London terror: No. 30,499 in a series


Commenting on the recent London attack that killed four and injured at least 50, the acting Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Mark Rowley, told the BBC that it was “Islamist-related terrorism.”

A day earlier, on March 21, an Islamist suicide car bomber killed 10 people in Mogadishu, Somalia.

A day before that, two dozen people were blown up by an Islamist car bomber in a Baghdad neighborhood. 

Two days before that, a mother and her two children were among four people wiped out by three Islamist suicide bombers in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

A day before that, Islamist Shiite rebels fired two rockets into a Sunni mosque in Yemen, killing 34 people during Friday prayers.

On the same day in Paris, the throats of a father and son were slit by a family member yelling “Allah Akbar (God is great).”

A day earlier, a young child was blown to bits by an Islamist suicide bomber in Bangladesh.

On that same day, March 16, in South Ukkadam, India, an atheist was hacked to death by an angry Muslim over Facebook posts attacking his religion.

I know it’s painful to consider that 30,499 deadly attacks could be committed in the name of one religion.

That is just a little glimpse of weekly terror from the Third World and elsewhere. Worldwide, since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have carried out 30,499 deadly terror attacks, according to the independent watchdog site TheReligionOfPeace.com.

Most of these attacks never make it to CNN or The New York Times, because the victims don’t live in places like London, Brussels or San Bernardino. In the West, we see a fraction of the carnage done in the name of Islam. No matter how much media attention we give to the attacks on our soil, it doesn’t come close to capturing the scope of the global problem.

I know it’s painful to consider that 30,499 deadly attacks could be committed in the name of one religion. It challenges our narrative that all religions are pretty much the same, that there’s good and bad in all religions, and there’s no special reason to focus on one in particular. This is a comforting narrative that can lull us into complacency.

Still, there is an aspirational value to that narrative. It gives us something to look forward to. For humanity to succeed, we need it to become true. We need a reformation of Islam so that, one day, the number 30,499 will be reduced to a very low number and we can truly say that the religion is just like any other.

Because right now, it’s not. Too much killing, too much horror is done in its name.

It’s no longer enough to say, “This is not Islam.” For the killers doing the killing, it is Islam. It may be a radicalized, supremacist version of Islam, but there’s enough supporting text in the Quran to make the killers believe they’re doing God’s work.

Despite our efforts to counter this radical Islam, reform only gets more distant and the violence only gets worse. Defending the faith, accusing extremists of perverting it and engaging in interfaith projects is fine, but it’s not enough. True reform must come from the inside, not from interfaith but from innerfaith, from Muslims taking responsibility for the violence done in their name. 

It will come from Muslims who have the courage to acknowledge and confront the extremist parts of their texts and reinterpret them in a holy way that will honor their faith.

One such group is the little-known Muslim Reform Movement, a group of Muslim scholars and spiritual activists whose leaders call for “a respectful, merciful and inclusive interpretation of Islam” and reject interpretations that call for “any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam.”

For some reason, this movement has gained little traction among progressive circles, even though its founding declaration sounds like a love letter to progressive values. Going forward, we must ensure that such moderate groups are no longer marginalized by the mainstream, and are empowered to make progress in their supremely difficult mission.

We must pray that their nonviolent and tolerant interpretation of Islam will one day take hold throughout the jihadist world and win over the hearts of the killers, even if it takes a century. We must pray that the number 30,499 will eventually be reduced to zero.

Yes, that would be a miracle for humanity and for Islam, but God is great.


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

Europe should hire Israel, not condemn it


Do you know what European honchos were doing in Geneva recently even as the Islamic State was planning another terror attack on their continent? They were preparing yet another condemnation of Israel, this time with an ironic twist.

They were targeting Israel for its actions in the Golan Heights, the same region where the Jewish state has set up field hospitals to care for Syrian rebels maimed by the venomous weapons of the Islamic State.

You read that right. The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council circulated a draft resolution on Israel’s “systematic and continuous violation” of the rights of “Syrian citizens in the occupied Golan Heights,” in addition to four other draft resolutions censuring Israel.

Hypocrisy on steroids.

When we talk about the proper response to terror attacks like the one we just witnessed in Brussels, we have to start with eradicating the malignant European hypocrisy towards the Jewish state. 

How many thousands of hours have been squandered at the European Union in Brussels discussing the labelling of Israeli products made in Judea and Samaria instead of developing an anti-terror strategy?

How much time has been spent at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands discussing the prosecution of Israeli leaders while ignoring murderous dictators and genocidal war criminals?

How many visits to the Middle East have been initiated by European diplomats to pressure Israel to make peace with terrorists rather than confront a region in violent meltdown?

In other words, when will the powers that be in Europe realize that the Islamic terrorism threatening their continent has nothing to do with Israeli tomatoes being grown in Judea and Samaria or Jewish apartments being built in Jerusalem?

In the wake of the latest atrocity in Brussels that killed 34 people and wounded more than 200, it looks like the reality of evil may have interrupted, at least for now, Europe’s obsession with Israel.  

“We are at war,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. 

“These attacks mark another low by the terrorists in the service of hatred and violence,” said European Union Council President Donald Tusk.

“We realize we face a tragic moment. We have to be calm and show solidarity,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. 

Cutting to the chase, HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher wondered if “Europe will have a little more sympathy for what Israel goes through” instead of being “real a**holes” to them.

Well, that would be nice– I’m also hoping Europe will have more sympathy for Israel, a country that has endured the scourge of terrorism since its very inception.

But what I’m really hoping for is that Europe will come to its senses and realize that the Jewish state is its #1 ally against the Islamic State. I’m hoping Europe will not only stop condemning Israel but will actually hire Israel to help protect and defend the continent against Islamic terrorism.

It’s not just because of the obvious—that no country has more experience fighting this kind of war, and that Israel has developed the most advanced techniques to fight terror at all levels and prevent attacks. 

No, the real reason Europe should hire Israel is because Israel has been winning its long war against terror while maintaining a civil society that protects human rights and the pursuit of happiness.

Faced with a primitive and medieval violence that respects no boundaries, Israel has managed to fight back while maintaining boundaries of law and decency and nurturing a vibrant and creative culture that is the envy of the world. Most countries would have turned into an emergency police state as a mere matter of survival.

In fact, as Eli Lake reports on Bloomberg.com, this is already happening in France: “Since the attacks in Paris last November, the socialist government of President Francois Hollande has placed his country under a state of emergency. France's national guard has been deployed to protect sensitive religious sites and other ‘soft targets.’ The country of Voltaire, Diderot and Camus is in 2016 the police state that critics warn Cruz or Trump would bring about if given the chance.”

Of course, there’s one major caveat to Europe hiring Israel. The continent’s obsession with condemning Israel has resulted in a culture of hatred towards the Jewish state. This means that European leaders would have to be very discreet about any partnership with Israel.

We can only hope that, with time, Europeans everywhere will realize that a good relationship with Israel is in their best interest and they'll be open about an anti-terror alliance with the Jewish state.

After all, if there’s one thing we know civilized Europeans care about, it’s the pursuit of happiness.

Security forces battle gunmen at hotel in Burkina capital


Security forces in Burkina Faso battled suspected Islamist fighters outside the Splendid Hotel in the capital's business district on Friday, gendarmes and witnesses sources.

Witnesses said the gunmen stormed the hotel, burning cars outside and firing in the air to drive back crowds before security forces arrived, prompting an intense exchange of gunfire.

France train gunman identified as Islamist militant


Fingerprint evidence shows that the gunman overpowered by passengers on a train in France is a Morrocan known to European authorities as a suspected Islamist militant, according to a source familiar with the case.

Two people were wounded in the struggle to subdue the Kalashnikov-toting attacker aboard the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday. Three young Americans, one of whom suffered knife wounds, were among the passengers who stopped the gunman.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters the gunman appeared to be a 26-year-old Moroccan who had been “identified by the Spanish authorities to French intelligence services in February 2014 because of his connections to the radical Islamist movement.”

Cazeneuve did not give a name, but the source named him as Ayoub el Khazzani and said he was believed to have flown from Berlin to Istanbul on May 10 this year. Turkey is a preferred flight destination for would-be jihadists heading for Syria.

According to a Spanish counter-terrorism source, Spanish authorities had a suspect they identified as Khazzani under surveillance before he left Spain for France in 2014, traveled to Syria, and then came back to France.

In Spain, he lived in Madrid between 2007 and 2010 before moving to the southern port of Algeciras. He was arrested in Spain at least once for a drug-related offence, the Spanish counter-terrorism source said.

Cazeneuve said he had also lived in Belgium and that inquiries “should establish precisely the activities and travels of this terrorist”.

French newspaper Le Voix du Nord said the suspect may have had connections to a group involved in a suspected Islamist shooting in Belgium in January. The Belgian government confirmed an inquiry was under way but would not comment further.

French authorities have been on high alert since January, when 17 people were killed in shootings by Islamist militants in and around Paris.

KALASHNIKOV, PISTOL, AND BOX CUTTER 

The train attacker was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an automatic pistol, both with accompanying ammunition clips. He also had a box cutter knife. Cazeneuve said the struggle started when a Frenchman on his way to the toilet tried to stop the man entering a carriage.

The wounded American, Spencer Stone, an airman from the U.S. air base in Lajes, Azores, was treated on Saturday at a specialist hospital for hand injuries in the northern French city of Lille.

Among the other passengers who helped stop the attacker were Stone's friends: National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and another American, student Anthony Sadler. Skarlatos had returned last month from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the three were on holiday together in Europe.

Cazeneuve said the other wounded person was of Franco-American nationality and hit by a bullet while seated. Hospital authorities said the person had a chest wound and was in a serious but stable condition.

French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade was also slightly hurt, and had stitches in his hand.

“We were stuck in the wrong place with the right people,” Anglade was quoted as saying on BFMTV. “It's miraculous.”

President Barack Obama hailed the passengers as heroes: “It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” he said in a statement.

President Francois Hollande is due to thank them in person on Monday.

The gunman was transferred on Saturday to the Paris region from Arras in northern Francewhere the incident took place. Cazeneuve said under the terms of his arrest the man can be held for four days without being charged.

The shooting took place on a Thalys high-speed train. The Franco-Belgian state transport group runs international trains linking France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

All four countries are part of the Schengen area through which people travel without the need for passports and security check-ins. Experts have long said the trains are a potential target for attacks.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in January there were more than 3,000 potentially dangerous Islamists under surveillance in France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim community.

Most of the attacks and foiled attacks this year in France have been carried out by people who were on that list, but government officials say the surveillance cannot be constant.

“When there's nothing to justify an arrest, there comes a time when you move on to other individuals,” said Sébastien Pietrasanta, a Socialist lawmaker who drafted France's latest anti-terror legislation.

“Given the number of individual linked to radical Islamism its becomes complicated,” he told Reuters.

“We take 100 percent precautions but that does not mean 0 percent risk.”

Amnesty International: Hamas committed war crimes against Gaza civilians


Amnesty International said in a report on Wednesday that Islamist Hamas committed war crimes against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip during last year's war with Israel.

A ceasefire last August ended 50 days of fighting between Gaza militants and Israel in which health officials said more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians.

“Hamas forces carried out a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against Palestinians accused of 'collaborating' with Israel and others during Israel's military offensive against Gaza,” the human rights group's report said.

In a previous report in March, Amnesty also criticized Israel and accused it of war crimes during the conflict. Apart from the many deaths, at least 16,245 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Gaza militants fired thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel.

In Wednesday's report, Amnesty listed a number of cases it described as “spine chilling” in which Palestinians accused by Hamas of helping Israel were tortured and killed.

“The de facto Hamas administration granted its security forces free rein to carry out horrific abuses including against people in its custody. These spine-chilling actions, some of which amount to war crimes, were designed to exact revenge and spread fear across the Gaza Strip,” Amnesty said.

Representatives of Hamas were not immediately available to comment on the Amnesty report.

Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, a coastal enclave on the Mediterranean which borders Israel and Egypt.

The Palestinians have joined the International Criminal Court since the end of the war, a move opposed by Israel, and the ICC is examining possible war crimes in the conflict. But joining the court also exposes Palestinians to possible prosecution if a case is opened.

Israeli general sees common interests with Hamas


Israel and Hamas share common interests, and the Palestinian Islamists must stay in power in the Gaza Strip to prevent the enclave descending into chaos, an Israeli general was quoted as saying on Tuesday.

Major-General Sami Turgeman, who as commander of Israel's forces outside Gaza had a leading role in last year's war with Hamas, cast the group in a pragmatic light in remarks reported in the top-selling Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

By doing so, he appeared to take a softer public line toward Hamas than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has likened the movement to Islamic State insurgents sweeping Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Speaking to the heads of Israeli villages on the Gaza periphery on Monday, Turgeman said Hamas seeks stability and “does not want global jihad” — a term Israel uses to describe Islamic State, al Qaeda and their off-shoots.

“Israel and Hamas have shared interests, including in the current situation, which is quiet and calm and growth and prosperity,” said the general.

With neither side apparently interested in renewed conflict for now, an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that halted fighting in the 50-day conflict last July and August has largely held.

“There is no substitute for Hamas as sovereign in the Strip. The substitute is the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) and chaotic rule … and then the security situation would be much more problematic,” Turgeman said.

An Israeli military spokesman did not contest the accuracy of the quotes. Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment.

Without responding directly to Turgeman's remarks, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the onus was on Israel to shore up the relative peace by easing its Gaza blockade and helping reconstruction.

“The ball is in the Israeli court,” he said. “Hamas is willing to maintain the ceasefire because it is in the interest of our people in Gaza.”

Turgeman predicted a continued build-up of Hamas's armed capabilities and renewed Gaza fighting “every few years”.

“The alternative is to try to find periods of quiet, as much as possible,” Turgeman said, arguing against rightist proposals that Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005, retake the territory.

Hamas, which took power in Gaza in a brief civil war in 2007, preaches Israel's destruction and has fought three wars against it.

But Hamas has also voiced interest in a long-term truce with Israel and occasionally clamped down on al Qaeda-aligned armed groups.

Hamas maneuvers among regional powers


This story originally appeared at The Media Line.

Hamas is attempting to maneuver between rival regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Hamas is siding with Iran against the US on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but with Saudi Arabia against Iran on the Shi’ite Houthi attempts to take over Yemen.

“An agreement (on Iran’s nuclear program) would be in Hamas’s favor, since Hamas (already) has strong ties with Iran, and this agreement would improve its relationship with American,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip told The Media Line.

Yet when it comes to the situation in Yemen, Hamas has declared publicly that they support the Saudi led coalition which is supporting the Sunni government, against the Shiite Houthi rebel militias which has tried to take over the country.

“What is happening right now is best for the Hamas movement on all political levels,” Zahar said. “We need to be on their side too in order to gain more friends in the region, especially with Egypt. This is why we released our opinion recently about Yemen when we said that we are with the legitimate government in Yemen.”

Hamas is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ties with Egypt were close. But since new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power, ties have soured. Sisi recently declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and has sealed off hundreds of tunnels that ran underground from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Hamas taxed the goods coming through these tunnels, and Egypt’s crackdown has deprived Hamas of a much-needed source of revenue.

Mukhaimar Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, explained that Hamas, which is Sunni, wishes to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia and therefore is voicing tacit support for the country’s actions in Yemen.

“Saudi Arabia leads the alliance in the region, containing many of the parties that enjoy a good relationship with Hamas – Turkey and Qatar – and Saudi Arabia may be the gateway to improving Hamas's relationship with Egypt,” he said.

These countries are reassessing their position toward Hamas, he said, because they have learned that the alternative to Hamas are groups such as al-Qa’ida and Islamic State.

It appears therefore that Hamas is keen to move closer to Saudi Arabia and are willing to distance themselves from Iran in order to do so.  Mousa Abumarzoq, a member of the political bureau of Hamas said recently that “the Hamas movement is concerned with good and stable relations with Saudi Arabia.”  Marzouq also revealed that the head of Hamas’s Political Bureau, Khaled Meshaal, will be visiting Saudi Arabia though he did not specify when.

Until now, Hamas has been closely allied with Iran, which has also provided most of the funding for the organization which has controlled Gaza since 2007. Talal Okal, a political writer at the al-Ayyam newspaper based in Ramallah, says that “Hamas wants to withdraw from the Iranian camp and head towards the Sunni Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, out of its isolation.”  Okal said that Hamas sees the move towards Saudi Arabia as a way to reduce the isolation they have been feeling in recent years from Arab and international states alike.

“For the last two years Hamas has paid the price for being close to Iran,” Okal told The Media Line. “It was treated as its agent in the Middle East and especially in Palestine, as Hizbullah was seen in Lebanon.”

According to Okal, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are attempting to derail Iranian success in the nuclear negotiations and to undermine the country’s wider influence by intervening in Yemen.  He adds that their claims to be defending the legitimate government of Yemen “could only be believed by the naïve.”

Now, with the nuclear talks continuing despite having passed their deadline, the Sunni coalition – particularly those countries in the Gulf – fear that the USA is about to ditch its long standing allies in order to appease their common foe, Iran, at the very moment that the Shiite state is on the offensive across the region.

A joint effort to contain Iran and its proxies after the 1979 Islamic Revolution was the key reason for the economic, political and military ties that were forged in recent decades by the US and its allies in the Gulf.  These ties have been under strain since the thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran, following the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

“We’ll not raise this issue right now but the US is behaving with double standards that are in these negotiations by the attempts to control Iran’s nuclear program while Israel's nuclear program, which risks security and peace in the region, is not held accountable,” an official in the Palestinian Authority, who asked to remain anonymous told The Media Line.

“On the one hand the US is supporting Saudi Arabia against Iranian expansionism in the Gulf,” he said. “On the other hand in Iraq’s war against Islamic State the US has in fact become a partner with Iran, which maintains brutal Shiite militias.”

Police arrest four with ties to Paris kosher market terrorist


French authorities arrested four people with connections to the Islamist who seized hostages and killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris in January.

The four, among them a French policewoman who converted to Islam two years ago, were friends with the supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly. Among the others arrested was the policewoman’s boyfriend, “Amar,” who is also wanted on drug charges.

The policewoman, identified as “Emmanuelle,” worked in a major intelligence center in Paris and has been accused of searching through police intelligence files soon after the Jan. 9 attack to determine what authorities knew about Amar, The Independent reported. Amar reportedly was with Coulibaly shortly before the attack. UPI reported that Amar was a relative of Coulibaly’s.

Coulibaly, who was in contact with Said and Cherif Kouachi — the brothers who killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly in Paris two days before the supermarket attack — was shot dead when Paris police raided the supermarket he was holding hostages.

Obama rejects as ‘ugly lie’ the notion that West is at war with Islam


President Barack Obama on Thursday urged countries to tackle violent Islamist militancy around the world and rejected as “an ugly lie” suggestions that the West was at war with Islam.

Obama said there was a complicated history between the Middle East and the West and no one should be immune from criticism over specific policies.

“But the notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie,” he said. “And all of us, regardless of our faith, have a responsibility to reject it,” he told an international conference in Washington on countering violent extremism.

“Muslim communities, including scholars and clerics, therefore have a responsibility to push back not just on twisted interpretations of Islam, but also on the lie that we are somehow engaged in a clash of civilizations,” Obama said.

With violent groups like Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab gaining strength across the Middle East and Africa, more than 60 countries and international organizations have gathered in Washington to come up with a plan for tackling the problem.

Critics have accused the White House of shying away from tying extremism to the religion of Islam, especially following the recent attacks staged by Islamist militants in Paris and Copenhagen.

Addressing the conference, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would convene a meeting in coming months of faith leaders from around the world and warned that violent extremism posed a grave threat to international peace and security.

“Military operations are crucial to confront real threats. But bullets are not the 'silver bullet,'” Ban said. “Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said countries needed to strengthen civil society and reach out to community leaders to promote tolerance and peace, and to confront economic inequality that makes it easier for militants to recruit.

Over the next few months he said the United States and other countries would take the battle to classrooms, houses of worship and vulnerable communities around the world.

“You have to do everything. You have to take the people off the battlefield, who are there today,” Kerry said. “But you’re kind of stupid if all you do is do that, and you don’t prevent more people from going to the battlefield,” he added.

He called for more collaboration among countries to come up with a plan to prevent violent ideologies from talking hold.

“Some of our efforts are going to take place in public gatherings such as this, but everybody here understands that much of this work is going to be done quietly without fanfare in classrooms, in community centers, in work places, in houses of worship and in village markets,” Kerry added.

Yemen’s last Jews eye exodus after Islamist militia takeover


A few worried families are all that remain of Yemen's ancient Jewish community, and they too may soon flee after a Shi'ite Muslim militia seized power in the strife-torn country this month.

Harassment by the Houthi movement – whose motto is “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam” – caused Jews in recent years to largely quit the northern highlands they shared with Yemen's Shi'ites for millennia.

But political feuds in which the Jews played no part escalated last September into an armed Houthi plunge into the capital Sanaa, the community's main refuge from which some now contemplate a final exodus.

Around six Yemeni Jews from the same family arrived in Israel on Friday, members of the community told Reuters.

“Since last September, our movements have become very limited for fear of the security situation, and there are some members of the community who preferred to leave Yemen,” sighed chief rabbi Yahya Youssef, sitting in his apartment within a walled compound next to ministry of defense.

Dressed in the traditional Yemeni flowing robe, blazer and headwrap, Rabbi Yahya's lined face is framed by two long curls on each side. Along with Hebrew he and his co-religionists speak Arabic, value local customs and are wary of life beyond home.

“We don't want to leave. If we wanted to, we would have done so a long time ago,” Yahya said as his infirmed old father rested in the sun outside their home.

Jews evacuated from the Houthi stronghold of Saada province in 2009 to the government-guarded compound have dwindled from 76 to 45. A group of 26 others live in a city north of the capital.

Their total number is down from around 200-300 just a few years ago and now makes up a tiny fraction of Yemen's 19 million-strong population.

Yemen's Jewish community numbered over 40,000 until 1949, when Israel organized their mass transfer to the newly-established state. Those who stayed say they had lived in peace with their neighbors in the Muslim Arab country.

“OUR PROBLEM IS WITH ISRAEL”

Boredom and isolation reign at the Jews' lodgings in their unlikely ghetto in a luxury enclave called “Tourist City” near the now-evacuated United States embassy.

Cut off from the carpentry and metalworking shops that were their renowned trade for centuries, residents now subsist on small government allowances that they say barely meet their living costs.

Young men who venture into the souk often tuck their distinctive curls up into their headwraps for fear of bullying. Boys are no longer eager to grow them in the first place.

The local Houthi official now responsible for the surrounding neighborhood visited Rabbi Yahya on Thursday to offer reassurances, according to a Reuters correspondent who was present.

“Jews are safe and no harm will come to them,” said Abu al-Fadl, who like other leaders in the movement goes by a nom de guerre and not his given name.

“The problem of the Houthis is not with the Jews of Yemen but with Israel, which occupies Palestine,” he added.

But memories of death threats and Houthi fighters burning down Jewish homes during the militia's decade of on-off war with the now nonexistent Sanaa government will not be soon forgotten.

Israel-linked organizations have in the past repeatedly helped whisk Jews out of Yemen, but Israeli government spokespeople declined comment on the matter, citing reluctance to endanger Yemen's Jews by association with Israel.

“There are certainly discussions going on over options available regarding the Yemenite Jews,” said an Israeli official briefed on immigration matters.

But these are individuals who will have to make their own individual decisions about what to do,” the official added.

Safety may not be the only concern for the deeply conservative community though, who fear life in Israel or elsewhere will be an affront to their traditional values.

“In Israel, the girls rebel against their fathers, and we fear for our daughters. I could not accept that my daughter might come to me one day and tell me that she was married to her boyfriend,” Rabbi Yahya said.

“This is not permissible in our religion.”

No Americans in Paris: U.S. absence draws criticism at home


A Republican U.S. senator lambasted the White House on Monday for not sending a top American official to a Paris unity march after deadly Islamic militant attacks in that city, and a New York tabloid headline screamed “You let the world down.”

The image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas flanking the leaders of France, Germany and Mali dominated coverage of Sunday's unity march and highlighted the absence of President Barack Obama or other senior U.S. officials.

French President Francois Hollande and 44 foreign dignitaries headed more than a million people in a march called to show solidarity after Islamist militants killed 17 people in three days of attacks in the French capital last week.

The United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane Hartley.

A senior U.S. administration official cited security requirements as a central reason why neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip, saying their security needs can be distracting from such events.

Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to India, rebuffed criticism for not having a top-level official at Sunday's march as “quibbling” and said Washington has cooperated deeply with Paris on many levels since the attacks.

“We have offered, from the first moment, our intel, our law enforcement and all of our efforts, and I really think that, you know, this is sort of quibbling a little bit,” said Kerry, who planned to be in Paris on Friday.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were in Paris for security meetings on Sunday but did not attend the march.

The New York Daily News front page featured a photo of the packed rally along with head shots of Obama, Biden, Kerry and Holder and the admonition: “You let the world down.”

“The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote in an opinion piece on the Time magazine website.

“Our president should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies,” he wrote.

“I thought it was a mistake not to send someone,” another Republican senator, Marco Rubio, said on CBS “This Morning.”

Criticism of the American absence was not echoed in France, however.

“As far as the reactions of the U.S. authorities are concerned, we have been overwhelmed and very moved by them since the beginning of the crisis,” the French Embassy in Washington said on Monday.

Police hunt three Frenchmen after 12 killed in Paris attack


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A government official told Reuters there had been no arrests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXECUTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahmoud Abbas will visit Gaza in coming weeks


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

A Palestinian official close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has told The Media Line that security preparations are underway for the president to visit the Gaza Strip in the next few weeks: the first time since 2006. The visit would seem to mark the victory of his Fatah movement over the Islamist Hamas faction which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

“There is a lot of talk about the President going, but the goal of the visit has yet to be worked out,” the official said, saying there had to be more to the visit than just a photo opportunity.

When pressed, he said Abbas is expected to make a major announcement from the Gaza Strip, but failed to say exactly what it would be.

“It could be about new Palestinian elections, a unity government (between Fatah and Hamas) or lifting of the siege on Gaza,” the official said.

Until now Abbas reportedly was afraid to visit Gaza fearing for his own safety because of the rivalry between the two main Palestinian factions. The reports of a visit came after Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah convened the first meeting of a joint government with Hamas in Gaza last week.

The Abbas visit also comes as dozens of donor countries are meeting in Egypt to discuss rebuilding the Gaza Strip after this summer’s fighting between Hamas and Israel. Abbas has said it will cost $4 billion to rebuild the embattled Gaza Strip. As the conference convened, Qatar offered $1 billion in aid, and US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the US would chip in an additional $212 million, and the United Arab Emirates promised $200 million. A total of $5.4 billion was pledged at the October 12 donors’ meeting.

However, all of the money will not be useful unless Israel agrees to allow construction materials like cement and iron into Gaza. In the past Israel has said that Hamas could divert that material to build underground tunnels, dozens of which were discovered during the latest fighting, and weapons. Both the US and Israel insist that they won’t deal directly with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization.

The international community has made clear that it prefers that a unity government, with Abbas’s Fatah as the senior partner, be in charge in Gaza. That would also be the key to reopening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Since 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza by force, Fatah has kept a relatively low profile in the Gaza Strip. “Fatah has been suppressed by Hamas, its members imprisoned and even shot,” a member of the group told The Media Line on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to publicly speak out against the Gaza rulers.  He also said Hamas replaced many Fatah members with its own.

When it comes to the role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza, passports are still issued in Ramallah and mailed to Gaza free of charge. The PA pays for water and electricity in Gaza, although many say that Hamas charges the Gaza residents a second time. 

Long-time Fatah activist in Gaza, Mamoun Swaidan confirmed to The Media Line that discussions were being held in advance of an Abbas visit, but said he did not know if Hamas is being included in these talks.

“The president is planning to visit Gaza and does not need an invitation from anyone to do so. Gaza is a part of our national state and he (Abbas) has complete jurisdiction here, like the West Bank.  I am sure he will visit Gaza very soon,” Swaidan, who is Fatah’s Gaza based international affairs officer said.

Fatah has continued to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of its employees in Gaza who were replaced by Hamas loyalists.

“Abbas is responsible for Gaza not just today but from before. To those who have doubts, yes, Abbas is back in charge of Gaza,” Swaidan said. He said that the “presence and power” of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on the ground will be seen soon.

There has clearly been a change on the ground. In July, Hamas supporters chased out the Palestinian Minister of Health who was bringing medicine and equipment to Gaza.

Hamas interior minister Kamal Abu Madi has denied media reports that the presidential guards and intelligence officials of the PA would return to Gaza, comments that directly contradict a statement by the deputy prime minister Muhammad Mustafa, who on Friday said his government would assume control of Gaza crossings today.

“Hamas has been crippled, they know Gaza won’t be rebuilt without President Abbas but it will take time for them to come to grips with reality,” Swaidan said.

U.S. confirms death of al Shabaab leader Godane in Somalia air strike


The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that Ahmed Godane, a leader of the al Shabaab Islamist group, was killed in a U.S. air strike in Somalia this week, calling it a “major symbolic and operational loss” for the al-Qaida-affiliated organization.

“We have confirmed that Ahmed Godane, the co-founder of al-Shabaab, has been killed,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

Godane was a co-founder and leader of the group, which has carried many bombings and suicide attacks in Somalia and elsewhere, including the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013 that killed at least 39 people.

Godane publicly claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack, saying it was revenge for Kenyan and Western involvement in Somalia and noting its proximity to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

His death left a huge gap in al Shabaab's leadership and was seen as posing the biggest challenge to its unity since it emerged as a fighting force eight years ago.

Abdi Ayante, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, said Godane's death would be “a game changer in many ways for al Shabaab.”

“What is likely to happen is a struggle for power,” he said a day before the Pentagon's confirmed Godane's death. Ayante said fragmentation was also possible in the absence of a leader with Godane's experience and ruthless approach to dissent.

U.S. forces carried out the military operation targeting Godane in Somalia on Monday, but the Pentagon did not confirm his death until Friday, saying it was still assessing the results of the air strike.

Kirby said in his statement that “removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to al Shabaab.”

A separate statement from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the operation that killed Godane was the result of “years of painstaking work by our intelligence, military and law enforcement professionals.”

Earnest said the administration would continue to use financial, diplomatic, intelligence and military tools to address the threat posed by al Shabaab.

The U.S. State Department declared al Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in 2008.

Somalia's government, with support from African peacekeepers and Western intelligence, has battled to curb al Shabaab's influence and drive the group from areas it has continued to control since it was expelled from Mogadishu in 2011.

Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey

Fiji says Syrian rebels want compensation, removal from terror list


Islamist fighters who seized dozens of Fijian soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week are demanding that their group be removed from a global terrorism list and that compensation be paid for members killed in fighting, the head of Fiji's army said on Tuesday.

Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga said negotiations had been stepped up betweenh the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and a new U.N. negotiation team now in place in Syria.

“The rebels are not telling us where the troops are, but they continue to reassure us they are being well-looked after,” Tikoitoga told media in Suva. “They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas.”

Heavy fighting erupted on Monday between the Syrian army and Islamist rebels near where 45 Fijian peacekeepers were captured and scores of their fellow blue helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture. The number of Fijians captured had previously been put at 44.

Syria's three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-controlled territory last week when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

The fighters then turned on the U.N. blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured on Thursday, more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.

The Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, says it is holding the peacekeepers because the U.N. force protects Israel.

Tikoitoga said the group was demanding compensation for three fighters killed in the confrontation with the U.N. peacekeepers, as well as humanitarian assistance to the people of Ruta, a stronghold of the group on outskirts of Damascus, and the removal of the organisation from the U.N. list of banned terrorist organisations.

“We've been assured by U.N. headquarters that the U.N. will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers,” the Fijian army chief said.

HEAVY FIGHTING

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in the Syrian civil war, said the Nusra Front and allied fighters were battling government forces near the Quneitra crossing and in the nearby village of al-Hamiydiah.

The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides. Observatory founder Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters the Nusra Front's aim appeared to be “to end once and for all the regime's presence in the area and it also appears that the goal is to expel the international observers”.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in the area, known as UNDOF, includes 1,223 troops from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands as well as the Fijians and Filipinos who came under attack last week.

The United Nations has announced that the Philippines will pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan and Croatia have also pulled their troops out of the force because of the deteriorating security situation as the civil war in Syria reaches the Golan.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Israel raises alarm over Islamist militants on its frontiers


Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al-Qaida, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al-Qaida.

Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it's very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah's intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad's forces to further reclaim the initiative.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters (yards) of Nusra fighters.

The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where Nusra and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad's forces.

After three years of fighting, opposition forces control patches of territory to the west and south of Damascus, including a portion of the 375-km (225-mile) border with Jordan.

That has allowed thousands of foreign fighters from both the Arab world and Europe to cross into Syria, including an estimated 2,000 Jordanians. At least 10 Israeli Arabs have also gone to Syria, five of whom were later detained after returning home, according to Oreg.

RISKY CORNER

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them. It consists of an area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 km (45 miles) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River with Jordan.

About 1,200 soldiers are involved in monitoring the separation zone, in what has been for most of the past 40 years one of the world's quietest peacekeeping missions. That changed with the uprising against Assad, and the area is now precarious.

Stephane Cohen, the former chief liaison between the Israeli army and the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, said the U.N.'s mandate was now meaningless.

With the Philippines, Ireland and other contributing nations set to withdraw from the mission, it was questionable whether the United Nations could continue monitoring the area.

“UNDOF is collapsing and the mandate has not been relevant for at least two years,” said Cohen, now a defense analyst with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

“Eighty percent of the border area is now in the hands of (Syrian) opposition forces,” he said, adding that if more nations withdrew, the militant presence would only rise.

For now, Israel is merely remaining vigilant.

“We have to be very cautious about our retaliation policy,” said Oreg, emphasizing that the priority should be to keep careful tabs on the Nusra Front and other groups' capabilities, while sharing any intelligence judiciously.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Boko Haram leader says ruling Nigerian town by Islamic law


The leader of Nigeria's Islamist group Boko Haram said his fighters were now ruling the captured northeastern town of Gwoza “by Islamic law”, in the first video to state a territorial claim in more than five years of violent insurrection.

The Nigerian military denied Boko Haram had taken control of the town during fighting over the past week, although security sources and some witnesses said police and military there had been pushed out.

Abubakar Shekau's forces have killed thousands since launching an uprising in 2009, and are seen as the biggest security threat to the continent's leading energy producer.

The militant leader's often rambling videoed speeches have become a regular feature of his bid to project himself as public enemy number one in Africa's biggest economy.

In the latest video released late on Sunday, the militant who says he is fighting to create an Islamic state in religiously-mixed Nigeria, said his forces had taken control of the hilly border town of Gwoza, near the frontier with Cameroon.

“Allah has granted us success in Gwoza because we have risen to do Allah's work,” Shekau says, reading out a statement off a notebook, with two masked gunmen on each side of him and three four-wheel-drive vehicles behind him in thinly forested bush.

“Allah commands us to rule Gwoza by Islamic law. In fact, he commands us to rule the rest of the world, not only Nigeria, and now we have started.”

Nigerian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Local newspaper ThisDay quoted Major-General Chris Olukolade as saying the claim Boko Haram controls Gwoza was “false and empty”.

“KILL WITHOUT PITY”

In an attack on Sunday in the remote northeastern town of Gamboru, the insurgents killed 15 people, survivors said on Monday. The gunmen came in armed pick up trucks, throwing explosives and spraying the town with bullets. May fled over the border into Cameroon, witnesses said.

“They were shouting 'Allah Akbar' (God is Greatest) and were shooting sporadically,” Alice Adejuwon, a businesswoman and resident of Gamboru, told Reuters by telephone.

“We saw corpses on the streets as we ran out of the town.”

The video includes footage of what appeared to be an attack on Gwoza, showing fighters, backed by armoured personal carriers, pick-up trucks with attached machine guns, and one tank-like vehicle with track wheels and a large gun.

They unload salvos of gunfire across the town from trucks and on foot. The fighters are all armed with AK-47s or rocket propelled grenades, some in military uniform, others in civilian clothes. Many of them walk casually as they take over the town.

They also fire into the hills at what appear to be fleeing security forces and civilians, and they help themselves to weapons and ammunition seized from security forces. It ends with scenes of executing captives in pre-dug mass graves, some of them beaten to death with spades.

Witnesses said Gwoza remained a battleground but that Nigerian forces had largely fled. A security source also confirmed that the insurgents were still laying siege to it.

Resident Hannatu John escaped the town during the attack, running into the hills as the rebels fired at them, fleeing eventually to the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri.

She has heard nothing of her father or sisters in the town since early last week, she told Reuters in Maiduguri.

“We are in the dark and full of despair,” she said. “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu said on Sunday that 35 policemen were missing after an attack on a mobile police training camp in Gwoza.

Shekau also taunts France, Israel and the United States in the video.

“Democracy is worse than homosexuality, worse than sleeping with your mother,” Shekau says. “You are all pagans and we will kill you, even if you do not attack us we will kill you … Allah commands us to kill without pity.”

Islamist groups across the world have become increasingly bold in making territorial claims in recent months. Sunni group Islamic State has declared a “caliphate” across large areas of Syria and neighbouring Iraq while an affiliate of al Qaeda said in July it aimed to set up an emirate in east Yemen, local media reported.

Shekau makes no mention of Islamic State in the video, although he does mention Iraq in the context of U.S. intervention there.

In separate violence, at least 13 people were killed in a communal clash between rival Fulani and Jikun ethnic groups in Wukari town, Adamawa state, also in the northeast, police spokesman Joseph Kwaji said by telephone.

Reporting by Isaac Abrak; Additional reporting by Lanre Ola and Bodunrin Kayode in Maiduguri, and Tim Cocks in Lagos; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Ralph Boulton

Hamas threatens to aim further attacks at Israel’s airport


The armed wing of the Hamas Islamist militant group that dominates Gaza threatened on Wednesday to aim more rocket fire at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv and cautioned international airlines to avoid it.

Citing Israel's air strikes in Gaza that have killed three people after rockets were fired at Israel in breach of a truce, a Hamas commander said in a statement the group “has decided to respond to the Israeli aggression,” by making the airport a “target of attack” for the day.

Hamas said earlier it had fired a rocket at the airport, at a time when dozens of rockets were shot at southern Israel and the Tel Aviv area. There were no reported casualties in those strikes.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Chris Reese

Israel launches military offensive against Gaza militants


Israel launched an aerial offensive in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, calling it part of a campaign named “Operation Protective Edge” targeting Hamas Islamist militants firing rockets at the Jewish state.

The military urged Israelis within a 24-mile radius of the southern coastal territory to stay within reach of protected areas and ordered summer camps shut as a precaution against rocket fire.

Palestinian officials said two air strikes were launched before dawn against homes in southern Gaza, one of which was identified by a neighbour as belonging to a Hamas member.

Nine people suffered shrapnel injuries. There were no other reported casualties as the buildings were believed to have been evacuated beforehand.

Witnesses said a house bombed in Khan Younis was flattened. The Palestinian Health Ministry said nine neighbours were wounded by debris from that strike.

The Palestinian Interior Ministry said the family in the targeted home had received a telephone call from an Israeli intelligence officer asking them to leave the house because it would be bombed, and the family evacuated in time.

A military spokeswoman confirmed air strikes were launched but had no details.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a tweet that “Operation Protective Edge is under way, targeting Hamas capabilities that are terrorizing Israel.”

Lerner said Gaza militants had fired more than 80 rockets at Israel on Monday, and military officials said more than 200 rockets have been shot at Israel in the past month, an enormous uptick in shootings.

SECURITY CABINET DECIDES

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet decided on Monday to step up air strikes against militants in coastal Gaza. Political sources said ministers stopped short of ordering a ground offensive for now.

Netanyahu had earlier pledged “to do whatever is necessary” to restore quiet to southern Israeli communities though he cautioned against any rush toward wider confrontation with Hamas, whose arsenal includes long-range rockets that can reach Israel's heartland and its business capital Tel Aviv.

But far-right cabinet ministers pressed for a firmer response to silence rocket fire. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit an alliance with Netanyahu's party citing dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's policy on Gaza.

The surge in violence has raged since the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths last month in the West Bank and a Palestinian teen last week, in an attack for which Israel has arrested six Jewish suspects.

Air raid sirens wailed as far north as the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Monday night. Israeli police said those were false alarms, but the military said rockets had triggered alerts as far as 48 miles, the farthest of the latest crisis.

Two Israelis were injured in Monday's rocket strikes.

Lerner told reporters on Monday that Israel had called up several hundred reservists and was prepared to mobilise a total of 1,500. He said the intensity of Hamas rocket fire meant “the Israeli military is talking about preparedness for an escalation.”

Hamas claimed responsibility for firing rockets at Israel on Monday for the first time since a 2012 war with Israel that ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce.

The group's death toll on Monday had also been the highest Hamas suffered since the 2012 fighting.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of committing a “grave escalation” in violence and threatened to retaliate, saying Israel would “pay the price.”

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Can Iraqi forces recapture lost ground alone? U.S. says ‘probably not’


Iraqi security forces will probably not be able to recapture ground they have lost to Islamist militants without assistance, the top U.S. military officer said on Thursday.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that U.S. advisers now in Iraq were reporting that Iraq's military was “capable of defending Baghdad but it “would be challenged to go on the offense, mostly logistically challenged.”

“If you're asking me will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive, to recapture the part of Iraq that they've lost, I think that's a really broad campaign quality question,” Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon. “Probably not by themselves.”

Iraq is grappling with an onslaught of Sunni Muslim militants from an al Qaeda offshoot who have seized large areas of northern and western Iraq and are threatening to march on the capital Baghdad.

Militants were able to seize so much territory in part because forces under Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deserted their positions in the face of the militant advance last month.

The United States, which focused much of its effort following its 2003 invasion of Iraq building up Iraq's security forces, is now seeking to help the Iraqi military repel those militants.

At the same time the Obama administration does not want to get bogged down in another war in Iraq, especially with political bickering continuing in Baghdad as officials try to form a new government in the aftermath of the April election.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said U.S. forces had established a second U.S.-Iraq Joint Operations Center in Iraq. The new center, in Arbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern region, will complement work done by the first center in Baghdad.

U.S. forces also have six assessment teams on the ground in Iraq, Hagel said. The U.S. military presence aims to evaluate the current state of the Iraqi military and how U.S. forces can best act to help the government repel the militants.

“We have a much better intelligence picture than we did two weeks ago and it continues to get better,” Dempsey told reporters.

Reporting By Missy Ryan and David Alexander; editing by Andrew Hay

Israel ramps up pressure on Hamas in hunt for missing teens


Israel decided on Tuesday to widen a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank after troops detained more than 40 members of the Palestinian Islamist group in sweeps conducted in tandem with a search for three missing Jewish teenagers.

The Jewish state accuses Hamas of kidnapping the three youths after they left their religious school in a Jewish settlement in the territory on Thursday. While neither claiming nor denying responsibility, Hamas has commented that abductions were a justified response to the plight of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by its Israeli enemy.

The Israeli army has carried out house-to-house searches, round-ups of suspects and interrogations in Hebron, a Hamas stronghold, and then in other parts of the West Bank, in a mobilisation on a scale not seen in years.

“We are turning Hamas membership into a ticket to hell,” Naftali Bennett, a far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, told Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday.

The Palestinian Information Ministry accused Israel of inflicting collective punishment with its West Bank dragnet – a charge echoed by several international human rights groups.

“An entire population is being held hostage to the whims of the Israeli occupation,” the Palestinian ministry said.

Israel has said it does not know if Gilad Shaar and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, are alive or what their captors' demands might be.

At its meeting on Tuesday, Netanyahu's security cabinet agreed to make more arrests, put up roadblocks and turn Palestinian houses into military observation posts to increase pressure on Hamas, which seeks the Jewish state's destruction.

An Israeli official said ministers had also debated a proposal to deport West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza.

Earlier, the army said it had detained 41 Hamas militants in overnight raids, raising to more than 200 the number arrested since Friday. Israel officials acknowledged the operation was two-fold – recovering the missing teenagers and weakening Hamas.

HAMAS ARGUES SELF-DEFENSE

Hamas and other militant groups have in the past seized Israelis to trade for jailed Palestinians. Scores of inmates are on hunger strike to protest against being held without charges.

“Regardless of the party which stood behind the (kidnapping) operation, our people have the right to defend themselves and to stand in solidarity with their prisoners,” Hamas said in a statement on Tuesday.

Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned both the kidnappings and the Israeli dragnet.

Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser, said the abductions provided an opportunity to target Hamas in operations that could undermine a new Palestinian unity government formed after Abbas reconciled with his Islamist rivals in April following years of feuding. Infuriated by the surprise intra-Palestinian alliance, Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Abbas. “The fragile links between the (Abbas-led Palestinian) Authority and Hamas could become more of a crack,” Eiland told Israel Radio, a day after the Islamists condemned as a “knife in the back” PA efforts to help the Israelis locate the teenagers.

Mirroring scenes played out elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers filed through a street of shuttered homes and shops in the town of Jenin on Tuesday, lobbing stun grenades and firing rubber bullets at Palestinians who threw rocks at them.

Israeli and Palestinian security sources said soldiers and police had wounded five Palestinians in Jenin and in confrontations near the cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

Israel showed photographs of what it said were hundreds of weapons, including guns, seized at some of the detainees' homes.

“As long as our boys remain abducted, Hamas will feel pursued, paralyzed and threatened,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

Netanyahu has said the recovery efforts are complicated and could prove protracted. Many Israelis have shown solidarity with the teens' families on social media and have held prayer vigils.

One of the youth's mothers, Rachel Fraenkel, thanked her compatriots on a nationally televised broadcast, saying: “We just wish to hug our children home, Naftali, Eyal, Gil-Ad. We love you, we miss you, please be strong, hold on, be strong.”

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Court bans activities of Islamist Hamas in Egypt


An Egyptian court on Tuesday banned all Hamas activities in Egypt in another sign that the military-backed government aims to squeeze the Palestinian Islamist group that rules the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have declared a terrorist group and which they have repressed systematically since the army ousted one of its leaders, Mohamed Morsi, from the presidency in July.

“The court has ordered the banning of Hamas's work and activities in Egypt,” the judge, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

During his year in power, Morsi gave red-carpet treatment to Hamas, angering many secular and liberal Egyptians who saw this as part of a creeping Islamist takeover following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The military-buttressed authorities now classify Hamas as a significant security risk, accusing it of supporting an Islamist insurgency that has spread quickly since Morsi's fall, allegations the Palestinian group denies.

Security officials said in January that after crushing the Brotherhood, military rulers planned steps to undermine Hamas.

The court also ordered the closure of Hamas offices in Egypt, one of the judges overseeing the case told Reuters. The judge stopped short of declaring Hamas a terrorist group, saying the court did not have the jurisdiction to do so.

Hamas condemned the ruling.

“The decision harms the image of Egypt and its role towards the Palestinian cause. It reflects a form of standing against Palestinian resistance (to Israel),” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Gaza-based militant organisation.

During Morsi's rule, Hamas held secretive internal elections in Egypt in 2012. A top Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzouk, lives in Cairo and may be at risk of arrest after the court decision.

The case against Hamas was filed after Morsi's removal by a group of Egyptian lawyers who asked for it to be outlawed in Egypt and designated a terrorist organisation.

ISLAMIST INSURGENCY SPREADING

Islamist militants based in Egypt's Sinai region, which has a border with Gaza, have killed hundreds of police and soldiers since Morsi's political demise. The insurgency has spread to other parts of Egypt, the most populous Arab country.

Since seizing power, Egypt's military has crippled Gaza's economy by destroying most of the 1,200 tunnels that had been used to smuggle food, cars and weapons to the coastal enclave, which is under an Israeli blockade.

Egyptian officials say it could take years to undermine Hamas. But they believe working with Hamas's main Palestinian political rival, the Western-backed Fatah movement, and supporting popular anti-Hamas activities in Gaza will weaken the group, several security and diplomatic officials have said.

In early January, Cairo publicly hosted the first conference of a new anti-Hamas youth group called Tamarud (Rebellion), the name used by the Egyptian youth movement behind last year's mass protests against Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 after a brief civil war with Fatah, which is led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas deny accusations of terrorism, and the Brotherhood says it remains committed to peaceful activism despite Cairo's security clampdown.

Egypt has arrested almost all the Brotherhood's leaders and thousands of its followers, while security forces have killed hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators in the streets.

The wave of detentions has also netted some secular protesters, some of whom have alleged torture while in custody.

An Egyptian court on Tuesday released two such activists held on charges of “incitement to protest without a permit” based on a strict new law against demonstrations, saying there was insufficient evidence to keep them jailed pending their case.

Morsi is on trial facing multiple charges, including inciting the murder of protesters during his presidency and collaborating with Hamas to stage terrorist attacks in Egypt. He denies the charges and accuses the army of staging a coup.

Additional reporting by Nidal Al Mughrabi in Gaza and Noah Browning in Cairo; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Lyon

Obama pledges U.S. support after Kenya ‘outrage’


U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday condemned an attack at a mall in Kenya as he prepared for a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which he will call for international solidarity against a fresh wave of violence from Islamist extremists.

Obama immersed himself into diplomacy shortly after arriving from Washington, sitting down for talks with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and presiding over a meeting of civil society experts who were critical of governments that crack down on non-governmental aid organizations.

Obama on Tuesday is to give his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, a speech that this year will face greater scrutiny because of diplomatic efforts to contain Syria's chemical weapons and Iran's nuclear program.

A weekend attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall carried out by al Shabaab, a militant Somali Islamist group, killed at least 62 people, a sharp reminder that al Qaeda-type violence is not limited to the Middle East.

“The United States will continue to work with the entire continent of Africa and around the world to make sure that we are dismantling these networks of destruction,” Obama said.

Obama, whose father was from Kenya, said he had spoken to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and pledged U.S. support.

“We stand with them against this terrible outrage that's occurred. We will provide them with whatever law enforcement support that is necessary. And we are confident that Kenya will continue to be a pillar of stability in Eastern Africa,” Obama said as he met the Nigerian president.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Obama would bring up the Kenya violence in his U.N. speech, which will also covers events in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The fact of the matter is al Shabaab is precisely the type of issue that we are increasingly confronted with. As al Qaeda's core is degraded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we see affiliates take root in different parts of the world,” Rhodes said.

Nigeria's Jonathan said during his meeting with Obama that he sympathized with Kenya. Nigeria has battled the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram, which wants to establish a breakaway Islamic state. The Islamists are seen as the main security threat in Africa's top oil producer.

“Terror anywhere in the world is terror on all of us,” said Jonathan.

Year in Review: Highlights of 5773


From wars and elections to scandals and triumphs, here’s a look back at the highlights of the Jewish year 5773.

September 2012

Sept. 19: Islamists throw a homemade grenade into a Jewish supermarket near Paris, injuring one. The incident is part of a major increase in attacks on Jews in France in 2012.


October 2012

Arlen Spector

Oct. 14: Arlen Specter, the longtime moderate Jewish Republican senator from Pennsylvania whose surprise late-life party switch back to the Democrats helped pass President Barack Obama’s health care reforms, dies at 82 following a long struggle with cancer. During his time in the Senate, Specter offered himself as a broker for Syria‑Israel peace talks and led efforts to condition aid to the Palestinian Authority on its peace process performance.

Oct. 15: Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley, American economists with ties to Israeli universities, win the Nobel Prize for economics.

The Israeli Knesset votes to dissolve, sending Israel to new elections for the first time since 2009.

Oct. 17: Jewish groups pull out of a national interfaith meeting meant to bolster relations between Jews and Christians following a letter by Protestant leaders to Congress calling for an investigation into United States aid to Israel.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman is arrested at the Western Wall and ordered to stay away from the site for 30 days after attempting to lead a women’s prayer group at the holy site in violation of Kotel rules. The incident, which is witnessed by dozens of American participants in town for the centennial celebration of the women’s Zionist group Hadassah, stokes outrage among liberal American Jewish groups.

Oct. 22: Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast, killing more than 100 and causing an estimated $50 billion in damages. The populous Jewish areas of New York and New Jersey see extreme damage, and a Jewish man and woman are killed by a falling tree in Brooklyn. Synagogues and Jewish organizations nationwide join efforts to raise money to help victims of the superstorm.

Mitt Romney, left, and Barack Obama

Oct. 25: Israel, a heated issue throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, is mentioned 31 times by Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney at the final presidential debate, which was devoted to foreign policy and held in Boca Raton, Fla. Both candidates sought to score points on the issue, but actual policy differences seemed to be in short supply.

With a charter flight of some 240 Ethiopian immigrants, the Israeli government launches what it says is the final stage of mass immigration from Ethiopia to Israel. The following summer, the Jewish Agency announces that the last Ethiopian aliyah flight will take place in August 2013.


November 2012

Nov. 11: Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opens to great fanfare.

Nov. 6: Obama is re-elected, with exit polls giving the incumbent about 68 percent of the Jewish vote — down from the estimated 74 to 78 percent in 2008. Many of the campaign battles between Jewish surrogates were fought over Middle East issues, but surveys suggested that like most other voters, American Jews were most concerned with economic issues.

Nov. 7: Major League Baseball player Delmon Young pleads guilty to misdemeanor charges related to an incident in New York in which the Detroit Tigers’ designated hitter yells anti‑Semitic slurs at a group of tourists talking to a homeless panhandler wearing a yarmulke. Young is sentenced in Manhattan Criminal Court to 10 days of community service and ordered to participate in a mandatory restorative justice program run by the Museum of Tolerance in New York.

Nov. 14: After days of stepped-up rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel launches Operation Pillar of Defense with a missile strike that kills the head of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari. In all, six Israelis and an estimated 149 to 177 Palestinians are killed during the weeklong exchange of fire. Egypt helps broker the cease-fire between the two sides.

A constitutional court in Poland bans shechitah, ritual slaughter, along with Muslim ritual slaughter. An effort in July to overturn the ban fails.

Mohamed Morsi

Nov. 27: The decision by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to grant himself near-absolute powers dismays U.S. and Israeli observers just days after Morsi is lauded for helping broker a Hamas-Israel cease-fire. Morsi backtracks in December, but the move helps stoke popular discontent in Egypt with the country’s first democratically elected president.

Nov. 28: The United Nations General Assembly votes 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions, to recognize Palestine as a state. Passage of the resolution, which does not have the force of law, prompts condemnations from the United States and warnings of possible penalties, but none are invoked. Israel responds with its own dire warnings and announces new settlement constriction in the West Bank. Over the course of months, the change in status in the U.N. proves largely irrelevant.


December 2012

Dec. 4: After months of occasional cross-border fire on the Golan Heights, including errant Syrian and rebel shells landing in Israel, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the Syrian government is violating a 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel by deploying military equipment and troops over the cease-fire line.

Ahmed Ferhani, 27, an Algerian immigrant living in New York, pleads guilty to planning to blow up synagogues in New York City.

Dec. 10: In a case that ignites passions in the Charedi Orthodox community in Brooklyn, Satmar Chasid Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, is found guilty of 59 counts of sexual abuse. Days later, a Chasidic assailant throws bleach in the face of a community rabbi, Nuchem Rosenberg, who advocates for victims of sex abuse. In January, Weberman is sentenced to 103 years in prison.

Dec. 12: German lawmakers pass a bill enshrining the right to ritual circumcision but regulating how circumcisions are to be conducted. The law displaces a ban on Jewish ritual circumcision imposed by a court in Cologne in June.

Dec. 13: Yeshiva University President Richard Joel apologizes for alleged instances of sexual misconduct and harassment by two former faculty members — Rabbis George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon — at the university’s high school more than two decades earlier.

Dec. 14: Numerous Jewish groups call for stricter gun control regulations after a gunman kills 20 first‑graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn. The youngest victim is a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Noah Pozner.

Dec. 18: Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the leader of one of London’s largest congregations and a former chief rabbi of Ireland, is named Britain’s chief rabbi-designate. This fall he is to succeed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who has served in the post since 1991.

A Paris court orders Twitter to monitor and disclose the identities of users from France who posted anti-Semitic comments online, including Holocaust denials. Twitter later appeals the decision but loses, and the U.S.-based company complies with the demand in July.


January 2013

Jan. 4: Video emerges from 2010 of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi — then a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — calling Jews “bloodsuckers” and “descendants of apes and pigs.” Morsi tells U.S. senators that he gets bad press because “certain forces” control the media.

Jan. 10: Obama nominates Jacob Lew, his chief of staff and an Orthodox Jew who frequently serves as an intermediary with Jewish groups, to be secretary of the Treasury Department.

Jan. 18: Data released from a 2011 survey of New York-area Jews shows that two-thirds of the rise in New York’s Jewish population over the previous decade occurred in two Charedi Orthodox communities in Brooklyn — a sign that Orthodox Jews will constitute a growing share of America’s Jewish population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2012.

Jan. 22: Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election as Israel’s prime minister, but his Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction suffers significant losses at the polls, falling to 31 seats. The big winners are two newcomer parties: Yair Lapid’s centrist, domestic-focused Yesh Atid, which comes in second with 19 Knesset seats, and Naftali Bennett’s nationalist Jewish Home, which wins 12 seats. Both later opt to join Netanyahu’s coalition government, which takes nearly two months to assemble.

Jan. 29: Iran and Argentina sign an agreement to form an independent commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and was blamed on Iran. Argentinian and American Jews denounce the agreement as a farce. Iran’s parliament has yet to sign off on the pact.

Jan. 30: Amid concerns that Syrian President Bashar Assad may be transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah, Israeli planes bomb a Syrian weapons transport on the Lebanese border. It is one of several Israeli strikes in Syrian territory during the year.


February 2013

Ed Koch

Feb. 1: Ed Koch, the pugnacious former New York City mayor whose political imprimatur was eagerly sought by Republicans and Democrats, dies at 88 of congestive heart failure. At his funeral, a cast of political luminaries remembers him as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.

Feb. 5: Bulgaria affirms that Hezbollah was behind the attack in Burgas in July 2012 that killed six people, including five Israelis. The finding adds to pressure on the European Union to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. After concerns are expressed in the ensuing months that Bulgarian officials are backing away from their assertions, Bulgaria’s foreign minister reassures Israel on the attack’s one-year anniversary that Bulgaria still holds Hezbollah responsible.

Feb. 12: The Australian Broadcasting Corp. identifies a man known as “Prisoner X,” who hanged himself in a maximum-security Israeli prison in 2010, as Australian-Israeli citizen Ben Zygier. Zygier is said to have worked for the Mossad.

Feb. 21: A British court convicts three British Muslims of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in the country, including on Jewish targets.


March 2013

March 4: Vice President Joe Biden tells thousands of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) activists meeting in Washington that Obama is “not bluffing” when he says he will stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

March 8: The U.S. State Department cancels plans to honor Egyptian human rights activist Samira Ibrahim after opponents note that anti‑Jewish tweets were posted on her Twitter account.

Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market

March 12: Mike Engelman, the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market in Los Angeles, is videotaped directing his employees to unload boxes of meat from his car while the store’s kosher supervisor is absent. The footage leads the Rabbinical Council of California to revoke the shop’s kosher certification the day before Passover, leaving many kosher consumers in the lurch.

March 20: Obama makes his first visit to Israel since taking office in 2008. In a speech upon arrival at the airport, Obama says the United States is Israel’s “strongest ally and greatest friend.” His trip receives widespread praise from Jewish groups.

March 22: Following prodding by Obama, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Netanyahu agree to resume normal ties after Israel apologizes for the deaths of nine Turks in 2010 during a clash with Israeli commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Erdogan later balks, saying normalization will not take place until Israel fulfills its obligations under the agreement.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum provokes controversy with its “Jew in a Box” exhibit (formally titled “The Whole Truth”), in which Jews spend a shift sitting in a glass box and answering questions from visitors.

March 28: A Lebanese-Swedish citizen is convicted in Cyprus on charges of spying on Israeli tourists for Hezbollah. The closely watched trial is a sign of Hezbollah’s expansion of terrorist activities into Europe and fuels calls for European Union countries to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.


April 2013

April 10: Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister who was lauded for his technocratic approach toward state building in the West Bank, resigns. He is replaced in June by university president Rami Hamdallah, who announces after two weeks on the job that he is quitting.

French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim

April 11: French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim resigns following revelations that he plagiarized the work of others in his books and claimed unearned academic titles.

April 12: After being asked by Israel’s prime minister to come up with a solution to the Women of the Wall controversy, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky proposes that the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall be expanded and renovated to allow for egalitarian prayer there at any time. Reaction to his proposal is mixed.

April 15: Rabbi Michael Broyde, a prominent legal scholar in the Modern Orthodox community and professor at Emory University, is forced to step down from a leading religious court after admitting that he systematically used a fake identity in scholarly journals. The admission followed a report by The Jewish Channel exposing the ruse.

April 19: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews opens in Warsaw.

April 24: Bret Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post and now deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, wins the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

April 23: The Jewish Museum of Casablanca reopens following a major renovation funded by the Moroccan government. The renovation is part of a broad effort led by Morocco’s king to restore Jewish heritage sites in the country, including an ancient synagogue in Fez and dozens of former Jewish schools.


May 2013

May 13: Following complaints from pro‑Israel groups, the Newseum in Washington cancels a planned honor for two slain Palestinian cameramen employed by a Hamas affiliate.

Eric Garcetti

May 22: Eric Garcetti, a veteran L.A. city councilman, becomes the city’s first elected Jewish mayor. With his victory, America’s three largest cities boast Jewish mayors.

The Claims Conference is embroiled in controversy after the public learns that officials at the organization failed to adequately follow up on allegations of fraud in 2001, missing an early chance to stop what turned into a $57 million scheme. The disclosure comes during the trial of the scheme’s mastermind, Semen Domnitser, who is found guilty. In July, the Claims Conference board agrees to some outside input in formulating plans for its future but votes to re-lect its embattled chairman, Julius Berman, who oversaw a botched probe in 2001 into the allegations.

Arvind Mahankali

May 30: A 13‑year‑old Indian‑American boy, Arvind Mahankali, spells the Yiddish‑derived word “knaidel” correctly to win the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee.


June 2013

June 3: U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg dies at age 89 after a long and accomplished career advocating for Jewish issues.

Jun. 10: Yeshivat Maharat, a women’s seminary started by Rabbi Avi Weiss in 2009, graduates its first class of Orthodox women clergy known as maharats.

June 14: The Canadian Jewish News decides to abort a plan announced in April to stop printing the newspaper.

June 21: Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, is arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering.

June 26: Liberal Jewish groups hail the Supreme Court decision striking down California’s ban on gay marriage, while Orthodox groups express muted disappointment.


July 2013

July 1: In a letter announcing his retirement, Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm issues an apology for mishandling sex abuse allegations decades earlier against faculty members at the university’s high school for boys. Days later, several former students file a $380 million lawsuit against the university.

July 5: Three campers at the Goldman Union Camp Institute near Indianapolis are injured, one critically, in a lightning strike. A few days later, a Jewish camp counselor is killed by a falling tree at Camp Tawonga, a Northern California camp located near Yosemite National Park.

Michael Oren

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, announces he will return to Israel after four years in the position. He is to be replaced by Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to Netanyahu. Both ambassadors are American born.

July 9: Egypt’s army deposes President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader. The Obama administration stops short of calling the action a coup, avoiding an automatic cutoff in U.S. aid to Egypt. Morsi had become deeply unpopular among liberal and secular Egyptians but retained deep-rooted support among members of his Muslim Brotherhood.

July 11: Portugal enacts a law of return to make citizenship available to Jewish descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews. The move is intended to address the mass expulsion of Jews from Portugal in the 16th century.

July 18: The European Union issues new guidelines prohibiting grants to Israeli entities in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem, prompting an outcry from Israeli officials.

July 22: The European Union designates the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

July 23: In New York, Jewish mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner admits to engaging in lewd online exchanges after his resignation from Congress amid a sexting scandal in 2011, but he declines to withdraw from the race. Meanwhile, San Diego’s Jewish mayor, Bob Filner, rebuffs calls to resign as he faces a barrage of sexual harassment allegations, including from staffers. Instead, Filner takes a two-week leave of absence to undergo sex therapy. Eventually, he agrees to resign, effective Aug. 30.

July 24: Rabbis David Lau and Yitzchak Yosef, both sons of former Israeli chief rabbis, are elected Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis. Days later, Lau is caught on tape using a derogatory term to describe black basketball players.

19th Maccabiah Games

July 27: The 19th Maccabiah Games open in Israel with a record number of athletes.

July 29: After months of intense shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israelis and Palestinians restart direct negotiations for the first time in three years.


August 2013

Aug. 13: In a goodwill gesture to accompany renewed peace talks with the Palestinians, Israel releases the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners, including terrorists convicted of murder.

William Rapfogel

Aug. 14: William Rapfogel, the longtime CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, is fired and apologizes for misconduct and alleged financial improprieties, including allegedly inflating insurance bills and pocketing the overcharges for himself.

Palestinian prisoners are released in advance of peace talks.

Aug. 19: As Egypt’s military rulers kill hundreds of civilians in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel lobbies behind the scenes against a cut in U.S. aid to Cairo.

Powerless West gropes for way to sway Egypt


Having failed to dissuade Egypt's military-dominated rulers from launching a bloody crackdown on supporters of an ousted Islamist president, Western governments are venting condemnation and groping for ways to influence the outcome.

The United States and the European Union tried jointly to facilitate a peaceful, political solution to the stand-off between the army and toppled President Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, appealing right to the end to avoid violence.

“What could we have done otherwise?” asked Menzies Campbell, a senior lawmaker in Britain's Liberal Democrats, junior partner in the government coalition. “It just emphasizes not so much a failure of Western diplomacy, but a powerlessness.

“These divisions are absolutely fundamental, about the kind of society that each side of the argument wishes to have,” Campbell told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The inability to sway military strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the security establishment leaves the West in quandary as to how to square its democratic principles with a vital interest in stability in the Arab world's most populous nation, straddling the Suez Canal trade corridor.

“The West needs to find a calibrated way of suspending aid and economic benefits that shows the non-military political class, including the business community, that they will pay a price in things that matter to them,” said Daniel Levy, Middle East director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a policy think-tank.

The United States, which has maintained a strategic alliance with Cairo since President Jimmy Carter engineered the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty between Egypt and the Jewish state in 1979, deplored the violence and urged restraint and a political solution.

President Barack Obama strongly condemned the steps taken by Egypt's government and announced on Thursday the cancellation of a major joint military exercise with Egypt, in a symbolic blow to the pride of the Egyptian armed forces.

Facing growing pressure in Congress to curtail the $1.3 billion in annual military assistance to Egypt, the president said he was studying further steps that could be necessary in the relationship with Cairo.

That aid, mainly in the form of arms sales, pales when compared with the $12 billion that Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait promised Cairo as soon as the army ousted Morsi on July 3 in response to mass protests.

Obama added that Washington wanted to be a long-term partner with Egypt and was guided by national interests in this long-standing relationship.

“BREATHE DOWN ARMY'S NECK”

“The correct reaction now is for America to be breathing down the neck of the army, saying they'll stop the money tomorrow,” said Britain's Campbell, a veteran member of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

“That won't make the slightest difference to the capability of the army … I wouldn't do it publicly, but I certainly would be saying in private 'do you realize that all this support could be in jeopardy?'”

The Obama administration has few other levers it can pull, having upset conservative Gulf states by embracing Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings, and given the Democratic president's known aversion to U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

Washington and European allies could stop the International Monetary Fund from lending to Egypt, but talks on a $4.8 billion package broke down under Morsi and the new interim government has said securing IMF funds is not its priority.

A visit by outspoken Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Cairo last week, intended to help pull Egypt back from the brink, seemed to backfire, enabling the military to rally public opinion against “foreign interference”.

Obama began his term trying to repair ties with the Arab and Muslim world, severely damaged by U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. After initial hesitancy it embraced the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that toppled several autocrats including veteran U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

But Washington appears to have ended up with the worst of both worlds, blamed by many Egyptians for having supported Morsi while being accused by the Muslim Brotherhood of being an accomplice to a military coup against the freely-elected leader.

Levy said General Sisi had either concluded that the United States was bluffing and would not dare suspend aid because of the Israel treaty, or that the amount involved was insignificant compared with Gulf funding for Egypt.

“CIVIL WAR”?

In Europe, French President Francois Hollande found the strongest words to condemn Wednesday's crackdown, in which at least 525 people were killed according to official figures, although the Brotherhood says more than four times that died.

Hollande personally summoned the Egyptian ambassador – a rare diplomatic event – to condemn the use of force and demand “an immediate halt to repression”, saying everything must be done “to avoid civil war”, an official statement said.

Paris also said it would raise the crackdown at the United Nations, although French officials acknowledged that Russia and China, which have obstructed U.N. action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would probably block any Security Council action on Egypt, arguing that it is an internal matter.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the EU's chances of influencing events in Egypt were extremely limited as hardliners in command in Cairo seemed intent on pursuing a tough course.

The EU would need to look over its aid programs to Egypt, he told Reuters, but economic sanctions would probably have little political impact.

He also saw no room for EU mediation at the moment. “I think the possibilities that might have been there a week or two ago have been blown off completely by what's happened. I think there will be a period of severe repression and problems,” he said.

However, Bildt opposed cold-shouldering Cairo. “Even during that period we should try to keep channels of communication open to all sectors in order to be there once it's possible to do something,” he said.

EU sanctions are often easier to start than to lift, given the requirement for unanimity in decision making.

Jonathan Eyal, director of international studies at Britain's RUSI think-tank, said the worst response would be for the West to retreat into a mood of “self-righteous indignation”.

Suspending aid should be a prelude to trying to engage the Egyptian military with the aim of persuading Sisi to avoid what Eyal called the “ultimate nightmare” of outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, driving it underground and holding “make-believe elections” that would preclude any compromise in the future.

The ECFR's Levy said the EU should set in motion a process that could lead to the suspension of its association agreement with Egypt, potentially stripping Cairo of trade preferences as well as financial aid, which is relatively small and mostly on hold anyway.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said the 28-nation bloc was likely to hold an emergency meeting of foreign ministers next Monday or Tuesday to consider action on Egypt after its mediation efforts failed.

Levy said calibrated, rolling sanctions could strengthen the hand of EU envoy Bernardino Leon and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns in pressing Egypt's rulers for a return to the path of democracy and civilian rule.

Leon said the mediators had put forward not a complete peace plan but a series of mutual confidence building measures, starting with prisoner releases, that could have led to a negotiated settlement to the stand-off.

“I am convinced that there was a political alternative,” he told Reuters. Liberal Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei said the same when he resigned over the crackdown on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by William James in London, Anna Ringstrom and Alistair Scrutton in Stockholm, John Irish and Alexandria Sage in Paris and Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp

Islamist movement Hamas moving closer to Iran


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

The Islamist Hamas movement has sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority for resuming peace talks with Israel, saying that President Mahmoud Abbas is giving in to American pressure. The criticism comes as Hamas moves toward a rapprochement with Iran, despite differences over Syria.

“The (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations will not lead to anything — it’s just wasting time,” Hamas deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad told The Media Line. “Israeli is trying to use the talks as an umbrella to continue its aggressive measures against the Palestinian people, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

Hamad said that in the days prior to the resumption of talks, Israel announced plans to build thousands of homes in areas that Israel captured in 1967.

“It is just a silly game,” Hamad said. “There are talks and negotiations but no outcome and no results. What we see on the ground is just the facts of the occupation: more settlements, more barriers, more checkpoints, more arrests, and more confiscation of land.”

Hamas, which controls the densely populated Gaza Strip, and Fatah, in charge of the West Bank, have been trying to hold “reconciliation talks” for several years to find a way to hold long-overdue Palestinian elections. The two factions signed an agreement in March 2011 that has yet to be completed or implemented to any degree at all. The “reconciliation talks” were supposed to resume the same day that the Israeli — Palestinian negotiations got under way, but were cancelled over the differences of opinion between the two rival camps.

“Reconciliation wasn’t on the horizon anyhow,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian spokesman and current professor at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line. “The effect on both sides will depend on the future of the talks. If they will show progress, this will empower Fatah and weaken Hamas. If they fail, it will help Hamas and weaken Fatah.”

Khatib said that he, like many Palestinians, is not optimistic that the negotiations will produce a breakthrough. The Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on many issues, including final borders, Jewish “settlements” and the so-called “right of return” for Palestinians who left what is now Israel in 1948.  

“I’m not optimistic the talks will lead to anything,” Khatib said. “The Americans want them, and the parties cannot afford to say no to the Americans.  But the Americans can’t afford to make them productive,” he said, hinting the US must pressure Israel to make more concessions.

Hamas has been facing a growing financial crisis since Egypt began dismantling Gaza’s “tunnel economy” by sealing scores of underground tunnels through which nearly everything imaginable from weapons to food staples and even vehicles were brought in from the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel, had also been using the tunnels to bring large sums of money into Gaza. It also levied taxes on goods coming through the subterranean routes. Sealing the tunnels is part of the Egyptian military’s campaign against Jihadists and terrorists in the Sinai.  

Ideologically, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and has always been close to that movement in Egypt. Under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Hamas saw its influence in Egypt growing. Last month when Morsi was ousted and the Egyptian army appointed a caretaker government, Hamas lost its ally atop the largest Arab nation, now ruled by those with little love for Hamas.

Tension is also rife in Hamas’ relationship with Iran over the Gaza-based group’s support for Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, a client of the Islamic Republic. While Shi’ite-majorit Iran, and its primary ally, Lebanon-based Hizbullah, have been supporting Assad in the Syrian civil war, Sunni Hamas has supported the Sunni rebels against the Shi’ite Hizbullah, and the Alawite (a break-off from Shi’ism) Assad.

Despite the tension, Hamas and Iran seem to be moving toward rapprochement. Hamas needs the money Iran can offer, as well as its political support.

“We are not jumping from this country to that country according to our mood,” Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said. “We are a Palestinian national movement and we are not in the pocket of any regime. If Iran is willing to support our people, okay. We are not interested in cutting off the relationship with Iran and we think we can overcome this crisis.”

Egyptian army threatens to shoot violent protesters


Egypt's army threatened on Thursday to shoot those who use violence in a stark warning before what both sides expect will be a bloody street showdown between Islamists and opponents of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

An army official said the military had set Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood an ultimatum, giving it until Saturday to sign up to a plan for political reconciliation which it has so far spurned.

The army has summoned Egyptians into the streets on Friday in an intended turning point in its confrontation with followers of Morsi, the elected leader the generals removed on July 3.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has maintained a street vigil for a month with thousands of supporters demanding Morsi's reinstatement, has called its own crowds out for counter-demonstrations across Egypt in a “day to remove the coup.”

Both sides have dramatically escalated rhetoric before Friday's demonstrations. The Brotherhood accused the army of pushing the nation towards civil war and committing a crime worse than destroying Islam's holiest site.

In a Facebook post, the army said it will not “turn its guns against its people, but it will turn them against black violence and terrorism which has no religion or nation”.

A military official said the army had given the Brotherhood 48 hours from Thursday afternoon to join the political process. He did not say what would happen if it refuses.

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called on Egyptians to take to the streets and give him a “mandate” to act against the violence that has convulsed Egypt since he shunted its first freely elected president from power.

The Brotherhood, which has won repeated elections since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, accuses the authorities of stirring up the violence to justify their crackdown.

Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, issued a religious edict broadcast on Al Jazeera television urging soldiers to disobey orders to kill.

“I call on officers and soldiers in the Egyptian army not to listen to what al-Sisi says, or anyone else. Do not kill anyone. Do not kill your brothers. It is forbidden,” Qaradawi declared.

The main anti-Morsi youth protest group, which has backed the army, said it would go to the streets to “cleanse Egypt”.

The West is increasingly alarmed at the course taken by Egypt, a strategic hinge between the Middle East and North Africa, since protests in 2011 brought down Mubarak and ended decades of autocratic rule in the most populous Arab state.

Signaling its displeasure, Washington has delayed delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Cairo. On Thursday, the White House urged the army to exercise “maximum restraint and caution”.

The United States has yet to decide whether to call the military's takeover a “coup”, language that would require it to halt $1.5 billion it sends in annual aid, mostly for the army.

“CLEANSE EGYPT”

For weeks, the authorities have rounded up some Brotherhood officials but tolerated the movement's presence on the streets, with thousands of people attending its pro-Morsi vigil and tens of thousands appearing at its demonstrations.

That patience seems to have run out. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, head of the interim cabinet installed by the army, said there was growing violence by increasingly well-armed protesters, citing a bomb attack on a police station.

“The presence of weapons, intimidation, fear – this causes concern, especially when there are calls for many to come out tomorrow from different sides,” he told a news conference.

After a month nearly 200 people have died in political violence, many fear the protests will lead to more bloodshed.

Past incidents of violence have tended to run through the night and into the following day. Another security official forecast clashes beginning Friday night and stretching into Saturday, the period covered by the army's ultimatum. He also indicated that the two-day period was expected to be decisive.

“The history of Egypt will be written on those days,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Reiterating his group's commitment to peaceful protest, senior Brotherhood politician Farid Ismail accused the security services of readying militias to attack Morsi supporters, adding that Sisi aimed to drag Egypt into civil war.

“His definition of terrorism is anyone who disagrees with him,” Ismail told Reuters. “We are moving forward in complete peacefulness, going forward to confront this coup.”

Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie accused Sisi of committing a crime worse than destroying the Kaaba – the site in Mecca to which all Muslims face when they pray – “brick by brick”.

But many Egyptians are no less passionately backing the army, determined to see the Brotherhood reined in.

“There are men carrying guns on the street … We will not let extremists ruin our revolution,” said Mohammed Abdul Aziz, a spokesman for Tamarud, an anti-Morsi petition campaign that mobilized protests against his rule.

“Tomorrow we will cleanse Egypt,” he told Reuters.

UNCOMPROMISING

Sisi's speech on Wednesday pointed to the deepening confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military establishment, which has reasserted its role at the heart of government even as it says it aims to steer clear of politics.

Saying it moved against Morsi in response to the biggest popular protests in Egypt's history, the army installed an interim cabinet that plans to hold parliamentary elections in about six months, to be followed by a presidential vote.

The Brotherhood says it wants nothing to do with the transition plan. With Morsi still in military detention at an undisclosed location, there is slim hope for compromise.

Egypt remains deeply split over what happened on July 3. The Brotherhood accuses the army of ejecting a democratically elected leader in a long-planned coup, while its opponents say the army responded to the will of the people.

Sisi announced the nationwide rallies after the bombing of a police station in Mansoura, a city north of Cairo, in which a policeman was killed. The government called it a terrorist attack. The Brotherhood also condemned the bombing, accusing the establishment of seeking to frame it.

Since Morsi was deposed, hardline Islamist groups have intensified a violent campaign against the state in the lawless Sinai Peninsula, with near-daily attacks on the police and army.

Two more soldiers were killed on Thursday in an attack on a checkpoint, security and medical sources said.

At the Brotherhood protest camp near a Cairo mosque, Morsi supporters said they expected the army to provoke violence to justify its crackdown. “The army itself will strike. They will use thugs and the police,” said medical student Sarah Ahmad, 24.

Essam wl-Erian, another senior Brotherhood politician, accused “the putschists” of trying to recreate a police state, telling a televised news conference: “This state will never return, and Egypt will not go backwards.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Maggie Fick, Noah Browning, Tom Finn, Shadia Nasralla, Asma Alsharif and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Tom Perry and Matt Robinson; Editing by Peter Graff and Alistair Lyon

U.S. calls on Hezbollah to pull fighters out of Syria


The U.S. State Department called on Lebanon's Hezbollah militia on Wednesday to withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately, saying their involvement on the side of President Bashar al-Assad signaled a dangerous broadening of the war.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the declaration last weekend by the leader of the Lebanese guerrilla movement, Hasran Nasrallah. He confirmed his combatants were in Syria and vowed they would stay in the war “to the end of the road.”

“This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately,” Psaki said at a daily news briefing.

Violence from the Syrian conflict, which began as a peaceful protest movement but descended into civil war, has increasingly spilled over into Lebanon, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli.

[Related: France says 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah are fighting in Syria]

Hezbollah's participation in a battle at the town of Qusair on the Syrian-Lebanese border risks dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has increasingly become overshadowed by Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian violence.

Nasrallah said Saturday that Syria and Lebanon were facing a threat from radical Sunni Islamists, which he argued was a plot devised by the United States and its allies to serve Israel's interests in the region. Hezbollah is a Shi'ite Muslim group.

Psaki also condemned the killing of three Lebanese soldiers at an army checkpoint in the eastern Bekaa Valley on Tuesday. The gunmen fled toward the Syrian border, but it was not clear who carried out the attack.

“We remain deeply concerned about reports of multiple cross-border security incidents in recent days,” she said.

Asked what the United States would do if Hezbollah did not withdraw, Psaki said Washington was pursuing diplomatic solutions but was also “continuing to increase and escalate our aid and support for the (Syrian) opposition.”

She said Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Beth Jones, would travel to Geneva in the coming week to meet Russian and U.N. diplomats and work on bringing together an international conference on Syria.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly shied from U.S. involvement in the conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives, although he has kept all options on the table.

Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Sandra Maler

Palestinian Islamist group Hamas re-elects Meshaal as its leader


Hamas re-elected Khaled Meshaal on Tuesday as the Islamist group's leader, at a marathon overnight closed-door meeting held in Cairo, an official with the organization said.

Once reviled as a hardliner but now seen increasingly in the Arab world and by some Westerners as a moderate, Meshaal, 56, has headed the movement that rejects Israel's existence and controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza, since 2004.

Born near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Meshaal steered Hamas through the upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings. He spent decades in exile and visited Gaza for the first time ever in December.

Meshaal left Syria about a year ago after ties ruptured with President Bashar al-Assad over the bloody civil war there.

Building on relations with Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, said to be an old friend, Meshaal moved on to win a delicate truce with arch-enemy Israel in November and has also sought to heal a rift with rival Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian officials and analysts said Meshaal, dogged by Gaza critics of his ceasefire with Israel and efforts to reconcile with Abbas, had to be persuaded to continue as Hamas's leader for another term.

“Meshaal was re-elected,” a Hamas official said, reporting in a terse statement on Tuesday on the results of a meeting that began in the Egyptian capital on Monday. The official gave no other details of the vote by which about 60 top officials of the group had reaffirmed Meshaal anew as Hamas's political leader.

Both Egypt and powerful Gulf emirate Qatar also lobbied strongly on Meshaal's behalf, a diplomat in the region told Reuters.

“They saw Meshaal as a moderate and an example of a leader who saw the world more comprehensively than other hardliners in the group,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

European nations that boycott Hamas and list it as a terrorist group for its violence against Israel – including suicide bombings in an uprising a decade ago and rocket strikes on Israeli towns – were also seen as supportive of Meshaal retaining in his post.

'REAL ENGAGEMENT' WITH WEST?

“I do not say Europe is going to open to Hamas tomorrow,” said the diplomat, who saw an opening for a “real engagement with the West” if Meshaal persuaded Islamist colleagues to change their policies.

Meshaal burnished his credentials as leader of the Palestinian militant group after surviving a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt. Hamas was founded in 1988 shortly after the launch of an uprising against Israel.

In 2004, Meshaal succeeded Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, after the cleric was assassinated by Israel during a second Palestinian revolt against the Jewish state.

On his watch, Hamas has emerged as an ever more important player in the Middle East conflict, weakening the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority by seizing control of coastal Gaza in 2007, and challenging Abbas's peacemaking with Israel.

Despite his falling out with Syria over Assad's bloody attempts to quell a revolt, Meshaal has gone out of his way to maintain relations with Islamist Iran, which has supplied Hamas with weaponry including rockets it has fired at Israel.

More lately though Meshaal has sought to overcome his differences with Abbas, leader of the Fatah movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat and head of a Palestinian self-rule authority in the West Bank.

Two years ago he faced down angry Gazans by voicing support for Abbas's peace moves with Israel, though he remained skeptical whether the negotiations frozen since 2010 would ever secure the Palestinian goal of independent statehood.

More recently Meshaal was involved in indirect talks with Israel mediated by Egypt, striking a truce that has largely silenced fighting along the Israel-Gaza frontier since a deadly eight-day conflict four months ago.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech

Egypt-Gaza tunnels must be destroyed, Cairo court says


A Cairo court ruled on Tuesday the government must destroy all tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, removing a route for smuggled weapons but also a lifeline for Palestinians.

Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood has close ties with the Hamas Islamists that run Gaza, but many Egyptians fear the enclave is a security risk for Egypt. Leftist lawyers said they brought the case with activists to force the government's hand.

President Mohamed Mursi's national security adviser Essam Haddad has said Egypt will not tolerate the two-way flow of smuggled arms through the tunnels that is destabilizing its Sinai peninsula.

Egyptian forces flooded some of the tunnels earlier this month.

“The court ruled to make it obligatory that the government destroys the tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip,” Judge Farid Tanaghou said.

An estimated 30 percent of goods that reach Gaza's 1.7 million Palestinians come through the tunnels, circumventing a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt for more than seven years.

“I filed the case because I was worried about the state of national security in my country after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and its unclear policies and links with Hamas,” said Wael Hamdy, a lawyer who brought the case.

He said the case had been brought after 16 Egyptian border guards were killed last August by militants near the Gaza border that highlighted lawlessness in the Sinai desert region adjoining Israel and Gaza.

Cairo said some of the gunmen had entered Egypt through the Gaza tunnels, an accusation denied by the Palestinians. Dozens of tunnels have been destroyed since that incident, but, according to Hamdy, 2,000 are still open.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Editing by David Stamp and Alison Williams