Israeli spy catalogues mistakes in Lebanon


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The Shi’ite Hezbollah movement this week released a new three-part documentary on the 2006 capture of two Israeli soldiers, which sparked a 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The film includes interviews with several Israeli officials and an Israeli soldier wounded in the incident.

Israel’s Government Press Office, GPO, says it is investigating journalist Michaela Moni of the Italian ANSA news agency, for possible ties to the organization. Moni conducted the interviews, saying they were for Italian outlets, not Hezbollah. In any case, the fact that Hezbollah was able to arrange the interviews gave it a propaganda victory.

It was just the latest example of what is called in Israel, the “Lebanese swamp.” Israel fought two wars in Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006, and spent 15 years controlling a “security zone” in south Lebanon, before pulling out in 2000. In a book just translated into English, called Window to the Backyard, Israel’s former Mossad station chief, Yair Ravid, outlines a series of Israeli mistakes in Lebanon.

“There are several reasons for Israel’s failure in Lebanon,” Ravid told The Media Line. “Ariel Sharon (Israel’s Defense Minister in 1982) in his megalomania thought that he could get a separate peace with Lebanon, Menachem Begin (then Prime Minister) naively thought our help to the Christians would lead to a separate peace, and the Mossad on a political level didn’t understand Lebanon.”

Ravid, 71, was responsible for developing ties between Israel and the Christian villages in Lebanon. Those contacts eventually led to the creation of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), thousands of whom fled to Israel when Israel left Lebanon in 2000. About 2700 former SLA members live in Israel today.

“Israel divided the SLA into two groups – the officers and the regular soldiers,” Julie Abu Araj, whose father was killed fighting for the SLA and today lives in Israel told The Media Line. “The officers got a lot of assistance from the Israeli government, but the regular soldiers got much less.”

Araj came to Israel when she was 12, and speaks perfect Hebrew. She feels comfortable in Israel, although sometimes misses her home town. She has become active in advocating for the rights of former SLA fighters, some of whom feel abandoned by Israel.

Successive Israeli governments failed to understand the complexities of Lebanon, made up of Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Druze. Even today, Lebanon has been without a president since 2014, as the political blocs have been unable to agree.

Lebanon today is also struggling to house and feed more than one million refugees from Syria who have flooded the neighboring country of just four million. Hizbullah is the kingmaker in Lebanese politics, although Hizbullah is currently bogged down in fighting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli intelligence has repeatedly warned that Hezbollah has upwards of 100,000 rockets that could hit any part of Israel. Israel in turn has warned Hezbollah it will destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure if there is another attack.

“Right now Hezbollah has no interest in heating things up because they are busy in Syria,” Ravid said. “They will only start up with us if it helps their sponsor Iran.”

Ravid’s book also offers some insights into what it is like to be an Israeli spy. He writes what it is like to recruit agents, describing what qualities a good spymaster needs.

“Among the most important characteristics an operator of agents must be equipped with are compassion and the ability to listen to their operatives’ difficulties and problems, alongside recognizing and understanding the operatives’ family structure and the relations within their families,” he writes. “On occasion an operator has to offer agents he operates a gesture. Bestow them with gifts for personal or family occasions, and during holidays. Tributes that are unexpected, that surprise the agents, bring fast return on the investment.”

He also writes that the new generation of spies relies more on technology and les son human interaction.

“I see myself as one who belongs to the old generation of agents’ operators. This is the generation which maintained close ties and often friendly ties with the Arab population. I was and still feel at home in many Arabs’ households, and many Arabs are very welcome in my home. These kinds of relationships and connections give the operator the right tools to make him an Intelligence officer,” he writes. “The younger generation of agents’ operators which is currently active is disconnected from the field and from the Arab population. This generation knows the use of computers much better than my generation, but the remoteness of the field makes them intelligence technicians and not intelligence officers.”

Ravid has not been back to Beirut since 1985. When asked if Israel currently has spies in Lebanon, he answered, “I certainly hope so.”

Netanyahu: Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria


Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, acknowledging for the first time such attacks against suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

Though formally neutral on Syria's civil war, Israel has frequently pledged to prevent shipments of advanced weaponry to the Iranian-backed group, while stopping short of confirming reports of specific air operations.

Visiting Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights near the frontier with Syria, Netanyahu said: “We act when we need to act, including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry.”

Netanyahu did not specify what kind of strikes Israel had conducted in Syria. He also gave no timeframe or other details regarding the strikes.

Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in Syria in February but has indicated it could still launch attacks there if it sees a threat from Hezbollah, which holds sway over southern Lebanon and whose fighters have been allied with President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli leaders have sought assurances from Russia, which sent forces to Syria last year to help Assad, that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to be bolstered by the partial military withdrawal that Moscow announced last month.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent any accidental clash between their aircraft over Syrian territory.

Hezbollah and Israel last fought a war in 2006 that included rocket strikes inside Israel and an Israeli air and ground offensive in Lebanon.

Israeli leaders have said that since that conflict, Hezbollah has built up and improved the range of a rocket arsenal that can now strike deep inside Israel.

IDF chief: Hezbollah biggest threat on Israel’s borders


In a statement that reaffirmed the seriousness of Hezbollah’s threats toward Israel, the Israeli army’s chief of staff said the Shi’ite militia was the biggest threat on the Jewish state’s borders.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot spoke about Hezbollah Wednesday during a talk with teenagers in Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, Israel Radio reported.

“Around the State of Israel, Hezbollah is the organization with the most significant capabilities,” Eisenkot said, adding that, “The IDF is succeeding in generating deterrence and over the past decade, the Lebanon front is quiet.”

Eisenkot’s statement about Hezbollah came one day after the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised statement that Hezbollah could cause “an effect like that of an atomic bomb” by targeting a chemical factory in the Haifa area.

Nasrallah, Eisenkot said, “over years has built up the ability to target with missiles centers of population in the Tel Aviv area and elsewhere.”

Since 2012, Hezbollah, a traditional ally of Syria’s embattled president Bashar Assad, has lost thousands of combatants in Syria and Iraq, where it is fighting Sunni militias determined to overthrow Assad.

Military analysts believe that the organization, which is thought to have no more than 20,000 active members, is too vulnerable to fight on two fronts, and has therefore refrained from engaging Israel even in retaliation to Israeli strikes aimed against it or its allies.

Hezbollah leader threatens nuclear-type attack on Israel


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to hit large ammonia gas tanks in Haifa that he said would wreak damage and casualties equal to a nuclear attack.

Nasrallah made the threats about a future attack on northern Israel during a speech in Beirut.

“This would be exactly as a nuclear bomb, and we can say that Lebanon today has a nuclear bomb, seeing as any rocket that might hit these tanks is capable of creating a nuclear bomb effect,” he said.

Israel’s environmental protection minister, Avi Gabbai, later told the Israeli media that he had ordered the ammonia storage facility be moved to the Negev Desert in the southern part of Israel.

Nasrallah added that Hezbollah’s military might is preventing attacks by Israel, and Israel would not attack unless it knew it could win and in a short amount of time.

He also accused Israel of planning to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying those plans have failed.

Nasrallah condemned Arab countries that have or are working toward normalizing relations with Israel.

“Do you accept a friend occupying Sunni land in Palestine? Can you become friends with an entity that has committed the most horrible massacres against the Sunni community?” he asked. “You are free to consider Iran an enemy, but how can you consider Israel a friend and ally? This issue must be confronted in a serious manner.”

Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon


Hezbollah set off a bomb targeting Israeli forces at the Lebanese border on Monday in an apparent response to the killing in Syria last month of a prominent commander, triggering Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon.

Israel has struck its Iran-backed Shi'ite enemy Hezbollah in Syria several times, killing a number of fighters and destroying weapons it believes were destined for the group, whose support for President Bashar al-Assad has been crucial in the country's civil war.

Israel's army said Monday's blast, targeting military vehicles in the Shebaa farms area, promptedIsraeli forces to respond with artillery fire. It made no mention of casualties.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the explosive device had been detonated in the Shebaa farms area and carried out by a group whom it named after Samir Qantar, a commander killed in December. The group has accused Israel of killing Qantar in an air strike in Syria, and vowed to retaliate. 

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, urged both sides to avoid an escalation, saying it had stepped up patrols on the ground after the incident.

In a statement, head of mission Major-General Luciano Portolano urged both sides “to exercise utmost restraint against any provocation.”

Lebanese media said Israeli shelling had hit the nearby town of Al Wazzani and other areas, with reports of material damage but no serious injuries.

Witnesses said at least 10 Israeli shells had hit Al Wazzani shortly after the blast.

A Reuters witness said the shelling had stopped later in the day. Al Manar TV reported that calm had returned to the Shebaa area.

An Israeli air strike killed Qantar on Dec. 20 in Damascus, Hezbollah said. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said a week later that retaliation would be inevitable.

Israel stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed Qantar, but welcomed the death of the militant leader, who had been jailed in Israel in 1979 and repatriated to Lebanon in a 2008 prisoner swap.

Hezbollah did not say which role Qantar played in the Syrian conflict, but Syrian state media said he was involved in a major offensive earlier this year in Quneitra, near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting on the side of Assad in Syria's civil war. The conflict has exacted a heavy toll on Hezbollah, with many hundreds of its fighters killed.

In January last year, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander and the son of the group's late military commander Imad Moughniyah. An Iranian general was also killed in that attack. 

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed later that month in one of the most violent clashes between the two sides since a 2006 war. 

Israel and Hezbollah have avoided large scale confrontation along their 80-km (50-mile) frontier since the 34-day war in 2006, which killed 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon. 

Nasrallah has made repeated threats against Israel since then, part of what is seen as a calibrated policy of deterrence.

Israel wary of continued conflict in Syria


It’s been seven years since Israel and Syria were in talks mediated by Turkey.

Those negotiations in Ankara were premised on de-coupling Damascus from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah and dislodging Israel from the Golan.

Neither side could envision paying the price required to seal a deal, and shortly after the talks ended, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) began to nurture a personal animosity against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that only grew as Syria’s conflict turned sectarian and Israel went hard after Hamas in Gaza.

As the Syrian uprising got serious in 2011, Moscow presented itself as the mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus. Russia’s enhanced commitment to a presence in Syria may be the penultimate strategic legacy of this bloody chapter in Levantine history.

Details of the Damascus-Jerusalem interchange are outlined in the report by Seymour Hersh published earlier this month in the London Review of Books. The essay focuses largely on the debate inside Washington over the risks and rewards of arming the increasingly sectarian rebels, some of whom had clear al-Qaida antecedents.

Hersh writes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) served as a conduit for United States intelligence to the Syrian government, since it was in Jerusalem’s interest to have Assad’s army instead of Islamist rebel battalions operating on the northern side of the Golan Heights. Hersh also writes the Kremlin relayed an offer from Assad to Netanyahu to resume talks over the territory.

It’s now known that Israel rebuffed the offer and moved to deepen its cooperation with Jordanian military intelligence, which was simultaneously supporting and monitoring the al Nusra Front in the southern Syrian governorates of Suwyeda, Daraa and Quneitra. It looked as if Assad was losing his grip, and the IDF took a realpolitik stance toward the rebels.

Gains by insurgents led the regime to deploy chemical weapons against the pro-rebel township of Ghouta in August 2013 and in the suburbs of Aleppo in March 2013.

At around this time, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas made an impolitic comment to The New York Times.

“Let them both [sides] bleed, hemorrhage to death: That’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria,” Pinkas said in an article that found a consensus in Israel for a “limited strike” against regime targets.

But the quote has been cited multiple times to bolster a line uniting supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, pro-Assad “leftists” and basic meat-and-potatoes anti-Semites to charge that a blood-thirsty “Israel wants the civil war in Syria to continue.”

Of course, it’s not just Pinkas’ cynical sound bite that drives the “Israel likes this war” trope. To advance their territorial claims, the Golan annexationists in the highest political echelons promote the notion that Syria will never again be reassembled.

This case was made explicitly by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Herzliya Conference in June and even floated by the prime minister when he met U.S. President Barack Obama in November.

But the prime minister must know there is no room for the Americans to “think differently” about the Golan, especially now that there’s actually a chance that the powers playing in the Syrian sandbox are ready to push their clients to the negotiating table.

Beyond the bluster, Israel and, more importantly, Israelis, demonstrated consistent unease over the destabilizing consequences of the war in Syria, an anxiety stemming from self-interested security concerns [ranging from DAASH to Hezbollah] and genuine humanitarian revulsion toward the carnage at their doorstep. 

A memo written this week by former Israeli National Security Advisors Yaakov Amidror and Eran Lerman gives a good glimpse into what Israel’s security establishment really thinks about Syria. Here’s what they said:

1) The continuation of the Syrian civil war poses a threat to Jordan and thus to Israel.

2) DAASH feeds off of the sectarian conflict in Syria, and chaos there makes al-Nusra look like moderates compared to what DAASH leader Al-Baghdadi and his followers have on offer.

3) Expanded operational territory for Hezbollah fighters is problematic.

4) Ultimately, Israel’s borders are more secure when state actors are on the other side — instead of terror groups.

Concrete signs of this policy are documented in the consistent Israeli lobbying for increased U.S. allocations to help Jordan deal with the Syrian refugees. Israel is concerned that these refugees neither starve in Jordan during the short term, nor settle there in the long term. It’s clearly not in Israel’s interest that an additional million radicalized Sunnis show up in Jordan.

So, logically, the new Damascus “blood libel” doesn’t match strategic thinking in the real Israel.

The shameful inability of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu to do something for the Palestinians of the besieged Yarmouk Refugee Camp is a moral stain on both. The Syrian war has put the spotlight on the 1948 refugees and their descendants, and neither Jerusalem nor Ramallah can ignore this constituency indefinitely.

But the assistance provided by Israeli field hospitals to rebel fighters in the north and the volunteers of IsraAID on the Greek islands and in the Balkans to Syrian asylum seekers is well-known and appreciated by refugees and the exiled opposition leaders.

It is accepted that Israel shares intelligence on DAASH with the Russians, as well as the Jordanians.

 And of course they keep the Hashemite and Saudi courts briefed on Hezbollah and the Iranians.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu navigate practical understandings over who can do what in Syria, it’s very clear that this war has aligned Israel to the Sunni Arab states to its east.

This week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said his government “was striving to maintain Syria as a unified nation inclusive of all sects.”

Petroleum politics and the perceived U.S. detachment from the Middle East have paved the way for an unprecedented Riyadh-Moscow dialogue.

It is Russia that will have to engineer a stage-left exit for Hezbollah and Iran if she wants to keep her assets in a transitional Syria and maintain credibility with the Sunni states.

“Saudi Arabia is ready to pay any price to bring down the Assad regime,” an exiled leader of the Assyrian Christian Community whose family has suffered from the ravages of both the Damascus government and Islamist fighters told the Jewish Journal.

“Israel’s interest is to satisfy the Sunni Arabs, and that means they, too, want to see a negotiated end to this war.”

Blaming operative’s death on Israel, Hezbollah chief vows revenge


Hassan Nasrallah, the top leader of the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, blamed the killing of operative Samir Kuntar on Israel and said his group would retaliate.

“We reserve the right to respond to this assassination at the time and place of our choosing,” Nasrallah said Monday evening in a televised speech from Beirut, the Times of Israel reported. The newspaper cited an English translation from a journalist with the al-Mayadeen Arabic satellite television channel.

Nasrallah’s statement came hours after a Syrian rebel group claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed Kuntar, who was released in a 2008 prisoner swap after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison for his role in a deadly terrorist attack.

“We have no doubt that the Israeli enemy was behind the assassination in a blatant military operation,” Nasrallah said, according to the Naharnet news site.

Israel has not confirmed whether or not it was involved in the attack, but several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

Israel says Arrow 3 missile shield aces test, hitting target in space


Israel's upgraded Arrow ballistic missile shield passed a full interception test on Thursday, hitting a target in space meant to simulate the trajectory of the long-range weapons held by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the Defense Ministry said.

The success was a boost for “Arrow 3,” among Israeli missile defense systems that get extensive U.S. funding. Its first attempt at a full trial, held a year ago, was aborted due to what designers said was a faulty deployment of the target.

“The success of the Arrow 3 system today … is an important step towards one of the most important projects for Israel and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) becoming operational,” said Joseph Weiss, IAI's chief executive officer.

Arrow 3 interceptors are designed to fly beyond the earth's atmosphere, where their warheads detach to become 'kamikaze' satellites, or “kill vehicles”, that track and slam into the targets. Such high-altitude shoot-downs are meant to safely destroy incoming nuclear, biological or chemical missiles.

The Arrow system is jointly developed by state-owned IAI and U.S. firm Boeing Co. <BA.N> and U.S. officials were present for the test. The earlier Arrow 2 was deployed more than a decade ago and officials put its success rate in trials at around 90 percent.

The United States has its own system for intercepting ballistic missiles in space, Aegis, but a senior Israeli official played down any comparison with Arrow 3.

While it “might be true” that the allies were alone in having such proven capabilities, “Israel is not on the level of the U.S.,” Yair Ramati, head of anti-missile systems at the Defense Ministry, told reporters.

Arrow serves as the top tier of an integrated Israeli shield built up to withstand various potential missile or rocket salvoes. The bottom tier is the already deployed short-range Iron Dome interceptor, while a system called David's Sling, due to be fielded next year, will shoot down mid-range missiles. 

Israel's strategic outlook has shifted in recent months, given the international deal in July curbing Iran's nuclear program, the depletion of the Syrian army's arsenal in that country's civil war and Hezbollah's reinforcement of Damascus against the rebels. Israel and Hamas fought a Gaza war in 2014 but the Palestinian enclave has been relatively quiet since.

Nonethless, a senior Israeli official said there was no sign of waning government support or weakening U.S. backing for the various missile defense programs.

“Everyone knows that you have to prepare with an eye well beyond the horizon, especially as the enemy's capabilities improve all the time,” the senior official told Reuters.

In the coming months the Defense Ministry and Israeli military will discuss a possible schedule for deployment of Arrow 3, Ramati said, adding that further tests of the system were expected.

Martians attack ISIS: A Chanukah story


At first, ISIS commanders in Syria assumed the weird-looking jets came from America, the Great Satan. They’d never seen jets like that before — spherical and very agile. They could stop on a dime, explode at crazy speeds and release laser-like bombs that vaporize several targets at once. The ISIS weapons and the ferocity of its fighters were useless against this new strike force.

“Allahu Akbar!” became a desperate cry for help.

Via Twitter, ISIS commanders learned that this new force was focusing on the Middle East and attacking other countries in the region — Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and, yes, even the Little Satan, Israel. Word spread that Israel might have figured out a way to respond to this otherworldly threat with weapons of its own. The prime minister of Israel called a press conference for later that day, Sept. 12, 2025.

“We are aware of this new threat,” the prime minister said. “It comes from Mars. Our Interstellar Intelligence Division has been tracking them for years. We kept it under wraps so as not to alarm the planet.”

Thanks to its intelligence gathering, Israel had already developed innovative weaponry that could combat the Martian threat. The problem was, it didn’t have enough of these weapons. So, a program had to start immediately to replenish them on a scale grand enough to thwart the new enemy. America agreed to build them. Israel estimated that if the new weapons were ready within 60 days, they could keep the Martian forces at bay until then.

Secret meetings were held among Israeli commanders and leaders of major terrorist groups, including ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas. Within a few days, it was decided to convene a major summit of Middle Eastern leaders in Jerusalem to hear more about Israel’s strategy for warding off this violent and mysterious new enemy.

Meanwhile, the Martians were pummeling Arab villages, cities and terrorist bases throughout the region. The Pyramids were laser-bombed into rubble. At the summit, the king of Saudi Arabia expressed alarm at the possibility that the Grand Mosque in Mecca would be destroyed.

“This is a holy site we must protect at all costs,” the king said. “If Mecca goes down, it would be as if our prophet were murdered, God forbid.”

“We must protect people first,” the Israeli commander responded. “But Israel will do what it can to protect your holiest sites. No promises. We are in crisis mode.”

As Israel’s defense systems were mobilized throughout the region, the tide began to turn. Terror groups were enlisted in the effort, primarily to keep peace in the streets and help feed the people. Israeli weapons destroyed three Martian jets over Iran. It was decided early on that nuclear devices would be useless because the collateral damage would kill millions of humans. Israel’s new weaponry was specifically designed to target Martian forces.

On the streets of the Middle East, word got out about Israel’s role. Arab media reported that Israeli forces were leading the fight against this “Green Satan,” as people were calling the Martian army.

Inside the surviving mosques, the imams’ sermons began to change. Fearful the Green Satan would demolish more holy sites, Muslim preachers prayed for the success of the Israeli forces. Millions of devout Muslims throughout the world joined in the prayers.

Then one Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week, Martian forces launched an all-out assault on Mecca. Israel was prepared. Its intelligence had already alerted the IDF, giving Israeli commandos enough time to set up a 360-degree perimeter defense to thwart the attack. News spread around the world that the Jews of Israel had saved Mecca. A billion Muslims poured into the streets in cries of joy and gratitude. 

By now, America had mobilized the additional weapons and joined Israel in the fight. This helped secure the victory. The Great Satan and the Little Satan had joined forces to destroy the Green Satan. The last Martian jet could be seen fleeing planet Earth on the first night of Chanukah, prompting the whole world to embrace the Jewish holiday of light.

In the general euphoria, U.S. President LeBron James, after lighting a giant Chanukah menorah at the White House, announced that Middle East peace talks would finally resume. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority released a statement insisting that Israel return to the 1967 lines and stop building in the settlements.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.

Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.

“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.

“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.

Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.

A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.

On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.

Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.

The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.

“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.

Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.

Fighting for the soul of the Jewish people


These are challenging times for the Jewish people.

Despite our being the wealthiest and most privileged Jews in our 3600-year history, and despite the state of Israel being the most powerful, democratic and humane nation in the Middle East, we Jews feel vulnerable and afraid, and we are more divided in how we respond to our circumstances than any period in my lifetime.

It’s this state of our people that I want discuss with you this morning.

Our challenges as a people are many and serious. The state of Israel is today more isolated internationally than it has been in decades. The anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions) movement is growing around the world and on American college campuses. The lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continuing Israeli settlement construction, and a political marriage between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political parties and an increasingly violent settler movement is provoking negative and hostile world reaction and Jewish consternation.

In the context of a violent and destabilized Middle East, many Jews are unsure of what to really think about the Iran Nuclear Agreement given that we don’t trust Iran whose mullahs have sworn to destroy the state of Israel and have armed Hezbollah with 100,000 missiles aimed at the heart of the Jewish state.

Is it any wonder that so many Jews are agitated, frightened, angry, resentful, and confused? We are a people, after all, with a long memory and none of us who’s conscious of our historic experience can dismiss the threats of hardened anti-Semites.

The wide range of Jewish reactions to these threats, however, is stunning. One would think that given all the forces confronting us that we’d be of one mind – but, of course, we aren’t. Many Jews believe that liberal elements of the Jewish community have lost their bearings, are in denial and refuse to understand our enemies for who they really are and what they could do to us if we aren’t aggressively vigilant.

Others believe that conservative elements of the Jewish community have lost their moral compass, and that Israeli security challenges have overwhelmed every other consideration and excused behaviors that neither advance our people’s security nor comply with Judaism’s moral standards.

On each side, the left and the right, there’s a feeling of self-righteous certainty about the truth of what’s really going on. It’s that certainty that shines a light on both the left’s and the right’s weakness. No one is prescient and able to tell the future.

I’m not here to argue for or against the Iran Nuclear Agreement. I know that there are thoughtful, loyal and deeply concerned Jews on both sides of this debate. Of course, I’m very concerned as a citizen and a Jew that loves Israel about what this agreement will mean over time, but frankly, I’m just as worried about what’s happening within our own community in our relationship with each other and the state of Israel.

I remember so clearly the days when the American Jewish community was unified. Today, we’ve become more Balkanized, isolated and alienated from one another, and we’ve turned against each other to a degree I’ve never seen before.

The consequences of our intensifying American Jewish infighting spurred on primarily by the right-wing policies in the state of Israel and by the harsh Israeli occupation of the West Bank, are turning off far too many Jews and potentially a generation of young American liberal Jews who we as a people can ill afford to lose.

A year ago I exchanged emails with a young woman in our congregation who had entered rabbinic school and was spending her first year of study in Jerusalem. She is bright, kind and passionate. Her family includes long-time Zionists and former leaders of the state of Israel. But being in Israel and witnessing the right-wing policies of this and the last Israeli government, she had become disheartened.

Though Israel proper within the Green Line is a strong democracy, my young friend was witnessing a growing corruption of the classic liberal Zionist principles on which she was raised and the state was founded. She was shocked by growing racism in Israeli society, dismayed by the Israeli government’s conceptualization of the situation with the Palestinians, befuddled by ongoing settlement building, theft by Jews of documented Palestinian-owned land, demolition of Arab homes in East Jerusalem, a different legal standard for Palestinian west bank residents and their Israeli settler neighbors, and horrified that a liberal democracy can tell Israeli Arab citizens that they could no longer work in Israeli Jewish communities because they pose a “security threat.”

My young friend was fearful that demagogic and oppressive forces are gaining popular currency in Israel itself and that the Israeli government is increasingly intransigent in dealing effectively with its many challenges.

She was disheartened, as well, that the chief rabbinate maintains coercive monopolistic control over religious life in the state, and she wonders whether it would be preferable to give up Israel’s Jewish character for the sake of preserving Israel’s progressive democracy.

All these trends had caused her emotionally to disengage from Israel while living there, in the very heart of Jerusalem, and she confided that she felt like a heretic. She didn’t know what to do or how to think about Israel going forward.

In response, I wrote her an email and then posted it, with her permission, on my blog and I am talking about it with you today also with her permission. I titled the blog “An Open Letter to American Liberal Jewish Young Adults” who feel, like her, disconnected from the state of Israel. This blog went viral because, apparently, it resonated not only with my intended audience of young American Jewish adults, but with their parents and grandparents who worry mightily that their children’s and grandchildren’s relationship to the Israel they love is weakening.

I wrote the following:

“First, I want you to know that I’m proud of you, of your critical thinking, of your commitment to live an enriched Jewish religious and ethical life, to be a learned Jew, and that you yearn to make sense of what Israel means to you.

Second, you aren’t alone. Shabtai Shavit, a former director general of Mossad, Israel’s security service, recently confessed his own concerns about the “future of the Zionist project” and the threats against it in the region and international community. Shavit harshly criticized Israel’s political leadership’s ‘…haughtiness and arrogance, together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the [Israel-Palestinian] conflict into a holy war.’

Shavit worried aloud that ‘…large segments of the nation … have forgotten… the original vision of Zionism: to establish a Jewish and democratic state for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel…’ and that ‘the current defiant policy [of settlement building] is working against [this vision].’

He called upon Israel to enter into conversation with moderate Arab nations (i.e. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and negotiate, based on the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002 (despite its problems), a two-states for two peoples resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will augur, as promised in the plan, the complete normalization of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab and Muslim world.

Shavit concluded soberly: ‘I wrote the above statements because I feel that I owe them to my parents, who devoted their lives to the fulfillment of Zionism; to my children, my grandchildren and to the nation of Israel, which I served for decades.’” (Former Mossad Chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism – Haaretz, November 24, 2014 – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.628038)

I told my young friend, among other things, that she had to find a way to hold at once her conflicting thoughts about Israel while maintaining her active engagement with the Jewish state not only because Israel is the home of the entire Jewish people, but for the first time in 2000 years we Jews world-wide can test the most exalted moral principles of prophetic Judaism within a democratic Jewish state and thereby fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy that the Jewish people become an or lagoyim, a light to the nations of the world (Isaiah 42:6).

I told her that the Jewish people cannot afford for her, our future leadership, to disengage from Israel, that we liberal lovers of Israel need her to become our next generation’s leaders in American Zionist organizations, and the advocate that Israel deserves and we and the Jewish people need.

When I wrote to her, the American Jewish community was starting to come apart at the seams. Since then, in only a year, division has intensified because of the debate, heightened rhetoric and fears around the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

Many of you know that I support the Agreement even with its flaws, but I don’t for a moment doubt that those against the agreement love the state of Israel as I do. I do, however, doubt many of their love and tolerance for me and those who think like me based on the slanderous, dismissive and intimidating rhetoric that they are using against us for their political ends.

What’s happening within our community isn’t good. We need to turn down the decibels of the rhetoric and speak with far greater humility and civility to and about each other even when our passions are piqued and when we think the other side is sorely mistaken. We need to regard the other side of the debate not as our enemy, but as part of the same team that seeks what is best for America and Israel.

Let me say, however, that there are some within the broad Jewish community who I believe are not part of big-tent Judaism; namely, extremists on the right in the ultra-Orthodox community who say, as Israel’s Minister of the Interior David Azoulai said this summer, that Reform Jews aren’t Jewish, and those in the settler movement who think nothing of stealing Palestinian land and throwing fire bombs into Palestinian homes thus murdering entire families. I also question those Jews on the far left who have disassociated themselves with the Jewish people and are cavalier about legitimate Israeli security concerns. Everyone else, and that’s a lot of people, are part of our Jewish and pro-Israeli tent.

Heightened passions in our debate with each other, in Hebrew we call this a machloket, are being fed mostly by right-wing American Jews who fear that this agreement is not in either Israel’s or America’s best interest, that we’ve given away the store to a mortal enemy in Iran that with a nuclear weapon would create a new Holocaust. That position has been the stance of Prime Minister Netanyahu, his right-wing allies and the increasingly fanatic, violent and now murderous settler movement.

For the Prime Minister and his allies here and in Israel and the West Bank, everything has become equal existential threats to the state of Israel and the Jewish people: Iran, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel international BDS movement, left-wing Israeli NGOs, the New Israel Fund, Israeli Arab citizens coming in droves to vote, and even President Obama and the P5+1.

This absolutist one-size-fits-all us-versus-them attitude is playing powerfully to age-old Jewish fears. The debate in the United States has turned particularly ugly very fast, and doomsday rhetoric has escalated so dramatically that two of our region’s most thoughtful and serious Congressional Representatives and pro-Israel advocates, Adam Schiff who supports the agreement and Ted Lieu who opposes it, told me and a small group of people in the last month that debate on the nuclear agreement’s merits and flaws has been made far more difficult because of the heated over-blown rhetoric.

Left-wingers calling Senator Schumer a traitor marching to the orders of the Israeli government is just as outrageous and false as those on the right who accuse Congressman Jerry Nadler of new York a traitor and President Obama of appeasement and cloaked anti-Semitism.

There is, however, believe or not, a potential silver lining within all the ugliness because we Jews aren’t new to inner conflict and internecine warfare. From the earliest stages of Jewish history we’ve fought with one another, sometimes viciously.

From the conflict between Joseph and his brothers to Absalom’s attempt to dethrone his father King David, to the civil war between radically Hellenized Jews and the Maccabees, to the struggle for authority and legitimacy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Rabbinites and Karaites, the Hasidim and Mitnagdim, the Zionists and early Reform anti- Zionists, and now between the very different visions of Zionism and Judaism, controversy has characterized every Jewish generation and has been a usual state of the Jewish people for millennia.

So…what’s the silver lining? Jewish controversy often has yielded constructive new Jewish narratives and timeless advice and wisdom to move us forward as a people and as a religious and ethical tradition. Controversy has refined us as a community, and the history of conflicts resolved reassures us when we we’ve been divided and under threat as we are now that we can still come together.

We especially need wisdom and advice today because of all our divisions, in what Jewish identity means, in what the state of Israel means, in how we think about the non-Jewish world, in how we accommodate ourselves to life here in America and around the globe.

None of us should be so surprised by the depth and breadth of arguments today, for it’s come with the emergence of Jewish national self-determination over the last century. National policies in Israel affect us here as what we do affects Israelis, and those policies always are subject to strong debate and opinion.

Add to the mix the fact that we Jews are by nature and nurture an edgy, argumentative, opinionated, critical, and self-critical lot, and the result is conflict. We’re lovable too, of course; but we’re very tough and probably way too stubborn for our own good.

When I think about how complicated we Jews are and how difficult are the challenges we face, I take a small measure of comfort in what Yehudah Bauer, a scholar of Jewish history and the Holocaust, recently wrote:

“The Jews were always in opposition to the whole world. The Jewish people would be endangered by unity. The quarrels and disputes are the engine that drives [our] culture forward, backward or sideways. That is its elixir of life. If we are deprived of the constant ability to quarrel, we will be finished. The endless debates, from the Middle Ages to our own time, constitute the vitality of this people…” (Haaretz -February 26, 2013):

Bauer is right. We are a vital and contentious people, but we can’t leave it there because if we do our divisions will grow wider and we could lose our Jewish community here and the state of Israel as a democracy and our national home.

Putting the extremists aside, many of us to their left and to their right need to turn away from the precipice and back towards each other. We have to agree to disagree while recognizing that we are still one people and that we share common interests in the security, viability, democracy, and Jewish character of the state of Israel and the health, vitality and unity of our people worldwide. Said simply, we have to regard each other as part of the same team or we will lose what is most important to the people of Israel, our sense of unity and the Jewish democratic state of Israel.

The classic example of how we Jews have respectfully disagreed with each other is the relationship between two early first century BCE sages, Hillel and Shammai, and the schools of thought that followed them. They and their students debated vigorously everything of consequence, on belief, religious practice, ethics, and Jewish law. At times they were able to reconcile their differences, but so often their positions were at polar extremes.

In one of their most famous cases recorded in the Talmud, after a lengthy debate that carried on for three years, their argument was at last settled by what the Talmud called a bat kol – a heavenly voice – that declared, “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim chayim – These and these are the words of the Living God, but the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)

The Talmud explained that Beit Hillel’s decisions were not necessarily better than Beit Shammai, only that Hillel predominated because his disciples were “kindly and modest and studied their [own] rulings and those of the School of Shammai… teach[ing] that the one who humbles oneself is raised up by the Holy One.”

Hillel and Shammai gave rise to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and generations of rabbis who were compassionate, loved justice and walked humbly before God. The Zealots fought to the death against Rome on Masada and everyone else died there while the rabbis saved Judaism from annihilation.

The most extreme West Bank settlers are the Zealots of today, and given that the Israeli government isn’t stopping them from their hostilities and violence, they are leading the state of Israel over a cliff.

Their defiance has infected otherwise reasonable Jews worldwide. Hillel’s humility and respectful debate is what we need now, but increasingly it’s rare in Jewish life today. The recalcitrance that has, from the Israeli side, resulted in failed negotiations for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding that the Palestinians too are responsible, is as serious an existential threat to the Jewish people as anything that ISIS and Iran can do to us.

Yes, there are many on the left who believe that the right wing has lost its moral bearings. And there are many on the right who dismiss and delegitimize those with whom they disagree.

I’m trying to be as objective and self-critical as I can be, and I’m convinced that most of the responsibility for the serious division amongst our people is coming from the right wing that not only advocates policies in Israel and the West Bank that will doom the democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel but has also crossed the line of civility.

In the early 1960s, the historian Richard Hofstadter characterized a “paranoid style” of politics as leading to “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” (“The Paranoid Style in Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November, 1964). It’s that kind of paranoia in Israel’s leadership today and in the right wing of the American Jewish community coupled with the belief that only its side holds the truth that has led to Israel’s increasing international isolation and a head-to-head argument with the President of the United States, arguably the best proven friend the state of Israel has in the world.

What should be of special concern to every Jew today is how the extremism on the right, here and in Israel, is damaging the fabric and soul of our community and of the Jewish state itself.

Hillel and his disciples along with the loyal opposition represented by Shammai and his followers ought to serve as the corrective to those who prefer intolerance to tolerance, militarism to negotiation and a winner-take-all attitude as opposed to compromise and accommodation.

We Jews have too much at stake not to insist that our leaders and community step away from the precipice and restore humility to our politics and civility towards our opponents as modeled by both the followers of Hillel and Shammai.

May that, at the very least, be our people’s mission in this New Year.

L’shanah tovah.

Obama in landmark interview: Hezbollah will be a focus of post-Iran deal


A focus of security enhancement once the Iran nuclear deal goes through will be neutralizing Hezbollah’s threat to Israel, President Barack Obama said in a landmark interview with The Forward.

“As soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles,” Obama said in the interview published Monday — the first with the Jewish media since he became president.

“Where Iran has been effective in its destabilizing activities, it’s not because it’s had a lot of money,” Obama said, countering criticism that the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal that will unfreeze $50 billion in funds will increase Iran’s capacity for disruption.

“It’s because they’ve effectively used proxies; it’s because they’ve invested in places like Lebanon for decades and become entrenched,” the president said. “And the reason we haven’t done a better job of stopping that is not because they’re outspending us. The reason is, is because we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back as we need to be.”

Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia, has stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles on Lebanese territory since its 2006 war with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vigorously opposes the Iran nuclear deal, has rejected Obama administration efforts to coordinate post-deal defense strategies regarding Iran, preferring to wait until he is certain that Congress will not reject the deal.

Republicans mostly oppose the deal, so there has been a concerted effort by both sides to win over Democrats, in part by appeals to the Jewish community, a key constituency of the party. Congress has until late September to consider whether to reject the deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

Obama spoke on Friday, the same day he gave the Forward the interview, to a webcast jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” said Obama during the 50-minute webcast, which was filmed live from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they chose to cheat.”

In additions to concerns about how Iran will spend its unfrozen funds, Netanyahu and other opponents, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, say the expiration dates for some of the deal’s components, in 10, 15 and 25 years, will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state.

In his Forward interview, Obama said that tensions between the Israeli and U.S. governments surrounding the deal would not last.

“People will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “The one thing I do want to make sure is that your readers and everybody who cares about the U.S.-Israeli relationship retain the understanding that I think is one of the foundations of this relationship, which is, is that this is not a partisan issue; the bipartisan support of Israel is critical to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.”

After Israel talks, Pentagon chief says: ‘Friends can disagree’


U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter never expected to win over Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the merits of the nuclear agreement with Iran but tried to put a brave face on their sometimes blunt, closed-door exchange on Tuesday.

“We don't agree on everything. And the prime minister made it quite clear that he disagreed with us on with respect to the nuclear deal,” Carter said at an airbase in Jordan.

“But friends can disagree.”

Since arriving in Israel on Sunday, Carter has sought to look beyond the political tensions between Israel and the United States that have only deepened since last week's announcement of a deal curbing Iran's nuclear program.

Carter, the first U.S. cabinet secretary to visit Israel since the deal, traveled to the northern border with Lebanon on Monday and promised to help counter Iranian proxies like Hezbollah.

Israel fears Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah will benefit from Iranian sanctions relief.

Netanyahu looked stern as he received Carter in Jerusalem and the two did not deliver expected public remarks to gathered reporters. Once behind closed doors, the prime minister, without referring to notes, detailed his objections.

“The Secretary did of course respond to those (objections) … we just agreed to disagree on certain issues,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

The official described Netanyahu as “blunt” and “passionate,” offering the same kinds of arguments privately that he has made at length in public. In his latest U.S. media offensive, Netanyahu has urged lawmakers to hold out for a better deal.

The U.S. Congress has 60 days from Monday to decide whether to approve or reject the deal. Republicans who control Congress have lined up in opposition, but Obama says he will veto any attempt to block it.

Israel has a strong army, is believed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal, and receives about $3 billion a year in military-related support from the United States.

That amount is expected to increase following the Iran deal, but the U.S. official said that issue did not come up.

“There was no discussion of money at all,” the official said.

Carter visited Jordan on Tuesday and will travel next to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a contest for power with Iran stretching across the region. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia fears the deal will bolster Iran's allies.

Lebanese man pleads guilty in Cyprus ammonium ‘plot’


A Lebanese-Canadian man accused of stockpiling explosives in Cyprus pleaded guilty on Monday in a case that Israel said bore the hallmarks of a failed Hezbollah plot.

Cyprus's criminal court was expected to sentence Hussein Bassam Abdallah, 26, later on Monday.

He was arrested in late May after police discovered a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a potential explosive, in the basement of a house in the coastal city of Larnaca.

Abdallah pleaded guilty to charges of possessing explosives, conspiracy to commit a crime, aiding and abetting a terrorist organization and participation in a terrorist group, the state Cyprus News Agency reported.

Cyprus's foreign minister told Reuters earlier this month that the government believed it had thwarted a plot by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi'ite militia hostile to Israel.

Ammonium nitrate, if mixed with other substances, can become a very powerful explosive. Authorities discovered 8.2 tonnes of the substance stored in icepacks.

Police sources said they believed the fertilizer had been accumulated at the site since 2012. Cyprus authorities have not speculated about its probable use or target, but Israel has said it was to have been used to target Israelis or Jews.

Cyprus ammonia haul suspect detained longer, Hezbollah link probed


A Cypriot court extended the detention of a Lebanese-Canadian man on Friday over the discovery of five tons of chemical fertiliser in a case Israel says bears the hallmarks of the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Authorities detained the 26-year-old man, holder of a Canadian passport, in late May after finding ammonium nitrate, a potential explosive, in the basement of a home in the coastal town of Larnaca where he had been staying.

Security sources say authorities are looking into a possible link with Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a claim also made by Israel, but the suspect denies any connection with the group or the hoard of chemicals.

“He denies all connection with Hezbollah,” his lawyer, Andreas Mathikolonis, said.

Mathikolonis said the man had happened to be at the property because his family was considering renting or buying the property.

A magistrate in the coastal town of Larnaca ordered that the man, who has not been publicly identified, remain in custody for a further eight days. The case was heard in camera, with authorities citing national security to prevent media leaks.

A security source said about five tons of ammonia nitrate had been found in the basement of the Larnaca property, mixed in with icepacks, with the total haul including the icepacks amounting to about 15 tons.

“We are looking into how long it was there,” said the source, adding it could have been many months or even a couple of years. The authorities have established how it arrived in Cyprus, the source said, declining to elaborate.

Ammonium nitrate, if mixed with other substances, can become a very powerful explosive. Under Cyprus anti-terrorism laws, anything that can be used potentially as an explosive, with probable cause, is an offence.

ISRAEL SAYS ATTACKS PLANNED

Fertiliser-based bombs remain the explosive of choice for many militant groups across the world.

They were used in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, and in attacks in 2003 on the HSBC bank headquarters and the British Consulate in Istanbul in which 32 people died.

Cyprus has said little about the case, but Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, citing information he said he received from Cyprus, said the fertiliser had been intended for bombs.

“These were apparently meant to be ready for attacks on us,” he told reporters on Monday, referring to Israelis or Jews in Cyprus or elsewhere in Europe. He said the explosives might also have been intended for attacks against Western targets.

Cyprus is a popular holiday destination for Israelis. It is in the European Union and hosts two British military bases.

The island has little militant-related activity despite its proximity to the Middle East. Its last major security incident was a botched attack on the Israeli embassy in 1988, which killed three people.

Cyprus may have foiled major attack after ammonia find


Cyprus believes it may have foiled a major explosives attack, a security source said, in seizing nearly five tons of chemical fertilizer for a planned action Israel says bears the hallmarks of the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Authorities detained a Lebanese-Canadian in late May after finding ammonium nitrate, a potential explosive, in his basement. Initially cited as two tons, security sources told Reuters on Tuesday the amount was in fact closer to five tons.

“With those kind of quantities something bad could have happened, and it was foiled,” a security source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The suspect, a 26-year-old who arrived in Cyprus in the third week of May, was arrested in the coastal town of Larnaca on May 27 after a police raid on premises where he was staying.

Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer but if mixed with other substances can become a very powerful explosive.

Fertilizer-based bombs remain the explosive of choice for many militant groups across the world and have been used in some of the most destructive attacks in recent years.

They were used in the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 and a year later in attacks on the HSBC bank headquarters and the British Consulate in Istanbul in which 32 people died.

JEANS AND T-SHIRT

A Reuters witness in court at an initial hearing before journalists were asked to leave saw a young man of medium build with short dark cropped hair wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans.

“He…is denying everything,” the security source said.

Authorities found the ammonium nitrate in the basement of a two-story house in a quiet suburb of the coastal town of Larnaca. The house's owner, a non-Cypriot, was being sought for questioning but not believed to be in Cyprus.

Sources say they are investigating a possible link with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and remains one of Israel's most active adversaries.

Cypriot authorities have said little about the case, but citing information he said he had received from Nicosia, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the fertilizer was destined for bombs.

“These were apparently meant to be ready for attacks on us,” he told reporters on Monday, referring to Israelis or Jews in Cyprus or elsewhere in Europe. He added that the explosives might also been intended for attacks against Western targets.

Cyprus is a popular holiday destination for Israelis. The island is in the EU and hosts two British military bases.

The island has little militant-related activity despite its proximity to the Middle East. Its last major security incident was a botched attack on the Israeli embassy in 1988, which killed three people.

Hezbollah agent believed to be planning attack on Israelis arrested in Cyprus


Cypriot police suspect a man arrested on Wednesday was planning an attack on Israeli interests on the island after they found almost two tonnes of ammonium nitrate in his basement, newspapers reported on Friday.

The 26-year-old man is Lebanese-born and has a Canadian passport. He was detained by police after authorities discovered the stockpile.

Authorities are investigating possible links to Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which views Israel as its arch enemy, three Cypriot newspapers said on Friday.

Police suspect Israeli interests were the target, the Simerini, Politis and Phileleftheros newspapers said.

The unnamed individual may have a close link with the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nazrallah, two newspapers said.

“There is some information that he could possibly be connected with them (Hezbollah), and this is something that is under investigation,” a security source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

Cyprus is a popular holiday destination for Israelis and the Jewish state has an embassy in Nicosia.

The suspect arrived in Cyprus in the third week of May and stayed in the coastal town of Larnaca. The ammonium nitrate — a fertilizer that can create a powerful explosive if large quantities are mixed with other substances — was found in its basement.

Police declined to comment beyond saying they are investigating all possibilities.

Cyprus has little militant-related activity despite its proximity to the Middle East. The island, which is in the EU, hosts two British military bases and receives intelligence from Western agencies.

Its last major security incident was a botched attack on the Israeli embassy in 1988, which killed three people.

In 2013 a Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent was jailed in Cyprus on charges of plotting to attack Israeli tourists.

Israel gets into gritty detail to warn off Hezbollah


An Israeli official made unusually detailed allegations on Wednesday of secret Hezbollah guerrilla sites in Lebanese villages, driving home its warning that civilians there risk bearing the brunt of any future war.

Though neither side appears keen on coming to blows, Hezbollah has been building up its arsenal since the last, inconclusive conflict of 2006 and Israel regards the Iranian-backed Shi'ite guerrillas as its most immediate threat.

Worried that thousands of precision-guided Hezbollah rockets could paralyse their vital infrastructure, Israeli planners have long threatened to launch a blitz against suspected launchers in Lebanon, even if that means harming civilians.

A senior Israeli intelligence official took the unusual step on Wednesday of showing foreign correspondents aerial photographs of two Lebanese border villages, Muhaybib and Shaqra, with dozens of locations of alleged rocket silos, guerrilla tunnels, and anti-tank and gun nests marked out.

Each of the some 200 Shi'ite villages in southern Lebanon “is a military stronghold, even though you can walk in the street and you'll see nothing”, said the official, who could not be named in print under military regulations.

Hezbollah, whose fighters are helping Damascus battle the Syrian insurgency, says its capabilities have improved since the 2006 war with Israel but does not publish deployment details.

The Shi'ite movement, which is a major military and political power in Lebanon and has never accepted the existence of the state of Israel, describes itself as a defensive force for a country far outgunned by its southern foe.

Should there be another conflict with Hezbollah, the Israeli official said, Lebanese civilians would be allowed to evacuate, but not at the cost of Israel suffering unbridled rocket salvoes.

“It is a win-win situation for Hezbollah. If we attack them, we kill civilians. If we don't attack because there are civilians, it is good for Hezbollah as well,” the official said.

In 2006, Israel killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Hezbollah killed 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers within Lebanese territory.

The toll on non-combatants spurred a U.N. truce resolution that called for Hezbollah to be stripped of weapons. It also called for an end to Israeli overflights of Lebanon, which continue.

According to regional security sources, Israel has over the past two years repeatedly bombed Hezbollah-bound missile shipments from Syria.

The Israeli official urged greater foreign intervention against a combustible arms build-up.

“I know that on the first day of the next war, the international community will stand up to say: Stop this war,” he said. “And I have a different suggestion. Why wait for the first day of the war? Why not avoid this war?”

Iran’s allies, not atoms, preoccupy Israeli generals


While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thunders against a looming Iranian nuclear deal, his defense chiefs see a more pressing menace from Tehran's guerrilla allies.

Chief among these is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that fought Israeli forces to a stand-still in their 2006 war and has since expanded its arsenal and honed its skills helping Damascus battle the Syria insurgency.

Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel's Intelligence Ministry, accused Iran on Tuesday of “seeking footholds” from Syria to Yemen to Egypt's Sinai and the Palestinian territories. But he deemed Hezbollah a foe as formidable as the conventional Arab armies that clashed with Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

“The only entity that can challenge us with a surprise attack on any scale nowadays is Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ben-Barak told a conference organized by the Israel Defense journal.

Israel believes Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles capable of paralyzing its civilian infrastructure. Seeking to deter the guerrillas, Israeli generals have threatened to devastate Lebanon should there be another full-on conflict.

In the interim, Lebanese and Syrian sources report regular Israeli air force sorties as part of an apparent effort to monitor, and at times destroy, weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

A Jan. 18 air strike that killed an Iranian general and several Hezbollah operatives in Syria's Golan Heights, northeast of Israel, suggested the Lebanese guerrillas have been setting up a second front close to Jordan, Israel's security partner.

An Iranian-backed Hezbollah presence in the Golan “will pose a very big problem for us in the future”, Ben-Barak said.

Two Western diplomats who track Israel's military assessed that it was now busiest securing the Lebanon and Syria borders.

“I don't think anyone's looking for escalation, but the potential for this to spiral out of control is high,” one diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

When Israel's military intelligence chief, Major-General Herzi Halevy, visited Washington in March, as world powers and Iran entered the final stretch of nuclear negotiations, he urged U.S. care on inadvertently fuelling regional instability.

“What he was really interested in getting across was the military threat from groups like Hezbollah, the (Tehran-backed) Houthis in Yemen, and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) in Syria,” one of Halevy's American hosts said.

Israel has condemned as insufficient a proposed nuclear deal, whose deadline is June 30, and under which Iran would scale down its disputed projects in return for sanctions relief.

Middle East prepares for Iran nuclear deal


This story originally appeared at The Media Line.

The signing of the framework agreement to end Iran’s nuclear program is having repercussions throughout the Middle East. In Israel, itself a nuclear power, there is deep skepticism that Iran will comply with the terms of the agreement, and concern that it could provoke a nuclear arms race. In Saudi Arabia, Iran’s traditional rival, there is fear that Iran could become a more important player in the Middle East. In Yemen, there is growing conflict between Iran and other Arab states.

The agreement has exacerbated tensions between Israel and the US, already high after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress detailing the dangers of an Iran deal. Since the agreement was announced, Netanyahu has hit hard, giving numerous interviews detailing why the agreement with Iran is a bad deal, and saying that does not have to remove one centrifuge, according to the framework agreement.

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the deal was a “historic mistake” and an “existential issue” for Israel.

“It’s not that we don’t believe the White House,” the defense minister said in an interview with Channel 2 on the framework agreement. “We don’t believe the Iranians.”

The Obama Administration has hit back hard in a series of interviews. Netanyahu “said that Israel would not dismantle any of its centrifuges, but under the JCPA (acronym for the framework deal) Iran will physically remove about 13,000 centrifuges from where they stand today in Iran’s nuclear facilities.” In addition, President Obama said that he is confident that sanctions against Iran could be re-imposed if Iran violates the agreement.

He also said that the deal keeps Iran at least a year away from a “breakout capacity,” the time it would take to manufacture a nuclear weapon. But he conceded that when the agreement ran out, Iran could quickly build a bomb.

“What is a more relevant fear would be that in Year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” Obama said.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told Israel Television that a US military option remains on the table if Tehran violates the terms of the agreement. But Israeli officials and some analysts are far from convinced.

“There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical,” Emily Landau, the head of the arms control program at the National Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Media Line. “The narrative around the deal says that Iran will freeze and roll back its nuclear program, but in fact it will continue to move forward and continue research. How anyone can say this is a good deal I really don’t know.”

She said there are discrepancies over important issues such as how much access inspectors will have, and how quickly sanctions will be lifted. There is also concern that just as Iran will be subject to inspection, there could be demands for Israel’s nuclear program to be open to inspectors. Israel has long maintained a policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, not officially confirming its nuclear capacity, although foreign reports have said that Israel has up to 200 nuclear bombs.

Landau says there are a lot of holes in the framework agreement, and the US and Iran are offering different versions of the deal. For example, Iran says that all economic sanctions will be lifted as soon as the final deal is sigend, while the White House said the pace of sanctions relief has yet to be negotiated.

Just as concerned as Israel is Saudi Arabia, Iran’s traditional rival in the Middle East.

“The Iran deal is launching a political race not an arms race,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told The Media Line. “Saudi Arabia is trying to assert itself in the face of Iran so that Riyadh can have greater weight when Iran is accepted back into the international community. The Saudi attack on the Houthis in Yemen is an example of this.”

Saudi Arabia has launched dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who had been on the verge of taking over large swaths of the country.

Unlike Israeli analysts however, Khatib believes that Iran will adhere to the terms of any eventual deal.

“By accepting the framework agreement, Iran has raised expectations among its citizens, who are looking forward to the lifting of sanctions so that Iran's economy can recover,” Khatib said. “Iran's leaders cannot risk domestic unrest were the deal to fall apart, so it is unlikely that Iran will continue nuclear enrichment outside of the terms of the agreement.”

Hezbollah says Iran nuclear agreement ‘rules out specter of regional war’


The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Monday that a framework nuclear agreement that Iran reached with world powers last week rules out the specter of regional war.

“There is no doubt that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria's al-Ikhbariya television.

“The agreement, God willing, rules out the specter of regional war and world war,” he said.

The tentative accord, struck on Thursday after eight days of talks in Switzerland, clears the way for a settlement to allay Western fears that Iran could build an atomic bomb, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.

Nasrallah said the accord would prevent conflict as “the Israeli enemy was always threatening to bomb Iranian facilities and that bombing would definitely lead to a regional war.”

The Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah was founded with Iranian help in the 1980s to fight Israel in Lebanon. It has grown into a powerful political and military force and is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

Israel, Hezbollah signal their flare-up is over


Israel and Hezbollah signaled on Thursday their rare flare-up in fighting across the Israel-Lebanon border was over, after the Lebanese guerrillas killed two Israeli troops in retaliation for a deadly air strike in Syria last week.

Israel said it had received a message from UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, that Hezbollah was not interested in further escalation.

In Beirut, a Lebanese source briefed on the situation told Reuters that Israel informed Hezbollah via UNIFIL “that it will make do with what happened yesterday and it does not want the battle to expand”.

Asked on Israel's Army Radio whether Hezbollah had sought to de-escalate, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said: “There are lines of coordination between us and Lebanon via UNIFIL and such a message was indeed received from Lebanon.”

A salvo of Hezbollah guided missiles killed an Israeli infantry major and a conscript soldier as they rode in unmarked civilian vehicles along the Lebanese border on Wednesday.

Israel then launched an artillery and air barrage, and a Spanish peacekeeper was killed. Spain's ambassador to the U.N. blamed the Israeli fire for his death. Israel said on Thursday that its deputy foreign minister met the ambassador to voice regret at the death and promise an inquiry.

Wednesday's clash was one of the most serious on that border since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war. Quiet returned on Thursday, though Lebanese media reported overflights by Israeli air force drones.

Both sides appear to share an interest in avoiding further escalation.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought Israel to a standstill in 2006, is busy backing Damascus in Syria's civil war. It may also be mindful of the ruin Israel has threatened to wreak on Lebanon should they again enter a full-on conflict.

Israel is gearing up for a March 17 general election and gauging the costs of its offensive on the Gaza Strip last year against Palestinian guerrillas, whose arsenal is dwarfed by Hezbollah's powerful long-range rockets.

The Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, said in a statement it was determined to keep stability in southern Lebanon and to deny the “Israeli enemy the chance to drag Lebanon to a wide confrontation”.

REVENGE

In a separate interview, Yaalon described Israeli forces on the Lebanese border as being vigilant, but not on war footing.

“I can't say whether the events are behind us,” he told Israel Radio. “Until the area completely calms down, the Israel Defense Forces will remain prepared and ready.”

Yaalon termed Wednesday's Hezbollah attack “revenge” for the Israeli air strike on Jan. 18 in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members, including a senior operative, along with an Iranian general.

Israel has not formally acknowledged carrying out the air strike, but Yaalon said it had set back Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to “open a new front” against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights.

UNIFIL officials did not confirm or deny passing messages between Israel and Hezbollah.

UNIFIL says it has no contacts with Hezbollah but its head of mission was in close contact with Israel and the Lebanese government throughout the day. The channel of communication “is still open now and it is always open in order to ask the parties to exercise maximum restraint”, spokesman Andrea Tenenti said.

During Wednesday's flare-up, Israeli troops launched a search for suspected tunnels that Hezbollah might use to send in guerrillas for a cross-border attack – a tactic employed by Palestinian Hamas fighters during the 2014 Gaza war.

“No tunnels have been found so far,” Yaalon told Army Radio.

Israel tells U.N. will defend itself against Hezbollah


Israel told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday it will take all necessary measures to defend itself after an exchange of fire between Hezbollah militants and Israel that has raised the threat of a full-blown conflict.

“Israel will not stand by as Hezbollah targets Israelis,” Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor said in a letter to the Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“Israel will not accept any attacks on its territory and it will exercise its right to self-defense and take all necessary measures to protect its population,” he added.

The attack occurred on Wednesday in the biggest escalation of fighting since a 2006 war.

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed when Hezbollah fired a missile at a convoy of Israeli military vehicles at the Lebanon border. A U.N. spokesman and Spanish officials said the peacekeeper was killed as Israel responded with air strikes and artillery fire.

“Events in the north continue to unfold and Israel extends its condolences to UNIFIL and the Spanish government over the death of one of its soldiers earlier today,” Prosor said.

“I urge the Security Council to unequivocally and publicly condemn Hezbollah,” he added. “The terrorist organization must be disarmed and the government of Lebanon must abide by its international commitments and fully implement Security Council resolution 1701.”

Resolution 1701 halted the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon. The south remains a Hezbollah stronghold.

Hezbollah said it carried out Wednesday's attack, which appeared to be in retaliation for a Jan. 18 Israeli air strike in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members and an Iranian general.

Two soldiers dead, seven wounded as Hezbollah hits Israeli tank


Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed on Wednesday in an exchange of fire between Hezbollah and Israel that has raised the threat of a full-blown conflict between the militant Islamist group and Israel.

In the biggest escalation since a 2006 war, the soldiers were killed when Hezbollah fired a missile at a convoy of Israeli military vehicles on the frontier with Lebanon.

The peacekeeper, serving with a U.N. monitoring force in southern Lebanon, was killed as Israel responded with air strikes and artillery fire, a U.N. spokesman and Spanish officials said.

Hezbollah said one of its brigades in the area had carried out the attack, which appeared to be in retaliation for a Jan. 18 Israeli air strike in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members and an Iranian general.

Tensions in the region, where the frontiers of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet and militant groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are active, have been bubbling for months but have boiled over in the past 10 days.

The Israeli military confirmed the death of the soldiers, who were driving along a road next to the fence that marks the hilly frontier. Hospital officials said a further seven had been wounded, although none had life-threatening injuries.

Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which employs more than 10,000 troops, said the peacekeeper's death was under investigation.

The U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon urged all parties to refrain from any further destabilization of the situation, while Lebanon's prime minister said his country was committed to the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war.

The 80 km (50 mile) frontier has largely been quiet since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israelfought a 34-day war in which 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon were killed.

Since the end of the war with Hamas militants in Gaza last year, Israel has warned of frictions on the northern border, including the possibility that Hezbollah might dig tunnels to infiltrate Israel. In recent days it has moved more troops and military equipment into the area.

A burnt vehicle is seen near the village of Ghajar on Israel's border with Lebanon January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Maruf Khatib

RISING THREAT

A retired Israeli army officer, Major-General Israel Ziv, said he believed Wednesday's assault was an attempt by Hezbollah to draw Israel more deeply into the war in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Assad.

“Israel needs to protect its interests but not take any unnecessary steps that may pull us into the conflict in Syria,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a parliamentary election on March 17, said Israel was “prepared to act powerfully on all fronts”, adding: “Security comes before everything else.”

His office accused Iran of being behind what was described as a “criminal terror attack”. Iran is a major funder of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group headed by Hassan Nasrallah.

In a communique, Hezbollah described Wednesday's operation as “statement number one”, indicating that a further response was possible. Nasrallah is expected to announce the group's formal reaction to Israel's Jan. 18 air strike on Friday.

In Beirut, celebratory gunfire rang out after the attack, while residents in the southern suburbs of the city, where Hezbollah is strong, packed their bags and prepared to evacuate neighborhoods that were heavily bombed by Israel in 2006.

In Gaza, Palestinian militant groups praised Hezbollah.

It remains to be seen whether Israel and Hezbollah will back away from further confrontation. With an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah deeply involved in support of Assad in Syria, there would appear to be little interest in a wider conflict for either side.

Regional analysts said they did not expect events to spiral.

“Netanyahu most likely realizes that a prolonged military engagement in Lebanon could cost him the election,” said Ayham Kamel and Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group.

“Instead, Israel will pursue limited actions targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the low-scale, tit-for-tat exchanges will not broaden into a wider war.”

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

Hamas calls on Hezbollah to unite fight against Israel


A letter purported to be from Mohammed Deif, the leader of Hamas's armed wing, on Thursday appealed to the Lebanese Hezbollah group to unite with Hamas in battling Israel.

The letter, posted on the website of Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV, suggests the Palestinian Hamas and Hezbollah were patching up a rift over the Syrian war.

Hamas has been hostile toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has been fighting against the rebels trying to topple him.

“The true enemy of the nation is the Zionist enemy and all rifles must be directed against it,” said the letter, which carried Deif's signature. “All forces of resistance must direct their coming battle as one.”

Deif was targeted in an Israeli bombing in last summer's Gaza war.

The letter offered Hamas's condolences to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah over the killing of six of its fighters in an Israeli air strike on Sunday in Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israel says Deif was behind the deaths of dozens of people in suicide bombings in its cities and has tried to assassinate him several times, including one attempt in August during the 50-day Gaza war. The shadowy leader, whose health condition is unknown, has been in hiding for years.

Hamas, in political and financial isolation, has been anxious to revitalize old alliances and restore its battered funding. In December, it said it had restored its ties with Iran, which had been angered by Hamas' stance against Assad.

Teheran has long been a major supplier of military and financial aid to the group.

Hezbollah says Assad’s allies have right to respond to Israeli attacks in Syria


Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday that Israeli strikes inside Syria were also an aggression against Syria's regional allies and they had the right to retaliate.

“The frequent attacks on different sites in Syria is a major breach. We consider (those) hostilities (to be) against all the resistance axis,” he told the Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV.

“(Retaliation) is an open issue … It is not only Syria's right to respond but also it is the right of the axis of resistance to respond. When this right will be executed is subject to certain criteria … it could happen any time.”

Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions consider themselves an “axis of resistance” against Israel.

Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and has sent hundreds of combatants to fight alongside his forces in the nearly four-year civil war.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the nearly four-year civil war, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for Hezbollah.

In December, Syria said Israeli jets had bombed areas near Damascus airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon. Israel does not publicly confirm bombing missions.

Hezbollah, created in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation in Lebanon, fought a 33-day war with Israel in 2006 in which it fired thousands of rockets that hit deep into Israel.

Nasrallah said his group was ready for any possible future war with Israel despite being engaged in the war in Syria.

“If the Israelis think that the resistance is weakened or exhausted …then they are mistaken.”

Syrian war and Israeli spies mean hard times for Hezbollah


Drained and delegitimized by the Syrian civil war, penetrated by Israeli intelligence and separated from traditional allies, the Lebanese group Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed glory days of 2006, when it went to war with Israel, have never seemed so distant.

Supporting President Bashar Assad’s war against his people has put Hezbollah under unprecedented strain. Since its involvement began, the group has lost hundreds of fighters. For a relatively small outfit — Hezbollah’s core military force is a few thousand strong — these losses have a significant impact. Nevertheless, amid all the killing, Hezbollah’s most serious loss in Syria has been its reputation. With hundreds of thousands murdered in Syria — starved, poison-gassed and barrel-bombed — Hezbollah’s direct complicity with Assad has been noticed. After all, while Hezbollah has long claimed to defend “all the oppressed,” including Sunnis, Syria’s wreckage testifies to the group’s duplicity. Put simply, after witnessing Hezbollah kill Syrian Sunnis, other Sunnis view its claims of beneficence skeptically. Even the Sunni militant group Hamas has moved away from Hezbollah; a poor relationship emphasized by Hezbollah’s unwillingness to open a northern front during last summer’s Israel-Hamas war.

For “the Party of God,” this reputational damage is a big problem. Both a militant group and a political actor in the traditional sense, Hezbollah needs political consensus to advance its agenda. For a long time, Hezbollah’s hostility against Israel won it friends across the political spectrum, but now that it’s targeting Muslims, the well of diplomacy is evaporating. As Hezbollah’s intolerance for satire suggests, the group is deeply uncomfortable with challenges to its identity narrative as Lebanon’s pious, paternalistic guardian.

The Syrian civil war is the greatest challenge this narrative has ever faced, but there are challenges at home as well.

Hezbollah’s Lebanese political identity has been polluted by the way it has taken up arms to carry out Iran’s foreign policy by fighting on Assad’s behalf. Up until now, Hezbollah’s semi-independence has given the group flexibility to forge coalitions in Beirut.

But with other Lebanese political leaders now taking a tougher line against the group, things might be changing. Facing Islamic State fighters in Syria who are threatening northeastern Lebanon and increasing sectarian violence at home, Lebanese politics are hardening into more pronounced sectarian identities and greater paranoia. While Hezbollah hopes its military power will incentivize domestic alliances, it knows being outmaneuvered is a real risk.

The pain doesn’t end there.

Hezbollah is also hurting for another reason: its operational security collapse over the past few years. A senior commander was killed by a car bomb in 2008, another assassinated in December 2013 and new reports suggest another group of Hezbollah officers were recently identified as assets of the Israeli secret service, Mossad. This has surely shaken nerves in Hezbollah’s executive leadership.

Still, Hezbollah has one sign of hope. With the Obama administration so intent on making a deal with Iran, it’s unlikely that the United States will encourage political maneuvering against it.

Report: Iran ordered Hezbollah to carry out attack on Israel over nuclear facility bombing


Iran instructed Hezbollah to attack Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon in retaliation for the “bombing” of Iran’s Parchin nuclear facility, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The report Friday in the al-Rai newspaper cites high-level Washington-based European diplomats, who said a “foreign country” was responsible for the bombing of the military base and suspected nuclear facility.

The report also says that Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran has been conducting tests at Parchin. The bombing thwarted the tests, according to the report.

Hezbollah said Wednesday the attack on Lebanon’s border with Israel that left two Israeli soldiers injured was a “message” for Israel.

“This is a message. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon, our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheik Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, told Lebanese OTV television late Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Satellite images taken of Parchin after the explosion at the military facility show damage consistent with an air attack, defense expert Ronen Solomon told Israel Channel 2 and Defense Magazine.

Hezbollah says border attack was message to Israel


An attack by Hezbollah on Lebanon's border with Israel which wounded two Israeli soldiers was a message that the group remained ready to confront its old foe despite its engagement in Syria's civil war, the group's deputy leader said.

The soldiers were wounded by a bomb planted by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in the Shebaa hills, drawing Israeli artillery fire in response. It was the first time Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Israeli army since 2006, when the two sides fought a 33-day war.

“This is a message.. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheikh Naim Qassem told Lebanese OTV television late on Tuesday.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 50-mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 conflict.

Hezbollah members have been fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war. The move by Hezbollah, which is backed by Shi'ite Iran, has helped turn the tide of the war in Syria against insurgents seeking to oust Assad.

The group said it took the decision to fight in Syria to prevent jihadi fighters, like those from Nusra Front and Islamic State which seized parts of Syria and Iraq, from advancing into Lebanon.

On Sunday, 10 of the group's fighters were killed during a battle with hundreds of Nusra Front militants on the border in eastern Lebanon.

Reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Mariam Karouny and Janet Lawrence

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