Netanyahu: Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria


Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, acknowledging for the first time such attacks against suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

Though formally neutral on Syria's civil war, Israel has frequently pledged to prevent shipments of advanced weaponry to the Iranian-backed group, while stopping short of confirming reports of specific air operations.

Visiting Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights near the frontier with Syria, Netanyahu said: “We act when we need to act, including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry.”

Netanyahu did not specify what kind of strikes Israel had conducted in Syria. He also gave no timeframe or other details regarding the strikes.

Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in Syria in February but has indicated it could still launch attacks there if it sees a threat from Hezbollah, which holds sway over southern Lebanon and whose fighters have been allied with President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli leaders have sought assurances from Russia, which sent forces to Syria last year to help Assad, that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to be bolstered by the partial military withdrawal that Moscow announced last month.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent any accidental clash between their aircraft over Syrian territory.

Hezbollah and Israel last fought a war in 2006 that included rocket strikes inside Israel and an Israeli air and ground offensive in Lebanon.

Israeli leaders have said that since that conflict, Hezbollah has built up and improved the range of a rocket arsenal that can now strike deep inside Israel.

Aid convoy reaches starving Syrian town of Madaya


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WATER AND SALT

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

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

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

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

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

SIEGE WARFARE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon


Hezbollah set off a bomb targeting Israeli forces at the Lebanese border on Monday in an apparent response to the killing in Syria last month of a prominent commander, triggering Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon.

Israel has struck its Iran-backed Shi'ite enemy Hezbollah in Syria several times, killing a number of fighters and destroying weapons it believes were destined for the group, whose support for President Bashar al-Assad has been crucial in the country's civil war.

Israel's army said Monday's blast, targeting military vehicles in the Shebaa farms area, promptedIsraeli forces to respond with artillery fire. It made no mention of casualties.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the explosive device had been detonated in the Shebaa farms area and carried out by a group whom it named after Samir Qantar, a commander killed in December. The group has accused Israel of killing Qantar in an air strike in Syria, and vowed to retaliate. 

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, urged both sides to avoid an escalation, saying it had stepped up patrols on the ground after the incident.

In a statement, head of mission Major-General Luciano Portolano urged both sides “to exercise utmost restraint against any provocation.”

Lebanese media said Israeli shelling had hit the nearby town of Al Wazzani and other areas, with reports of material damage but no serious injuries.

Witnesses said at least 10 Israeli shells had hit Al Wazzani shortly after the blast.

A Reuters witness said the shelling had stopped later in the day. Al Manar TV reported that calm had returned to the Shebaa area.

An Israeli air strike killed Qantar on Dec. 20 in Damascus, Hezbollah said. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said a week later that retaliation would be inevitable.

Israel stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed Qantar, but welcomed the death of the militant leader, who had been jailed in Israel in 1979 and repatriated to Lebanon in a 2008 prisoner swap.

Hezbollah did not say which role Qantar played in the Syrian conflict, but Syrian state media said he was involved in a major offensive earlier this year in Quneitra, near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting on the side of Assad in Syria's civil war. The conflict has exacted a heavy toll on Hezbollah, with many hundreds of its fighters killed.

In January last year, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander and the son of the group's late military commander Imad Moughniyah. An Iranian general was also killed in that attack. 

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed later that month in one of the most violent clashes between the two sides since a 2006 war. 

Israel and Hezbollah have avoided large scale confrontation along their 80-km (50-mile) frontier since the 34-day war in 2006, which killed 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon. 

Nasrallah has made repeated threats against Israel since then, part of what is seen as a calibrated policy of deterrence.

Syrian rebel group claims responsibility for Hezbollah leader’s death


A Syrian rebel group has claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed a Lebanese Hezbollah leader who spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison.

In a video released Monday on YouTube, the Free Syrian Army denied Hezbollah’s claim that Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace and assassinated Samir Kuntar, saying the group struck the residential building in which Kuntar and his colleagues were located. The Free Syrian Army claimed Hezbollah was attempting to demoralize the rebel group by claiming Israel undertook the killing.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the Sunday morning strike on a building in the Syrian capital, though several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was released in a 2008 swap for the corpses of Israelis killed in the 2006 Lebanon War, and reportedly had been targeted previously by Israel. In July, an Israeli surveillance plane reportedly bombed a car in Syria, killing five men, in an attack believed to be targeting Kuntar. In September, the U.S. State Department designated Kuntar as a terrorist.

Kuntar, who served 29 years in Israeli prison, was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

Reuters reported that he is believed to have become a commander in Hezbollah since his release from prison, and that Hezbollah has sent many of its members to fight in Syria with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Senior Hezbollah officials vowed to retaliate against Israel.

“(I)f the Israelis think by killing Samir Kuntar they have closed an account, then they are very mistaken because they know and will come to know that they have instead opened several more,” senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safeieddine reportedly said.

Thousands attended Kuntar’s burial in Beirut on Monday.

Blaming operative’s death on Israel, Hezbollah chief vows revenge


Hassan Nasrallah, the top leader of the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, blamed the killing of operative Samir Kuntar on Israel and said his group would retaliate.

“We reserve the right to respond to this assassination at the time and place of our choosing,” Nasrallah said Monday evening in a televised speech from Beirut, the Times of Israel reported. The newspaper cited an English translation from a journalist with the al-Mayadeen Arabic satellite television channel.

Nasrallah’s statement came hours after a Syrian rebel group claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed Kuntar, who was released in a 2008 prisoner swap after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison for his role in a deadly terrorist attack.

“We have no doubt that the Israeli enemy was behind the assassination in a blatant military operation,” Nasrallah said, according to the Naharnet news site.

Israel has not confirmed whether or not it was involved in the attack, but several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncertainty grips Middle Eastern markets


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran’s allies, not atoms, preoccupy Israeli generals


While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thunders against a looming Iranian nuclear deal, his defense chiefs see a more pressing menace from Tehran's guerrilla allies.

Chief among these is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that fought Israeli forces to a stand-still in their 2006 war and has since expanded its arsenal and honed its skills helping Damascus battle the Syria insurgency.

Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel's Intelligence Ministry, accused Iran on Tuesday of “seeking footholds” from Syria to Yemen to Egypt's Sinai and the Palestinian territories. But he deemed Hezbollah a foe as formidable as the conventional Arab armies that clashed with Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

“The only entity that can challenge us with a surprise attack on any scale nowadays is Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ben-Barak told a conference organized by the Israel Defense journal.

Israel believes Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles capable of paralyzing its civilian infrastructure. Seeking to deter the guerrillas, Israeli generals have threatened to devastate Lebanon should there be another full-on conflict.

In the interim, Lebanese and Syrian sources report regular Israeli air force sorties as part of an apparent effort to monitor, and at times destroy, weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

A Jan. 18 air strike that killed an Iranian general and several Hezbollah operatives in Syria's Golan Heights, northeast of Israel, suggested the Lebanese guerrillas have been setting up a second front close to Jordan, Israel's security partner.

An Iranian-backed Hezbollah presence in the Golan “will pose a very big problem for us in the future”, Ben-Barak said.

Two Western diplomats who track Israel's military assessed that it was now busiest securing the Lebanon and Syria borders.

“I don't think anyone's looking for escalation, but the potential for this to spiral out of control is high,” one diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

When Israel's military intelligence chief, Major-General Herzi Halevy, visited Washington in March, as world powers and Iran entered the final stretch of nuclear negotiations, he urged U.S. care on inadvertently fuelling regional instability.

“What he was really interested in getting across was the military threat from groups like Hezbollah, the (Tehran-backed) Houthis in Yemen, and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) in Syria,” one of Halevy's American hosts said.

Israel has condemned as insufficient a proposed nuclear deal, whose deadline is June 30, and under which Iran would scale down its disputed projects in return for sanctions relief.

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

Hezbollah says Assad’s allies have right to respond to Israeli attacks in Syria


Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday that Israeli strikes inside Syria were also an aggression against Syria's regional allies and they had the right to retaliate.

“The frequent attacks on different sites in Syria is a major breach. We consider (those) hostilities (to be) against all the resistance axis,” he told the Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV.

“(Retaliation) is an open issue … It is not only Syria's right to respond but also it is the right of the axis of resistance to respond. When this right will be executed is subject to certain criteria … it could happen any time.”

Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions consider themselves an “axis of resistance” against Israel.

Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and has sent hundreds of combatants to fight alongside his forces in the nearly four-year civil war.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the nearly four-year civil war, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for Hezbollah.

In December, Syria said Israeli jets had bombed areas near Damascus airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon. Israel does not publicly confirm bombing missions.

Hezbollah, created in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation in Lebanon, fought a 33-day war with Israel in 2006 in which it fired thousands of rockets that hit deep into Israel.

Nasrallah said his group was ready for any possible future war with Israel despite being engaged in the war in Syria.

“If the Israelis think that the resistance is weakened or exhausted …then they are mistaken.”

Syria calls for U.N. sanctions on Israel over air strikes


Syria asked the United Nations Security Council on Monday to impose sanctions on neighboring Israel, a day after accusing the Jewish state of bombing areas near Damascus international airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the three-year conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their long-time foe Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chad, Security Council president for December, Syria said that “such aggressions will not stop it from fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestation across the entire territory of Syria.”

“At the same time, the Syrian Arab Republic calls on the international community and the Security Council to shoulder their responsibility and forcefully condemn this brutal attack and to cease covering it up under any pretext,” the letter read.

“Syria also calls for the imposition of stern sanctions against Israel … and requests that all measures prescribed under the Charter of the United Nations should be taken to prevent Israel from again committing such aggressions,” it said.

Israel has avoided taking sides in Syria's civil war and does not publicly confirm bombing missions, a policy it sees as aimed at avoiding provoking reprisals.

Syria also accused Israel of carrying out the air strikes to “cover up internal Israeli divisions and draw attention away from the collapse of the Israeli coalition Government and Israel's extreme policies, particularly its continued occupation of Arab territory.”

A U.S.-led coalition is also bombing in Syria to target the Islamic State militant group, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest foes.

Syria's war started with a pro-democracy movement which grew into an armed uprising and has inflamed regional confrontations. Some 200,000 people have died, the United Nations said.

Lebanon detains wife of Islamic State leader


The Lebanese army detained a wife and daughter of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as they crossed from Syria nine days ago, security officials said on Tuesday, in a move seen as likely to put pressure on the Islamist chief.

The woman was identified as Saja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi, by a Lebanese security official and a senior political source.

The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported she had been detained in coordination with “foreign intelligence.”

A Lebanese security source said the arrest was “a powerful card to apply pressure” in negotiations to secure the release of 27 members of the Lebanese security forces captured by Islamic militants – a view shared by other Lebanese officials who confirmed the arrest.

However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed any suggestion that Washington might also try to use similar tactics to free prisoners. “We do not engage in that type of negotiation. Period,” he told a news conference in Brussels.

A senior Lebanese security official said Baghdadi's wife had been traveling with one of their daughters, contradicting earlier reports that it was his son. DNA tests were conducted to verify it was Baghdadi's child, the official said.

They were detained in northern Lebanon after Baghdadi's wife was found with a fake passport, officials said. Investigators were questioning her at the Lebanese defense ministry.

There was no immediate reaction from Islamic State websites, although some supporters rejected the report.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said the arrest indicated that the American-led coalition seemed to have solid intelligence in Syria and Iraq.

“I talked to a few people who told me this was a coordinated arrest between American intelligence services and the Lebanese army,” he told Reuters.

“If I were Abu Bakr Baghdadi, I would be very anxious that they are getting very close,” he said. “This is a development … that is very alarming for ISIS, in particular the top leadership.”

A U.S. government source said Washington was not sure how recently the woman had been with Baghdadi, and how much useful information, if any, she might have.

The U.S. embassy in Lebanon said: “This was an operation by the government of Lebanon.” It had no further comment.

Dulaimi was one of 150 women released from a Syrian government jail in March as part of a prisoner swap that led to the release of 13 nuns taken captive by al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria, according to media reports at the time.

A source with contacts with Iraqi intelligence said the captured woman was an Iraqi wife of Baghdadi’s, but could not confirm her name. There was cooperation between Iraqi and Lebanese authorities leading up to her capture, the source said.

Baghdadi has three wives, two Iraqis and one Syrian, according to tribal sources in Iraq.

CALIPHATE

Islamic State has declared a caliphate and seized wide areas of Iraq and Syria, Lebanon's neighbor to the east.

The Lebanese security forces have cracked down on the group's sympathizers and the intelligence services have been extra vigilant on the borders with Syria.

They have arrested dozens of Islamic militants suspected of staging attacks to expand Islamic State influence in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, at least six Lebanese soldiers were killed by gunmen from Syria who attacked an army patrol near the border.

A U.S.-led alliance is seeking to roll back Islamic State's gains in Iraq and Syria, where the group is seeking to reshape the Middle East according to its radical vision of Islam.

An Islamic State fighter denied Baghdadi's wife had been arrested. “I have checked with our leaders and they said it was false news,” he said from inside Syria.

Spillover from the Syrian conflict has repeatedly jolted neighboring Lebanon. Militants affiliated to the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State are demanding the release of Islamists held by the Lebanese authorities in exchange for the captured members of the Lebanese security forces.

The United States is offering $10 million for information on Baghdadi, an Iraqi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarai.

Baghdadi called for attacks against the rulers of Saudi Arabia in a speech purported to be in his name last month.

A CV of Baghdadi published on social media in July by Islamic State sympathizers described him as married but gave no further details.

Born in 1971, Baghdadi comes from a family of preachers and teachers, according to a biography on Islamist forums that says he studied at the Islamic University in Baghdad.

According to U.S. media reports, Baghdadi had been detained at Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run prison in Iraq, before becoming head of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, a predecessor to Islamic State, which expanded into Syria in 2013.

In June this year, his group named him “caliph for the Muslims everywhere”. Although he is rarely pictured, a video released in July showed him preaching in a mosque in Mosul.

Additional reporting by Saif Hameed, Mark Hosenball and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, Janet McBride, Giles Elgood and David Stamp

Hezbollah says border attack was message to Israel


An attack by Hezbollah on Lebanon's border with Israel which wounded two Israeli soldiers was a message that the group remained ready to confront its old foe despite its engagement in Syria's civil war, the group's deputy leader said.

The soldiers were wounded by a bomb planted by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in the Shebaa hills, drawing Israeli artillery fire in response. It was the first time Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Israeli army since 2006, when the two sides fought a 33-day war.

“This is a message.. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheikh Naim Qassem told Lebanese OTV television late on Tuesday.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 50-mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 conflict.

Hezbollah members have been fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war. The move by Hezbollah, which is backed by Shi'ite Iran, has helped turn the tide of the war in Syria against insurgents seeking to oust Assad.

The group said it took the decision to fight in Syria to prevent jihadi fighters, like those from Nusra Front and Islamic State which seized parts of Syria and Iraq, from advancing into Lebanon.

On Sunday, 10 of the group's fighters were killed during a battle with hundreds of Nusra Front militants on the border in eastern Lebanon.

Reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Mariam Karouny and Janet Lawrence

Israel raises alarm over Islamist militants on its frontiers


Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al-Qaida, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al-Qaida.

Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it's very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah's intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad's forces to further reclaim the initiative.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters (yards) of Nusra fighters.

The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where Nusra and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad's forces.

After three years of fighting, opposition forces control patches of territory to the west and south of Damascus, including a portion of the 375-km (225-mile) border with Jordan.

That has allowed thousands of foreign fighters from both the Arab world and Europe to cross into Syria, including an estimated 2,000 Jordanians. At least 10 Israeli Arabs have also gone to Syria, five of whom were later detained after returning home, according to Oreg.

RISKY CORNER

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them. It consists of an area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 km (45 miles) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River with Jordan.

About 1,200 soldiers are involved in monitoring the separation zone, in what has been for most of the past 40 years one of the world's quietest peacekeeping missions. That changed with the uprising against Assad, and the area is now precarious.

Stephane Cohen, the former chief liaison between the Israeli army and the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, said the U.N.'s mandate was now meaningless.

With the Philippines, Ireland and other contributing nations set to withdraw from the mission, it was questionable whether the United Nations could continue monitoring the area.

“UNDOF is collapsing and the mandate has not been relevant for at least two years,” said Cohen, now a defense analyst with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

“Eighty percent of the border area is now in the hands of (Syrian) opposition forces,” he said, adding that if more nations withdrew, the militant presence would only rise.

For now, Israel is merely remaining vigilant.

“We have to be very cautious about our retaliation policy,” said Oreg, emphasizing that the priority should be to keep careful tabs on the Nusra Front and other groups' capabilities, while sharing any intelligence judiciously.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Despite Syria rift, Hezbollah pledges full support to Hamas


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organizations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah's stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi'ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel's military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighboring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi'ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

“We call for all differences and sensitivities on other issues to be put to one side,” Nasrallah said in reference to the rift over Syria. “Gaza is above all considerations”

His speeches are usually delivered via video-link from an undisclosed location, but in a sign of confidence the Hezbollah leader spoke on Friday for an hour in front of hundreds of supporters at Hezbollah's Martyr's Compound in the south of the Lebanese capital.

“We say to our brothers in Gaza: We are with you, by your side, trusting in your strength and your victory. We will do all that we believe to be our duty, on all fronts,” he said.

Nasrallah did not specify what support would be given, but he pointedly said that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in the past had supplied “all factions of the Palestinian resistance, financially, materially, politically…with weapons, logistical help and training.”

Four Israeli troops hurt in Golan blast, Israel blames Syria


A roadside bomb wounded four Israeli soldiers patrolling the Golan Heights on Tuesday, and Israel retaliated with artillery fire on Syrian army positions, the army said.

It was not clear who had planted the bomb in an area where the Syrian military, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad all have a presence.

Violence in Syria has spilled over the Golan frontline in the past but Tuesday's casualties were the worst Israel has suffered in there since the Syrian uprising began three years ago, army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said.

Noticing suspicious movement near the Golan separation fence, the soldiers left their patrol vehicle to inspect it on foot and were hit by an explosion, Lerner said. One was seriously hurt and the others had moderate to light injuries.

Israeli artillery shelled Syrian army positions on the far side of the fence in retaliation, Lerner said.

“We see the Syrian army as responsible, and that is indicated by our response to the attack,” he said.

His language suggested Israel was blaming Damascus because it had formal authority over the Syrian-held side of the Golan.

Lerner declined to be drawn on whether Israel knew who specifically had planted the bomb. Two weeks ago, Israel said it foiled a similar attack when its forces shot two Hezbollah men near the Golan fence. Hezbollah has fighters in Syria helping Assad combat a rebellion led by Sunni Islamist insurgents.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said the Syrian-held side of the Golan was “filled” with al Qaeda-linked rebels and Hezbollah guerrillas who, while at each other's throats in Syria, shared deep enmity for the Jewish state.

“This presents a new challenge for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told his Likud faction.

Israel has accused Hezbollah of setting up positions on the other side of the boundary fence. On Friday, an explosive device was detonated against Israeli soldiers patrolling the nearby border with Lebanon, causing no injuries, the army said.

Hezbollah accused Israel of carrying out an air strike on one of its bases on the Lebanon-Syria border last month and vowed to respond. Israel said it would hold the Beirut government responsible if Hezbollah attacked it from Lebanese territory.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alistair Lyon

Bomb on Lebanese border targets Israeli soldiers, IDF says


An explosive device was detonated against Israeli soldiers patrolling the border with Lebanon on Friday, causing no injuries, Israel's military said.

Israel shot six mortars into southern Lebanon, causing no damage or injuries, a Lebanese security source said, and an Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking whether the army had returned fire.

The Israel-Lebanon border has been mostly quiet since Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah fought an inconclusive war in 2006, even as civil war has raged in neighboring Syria.

Hezbollah has been helping President Bashar Assad in Syria fight rebels trying to topple his government.

Earlier this month Israel said its troops shot two Hezbollah gunmen who tried to plant a bomb farther east near the fence between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syrian-held territory.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

Hezbollah says will respond to Israeli air strike


Hezbollah will respond to an Israeli air strike that hit one of its bases on the border with Syria on Monday night, the Lebanese militant group said on Wednesday.

“The new aggression is a blatant assault on Lebanon and its sovereignty and its territory … The Resistance (Hezbollah) will choose the time and place and the proper way to respond to it,” Hezbollah said in a statement.

The strike, which Israel has not confirmed, hit the Lebanese-Syrian border near the Bekaa Valley village of Janta, Hezbollah said. It denied reports that the strike targeted artillery or rocket bases and said there were no casualties.

Lebanese security sources have said they believed that any attack took place on Syrian soil, but Hezbollah's reference to Lebanese sovereignty suggested it took place on the Lebanese side of the ill-defined frontier.

Israeli planes have struck areas on the Syrian side of the border several times in the last two years but, if confirmed, an air strike on Lebanese soil would be the first since the Syrian revolt began in 2011.

The eastern Lebanon-Syrian border area is frequently used by smugglers and Lebanese security sources say the target of Israeli strikes in Syria may have been trucks of weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Israel has voiced alarm that amid the chaos of Syria's civil war, weapons could be transferred to Hezbollah, which is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight an insurgency but has traditionally fought Israel.

Israel's military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz reiterated those fears on Sunday, a day before the strike, when he accused Iran, Assad's ally and Hezbollah's patron, of moving weapons to the militant group.

“There is no theatre in which Iran is not involved – giving out, if you like, torches to pyromaniacs – whether this is munitions or missiles or intervention in the fighting,” he said.

“We are tracking the processes of arms transfers in all of the operational theatres. This is something that is very, very negative. This is something that is very, very sensitive. And from time to time, when the need arises, things can happen.”

Israel's Channel 10 television on Tuesday broadcast what it said were satellite images of the locations struck, which appeared to show missile silos being readied for weapons.

The Lebanese army reported that four Israeli planes had flown across north Lebanon on Monday night towards the Bekaa Valley before heading southwest towards the Mediterranean near Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Israeli jets regularly fly through Lebanese airspace without permission.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not claim or deny the strike but said on Tuesday Israel would “do everything required to safeguard the security of the citizens of Israel.”

Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Dominic Evans in Beirut and Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Israel sees safe passage for chemical arms out of Syria


Internationally-monitored convoys removing Syrian chemical weapons are at little risk of being seized by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad or by his Lebanese Hezbollah allies, a senior Israeli military officer said on Tuesday.

The estimate suggested that Israel, which repeatedly bombed targets in Syria last year to prevent suspected transfers from Assad's arsenal to hostile guerrillas, was holding fire as tonnes of toxins are trucked out – in some cases through war zones not under Assad's control.

“We are not poised for a situation in which a convoy encounters rebels. This is something being addressed by the international forces that are there,” the officer told Reuters, referring to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the disarmament process.

He assessed the OPCW's role would also prevent Hezbollah, which has fighters in Syria helping Assad battle an almost three-year-old rebellion, from redirecting trucks to Lebanon.

“I reckon such a scenario is not possible,” said the officer, who declined to be named under military secrecy.

Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal worked out by Russia and the United States after an August 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus that Western nations blamed on Assad forces. The government blames rebels for the attack.

Around 1,300 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons are slated for decommissioning. Some are to be shipped from Latakia port for destruction on a specially converted U.S. vessel.

Syria loaded a first batch of chemicals onto a Danish cargo vessel last Tuesday, a week after missing the original December 31 target to ship out all the deadliest chemicals. The OPCW has called on Assad's government to speed up the process. An official contacted by Reuters on Tuesday declined to say whether any further cargoes had been loaded onto ships.

ENTIRE ARSENAL OUT?

Israel is an old enemy of Syria under Assad's family, and of Hezbollah, but also feels threatened by the Islamist-led rebels. It has welcomed the stripping of Syria's chemical arsenal while warning world powers that Damascus could renege.

“We are very preoccupied by places (in Syria) where – perhaps – the weapons have not been dismantled, and remain, and may end up in Lebanon,” the Israeli officer said, without elaborating. “We are looking very closely for this, and we really do not want it to happen.”

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of rockets as well as riflemen, fought Israel's technologically superior forces to a standstill in a 2006 border war and poses its most immediate threat. But some Israeli officials doubt the militia would try to obtain chemical weapons.

Regional security sources said that on at least three occasions last year Israel bombed convoys or depots in Syria that it believed held advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Israel has not formally confirmed carrying out those raids, which drew retaliation threats from Damascus. While not commenting on specific actions, the Israeli officer acknowledged that intervening militarily now could upset a disarmament campaign coordinated by numerous foreign powers.

“I know that, as of now, no convoy has been harmed. I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I am not preparing for a situation in which I would be the one 'protecting' these convoys,” the officer said.

Asked if the possibility of inadvertently harming foreigners accompanying the convoys might stay Israel's hand, the officer said: “Yes, unequivocally.”

“We very much do not want to undermine this process of the chemical weapons being dismantled. It is a dramatic event in terms of Israel's security outlook. It is, without a doubt, an achievement.”

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, editing by Mark Heinrich

U.S. officials: Hezbollah upgrades missile threat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel tests Arrow missile shield, sees Hezbollah threat


Israel successfully tested its upgraded Arrow missile interceptor for the second time on Friday, pushing forward work on a U.S.-backed defense against ballistic threats it sees from Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas as well as from Iran and Syria.

One of several elements of an integrated Israeli aerial shield, Arrow III is designed to deploy kamikaze satellites – known as “kill vehicles” – that track and slam into ballistic missiles above the earth's atmosphere, high enough to safely disintegrate any chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

Iran and Syria have long had such missiles, and Israel believes some are now also possessed by their ally Hezbollah, whose growing arsenal in Lebanon, stocked in part by Damascus, preoccupies the Israelis as their most pressing menace.

Friday's launch of an Arrow III interceptor missile over the Mediterranean was the second flight of the system, but did not involve the interception of any target, officials said.

Israel deployed the previous version, Arrow II, more than a decade ago, rating its success in live trials at 90 percent.

“The Arrow III interceptor successfully launched and flew an exo-atmospheric trajectory through space,” Israel's Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Yair Ramati, head of the ministry's Israel Missile Defense Organization, told reporters that as part of the test, which was attended by U.S. officials, the interceptor jettisoned its booster and “the kill vehicle continued to fly in space (and) conducted various maneuvers … for a couple of minutes”.

Israel predicts Arrow III could be deployed by next year. The Pentagon and Boeing are partners in the project run by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

MISSILE SHIELD

Arrow is the long-range segment in Israel's three-tier missile shield. This also includes the successfully deployed “Iron Dome”, which targets short-range rockets and mortar bombs favored by Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza, and the mid-range “David's Sling”, which is still under development. They can be deployed alongside U.S. counterpart systems like the Aegis.

In a Facebook posting, U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro called Friday's trial “another step forward in US-Israel cooperation in ballistic missile defense and ensuring Israel's security”.

The United States and Israel have been jointly working on Arrow since 1988. Washington says helping Israel build up the capability to shoot down missiles staves off escalatory wars – or preemptive Israeli strikes – in the Middle East.

Israel also sees it as a means of weathering enemy missile salvoes while it brings its offensive capabilities to bear.

“Developing such systems will let Israel maintain routine life despite the threats facing us, and will assist the IDF (Israeli military) in prevailing in combat quickly and efficiently, if required,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Twitter.

Israel is assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, as well as delivery systems including long-range missiles, and has been bolstering defenses as potential threats proliferate.

It worries about Iranian ballistic missiles, whose number it estimates at around 400 – especially given the possibility Tehran could eventually produce nuclear warheads for them. Iran, which denies seeking the bomb, is negotiating with world powers about curbing its disputed nuclear program.

BALLISTIC MISSILES

The civil war in Syria has raised questions about President Bashar al-Assad's control over his own ballistic Scud missiles. Israel says Damascus has used around half of these against Syrian rebels. Separately, Assad is decommissioning chemical weapons with which Syria's missiles might have been armed.

Hezbollah is helping Assad battle the insurgency. Fearing the guerrillas might get advanced Syrian weaponry, Israel carried out at least three military strikes on suspected Lebanon-bound convoys last year, security sources said.

Such efforts may have had limited efficacy, however.

Briefing Reuters, a senior Israeli official estimated that Hezbollah now has between 60,000 and 70,000 rockets and missiles deployed throughout Lebanon, including a few dozen Syrian-supplied Scud Ds with ranges of 700 km (440 miles).

Hezbollah may also have hundreds of Fateh-110 missiles with ranges of 250-300 km (160-190 miles), the official said. Among the targets of the Israeli strikes on Syria last year, security sources said, was a shipment of Fateh-110s meant for Hezbollah.

“It's the most significant threat facing Israel today,” the official said of the Hezbollah missiles.

“We believe more than half the rockets and missiles are operational. They are on launchers, ready for launch. It's just a matter of a decision.”

Hezbollah confirms building up its arsenal since its 2006 border war with Israel. It does not give details of the arms.

The Israeli official, who declined to be identified by name given the sensitivity of the issue, was circumspect on how Israel's three-tier shield would function in a major missile exchange, which single-interception trials do not simulate.

“You need to pass this test – of a few dozen of them landing, in real time – to be able to speak about it with more certainty,” the official said.

Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Patrick Graham and Giles Elgood

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Report: Israel bombed Syrian weapons convoy bound for Lebanon


Israel Air Force jets bombed a convoy carrying advanced missiles from Syria to Lebanon, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The Arabic language Al-Jarida daily cited an unnamed Israeli security official as saying the missiles were intended for the terrorist group Hezbollah.  The report, which has not been confirmed by another independent news source, did not say if the attack was in Syrian or Lebanese territory, only that it was on the border of the two countries.

The Lebanese media have not reported on any recent Israeli strikes.

Reports of heavy Israeli drone activity and over flights of Lebanon were reported over the weekend.

Israel was accused earlier this year of bombing weapons warehouses and convoys in Syria of arms meant for Hezbollah.

Pakistan’s Malala challenges world leaders to educate Syrian refugees


Pakistani education crusader Malala Yousafzai and other youth activists challenged world leaders on Monday to come up with $175 million to educate 400,000 Syrian children who fled to neighboring Lebanon to escape a civil war in their homeland.

As leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Yousafzai, 16, who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for demanding education for girls, and U.N. education envoy Gordon Brown received $1 million from campaign group Avaaz to kick off the push for money to send Syrian refugees to school.

U.N. children's agency UNICEF said 257,000 Syrian children were seeking education in Lebanon in 2013 and that was set to rise to 400,000 next year, swamping the Lebanese public school system that already educates 300,000 children.

“I can feel what's happening in Syria because it's what happened to us in Pakistan,” Yousafzai said of being displaced by violence as she spoke with Syrian student Farah Haddad, 20, in New York. Yousafzai is now at school in Britain because she cannot safely return to Pakistan.

Haddad, who finished high school in Syria and moved to the United States in 2011 to attend college, has taken up the fight for education for Syrian refugee children.

“When the war is ended, there will be no way for us to bring back the dead, or mend the hearts of mothers in Syria, but we can surely equip Syrian children to wrestle with a Syria when the bombs stop exploding,” said Haddad.

Former British Prime Minister Brown announced on Monday a plan by the Overseas Development Institute to educate those 400,000 Syrian children by employing Syrian refugees who were teachers, opening Lebanese schools 24 hours a day to teach children in double or triple shifts and providing school meals.

“A 100 years ago the Red Cross secured the right that health care should be provided even in conflict. We want in this generation to secure the right of every child to education even when there's a conflict,” Brown told reporters.

LOST GENERATION

“Instead of 400,000 Syrian children doing nothing … perhaps becoming unemployable, a lost generation, a wasted generation, childhood destroyed, we can actually show that in the next few months these 400,000 children can actually get the opportunities they so richly deserve,” Brown said.

Brown said $175 million was needed to implement the education plan in Lebanon. Avaaz raised its $1 million donation in the past week from more than 32,000 people in 143 countries, and Western Union also announced it will match consumer donations to its newly created education fund up to $100,000.

“The U.N. Security Council … has failed the people of Syria. We can't fix that problem today but I can think we can still determine whether the children of this war become a lost generation or a generation of leaders that can rebuild and renew the hope of the country,” said Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel.

The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked over how to try and end the two-and-a-half year Syrian conflict. Russia and China have refused to consider sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's government and have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad's crackdown on opposition groups.

A World Bank report said Syria's conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end of 2014. The report was prepared for a U.N. meeting this week to provide humanitarian aid and development assistance and strengthen Lebanon's armed forces.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

The Western Wall in Israel

Muslims, stop blaming Israel


Whenever calamities befall Muslim-majority nations, there is always a country to blame: Israel. Is there a revolution against a tyrant? Zionists are responsible. Who else could be at fault if there is a clash between Sunni and Shia groups? The Jews. Did a bomb explode on the other side of the world, or is there a problem with the economy? No need look any further than Israel. And where else would the control center for destabilizing the Arab world be? In Tel Aviv, of course!

The late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi blamed Israel for the violence and unrest in Africa. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said that the turmoil in the Arab world is a pro-Zionist conspiracy. Saudi cleric Sheikh Ismae’il al-Hafoufi blamed Israel for the desecration of Islamic holy sites in Syria. Sheik Abd al-Jalil al-Karouri, a Sudanese cleric, pointed to Israel for the Boston and Texas bombings. And then there’s the belief that Zionists planned the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, to demonize Arabs and Muslims in the eyes of the world.

This madness of putting the blame on Zionists — and Israel in general — is a knee-jerk reaction with no basis in logic. The most surprising part is that so many people believe this without question and continue to disseminate such rumors far and wide.

Syria, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon all aggressively hold the “Zionist regime” responsible for their woes. While Bashar Assad accuses Israel of trying to destabilize Syria, the Syrian opposition blames Israel for assisting the Assad regime by giving them diplomatic cover. Both sides see Israel as responsible for all the bloodshed and unrest going on in Syria. Now with the possibility of an international intervention in Syria, Iranian legislators and commanders are issuing blunt warnings, saying any military strike from the United States on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel. Israel’s staying out of the equation, it seems, is simply not possible. Even though Israeli politicians refrain from taking sides in the regional conflicts, all sides point toward Israel anyhow.

On the other hand, we have the Egyptian coup d’état, where we see both sides ascribe blame to Israel. Interestingly, the Egyptian grass-roots protest movement Tamarod blames Israel but urges the Egyptian government not to renege on the Camp David accords. If Israel condemns the violence committed against the anti-coup alliance, she is labeled as an enemy of Egypt and accused of collaborating to destroy the Egyptian army. Even the state-allied newspaper al-Ahram claimed that Israel is in an alliance to demolish the Egyptian army and to balkanize the country. Furthermore, in 2010, an Egyptian government official blamed Israel intelligence for a fatal shark attack off Egypt’s shores.

It must sound like a bizarre joke for some, but this tragicomic situation is quite serious for many in the Middle East. We are no longer surprised to hear Israel’s being the scapegoat for every single evil in the world, but Iran’s blaming the Zionist entity for the deadly earthquake in Iran was pushing the limits of credulity. This, despite the fact that Jews are a handful of people, a tiny population when compared to the overall population of the world.

Now let’s look at what is really going on in the Islamic-Arab world. There is a continuous and unending stream of hate — hate of the Shia, hate of the Wahabbi, hate of the Sunni, hate of the Alawi, hate of the Christians, hate of the Jews and so on. We also see slogans such as: “May God Destroy Israel,” “Down With the United States,” “Damn the West.” Hatred is deeply ingrained in their tradition, in their culture and in their own education. This fierce, venomous style is what is tearing the Islamic world apart; this is exactly what is happening in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and others — Muslims killing Muslims.

This outcome is the result of intense efforts by some Muslim clerics who encourage hatred of the “other.” Muslims kill each other and then both sides blame the Jews. Wahabbi scholars say that all Sunnis are unbelievers and should be destroyed. Sunni scholars say Shias are unbelievers and their death is obligatory. Shias say that it is obligatory to kill Sunnis, as they are enemies. These are Muslim clerics who are promoting the most violent brand of sectarianism, preaching hatred and calling upon their followers to commit massacres. How do Jews make Muslims kill other Muslims?

When Muslim followers heed these clerical calls for violence, these same clerics turn around and promptly blame the Jews. What about calls for Muslims to not kill each other? What about Muslims unifying to solve their own problems without resorting to violence? What about the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with its 57 member states, or the League of Arab States, with its 22 states, both which seem utterly helpless to bring about any solutions?

Some religious scholars have led many ignorant people astray with their false teachings, which plant seeds of hate. They implement a faith they have largely invented under the name of Islam — a faith that includes hatred, violence, darkness, which attaches no value to human life. They espouse bloodshed in the name of Islam, spreading hatred toward Christians, Jews and even other Muslims. These loveless, misguided people are most definitely not Muslims, but bigots and radicals.

As Muslims, let’s stop pointing the finger at others for our problems. It is time for the Muslim world to take responsibility and to ponder what has gone so horribly wrong with the Muslim world. Why is there so much bloodshed? Superstitions, innovations, localized traditions and bigotry have replaced the Quran in some Islamic countries, and their religiosity is a deeply artificial one. This hatred has to stop and Muslims must embrace the true spirit of the Quran, which is love, compassion and brotherhood for all.


Sinem Tezyapar is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV network.

Al-Qaida-affiliated terror group says it’s resuming holy war against Jews


A terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on northern Israel said it has resumed a jihad, or holy war, against the Jews.

The Lebanon-based Azzam Abdullah Brigades said the rocket attack last week was carried out “as part of the resumption of the jihad against the Jews.”

“We’ve frozen the activity for the sake of the blessed Syrian revolution,” read the statement posted Monday on the Twitter account of a radical Salafist cleric.

Azzam Abdullah Brigades, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for firing four long-range missiles into northern Israel, including two that fell in residential areas, causing damage to houses and cars in Nahariya and Acre.

The “green light given by Israel and the Western countries to Hezbollah in the fight against our people in Syria, so that Israel could safeguard its security, will not provide it with security,” the statement said. “Rather, it will bring it closer to the fire of the jihadi fighters and make it much more exposed to them.”

The attack gives the “Jewish conquerors an indication of the quality of rockets in our possession,” it said. “Haifa should be decorated with the most magnificent shrouds to greet our rockets.”

At least one rocket in the attack was intercepted by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed in the area, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Defiant Hezbollah leader says ready to fight in Syria


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused radical Sunni Islamists on Friday of being behind a car bomb that killed 24 people in Beirut and vowed that the attack would redouble his group's commitment to its military campaign in Syria.

In a fiery speech to supporters, one day after the deadliest bombing in the capital since Lebanon's civil war ended two decades ago, Nasrallah raised the stakes by pledging to join the battle in Syria himself if needed.

Thursday's blast in the Shi'ite militant Hezbollah's south Beirut stronghold followed months of sectarian tension and violence in Lebanon fuelled in part by Hezbollah's intervention against Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria's civil war.

“It is most likely that a takfiri group was responsible for yesterday's explosion,” Nasrallah said, referring to radical Sunni Muslim factions linked to al Qaeda, many of whom are fighting with Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad.

“If you think by killing our women and children … and destroying our neighborhoods, we would retreat from the position we took (in Syria) you are wrong,” he said in a combative speech broadcast by videolink from a secret location to his supporters.

“If we had 100 fighters in Syria, now they will be 200. If we had 1,000, they will be 2,000. If we had 5,000 they will be 10,000. If the battle with these takfiri terrorists requires that I and all Hezbollah should go to Syria, we will go.”

Thursday's blast came a month after a car bomb wounded 50 people in the same district of the Lebanese capital – an attack that Nasrallah also blamed on takfiris, who consider all but the most radical Sunnis to be infidels whose blood can be spilt.

Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn said a Syrian man had been arrested for suspected involvement in the July bombing, underlining the extent to which Lebanon has become embroiled in its neighbors' conflict.

Lebanese Hezbollah fighters helped Assad's soldiers retake a strategic border town in June, while Sunni Muslims from Lebanon have joined the rebel ranks. The violence has spilled back into Lebanon, with bombings and street clashes in the Bekaa Valley and Mediterranean cities of Tripoli and Sidon.

POSSIBLE SUICIDE BOMBING

Thursday's explosion engulfed a busy street in flames, reviving memories of the destruction inflicted by Lebanon's civil war.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said investigators were checking CCTV footage taken in the moments before the explosion to see whether the van believed to have carried the bomb had been driven by a suicide bomber or detonated remotely.

Reporters who arrived at the scene minutes after the explosion saw a burnt-out car near the center of the road, suggesting it was being driven when it blew up.

Among the dead were a family of five – a father, mother and their three daughters – who were killed in their car by the blast, which destroyed several vehicles and set fire to the lower floors of adjacent buildings, trapping residents.

Forensic investigators, emergency workers and security forces were still working at the site on Friday, amid burnt-out cars and charred facades of residential buildings.

Nearby, masked men fired in the air as the first funeral processions of victims of Thursday's explosion drove slowly through the subdued streets of densely populated south Beirut.

As the country marked a day of official mourning, social media was flooded with pictures of the victims, and requests for information about people still missing.

Politicians from across Lebanon's diverse communities, including Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druzes, united to condemn the bloodshed in the Shi'ite neighborhood, some visiting the area to offer condolences.

But in a sign of how the Syrian crisis has polarized Lebanon, there was celebratory gunfire in the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli on Thursday night and reports of people distributing sweets.

In an effort to limit sectarian tensions, Nasrallah called on Shi'ites to show restraint and said that takfiri groups were a threat to Sunnis and Shi'ites alike.

“These people kill Sunnis just as they kill the Shi'ites and they send suicide bombers to Sunni mosques just as they send them to Shi'ite mosques,” he said, referring to al Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia.

Speaking in an address to mark the seventh anniversary of the end of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah also said he could not exclude that those radical Islamists were actually working for Israeli interests.

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alison Williams

Iran looks to the north


In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.

We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.

In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.

It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have, in the past, threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.

Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh. 

On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.

Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capital Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.

These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.

Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.


Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

EU adds Hezbollah’s military wing to terrorism list


The European Union agreed on Monday to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist, a move driven by concerns over the Lebanese militant group's involvement in a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria and the Syrian war.

The powerful Lebanese Shi'ite movement, an ally of Iran, has attracted concern in Europe and around the world in recent months for its role in sending thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, an intervention that has turned the tide of Syria's two-year-old civil war.

Britain and the Netherlands have long pressed their EU peers to impose sanctions on the Shi'ite Muslim group, citing evidence it was behind an attack in the coastal Bulgarian city of Burgas a year ago that killed five Israelis and their driver.

Until now, many EU capitals had resisted lobbying from Washington and Israel to blacklist the group, warning such a move could fuel instability in Lebanon and in the Middle East.

Hezbollah functions both as a political party that is part of the Lebanese government and as a militia with thousands of guerrillas under arms.

Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said the decision was “hasty” and could lead to further sanctions against the movement that would complicate Lebanese politics.

“This will hinder Lebanese political life in the future, especially considering our sensitivities in Lebanon,” he told Reuters. “We need to tighten bonds among Lebanese parties, rather than create additional problems.”

The blacklisting opens the way for EU governments to freeze any assets Hezbollah's military wing may have in Europe.

“There's no question of accepting terrorist organizations in Europe,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said in a statement that the EU had taken an important step by “dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act”.

In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry said Syria was an important factor behind the EU vote.

“A growing number of governments are recognizing Hezbollah as the dangerous and destabilizing terrorist organization that it is,” he said.

QUESTIONING EFFECTIVENESS

By limiting the listing to the armed wing, the EU was trying to avoid damaging its relations with Lebanon's government, but the split may complicate its ability to enforce the decision in practical terms.

Hezbollah does not formally divide itself into armed and political wings, and Amal Saad Ghorayeb, who wrote a book on the group, said identifying who the ban would apply to will be difficult.

“It is a political, more than a judicial decision. It can't have any real, meaningful judicial implications,” she said, adding it appeared to be a “a PR move” to hurt Hezbollah's international standing, more connected with events in Syria than with the case in Bulgaria.

Israel's deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin welcomed the step, but said the entire group should have been targeted.

“We (Israel) worked hard, along with a number of countries in Europe, in order to bring the necessary materials and prove there was a basis for a legal decision,” he told Israel Radio.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to allay concerns about the practical impact of the decision, saying it would allow for better cooperation among European law enforcement officials in countering Hezbollah activities.

Hezbollah parliamentary member al-Walid Soukariah said the decision puts Europe “in confrontation with this segment of people in our region”.

“This step won't affect Hezbollah or the resistance. The resistance is present on Lebanese territory and not in Europe. It is not a terrorist group to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe, which is forbidden by religion.”

TRICKY RELATIONS

The Iran-backed movement, set up with the aim of fighting Israel after its invasion of Lebanon three decades ago, has dominated politics in Beirut in recent years.

In debating the blacklisting, many EU governments expressed concerns over maintaining Europe's relations with Lebanon. To soothe such worries, the ministers agreed to make a statement pledging to continue dialogue with all political groups.

“We also agreed that the delivery of legitimate financial transfers to Lebanon and delivery of assistance from the European Union and its member states will not be affected,” the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

Already on the EU blacklist are groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, and Turkey's Kurdish militant group PKK.

Their assets in Europe are frozen and they have no access to cash there, meaning they cannot raise money for their activities. Sanctions on Hezbollah go into effect this week.

Hezbollah denies any involvement in last July's attack in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian interior minister said last week Sofia had no doubt the group was behind it.

In support of its bid to impose sanctions, Britain has also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.

The decision also comes at a time of strained relations between the EU and Israel after Brussels pushed ahead with plans to bar EU financial aid to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.

EU foreign ministers held a video conference with Kerry who announced on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had tentatively agreed to resume peace talks after three years.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Oliver Holmes, Stephen Kalin and Reuters Television in Beirut; Editing by Will Waterman

Syrian military threatens Israel following border victory


Syria’s military threatened Israel after reportedly capturing the town of Qusair on the Lebanon border.

SANA, Syria’s state news agency, said the Syrian army on Wednesday took control of Qusair from rebels who had been fighting government forces and Hezbollah volunteers for more than two weeks as part of Syria’s two-year civil war. Qusair had been in rebel hands for more than a year, according to reports.

“The victory that was achieved at the hands of our brave soldiers sends a clear message to all those who are involved in the aggression against Syria, on top being the Zionist enemy and its agents in the region and tools on the ground. Our armed forces will remain ready to face any aggression against our dear homeland,” read a statement from the General Command of the Syrian army issued Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Also Wednesday, two rockets exploded near Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights. It is unclear on which side of the border they fell.

In addition, two Syrian citizens who were injured during fighting on the border between the army and rebels were taken to a northern Israeli hospital. One died on the way and the other was admitted with shrapnel injuries, according to the Times of Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Monday told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Israel Defense Forces is caring for wounded Syrians at a field hospital set up on the border and transferring the severely wounded to Israeli hospitals.

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