Released Hezbollah prisoners marching in a parade in their honor in Beirut, 2008. Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty

2 US men charged with finding Israeli and American targets for Hezbollah


Two men living in the U.S. have been charged for working for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

A release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan on Thursday said Ali Kourani, 32, and Samer El Debek, 37, were arrested on June 1 for providing material support to and receiving military training from the Lebanese militia, which is designated by the United States as a terrorist group.

Kourani, the release said, identified possible weapons suppliers in the United States and obtained military training in Lebanon. He also identified Israeli army personnel in the United States and surveilled U.S. airports, military bases and police stations, it said.

El Debek was also charged with being trained by Hezbollah. In 2011, the release said, El Debek traveled to Panama where his assignment included “locating the U.S. and Israeli Embassies, casing security procedures at the Panama Canal and the Israeli Embassy, and locating hardware stores where explosive precursors could be purchased.”

A year later, El Debek returned to Panama allegedly to identify “areas of weakness and construction at the Panama Canal, as well as provide information about how close someone could get to a ship passing through the Canal.”

Each man was charged with an array of crimes, which could bring sentences of between five and 20 years each.

Kourani was arrested in the Bronx and El Debek was arrested in Livonia, Michigan. Each was subsequently charged in federal court in Manhattan.

Gal Gadot in the 2017 film “Wonder Woman.” Photo by Clay Enos/DC Comics

Lebanon calls for ban of ‘Wonder Woman’ film because lead actress Gal Gadot is Israeli


Lebanon’s Economy Ministry has filed a request to ban the upcoming film “Wonder Woman” because its star, Gal Gadot, is an actress and model from Israel.

A Lebanese security official told CBS News on Tuesday that the required committee of six Lebanese ministries has yet to take up the request.

At least one advance screening of the film is scheduled for Wednesday in Beirut, according to CBS.

Lebanon is officially at war with Israel and bans Israeli products. Lebanese citizens are not allowed to travel or have contact with Israeli citizens.

The film is still scheduled to be released in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait on Thursday. It will be released June 22 in Oman and June 29 in Bahrain.

Gadot, 32, does not shy away from touting her Israeli heritage. She praised the Israeli military in a widely shared Facebook post during the 2014 Gaza War.

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.

Hezbollah created Palestinian terror cells on Facebook, Israel says after bust


Israeli security services in the past few months broke up two Palestinian terror cells formed on Facebook by Hezbollah, according to officials.

Nine suspected cell members were arrested earlier this summer, but information about the case was kept under court-ordered gag order until Tuesday.

Working out of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, operatives for the Lebanon-based terrorist group recruited residents of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel through Facebook and other social media sites, the Shin Bet security service said.

“The Hezbollah organization has recently made it a priority to try to spark terror acts, doing so from far away, while attempting to not clearly expressing its involvement,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.

The West Bank terror cells, which received Hezbollah funding, planned to conduct suicide bombings and ambush Israeli army patrols in the West Bank, according to the Shin Bet. They had begun preparing explosive devices for attacks, said the security service, which claimed credit for thwarting attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank and Israel.

After recruiting ringleaders on Facebook, Hezbollah and the recruits switched to encrypted communications to avoid detection, and the ringleaders went on to recruit other members, according to the Shin Bet.

The Shin Bet said it also detected multiple attempts by Hezbollah to recruit Israeli Arabs through a Facebook profile that featured anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian posts.

In response to the Shin Bet’s announcement, Israel’s United Nations ambassador, Danny Danon, called on the body to formally recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

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.”

Hezbollah is broke thanks to US sanctions, says White House official


Non-nuclear U.S. sanctions against Iran and its allies have led to Hezbollah being in “its worst financial shape in decades,” the top sanctions enforcement official told Congress.

“After many years of sanctions targeting Hezbollah, today the group is in its worst financial shape in decades,” Adam Szubin, the acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence told the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “And I can assure you that, alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them out of business.”

Szubin described sanctions introduced in recent months to further isolate Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that in 2006 fought a war against Israel and that Israeli intelligence believes has tens of thousands of missiles in place for the next war.

The House committee asked Szubin and two other top officials handling the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal to testify. Congressional Republicans and a number of Democrats have expressed concerns about reports that the U.S. is going out of its way to accommodate Iran in the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.

Stephen Mull, the top U.S. official charged with implementing the deal, acknowledged that the United States was making it clear to third parties that some sanctions are no longer in place.

“In an effort to provide greater clarity to the public and private sectors on what sanctions were lifted and what non-nuclear sanctions remain in place, the Departments of State and Treasury have been participating in extensive outreach with the public and private sectors, mostly at the request of other governments, in order to explain U.S. commitments,” he said.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, lacerated the sanctions officials for what he said was “the length the Obama administration has gone to accommodate Iran.”

“The administration told us that sanctions on Iran’s terrorism, human rights and ballistic missiles would be fully enforced after the agreement,” he said. “Yet, it now says that non-nuclear sanctions would undermine the Iran agreement. The White House’s Iran policy amounts to walking on eggshells.”

Szubin rejected the claim. “We have not lifted any of our sanctions designed to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities outside the nuclear file,” he said. “These sanctions are not just words on paper. We are vigorously enforcing them.”

Szubin also rejected reports that the Obama administration is contemplating implementing a system to allow Iran to trade in dollars. He outlined a number of areas where the United States is blocking Iranian non-nuclear activities that are otherwise subject to sanction, including its backing for Hezbollah, Iran’s chief proxy in the civil war in Syria.

Thomas Countryman, an assistant secretary of state, revealed that the U.S. assisted Israel in intercepting a Panamanian flagged vessel in the Red Sea that was bearing Iranian weapons. Previous reports on the March 2014 interception by the Israel Defense Forces did not mention U.S. involvement.

Countryman also discounted claims that the U.S. was not doing enough to keep Iran from testing ballistic missiles.

“Our policy on Iran’s ballistic missile program has not changed – Iran must cease this work, including ballistic missile launches,” he said.

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.

Aid convoy reaches starving Syrian town of Madaya


An aid convoy entered a besieged Syrian town on Monday where thousands have been trapped without supplies for months and people are reported to have died of starvation.

Trucks carrying food and medical supplies reached Madaya near the Lebanese border and began to distribute aid as part of an agreement between warring sides, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

“Offloading of aid expected to last throughout night,” ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek tweeted.

Dozens are said to have died in the town from starvation or a lack of medical care and activists say some inhabitants have been reduced to eating leaves. Images said to be of emaciated residents have appeared widely on social media.

At the same time, another convoy began entering two Shi'ite villages, al Foua and Kefraya in the northwestern province of Idlib 300 km (200 miles) away. Rebel fighters in military fatigues and with scarves covering their faces inspected the aid vehicles in the rain before they entered.

Madaya is besieged by pro-Syrian government forces, while the two villages in Idlib province are encircled by rebels fighting the Syrian government.

A Damascus-based U.N. official who entered Madaya and oversaw the entry of the convoy of 44 trucks gave an eyewitness account of the plight of people in the rebel-held town of around 40,000 people.

“We have seen with our own eyes severely malnourished children … so there is starvation, and I am sure the same is true on the other side in Foua and Kefraya,” Yacoub El Hillo, U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, told Reuters by phone from Madaya.

Women cried out with relief as the first four trucks, carrying the banner of the Syrian Red Crescent crossed into Madaya after sunset, with civilians waiting on the outskirts of the town as the temperature dropped and it began to get dark.

The full aid operation was expected to last several days, the ICRC said.

Images said to be from Madaya and showing skeletal men with protruding ribcages were published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war, while an emaciated baby in a nappy with bulging eyes was shown in other posts.

Dr Mohammed Yousef, who heads a local medical team, said 67 people had died either of starvation or lack of medical aid in the last two months, mostly women, children and the elderly.

“Look at the grotesque starve-or-surrender tactics the Syrian regime is using right now against its own people. Look at the haunting pictures of civilians, including children – even babies – in Madaya, Syria,” Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said on Monday.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people being deliberately besieged, deliberately starved, right now. And these images, they remind us of World War Two; they shock the conscience. This is what this institution was designed to prevent.”

The United Nations said last Thursday the Syrian government had agreed to allow access to the town. The world body is planning to convene peace talks on Jan. 25 in Geneva in an effort to end nearly five years of civil war that have killed more than a quarter of a million people.

But Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab accused Russia of killing dozens of children in a bombing raid on Monday and said such action meant the opposition could not negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad's government. 

There was no immediate comment from Russia, which denies any targeting of civilians in the conflict.

WATER AND SALT

Madaya residents on the outskirts of the town said they wanted to leave. There was widespread hunger and prices of basic foods such as rice had soared, with some people living off water and salt, they said.

One opposition activist has said people were eating leaves and plants. 

The blockade of Madaya has become a focal issue for Syrian opposition leaders, who told a U.N. envoy last week they would not take part in the proposed talks with the government until it and other sieges were lifted. 

The siege began six months ago when the Syrian army and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, started a campaign to reestablish Assad's control over areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Hezbollah responded to accusations it was starving people in Madaya by denying there had been any deaths in the town, and accusing rebel leaders of preventing people from leaving.

SIEGE WARFARE

Blockades have been a common feature of the civil war. Government forces have besieged rebel-held areas near Damascus for several years and more recently rebel groups have blockaded loyalist areas including al Foua and Kefraya.

Aid agencies welcomed Monday's deliveries but called for regular access to besieged areas.

“Only a complete end to the six-month old siege and guarantees for sustained aid deliveries alongside humanitarian services will alleviate the crisis in these areas,” a joint statement from several international agencies said.

The areas included in the latest agreement were all part of a local ceasefire deal agreed in September, but implementation has been difficult, with some fighting around Madaya despite the truce. 

Each side is looking to exert pressure on the other by restricting entry of humanitarian aid, or evacuations, in their areas of control, the Observatory says.

The last aid delivery to Madaya, which took place in October, was synchronized with a similar delivery to the two other villages.

Aid agencies have warned of widespread starvation in Madaya, where 40,000 people are at risk.

Hezbollah has said rebels in the town had taken control of aid, which they were selling to those who could buy. The people of Madaya were being exploited in a propaganda campaign, it said.

Syria's National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar said on Sunday that rebels had “disrupted” the entry of food supplies.

“They wanted to escalate it as a humanitarian issue ahead of the Geneva talks,” he told Al Manar TV.

A U.N. commission of inquiry has said siege warfare has been used “in a ruthlessly coordinated and planned manner” in Syria, with the aim of “forcing a population, collectively, to surrender or suffer starvation.”

One siege is by the Islamic State group, on government-held areas of the city of Deir al-Zor.

A U.N. Security Council on Dec. 18 set out a road map for peace talks calls on the parties to allow aid agencies unhindered access throughout Syria, particularly in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

A newly formed opposition council set up to oversee negotiations has told U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura that this must happen before the talks he plans to hold on Jan. 25.

They also told him that before negotiations, Assad's government, which has military support from Russia and Iran, must halt the bombardment of civilian areas and barrel bombing, and release detainees in line with the resolution.

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.

Beginners (Or “Famous In Lebanon”)


The last time I saw my first agent, he called me into his office to film a reality television pilot for the E! Network.  To protect the individuals involved, we’ll refer to this agent by the completely fictitious name, Hal Gazzar.

Hal called me on a sunny morning, telling me to come to his office the following day to film a pilot episode for E! about actors and agents in the entertainment industry – a new reality series that would give the audience another glimpse into The Business.

Being a young, naïve actor just starting out, I was thrilled to be called to perform in a new reality show that would air on a cable network I’d actually heard of.  I showed up at Hal’s office the next day, ready to be my regular charming self in front of the camera.  Who knew where this opportunity could take me?

A quick word about Hal’s office: He rented a small suite in Studio City, a small two-room operation.  He had an assistant when I first met him, but she left his agency soon after, so there was never anyone at the front desk to let me in.  The front room also had a connecting door to a neighboring suite.  That door was always locked because there was a separate business operating out of that suite and they had nothing to do with Mr. Gazzar.  But – and perhaps this spoke volumes about my first agent – Hal had put a plaque next to this eternally locked door that read, ‘Employees Only,’ as if his office had additional rooms, to appear larger.  But not even Hal could pass through his ‘employee’ door to the realms beyond.

Anyway.

I arrived for the E! TV pilot and Hal quickly showed me the ropes.  “I want you to stand here next to this poster and talk about how I’ve helped your career,” he said, using the term ‘career’ generously for me.  I began:

“When I first joined [the name of Hal’s one-man talent agency], I was sent out for an audition– ”

“Hold on,” he stopped me.  “Let’s try that again, except this time just mention me by name.  You can’t say the name of the agency.”

I was slightly skeptical that this job was going to be a surreptitious promo for Hal’s agency, but I desperately wanted it to be a legitimate TV gig.  When he said I couldn’t even mention his agency by name, I became despondently certain that this was not a real TV project. 

Next, we sat in his office and had a genial conversation in front of the camera.  Hal asked me, “How’s your tutoring going?”  I was surprised that he remembered my day job and said as much.  “Of course I remember,” he replied.  “You’re my favorite client.”

“Really?” I asked, equally surprised.  I assumed that if I were his favorite client, he would send me out on auditions.  Hal seemed faintly hurt by my disbelief.  I quickly apologized, he smiled wolfishly, and we moved on.

“Oh, by the way,” he said casually, “Did Sylvia call you about your Showtime audition?”

“What!?”  I said, more shocked than before.  I couldn’t believe he had actually arranged an audition for me with such a premier network.

“No, I had no idea,” I continued.  “I have an audition for Showtime?  I can’t believe it.”

“Yeah,” he grinned.  “You better believe it.  I always deliver for my clients.  Big things are happening for you, my friend.”

I was thrilled.  The only problem was: I’d never heard of Sylvia before.  Did Hal get a new assistant that I didn’t know about?  The reception area was still empty.

After the cameras stopped rolling, I turned to him and said, “Did I really get a Showtime audition?  Nobody told me.”

“No,” he laughed.  “I just made that up.”

And I never saw him again.

 *** 

When I first moved to Los Angeles, someone suggested that I buy this monthly publication that listed talent agencies currently looking for new clients, along with their contact information.  Since this was the first piece of concrete advice anyone had given me, I went and purchased the agency listing.

I sent out a number of blind submissions, saying, “Hi!  My name’s Yaki.  I’m an actor.  You should represent me, etc.”  The submissions were worded a little better than that, but I didn’t have any prominent credits to my name, so I just sent out the cover letter, some mediocre headshots, and an anemic resume.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear back from anyone.  Except for Hal Gazzar.  All of the other agencies couldn’t care less about someone sending them unsolicited submissions.  But Hal called me in for a meeting, determined to discover the next big star among the anonymous masses.  I dressed in my Sunday best (or Saturday best – I was coming from my teaching job at a synagogue, right after services) and went to his office.  They taped me doing a Welch’s grape juice commercial and talked to me for a little while.

Within a few days, I received an email telling me that Hal wanted to represent me!  I danced over to his office and signed some papers.  He said, “I’ll start you off with a standard one-year contract.  And if the year goes well, I can have you re-sign with like… a ten-year contract.”

Even in my ignorance, I knew that a ten-year contract was too long.  This was the first of a number of red flags Hal would wave, revealing shady dealings and unfortunate ineptitudes.  He was also a soap-opera actor with an agent of his own, which, according to the California guidelines for talent agencies, was illegal.  Hal’s agency would be shut down within the year.  But I didn’t know any of this at the time.

“You’ve just got that ‘it’ quality,” he said.  “Everything you say resounds with it.”

I was momentarily on cloud nine.  Within a month of moving to LA, I had already signed with an agent!  And one that would represent me for both commercials and theatrical jobs, like film and television, which, according to those I talked to, was apparently a hard rep to acquire.  But somehow I had done it!  I immediately began to practice fitting the words, “my agent,” into every-day sentences.

 ***

A week or so later, I received notice of my first audition, for a Lipton Tea commercial.  I couldn’t believe how quickly the gears were turning.  My audition was in Santa Monica, so I left early and gave myself plenty of time to drive through rush-hour traffic.  For those of you unfamiliar with LA traffic, rush hour is from 6:00 to 10:00am, with lunch rush hour from 11:00am to 2:00pm and after work rush hour from 3:00 to 8:00pm, except on Fridays, when it starts at two.

So it’s pretty much always rush hour.

I arrived in Santa Monica and parked in one of the giant parking structures near the Third Street Promenade, walking seven blocks to the casting office because I get anxious about finding street parking.

I was also suffering a bladder infection at the time (is this too much information?), so first I had to sit in my parked car and shake my body until it didn’t feel like I was going to piss myself anymore.  Then I got out, speed-walked to the casting facility, and discovered they didn’t have a restroom.

Agitated, I sat in the waiting room, looking over the casting notes.  There was no dialogue (most of my commercial auditions involved little to no dialogue – just a lot of looking past the camera, then turning my head, then doing it again, but, according to the casting director, “more subtly” this time), so I was expected to just pantomime stuff.

I also noticed a sign on the casting board that read, “This job will be filmed in Morocco or Lebanon, so please let us know if you don’t have an up-to-date passport.”  My first thought was, “An international shoot.  That’s pretty cool.”  My second thought was, “I don’t want to do that.”  I’m an apprehensive traveler in foreign countries.

Oh well.  This was my first audition ever.  “Don’t worry,” I told myself.  “Odds are so small that you will successfully book a job on your first audition.  You won’t get the job, so you won’t have to go to Lebanon or North Africa.”  With this confident certainty of failure, I stepped into the audition.

I walked in with another young guy and was directed to look at different spots around the room, pretending to see things that would be added later with special effects in the finished commercial.  For sixty seconds or so, while trying not to hold my crotch or pee in my pants, I looked from corner to corner of the room, imagining I was seeing fountains exploding and people flying through the air.  I felt sick and jittery.  I could only assume my reactions to these imagined events appeared feeble and half-hearted.

I left, found a bathroom in the Santa Monica Mall and had a celebratory pee.

*** 

A week later, I went home to Seattle for Thanksgiving.  This was my first trip back since moving to LA, just seven weeks earlier, and the day after I flew into Seattle there was a massive snowstorm that shut down the airport.  I was thankful I had arrived home just in the nick of time.

The next day, while walking around a grocery store with my mom and brother, I received a call from Hal.  He told me that the producers and director of the Lipton Tea project were very interested in me, requesting that I attend a callback audition.

I told him that I was incredibly sorry to have ruined this opportunity, but that I was in Seattle and there was a big snow storm shutting down all out-going flights, so there was no way I’d be able to come back to Los Angeles for the callback.  I reminded Hal that I had already ‘booked out’ (given him the dates when I would be out of town) before he even sent me out on the first audition, so if he knew that I was going to be indisposed during any point in the auditioning process for this commercial, then he shouldn’t have sent me out at all.  But I was a new actor and didn’t know how standard auditioning procedure worked, and Hal was a new agent, so I guess he didn’t know either.

“Well, maybe I can get the casting director to agree to a Skype callback with you,” he said to me.  “You can have a live video audition through the computer.”

“Yeah!” I exclaimed.  “If they’d agree to that, that would be wonderful.”

Hal said he would find out and call me right back.

Five days past, in which I didn’t hear from him, or anyone.  I assumed that I had botched the whole thing.  Still, I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family and some of our friends, and I told them all about how I had an agent and went to my first audition, for a Lipton Tea commercial shooting over seas.

“It’s probably best that I didn’t get the job,” I told my parents’ friends.  “Maybe if it was shooting in Europe or Asia or somewhere that didn’t dislike Jews, it would have been cool.  But if I had to go to Lebanon or wherever, I would just have a panic attack.  And I prefer traveling with people I know.”

“It would have been something if you had gotten the job, though,” one lady said.  “I wouldn’t have written off an opportunity like that.”

My last day in Seattle, the Thanksgiving leftovers long since devoured, I received a phone call in the morning.  It was from the Lipton Tea casting director.

“So…” she said very informally.  “You got the job.”

 *** 

I flew back to Los Angeles, arriving at night, and left the next morning for Beirut, Lebanon.  I didn’t have enough time to get a new passport, and was slightly concerned due to the number of Israeli stamps in my passport.  At least at the time, Lebanon didn’t allow its citizens to travel to Israel, even though the two countries shared a border.  I still don’t know if this was a joke, but the film crew said that they had to first alert the Lebanese government that a Jew was entering the country, in order to get clearance.

I called Hal right before I left, asking him what contingency plan there might be if I got into any trouble.  He said not to worry – the Screen Actors Guild would protect me.  Not only does SAG not have any branches, or influence, in Lebanon, but the Lipton shoot was not even a SAG project.  They literally had nothing to do with this.

I showed up at LAX early the next morning and met my co-star, a nice guy, one year older than me, whom we’ll call Dave.  He wasn’t Jewish, had never been to Israel, was just excited to be filming a commercial.  We chatted for a while and I tried not to worry.

As the Lebanese crewmembers told me later, their government, while primarily Christian, was apparently a puppet administration mostly controlled by the Muslim terrorist group, Hezbollah (an organization I was made aware of from news reports and from once having been in Nazareth Illit during one of their missile strikes on Israel).

According to the crewmembers (note: I haven’t closely researched their claims), the government only collected taxes from the 40% of the Lebanese population that was Christian.  Supposedly the other 60% – the Islamic segment – didn’t pay taxes, apparently even threatening to kill tax collectors, because they only answered to Hezbollah.  If the crew’s descriptions were accurate, this was why the country suffered rolling black-outs every day – the country was low on funds and cut costs by shutting down power in different sectors on a rotating schedule. 

After thirty-six hours in the air, I arrived bleary-eyed and exhausted in Beirut.  I can’t nap sitting up, so I usually get no sleep on international flights.  I was so worn out and afraid that the Lebanese officials would see my passport and immediately ship me thirty-six hours straight back to the States.  Or detain me.  Or worse.  Already a habitual worrier, my delirious, sleep-deprived imagination was really running wild now.

At customs, an official looked over my passport, saw the Israeli stamps and detained me.  My fellow actor, Dave, was waved right through.  He kindly waited for me on the other side as I was taken into a small office.

Despite it’s cramped proportions, about eleven officials packed into the small room with me, speaking in harried tones to each other in Arabic.  One bureaucrat took my passport and made photocopies of it, filing the duplicates away in separate folders.  I nervously stood in the center of the room, waiting for them to address me.

“Why are you coming to Lebanon?” one asked me in English.

I explained that I was working as an actor on a commercial being filmed in Beirut.

“Why were you in Israel so many times?”

“I like the Middle East in general,” I said.  “I’ve been to Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and now Lebanon.”  Hopefully.  “I don’t discriminate.  All the countries here are interesting.”

He looked me over again suspiciously and then asked me the best question anyone has ever asked me:  “Are you a Zionist spy?”

I smiled.  Despite everything, I wanted to respond with, “Yep, if you ask that question, then, as a spy, I have to answer it.  You got me!  Good job!”  Then I would hold up my wrists, compliant to receive handcuffs, and they would take me away, making Lebanon that much safer.

Instead I just sort of chuckled and said, “No.”

The official turned to confer with his cohorts in Arabic.  After a moment of deliberation, he turned back to me.  It seemed his questioning was over.  My simple ‘no’ had evidently convinced them that I was not in fact a Zionist spy.

Except for one more quick-witted test: He said he would know for sure and let me go through customs if I just said the words, “Fuck Israel.”

After a pause (since this entire interview was surprising and confusing to me), I sheepishly said, “Fuck Israel?”

“Yeah!” Everyone else in the room shouted gleefully.  “Fuck Israel!” They cried.

And I passed through customs.

*** 

A driver took Dave and me to the hotel where we would be staying in downtown Beirut.  We rode swiftly down fractured streets devoid of any lane markings or traffic lights.  The cars would swerve around each other at full speed, navigating the order of passing cars through the intersections without the use of stoplights.

We came to the downtown area, driving along a charming, narrow street, strung up with festive chains of lights and hanging flower arrangements.  Expensive stores and boutiques lined the block.  Interspersed among the appealing, modern buildings, in contrast, were completely bombed out structures, shells of concrete, recklessly standing like rotted teeth amid the healthy buildings, their insides gutted out.

We arrived at the hotel around three in the morning, which was some other time back on the West Coast.  I tried to check my email, couldn’t get onto the hotel’s Internet, and passed out on the fancy bed.  When I woke up, I ate a nice Lebanese breakfast in the ornate restaurant downstairs, and waited for the driver to arrive and pick us up.  When he showed up, we went up to Dave’s room and pounded on the door until he woke up.  Then we headed over to the production offices of the company shooting the Lipton commercial.

The first couple of days were devoted to wardrobe.  Considering we just wore pants and T-shirts, I wasn’t sure two full days was necessary, but what did I know?  I ended up really enjoying my time in wardrobe.  I suddenly felt like a famous actor or model, showcasing numerous outfits while provided with free lunch.  And fifteen pairs of pants and twenty-three shirts later, they selected my outfit.

Following that, we had two days of shooting on the Beirut Notre Dame University campus.  Why fly two American actors overseas, pay for their room and board, and then film them in a pretty American-looking setting?  I don’t know.  I’m not entirely sure why they didn’t just cast Lebanese actors; we didn’t actually say any lines.  Or Lipton could have kept us and done the commercial on any university campus in America.  Either way would have been considerably cheaper.  Oh well.

The first day of filming, I woke up at 5:30am, took a hot shower, ran down to the lobby to meet our driver at six, and then we hustled up to Dave’s room to wake him.  Our driver was probably twenty-one years old, constantly smoked in the car, and kept asking us to go with him to discos each night.  I wasn’t much of a party-animal to begin with, and being asked at six in the morning didn’t do much to improve my perspective.

When we arrived on set, just after sunrise, they served us one piece of fried dough stuffed with melted cheese for breakfast.  There was no snack table or other food on set, until three o’clock, when they brought us a sandwich for lunch.  As someone who is almost always hungry, I was starving by three in the afternoon.  I don’t remember what we did for dinner.

After we finished our cheesy fried bread, they took me to a partially enclosed basketball court for hair and makeup.  A short, stocky lady who spoke zero English put in product that made my hair very puffy and stick straight up, which embarrassed me at first, but actually made me look kind of cool, I realized later.  The casting director in L.A. relayed the message that I wasn’t to shave before the shoot, but the hair lady was apparently unhappy with the length of my facial hair.  She took a straight razor and, without the aid of creams or water, just started flicking the dry blade through my scruff, eyeballing it.  With my red cheeks burning from the quick shave, I hurried off to get dressed.  And then to my favorite part: the actual filming.

 *** 

The director had previously done some cool commercials and Super bowl TV spots, including one with Jerry Seinfeld and ‘Superman.’  He was a very nice Canadian fellow (to my experience, most of them are).  He coached me through a few takes, helped me loosen up a little bit and feel comfortable.  In the Lipton commercial, Dave and I held magical Lipton Tea cups that could control people’s movements.  It was awesome, and slightly maniacal.

I would roll my cup from side to side and fifty extras sitting on an expanse of lawn in front of me would roll back and forth on the grass in time with my cup.  I swung my cup through the air, levitating a soccer goal to the side to make the ball miss.  Dave spun his cup and a girl flew down some stairs, spinning like a ballerina (in a harness).  I squeezed my cup until the top popped off and a fountain exploded in front of me with geysers of water shooting high into the sky.

It was a wonderful experience.  They strapped an older man into another harness and we threw our cups around, making the man and his piano fly away from each other.  And ending the commercial on another devious note, Dave and I smacked our cups into each other and two professors on the quad crashed together, their notes and papers raining down on our devilishly grinning faces.  Drink tea.  It will let you control the world.

 *** 

There was a two-second scene where I had to stir a chai latte.  They started with some other guy stirring the cup (they were only filming his hands, so they didn’t need me).  But they weren’t happy with his stirring, for whatever reason, so they had his hand hold the cup while my hand stirred.  Eventually, because this looked slightly awkward and unnatural, they just had me hold the cup with one hand and stir with the other.  Clearly, I am very talented; I can multi-task.

After the scene, the director told me that the other guy holding the cup was an ancillary member of Hezbollah.  “It’s funny,” he said.  “A Jew and a member of Hezbollah working together to stir a cup of chai tea.”  I never knew when he was joking.

There were maybe sixty or more extras, Lebanese actors and students, working on the commercial.  They would be delighted if Dave or I talked to them.  They practiced their English and giggled at everything we said.  They thought I was a famous actor back in America, despite my assurance that I wasn’t, and they all asked to take pictures with me.  They later found me on Facebook and I noticed that they had all used these photos as their profile pictures.  This was also my first experience with cute girls who would immediately take a liking to you just because you’re a (relative) ‘big-shot’ on set.  That was exciting, too, even if it wasn’t wholly bona fide.

We filmed both days until about midnight.  I would be driven back to the hotel by one in the morning and, after turning down my driver’s invitations to “go disco,” I would toss and turn in bed, place a panicked call home to my parents on the West Coast, and sleep for an hour or two when my jetlag allowed it.  Then I would wake up at 5:30am and do it all over again, until the trip was over.

On my way out of the country, I was stopped by Lebanese customs agents again and taken aside.  In another office, they tried to make a photocopy of my passport for their files.  The photocopier broke down, so they walked across the room to a second machine and tried again.  This photocopier wouldn’t print anything and, smiling self-consciously, they told me it would be just a minute.  They called some more customs officials into the office and no one could figure out how to make the machine print.  Finally, without any success, they just handed me back my passport, embarrassed, and told me I could go.

I arrived back in LA at night and, after roughly five days of traveling, filming, and not sleeping almost at all, I came back to my apartment and passed out.  I have never really been able to sleep in, and if I can manage to sleep late, it’s a restless affair where I’m awake more often than I’m asleep.  But the next morning, I woke up for the first time that day and saw that the clock read noon.  And it was good.

*** 

After that trip, as is standard procedure, the casting agency sent my agent a check for the total amount due for the commercial.  The agent should then write a new check for the client (me), with the entire sum minus ten percent (for the agent).  But things don’t always go as planned.

I showed up at Hal’s office at the agreed-upon time, but he wasn’t there.  And since no one worked for him, the agency was locked up, so I stood outside, waiting.  The one-man-operation showed up in his convertible forty-five minutes later, walking up the steps with a bounce in his step and a blithe grin on his face.  “My bad!”

He welcomed me into the office, sat me down, and happily told me that he didn’t have any checks, so he couldn’t write me one.

“But no worries!  We’ll jump in my car and drive right over to the nearby bank.  I’ll just make a withdrawal and give you that.”

It sounded a bit suspect, but I was eager to get paid for my first real acting job, so I was game.  We went back down to his convertible and drove a few blocks to a Bank of America.  Once there, Hal found out that for whatever reason, he couldn’t make a withdrawal from his business account.  The banker mentioned that Hal would need to do something to properly set up the account before he could withdraw any money from it.  He didn’t know how to pay me; he’d never used a business account before, which seemed to imply that he’d never paid a client before now.  Was I the first person at his agency to ever book a job?

We sat in comfy chairs in the Bank of America, waiting for someone to help us.  Hal offered me a lollipop from their complimentary bowl of candy and asked me about myself.  I told him I was from Seattle and described my job in L.A. as a tutor.  He smiled the whole time.

Eventually, a representative of the bank came over and told Hal that he would not be able to use his business account at this time.  Hal stood up and told me, “Why don’t we go back to the office and try to sort this out?”

Back at the agency, I had my bankcard on me so he called the bank’s customer service number and tried to see if he could just make a transfer to my account.  We were told it couldn’t be done over the phone.  I didn’t know my bank account and routing numbers off hand, and they couldn’t look it up and make the transfer over the phone.  Hal hung up and sheepishly grinned.  “Oh well.”

I was less amused at this point.  I was owed money – the most money I’d ever made in a single project – and I wanted my agent to pay me, just like every other agent in Los Angeles is readily able to do. 

“You know what?” Hal finally asked.  “My local bank isn’t too far from here.  They know me there.  Why don’t we drive over there and sort this out?”

I agreed, not so enthusiastically this time, and we climbed back into his convertible.  After a bit, I asked where exactly we were going.

“My bank’s in Encino.  That’s where I live.”

I realized this wasn’t going to be the shortest drive.  Then Hal launched into a discussion about religion and the afterlife, apropos of nothing.

“Do you believe in Heaven?”

“I don’t know,” I responded, surprised to be having a theological discourse with my agent.  “I guess I don’t really, no, but I’d certainly like there to be a heaven.”

“Oh, I think Heaven is real, for sure.”

“Yeah?  How come?”

“I mean, scientists have already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the soul exists.  So if the soul exists, I think that’s pretty clear evidence that Heaven does, too.”

Now of course I was under the impression that science had never proven the existence of the soul.  But that could just be me.  Hal was convinced otherwise.  He described an experiment I remembered from the Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol.

“Scientists put dying people into a clean chamber that measured their weight and, as the person died, they lost like an ounce, which was the mass of the soul, as it left their body.  The soul exists. That’s just a scientific fact.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s a scene from a Dan Brown book,” I said.

“No.  It’s a real thing.”

To Hal’s credit, a man in the early twentieth century really did try this experiment, but very few scientists have ever considered it to be an accurate test.  At least Dan Brown updated the technology used in his retelling.  I guess that was proof enough for Hal.

“Heaven is real.  Just like the soul.”

We arrived at the Bank of America in Encino, which I assumed would have the exact same policies as the first Bank of America we went to, but Hal was feeling optimistic.  When his efforts failed again, he decided to disregard his mismanaged business account and just transfer the money from his personal bank account directly into mine.

After more than three hours together, I had finally been paid.

At the time, I had hoped this would at least be a great opportunity to get closer with my agent.  Hal would always remember our day together and feel inspired to send me out on auditions frequently.  I would begin to meet the casting world and just take off from there, working consistently on projects in my ascent to the silver screen!

Or something like that.  In reality, I was only sent on one other audition before my first agent was shut down, receding into obscurity.  But fret not; in this immaculate city of angels, there’s an endless supply of Hal Gazzars always scrambling for the top, each one borne skyward by the irrefutable knowledge that he has a soul.

Israel says 90 pct of Syria’s ballistic missiles used up on rebels


Syria has used up more than 90 percent of its ballistic missiles against rebels during a more than four-year-old civil war but a few were transferred to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon, a senior Israeli military officer said on Wednesday. 

Israel, which is expanding its high-altitude Arrow air defence system with U.S. help, has been keeping an eye on Syria's Scud-type missiles as well as Iran's long-range Shehabs as potential threats. 

“The number of (Syrian) ballistic missiles left is less than 10 percent,” a senior Israeli officer told Reuters on condition of anonmity, but added: “That could still change. They could start making them again.” 

Syrian opposition activists say Damascus' army has fired dozens of devastating Scud-type missiles at rebel-held areas, out of a ballistic arsenal believed to have numbered in the hundreds before the insurgency erupted in 2011. 

Israel had a stable standoff with Syria's ruling Assad family for decades. It sees little chance of the now fractured Arab neighbour going to war with it now, but is still on guard for any accidental cross-border launches or deliberate attacks by jihadi rebels.

The Israelis are more worried about Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought their superior military to a standstill in a 2006 Lebanon war and has been building up its arsenal.

Hezbollah now has more than 100,000 rockets, including “around 10” advanced Scud-D missiles with conventional warheads supplied by Syria, the senior Israeli military officer said. 

Hezbollah does not comment publicly on its military capabilities but has confirmed improving them since 2006.

Uncertainty grips Middle Eastern markets


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The impact of the Middle East’s ongoing woes on the region’s tourism businesses has been well documented. The industry’s standing has been tarnished not just by continuing conflicts, but also by repeated terrorist attacks against foreign tourists in a number of countries in the region. What has been less discussed is the downturn in the Middle East’s industry, business, and inter-regional commerce.

Syria, the focal point for much of the violence in the region, was described by the World Bank as a “lower middle income country,” with agriculture and petroleum exports making up the bulk of its trade in 2010. Five years later, its economy has been characterized as anywhere between collapsed and as a ‘war economy’. But the country is hardly the only state whose financial position is hugely affected by the sectarian conflict raging in, and across, its borders.

In a research paper for the World Bank published last year, Elena Ianchovichina and Maros Ivanic described how the impact of the war has been felt chiefly by Syria and by Iraq. With stretches of its western provinces captured by the Islamic State, including areas of oil production, it is hardly surprising that Iraq has suffered large scale economic regression. Ianchovichina and Ivanic also discussed a second tier of affected countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — neighboring Syria and Iraq, who have taken in the bulk of the war’s refugees.

Despite the scale and the length of the conflict the economic repercussions onto global markets have not been large, Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics Research Company, told The Media Line. Syria’s economic output was far more relevant to its direct neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, than to global markets, Tuvey said.

As well as a loss of trade both countries have borne the brunt of Syria’s refugee exodus. Lebanon has taken in so many Syrians that refugees are now 25% of the population and in Jordan the Zaatari refugee camp is so crowded as to constitute the country’s fourth largest city, the economist explained.

Turkey too has taken in large numbers of refugees but is more financially stable than the two smaller host nations.

Whether or not Syria’s reduction in trade has adversely affected the broader Middle East the war is still hampering the region’s economy due to the uncertainty it produces, Colin Foreman, news editor at MEED Middle East Business Intelligence, told The Media Line. Similar to the early years of the Arab Spring – the pro-democracy protests that took place throughout the Middle East in 2011 – the Syrian war creates uncertainty in Middle Eastern markets, Foreman said.

The difference is that in 2011 petroleum prices were stable, so uncertainty actually benefited exporting nations, whereas now the cost of a barrel of oil is low and so the market is more adversely affected, the editor explained.

Conflict in Syria is not the only cause of this situation as political turmoil in Egypt and war in Yemen also add to the uncertainty, Foreman said.

Escalating the uncertainty yet further is the Islamic State (ISIS). “The situation in Syria has deteriorated particularly since mid-2014 with ISIS taking a foothold,” Foreman argued. This has led to the refugee crisis and to a significant downturn in the value of the Iraqi oil industry, the editor suggested.

Tuvey was not as sure that the impact of the Islamic State was felt strongly on Iraqi oil exports. “In Iraq most of its oil fields are in the south away from ISIS – Iraq has actually been increasing its oil production over the last year or so,” he explained.

He went onto suggest the current price of petroleum may be limiting the damage ISIS can cause to global markets.

“It has not had an enormous impact because we’re now in an era when we have a huge glut of oil – ten years ago it might have been more concerning,” he said.

Lebanon’s human rights record up for review


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Lebanon is due to go before the United Nations Human Rights Council next week for a review of its human rights policy. Activists say that since the last human rights review five years ago, the situation has not improved.

“Over the years we have had many meetings on the issue of torture including talks with the Prime Minister last January,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “When we look at Lebanon’s record over the past five years, we see missed opportunities, procrastination and a lack of leadership.”

Lebanese authorities deny these charges. In its national submission to the Human Rights Council last month, the Lebanese government asserted that “vigorous steps are also being taken to prevent torture by prosecuting perpetrators of torture and either sentencing them to imprisonment or subjecting them to severe disciplinary measures, such as dismissal from office.”

The problem, activists say, is that the military investigates itself, making convictions almost impossible. Lebanon committed itself to establishing the National Preventive Mechanism to visit facilities like jails and police stations where torture is believed to take place, and to stop it before it starts.

“According to our statistics, in prisons and police stations, at least 60 percent of the detainees are subjected to torture and ill treatment during their investigation,” Marie Daunay, of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights told The Media Line. “During detention people are kept in underground places where they never see sunlight which is a form of psychological torture.”

In the past few months there have been growing protests against the government which closed the main landfill in the country without offering an alternative. Mounds of garbage have piled up in the streets.

“I filmed militia groups throwing rocks and concrete blocks during the recent protests,” Habib Fattah, an investigative journalist in Lebanon told The Media Line. “The militia is part of one of the political parties in Lebanon, and my footage went viral. The party later claimed they had nothing to do with the attacks but I showed that the men were close to the speaker of parliament.”

The only bright note is a 2014 law on domestic violence that makes it easier for women to file complaints against their husbands, and encourages the government to prosecute them.

Officials blame the current political crisis in Lebanon for their inability to do more to safeguard human rights. Lebanon currently has no president, and the government is a caretaker one that hesitates to take decisions. In addition, Lebanon is struggling to handle the 1.2 million Syrian refugees who fled to the country.

Refugees from Syria have to pay about $260 to renew their residency permits each year, more than many of them make in a month. As a result the number of illegal asylum seekers is increasing each year, which presents its own human rights challenges. These refugees will not turn to the police if a crime is committed against them, fearing they could be arrested and deported back to Syria.

Houry recognizes the challenges that Lebanon is facing but says they cannot be an excuse for human rights abuses.

“The scale of the problem is like the garbage crisis – it’s just getting worse,” he said. “Procrastination and mediocrity are not doing Lebanon any service at this stage.”

Germany’s moral courage


Around 7 a.m. last Sunday, The New York Times landed on my balcony with a thud, like it always does. It woke me up and startled my cats, like it usually does, until we all realized it’s the same old, same old, and lay our heads down again.

But when I finally emerged about an hour later, dressed, cats fed, coffee in hand, I pulled The Times out of its sea-blue plastic wrapping, scanned the front-page headlines and had to do a double take: There was nothing ‘same-old’ about the day’s big news.

Beneath a picture of an ecstatic-looking crowd of men and women of various ages, all with huge smiles on their faces and arms raised in celebratory cheer, was the astonishing headline:

Germany Welcomes Thousands of Weary Migrants.

Wait a minute, my brain cautioned. You mean, that Germany?

I read a little more…

MUNICH – Germans waving welcome signs in German, English and Arabic came to the train station here Saturday to greet the first group of what is expected to be about 8,000 migrants to arrive in Germany by early Sunday… Germans applauded and volunteers offered hot tea, food and toys as about 450 migrants arrived… Germany, which had held out an open hand…

Germany. Which held out an open hand.

Oh, sweet irony of history!

But indeed it was so: While the rest of Europe fretted over what to do about a crisis that is being called “the largest wave of emigration since World War II,” Germany, led by its courageous and moral Chancellor Angela Merkel, signaled its willingness to heed the call of millions of desperate refugees, many of whom have been rendered stateless by the war in Syria and other Middle East crises.

While the United States has sat idly by, draped in its aggrandizing values of justice and liberty for all, its political passivity partly responsible for the refugee crisis to begin with, Germany steps forward with leadership and humanity.

While the Gulf States of Qatar, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates defend themselves against charges of apathy and indifference, Germany opens its arms. “You can’t welcome people who come from a different atmosphere, from a different place, who suffer from psychological problems, from trauma, and enter them into societies,” Kuwaiti commentator Fahad Al-Shelaimi, chairman of the Gulf Forum for Peace and Security, said last March during a televised address on France24’s Arabic channel.

The Gulf States – and the United States – have a few things in common: Both have opened their checkbooks (Saudi Arabia: $18.4 million; Kuwait: $304 million; U.S.: $1.1 billion), while refusing to open their borders. Instead Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, whose per capita incomes are but a fraction of those in the Gulf States, have absorbed the largest number of refugees (Turkey: 2 million; Lebanon: 1.2 million; Jordan: 630,000). The U.S. has agreed to a paltry 1,500.

So far, only Germany, and her neighboring Austria, have risked their own stability and security to absorb these fleeing refugees, with Germany expecting to receive 800,000 this year alone.

The country’s compassion moved the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to praise Germany, Austria and “civil society” itself for their “remarkable” response to the crisis. “This is political leadership based on humanitarian values,” said a UNHCR statement issued on Sept. 5. Newsweek declared Germany’s Chancellor Merkel “Europe’s Conscience.”

Yes, that Germany. The Germany that between 1939 and 1945 provoked a frantic emigration of its own – that is, for the lucky few who could actually escape its death grip as the country’s maniacal leader and his obedient minions sent millions of Jews and other unfortunate minorities to death pits, concentration camps, gas chambers and burning ovens. That Germany saw itself as superior; as a burgeoning empire that had to cleanse itself of the other –the stranger, the refugee, the Jew – who did not belong, as the Kuwaiti official would have us believe, in a civilized society. That Germany destroyed a generation, murdering 11 million human beings as easily as it obliterated entire states. But history, it turns out, does not repeat itself in Germany.

Who could have predicted that one of the 20th century’s leading countries in moral depravity would become the 21st century’s world leader in moral courage?

  

While Lady Liberty rusts in the heat of an increasingly simmering sun, Hitler’s onetime puppet country beckons the tired and poor, the huddled Middle Eastern masses yearning to breathe free – of violence, and poverty, and terror. “I just want my sons to study and get jobs,” 35-year-old Syrian refugee and mother of three, Rania al-Hamawi told The Times.

What a lucky twist of fate, then, that the country with the biggest heart also boasts one of the world’s most robust economies. God could hardly have planned this any better.

Seventy years ago, who could have imagined that the country that nearly annihilated God’s Chosen would one day be chosen as a light among nations? Who could have foreseen that the place that almost destroyed the Jewish tradition would come to embody some of its most essential, enduring tenets: Teshuvah, change is possible. The future need not look like the past. Redemption is yours, waiting to be claimed. The world can indeed be re-created: Hayom Harat Olam, Rosh Hashanah tells us. This is the day the world was created – and it is created again and again, every year.

Germany is living these values. We should, too.

Shana Tovah.

The Iran deal is done: What history should teach us


Thirty-four senators — 32 Democrats plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats — have come out in favor of the Iran deal, enough to sustain a presidential veto, so approval of the deal with Iran and five American partners is a foregone conclusion. The questions to ask now are what have we learned and how will we go forward?

Permit me to turn to history and to examine Jewish identity in relation to Israel, an identity shaped by age and by history. For Jews in their 80s and 90s, there is the direct recollection of the Holocaust and the overwhelming gratitude that they naturally feel for the establishment of the State of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people, a place of refuge and an insurance policy for oppressed and endangered Jews everywhere.

My generation, which followed these elders, was shaped by the events in Israel of 1967 and 1973, and so, in turn, we created what Jonathan Woocher described in the 1980s as the Judaism of Sacred Survival: remembrance of the Holocaust entwined with a commitment to Israel’s survival. These two elements were central to our being Jewish, whether we were pious or secular, Orthodox or liberal.

The Judaism of Sacred Survival eroded over time. 

For some, the erosion began in 1982 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon — perceived by many in Israel and in the United States as Israel’s first war of choice — further stained by its bloody and indecisive aftermath. 

For others, the First Intifada changed their perception of Israel from David to Goliath, and raised the Palestinian question to the fore.

For still others, religious Zionists and secular nationalists, a very different segment of Jews in America, the erosion took place in 1993 when the government of Israel established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization — hitherto Israel’s arch enemy — and it seemed as if Israel might withdraw from areas of the West Bank and compromise the nationalist and messianic dream of the Greater Land of Israel that had fueled them. Some of Israel’s most ardent Jewish-American supporters openly criticized the government of Israel, and a sharp religious division developed between Orthodox Jewish religious Zionists — who were joined later by evangelical Zionists — and more liberal Jews concerned about Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic State. Battle lines were drawn, and Israel no longer was a consensus issue for the Jewish-American community. Support for Israel came to be  followed by the question: “What type of Israel?”

For the millennial generation, the experience of Israel has been different, defined by three recent wars — two in Gaza and one in Lebanon, as well as the ongoing battles in the Middle East with and among the Muslim factions of Afghanistan, Iraq, al-Qaida, Syria, Libya and ISIS. More than a dozen years into the crossfire, many of even the most informed American Jews cannot tell you the difference between Shia and Sunni or divide the Muslim populations accordingly. Therefore, many Jews are hesitant about the exercise of military might — American or Israeli — for fear of igniting an even worse outcome, as happened in Iraq.

These various groups of Jews also have major differences in perceptions of Israel. Some perceive Israel as successful and powerful, an economic marvel and a regional military superpower. Others perceive Israel as dependent and vulnerable. They can’t shake the feeling that Jews are always victims, never victors, acted upon in history and not actors in history. The reality is probably that Israel is both. With all its power, Israel has had to confront the limitations of power in each of the post 1967 wars, and with all its pride in Jewish independence, we all live in an interdependent world, and Israel is no exception.

We see the same reality through two very different lenses.

So what have we learned from the Iran deal debate?

It is difficult to defeat the U.S. president on an issue he regards as central to national security. 

Some of us remember how difficult it was to oppose the Vietnam War almost a half century ago. Others will recall the contentious battle and loss in 1981 when Jews attempted to persuade Congress to vote down the newly installed Ronald Reagan administration’s plan (begun by the Jimmy Carter administration) to sell five AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System) to Saudi Arabia. Still others will note that we still have no congressional action in the war with ISIS. The War Resolution is stalled in Congress, which does not want to assume the responsibility of a vote. Presidential power is significant, and what the U.S. president declares to be in the national interest usually carries the day — this president, any president.

The Israeli prime minister’s speech to Congress failed. 

Invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner, who sought to embarrass the president, at the initiative of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a former Republican operative, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the joint session of Congress made support for the Iran deal — any deal, because at the time the shape of the deal wasn’t known — a partisan issue. The letter sent by 47 Republican senators to Iran only made the issue more partisan, and to date, only two Democratic senators — Charles Schumer (New York) and Robert Menendez (New Jersey) — have come out openly against the deal. Someone misjudged the prime minister’s political strategy. The gamble did not work. So, too, the gambles that preceded it of going partisan in the 2012 elections, and of doing battle with the president early on over what seem like peripheral issues, if Iran is indeed an existential issue.

Today, Jewish organizations, which almost uniformly opposed the deal, have a credibility problem. 

For whom do they speak and what do they represent? One now must wonder whether they speak for the Jews of the United States, who, according to multiple surveys, were far more supportive of the deal than the general American populace, or merely for their membership and older donor base. Have they alienated younger Jews, more liberal Jews? Many may have to recalibrate their message if not their programs.

President Barack Obama’s legacy and the fate of the deal are inextricably linked. 

If the deal works, his judgment will be vindicated. If Iran cheats and develops the bomb, if in that event sanctions cannot be reimposed, or he and/or his successor are unable to engage in strong diplomatic action or effective military action, then Obama’s historical reputation is tarnished and his critics will be correct in regarding him as naïve or as having been taken for a sucker, to use a term that Jewish Journal readers are familiar with. This question provides an important convergence of interest between the president and his critics, and one that should be built upon. Assuming that the president is interested in his historical legacy — and few presidents aren’t — this will be significant leverage going forward.

As to Jews, we have to learn once again how to talk with one another without accusations, and how to fight with one another so that, in the end, we can affirm one another’s fears, values and concerns, even as we vehemently disagree over the potential outcome. Otherwise, a deep divide can grow even deeper. Jews do not speak with one voice. Perhaps we never did, and we may have to learn to harmonize discordant tones.

Now that we have the deal, we have to make it better. Because Jews will face significant problems in the future. It is imperative that we can face them together.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com

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.

Lebanon goes digital


This article first appeared on The Media Line.
 
“Ironically everything that makes Lebanon a tough place to live makes it a good place for a start-up,” quipped Nasri Atallah, a partner in the Lebanese media publishing firm Keeward. “There are a lot of very talented people who have few opportunities and are pushed into starting their own thing.”
 
Lebanon may not be the ideal place for entrepreneurial growth, but the country has a growing tech-start-up industry that is starting to attract international attention. 
 
At a British Embassy celebration for the Queens’ birthday earlier this month, the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub — a joint initiative between the UK government and the Lebanese Central Bank — announced the winners of a start-up accelerator. Forty-five small and medium Lebanese start-ups had been chosen from over 150 to undertake a 4-month training program. This is on the back of a push by the Lebanese government to foster a healthy tech sector and encourage entrepreneurship. 
 
In a statement at the ceremony, Tom Fletcher, UK ambassador to Lebanon, highlighted the need for the British government to help Lebanese businesses forge strong ties with international firms and networks. 
 
Keeward, who employ around 46 people in Lebanon, was one of the recipients of the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub accelerator. Atallah explained that just a week after being told of their place on the program, the intense program of entrepreneurial MBA style courses, networking and business discussions had already started. At the end of the first phase, 15 of the firms will be taken to London to continue their development.
 
“The education aspect is great and the network angle is great but just having the stamp of approval of the Central Bank and the UK government is a motivating factor,” Atallah told The Media Line.
 
Atallah thinks that the UK government has seen that the next Google, Amazon or Alibaba is going to come from somewhere unexpected, so they are actively looking to support and build links with potential business leaders all over the world. The UK-Lebanon Tech Hub program also has the explicit aim of increasing employment in Lebanon and directly contributing to the country’s economy.
 
Over the last few years the Lebanese government has started to take a proactive approach to developing its own answer to California’s Silicon Valley. The move started in August 2013 when the Lebanese central bank issued a circular providing support for commercial banks and venture capital funds to invest in technology start-ups, incubators and accelerators. Among a large raft of measures, the law assures 75% of the cost of bank loans to start-ups. This lowers the risk to banks for investing in potentially risky but profitable start-ups. The aim was to encourage investment in the sector and to free up credit for entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas. After just 7 months funds in excess of $400 million were available to business leaders with new, inventive ideas. 
 
A second major boon for start-ups came earlier this year with the opening of the Beirut Digital District (BDD). It is located just off the capital’s still recovering downtown area, devastated in the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990. BDD has quickly became the center for the growing digital and creative industries, attracting a number of major business partners such as Touch– a major Middle Eastern telecommunications company. Both small and large firms have moved to the expanding site, which mixes offices, conference space and residential homes into one place.
 
However, despite financing and support there are still challenges ahead for Lebanon’s fledgling tech-firms.
 
Nassib Ghobril, an economist at Byblos Bank – a major Lebanese commercial bank – expressed concerns that the huge funds now available could lead to a bubble. 
 
“Will that encourage creativity and entrepreneurship? I certainly hope so,” he told The Media Line. “I’m fully for this sector but I have concerns – there is too much money for too few deals. You have to assess the quality of the deals and then get the cash to chase them, not the other way around.
 
Atallah also admitted that he too had been concerned about the large scale of the funds the Central Bank were making available. However, when one of the projects that Keeward was running got funding through the system, Atallah says he saw first-hand the rigorous checks and level of due diligence that was required in order to qualify for the money. He says that this went some way to easing his mind that the banks were investing responsibly. 
 
Beyond the scale of the funding now available in Lebanon, Ghobril says Lebanon needs to strengthen intellectual property rights and protection of minority shareholders in venture capital firms. In addition, he said, it is very hard to liquidate a company in Lebanon. “It takes around six years and a large amount of bureaucracy and paperwork,” he said.
 
Ghobril believes the key to fixing these issues is simply political will to improve legislation. However, Lebanon has now been without a president for over a year and parliament is often blocked and inefficient, which doesn’t bode well for changes in these areas. 
 
Despite these concerns, the Lebanese are resilient businesspeople and the achievements to date, even without large levels of assistance, point to a bright future. If these funds and support systems can continue to foster the growing tech start-up economy then Beirut’s Digital District could soon be the home of Lebanon’s answer to Bill Gates. 

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.

Latest domestic violence fatality triggers protests in Lebanon


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Sara al-Amin became a household name overnight after her husband shot her 17 times with an assault rifle, the latest fatality of domestic violence in Lebanon. Amin had left her husband after an alleged two decades of beatings and was finally pressing charges against him. Her murder prevented her from doing so, but it also galvanised Lebanese civil society groups to continue their fight against abuse in the home.

“Her killing was brutal,” says Maya Ammar a spokesperson for KAFA, a Lebanese non-governmental organisation campaigning to end violence against women. In Lebanon, an estimated 2,600 cases of domestic abuse are reported to KAFA each year. “She was tortured and killed. It was 17 bullets – not one. That’s just brutal,” she told The Media Line.

This time last year, a series of high-profile domestic violence cases pushed Lebanon’s parliament to pass a long-awaited law to protect women. Amin’s murder has stoked this anger again, and protests to demand even greater protection are organised for May 30.

Lebanon has come a long way since the law to protect spouses from domestic violence was first passed, in April 2014. The small, religiously diverse country had no law specifically protecting women against abuse from their husband. Since “personal status” matters, including marriage, divorce, and child custody, are decided by religious courts according to a person’s sect, Lebanon’s parliament had avoided ruling on this issue.

But the new law changed much of that, creating specific protection measures for women and children. Now, for example, an abusive partner is legally required to leave the home and partake in rehabilitation courses.

“The main thing we focused on with the [new] law is protection,” Leila Awada, KAFA co-founder and legal specialist, told The Media Line. “Before it even gets to murder, while it is (still) striking and violence, the woman can now take a decision to protect herself and her kids.”

Awada also highlighted a change in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) in dealing with cases of domestic violence. While an increased awareness of best practise when dealing with abuse is needed from police officers, there is now the threat of jail time for ISF members who try to convince women not to press charges or who turn a blind eye when crimes are being committed.

There are a number of options now available for victims – both from NGO’s and from the government. KAFA runs a hotline for women, offers psychological support and can provide lawyers to help prosecute cases. Meanwhile the Lebanese Social Affairs ministry manages a taskforce of government agencies, NGOs and civil society groups and UN agencies to find ways to better protect women and recommend changes to the law. The Social affairs ministry has designed systems and training for councillors and medical staff who may come into contact with victims of domestic violence on how to provide assistance and what their obligations under the law are.

However, despite this progress there are still major gaps in the legislation and provision for victims. “There are some gaps in the law so the Social Affairs Ministry should provide some services and make recommendations for amendments for the law,” a senior official in the Social Affairs Ministry, told The Media Line. “For prevention we have to enhance the awareness of the issue in local communities. Many of our previous awareness campaigns have been through the media – which is crucial – but now we also have to really focus on rural areas too,” the official, who was not authorised to speak to the press and requested anonymity, said.

The official also highlighted the need for both a national referral system so that there was a standard national practice to dealing with cases and more shelters for victims to seek assistance at.

KAFA, who extensively lobbied for a tougher law, wanted the legislation to explicitly stipulate protection for women victims, while the legislation that was passed covers ‘violence against any member of the family by any other member.’

There is also a great deal of uncertainty if children are involved. If the child is above infancy then the father is likely to gain custody of the child – especially if the mother is not from the same religious sect as her children who take their sect from the father. Family matters, including divorce and custodial disputes are still decided in religious, not civil, courts.

“The text of the law is okay, but the prosecution is taking a long time — sometimes up to seven years. So this means that people are not following the case and people are not finding out what the verdict was. It makes it look like there aren't serious sentences,” said Awada. On top of this, the legal specialist added, “At times the men get charged with lighter offences  like being on drugs — or an excuse is made for them, like she was caught cheating.” This reduces public confidence in the implementation of the legislation.

There are few statistics to show what impact, if any, last year’s law has had on domestic violence in the country. But there has been a marked change in how the Lebanese public reacts to the death of yet another woman at the hands of her partner. With wider media coverage and regular public protests, civil society groups have been able to mobilize Lebanese society around their cause.

The May 30 protest, “is asking for justice for women killed,” Maya Ammar said. “It has stoked the debate again. I think people felt rage last year when three women were killed in one month. So we received a lot of calls for action from the public.”

Although the new law has addressed some major issues in Lebanon for victims of domestic abuse – and women generally – there is still a significant way to go before legislation is up to the challenge of dealing with murders in the home. Public pressure will make a difference, however the process is set to be a long one. 

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.

100 Years of waiting: Lebanon, a century after the Armenian genocide


This article first appeared on The Media Line

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of red lanterns glowed as they rose into the sky, watched by the crowds below until they disappeared behind the buildings that dot the fringes of the Lebanese coastline. The event is one of many building up to April 24th, which marks the 100th commemoration of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

Beirut is a vibrant hub of Armenian political and social culture and is home to many of Lebanon’s 156,000 Armenians — nearly 4% of Lebanon’s population of 4 million. The city is expected to play a major role in the diaspora’s centenary commemoration of the genocide.

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, at the height of World War I, nearly 1.5 million Armenians, as well as a number of other minority groups including Assyrian Christians and Ottoman Greeks, were subject to a brutal campaign of organized killing, starvation, and forced deportation.

But Turkey has refused to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. This refusal has become the focus of Armenian commemorations of the massacre year after year.

For Armenian community activist Yeghia Tashijian, one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s recognition boils down to the money. Besides the territorial claims that Armenians have made over lands that are now in eastern Turkey, they have demanded reparations for the families of those killed. These demands make Turkey’s recognition not only politically complex, but also potentially very costly for the country. 

But Tashijian says he sees the tide changing in the views of Turkish people. “Ten years ago, it was much more difficult. There was denial by the government and the society in Turkey, but now there are many people who openly talk about this issue,” he told The Media Line. And with voices of support from international powerhouses like Pope Francis and American pop icon Kim Kardashian, it seems the calls for recognition are becoming even louder.

There are a number of cultural and historical events, including talks, seminars and concerts to mark the occasion in Lebanon. The main focus is the march by thousands of Armenians and other Lebanese on April 24 from Antelias, an area north of Beirut, into the heart of the capital to commemorate the genocide.

Tashijian says Beirut has played an important role in Armenian activism since the Soviet era. Then, when Armenia was not yet an independent state and could not express its identity, Beirut was the ideological capital of the Armenian people.

Under Lebanon’s confessional system, in which 18 different religious sects are represented, Armenians have found safety and opportunities to express their identity. In neighborhoods throughout Beirut, shopkeepers chat in the western Armenian language — which UNESCO considers an endangered tongue. Haigazian University, the only Armenian University in the diaspora, is a bastion for Armenian activists and professors.

The role of the anniversary activities has changed over the years, according to Dr. Antranig Dakessian, Director of the Armenian Diaspora Research Centre at Haigazian University. “[The event] has reshaped itself, it has transformed. Back in the 1920s ‘30s and ‘40s it was a mourning, but not anymore,” Dakessian told The Media Line, “Now, it is a revival.”

Today, the Armenian community in Lebanon use the commemoration as an opportunity to raise awareness about mass oppression and violence against any community, Dakessian said. “We try to promote justice and respect of ‘the other,’ acceptance and tolerance of ‘the other,’ and coexisting with them,” he said.

In a Middle East wreaked by violence and growing extremis, the message of tolerance and coexistence is a welcome one, Tashijian said.

“There are some politicians in the Middle East who do not recognize the Holocaust just because it happened to the Jews, but it is very important to change that. What happened then was a continuation of the Armenian genocide as is what is happening today in the Middle East and Africa,” he said.

For many Armenians, the genocide of 1915 is not a thing of the past. Lebanon is now hosting a number of Syrian Armenian refugees who have been forced to flee fighting in neighbouring Syria. As jihadist groups like the Islamic State specifically target minority groups, Armenians and other minorities feel their presence in the Middle East is increasingly threatened.

But Lebanon — and perhaps Lebanon alone — remains a refuge for many fleeing persecution in the Middle East despite its own history of violence and sectarian conflict, most notably during its civil war from 1975-1990.

“Lebanon is the only harbor left for minorities in the region, and we don’t want to lose this. If we do, then everything is lost in the Middle East.

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.”