Bernard-Henri Lévy: A calling to see — and write about — the truth


The peripatetic philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was en route from Iraq to his home in Paris when the Journal caught up with him by phone during a stopover in Morocco and spoke about a wide range of topics, from the election of Donald Trump to the successes of Zionism.

The author of the recently released “The Genius of Judaism” has a conversational style that is somewhat less charged-up than his prose, but he displays the same command of history, politics and literature — and the same urgent moral concern —

Why Jews in France might give right-wing populist Francois Fillon a chance


If the French right-wing politician Francois Fillon is elected president next year, it won’t be for his skills at promoting interfaith dialogue.

The secularist candidate widely favored to win the election in May managed to enrage many Jews, Muslims and even Catholics with a single explosive statement he made last week during a radio interview shortly after winning the Republican Party primaries in France.

Frenchmen need to fight against Muslim sectarianism, Fillon told Europe1 on Nov. 23, like “we fought against a form of Catholic sectarianism or like we fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that does not respect the laws of the French Republic.”

His remark unleashed a furious reaction by Muslim community activists like Yasser Louati, a former spokesman of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, who called Fillon a xenophobe. And it certainly offended some members of the Jewish community, where congregants regularly recite a special prayer in their synagogues for the republic’s well-being and success.

UEJF, the left-leaning Jewish student group, criticized Fillon. But mainstream representatives of French Jewry remained unusually silent on the statement, giving observers the impression that Fillon is getting a free pass on expressing anti-Jewish bias because many Jews support his anti-Muslim stance and view him as the best hope in preventing the far-right National Front party under Marine Le Pen from reaching power.

“I was amazed by the silence of community representatives who are usually never shy in condemning any shred of anti-Jewish bias on what is clearly a very problematic statement by Fillon,” said Michel Zerbib, news director at Radio J, the French Jewish station.

Bruno Benjamin, president of the Marseilles branch of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, called Fillon’s statement “clumsy” but “not unusual during campaigns.” He added: “I’m not about to polemicize what Fillon said.” His forgiving attitude was unusual for his organization, which is usually quick to denounce any expression of bias against Jews.

Fillon’s statement, however, did alarm some French Jews. Following his landslide victory in the primaries with 65 percent of the vote, Fillon is poised to become president. In May he will be running against a yet-undeclared candidate from the ruling party of President Francois Hollande, an uncharismatic candidate with dismal approval ratings  amid discontent over Islamism and economic stagnation.

Fillon, with his charged statements on Islam — he has said that French Muslims who engage in “Islamic totalitarianism” cannot be considered truly French – will also be running against Le Pen, who is projected to win 25 percent of the vote.

“But his firm stance is likely to be very bad news for her,” said Zerbib, joining other commentators who expect that Fillon will steal many of her would-be voters.

The remark on Jewish sectarianism  — a reference, apparently, to the Napoleonic-era bargain in which Jews accepted emancipation in exchange for declaring themselves first and foremost French citizens — is not the first time that Fillon, a hard-liner and ex-prime minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, has taken aim at Jewish customs. In 2012, Jewish and Muslim groups condemned him for telling Europe1 that minorities need to abandon “ancestral traditions” and ritual slaughter “to adapt in the modern world” and science.

Fillon’s spokesman said this week that his boss was “misunderstood” and had wished to express his opposition to “all forms of religious fundamentalism,” especially by Muslims.

“The Jews of France are French like the Christians of France are French and the Muslims of France are French, except for those who partake in Islamic sectarianism, in Islamic totalitarianism, which needs to be fought against,” said the spokesman, Jerome Chartier.

Benjamin said he found the clarification “satisfactory.” Zerbib disagreed, saying “I think Fillon needs to clarify what he meant by his statement and his positions on religious freedoms in general.”

Fillon’s apparent suspicion or disdain for religious customs fits into the French concept of laïcité, a strict form of secularism. In recent decades it has gained traction among French politicians and thought leaders, who regard it as a tool to check what they regard as the spread of Islam and its effects on French society. In summer, laïcité advocates, including some leaders of French Jewry, cited the concept in defending a controversial ban on wearing full-body swimsuits, or burkinis, at some beaches.

“Going with it [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message,” Moshe Sebbag, the chief rabbi of Paris’ Grand Synagogue, told JTA in August. Conceding that Jewish Orthodox women wear similar garb while bathing, he said the Muslim burkini “is not about women’s liberty to dress modestly, but a statement as to who will rule here tomorrow.”

Amid pressure, Sebbag later retracted his words. But it was nonetheless a demonstration of a willingness by a growing number of French Jews and non-Jews to accept theoretical limitations on their own freedoms in the hope of addressing the Muslim radicalization that is behind hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks annually, including several deadly assaults since 2012.

Hundreds have died in France and Belgium in jihadist attacks, including in the Bataclan concert hall in November 2015 and more recently in Nice, where 84 people were murdered in July.

This sense of threat “may also be behind the weak reaction to what Fillon said,” Zerbib said. “It may be that Jewish groups are willing to look the other way because they don’t want to be seen as partisan, or because he comes across to some as an ally.”

Reflecting the alarm of many French Jews, Benjamin, who recently called for Marseilles Jews to conceal their kippahs for security reasons, said that “Islamization is an existential threat on France.” While stopping short of endorsing Fillon, Benjamin said it “seems he is committed to offering solutions” to a “problem that will perhaps become insolvable by the 2021 election.”

Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls are widely credited by French Jews for extraordinary efforts to protect them from this threat, Zerbib said, including by posting 12,000 soldiers at Jewish areas following the murder of four people last year at a Paris kosher shop.

“But Hollande is an unpopular leader also among Jews,” Zerbib noted.

Valls, however, “may command considerable support by Jews if he becomes the Socialist candidate,” Zerbib said.

Faced with this feeling of threat, a growing number of French Jews have been tempted to support the National Front, a party shunned by the Jewish establishment because of the anti-Semitism of some of its founders. The party, which once had nearly no Jewish supporters, now attracts 12 percent of the Jewish vote, polls from 2014 suggest, “and the current level of support among Jews may be higher,” Zerbib said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s founder and honorary president — and Marine Le Pen’s father — was finally booted from the party this year for minimizing the Holocaust. A French court determined earlier this month that he may keep the title of honorary president.

In addition to kicking out her father and several other members who made anti-Semitic statements, Le Pen has courted French Jews by expressing support for Israel and promising Jews her party will be “their shield” against Muslim radicalism.

But last month, Le Pen reiterated her support for a ban on wearing religious garb, including by Jews, to curb what she calls the spread of Islam.

“Jews can understand that if we ask for this sacrifice from them,” she told BFMTV.

French Jews largely rejected Le Pen’s request, yet Zerbib said they appear to be more willing to give Fillon “concessions that would not have been on offer to most politicians under normal circumstances.”

French Jewry’s president appears to back burkini ban


Ending a long and conspicuous silence on the burkini ban in France, the president of the umbrella group of French Jews appeared to support the ban, saying he favored limiting “political-religious” symbols.

In an interview published Monday on the Actualite Juive Jewish news website, Francis Kalifat of CRIF for the first time directly addressed the ban last month by 30 French municipalities on the full-body swimsuit favored by Muslim women seeking modesty.

Kalifat said lawmakers should “consider differentiating religious symbols from political-religious symbols.” Radical and sectarian Islam and its fanatics, he said, “are looking for ways today to destabilize the French republic with the aim of vanquishing the societal model we inhabit today.”

He also said: “This polemic will, of course, also affect the Jewish community.”

Religious Orthodox women also adhere to clothing deemed modest, though few wear burkinis to the beach in France.

Kalifat has resisted calls to speak against the divisive ban, which a court on Aug. 26 ruled was illegal, in solidarity with French Muslims.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has defended the ban, saying the wearing of burkinis on French beaches was “part of a political project … to perpetuate female servitude.” Critics of the ban have argued it infringes on the very liberties its supporters say it is designed to protect.

The burkini controversy reawakened the debate on the wearing of religious symbols in public in France, where a law banning face-covering clothing such as the burka was passed in 2010. Critics of such legislation say it opens the door to religious persecution, including of Jewish men who wear kippot and women who cover their hair.

In the interview, Kalifat reiterated his scathing criticism of Jean Luc Melenchon, a far-left politician who compared the ban to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. The comparison, which Kalifat called “indecent,” prompted him to make his first indirect reference about the burkini bans two weeks after they were put in place.

Whereas Kalifat expressed an opinion that can be interpreted as supportive of the ban, a prominent Paris rabbi who early on told JTA that he supported the ban outright has walked back the statements, claiming they were taken out of context.

Asked by JTA on Aug. 23 whether he personally supported the burkini bans, Rabbi Moshe Sebbag, who heads the Grand Synagogue of Paris, said: “Yes, because you see that going with it [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message.”

The mayors who banned it, he said, “understood this is not about women’s liberty to dress modestly but a statement as to who will rule here tomorrow.”

But in an interview published Thursday by the Forward, Sebbag said: “I think my words were taken out of context. I was trying to explain this situation from a political level and how politicians in France view our current situation.”

He added: “I understand where the mayor is coming from, but it doesn’t mean that I agree with him. Passing this kind of law is unacceptable. It just screams Islamophobia. But from our current climate and environment, it is understandable.”

Islamist terrorists call to attack Israeli delegation and others at Rio Olympics, report says


Islamist terrorists have issued directives to “lone wolves” to carry out attacks against the Israeli delegation and others at the Rio Olympics this summer, according to a news website.

The Foreign Desk reported that a list of directives published on social media advises jihadis to target American, British, French and Israeli athletes, saying “One small knife attack against Americans/Israelis in these places will have bigger media effect than any other attacks anywhere else insha Allah,” meaning “If Allah wills.”

“Your chance to take part in the global Jihad is here! Your chance to be a martyr is here!” the jihadis said, citing the easy process of obtaining visas for travel to Brazil as well as the wide availability of guns in “crime-ridden slums,” according to the report by Lisa Daftari, an investigative journalist specializing in foreign affairs as well as a Fox News analyst.

Israeli athletes are further singled out.

“From among the worst enemies, the most famous enemies for general Muslims is to attack Israelis. As general Muslims all agree to it and it causes more popularity for the Mujahideen among the Muslims,” the jihadis said on social media.

In parallel, Brazilian police on Thursday ordered the detention of 12 people who allegedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group via social media and discussed possible attacks during the games.

Operation “Hashtag” was announced by the justice minister, Alexandre Moraes, on Thursday morning at a news conference in Brasilia. The arrests took place based on Brazil’s new anti-terror law for which Jewish officials had advocated.

“There is only one way to face terrorism with efficiency: prevention,” Fernando Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, told JTA in March.

“The concern with the recruitment network of the Islamic State scattered across Brazilian cities and on the internet has been growing and flagged by specialists. We have met congressmen and federal authorities many times to express the need for such legislation,” he said.

Allegedly members of a group called Defenders of Sharia, those arrested are believed to have been in online contact via social media with members of Islamic State. They are also reported to have discussed the acquisition of AK-47 assault rifles and celebrated the recent terror attacks on Orlando and Nice.

The Rio Olympics begin on Aug. 5. Between 500,000 and 1 million tourists are expected in Brazil’s second largest city, including some 10,000 Israelis coming to see their country’s largest-ever Olympics delegation compete for medals.

Israel reports record immigration of Jews from France in 2015


A record number of French Jews moved to Israel this year, an immigration official said on Thursday, citing anti-Semitic violence and economic insecurity in the European country as causes.

France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, having grown by nearly half since World War Two to some 550,000. The community has been jarred by an increase in security threats and Islamist militant attacks such as January's gun rampage at a Paris kosher market that killed four Jews.

Israel's quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which encourages immigration, said some 7,900 French Jews had relocated to Israel in 2015, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

“Each has his or her reason, including the economic crisis, personal security, terrorist attacks, and, in some places and times, an anti-Jewish mood,” agency spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

Though not final, the immigration figure falls short of Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky's prediction after the kosher market attack following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January that more than 10,000 French Jews would move to Israel this year.

Palmor said wider Jewish immigration to Israel reached a 15-year high in 2015, with around 30,000 new arrivals. He noted a high number of arrivals from economically troubled Russia and civil war-torn Ukraine.

After Paris attacks, English soccer fans salute France by roaring out the ‘Marseillaise’


English soccer fans saluted France on Tuesday by roaring out the 'Marseillaise' national anthem at a friendly match watched by British politicians and royalty in a show of solidarity just days after Islamic State militants struck Paris.

As armed police looked on, David Cameron, Prince William and London Mayor Boris Johnson joined England fans in an emotional rendition of the French anthem at Wembley Stadium which was lit up in the blue, white and red of the French flag.

England won 2-0.

In an impassioned display of support for France after the killing of 129 people in Paris, 71,000 fans applauded at the opening of the match as the two teams ignored the etiquette of standing apart to mingle into a single line, their arms draped around each other's shoulders.

Fans observed a minute of silence for the fallen. Later, supporters from both sides waved the French tricolour, some with posters reading “Pray forParis”.

“Seeing Wembley in blue, white and red gives me goose pimples,” said Eric Lavaud, a 55-year-old France supporter.

“We are not scared,” said Lavaud, who had draped a French flag around his neck and had been at the Stade de France on Friday for the friendly with Germany.

Explosions at that match between France and Germany on Friday signalled the beginning of the worst attack on Europe since the 2004 Madrid bombings.

England manager Roy Hodgson said the warm welcome for the French team, who have generally had the upper hand over England in recent years, was designed to show how appalled they were with the events in Paris. 

“The French team and the French Federation were very keen that the game should go ahead just to make certain that the terrorists don't win,” he told broadcaster ITV before the match.

“We see the game as a show of solidarity and we see it also as a show of defiance.” 

A friendly match between hosts Germany and Netherlands in Hanover was called off less than two hours before its start on Tuesday for fear of a bomb attack while a tie between Belgium and Spain was postponed for security reasons. 

That match had been due to take place in Brussels, where police have carried out raids in the wake of the Paris attacks.

“THE KILLERS WON'T WIN” 

Prime Minister David Cameron said it was important for Britain to stand side-by-side with its neighbor, the world cup winners from 1998.

“Now, more than ever, we must come together and stand united and carry on with the way of life that we know and that we love,” he told parliament. “This match is going ahead.”

The players were led on to the pitch by Prince William and the two team managers who carried wreaths. 

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité' were beamed on to the side of the stadium while the words of the French national anthem were displayed on large screens for fans.

The two teams have close ties, with 13 of the French squad of 23 either currently or previously playing their club football in England. 

French international Lassana Diarra, who lost a cousin during the attacks, came on as a substitute during the second half, receiving warm applause from both sets of fans as he ran on to the pitch.

Common in European countries like France, armed police are generally rarely seen in Britain although they did patrol the London Olympic Games in 2012 and have taken on more of a high profile in recent years due to fears of attacks.

“We've all got to come together against terrorism and they're not going to stop us living our lives and being who we are. They won't win,” Paul Lloyd, a 52-year-old England supporter wearing a red England shirt, said before the match.

France's captain, Hugo Lloris, thanked England's fans for their support. He said his side had struggled to concentrate but added that it had been important to show courage.

Watchdog: Anti-Semitic attacks in France climbed 84% after kosher shop killings


The number of anti-Semitic attacks recorded in France during the first quarter of 2015 increased by 84 percent over the corresponding period last year, a watchdog group said.

The SPCJ security service of France’s Jewish communities released the figures Monday in a quarterly report that counted 508 anti-Semitic acts recorded between January and May. In the first four months of 2014, SPCJ recorded 276 incidents between January and May out of a total of 851 that year, making 2014 second only to the 974 incidents recorded in 2004 by the service. In all of 2013, SPCJ documented 423 incidents.

The worst of the attacks this year occurred on Jan. 9, when an Islamist killed four Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

Of the anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the first quarter this year, 121, or 23 percent, were classified by SPCJ as violent. The proportion of violent attacks was slightly higher in the first quarter of 2014, with 27 percent of the total, or 76 attacks.

Death threats accounted for 387 incidents out of the total in the first four months of 2015, slightly more than three-quarters of the incidents.

In 2012, the slaying of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse by a jihadist spurred a spike in anti-Semitic incidents throughout France, possibly by those inspired by the attack to target Jews, SPCJ reported at the time. SPCJ documented more than 90 anti-Semitic incidents in the 10 days that followed the shooting.

French National Assembly approves $60 million Holocaust reparations fund


The French National Assembly voted to approve the creation of a $60 million fund to compensate Holocaust victims transported to Nazi camps by the state railroad SNCF.

The fund, to be administered by the United States, would compensate foreign nationals and also protect France against lawsuits filed in the United States.

The lower house of the French Parliament approved the fund on Wednesday. The French conservative opposition abstained from the vote, according to Reuters.

The fund redresses longstanding claims by survivors who were otherwise unable to obtain reparations limited to French nationals through the French pension system.

Compensation will be available to non-French nationals who are citizens of the United States and any other country that does not have a bilateral reparations agreement with France. Belgium, Poland, Britain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have such agreements.

Surviving spouses and the estates of survivors will also be eligible. The fund could ultimately pay out to several thousand people or estates.

The plan could affect bills under consideration in a number of U.S. state legislatures that would ban any dealings with SNCF, a major exporter of rail cars, until it agreed to address lawsuits.

The French Senate will vote on the bill on July 9.

SNCF trains transported 76,000 Jews and other prisoners from the suburbs of Paris to the German border from 1942 to 1944.

Owned by the French government, SNCF says it has acknowledged the role that its wartime management played in collaborating with the Nazis and given public apologies. It also has supported memorial efforts and research of the Holocaust in France.

Irma Schwager, Austrian-Jewish activist in French resistance, dies at 95


Irma Schwager, an Austrian-Jewish refugee who lost most of her family in the Holocaust and worked with the French resistance, has died.

Her death at 95 was announced on Monday by Austria’s Communist Party, for whom she was honorary chairwoman.

During World War II, Schwager, nee Wieselberg, lived in occupied France, where she recruited German soldiers stationed there to work against the Nazis, the French news agency AFP reported. She had fled Austria in 1938, managing to elude the Nazis, although the Gestapo raided her Paris apartment at one point, according to AFP.

After the war, Schwager returned to Austria, where she was active in the Communist Party, championed feminist causes and lobbied for nuclear disarmament.

Schwager remained active until shortly before her death. In January, she delivered a speech in Vienna to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Prosecutor asks for Strauss-Kahn acquittal in French sex trial


A French prosecutor asked a criminal court on Tuesday to acquit former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of a pimping charge for his role in what investigating magistrates argued was an organized sex ring using prostitutes.

Strauss-Kahn was tipped to become French president before being accused of sexual assault by a New York hotel chambermaid in 2011. U.S. criminal charges were subsequently dropped, and the allegations that he participated in a French sex ring centered in the northern French city of Lille emerged later.

“Did Dominique Strauss-Kahn pay prostitutes? The answer is no. Did he pimp prostitutes for others? The answer is no,” Lille Prosecutor Frederic Fevre told the court before requesting Strauss-Kahn's acquittal.

The prosecution's demand highlighted the difficulty of a potential conviction of Strauss-Kahn, 65. The trial is due to finish this week, with closing statements from the defense on Wednesday, but a verdict is not expected immediately.

Investigating magistrates, who originally sent the case against Strauss-Kahn to trial over the objections of the same prosecutor, argued that the prominent Socialist was the instigator of parties involving prostitutes from 2008 to 2011 in Lille, Brussels, Paris and Washington.

Under French law, investigating magistrates have the right to overrule prosecutors' initial recommendations to drop a case.

The charge of pimping, or “procuring with aggravating circumstances”, was justified, magistrates said, because Strauss-Kahn took a principal role in planning the parties, and knew that the women who attended them were prostitutes.

But during the three-week trial in Lille, characterized by sordid detail about Strauss-Kahn's sexual behavior from former prostitutes, the star defendant consistently maintained he had no idea the women at the sex parties were prostitutes, and that he had not organized the parties himself.

“Everyone is free to live out their sexuality how they wish,” Fevre said. “Neither the prosecutor nor the judge can set himself up as the guardian of moral order.”

Thirteen other defendants similarly are being judged for their role in the alleged sex ring that Strauss-Kahn says was simply a group of like-minded swingers.

Asking the court to take into account that the defendants had already payed “a heavy price”, Fevre said their actions were those of “a group of friends who were satisfying their egos, ambitions and simply their sexual desires.”

As for Strauss-Kahn, Fevre said he was “troubled by the recurring mention of (his) sexual practices,” which he said was not the case for his co-defendants.

Fevre indirectly criticized the three investigating magistrates for pursuing a case that provoked a media firestorm.

“Without this defendant, this case would have been settled a long time ago,” he told the court.

On Monday, lawyers for the four prostitutes who participated in the parties said they were giving up their claim of damages from Strauss-Kahn, citing insufficient evidence to prove the pimping charge.

Strauss-Kahn, if convicted, risked a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 1.5 million euros ($1.70 million).

Islamic State fighter praises attack on Paris satirical magazine


A fighter of the Islamic State militant group praised Wednesday's attack on a French satirical magazine that killed at least 12 people, telling Reuters the raid was revenge for insults against Islam.

[RELATED: Charlie Hebdo and the freedom to offend]

Hooded gunmen stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo in the worst militant assault on French soil in recent decades. The dead included top editors at Charlie Hebdo, a publication renowned for lampooning Islam, as well as two police officers.

“The lions of Islam have avenged our Prophet,” said Abu Mussab, a Syrian who fights with the Islamic State, which has captured broad swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory.

“These are our lions. It's the first drops – more will follow,” he said, speaking via an internet connection from Syria. He added that he and his fellow fighters were happy about the incident.

“Let these crusaders be scared because they should be.”

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack.

GROWING NETWORK

Abu Mussab said he did not know the gunmen who carried out the attack, but added “they are on the path of the emir …. and our Sheikh Osama (bin Laden).”

His reference to the emir is to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose group is a powerful anti-government paramilitary force in both Iraq and Syria and has a growing network of followers elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia.

Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011.

In 2013 the Yemen wing of al Qaeda published a notice called “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam” featuring several outspoken critics of Islam, including Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, who was killed on Wednesday.

On the Twitter social media site, militant sympathizers expressed profound satisfaction.

One wrote: “Oh dog of the Romans in France, by God, by God, by God, we will not stop at targeting Charlie Hebdo magazine. What is coming is worse.”

The Arabic phrases #parisburns and #revengefortheprophet were among the hashtags used by many admirers of the shooting.

One supporter tweeted, “The word of Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) shakes Paris”. Another wrote: “Bravo lone wolves:”.

“NOTHING SACRED”

A Twitter account called al-Marsad, which says it tracks news in the Islamic world, praised the attack: “Your planes strike Muslim children with impunity … And our lions roam your streets.”

A more nuanced message came from prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He wrote: “Charlie Hebdo is a satirical journal, nothing is sacred to it. It was abusive to Jesus Christ and the symbols of all religions and we as Muslims reject that – but to them this is freedom of expression.”

Early reaction from governments in Muslim countries was unreservedly critical.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu strongly condemned the shooting and said to associate Islam with terrorism would be a mistake. He called for a fight against both extremism and Islamophobia.

“Our religion is a religion of peace … We are against all forms of terrorism,” he told reporters in Ankara.

Condemnation also came from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, the Egyptian government and Egypt's leading Islamic authority, Al-Azhar.

Police hunt three Frenchmen after 12 killed in Paris attack


Police are hunting three French nationals, including two brothers from the Paris region, after suspected Islamist gunmen killed 12 people at a satirical magazine on Wednesday, a police official and government source said.

The hooded attackers stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly known for lampooning Islam and other religions, in the most deadly militant attack on French soil in decades.

French police staged a huge manhunt for the attackers who escaped by car after shooting dead some of France's top cartoonists as well as two police officers. About 800 soldiers were brought in to shore up security across the capital.

Police issued a document to forces across the region saying the three men were being sought for murder in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attack. The document, reviewed by a Reuters correspondent, named them as Said Kouachi, born in 1980, Cherif Kouachi, born in 1982, and Hamyd Mourad, born in 1996.

The police source said one of them had been identified by his identity card, which had been left in the getaway car.

The Kouachi brothers were from the Paris region while Mourad was from the area of the northeastern city of Reims, the government source told Reuters.

The police source said one of the brothers had previously been tried on terrorism charges.

Cherif Kouachi was charged with criminal association related to a terrorist enterprise in 2005 after he was arrested before leaving for Iraq to join Islamist militants. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2008, according to French media.

A police source said anti-terrorism police searching for the suspects had been preparing an operation in Reims, and that there had already been a number of searches at locations across the country as part of the investigation.

A Reuters reporter in Reims saw anti-terrorism police secure a building before a forensics team entered an apartment there while dozens of residents looked on. They did not appear to be preparing a major raid.

A government official told Reuters there had been no arrests.

During the attack, one of the assailants was captured on video outside the building shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Greatest) as shots rang out. Another walked over to a police officer lying wounded on the street and shot him point-blank with an assault rifle before the two calmly climbed into a black car and drove off.

A police union official said there were fears of further attacks, and described the scene in the offices as carnage, with a further four wounded fighting for their lives.

Tens of thousands joined impromptu rallies across France in memory of the victims and to support freedom of expression.

The government declared the highest state of alert, tightening security at transport hubs, religious sites, media offices and department stores as the search for the assailants got under way.

Some Parisians expressed fears about the effect of the attack on community relations in France, which has Europe's biggest Muslim population.

“This is bad for everyone – particularly for Muslims despite the fact that Islam is a fine religion. It risks making a bad situation worse,” Cecile Electon, an arts worker who described herself as an atheist, told Reuters at a vigil on Paris's Place de la Republique attended by 35,000 people.

Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) is well known for courting controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders of all faiths and has published numerous cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad. Jihadists online repeatedly warned that the magazine would pay for its ridicule.

The last tweet on its account mocked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State, which has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria and called for “lone wolf” attacks on French soil.

There was no claim of responsibility. However, a witness quoted by 20 Minutes daily newspaper said one of the assailants cried out before getting into his car: “Tell the media that it is al Qaeda in Yemen!”

Supporters of Islamic State and other jihadist groups hailed the attack on Internet sites. Governments throughout Europe have expressed fear that fighters returning from Iraq or Syria could launch attacks in their home countries.

“Today the French Republic as a whole was the target,” President Francois Hollande said in a prime-time evening television address. He declared a national day of mourning on Thursday.

EXECUTIONS

An amateur video broadcast by French television stations shows two hooded men in black outside the building. One of them spots a wounded policeman lying on the ground, hurries over to him and shoots him dead at point-blank range with a rifle.

In another clip on television station iTELE, the men are heard shouting in French: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo. We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad.”

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the assailants killed a man at the entrance of the building to force entry. They then headed to the second floor and opened fire on an editorial meeting attended by eight journalists, a policeman tasked with protecting the magazine's editorial director and a guest.

“What we saw was a massacre. Many of the victims had been executed, most of them with wounds to the head and chest,” Patrick Hertgen, an emergencies services medic called out to treat the injured, told Reuters.

A Reuters reporter saw groups of armed policeman patrolling around department stores in the shopping district and there was an armed gendarme presence outside the Arc de Triomphe.

U.S. President Barack Obama described the attack as cowardly and evil, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among European leaders condemning the shooting.

The dead included co-founder Jean “Cabu” Cabut and editor-in-chief Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier.

France last year reinforced its anti-terrorism laws and was on alert after calls from Islamist militants to attack its citizens and interests in reprisal for French military strikes on Islamist strongholds in the Middle East and Africa.

The last major attack in Paris was in the mid-1990s when the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out a spate of attacks, including the bombing of a commuter train in 1995 which killed eight people and injured 150.

French Jewish leader: ‘It’s not so pleasant living there as Jews’


France’s flag has three stripes, and its motto promotes three values: liberty, equality and fraternity.

Now, its Jewish community — Europe’s largest — faces three threats, according to Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish organizations and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

In an appearance at New York’s French consulate, Cukierman laid out the trio of challenges: an increasingly radicalized Muslim immigrant population that scapegoats Jews, the growing popularity of the far-right National Front party headed by Marine Le Pen, and widespread anti-Israel sentiment among French leftists.

“It’s not so pleasant living there as Jews in this period,” Cukierman said, adding that at a recent anti-government demonstration, “a crowd of 17,000 people was yelling, ‘Jews, France does not belong to you.’” (An audience member disputed his characterization later during a Q&A session, arguing that only about 500 demonstrators joined in the anti-Jewish chants.)

Forty percent of violent hate crimes in France target Jews, Cukierman said.

Another looming threat, he said, is Qatar’s enormous influence on the French economy.

“They’re in a position to influence French policy,” he said. “They haven’t yet, but it’s easy to envision they might in the future.”

Despite the challenges, the French government is standing by the country’s Jews, said Cukierman, noting approvingly that the country’s president recently publicly equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

A mix of French expats and American Jewish leaders filled the large, stately second-floor room, where Cukierman spoke, followed by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Much of Hoenlein’s speech was laced with dramatic rhetoric, comparing anti-Semitism in France to a “tsunami,” describing Arab unrest as “the Arab volcano” and referring to anti-Semitism in Europe as a “cancer that has been allowed to grow.” He also referenced Hitler’s “big lie” and quoted the “in every generation, enemies arise to destroy us” line from the Haggadah.

Police investigate false bomb threat against comedian Dieudonne


French comedian Diedonne M’bala M’bala complained to police about threats to blow up the theater in which he performs.

The bomb threat was made Thursday against the Main D’Or theater, which Dieudonne operates, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, according to MetroNews.fr. Police rushed to the scene but found no explosives.

Performances by Dieudonne, a professed anti-Semite and inventor of the quenelle anti-Semitic salute, have been targeted in the past by activists of the Ligue de Defense Juive, the local branch of the JDL.

Last week, six men believed to be linked to JDL were arrested in Lyon for allegedly assaulting two individuals who posted online pictures of themselves performing the quenelle, a quasi-Nazi salute which French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday was a gesture of hate and anti-Semitism.

In recent months, several athletes in France and beyond were seen performing the quenelle, which is believed to be gaining traction in French society.

On Dec. 28, West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka performed the salute during a match, prompting strongly worded condemnations from anti-racism campaigners.

But Kick it Out, a prominent British organization working to curb soccer racism, issued a guarded statement saying only that it will assist Britain’s Football Association in investigating Anelka’s behavior. Anelka has ignored calls to apologize, saying the salute was a gesture to his friend Dieudonne.

John Mann, chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism at the European Parliament, blasted Kick it Out for not using stronger language.

“Not good enough,” Mann wrote on Twitter last week. “You should be leading on challenging this racism. Your statement is weak and puny.”

NBA’s Tony Parker apologizes for anti-Semitic salute


NBA star Tony Parker has apologized for performing an anti-Semitic salute after a three-year-old photo was published in the French media.

The photo shows Parker, who was born in Belgium and is a French national, performing the quenelle salute earlier this year with its inventor, the French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

The quenelle is a quasi-Nazi salute designed to circumvent France’s laws against displaying Nazi symbols.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League had called on Parker, who plays point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, to apologize for performing the salute.

“While this gesture has been part of French culture for many years, it was not until recently that I learned of the very negative concerns associated with it,” Parker said in a statement released late Monday the Spurs.

[Related: Top 10 anti-Semitic, anti-Israel slurs of 2013]

“When l was photographed making that gesture three years ago, I thought it was part of a comedy act and did not know that it could be in any way offensive or harmful. Since I have been made aware of the seriousness of this gesture, I will certainly never repeat the gesture and sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or harm relating to my actions,” Parker said.

The ADL praised Parker’s apology. “We call on those who have posed with the quenelle to follow Parker’s lead and stop using it. Responsible public figures should condemn those who use a gesture which was created to express anti-Semitism,” the ADL said in a statement.

Reports of the Parker salute came a day after soccer player Nicolas Anelka, a French national playing for Britain’s West Bromwich Albion soccer team, was roundly condemned for performing the salute during a match on Saturday. Britain’s Football Association has launched an investigation of the Anelka incident.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the Football Association and the UEFA, the governing body of European football, European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor called for a fight against anti-Semitism in football.

“At the European Jewish Congress, we regularly receive reports of attacks on Jews, whether verbal or physical, which also include acts of anti-Semitism at matches involving English and European football clubs,” Kantor wrote in letters to Greg Dyke, chairman of The Football Association and Michel Platini, president of UEFA. “Mr. Anelka’s recent action is a reminder that hatred of Jews in the stands can very easily find its way right on to the pitch. Similarly, the legitimization of anti-Semitic acts by players who are supposed to act as role models for youth is a particularly dangerous phenomenon, and one that is not restricted to Anelka alone.”

Kantor and the EJC offered their cooperation to the football associations to help fight anti-Semitism.

Arafat did not die of poisoning, French tests conclude


Yasser Arafat was not the victim of poisoning, French forensic tests concluded on Tuesday, countering the theory put forward by a Swiss report on the 2004 death of the Palestinian leader.

The French conclusions were immediately challenged by his widow Suha Arafat, who has argued the death was a political assassination by someone close to her husband. A senior Palestinian official dismissed the report as “politicized”.

“You can imagine how much I am shaken by the contradictions between the findings of the best experts in Europe in this domain,” Suha Arafat, dressed in black and reading from a written statement, told a news conference in Paris.

“I am accusing no one. This is in the hands of justice and it is just the beginning,” she said, requesting that the Swiss report be made available to French judges examining the case.

Arafat, who signed the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel but then led an uprising after subsequent talks broke down in 2000, died aged 75 in a French hospital in November 2004. His death came four weeks after he fell ill after a meal, suffering from vomiting and stomach pains.

The official cause of death was a massive stroke, but French doctors said at the time they were unable to determine the origin of his illness. No autopsy was carried out.

Swiss forensic experts stirred controversy last month by announcing that results from their tests of samples taken from Arafat's body were consistent with polonium poisoning, while not absolute proof of the cause of death.

The report handed to Suha Arafat will not be published, but a source who had seen it quoted extracts to Reuters.

“The results of the analyses allow us to conclude that the death was not the result of poisoning,” the source quoted it as concluding. “Measurements of Polonium 210 and other radioactive substances taken from biological samples of the body are consistent with a natural environmental origin.”

DIVERGENT EXPLANATIONS

A Palestinian official dismissed the French findings.

“The French report is politicized and is contrary to all the evidence which confirms that the president was killed by poisoning,” senior Palestinian official Wasel Abu Yousef told Reuters in Ramallah.

“This report is an attempt to cover up what happened in Percy hospital,” he said of the French military hospital near Paris where Arafat was taken for treatment in 2004.

There are few known cases of polonium poisoning, the most famous recent example being that of defecting Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who drank a poisoned cup of tea in a London hotel in 2006.

“We have no doubt that the most comprehensive and thorough report that examined all aspects of this case remains the Swiss report,” Suha Arafat's lawyer Saad Djebbar told Reuters.

A radiation scientist who examined the Swiss and the French reports for Suha Arafat said both studies had found similar levels of Polonium 210 in Arafat's body but differed in their explanations of how it got there.

The scientist, who declined to be named, said the French report concluded that some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas in the tomb where Arafat was buried.

Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich

Kerry to join Iran nuclear talks in bid to reach deal


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join talks on Iran's contested nuclear program in Geneva on Saturday, as Tehran and six world powers appeared to be on the verge of an elusive breakthrough in the decade-old dispute.

The French, British and German foreign ministers, Laurent Fabius, William Hague and Guido Westerwelle, were also due to take part in intense negotiations on a deal under which Iran would curb its atomic activity in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.

The announcements came after diplomats in the Swiss city said a major sticking point in the talks, which began on Wednesday, may have been overcome.

Kerry left for Geneva “with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The decision was taken after consulting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, Psaki said.

Later, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Kerry decided to travel to Geneva “in light of the progress being made” and with “the hope that an agreement will be reached.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Geneva on Friday evening and met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and with Ashton, a Russian spokeswoman said.

Diplomats said a compromise over Iran's insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be internationally recognized has been proposed, possibly opening the way to a long-sought breakthrough.

Fabius expressed hope that a deal could be made. France has taken a harder line than other Western powers and repeatedly urged the six-power group not to make too many compromises with Tehran.

“You know our position … it's a position based on firmness, but at the same time a position of hope that we can reach a deal,” Fabius said in Paris.

The United States and other Western powers say there is no such thing as a right to enrich – a process that can yield both electricity and nuclear bombs – but Iran views it as a matter of national sovereignty and crucial to any deal that would resolve the standoff over its nuclear intentions.

The Islamic Republic also wants relief from economic sanctions in return for any nuclear concessions it makes that could allay the West's suspicions that its nuclear fuel-making program has military rather than its stated civilian goals.

Foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating with Iran waded into the previous talks on November 7-9 and came close to winning concessions from Iran, which they count on to reduce the risk of Iran achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

POLITICALLY CHARGED DETAILS

In the days running up to the talks, policymakers from the six powers said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could be within reach to start a cautious process of detente with Iran and banish the specter of a wider Middle East war.

Under discussion is Iranian suspension of some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment. Sanctions relief offered in return could involve releasing some Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts and allowing trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.

The United States might also agree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Tehran has made clear it wants more significant diluting of the sanctions blocking its oil exports and its use of the international banking system.

Diplomacy on Tehran's nuclear aspirations has revived remarkably since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as president in June on promises of winning sanctions relief and diminishing Iran's international isolation.

The sides have struggled to wrap up a deal, however, bogged down in politically vexed details and hampered by long-standing mutual mistrust.

In Geneva, last-minute discussions wrapped up around midnight on Friday as diplomats from the six powers, the EU and Iran sought to work out an agreement.

Diplomats said new, compromise language being discussed did not explicitly recognize a right to produce nuclear fuel by any country. “If you speak about the right to a peaceful nuclear program, that's open to interpretation,” a diplomat told Reuters without elaborating.

No other details were available, but Zarif, Tehran's chief negotiator, said earlier in the day that significant headway had been made even though three or four “differences” remained.

The fate of Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor project – a potential source of an alternative bomb material, plutonium – and the extent of sanctions relief were among the other stumbling blocks, diplomats said.

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is covertly trying to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

SENATE SANCTIONS PUSH

A senior European diplomat told reporters earlier that foreign ministers of the six states would come to Geneva only if there was a deal to sign. “We have made progress, including core issues,” the diplomat said.

Zarif and Ashton met throughout the day on Friday to try to narrow the remaining gaps.

Israel continued its public campaign of criticizing the offer of sanctions rollbacks for Iran, voicing its conviction that all it would achieve would be more time for Iran to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

“I think right now the international community … has all the leverage to roll back its (Iran's) nuclear making capacities,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Channel Rossia in Moscow.

“It's a pity, just when they have this maximum leverage, that they're backing off and essentially giving Iran an unbelievable Christmas present – the capacity to maintain this breakout capability for practically no concessions at all,” he said.

For the powers, an interim deal would mandate a halt to Iran's enrichment of uranium to a purity of 20 percent – a major technical step towards the bomb threshold, more sweeping U.N. nuclear inspections in Iran and an Arak reactor shutdown.

The United States has only limited flexibility during the talks, however, because of skepticism in the U.S. Congress about the benefits of cutting any deal with Tehran.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday he was committed to pursuing a tougher Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returns from a recess early next month – even though President Barack Obama has warned that could derail diplomacy in Geneva.

If a preliminary agreement is reached for a six-month suspension of some of Iran's most sensitive nuclear activity, the six powers and Tehran will use that time to hammer out a broader and longer-term accord.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Fredrik Dahl and John Irish in Geneva, Marcus George in Dubai, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem, Hortense de Roffignac in Paris, Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Giles Elgood, Jackie Frank and Eric Walsh

Deeply unpopular at home, French president embraced on Israel trip


For Francois Hollande, the most unpopular head of state in France in more than half a century, his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority promised a respite from the daily pummeling over his country’s stunted economy and his perceived flimsiness as a leader.

In Israel, everything was set for a hero’s welcome for someone who supported Europe’s blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military unit, waged a relentless war on anti-Semitism and scuttled a nascent deal over Iran’s nuclear program that was stridently opposed by Jerusalem.

“I will always remain a friend of Israel,” Hollande said in Hebrew upon arriving Sunday at Ben Gurion Airport.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned the sentiment, calling Hollande “a leader with principles and deep humanity” — praises that reflect the gratitude many Israelis and French Jews feel toward a man who has transformed France from one of Israel’s fiercest European critics into an important ally.

Controversy threatened to derail Hollande’s visit even before he arrived.

A planned speech to the Israeli Knesset was canceled briefly after Hollande decided he would prefer to follow President Obama’s lead and address university students. Outraged, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein nixed a reception for Hollande and froze cooperation with the French Embassy on the visit.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, ended the row on Nov. 9 with his announcement that Hollande would address the Knesset after all.

“I know you rely on your own strength for defense, but know that France is your friend and will not allow Iran access to nuclear arms, for it would a be threat for Israel and the world,” Hollande said in his address to the parliament Monday evening.

“Everything must be done to solve this crisis through diplomacy,” Hollande said, adding: “We shall maintain sanctions until Iran has renounced its nuclear program.”

In the French media, the Knesset incident received considerable play because it touched on Hollande’s Achilles’ heel: His perceived indecisiveness, even among members of his own Socialist Party.

“Hollande is more of a grayish leader. He’s not a star like some of his predecessors, including Francois Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Daniel Shek, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Paris during Sarkozy’s term from 2007 to 2012.

Along with this perception of weakness, Hollande is contending with a worrisome financial crisis and a large rise in the unemployment rate, which has reached 26 percent among the young — more than triple the rate in Germany. Earlier this month, the Standard & Poor credit agency cut France’s rating for the second time this year, exposing Hollande to the charge that he is not delivering the growth and welfare he promised.

Indeed, popular support for Hollande is at a record low. A poll released Sunday by the market research firm IFOP found that Hollande’s approval rating had plunged to 20 percent, a dramatic falloff from the 54 percent he enjoyed following his election in May 2012 and two points below the previous all-time low set by Mitterrand in 1991.

But on issues of particular importance to French Jews, Hollande has a stellar record. Since his election, hundreds have been arrested and dozens convicted for anti-Jewish violence and incitement. And last year, the president cleared his schedule unexpectedly to accompany Netanyahu to Toulouse for a memorial for the four victims of a French Islamist attack on a Jewish school there in 2012.

Such overtures may make French Jews more forgiving of Hollande’s shortcomings on other fronts — but probably not much.

“It would be incorrect to call Hollande popular among French Jews, who also worry about the economy as all French citizens do,” said Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of Jewish communities in France.

On Israel, Hollande reversed France’s objection to the European Union blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing. Then, earlier this month, France blocked a deal between world powers and Iran, taking a harder line than the United States over the terms of an accord.

“These moves were not born of any desire to curry favor with Israel,” Shek said, “[but] the French position was nonetheless appreciated in Jerusalem.”

This was not expected of Hollande when he first sought to replace Sarkozy, a right-leaning leader seen as more responsive to Jewish concerns than his predecessors. Some French Jewish leaders — including Cukierman’s CRIF predecessor, Richard Prasquier — warned that a Socialist in the Elysee Palace may hurt Franco-Israeli relations because of a perceived anti-Israel bias among the French left.

“So far, the opposite has been the case,” said Yaron Gamburg, a media adviser at the Israeli Embassy in France. “If anything, there has been a deepening of the sturdy partnership that existed during the term of Sarkozy.”

In addition to his political support, Hollande has been willing to advance bilateral trade with the Jewish state — something his predecessors limited, many believe, to avoid angering Arab states. French exports to Israel currently stand at $1.5 billion — 33 percent lower than Britain and nearly half the volume of Italy.

Joining Hollande in Israel are dozens of French businessmen, and several bilateral trade agreements are expected to be signed during the visit, which ends Tuesday. In his Knesset speech, Hollande said he has decided to jump-start scientific, cultural and commercial exchange with Israel.

Though Hollande has continued France’s condemnations of Israeli construction in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, in his visit Monday to Ramallah he said the Palestinians should give up their call for a return of refugees to Israel in exchange for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction.

Hollande in the seat of the Palestinian Authority said it was “urgent” that Israel reach an accord that creates a Palestinian state with “joint control” in Jerusalem.

“The Palestinian issue is the one area where France and Israel differ — and even there, under Hollande the French partners are very open,” Gamburg said. “There are no surprises.”

Some argue that such openness is an improvement to relations under Sarkozy, who despite vowing to improve Franco-Israel relations, cast a surprise vote in favor of UNESCO membership for the Palestinian Authority in 2011.

Still, Sarkozy is generally seen as a major improvement over Chirac, who had declared former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persona non grata in France. Sharon urged French Jews to immigrate to Israel.

“Sarkozy, who raised many hopes, ended up disappointing Jews and Israelis because he was unreliable,” said Joel Rubinfeld of the Brussels-based European Jewish Parliament. “Hollande’s presidency began amid doubts, but ended up instilling trust that Sarkozy never had.”

‘Aftermath’ exposes dark secrets in Poland


The Nazi occupation of most of Europe during World War II and the Holocaust tested the moral fiber not only of the individual citizen but also of entire nations.

Today, 68 years after the guns fell silent in Europe and the Far East, historians and filmmakers not-yet-born in 1945 are still wrestling with the questions of moral courage, indifference and depravity that comprised the human mosaic in that era.

Most films dealing with the years of the Holocaust focus on the bravery of the resistance and some on the villainy of collaborators, but only a handful of German and French movies have examined the much touchier issue of national guilt.

This is certainly true of American producers and directors, who can smugly pat their nation on its collective back, because it never had to face the harsh test of living under enemy occupation.

Given this preamble, the Polish movie “Aftermath” is a particularly valuable contribution to the examination of national guilt or fortitude.

In the collective Jewish memory, the old Poland was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and there are enough personal and historical accounts to validate the attitude. Yet in the Yad Vashem listing of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their own and their families’ lives to shelter or otherwise aid Jews, Polish Catholics outnumber the rescuers of every other country.

But if the Polish nation, one of the chief victims of Nazi barbarity, had its heroes, it was also home to numerous perpetrators who happily denounced their Jewish neighbors and took over their houses, businesses and fields.

That duality is at the heart of “Aftermath,” a movie so powerful and provocative that its lead actor has received numerous death threats in Poland, while the movie won the Yad Vashem Award at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival.

“Aftermath” is set in the recent past and opens with the arrival of Franek, who has lived for the past 20 years in Chicago and is returning to his native village in Poland to visit his younger brother, Jozek.

Jozek works the family farm, but, to his brother’s puzzlement, is the hostile target of the villagers, who throw rocks through his windows, paint Zyd (Yid) on his barn door, and finally burn his fields.

Gradually, Franek learns that Jozek’s initial offense was to damage public property by excavating the gravestones that had been taken from the Jewish cemetery during the war and used as road pavement. He carefully hauled the old headstones back to his farm, where he established his own impromptu Jewish cemetery.

Jozek has a hard time explaining this strange behavior, even to himself, except that “there was no one else to take care of them.” He has even taught himself the Hebrew alphabet to decipher the names on the grave markers.

But worse is to come. The young farmer starts exploring the village’s dark secret, and eventually Franek, though dismissive of Chicago’s money-grubbing “Yids,” joins in his brother’s quest.

After the German army occupied the village, two SS officers approved a plan by some of the leading citizens to avoid the bother of deporting some 340 Jewish men, women and children.

The proposal called for rounding up all the Jews, locking them inside a barn and then burning the place down. After the Germans gave the green light, the villagers put the plan into action with great enthusiasm, drinking vodka and cursing the incinerated “Christ killers.”

Afterward, the villagers took over the homes and fields of the dead Jews.

The main characters in the film are fictitious, but the central horror, the burning of the village’s entire Jewish population, is based on a wartime atrocity.

For decades, during Poland’s postwar communist regime, the official government version had it that the actual mass killing and burning were the work of the German army.

But in 2001, Jan T. Gross, a Polish-American professor, wrote the book “Neighbors,” which documented in devastating detail that the Polish citizens of the small town of Jedwabne had incinerated hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in a large barn on July 10, 1941.

The book’s revelations were contested and bitterly denounced by nationalist politicians and media as “part of a Jewish conspiracy to tarnish Poland’s reputation,” but among many younger Poles, the exposé triggered a curiosity about the Polish Jews they had never known.

One was the Polish filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski, who started to write the screenplay for “Aftermath” 10 years ago.

In one interview, Pasikowski explained that the film is about one “one of the most painful chapters of Polish history. We already have a huge number of movies on the horrors committed by the Germans and the Soviets, and I think it is time to show the horrible things we did ourselves.”

(Originally, the film was to have been titled “Kaddish,” and the present Polish title, “Poklosie,” translates as “Consequences.” Either choice would arguably have made for a more apt title than “Aftermath.”)

The movie has its Polish heroes, foremost the brothers Jozek, played by Maciej Stuhr, one of his country’s best-known actors, and Franek (Ireneusz Czop), as well as an elderly priest, but it is unsparing in depicting the anti-Semitic mob mentality of the mass of villagers.

Predictably, “Aftermath” aroused a storm of controversy in its native land, split mainly along political right/left lines. The primary target has been the actor Stuhr, shown on magazine and newspaper covers as a traitorous “Zyd.”

In an e-mail exchange, Dariusz Jablonski, one of the film’s producers, noted that Stuhr was the public face and defender of the film, championing the “new” Poland against the prejudices of the “old” Poland.

Asked, “What made you decide to produce this film, knowing that many of your countrymen would bitterly resent it,” Jablonski responded, “It is not easy to tell uncomfortable truths to your nation, but that is an artist’s/filmmaker’s job. The truth is unconditional, and when I read Pasikowski’s script, I felt obliged to do it.

“We Poles have to acknowledge that being one of the main victims of World War II, and having at that time so many brave people saving Jewish lives, so often paying with their own lives, we also had a few perpetrators among us. Why do we have to do that? We owe it to millions of Jews who found their good life for centuries on Polish soil.”

Is the movie based on Gross’ book on the actual mass burning of Jews in Jedwabne?  “The film is not based on any single book or document, but every element in the film is credible and can be identified as coming from documented stories,” Jablonski responded to the Journal’s question.

Despite the controversy, “Aftermath” won the Critics Prize at Poland’s most important film festival at Gdynia, but it was not chosen as the country’s entry for the Oscars’ foreign-language film competition.

“Aftermath” opens Nov. 15 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino.

France’s soaring anti-Semitism lures Jewish Defense League vigilantes out of shadows


With scooter helmets in hand, a man called Yohan and six buddies stroll around Paris’ 20th arrondissement. The seven look much like a typical group of French students — until they locate a group of Arab men they suspect of perpetrating an anti-Semitic attack the previous day.

Using their helmets as bludgeons, members of France’s Jewish Defense League, or LDJ, set upon the Arabs and beat them. Several of the Arabs attempt to escape in a blue sedan, but the LDJ members pursue the vehicle, causing it to crash into a stone wall.

The attack last August, filmed by a television crew shooting a documentary on LDJ, was one of at least 115 violent incidents that critics attribute to the group since its registration in France in 2001 — a year after the eruption of the second intifada in Israel and the sevenfold increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the 12 years that followed.

“Now they know the price of Jewish blood,” said Yohan, the nom de guerre of Joseph Ayache, one of LDJ’s young bosses.

An offshoot of the American Jewish Defense League, which was founded in New York by the ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968 and which the FBI considers a domestic terrorist group, LDJ stages violent reprisals to anti-Semitic attacks.

The group, which numbers about 300 members, is now on a collision course with France’s Jewish establishment, which has condemned its activities and threatened a lawsuit.

French authorities have ignored calls to ban LDJ, though in Israel the Kach movement, also founded by Kahane, has been outlawed.

The French government’s apparent acquiescence may have inspired LDJ to ratchet up its deterrent potential by showcasing its activities following the murder of four Jews in Toulouse last year by a Muslim extremist.

LDJ traditionally had shied away from media attention. But in the weeks after the killings, which was followed by a 58 percent increase in attacks on Jews in France over the year before, LDJ for the first time allowed a television crew to tag along on a number of guerrilla operations.

In addition to the helmet assault, Ayache was filmed calling for revenge killings in posters he and his group posted around central Paris. When a police car neared, Ayache told officers that he and his friends were working on an art project. The police officers wished him a pleasant evening and drove away.

Ayache also was filmed attempting to storm a performance of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne.

“Since when is it illegal to run?” a brazen Ayache told the police after they detained him.

Another sequence shows Ayache firing a pistol at a shooting range.

“We’ve noticed the Muslim community believes LDJ is some vast machine that operates with impunity and help from Mossad,” said an LDJ spokesman who goes by the alias Amnon Cohen. “It’s not true, but it’s not a bad thing if they are scared. It’ll make them think twice.”

LDJ’s growing assertiveness has further strained the group’s already tense relationship with the CRIF, the umbrella body of French Jewish communities.

In April, CRIF’s former president, Richard Prasquier, said he would sue LDJ for defamation for posting a photograph on its website depicting him with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The caption accuses Prasquier of “pardoning [a] killer.”

LDJ, meanwhile, has accused CRIF of being undemocratic, obsolete and ineffective.

“We operate outside and independently, and that creates opposition within the establishment, which is run by men and women who mean well but don’t know the painful reality of the Jewish rank and file in Paris’ suburbs and poor neighborhoods,” Cohen said.

“There are hundreds of French and Belgian Muslims fighting in the Syrian civil war. When they return, do you think they will be scared of a couple guards trained by the community?”

CRIF declined to comment.

Earlier this month, LDJ announced that its “soldiers” had put a young Arab in the hospital with a coma, “a rapid and effective response” to the man’s attack on Jews at Saint-Mande, just east of Paris.

The announcement drew calls to ban LDJ. As criticism mounted, LDJ retracted the statement and denied any involvement in the violence.

Cohen told JTA the person who published the “false statement” had been removed from the group and that the violence actually resulted from a drug deal gone sour. A spokesperson for the Saint-Mande municipality confirmed that account.

Still, the events at Saint-Mande resulted in a public row between LDJ and CRIF, which on June 4 blamed LDJ for the violence at Saint Mande and for subsequent calls “to take revenge against the Jews.”

Cohen said CRIF is looking for a “scapegoat” to distract from its failure to prevent attacks on Jews through outreach and education. He also denied the group engages in violence, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Besides the television footage, a French court last week sentenced LDJ activist David Ben Aroch to six months in prison for an attack he staged with another LDJ member at a Paris bookstore owned by a pro-Palestinian activist.

Aroch’s accomplice, Jason Tibi, was sentenced to four months for the attack at Librairie Resistance that sent the two victims to the hospital for days.

It may have been a real-life demonstration of what one masked LDJ boss recently called “treatment a la Israel” during a speech at a secret training camp in France.

The filmed address was the introduction to a LDJ propaganda clip titled “Five cops for every Jew, 10 Arabs for each rabbi.”

Suspected Merah accomplices arrested in Toulouse


Two men suspected of being accomplices of Islamist terrorist Mohammed Merah were arrested near Toulouse.

Investigators believe the men, arrested Tuesday morning, are believed by investigators to have helped plan a series of deadly attacks in March 2012. One of the suspects was released on Wednesday; the second remained in custody on Thursday.

Merah, a 23-year-old radical Muslim, killed a rabbi and three children in an attack on the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, now called Ohr Hatorah, on March 19, 2012. The slayings came a few days after Merah gunned down three French soldiers in two drive-by shootings from a scooter near Toulouse. He was shot dead on March 22 during a standoff with police.

French police have arrested and released several people and questioned dozens in connection with the shootings.

Amid rising Islamism in Africa, Israel-Senegal ties still flourishing


Struggling to be heard over a flock of bleating sheep, Israel’s ambassador to Senegal invites a crowd of impoverished Muslims to help themselves to about 100 sacrificial animals that the embassy corralled at a dusty community center here.

The October distribution, held as French troops battled Islamists in neighboring Mali and one month after Muslim radicals killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, is held annually in honor of Tabaski, the local name of the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast. The distribution is broadcast on national television in a land that is 95 percent Muslim, providing Israel with a powerful platform to burnish its image among Senegalese.

“It registers very strongly with locals that Israelis give them sheep for a Muslim holiday while most Arab embassies do nothing,” said Eli Ben-Tura, the Israeli ambassador.

The animals are just part of the millions that Israel has spent over the years in Senegal, a French-speaking Western African nation of 12 million where the average monthly salary is $158. In return, Senegal has supported Israel’s erection of a barrier to protect itself from Palestinian terrorism and, in December, signed over oil prospecting rights in its territorial waters to an Israeli-owned mining company.

Over the past decade, Israel's trade with Senegal has more than tripled.

“Like Israel, Senegal is an island of stability in an unstable region,” Ben-Tura told JTA in an interview last week at the Israeli Embassy overlooking Independence Plaza in Dakar, the capital city.

The importance Israel places on its partnership with Senegal was evident in Ben-Tura's speech on April 30 at Israel’s 65th Independence Day celebration at the Grand Theatre National, a magnificent structure built with Chinese funding in 2011 near Dakar’s main port.

Speaking to an audience of 1,000, Ben-Tura listed Israel’s latest gifts to the country: training for hundreds of farmers; preparations to train thousands more by Israeli experts stationed in the country; and the establishment of a permanent depot for agricultural equipment and disease control.

Even intercultural activities have not been overlooked. After speeches by Ben-Tura and Mamadou Talla, Senegal's minister of professional training, Israel Ballet artistic director Ido Tadmor and 40 local artists performed a modern dance routine featuring tea cups. Dozens of onlookers avidly recorded their every move on smartphones.

“Cultural exchange with Africa has been neglected for too long,” Ben-Tura said.

Yet beneath this seemingly symbiotic partnership may be a deeper concern.

Mali, which used to be part of a federal entity with Senegal, last year witnessed an Islamic insurgency so powerful that French troops were called in to quell it. Some 475,000 people became refugees, many of them in Senegal. Some observers believe Senegal is wooing Israel and the West mainly for protection from the Islamic upheaval.

“The effects of the insurgency are not felt here for the time being,” said Oleg Sergeev, minister-counselor of the Russian Embassy in Dakar. “But the Senegalese authorities are turning westward out of concern over the possibility that the Mali insurgency may be trickling over.”

As an impoverished Muslim nation heavily dependent on foreign aid, Senegal must toe a careful line in its embrace of the Jewish state. Anti-Semitic books with titles such as “Hitler the Zionist Puppet” are sold here at bookstands and in 2009, several hundred people burned an Israeli flag at a rally to protest Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

The Senegalese government, then chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, condemned the attack as “unjustified and unacceptable.” Still, the government’s condemnations never went beyond words.

“It was a very strong reaction, but it didn’t have an impact on diplomatic relations,” said Christian Clages, the German ambassador to Senegal.

Senegalese officials declined to address the reasons for their country's closeness with Israel. But observers attribute it variously to the country's moderate brand of Islam, its relative openness to the West and its past disillusionment with Arab regimes. In 1973, under pressure from Arab countries, Senegal severed its ties with Israel.

“The Arabs threatened sanctions and promised free oil but never delivered, to the bitter disappointment of the Senegalese,” said Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official who negotiated the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1994.

Senegalese moderation was on display in 2012 when Jamra, one of the country's leading Islamic associations, protested the release of an anti-Muslim film, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The online video triggered violent protests around the world, but in Senegal, it led to the first meeting between Jamra and the Israeli Embassy.

Jamra’s executive president, Imam Massamba Diop, told JTA he learned in his November meeting with Ben-Tura that Israel had nothing to do with the film. And despite his organization's generally pro-Palestinian posture — it considers Israel’s blockade on Gaza illegal and organizes pro-Palestinian activities in Dakar — Diop supports his government's friendly relations with Israel.

“The Senegalese people deeply appreciate the event,” Diop said of the embassy's sheep distribution.

Another Senegalese Muslim leader, Sheikh Paye, arrived at the Israel Independence Day celebration in a shiny, traditional white-and-gold imam robe. A spiritual leader in one of Dakar’s 19 neighborhoods, Paye told JTA that his attachment to Israel stems neither from gratitude for its largesse nor considerations of realpolitik.

“My late father used to be a good friend of several Israeli ambassadors here,” Paye said. “He died three months ago, shortly before the Israeli Embassy’s invitation arrived. It’s an honor to represent him here to people from a country he loved but never visited.”

Three men linked to Mohamed Merah arrested in France


Three men believed to be linked to Mohamed Merah were arrested in southern France.

Two of men were arrested Tuesday in Toulouse by a French police anti-terror unit, the French news service AFP reported.

A third person was arrested on Wednesday morning in the nearby town of Castres.

Merah, a 23-year-old radical Muslim, killed a rabbi and three children in an attack on the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, now Ohr Hatorah, on March 19, 2012. The slayings came a few days after Merah gunned down three French soldiers in two drive-by shootings from a scooter near Toulouse. He was shot dead on March 22 during a standoff with police.

French police have arrested and released several people and questioned dozens in connection with the shootings.

Report: 58% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France in 2012


France saw an increase of 58 percent in anti-Semitic incidents in 2012 compared to the previous year, according to a report by the French Jewish community.

The report released on Tuesday by the SPCJ, the security unit of France’s Jewish communities, showed that 614 anti-Semitic acts were documented in the republic last year compared to only 389 in 2011.

“2012 has been a year of unprecedented violence against Jews in France,” the report read, referencing the murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children on March 19 by an Islamist radical who gunned them down at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Incidents in which the victims were accosted physically or verbally on the street saw an increase of 82 percent, from 177 cases in 2011 to 315 last year, SPCJ said, and 25 percent of the 96 physical anti-Semitic assaults involved a weapon.

The SPCJ report reflects a near doubling in physical anti-Semitic assaults, of which only 57 were documented in 2011.

French group that saved Jews from Nazis snubs Shoah memorial event


A French organization that saved Jews during the Holocaust has declined to attend a commemoration because it was organized by pro-Israel Jews.

The Marseille branch of CIMADE, a French Protestant group established in 1939, declined to attend the region’s main memorial ceremony for Jewish Holocaust victims because of the pro-Israel attitude of CRIF, the umbrella group representing French Jewish communities, which organized the event together with the municipality.

The values that led CIMADE to save Jews make the group “equally committed to oppose the colonial, discriminatory and bellicose policy of Israel with regards to the Palestinians,” CIMADE regional deputies Françoise Rocheteau and Jean-Pierre Cavalie wrote in a letter to the local CRIF branch on Dec. 21. It also said CIMADE was determined to fight “apartheid.”

The letter, which was published online on Feb. 11 by a group which promotes a boycott of Israel, was a reply to an invitation extended by CRIF to CIMADE to attend the 70th commemoration on Jan. 20 of the deportation and subsequent murder of thousands of local Jews.

Marseille had a Jewish population of 39,000 in 1939, according to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People. Only 10,000 remained after the Holocaust. CIMADE organized “vital relief and later resistance” in connection with the murders, according to Yad Vashem, and helped smuggle Jews to safety. Yad Vashem named Madeleine Barot, who headed CIMADE during the Holocaust, a Righteous among the Nations in 1988. She passed away seven years later.

“We understand our positions may appear unacceptable, making us unwelcome at your commemoration,” the CIMADE representatives wrote. “We cannot keep silent on our convictions but do not wish to cause a scandal.”

Keep Lebanese terrorist in prison, U.S. lawmakers urge France


A bipartisan congressional effort is aiming to keep the former head of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Brigade behind bars in France.

Twenty members of Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), signed a letter to France’s ambassador to the United States, Francois Delattre, calling on French officials to stop the release of George Ibrahim Abdallah, who was convicted in 1987 of killing U.S. military attache Charles Ray and Israeli diplomat Yacov Barsimantov. Abdallah also was found guilty of the attempted murder of U.S. consul general Robert Homme in 1984.

Abdallah is serving a life sentence in prison, but a French appeals court this month gave a conditional release provided that he is deported to Lebanon. However, the French government still has the right to keep Abdallah behind bars, according to Meng.

The U.S. government also opposes Abdallah’s release.

“We cannot stand idly by while an ally frees the murderer of another American in diplomatic service,” Meng said in a statement. “Abdallah could very well resume his acts of terror and target citizens of France, the United States and other allied nations.”

Twitter must reveal details of users posting anti-Semitism, French court rules


Twitter must divulge details about French users who posted anti-Semitic messages, a French tribunal ruled.

Thursday's order by a Grand Instance Court judge in Paris came in response to a lawsuit by the Union of French Jewish Students that sought to limit the impunity with which Twitter users may disseminate anti-Semitic incitement.

“It is a major precedent and breakthrough in the attempt to balance privacy online with the need to combat hate speech,” Sacha Reingewirtz, vice president of the students' union, told JTA.

The court, Reingewirtz added, imposed a pending fine of $1,300 against Twitter for every day in which it fails to deliver whatever details it possesses on users who are suspected of disseminating hate speech on Twitter. The ruling, he said, applies only to users in France.

Additionally, the ruling by the Paris court’s 17th chamber ordered Twitter to establish a system in which French users may flag anti-Semitic content, which would be reviewed by Twitter before removal and possible referral to the authorities.

At the court, a few dozen activists assembled alongside journalists.

“Social networks were created as essentially democratic tools that are also being used by people who oppose democratic principles,” Nuno Wahnon Martins, director of European Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, told JTA. “Like any democracy, the social networks also need to defend themselves, and the first step is to deny those who spread hate speech in anonymity as something to hide behind.”

Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, welcomed the ruling and told JTA his organization would “use this to lobby other European countries to join in this combat against anti-Semitism.”

The student association sued Twitter in November after the San Fransisco-based company refused to reveal the identities of users who flooded the site under the hashtag #unbonjuif (#agoodjew), with examples including “#agoodjew is a dead Jew.”

The hashtag was the third most popular in France in October.

Eveline Leisner, 75


Eveline Leisner, a longtime French educator, died on Jan. 5 after living with Alzheimer’s disease for 12 years. She was 75. 

Born in Germany in 1937, she was hidden from the Nazis by a Belgian family, during which she learned French. She said she loved the language because it saved her life.  In 1960, she married Elkan Leisner, a fellow German survivor.

A UCLA alumna, Leisner taught French at Birmingham High School for more than 20 years, after which she taught at Los Angeles Valley College for eight years. Leisner was active in many French education organizations, such as Princeton’s Advanced Placement program, and served a term as president of the Southern California chapter of American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) and two terms as a regional AATF representative. 

The French government awarded Leisner with the honor of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques for her promotion of teaching French language and culture. In 2005, the AATF awarded her its Distinguished French Educator honor.  

Leisner, who was predeceased by her husband, is survived by two daughters, Tina McDermott and Susan Fitoussi; stepson David Leisner; and grandchildren, Joshua Fitoussi, Esperance Fitoussi and Graham McDermott.  

Donations in her memory to the Alzheimer’s Association are appreciated by the family. 

French teens arrested for chemical explosion near teacher who reported anti-Semitism


Two French teenagers were arrested on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher after she reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.

The teenagers, 16 and 19 years old, were arrested on Dec. 13 in Aix-en-Provence near Marseille in southern France for allegedly setting off a chemical explosion in the classroom of their plastic arts teacher, according to France Info, a public radio station. No one was hurt in the explosion.

The teacher, Chantal Viroulou, told the radio station that before the incident, “students from that class, two or three of them at least, called me and told me: 'Jew, we will break your face.'” Viroulou, who teaches at the Latecoere professional high school in the town of Istres, did not say whether she was Jewish.

An unnamed police source told Ouest France, a local daily, that Viroulou is not Jewish and that “the anti-Semitic connotation” is not being investigated. The source added that the explosion — which the two suspects allegedly caused by mixing hydrochloric acid with aluminium — “had nothing to do” with the threat.

Earlier this week, the news site Lyonmag reported that a teacher undergoing conversion was fired after she reported repeated anti-Semitic harassment by her pupils at Condorcet secondary school in Saint-Priest, a southern suburb of Lyon.

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a French nonprofit, wrote on Dec. 13 to France's minister of education to ask him to launch a special action against “the development of anti-Semitic acts and behavior” in French schools.

EU draft resolution slams Israeli settlements, carries no sanctions


A draft of a European Union resolution said the EU was “deeply dismayed” by Israeli plans for new construction in settlements but did not mention sanctions.

The draft resolution, which was obtained by the French news agency AFP, said Israeli settlement construction “threaten peace efforts.”

It had been prepared for EU foreign ministers ahead of their meeting on Monday in Brussels, AFP reported.

“The European Union is deeply dismayed by and strongly opposes Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank,” said a draft of the conclusions on the Middle East peace process at a one-day meeting in Brussels.

The plan “would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict,” since it would question the viability of the two states supposed to emerge through the peace process, the draft said. The EU “reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace,” it added.

To this end, the draft continued, both sides must “engage in direct and substantial negotiations without pre-conditions in order to achieve a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ending all claims.”

The EU also called on the Palestinian leadership to use the U.N. upgrade constructively and not take steps that would “deepen the lack of trust and lead further away from a negotiated solution.” The U.N. General Assembly recently upgraded the Palestinians to non-member state observer status.

The Israeli government has been rapped for its plans to build 3,000 new housing units in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including in the E1 corridor that connects the Maale Adumim settlement to Jerusalem. The plan is being seen by the Palestinians and many nations as compromising the two-state solution because it undermines the territorial contiguity of the Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank.

The Jerusalem Post quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying Monday that assertions that construction in the E1 corridor would preclude the eventual emergence of a Palestinian state were “simply false.”