Sixty-five found executed in Syria’s Aleppo, activists say


At least 65 people were found shot dead with their hands bound in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday in a “new massacre” in the near two-year revolt against President Bashar Assad, activists said.

Opposition campaigners blamed the government but it was impossible to confirm who was responsible. Assad's forces and rebels have been battling in Syria's commercial hub since July and both have been accused of carrying out summary executions.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday the fighting had forced more than 700,000 people to flee. World powers fear the conflict could increasingly envelop Syria's neighbors including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, further destabilizing an already explosive region.

Opposition activists posted a video of a man filming at least 51 muddied male bodies alongside what they said was the Queiq River in Aleppo's rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.

The bodies had bullet wounds in their heads and some of the victims appeared to be young, possibly teenagers, dressed in jeans, shirts and trainers.

Aleppo-based opposition activists who asked not to be named for security reasons blamed pro-Assad militia fighters.

They said the men had been executed and dumped in the river before floating downstream into the rebel area. State media did not mention the incident.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which says it provides objective information about casualties on both sides of Syria's war from a network of monitors, said the footage was evidence of a new massacre and the death toll could rise as high as 80.

“They were killed only because they are Muslims,” said a bearded man in another video said to have been filmed in central Bustan al-Qasr after the bodies were removed from the river. A pickup truck with a pile of corpses was parked behind him.

STALEMATE

It is hard for Reuters to verify such reports from inside Syria because of restrictions on independent media.

Rebels are stuck in a stalemate with government forces in Aleppo – Syria's most populous city which is divided roughly in half between the two sides.

The revolt started as a peaceful protest movement against more than four decades of rule by Assad and his family, but turned into an armed rebellion after a government crackdown.

About 712,000 Syrian refugees have registered in other countries in the region or are awaiting processing as of Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency Said on Tuesday.

“We have seen an unrelenting flow of refugees across all borders. We are running double shifts to register people,” Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters in Geneva.

On Monday, the United Nations warned it would not be able to help millions of Syrians affected by the fighting without more money and appealed for donations at an aid conference this week in Kuwait to meet its $1.5 billion target.

Speaking ahead of that conference, Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah said on Tuesday there was concern Syria could turn into a failed state and put the entire region at risk.

Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said the bulk of the current aid was going to government-controlled areas and called on donors in Kuwait to make sure they were even-handed.

MISSILES

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, insurgents including al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters captured a security agency after days of heavy fighting, according to an activist video issued on Tuesday.

Some of the fighters were shown carrying a black flag with the Islamic declaration of faith and the name of the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

The war has become heavily sectarian, with rebels who mostly come from the Sunni Muslim majority fighting an army whose top generals are mostly from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad has framed the revolt as a foreign-backed conspiracy and blames the West and Sunni Gulf states.

Fighting also took place in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, between rebels and Kurdish militants, the Observatory said.

In Turkey, a second pair of Patriot missile batteries being sent by NATO countries are now operational, a German security official said on Tuesday.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands each committed to sending two batteries and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked for help to bolster its air defenses against possible missile attack from Syria.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Kuwait, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Syrian minister says gov’t will not use chemical weapons on rebels


Syria will only use its chemical weapons on threats from outside of the country, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Monday that the country’s chemical weapons are being guarded by the military, and that they would not be used against the rebels, nor could they fall into the wrong hands, according to reports.

Makdissi’s news conference was carried live on Syrian state television.

U.S. Pentagon officials discussed during meetings last week with Israeli defense officials whether Israel could destroy Syrian chemical weapons facilities in the event of the collapse of the Syrian government, The New York Times reported

During a briefing on the Golan Heights late last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is concerned about chemical weapons scattered throughout Syria falling into the wrong hands, and said that Israel is monitoring that possibility.

“We obviously are not the only player in the region that is anxious; anxious about the fact that an anarchic situation will bring about the transfer of sensitive systems into the wrong hands,” Barak said. “There is no small amount of chemical weapons dispersed all around the country, and there is a lot of weaponry in the hands of the civilians.”

Syria reportedly moving chemical weapons


U.S. officials are warily watching as Syria begins moving undeclared chemical weapons out of its storage facilities.

Syria’s Assad regime may be preparing to use the weapons against rebels fighting its control, or may be moving them to safeguard them against opponents and to confuse western governments, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Opposition leaders and western governments say as many as 15,000 people have been killed by the regime in nearly 16 months of the uprising.

The weapons in transit – which reportedly include serving nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide – are creating increasing concern in Washington and elsewhere.

“This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch,” one U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.”

The Obama administration has begun to hold classified briefings about the new intelligence, the paper reported.

The Syrian government rejected reports that it was moving its weapons.

“This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue,” said Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told the Journal. “If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can’t they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?”

Syria: Deal reached with Arab League on unrest


Syria said on Tuesday it had reached a deal with an Arab League committee tasked with finding a way to end seven months of unrest and starting a dialogue between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents.

State media reported the deal, without giving details, saying an official announcement of the agreement would be made at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Wednesday.

The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on an uprising which erupted in March against his rule, inspired by revolutions which have toppled three Arab leaders this year.

The government blames militants who it says are armed and financed from abroad for the violence and says they have killed 1,100 members of the security forces.

Arab League ministers met Syrian officials in Qatar on Sunday to seek a way to end the bloodshed.

Arab diplomats said the ministers proposed that Syria release immediately prisoners held since February, withdraw security forces from the streets, permit deployment of Arab League monitors and start a dialogue with the opposition.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the ministerial committee, also said Assad must launch serious reforms if Syria were to avoid further violence.

A Lebanese official with close ties to the Syrian government said Syria had put forward its own proposals to the Arab League.

“The Syrian authorities want the opposition to drop weapons, the Arab states to end their funding for the weapons and the opposition, and an end to the media campaign against Syria,” the official told Reuters.

It was not clear how much those demands were reflected in the final agreement announced by Syria’s state media.

The United States said it welcomed efforts to put a stop to violence in Syria but it still believed Assad should step down.

Many in Syria’s opposition have ruled out any dialogue with Assad while the violence continues.

Omar Idlibi, a member of the grassroots Local Coordination Committee and member of the National Council, said the opposition wanted to see details of the agreement.

“We fear that this agreement is another attempt to give the regime a new chance to crush this revolution and kill more Syrians,” he said.

“It helps the Syrian regime to remain in power while the demands of the people are clear in terms of toppling the regime and its unsuitability even to lead a transitional period.”

Assad told Russian Television on Sunday he would cooperate with the opposition, but in another interview he warned Western powers they would cause an “earthquake” in the Middle East if they intervened in Syria, after protesters demanded outside protection to stop the killing of civilians.

Syria sits at the heart of the volatile Middle East, sharing borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

“It is the faultline, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” he said. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”

Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Rosalind Russell

Iran will attend ‘12 Olympics despite ‘revolting’ logo


Iran said it will attend the 2012 Olympics in London despite its protest of the Games’ logo, which it says spells the word Zion.

Bahram Afsharzadeh, the secretary general of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, on Sunday told Iran’s Press-TV that “we will participate and play gloriously in the London games.”

His comments came after British Prime Minister David Cameron told the British community weekly Jewish News over the weekend that Iran is “completely paranoid” over the logo.

“If the Iranians don’t want to come, don’t come; we won’t miss you,” he said. “It would be a crazy reason for not coming.”

Cameron added that the athletes who refuse to compete against Israeli athletes would not be welcome.

The emblem, which features jagged shapes representing the numbers 2012, has been criticized for its design, which organizers say is modern and intended to catch the attention of the younger generation.

Last month, Mohammad Aliabadi, the head of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, accused the British Olympic organizers of “racism” in a letter to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, the Iranian ILNA news agency reported, according to news agencies.

“The use of the word Zion by the designer of Olympics logo in the emblem of the Olympics Games 2012 is a very revolting act,” Aliabadi wrote, warning that if it was not changed it could “affect the participation of several countries, especially like Iran, which insists on following principles and values.”

The International Olympic Committee rejected the complaint.

Nakba Removal From Classrooms Spurs Threats


Israeli Arab leaders threatened to “revolt” after Israel’s education chief said the word Nakba would be removed from their classrooms.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar made his announcement Sunday as part of a briefing on the start of the 2009-2010 school year. Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic, is used in the Arab community to describe the birth of the State of Israel.

School begins Tuesday throughout Israel.

“[T]he word Nakba, whose meaning is similar to Holocaust in this context, will no longer be used,” Sa’ar said. “The creation of the State of Israel cannot be referred to as a tragedy, and the education system in the Arab sector will revise its studies in elementary schools.”

A textbook teaching the Nakba in third-grade Arab classes was introduced two years ago by then-Education Minister Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party.

The Follow-Up Committee on Higher Education, which represents the Arab public on education issues in Israel, at a news conference Monday said it rejected the decision and would refuse to implement it in Arab schools.

The dark side of Chanukah


Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.

Voter Revolt


Alan David never gave his ballots a second thought after voting in dozens of presidential elections during the decades he lived in New York.

Then, after moving here two years ago, he voted in Palm Beach County for the first time last week.”I looked at the ballot and said, ‘What the heck is this?'” recalled David, who lives in the Century Village community of West Palm Beach. “I voted, but I don’t know what I voted. It was so confusing.”David isn’t the only Palm Beacher who left the polls on Election Day unsure if his vote helped or hurt his candidate, Al Gore.

Even before the polls closed, voters were flooding the state’s elections department with angry calls, demanding recounts and even re-votes as many realized they may have voted for the wrong candidate.Now, as the nation awaits the outcome of the legal wrangling and the vote recounts, residents of this heavily Jewish region of South Florida are not only questioning their vote, they are angry at the way they are being portrayed in the media as older, confused citizens.

Ed Lewis, who lives at the Aberdeen Golf and Country Club in Boynton Beach, said he carefully studied the sample ballot he received in the mail before the election and mapped out his votes. So he was shocked when he arrived at the voting booths and couldn’t understand the ballot.

“Even though I’m 66, I’m very bright,” he said. “I voted correctly, but I had to spend at least 20 seconds or more reading the ballot. There is no question in my mind there was a problem with the ballot.”The confusion for many stemmed from the way the ballot was structured, with the proximity of Gore’s name to the punch hole designated for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan apparently causing many Gore supporters to vote for Buchanan accidentally.

Sheila and Ed Levins of Boca Raton had volunteered to help run the polls at the Kings Point community in Delray Beach, where some of the worst confusion has been reported.

Sheila Levins said many people dissolved into tears after leaving the voting booths there.

“This was very upsetting. People started crying, saying, ‘I voted for Buchanan,'” she said. “I think it’s a terrible disgrace. Somebody has to stand up somewhere about this. I’m an optimist; I believe the truth will come out.”

Some people at Kings Point realized they had made a mistake and asked the site’s supervisor for help, Ed Levins said, adding that tempers flared when the supervisor told them there was nothing that could be done.”I really feel for these people. They find out they voted for the wrong person and nothing can be done,” he said.

“Quite a few of the older men who came to vote were so proud that they were wearing their medals and combat ribbons that they earned during World War II,” he said. “They were part of the group of people that Tom Brokaw called ‘Our Greatest Generation.’ To deny these men and women their vote is a great injustice.”

Adding insult to the injury, say many residents, is the unflattering media coverage that has focused on Palm Beach County voters, painting them as seniors too sunbaked and dim-witted to understand a simple ballot.”For the men who put their life on the line and for the women who worked the munitions factories building the ships, planes and tanks for their sons and husbands, to be made fun of and joked about by the media is embarrassing and a poor example for our young people,” Ed Levins said.

“As far as I am concerned, the people of Palm Beach County have brought to light the problems in using the present antiquated methods of voting. The over 19,000 discarded votes were comprised of people of all ages and races from every walk of life,” he added. “Hopefully, something constructive will be accomplished so that this will never happen again.”

Meanwhile, the nation waits for the courts to decide whether Palm Beach County will have to hold a re-vote before the next president is announced.

Democrats and Republicans are also closely monitoring the absentee ballots trickling into Florida from overseas, which, although traditionally coming from military members who favor Republicans, could swing Florida’s vote toward Al Gore because of the several thousand ballots requested by voters in Israel.But some here aren’t so sure if the confusion warrants a re-vote.

“I do not believe in rerunning the election,” said a senior at the Kaplan Jewish Community Center in West Palm Beach who asked not to be identified.

“I am for Gore, but I don’t think there is any indication of fraud,” the voter said. “I think people should have read the ballot better.”

+