5 things you can do to help Aleppo


The news from Aleppo is unbearable. Cease-fires that do not hold. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians and a horrific nightmare that is only getting worse. We have known about this epicenter of human anguish for years, and now the stories of profound suffering come to us on a daily basis on the nightly news. I am sick at heart and my soul aches in disbelief that this is happening now. How do we justify our inaction? How do we rationalize what has happened to millions of human beings? Years from now, when asked, “What did you do during the brutal massacre in Syria?” what will be our response?  

This is not the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda or Darfur. Regrettably, we learned little from them. This is 2016 and the epicenter of inhumanity is in Aleppo. We so often lament our inactions of the past yet fail to act when our time comes. We still can do something for the people of Syria and for ourselves. As Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

For many years, during the genocides in Darfur and South Sudan, there were national movements with strong local organizations and individuals speaking out. Although the killing goes on in these places, we can feel that we did a lot as citizens to try to stop the genocide in Darfur. Why has no large and popular national or active local movement, like the Save Darfur Coalition, taken root with voices of conscience speaking out about Syria?  

Is this even comprehensible? Five years ago, Syria had a population of 22 million people. More than half of them have since been forced to flee their homes, been tortured or killed. A human being can never be a statistic. Who can forget the picture of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh pulled from the rubble and sitting in an ambulance waiting to be treated?

We cannot wallow in our guilt, offer pleas that the situation is too complex to understand, ask what difference our actions or words will make. Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a humanitarian; he is a cruel dictator. When he took over from his father in 2000, there were high hopes as he was Western educated as an ophthalmologist in London. Under his leadership, he has been implicated in a multitude of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On Dec. 12, the United Nations confirmed that 82 civilians, including women and children, were murdered in Aleppo. Yes, Aleppo will again be unified but how many more innocent people will be forced from their homes or killed as revenge for the rebellion?

What can we do?  

1. We can write to our congressional leaders that we want them to take immediate action on civilian protection measures. 

2. We can write to the president and our Senate and House leaders to seriously consider sanctions and no-fly zones in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has shared his frustration with the lack of action by the United States.  

3. We can contribute to humanitarian groups that are doing everything they can to help refugees and internally displaced people. Groups such as HIAS, International Medical Corps, the White Helmets — the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated group of rescue workers in Syria — the  International Rescue Committee and many others are doing lifesaving work inside and outside of Syria. (Please always review an organization on Charity Navigator before giving).  

4. We can watch the situation carefully and discuss it with our family and friends. We can make sure that we are vigilant in being informed and doing whatever it takes.  

5. We can do more to increase the number of Syrian civilians being allowed into the U.S.

Most of all, we can see the Syrians as human beings, people like you and me, who deserve medical attention, food, security and a place to live. More than anything, they want something that we can give them: the knowledge that the world cares about them  — and hope.   

Shmuel Zygelbaum, the Polish politician in exile in London during World War II, wrote about the Holocaust:  “It will actually be a shame to go on living, to belong to the human race, if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history.” A year later, he took his own life as his final form of protest. 

We who pride ourselves on uplifting human beings are being called to halt the greatest crime of our time. Can we halt it? I don’t know. Can we show that we have a conscience and that we care? I have no doubt. 


Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco where he teaches Holocaust and Genocide.  He spent two weeks last summer with Syrian refugees in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Netanyahu to U.N. chief: Urge Hamas to free Israelis, return bodies


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to use his position to help pressure Hamas to repatriate two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

In a joint appearance here during Ban’s 48-hour visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Netanyahu also called on the U.N. to “highlight Hamas’s crimes and understand that our security measures are aimed only at keeping our citizens safe from this threat and we use judicious force in this regards.”

Ban and Netanyahu also met with the families of presumed killed Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies are being held by Hamas in Gaza. Two Israeli citizens are also being held by Hamas in Gaza — Avera Mengistu, a 28-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli, and an unidentified Bedouin-Israeli who crossed into Gaza of their own volition.

“Hamas is cruelly and illegally holding the remains of our soldiers and holding our citizens. I ask you to use your standing to help return home these soldiers and these citizens. It’s a humanitarian position and elementary humanitarian requirement that Hamas and its criminal activities is of course throwing into the winds,” Netanyahu said Tuesday during an appearance with Ban in front of reporters before the two leaders started a private meeting.

Netanyahu reminded Ban of his stated goal during a 2013 visit to Israel to work to halt anti-Israel bias in the international body.

“Regrettably, the goal of treating Israel fairly remains unfulfilled across a wide spectrum of U.N. activities and U.N. forums,” Netanyahu said.

“I know that your desire for all countries to be treated fairly and equally remains true today. I urge you to dedicate your last six months as the Secretary General of the United Nations in trying to right this wrong. And when I say that, it’s not just for Israel’s sake. It’s for the credibility of the UN,” Netanyahu said.

Ban called on Israel to work quickly toward a two-state solution.

“I encourage you to take the courageous steps necessary to prevent a one-state reality of perpetual conflict,” Ban says. “No solutions to the conflict will be possible without the recognition that both Palestinians and Jews have undeniable historic and religious connection to this land. No solutions can come through violence. It must be based on mutual respect and recognition of the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.”

Earlier on Tuesday Ban visited the Gaza Strip, where he called on Israel to lift the “suffocating” blockade on the coastal strip, Reuters reported.

“The closure of Gaza suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction effort. It is a collective punishment for which there must be accountability,” Ban said.

The call to lift the closure came a day after Israel and Turkey announced a reconciliation agreement which keeps the blockade in place.

UN official rejects Netanyahu invitation for seminar on Jerusalem


A U.N. official in the Middle East turned down an offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to host a seminar on the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.

The U.N.’s special Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, rejected the offer proffered more than two weeks after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted a resolution that denies a Jewish connection to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.

“UN staff in Jerusalem know the history of the region, its people and religions all too well,” Mladenov told the French news agency AFP.

He added that such invitations should be issued to the Paris-based UNESCO and the ambassadors of the agency’s member-states based there.

Netanyahu posted Friday on Facebook: “Two weeks ago, I was shocked to hear that UNESCO adopted a decision denying any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, our holiest site. It is hard to believe that anyone, let alone an organization tasked with preserving history, could deny this link which spans thousands of years.

“That is why today I am announcing a seminar on Jewish history for all UN personnel in Israel. I will personally host the lecture at the Prime Minister’s Office. The seminar will be given by a leading scholar of Jewish history and will be free to all UN staff and diplomats, including of countries which voted for this outrageous decision.”

Netanyahu also posted the invitation, which his spokesman told international media is a serious invitation for a seminar to take place next week, on Twitter.

Some 33 countries voted to approve the resolution, which refers to the Western Wall by its Arabic name, Al-Buraq Plaza, and refers to the Temple Mount only by its Arabic designations as the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al Sharif. Six countries voted against the resolution and 17 abstained. Four European Union countries and several with strong diplomatic relations with Israel approved the resolution.

Letters to the editor: Israel’s video, the U.N., an affordable Jewish education and more


Predator or Protector?

Regarding Rob Eshman’s column about the shooting in Hebron: He is certainly entitled to his opinion, but this soldier is also entitled to his day in court and Eshman’s inflammatory comments before the court hearing endanger this soldier’s rights (“Israel’s Vicious Video,” April 8). We all have a point of view that we wish to share and we should be free to do so, but not when it endangers the rights of others.

It is reasonably clear the terrorist would have died under any circumstances. Therefore, the question was whether it was reasonable to assume he had a suicide belt on that could have endangered the lives of more people. Has Eshman served in any military, let alone in the Israel Defense Forces as a teenager, where split-second decisions must be made that determine if you and others  live or die at the hands of fanatics?

Eshman using his position at the Jewish Journal to be the prosecutor, judge and jury is, in this case, reckless and unfair.

Jack de Lowe, Raanana, Israel

Fear not for the future of the IDF. Quoting a former Yitzhak Rabin “adviser” and facilitator of the Oslo accords, the single most damaging capitulation ever taken on by Israel, that the IDF is in danger of “collapsing,” is ludicrous. As is Eshman’s damaging diatribe against a soldier protecting our homeland. Yes, we have an internal existential threat, but it’s not the army and it’s not what he believe is our path down the rabbit hole of diminishing proper behavior in defense of our country. It’s our own people ignoring the call of our enemies for our destruction that poses the greatest threat to our existence.

Allan Kandel, Los Angeles

U.N. an Unholy Alliance

It would make my day if I were to read a letter to the editor or an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times like David Suissa’s editorial titled “A Resolution Against the U.N.,” (April 8).

Suissa reports that more than 80 percent of United Nations condemnations in each of the last four years have been against Israel. The rest  are divided among the other 191 members of the U.N. Such a disparity highlights the strong bias of the U.N. against Israel. How anyone can believe that any one country deserves more than 80 percent of U.N. condemnations is beyond me.

To confine Suissa’s year-by-year enumeration of U.N. condemnations of Israel to the readers of the Jewish Journal is not only an injustice to Israel but is preventing people at large from learning how biased the U.N. is against Israel.

Marc Jacobson, Los Angeles

Unaffordable, Not Unattainable

I would like to thank the Jewish Journal and Jared Sichel for the thorough research and wonderful job they did covering the Nagel Jewish Academy (“Jewish Education for a Two-Figure Tuition,” April 8). 

I need to clarify one thing — mainly because my mother called me, upset. Her complaint was, “How could you say that tuition for a Jewish education is a waste of money?” 

My whole raison d’etre is based on the good book’s commandment of “Inform them to your children and your children’s children,” so it was not my intent to imply otherwise. My concern is in how we deliver it. The cost of Jewish education is astronomical — and out of reach for many Jews. I pay $80,000 to educate my four children, and yet most of that money is going to pay for the things that public schools already provide.

So with Jewish parents who are already sending their kids to their neighborhood public school, and who feel disappointed they can’t pay for a private Jewish education, Nagel Jewish Academy is there to fill in the gap. Nagel Jewish Academy’s singular focus on a Jewish education has reduced the price to $1,250 per child (tax deductible), and we have covered all the costs ourselves to make it free for all parents. 

We want to offer a Jewish education for free to those who can’t afford one. It’s not a replacement for a private Jewish school, but an alternative.

Levi Nagel, Founder of Nagel Jewish Academy

The Message Is the Medium

Dr. Gary Michelson certainly has accomplished a lot and given a lot, but I was left very cold with his disingenuous and dismissive answer to the question about donating to Jewish charities (“The Life Saver,” April 1).  

As wonderful as he might be, this article belongs more in the L.A. Times than on the cover of the Jewish Journal.

Bill Fields, Los Angeles

correction

The article “Jewish Education for a Two-Figure Tuition” (April 8) incorrectly identified the owner of the space used by Nagel Jewish Academy in Beverlywood. It is owned by the Friendship Circle of Los Angeles.

 

A Moving and Shaking item about a discussion at IKAR, “How to Live as Jews in the World: Particularism vs. Universalism” (April 1), misidentified the interim president of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She is Rabbi Laura Owens.

UN censors exhibit on Israel set for NY headquarters


The United Nations has censored an exhibition about Israel set to go on display at the organization’s headquarters in New York.

Three of the 13 panels in the exhibition “Israel Matters,” which is set to open Monday, will be deleted, the U.N. decided over the weekend. The censored panels deemed “inappropriate” are on the subjects of Zionism, Jerusalem and Arab-Israelis.

The exhibit was created by Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations with the organization StandWithUs.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, has called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reverse what he called the “scandalous” decision and allow the panels to be displayed.

“By disqualifying an exhibition about Zionism, the U.N. is undermining the very existence of the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people,” Danon said in a statement. “We will not allow the U.N. to censor the fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital.”

He added: “The U.N. must reverse this outrageous decision and apologize to the Jewish people. Zionism and Jerusalem are the foundation stones and the moral basis upon which the State of Israel was founded.”

The Jerusalem panel describes the Jewish people as “indigenous to Israel” and states that “Jerusalem has been the center and focus of Jewish life and religion for more than three millennia and is holy to Christians and Muslims as well.”

The panel on Arab-Israelis calls them “the largest minority in Israel, making up 20 percent of Israel’s population” and says they are “equal citizens under the law in Israel.”

The Zionism panel calls it “the liberation movement of the Jewish people, who sought to overcome 1,900 years of oppression and regain self-determination in their indigenous homeland.”

UN’s Ban heckled in address at New York synagogue


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was heckled and some worshippers walked out during his speech at a New York City synagogue’s Shabbat services.

Ban did not mention Israel during an address on Saturday morning at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan in which he condemned intolerance and bigotry, the Times of Israel reported. Members of the Zionist Organization of America handed out leaflets outside the Orthodox synagogue in protest of Ban’s appearance.

His appearance came more than two weeks after Ban said in an address to the U.N. Security Council that Palestinian violence against Israel is a result of “frustration” over “a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process.”

At the synagogue, Ban said, “Only by breaking down the walls of intolerance and division can we prevent new conflicts and genocide.” He called on people to work together “to build bridges and end anti-Semitism, bigotry against Muslims and all other forms of hatred.”

The speech was in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was observed around the world late last month.

“I will always be haunted by all that I saw and heard when I visited Auschwitz in 2013,” Ban told the congregation. “The testimonies of Holocaust survivors remind us what happens when we allow inhumanity to prevail. They also remind us of the power of the human spirit and the inherent dignity and worth of every person.

“The memory of the Holocaust guides us by reminding us what can happen when we stop seeing our common humanity. Only by remembering the past can we hope to shape a better future.”

He recalled the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia, and referenced current massacres in South Sudan and Syria, and murders by the Islamic State and Boko Haram.

Ban was accompanied to the synagogue by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon.

The U.N. leader had told the body’s Security Council, “It is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the U.N. leader of “giving terror a tailwind.”

Days after the Security Council address Ban, who also condemned Palestinian terror attacks, doubled down on his remarks in an Op-Ed in The New York Times headlined “Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Israel.”

U.N. says Iran meets deadline for investigation of nuclear past


Iran has met a deadline to give the U.N. nuclear watchdog information it needs to assess whether Tehran sought to develop nuclear weapons in the past, the agency said on Thursday, a step towards carrying out a deal between Tehran and world powers.

The apparent progress reported in the longstanding U.N. investigation coincided with increasing Western disquiet over Iran's test of a ballistic missile this week in defiance of a U.N. ban, a move France said sent a disconcerting message.

It also followed an unusual broadcast by Iranian state television of footage of an underground tunnel crammed with missiles and launchers that appeared to signal Tehran's determination to expand its large missile inventory.

The Islamic Republic's missiles are viewed with concern by its Western-allied Gulf Arab neighbors given what they see as the risk of Tehran tipping missiles with nuclear weapons, should it ever develop any in future.

Iran has long denied that its enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel has any military ends, saying it is for civilian energy only. But its restrictions on U.N. inspections and intelligence suggesting it has researched nuclear bombs in the past raised concern and led to international sanctions.

In July, Iran struck a deal with six world powers under which it must restrict sensitive aspects of its nuclear program to help ensure they can never be put to bomb-making, in exchange for the removal of sanctions.

Under a roadmap agreement reached parallel to the Vienna deal, Iran had to provide by Thursday the cooperation necessary for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to complete an assessment of Iran's nuclear work by Dec. 15.

“In the period to 15 October 2015, activities set out in the 'road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran's nuclear program' were completed,” the IAEA said in a statement.

The Vienna-based watchdog added that it would provide its assessment by Dec. 15, on schedule. A spokesman for the IAEA declined to elaborate on Thursday's statement.

The IAEA said last month it had sent Iran questions on “ambiguities” in its submissions to the agency. Cooperation with a view to resolving those questions is a pivotal aspect of what Iran had to supply by Thursday.

ASSESSING SAMPLES TAKEN AT MILITARY SITE

The investigation is now due to move into a phase in which the agency assesses the materials provided by Iran, including environmental samples at the Parchin military site, which IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano visited last month.

One of the questions the IAEA aims to resolve is whether Iran carried out high-explosives testing at Parchin applicable to making a nuclear warhead. Last month's visit was the IAEA's first access to Parchin in a decade.

On Wednesday, the last procedural hurdle to putting Iran's deal with major powers into effect was cleared when its Guardian Council, a top vetting body, ratified a bill endorsing the accord approved by a big parliamentary majority on Tuesday.

The vote was a victory for President Hassan Rouhani's government over hardline conservative foes of the deal and of any form of detente with the West after decades of antagonism.

The precise stance of Khamenei, a veteran hardliner who has the last word on all matters of state, is not known. To date, he has neither approved nor rejected the agreement, but has commended the work of Rouhani's negotiating team.

Despite barriers to the implementation of the deal falling, Iran stirred fresh jitters with its test on Sunday of a new precision-guided ballistic missile, indicating advances in Iran's attempts to improve the accuracy of its missile arsenal.

As if to drive the point home, Iranian state television broadcast on Wednesday video from an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps base under a mountain filled with missiles on their launch vehicles with uniformed personnel standing nearby.

State media quoted a senior Revolutionary Guards general as saying Iran was completely overhauling its missile technology, replacing the current stockpile with newer weapons, and that the base shown on TV was one of many scattered across Iran.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said on Thursday the ballistic missile test was a clear violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution and sends “a worrying message … to the international community”.

The United States said on Tuesday it would raise the matter at the Security Council.

Ballistic missile tests by Iran are banned under Security Council Resolution 1929, which dates from 2010 and remains valid until the July nuclear deal goes into effect.

Once that happens, Iran will still be “called upon” not to undertake any work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for a period of up to eight years, according to a Security Council resolution adopted in July.

UN Security Council urges restraint at Temple Mount


The United Nations Security Council expressed “grave concern” over violence at Jerusalem’s holiest site and is calling for restraint and calm.

The unanimous declaration — well short of a resolution, which would have the force of international law — was issued late Thursday after three days of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters and rioters at the hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. The statement, posted by UN Report, a site that tracks U.N. statements, has yet to be posted to the Security Council website. 

The clashes began Sunday morning, with security forces seizing pipe bombs at the site in an operation carried out hours before Jews prepared to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

The police said its forces had entered the site after protesters began throwing stones and firecrackers at the Mughrabi Gate, the access point for non-Muslim visitors to the site.

According to an arrangement between the Israeli government and the Muslim authority administering the site, known as the “status quo” and in place since shortly after Israel captured the mount in the 1967 Six-Day War, Jews may visit the site but organized Jewish worship is discouraged. The site houses a mosque compound said to be the third holiest in Islam. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, but Jewish worship is confined to the adjacent Western Wall.

The council statement said Muslims at the site “must be allowed to worship in peace, free from violence, threats and provocations.”

It also said that “visitors should be without fear of violence or intimidation,” apparently an allusion to small organized groups of Muslims who have in recent years harassed Jewish groups visiting the site.

The members of the Security Council called for the “exercise of restraint, refraining from provocative actions and rhetoric, and upholding unchanged the historic status quo” at the compound “in word and in practice,” added the statement.

Police clashed with about 200 rioters at the Mughrabi Gate during Friday afternoon prayers, Israel Radio reported.

The unrest has drawn international attention; clashes at the site have in the past led to wider outbreaks of violence in the region.

President Barack Obama on Thursday spoke of the violence in a conversation with Saudi Arabian King Salman.

“They discussed regional issues, including Yemen and recent violence and tensions at Jerusalem’s Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount,” said the statement — notable because U.S.-Saudi cooperation has focused in recent months exclusively on the war in Yemen and the Iran nuclear deal.

Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, castigated the Security Council statement for not explicitly mentioning Palestinian violence at the flashpoint site.

“This statement, which only uses the Arabic name for the Temple Mount, affirms the right of Muslims to be present and to pray at the compound, but completely ignores the Palestinian violence, the deep connection of the Jewish people to the Temple Mount, and the right of all to visit the site,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke with the U.N. chief Thursday, telling him that Israel was working to end the violence. “Unlike the Palestinian side’s incitement, Israel is taking pains to preserve the status quo,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.

He added that Israel would respond aggressively to stone-throwing and firebomb attacks, which have caused the deaths of innocent Israelis.

Police said they would prohibit the entry of men under 40 to the compound on Friday.

Israel’s chief rabbis appealed to their Muslim counterparts to discourage violence at the site.

“We expect our friends, our partners in the council of religious leaders in Israel, to condemn all those who desecrate the holy places and bring into them weapons of various kinds, and to prevent such phenomena,” David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef said in a joint statement.

U.N. report: Israel, Palestinians may have committed war crimes in Gaza


U.N. investigators said on Monday that Israel and Palestinian militant groups committed grave abuses of international humanitarian law during the 2014 Gaza conflict that may amount to war crimes.

They called on all sides to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened a separate preliminary investigation. The Palestinian Authority is expected to make its first formal submission to the Hague-based court this week.

“The most that we can hope for out of this long and arduous process of inquiry is that we will push the ball of justice a little further down the field,” Mary McGowan Davis, chairwoman of the U.N. commission of inquiry, told a news conference.

A ceasefire last August ended 50 days of fighting between Gaza militants and Israel in which health officials said more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians.

Israeli air strikes and shelling hammered the densely-populated Gaza Strip dominated by the Islamist Hamas movement, causing widespread destruction of homes and schools.

Hamas and other militant groups launched thousands of rockets and mortar bombs out of the enclave into Israel.

“The (U.N.) commission was able to gather substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes,” the independent investigators said in a report issued on Monday following a year-long inquiry.

The investigators called on Israel to carry out credible domestic investigations of senior political and military officials, if crimes were substantiated.

They called on Israel to explain its “targeting decisions” to allow independent assessment of its attacks on Gaza Strip which they said had killed 1,462 civilians.

“The commission is concerned that impunity prevails across the board for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law allegedly committed by Israeli forces…” it said.

The report said Israel should break with its “recent lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers responsible”.

ISRAEL DISPUTES ACCUSATIONS, HAMAS IGNORES THEM

Israel disputed the findings, saying its forces acted “according to the highest international standards”. The Foreign Ministry said the report regrettably failed to “recognize the profound difference between Israel's moral behavior … and the terror organizations it confronted” in the war.

Israel previously dismissed the inquiry as inherently biased against it and a waste of time.

The independent investigators also condemned what they said had been executions of 21 alleged Palestinian “collaborators” with Israel by militants in Gaza, saying these killings appeared to constitute war crimes.

The report further said Palestinian armed groups had fired nearly 5,000 rockets and 1,750 mortar bombs, many toward major Israeli cities and towns. It cited “the inherently indiscriminate nature of most of the projectiles launched into Israel and (of) the targeting of civilians, which violate international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime”.

The investigators were denied access to Gaza and Israel but based their report on more than 280 interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as 500 written submissions.

The report said Israeli political and military leaders did not alter their actions in the war despite much evidence of lethal devastation in built-up Gaza neighborhoods and this raised questions about potential war crimes.

Hamas, in a statement posted on its website, called for prosecuting Israeli leaders but ignored accusations against it.

“Hamas welcomes the condemnation of the Zionist occupation stated in the U.N. report because of its (Israel's) aggression against Gaza and Israel's commission of war crimes. This requires bringing leaders of the occupation before the International Criminal Court. The world must put an end to the occupation's crimes against our people and against Gaza.”

Hamas previously denied wrongdoing, saying it fought Israel to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza. The enclave has been under Israeli blockade for years and the two sides have waged two other wars since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

Palestinian NGO denies Hamas ties, threatens Israel with lawsuit


The British-based Palestinian Return Center on Tuesday threatened Israel's U.N. mission with legal action after the Jewish state accused it of having ties to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, an allegation the group said was false.

The Israeli accusations came after a United Nations committee that oversees non-governmental organizations voted to approve U.N accreditation for the PRC, which Israel's mission said was not only linked to Hamas but promoted “anti-Israel propaganda in Europe.”

“We announce that PRC is considering legal action against the Israeli delegation at the U.N.,” the group said in a statement circulated to the 19-member U.N. Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations.

“We also hold them accountable for the safety and security of our members worldwide,” the group said. “Such allegations and defamation where we are described as terrorist and affiliated to Hamas are dangerous, baseless and will have negative ramifications on our work and members.”

The statement offered no details on the type of legal action the group might take against the Israeli mission.

The Israeli mission did not have an immediate response to the PRC's threat. On Monday the mission said Israel had banned the PRC in 2010 because of its ties to Hamas, labeling it “an organizational and coordinating wing of Hamas in Europe” with members that include senior Hamas officials.

The PRC operates as a legal entity in Britain. The British mission did not react to Monday's vote in the U.N. NGO committee.

The United States and European Union have designated Hamas, the de facto authority of the Gaza Strip, a terrorist organization. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank.

The PRC statement said the Israeli allegations had no credence and were solely based on Israeli intelligence and other sources from within Israel. It added that there was no corroborating evidence from a third country.

The PRC said it would soon send an official letter of protest to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the 54 member states of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which has final say on NGO-related matters.

On its website, the PRC describes itself as “an independent consultancy focusing on the historical, political and legal aspects of the Palestinian Refugees.”

Official U.N. status as an NGO gives groups access to U.N. premises and opportunities to attend or observe many events and conferences at United Nations sites around the world.

Obama won’t count out backing U.N. recognition of Palestine


President Barack Obama would not count out backing U.N. recognition of Palestine as part of his reevaluation of the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Obama at a news conference on Tuesday said his reevaluation was based on how best to preserve hope for Palestinian statehood.

The president was asked about tensions with Benjamin Netanyahu over the Israeli prime minister’s pledge, before elections last week, not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state while he is in office.

“The question is, do you create a process and a framework that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility, that down the road they have a secure state of their own, standing side by side with a secure, fully recognized Jewish state of Israel,” Obama answered. “And I think — it’s not just my estimation — I think it’s hard to envision how that happens based on the prime minister’s statements.”

Obama framed the problem as how to preserve the expectation of two states given Netanyahu’s opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state.

“The issue is not a matter of relations between leaders,” he said. “The issue is a very clear, substantive challenge.

“We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability. That’s our view, and that continues to be our view. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach. And so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.”

Obama said he would resume consultations with Israel once Netanyahu has his new government in place. Asked specifically about whether he would back recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the president said he would not count it out.

“We’re going to do that evaluation — we’re going to partly wait for an actual Israeli government to form,” he said.

Obama stressed that he was not “reassessing” relations with Israel, as some reporting has characterized the shift.

“When I said that we have to now do an evaluation of where we are, it’s not in reference to our commitment to Israel’s military edge in the region, Israel’s security, our intelligence cooperation, our military cooperation,” he said. “That continues unabated.”

Focusing on ISIS in U.N. speech, Obama virtually ignores Iran


President Barack Obama devoted the bulk of his U.N. speech to the fight against violent Islamic extremism and hardly mentioned Iran’s nuclear program.

In his U.N. General Assembly speech last year, Obama spent a lot of time talking about Tehran’s nuclear pursuit, describing it as one of two major focus areas for American diplomatic efforts (the other was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). In this year’s General Assembly speech, Obama devoted just four lines to Iran.

“America is pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, as part of our commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and pursue the peace and security of a world without them,” Obama said. “This can only happen if Iran takes this historic opportunity. My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: Do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The thin coverage of Iran drew immediate notice from Jewish groups.

“Obama devoted only 78 words at #UNGA to greatest threat to world peace, the #Iran nuclear threat; 1,540 words to #ISIS,” the American Jewish Committee’s Global Jewish Advocacy project noted in a tweet.

Near the speech’s conclusion, Obama also spoke a bit about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Leadership will be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “As bleak as the landscape appears, America will not give up on the pursuit of peace.”

The turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Libya should disabuse anyone of the mistaken notion that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is somehow the root of all Middle East conflict, Obama said. Noting that the turmoil has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace, Obama diverted from his prepared remarks and added, “That’s something Israelis should reflect on.”

“The status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable,” Obama said. “We cannot afford to turn away from this effort, not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis or when the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza.”

He said, “Israelis, Palestinians, the region and the world will be more just and safe with two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Most of the president’s speech focused on the need for the international community to counter what he described as the “cancer of violent extremism.” At the top of the list was ISIS, the Islamic group in Iraq and Syria also known by the acronym ISIL.

“Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the dangers posed by religiously motivated fanatics and the trends that fuel their recruitment,” Obama said, outlining four major focus areas.

“The terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed,” he said. “There can be no reasoning, no negotiating with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”

The second, Obama said, is for “the world, especially Muslim communities, to explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL.” That means, he said, cutting off the funding of those who fuel hateful groups and ideologies; contesting the space terrorists occupy, including the internet and social media; expunging intolerance from schools; and bringing people of different faiths together.

“There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim,” Obama said.

The third focus area Obama outlined was addressing sectarian strife and resolving differences at the negotiating table rather than through violent proxies. In Syria, he said, that means finding a solution that works for all Syrian groups.

“Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” Obama said as Syria’s U.N. delegation watched from the audience. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

The fourth area of focus, he said, must be to encourage civil society and entrepreneurship in the Arab and Muslim world, particularly among young people.

The first nation Obama focused on was Russia, which he lumped in with ISIS and Ebola as one of the reasons for “a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers.”

“Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition,” he said. “We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression, and counter falsehoods with the truth.”

The president also talked briefly about the need for a more robust and coordinated response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

How U.N. troops defied orders, opened fire and escaped Syrian rebels


Early on Aug. 28, al Qaeda-linked militants fighting government forces in Syria crossed a ceasefire line in the Golan Heights on Israel's border and seized 45 Fijians serving in a United Nations peacekeeping force.

The leader of a nearby U.N. contingent from the Philippines telephoned a commanding officer in Manila. They were surrounded, the leader said. Should they surrender and risk being kidnapped by the rebels or hold their ground?

The U.N. force commander, General Iqbal Singh Singha of India, fearing Fijian lives could be in jeopardy if the Filipinos engaged in a firefight, ordered the Filipinos to hold their fire. In Manila, General Gregorio Catapang gave different orders to his subordinate thousands of miles away in the Middle East: Stand your ground. Don't surrender.

For three days, Filipino troops fended off hundreds of rebels from the Islamic militant Nusra Front group, killing at least three on the final day before escaping under cover of darkness to Israel. The Fijians were released on Thursday after two weeks of negotiation.

U.N. officials and diplomats say the incident with the Philippine peacekeepers highlights a fundamental problem with peacekeeping missions, one that may be impossible to resolve. National peacekeeping contingents retain allegiance to their commanders at home and when bullets fly, they have no problem disobeying U.N. force commanders and taking orders from home.

Based on interviews with U.N. officials, diplomats and Philippine military sources, including an official report on the incident from Manila, Reuters has pieced together a narrative of the events of Aug. 28 to Aug. 30 leading up to the dramatic escape of Philippine troops from the militants' siege.

It was not the first time that fighting from Syria’s three-year-old civil war spilled onto Israel’s doorstep. But it was the most violent incident in the Golan Heights since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011.

The 1,223-strong six-nation U.N. force, known as UNDOF, has been on the Golan Heights since 1974. Its job is to monitor the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel – the so-called disengagement zone that bars both Israeli and Syrian troops. The two countries have officially been at war since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war but their border has been largely quiet.

Before the Syrian war broke out, blue-helmeted U.N. observers stationed in the mountainous region had a relatively easy job. For years their main enemy was boredom.

That changed in March 2013, when Syrian rebels kidnapped 21 Filipino peacekeepers. All were released unharmed, but two months later rebels kidnapped and released a handful of others. The spillover of violence from Syria's civil war prompted Austria, Croatia and Japan to pull out of UNDOF.

The Philippines also considered pulling out but stayed at the U.N.'s request. Fiji, Nepal and Ireland agreed to help fill UNDOF's depleted ranks and the U.N. Security Council toughened the mission's rules of engagement to give its peacekeepers more freedom to fight back when under threat.

After the 2013 kidnappings, countries providing troops complained that carrying a pistol was insufficient for a shifting battleground where rebels have shoulder-launched missiles and heavy machine guns. They wanted armored vehicles and heavier weapons – and the freedom to shoot to kill, if necessary, when under attack.

In June of last year, when the U.N. Security Council approved its six-month renewal of UNDOF's mandate, the council emphasized “the need to enhance the safety and security of UNDOF.” It also endorsed U.N. recommendations for UNDOF to change its “posture and operations,” allowing troops to defend themselves when attacked. The Security Council language on the UNDOF mandate was typically vague about the lengths to which peacekeepers could go in their own defense, but the new flexibility granted to the force did satisfy the demands of the council members and UNDOF troop contributing countries.

The Filipinos put those tougher rules of engagement to work on Aug. 30 when they killed three rebels in a firefight.

ORDER DISOBEYED

After encircling the troops on Aug. 28, Nusra militants communicated to the Filipinos and to the Fijians, who were being held elsewhere at an unknown location, an offer of safe passage if they handed over their weapons. The Filipinos did not trust the militants to keep their word. Philippine military officials in Manila have said openly that General Singha ordered the surrounded troops to raise a white flag, abandon their positions and leave their guns behind for Nusra, a group that the U.N. Security Council last year added to its blacklist of al Qaeda-linked terrorists.

Taking their orders from home, they ignored General Singha. Rather than abandoning their position and weapons, they stayed put and prepared to defend themselves while Philippine military officials and their UNDOF contingent discussed escape plans.

U.N. officials vehemently denied there was an order for the peacekeepers to leave their guns behind, especially as Nusra is subject to a U.N. arms embargo. What U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has acknowledged is that the Filipinos were ordered to hold their fire to avoid jeopardizing the lives of the Fijians. He voiced total confidence in General Singha's decisions during the standoff.

Two days later, tensions escalated. The Nusra militants were growing impatient at the negotiations with UNDOF. The United Nations had already fulfilled one of Nusra's conditions by issuing a statement that said the world body was told the Fijians were seized “for their own protection.”

But the U.N. statement was not enough for the rebels.

Around 6 a.m. on Aug. 30 the rebels attacked position 68 in the disengagement zone. Militants on three pickup trucks with mounted weapons attempted to ram through the steel gate of the encampment but were unable to break through. The Filipinos fired on the rebels but began to run low on ammunition. Sporadic exchanges of fire lasted for seven hours.

In the meantime, Filipino troops supported by an Irish armored column rushed to nearby position 69 to extract 32 trapped Filipinos. The armored column was fired upon but the U.N. peacekeepers did not fire back. The operation succeeded.

There were still 40 Filipinos trapped at position 68, along with the 45 Fijian hostages elsewhere. The United Nations tried to link the groups in negotiations but Nusra refused, saying they were separate issues.

A ceasefire was reached that would run until negotiations were to resume at 9 a.m. on Aug. 31. Nusra reinforced its siege as more than 20 vehicles with over 200 rebels arrived on the scene to prevent the 40 remaining Filipinos breaking out of position 68 the way their compatriots had done at position 69. But the reinforcement failed to keep the Filipinos penned in. The blue helmets had a new plan.

Under cover of darkness, Filipino soldiers at position 68 quietly cut the barbed wire and one-by-one scaled a perimeter wall three meters (yards) tall, crossed a mine field and walked 2.3 kms (1.4 miles) to the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The last man reached safety two hours later.

Catapang jubilantly described it to reporters as “the greatest escape”.

U.N. officials acknowledge a sharp disagreement between Singha and the Filipinos, and several accused the Filipinos of thinking only of their own safety and ignoring that of the Fijians held captive.

“The force commander was not only thinking of the security and safety of the Filipinos, but also of the Fijians. Resolving only one issue could affect the resolution of the second problem,” said a senior U.N. official.

Additional reporting by correspondents in Manila, Israel and elsewhere; Editing by Howard Goller

Fiji says Syrian rebels want compensation, removal from terror list


Islamist fighters who seized dozens of Fijian soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week are demanding that their group be removed from a global terrorism list and that compensation be paid for members killed in fighting, the head of Fiji's army said on Tuesday.

Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga said negotiations had been stepped up betweenh the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and a new U.N. negotiation team now in place in Syria.

“The rebels are not telling us where the troops are, but they continue to reassure us they are being well-looked after,” Tikoitoga told media in Suva. “They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas.”

Heavy fighting erupted on Monday between the Syrian army and Islamist rebels near where 45 Fijian peacekeepers were captured and scores of their fellow blue helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture. The number of Fijians captured had previously been put at 44.

Syria's three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-controlled territory last week when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

The fighters then turned on the U.N. blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured on Thursday, more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.

The Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, says it is holding the peacekeepers because the U.N. force protects Israel.

Tikoitoga said the group was demanding compensation for three fighters killed in the confrontation with the U.N. peacekeepers, as well as humanitarian assistance to the people of Ruta, a stronghold of the group on outskirts of Damascus, and the removal of the organisation from the U.N. list of banned terrorist organisations.

“We've been assured by U.N. headquarters that the U.N. will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers,” the Fijian army chief said.

HEAVY FIGHTING

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in the Syrian civil war, said the Nusra Front and allied fighters were battling government forces near the Quneitra crossing and in the nearby village of al-Hamiydiah.

The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides. Observatory founder Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters the Nusra Front's aim appeared to be “to end once and for all the regime's presence in the area and it also appears that the goal is to expel the international observers”.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in the area, known as UNDOF, includes 1,223 troops from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands as well as the Fijians and Filipinos who came under attack last week.

The United Nations has announced that the Philippines will pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan and Croatia have also pulled their troops out of the force because of the deteriorating security situation as the civil war in Syria reaches the Golan.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

U.N. says 43 Golan peacekeepers seized by Syria militants, 81 trapped


Militants fighting the Syrian army have detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights and trapped another 81 in the region, and the world body is working to secure their release, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The affected peacekeepers are from the Philippines and Fiji, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah,” the U.N. press office said in a statement.

It added that another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah. Dujarric said the 81 trapped troops were from the Philippines and the 43 seized ones from Fiji.

“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation,” it said.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the Security Council this month, told reporters the trapped peacekeepers were surrounded by Islamist militants.

The 15-nation Security Council, which was meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria, was also discussing the issue of the kidnapped peacekeepers, Lyall Grant said.

The Philippine army said in a statement that militants and had surrounded the Philippine contingent’s encampments with Fijian hostages in tow and demanded that the Filipino troops surrender their firearms.

“The Philippine peacekeepers held their ground and demonstrated their resolve to defend their positions,” it said. “They did not surrender their firearms as they may in turn be held hostage themselves.”

The Security Council issued a statement strongly condemning the seizure of the peacekeepers and calling for their immediate release. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed the council word's in his own statement of condemnation.

Reporters asked Dujarric if the United Nations was in contact with the group holding the Fijians. He declined to specify who the world body was in contact with but said there was communication under way. “There are contacts being held at different levels, on the mission and on the ground,” he said. “They are talking to representatives of various armed groups that they have … operational contact with. They are talking to countries in the region.”

Dujarric was also asked about the rules for peacekeepers in such situations.

“In extreme circumstances, these troops are trained and prepared and equipped to defend themselves, but, obviously, each situation has to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

FIJI ARMY CHIEF SAYS COMMITTED

U.N. officials say that the peacekeepers, whose job is to monitor the cessation of hostilities, carry small arms that are only to be used in extreme circumstances. In previous situations where UNDOF peacekeepers were held hostage, the troops did not use their weapons.

The Quneitra crossing on the Golan is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.

UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 45 miles (70 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. There are 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers from six countries.

Before the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, the region was generally quiet and the peacekeepers had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

The force's personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. The United Nations said this week that the Philippines has decided to pull out of UNDOF, and from a U.N. force in Liberia, which is struggling with an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Blue-helmeted U.N. troops were seized by militants in March and May 2013. In both of those cases they were released safely.

Austria, Japan and Croatia have all pulled their troops out of UNDOF due to the deteriorating security situation and spillover from the Syrian war.

But Fijian Army Commander Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga told Reuters in an interview on Friday that he would not be recommending to his government that Fiji follow suit.

“If I was to make any recommendation, I would increase our forces in Syria. That would be my recommendation,” he said by phone from Fiji.

“We will not make any recommendations of pulling out from the U.N. or any other engagement, because our contribution to U.N. peacekeeping – if we don't want to do this, then who else in the world would want to do this?”

He added that he was confident the Fijians would be released soon based on the strength of their contacts in the Golan Heights region.

Additional reporting by Matt Siegel in Sydney and Rosemarie Francisco in Manila; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Tom Brown, Jeremy Laurence and Ken Wills

U.N. says 43 Golan Heights peacekeepers seized by militants


A group of 43 U.N. peacekeepers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have been detained by militants fighting the Syrian army, and the world body is working to secure their release, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The detained peacekeepers are from the Philippines and Fiji, a U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah,” the U.N. press office said in a statement.

It added that another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.

“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation,” it said.

The U.N. Security Council, which was meeting to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, was also expected to raise the issue of the kidnapped peacekeepers, a council diplomat said.

The Quneitra crossing on the Golan is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.

UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 45 miles from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. There are 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers from six countries.

Before the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, the region was generally quiet and the peacekeepers had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

The force's personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. The United Nations said this week that the Philippines has decided to pull out of UNDOF, and from a U.N. force in Liberia, which is struggling with an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Blue-helmeted U.N. troops were seized by militants in March and May 2013. In both of those cases they were released safely.

Austria pulled its troops out of UNDOF in 2013 due to the escalation of fighting.

Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown

U.S. envoy to U.N. slams Human Rights Council’s Gaza panel


Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticized the world body’s panel created to investigate the recent conflict in Gaza.

At a private meeting on Friday with American Jewish communal leaders, Power said the U.N.’s Human Rights Council “has shown itself incapable of engaging constructively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to one attendee of the meeting.

Power also slammed the commission of inquiry announced last week as “wildly unbalanced,” according to the same source, and said “the process for the appointment of the commissioners was ill conceived, poorly executed and does nothing to dispel the perception of bias within the council.”

The meeting was held at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York City.Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticized the world body’s panel created to investigate the recent conflict in Gaza.

At a private meeting on Friday with American Jewish communal leaders, Power said the U.N.’s Human Rights Council “has shown itself incapable of engaging constructively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to one attendee of the meeting.

Power also slammed the commission of inquiry announced last week as “wildly unbalanced,” according to the same source, and said “the process for the appointment of the commissioners was ill conceived, poorly executed and does nothing to dispel the perception of bias within the council.”

The meeting was held at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York City.

The commission of inquiry has already drawn stiff criticism from “>number of its 

Strike on U.N. building in Gaza serving as shelter kills at least 15


At least 15 people were killed and 200 injured when Israel shelled a U.N. school in northern Gaza serving as a shelter for displaced Palestinians.

The school in Beit Hanoun affiliated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was hit Thursday, the Ministry of Health in Gaza told international media outlets.

UNRWA spokesman in Israel Chris Gunness said on Twitter that there were multiple deaths and injuries in the attack.

Though 15 have been confirmed dead, Al Jazeera correspondent Nicole Johnston, who is in Gaza, said sources told her that up to 30 people had been killed.

Gunness also tweeted, “Precise co-ordinates of the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army.”

The agency said it was the fourth time that a U.N. facility had been hit since the start of Israel’s Gaza operation on July 8.

According to the UNRWA, there are currently 140,469 displaced Palestinians in 83 agency shelters across Gaza.

The Palestinian Maan news agency reported that 37 Palestinians were killed across Gaza on Thursday morning, bringing the Palestinian death toll on the 17th day of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge to 734, with more than 4,000 injured.

Mother of kidnapped Naftali Frenkel tells U.N.: ‘Much more can be done’


The mother of Naftali Frenkel implored the U.N. Human Rights Council to help find her son and two other abducted Israeli teenagers.

“Much more can be done and should be done by everyone,” Rachel Frenkel told the council on Tuesday morning in Geneva. “I ask everyone to do whatever they can to bring back our boys.”

Her address followed the council’s quarterly debate on the agenda item concerning the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories. It is the only permanent item on the council’s agenda.

Frenkel was joined by Bat-Galim Shaar and Iris Yifrach, the mothers of the other two teens, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, who were kidnapped from a junction in Gush Etzion as they returned home from school on June 12.

Frenkel said every boy and girl deserves to come home to their families.

“It is wrong to take children – innocent boys and girls – and use them as instruments in any struggle,” she told the council.

Frenkel said that Naftali sent a text message telling her that he was on his way home, and “since then we have heard nothing,” she told the council.

“Every mother’s nightmare is waiting and waiting for her son to come home,” she said and described the abducted teens to the council.

Frenkel took the floor during the time slot allotted to the nongovernmental organization UN Watch.

Prior to her speech, member countries of the council criticized Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, referring specifically to the search operation in the West Bank to find the teens but without mentioning the kidnapping. The mothers sat among other NGO speakers who rebuked Israel, including accusing it of war crimes.

Also Monday, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a statement condemning the kidnapping of the Israelis and “deploring” the deaths of six Palestinians during Israeli military operations to locate and return the teens.

Jordan reportedly wanted stronger language regarding the deaths of the Palestinians. The United States said it would not approve a statement that directly criticized Israel.

U.N. urges Israeli restraint in hunt for teens, warns of violence


A senior United Nations official on Monday urged Israel to exercise restraint in its search for three missing teenagers it accuses the Hamas Islamist group of kidnapping, while warning the Security Council that violence in the region could escalate.

Israel's army said it had detained another 37 Palestinians overnight as it searched and extended a crackdown on Hamas, which has denied having any knowledge of the missing teens. The Israeli military says it has detained 361 people since the Israeli students went missing on June 12.

“As the search for the missing youth continues, we call for restraint in carrying out the security operations in strict compliance with international law, and avoiding punishing individuals for offenses they have not personally committed,” U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman said.

“The rising death toll as a result of Israeli security operations in the West Bank is alarming,” he told the Security Council during a monthly meeting on the Middle East.

The crisis has aggravated tensions in the West Bank which, along with East Jerusalem and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Palestinians want as part of a future state.

After his public briefing, Feltman spoke to the council behind closed doors. He warned the 15-nation body there could be a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel.

“The situation on the ground is very bad,” Feltman was quoted as saying by a council diplomat in the room, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. “I fear we might get to the point of a third intifada.”

Other diplomats confirmed Feltman's closed-door warning.

Council members also attempted to agree on a statement to the press to condemn the alleged kidnapping of the Israelis. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin presented a draft statement but diplomats present at the meeting said both Jordan and the United States proposed amendments.

It soon became clear, diplomats said, that the U.S. and Jordanian delegations would be unable to agree on a mutually acceptable statement to the media. Washington, Israel's traditional protector on the council, wanted no condemnation of Israel while Jordan demanded a tough rebuke of the Jewish state.

“Unfortunately members of the Security Council were not able to find common ground,” Churkin told reporters. “Some delegates want to have very strong language condemning Israel, another delegation did not want to have any reference to Israel at all.”

Council statements must be approved unanimously.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor issued a statement after the council meeting defending Israeli actions aimed at finding the missing teenagers.

“Some nations behave as if Israel should roll out the welcome mat for Hamas,” he said. “Israel will not allow this terrorist group to trample on its citizens. Israelis are acting in self-defense to defend our nation from the terrorist networks that surround us.”

The Permanent Observer for the Palestinian territories, Riyad Mansour, condemned the “massive aggression against our people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Reporting By Louis Charbonneau

Mother of abducted teen Naftali Frenkel to address U.N. council


The mother of kidnapped Israeli teenager Naftali Frenkel will address the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Rachel Frenkel on Tuesday in Geneva reportedly will implore the United Nations and the world community to do everything it can to find the teens and return them to their families.

The nongovernmental organization UN Watch said it gave Frenkel its slot to speak before the council and that it was facilitating meetings in Geneva for her with senior international officials.

Iris Yifrach and Bat-Galim Shaar, the mothers of the other abducted teens — Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar — may accompany Frenkel, the Times of Israel reported Monday.

The teens have been missing since the night of June 12. They were last seen trying to get rides home from a junction in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem.

Naftali Frenkel is a dual Israeli-American citizen.

West African Ebola epidemic ‘out of control,’ aid group says


An Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is out of control and requires massive resources from governments and aid agencies to prevent it spreading further, medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said on Monday.

In its latest report on the crisis, the U.N. World Health Organization said the regional death toll had reached 350 since February. The crisis is already the deadliest outbreak since Ebola first emerged in central Africa in 1976.

The disease has not previously occurred in the West Africa region and local people remain frightened of it and view health facilities with suspicion. This makes it harder to bring it under control, MSF said in a statement.

At the same time, MSF said, a lack of understanding has meant people continue to prepare corpses and attend funerals of Ebola victims, leaving them vulnerable to a disease transmitted by touching victims or through bodily fluids.

“The epidemic is out of control,” said Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations. “With the appearance of new sites in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, there is a real risk of it spreading to other areas.”

Civil society groups, governments and religious authorities have also failed to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic and as a result few prominent figures are promoting the fight against the disease, the statement said.

“Ebola is no longer a public health issue limited to Guinea. It is affecting the whole of West Africa,” said Janssens, urging WHO, affected countries and their neighbours to deploy more resources especially trained medical staff.

Guinea's health minister rejected the MSF statement, saying it did not reflect the reality of the situation in the country.

“Today we have all our contacts under control and we are monitoring them regularly,” Remy Lamah told Reuters.

Lamah said the only pocket of the country that remained a concern was a handful of villages on the Liberia and Sierra Leone border where people were resisting efforts to fight the disease due to local and traditional beliefs.

“Even there we are making progress,” he said.

Ebola has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent and there is no vaccine and no known cure. The virus initially causes raging fever, headaches, muscle pain, conjunctivitis and weakness, before moving into more severe phases with vomiting, diarrhoea and haemorrhages.

MSF has treated some 470 patients, 215 of them confirmed cases, in specialised centres in the region but the organisation said it had reached the limit of its capacity.

Patients have been identified in more than 60 locations across the three countries making it harder to curb the outbreak. All three countries recorded new cases between June 15 and 19, according to the latest WHO report.

Sierra Leone, which did not confirm Ebola in the country until late last month, was the most affected with 39 new cases and eight new deaths, mostly in the Kailahun district near its border with Guinea and Liberia, WHO said.

WHO said it was working with all three governments to improve coordination and communication across the region.

West African health ministers are due to meet in Ghana on July 2 to improve the regional response.

Additional reporting by Saliou Samb in Conakry; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams

U.N. rights investigator accuses Israel of ‘ethnic cleansing’


A U.N. human rights investigator accused Israel on Friday of “ethnic cleansing” in pushing Palestinians out of East Jerusalem and cast doubt that the Israeli government could accept a Palestinian state in the current climate.

He spoke against a backdrop of deadlocked peace talks and accelerating Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which Palestinians say is dimming their hope of establishing a viable state on contiguous territory.

Israel says Palestinian refusal to recognize it as a Jewish state is the main obstacle. U.S. President Barack Obama this week pressed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to help break the impasse, saying both sides must take political risks before the April 29 deadline for a framework deal.

Richard Falk, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, told a news conference that Israeli policies bore “unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing”.

“Every increment of enlarging the settlements or every incident of house demolition is a way of worsening the situation confronting the Palestinian people and reducing what prospects they might have as the outcome of supposed peace negotiations.”

Asked about his accusation of ethnic cleansing, Falk said that more than 11,000 Palestinians had lost their right to live in Jerusalem since 1996 due to Israel imposing residency laws favoring Jews and revoking Palestinian residence permits.

[From our archive: Falk removed from Human Rights Watch committee]

“The 11,000 is just the tip of the iceberg because many more are faced with possible challenges to their residency rights.”

This compounded the “ordeal of this extended, prolonged occupation,” according to Falk, an international law expert and professor emeritus at Princeton University in the United States.

Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as their capital. In 2005 Israel quit Gaza, now run by Hamas Islamists opposed to Abbas' peace efforts, but settlement growth continues in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Falk said that Israel had made a systematic effort to “change the ethnic composition” of East Jerusalem by making it more difficult for Palestinians to reside there while encouraging the spread of settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.

In a report last month, Falk said Israeli policies in the West Bank appeared to amount to “apartheid and segregation” with a de facto annexation of parts of the territory, denying the Palestinian right to self-determination.

There was no immediate Israeli response to his remarks on Friday. Israel has not responded officially to Falk's February report via the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the usual channel, U.N. officials in Geneva said.

In the past Israel has strongly denied accusations of persecuting Palestinians, accusing them of inciting anti-Israeli violence and being unwilling to make permanent peace with the Jewish state.

“DRIFT TO THE RIGHT”

Direct peace negotiations usually coincide with intensified Israeli settlement activity, he told reporters.

The U.S.-brokered peace process seemed to be primarily a project of Secretary of State John Kerry who had received only “minimal support from Obama himself”, Falk said.

“There are other reasons for encouraging the idea that it's still possible to negotiate a settlement based on the two-state model, even though most informed observers regard it as highly implausible given the changes that have taken place during the period of occupation and given the outlook of the Netanyahu government,” he said, making clear he was among the skeptics.

Even entering negotiations, he said, is seen as a “betrayal” by Israeli political factions and parties that are to the right of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“A few years ago it would be hard to imagine that there was something to the right of Netanyahu. But gradually this drift to the right has created a whole new sense of the political debate within Israel,” Falk said. “And there is a strong internal Israeli opposition to any sense that the Palestinian people in any diminished way deserve a state of their own.”

Falk, an American law professor who is Jewish, has come to the end of a six-year term in the independent post and the U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to name a successor soon.

He has long drawn controversy in Israel, in 2008 comparing Israeli military strikes against Hamas in Gaza – during which 1,400 Palestinians were killed and there was widespread destruction in densely populated areas – to those of the Nazis.

Last June he said critics who called him anti-Semitic sought to divert attention from his scrutiny of Israeli policies.

He is to address the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday, but it was not clear whether Israeli delegates would attend due to an ongoing strike by Israeli foreign ministry staff.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran, six powers meet on steps to carry out nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers began expert-level talks on Monday to work out nitty-gritty details in implementing a landmark accord for Tehran to curb its disputed nuclear program in return for a limited easing of sanctions.

The preliminary accord is seen as a first step towards resolving a decade-old standoff over suspicions Iran might be covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons “breakout” capability, a perception that has raised the risk of a wider Middle East war.

Officials from Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia met at the Vienna headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency, which will play a central role in verifying that Tehran carries out its part of the interim deal.

The outcome of the meeting is expected to determine when Iran stops its most sensitive nuclear activity and when it gets the respite in sanctions that it has been promised in return.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it would have “some involvement” in the discussions, which are expected to continue on Tuesday. Media were barred from the floor where the meeting, held under tight secrecy, took place.

The talks are aimed at “devising mechanisms” for the Geneva accord's implementation, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted by state Press TV as saying. Iranian nuclear as well as central bank officials would take part, he said.

Western diplomats said detailed matters not addressed at the Nov. 20-24 talks in Geneva must be ironed out before the deal can be put into practice.

These include how and when the IAEA, which regularly visits Iranian nuclear sites to try to ensure there are no diversions of atomic material, will carry out its expanded role.

A start to sanctions relief would hinge on verification that Iran was fulfilling its side of the accord, they said.

The deal was designed to halt Iran's nuclear advances for a period of six months to buy time for negotiations on a final settlement of the standoff. Diplomats say implementation may start in January after the technical details have been settled.

Scope for easing the dispute peacefully opened after the June election of a comparative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president. He won in a landslide by pledging to ease Tehran's international isolation and win relief from sanctions that have severely damaged the oil producer's economy.

ARAK REACTOR

Diplomats caution that many difficult hurdles remain to overcome – including differences over the scope and capacity of Iran's nuclear project – for a long-term solution to be found.

In a sign of this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed the powers on Sunday to take a hard line with Iran in negotiations on a final agreement, urging them to demand that Tehran abandon all uranium enrichment.

A day after President Barack Obama deemed it unrealistic to believe Iran could be compelled to dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure, Netanyahu said Tehran should have to take apart all centrifuges used to refine uranium.

Israel sees Iran, which has repeatedly said it seeks only civilian energy from uranium enrichment, as a mortal threat. Iran says it is Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, that threatens peace.

Under last month's pact, Iran will halt the activity most applicable to producing nuclear weapons – enrichment of uranium to a higher fissile concentration of 20 percent – and stop installing components at its Arak heavy-water research reactor which, once operating, could yield bomb-grade plutonium.

In the Vienna talks, government experts will also discuss details of which components Iran is not allowed to add to the Arak reactor under the deal, as well as issues pertaining to the sequencing of gestures by both sides, the diplomats said.

Officials from the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates talks with Iran on behalf of the six powers, were also at the meeting.

Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel asked to join U.N. Human Rights Council group


Israel was formally invited to join a regional group within the United Nations Human Rights Council.

An invitation was sent Monday to Israel to join the Western European countries group, the French news agency AFP reported, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

The West European and Others Group is a 28-nation bloc made up of European nations, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The European states had agreed to welcome Israel into the group in exchange for the Jewish state’s return to the Human Rights Council and its participation in its Universal Periodic Human Rights Review process.

Israel had left the council a year-and-a-half ago to protest its alleged bias against the Jewish state.

Since 2006, the council has passed 27 resolutions criticizing Israel and convened 19 special sessions, six of which were about Israel. Regular sessions feature a permanent agenda item 7, “the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories.”

In January, Israel became the first country to refuse to attend the Universal Periodic Review, a review of a country’s rights record. All U.N. member nations are meant to submit regularly to the evaluation.

On Oct. 29, Israel participated in the review, during which it was widely criticized for alleged human rights abuses.

Iran sees nuclear deal implementation starting by early January


The implementation of a landmark deal between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran's nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief is expected to start by early January, its envoy to the U.N. atomic agency said on Friday.

The November 24 interim accord between the Islamic Republic and the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain is seen as a first step towards resolving a decade-old dispute that has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.

Israel, believed to be the region's only nuclear-armed state, has denounced the deal as an “historic mistake” since it does not dismantle its arch foe's uranium enrichment program. The Jewish state sees Iran as a threat to its existence.

Israel's ambassador to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency told an IAEA board meeting that “the increasing concerns regarding Iran's activities related to nuclear weapons should be thoroughly investigated and clarified”.

The agreement between Iran and the six powers is designed to halt any further advances in Iran's nuclear campaign and to buy time for negotiations on a final settlement.

After years of confrontation, it has underlined a thaw in relations between Iran and the West after the election in June of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president on a pledge to end Tehran's isolation and win some relief from sanctions that have battered the oil producer's economy.

Iran agreed under last Sunday's accord to stop its most sensitive nuclear work – uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent – and cap other parts of its activity in exchange for some limited easing of sanctions, including on trade in petrochemicals and gold.

Refined uranium can fuel nuclear power plants but also the fissile core of a bomb if processed to a high degree.

Iranian Ambassador Reza Najafi told reporters on the sidelines of the IAEA meeting he expected the implementation of the six-month agreement to start either at the end of December or the beginning of January.

Asked when Iran would stop its higher-grade enrichment, Najafi said: “We need first to have a meeting for coordination and as soon as we agree on a date we will start implementing the measures agreed by Iran.”

Iran says the nuclear program is a peaceful energy project but the United States and its allies suspect it has been aimed at developing the capability to make nuclear arms.

“TROUBLING CONCLUSIONS”

Western diplomats said sanctions relief should enter into force all at once, at an implementation date that is yet to be decided. That date will depend on verification by the IAEA that Iran is fulfilling its end of the bargain.

No new sanctions on Iran would be introduced while the details of the implementation were being worked out, they said.

Western officials and experts caution that finding a permanent solution to the dispute will probably be an uphill struggle, with the two sides still far apart on the final scope and capacity of the Iranian nuclear program.

Israeli Ambassador Merav Zafary-Odiz told the IAEA board that Iran, which does not recognize Israel, was selective in its cooperation with an IAEA probe into suspected atomic bomb research by Tehran, which denies the charge.

“Genuine Iranian willingness to provide full access to information, documents, facilities, locations and people to the IAEA will most certainly lead to some very troubling conclusions regarding the military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program,” the ambassador said, according to a copy of her speech.

“To the best of our understanding, the senior officials who worked in the Iranian defense ministry in the weapons program until 2003 continue to operate in the defense ministry in an organization called today the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, or SPND,” she said.

Iran has repeatedly rejected such accusations, saying it is Israel's assumed atomic arsenal that threatens regional peace.

Najafi told the board Israel had 200 nuclear warheads, adding: “All of them are targeted at Muslim cities.” He said the “warmongers in Tel Aviv” previously had secret nuclear cooperation with “another racist regime of apartheid”, in a clear reference to formerly minority white-led South Africa.

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Macmanus said Najafi's comment was “inflammatory, irrelevant to the issue … and wrong”.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Gareth Jones

U.N.’s Ban visits Auschwitz


Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, paid tribute to victims of the Holocaust at a visit to Auschwitz.

On Monday, Ban viewed the public exhibits and laid flowers in front of the wall where inmates of the Nazi death camp were shot to death, according to reports.

Ban was accompanied by a former Auschwitz prisoner, Marian Turski, and met at the camp with former Israeli chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, now the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel and a child survivor of the Shoah.

The U.N. chief also entered the town of Oswiecim, where he visited the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue, a remnant of the pre-Holocaust Jewish life in the Polish town, according to The Associated Press.

Ban is the second U.N. secretary-general to visit Auschwitz; Boutros Boutros-Ghali was there in 1995.

At least 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, died at Auschwitz during World War II.

Netanyahu says ‘bad deal’ with Iran could lead to war


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday that a “bad deal” between global powers and Iran over its nuclear program could lead to war.

His government said an offer on the table for what Washington calls a “modest” easing of sanctions would in fact negate up to 40 percent of the sanctions' impact, reducing pressure on Tehran to give up a nuclear program that the West and Israel believe is aimed at building a bomb.

The Jewish state has been lobbying hard against a proposed deal, which would initially offer partial relief from sanctions in return for some steps by Iran to constrain its activities.

Negotiations between Iran and six U.N. powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – broke up without agreement in Geneva on Saturday but are scheduled to resume on November 20 with both sides saying they are optimistic.

Western diplomats involved in the process declined comment on the Israeli assessment of how a deal might affect sanctions, saying the terms of any accord were uncertain and still secret.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful. The United States and the European Union believe it is seeking a nuclear bomb and imposed tough oil and financial sanctions last year that have caused serious economic harm.

Addressing Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said continued economic pressure on Iran was the best alternative to two other options, which he described as a bad deal and war.

“I would go so far as to say that a bad deal could lead to the second, undesired option,” he said, meaning war.

Israel, believed to be the sole nuclear power in the Middle East, has long said it reserves the right to use force to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. However, many military experts doubt Israel has the capability to destroy Iran's nuclear sites without U.S. help.

Washington says it is important to seek a negotiated solution, especially since Iran elected a relative moderate this year as president, Hassan Rouhani.

The United States has maintained that any initial change in sanctions on offer would be modest and reversible, but Israel says the benefits to Iran would be greater than implied and the steps Tehran would take would do little to curb its ambitions.

Netanyahu's point man on Iran policy, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, said the relief package offered to Iran as part of negotiations could be worth up to $40 billion.

NEGOTIATIONS SECRET

He said Israel believed the sanctions put in place by the United States and European Union last year cost Iran's economy around $100 billion per year, or nearly a quarter of its output.

“The sanctions relief directly will reduce between $15 to $20 billion out of this amount,” Steinitz said on Wednesday at an English-language event hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club.

He added that the proposed changes would also make it more difficult to enforce sanctions overall, providing a total benefit to Tehran of up to $40 billion:

“The damage to the overall sanctions, we believe, will be something between $20 billion and maybe up to $40 billion,” he said. “This is very significant. It's not all the sanctions. It's not the core sanctions about oil exports and the banking system, but it's very significant relief for the Iranians.”

Several Western officials contacted by Reuters declined to confirm or deny specific figures for the value of the sanctions relief on offer from the six powers and cautioned against revealing the terms of a possible deal at such an early stage.

“There is an offer on the table, and it seems to me that is considerable progress. We can't give any technical details and the day anything leaks out is the day someone wants the negotiations to fail,” said a Western diplomat.

A European diplomat said details were being withheld on purpose: “A decision was made to keep everything quiet, tightly held,” the diplomat said, “Because there are extreme positions on both sides that could use this to discredit the process and try to derail the negotiations.”

Additional reporting by John Irish and Richard Mably; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

U.N. inspectors hold ‘very productive’ nuclear talks with Iran


The U.N. nuclear watchdog and Iran held “very productive” talks this week on how to advance a long-blocked investigation into Iranian atomic activities and will meet again in Tehran next month, they said in a rare joint statement on Tuesday.

The relatively upbeat announcement by Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency may further buoy hopes for a negotiated solution to the international standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions after the June election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who is seeking to reduce tension with the West.

The U.N. agency wants to resume an investigation, long stymied by Iranian non-cooperation, into what it calls the “possible military dimensions” of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. Tehran says it is enriching uranium solely for electricity generation and medical treatments.

The IAEA and Iran “had a very productive meeting on past and present issues”, Tero Varjoranta, the agency's deputy director general in charge of nuclear inspections, told reporters at the end of the two-day session in Vienna.

Iranian Ambassador Reza Najafi said Tehran presented new ideas to overcome the dispute, which revolves around the U.N. watchdog's suspicions that Iran researched how to build nuclear bombs despite being part of a global non-proliferation treaty.

“I believe that, with the submission of these new proposals by Iran, we have been able to open a new chapter of cooperation,” he said, standing next to Varjoranta. The next meeting will be held in Tehran on November 11.

Their conciliatory comments marked a change in tone after a string of meetings since early 2012 failed to yield a deal giving the IAEA access to sites, files and officials in Iran relevant to its investigation.

The IAEA talks are distinct from Iran's negotiations with world powers, but both diplomatic tracks center on suspicions that Tehran may be seeking the capability to assemble nuclear bombs behind the facade of a civilian atomic energy program.

Rouhani, a pragmatist, took office in August promising to try to resolve the nuclear dispute and secure an easing of sanctions that have severely hurt Iran's oil-dependent economy.

The fact that the next meeting will be held in the Iranian capital may help raise expectations that Iran would start to resolve the IAEA's concerns, said David Albright of the U.S. Institute for Science and International Security.

But, he added, “I've been disappointed many times before.”

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said in Vienna on Monday that he had put forward proposals to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and pledged a “new approach” in dealings with the U.N. agency. But he gave no specifics.

IAEA SEEKS ARMY BASE ACCESS

Tuesday's joint statement said: “Iran presented new proposals of practical measures as a constructive contribution to strengthen cooperation and dialogue with a view to future resolution of all outstanding issues.”

Expectations for this week's Vienna talks, the first at such high level since Rouhani's election, had been relatively high. Diplomats believed Iran might soon offer concessions, perhaps by permitting U.N. inspectors to visit its Parchin military base southeast of Tehran – long an IAEA priority.

Taking advantage of the diplomatic opening enabled by Rouhani, Iran and six world powers have revived separate negotiations towards a broader political settlement of the nuclear dispute to head off any risk of a new Middle East war.

The last meeting between Iran and the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia was held on October 15-16 in Geneva, and another one is scheduled for November 7-8, just a few days before the next Iran-IAEA meeting.

An end to Iran's higher-grade enrichment of uranium is a central demand of the powers. Refining uranium to 20 percent is sensitive as it is a relatively short technical step to raise that to the 90 percent needed for a nuclear bomb.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, wants arch-foe Iran to cease all enrichment and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned on Tuesday “against concessions that are liable to concede to the regime's charm offensive”.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Report: Iran weeks away from nuke


Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb in as little as a month, according to a new estimate by a top American think tank.

“Today, Iran could break out most quickly using a three-step process with its installed centrifuges and its low-enriched uranium stockpiles as of August 2013. In this case, Iran could produce one significant quantity in as little as approximately 1.0–1.6 months, if it uses all its near 20 percent low-enriched uranium hexafluoride stockpile,” the Institute for Science and International Security wrote in a report published on its website Thursday.

The new assessment comes as the White House invited Senate staffers to a briefing on negotiations with Iran as part of its efforts to persuade Congress not to go ahead with a bill to stiffen sanctions against Iran.

“Shortening breakout times have implications for any negotiation with Iran,” stated the report. “An essential finding is that they are currently too short and shortening further.”

David Albright, president of the institute and a former inspector for the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, was quoted by USA Today as saying the estimate means that Iran would have to eliminate more than half of its 19,000 centrifuges to extend the time it would take to build a bomb to six months.

The Obama administration has said Iran is probably a year away from having enough enriched uranium to make a bomb.

The White House has said new sanctions legislation should wait while current negotiations — which began last week and are scheduled to resume officially in Geneva next month — are underway.

But Israeli Intelligence and International Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz has said that Iran had made no concrete offer to resolve the conflict around its nuclear program during the last round of talks.

He made the statement during talks Wednesday with U.S. officials in Washington over Israeli-American strategic cooperation, Israel’s Army Radio reported Friday. “Teheran made no offer to resolve the crisis,” Steinitz was quoted as saying.

Reports by the Associated Press and other media, however, said Iran submitted a proposal to the six world powers involved in the talks: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

No details of the proposal were made public but Western officials meeting with Iranian negotiators indicated interest, AP reported.

“The talks in Geneva were just feelers,” Steinitz was further quoted as saying.