Asylum seekers protesting at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert of Israel on Feb. 17, 2014. Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

How Israel’s travel bans are — and aren’t — like Trump’s


Defending his executive order directing the construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, President Donald Trump pointed to Israel as a model, saying “a wall protects.”

With another swipe of his pen two days later, on Jan. 27, Trump enacted a targeted travel ban. As it turns out, that executive order, which has since been suspended by a federal judge, also has at least superficial similarities to Israel’s immigration regime.

“Officially, we are like Trump,” said Amnon Rubenstein, a law professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and former Israeli education minister. “We don’t accept refugees or immigrants” who aren’t Jewish under Israel’s Law of Return. “But the reality is a little different.”

Israel for years has maintained Trumpian semi-bans on entry by citizens from several Arab countries and asylum seekers. The difference is that the law is often not enforced.

The Trump travel ban barred entry to the United States by immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days. It also blocked all refugees for 120 days, and refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria indefinitely.

Since 2007, Israel has legally refused entry to most citizens from three of the countries on Trump’s list — Iran, Iraq and Syria — as well as from Lebanon. These “enemy states” were added to a 2003 emergency law, passed in response to the second intifada, that has largely stopped Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from living in Israel.

Israel has also taken a relatively hard line on asylum seekers, who in its case come mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. The state has generally deemed these migrants “infiltrators” seeking work, though many have fled persecution and human rights abuses at home, according to human rights groups. Between 2009 and the beginning of 2015, Israel granted refugee status to just five of more than 3,500 applicants, or a fraction of 1 percent. That contrasts with the 84 percent of Eritreans and 56 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers who received either refugee status or extended protection in other countries in 2014, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

At the same time, Israel has deterred more African migrants from coming and sent out those who have already arrived. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted in a tweet responding to Trump’s shout-out, Israel in 2014 completed a fence along its border with Egyptian-controlled Sinai. The previous year, Israel built a detention center in the Negev just for the migrants, and it has given cash incentives to tens of thousands to return to South Sudan or go to third countries with which Israel has reached agreements.

“Israel, like the U.S. right now, is violating its obligations to refugees,” said Tally Kritzman-Amir, an expert in immigration law at the College of Law and Business outside Tel Aviv and the academic supervisor of its Clinic for Migrants’ Rights. “If you ask me, part of being Jewish is about remembering what happened to our people in the past, and maybe even being proud that we are able to provide some protection now.”

But whereas Trump’s travel ban allows few exceptions, Israel’s immigration laws are full of loopholes and are sometimes simply ignored entirely.

“Israel is primarily a country of Jewish repatriation. Non-Jewish immigration is supposed to be very limited,” said Alexander Yakobson, a historian at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “And yet the number of non-Jewish immigrants here is staggering. This is achieved not through policy but through non-enforcement of immigration laws.”

The law targeting West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and citizens of the four Arab countries allows the interior minister or regional military commanders to make various exceptions. These include the options to grant residency to older Palestinian spouses and citizenship to young children. Citizenship, or a lesser status, can also be granted to someone “of special interest to the State” or who “performed a significant act to promote the security, economy or some other important matter of State.” Such a person, whose family may be included, must identify with “Israel and its goals.”

A 30-year old gay poet who had fled persecution for his sexuality in Iran and professed to be “in love with” Israel was allowed to enter the country last year and stay.

For those who need to enter Israel for work or medical care, temporary visas can be issued. Israeli army medics have brought more than 2,600 Syrians to the country for care, though the state will not recognize them as refugees, and tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians are permitted to work in Israel, with thousands more coming in illegally.

Even African migrants in many ways have been accommodated. Israel has expelled few, and more than 45,000 are estimated to remain in the country. Several years ago, the state announced it would not enforce employment laws that would prevent them from working. In Tel Aviv, where most of the migrants have settled, they work behind the counters of bars and restaurants on nearly every block, speaking Hebrew with Israeli waiters and waitresses.

Trump’s travel ban has been challenged in U.S. federal courts as discriminatory, with lawyers pointing to his calls as a candidate for a “Muslim ban” as proof. Israel has similarly been accused in its Supreme Court of privileging Jews and discriminating against would-be Palestinian immigrants and African refugees when it comes to immigration. The state’s security arguments have mostly carried the day, with the courts only requiring tweaks to its policies.

A U.S. federal appeals court is expected to rule on the legality of Trump’s travel ban within days, after which an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely.

Israeli Olympians kicked off bus to Rio games by Lebanese delegation


Lebanese Olympians refused to ride on a bus with Israeli athletes to get to the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 summer games.

When the Israeli delegation of athletes and coaches tried to board the bus Friday to Maracana stadium here, the head of the Lebanese delegation blocked the entrance.

Israeli sailing coach Udi Gal first described the incident in a Hebrew Facebook post.

“I kept on insisting that we board the bus and said that if the Lebanese did not want to board as well they are welcome to leave,” Gal wrote Friday.

“The bus driver opened the door, but this time the head of the Lebanese delegation blocked the aisle and entrance. The organizers wanted to avoid an international and physical incident and sent us away to a different bus.”

The head of the Lebanese delegation, Saleem a-Haj Nacoula told Lebanese media that the Israelis were “looking for trouble” by insisting on boarding the same bus when they had their own transportation. Nacoula was praised in Lebanon as a hero.

The head of the Olympic Committee of Israel, Gili Lustig, said: “The organizing committee was the one that determined the travel arrangements, and which bus we would take to the ceremony. The organizing committee saw the rude behavior of the Lebanese delegation head and immediately provided an alternate bus. The behavior of the Lebanese delegation head is in conflict with the Olympic truce.”

On Sunday, Israel’s Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev called on the International Olympic Committee to condemn the Lebanese delegation’s alleged actions. “I am incensed by the incident. It is anti-Semitism pure and simple, and the worst kind of racism,” she told Israel Radio.

Regev, who is not observant, did not attend the ceremony to avoid violating Shabbat.

The Israeli delegation made it to the opening ceremony, and rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin carried the national flag to lead the country’s largest-ever delegation of 47 athletes.

A ceremony to honor the 11 Israelis killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics is to be held at Rio’s City Hall on Aug. 14. It will be co-led by the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic committees of Israel and Brazil. The widows of two Israeli athletes who were killed that year — Israeli weightlifter Yossef Romano and fencing coach Andre Spitzer — will join in the lighting of 11 candles.

“It is disappointing that there will be no Israeli ambassador in Brazil during the Olympic Games,” the Brazilian Israelite Confederation President Fernando Lottenberg said in a statement, citing the diplomatic row after Brasilia rebuffed Israel’s choice of a former settler leader last year to take over the post.

Israeli spy catalogues mistakes in Lebanon


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netanyahu: Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli ‘spy vulture’ captured in Lebanon


Lebanese citizens captured a vulture they said was carrying Israeli spy equipment.

The residents of the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail caught the bird on Tuesday. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said the griffon vulture was wearing a tracking device, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Lebanese media reported the vulture was released after it was determined that it was not a threat. Israel’s parks authority could not confirm the reports.

“We hope that the Lebanese will take care of him and release him,” avian ecologist Ohad Hatzofe told the Jerusalem Post.

The vulture was brought to Israel from the Catalonia region of Spain in July of last year in an attempt to bolster the population of the endangered species in the Middle East.

This is not the first animal reported by Israel’s neighbors to be spying for the state. Last summer, Palestinian media reported that Hamas had captured a dolphin off the Gaza coast that they said was outfitted with Israeli spy equipment.

In 2010, an Egyptian official claimed that sharks in the Red Sea wearing Israeli spy gear attacked tourists.

Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrian rebel group claims responsibility for Hezbollah leader’s death


A Syrian rebel group has claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed a Lebanese Hezbollah leader who spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison.

In a video released Monday on YouTube, the Free Syrian Army denied Hezbollah’s claim that Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace and assassinated Samir Kuntar, saying the group struck the residential building in which Kuntar and his colleagues were located. The Free Syrian Army claimed Hezbollah was attempting to demoralize the rebel group by claiming Israel undertook the killing.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the Sunday morning strike on a building in the Syrian capital, though several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was released in a 2008 swap for the corpses of Israelis killed in the 2006 Lebanon War, and reportedly had been targeted previously by Israel. In July, an Israeli surveillance plane reportedly bombed a car in Syria, killing five men, in an attack believed to be targeting Kuntar. In September, the U.S. State Department designated Kuntar as a terrorist.

Kuntar, who served 29 years in Israeli prison, was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

Reuters reported that he is believed to have become a commander in Hezbollah since his release from prison, and that Hezbollah has sent many of its members to fight in Syria with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Senior Hezbollah officials vowed to retaliate against Israel.

“(I)f the Israelis think by killing Samir Kuntar they have closed an account, then they are very mistaken because they know and will come to know that they have instead opened several more,” senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safeieddine reportedly said.

Thousands attended Kuntar’s burial in Beirut on Monday.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“But friends can disagree.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyprus may have foiled major attack after ammonia find


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JEANS AND T-SHIRT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel gets into gritty detail to warn off Hezbollah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran’s allies, not atoms, preoccupy Israeli generals


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Fatah leader, Lebanese newspaper urge Arab-Israelis to vote Joint Arab List


A Fatah leader in the West Bank urged Arab-Israelis to vote for the Joint Arab List in the Israeli elections, as did a Lebanese newspaper.

In voicing an opinion about the election, Hatem Abdul Qader broke with Fatah’s longstanding policy of not intervening in Israeli politics, according to the Times of Israel.

Qader said the unification of numerous Arab parties into one list presented a critical opportunity for Arab-Israelis to demonstrate their opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s “fascism and racism” and to “determine the destiny of Arabs in Israel, whether they will remain marginalized or become an active force capable of influencing and claiming their rights.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper published an editorial Monday headlined “Say ‘yes’ to the Joint (Arab) List,” which noted that the election gives Arab-Israelis a “historic opportunity” to “assert the absent Palestinian presence in Israel.”

“An Israeli Arab vote for the Joint Arab List can be the start of a Palestinian awakening, a unique revival the echo of which will inevitably reach the Palestinian street, which suffers from disunity and fragmentation in Gaza and the West Bank,” the editorial said, the Times of Israel reported.

Also in the Lebanese media, the country’s Al-Mayadeen TV broadcast an interview with Hanin Zoabi, an Arab Knesset member from the Balad party, in which she said Arab Knesset members are part of the “Palestinian national project” and not Israeli politics.

“I don’t consider myself just a member of Knesset,” she said, according to the Times of Israel. “We are part of the national project. We don’t rely on any Israeli government to recognize our rights.”

Last month, the Supreme Court overturned a Knesset decision that sought to bar Zoabi, on the basis of her alleged support for Hamas, from participating in the elections.

At UCLA, the power of negative emotions


For several years now, a nasty anti-Israel group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has bludgeoned Israel’s image on college campuses. They take no prisoners. They have little interest in polite and civil debate. They are lethal at manipulating the college bureaucracy to win Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) votes against Israel. They invite speakers linked to terrorists groups. They don’t even hide the fact that their beef with Israel goes much deeper than Israel’s disputed occupation of the West Bank.

It’s all of Israel they have a problem with.

When SJP talks about justice for Palestinians, they don’t mean justice for the millions of Palestinians living in misery in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. They’re only interested in Palestinians that are connected to Israel– those living in the West Bank and Gaza—because only those Palestinians can accommodate SJP’s agenda to bash the Zionist enemy. Their contempt for Israel knows no bound. I challenge anyone to visit their Web sites, attend their demonstrations or read their literature and find one genuine gesture of recognition for Israel’s side of the story.

Meanwhile, if you’re a typical Jewish student on campus who hangs out at Hillel and loves Israel, you’re encouraged to be respectful in how you defend and support the Jewish state. You’re encouraged to stay civil, understand the other side, and recognize Israel’s faults. You’re encouraged to try to build bridges and find opportunities to engage in respectful debate.

The net result is an often pathetic spectacle of haters versus debaters. On one side you have a contemptuous group of hypocrites pretending to defend Palestinians while single-mindedly undermining the Jewish state, while on the other you have a group of disillusioned Jewish students dizzy and battered by an enemy that has no interest in civil debate.

It’s not a fair fight. One side embodies the unfettered release of negative emotions, while the other constantly tries to contain its own negative emotions. SJP is the human volcano spewing its vile anti-Israel lava on pro-Israel Jews who don’t know what hit them.

SJP is the human volcano spewing its vile anti-Israel lava on pro-Israel Jews who don’t know what hit them

This imbalance is so ingrained that when a pro-Israel group tries to spew lava of its own, the mainstream Jewish groups immediately disassociate themselves from the “radicals” and even apologize for them.

Last week’s poster brouhaha at UCLA is a perfect example of this phenomenon. David Horowitz’s Freedom Center decided to take the gloves off and launch a poster campaign accusing SJP of being a hate group. The posters showed images of terrorist acts from groups like Hamas that SJP rarely, if ever, condemns. By blowing up the word “Justice” in the headline “Students for Justice in Palestine,” the poster tried to convey hypocrisy, while including the accusatory hashtag #Jewhaters.

Now, you can argue that the posters went too far and were too graphic. Mainstream pro-Israel groups were strongly opposed and even offered to take them down. Personally, I would have added a couple of questions to the posters, such as: “Why won’t SJP condemn Hamas?” and “Why do they invite terrorists to speak?”

In any event, regardless of what you think of the posters, SJP got a dose of its own medicine.

How do we explain this explosion of negative emotion from the pro-Israel side? And does it have any redeeming value?

A fascinating essay by Mathew Hutson in this month’s Psychology Today, titled, “The Upside of Negative Emotions,” suggests that the pro-Israel camp shouldn’t be too hard on itself for the anti-SJP posters.

“We have the wrong idea about emotions,” Hutson writes. “They’re very rational; they’re means to help us achieve goals important to us, tools carved by eons of human experience that work beyond conscious awareness to direct us where we need to go.”

Even an emotion as explosive as anger can be productive. “Anger motivates an individual to take action,” writes Hutson. “Anger boosts confidence, optimism and risk-taking, necessary when the alternative is losing something important to you. Anger has reputational value, too: it signals to others that you have strength of resources and resolve. In fact, those who display anger are seen as higher in status, more competent, and more credible.”

I’m not suggesting that all pro-Israel students should start getting angry. What I’m suggesting is that when a pro-Israel group decides to display its anger, even if that display makes many people squirm, let’s give them a little space. They’re playing their own instrument, and who’s to say there’s no proper role for that instrument? After all, you can’t bring a ping-pong racket to a knife fight and hope to make any progress.

And while we're at it, here's a new instrument that is just begging to be played on college campuses and that would surely drive SJP nuts– a new organization called Students for Justice in the Middle East. This is an activist group that would fight for justice for all the oppressed peoples of the Middle East, not just those in the West Bank and Gaza. It would target dictators and oppressors who make Israel look like Cinderella. And it would drive SJP nuts because it would expand the debate beyond Israel.

How did I think of the idea? I got angry.


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

Two soldiers dead, seven wounded as Hezbollah hits Israeli tank


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RISING THREAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Gaza, Palestinian militant groups praised Hezbollah.

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

Regional analysts said they did not expect events to spiral.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli selfie from Miss Universe contest causes stir in Lebanon


A Israeli beauty queen's selfie has caused a stir in Lebanon, with some Lebanese saying their country's contestant at the Miss Universe pageant should be stripped of her title for consorting with the enemy.

Miss Israel Doron Matalon posted a photo of herself and Miss Lebanon Saly Greige smiling together at pageant preparations in Miami, where the winner will be picked on January 25.

The two countries are technically at war, although the border has been largely quiet since their 2006 conflict. The Lebanese risk prison if they call or travel to Israel and all Israeli products are banned in Lebanon.

Some Lebanese have demanded on social media that Greige lose her title for contacts with a citizen of the enemy state.

Greige defended herself on the photo-sharing service Instagram on Saturday, saying Matalon had pestered her for a picture together and finally photobombed her.

“Since the first day of my arrival to participate to Miss Universe, I was very cautious to avoid being in any photo or communication with Miss Israel, who tried several times to take a photo with me,” Greige said.

“I was having a photo with Miss Japan, Miss Slovenia, suddenly Miss Israel jumped in and took a selfie, and uploaded it on her social media.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli nationalist leader in spotlight over 1996 Lebanon attack


Naftali Bennett, leader of an ultra-nationalist Israeli party and a potential future defense minister, is in the spotlight over his indirect role in an army shelling attack that killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians nearly two decades ago.

Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is in Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition and is expected to perform well in elections in March, was a junior commando officer during Israel's 1996 Lebanon offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas.

After his troops were pinned down, an artillery strike was called in to help cover their retreat near the village of Kafr Qana, killing 102 locals who were sheltering at a U.N. facility. International outrage prompted Israel to curtail the operation.

Two unsourced Israeli media reports over the past week have questioned Bennett's soldiering. One said he had undertaken risky maneuvers without authorization from commanders he deemed “cowardly and not steadfast enough”. The other suggested his “hysterical” distress calls precipitated the errant shelling.

Invoked now, months after the war in Gaza, which was condemned abroad but which Bennett said should have been more aggressive, the episode has tapped into pre-election debate on national security and diplomacy.

Bennett, a former tech entrepreneur who urges Israelis to “stop saying sorry” for their country's policies, has denied any wrongdoing at Kafr Qana. In a speech on Tuesday, he reiterated his vociferous defense of Israeli soldiers facing investigation over the latest Gaza war.

“Attack me as much as you want,” said Bennett, the economy minister. He said of critics: “They were never in the battlefield and are unworthy of the sacrifice these warriors make for them.”

Bennett's conduct at Kafr Qana drew surprising endorsement from the liberal newspaper Haaretz, which said its investigation had found that the young officer had “functioned excellently”.

But Haaretz argued Bennett may lack sufficient experience to serve as defense minister, a post some Israeli analysts predict Netanyahu will offer him if re-elected.

Such an appointment would anger Palestinians, whose goal of statehood in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is rejected by Bennett, and likely deepen U.S. concerns about stalled peacemaking.

David Zonsheine, Bennett's former deputy in the army and now chairman of the board of B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, said: “I find it unbelievable that, instead of dealing with the bad things Naftali is bringing on Israel, some left-wing journalists, with a badly reported story, have compelled someone like me to come to his defense and confirm that he was a good officer.”

Israel moots security cooperation with Lebanese military


Israel's military said on Wednesday it was exploring the possibility of cooperating with the Lebanese army to counter Sunni Islamist militants, even though the two countries remain technically at war.

Any public coordination was almost certain to be rejected in Beirut, where dealing with neighboring Israel is considered a crime.

But a senior Israeli military officer noted that the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State jihadis in Iraq and Syria had brought together disparate forces, and said Israel might similarly expand on its current security ties with Egypt, Jordan and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

“If you all have a common enemy, it should be very easy to find common opportunities to try to fight it,” the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told foreign reporters in a briefing.

“And I am looking and asking myself: Will the Lebanese Armed Forces play a positive or negative role?”

Asked if he was suggesting there could be cooperation, perhaps mediated, with Lebanon's armed forces, he said “Yes”.

He declined to spell out whether contacts were under way, however: “I can't be too specific about that. I have to be very cautious about it, so I won't say any more than that.”

Lebanon has been battling Syrian Sunni radicals in areas adjacent to its border with Syria.

But the Iranian-backed armed Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which is more powerful than the army and fought a war with Israel as recently as 2006, could be a major obstacle to any cooperation.

Hezbollah is helping President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. It says this has helped to keep the Sunni jihadists who make up a large part of the anti-Assad rebellion at bay, but critics say it has stoked sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

At the same time as advocating cooperation with the Lebanese army, the Israeli officer voiced concern that advanced European weaponry destined for Beirut under a $3 billion Saudi aid package announced last month might “proliferate” to non-state forces.

Syria calls for U.N. sanctions on Israel over air strikes


Syria asked the United Nations Security Council on Monday to impose sanctions on neighboring Israel, a day after accusing the Jewish state of bombing areas near Damascus international airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the three-year conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their long-time foe Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chad, Security Council president for December, Syria said that “such aggressions will not stop it from fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestation across the entire territory of Syria.”

“At the same time, the Syrian Arab Republic calls on the international community and the Security Council to shoulder their responsibility and forcefully condemn this brutal attack and to cease covering it up under any pretext,” the letter read.

“Syria also calls for the imposition of stern sanctions against Israel … and requests that all measures prescribed under the Charter of the United Nations should be taken to prevent Israel from again committing such aggressions,” it said.

Israel has avoided taking sides in Syria's civil war and does not publicly confirm bombing missions, a policy it sees as aimed at avoiding provoking reprisals.

Syria also accused Israel of carrying out the air strikes to “cover up internal Israeli divisions and draw attention away from the collapse of the Israeli coalition Government and Israel's extreme policies, particularly its continued occupation of Arab territory.”

A U.S.-led coalition is also bombing in Syria to target the Islamic State militant group, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest foes.

Syria's war started with a pro-democracy movement which grew into an armed uprising and has inflamed regional confrontations. Some 200,000 people have died, the United Nations said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Hezbollah says border attack was message to Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hezbollah bomb wounds two Israeli soldiers, Israel shells south Lebanon


Lebanese Hezbollah fighters detonated a bomb on Lebanon's border with Israel on Tuesday, wounding two Israeli soldiers and drawing artillery fire in response.

The incident in the Shebaa hills area marked the first time that Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Israeli army since 2006, when the two sides fought a 33-day war

The Israeli army said in a statement that two soldiers were wounded in the attack. Initial reports indicated they had been deliberately targeted, it said.

Hezbollah said its fighters detonated the bomb.

Israeli artillery responded with barrages and Lebanese witnesses said about 30 shells fell in the vicinity of the attack.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 49 mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that the soldiers had prevented an attack, but he did not elaborate.

“We have demonstrated that we respond with force to any attempt to harm us, whether it is in the south, the north or any other sector,” he said.

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

Israel is on alert for any spillover from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where Hezbollah forces are fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, and Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Editing by Luke Baker and Angus MacSwan

Israel’s anti-rocket hit ‘Iron Dome’ a slow sell abroad


Normally, an advanced new weapon system with a battle-proven success rate of 90 percent would have global defense procurement agencies on the phone in minutes. But Israel's Iron Dome rocket interceptor is yet to prove a hit with buyers abroad.

In terms of operational achievement, tested on the Gaza, Lebanese and Egyptian Sinai fronts, Iron Dome is unrivalled in the arms market. However its uniqueness – developed for a particular threat in a particular place – also limits its appeal to countries dealing with more conventional military adversaries.

And Israel further curbs its potential client pool by not selling to countries with which it has no diplomatic ties – ruling out Gulf Arabs who, given their standoff with Iran, are looking into missile defense.

“It is arguable that Iron Dome is tailored to deal with the specific Israeli challenge of combating short-range rocket and missile threats by non-state actors,” said Avnish Patel of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), who runs the British think-tank's annual ballistic missile defense conference.

So far the system – its effectiveness against Palestinian rocket fire demonstrated beyond doubt since 2011 – has been bought by just one foreign country. Its identity is being kept secret by both sides.

Iron Dome's manufacturer, state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., would have been content to keep it on home turf and avoid the risk of classified technology leaks, said Yosi Druker, vice president of the company.

But with exports a critical prop for Israel's embattled defense budget – the country sells abroad about 80 percent of the weaponry it develops, earning $6.5 billion a year – finding foreign customers for Iron Dome was seen as a natural next step.

“Rafael invested a great many millions of shekels in developing this system,” Druker, a senior member of the Iron Dome project, told Reuters. “It could not afford to have done this without selling abroad.”

MORTARS, NOT ROCKETS

Iron Dome was rushed through development after northern Israel was heavily shelled by Hezbollah guerillas in the 2006 Lebanon War.

The Israelis were banking on its export prospects from early on, says one person who was present when the system aced its first live trial, in 2009, and told Reuters that two officers from a foreign country that regularly buys Israeli defense products were among observers at the desert test range.

Another country closely involved with the project, the United States, provided a substantial outlay to enable Israel to deploy the system – more than $1 billion – but declined to buy it for its own forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Among the Pentagon's misgivings was the $100,000 price of Iron Dome radar-guided interceptor missiles and their perceived unsuitability for insurgents' low-trajectory mortars, said Riki Ellison, president of the U.S. Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

“The Iron Dome does not do mortar protection that close, and the cost of engagement is not applicable,” said Ellison.

Israelis are also mindful of the mortar threat, having lost 15 soldiers and civilians to such salvoes in the July-August Gaza war, while rockets from Gaza killed two people. Rafael is now developing Iron Beam, a system that would use lasers to incinerate mortar shells mid-air.

Yet Druker insists Iron Dome's anti-mortar capabilities are sound, but were underused in the recent war was because it was often deployed far from Gaza's border. The price of its interceptor missiles could be cut by eventual mass-production and joint manufacturing deals with U.S. firm Raytheon Co..

But the roughly $50 million price tag for an Iron Dome battery – radar, command room and two missile launchers – is unlikely to drop significantly.

“From the outset, we built this with an extreme view of design-to-cost. There wasn't one screw that we incorporated without first checking if there was a cheaper version available,” Druker said.

FUTURE CLIENTS?

Also on the roster of countries to which Israel will not offer Iron Dome are those whose military build-up is watched warily by Washington, Druker said – a likely allusion to China and Russia.

But Rafael does acknowledge promoting Iron Dome to South Korea and India. The former is menaced by North Korea and the latter is Israel's biggest defense client – a relationship expected to flourish under India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is especially friendly toward the Jewish state.

Neither Asian power has yet suggested it will buy.

“South Korea would need to spend heavily to buy numerous systems to deter the far more expansive threat of a state actor such as North Korea,” said RUSI's Patel, explaining Seoul's hesitation.

Meanwhile India is unlikely to want Iron Dome for its population centres, which are not threatened by rockets, says Jeremy Binnie, Middle East Editor for Jane's Defense Weekly. But it might be interested in localised protection for strategic sites, he adds.

“You have got that massive (Jamnagar) refinery on the west coast of India. I know the Israelis have already done a lot of security measures around that. It's massive. It's possible India might be interested in getting a few (Iron Dome) batteries to defend targets such as these,” Binnie said.

In a nod to a coastal defense role, Druker said Iron Dome “can defeat anything fired from the sea and which might endanger energy platforms”.

Despite initial concerns about technology leaks, Rafael says Israeli national security would not be impaired if this were to happen. The Israeli military is using the fourth-generation model of Iron Dome, leaving Rafael the option of selling only earlier versions abroad and protecting those deployed at home.

“Any interceptor missile that falls in Gaza might potentially find its way to the best Iranian labs. You live with it,” Druker said.

Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi; Editing by Sophie Walker

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

Despite Syria rift, Hezbollah pledges full support to Hamas


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organizations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah's stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi'ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel's military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighboring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi'ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

“We call for all differences and sensitivities on other issues to be put to one side,” Nasrallah said in reference to the rift over Syria. “Gaza is above all considerations”

His speeches are usually delivered via video-link from an undisclosed location, but in a sign of confidence the Hezbollah leader spoke on Friday for an hour in front of hundreds of supporters at Hezbollah's Martyr's Compound in the south of the Lebanese capital.

“We say to our brothers in Gaza: We are with you, by your side, trusting in your strength and your victory. We will do all that we believe to be our duty, on all fronts,” he said.

Nasrallah did not specify what support would be given, but he pointedly said that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in the past had supplied “all factions of the Palestinian resistance, financially, materially, politically…with weapons, logistical help and training.”

Rocket launched from Lebanon strikes northern Israel, army says


At least one rocket fired from Lebanon slammed into northern Israel on Monday, the Israeli military said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attack. It was the fourth time rockets have been fired from Lebanon since the start of a week-old Israeli offensive against Palestinian militants firing rockets at Israel from Gaza.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Israel returns fire after rockets are fired from Lebanon


Rockets were fired at northern Israel from Lebanon on Friday and Israel's army responded with artillery fire, Lebanese and Israeli military authorities said.

Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group that battled Israel seven years ago and is engaged in Syria's civil war in support of President Bashar al-Assad, but there are also Palestinian groups in the same area. In the past, militants linked to al Qaeda have claimed such attacks.

The rockets were fired from the Marjayoun – Hasbaya area towards “occupied Palestinian territories,” a statement from Lebanon's army said, referring to Israel. The projectiles were launched in the hours before dawn.

Lebanese security forces arrested a man suspected of firing the rockets, the national news agency said later in the day. He was Lebanese and a member of “fundamentalist groups”, the report said, without naming the groups.

It said he had admitted he had been accompanied by two Palestinians who were also members of these groups, and security forces were still searching for the pair.

The army said it had discovered two missile platforms with more rockets ready for launch after searching the area, and had dismantled them.

RETALIATION

An Israeli military spokeswoman said a lone rocket launched from either Lebanon or Syria landed in Israel's far north, ending up in an open area near a farming community close to the border with Lebanon. The army responded with artillery fire, she said.

There were five rockets fired in total from southern Lebanon, Lebanese security sources said. Two entered Israel, one fell into Lebanese territory and two more were intercepted.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that Israel responded with artillery fire. Israel shot back around 25 shells, the Lebanese army said, and there were no reports of casualties.

Israeli chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Motti Almoz said a rocket fell near Kibbutz Kfar Yuval and that the military was checking for more details on the source of the firing. There were no casualties or damage.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have launched hundreds of rockets into Israel since the start of an Israeli offensive four days ago, but Kfar Yuval is almost certainly out of range of those rockets.

At least 82 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the offensive, which Israel says it launched to end persistent rocket attacks on civilians. Some rockets have reached Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities.

In December, rockets launched from Lebanon struck northern Israel, provoking a response across a border that had been largely quiet since a war in 2006. In August, Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, an organisation linked to al Qaeda, claimed a rocket barrage from Lebanon.

Editing by Andrew Roche