Russia opens way to missile deliveries to Iran, starts oil-for-goods swap


Russia paved the way on Monday for missile system deliveries to Iran and started an oil-for-goods swap, signalling that Moscow may have a head-start in the race to benefit from an eventual lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

The moves come after world powers, including Russia, reached an interim deal with Iran this month on curbing its nuclear program.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ending a self-imposed ban on delivering the S-300 anti-missile rocket system to Iran, removing a major irritant between the two countries after Moscow cancelled a corresponding contract in 2010 under pressure from the West.

A senior government official said separately that Russia has started supplying grain, equipment and construction materials to Iran in exchange for crude oil under a barter deal.

Sources told Reuters more than a year ago that a deal worth up to $20 billion was being discussed and would involve Russia buying up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day.

Officials from the two countries have issued contradictory statements since then on whether a deal has been signed, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday one was already being implemented.

“I wanted to draw your attention to the rolling out of the oil-for-goods deal, which is on a very significant scale,” Ryabkov told a briefing with members of the upper house of parliament on the talks with Iran.

“In exchange for Iranian crude oil supplies, we are delivering certain products. This is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime.”

He declined to give further details. Russia's Agriculture Ministry declined comment and the Energy Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. There was no comment from Iran.


Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system in Moscow on May 4, 2009. Photo by Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

Iran is the third-largest buyer of Russian wheat, and Moscow and Tehran have been discussing the oil-for-goods barter deal for more than a year.

Russia hopes to reap economic and trade benefits if a final deal is concluded to build on the framework agreement reached in the Swiss city of Lausanne between Iran and Russia, the United States, France, Britain, Germany and China.

They have until June 30 to work out a detailed technical agreement under which Iran would curb its nuclear programme and allow international control in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday raised concerns about the missile system sale with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

She said, however, that U.S. officials do not think Russia's actions will hurt unity between the major powers in the nuclear talks.

TWO TO TANGO

Lavrov said the agreement in Lausanne wiped out the need for Moscow's ban on the delivery of S-300 and that the system was defensive, hence would pose no threat to Iran's foe, Israel.

“As a result of suspending the contract, we did not receive major sums that we were due. We see no need to continue doing this given progress in talks on Iran's nuclear programme and the absolutely legitimate nature of the forthcoming deal,” he said.

The United States and Israel had lobbied Russia to block the missile sale before it did so in 2010, saying the S-300 system could be used to shield Iran's nuclear facilities from possible future air strikes.

Leonid Ivashov, a retired Russian general who now heads the Moscow-based Centre for Geo-Political Analysis think-tank, said the move was part of a race for future contracts in Iran.

“If we now delay and leave Iran waiting, then tomorrow, when sanctions are fully lifted, Washington and its allies will get Iran's large market,” RIA news agency quoted him as saying.

Ryabkov suggested Russia had high hopes that its steady support for Iran would pay off in energy cooperation once international sanctions against Tehran are lifted.

“It takes two to tango. We are ready to provide our services and I am sure they will be pretty advantageous compared to other countries,” he said. “We never gave up on Iran in a difficult situation … Both for oil and gas, I think the prospects for our cooperation should not be underestimated.”

He also reiterated Moscow's view that an arms embargo on Iran should be lifted once a final nuclear deal is sealed.

Sanctions have cut Iran's oil exports to about 1.1 million barrels per day from 2.5 million bpd in 2012. Analysts say Iran is unlikely to see a major boost in exports before next year.

One upper house lawmaker asked Ryabkov whether lifting sanctions on Tehran could undermine Russia's position on global energy markets, including as the main gas supplier to Europe.

“I am not confident as yet that the Iranian side would be ready to carry out supplies of natural gas from its fields quickly and in large quantities to Europe. This requires infrastructure that is difficult to build,” he said.

U.S. officials: Hezbollah upgrades missile threat


Hezbollah operatives are smuggling components of advanced guided missiles from Syria to Lebanon, U.S. officials said.

Operatives from the Shi’ite terrorist group have been moving the components in parts to avoid detection and airstrikes by Israel, unnamed officials told The Wall Street Journal.

As many as 12 guided-missile systems may now be in Hezbollah’s possession inside Syria, according to U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence, the newspaper said.

In addition to aircraft, Hezbollah will be able to target ships and bases with the new systems, which include supersonic Yakhont rockets, the Journal reported Friday.

Such guided weapons would be a major step up from the “dumb” rockets and missiles Hezbollah now has stockpiled, and could sharply increase the group’s ability to deter Israel in any potential new battle, the officials said.

U.S. and Israeli officials also said several strikes last year attributed to Israel stopped shipments of surface-to-air SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons and ground-to-ground Fateh-110 rockets to Hezbollah locations in Lebanon. Some originated from Iran, others from Syria itself.

On Tuesday, Israel conducted its second successful experiment on the Arrow-3 interceptor missile, the Israel Ministry of Defense said in a statement Friday. Arrow-3 is designed to intercept large, longer range missiles as part of Israel’s multilayer interception defense array.

The intercepting missile hit its target over the Mediterranean during a test conducted by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

“The successful test is a major milestone in the development of the Arrow-3 Weapon System and provides confidence in future Israeli capabilities to defeat the developing ballistic missile threat,” the ministry said in a statement.

From schools to bomb shelters, Israel lagging on promise to disabled


A thick concrete bomb shelter sits by the side of a central street in this embattled southern Israeli town, but Naomi Moravia can’t get inside.

Shelters like this one are crucial in Sderot, which is located about a mile from the Gaza Strip and is the frequent target of cross-border missile attacks that send residents running for cover.

But Moravia can’t run. She can’t even get up on the sidewalk.

Pushing a lever on her wheelchair, she rolls down the street looking for a ramp or a dip in the curb that she can ascend without tipping backward.

If she can manage to reach a shelter in time, she often won’t fit inside, stymied by tight corners impossible to negotiate in a wheelchair. Of five shelters in Sderot’s central district that Moravia tried to enter recently, only one was accessible.

“If there’s a siren and I’m not in a protected room, all I can do is sit in my wheelchair and pucker my butt,” said Moravia, the chairwoman of the Israeli activist group Struggle for the Disabled. “I just wait to hear the boom. There’s nothing I can do.”

The dearth of wheelchair-accessible shelters in Sderot, officials and activists say, is emblematic of Israel’s sorry record in providing for a disabled population estimated by the government to be 1.5 million.

Despite the 1998 passage of Israel’s Law of Equal Rights for Disabled People, which promises the disabled “active and equal participation in society in all areas of life,” Israel has been lax on regulation and enforcement. Public buildings and buses often are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Disabled children face an unresponsive education system. And the Defense Ministry has yet to formulate regulations to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

Part of the reason is that the government agency tasked with enforcing the equal rights law, the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has an annual budget of just over $2 million and a national oversight staff of 11.

Israel has “very nice laws that will not be applied,” said Ahiya Kamara, the commission’s head.

“If we rely on enforcement, woe unto us,” said Ilan Gilon, a Knesset member from the Meretz party who helped draft the equal rights law. “A state needs to be accessible to its citizens.”

For disabled Israelis, the challenges can begin early. Elad Cohen, now 10, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as a toddler. As a result, his Tel Aviv public school refused to readmit him in 2006 and Elad’s mother, Revital, had to pay out of pocket for a caretaker in a private preschool.

When Elad transferred back to public school, the state offered to pay about $5 per hour to a caretaker, enough for someone with only a high-school education — a similar standard as exists in some U.S. states.

“The state wants to do two things: not tell you what your rights are, and if you know what your rights are, find any way to deny them from you,” said Revital, who consults privately for parents of disabled children.

A series of recommendations endorsed by the Education Ministry in 2009 would have afforded nearly all disabled children the right to integrate into general classrooms at public expense. But the government has applied those recommendations in only three school districts and has no timetable for implementing them nationwide.

The ministry’s director of special education, Ra’aya Levy-Goodman, told JTA the goal is for every child who would benefit from integration — and not have a detrimental effect on their classmates — to attend public school. Since 2011, she said, the number of severely disabled children integrated into regular classrooms has tripled, from 300 to 900.

“Every child who wants and who can should be in general education,” she said. “But special education isn’t a punishment, it’s a right. And there are children who need it.”

The challenges facing the disabled continue well beyond their school years. Until 2011, no regulations existed to make public buildings handicap accessible. Regulations adopted by the Ministry of Housing and Construction that year set standards for bomb shelters in a range of public structures, but full implementation was not required until 2021.

Israel’s limited but growing railway network is handicap accessible, but the more extensive bus system is not. Transit Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia told JTA that suggestions for improved accessibility have been solicited from advocacy groups.

Home front security, though, remains the biggest gap in special needs regulations. Disability rights activists worry that the state’s intense focus on protecting its citizens has not been fully extended to the disabled, though they cannot recall any deaths due to a lack of accessibility among the more than two dozen Israeli civilians killed by rockets since 2004.

Under a provision of the equal rights law added in 2005, the state has until 2018 to implement an emergency services accessibility plan. But Israel’s government has passed an austerity budget, which could make implementation less likely.

In the meantime, the Home Front Command’s website suggests that in case of emergency, the disabled should make sure to stay in a shelter with “other people.” For assistance, the disabled are directed to turn to “relevant organizations” and their local municipalities.

As a result, much of the burden of assisting disabled Israelis in wartime has fallen to nonprofits. When Hezbollah began raining missiles on northern Israel in 2006, volunteers from the Struggle for the Disabled evacuated 500 disabled Israelis to southern hotels. The organization paid for the service through donations.

“They turned to the Welfare Ministry, and everyone from the Welfare Ministry had left their office,” said Yisrael Even Zahav, a former government consultant who coordinated the volunteers. “They were left alone.”

A Welfare Ministry spokesperson told JTA that the ministry “works extensively, without connection to regulations, to make emergency services accessible” in conjunction with government-funded group homes and regional councils.

Some activists hope that Israel’s adoption last year of the nonbinding U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will lead to further legislation. But many are skeptical.

“It’s like a yahrtzeit,” Gilon said of the convention. “They talk about it one day and 364 days they forget about it. It doesn’t matter to most people.”

In Iran talks, North Korea parallel goes only so far


If you have nuclear weapons, all sorts of bad behavior will be tolerated.

That’s the lesson some are worried Iran may be learning from North Korea’s increasingly confrontational stance against South Korea and the United States.

Pyongyang has stepped up its belligerent rhetoric in recent days, threatening to strike targets in South Korea and America, shuttering the joint North-South industrial park at Kaesong and warning foreigners to leave South Korea to avoid possible nuclear war. The Obama administration has scrambled to tamp down tensions, in part by delaying some planned military exercises.

Combined with the latest failure to reach any accord in talks between the major powers and Iran on Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, some Iran watchers are worried the Islamic Republic is learning that truculence pays off — at least if you have nuclear capabilities.

“I would imagine the lessons they’re drawing are not the ones the Western powers would like,” Valerie Lincy, who directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, told The New York Times. “That you can weather sanctions and renege on previous agreements, and ultimately if you stand fast, you’ll get what you’re looking for.”

But Iran experts caution that there are some fundamental differences between North Korea and Iran that undercut parallels between them.

For one thing, said Alireza Nader, a senior Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., the impasse in the most recent round of negotiations with Iran held in Kazakhstan was the result of political uncertainty in Iran, not the situation in North Korea.

Iran is scheduled to hold elections on June 14. Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country's supreme leader, is maneuvering to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with someone who is more loyal to the theocracy and less prone to distracting outbursts, Nader said.

Nader also said Tehran is much more likely to be influenced by sanctions than Pyongyang because North Korea is totalitarian and Iran, while authoritarian, still is susceptible to public pressures.

“North Korea has suffered from sanctions, but its regime does not care about its population the way the Islamic Republic has to consider its population,” Nader said.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official who helped shape Iraq policy during the George W. Bush presidency and has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, said the big question is whether Iran is drawing dangerous lessons about America’s will to stop regimes from obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction.

“There's still a big question mark about the U.S. using force” to stop the use of unconventional weapons, said Makovsky, now the director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have to make abundantly clear we're serious about not having a nuclear Iran.”

President Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 last month just prior to his visit to Israel that he believed he had a year’s window to resolve the Iran crisis through pressure and diplomacy. He emphasized during his visit that he would not count out a military strike should that process fail. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated that message this week during a visit to Israel.

“The clock that is ticking on Iran’s program has a stop moment, and it does not tick interminably,” Kerry said Tuesday in Israel. “We have said again and again that negotiations are not for the sake of negotiations, they are to make progress. And negotiations cannot be allowed to become a process of delay, which in and of itself creates greater danger.”

Kerry also raised the North Korea parallel in addressing reports that Iran was reopening mines for yellowcake, which can be used to prepare uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.

“Clearly, any effort — not unlike the DPRK, where Kim Jong-un has decided to reopen his enrichment procedures by rebuilding a facility that had been part of an agreement to destroy — in the same way as that is provocative, to open up yellowcake production and to make any step that increases the rapidity with which you move towards enriched fissile material raises the potential of questions, if not even threat,” he said. “And I think that is not constructive.”

Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network think tank, said Iran is more susceptible to international opinion than North Korea, particularly because Tehran is seeking to enhance its international influence.

“There's a political cost to an Iranian regime becoming perceived the way North Korea is perceived,” she said. “Iran’s regime is acutely aware of it.”

Test of David’s Sling missile defense system deemed success


Israel successfully tested its newest missile defense system, called David's Sling.

The Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on Sunday announced that David's Sling, also known as Magic Wand, intercepted a mid-range missile during a test-firing of the system.

The system is being jointly developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in Israel and the Raytheon Co. in the United States. It is designed to intercept missiles and rockets with a range of up to nearly 200 miles, especially rockets fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon, according to reports.

Iron Dome, which successfully intercepted between 80 percent and 90 percent of rockets fired from Gaza at Israel during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, is designed to intercept short-range rockets.

David's Sling is scheduled for deployment in 2014.

Israeli and Palestinian civilians killed in border fighting


Two rockets hit the outskirts of the central Israeli town of Rishon Letzion, more than 22 miles from Gaza, raising concerns that Hamas will fire long-range missiles that can hit Israel’s business capital of Tel Aviv

[UPDATE: Rocket strikes southern outskirts of Tel Aviv]

Earlier, a rocket fired from Gaza slammed into a four-story apartment building in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, killing two men and a woman in the first Israeli casualties since Israel killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. Palestinians say a two-month-old baby was killed in Gaza, along with ten other Palestinians. In Gaza, hundreds attended Jabari’s funeral and vowed revenge.

“Israeli planes have been firing missiles non-stop stop,” Muhannad al-Jannar, who lives close to the Israeli border in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis with his wife and four children told The Media Line. “Whenever an airstrike hits, the children get terrified, but after that they’re curious to see what happened. They look out the windows to see where the missiles have fallen.”

Israeli officials confirmed that they have bombarded targets extensively, although said they were trying hard not to hit civilians.

“The IDF (Israeli army) hit 230 separate targets in Gaza,” Army spokesman Captain Eytan Buchman told The Media Line. “We’ve been gathering intelligence on these targets for months now. We started with the senior leadership and moved to long-range rockets with an over 25 mile range. After that, we hit shorter range rockets.”

Buchman said more than 140 rockets were fired at Israel, and 90 were intercepted. Life in the south of Israel came to a standstill as schools were closed and residents close to Gaza were ordered to stay in their homes. Many stores also stayed closed.

“It feels like the sirens (meaning an incoming rocket) are going off constantly – before one even dies down, another one starts,” Zeev Silverman, a professor of anatomy at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva told The Media Line. “We don’t have a reinforced room at home, so we go to an inner hallway that doesn’t have any window. But if a missile directly hit our house, that wouldn’t really help us.”

He says he feels his blood pressure go up with every siren.

“You know it’s going to hit somewhere,” he says. “And you wonder, is it going to hit you or someone you know? Then you wonder, what if I’m in the shower? I decided that if I’m in the shower I won’t get out.”

Israeli officials launched a public relations blitz to try to explain Israel’s position.

“There is no moral symmetry; there is no moral equivalence, between Israel and the terrorist organizations in Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the foreign press today. “The terrorists are committing a double war crime. They fire at Israeli civilians, and they hide behind Palestinian civilians. And by contrast, Israel takes every measure to avoid civilian casualties. I saw today a picture of a bleeding Israeli baby. This picture says it all: Hamas deliberately targets our children, and they deliberately place their rockets next to their children. Despite this reality, and it’s a very difficult reality, Israel will continue to do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.”

However, given the densely packed Gaza Strip with 1.6 million Palestinians in a small area, that seems virtually impossible.

Israeli analysts say they believe that Israel has reasserted its deterrent position vis-à-vis Hamas.

“Israel has changed its policy with the decision to assassinate senior Hamas leaders,” Dr. Eitan Shamir, an Israeli expert on national security told The Media Line. “It is the first time that Israel is acting so strongly since the Arab Spring and the change of regime in Egypt, which many thought would constrain Israel.”

He said that both Israel and Hamas do not want a further escalation and an Israeli invasion of ground troops into Gaza.

Palestinian analyst Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University told The Media Line that an Israeli ground operation is a likely possibility.

“It depends on Hamas,” he said. “Until now Hamas has only fired rockets into the Israeli cities close to Gaza, but if Hamas will fire missiles into Tel Aviv, this will lead to a confrontation and will provoke Israel to initiate a ground attack on Gaza,” he said.

Israeli, U.S. troops test launch Patriot missiles


Israeli and U.S. troops launched four Patriot missiles at decoy enemy missiles over the Mediterranean Sea.

Monday's launches were the last stages of Austere Challenge 12, a training exercise designed to increase military cooperation between the United States and Israel. The three-week exercise, which began last month and involves more than 2,500 American service personnel and 1,000 Israeli soldiers, is considered the largest joint exercise ever between the two countries.

The missiles were launched from Palmachim Air Force base in central Israel, located south of Tel Aviv.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted at the base that Israel is using its Iron Dome system to protect against a barrage of short-range missiles coming from the Gaza Strip in the last several days.

“We hope that it [this escalation] will be over quickly without a need to broaden it or intensify it,” he said.

Iran claims successful test of its air defense system


Iran said it successfully test-fired a domestically produced anti-aircraft missile system.

The Ra'd air defense system, a midrange missile system, hit a large flying target and destroyed it, the Iranian Fars news agency reported late Monday.

“The indigenous system has been manufactured to confront advanced U.S. jet fighters,” Iran's Press TV reported.

Fars quoted Revolutionary Guard Gen. Ali Fadavi as saying the missile system “can reach the entire Persian Gulf coastline and beyond where the U.S. bases are.”

The announcement of the successful test comes a day after an Iranian Revolutionary Guard senior commander threatened to launch a pre-emptive attack on Israel and said that any attack by Israel on Iran could start “World War III.”

The commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, also said that in the case of such a war, Iran also would attack American military bases because, he said, “We cannot imagine the Zionist regime starting a war without America's support.”

Israel has threatened to strike Iran's nuclear facilities in an effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from building a nuclear weapon.

Former officials: Israeli or U.S. strike would only delay Iran’s nuclear plans, could backfire


A group of former U.S. security officials said an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may delay Iran’s nuclear program by two to four years.

A U.S. air strike involving Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) stealth B-2 bombers dropping 30,000-pound precision-guided penetrating bombs “carried out to near perfection” could delay Iran’s program by up to four years, according to the report.

The report was released on Thursday by the “Iran Project,” a New York-based bipartisan group of former national-security officials and foreign-policy specialists, Bloomberg News reported.

A unilateral strike by Israel “with its more limited capabilities, could delay Iran’s ability to build a bomb by up to two years,” the report said.

An Israeli airstrike “is unlikely to succeed in destroying or even seriously damaging” the deeply buried Fordo enrichment facility and the stockpile of near-weapons-grade enriched uranium there, the report said.

Air raids, commando assaults and computer network attacks “would destroy or severely damage many of Iran’s physical facilities and stockpiles,” according to the report. But, the report asserted, “complete destruction” of Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely.

The report concluded that an attack would “damage the U.S. reputation and standing.”

“If Iran’s nuclear program is attacked by the U.S. or Israel in the absence of an international mandate or a multinational coalition, support for maintaining sanctions against Iran could be substantially weakened,” the report said.

Iran may retaliate by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, an action that would “rattle global markets and cause a significant spike in oil prices,” according to the report.

Hezbollah says can kill tens of thousands of Israelis


The Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah said on Friday it could kill tens of thousands of Israelis by striking specific targets in Israel with what it described as precision-guided rockets.

“I tell the Israelis that you have a number of targets, not a large number … that can be hit with precision rockets … which we have,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a broadcast speech.

He said he would not name the targets and did not say whether the rockets were newly acquired weapons.

Nasrallah said his group could strike a limited number of targets in Israel which if hit would lead to mass casualties – a possible reference to Israeli nuclear facilities, though he said he did not spell out what he meant.

Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons.

“Hitting these targets with a small number of rockets will turn … the lives of hundreds of thousands of Zionists to real hell, and we can talk about tens of thousands of dead,” said Nasrallah.

Nasrallah was speaking on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, marked each year on the last Friday of Ramadan in accordance with a tradition established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late supreme leader of Iran.

Cross-border violence continues between Israel and Gaza


An Israeli air strike killed a Palestinian militant and wounded two men in the Gaza Strip on Friday, Israel and Hamas medical officials said, two days after an Egyptian-brokered truce had calmed an outbreak of cross-border violence.

The strike in central Gaza followed the firing of two rockets at Israel earlier in the day. There were no reported casualties in those incidents.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there was an air strike after a Hamas medical official in Gaza said a militant had been killed and two other people were wounded in an Israeli strike at al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

Israel said its jets had targeted militants preparing to fire rockets at Israel. In Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, militants often involved in shooting rockets, said the man killed in the attack belonged to their group.

The violence broke a two-day lull in cross-border attacks when Hamas militants in Gaza said they would abide by an Egyptian-brokered deal to withhold fire as long as Israel also stopped shooting.

Egypt feared the fighting near its borders could spark wider violence at a time when Cairo was confronting fresh popular protests over the uncertain outcome of a presidential vote.

Hamas’s involvement in the fighting had added to Egypt’s and Israel’s concerns, as the Islamist group which governs Gaza had largely avoided direct involvement in confrontations with Israel since a devastating 2009 Israeli offensive.

The militant killed on Friday was the ninth person in Gaza killed by Israeli air strikes since Monday, including a 14-year-old boy. Israel launched these attacks after an attack from Egyptian Sinai that killed an Israeli man.

Israel responded on Monday by killing two of the attackers, then targeted militants in Gaza including some it blamed for the Egyptian border incident and others it said fired rockets.

The Israeli military said more than 130 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza have struck Israeli towns since Monday, some of them launched after the truce was called.

Reporting by Saleh Salem; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Louise Ireland

Lawmakers see U.S. rights to Iron Dome


Advisory language attached to a bill that would fund an expansion of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system seeks U.S. proprietary rights.

The Strategic Forces subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives this week approved $680 million in funding for the short-range anti-missile system.

The Hill newspaper reported that the “report” accompanying the bill advises that U.S. officials seek rights to the technology.

The United States maintains proprietary rights to other missile defense systems it shares with Israel.

Report language is not obligatory, although it often shapes how federal officials carry out policy.

The Obama administration gave Israel $205 million in 2009 on top of its $3 billion defense assistance to help launch the system.

President Obama’s original budget proposal had no funding request for the missile defense system, but in recent weeks Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, citing its success in repelling barrages of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip earlier this year, said the administration would agree to additional funding.

In March, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) introduced the Iron Dome Support Act, which authorized the president to provide additional assistance to the missile defense program.

The legislation has garnered 74 co-sponsors.

House committee to propose Iron Dome boost


The House Armed Services Committee reportedly is proposing $680 million in additional funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

A number of news outlets reported over the weekend that the Republican-majority Armed Services Committee plans to increase the funding in addition to the $205 million that was appropriated under President Obama’s 2013 defense budget.

Capitol Hill sources told JTA that a final figure has yet to be determined.

Two congressional leaders pushed for the increase in funding the Iron Dome system when they introduced legislation in March.

The Iron Dome Support Act was introduced by Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). The act currently has 66 co-sponsors.

A week following the introduction of the legislation, the Pentagon announced that it would “request an appropriate level of funding from Congress … based on Israeli requirements and production capacity.”

The Armed Services Committee will begin marking up the defense budget on Thursday.

IDF officials: Missile attack on Israel would produce less than 300 casualties


Israel Defense Forces officials told cabinet ministers on Monday that should Israel undergo a coordinated missile attack, there would be less than 300 Israeli casualties.

The number was mentioned by IDF officials during a discussion in Israel’s security-diplomatic cabinet, Channel 10 reported on Monday, and is far lower than the number mentioned previously by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who reportedly said that a maximum of 500 Israelis would die in such an attack.

During the meeting, a senior official in the Israel Air Force told the cabinet ministers that in the event of a coordinated missile attack on Israel’s home front, missiles and rockets would be fired at Israel by the Syrian army, Hezbollah in Lebanon, terror organizations in Gaza, and most probably by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as well.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Divided by common foe, Israel and U.S. tangle over Iran


Ever since their first awkward encounter – a hastily arranged meeting in a custodian’s office at a Washington airport in 2007 – Iran has been one of the few issues on which Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been able to find some common ground.

Nearly five years ago, neither man was yet in power but both hoped to be, and though they were very different politicians they grabbed the opportunity to size each other up when their paths crossed.

The Israeli right-winger came across, at first, as strident in his views, while the newly declared Democratic presidential candidate seemed wary. But when Netanyahu insisted on the urgent need to do more to isolate Iran economically and Obama said “tell me more,” the mood suddenly brightened, according to one account of the meeting.

It was part of what Netanyahu, who first served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has described as a 15-year personal effort to “broaden as much as possible the international front against Iran,” a foe that has called for Israel’s destruction.

Obama, then a first-term senator, would go on to introduce an Iran divestment bill in Congress on the way to winning the White House in the 2008 election.

Now, with Obama and Netanyahu due to meet in Washington on March 5, the Iranian nuclear standoff will again top the agenda. But this time, a trust deficit between the two leaders could make it harder to decide what action to take against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

The Obama administration, increasingly concerned about the lack of any assurance from Israel that it would consult Washington before launching strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, has scrambled in recent weeks to convince Israeli leaders to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work, U.S. officials say.

Israel has been listening – but after a series of high-level U.S. visits there is no sign it has been swayed.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who along with Netanyahu met U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon last week, complained privately afterward that Washington is lobbying for a delay in any Israeli attack on Iran while time is running out for such a strike to be effective, Israeli political sources said.

Barak has spoken publicly of an Iranian “zone of immunity” to aerial attack, a reference to the start of additional uranium enrichment at a remote site believed to be buried beneath 80 meters (265 feet) of rock and soil near the city of Qom.

Donilon’s visit to Israel coincided with a cautionary note from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, who told CNN it would be “premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us.”

The United States, Dempsey said, has counseled Israel “that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.” He said sanctions were beginning to have an effect and it is still unclear whether Tehran would choose to make a nuclear weapon.

Obama and top aides have said they do not believe Israel has made a decision to attack Iran even as they caution about devastating consequences in the Middle East – and potentially around the globe – if it does so.

U.S. intelligence sources say they would expect little or no advance notice from Israel, except possibly as a courtesy call when any bombing mission is at the point of no return. But one line of thinking within the Obama administration is that this might be best for the United States since any sign of complicity would inflame the Muslim world.

“When it comes to something that the Israeli government considers essential to Israel’s security, they will take whatever action they deem necessary, even if there is a level of disagreement with other countries, including the United States,” said Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff to Barak and now an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

Iran test-fires long-range missiles in Gulf drill


Iran said on Monday it had successfully test-fired two long-range missiles during a naval exercise in the Gulf, flexing its military muscle to show it could hit Israel and U.S. bases in the region if attacked.

In response to mounting Western pressure over its nuclear ambitions, Iran started a naval drill in the Gulf last week and warned that it could shut the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions were imposed on its oil exports, the country’s main revenue source.

The 10 days of naval wargames and the warning over the Strait, a narrow Gulf shipping lane through which 40 percent of world oil passes, have rattled oil markets and pushed up crude prices.

Analysts say Iran’s increasingly strident rhetoric is aimed at sending a message to the West that it should think twice about the economic cost of putting further pressure on Tehran.

“We have successfully test-fired long-range shore-to-sea and surface-to-surface missiles, called Qader (capable) and Nour (Light) today,” Deputy Navy Commander Mahmoud Mousavi told state television.

Tehran denies Western accusations that it is trying to build atomic bombs, saying it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity.

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran if diplomacy fails to resolve the Islamic state’s nuclear row with the West.

TIGHTER SANCTIONS

Iran said on Monday it had no intention to close the Strait of Hormuz, but it has carried out “mock” exercises on shutting the vital waterway.

“No order has been given for the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. But we are prepared for various scenarios,” state television quoted navy chief Habibollah Sayyari as saying.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it would not allow shipping to be disrupted in the strategic waterway.

Mousavi said observers from the country’s closest Arab ally, Syria, would attend the last day of its 10-day naval exercise.

The European Union is considering following the United States in banning imports of Iranian crude oil. U.S. President Barack Obama signed new sanctions against Iran into law on Saturday, stepping up the pressure with sanctions on financial institutions that deal with Iran’s central bank.

If enforced strictly, the sanctions could make it nearly impossible for most refiners to buy crude from Iran, the world’s fourth biggest producer.

The U.N. Security Council has already imposed four rounds of global sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear activities.

Iran has so far shown no willingness to change its nuclear course but Iranian media reported on Saturday that nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili would write to the EU foreign policy chief to say Tehran was ready for fresh talks on its nuclear program.

Talks between Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – stalled in January.

Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Israel said to be behind blast that killed Iranian missile expert


Israel was behind an explosion in an Iranian ammunition depot that killed a missile expert, Western intelligence officials are saying.

At least 16 other Revolutionary Guard members were killed in Saturday’s explosion, which Iranian officials say was an accident. But no one is saying what Gen. Hasan Moghaddam, the father of Iran’s surface-to-surface missile systems and long-range missiles, was doing at the site at the time of the explosion.

Time Magazine reported Sunday that Western intelligence sources believe that Israel’s Mossad was behind the blast.

“Don’t believe the Iranians that it was an accident,” an unnamed Western official was quoted as telling Time.

The official reportedly added that other sabotage is being planned to hamper Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. “There are more bullets in the magazine,” the official told Time.

Israeli officials said they don’t know what caused the blast.

Netanyahu warns Hamas: You will bear responsibility for attack on school bus


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a sharp warning to Hamas on Friday after an anti-tank missile from Gaza hit an Israeli school bus on Thursday.

“The attack on a school bus crossed the line. Whoever tries to hurt and murder children, his blood be on his own head,” Netanyahu said at the conclusion of his meeting with the Czech President in Prague.

On Thursday, Netanyahu said that Israel will take any action necessary in the Gaza Strip after the attack on an Israeli school bus.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

House approves funding bill including Iron Dome missile system


The U.S. House of Representatives included missile defense assistance for Israel in a massive funding bill.

Included in the $1.1 trillion bill passed Wednesday was $205 million for Iron Dome, a new Israeli short-range missile defense system aimed at containing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, as well as $200 million for existing joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs like the Arrow.

“This was a priority of Congress and President Obama, and it is the first funding of its kind for this important short-range rocket and artillery shell defense system,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who as a defense appropriator helped craft the bill. “This is only the latest example that when it comes to defense, military and intelligence cooperation, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel has never been stronger.”

The Democratic-led House passed the “continuing resolution” 212-206 along partisan lines, mostly as a means of funding the federal government at 2010 levels because the U.S. Senate has failed to pass any appropriations bill.

Senate Republicans, using minority prerogatives, have blocked passage of spending bills as they seek a greater say in the wake of midterm elections in which Democrats will lose control of the House as of January.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are now working to pass an omnibus spending bill for 2011 that would incorporate moneys in the “continuing resolution” as well as other funds in President Obama’s budget, including the $3 billion Israel otherwise receives annually in defense assistance.

All Quiet, So Far


Israelis hit the pinnacle of tension in the hours before the
U.S. attack on Iraq, when the order came for every person to open his gas mask
kit, twist on the filter, adjust the straps to fit his head and then carry the
mask at all times. Recalling the first Gulf War, when Iraqi missile attacks
followed the U.S. invasion in swift succession, they anticipated sirens
screaming in the middle of the night.

During the first Gulf War, the Tel-Aviv area was the target
of most of the Iraqi missiles, and people left the city in droves for safer
locations abroad or in the country’s periphery.

Although there has been a small exodus this time, most
people are staying put. But they are keeping their ears cocked and, in the
meantime, allowing themselves small luxuries that they think will calm them
down.

Some foreign airlines are reinstating their Israeli routes
suspended at the war’s outset. One man related how he is supposed to fly to the
United States on a business trip this week. But, he jested half-seriously that
he would be embarrassed to be seen at the airport.

“People will think I am running away,” he explained. “I am
not afraid to stay here, but there is one thing I am afraid of: I am terrified
to look afraid.”

A friend of mine has made — and then canceled — at least
four reservations to send her children to their grandmother in Canada. At
first, she was determined to send them out before the attack, thinking that
airspace might be closed thereafter.

Then, she planned to fly them out when Bush gave his
ultimatum speech. Then, she put it off until hostilities erupted. Yet so far,
they are still home.

In the morning, she sends her children to school, all of
which remain open around the country. Up to 50 percent of parents, though, kept
their children home in the first two days. Now, school attendance is almost
back to normal.

When my teenage daughter was invited to be a guest of
another friend’s family in their quiet home in the south of Israel, I snapped
up the invitation with relief. It wasn’t as drastic as leaving the country, but
it still looked safer to us.

My daughter had different ideas, saying, “Mom, why should I
go when all my friends are here? And besides, I can’t miss swim practice.”

Her swim team is going ahead with its daily workouts.
Following official directives, I send her off to the pool with her swim bag
over one shoulder and her gas mask over the other.

These youngsters, too young to remember the first Gulf War,
seem unaffected by the general anxiety. As days pass in silence in Israel,
people are starting to feel the enormous preparations of the last few months
may be like a fire drill without a fire.

The U.S. Patriot missiles are scattered around the country,
and hospitals are on state of high alert, with staff assigned to units for
treatment of possible wounded.

Several people were hospitalized — after injecting
themselves with the atropine syringe included in the gas mask kit. Some were
children playing with the injections; others had mistaken their own anxiety for
symptoms of a chemical attack.

One family slept in their sealed room, which they had sealed
too well. The mother and one of her son were asphyxiated.

Yet, there are cracks in the wall of tension. One man has
taken down all the plastic sheeting and dismantled his home’s protected space,
commenting wryly, “Those who needed to make money have already made it.”

A TV cameraman filmed every single government official, from
the prime minister on down. Not one of them carried the gas masks that had been
declared mandatory for every person to keep on hand. How can the minister of
education tell every teacher and student how to act, when the minister doesn’t
set an example?

Israeli news broadcasts nonstop war coverage. One focus is
on U.S. progress in western Iraq, from which missiles can be fired toward
Israel. Another is the increasingly frequent public mention by the Iraqis of
the role they accuse Israel of playing in the conflict. For example, Saddam
Hussein’s televised address Monday singled out Zionist support for the
Americans and British.

In the meantime, all is still quiet on the western front.
Israelis are only hoping it’s not the quiet before the storm. As one woman
signs her e-mails: “May you have a peaceful war.”  

Helen Schary Motro, an American writer and lawyer living in Israel, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School.

World Briefs


Peres to D.C.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is planning to visit Washington next week. Peres will meet with White House and State Department officials on Aug. 1. He will be in Washington at the same time as Jordan’s King Abdullah, though there are no plans for the two to meet. Peres and Abdullah will be attending an international conference in Aspen, Colo., before they travel to Washington.

Palestinians Using Fertilizer to Build
Bombs

Palestinian terrorist groups have begun using a compound from fertilizers to build more powerful bombs, according to Israeli security sources. The sources said the new chemical compound can produce a more powerful blast and is less dangerous to work with than materials previously used, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. Security officials are particularly concerned because the compound, urea nitrate, is prepared from fertilizers that Israel was exporting to Palestinian areas for agricultural purposes.

Rabin’s Daughter Resigns

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof resigned Tuesday to protest the Labor Party’s continued presence in the government. In her resignation letter, which has yet to take effect, Rabin-Pelossof said she could not remain in the government, charging it was not carrying on the diplomatic legacy of her father, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin-Pelossof’s decision came on the heels of Trade Minister Dalia Itzik’s disclosure that she is considering giving up her Cabinet seat to become Israel’s ambassador to London.

State Dept. Opposes Weapon Sale

The U.S. State Department reportedly is concerned about Israel’s plans to sell its Arrow anti-missile system to India. Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to raise the issue during an upcoming visit to India, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. U.S. officials fear the sale will exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan, the paper said. Because the Arrow missile program was developed jointly by Israel and the United States, American approval is required for the sale.

Israel Transfers Money to P.A.

Israel has transferred tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Monday. Peres told Army Radio that in recent weeks, Israel had transferred to the P.A. tax revenues the Israeli government froze after the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. He said Israel was ready to hand over more than 10 percent of the total owed to the Palestinians if the money is used for its intended purposes, and not diverted to fund terrorism.

Deportation Plan Rejected

Israel’s attorney general rejected a plan to deport the relatives and friends of terrorists from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. Elyakim Rubinstein said the plan amounts to collective punishment and is therefore illegal. He did, however, approve deportations on a case-by-case basis if it is proven that the deportee aided the terrorist or was involved in terrorist activity.

School Sued Over Koran

The University of North Carolina is being sued over a requirement that incoming freshman read portions of the Koran. Three students and a Christian group, the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, filed a lawsuit Monday, charging that the requirement impinges on students’ religious rights. School officials said the requirement, which was instituted because the topic of Islam is timely, was not intended to promote Islam.

Restitution Shake-up

A leader of Holocaust restitution efforts around the world is proposing an organizational shake-up. Israel Singer, the president of the Claims Conference and the co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, is expected to suggest a partial merger of the two groups to make restitution efforts more efficient. However, some officials attending the Claims Conference meeting in Luxembourg this week worry that such restructuring would not resolve larger debates on how Holocaust restitution money should be distributed.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

A group of American Jewish singles arrived in Israel in search of Jewish partners. The 32 singles are on a 10-day trip organized by the Jewish singles Web site Jdate.com and Birthright Israel, which offers free, first-time trips to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 26. The American group will meet several groups of Israeli singles during their stay. The American group is two-thirds men and one-third women, an imbalance that organizers attributed to the security situation in Israel.

‘Jewish Jordan’ to Play in Israel

“The Jewish Jordan” has signed a deal to play basketball in Israel. According to the Baltimore Jewish Times, Tamir Goodman, an observant Jew, has signed a three-year contract to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv, beginning this fall. Goodman, 20, left the basketball team at Towson University in Maryland last winter following an altercation with his coach. The 6-foot-3-inch guard initially drew attention while in high school because he plays with a kippah and refuses to play on the Sabbath.

Briefs by Jewish Telegraphic Agency.