Israel launches air strike on Gaza; First since truce


Israel launched an air strike on the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the first such attack since an eight-day war in November, Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the territory, and Israel's military said.

“Planes bombarded an open area in northern Gaza, there were no wounded,” a statement from the Hamas Interior Ministry said. An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there had been a strike in Gaza, but gave no further details.

Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-mediated truce in November, after eight days of fighting, in which 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.

Israel launched the 2012 offensive with the declared aim of ending rocket fire from the West Bank into its territory.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Israeli military said Palestinians launched three rockets at Israel. Two landed in Gaza and one hit an open area in southern Israel, causing no damage or injuries.

No Palestinian group claimed responsibility for the rockets.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jason Webb

Rocket explodes in Israel, first attack from Gaza since November truce


A rocket fired from Gaza exploded in Israel on Tuesday, the first such attack since a November truce and an apparent show of solidarity with West Bank protests after the death of a Palestinian in an Israeli jail.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank-based Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the rocket strike, the Palestinian Ma'an news agency said. No casualties were reported.

Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, said it was investigating. There was no military response from Israel, hours after the rocket slammed into a road near its southern city of Ashkelon.

The rocket was the first to hit Israel since a November 21 truce brokered by Egypt that ended eight days of cross-border air strikes and missile attacks in which 175 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.

Tuesday's strike came after a surge of unrest in the West Bank, that has raised fears in Israel of a new Palestinian Intifada (uprising).

On Monday, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank turned out for the funeral of Arafat Jaradat, 30, who died in disputed circumstances in an Israeli prison on Saturday.

Israeli police shot and wounded five Palestinian youths during confrontations in Bethlehem and outside a West Bank prison later the same day, leaving a 15-year-old boy in critical condition, Israeli and Palestinian medical sources said.

An Israeli military spokeswoman, commenting on the incident, said troops had opened fire at Palestinians who threw homemade hand grenades at a Jewish holy site called Rachel's Tomb, in the Bethlehem area.

Before the rocket attack from Gaza, media reports said Israeli officials had hoped the Palestinian protests were winding down a week after they were launched in sympathy with four prisoners on intermittent hunger strikes.

The U.S. State Department said American diplomats have contacted Israeli and Palestinian leaders to appeal for calm.

The United Nations coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, called for an investigation of Jaradat's death. Jaradat had been arrested a week ago for throwing stones at Israeli cars in the West Bank.

Palestinian officials said he had died after being tortured in prison. But Israel said an autopsy carried out in the presence of a Palestinian coroner was inconclusive.

Palestinian frustration has also been fuelled by Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in territory captured in a 1967 war and deadlocked diplomacy for a peace agreement since 2010.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Israel-Gaza conflict: Low expectations


No one knows for sure why the Gaza hostilities began. 

We know that there had been weeks of intensifying rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, rockets fired by various Palestinian groups that were tolerated, even encouraged by the governing Hamas. And we know that the Israeli government had reached its limit of tolerance for such attacks, possibly, though not primarily, because elections are coming up, and the Israeli public wanted something done. We also know that what ignited the final escalation of this cycle of violence was Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ military chief on Nov. 14. We know that, following every such action, a barrage of rockets can be expected. We know, as well, that such a barrage is invitation for even more retaliation, and so on and so forth. 

Israelis got a glimpse last week of the damage Hamas can inflict on Israel; they discovered that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are, indeed, within the reach of rockets from Gaza. That Hamas’ threats are no joke. But Israelis still don’t know why it all began. What was the calculus behind Hamas’ decision to allow and abet this growing harassment of Israeli civilians? What was the logic behind it, assuming there is some such logic? What was Hamas trying to achieve?

Not knowing Hamas’ goals is a problem for all those trying to assess Hamas’ ability to actually meet those goals. As this article was being written, attempts at negotiations were taking place to reach an agreement that would put an end to the fighting. Israelis will be happy if such agreement can end the barrage of rockets on its territory. Israeli leaders believe the country demonstrated last week that its citizens are willing to temporarily increase their own suffering in hope of getting a better long-term deal. And they also demonstrated the ability of Israel’s defensive tool — the Iron Dome — to dramatically decrease damage to Israel’s citizens in case of war. And that is an important message not just for Hamas, but also for all other potential attackers, such as Hezbollah and Iran. 

Of course, it is possible that Hamas had just miscalculated its way into this week of skirmishes; it is possible that its leaders did not quite understand that Israel had reached the boiling point. Back in 2006, when Ehud Olmert abruptly launched the second Lebanon war, it was widely assumed — even publicly admitted — by Hezbollah leaders that the other side didn’t see it coming. That Hassan Nasrallah believed he could kidnap Israeli soldiers and get away with it. So it’s possible that the leaders of Hamas are guilty of a similar misperception; it’s possible they didn’t expect the harsh response they got.

However, other possibilities must also be considered. Maybe Hamas needed the fight. Maybe it needed to reassert its presence as a player that can make things complicated for all parties just as the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Mahmoud Abbas, was going to the United Nations to get the coveted seat of an almost official member. Maybe Hamas was trying to send a message to a disappointing Egyptian government that had not yet proven itself to be the ally Hamas expected it to be. 

The raging events around Gaza are a distraction from more urgent matters engulfing the Middle East and threatening to turn 2013 into a year much more challenging and dramatic than the year that is about to end. Lost behind the Gaza headlines is the recent report that the Iranians have completed yet another step in building their nuclear program. Pushed aside from attention are the much more bloody — but repetitious — events in Syria. 

The nature of small wars such as the one involving Gaza is that the context is always overwhelmed by the details. Another siren, another rocket, another Israeli attack from the air, more reservists join the troops, more injured, and dead; the hours pass, the days pass, but after a while, it all becomes blurred and seems cyclical. Each rocket fired matters only the moment it hits, or, in most cases, misses. Each siren matters only for the couple of minutes until the danger is over. Most of the occurrences of the past week — which I write abut with the caveat of a Nov. 19 press time — were quickly forgotten, negligible in their impact on the larger scheme of things. 

The final outcome of the battle is what matters, and, strangely, while no one can quite explain why the war started, everyone has known from the outset how it is supposed to end: a cease fire, the return to the status quo. No more rockets fired at Israel; no attacks from the Israeli side. Until the next round. The Gaza pressure cooker had to let some steam off before returning to normal (which is hardly what people in most other countries would call “normal”).

There have been many complaints as the operation continued, related to the lack of “strategy” on the part of Israel (for some reason — maybe lack of expectations? — fewer such complaints were aimed at Hamas). These complaints have come mostly in two forms: 1.) that Israel should not fight a war against Hamas without coupling its effort with a parallel effort at advancing the peace process with the PA; and 2.) that it is time for Israel to abandon its policy of non-negotiation with Hamas and acknowledge reality — Hamas is here to stay.

These two alternative policies are both worthy of discussion, as long as one realizes that they contradict one another. If Israel negotiates with Hamas, it undermines the PA, the only partner Israel might have for a peace process. If Israel advances peace negotiations with the PA, it is likely to draw even more opposition from Hamas. Nevertheless, some serious people believe that at least one of the two options should be vigorously pursued by Israel, and some even believe that Israel can attempt to try both in parallel. At the bottom of these alternative policy paths, though, lie two assumptions that Israel doesn’t seem to accept, and hence doesn’t seem inclined to follow: 1.) that there’s no problem without solution, and 2.) that action is always preferable to inaction.

If one accepts these two assumptions, it is reasonable to be puzzled, even dismayed by Israel’s lack of “strategy.” It is clear, and not just in regard to the 2012 Gaza operation, that Israel operates under the supposition that no solution is currently available for the problem of Gaza and Hamas, and that inaction — in the larger sense — is indeed preferable to action. Israel believes that Hamas is an enemy with whom no negotiation can lead to resolution, and that this is a component of the larger problem of a Palestinian society that isn’t yet ready for peace. When Palestinians are ready — when they are ready not just to negotiate with Israel, but also to confront the radical factions within their own society — that will be the right time for an attempt at a resolution that demands action. But until then, Israel defies both above-mentioned assumptions: It believes that there’s no present agreement that will put an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and that the lack of a possible agreement makes a tense but quiet status quo the only thing it can hope to achieve. 

Hence, an operation with no “strategy.” A war of low intensity, but also of low expectations. An operation aimed at restoring a status quo that is far from satisfying to both Palestinians and Israelis. An operation that outsiders perceive with a measure of dismay: All this violence just to go back to what we had two months ago? All this violence, and no attempt to leverage it to achieve larger goals? 

The answer, sadly, is a resounding yes. The dead, the injured, the terrified, the heart-wrenching scenes, the scared innocents, the crying children, the wasted days, the sleepless nights, the constant worry, the shattered windows, the wasted resources, the sad realization that there’s no end — all this with no purpose other than to restore the status quo. That is what Israel wants for now. And as for Hamas: As I warned at the outset of this article, we have a problem with Hamas, beginning with the fact that we don’t quite understand what they want.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.

From Sandy to Gaza rockets, students weather each other’s storms


Between Israeli youths going through Hurricane Sandy and American youths experiencing the onslaught of rockets from Gaza, participants of November’s America Israel Friendship League’s (AIFL) student exchange rode an emotional and historic rollercoaster on both sides of the Atlantic.

Twenty-eight American high school students—members of the AIFL-sponsored Youth Ambassadors Student Exchange (YASE)—returned from Israel Nov. 19 after having witnessed Operation Pillar of Defense, and the rocket fire that prompted it, firsthand.

“I saw a bomb shelter for the first time and heard the ‘boom’ of an Israeli missile as it intercepted a Palestinian attack while we were at the school Hakfar Hayarok just outside of Tel Aviv,” Katy Hall, an 18-year-old senior at Bethany High School in Yukon, Okla., told JNS.org during her group’s layover in New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on the way home to Oklahoma.

Earlier in the month, the Americans’ 22 Israeli counterparts in the U.S. just prior to the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, spending their first week as guests of host families in Oklahoma, Virginia Beach, and New York. The New York-based group experienced the unprecedented events of one of history’s worst natural disasters. At the beginning of week two, the entire group met in Washington, D.C., for an intense four-day learning program, and then traveled together to New York City.

YASE, a 30-year-old student exchange program that focuses on bi-national cooperation, education, and cultural understanding. YASE is the only public high school exchange between Israel and the U.S., and works in partnership with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the American Association of School Administrators and the Israel Youth Exchange Council.

Following their New York schedule, the entire YASE contingent of 50 (between the American and the Israelis) flew to Israel, arriving in Tel Aviv on Nov. 8, and was welcomed into the homes of their Israeli host families. The Israeli group from Rishon LeZion who had experienced “Sandy” directly took their New York peers home.

Then came Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israel Defense Forces action intended to stop the rockets being fired from Gaza. “The first priority was to assure the safety and security of every participant,” AIFL Chairman Kenneth Bialkin told JNS.org while the American students were still in Israel. “Everyone is safe, everyone, is eager to stay for the full program. These are exceptional young people, exhibiting the highest ideals of friendship.”

The American students included delegates from many ethnic and religious backgrounds—African American, Chinese, East Indian Pakistani, Albanian and others. They were Christians (including an Egyptian Coptic student), Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Everyone was in contact with his or her parents. During the course of the intense program, the students formed strong bonds with their Israeli peers and developed a strong sense of belonging.

The annual YASE program follows a meticulously planned curriculum comprised of academic, cultural and community activities and experiences throughout both the American and Israeli segments. When the Israeli contingent to New York—students mostly from Rishon LeZion, chaperoned by Sigal Greenfeld Mittelman— arrived there York just days before Sandy, they had no idea what awaited them.

“Sandy created a really awful situation,” Mittelman told JNS.org. “I had to keep the kids calm and assure their safety—especially without electricity.” Their parents in Israel were worried, and because there was no phone service for days, could not contact their children. Email and Skype helped Mittelman keep parents 6,000 miles away as calm as possible.

The American students scheduled to be in Rishon LeZion weathered a different kind of storm. It was the same New York contingent that had hosted their peers from Rishon LeZion during Sandy. They had to be moved from Rishon LeZion to the Israeli Ministry of Education-run boarding school of Hakfar Hayarok.        

“All the American kids were in constant contact with their parents,” Cassia Anthony, program director of AIFL, told JNS.org.

AIFL

The Youth Ambassadors Student Exchange contingent from America pictured just after landing in Israel.

Every attempt was made to maintain the students’ original schedule, although the base was moved from Tel Aviv to Haifa.  The students were able to visit schools, the Baha’i Shrine and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. But due to the rockets, the American students returned to the U.S. Nov. 19, curtailing their program by two days.

Dr. Charlotte Frank, chairman of the executive committee of AIFL and the initiator of the YASE program, praised the forbearance of the student ambassadors.

“The way these kids have responded is a miracle,” she told JNS.org. “The students survived an unprecedented encounter with Hurricane Sandy in New York lived through another ‘storm’—this time, of rockets and Israeli resilience. Their amazing experiences on opposite sides of the world will give then an even greater depth of understanding.”

“These young men and woman learned to live together, to survive together and to grow with their experiences,” Frank added.

Michele Ayers, a teacher at Oklahoma’s Bethany High School and a chaperon for the nine students from that school who participated in YASE, told JNS.org from Kennedy Airport on Monday that the students “felt very safe in Israel.”

Ayers described the city of Yukon, where Bethany High is based, as “a very conservative Protestant community.” She called the YASE trip “such a growing opportunity for the kids.”

“To be immersed in the Jewish and Israeli culture and learn so much about the Jewish people was amazing… Being in Israel was a great learning experience—though perhaps not at the best time,” she said.

The students’ Israeli host families “knew exactly what to do,” and were “like having family from a half a world away,” Ayers said.

Though the students were not alarmed, Ayers said she understood why the students had to return from Israel, when rockets began to fall as far north as the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

Hall, the Bethany High senior, said the Israel experience widened her understanding of her own beliefs.

“God is so alive here,” she told JNS.org. “The Jewish people are His chosen people. Being in Israel is so surreal, so beautiful.”

“The news doesn’t tell the true story of Israel,” Hall added.

Ayers said the Bethany High delegation is “going to go back” to Israel, but even if they don’t return, the Jewish state clearly left an impression on them that won’t fade anytime soon.

“There’s a part of my heart that remains in Israel,” Ayers said. “I’ll never be the same.”

More images as Israel-Gaza fighting continues


Thousands protest in Egypt against Israeli attacks on Gaza


Thousands of people protested in Egyptian cities on Friday against Israeli air strikes on Gaza and Egypt's president pledged to support the Palestinian enclave's population in the face of “blatant aggression.”

Western governments are watching Egypt's response to the Gaza conflagration for signs of a more assertive stance towards Israel since an Islamist came to power in the Arab world's most populous nation.

President Mohamed Morsi is mindful of anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians emboldened by last year's Arab Spring uprising but needs to show Western allies his new government is no threat to Middle East peace.

His prime minister, Hisham Kandil, visited Gaza on Friday in a demonstration of solidarity after two days of strikes by Israeli warplanes targeting Gaza militants, who had stepped up rocket fire into Israel in recent weeks.

Gaza officials said 28 Palestinians, 16 of them civilians, had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive against the tiny, densely populated enclave ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.

Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

“We see what is happening in Gaza as blatant aggression against humanity,” Morsi said in comments carried by Egypt's state news agency. “I warn and repeat my warning to the aggressors that they will never rule over the people of Gaza.

“I tell them in the name of all the Egyptian people that Egypt today is not the Egypt of yesterday, and Arabs today are not the Arabs of yesterday.”

The Egyptian foreign minister also spoke to his counterparts in the United States, Jordan, Brazil and Italy on Friday to discuss the situation in Gaza, a ministry statement said.

Mohamed Kamel Amr spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the necessity of cooperation between the United States and Egypt to end the military confrontations. Amr stressed the necessity of Israel ending attacks on Gaza and a truce being rebuilt between the two sides, the statement said.

Israeli ministers were asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists after Gaza militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day. Such a call-up could be the precursor of a ground invasion into Gaza, or just psychological warfare.

COLD PEACE

Morsi's toppled predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was a staunch U.S. ally who upheld a cold but stable peace with Israel.

The new president has vowed to respect the 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state. But relations have been strained by protests that forced the evacuation of Israel's ambassador to Cairo last year and cross-border attacks by Islamist militants.

More than 1,000 people gathered near Cairo's al-Azhar mosque after Friday prayers, many waving Egyptian and Palestinian flags.

“Gaza Gaza, symbol of pride,” they chanted, and “generation after generation, we declare our enmity towards you, Israel.”

“I cannot, as an Egyptian, an Arab and a Muslim, just sit back and watch the massacres in Gaza,” said protester Abdel Aziz Nagy, 25, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Protesters were marching from other areas of Cairo towards Tahrir Square, the main rallying point for last year's uprising that toppled Mubarak.

In Alexandria, around 2,000 protesters gathered in front of a mosque, some holding posters demanding Egypt's border crossing to Gaza be opened to allow aid into the impoverished enclave.

Hundreds also gathered in the cities of Ismailia, Suez and al-Arish to denounce Israel's attacks.

Al-Azhar, Egypt's influential seat of Islamic learning, called on all Arabs and Muslims to unite in support of their brothers in Gaza, the state news agency MENA said.

“The Zionists are seeking to eliminate all (Palestinians) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Ahmed al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, said in comments carried by MENA.

Al-Tayyib denounced the position of world powers on the Gaza crisis, describing them as having “forgotten their humanitarian duties … and standing on the side of the aggressors,” according to MENA.

U.S. Senate resolution backs Israel’s actions in Gaza


Thirty U.S. senators have signed on to a resolution expressing support for Israel's “inherent right to act in self-defense.”

The non-binding resolution, originally drafted by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), “expresses unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure borders, and recognizes and strongly supports its inherent right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism.”

The resolution, the first such proposed legislation in the wake of Israeli airstrikes launched Wednesday in retaliation for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, may come to a vote as early as Thursday evening.

Unlike statements of support for Israel's actions from the Obama administration, the Senate resolution does not call on both sides to exercise restraint or express regret at casualties on both sides.

“We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters on Thursday. “There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately in order to allow the situation to de-escalate.”

Sixteen Palestinians, including two children, and three Israelis have been killed in the escalated violence between Israel and Palestinian terrorists. Among the dead Palestinians is a terrorist leader, Ahmed Jabari.

A host of lawmakers have issued statements in support of Israel, and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on Wednesday briefed five senators from both parties — Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

“As a bipartisan group of Senators committed to Israel's security, we express our solidarity with Israel during this deeply challenging period and denounce the reprehensible and indiscriminate rocket attacks launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against innocent Israeli citizens,” the senators said in a joint statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised the outpouring of congressional support.

“These statements demonstrate that America continues to firmly stand with Israel and her right to defend herself,” it said. “No nation can tolerate constant barrages of rockets against its civilian population.”

IDF pinpoint strike on Ahmed Jabari [VIDEO]


The IDF targeted Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' military wing in the Gaza Strip, on Nov. 14. Jabari was a senior Hamas operative who served in the upper echelon of the Hamas' command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against Israel in the past.