Syrian military threatens Israel following border victory

Syria’s military threatened Israel after reportedly capturing the town of Qusair on the Lebanon border.

SANA, Syria’s state news agency, said the Syrian army on Wednesday took control of Qusair from rebels who had been fighting government forces and Hezbollah volunteers for more than two weeks as part of Syria’s two-year civil war. Qusair had been in rebel hands for more than a year, according to reports.

“The victory that was achieved at the hands of our brave soldiers sends a clear message to all those who are involved in the aggression against Syria, on top being the Zionist enemy and its agents in the region and tools on the ground. Our armed forces will remain ready to face any aggression against our dear homeland,” read a statement from the General Command of the Syrian army issued Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Also Wednesday, two rockets exploded near Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights. It is unclear on which side of the border they fell.

In addition, two Syrian citizens who were injured during fighting on the border between the army and rebels were taken to a northern Israeli hospital. One died on the way and the other was admitted with shrapnel injuries, according to the Times of Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Monday told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Israel Defense Forces is caring for wounded Syrians at a field hospital set up on the border and transferring the severely wounded to Israeli hospitals.

Israel accepts terms of German deal for Shalit

Efforts are intensifying for the release of Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit on the fifth anniversary of his capture by the terrorist organization Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had accepted a German-mediated deal for Shalit’s release, and was awaiting Hamas’ response.

“This proposal was harsh; it was not simple for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday according to a statement released after the weekly Cabinet meeting.  “However, we agreed to accept it in the belief that it was balanced between our desire to secure Gilad’s release and to prevent possible harm to the lives and security of the Israeli people.  As of now, we have yet to receive Hamas’s official answer to the German mediator’s proposal.”

Mass rallies were planned this weekend in Israel, including a protest Saturday outside Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Caesaria, the Shalit campaign’s weekly protest in Jerusalem on Sunday and a 24-hour event at Herzliya Studios, Israel’s largest TV facility, where dozens of celebrities and politicians will each spend an hour in “solitary confinement” in solidarity with the captured soldier.

A rally was also planned for the Italian capital of Rome, where the mayor was to help release 1,826 yellow balloons, corresponding to the number of days Shalit has been in captivity.

On Friday, The Obama administration called for Gilad Shalit’s immediate release. “Nearly five years have now passed since Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and abducted Gilad Shalit,” it said.  “During this time, Hamas has held him hostage without access by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in violation of the standards of basic decency and international humanitarian demands.  As the anniversary of his capture approaches, the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms his continued detention, and joins other governments and international organizations around the world in calling on Hamas to release him immediately.”

France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said France “has not forgotten Gilad Schalit” and noted that he is the French hostage held the longest in captivity.

“On the eve of the sad anniversary of the fifth year of Gilad Schalit’s captivity, I want to reiterate that the situation of our compatriot, held in defiance of the most basic principles of international humanitarian law, is unacceptable,” Juppe said in the statement, which was posted on the website of the French Embassy in Israel.

Shalit is a citizen of both France and Israel, and according to the website is an honorary citizen of Paris, Rome, New Orleans and Miami. He has also just been named an honorary citizen of Baltimore.

Twelve Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations issued a joint statement Friday calling on Hamas to end its “illegal” and “inhumane” treatment of Shalit, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Some of those groups had never before spoken out on his behalf, according to a report by the International Middle East Media Center, which called the joint statement “unprecedented.”

Amnesty International said in a press release that it is circulating a petition among its worldwide membership, calling upon Hamas to ease the suffering of Shalit and his family, and will present the petition to Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has issued a statement saying the lack of information about Shalit was “unacceptable,” and demanded that Hamas issue proof immediately that he is still alive.

Shalit, 24, was captured on June 25, 2006, taken across the border from Israel into Gaza, and has been held since then by Hamas.

Terrorist Leader

Mohammed Abu Abbas, the terrorist whose botched ocean-liner hijacking in 1985 ended in the murder of an elderly American Jew and set back the Palestinian cause, has died in American custody.

His death, confirmed Tuesday by a U.S. official in Washington, buried the opportunity to put Abbas on trial as an example of bringing to justice those who use terrorism as a political tool.

Whatever testimony Abbas gave his captors about the role of Palestinian terrorist groups in propping up Saddam Hussein’s regime remains shrouded in secrecy for now.

Abbas was said to have died of natural causes in Iraq, where he has been held since his capture there last April. He was 55 and journalists who had encountered him in Baghdad prior to the American invasion said he appeared to be in poor health.

Various governments, including those of the United States, Italy and Israel, over the years had sought to try Abbas for his role in masterminding the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, but no one yearned for justice more than Leon Klinghoffer’s family.

Four terrorists belonging to Abbas’ Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the Italian-owned cruise ship off the Egyptian coast. The hijackers shot the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, 69, in the head and chest as his wife Marilyn watched. Then they dumped his body overboard.

Klinghoffer’s family had pressed U.S. occupation authorities to extradite Abbas to U.S. soil to be tried for their father’s murder.

"Our family was shocked to learn of the death of Abu Abbas," Klinghoffer’s daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, said in a statement released through the Anti-Defamation League. "We have been relentless in our efforts to ensure that Abbas be captured and brought to the U.S. to stand trial for our father’s murder and, hopefully, to be convicted and to receive the maximum sentence under our law."

"Our hopes were raised last year when he was captured in Iraq by U.S. troops and arrested," the statement said. "Now, with his death, justice will be denied. The one consolation for us is that Abu Abbas died in captivity, not as a free man."

Italy, which tried and convicted Abbas in absentia in 1986 for hijacking the ship, also had sought Abbas’ extradition.

Abbas’ main legacy to the Palestinians was as a bungler; it was never clear why exactly his faction split from the PLO.

He planned the Achille Lauro hijacking off Egyptian waters to secure the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners. In the end, however, his negotiations with Egyptian authorities secured only the safe passage of the four hijackers to Tunisia.

Klinghoffer’s vicious murder brought notoriety to the Palestinian cause. Abbas didn’t help matters when he told reporters that the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, an American Jew, somehow had "provoked" his tormentors.

Even though the Palestinian Liberation Front was marginal to the PLO, the hijacking helped further isolate PLO chief Yasser Arafat in the West.

European and Arab leaders began searching for a credible Palestinian alternative, and attacks such as the one on the Achille Lauro led King Hussein of Jordan to reconsider his reluctance to assume responsibility for the Palestinians.

Arafat and the PLO were rescued from obscurity only through the first intifada, launched in 1987 by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who had little to do with the PLO and nothing to do with Abbas. The popular uprising helped return Arafat to the mainstream, eventually leading to long-sought U.S. recognition of the PLO in 1988.

Yet barely a year later, in 1990, Abbas did it again. At Arafat’s side in Tunis, he sent Palestinian terrorists to raid an Israeli beach south of Ashdod. Israeli commandos intercepted the terrorists before they could inflict any damage — except on the reputation of the Palestinian movement. The United States promptly shut down U.S.-Palestinian dialogue.

Much of Abbas’ time was spent a step ahead of the law.

After the hijacking, U.S. Navy jets forced the EgyptAir flight carrying Abbas and his freed band of terrorists to land in Sicily. Two days later, arguing that Abbas held an Iraqi diplomatic passport, Italian authorities allowed him to go.

After that, Abbas spent time in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Since 1994, he made his home in Iraq.

He resurfaced on occasion in Palestinian-run Gaza; as part of the Oslo framework, Israel agreed not to seek his prosecution.

In exchange, Abbas lent qualified support to the emerging peace process, though this mattered little among Palestinians. He had virtually no following in the West Bank.

U.S. Special Forces who raided Abbas’ house near Baghdad last year found Lebanese and Yemeni passports, thousands of dollars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and some documents. Abbas had fled north but was turned back by the Syrians. His running days were over. U.S. forces captured him in April.

U.S. military officials said at the time that they would interrogate Abbas. No one has said since whether he was of use in tracking down leaders of the Iraqi regime that had sheltered him.

How Will Saddam’s Capture Affect Vote?

What does the capture of Saddam Hussein mean for Jewish
voters in 2004? Will it shift the preferences of Jewish Democrats as they weigh
the party’s presidential contenders? Will it push Jewish
voters closer to supporting President Bush for re-election?

The heartfelt connection that most American Jews feel for
the State of Israel overlaps with the broadly progressive, Democratic loyalties
that characterize most (though of course not all) American Jewish voters to
create a volatile mixture of instincts when foreign policy comes into play. The
spectrum runs from Jews who back Bush because of his staunchly pro-Israel
policy, to those who support Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s Democratic
version of pro-Israel politics, to those who support Howard Dean’s blistering
critique of Bush’s foreign policy. And many Jewish voters at this stage are
trying to decide among their choices.

From the perspective of those who care deeply about Israel,
the Iraq War becomes quite complicated. While there was little credible
evidence that Iraq posed a threat to the security of a United States more
immediately threatened by Osama bin Ladin, Saddam may have been a more serious,
direct threat to Israel.Â

He was in a position to define himself as the Arab world’s
leading edge against Israel. He had launched missiles into Israel during the
first Gulf War, and after his capture, information emerged that Israel had
trained commandos to attempt to assassinate him.

The problem for Israel is that while anything might be
better than keeping Saddam in power, removing his regime will not be enough to
guarantee Israel’s security. Unless the Bush administration shows greater
wisdom than it has so far in administering Iraq, who knows what kind of regime
will emerge and whether it will be even more hostile to Israel?

Placing Israel’s security in the hands of an American
administration that is blundering through its glorious experiment in
imperialism is hardly reassuring. But neither will Israelis and many American
Jews (and indeed most Americans) take comfort in the notion that there was no
value in removing Saddam from power.

So where does this tangle leave Jewish voters?

Some polls taken right after Saddam’s capture and
Lieberman’s harsh attack on Dean are showing a slight revival in Lieberman’s
fortunes, but it seems doubtful that he can emerge as the nominee of a party
whose active base wants a full-out assault on Bush. The most likely Democratic
candidates to win unstinting Jewish support are probably Gen. Wesley Clark and
Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, but they must still make credible showings in the
upcoming party contests.

Dean continues to move ahead but has not closed the deal. He
will have little trouble winning the votes of the most liberal Jews, but moderate,
middle-of-the-road Jewish Democrats may require considerable wooing on Middle
East issues. His early call for “balance” in the Middle East set off emotional
exchanges that finally ended with an eloquent letter from Dean to the
Anti-Defamation League outlining his pro-Israel views.

One of the interesting dynamics of the presidential
election, as the Washington Post’s Laura Blumenfeld noted in early December, is
that both Arab Americans and Jews have become slightly unmoored from their
traditional partisan leanings by the Iraq War. Many Jews have been gratified by
Bush’s strong support of Israel and believe that an America strong in world
affairs is good for Israel.

Many Arab Americans, a bloc of whom had voted for Bush in
2000 after he promised to be extremely sensitive to their civil liberties, have
been outraged by the USA Patriot Act and are ready to vote against Bush in
2004. If, however, Democrats try to win Arab American votes by softening
support for Israel, they will lose Jewish voters and perhaps win only a few
Arab Americans. But there may be an area of common ground between the two
groups, which is opposition to the violations of civil liberties in the USA
Patriot Act.

What does the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, have
to do to hold the critical support of Jewish voters in light of Saddam’s

For those Jewish voters who are closely attuned to how
Israel viewed Saddam’s Iraq, it would be worth remembering that there can be
some good outcomes from even an ill-advised, dishonestly presented war. The
Bush administration’s harebrained “neo-cons” may have a ridiculously overblown
confidence in their ability to redraw the map of the Middle East around
American hegemony, but at least they factor Israel’s security into their

The Democratic nominee must go beyond supporting the peace
process, as valuable as that is, to concretely address Israel’s long-term and
short-term security needs. That candidate must also remember that one can
oppose the Bush administration’s foreign policy approach without having to become
its opposite.

The alternative to hard militaristic unilateralism is not
just soft diplomatic multilateralism but a firm, resolute, tough foreign policy
that builds on and cherishes historic alliances. Â

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.

Capture Stirs Mixed Mideast Reactions

After surviving the Holocaust and five Middle East wars,
Ze’ev is a hard man to impress. But news of Saddam Hussein’s capture Sunday
managed to move the Israeli retiree to tears.

“It is good to see Israel a little bit safer,” Ze’ev said in
his hometown of Ramat Gan, as footage of the Iraqi tyrant-turned-prisoner
played on television screens at roadside snack stands. Ramat Gan, where Iraqi
Jewish emigres settled en masse in the 1950s, ironically was a main target of
Saddam’s Scud missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

 The capture of the only Arab leader to perpetrate an
unanswered strike against the Jewish State generated an upbeat reaction in Israel,
buoying the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and resonating at the Defense Ministry.

“The capture of the Iraqi dictator is additional proof that
the policies of the free world, led by U.S. President George W. Bush, are
determined to bring to justice all terrorists responsible for killing,
destruction and anarchy,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz wrote in a telegram to
his U.S. counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also phoned Bush to offer

The Arab leaders who still battle Israel were more
circumspect. While Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a longtime a
Saddam ally, mulled an official reaction to the news of the capture in Tikrit,
Hamas and Islamic Jihad cautioned the West not to rejoice too soon.

“The Americans need to be the lords of the world by
eradicating all resistance against them,” said Adnan Asfour, a Hamas leader in
the West Bank. “I say to the Iraqi people: Observe what the Palestinian people do.
Our leaders are assassinated and arrested every day by the Israeli occupiers,
and that does not stop us from continuing our fight.”

In the Gaza Strip border town of Rafah, which sees almost
daily fighting between Palestinian gunrunners and Israeli troops, a rally to
mark the 16th anniversary of Hamas quickly became a show of support for Saddam.
Children bore posters showing Saddam in better days: uniformed, smiling, an
unabashed patron of the Palestinian cause.

Israeli strategic experts agreed that while a quick trial
and sentencing for Saddam might calm Iraq, it was unlikely to affect the
Palestinian front. Terrorist attacks against Israel continued, even though
Saddam’s payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers stopped after
he was deposed in March.

Unlike Saddam, Arafat still enjoys the status of
international statesman in most places except Washington.

“What amazes me,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the
Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “is that Saddam can now sit in
shackles for his support of terrorism, while archterrorist Arafat remains

Some experts warned of a surge in violence by pan-Arab
nationalists keen to show they are not cowed by the loss of a major figurehead.

“Those normal citizens who have taken up arms against the
Americans in Iraq and the Islamist extremists who have flocked to help them
might well put up a last fight,” said Jacky Hugi, Arab affairs correspondent
for Israel’s daily Ma’ariv.

The parallels between the Iraqi and Palestinian fronts
resonated recently with revelations that Israel was exporting its hard-learned
counterterrorist tactics to U.S. forces operating in Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the news initially was greeted
with disbelief. But as the news was confirmed, many expressed joy that Saddam
would never return to power in Iraq. Others seemed disappointed that he had not
fought back against his U.S. captors.

In Yemen, one man said he had expected Saddam to fight back.
“I expected him to resist or commit suicide before falling into American
hands,” said teacher Mohammed Abdel Qader Mohammadi, 50. “He disappointed a lot
of us. He’s a coward.” Â