250,000 To Be Evacuated By Israel From Potential Northern Border War


The Home Front Command declared that it has a special contingency plan in place in Israel to evacuate up to a quarter of a million residents living close to the Lebanon border. This was confirmed by a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Around 1 million live in Israel’s North and in the event that a war starts with Hezbollah, evacuations can start. According to the officer:

“In the past we didn’t think of needing to evacuate whole communities, but now we understand that we will have to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people. “

This is mainly because of the fact the battlefield experience and technological abilities of Hezbollah are growing “thanks” to the fighting happening against Syria. Regional changes that the military did not expect happened. Israel’s borders witness changes and the IDF has to get ready for war against various groups instead of country armies.

While students from other countries do not have to worry about much except where to buy essays and similar, those living in northern Israel should be aware of the potential of war breaking out. The Home Front Command evolved though and it is ready to protect Israeli citizens. It was said that the army did always think about whether or not it is prepared or relevant. That is not just because of the Hezbollah rocket barrage threat that became a possibility in the past few months. The real reason is the possibility of faced with ground attacks carried out by terrorist groups against the civilian communities.

Israel is listening to everything that Hassan Nasrallah says and the threats issued are taken seriously. Civilians were told in the past that they simply need to go to the special bomb shelters but this needs to be changed as having civilians in front lines is not at all a good idea.

Unfortunately, it is close to impossible to evacuate all the residents in the area. However, it was stated that the army is working with communities and emergency services in order to prepare people that live in the northern communities for a mass evacuation scenario. Evacuated communities would eventually be housed in guest houses, schools and hotels in Jerusalem, Eilat, Jordan Valley and West Bank. The goal is to take people away from the North front lines. Whole communities can end up being housed together based on the experienced situation.

IDF believes that Hezbollah will most likely not attack Israel soon. The border with Lebanon is the one that is highly explosive and it is possible that the very next conflict is going to be truly devastating. Hezbollah did rebuild the arsenal it had since the 2006 Lebanon War, having access to over one hundred thousand short range rockets and even thousands of other missiles that would be able to reach the middle of Israel. This does include Tel Aviv.

The news broke out as Nasrallah issued a warning that Israel has to think “a million times” before a war with Lebanon would be started as the fighters he has will not have “Red lines” in the following conflict.

God Bless America & PS, Trump is Mentally Deficient


As a little girl I used to dream about living in the United States. I grew up watching American television, trying very hard to lose my Canadian accent, and would always tell my parents I was going to live in Los Angeles one day. I have now lived in Los Angeles longer than I lived in Canada. This is where my son was born, where my dreams came true, where I found peace, and where I have built my life. I love the United States, I love California, and I count my blessings each and every day.

For the first time in my 25 years here, I feel uneasy. I am embarrassed by the President of this beautiful country and have said I am Canadian more in the past 9 months than I have in my entire life. I am sad and scared about what is happening here. Trump’s America is dark and depressing. The Fourth of July is a special day for everyone who is fortunate enough to live here, but with each day Trump is President we become a less fortunate nation because he puts us at risk.

On this Fourth of July I will pray. Pray for each and every one of us. Whether or not you support the 45th President of the United States, you should be afraid. Afraid of not only what you know he is doing, but more importantly, what you don’t know he is doing. He is making a mockery of his job and putting us in harm’s way. From healthcare, to being in charge of the military, to cries of fake news, our futures are in jeopardy. Important to note this is not about our political affiliations.

I know many great Republicans and there is a difference between a Republican and a Trump supporter. Republicans believe in different things than I do, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad, just different. A Trump supporter however, is just as dangerous as their leader. I have yet to meet a Trump supporter who can articulate why he a good President. They can’t because they are mentally deficient. Is that mean? Sorry, but it is time to get real and sometimes that can be mean.

I am exhausted by all the fake kindness and political correctness. I believe Donald Trump is dangerous and mentally deficient. Those who support him, by association, are also dangerous and mentally deficient. Too harsh? I don’t think so. It is my 1st Amendment right to say what I think so I will say it again. Donald Trump is mentally deficient. That feels good! Have a happy and safe 4th. God Bless America, and PS God, sorry about Donald Trump. Don’t give up on us because we are praying.

As I read this I know it will upset a lot of people. It is a politically charged time and there are lines drawn in the sand, but that does not and should not change how I write. I have never worried about what people will think about what I write, but rather worried about how I would feel about myself if I was not honest in my writing. So now it is out there. No tiptoeing, just honesty. I am scared, but I am hopeful. He got lucky when he won and we will be lucky when he is impeached.

May God Bless America. I am sending prayers and good wishes to all those who are serving in the military and putting their lives on the line for our freedom. To the military families, thank you for your sacrifices too. I am blessed to live in America and I pray for her safety. I pray for all of us actually. I hope we make it through this difficult time and come out the other side united and strong. Wishful thinking to be sure, but it is possible. All it requires is for all of us to keep the faith.

 

 

 

 

The Highs and Lows of Paris


I have spent the past 12 days in Europe with my son. He went to Greece and Italy, then joined me in London and Paris. It was a wonderful holiday and watching the joy and wonder on his face as he discovered parts of the world he has always wanted to see, was everything. Thanks to Facetime, he was able to take me along on his adventure and it was spectacular.  I will treasure this time together always.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris and spent 28 hours walking everywhere. We strolled endlessly and saw amazing things. We had lunch atop the Eiffel Tower, ate crepes under the Arc de Triomphe, drank wine on the Champs-Elysses, and said a prayer at Notre Dame. It was magical and that I shared it with my beloved boy was special. I am the mother of a remarkable human being.

I look at the pictures today and I smile because it was a great trip, but also because there is proof of the trip. When my son was young there were no selfies, just me and a camera. I have a ton pf pictures of my son growing up, but very few of us together. I was always taking the pictures, so the shots of us are limited. It is sad, but makes the pictures I’m able to take now even more important.

I look at the pictures from Paris and can remember what we were talking about as we strolled along. It was very special and I am happy that when my son visits Paris again with his wife, or takes his children, he will be able to tell them that he went there with his mother for the first time, and is happy to share it with them now. Perhaps that is silly, but it matters to me that we build a history together.

I cannot think about our time in Paris and not think of the unbearable sadness we also saw. No matter where we went, there were Syrian families on the streets. Mother and fathers with their young children, looking broken, but hopeful. They would smile and one could see the pain and humiliation in their eyes, while also seeing the hope and relief. It was tragic and demands serious attention.

Watching a woman breastfeed her baby on the street, surrounded by wealth, when it is clear she needs a shower and a meal herself, is heartbreaking. In what world does it make sense that living on the street with your children is safer than living in your home? We live in a time when we can see everything that is going on in the world, but when you see it in person, it touches your heart in a different way.

Paris is the most romantic city in the world. From every location, every direction, every time of day, there is no view that is not beautiful. It is a city that inspires love, and she has now inspired me to be more loving. Me and my son left Paris wanting to do more, wanting to help, wanting to not pretend that the problems of the world are not also our problems. We need to make changes, quickly.

I am inspired by my son’s view of the world and the work that needs to be done.  Paris was the highlight of my trip for a lot of reasons. I saw my son as man, not a boy. I looked into the eyes of a woman sitting in the street and heard her ask for help, even though she never spoke. I was inspired to not only appreciate the love I have, but want to spread it. Paris has demanded that I keep the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs

Shabbat prayer, on the occasion of war


beginning with a line from Siegfried Sassoon

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread,
as though it were a match bright enough
to light the room, but not so bright it snuffed
the residue of darkness overhead.
There once was darkness signifying calm —
our candles glowed
beside the window, the nights did not explode,
or bullets ricochet, or firebombs
turn streets to ash. We drank a glass of wine.
The night served as the complement to day,
like salt on something sweet. And, in this way,
we tasted syrup mixed with brine.
And, in this way, we learned a prayer
that joined the shadow with the shining flare.


“Shabbat Prayer, on the Occasion of War” appeared in “Stateside” (Northwestern University Press, 2010). Jehanne Dubrow is the author of  the poetry collections “The Arranged Marriage” (University of New Mexico Press,  2015) and “Red Army Red” (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Her sixth book of poems, “Dots & Dashes,” won the Crab Orchard Review Open Competition and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.

North Korea goes on war footing against South Korea as deadline looms


North Korea put its troops on a war footing on Friday as South Korea rejected an ultimatum to stop propaganda broadcasts or face military action, prompting China to voice concern and urge both sides to step back.

South Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo said his government expected the North to fire at some of the 11 sites where Seoul has set up loudspeakers on its side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the countries.

The South earlier rejected an ultimatum that it halt anti-Pyongyang broadcasts by Saturday afternoon or face attack.

The North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement the military and the public stood ready to safeguard its regime even if it meant fighting an all-out war, and it rejected the idea of restraint in an apparent rebuff of China's calls.

Official media said Pyongyang's military was not bluffing.

China, which remains reclusive North Korea's main economic backer despite diminished political clout to influence Pyongyang, said it was deeply concerned about the escalation of tension and called for calm from both sides.

Since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, Pyongyang and Seoul have often exchanged threats, and dozens of soldiers have been killed in clashes, yet the two sides have always pulled back from all-out war.

The latest hostility is a further blow to South Korean President Park Geun-hye's efforts to improve North-South ties, which have been virtually frozen since the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship, which Seoul blames on Pyongyang.

Park canceled an event on Friday and made a visit to a military command post, dressed in army camouflage.

Both sides traded harsh rhetoric late into Friday night.

The North committed “cowardly criminal acts,” South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said. “This time, I will make sure to sever the vicious cycle of North Korea's provocations.”

North Korea launched four artillery shells into South Korea on Thursday, according to Seoul, in apparent protest against the broadcasts. The South fired back 29 artillery rounds. Pyongyang accused the South of inventing a pretext to fire into the North.

Both sides reported no casualties or damage in their territory, indicating the rounds were just warning shots.

“The fact that both sides' shells didn't damage anything means they did not want to spread an armed clash. There is always a chance for war, but that chance is very, very low,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Joel Wit of 38 North, a North Korea monitoring project at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said the artillery exchanges were worrying but things could well cool off again.

“When it's happened in the past, there have been dangers of escalation and the U.S. has had to restrain South Korea. It's a very dangerous situation, though it could die down and chances are, it will die down,” he said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed on Friday for North and South Korea not to take any action that could further aggravate tensions.

SOUTH SAYS WON'T STOP BROADCASTS

The North's shelling came after it had demanded last weekend that South Korea end the broadcasts or face a military response – a relatively rare case of following up on its frequent threats against the South.

Its 48-hour ultimatum, delivered in a letter to the South Korean Defense Ministry, was also uncharacteristically specific, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. The deadline is around 5 p.m. (0800 GMT) on Saturday in Seoul.

South Korea began blasting anti-North propaganda from loudspeakers on the border on Aug. 10, resuming a tactic both sides had stopped in 2004, a few days after landmines wounded two South Korean soldiers along the DMZ.

North Korea on Monday launched its own broadcasts.

Baek told parliament the South's broadcasts would continue unless the North accepted responsibility and apologized for the mines. Pyongyang has denied responsibility.

“There is a high possibility that North Korea will attack loudspeaker facilities,” Baek said.

KCNA said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had declared a “quasi-state of war” in front-line areas.

There were indications the North was preparing to fire short-range missiles, the South's Yonhap news agency said, citing an unnamed government source. The North often fires rockets into the sea during annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which are currently under way.

The U.S. military, which bases 28,500 personnel in South Korea, said it was monitoring the situation. Washington earlier urged Pyongyang to halt “provocative” actions after Thursday's exchange of fire, the first between the Koreas since October.

Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the large U.S. troop presence in the South for the military exercises could reduce the risk of escalation by pressuring the South to exercise restraint, and deterring the North.

“This is a bad time to pick a fight with the South while it has all these resources there,” he said.

Hezbollah says Iran nuclear agreement ‘rules out specter of regional war’


The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Monday that a framework nuclear agreement that Iran reached with world powers last week rules out the specter of regional war.

“There is no doubt that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria's al-Ikhbariya television.

“The agreement, God willing, rules out the specter of regional war and world war,” he said.

The tentative accord, struck on Thursday after eight days of talks in Switzerland, clears the way for a settlement to allay Western fears that Iran could build an atomic bomb, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.

Nasrallah said the accord would prevent conflict as “the Israeli enemy was always threatening to bomb Iranian facilities and that bombing would definitely lead to a regional war.”

The Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah was founded with Iranian help in the 1980s to fight Israel in Lebanon. It has grown into a powerful political and military force and is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

Israel is: A departing reflection


Israel is…

Where I visit once a year even though I have no family there. Where I found myself. Where I went from being Jew(ish) to a proud Jew. Where those around me share a similar family past of pogroms, emigrations, anti-Semitism, and perseverance.

Where I ate my first Bamba and learned the word “sababa”. Where I am treated as a younger sister by all, for better or for worse. Where I am welcomed into a new home every Shabbat. Where a former ambassador modestly asked me personally for PR advice. 

Where my Ethiopian friend’s family came first to seek refuge and now thrive as true Israelis. Where the red alert was called “shachar adom” (red dawn) until a seven-year-old child named Shahar came home crying to her mother because she heard her own name being used as a warning of an impending terrorist attack. Where we don’t think twice before revealing the intimate insides of our purses when entering malls. Where my friends spent an entire day trying to send food to hungry soldiers on the front lines. Where hopeful politicians meet to advance the peace process. Where if an alien landed on earth and read a newspaper, they could easily assume that this country is larger than the African continent. Where it takes fewer than six hours to drive from the very top of the country to the very bottom. 

Where I ran to the bomb shelter every time I heard sirens wail. Where children sing when the air raid siren goes off so they do not hear the boom of the explosion. Where the sound of ambulance sirens was changed so people could differentiate between the two emergencies. Where I heard fireworks and worried they were rockets falling. Where even in a state of war, life goes on because it has to.

Where over 30,000 people gather at a funeral of a soldier they never met. Where over 350 Israelis in one day visited the family of a murdered Palestinian teen to pay their condolences. Where a country channeled frustration into positive actions as they visited injured soldiers in hospital beds. Where a song created by terrorist intended to demoralize Israelis became the ironic hit of the summer. Where my friends had to go to two of their friends’ funerals in one day.

Where eighteen year-olds serve in the army and go back to school only once they know the meaning of risking their lives for their country. Where ex-pats sacrifice their financial desires for their ideological needs. 

Where meals begin with many salads and end with hot tea with spearmint. Where the rarity of bacon in the home is not only a religious, but also a traditional norm. Where Hebrew unites the atheists and religious alike. Where wine overflows the cup at the Shabbat table. Where the slippery Jerusalem stone beneath my feet reminds me of those who have walked in the Old City before me.

Where teenagers stay out until sunrise because their parents have bigger things to worry about. Where the non-existence of lines reflects an attitude of togetherness more than an attitude of individual survival. Where an assertive woman will preach her political views to the whole train. Where the history of the family’s hummus recipe can begin a heated political discussion of cultural appropriation. Where you understand the feeling of words like mamash, stam, and davka, but cannot translate them into definitive English words.

Where the record stands for the highest number of solar-powered water heaters, scientists, and engineers per capita. Where gay individuals are not condemned, but celebrated. Where seven year olds are trusted to lead their five-year-old brothers and sisters on the busses. Where the whole bus looks after these children as if they were their parents. Where one walks alongside an Armenian priest as the Muslim call to prayer fills the streets of the Old City. Where the shopkeepers in the markets can bargain in ten languages each. Where baby steps are made to move from tolerance to acceptance, and finally to understanding. Where I refuse to give up on the two-state solution even if it is on life-support.

This article was written based on Natalie Portman’s “Israel Is” excerpt from Alan Dershowitz’s book, “What Israel Means to Me”.

Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. Follow her @ellierudee.

After the fog of war: An early assessment of the Israel-Gaza conflict


It is far too early to assess the impact of the latest war in Gaza, but still some preliminary thoughts are in order:

Anti-Semitism panic

Judging by what I have been reading in the press blogs and emails, it seems as if many Jews are in a panic about the rise in anti-Semitism. Once again, people are asking: Is this 1939? 1933? Even as distinguished a student of anti-Semitism as my revered colleague professor Deborah Lipstadt is quoted as saying that this may be 1934.

Permit me to dissent. 

Nothing fundamental has changed nothing.

In the United States, Judaism remains the most admired of America’s religions, and Jews are accepted, respected and empowered. The war in Gaza did not cause a spike in energy prices, as we experienced during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 or the oil crisis of 1979, or a drop in the stock market. It did not threaten global conflict, as in 1973. So no instability was introduced into the American economy or society. Political support for Israel has been strong, and while there are generational divides in such support, none of it translates into a reason to fear a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. Support for Israel will be an issue on campuses this fall, and the divide between the human-rights community and the supporters of Israel will endure.

In Europe, the problem remains threefold: 

There is anti-Semitism “in Europe” but not necessarily “of Europe,” meaning that if the people living in Europe adopt European values, including pluralism and tolerance, then whatever their opinion about Israel’s practices in Gaza, they have no particular problems with their Jewish neighbors. 

However, a significant segment of Muslim populations living in European countries dwell in these countries — some for generations — without acculturating to European values. They live “in Europe,” but they are not “of Europe.” These non-European Muslim minorities respond to events in the Middle East — as they did at the beginning of the Second Intifada, the Passover attacks and the second Lebanon War  — with an outbreak of violence against Jews. 

Two factors are different this time: The governments of Europe have condemned, often in very strong terms, anti-Semitism within their own countries, and they have generally been far more supportive of Israel than in previous conflicts, thus depriving their local residents of the oxygen required to move opposition to Israel into license to attack local Jews.

What has not changed is that opposition to Israel on the left has given an intellectual “moral” veneer to primitive hatred. These Muslim inhabitants of European countries are not being assimilated into the lands in which they dwell; thus, their presence and their responsiveness to events elsewhere will persist. The problem will not go away, yet it is much larger than the Jewish question alone.

Fortunately, Muslim immigrants cannot find common cause with the other anti-Semitic elements in Europe — the far right — because the far right is deeply anti-immigrant. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen has muted her father’s anti-Semitism in order to strengthen her position with the voters. (Some might see this as analogous to the moves of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), though one must not equate former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) with Jean-Marie Le Pen.)

Parenthetically, this European problem should serve to warn against American proposals for a guest worker program or permanent residence permits for immigrants to America without a path to citizenship that would retain an ongoing non-Americanizing immigrant presence in the United States.

Such a policy is bad for America and even worse for the Jewish community.

Assessing the current situation is neither an excuse for complacency nor a reason not to condemn the expressions of anti-Semitism vehemently. One of the most significant dangers we face is the routinization of such anti-Semitism and the failure to disqualify the anti-Semites and their supporters from participating in the mainstream of European — or American — culture. Politicians must have the integrity to condemn anti-Semitism despite the growing presence of its supporters.

Problem for the right wing, the left wing, no return to status quo ante

The war has created a problem for Israel’s right wing as it demonstrated what security leaders of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Mossad and the Shin Bet — past and present — have long argued: There is no military solution to the conflict, at least not one that is compatible with Israeli values or with Israel’s willingness to sacrifice its young to reoccupy Gaza and thus more completely dismantle the infrastructure of Hamas. 

This summer, Israel faced almost optimal conditions for a maximalist solution, if it was willing to pay the price. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority would not have been unhappy to see Hamas thoroughly defeated. The United States and the European countries recognized Israel’s right to self-defense, and world attention was focused on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, the rapid gains of ISIS and President Barack Obama’s decision to defend the Kurds. Gaza was a second-tier story for much of the past month, and Hamas was as isolated as it has ever been, as it is discovering in cease-fire negotiations. Even then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his even more hawkish Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon refused to move the IDF back into Gaza, unwilling to sacrifice IDF soldiers.

The war also demonstrated that the status quo, even the status quo ante, is untenable and thus may call into question some of the political judgments preceding the war, including the severity of Israel’s reaction to the unity government of Fatah and Hamas, its judgment of Mahmoud Abbas, and its lack of imagination and boldness in pursuing negotiations with him.

The confluence of interests among Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel should be tested as to whether it can yield political results.

The left wing also should take no solace from recent events as the furies of hatred against Israel and the Jews are intense, persistent and unyielding. 

The perceived rise in anti-Semitism comes as a shock to Zionists who believed that the foundation of an independent Jewish state would extinguish the flames of Jew hatred. For more than 40 years, we have seen that Israel can also fuel the flames of anti-Semitism.

Ironically, some French Jews are fleeing violence at home to face enemy rockets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Perhaps Diaspora Jews need another type of Iron Dome.

Genocide

I have joined with other scholars of Holocaust and genocide studies to condemn the statements equating Israel’s actions in Gaza with genocide. On July 9, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech in Ramallah, accused Israel of “committing genocide.” On Aug. 1, on Al Jazeera’s English-language TV broadcast, Fatah foreign affairs spokesman Nabil Sha’ath described the situation in Gaza as “a Holocaust.” Also on Aug. 1, Turkey’s prime minister— now president-elect — Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of “Hitler-like fascism.”

These comparisons are odious, especially so since Israel has the power to commit genocide and even the provocation to do so, but however overwhelming the destruction in Gaza, Israel’s response has been measured. Its use of power has been both restrained and horrendous.

Erdogan, who has amassed significant power within Turkey and who aspires to play a larger role on the world stage, must be led to understand that such outrageous thinking will marginalize him and the country he leads. His isolation from the cease-fire talks was not only warranted but required as a result of his utterances.

One may not condemn others without challenging our own.

I must also condemn not only the blog post offering a justification for genocide and the rabbi willing to justify the annihilation of Palestinians in Gaza, but also the proposals of the deputy speaker of the Knesset for advocating ethnic cleansing in Gaza. 

We Jews have been victims of ethnic cleansing many times in our history. We have been instrumental in outlawing ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of the Shoah, and we must retain our opposition, especially when we have the power to impose such a solution.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

Learning to argue on Tisha b’Av


As we approach Tisha b’Av, the State of Israel is at war. The day’s commemoration of sorrow and pain, and urgent calls for introspection and reflection, couldn’t be coming at a more needed time.

On Tisha b’Av we take upon ourselves the burden, and the grace, of our connection to all Jews past, present and future, in times of suffering, as in times of joy. Maintaining that solidarity isn’t easy, and it takes work, on Tisha b’Av itself, and the whole year through.

Jews love to argue, above all with one another. The higher the stakes, the higher the decibels, and at times, things can get ugly, and worse. This current war has fostered much consensus within Israel, but large arguments are not far beneath the surface, and outside Israel they are out in the open. Can we argue with one another and still remain whole?

From the Bible onward, death and destruction have been seen not only as challenges to overcome but as occasions for us to come to grips with our own flaws and responsibilities. The Second Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud famously said, was destroyed in 70 CE because of “sinat chinam,” literally free hatred, or hatred for no reason.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of modern Palestine and the leading theologian of religious Zionism, famously said that the Temple will only be rebuilt through “ahavat chinam,” freely given love. But in light of current events, and the heated debates they have unleashed, it’s worth focusing on a different dimension of Rav Kook’s teachings — and that is how to fight with one another.

Today’s debates are ferocious, but so were the Jewish arguments of the last century.  Zionists, socialists, nationalists, Orthodox traditionalists, liberals and more argued intensely, often bitterly, over how best to secure Jewish physical and cultural survival. Kook, who made aliyah from Eastern Europe in 1904, found himself at the center of those debates and tried, with the aid of vast learning, theological daring and his own richly conciliatory personality, to find a way to forge some kind of peace while honoring the integrity of different positions.

In one of his reflections, he wrote, arrestingly, that three forces are at work within all people: “the holy, the nation, humanity.” The revolutionary changes of modern times have torn them apart, yielding, among Jews, three different, regularly antagonistic  currents — nationalism, liberalism and Orthodoxy.

All three have truth on their side, and must try to appreciate one another — not by wishing away disagreement but recognizing the integrity of each other’s positions: Nationalism’s rootedness in real love of one’s community, Orthodoxy’s rootedness in a flaming desire for God, liberalism’s rootedness in an ultimately divine perspective of all humanity as created in God’s image.

What synthesizes all three elements — religious commitment, national identity and ethical universalism — is, Kook continues, a sacred energy deriving from and driven by God.

Kook urges us to engage in a studied appreciation of our ideological opponents and the genuine values animating them, while also taking a genuine stand on behalf of the ideals in which we ourselves truly believe. He urges each one of us to recognize not only that our opponents are fellow human beings – and, in the context of intra-communal debates, fellow Jews — but also that they have a piece of the truth that may be unavailable to us. God and His truth are large, and He speaks as best He can in a tortured, fragmentary world.

Much has changed since Kook’s time: Party and ideological lines have shifted, and the Jewish people have been faced with crueler fates and more complicated dilemmas than he could have imagined, stemming both from ultimate victimhood and newfound power. But his ideas point toward a way of thinking, of arguing, passionately and heatedly, while keeping a sense of our ultimate solidarity alive.

There is one caveat: The ideological combatants with whom Rav Kook engaged were all, each in their way, passionately committed to Jewish survival, to the well being of other Jews, and were willing to live out their commitments and live with the consequences. When we urge our positions on our fellow Jews, that is the test we have to pass, the hard question we have to ask ourselves, on Tisha b’Av and every day.

(Yehudah Mirsky teaches at Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and is the author of the recently published “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.”)

 

Blaming Birthright for a Gaza death


Is Birthright Israel to blame for the death of Max Steinberg, one of two American Israeli soldiers killed in the war in Gaza?

That’s the assertion of Allison Benedikt, a senior editor at Slate, who first provoked Israel supporters in 2011 with an angry and rambling essay about how after her nefarious Zionist youth group (she doesn’t name it, but it’s Young Judaea) brainwashed her into liking Israel, she eventually learned better.

In Benedikt’s latest piece, she asserts that Steinberg’s decision to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces “seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission” and asks in the story’s teaser “what makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew decide he is ready to die for Israel?” Not surprisingly, it has quickly sparked over 300 online comments. Meanwhile, the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur has published a heated, point-by-point response.

Benedikt’s article isn’t the only Israel-Gaza conflict-fueled attack on Birthright. A darkly satirical Tumblr feed, “My Birthright Summer in Israel,” features perkily captioned photos of happy, partying Birthright participants superimposed over images of carnage and destruction in Gaza.

Why do people hate Israel?


We live in a bad world.

There is nothing new about that. The world has been pretty bad since its inception. That’s why God destroyed it and started all over again (with little to show for the new experiment, one might add).

From a moral perspective, look at the world since 2000.

North Korea remains an entire country that is essentially a large concentration camp. 

Tibet, one of mankind’s oldest cultures, continues to be occupied and destroyed by China.

Somalia no longer exists as a country. It is an anarchic state in which the cruelest and strongest (usually one and the same) prevail.

In Congo, between 1998 and 2003, about 5.5 million people were killed — nearly the same as the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

In Syria, about 150,000 people have been killed in the last three years, and millions have been rendered homeless. 

In Iraq, there is a mass murder from terror bombings almost every week.

In Mexico, since 2006, approximately 120,000 people have been killed in the country’s drug wars.

Iran, a genocide-advocating theocratic dictatorship, is very near having the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Christian communities in the Middle East are wiped out; Christians in Nigeria are routinely massacred.

Of course, the 20th century was even bloodier, but we are only in the 15th year of the 21st century. Nevertheless, showing how awful the world is for so many of its inhabitants is not my point. My point is that, despite all this evil and suffering, the world has concentrated its attention overwhelmingly on the alleged evils of one country: Israel.

What makes this so worthy of note is that Israel is among the most humane and free countries on the planet. Moreover, it is the only country in the world that is threatened with annihilation. 

This is the only time in history when people in free countries have sided with a police state against a free state. One cannot name any time in modern history — the only time in history when there have been free societies — when, in a war between a free state and a police state, the free state was deemed the aggressor. That’s because it never happened before Israel and its enemies.

The question, of course, is why?

Why, during a time when a Kenyan mall is blown up, Islamic terrorists massacre Christians in Nigeria and thousands more die in Syria, is the world preoccupied with 600-some Palestinians killed as a direct result of their firing thousands of missiles in order to kill as many Israelis as possible?

Why has obsession with Israel been the case since its inception, and especially since 1967?

It can’t be occupation. China occupies Tibet, and it merits virtually no attention from the world. And Pakistan’s creation, coming at the same time as Israel’s, led to millions of Muslim (and Hindu) refugees. Yet, that country, too, merits no attention. 

There are only two explanations for this moral anomaly.

One is the nearly worldwide embrace of leftist thought and values. According to this way of thinking, Westerners are almost always wrong when they fight Third World countries or groups; and the weaker party, especially if non-Western, is almost always deemed the victim when fighting a stronger, especially Western, group or country. Leftism has replaced “good and evil” with “rich and poor,” “strong and weak,” and “Western (or white) and non-Western (or non-white).” Israel is rich, strong and Western; the Palestinians are poor, weak and non-Western.

The only other possible explanation is that Israel is Jewish.

There is no other rational explanation because the fixation with, and the hatred of, Israel are not rational. Israel is a particularly decent country. It is tiny — about the size of New Jersey and smaller than El Salvador; and while there are more than 50 Muslim countries, there is only one Jewish one. She should be admired and supported, not hated to the extent that there are dozens of countries whose populations would like to see Israel annihilated — again, a unique phenomenon. No other country in the world is targeted for extermination.

As hard as it is for modern, rational and irreligious people to accept, Israel’s Jewishness is a primary reason for the hatred of it. 

Ironically, this fact — just as with the fixation on the Jew before Israel’s existence — confirms for this observer the divine role the Jew plays in history. Few Jews are aware of their role, and even fewer want it. But, other than the influence of the left, there is no other explanation for all the animosity toward Israel.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

The war zone


As the hourly barrages of rockets continue from Gaza to Israel, I can’t help but focus simultaneously on my own personal challenge, though it be of little significance in comparison- my big, hot, third trimester of pregnancy, showing all the signs of “advanced maternal age,” according to my doctor.  Feeling helpless and a world away from the conflict, I’ve tried to channel my physical difficulties into sympathy for those living in and trying to protect the Jewish State. 

The impetus for making these connections came when I began feeling guilty for complaining about little things like being unable to reach an itchy mosquito bite on my ankle, or having to refrain from pretty much anything fluffy and white, anything that’s not protein or brown rice (I call it torture-rice) due to gestational diabetes.  I’m pregnant with my fourth child, an experience that has been a far cry from my first pregnancy, fourteen years ago when my husband and I were living in Jerusalem.  I had the body of a twenty-three-year-old, a baby having a baby.  But I know that however great my discomfort now, however swollen my feet, however sharp the pains in my joints and lower back, I am safe. My family and I live a peaceful life in America and in times like these, when all I can do is hope and pray, I feel guilty for living under this relative safety when the Israelis are under attack.

With the heat and humidity of late July setting in, and my abdomen growing into a formidable thing that generally enters the room about thirty seconds before the rest of me, I’ve forced myself to use the constant discomfort as a reminder of what our brothers and sisters in Israel are facing on a daily basis.  When my legs puff up and rub together from the humidity, I am reminded of the inescapable desert heat the IDF must fight through.  When I see people in the park exercising and recall that it’s been many months since I dutifully shook whatever I was supposed to be shaking in Zumba class, I feel a deep sense of jealousy.  But then I realize there are fellow Jews spending entire days running back and forth from bomb shelters, fearing for their very lives.

While I consider my body its own kind of “war zone” right now, I know where the big difference lies.  I can count the weeks I have left on one hand.  I know this physical discomfort is a mere blip in the scheme of this lifecycle.  I know with certainty that my blood sugar will return to its normal levels and hopefully I’ll remember my old work-out routines well enough to shout “Zummmmbaaa” on cue with the rest of the undulating chicas

I wish I could say the same for our beloved Israel.  If only we had some sort of imminent guarantee of finality of the fighting and unending terror attacks. Despite the tremendous Jewish unity, acts of kindness, and extra Mitzvos performed across the world in the merit of the soldiers and Israeli’s, there is still no end in sight.  But for now, even if only to console myself, prayer, along with these small attempts at sympathy, this seemingly trivial alignment of my pain with theirs, is all I’ve got.  Kind of like the State of Israel.  As Jews, it too, is all we’ve got.

Obama tells Kerry to broker ‘immediate’ cease-fire in Gaza


WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to push for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“As I’ve said many times, Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket and tunnel attacks from Hamas,” Obama said Monday in a brief news appearance as Kerry headed to Egypt to attempt to broker a cease-fire.

“And as a result of its operations, Israel has already done significant damage to Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. I’ve also said, however, that we have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives. And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and that can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”

Obama said he wanted a return to the truce with Hamas brokered in November 2012, but Hamas has rejected such a return. Hamas has added demands including internationally monitored border crossings, prisoner releases and Israel staying out of Hamas-Palestinian Authority unity talks.

“I’ve instructed him to push for an immediate cessation of hostilities,” Obama said.

More than 500 Palestinians have died in the fighting, most of them civilians, while 25 Israeli troops and two civilians have been killed.

What women know of war


I was 15 the first time I saw a mother grieve for her son.

It was my freshman year of high school, just after the homecoming dance, when our community was rocked by the death of 18-year-old Alan Epstein, a heartthrob jock who coached girls’ basketball, mentored his younger siblings and had breakfast with his mother before climbing into his Jeep for the last time.

Never have I seen a more wrenching scene than his funeral. In the hushed sea of sobs, among the thousand mourning bodies clinging together in black clusters, and the choking atmosphere of agony and anguish, I mainly remember one thing: When his mother entered.

She dragged herself down the synagogue aisle, screaming with every dreaded step, her arms locked like steel over her two younger children, who held her up as the power of her rage made her legs go limp. I remember how they moved, the three of them in rock formation as if a single organism, striving against an irresistible force, as if the casket of her oldest son was a raging fire that would scorch and then consume them.

A grieving mother is not an image one easily forgets. Horrible and haunting, a mother losing her child is the single greatest injustice inflicted upon the possibilities of nature. And yet, here and elsewhere, it is a common fact.

Last week in Israel, we watched once again as men killed men and women grieved. While their children were still missing, and the Israeli government ravaged its way through the West Bank, the mothers of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel traveled to the United Nations to plead for their sons’ return.

“Every mother’s nightmare is waiting and waiting endlessly for her child to come home,” an impassioned Rachel Frenkel told the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Her anguish was obvious, but her message was neither emotional nor political. With the moral clarity of a prophet, she sat before the entire assembly and declared: “It is wrong to take children, innocent boys and girls, and use them as instruments of any struggle,” she said. “It is cruel.”

Not two weeks later, Suha Khdeir, the mother of murdered Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was burned alive, would come to experience that same calculated cruelty. While Palestinian-led riots broke out all over East Jerusalem, demolishing light-rail stops and inciting clashes with Israeli police, the Journal’s Simone Wilson reported that Suha Khdeir sat in mourning on her porch, surrounded by female relatives; she barely had the strength to eat. “I can't swallow from the pain,” she said as her cousin lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips. Even at protestations that she could die of dehydration, she answered, “I want to die. I want to follow my son.”

In the adjacent men’s mourning tent, Mahmoud Odeh, 46, a physical therapist who rents an apartment from the Khdeir family, had the sense to recognize who is hurt most by these losses. “If European people and Americans and Israel think we raise our kids to be killed, they are making a big mistake,” Odeh said. “A cat does not allow you to take her son. And we as a people, we value life. This mother sitting here and that mother sitting in Gush Etzion, they lost their sons. It's not political.”

In the Torah, Judaism’s first matriarch dies immediately after her husband nearly sacrifices their son for God. According to one midrash, Sarah’s death is the work of Satan, who visits her and tells her of Abraham’s plan to ascend the mountain and kill their child. Almost at once, Sarah dies from grief. And we are left with a sobering question: How often in our tradition, and in our world, is it men who take action and women who suffer the consequences?  

Sherri Mandell, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for her 2003 memoir “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” is another Jewish mother who has endured the unendurable. In 2001, her 13-year-old Israeli-American son Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were abducted and then “bound, stabbed and beaten to death with rocks,” according to reports. Their blood was smeared all over the walls of the cave they were left in, and their bodies were so badly mutilated and disfigured, that dental samples were the only means of identifying them.

  

Mandell has reason to want revenge. But in an Op-Ed for The Times of Israel last week, she wrote instead of human dignity. “I always speak about the way that the Jewish people seek justice, but leave vengeance to G-d,” she wrote. “My mother always told me: the best revenge is a good life and I have always followed her teaching, never allowing the murder of my son to fill me or my family or children with a rage for vengeance.”

How many of us who have not suffered her loss still secretly wish or openly call for the destruction of our enemies?

How much longer will we silence and ignore the wisdom of women while men wield swords and throw stones?

Of the stunningly few women actually named in the Talmud, the sage Bruriah offers some of the most vital and humane counsel in the entire Jewish tradition. When her husband, the 2nd century Talmudic scholar Rebbe Meir is repeatedly harassed by a band of neighborhood thugs, he decides to pray for the death of those that disturb him. Bruriah reminds him of a line from Psalms: “Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more.”

It does not say, “Let sinners be uprooted from the earth,” she tells him. “It says ‘sins.’” Her teaching is clear: A Jew should never wish for the death of sinners, but for the death of sin.

A lesson that perhaps only a mother could teach.

The honesty of war


There’s something about war that can make intelligent people look foolish. I’m thinking right now of all those smart people in Tel Aviv who analyzed the subtleties of peace at the Haaretz Peace Conference—only a few hours before Jew-hating terrorists from Hamas began firing rockets all over Israel. 

I wonder if they even considered having a session at the conference called, “What happens when people want to kill you no matter what you do?” That session might have included, for example, a panel of experts discussing the Hamas Charter, which calls for “the eventual creation of an Islamic state in Palestine, in place of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the obliteration or dissolution of Israel.”

But there was no such panel at the conference. Instead, they had exclusive contributions from important people like President Barack Obama, who expressed the well-worn mantra of the sophisticated man: “Peace is the only true path to security.” 

Well, maybe not, Mr. President. For the millions of Israeli residents now making sure they’re 15 precious seconds away from their bomb shelters, it’s more the other way around: “Security is the only true path to peace.” 

The Middle East is one of those places where you can’t always rely on the thinking of sophisticated, intelligent people – it’s a place where the brutality of life creates its own dynamic, its own logic, its own rules. 

Israel has struggled between these two impulses since its creation: The wordly “peace will bring security” camp versus the more primal “security will bring peace” camp. Both camps are well intentioned.

The cosmopolitan crowd at the Haaretz peace conference is surely in the first camp. They can’t afford to leave it. It is who they are. Moving to the “primal” camp would undermine their essence; it would put them in kinship with the bus driver in Dimona who barely has a high school education. 

We have a tendency to underestimate the importance of self-identification—how people like to think of themselves–when assessing someone’s worldview. We shouldn’t. Self-identification is a stubborn thing. If I think of myself as an educated gentleman, I must be a seeker of peace, no matter what. 

Ugly stuff like a Charter that calls for the destruction of a whole people just gets in the way of how I want, and need, the world to be.

That’s why there was no session on the Hamas Charter at the Haaretz peace conference. It would have spoiled the party. It would have poisoned the atmosphere. It would have introduced something raw, something primitive to an educated audience that prides itself on transcending the basic instincts of human nature. 

To be honest with you, I often try to be a part of that camp myself. It feels better. After all, what kind of life would it be if I had to succumb to my primal nature? How would that be considered progress? How would that be a life worth living?

But unlike my Israeli compatriots, my house in Los Angeles doesn’t need a bomb shelter. 

I suppose it’s in those bomb shelters, not the intellectual salons, that one gets a glimpse of Middle East reality. You can decide at a “peace conference” to avoid talking about the Hamas Charter, but eventually, the Hamas Charter will find you. If it’s not through a panel of experts, then it’s through a good old-fashioned rocket with your name on it.

It took less than 24 hours for those Hamas rockets to get a hearing with the attendees of the Haaretz peace conference. 

Now, it’s perfectly OK for the enlightened set to stick to their guns. There’s something in me that prefers they do, something in me that says, “We need you to keep pushing your world view.” In any event, they will not, they cannot, go down gently. Abandoning their self-identification as sophisticated people is not an option.

So, be prepared for the smart pieces analyzing the “weakness” of Hamas, the “overreaction” of Israel, the need to promote “moderate” forces, and, of course, the perennial meta message: The need “now more than ever” to keep pushing for peace, because, as President Obama himself said, it is “the only true path to security.” 

There’s something poignant, really, about how the brutal nature of the Middle East has prevented Israel from fully reaching the exalted status of the sophisticated state. 

Sadly, no amount of “Start Up nation” or avant-garde Israeli culture can cover up the ugly truth of Israel’s neighborhood. It is a truth that is bigger than dreams, bigger than life, bigger than success. 

It is a truth that says, simply: We don’t want you here. You’re a bone in our throat. The more successful you are, the more we despise you.

Oh, how we wish it were in our control to change those sentiments!

How we wish that dismantling the settlements would dismantle the Hamas Charter!

When the bombs fall—as they are falling right now all over Israel–you don’t look for answers in the salons of Tel Aviv; you look for them in the car shops of Dimona.

And in the Middle East, that answer is always the same: Israel can never afford to lose a war.

Obama does nothing while Middle East and Europe in chaos


Under President Barack Obama, the world is becoming unglued. Iraq is being overrun by Islamist terrorists, and the United States is now evacuating its Baghdad embassy. The Arab Spring has led to either civil war and mass slaughter, as in Syria, or new Arab dictators, as in Egypt. Libya is degenerating into a den of terrorists who have already murdered the American ambassador. Vladimir Putin is sending tanks into Ukraine and the thuggish Russian strongman bestrides the world like a colossus, unchecked by American will.

These facts are undeniable. The only question is whether President Obama is responsible.

Obama’s argument, as laid out in his 2014 West Point commencement, is that his first rule of foreign policy is, “Don’t do anything stupid.” Military action should be reserved only for the most extreme circumstances. Americans are war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan. Our president believes in a minimalist approach.

The shallowness of this argument, however, lies in this simple fact. Yes, Americans are weary of entering foreign conflicts. The president is correct that we don’t want our boys dying to fight on behalf of Iraqi cowards who shed their uniforms at the first sound of gunfire. But we are even more wary of another 9/11 attack. And by allowing Iraq and Syria to degenerate into Afghanistan, we are all but guaranteeing another hit on the United States. A lawless world cannot possibly keep America safe.

I have contempt for Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Increasingly autocratic, he is even more guilty of gross ingratitude. Rather than show America any kind of thanks for all that we sacrificed to give his nation its freedom, he treats America with disdain. Who wants to help a man who is becoming a despot, hates democratic Israel and reaches out to America only when he fears being strung up by jihadists?

But, this isn’t about al-Maliki; it’s about America. If Iraq goes under, the chaos that will ensue will directly impact the security of the United States. An evacuation of Baghdad would be much worse than the shame of Saigon, because at least the North Vietnamese communists did not deploy a global army of terrorists who fly planes into buildings.
Al-Qaida does.

I visited West Point this week with my family, for the summer concert series. It was the 239th birthday of the Army, and the West Point Band put on a stirring and patriotic performance. President Obama had spoken at the cadets’ commencement just two weeks earlier. Ask yourself: How did these cadets feel when President Obama got up at their graduation and told them there is increasingly no substantive role for them to play in the world? Here were young warriors, trained to fight and protect the United States, being told that the use of force has little to no application. No wonder there was such tepid applause and a cold response. These bright young men and women must have been wondering why they don’t just land jobs in the State Department instead.

No one wants to see American troops die in foreign wars. Of course, our soldiers should never be sent needlessly into harm’s way. But the threat of American force must always be present, even if it’s not deployed. People must fear the United States. What President Obama is doing by not doing and by giving so many unnecessary speeches defending his belief in doing nothing is removing the deterrent of a credible threat. The world believes that the United States under President Obama has no stomach for a fight. And we’re watching the effects all around us. The inmates are running the asylum.

The Islamic world, especially, is in a deteriorating spiral that’s positively tragic to watch. Turkey, once a proud democracy, now boasts a prime minister in Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose own political aides violently attack peaceful protesters. Erdogan doesn’t even shy from harassing and shoving CNN reporters while they are live on the air. He no longer shows even the pretense of freedom. When I was in Istanbul, I was amazed to experience firsthand how YouTube is permanently blocked and Twitter was restored just two days before I arrived. The Turks were once a free people. How are they allowing this?

Syria is a giant killing zone, with President Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons being repeatedly violated without consequence. Iran sports the second-most brutal and vile government on Earth, after North Korea, and thinks nothing of stoning women, hanging gays from cranes and assassinating peaceful protesters in cold blood. Worse, they fund the bloodiest terrorists around the world. But that does not stop our president from negotiating with them and leaving them within a few months of nuclear weapons. Egypt is back to presidents who win elections with 95 percent of the vote. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is the filthiest terror group in the entire world, murdering children in large numbers and bragging about selling young girls into sexual slavery.

And who pays the biggest price for this lawlessness? Why Israel, of course, with three teenagers now kidnapped by what appears to be Hamas, an organization that the United States officially labels as terrorists, but whose joint government with Mahmoud Abbas we now recognize.

Through all this, Barack Obama drifts along, meditating on his mantra of,“Don’t do anything stupid.” But I have long believed that the true sins we are guilty of in life are not the sins of commission, the mistakes we make, but rather the sins of omission, the good things we fail to do.

Sometimes the dumbest thing is to fail to act because of the fear of doing dumb things.

Barack Obama is fiddling while the world is burning. Israel is already smoldering under its heat, and it won’t be long before America, too, is cindered.

Ukraine mobilizes after Putin’s ‘declaration of war’


Ukraine mobilized for war on Sunday and Washington threatened to isolate Russia economically after President Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbor in Moscow's biggest confrontation with the West since the Cold War.

“This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in English. Yatsenuik heads a pro-Western government that took power in the former Soviet republic when its Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted last week.

Putin secured permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine and told U.S. President Barack Obama he had the right to defend Russian interests and nationals, spurning Western pleas not to intervene.

Russian forces have already bloodlessly seized Crimea, an isolated Black Sea peninsula where Moscow has a naval base.

On Sunday, they surrounded several small Ukrainian military outposts there and demanded the Ukrainian troops disarm. Some refused, leading to standoffs, although no shots were fired.

As Western countries considered how to respond to the crisis, the United States said it was focused on economic, diplomatic and political measures, but made clear it was not seriously considering military action.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Kiev on Tuesday to show “strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, without outside interference or provocation,” the State Department said in a statement.

MORE DEMONSTRATIONS IN EASTERN UKRAINE

With Russian forces in control of majority ethnic Russian Crimea, the focus is shifting to eastern swaths of Ukraine, where most ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language.

Those areas saw more demonstrations on Sunday after violent protests on Saturday, and pro-Moscow activists hoisted flags for a second day at government buildings and called for Russia to defend them.

Russia has staged war games with 150,000 troops along the land border, but they have so far not crossed. Kiev said Russia had sent hundreds of its citizens across the border to stage the protests.

Ukraine's security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert. But Kiev's small and under-equipped military is seen as no match for Russia's superpower might.

The Defence Ministry was ordered to stage a call-up of reserves, meaning theoretically all men up to 40 in a country with universal male conscription, though Ukraine would struggle to find extra guns or uniforms for significant numbers of them.

Kerry condemned Russia for what he called an “incredible act of aggression” and brandished the threat of economic sanctions.

“You just don't, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext,” Kerry told the CBS program “Face the Nation”.

He said Moscow still had a “right set of choices” to defuse the crisis. Otherwise, G8 countries and other nations were prepared to “to go to the hilt to isolate Russia”.

“They are prepared to isolate Russia economically. The rouble is already going down. Russia has major economic challenges,” he said. He mentioned visa bans, asset freezes and trade isolation as possible steps.

Obama discussed the Ukraine crisis in calls with allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron said they agreed Russia would pay “significant costs” unless it changed course.

Analysts said U.S. economic sanctions would likely have little impact on Russia unless they were paired with strong measures by major European nations, which have deeper trade ties with Moscow and are dependent on Russian gas.

Ukraine's envoy to the United Nations said Kiev would ask for international military support if Russia expanded its military action in his country.

At Kiev's Independence Square, where anti-Yanukovich protesters had camped out for months, thousands demonstrated against Russian military action. Speakers delivered rousing orations and placards read: “Putin, hands off Ukraine!”

“If there is a need to protect the nation, we will go and defend the nation,” said Oleh, an advertising executive cooking over an open fire at the square where he has been camped for three months. “If Putin wants to take Ukraine for himself, he will fail. We want to live freely and we will live freely.”

The new government announced it had fired the head of the navy and launched a treason case against him for surrendering Ukraine's naval headquarters to Russian forces in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Moscow has a major naval base.

REACTION FROM THE WEST

Obama spoke to Putin for 90 minutes by telephone on Saturday after the Russian leader declared he had the right to intervene and quickly secured unanimous approval from his parliament.

The Kremlin said Putin told Obama that Russian speakers were under threat from Ukraine's new leaders, who took over after Yanukovich fled huge protests against his repression and rejection of a trade deal with the European Union.

Putin reiterated that stance in a telephone call with Merkel on Sunday, the Kremlin said, adding he and Merkel agreed that Russia and Germany would continue consultations to seek the “normalization” of the situation.

But in a sign of concern among Russian liberals, members of Putin's own human rights council urged him on Sunday not to invade Ukraine, saying threats faced by Russians there were not severe enough to justify sending in troops.

Ukraine, which says it has no intention of threatening Russian speakers, has appealed for help to NATO, and directly to Britain and the United States, as co-signatories with Russia to a 1994 accord guaranteeing Ukraine's security.

After an emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels, the alliance called on Russia to bring its forces back to bases and refrain from interfering in Ukraine.

Despite expressing “grave concern”, NATO did not agree on any significant measures to apply pressure to Russia, with the West struggling to come up with a forthright response that does not risk pushing the region closer to military conflict.

“We urge both parties to immediately seek a peaceful solution through bilateral dialogue, with international facilitation … and through the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” NATO said in a statement.

Washington on Saturday proposed sending monitors to Ukraine under the U.N. or OSCE flags.

So far, the Western response has been largely symbolic. Obama and others suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi, where Russia has just finished staging its $50 billion winter Olympic games. Some countries recalled ambassadors. Britain said its ministers would stay away from the Paralympics due next in Sochi.

“Right now, I think we are focused on political, diplomatic and economic options,” a senior U.S. official told reporters.

“Frankly our goal is to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, not to have a military escalation,” he added.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged world leaders on Sunday to work to calm the crisis and defended Russia's membership of the G8, saying it enabled the West to talk directly with Moscow.

RUSSIANS IN CRIMEA

Ukraine's military is ill-matched against its neighbor. Britain's International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates Kiev has fewer than 130,000 troops under arms, with planes barely ready to fly and few spare parts for a single submarine.

Russia, by contrast, has spent billions under Putin to upgrade and modernize the capabilities of forces that were dilapidated after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moscow's special units are now seen as equals of the best in the world.

In Crimea, Ukraine's tiny contingent made no attempt to oppose the Russians, who bore no insignia on their uniforms but drove vehicles with Russian plates and seized government buildings, airports and other locations in the past three days.

Kiev said its troops were encircled in at least three places. It pulled its coast guard vessels out of Crimean ports. Ukraine said its naval fleet's 10 ships were still in Sevastopol and remained loyal to Kiev.

Scores of Russian troops with no insignia were camped outside a base of Ukrainian troops at Perevalnoye, on a road from Crimea's capital, Simferopol towards the coast.

A representative of the base commander said troops on both sides had reached agreement so no blood would be shed.

“We are ready to protect the grounds and our military equipment,” Valery Boiko told Reuters television. “We hope for a compromise to be reached, a decision, and as the commander has said, there will be no war.”

Igor Mamchev, a Ukrainian navy colonel at another small base outside Simferopol, told Ukraine's Channel 5 TV that a truckload of Russian troops had arrived at his checkpoint and told his forces to lay down their arms.

“I replied that, as I am a member of the armed forces of Ukraine, under orders of the Ukrainian navy, there could be no discussion of disarmament. In case of any attempt to enter the military base, we will use all means, up to lethal force.”

A unit of Ukrainian marines was also holed up in a base in the Crimean port of Feodosia, where they refused to disarm.

Elsewhere on the occupied peninsula, the Russian troops assumed a lower profile on Sunday after the pro-Moscow Crimean leader said overnight the situation was now “normalized”.

Putin's justification citing the need to protect Russian citizens was the same as he used to launch a 2008 invasion of Georgia, where Russian forces seized two breakaway regions.

In Russia, state-controlled media portray Yanukovich's removal as a coup by dangerous extremists funded by the West and there has been little sign of dissent with that line.

In Donetsk, Yanukovich's home city, the local government building was flying the Russian flag for the second day on Sunday. The local authorities have called for a referendum on the region's status, a move Kiev says is illegal. A pro-Russian “self-defence” unit held a second day of protest, attracting about 1,000 demonstrators carrying Russian flags.

Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Sabina Zawadzki, Pavel Polityuk, Timothy Heritage and Stephen Grey in Kiev, Lina Kushch in Donetsk, Peter Apps and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Will Dunham, Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Peter Graff, Paul Taylor, Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Meredith Mazzilli and Mohammad Zargham

Israel wages ‘war between wars’ as Mideast threats simmer


Watching old Arab enemies reel with sectarian insurgencies and international diplomacy capping the Iranian nuclear drive, Israel's military is confounded by a new challenge: quiet.

The relative tranquility, for Israel at least, poses its own dilemma for commanders tasked with preparing for an array of potentially unpredictable future adversaries while trying to stave off steep cuts to their budget.

With no hostile armies massing nearby, Israel's strategic position is “one of the best it has ever been”, military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz told the IDC Herzliya college, venue for one of several security conferences held this week.

But Islamist guerrillas abound on its borders and the internal strife in neighboring Syriaand Lebanon often spills over, raising tinderbox incidents every few days, Gantz said.

Failure to douse these could bring blinding escalation on several fronts. Israel enjoys economic and democratic vigor rare for the region and in past conflicts public opinion quickly mobilized in favor of big, even outsized retaliation.

As an example of his quandary, Gantz mentioned a Katyusha fired by jihadis in Sinai – a largely lawless patch of Egypt, which is at peace with Israel – at Eilat resort this month.

The rocket fell harmlessly in the Red Sea. “But had it hit the Meridien (hotel), we would be in a different place right now,” Gantz said, apparently alluding to what would be a major bust-up with Cairo as Israel weighed hitting back inside Sinai.

So containment is key. Israel has fenced off its frontiers and is building an integrated missile shield with U.S. help. To deter foes, Israeli leaders frequently talk up their own military's prowess and sometimes resort to bold threats.

Air force commander Major-General Amir Eshel accused Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas of setting up “thousands of bases” in residential buildings and said Israel was poised to destroy them if provoked – despite the likely civilian toll.

“Whoever stays in these bases will simply be hit and will risk their lives. And whoever goes out will live,” he told the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.

WAR CHEST

Hezbollah is the most immediate menace to Israel. It fought an inconclusive war in 2006 and Israeli officials say the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militia's arsenal now includes some 100,000 missiles – up 30,000 from Israel's data last year.

Still, the timing of Eshel's broadside raised eyebrows as the Israelis believe Hezbollah may be too busy helping Damascus battle an almost 3-year-old Syrian rebellion to fight them now.

An Israeli source briefed on military planning suggested that Eshel and other top officers might be trying to justify the armed forces' high price to a thrift-minded government.

The defense budget is around 51.5 billion shekels ($14.74 billion), 6 percent of GDP, and the government wants wide cuts.

“It has been a year since our last round of fighting, so now there are questions about all of those defense projects that are worth billions,” the Israeli source said on condition of anonymity, referring to the November 2012 conflict in Gaza.

Fiscal pressure and Syria's surrender of chemical arms to foreign inspectors led Israel to stop issuing its citizens gas masks as of next month. In another sign Israelis do not fear imminent shelling of their interior, the Defence Ministry wants to shut the Civil Defence Ministry and take over its duties.

The most obviously expensive and so-far unrealized military mission has been the mooted war on Iran's nuclear program.

An interim deal between Iran and world powers put the brakes on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he condemned the accord as an “historic mistake” that eased sanctions while leaving Iran's nuclear infrastructure intact.

Breaking with Netanyahu's hard tone, Eshel – the man who would oversee any air strikes onIran – said the diplomacy appeared to have “a positive direction”. However, he added: “I don't know how it will end.”

In the absence of full-on conflagration, the Israeli military was now busy waging a “campaign between wars”, Eshel said, “to deal with the dangers before they form”.

This appeared to allude to covert strikes against targets as far-flung as Hezbollah-bound arms convoys in Syria or Iranian-supplied weapons depots in Sudan. The Israelis are also widely suspected of sabotaging Iran's nuclear computers – a capability Netanyahu proudly touted at a Tel Aviv cyber forum.

ENEMY'S ENEMY

Israel, believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, finds cold comfort in not being uniformly threatened by regional Shiite and Sunni Muslims as they battle each other.

“The radical axis is at an all-time nadir. SyriaIran and Hezbollah are under a lot of pressure,” military intelligence chief Major-General Aviv Kochavi told the INSS think-tank.

He expressed hope the opposing “pragmatic Sunni axis” – countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia – would help Israel curb al Qaeda, whose spread has been spurred by Syria's civil war.

There has been speculation in the media that Israel and Saudi Arabia might be cooperating behind the scenes on Iran. However, their lack of diplomatic ties and divisions over Palestinian statehood severly limit their room for maneuver.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs in the West Bank under Israeli occupation and hopes to turn that territory and Gaza into a Palestinian state, told the INSS in videotaped comments that he was doing his best to maintain security. Khalil Shikaki, a West Bank-based pollster, said most Palestinians did not want to launch another armed revolt.

Israel was unmoved, however, describing its West Bank military dragnets – with some 8 Palestinians arrested nightly on average – as key to keeping quiet and preventing the rise there of lslamist Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007.

That assertion, by Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, did not augur progress in peacemaking. He said Israel preferred its proven tough methods to “naïve” Western diplomatic initiatives.

“When I'm told it's unsustainable, my answer is that it is sustainable if there is no alternative,” Yaalon said.

EU takes step towards launching drone program


European states took a first step on Tuesday towards developing a drone that could challenge U.S. dominance of the unmanned aircraft sector.

Defence ministers meeting in Brussels instructed the European Defence Agency (EDA), the European Union's defence arm, to start studying the military requirements and costs of a future EU surveillance drone that could be produced after 2020.

The United States has used drones to kill suspected militants in countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, causing intense controversy about sovereignty and civilian casualties. But drones also have a wide range of civilian uses, including border control, fire fighting and disaster monitoring.

A factsheet from EDA, which groups all 28 EU states apart from Denmark, said “beyond 2020” seemed a reasonable timeframe to produce a European medium altitude, long endurance drone.

[Related: The Torah of drones]

“This is the starting pistol for us to be able to start work on a European RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) project,” EDA Capabilities Director Peter Round told a news conference.

Eight European countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, signed an agreement to invest jointly in research into various drone components, including collision avoidance technology and automatic take-off and landing.

The United States and Israel are leaders in the drone market and some European government fear being left behind. Military operations in Libya and Mali have highlighted a shortage of European reconnaissance capacity.

Britain operates Reaper drones, built by privately owned U.S. firm General Atomics, and France has also ordered Reapers.

Three European aerospace companies – France's Dassault Aviation, EADS Cassidian and Italy's Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi – called on Europe in June to launch a drone program.

The EU's executive Commission said in July it would help fund prototypes of some technologies, such as drones.

EU leaders are trying to promote European cooperation in four key defence-related areas in the run-up to the bloc's December summit which will have a defence focus.

Apart from drones, the other areas are increasing air-to-air refuelling capacity, government satellite communications and working together more closely on cyber defence.

Summit preparations hit a setback when defence ministers failed to agree on a set of conclusions from their meeting.

A proposal to offer tax incentives to promote cooperative defence projects was opposed by finance ministers keen to protect tax revenues, an EU source said.

A reference to a more balanced development of the defence industry across EU member states was resisted by some governments with large defence industries who feared they might have to give more work to smaller countries, the source said.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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

The Torah of drones: Examining the complex morality of drone warfare


In 2009, an Israeli drone flying over the Gaza Strip transmitted back to its command station an image of a telltale rocket trail streaking toward Israeli territory. Many kilometers away, a young Israeli operator, Capt. Y, quickly maneuvered the unmanned aircraft to get a look at the young Palestinian who had just launched the deadly missile. Y’s drone squadron already had authorization to take him out. In an instant, a rocket struck the hidden launch site, followed by a flash of fire.

When the smoke cleared, Y saw images of the shooter lying flat on the ground. Twenty seconds passed. And then Y saw something even more remarkable — the dead man began to move.

Severely wounded, the Palestinian began to claw his way toward the road. Y could clearly see the man’s face, and in his youth and determination Y must have recognized something of himself. So, now Y and his team had a decision to make: Would they let the wounded terrorist escape, or circle the drone back and finish him off?

Y told me this story in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. He is 23, wiry and intense. When I arrived for our interview, arranged through the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Y was sitting in a small atrium, getting in a last smoke.

For security reasons, I cannot use his real name, so I agreed to refer to the captain as Y, and to his fellow drone operator, a lieutenant, as M.

M is calmer. She is 25, has large blue eyes and wears her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail — Scarlett Johansson’s tougher twin sister.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as drones are otherwise known, have been in use militarily since World War I. In 1917, the Americans designed the Kettering “Bug” with a preset gyroscope to guide it into enemy trenches. In World War II, the Nazis deployed “the Fritz,” a 2,300-pound bomb with four small wings and a tail motor. But it is only in the past few years that UAVs have made almost-daily headlines. These days, the United States, in particular, has widely employed UAVs in the far reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan in its fight against terrorists. As recently as Nov. 1, a U.S. drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, demonstrating once again the deadly effectiveness of, and the growing reliance upon, these weapons of war.

But like all revolutionary new weapons, this success comes at a price, and it’s a price we in America prefer not to check. Just a day before I met with the two Israelis in late October, two influential human rights groups released reports asserting that the number of civilian deaths resulting from America’s largely secret “drone wars” was far greater than the government had claimed. Human Rights Watch reported that since 2009, America’s anti-terrorist drone strikes in Yemen had killed at least 57 civilians — more than two-thirds of all casualties resulting from the strikes — including a pregnant woman and three children. In Pakistan, Amnesty International found that more than 30 civilians had died from U.S. drone strikes between May 2012 and July 2013 in the territory of North Waziristan.

To Americans, news of anonymous civilians dying in faraway places may not resonate deeply, even if we are the ones who killed them. But these two humanitarian groups’ reports point to the rapid increase in the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles as weapons of war, and they underline the lack of clear international ethical codes to guide that use.

Who gets to use drones? How do commanders decide whom to target, whom to spy on? If a drone operator sitting in a command room in Tampa, Fla., can kill a combatant in Swat, in northern Pakistan, does that make downtown Tampa a legitimate military target, as well?

I wanted to learn more about the morality of this advancing technology, so I talked to people who have studied drones, who have thought about their ethical implications, and who, like Y and M, actually use them. I hoped that through them I might come to understand how we, as a society, should think about the right way to use these remarkable, fearsome tools. 

I wanted to know if there exists, in essence, a Torah of drones.

From 12,000 feet up, the Heron drone Capt. Y was piloting that day during Operation Pillar of Defense offered a perfect view of the wounded Palestinian.

“You see everything,” Y told me. “You could see him lying on the ground, moving and crawling. Even if you know he’s the enemy, it’s very hard to see that. You see a human being who is helpless. You have to bear in mind, ‘He’s trying to kill me.’ But, in my mind, I hoped somebody would go help him.”

Y’s father is French, and his mother is Israeli. He lives in Beersheba, where his wife is a medical student. Y’s brother was killed in the Second Lebanon War by a Hezbollah rocket while he was piloting a Yasur combat helicopter. Y was 18 at the time.

“I believe some of the way to mourn is to go through the same experience of the man you loved,” Y said.

Lt. M’s parents both are French immigrants to Israel, staunch Zionists, and, she said, she always knew one day she’d be an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer.

In Israel, those who cannot complete pilot-training very often enter the drone corps. It may not hold the cachet of becoming an Air Force pilot, but both of these soldiers believe drones are the future.

“I like the idea that every flight you do, you’re helping your fellow citizens,” M said.

“We feel we contribute more than other people,” Y said. “But today, in the modern day, you don’t have to take risks. If you risk your life, it doesn’t mean you contribute more.”

In the United States and Israel, where the reluctance to put boots on the ground is at a high point, the fact that drones offer significant military capabilities with far less risk accounts precisely for the tremendous increase in their use.

Israel, in fact, has led the way. Its effective use of drones during the 1982 Lebanon War rekindled American interest in UAVs. During America’s first Gulf War, in 1991, the U.S. Navy bought a secondhand Pioneer drone from Israel and used it to better aim heavy artillery. At one point during that war, a squad of Iraqi soldiers saw a drone overhead and, expecting to be bombarded, waved a white sheet. It was the first time in history soldiers had surrendered to a drone.

Today, the United States increasingly uses drones for both civilian intelligence — as in Yemen and Pakistan — and militarily. Currently, some 8,000 UAVs are in use by the U.S. military. In the next decade, U.S. defense spending on drones is expected to reach $40 billion, increasing inventory by 35 percent. Since 2002, 400 drone strikes have been conducted by U.S. civilian intelligence agencies. 

At least 87 other countries also have drones. Earlier this year, Israel announced it was decommissioning two of its combat helicopter squadrons — to replace them with drones.

“We’re at the very start of this technological revolution,” Peter Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” told me by phone. “We’re in the World War I period of robotics. The cat’s out of the bag. You’re not going to roll it back. But you do want to set norms.”

Singer’s book, first published in 2009 when the public debate over drone ethics was nonexistent, is still the best road map to a future we all have reason to fear, but must face, in any case.

I called Singer to see where he stands on the ethical issues raised by civilian drone deaths.

Actually, he pointed out, his book dealt largely with military use of these technologies. Even he wouldn’t have predicted such widespread use of drones by surveillance agencies that are unversed in the rules of war and that operate without the safeguards built into military actions.

That, for Singer and others who parse the ethics of drones, is the rub. In the military, there are rules of engagement. There is the risk of court-martial. Strategic training is better in the military than in intelligence agencies.

“One group goes to war college,” Singer said, “the other doesn’t. And it’s very different when you’re a political appointee, rather than a military officer. Some tactics would not be allowed in a military operation.”

I asked Singer for an example. He chose one from the CIA operations just now under scrutiny by human rights groups.

“Double-tapping,” he said. “That would never make its way past a military officer.”

Double-tapping is when an aircraft, manned or not, circles back over a targeted site and strikes a second time — either to finish off the wounded or to take out forces that have rushed in to help. Exactly the ethical question Capt. Y. faced.

When Y saw that he hadn’t killed the Palestinian the first time, he and his team faced one of the most difficult, urgent questions of drone combat: Should they double-tap?

Ethical issues in drone combat come up all the time, M said — in training, in operations and, afterward, in frequent debriefing and analysis.

“I have so many examples of that, I can’t count,” Y told me.

A landmark Israeli Supreme Court decision on targeted killing provides the ethical framework for IDF drone operators.

In 2009, the court found there is nothing inherently wrong with a targeted killing — whether by an F-16, Apache helicopter or unmanned drone.

But, the court added, in order for the action to be acceptable, the soldiers must satisfy three questions:

The first is, what is a legitimate target? The target, the court said, must be an operational combatant seeking to do you harm — not a retired terrorist or someone you want to punish for past sins.

Second, has the target met the threshold level of intelligence? The drone team must have a deep knowledge that its target meets the first condition, verified by more than one source.

Finally, who is the supervising body? There must be independent oversight outside the hands of the drone operators and the IDF.

To professor Moshe Halbertal, these three conditions form the basis for the moral exercise of deadly drone force.

Halbertal is a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, the Gruss Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law and one of the drafters of the IDF’s code of ethics.

Shortly before Halbertal came to Los Angeles to serve as scholar-in-residence Nov. 1-3 at Sinai Temple, I spoke with him about Israel’s experience with drones. From what he could tell, he said, Israel has a more developed ethical framework.

In the American attacks, Halbertal said, “The level of collateral damage is alarming.”

In Israel, he said, “There is a genuine attempt to reduce collateral killing. If this were the level of collateral damage the IDF produces, it would be very bad.”

The fact that drones are less risky is not what makes their use more prone to excesses, Halbertal said.

“Because military operations involve more risk, there is more care in applying them,” Halbertal said. “But, on the other hand, soldiers make mistakes out of fear in the heat of combat that drone operators don’t.”

The danger with drones, he said, is that because the political risks of deploying them, versus deploying live troops, are much less, they can be used more wantonly.

I asked Capt. Y if he’d had experience with collateral damage.

“It’s happened to me,” he said. “We had a target and asked [intelligence officers] if there were civilians in the area. We received a negative. Later, we heard in the Palestinian press that there were casualties. We checked, and it was true — a father and his 17-year-old son. What can we do? I didn’t have a particular emotion about it.”

The people who know the people getting killed do have emotions about it. And that grief and anger can work to undo whatever benefits drone kills confer.

“I say every drone attack kills one terrorist and creates two,” Adnan Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, told me. In the Swat Valley, where he lives, the fear of American drones and the innocent lives they’ve taken has been one of the extremists’ best recruiting tools, Rashid said.

If that’s the case, better oversight and clearer rules for drones may be not just the right thing to do but in our self-interest as well.

No war is ever clean. But that doesn’t mean drone use should increase without the implementation of the kind of national, and international, norms Singer now finds lacking.

If the United States doesn’t adopt the kinds of oversight Israel already has in place, at the very least, Singer believes, we should move the drone program from the intelligence agencies to the military. 

It’s a call that has increasingly vocal support from America to Pakistan. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, argued Congress could exercise better oversight of a drone program operated by the military.

 “Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an Air Force of drones that goes around killing people?” McCain said recently on Fox News. “I believe that it’s a job for the Department of Defense.”

Pakistani protesters from United Citizen Action shout anti-U.S. slogans during a protest against the Nov. 1 killing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike. Photo by S.S. Mirza/AFP Photo/Newscom

 “The killing is creating more anger and resulting in the recruitment of more people to pursue revenge,” former Pakistani Minister of State Shahzad Waseem told me. “The minimum you can do is to come up openly with some kind of treaty or set of rules to give it a legal shape, mutually accepted by all sides.” 

Will Americans rise up to make a stink over this? That may be a tall order for a populace that seems to take each revelation of intelligence community overreach — from drone deaths to National Security Agency spying — with a collective yawn. Will the international community begin to create a framework that at least sets standards for drone use and misuse? 

Unfortunately, humans, particularly in developing technology, have a way of advancing faster on the battlefront than on the legal or moral fronts. It took the Holocaust, Singer pointed out, for humanity to come up with the Geneva Conventions of 1949. What fresh hell must befall us before we at least attempt to codify behavior for the Age of Drones?

And even if we set standards and nations abide by them, it seems inevitable that the very nature of drones one day will allow non-state actors — the likes of al-Qaeda — to follow the lead of Hezbollah in using them, as well.

If, in the 1940s and ’50s, the best and the brightest scientific minds went into nuclear physics — and gave us the atomic bomb — these days, those talents are all going toward artificial intelligence. At the high end, a future filled with autonomous, intelligent killing drones awaits us.

At the low end, consider this: Singer also serves as a consultant for the video game “Call of Duty,” for which he was asked to envision a homemade drone of the not-too-distant future. He and others came up with a Sharper Image toy helicopter, controlled by an iPad and mounted with an Uzi. A promotional team actually made a fully functional version of this weapon for a YouTube video, and 17 million hits later, the Defense Department telephoned, perturbed.

“Unlike battleships or atomic bombs,” Singer told me, “the barriers to entry for drones are really low.”

That doesn’t mean we should give up on establishing ethical norms for nations — or people — but we do need to keep our expectations in check.

We may be heading toward a world of what Halbertal describes, in the Israeli context, as “micro wars,” where each human is empowered with military-like capacity and must make his or her own ethical choices on the spot.

Cap. Y made his own moral choice that day during Operation Pillar of Defense. He watched as the wounded Palestinian man managed to get to the road, where a group of civilians came to his aid.

Why didn’t Y “double-tap”?

 “He was no longer a threat,” Y told me, matter-of-factly. “And several people gathered around him who weren’t part of the attack.” That was that: The rules of engagement were clear.

In a micro-war, a soldier in combat — not just generals at a central command — must determine in the heat of battle who is a terrorist and who is a civilian, who shall live and who shall die.

In his book, Singer envisions a future in which artificial intelligence will also enable us to provide ethical decision-making to the machines we create. It would be our job to program Torah into these machines — and then let them do with it as they will.

Much like Someone has done with us.

In public shift, Israel calls for Assad’s fall


Israel wants to see Syrian President Bashar Assad toppled, its ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday, in a shift from its non-committal public stance on its neighbor's civil war.

Even Assad's defeat by al Qaeda-aligned rebels would be preferable to Damascus's current alliance with Israel's arch-foe Iran, Ambassador Michael Oren said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

His comments marked a move in Israel's public position on Syria's two-and-1/2-year-old war.

Though old enemies, a stable stand-off has endured between the two countries during Assad's rule and at times Israel had pursued peace talks with him in hope of divorcing Syria from Tehran and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long avoided openly calling for the Syrian president's fall. Some Israeli officials now worry that radical Sunni Islamist insurgents fighting Assad will eventually turn their guns on the Jewish state.

But with Assad under U.S.-led condemnation for his forces' alleged chemical attack on a rebel district of Damascus on August 21, Oren said Israel's message was that he must go.

“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” Oren said in the interview, excerpted on Tuesday before its full publication on Friday.

Assad's overthrow would also weaken the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, Oren said.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” he said.

Oren said that other anti-Assad rebels were less radical than the Islamists.

Israel believes around one in 10 Syrian rebels are Sunni militants sworn to its destruction. Assad's Alawite sect is closer to the rival Shi'ite Islam of Iran and Hezbollah.

Oren, a Netanyahu confidant, did not say in the interview whether or how Israel was promoting Assad's fall.

Netanyahu casts Iran's disputed nuclear drive as the main menace to Israel and world stability.

Israel, which is widely assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, has played down any direct Syrian threat to it but is concerned that a weak Western policy towards Assad could encourage Iran.

The Israelis have conferred closely with Washington as it first threatened military reprisals over the Damascus gas attack and then struck a deal with Russia for placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control.

Netanyahu has urged Syria be stripped of such arms, while insisting that his government was not getting involved in Assad's feud with the rebels.

Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan

History and the war in Syria


While the bloody civil war in Syria rages on, Israel keeps a watchful eye on the Israeli-Syrian border, making sure the fighting between the rebels and Assad’s forces doesn’t spill over into the Golan Heights.

One of the rebel groups calls itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades. Yarmouk, it should be noted, is a very loaded word in this region’s ethos. It was on the Yarmouk River, a major tributary of the Jordan River, south of the Golan Heights, where, in August 636 C.E., the Arab forces of the Rashidun Caliphate defeated the Christian forces of the Byzantine Empire, opening the way to a series of Muslim victories over Christianity.

It was surprising, therefore, to hear a spokesman of the group — which is suspected of having links to al-Qaeda — talk over the phone to correspondents of the Times of Israel, promising that “[t]he Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has no international aspirations; we are only in conflict with the Assad regime.” The spokesman, Laeth Horan, even went a step further: “There is nothing between us and Israel. We only have demands of Assad, even after the war.”

Only time will tell if this is true, but in the meantime, Yarmouk has more to remind us, this time in the Palestinian context.

In the summer of 1970, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, in one of his most reckless gambles, challenged the Jordanian regime by trying to establish a “mini Palestine” in northern Jordan. In “Black September” of that year, King Hussein’s loyal Bedouins crushed the Palestinian uprising and kicked Arafat and his followers to Lebanon.

Refusing to learn the lesson, Arafat repeated the same mistake in Lebanon, shattering the already fragile equilibrium between the various religious communities of the country. In 1976, his Yarmouk Brigade was fighting Christian forces in the Tal-al-Zaatar Battle. Robert Fisk of the Independent told the L.A. Weekly in 2002 that the Palestinian troops “were given permission to surrender with a cease-fire. But at the last moment, Arafat told his men to open fire on the Christian forces who were coming to accept the surrender. I think Arafat wanted more Palestinian ‘martyrs’ in order to publicize the Palestinian position in the war.”

All this came to an end in 1982, when Israel had enough of the Palestinian harassment coming from Lebanon. In the First Lebanon War, the Israel Defense Forces defeated the Syrian and Palestinian forces (including the same Yarmouk Brigade) and kicked the PLO leadership out of the country.

Our next stop in the Yarmouk tour is Baghdad. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991, Arafat rushed to congratulate him in his palace in Al-Yarmouk neighborhood. This turned out to be the most expensive kiss in history, because when Kuwait was freed, it retaliated by expelling 400,000 Palestinians who had worked and lived there (need we mention that some lived in Al-Yarmouk neighborhood in Kuwait City?).

We can go on forever with this historical “Yarmouking,” except that in the meantime there is a human tragedy going on near Damascus and, more precisely, at the Yarmouk camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which since 1949 has been trying to alleviate the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, 130,000 Palestinian refugees have fled their homes in Yarmouk since December 2012, and the remaining 20,000 are being crushed between the forces fighting each other in Syria.

I don’t envy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. What hope can he offer his brothers and sisters in Yarmouk, or in the other refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza? That they would some day return to the homes they left in 1948, in Jaffa and Haifa? Like his predecessor, Arafat, he knows perfectly well that this is impossible.

Abbas, however, is more sincere than his predecessor (which is not saying much); while Arafat was always talking about the refugee issue from both sides of his mouth, Abbas, who had fled his hometown of Safed (in northern Israel) in 1948, told Israeli Channel Two Television in November 2012 that he wanted to visit Safed: “It’s my right to see it,” he said. But then he added the highly significant words: “but not to live there.”

Then he went on to outline his vision: “Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever ‭. ‬. . . ‭ ‬This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts [are] Israel.”

This is where we can see a ray of hope. Let Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree on a Palestinian state with the ’67 borders, with a fair land swap to compensate the Palestinians for the Israeli settlements that will remain in Israel’s territory. Then a new, ambitious Marshall Plan to settle the Palestinian refugees can be launched. When Syria calms down, the refugees in Yarmouk, supported by generous funds, can decide whether they want to stay in Syria, move to the Palestinian state or regroup in another country. This is not a humanitarian move only; it is in the best interests of Israel: When the kids in Yarmouk refugee camp have a future, my grandchildren will be safer.

Yarmouk can then stand for other things, not for bloodshed and misery only — for example, a soccer game between Maccabi Haifa and the Kuwaiti Al-Yarmouk club; a discussion of the Arab League Peace initiative in Al-Yarmouk district in Riyadh; a cooperation agreement between the Technion and Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan; and more. Insh’Allah!


Uri Dromi blogs at

EU adds Hezbollah’s military wing to terrorism list


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUESTIONING EFFECTIVENESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRICKY RELATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hezbollah takes Syrian center-stage, yet remains in shadows


The voice crackling over the Hezbollah radios was clear and authoritative, and the guerrillas poised to attack the Syrian border town of Qusair recognized it immediately.

“As I promised you victory before, I pledge you victory now,” Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said, launching a battle in which his fighters decisively defeated rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.

Nasrallah told his troops that God was fighting alongside them, one of the fighters told Reuters. “When we heard his voice, we were ready to fight the whole world,” he said.

It was a trademark coup de theatre from the reclusive Nasrallah, who has bred an aura of mystique around a force which grew from a shadowy Iranian-backed Lebanese militia into an outfit powerful enough to confront regional superpower Israel.

Hezbollah's victory across the Syrian frontier in Qusair highlighted its pivotal role in Assad's fightback against rebels and yet, as in most of its military operations, it has given few details of its role – or where its next battle may be.

“Wherever we need to be, we will be…. There is no need to elaborate,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech on Friday, delivered as ever from a secret location because of fears for his security since Hezbollah fought a war with Israel in 2006.

The need for ambiguity is greater than usual, with Shi'ite Hezbollah's open intervention in a foreign conflict against Sunni Muslim rebels fuelling sectarian tensions and shattering its status across the Arab world as an anti-Israeli champion.

But the movement has always tried to keep its enemies guessing about its strengths.

Estimates of the number of fighters it committed in Qusair vary from the hundreds to several thousand, although most observers put the figure at between 1,500 and 2,500.

Hundreds of other Hezbollah fighters are also deployed in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They are stationed around the Shi'ite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab near Damascus with dozens more in two Shi'ite towns in the northern province of Aleppo – mainly training and advising – and in the Zahra quarter of the city of Homs, it says.

The British-based anti-Assad monitoring group says 156 Hezbollah fighters have been killed so far in Syria, most of them in the battle for Qusair.

A security source in Israel said he believed Hezbollah had 4,000-5,000 fighters in Syria and had lost between 180 and 200.

STRONGER THAN BEFORE

Hezbollah's overall strength is also unclear, although analysts and defense experts agree it has grown substantially since it fought the inconclusive 34-day war with Israel seven years ago, firing rockets deep into the Jewish state.

Those kind of cross-border salvoes mean that much of the focus on Hezbollah's military power in the past has been on its missiles, which Nasrallah said last year could hit targets anywhere in Israel.

Its fighters are as well-armed as some regional armies, using anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Hezbollah flew a drone over Israel last year and in the 2006 war was able to hit an Israeli warship off the Mediterranean coast.

But with no shortage of weapons in Syria, Hezbollah's main contribution to Assad's war effort is military expertise.

The movement's military structure is based on an elite force backed by a full time militia and a large corps of part-time reserves who undergo rudimentary weapons training – often in Iran – but have jobs outside the group.

One analyst, who asked not to be named, said that altogether the total force including the part-time men, known as Saraya, reached 50,000, of which 10,000 to 15,000 were elite forces.

A source in Lebanon who has contact with Hezbollah gave a lower figure, saying that top frontline forces and rocket and artillery units combined added up to just 4,000. The force excluding the Saraya was about 10,000 fighters, with a similar number of support personnel.

Since the start of the Syrian crisis, Hezbollah has stepped up recruitment and training for the Saraya, sending thousands of men aged from the 20s to their mid-50s to Iran, say residents in its south Lebanon heartland close to the border with Israel.

“The reality is that Hezbollah is a very dynamic organization,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst at consultancy Eurasia Group. “Over the years in their war with Israel they've been able to mobilize in different ways and adapt their tactics.”

UNTESTED IN BATTLE

Aram Nerguizian of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said Hezbollah's forces in Qusair were more disciplined, used superior tactics and communications, and were better coordinated than the Syrian rebels there.

Nevertheless, he said the loss of between 70 and 110 fighters in the first week of the offensive, according to anti-Hezbollah sources, pointed to the fact that many were untested in battle despite their good training.

Those casualties, if confirmed, would be roughly similar to Hezbollah's weekly losses under a blistering onslaught of the Israeli army in the July-August 2006 war.

“The high initial death toll (in Qusair) may also point to the Syrian rebels' use of some of Hezbollah's own sniping and booby-trapping techniques,” Nerguizian said. The Shi'ite group shared these techniques with Hamas, a Sunni Palestinian organization which now opposes Assad and which may have passed on the know-how to the rebels.

Fighting away from their “home” turf in south Lebanon is an additional problem for Hezbollah fighters; long accustomed to battling for territory they know intimately.

But the guerrillas have a reputation for learning fast. “This lack of familiarity should not be exaggerated,” said an Israeli official, arguing that Qusair was close enough to the Lebanese border for Hezbollah to have had access to the area.

“Elsewhere in Syria, Hezbollah is operating largely alongside local Shi'ite communities, so it has guides with an excellent local knowledge,” he said, adding that he believed several thousand from a total Hezbollah fighting force of 10,000 were operating inside Syria.

“They are from the best units, with the best equipment – the kind of fighters who Hezbollah would usually consider its vanguard against Israel,” he said. Sources in Lebanon dispute that, saying only a small minority of the Qusair combatants were from the cream of Hezbollah's military units.

The Israeli official said Hezbollah used “standard small arms”, anti-tank rockets and even operated Syrian army tanks in the battle for Qusair.

Their presence across Syria, from Damascus to Aleppo in the north, underlines Hezbollah's strategic commitment to Assad, and Kamel said the militant group was likely to play some role in the eventual Syrian army effort to recapture the northern city.

But for now, Nasrallah is unlikely to show his hand. “Every day we increase our numbers and our weapons,” he said at the start of the Syrian conflict. “We are tens of thousands of fighters, trained and ready for martyrdom.”

“The enemy does not know us, and we will surprise him.” 

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and David Cutler in London; editing by David Stamp

Syrian military threatens Israel following border victory


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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. can intercept North Korean missile but may opt not to, admiral says


The United States is capable of intercepting a North Korean missile, should it launch one in the coming days, but may choose not to if the projected trajectory shows it is not a threat, a top U.S. military commander told Congress on Tuesday.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region, said the U.S. military believed North Korea had moved to its east coast an unspecified number of Musudan missiles, with a range of roughly 3,000-3,500 miles.

An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters “our working assumption is that there are two missiles that they may be prepared to launch” — which was in line with South Korean media reports.

Locklear said the Musudan's range was far enough to put Guam, a U.S. territory, at risk but not Hawaii or the U.S. mainland.

“If the missile was in defense of the homeland, I would certainly recommend that action (of intercepting it). And if it was defense of our allies, I would recommend that action,” Locklear told a Senate hearing.

Asked whether he would recommend shooting down any missile fired from North Korea, regardless of its trajectory, Locklear said: “I would not recommend that.”

The comments by Locklear came amid intense speculation that Pyongyang may be preparing for a missile test -—something the White House says would not be a surprise — or another provocation that could trigger a military response from Seoul.

The Pentagon has in recent weeks announced changes to its posture to respond to the North Korean threat, including the positioning of two, Aegis-class guided-missile destroyers in the western Pacific and deployment of a missile defense system to Guam.

Any U.S. or South Korea response to a North Korean provocation has the potential to further escalate tensions on the peninsula, just as North Korea intensifies threats of imminent conflict. Pyongyang warned to foreigners on Tuesday to evacuate South Korea to avoid being dragged into “thermonuclear war”.

NO 'OFF-RAMP' TO TENSIONS

The North's latest message belied an atmosphere free of anxiety in the South Korean capital, where the city center was bustling with traffic and offices operated normally.

Despite the heated rhetoric, Pyongyang has shown no sign of preparing its 1.2 million-strong army for war, indicating the threat could be aimed partly at bolstering Kim Jong-un, 30, the third in his family to lead the country.

Locklear said the U.S. military believed the younger Kim was more unpredictable than his father or grandfather, who always appeared to factor into their cycle of period provocations “an off-ramp of how to get out of it.”

“And it's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it. And so, this is what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging,” Locklear said.

Lawmakers at the hearing were extremely critical of China, the North's major benefactor, and Locklear acknowledged that the United States wanted Beijing to do more to influence the North to dial-back its aggressive posture.

Asked at one point in the hearing whether China was a friend or foe, Locklear responded: “Neither.”

“I consider them at this point in time, someone we have to develop a strategic partnership with to manage competition between two world powers,” he said.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Jackie Frank

In Iran talks, North Korea parallel goes only so far


If you have nuclear weapons, all sorts of bad behavior will be tolerated.

That’s the lesson some are worried Iran may be learning from North Korea’s increasingly confrontational stance against South Korea and the United States.

Pyongyang has stepped up its belligerent rhetoric in recent days, threatening to strike targets in South Korea and America, shuttering the joint North-South industrial park at Kaesong and warning foreigners to leave South Korea to avoid possible nuclear war. The Obama administration has scrambled to tamp down tensions, in part by delaying some planned military exercises.

Combined with the latest failure to reach any accord in talks between the major powers and Iran on Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, some Iran watchers are worried the Islamic Republic is learning that truculence pays off — at least if you have nuclear capabilities.

“I would imagine the lessons they’re drawing are not the ones the Western powers would like,” Valerie Lincy, who directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, told The New York Times. “That you can weather sanctions and renege on previous agreements, and ultimately if you stand fast, you’ll get what you’re looking for.”

But Iran experts caution that there are some fundamental differences between North Korea and Iran that undercut parallels between them.

For one thing, said Alireza Nader, a senior Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., the impasse in the most recent round of negotiations with Iran held in Kazakhstan was the result of political uncertainty in Iran, not the situation in North Korea.

Iran is scheduled to hold elections on June 14. Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country's supreme leader, is maneuvering to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with someone who is more loyal to the theocracy and less prone to distracting outbursts, Nader said.

Nader also said Tehran is much more likely to be influenced by sanctions than Pyongyang because North Korea is totalitarian and Iran, while authoritarian, still is susceptible to public pressures.

“North Korea has suffered from sanctions, but its regime does not care about its population the way the Islamic Republic has to consider its population,” Nader said.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official who helped shape Iraq policy during the George W. Bush presidency and has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, said the big question is whether Iran is drawing dangerous lessons about America’s will to stop regimes from obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction.

“There's still a big question mark about the U.S. using force” to stop the use of unconventional weapons, said Makovsky, now the director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have to make abundantly clear we're serious about not having a nuclear Iran.”

President Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 last month just prior to his visit to Israel that he believed he had a year’s window to resolve the Iran crisis through pressure and diplomacy. He emphasized during his visit that he would not count out a military strike should that process fail. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated that message this week during a visit to Israel.

“The clock that is ticking on Iran’s program has a stop moment, and it does not tick interminably,” Kerry said Tuesday in Israel. “We have said again and again that negotiations are not for the sake of negotiations, they are to make progress. And negotiations cannot be allowed to become a process of delay, which in and of itself creates greater danger.”

Kerry also raised the North Korea parallel in addressing reports that Iran was reopening mines for yellowcake, which can be used to prepare uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.

“Clearly, any effort — not unlike the DPRK, where Kim Jong-un has decided to reopen his enrichment procedures by rebuilding a facility that had been part of an agreement to destroy — in the same way as that is provocative, to open up yellowcake production and to make any step that increases the rapidity with which you move towards enriched fissile material raises the potential of questions, if not even threat,” he said. “And I think that is not constructive.”

Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network think tank, said Iran is more susceptible to international opinion than North Korea, particularly because Tehran is seeking to enhance its international influence.

“There's a political cost to an Iranian regime becoming perceived the way North Korea is perceived,” she said. “Iran’s regime is acutely aware of it.”

Budget, Iran top priorities for new Israeli government


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government will face the immediate task of passing an austerity budget and the time-sensitive challenge of preventing what it believes is Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Following is a list of the coalition's main priorities as Netanyahu started his third term in office on Monday:

PASSING A BUDGET

After clinching coalition agreements last week, Netanyahu said his government's first task would be “passage of a responsible budget” – shorthand for widely expected spending cuts and tax rises.

The budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – double the original target. It was cabinet infighting over the 2013 budget that led Netanyahu to call an early election.

Netanyahu now has 45 days to put together a budget and win parliamentary approval, or face another general election. Parliament could, however, use special legislation to extend the deadline to 120 days.

IRAN

Netanyahu has said his government's “paramount task” would be “to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons”.

Last year, Netanyahu announced a “red line” for Iran's nuclear program, saying Tehran should not be allowed to obtain 240 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium, a point it could reach, he said, by spring or summer of 2013.

It was another heavy hint from Netanyahu that Israel could attack Iran's nuclear sites. But officials and analysts say Iran has slowed its mid-level uranium enrichment to stay beneath the Netanyahu threshold.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in an interview with Israel's Channel Two television last week, said it would take Iran more than a year to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies seeking atomic arms.

SYRIA

Israel is closely watching Syria's civil war, with occasional spillover mortar fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Netanyahu has voiced concern that Syria's chemical weapons and other advanced arms could fall into the hands of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

In January, according to a Western diplomat and a source among Syrian rebels, Israeli planes bombed a convoy near Syria's border with Lebanon carrying weapons to Hezbollah.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE

Netanyahu has said that Obama's visit this week would put the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue on his new government's agenda earlier than expected.

Beyond an oft-repeated call to the Palestinians to return to peace talks they abandoned in 2010 over Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, Netanyahu has not voiced any new ideas on how to restart the negotiations.

Israel's new housing minister, a settler himself, said on Sunday the cabinet would keep expanding settlements to the same extent as Netanyahu's previous government.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

On the Golan Heights, Israel braces for consequences from Syria civil war


A fence made of chain links and rusted barbed wire once was enough to separate the Golan Heights from Syria. That's no longer the case.

A few feet away from what one area resident called a “cattle fence” — one easy to jump if not for the electric current running through it — a newer barrier of crisscrossing shiny steel bars towers high above the heads of nearby soldiers.

As Syria’s civil war escalates next door, Israelis have grown concerned that spillover could undermine the sense of security that Golan residents have enjoyed since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“The chaos presents a situation in Syria where there’s no rule, and a lot of entities can enter that can put us in danger because they have no national or diplomatic responsibility,” said Ori Kalner, deputy head of the Golan Regional Council.

Heightened security awareness is a new feeling for residents of the Golan, the mountainous region in Israel’s northeast corner captured from Syria in 1967’s Six-Day War. The Bible mentions it as a place of refuge, and for many Israelis it is exactly that. Two hours from the country’s congested center, filled with national parks and bed-and-breakfasts, the Golan has remained immune from the terrorists and missiles that have bombarded Israel in recent decades.

But the sense of sanctuary is eroding. Mortar shells and gunfire from the Syrian civil war began spilling into the Golan in November. Israel returned fire — the first cross-border conflict on the Golan since 1973. One shell landed in a backyard in this agricultural village 500 yards from the border.

In January, Israel announced construction of the new fence to prevent Syrians from infiltrating the border. Last week, seven Syrians crossed into Israel to seek medical attention; they are hospitalized in the northern Israeli city of Safed.

Residents have tried to ignore their neighbors' conflict, but they say it's becoming more difficult. Some worry that if rebels succeed in toppling the regime of President Bashar Assad, Islamist groups will exploit the opportunity to attack Israel, as terrorists did following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

“They’ll turn this into another Gaza,” said Yaron Dekel, a resident of Alonei Habashan. “I don’t think what’s happening here is different from what’s happening in the rest of Israel.”

Like many Golan towns, the 56-family Alonei Habashan is tightly knit. Residents are used to leaving their doors unlocked and the town’s entrance gate open, Dekel said, though they have become more cautious lately as the threat of Syrians crossing the border has risen.

“If you live in Tel Aviv, you lock your door,” Dekel said. “Here no one does, but now they tell us to. People used to leave the door open for a month.”

Communities across the Golan are adopting increased security measures. The Golan Regional Council, which delivers services to area communities, is providing increased security funding to towns, as well as assembling local volunteer security, logistical and medical teams in case of an attack.

Kalner says the Golan is “ready for change in Syria.” He adds, however, that the Golan, as opposed to Syria, is calm, vibrant and secure.

“Were raising people’s awareness,” Kalner said.

The region’s two largest security threats are missiles and refugees crossing the border, he says. On Sunday, Kalner toured the area adjacent to Israel’s Gaza and Egypt borders, both targets of frequent rocket attacks in the past decade, to learn about security protocols there.

While similar attacks in the Golan could temporarily drive away tourists, the council’s tourism chief, Shmuel Hazan, says that Israelis will return out of a sense of solidarity.

“Israelis like to support places that are problematic,” Hazan said. “We know from experience that in Gaza or Jerusalem, when there was a crisis, when things got better they returned to the way they were.”

One silver lining to the Syrian threat, both residents and officials say, is that Israel will likely hold on to the Golan for the coming years. Israel annexed the region in 1981 and its return has been a subject of peace negotiations with Syria in the past. Given the Assad regime's instability, the prospects of a deal that would lead to the Golan returning to Syrian control is more unlikely than ever.

“It’s clear that what’s happening there makes that discussion superfluous,” said Dalia Amos, the council’s spokesperson. “We’re all very optimistic.”

Dekel called Syrian peace negotiations “a thing of the past.” He said that while the Syrian unrest has awakened residents to their own vulnerability, it has also brought the Golan’s strategic advantages into sharp relief.

“This is the Middle East,” he said. “Whoever lives here should live on the heights, and be able to see everything.”