U.S. reviewing Sinai peacekeeper mission, looks at automating jobs


The U.S. military said on Tuesday it has formally notified Egypt and Israel that it is reviewing multinational peacekeeping operations in the insurgency-wracked Sinai, including ways to use technology to do the job of some U.S. troops there.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said using remote surveillance technology could eventually allow the United States to withdraw hundreds of its roughly 700 peacekeeping troops.

Installed to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission has come under increased scrutiny over the past year after six peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb. Four U.S. soldiers were among them.

The United States believes that the structure of the more than three-decade old operation may be outdated.

“I don't think anyone's talking about a (complete) withdrawal,” said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, declining to enter into specifics about any potential troop reduction.

“I think we're just going to look at the number of people we have there and see if there are functions that can be automated or done through remote monitoring.”

Changing the MFO mission could be a sensitive proposition to both Israel and Egypt.

Cairo sees the MFO as part of a relationship with Israel that, while unpopular with many Egyptians, brings it $1.3 billion in annual U.S. defense aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarization of their sovereign Sinai territory.

For the Israelis, the MFO offers strategic reassurance, especially following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's toppling two years ago of an elected Islamist regime hostile to the Jewish-majority state next door.

Among the options being considered are use of remote sensors or surveillance to do some of the work in the Sinai, the peninsula that lies between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

“What we are looking at is, this has been in existence for 30 years and the mission has remained largely unchanged,” Davis said.

“What we want to be able to do is look at the core things that that mission provides and see how we can leverage modern technologies, remote surveillance capabilities, etc., to be able to carry out that mission.”

Egyptian security efforts in the Sinai have suffered major setbacks, including the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian airliner and Friday's bombing of two armored personnel carriers that killed seven.

Islamic State insurgents claimed responsibility for both incidents.

Israel vs. ISIS


The tragic attacks, first in Sinai, then in Beirut, and now in Paris, should remind us that the fight against ISIS — the fight against Islamic terror — belongs to no one country and no one religion. We are all threatened, we must all fight, and with every means possible.

Then why is it, I wonder, that Europe is fighting terror with one hand tied behind its back?

The havoc the terrorists wreaked upon Paris last week may be new to the West, but it’s old news to Israel. Gunmen shooting unarmed innocents? Ma’alot, 1974. Bombs made of propane tanks and nails? Afula, 1994. Suicide bombers in restaurants? Sbarro pizzeria, Jerusalem, 2001.  

One year ago this week, the Israel Defense Forces announced that undercover agents from its Duvdevan unit uncovered a 30-person Hamas terror network just as it was preparing to carry out a simultaneous attack on numerous soft targets around Jerusalem, including the city’s Teddy soccer stadium.   

Israel has developed a unique expertise in thwarting attacks before they happen. When it comes to fighting Islamic terror, other countries are, to borrow an unfortunate phrase from President Barack Obama, the JV team. Israel is varsity.

So in the international effort to disrupt and dismantle ISIS, why isn’t Israel playing front and center?

To defeat ISIS and the ideology that spawns it will take more than military might. But a combination of intelligence and military power is certainly part of the solution, and Israel could and should be one of the West’s most effective assets.

It’s a lot easier to hit ISIS in the Sinai by taking off from southern Israel, for example, than from Germany or Turkey. The Golan Heights looks down on ISIS positions in what was once Syria. Beyond geography, Israel has decades of experience in human and signal intelligence and counter-terrorism. It also has very cool toys, like the Super Heron drone. In July, an Israeli drone killed two Hezbollah operatives and three members of a pro-Assad militia driving on a road in Syria. It would certainly give ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pause to know he was on an Israeli target list.

In short, those who want to defeat ISIS have a potential front-line ally with equipment, expertise and experience.   

Right now, Israel’s role remains behind the scenes. Following the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left hinting that Israel has been useful in helping France, but clearly its ability to join a gathering international coalition is limited.

The list of countries that wants ISIS dead and gone grows longer by the week: France, Turkey, the NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Russia, Egypt.  Jordan sent fighter planes to carry out bombing raids against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa long before France did.

The problem is that many of these countries find it more useful to cooperate  in the shadows with Israel — a greater demon than ISIS, evidently, in the eyes of their people. The fact that it is Israeli radar that collected telltale signals that a bomb took down the Russian airliner over Sinai has complicated the investigation with the Egyptian government, according to CNN.   

This is frustrating to the governments themselves, which know how effective and useful Israel can be.

Alon Ben-David, the defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, told me the clandestine — but well-known — cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States in fighting ISIS and al-Qaida is a “mistress-like relationship”— it takes place only behind closed doors.

That’s also true, by the way, in areas of agriculture, water and industry. Israeli consultants on non-Israeli passports are a meaningful part of Gulf Arab economies — but all the light they bring remains in the shadows.

As heart-wrenching as ISIS’ attacks have been in Sinai, Beirut and Paris, they may also present an opportunity to shake up the Middle East status quo and bring Israel in from the cold. The old fight was Jew versus Muslim. The new and far more relevant fight is moderates versus extremists, modernity versus medievalism. On that front, Israel is the natural ally of many Arab states (whose degree of moderateness is, of course, relative).

The fight against ISIS, in other words, could become a historic milestone in Israel’s regional legitimacy.

We’ll see if Arab leaders have the good sense to go in this direction. Israeli military and diplomatic experts tell me that what would help, enormously, is for Israel itself to make a public and concerted effort to move toward a rapprochement with its Palestinian neighbors.

“The Gulf leaders are begging for some sort of progress,” a senior Israeli military official told me in early November, before the Paris attacks increased the urgency. “Not even a deal, just movement toward a deal.”

An Israeli-Palestinian thaw would help bring the Israel-Arab cooperation out into the open and begin Israel’s integration in the region and the world.  And it would help knock ISIS back on its heels. For decades, Israel fought alone, or almost alone. How different would the world look if that were to change?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Russian airline: ‘External force’ brought down plane in Sinai


The Russian airplane that crashed in the Sinai was brought down by an “external force,” according to the airline.

Alexander Smirnov, the deputy general director of Kogalymavia airline, also known as Metrojet, told reporters on Monday in Russia that there were no technical failures on the plane, which he said was in excellent condition.

“There is no combination of system failures that could have broken the plane apart in the air,” he said,according to RT.

The airline’s deputy director, Viktor Yung, said the crew appeared to have been disabled before the crash as well.

“As the catastrophic incident started to develop, the crew members were rendered completely incapable,” he said, according to RT. “This explains why they didn’t attempt to contact air traffic and report the incident happening on board.”

The officials appear to be alluding to a bomb or sabotage. All 224 people aboard the plane were killed in Saturday’s crash, including a former program director for Hillel Russia.

The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for bringing down the flight on Saturday, saying it was in retaliation for Russian airstrikes on rebels in Syria’s civil war. Russia’s Transportation Ministry has rejected the claim, saying the group did not offer any evidence as to how it was able to cause the plane to crash.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts do not believe that weapons held by the Islamic State could down a plane at the altitude of the flight when it came down, the BBC reported.

Russian officials had opened an investigation into the crash, looking for gross negligence and safety violations.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that though there is no direct evidence yet of terrorist involvement in the crash, it cannot be ruled out, according to reports.

Refugees a sign of unraveling world order


As the known and secret parts of the Iran nuke deal spin into place like the uncertain number of Iranian centrifuges, President Barack Obama has succeeded in winning one-third-plus votes in the U.S. Senate to defeat attempts to overturn what he deems his legacy foreign policy achievement. Soon, the shouting will be over. Optimists will hope for the best. Pessimists during this Holy Season will pray to G-d that the worst does not happen.

So now would be an appropriate time to look at the P5+1 Iran deal from “ground zero”: the greater Middle East situation—from Afghanistan to North Africa’s Maghreb and the East African Horn—as well as the spillover of the current refugee crisis besetting Europe.

Who among our friends and foes is stable — and who is unstable?

The perennial linchpin of U.S. Mideast policy — Aircraft Carrier Israel — remains securely afloat despite tensions with Washington, and increasing threats at her borders, from Iranian proxies in Lebanon and adjacent to the Golan in the North and Hamastan and the Sinai in the South. For now, a King Abdullah-led Jordan remains afloat thanks to massive help from the US and quiet security help from Israel. Egypt, despite soured relations with the U.S., has for now thwarted the Muslim Brotherhood. The promise of Tahrir Square is but a distant memory as the largest Arab nation is now led by a president whose goal is economic growth and stable security. Otherwise, the region is a total mess.

There is:

– The virtual collapse of the “post-Petraeus” Surge, precarious Iraqi State, concomitant with the rise of ISIS. Will a unified Iraq survive? Not if the Kurds are given a say. As for Christians, they no longer have a say, as the world stood by as historic Christian communities were ethnically cleansed.

– The unraveling of our alliance with Afghanistan’s Karzai regime.

– The emboldening of Iran-backed terrorists along a “Shiite arc” stretching from Iraq to Yemen.

– The panic of the Gulf States, directly adjacent to Iran with weakening U.S. support, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, the very country the Obama Administration once touted as an anti-terrorist success story.

– The collapse of Libya into chaos following the U.S. “leading from behind” anti-Qaddafi coup. That move was largely engineered by Europeans who, ironically, sought to prevent the refugee exodus that they ultimately made much worse.

– A feckless U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa that has brought no peace to Ethiopia-Eritrea or Somalia, with terrorist atrocities spilling over into Kenya and Nigeria.

And now, Europe finds itself confronting a tsunami of refugees that evokes memories of the millions of displaced persons at the end of World War II.  The crisis in Europe is caused, not only by people seeking a better economic future as on our southern border, but by masses fleeing failed states, internecine violence, civil war and terrorism; people so desperate that parents are literally casting their children onto the waters with the protection of little more than bulrushes.

Refugees from Afghanistan flowing into Pakistan and Iraq, refugees from Syria (some 2 million) flowing into Turkey, Jordan and beyond, refugees from Lebanon fleeing Beirut’s fetid streets, refugees from Libya becoming Mediterranean “boat people,” refugees from Somalia and Eritrea adding to the outflow. You can read their faces and body language: these are people who see no future nor hope of change.

If they survive the stormy crossing, their reception is barbed wire or trains to nowhere in Hungary or Slovakia where neo-fascist politicians promise to give refuge only to “Christians.” Germany is their new promised land, with Chancellor Merkel desperately trying to piece together a continent-wide response.

This is a seminal moment for the European Union. It needs to show real leadership, vision and cohesiveness—but don’t hold your breath.

Not so long ago, any crisis of such proportions would spur a robust American response. But now the world isn’t sure where we stand. Washington failed to knock out ISIS/ISIL when it really was still “a jayvee team,” and failed to enforce our announced anti-Assad “red lines.” The resulting mass murder and mayhem has literally bled over into the Mediterranean refugee maelstrom.

It is into this chaos that the P5+1 — led by the US — has handed a virtual blank check (between $150-600 billion) to the Iranian regime. Tehran has its gameplan of regional hegemony-but what’s ours?

It is hard to imagine that President Obama, in homestretch of his two-term tenure is going to change course in Middle East. From his Cairo Speech to the Iran Nukes deal, he has bet the house that moderate Islamists would emerge from direct engagement. It never happened in Egypt. As for Iran? In 2009, the freedom-starved Iranian people went to the streets of Tehran chanting President Obama’s name. He never answered their plea for help in overturning tyranny,  instead, as with Assad’s Syria, he cut a deal that could keep the Mullahs in power indefinitely.

So it appears that the Europeans will have to solve this latest crisis on their own. But at the least, the American people should demand a robust debate in the media and among presidential candidates of both parties about how the U.S. can again “lead from the front” and prevent the post-WWII global order, including the EU and NATO, from unraveling.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a hisotrian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

‘Sky Defender’ protects flights to Eilat against missiles from Sinai


Arkia Israel and Israir Airlines, which share the route to Israel’s southern tourism Mecca Eilt, have received a protective system against ground-to-Air missiles. The upgrade was installed for fear of terrorist organizations operating in the Sinai who might try to harm Israeli passenger jets flying near the border with Egypt, Yediot Ahronot reported Monday.

The order to install the systems on planes was issued two weeks ago by the security apparatus, in the days when ISIS-affiliated Islamists attacked Egyptian army and police bases in the Sinai. In recent days, Israelis flying to Eilat have noticed a prominent addition to the belly of the Israeli passenger aircraft.

The anti-missile defense system, known as Magen Rakia (Heb: Sky Defender), is an active protection system for civil aircraft against missile attacks, developed by El-Op (a subsidiary of Elbit Systems). The Magen Rakia system incorporates advanced fiber-laser with thermal imaging technology manufactured by Elbit, to produce a strong signal that jams a number of wave lengths, causing infrared-guided shoulder-fired homing missiles to stray from their path and lose their target.

The system is mounted inside a pod, on the belly of the aircraft. It has four sensors that allow detection, identification, tracking and ultimately disrupting the orbit of each rocket fired towards the airplane.

When a missile is launched at the plane, it is perceived and recognized by the infrared sensors. The sensors follow the missile until it reaches the appropriate distance, then directs at it a laser beam that “blinds” the missile’s guidance system “eye,” causing the missile to veer off course and miss the plane.

Last February, Elbit and the Ministry of Transportation conducted a final, successful test of the system, which has proven its effectiveness against a variety of threats. This was followed by a process of fitting Israeli passenger planes to carry the system.

Israel has committed $76 million to the development and procurement of the new system.

In recent days, several Arkia and Israir Boeing 757 and Airbus A320 planes began to carry the system, and additional installations are in the works.

Israel says Islamic State’s Sinai assault aimed to help Hamas get arms


Israel accused Hamas on Tuesday of supporting last week's assaults by Islamic State affiliates on Egyptian forces in the Sinai in hope of freeing up arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip.

The remarks followed Israeli allegations that Hamas members provided training and medical treatment for the Sinai insurgents – charges dismissed by the Palestinian Islamist group as a bid to further fray its troubled ties with Cairo.

Egypt said more than 100 insurgents and 17 of its soldiers were killed in Wednesday's simultaneous assaults, carried out against military checkpoints around the North Sinai towns of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. Islamic State's Egypt affiliate, Sinai Province, took credit for the attacks.

Rafah straddles the border between Egypt and Gaza and had long seen smuggling to the Hamas-controlled enclave. But Cairo has been cracking down on such activity and deems Hamas a threat to Egyptian interests.

An Israeli intelligence colonel responsible for monitoring the borders with Egypt and Gaza said on Tuesday that Hamas, short of weaponry after its war against Israel last year, supported the Sinai assaults with the “objective of opening up a conduit” for renewed smuggling.

“Why was it is so very important for them (Hamas) to develop the connection with Sinai Province? Because they need the raw materials that would enable the military build-up in Gaza,” the colonel said in remarks aired by Israel Radio.

“To carry out high-quality smuggling required a special operation,” added the colonel, whose name was not published.

Hamas said Israel was conducting “a systematic incitement campaign”.

“The Egyptian side understands that Hamas had no connection to what happened in Sinai and also realizes the efforts Hamas is making to keep Gaza away from what happens there,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Palestinian movement.

Egyptian officials were not immediately available to respond to the Israeli colonel's allegations.

On Friday, Egyptian military sources said there was evidence that individuals from Hamas had participated in the Sinai battles but not of any wider organizational links.

Though they share hostility to Israel, Hamas and Islamic State have been at odds within Gaza. The insurgents threatened last week to extend their self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq to Gaza by toppling Hamas, which they described as insufficiently stringent about religious rule.

That strife ends at the Sinai border, Israel argues.

“Hamas is fighting ISIS (Islamic State) in the Strip, but on the other side there is cooperation between Hamas elements from Gaza and ISIS in Sinai,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement on Tuesday.

At least three drugs smugglers killed in attack along Egypt border


At least three attackers in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, probably drugs smugglers, were killed after they opened fire on Israeli soldiers across the border on Wednesday and wounded two, the Israeli military said.

The attackers fired guns and an anti-tank missile at the Israelis and two soldiers were wounded by fire directed at them from Egypt, the army said in a statement.

“(An) inquiry suggests the cross-border attack on a patrol was a violent drugs smuggling attempt,” it said. “The perpetrators opened fire from three locations including from a car driving along the border… (Soldiers) responded and killed at least three of the attackers.”

Egyptian security sources said Egyptian forces later clashed with several gunmen who had likely attacked the Israeli border patrol. No casualties were reported in the confrontation and there was no immediate comment from the Egyptian military.

Security concerns and an influx of tens of thousands of African migrants prompted Israel to erect the fence, a 160 mile long barrier that runs from the Red Sea port of Eilat to the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean.

The fence was completed in 2012. Earlier that year, attacks by Islamist militants operating from Sinai killed an Israeli soldier and a civilian who was working on it.

Islamist militants are active in the peninsula, which borders southern Israel, though assaults across the fenced frontier are rare.

Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has been trying to curtail Islamist militant operations in Sinai. Wednesday's attack occurred about half-way between Eilat and the Gaza Strip, the army said.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Mahmoud Mourad in Cairo; Editing by Tom Heneghan

Power to the table


While we were having our meals in the sukkah this year, I kept thinking about another holiday. This is odd because Sukkot has a strong and distinctive personality. The very idea of building a sukkah is unusual. For eight days, this little hut is the center of our lives, which, in Jewish terms, means it’s where we eat.

The sukkah itself conveys important symbols, from the impermanence of life to our connection with our wandering ancestors to the Jewish ideals of humility and gratitude. Countless sermons and essays have been written on the many layers of rich meaning associated with this holiday.

It’s no surprise, then, that when you’re inside a sukkah, it is the sukkah that is the star of the show, especially when it’s beautifully decorated. And when words of Torah are spoken, those words usually connect directly to the uniqueness of the holiday.

This year, though, my mind wandered elsewhere. As we celebrated night after night in our little hut, it struck me that Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday that isolates so clearly the most sublime Jewish ritual of all — the family table. As beautiful as our sukkah was (thanks to my daughter Eva), my thoughts were mostly on the table.

It was as if Sukkot morphed into “the holiday of the table” — the holiday in which we are commanded to take our tables outside and give them only minimal protection. The sukkah thus became the spiritual envelope for the real star of the show — the table where we shared our festive meals.

Maybe it was simply that the meals themselves reminded me so much of our weekly Friday night meals — only, we were having them inside a hut. Instead of distracting me, the hut focused my attention on the human gathering. I realized the power of a table to bring people together. After all, is any ritual more essential to our humanity than the sharing of a meal around a table?

And has any ritual been more essential to the survival of Judaism than the weekly gathering around the Shabbat table?

It always blows me away to imagine my distant ancestors in some Moroccan village sitting at their own table and reciting the exact same blessings we do on a Friday night — and probably eating the same spicy fish. It’s what all our ancestors scattered around the globe have done for millennia: Once a week, they sat around the Shabbat table and made it holy.

It also impresses me that 3,300 years ago at Sinai, after the Jews were released from bondage, a ritual was born that seemed to anticipate our modern-day version of slavery — our addiction to smartphones. Is there a smarter antidote to this addiction than the weekly holiday of Shabbat, where we turn it all off and reconnect with one another and with everything real? That human connection around a table is what I responded to, more than anything, inside the sukkah this year.

When I mentioned these ideas last week at a Sukkot lunch with students and staff of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), who share our building in Koreatown, I was delighted to receive a follow-up email from AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy, elaborating on the importance of the table in Jewish tradition.

Among other things, he pointed out that the codification of Jewish law, compiled centuries ago by Rabbi Joseph Caro, is called the “prepared table” (Shulchan Arukh). “For me it meant that our table is now our altar,” Rabbi Levy wrote. “A sacred place at which we offer the precious gifts each of us brings to the table and receive the gifts everyone else brings.”

Rabbi Levy spoke of the table as “the place where we come together to nurture and nourish each other,” and he mentioned an insightful book titled “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” by Rachel Naomi Remen.

“Everybody is a story,” Remen writes in her introduction. “When I was a child, people sat around the kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along.”

The continuation of the great Jewish story has depended not on the quality of the structures we’ve built, but on the quality of the tables we’ve set. It is around these tables that the values, stories and wisdom of our tradition have been handed down from one generation to the next.

Placing our holy table inside a humble hut during the holiday of Sukkot dramatizes its power and reminds us to continue this transcendent ritual once we return home.


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

Palestinians, Egyptians deny reports of Sinai offer for state


Palestinian and Egyptian officials both denied reports that Egypt offered to the Palestinian Authority part of the Sinai Peninsula for annexation by Gaza to form a Palestinian state.

According to the media reports that circulated Monday, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi offered P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas 1,600 square kilometers (approximately 620 square miles) located on the border in return for the Palestinian Authority waiving its demands for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh on Monday denied the reports, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

Abbas also was reported as saying that an unnamed senior Egyptian official offered to settle Palestinian refugees on land adjacent to Gaza.

“We will not accept any offer that doesn’t achieve the Palestinian people’s aspirations and goals to gain freedom and independence and establish an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Rudeineh said, according to Wafa.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry denied the offer was made and added that the initiative was actually presented in the past by ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

The Palestinians asserted that the plan was once floated by a former head of the Israeli National Security Council in order to deal with the Palestinian issue.

Israeli government ministers welcomed the idea on Monday.

 

U.S. designates Sinai group that attacked Israel as terrorist


The Obama administration designated a Sinai-based group as terrorist in part because of its attacks on Israel. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) shares an ideology with al-Qaeda but is not a formal affiliate, the U.S. State Department said in a statement April 9.

The group “was responsible for a July 2012 attack against a Sinai pipeline exporting gas to Israel,” the statement said. “In August 2012, ABM claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the southern Israeli city of Eilat, and in September 2012, ABM militants attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing one soldier and injuring another.”

The statement also noted the group’s deadly attacks on Egyptian officials and on tourists.

The Foreign Terrorist Organization designation, which is made by the departments of State, Treasury and Justice, criminalizes any support for the named groups.

New Israeli detention center falls flat


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

After three days of walking in the cold and snow, many of them on hunger strike, 150 African asylum seekers were forced onto buses and taken back to the new detention center in the Negev desert. The detainees say they want Israel to grant them refugee status and allow them to stay permanently – Israel says they are illegal migrants and should return to their countries as soon as possible.

Last weekend, Israel opened a new “open” detention center called Holot. The migrants were free to come and go during the day, although they had to be present at night. They are also not allowed to work.

The migrants say this new detention center is no better than the jail at Saharonim and the government should legalize their status.

Shouting “Freedom yes, prison no!” and holding signs in Hebrew that read “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the 150 cold and hungry Sudanese and Eritreans entered Jerusalem and the remains of the worst snow storm in decades. They were joined by 100 other asylum seekers from Tel Aviv, where many African migrants live, many of them illegally.

When asked why they were marching on parliament, Mubarak, who calls himself a refugee from Sudan who asked not to give his last name, told The Media Line that it is “because we have spent two years in prison, because we need our freedom.”

Mubarak fled Sudan in 2012 because of war, leaving behind his nine brothers and sisters. He crossed the Sinai desert and entered Israel illegally. Since then, he has been imprisoned for much of his time in Israel.

“I miss them very much. If I didn't see them for one hour I would miss them, and I haven’t seen them for almost two years,” Mubarak said.

Israeli officials say the new Holot facility is meant to make life easier for the illegal migrants until they can return to their home countries. Last year Israel deported some 4000 asylum seekers back to south Sudan after the country received independence. The refugees say it is dangerous for them to return and most want to stay permanently in Israel. Israel has granted refugee status to fewer than 200 people since 1948.

“If these people were only seeking to work, they could have gotten to Be'er Sheva and disappeared,” Knesset member Dov Khenin of Hadash told The Media Line. “Instead, they decided to come here united to Jerusalem to deliver a different message, which is that they are asylum seekers and they deserve rights.”

The group of 150 asylum seekers left Holot for Jerusalem on Sunday after a storm brought snow and sub-zero temperatures across much of the country. Some had been on a hunger strike for three days prior to the march. They walked 100 miles wearing only light jackets, jeans and tennis shoes. Some wore sandals, and many suffered from blisters on their feet. At least one was hospitalized for cold-related symptoms.

Israel has been struggling to handle 50,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in the country since 2006, most of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan. Fleeing internal crises, many of the migrants crossed into Israel illegally via the Egyptian border. According to the UN, Israel is not allowed to deport the migrants.

In response to the influx, the Israeli government completed a permanent wall along its southern border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in 2013 at a cost of over $270 million. After the wall was built, the number of immigrants entering Israel plummeted from almost 10,000 in the first six months of 2012 to fewer than 50 in the second half.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken a hard line with the asylum seekers. “The law is the law, and it also applies to illegal infiltrators seeking work,” he said. “The infiltrators who were brought to the special detention center can live in it or can return to their countries.”

Asylum seekers, activists and politicians deride the Holot facility as nothing more than a prison where “freedom” is limited.

“Below the surface the harsh treatment is meant to broadcast a message to deter others from coming, which is unfortunate for Israel which is a state of refugees itself,” Oren Yiftachel, a professor of geography and urban studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva told The Media Line. “Being a Jewish nation we should welcome all the refugees not as citizens but as a haven until they can be in a safe place to live.”

In its early days Israel saw a massive influx of Jewish refugees from all over Europe into the small Jewish state both before and after its founding. Michael Kaminer, an Israeli citizen who came out to support the asylum seekers, said that Israel should be more sympathetic to the plight of the African asylum seekers.

“We are a nation of refugees. A few of my family members died in the Holocaust, so my family would tell me what it was like to be a refugee. These people ran from murder. Us as Jews should understand this tragedy because of our past.”

Mubarak, looking tired and weak from the protest and the long walk from the Negev, said that he cannot go back to Sudan given the current situation. He said he would like to stay in Israel for now because it is safe.

“Walking for eight hours a day is not easy, to live in a desert is not easy, to live in a prison for two years is not easy, and to not have freedom is not easy.”

Yom Kippur War: 40 years later


A week before Yom Kippur 1973, I moved from Hazerim air force base to Jerusalem to study history at Hebrew University. Yet it was life, not university, which actually taught me a history lesson.

Early in the morning of Yom Kippur, I woke up amid the half-opened boxes to the screaming buzz of a low-flying jet fighter. Aircraft flying on Yom Kippur? I knew immediately what it meant: The air force was sending a signal to all aircrews scattered across the country to return to their bases immediately. I kissed my wife and my 9-month-old daughter goodbye, promising to return that evening. When I did return, a month later, 2,700 Israeli soldiers were dead and Israel was never the same again.

It is difficult to explain today how complacent and arrogant we were in the years preceding the Yom Kippur War. With the smashing victory of the Six-Day War and the charismatic general Moshe Dayan promising us infallibility, we were blind to the alarm signals. In 1971, we dismissed a settlement with Egypt brokered by then-Secretary of State William Rogers, and we ridiculed the threats of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that if Israel didn’t return Sinai through negotiations, it would be returned by force. 

It is just as difficult today to describe our feelings at that time, when everything around us seemed to be falling apart. Everything we believed was solid suddenly seemed to be shaky; bad news followed more bad news; and Dayan, the war hero, crumbled and started mumbling doomsday prophecies of “the fall of the Third Temple.”

Then the true faces of the Israelis started to emerge. On the way down to Sinai, we had to fly a brigade of paratroopers — old reserve soldiers, long retired, who had liberated Jerusalem in 1967 and who had suddenly shown up, uninvited. Some came straight from their synagogues. “The aircraft is full,” I yelled at them, trying to close the door. They begged me with tears in their eyes to let them join their comrades. I did.

The fact that in just a few days we kicked the invading Syrians from the Golan Heights and then went on to threaten Damascus, and that the war was ended on kilometer 103 — from Cairo, mind you, not from Tel Aviv — is a tribute to the real heroes of the war: the field commanders and the soldiers, who, with their sacrifices, made up for the blindness of their political leaders and achieved an awesome victory.

Yet have we learned anything from that experience? I’m not sure. Indeed, my generation, the people who were bruised in that war, developed a healthy suspicion regarding the people at the top who pretend to know everything. Younger people, however, whose world has not been shattered yet, like ours was in 1973, tend to think we are omnipotent. I hope history won’t call upon us again to repent with the bravery of our fighting men for the shortsightedness of our leaders. 


Uri Dromi blogs at

Amid violent clashes, Egypt closes border with Gaza


Egypt closed the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip as clashes between its government security forces and protesters backing deposed President Mohamed Morsi continued for a second day.

The Rafah crossing was closed “indefinitely,” the French news agency AFP reported Thursday, citing an unnamed Egyptian security official. The crossing was closed due to fears of terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula.

Rafah is the only border crossing out of the Gaza Strip that is not controlled by Israel.

The death toll in the clashes has risen to at least 421, and the injured at more than 3,000, according to reports.

The violence began Wednesday after government security forces raided two major sit-in protests in Cairo calling for the reinstatement of Morsi.

On Tuesday, a rocket fired by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida at the southern Israeli city of Eilat was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Last week the Eilat airport was closed for several hours due to warnings by Egyptian officials about a terror attack from the Sinai.

Israel, Egypt cooperate


The story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Did an Israeli drone cross into Egyptian airspace over the weekend and fire a rocket at gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula who were about to launch a strike on Israel? Probably. Will any Israeli or Egyptian official admit it, even off the record? Probably not.

The official story coming out of Egypt is that it was the Egyptian military that attacked Jihadists in Sinai, killing five. The Egyptian army, which is presently controlling Egypt after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was forced from office, is wary of being seen as too close to Israel and the United States.

Asked whether Israel was behind the attack, Egyptian military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali declined to comment directly.

“There is an obligation between the two countries to coordinate attacks and inform each other of activities they conduct in Sinai due to the peace accords,” Ali said, referring to the historic treaty of 1979. 

An Israeli military spokesman sounded similarly opaque.

“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the Egyptian military maintain ongoing security coordination in order to contend with mutual threats,” Capt. Eytan Buchmann said.

Egyptian military analysts said it was likely that Israel was behind the strike.

“There is a lot of confusion about who attacked the terrorists. The Israelis say they did it and the Egyptians say they did it,” retired Egyptian Gen. Fathi Ali said. “I believe the Israelis did it but with Egyptian coordination. You need people on the ground to call in the coordinates of locations where terrorists are.”

There is widespread security coordination between Israel and Egypt that is increasingly important to their mutual interests.

“This cooperation is vital to both sides,” Eitan Shamir, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University said. “Both Israel and Egypt are concerned about the situation in the Sinai [peninsula] and neither country wants instability. They both have an interest in having quiet along their border.”

In the past few days, Egypt has embarked on a campaign against terrorist groups in the Sinai. Egyptian soldiers have destroyed hundreds of tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons between Egypt and Gaza, and is launching attacks similar to the drone strike over the weekend that was originally attributed to Israel and is now being credited to an Egyptian military helicopter.

In the past year, Israeli officials have grown increasingly worried about the growth of jihadist elements in Sinai, once a popular tourist destination for Israelis. Last week, Israel even closed down its airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat for two hours, after a warning from Egypt that a rocket attack from Sinai was imminent. 

Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the security ties between the two countries were public and close. The Egyptian intelligence chief visited Israel often and helped mediate cease-fires between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which took over Gaza in 2007.

After the fall of Mubarak and the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Israeli officials were concerned that the Egyptian military might back away from its relationship with Israeli security forces. Morsi had close ties with Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, after Morsi’s forced removal, the Egyptian army is playing an even more important role in the Arab world’s largest country with 85 million people. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations that maintain peace treaties with Israel.

“There is a lot of security cooperation, and it’s very important,” an Israeli diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “Egypt is the biggest and most important Arab country. When Egypt sneezes, the Arab world gets a cold. What happens there impacts everywhere.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if radical groups in Sinai come under enough pressure from Egypt, they could try to attack Israel to divert attention and garner support from other terrorist groups. As the Egyptian crackdown in the Sinai continues, Israeli officials say they expect more attempted attacks, and say that Israeli-Egyptian security coordination is even more important than it has been in the past.

Israel shuts airport at Egypt border, citing security


Israel took the rare step of shutting its southernmost Eilat airport near Egypt's Sinai peninsula for two hours on Thursday citing security concerns, military officials said.

A military spokeswoman said the airfield in the Red Sea city was shut “due to security assessments”. Two hours later a military official and Israel Radio said it had been reopened.

The reports said Israel's military chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz had made the decision after an assessment, but gave no further details.

The airport in the city wedged between Jordan and Egypt, brings tourists to Israel's Eilat resort and the closure followed heightened concerns about Islamist militant activity in the neighboring Sinai.

Air traffic often has been disrupted at Eilat by desert winds but the air strip has seldom been shut altogether.

Israel said last month that it had boosted its rocket defenses near its southern border to counter possible attacks from militants deeply opposed to the Jewish state.

A rocket fired from Sinai landed in Israel in July and its remnants were found in hills north of Eilat, which abuts Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east.

Violence in the Sinai has surged since the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3, with almost daily assaults against Egyptian forces reported in the desert expanse.

Egypt's army said on Wednesday it had killed 60 militants in Sinai in the month since Mursi's ouster, and that an additional 64 militants were injured in the Sinai campaign between July 5 and August 4.

The militants have killed around 40 people including Egyptian security personnel in this period, Egyptian medical officials said.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Omar Fahmy, Maggie Fick, Shadia Nasralla in Cairo; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Michael Roddy

Two soldiers killed by gunmen in North Sinai, security and medical sources say


Two Egyptian soldiers were killed and four were injured on Thursday when gunmen opened fire on a military checkpoint near the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, security and medical sources told Reuters.

Militants also attacked four other army sites in Sheikh Zuweid, which lies near Egypt's border with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, injuring at least three soldiers.

Egypt's lawless Sinai peninsula has seen a spike in violence since the army ousted the country's Islamist president on July 3.

In separate attacks in Sinai on Wednesday, two soldiers were killed in a gun battle and four militants died when their explosives-laden car detonated near a police base.

Medical sources said around 20 policemen and soldiers have been killed in Sinai since president Mohamed Mursi's exit.

Army sources estimate there are around 1,000 armed militants in Sinai, many of them members of local nomadic tribes, divided into different groups with varying ideologies or clan loyalties, and hard to track in the harsh terrain.

Some want to establish Islamic law in Egypt, and are likely to have been incensed by Mursi's removal. Weapons are flowing in, especially from Libya, and a number of the groups are thought to have links with al Qaeda.

Reporting by Yusri Mohamed; writing by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Noah Browning and Alison Williams

Israel boosts rocket defenses on Egypt border


Israel has boosted its rocket defenses near its southern border with Egypt to counter possible attacks from Islamist militants fighting security forces in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, Israeli officials said on Tuesday.

Violence in Sinai has surged since the army ousted elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, with militants killing at least 20 people in almost daily assaults in the area.

“We hear reports every day of attacks there and our concern is that the guns will be turned on us,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “We have indeed strengthened our deployment along the border.”

He was speaking on a visit to an “Iron Dome” missile Defense system that was deployed last week in the southern town Eilat.

He said that since Morsi's overthrow, Egypt had increased its efforts to curb militants who have exploited a security vacuum in the Sinai since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“We can see much more effective activity of the Egyptian army and security forces there in the past few months and mainly in the past few weeks after the change in government,” Yaalon said.

With Egyptian security forces pressing the militants, Israel was expecting trouble, one Israeli official said.

“The assessment in recent days is that given the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai, the terrorist elements there will try to demonstrate their survivability and defiance by shelling us,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

A rocket fired from Sinai landed in Israel earlier this month and its remnants were found in hills north of Eilat, a Red Sea resort that abuts Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Alistair Lyon

U.S. envoy spurned by both sides on Egypt visit


The first senior U.S. official to visit Egypt since the army toppled its elected president was snubbed by both Islamists and their opponents on Monday.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived in a divided capital where both sides are furious at the United States, the superpower which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual aid, mostly for the army that deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi two weeks ago.

Crisis in the Arab world's most populous state, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal, has alarmed allies in the region and the West. Thousands of supporters of the ousted leader took to the streets on Monday.

Washington, never comfortable with the rise of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refused to say whether it views Morsi's removal as a coup, which would require it to halt aid.

The State Department said Burns would meet “civil society groups” as well as government officials, but the Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Morsi protest movement both said they had turned down invitations to meet Burns.

“First, they need to acknowledge the new system,” Tamarud founder Mahmoud Badr said of the Americans. “Secondly, they must apologize for their support for the Muslim Brotherhood's party and terrorism. Then we can think about it,” he told Reuters.

In a further slight, Badr posted a copy of his invitation, including the U.S. embassy's telephone number, on the Internet.

Nour, sometime allies of Morsi's Brotherhood who have accepted the army takeover, said they had rejected meeting Burns because of “unjustified” U.S. meddling in Egypt's affairs.

The Brotherhood's political party said it had no meeting planned with Burns. It was not immediately clear whether it was invited. While its opponents accuse Washington of backing Morsi, the Brotherhood suspects U.S. involvement in his removal.

PROTESTS

Burns did meet Adli Mansour, a judge installed as interim president by the army, and Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist named interim prime minister. Beblawi is setting up a temporary cabinet staffed mainly by technocrats to lead the country under a “road map” foreseeing elections in about six months.

Islamists, who have maintained a vigil demanding Morsi be reinstated, called a mass protest for Monday. Demonstrations in Cairo have been largely peaceful for the past week after at least 92 people were killed in the days after Morsi was toppled.

Two rows of armored personnel carriers were in place near the mosque square in northeast Cairo where Morsi supporters have maintained their vigil. Barbed wire was blocking the street leading from the protest site to the Republican Guard barracks, scene of the worst violence a week ago when uniformed snipers were filmed firing from the rooftops into crowds.

As thousands of protesters assembled on Monday, a group of women clapped and chanted: “Down with the military regime! Down with the dictator! President Morsi, no one else!”

Demonstrators fasting for the holy month of Ramadan rested in the shadow of tents reading the Koran. Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping fliers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.

Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant camped at the square for 11 days in support of Morsi, said of Burns's visit: “America works against the Egyptian people's interests. America's only concern is its interests, and Israel's. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy.”

If Burns drove through downtown a few miles away, he might have seen a giant banner with a portrait of U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson and the message “Go home, witch!”. It was hung by Morsi's foes, who are as angry with America as his supporters.

INCOMMUNICADO

Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location.

He has not been charged with a crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy. Scores of Morsi supporters were rounded up after violence last week.

Most of the top Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence but are still at large with the police not following through on arrest warrants.

Morsi's foes have also called for a demonstration on Monday, but their rallies have become sparsely attended since they achieved their objective of bringing him down.

Beblawi has been naming ministers for his interim cabinet, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.

U.S.-educated economist Ahmed Galal, as finance minister, has the task of rescuing an economy and state finances wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.

That task became easier, at least in the short term, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood, promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.

The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi, an economist who also served in that role for a time under Morsi, said the Arab money would be enough to sustain Egypt through its transition period, and it was “not appropriate” now for Egypt to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree steep cuts in unaffordable food and fuel subsidies. Arabi's comments could worry investors who want IMF talks as a spur to prod Egypt to make economic reforms.

“It think it's inappropriate to be making such a strong statement, given how new he is to the position,” Angus Blair, president of Signet Institute, an economic think-tank for the Middle East and North Africa, said of Arabi's remarks.

“I think it would encourage all investors if the IMF funding and its additional contingent aid would be viewed as part of the overall financial equation for Egypt. There's so much to be done to boost economic growth.”

Beblawi also placed a police general in charge of the supply ministry which manages the huge distribution network for subsidized goods, a sign the government may focus on cleaning up a notoriously corrupt system.

U.S. CRITICISED

A lack of clarity over the U.S. position has fueled anti-Americanism on both sides. U.S. ambassador Patterson angered Morsi's enemies in the weeks before he was ousted by emphasizing his electoral legitimacy and discouraging protests against him.

Last week, the State Department further muddied the waters by saying Morsi's rule was undemocratic, a comment interpreted in Cairo as implying his removal was legitimate. Washington has also called for him to be freed and political detentions halted.

“The goal of his trip is to engage with and hear directly from interim Egyptian officials and civil society as part of our ongoing efforts to see Egypt transition to an inclusive, pluralistic, democratically elected civilian government,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said ahead of Burns's trip.

The interim authorities say the new government is open to all, including even the Brotherhood, an invitation spurned by Morsi's backers who refuse to have any dealings with “usurpers”.

The political turmoil and unrest in major cities has also fueled violence in Egypt's lawless North Sinai province bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where Islamist militants have called for people to rise up against the army.

A series of attacks in the area have claimed at least 13 lives, mainly security personnel, since July 3. In the latest assault, suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus carrying workers from a cement factory in the Sinai city of El Arish, killing three and wounding 17.

Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Shadia Nasralla, Noah Browning, Ulf Laessing, Ali Abdelaty, Patrick Werr and Mike Collett-White in Cairo and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Egypt’s bruised Islamists protest after bloody week


Islamist supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, protested in Cairo on Friday after a week of violence in which more than 90 people were killed in a bitterly divided nation.

More than a week after the army toppled Egypt's first elected leader after a wave of demonstrations against him, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is trying to mobilize popular support for his reinstatement, which for now looks like a lost cause.

At a Cairo mosque where Morsi supporters have held vigil for more than two weeks, crowds swelled as people were bused in from the provinces, where the Brotherhood has strongholds.

The streets of Cairo were otherwise quiet on Friday, the weekly Muslim day of prayer, in the holy month of Ramadan.

The youth-led Tamarud group, which brought millions of people to the streets to demand Morsi resign, has called for a Ramadan celebration in Tahrir Square, the cradle of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Officials say Morsi is still being held at the Republican Guard compound in Cairo, where troops killed 53 Islamist protesters on Monday in violence that intensified anger his allies already felt at the military's decision to oust him.

Four members of the security forces were also killed in that confrontation, which the military blames on “terrorists”. Morsi's supporters call it a massacre and say those who died were praying peacefully when troops opened fire.

Many of Egypt's 84 million people have been shocked by the shootings, graphic images of which have appeared on state and private news channels and social media. The incident occurred just three days after 35 people were killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators across the country.

“It's a very hard time for Egyptians, to see footage of blood and violence during the holy month of Ramadan, and everyone I speak to says the same thing,” said Fateh Ali, a 54-year-old civil servant in Cairo.

The Brotherhood contends it is the victim of a military crackdown, evoking memories of its suppression under Mubarak.

But many of its opponents blame Islamists for the violence, and some have little sympathy for the demonstrators who died, underlining how deep the fissures in Egyptian society are.

The unrest has also raised fear over security in the lawless Sinai peninsula bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Militant groups in North Sinai have promised more attacks and urged Islamists to take up arms, while the army has vowed to step up operations in the region, which is near the Suez Canal, the busy waterway linking Asia and Europe.

One Egyptian policeman was killed and another wounded early on Friday when militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at checkpoints in the Sinai town of El Arish.

Egyptian state media said police arrested three Palestinian militants for attempted attacks in Sinai.

VIGIL, SONGS FOR THE DEAD

Outside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque in northeastern Cairo, thousands of Brotherhood supporters gathered late on Thursday to mourn the dead in Monday's violence, the deadliest since Mubarak was toppled, apart from a 2012 soccer stadium riot.

Women wailed and men cried as they watched a large screen showing grim footage of hospital scenes immediately after the shooting, with corpses on the floor and medics struggling to cope with the number of bloodied casualties being carried in.

Hundreds of Egyptian flags fluttered. Songs of defiance were sung. Thousands of Islamists have camped out in searing heat, fasting in the daytime since Ramadan began on Wednesday.

“This is a bloody military coup,” said Saad Al-Husseini at the vigil. “This is the biggest crime I have witnessed in my country's recent history. Never before has blood been so cheap.”

The camp has become the de facto base of the Brotherhood, whose leaders live under the threat of detention after the public prosecutor ordered their arrests earlier in the week.

Judicial sources say Morsi is likely to be charged, possibly for corruption or links to violence. Prosecutors are also looking again at an old case from 2011 when Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders escaped from prison after being detained during anti-Mubarak protests.

The detentions and threats of arrest have drawn concern from the United States, which has walked a semantic tightrope to avoid calling Morsi's ouster a military coup.

U.S. law bars aid to countries where a democratic government is removed in a coup. Washington, which gives Egypt's military $1.3 billion in aid each year, has said it is too early to say whether Morsi's removal by the army meets that description.

The army has said it was enforcing the nation's will – meaning the huge crowds of people fed up with economic stagnation and suspicious of a Brotherhood power grab who took to the streets in late June to demand Morsi's departure.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday Morsi's government “wasn't a democratic rule”.

Her words were warmly received by the interim government and swiftly denounced by the Brotherhood. On Thursday, Psaki expressed concern over the crackdown on Brotherhood leaders.

“If politicized arrests and detentions continue, it is hard to see how Egypt will move beyond this crisis,” she said.

German's foreign ministry demanded that Morsi be freed.

ALARM OVERSEAS

Crucial to longer-term stability will be holding parliamentary and presidential elections, which the transitional authorities are hoping to achieve in a matter of months.

Adli Mansour, the interim president named by the general who removed Morsi, has announced a temporary constitution, plans to amend it to satisfy parties' demands and a faster-than-expected schedule for parliamentary elections in about six months.

He has named liberal economist Hazem el-Beblawi as interim prime minister, and Beblawi said he had named leftist lawyer Ziad Bahaa el-Din as his deputy. Beblawi also said he would contact candidates for ministerial posts on Sunday and Monday, with a view to swearing in a cabinet next week.

Negotiations are difficult, with the authorities trying to attract support from groups that range from secularists to ultra-orthodox Muslims, nearly all of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with elements of the interim constitution.

Underlining the level of concern overseas at Egypt's crisis, two U.S. Navy ships patrolling in the Middle East moved closer to Egypt's Red Sea coast in recent days, in what appeared to be a precautionary move following Morsi's ouster on July 3.

The United States often sends Navy vessels close to countries in turmoil in case it needs to protect or evacuate U.S. citizens or give humanitarian assistance.

Rich Gulf states have thrown Egypt a $12 billion lifeline in financial aid, which should help it stave off economic collapse.

More than two years of turmoil have scared away tourists and investors, shriveled hard currency reserves and threatened Cairo's ability to import food and fuel.

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Sarah McFarlane, Mike Collett-White, Tom Finn, Peter Graff, Ali Saed, Seham el-Oraby and Shadia Nasralla in Cairo and Andrea Shalal-Esa and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White and Peter Graff; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Egyptian Islamists attack on Gaza border


Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

The attacks came as Egypt was bracing for mass protests Friday by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president who was deposed Wednesday by the army after a year in power. Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, called the action a coup.

Egyptian Army and Islamists in deadly clashes


Egyptian soldiers killed at least three supporters of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo hours after Islamists attacked sites in the Sinai.

The Morsi supporters were shot while trying to breach the Cairo barracks where the deposed Egyptian president is being held by the army.

Supporters in cities across Egypt on Friday protested Wednesday’s coup, which removed Morsi from power a little more than a year after his election as president.

Earlier in the day, Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

Egypt steps up Gaza tunnel crackdown, dismaying Palestinians


Egypt has intensified a crackdown on smuggling tunnels between its volatile Sinai desert and the Gaza Strip, causing a steep hike in petrol and cement prices in the Palestinian territory.

Palestinians involved in the tunnel business say that the campaign, which began in March and has included flooding of underground passages, was ramped up in the past two weeks before a wave of opposition-led protests in Egypt expected to start on June 30.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has come under political fire at home over a strong challenge to his authority by militant Islamists in the Sinai who have attacked Egyptian security forces in the peninsula.

Egypt's military, struggling to fill a security vacuum in the Sinai since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was swept from power in 2011, has pledged to shut all tunnels under the Gaza border, saying they are used by militants on both sides to smuggle activists and weapons.

The moves against the tunnels have dashed the hopes of many Palestinians that Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Hamas was born, would significantly ease Egyptian border restrictions on Gaza, which is also subjected to blockade by Israel.

“Business is clinically dead,” said Abu Bassam, who employs 40 workers in a Palestinian tunnel network in Rafah, a town on the border. “Tunnels are almost shut down completely.”

Only 50 to 70 tunnels, out of hundreds that have provided a commercial lifeline for the Gaza Strip, are still open and in partial operation, owners said. Other tunnels are used to smuggle in weapons for militants from Hamas and other groups.

The Egyptian army has sternly warned residents in Sinai not to approach the fence with Gaza and to stop trading through tunnels or face punishment, according to Palestinian tunnel owners who learned about the order from Egyptian counterparts.

“Today we have to pay extra money to convince an Egyptian driver to bring goods to us…, resulting in rising prices of basic materials here,” said Abu Ali, another tunnel owner, standing beside the shaft of his deserted tunnel.

HIGH PRICES

The price of cement in Gaza has soared from 350 shekels ($95) a ton to 800 shekels ($217). Palestinians who bought relatively cheap petrol smuggled from Egypt now have to pay for fuel imported from Israel selling for double the price.

The scene of long queues of vehicles outside petrol stations has become common in past two weeks, with taxi drivers waiting to snap up small quantities of fuel trickling in from tunnels that are still operating.

One tunnel owner, who employs 24 workers, said he was now bringing in 50 tons of food products a day compared with 300 tons two weeks ago.

Many Gaza residents complain they have been without cooking gas for weeks, with tunnel supplies low and imports from Israel scarce.

Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, said it understood Mursi's complicated internal situation and would be prepared to close all tunnels if Egypt allowed goods through Rafah, its only Gaza crossing.

At Rafah, where cross-border passenger movement increased significantly soon after Mursi took office, passage has been particularly slow recently and hundreds of people have had to delay their trips.

Egyptian officials cited technical problems.

Israel maintains an overland and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip but has eased some import restrictions in the past several years in the face of international criticism.

It announced on Monday the closure of its only commercial crossing with Gaza until further notice in response to overnight cross-border rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich

Long-range rockets strike Eilat


Two long-range rockets fired from the Sinai Desert struck the Israeli resort city of Eilat.

The rockets launched Wednesday morning fell in open areas in the southernmost Israeli city, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli forces found the remnants of the two rockets. One landed in a construction site in south Eilat.

A Sinai-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for the attack. Magles Shoura al-Mujahddin said in a statement on its website that the rockets were retaliating for the Israeli army's actions against protesters demonstrating over the death of a Palestinian prisoner, Haaretz reported.

Local residents and tourists had been ushered into bomb shelters following a warning siren before the two explosions.

An Iron Dome missile defense system battery deployed in the Eilat area tracked the rockets but did not operate to shoot them down, according to reports.

Following the attack, the Eilat airport was closed for several hours.

Jordan denied reports that at least two other rockets fired from the Sinai hit Aqaba.

A rocket last landed in Eilat in April 2012.

Egypt seizes two tons of explosives bound for Sinai


Egypt seized two tons of explosives hidden in a truck carrying a shipment of fruits and vegetables bound for Sinai on Friday, security sources said.

The country's security forces are trying to reassert control over the Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip and has descended into lawlessness since the revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

“We found the amount in a shipment, concealed under some fruits and vegetables… We found the explosives packed inside 100 plastic bags,” a security source said.

In January, Egypt seized six anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets in the Sinai peninsula that smugglers may have intended to send to the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.

The confiscated explosives were of a type used for demolishing stones in quarries.

When interrogated, the truck driver said he was unaware he was transporting explosives and that a businessman had asked him to take the goods to Sinai where it would be collected.

Reporting Yousri Mohamed; Writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Michael Roddy

Israel hit by more Palestinian rockets, kills al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists


Two rockets fired by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip exploded in open areas in the Eshkol Regional Council on Sunday, causing no damage to property or injuries, Army Radio reported.

Also on Sunday, Israeli Air Force (IAF) planes targeted a terrorist cell in the southern Gaza Strip that was preparing to launch a rocket into Israel, the Israel Defense Forces said. One Palestinian was killed and another wounded in the airstrike, according to Palestinian hospital officials.

Sunday’s Israeli response came a day after two Global Jihad operatives were killed when an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at the motorcycle they were riding on in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip. The two men were said to be involved in planning an attack on Israel.

On Monday, Israelis living in communities in southern Israel around the Gaza Strip were told to stay within a 15-second distance of bomb shelters and safe locations due to the possibility that terrorists will launch rockets into Israel.

Meanwhile, Egyptian security officials told the Palestnian news agency Ma’an that Cairo warned its troops based in northern Sinai to be on alert for booby-trapped cars approaching any security installation.

Following the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza that killed three terrorists on Saturday and Sunday, including Hisham Saedni, one of the most influential al-Qaida leaders in the Strip, Israeli security forces were already on high alert along the borders with Egypt and Gaza to thwart potential attacks emanating from Sinai.

Since August 2011, when terrorists infiltrated from Sinai along Highway 12 and killed eight Israelis, Israeli forces stationed on the border with Egypt have been on a constant state of alert. There have been a number of incidents along the border since that attack, and several rockets have been fired toward Eilat from Sinai.

In Sinai, where the Egyptian military says it is working to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, armed men seized an Egyptian military vehicle in the northern Sinai city of el-Arish on Sunday. The armed men, riding a pick-up truck, stopped the army car, forced out an officer and a soldier then drove into the desert, according to Ma’an.

According to Reuters, the two Gaza terrorists killed by Israel on Saturday were the most senior al-Qaida affiliates in the Palestinian enclave, and one had links to jihadi networks in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, sources said on Sunday. Saedni and Ashraf al-Sabah, the other person killed, were ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists. Armed Salafis, while a fringe presence in Gaza, have been stepping up violence against Israel while at times clashing with the Palestinian Hamas government. They also operate in the neighbouring Egyptian Sinai.

Saedni and Ashraf al-Sabah were leaders, respectively, of the Tawhid wa-Jihad and Ansar Al-Sunna groups, two Salafi sources told Reuters. The movements share al-Qaida’s vision of global jihad and opposed the more “pragmatic” Islamism espoused by Hamas and Cairo’s politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood.

“Their blood will be a light to guide the holy warriors through the right path and will be fire that will burn the Jews,” one of the sources told Reuters, saying reprisals would not be limited to the short-range rocket launches that are Gaza terrorists’ favored mode of attack on Israel.

Residents of communities in the western Negev, meanwhile, were becoming increasingly agitated in light of the lack of practical steps being taken to end the rocket fire, while reiterating their ongoing demand to complete the construction of fortified spaces in their homes. Netivot Mayor Yehiel Zohar asked the defense establishment to redeploy the Iron Dome rocket interception system in the area, after a home was damaged Oct. 12 after a rocket exploded in its yard.

“The Global Jihad is stepping up its efforts to target us, and we will continue to interdict it with aggression and might, in terms of both response and pre-emption,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet in Jerusalem on Sunday.

In a sign of Salafi assertiveness in Gaza, about 500 mourners attended Saedni’s and Sabah’s funerals on Sunday. Some wore the smocks typical of the al-Qaida bastions in Pakistan and Afghanistan but relatively uncommon among Palestinians.

The “council” has been promoting a radical brand of Salafist jihadism for years, and Saedni was incarcerated for a prolonged period by Hamas authorities due to his activities as a member of Islamic Jihad. Since his release from a Hamas prison in August, Hamas has reportedly been planning a multipronged attack on Israel from the Sinai Peninsula with the help of Gaza Strip- and Sinai-based operatives.

An IDF spokesman said, “The IDF will not tolerate any attack on Israeli citizens and soldiers and will continue to operate with resolve and force against anyone who conducts terrorist activities against Israel. The Hamas organization is the address and they are responsible.”

Israeli intel: Independent jihadist network perpetrating Sinai attacks


Terror attacks in the Sinai emanated from an independent jihadist network there, Israeli intelligence reportedly believes.

Many members of the Sinai network are Egyptians who do not live in the Sinai, according to the Haaretz newspaper, which cited Israeli intelligence.

Two of the three terrorists involved in last month's cross-border attack that killed an Israeli soldier were well-off husbands and fathers who did not outwardly identify with religious extremism, Egyptian newspapers reported, according to Haaretz.

Other attacks on the Sinai border, including the killing of eight Israelis in August 2011 and the 14 attacks on a gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel, also are believed to have emanated from the same jihadist network and are not an extension of Gaza terrorism.

Haaretz reported that the network recruits from throughout the Arab world.

Egypt sentences 14 to death for Sinai attacks


An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 14 Islamists to death for attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, showing Egypt's determination to put down militancy in a region critical to relations with neighbouring Israel.

The Jewish state has voiced concern about security in Sinai, where at least four cross-border attacks have taken place since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.

The Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has made the issue a priority since he was elected in June.

Sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed in August, and hundreds of police and troops with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters have been sent to raid militant hideouts and seize weapons in an operation coordinated with Israel.

The court in Ismailia sentenced 14 members of the Tawheed wal Jihad group to hang for killing three police officers, an army officer and a civilian in attacks on a police station and a bank in the town of Arish in June and July last year.

Eight were tried in absentia, court sources said. Four other militants were sentenced to life imprisonment.

“This court decision is a milestone. It gives a strong message to the militant groups that the state, President Mohamed Morsi's government, will not tolerate attacks on the Egyptian armed forces and police,” said Nageh Ibrahim, an expert on Islamists who is himself a former militant.

The verdicts prompted cries from the accused.

“Morsi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels,” shouted one.

Others cried “God is Greatest” as they listened to the judge from inside their metal cage in court. The men all had beards and traditional white robes and some held Korans.

The prosecutor said that Tawheed wal Jihad (“Monotheism and Holy War”) propagated a hardline Islamist view that allowed adherents to declare the head of state an infidel and to wage war on the government.

The same group was accused of carrying out a series of bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005 against tourist resorts in South Sinai, in which 34 people died.

Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt's highest Islamic legal official, sanctioned the death penalty before it was pronounced.

“The accused wanted to spread corruption in the earth,” he said. “They went out armed with deadly weapons, machine guns and explosives to target security forces … all in the name of Islam. They therefore deserve the death sentence.”

Ibrahim, who was jailed during the 1990s but later became one of the leading Islamists to call for an end to violence against the state, said the verdicts would deter other militants from attacking Israel.

“Morsi's government is adamant about stemming any attacks across the border because this will give Israel an incentive to reoccupy Sinai. Now is the time for development, not war,” Ibrahim said.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai, which is designated a demilitarised buffer zone.

Additional reporting and writing by Marwa Awad; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Egypt’s president in U.S., seeks to chart a new course


As Mohammed Morsi makes his first visit to the United States since becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected president to attend the annual opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, an Egyptian court has sentenced 14 Islamists to death-by-hanging and four to life imprisonment for attacks against soldiers and border police in the Sinai Peninsula last year. The court said the men, members of a terrorist group called Tawheed and Jihad, killed three policemen, an army officer, and a civilian in the 2011 attacks.

When the verdicts were announced, some of the defendants unleashed verbal attacks on Morsi, whom they saw as being responsible for their incarceration.

“Morsi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels,” shouted one defendant according to eyewitnesses.

The scenario playing out was a reminder of the challenges facing the new president who was originally a compromise candidate but who has moved to solidify his position in both Egypt and in the international arena. Morsi, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was chosen after the Islamist group’s first candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, was disqualified.

“He’s not really popular, but he’s definitely getting more respect,” Maye Qasm, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, told The Media Line. “Initially, people thought he was in the Muslim Brotherhood’s pocket, but now he’s asserted his own authority above and beyond the Muslim brothers. He is influenced by them but he’s not the puppet he appeared to be. He’s gaining respect as he’s focusing more on security which is a big issue since the revolution.”

The huge expanse of the Sinai desert on the borders of Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip continues to pose a security threat to both Israel and Egypt. On Friday, an Israeli soldier was killed after gunmen opened fire on Israeli soldiers giving water to Eritreans who were trying to infiltrate into the Jewish state. Last month, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed when terrorists ambushed a border post on the way to launching an attack inside of Israel. After the attack, Morsi vowed to re-take control of the area and launched a large-scale assault on armed groups in the Sinai.

“He has to be very cautious when it comes to Sinai,” Maha Azzam, an Egyptian researcher at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “Sinai needs to be kept under control for both Egypt’s interest, for Israel and for the region in general. He has the backing of the military and the general population to create some kind of stability in Sinai.”

Israeli officials say the Egyptian government has not succeeded in asserting its control over the area, pointing to the continued smuggling of weapons and fighters into Gaza from Egyptian territory.

Morsi is likely to raise the issue of re-opening the 1979 Camp David peace treaty that included Israel’s return of Sinai to Egypt. While that agreement limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy in Sinai, Egyptian military officials have called for more. In the past few weeks, Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to increase troop count temporarily, but a sustained campaign against the Islamists will require a more significant increase over a sustained period of time.

Morsi has also moved quickly to consolidate power over his army, firing many of the top generals including Chief-of-Staff Mohamed Tantawi – the man who headed the military council that ruled the country between Hosni Mubarak’s fall and his own dismissal last month. Even a controversial visit to Iran has helped boost Morsi’s image.

“Firing the generals was a major step to show that Egypt is going to be a civilian state and that gained him a lot of respect,” Maha Azzam said. “And while there was some skepticism about his trip to Iran, he took a clear stance against Iran’s role in Syria and against the Syrian regime in general. He made it clear that Egypt was not going to play ball with Iran on any terms.”

When it comes to economic policy, Morsi has been more cautious. The Egyptian economy is in crisis, with revenues from tourism down significantly. The Economist magazine reports that Egypt is the third most indebted country in the world, with a debt of just under $207 billion dollars, which amounts to 82 percent of GDP. The Economist said Egypt could sink into a full financial crisis.

“Egypt has never depended so much on American assistance as it does now,” political scientist Maye Qasm said. “Without the US assistance, Egypt would be having a famine now. Bread is subsidized but people can’t depend on that. People can line-up for subsidized bread for two hours, but the bread runs out; so just because it’s subsidized doesn’t mean everyone who needs it has access to it.”

In addition to the food crisis, there is a growing employment crisis in Egypt as well. The population of 80 million people is growing by two percent a year, according to government statistics. About 60 percent of the population, and 90 percent of the unemployed, are under 30 years of age. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars per day, and up to one-third of the population are illiterate.

All of these statistics are part of the challenges facing Morsi. So far, most Egyptian analysts say he has performed better than expected for a leader with so little political experience. But he will have to make far-reaching changes in order to re-shape the Egyptian economy if he wants Egypt to remain an important player on the international scene.

Israel will not receive lulavs from Sinai


Israel likely will not have palm fronds from the Sinai for this year's Sukkot lulavs.

Terror in the Sinai and a lack of communication between Israeli and Egyptian agricultural agencies are the reasons that the palm fronds will not be imported, Israel National News reported Monday. They are grown in the Sinai's al-Arish area, located west of the Gaza Strip.

Last year, Egypt banned the export of the palm fronds to Israel, leading to fears of a lulav shortage for the holiday and higher prices. Israel's Agricultural Ministry then encouraged local palm farmers to increase production.

Avner Rotem, manager of date palms on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi in the Beit Shean Valley, told INN that there should be enough lulavs grown in Israel to meet domestic needs and for export.

Israel previously had imported about 700,000 palm fronds a year in the run-up to Sukkot, which is about 40 percent of the annual demand. Another 700,000 of the 2 million lulavs used in Diaspora Jewish communities also came from Egypt.

The holiday begins on the evening of Sept. 30.

Egypt says it has identified suspects in Sinai killings


Egypt has identified seven suspects, including one Egyptian, in the killing of 16 border guards last month that triggered the biggest security sweep along its frontier with Israel in decades, the interior minister said.

The attack on August 5, the worst since Egypt's 1973 war with its Jewish neighbor, underlined how lax policing in the region has emboldened Islamist militants to step up attacks on Egyptian security forces and the Israeli border.

Lawlessness in Sinai deepened after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year and his successor as president, Mohamed Mursi, has vowed to restore order.

“The security apparatus succeeded in identifying the perpetrators of the incident that killed Egyptian soldiers in Rafah,” Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal El-Din told state-owned al-Akhbar.

He told the daily newspaper that the Egyptian suspect belonged to a dormant local jihadi cell but did not mention the nationalities of the other suspects or say if any of the seven had been detained.

Gamal said security forces were still trying to root out members of “disparate” militant groups, some of whom espoused the “takfiri” doctrine, which sees modern society as godless and therefore to be avoided, or attacked.

A complex relationship between the hardline Islamist groups, security forces and local Bedouin tribes hostile to the Cairo government complicates efforts to pacify the region.

It also makes it harder to verify reports of the security mission in the isolated region and the local response.

Joint army-police raids on suspected militant hideouts began a few days after the attack, employing attack helicopters, armored vehicles and hundreds of troops.

The army says 11 militants have been killed and 23 arrested, 11 vehicles impounded and weapons seized including five boxes of Israeli-made ammunition.

The crackdown has the cautious approval of Israel which is alarmed by the increasing audacity of the Sinai militants. Analysts say some of them may have links to al Qaeda.

Reporting By Tamim Elyan, editing by Tim Pearce

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