight Palestinians, five of them civilians, and a six-year-old boy died of wounds sustained a few days ago, Gaza medics said, raising the death toll in the Hamas-dominated enclave to 208.

Gaza health officials say most of the Palestinian dead from in the worst flareup of violence with Israel in two years have been civilians.

Gaza's Al-Mezan Center for Human rights said 259 houses had been demolished by Israeli air strikes and 1,034 damaged along with 34 mosques and four hospitals.

The rocket volleys from Gaza have a race to shelters a daily routine for hundreds of thousands in the Jewish state. One Israeli has been killed in the rocket fire, most of whose projectiles have crashed on open ground or been intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile shield.

IRON DOME


An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in Ashdod on July 8. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

The military said Iron Dome shot down 23 of the 70 rockets launched at Israel on Wednesday, while the others struck without causing casualties. One salvo, at coastal Ashkelon, forced visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende into a shelter.

In Gaza's eastern Shejaia and Zeitoun districts, bastions of popular support for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad faction, there was no sign residents were heeding the Israeli call to leave.

Authorized by Netanyahu's security cabinet to escalate the offensive, the military relayed warnings to inhabitants in northern Gaza with dropped leaflets and mass phone calls.

“Failure to comply will endanger your lives and the lives of your family,” said a recorded message received by residents of Shejaia and Zeitoun, which sprawl out to the barbed-wire border with Israel.

Maher Abu Saa'ed, a 45-year-old doctor in Zeitoun, said that with many areas of Gaza under attack, nowhere was safe and he would not leave despite a telephoned Israeli warning to get out.

“To ask hundreds of people to leave their houses and go to the centre of the city is insane, a sick joke,” he said.

World powers urged calm, worried about spiralling casualties in one of the world's mostly crowded areas.

HAMAS TELLS EGYPT, SORRY, BUT NO TO CEASEFIRE

Announcing the movement's formal rejection of the ceasefire plan, Abu Zuhri said: “The outcome of discussions within the internal institutions of the movement was to reject the proposal and, therefore, Hamas informed Egypt last night it apologises for not accepting it.”

Hamas leaders have said any Gaza ceasefire must include an end to Israel's blockade of the territory, recommitment to a truce reached in an eight-day war there in 2012 and the release of hundreds of its activists arrested in the West Bank while Israel hunted for three abducted Jewish seminary students.

The three teens were later found dead, and a Palestinian youth was later murdered in what appeared a revenge attack by Israelis. Those killings led to the current bout of hostilities.

Hamas also wants Egypt to ease curbs at its Rafah crossing with Gaza, imposed after the toppling of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo a year ago.

The truce proposal announced by Egypt's Foreign Ministry spoke only in general terms about opening Gaza's borders and made no mention of the Hamas men held by Israel.

Hamas has faced a cash crunch and Gaza's economic hardship has deepened as a result of Egypt's destruction of cross-border smuggling tunnels. Cairo accuses Hamas of assisting anti-government Islamist militants in Egypt's adjacent Sinai peninsula, an accusation that the Palestinian group denies.

An Israeli official said “the direction now is to continue air strikes and, if need be, enter with ground forces in a tactical, measured manner”.

While tunnel-hunting incursions would be far short of a full-scale invasion and reoccupation of a territory from which Israel withdrew in 2005, it would be a risky and time-consuming mission vulnerable to Palestinian ambushes.

But Amos Yadlin, a former commander of Israeli military intelligence, played down the operational risk to Israel.

“The tunnels cannot be tackled except from the Palestinian side, but they are in relatively uninhabited areas,” he said. “We would not have a problem maintaining control. I don't accept the argument that this would be a sinkhole back into Gaza.”

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Noah Browning in Gaza and Michael Georgy and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Gaza rockets, Israeli air strikes persist despite truce call


A small armed faction in the Gaza Strip fired rockets at Israel on Thursday, drawing retaliatory air strikes and pushing cross-border violence into a third day despite a truce called by the more powerful Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.

The clashes have been the most intense since the Gaza war of November 2012. This time, however, casualties have been scant with winter rains keeping many people indoors, and Israel's Iron Dome interceptor shooting down some of the Palestinian rockets. Most Israeli strikes have hit unmanned militant facilities.

Hamas, the Islamist movement governing Gaza, has also kept its fighters out of this flare-up so far.

The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, which often operates independent of Hamas, began the barrage on Wednesday after Israel's forces killed three of its fighters a day earlier.

On Thursday afternoon, Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batsh announced that a deal that had been brokered by Cairo to end the 2012 war was back in effect, provided the Israelis also complied.

“Following intensive Egyptian contacts and efforts, the agreement for calm has been restored,” he said on Facebook.

Within hours, however, the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC), a Gaza splinter group, said it had launched eight rockets into Israel. At least four struck open areas and one was downed by Iron Dome, the Israeli military said.

Israel's air force then bombed a PRC camp in southern Gaza and “three other terror sites” to the north, the military said.

TALK OF REOCCUPATION

There was no immediate word of any injuries. On Thursday morning, before the Islamic Jihad cease-fire announcement, three Palestinians were hurt in an Israeli air strike.

On Wednesday, Israel carried out 29 air strikes and its tanks shelled militant targets in Gaza as Islamic Jihad fired 60 rockets. There were no casualties in Wednesday's exchange.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, a unilateral move that boosted Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups hostile to the Jewish state.

Since then, there have been several outbreaks of fighting. In recent months, however, Hamas has sought to maintain calm after being weakened by the fall of sympathetic Islamist politicians in Cairo and by the resulting clampdown on arms and commercial smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.

Israel's hard line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has called for Gaza to be retaken and Hamas crushed. Such actions would prove to be bloody and damaging for peace talks with the rival U.S.-backed Palestinian administration in the occupied West Bank.

“The only solution to this situation of a ceaseless cycle of terror is reoccupation of Gaza and a clean-out of the stables there,” Lieberman said on Facebook on Thursday.

Netanyahu, however, sounded more restrained. He vowed Israel would “hit back with increasing force” against anyone who tried to ruin celebrations over the next few days of the Jewish festival of Purim.

Israel did not publicly respond to Islamic Jihad's truce announcement but one of its senior defence officials said earlier on Thursday he expected the fighting to die down soon.

Palestinian sources noted that Hamas had not joined in the rocket attacks, an apparent sign that it hoped to avoid a wider conflict, but it did not immediately act to stop the launches, either.

Islamic Jihad has strong ties with Iran, Israel's arch-foe, and it is the second largest faction in the enclave. Smaller groups include al Qaeda-aligned militants.

Last week Israel's navy seized a ship in the Red Sea. Israeli officials said it was ferrying advanced Iranian-supplied rockets to Gaza.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Toni Reinhold

BREAKING: Home-made bomb explodes near Israeli embassy in Cairo


A home-made bomb exploded in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, security sources and the website of state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said.

Security sources said the explosion targeted a police car parked near the embassy, rather than the embassy itself and did not cause any injuries.

Reporting By Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Michael Georgy and Robin Pomeroy

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOURISM HIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arab League ministers to blame Syria’s Assad for chemical attack


Arab League ministers will pass a resolution blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for last week's chemical weapons attack in Damascus when they meet in Cairo next week, League officials said on Wednesday.

The states' permanent representatives at the League had already explicitly blamed Assad on Tuesday for the attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, in a step that provided regional political cover for a possible U.S.-led military strike on Syria.

A senior U.S. official said planning was under way for possibly several days of attacks by several countries, likely to include its NATO allies France and Britain, to punish Assad.

The higher-level endorsement by the Arab foreign ministers at their meeting on September 2-3 is being pushed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which both back anti-Assad rebels in Syria's civil war, as well as Qatar, a non-Gulf official at the League said.

Syria's neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, along with Algeria, are likely to oppose or abstain from condemning Syria, as they have on similar resolutions in the past. Syria itself is suspended from the League.

“The Arab foreign ministers will affirm the full responsibility of the Syrian regime for the chemical weapons' attack that took place in Eastern Ghouta (on the outskirts of Damascus),” a representative of a Gulf state in the League told Reuters.

“We will also ask for those responsible for the attack to be taken to the International Criminal Court,” he added.

The non-Gulf Arab League source confirmed the Gulf official's remarks.

“The world must see the Arab states seriously condemning Assad's use of chemicals and calling for his punishment,” he said.

He also called on the U.N. Security Council to adopt tougher sanctions on Syria and urged Russia and China, Assad's backers in the council, not to block any council resolution proposing action against Assad.

Syria's civil war has split the region broadly along sectarian lines.

Shi'ite Muslim Iran, and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq, support Assad. The Sunni-led Gulf Arab states, led by oil giant Saudi Arabia and influential Qatar, have backed the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, many of whom are Islamist militants.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Evans

Egypt’s bruised Brotherhood fails to show street power


Mass protests called by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood mostly failed to materialize on Friday as the movement reels from a bloody army crackdown on followers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
 
Troops and police had taken relatively low-key security measures before the “Friday of Martyrs” processions that were to have begun from 28 mosques in the capital after weekly prayers.
 
But midday prayers were canceled at some mosques and few major protests unfolded in Cairo, although witnesses said at least 1,000 people staged a march in the Mohandiseen district.
 
There were no reports of violence in that procession, but the Brotherhood's website said one person had been killed in the Nile Delta town of Tanta in clashes with security forces.
 
Brotherhood supporters also turned out in Alexandria, several Delta towns, the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, the north Sinai town of Rafah, and Assiut in the south, with minor skirmishes reported in some places.
 
“We are not afraid; it's victory or death,” said Mohamed Abdel Azim, a retired oil engineer who was among about 100 people marching slowly from a mosque near Cairo University.
 
“They intend to strike at Muslims,” the grey-bearded Azim said. “We'd rather die in dignity than live in oppression. We'll keep coming out until there's no one left.”
 
Despite his defiant words, the mood of the protesters seemed subdued, perhaps a sign that the crackdown and the round-up of Brotherhood leaders has chilled the rank-and-file.
 
Some marchers carried posters of Morsi, who was toppled by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on July 3 after huge demonstrations against his rule.
 
“No to the coup,” they chanted.
 
“GOD WILL BRING DOWN SISI”
 
At another small protest in Cairo, a veiled nursery teacher with four children, who gave her name as Nasra, said: “God will make us victorious, even if many of us are hurt and even if it takes a long time. God willing, God will bring down Sisi.”
 
Egypt has endured the bloodiest civil unrest in its modern history since August 14 when police destroyed protest camps set up by Morsi's supporters in Cairo to demand his reinstatement.
 
The violence has alarmed Egypt's Western allies, but U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that even a decision to cut off U.S. aid to Cairo might not influence its military rulers.
 
But he said Washington was re-evaluating its ties with Egypt. “There's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened,” he told CNN in an interview.
 
Some U.S. lawmakers have called for a halt to the $1.5 billion a year in mostly military assistance to Egypt to bolster its 1979 peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Military cooperation includes privileged U.S. access to the Suez Canal.
 
The Brotherhood, hounded by Egypt's new army-backed rulers, had called for demonstrations across the country against the crackdown, testing the resilience of its battered support base.
 
Security forces kept a watchful eye, but did not flood the streets, even near Cairo's central Fateh mosque, where gun battles killed scores of people last Friday and Saturday.
 
The mosque's metal gates and big front door were locked and chained. Prayers were canceled. Two armored vehicles were parked down the street, where people shopped at a busy market.
 
Only one riot police truck stood by near Rabaa al-Adawiya square in northeastern Cairo, home to the Brotherhood's biggest protest vigil until police and troops stormed in, killing hundreds of people, bulldozing barricades and burning tents.
 
SYMBOLIC VICTORY
 
The mosque there was closed for repairs. Workmen in blue overalls stood on scaffolding as they covered its charred walls with white paint. Children scavenged through piles of garbage.
 
Troops used barbed wire to block a main road to Nahda Square, the site of the smaller of the two Brotherhood sit-ins.
 
The authorities declared a month-long state of emergency last week and they enforce a nightly curfew.
 
They have also arrested many leading figures from the Brotherhood, all but decapitating an organization that won five successive votes in Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
 
In a symbolic victory for the army-dominated old order, Mubarak, an ex-military man who ruled Egypt for 30 years before he was toppled, was freed from jail on Thursday. His successor Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, remains behind bars.
 
The Brotherhood's “General Guide” Mohamed Badie, who was arrested on Tuesday, is due to go on trial on Sunday along with two other senior figures, Khairat al-Shater and Saad al-Katatni, on charges that include incitement to violence.
 
More than 1,000 people, including over 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in violence across Egypt since Morsi's overthrow. Brotherhood supporters say the toll is much higher.
 
Graffiti on a mosque wall in a rundown Cairo neighborhood illustrated the deep divisions that have emerged since Sisi's takeover. The spray-painted message “Yes to Sisi” had been crossed out and painted over with the word “traitor.”
 
Slogans elsewhere read “Morsi is a spy” and “Morsi out”. Someone had also written “Freedom, Justice, Brotherhood”.
 
The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, operated mostly underground before emerging as Egypt's best-organized political force after Mubarak fell. Its popularity waned during Morsi's year in office when critics accused it of accumulating power, pushing a partisan Islamist agenda and mismanaging the economy.
 
The Brotherhood, which Egypt's new army-backed rulers have threatened to dissolve, says Morsi's government was deliberately undermined by unreformed Mubarak-era institutions.
 
Mubarak, 85, still faces retrial on charges of complicity in the killings of protesters, but he left jail on Thursday for the first time since April 2011 and was flown by helicopter to a plush military hospital in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi.
 
The authorities have used the state of emergency to keep him under house arrest, apparently to minimize the risk of popular anger if he had been given unfettered freedom.
 
Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Will Waterman

Dozens die in Egyptian bloodbath on Islamists’ ‘Day of Rage’


Islamist protests descended into a bloodbath across Egypt on Friday, with around 50 killed in Cairo alone on a “Day of Rage” called by followers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi to denounce a crackdown by the army-backed government.

As automatic gunfire echoed across Cairo, the standoff seemed to be sliding ever faster towards armed confrontation, evoking past conflict between militant Islamists and the state in the most populous Arab nation.

More than 40 people were also killed in provincial cities, taking the overall toll close to 100, although the intense shooting eventually died down in Cairo at dusk as a curfew began.

While Western governments urged restraint after hundreds died when security forces cleared protest camps two days ago, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah endorsed the government's tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, saying on Friday his nation stood with Egypt in its battle against “terrorism”.

Army helicopters hovered low over supporters of Morsi's Brotherhood in Ramses Square, the theatre of much of Friday's bloodshed in Cairo, black smoke billowing from at least one huge blaze which lit up the night sky after sundown.

A Reuters witness saw the bodies of 27 people, apparently hit by gunfire and birdshot, wrapped in white sheets in a mosque. A Reuters photographer said security forces opened fire from numerous directions when a police station was attacked.

Men armed with automatic weapons appeared to be taking part in the Cairo protests. At Ramses Square, Reuters journalists saw three men carrying guns; protesters cheered when cars carrying gunmen arrived, another Reuters witness said.

“Sooner or later I will die. Better to die for my rights than in my bed. Guns don't scare us anymore,” said Sara Ahmed, 28, a business manager who joined the demonstrators in Cairo. “It's not about the Brotherhood, it's about human rights.”

A security official said 24 policemen had been killed and 15 police stations attacked since late Thursday, underlining the increasing ferocity of the violence.

Egyptian state media have hardened their rhetoric against the Brotherhood – which ruled Egypt for a year until the army removed Morsi on July 3 – invoking language used to describe militant groups such as al Qaeda and suggesting there is little hope of a political resolution to the crisis.

“Egypt fighting terrorism,” said a logo on state television.

Showing no sign of wanting to back down, the Brotherhood announced a further week of nationwide protests.

Islamists have periodically been in conflict with the Egyptian military for decades. Nationalist General Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1950s and another followed before and after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by fundamentalist officers. In the 1990s militants waged a bloody campaign for an Islamic state.

LIVE AMMUNITION

The army deployed armored vehicles on major roads around the capital and the Interior Ministry said before Friday's protests began that police would use live ammunition against anyone threatening public buildings.

Anger on the streets was directed at army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who moved against Morsi last month after massive street rallies against his administration that had been dogged by accusations of incompetence and partisanship.

“The people want the butcher executed,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 37, referring to Sisi, as he marched with a crowd of several thousand on downtown Cairo under blazing summer sun.

The Brotherhood said in a statement: “The coup makers have lost all lost their minds, norms and principles today.”

State television said 16 people died in clashes in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, and 140 were wounded. Eight protesters died in the coastal town of Damietta and five in Fayoum south of Cairo. The Suez Canal cities of Ismailia, Port Said and Suez all had deathtolls of four, as did Tanta in the Nile delta.

A police conscript was shot dead in the north of Cairo, state news agency MENA reported. Nile TV showed video of a gunman among Islamist protesters firing from a city bridge.

Witnesses said Morsi supporters ransacked a Catholic church and a Christian school in the city of Malawi. An Anglican church was also set ablaze. The Brotherhood, which has been accused of inciting anti-Christian sentiment, denies targeting churches.

Signaling his displeasure at the worst bloodshed in Egypt for generations, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday normal cooperation with Cairo could not continue and announced the cancellation of military exercises with Egypt next month.

“We deplore violence against civilians,” he said, but did not cut off $1.55 billion a year of mostly military U.S. aid.

The European Union asked its members to consider “appropriate measures” it could take, while Germany announced it was reviewing relations with Cairo.

The Egyptian presidency issued a statement criticizing Obama, saying his comments were not based on “facts” and would strengthen violent groups that were committing “terrorist acts”.

Some fear Egypt is turning back into the kind of police state that kept the veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years before his removal in 2011, as security institutions recover their confidence and reassert control.

In calling for a “Day of Rage,” the Brotherhood used the same name as that given to the most violent day of the uprising against Mubarak. That day, January 28, 2011, marked protesters' victory over the police, who were forced to retreat.

The centre of the anti-Mubarak protests, Tahrir Square, was deserted on Friday, sealed off by the army.

SAUDI SUPPORT

Washington's influence over Cairo has been called into question following Morsi's overthrow. Since then Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have pledged $12 billion to Egypt, making them more prominent partners.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stand by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” King Abdullah said in an uncompromising message read out on Saudi television.

“I call on the honest men of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim nations … to stand as one man and with one heart in the face of attempts to destabilize a country that is at the forefront of Arab and Muslim history,” he said.

Obama's refusal so far to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt suggests he does not wish to alienate the generals, despite the scale of the bloodshed in the suppression of Morsi supporters.

Egypt will need all the financial support it can get in the coming months as it grapples with growing economic problems, especially in the important tourism sector that accounts for more than 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The United States urged its citizens to leave Egypt on Thursday and two of Europe's biggest tour operators, Germany's TUI and Thomas Cook Germany, said they were cancelling all trips to the country until September 15.

Underscoring the deep divisions in the country, local residents helped the army block access to Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the site of the main Brotherhood sit-in that was swept away during Wednesday's police assault.

“We are here to prevent those filthy bastards from coming back,” said Mohamed Ali, a 22-year-old business student.

Pro-army groups posted videos on the Internet of policemen they said had been tortured and killed by Islamist militants in recent days, including a bloodied, beaten police chief.

However, when a military helicopter flew low over Ramses Square, Brotherhood protesters held up shoes in a gesture of contempt, chanting “We will bring Sisi to the ground” and “Leave, leave, you traitor”.

As the sound of teargas canisters being fired began, protesters – including young and old, men and women – donned surgical masks, gas masks and wrapped bandannas around their faces. Some rubbed Pepsi on their faces to counter the gas.

“Allahu akbar! (God is Greatest)” the crowd chanted.

Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, Tom Finn, Yasmine Saleh, Mohamed Abdellah, Ahmed Tolba and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alistair Lyon and David Stamp

Amid violent clashes, Egypt closes border with Gaza


Egypt closed the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip as clashes between its government security forces and protesters backing deposed President Mohamed Morsi continued for a second day.

The Rafah crossing was closed “indefinitely,” the French news agency AFP reported Thursday, citing an unnamed Egyptian security official. The crossing was closed due to fears of terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula.

Rafah is the only border crossing out of the Gaza Strip that is not controlled by Israel.

The death toll in the clashes has risen to at least 421, and the injured at more than 3,000, according to reports.

The violence began Wednesday after government security forces raided two major sit-in protests in Cairo calling for the reinstatement of Morsi.

On Tuesday, a rocket fired by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida at the southern Israeli city of Eilat was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Last week the Eilat airport was closed for several hours due to warnings by Egyptian officials about a terror attack from the Sinai.

Protesters storm Cairo building after bloodbath, U.S. to review Egypt aid


Supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood stormed and torched a government building in Cairo on Thursday, while families tried to identify hundreds of mutilated bodies piled in a Cairo mosque a day after they were shot dead by the security forces.

Egypt's health ministry says 623 people were killed and thousands wounded in the worst day of civil violence in the modern history of the most populous Arab state.

Brotherhood supporters say the death toll is far higher, with hundreds of bodies as yet uncounted by the authorities, whose troops and police crushed protests seeking the return of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

State television quoted the Interior Ministry as saying the security forces would again use live ammunition to counter any attacks against themselves or public buildings.

The U.N. Security Council will meet later on Thursday to discuss the situation after a meeting was requested by council members France, Britain and Australia.

International condemnation has rained down on Cairo's military-backed rulers for ordering the storming of pro-Morsi protest camps after dawn on Wednesday, six weeks after the army overthrew the country's first freely elected leader.

The U.S. State Department said it would review aid to Egypt “in all forms” after President Barack Obama cancelled plans for upcoming military exercises with the Egyptian army, which Washington funds with $1.3 billion in annual aid.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces,” Obama said.

“We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest.”

His Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Egypt's army chief that “the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk”.

Western diplomats have told Reuters that senior U.S. and European officials had been in contact with Egypt's rulers until the final hour, pleading with them not to order a military crackdown on the protest camps, where thousands of Morsi's followers had been camped out since before he was toppled.

There were reports of protests on Thursday but no repeat of the previous day's bloodbath. In Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, hundreds marched, chanting: “We will come back again for the sake of our martyrs!”

Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said anger within the 85-year-old Islamist movement, which has millions of supporters across Egypt, was “beyond control”.

“After the blows and arrests and killings that we are facing, emotions are too high to be guided by anyone,” he said.

The Brotherhood has called on followers to march in Cairo later on Thursday, while funeral processions for those who died could provide further flashpoints in the coming days.

In Cairo, Reuters counted 228 bodies, most of them wrapped in white shrouds, arranged in rows on the floor of the Al-Imam mosque in northeast Cairo, close to the worst of the violence.

The mosque had been converted into a charnel house, resembling the aftermath of a World War One battlefield. Medics pushed burning incense sticks into blocks of ice covering the bodies and sprayed air freshener to cover up the stench.

Some men pulled back the shrouds to reveal badly charred corpses with smashed skulls. Women knelt and wept beside one body. Two men embraced each other and shed tears by another.

The bodies, piled there because morgues and hospitals were full, did not appear to be part of the official tally of 525 killed, which also includes more than 40 police and hundreds killed in clashes outside of the capital.

Several thousand people gathered in the square outside the mosque, chanting: “The army and the police are a dirty hand!”

In the Giza section of Cairo, Morsi supporters set fire to a governorate building, and state television said two police officers were killed in an armed attack on a police checkpoint.

“MILITARY TYRANNY”

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed Morsi from power on July 3 in the wake of huge protests by people frustrated at a lack of progress on economic reform and wary of what they saw as a creeping Islamist power grab.

The subsequent crackdown suggests an end to the open political role of the Brotherhood, which survived underground for decades before emerging as Egypt's dominant force after autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a 2011 uprising.

“It's not about Morsi any more. Are we going to accept a new military tyranny in Egypt or not?” Haddad said.

Shocking scenes, including television footage of unarmed protesters dropping to the ground as security forces opened fire, have been seen around the world, but many Egyptians support the crackdown and resent international criticism of the army.

“What happened was the only logical way to end their sit-ins, which did have weapons and … violent people,” said Ismail Khaled, 31-year-old manager in a private company. “Thank God the police ended them. I wish they had done so sooner.”

The authorities and their allies, which control nearly all media inside Egypt, insist those inside the pro-Morsi camps were heavily armed, although international journalists have seen only limited evidence of weapons beyond sticks and rocks.

Churches around the country were attacked and many torched on Wednesday, stoking fear of an Islamist backlash among the Christian minority, 10 percent of the population of 85 million.

Cairo and other areas were largely calm overnight after the army-installed government declared a month-long state of emergency and a curfew on the capital and 10 other provinces from 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) to 6 a.m.

Most large Egyptian companies remained open and shipping sources said the Suez Canal was operating normally, but the stock exchange was closed and the central bank told all banks to stay shut. Some international firms halted production in and around Cairo, including Electrolux and General Motors.

In other examples of international condemnation, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called for the West to speak out.

“I am calling on Western countries. You remained silent in Gaza, you remained silent in Syria … You are still silent on Egypt. So how come you talk about democracy, freedom, global values and human rights?” he told a news conference.

Senior EU diplomats will meet on Monday to assess the situation and consider possible action after what Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino called a “brutal, overwhelming and inexcusable” military reaction.

But the United Arab Emirates, one of several Gulf Arab states that collectively sent $12 billion to fund the interim government, said the Egyptian government had “exercised maximum self-control”.

Back on the streets of Cairo, some spoke of their despair.

“Yesterday I cried. I think we're the furthest we've ever been from true reform or justice,” said Sara, who declined to give her last name, describing herself as a secular activist.

“I don't believe that this is going to end in one month. I think is the beginning of another 30 years of military rule.”

Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla, Michael Georgy, Tom Finn and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Alexandria Sage in Paris and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Peter Graff and Mike Collett-White; Editing by Michael Georgy and Will Waterman