Egypt court hands Morsi death sentence in blow to Muslim Brotherhood


An Egyptian court sentenced deposed President Mohamed Morsi to death on Tuesday over a mass jail break during the country's 2011 uprising and issued sweeping punishments against the leadership of Egypt's oldest Islamic group.

The general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, and four other Brotherhood leaders were also handed the death penalty. More than 90 others, including influential cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, were sentenced to death in absentia.

The Brotherhood described the rulings as “null and void” and called for a popular uprising on Friday.

The sentences were part of a crackdown launched after an army takeover stripped Morsi of power in 2013 following mass protests against his rule. Hundreds of Islamist have been killed and thousands arrested.

The Islamist Morsi became Egypt's first freely elected president after the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Judge Shaaban el-Shami, said the Grand Mufti, Egypt's top religious authority, had said in his opinion that the death sentence was permissible for the defendants who had been referred to him.

Wearing his blue prison suit, the bespectacled and bearded Morsi listened calmly as Shami read out the verdict in the case relating to the 2011 mass jail break, in which Morsi faced charges of killing, kidnapping and other offences.

Shami had earlier given Morsi a 25-year sentence in a case relating to conspiring with foreign groups.

Morsi appeared unfazed, smiling, and waving to lawyers as other defendants chanted: “Down, down with military rule,” after the verdicts, which can be appealed, were read out at the court session in the Police Academy.

The rulings mark yet another setback for leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and increase the chances of its youth taking up arms against the authorities, breaking what the group says is a long tradition of non-violence.

By contrast, Mubarak is slowly being cleared of charges in cases against him. He will face a second retrial over the killing of protesters in 2011 and has been sentenced to three years in jail over a corruption case.

“NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF DEMOCRACY”

The court last month convicted Morsi and his fellow defendants of killing and kidnapping policemen, attacking police facilities and breaking out of jail during the 2011 uprising.

Shami said elements of Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Sinai-based militants and Brotherhood leaders had all participated in storming the jails. He said they had committed “acts that lead to infringing on the country's independence and the safety of its lands”.

The White House said it was deeply troubled by what it called a politically motivated sentence, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned and the EU called it a worrying development.

Cairo, however, remains one of Washington's closest allies in a region beset by turmoil in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Sisi says the judiciary is independent and has made clear that the death sentences are all preliminary.

A senior Muslim Brotherhood member condemned the trial.

“This verdict is a nail in the coffin of democracy in Egypt,” Yahya Hamid, a former minister in Morsi's cabinet and head of international relations for the Brotherhood, told a news conference in Istanbul.

Western diplomats say Egyptian officials have acknowledged that executing Morsi would risk turning him into a martyr. The Brotherhood has survived decades of repression, maintaining popular support through its charities.

Morsi, Badie and 15 others were given 25 year jail sentences – for conspiring with Palestinian group Hamas, which rules Gaza. They included senior Brotherhood figures Essam el-Erian and Saad el-Katatni.

“DIABOLICAL AIMS”

The court sentenced Muslim Brotherhood leaders Khairat el-Shater, Mohamed el-Beltagy and Ahmed Abdelaty to death in the same case. A further 13 were sentenced to death in absentia.

In reading his verdict, Shami said that the Brotherhood had a history of “grabbing power with any price” and had “legalized the bloodletting of the sons of this country and conspired and collaborated with foreign entities…to achieve their diabolical aims”.

Badie already has a death sentence against him and Morsi has a 20-year sentence in yet another case.

Morsi has said the court is not legitimate, describing legal proceedings against him as part of a coup led by former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013. Morsi's court-appointed defense lawyer said he would appeal the verdict.

Sisi, now president, says the Brotherhood poses a grave threat to national security. The group maintains it is committed to peaceful activism.

Some Egyptians have overlooked the crackdown, which has targeted liberal and secular activists, thankful that Sisi, in toppling Morsi, has delivered a measure of stability after years of turmoil.

“I don't care whether the verdict was fair or not. Morsi deserved it,” said a young man at a cafe in Cairo's Abbasiya district.

Islamist militant groups have stepped up attacks against soldiers and police since Morsi's fall, killing hundreds.

Democracy for Egypt? Come back in 20 years…


Let's try to make this simple:

For both the United States and Israel, the most convenient situation amid the inconvenience that is current Egypt is for the military to be in charge. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, as well. Alas, however, the more the military is visible as the institution in charge, the less possible it is for the United States to maintain such a cynical position (Israel doesn’t need to talk about such things, and, surprisingly, was able thus far to keep its mouth shut). In other words — but still keeping it simple: Policy makers in Washington and in Jerusalem have very little faith and very little interest in Egyptian democracy. But they need to pretend that they do. And as they pretend, they need to make sure such pretense doesn’t end up hurting the military. Thus, on July 8, the White House ruled out the suspension of assistance to Egypt following (what it still refuses to call) the military coup. As its moral cover, the administration argues that it will use financial leverage to press for restoration of democratic rule. 

Now the longer version: 

Of course, all American and Israeli leaders want democracy for Egypt, they all want Egypt to thrive as a liberal and democratic and prosperous country — but they don’t believe any of that is feasible at this time. What Egypt needs is someone to rule it, someone to attempt to gradually pull it out of the ditch in which it is half-buried, and only then, maybe, eventually, someday, to give it back to the “people” — contingent on the “people” being a transformed “people,” meaning more educated, more ready for democracy, less prone to send one another flying off roof-tops or using guns to make a political point. 

In Egypt, illiteracy is rampant, unemployment is pervasive, and the majority of its populace holds views hardly compatible with a functioning democracy. As pundits and the occasional commentators talk about the “camps” — supposedly traditional and more liberal — competing for dominance, would also be useful to look at the numbers of which each camp consists. Dividing Egypt into two camps — those believing democracy is preferable to other kinds of government and those who don’t — gives some reason for hope: 59 percent of Egyptians favor democracy, and only 38 percent don’t. 

But what if you make a slightly different division — this time dividing the two camps between those supporting and those opposing the stoning of adulterous women? That division offers a different, far less encouraging result (according to a December 2010 poll): 82 percent favor stoning. And what about a division of Egypt into camps of those believing that “a wife must always obey her husband” and those who think otherwise? According to a 2013 Pew report, this division finds 85 percent of Egyptians agreeing that she should always obey. So, yes, there are two camps, but on many issues one of them is quite tiny compared to the other, and relying on that to be the beacon of democracy in this vast nation can prove risky. 

Given such a starting point, there is little wonder that the sudden show of democracy in Egypt was quickly proven to be nothing more than a passing mirage. And it is also not surprising that policy makers in Washington don’t really have much desire to rein in the military or attempt to reinstall the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi — albeit a democratically elected president of Egypt who was toppled in a military coup. Currently, the military is Washington’s only hope for an Egypt that is cooperative, attentive to American sensitivities and relatively stable (it is also Israel’s only hope for an Egypt that isn’t a constant headache, security wise). The one problem that the military poses for the United States and President Barack Obama — how to save face on the issue of democracy — is hardly comparable to the plethora of problems posted by any other scenario. 

“I’ll be blunt: This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said when asked if what occurred in Egypt should be called a coup. Note: It isn’t the question that’s complicated, but rather the “situation.” That is, a situation that prevents the press secretary from giving an honest answer. Of course, Carney knows that a week of chaos in Egypt that began with a relatively unified response from the United States was coming to an end a couple of days ago, with more pundits and leaders beginning to wonder aloud about the hypocritical policy of the Obama administration. 

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid [to Egypt] until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona declared. 

“We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does, in fact, schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution,” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on July 8. Robert Kagan, writing for The Washington Post, argued that the United States failed the “very difficult test” of having to live with an Egyptian democracy headed by Morsi. “But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan is, of course, right: There is no “starting over” in the new situation — a situation that is becoming bloodier by the day, and that, at the time I am writing (Tuesday afternoon), seems quite scary. He is probably wrong, however, if he truly believes that “starting over” is the end game of the Obama administration, when in fact the true goal is twofold: Preventing chaos and saving face — in that order. 

Whether the Egyptian military can provide such an end result — keeping Egypt orderly while putting on some kind of show that will enable the world to pretend democracy is coming soon to Egypt — is a question that will likely remain unanswered in the coming days or weeks. This is a continual nuisance of the so-called Arab Spring (and, I’m afraid, also a recurring, and possibly annoying, theme of this column): Even as events rapidly unfold, they reveal little of the likely outcome of each new situation. 

Egypt was revolutionized unexpectedly, and then was taken democratically by the Muslim Brotherhood, then it erupted again, and now it is in danger of deteriorating into civil war. Thus, it presents Washington with a familiar question: Whether to support the principle of democracy in the hope that a long-term and very painful process would eventually lead to that end result. Or, rather, maybe it is better to forfeit long-term ambitions and dreams in an attempt to make the short term as painless as possible.

For Israeli administrations, the short term has always been the choice. Having to live with a possible chaos closer to home, they tend to postpone dreams in exchange for stability and calm. And, yes, they might also be less caring about whether the Arabs — often a hating enemy — get their dose of freedoms. For the more idealistic Americans, this has never been an easy question, but in Egypt — where stakes are very high and realistic expectations are currently quite low — the answer has already been given. 

What’s next for Egypt then? Putting one’s chips on a truly democratic start-over would be a risky gamble.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain

Morsi, army refuse to budge as deadline passes


Egypt's army commander and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi each pledged to die for his cause as a deadline neared on Wednesday that will trigger a military takeover backed by protesters.

Military chiefs, vowing to restore order in a country racked by demonstrations over Morsi's Islamist policies, issued a call to battle in a statement headlined “The Final Hours”. They said they were willing to shed blood against “terrorists and fools” after Morsi refused to give up his elected office.

The armed forces general command was holding a crisis meeting, a military source said, less than five hours before an ultimatum was due to expire for Morsi to either agree to share power or make way for an army-imposed solution.

In an emotional, rambling midnight television address, the president said he was democratically elected and would stay in office to uphold the constitutional order, declaring: “The price of preserving legitimacy is my life.”

Liberal opponents said it showed he had “lost his mind”.

The official spokesman of his Muslim Brotherhood movement said his supporters were willing to become martyrs to defend Morsi.

“There is only one thing we can do: we will stand in between the tanks and the president,” Gehad El-Haddad told Reuters at the movement's protest encampment in a Cairo suburb that houses many military installations and is near the presidential palace.

“We will not allow the will of the Egyptian people to be bullied again by the military machine.”

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said Morsi was expected to either step down or be removed from office and that the army would set up a three-member presidential council to be chaired by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

A military source said he expected the army to first call political, social and economic figures and youth activists for talks on its draft roadmap for the country's future.

REVOLUTION SAVED?

A mass of revelers on Cairo's Tahrir Square feted the army overnight for, in their eyes, saving the revolutionary democracy won there two years ago when an uprising toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

But Morsi's backers denounced the army's intervention as a “coup”. At least 16 people, mostly supporters of the president, were killed and about 200 wounded when gunmen opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators at Cairo University campus.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused uniformed police of the shooting. The Interior Ministry said it was investigating.

Central Cairo was quiet by day. Many stores were shuttered and traffic unusually light. The stock market index fell 1.7 percent on fears of bloodshed. The Egyptian pound weakened against the dollar at a currency auction, and banks said they would close early, before the army deadline.

Military sources earlier told Reuters the army had drafted a plan to sideline Morsi, suspend the constitution and dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament after the 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) deadline passes.

The opposition Dustour (constitution) party led former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei appealed for military intervention to save Egyptian lives, saying Morsi's speech showed he had “lost his mind” and incited bloodshed.

The opposition National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of liberal, secular and leftist parties, and the “Tamarud – Rebel!” youth movement leading the street protests have both nominated ElBaradei to negotiate with army leaders on a post-Morsi transition.

Coordinated with political leaders, an interim council would rule pending changes to the Islamist-tinged constitution and new presidential elections, the military sources said.

They would not say what was planned for the uncooperative president, whose office refused to disclose his whereabouts.

“PEOPLE'S COUP”

In his 45-minute address to the nation, Morsi acknowledged having made mistakes and said he was still willing to form a national unity government ahead of parliamentary elections and let a new parliament amend the constitution.

But he offered no new initiative and rejected calls to step aside, saying it was his sacred duty to uphold legitimacy – a word he repeated dozens of times.

The president accused remnants of Mubarak's former regime and corrupt big money families of seeking to restore their privileges and lead the country into a dark tunnel.

Liberal opposition leaders, who have vowed not to negotiate with Morsi since the ultimatum was issued, immediately denounced his refusal to go as a declaration of “civil war”.

“We ask the army to protect the souls of Egyptians after Morsi lost his mind and incited bloodshed of Egyptians,” the Dustour Party said in a statement.

The youth movement that organized the mass protests urged the Republican Guard to arrest Morsi immediately and present him for trial.

“We ask the army to intervene to prevent the bloodshed of the Egyptian people,” Tamarud's founder Mahmoud Badr told a news conference. “This is a people's coup against a dictator and tyrant president and the army of the Egyptian people has to respond to the people's demands and act upon them.”

Reporting by Asma Alsharif, Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed, Maggie Fick, Alastair Macdonald, Shadia Nasralla, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Paul Taylor, Ahmed Tolba and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria, Yursi Mohamed in Ismailia and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Paul Taylor.

Egyptian protesters penetrate barrier at Morsi’s palace


Egyptian protesters broke through a barbed wire barricade keeping them from the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday and some climbed onto army tanks and waved flags.

Up to 10,000 protesters had been penned behind the barrier, guarded by tanks that were deployed on Thursday after a night of violence between supporters and opponents of the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in which seven people were killed.

Demonstrators cut the barbed wire and hundreds swarmed through and surged up to the walls of the palace, some kissing the police and military guards surrounding it. “Peaceful, peaceful,” they chanted.

Troops of the Republican Guard, which had ordered rival demonstrators to leave the vicinity on Thursday, moved to the front gate to secure the main entrance to the palace.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Roche

Morsi’s decree leaves U.S. in hot seat


[Cairo] As a staunch advocate of democracy, the American administration’s position was brought into question when Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers in a game-changing constitutional declaration announced last week.

The declaration, which rendered the president’s decrees immune to oversight by the courts and is deemed to be an infringement on judicial independence, comes on the heels of a successful ceasefire in the Gaza Strip brokered by Morsi himself.

Experts argue that given Morsi’s newfound role as the Middle East mediator who serves US interests, the Obama administration is unlikely to speak out against the decree despite its blatant anti-democratic nature.

Morsi reportedly worked closely with US President Barack Obama throughout the weeklong assault on Hamas in Gaza by Israeli forces, finally mediating a ceasefire. The Associated Press reported that both presidents spoke three times in 24 hours during the final stages of negotiations. Afterward, Egypt’s president was widely praised for his efforts.

Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, explains that the US position is clear; “It supports Egyptian democracy but not any political outcome or leader, and it has regional security interests and positions that inhibit it from speaking forcefully on the democracy issue.”

“That has not changed,” he told The Media Line.

The US was heavily criticized for supporting Hosni Mubarak and turning a blind eye to Egyptian human rights violations while continuing to provide his government billions of dollars in aid annually. 

So far, the American administration has been reluctant to take a clear stance on Morsi’s recent decree, which drove the country into turmoil, prompting ongoing protests as more than 200,000 demonstrators poured into Tahrir Square.

At a press conference Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington is still trying to gather more information about the situation which she explained remains unclear. Nuland said the Obama administration had called for settling the dispute in a democratic manner that preserves the balance of power.

“When confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt,” Nuland said. “That's a far cry from an autocrat just saying, ‘My way or the highway.’”

She emphasized that the US-Egypt relationship depends on its leader’s determination to achieve all the revolution’s goals and work towards a democratic country, after which she immediately praised Morsi’s role in brokering the ceasefire in Gaza.

The Obama administration insists the Egyptian fray over Morsi’s assumption of powers is a domestic matter. Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said that “We believe firmly that this needs to be resolved internally as part of a transition to democracy.”

Emad Gad, political analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a senior member of the Egyptian Democratic Social Party, agrees.

While he acknowledges that the US administration “supports Morsi because he cooperates with them,” Gad said that Egypt cannot bank on any kind of foreign pressure or interference, and that the standoff with the president can only be resolved internally.

“The US only cares about its own, as well as Israel’s interests,” Gad told The Media Line, “We’re not even in the equation.”

“I wouldn’t put too much weight on the US stance altogether,” Gad said. “It all depends on internal maneuvers.”

Brown also echoed the same sentiments.

“The Egyptian political struggle is primarily domestic. Most political actors are quick to accuse their adversaries of being unpatriotic and even foreign agents,” he said, explaining that for this reason he suspects that “the main dialogue [with the US] – if it is taking place at all – is going on in private.”

This week, the European Union threatened to decrease aid to Egypt should Morsi insist on implementing his decree, a senior member of the EU Parliament told German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau.

Earlier this month, the EU approved a 5 billion euros [about $6.5 billion] “support package” to Egypt, to be disbursed through European financial institutions over a two-year period.

“If Morsi chooses the road of dictatorship then the funds pumped into the Egyptian market will be less,” Elmar Brok, head of the EU Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said.

Similarly, the controversial decree raised questions about last week’s preliminary agreement under which the International Monetary Fund will provide Egypt with a $4.8 billion loan. 

However, during her news conference Nuland said that the IMF makes its own decisions and that when it reaches an initial agreement with a country, in this case Egypt, the conditions are economic, not political.

With regard to US aid to Egypt, which amounts to more than $1.9 billion each year, mostly allocated to the military, Nuland said, “As we made clear, we support clearing this through the Congress, but the Congress is also watching democratic developments in Egypt.”

However, Gad maintains that even if the Washington would withhold the aid, it is unlikely to affect the outcome. “Whatever pressure the US puts on Morsi to rescind his decree, we don’t care, the situation ultimately depends on domestic pressure,” he said.

On his part, Morsi seems adamant about implementing his decree, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. As tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday denouncing the constitutional declaration, the Islamist group not only seemed unfazed, but was defiant, with the presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali stating that “there is no turning back, the decree is staying and those not willing to reach a point of stability will be held accountable to God and history.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood has called for mass protests on Saturday in support of Morsi’s decree in Tahrir Square where its detractors are staging a sit-in, raising fears of violent confrontations.  

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv under rocket fire, Netanyahu warns Gaza


Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades on Friday and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day, in a stinging challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive after an Egyptian bid to broker a truce.

The attacks came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the Gaza Strip and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Although Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza, the violence escaleted on Wednesday when Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which is also Israel's capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Hamas-run Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, favored to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu, signaling a possible ground campaign, said hours earlier.

A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

Officials in Gaza said 22 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include eight militants and 14 civilians, among them seven children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said more than 35 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory and 86 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

TEL AVIV ROCKET

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defense preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Meanwhile, Israel has begun drafting 16,000 reserve troops, a possible precursor to invasion. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area of Friday.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

 

JewishJournal.com edited this story.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Ari Rabinovitch, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Israel requests reservists after rockets target cities


Israeli ministers were on Friday asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists after Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day.

The rocket attacks were a challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive and came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the enclave and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Israel's armed forces announced that a highway leading to the Gaza Strip and two roads bordering the enclave would be off-limits to civilian traffic until further notice.

Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area on Friday, and the military said it had already called 16,000 reservists to active duty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior cabinet ministers in Tel Aviv after the rockets struck to decide on widening the Gaza campaign.

Political sources said ministers were asked to approve the mobilisation of up to 75,000 reservists, in what could be preparation for a possible ground operation.

No decision was immediately announced and some commentators speculated in the Israeli media the move could be psychological warfare against Gaza's Hamas rulers. A quota of 30,000 reservists had been set earlier.

Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza wehn the violence escaleted on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which Israel claims as its capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Netanyahu, a conservative favoured to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu said before the rocket attacks on the two cities.

Asked about Israel massing forces for a possible Gaza invasion, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The Israelis should be aware of the grave results of such a raid and they should bring their body bags.”

Officials in Gaza said 28 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include 12 militants and 16 civilians, among them eight children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday. A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

SOLIDARITY VISIT

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said 66 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory on Friday and a further 99 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defence preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognise Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

Rockets hit near Tel Aviv as war looms over Gaza


[UPDATE 11:13 am] Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip targeted Tel Aviv on Thursday in the first attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years, raising the stakes in a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians that is moving towards all-out war.

Earlier Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, drawing the first blood from Israel as the Palestinian death toll rose to 16 in a military showdown lurching closer to all-out war and a threatened invasion of the enclave. 

Israeli warplanes bombed targets in and around Gaza city for a second day, shaking tall buildings. In a sign of possible escalation, the armed forces spokesman said the military had received the green light to call in up to 30,000 reserve troops.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Palestinian militants would pay a price for firing the missiles.

Plumes of smoke and dust furled into a sky laced with the vapor trails of outgoing rockets over the crowded city, where four young children killed on Wednesday were buried.

After enduring months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza,   Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.

[Related: Rocket strikes southern outskirts of Tel Aviv]

Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by Palestinian allies.

Mosi's prime minister, Hisham Kandil, will visit Gaza on Friday with other Egyptian officials in a show of support for the enclave, an Egyptian cabinet official said. Israel promised that the delegation would come to no harm.

Israel says its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Israel's bombing has not yet reached the saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in 2008, but Israeli officials have said a ground assault is still an option.

Israeli police said three Israelis died when a rocket hit a four-story building in the town of Kiryat Malachi, some 25 km (15 miles) north of Gaza, the first Israeli fatalities of the latest conflict to hit the coastal region.

Air raid sirens sent residents running for shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre which has not been hit by a rocket since the 1991 Gulf War. A security source said it landed in the sea. Tel Aviv residents said an explosion could be heard.

The Tel Aviv metropolitan area holds more than 3 million people, more than 40 percent of Israel's population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was committing a double war crime, by firing at Israeli civilians and hiding behind Palestinians civilians.

“I hope that Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza got the message,” he said. “If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel would pay a heavy price “for this open war which they initiated”.

After watching powerlessly from the sidelines of the Arab Spring, Israel has been thrust to the centre of a volatile new world in which Islamist Hamas hopes that Mursi and his newly dominant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be its protectors.

“The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region and would negatively and greatly impact the security of the region,” Mursi said.

The new conflict will be the biggest test yet of Mursi's commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an election after the downfall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has called for a “Day of Rage” in Arab capitals on Friday. The Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentors of Hamas.

ASSASSINATION

The offensive began on Wednesday when a precision Israeli airstrike killed Hamas military mastermind Ahmed Al-Jaabari. Israel then began shelling the enclave from land, air and sea.

At Jaabari's funeral on Thursday, supporters fired guns in the air celebrating news of the Israeli deaths, to chants for Jaabari of “You have won.”

His corpse was borne through the streets wrapped in a bloodied white sheet. But senior Hamas figures were not in evidence, wary of Israel's warning they are in its crosshairs.

The Israeli army said 250 targets were hit in Gaza, including more than 130 rocket launchers. It said more than 270 rockets had struck Israel since the start of the operation, with its Iron Dome interceptor system shooting down more than 105 rockets headed for residential areas.

Expecting days or more of fighting and almost inevitable civilian casualties, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets in Gaza telling residents to stay away from Hamas and other militants.

The United States condemned Hamas, shunned by the West as an obstacle to peace for its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

“There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel,” said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Wednesday, but took no action.

In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabious said: “It would be a catastrophe if there is an escalation in the region.Israel has the right to security but it won't achieve it through violence. The Palestinians also have the right to a state.”

“GATES OF HELL”

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas, condemned the Israeli offensive as “organized terrorism”. Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, which has its own rockets aimed at the Jewish state, denounced strikes on Gaza as “criminal aggression”, but held its fire.

Oil prices rose more than $1 as the crisis grew. Israeli shares and bonds fell, while Israel's currency rose off Wednesday's lows, when the shekel slid more than 1 percent to a two-month low against the dollar.

A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew increasingly intense and frequent. Netanyahu, favored in polls to win a January 22 general election, said on Wednesday the Gaza operation could be stepped up.

His cabinet has granted authorization for the mobilization of military reserves if required to press the offensive, dubbed “Pillar of Defence” in English and “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew after the Israelites' divine sign of deliverance in Exodus.

Hamas has said the killing of its top commander in a precise, death-from-above airstrike, would “open the gates of hell” for Israel. It appealed to Egypt to halt the assault.

Israel has been anxious since Mubarak was toppled last year in the Arab Spring revolts that replaced secularist strongmen with elected Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and brought civil war to Israel's other big neighbor Syria.

Cairo recalled its ambassador from Israel on Wednesday. Israel's ambassador left Cairo on what was called a routine home visit and Israel said its embassy would stay open.

Gaza has an estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters, no match for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.

This story was edited by JewishJournal.com.  

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Erika Solomon in Beirut, John Irish in Paris. Marwa Awad in Cairo.; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Islamist leaders vow unity against Israel


At a conference that drew a roll-call of the Islamist leaders who have gained influence in the wake of Arab Spring revolts, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal won a noisy welcome and pledges of support on Thursday.

A day after Israel assassinated Hamas's top commander in the Gaza Strip in a new offensive, hundreds of delegates at the conference in Sudan burst into applause and cheers as Meshaal, dressed in a suit and open-necked shirt, entered Khartoum's hangar-sized Friendship Hall.

“Khaybar, Khaybar,” the crowd chanted as Meshaal shook hands with other Islamist leaders, in a reference to a battle in Arabia where the Prophet Mohammad and his followers defeated Jewish defenders in the 7th century. “The army of Mohammad has started to return.”

Although most attendees were Sudanese, some came from as far as Indonesia and Senegal.

Among the delegates were the leaders of the Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia that have come to power through the ballot box in the wake of the Arab Spring, a regional shift towards the Islamists that has also helped embolden Hamas.

Israel has bombed targets in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for two days, saying its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Fifteen Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the flare-up.

Condemnation of the Israeli offensive has been led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, from the now dominant Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, told the conference in Khartoum: “The blood of our brothers who were martyred yesterday, just yesterday, in Palestine, in Gaza, this is what waters the tree of Islam.”

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party, said: “In truth, the mother of the revolutions was the blessed Palestinian revolution.”

Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country where a long serving strongman was unseated through popular protest.

Sudan's own Islamist government, headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, came to power in a 1989 coup. Vice President Ali Osman Taha said Israel had no respect for international law. “This madness is a danger to international peace,” he said.

Last month, Sudanese officials blamed an Israeli air strike for a blast at an arms factory in Khartoum that killed four people. Israel has not commented on the accusations, but Israeli officials have accused Sudan of funneling weapons from Iran to Hamas in Gaza.

Meshaal, who spoke just before Bashir, was greeted with chants of “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas” as he climbed onto the stage, flanked by two bearded, thickset bodyguards. Hamas has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

“Our enemy is your enemy,” Meshaal said, interrupted several times by cheering and chanting. “Our hands are with you.”

Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Matthew Tostevin

Obama speaks to Israeli, Egyptian leaders about Gaza violence


President Barack Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on Wednesday and reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to self-defense in light of rocket attacks from Gaza, the White House said.

Obama spoke to the leaders about the rocket attacks being launched from Gaza into Israel and the escalating violence in Gaza, the White House said in a statement.

“The president urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. The two agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate,” the statement said.

“The president also spoke with President Mursi given Egypt's central role in preserving regional security. In their conversation, President Obama condemned the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and reiterated Israel's right to self-defense,” it said.

Obama and Mursi agreed on the importance of “working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible” and would stay in close touch in the days ahead, the White House said.

Egypt, only one of two Arab countries with a peace treaty with Israel, has played a role in recent years brokering a suspension of hostilities between Israel and Hamas militants who rule in the Gaza Strip.

Mursi, Egypt's new Islamist president, has been under pressure from Washington to safeguard Egypt's peace deal with the Jewish state. Egypt maintains contacts with Hamas' leadership in Gaza and has diplomatic relations with Israel.

Egypt's military receives heavy U.S. financial aid, and Cairo is looking to Washington for development assistance and debt forgiveness to help its ailing economy.

Israeli President Shimon Peres briefed Obama on Wednesday about Israel's killing of the Hamas military commander in Gaza.

The U.N. Security Council was holding an emergency meeting late on Wednesday to discuss the Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip.

Reporting by Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Christopher Wilson

Egypt withdraws tanks from Sinai


Egypt has withdrawn some 20 tanks from Sinai in response to Israel's security concerns, according to an unnamed Egyptian official.

The official spoke Monday to The Associated Press about the withdrawal, which comes a month after Egyptian troops, including tanks and other hardware, entered the Sinai in order to combat terrorism emanating from the peninsula and directed at both Egypt and Israel.

The 1979 Camp David peace accords stipulate that Sinai is to remain demilitarized, although in recent years Israel has agreed to exceptions in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks and stop cross-border infiltrations.

Meanwhile, it was reported Sunday in the Egyptian and Israeli media that a new Egyptian ambassador to Israel was deployed to Jerusalem and that his appointment will be confirmed this week.

Atef Salem, who previously served as Egypt's consul general in Eilat, is scheduled to present his credentials to Israeli President Shimon Peres next month.

The previous ambassador was recalled in August 2011 after three Egyptian security officers were killed by Israeli troops as they pursued terrorists in the Sinai.

Egypt’s President Morsi to decline Israel visit invitation


A day after Israel’s foreign minister called on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to visit Israel, a Muslim Brotherhood official called such a visit impossible.

“There is no possibility for Morsi to visit the Zionist entity,” Gamal Heshmat of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told an Egyptian online news magazine, Ynet reported.

“President Morsi’s patriotism will not allow him to do so,” Heshmat said, saying that the presidential palace will turn down the invitation,

Avigdor Lieberman issued the invitation Tuesday during a speech at a legal conference. He called for the visit after Morsi said in an interview Monday with Reuters that he would not attempt to overturn the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s military said Wednesday that it would expand its counterattack against terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula that have launched attacks on both the Egyptian military and Israel. The offensive could involve bringing more military hardware into the area in contravention of the peace treaty. Egypt and Israel reportedly have been in regular contact over the redeployments.

U.N. chief defies U.S., Israel; plans trip to Tehran


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to attend a summit meeting of leaders of non-aligned developing nations in Tehran next week, defying calls from the United States and Israel to boycott the event, U.N. diplomats said on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission said it appeared that Ban would be attending the summit next week, though he declined to speak on behalf of the secretary-general’s office.

Several other U.N. diplomatic sources said that barring any unexpected scheduling changes, Ban would attend the meeting of some 120 non-aligned nations in Tehran.

“It’s a very important bloc of nations,” a diplomatic source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Of course the SG (secretary-general) is going. He can’t not go.”

A Security Council diplomat said it was important for the secretary-general to go. He said Ban should not turn his back on the entire non-aligned movement because one member, Iran, happens to have a president who doubts the Holocaust and questions Israel’s right to exist.

Ban’s spokesman declined to comment.

Diplomats said they did not expect Ban to raise Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful and Western powers and their allies fear is aimed at nuclear weapons, and its leaders’ anti-Israeli remarks during his public speech during the non-aligned summit.

Such rebukes would be better left to Ban’s expected private bilateral meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, envoys said.

The Tehran summit, which Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi will also attend, takes place Sunday through Friday. Mursi is the first Egyptian head of state to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

BAN UNDER PRESSURE TO BOYCOTT SUMMIT

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Ban to cancel his plans to participate in the Tehran non-aligned summit, according to Israeli media reports.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear to reporters in Washington last week that the United States would also like the U.N. chief to boycott the event.

“The fact that the meeting is happening in a country that’s in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors … sends a very strange signal with regard to support for the international order, rule of law, et cetera,” Nuland said.

“We’ve made that point to participating countries,” she said. “We’ve also made that point to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.”

Nuland added that if Ban does go, “we hope he will make the strongest points of concern.”

Last week Ban sharply criticized Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, describing their latest verbal attacks on Israel as “offensive and inflammatory.”

Ahmadinejad said there was no place for the Jewish state in a future Middle East, echoing previous remarks he has made about Israel. He has also repeatedly called into question the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War Two – the Holocaust.

Khamenei said last week that Israel would one day be returned to the Palestinian nation and would cease to exist.

Separately, Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission in New York, defended the Tehran summit in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post. He was responding to an editorial in the newspaper, which said Ban’s presence in Tehran “will dignify a bacchanal of nonsense.”

Miryousefi said the Post’s editorial board “unjustifiably smeared Iran and mocked the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran.

“By bringing dozens of world leaders together, the summit promises to make significant contributions to the movement’s lofty objectives,” he wrote.

Editing by Stacey Joyce

Struggling to maintain normalcy near the troubled Sinai border


Drivers who reach the end of Israeli Route 232 purportedly face a choice: A sign points them either northwest, toward the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, or southeast, toward the Nitzana border crossing between Egypt and Israel.

But the intersection — located at the meeting point of Israel, Gaza and Egypt — is really a dead end; drivers cannot proceed in either direction. Rafah has been under Egyptian control since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005. And a year ago, Israel closed off the road that runs to Nitzana, along the country’s southern border.

What drivers do meet at the end of the route is a simple red and white roadblock. To the left is the beginning of Israel’s security fence on the border of the Sinai Desert that is set to be completed this year. To the right is Israel’s Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza, which is closed to civilians. Next to that is a concrete wall separating Gaza and Israel. Litter dots the immediate area.

The Israeli army has stepped up security in the area since Egypt’s revolution began last year, and Israel issued a travel warning this month regarding the Sinai. On Aug. 5, terrorists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and crossed into Israel down the road from the Kerem Shalom crossing, where they were killed by Israeli security forces.

But across the street from the concrete wall, one woman sits smiling, in a purple food truck. Bold letters on the side of the truck advertise: “To soldiers with love, from the loving Tami Mommy.”

Tami Muyal, 62, has been operating the truck for 12 years, including the past 3 1/2 years in this location.

“There’s no way a soldier gets to me and leaves hungry or thirsty,” she said.

From 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Muyal offers soldiers anything from popsicles to baguette sandwiches at a discount or even for free, depending on how much cash they have on hand. She knows many of them by name.

“I had a dream to open a rest stop for soldiers,” said Muyal, formerly a bookkeeper. “It’s a challenge, not like sitting in an office. There’s sand, dust, heat, and it’s great.”

Muyal has moved her truck around Israel’s South, at one time stationing it in Gush Katif, Israel’s former settlement bloc in Gaza.

“A sniper could hit me right here,” she said, pointing beneath her brown, curly hair at a slightly wrinkled forehead.

Muyal doesn’t feel safe where she is on the Egyptian border, either. She says the border crossing has seemed abandoned, save for increased Israeli army traffic, since trouble began in the Sinai last year. She lives in the area, where she raised four children.

“I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” she said. “The situation is scary. I don’t think anything is clear. I’m here alone. Where would I go?”

Born in Tunisia, Muyal moved to Israel with her family when she was 10, in 1960. Since then she has lived in this area, for the past 40 years in the nearby town of Yesha. Despite the frequent threats of violence, Muyal declares confident faith in the Israeli army — “an army I’m proud of.”

While Muyal has inserted herself in the middle of the army’s activities, the nearby Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, less than than three miles away, is striving to continue a normal routine despite the unrest across the border. The area was the site of the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs Gaza.

Now the concrete wall that divides Gaza and Israel surrounds two-thirds of the kibbutz. Bright murals cover parts of the wall, but most of it remains gray.

“When you live here, you don’t see it,” Ofer Kissin, who heads the kibbutz’s security, said of the wall. “We’ve returned to routine life. It takes time, but we’re used to situations like this.”

Kissin said that five families had recently joined the kibbutz, bringing its total to 30. The collective nature of the kibbutz helps residents weather the attacks, Kissin says, but the true source of the community’s secure feeling comes from the military presence nearby.

“The army takes care of us,” he said. “Kids run around here at night.”

Kissin declined to give specifics on the Israel Defense Forces’ presence around Kerem Shalom, nor did the IDF provide details on its operations there.

Muyal also says the IDF allows her to stay calm even while working at the intersection of two tense borders.

“The soldiers are brave, they love the land, nothing scares them,” Muyal said. “I’m not ready to give in.”

Egypt denies Morsi letter sent to Israel


Israel said on Tuesday it had received a letter from Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi indicating he wanted to work for peace in the Middle East, but Morsi’s office later denied sending it.

An Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the denial was to be expected, due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Israeli President Shimon Peres’s office said earlier on Tuesday he had received a letter from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, in the first such missive to Israel since Morsi took office at the end of last month.

The letter, distributed by Peres’s office, said: “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including (the) Israeli people.”

Hours later, Morsi’s spokesman branded the letter a fake.

“The letter that the media reported to have been sent from President Morsi to Israel was fake. President Morsi has not sent anything to Israel,” spokesman Yasser Ali told Reuters.

An official from Peres’s office said the letter was authentic.

“It was received by the Egyptian ambassador and handed over (to Peres’s office). The denial was to be expected, given the letter’s high publicity in Israeli and Egyptian media,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Peres’s office had distributed a copy of the letter to media, as well as a copy of an Egyptian embassy message sent along with it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Egyptian embassy in Israel could not be reached for comment.

Last June, an Iranian news agency reported it spoke to Morsi a few hours before the announcement of the election results, but his spokesman then also denied that the interview took place.

A second Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Morsi’s letter as being one that gave “a general message with a positive spirit, but did not indicate any new direction” in bilateral relations.

ALARM IN ISRAEL OVER MORSI ELECTION

Politicians in Israel had expressed alarm in private over the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi in June’s presidential vote and fear that over time their country’s peace treaty with Egypt could be eroded.

Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak had guaranteed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel for decades.

The Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically hostile to the Jewish state and linked to Hamas Islamists who run the Gaza Strip. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The presidency in Israel is a largely ceremonial post. Nobel peace-prize-winner Peres had sent Morsi two letters, his office said, one congratulating him for winning the vote and a second letter of greetings to mark the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also sent Morsi a letter congratulating him on his electoral victory. He has not yet received a reply.

The Middle East peace process has stalled, with U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians breaking down in 2010, with no prospects of any swift resumption of talks.

Reporting and writing by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, editing by Michael Roddy

Egypt’s Morsi keen to renew long-severed Iran ties


Egypt’s Islamist President-elect Mohamed Morsi voiced interest in restoring long-severed ties with Tehran to create a strategic “balance” in the region, in an interview published on Monday with Iran’s Fars news agency.

Morsi’s comments are likely to unsettle Western powers as they try to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program, which they suspect it is using to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this.

Since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising last year, both countries have signaled their interest in renewing ties which were severed more than 30 years ago.

“We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region,” Morsi was quoted as saying in a transcript of the interview.

Fars said it had spoken to Morsi a few hours before Sunday’s announcement that declared him the winner of Egypt’s presidential election.

Asked to comment on reports that, if elected, his first state visit would be to Riyadh, Morsi said: “I didn’t say such a thing and until now my first international visits following my victory in the elections have not been determined.”

Rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran has been intensified by the “Arab Spring” revolts, which have altered political certainties in the Middle East and left the powerful Gulf neighbors vying for influence.

In a message to Morsi on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated him for winning the vote.

“I emphasize expanding bilateral ties and strengthening the friendship between the two nations,” Ahmadinejad wrote, according to state television.

Iran has hailed Morsi’s victory over former general Ahmed Shafik in Egypt’s first free presidential election as a “splendid vision of democracy” that marked the country’s “Islamic Awakening” – a phrase Iranian politicians use to describe the events of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath.

Western diplomats say in reality Egypt has little real appetite to change relations with Iran significantly, given the substantial issues the new president already has to face in cementing relations with regional and global powers.

“Iran is hoping for Egypt to become a deterrent against an Israeli attack as well as a regional player that Iran can use as a potential counter-balance against Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said a diplomat based in Tehran.

“Egypt, at least under present circumstances, would side with either of these against Iran.”

CAMP DAVID REVIEW

In contrast to comments Morsi made in a televised address after his victory was announced on Sunday, Fars news quoted him as saying Egypt’s Camp David peace accord with Israel “will be reviewed”, without elaborating.

The peace treaty remains a lynchpin of U.S. Middle East policy and, despite its unpopularity with many Egyptians, was staunchly upheld by Mubarak, who suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which Morsi belongs.

The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is vehemently critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists and political upheaval in neighboring Egypt with growing concern.

Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led in 1980 to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, among the biggest and most influential in the Middle East. They currently have reciprocal interest sections, but not at ambassadorial level.

Egypt’s foreign minister said last year that Cairo was ready to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which has hailed most Arab Spring uprisings as anti-Western rebellions inspired by its own Islamic Revolution.

But Iran has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s closest Arab ally, who is grappling with a revolt against his rule, and at home has continued to reject demands for reform, which spilled onto the street following the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy