September 24, 2018

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.”

Hezbollah weapons depot reportedly blows up

An explosion in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel is reported to be a Hezbollah weapons depot.

The blast seriously damaged the building that the weapons were housed in and killed nearby farm animals, but there were no reports of people being injured, according to Reuters.

Members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, were investigating the cause of the explosion.

Hezbollah reportedly sealed off the area, preventing the entrance of the UNIFIL observers, and claimed that the explosion was caused by an Israeli shell that was fired on southern Lebanon during the 2006 war and did not explode at the time.

Letters to the Editor: Gaza war, “Lincoln” and Special Needs

Hope for Peace With Hamas
 
When David Suissa wonders “If Hamas had the ability to murder thousands of Jews, wouldn’t they?” he is letting stereotypes get in the way of helpful analysis (“Pogroms Interrupted,” Nov. 23). He is also, in effect, arguing that Hamas is not an organization with which peace and order can be reached.
 
I believe he is wrong on both counts. Hamas gets much more political mileage from holding Israelis hostage than from killing them. The Gilad Shalit kidnapping is an indication of this. It is both a tragedy and a very big opportunity for peace that Israel and the Palestinians keep each other hostage. Their rising and reliable ability to kill each other — although on different scales — is precisely what ought to motivate leaders to negotiate peace, so that the killing does not recur. 
 
Barry H. Steiner
Professor of political science
California State University, Long Beach
 
 
 
David Suissa Responds:
 
That's right, professor. The 12,000 missiles that Hamas has sent into Israel were not intended to kill humans, but to capture hostages. Is that a serious comment? If you want to talk about hostages, just look at the Palestinians in Gaza who are forced to live in misery under the oppressive rule of Hamas despots and Jew-haters.”

Israeli Efforts Reduce Casualties

Israel spends $90,000 per Tamir rocket to shoot down a projectile (sometimes two) fired by Hamas toward Israeli civilian areas (“What Now?” Nov. 23). The projectiles may cost $200 to $5,000 to produce.
 
It would be quite simple to use Iron Dome to send a $200 mortar shell or shells right back to that originating point. However, Israel chooses instead to attempt pinpoint strikes on Hamas with airplanes, drones, etc. at a much higher cost and risk.
 
I know of no other country in history that has gone to this extent to avoid its own civilian casualties, reducing the likelihood of all-out war and its consequences on both sides, and the casualties on the other side’s civilians.
 
David Schechter
Los Angeles

‘Lincoln’ Twists History

Tom Teicholz perpetuates a number of errors and myths in his recent article “Lincoln, in the Abrahamic Tradition” (Nov. 16). He comes up with a fanciful theory that Lincoln had Jewish ancestry — something that has eluded great Lincoln biographers like Carl Sandburg and David Donald. It’s entirely based on unreliable, unprovable anecdotes.
 
Teicholz is mistaken when he states that Lincoln “lobbied the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment.” In truth, as Lerone Bennett Jr., author of “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream” (Johnson Publishing Co.: 2000), states: “There is a pleasant fiction that Lincoln … became a flaming advocate of the amendment and used the power of his office to ensure its passage. There is no evidence, as Donald has noted, to support that fiction.”
 
Bennett was executive editor of Ebony magazine for several decades, and spent more than 20 years researching and writing his book. Bennett argues that it was Lincoln who was literally forced into supporting the amendment by other politicians, not the other way around as portrayed in the Spielberg film.
 
The scriptwriter, Tony Kushner, along with director Steven Spielberg, are spinning the same sort of mythology in their movie — and distorting the historical record in the process — as in the days of the Hollywood studio system, when the moguls Teicholz so admires twisted historical facts into pretzels in period movies.
 
Joseph Dostal
Van Nuys


 
Special-Needs Inclusion Exists
 
I would disagree with Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi’s assertion that little to nothing has been accomplished to include children and adults with disabilities into our Jewish community (“The Sound of the Breaking Dam,” Nov. 23). Since I was a bar mitzvah, I volunteered every Sunday for six years at Valley Beth Shalom’s Shaare Tikvah program, which is designed to give kids with special needs a chance to engage their Jewish identities as they learn about Jewish holidays, study the Hebrew language, sing Jewish songs and develop strong bonds with other kids, thus establishing their permanence and acceptance in the wider Los Angeles Jewish community. 
 
There is certainly a public awareness of this program, as KABC 7’s “Eyewitness News” recognized the amazing accomplishments of Shaare Tikvah and singled me out for my volunteer work. The news crew interviewed me at Camp Ramah in California, where I was working as a counselor, because Camp Ramah contains another amazing program for special-needs kids called Tikvah, in which many of my students were enrolled from the VBS Sunday school. The program gives an opportunity for these kids to engage in all of the typical summer camp activities and actually be a part of the sleep-away environment. Some of the older kids actually have various jobs throughout the camp. I can speak from personal experience that going to Jewish camp was a huge part of solidifying my role in the Jewish community, and that is exactly what these kids are getting as they, too, became a part of Camp Ramah. 
 
The Los Angeles Jewish community, of which I am a proud partner, creates an accessible environment for children with special needs to grow into their Jewish identity and make themselves an integral part of the Jewish community as a whole. 
 
Arye Lavin
USC sophomore, neuroscience major 

A call from Tel Aviv: Freaked, at first

Is this a war?

It’s so hard to know these days. Wars used to happen on things called battlefields, where armies met, fought and met again.

What’s going on in Gaza and Israel is far murkier than that. In Israel, the rockets rain down on apartment buildings, fields, schools. The retaliation into Gaza, for all Israel’s careful targeting, must of necessity strike neighborhoods, homes, children.

This is not a war of tanks in the Sinai or dogfights over Damascus. It is a war of families huddled in stairwells, of bodies spilled out of cars. The wars of Israel get more intimate as the home fronts and battlefronts merge.

My friend Simone left a message on my cell phone when the fighting began. She had moved to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles less than a month ago, when her boyfriend, Wes, got a high-tech research job there. “You’ll love it,” I’d told her. “Most fun city in the world.”

“Rob,” Simone’s voice quavered. “I know it’s 3:30 in the morning, but we just heard explosions over Tel Aviv and I’m freaking out.”

Is it an existential war for Israel?

At first read, no: As of Monday, Israel has suffered just three casualties. Hamas is using weapons that are several rungs below conventional. No enemy armies are poised to invade, no enemy aircraft will — or perhaps even can — take to the skies.

But appearances are deceptive. No country can be expected to tolerate, as Israel has, its people being subject to unremitting terror from the skies. No country would accept that as “the price of doing business.” No economy or tourist industry or education system can function indefinitely under the constant threat of missile attack. As long as Hamas continues to procure, store and use rockets, Israel’s survival is at stake. Gaza 2012 is the latest battle in a war that began in 1948, when Arab nations rejected the Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, escalating in 1967 when Arab armies threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and again when Egypt sought its revenge in 1973. 

“The problem for the 1 million (out of a total of 7 million) Israelis who live in the southern part of the state closest to the Gaza Strip has been the ongoing unleashing of Hamas rockets against these southern communities,” Jerusalem Report writer Robert Slater wrote in an e-mail to friends. “Though casualties have been few, those 1 million Israelis live in constant dread that a rocket will fall on them.”

And it’s not just the south: Slater’s family in Jerusalem had to rush into a bomb shelter when air raid sirens went off there. Several rockets exploded near or above Tel Aviv.

We hear of all this instantly. The air raid sirens go off in Tel Aviv, and seconds later a push notification pops up on my iPhone. We Skype my brother-in-law as he sits with his daughter in a Tel Aviv cafe, waiting for the next round. I listen to live reports on Galei Tahal and Reshet Gimel, via an app called Israel Radio, as if I’m driving on the Ayalon Highway. My e-mail inbox fills up with first-hand accounts and cell phone video clips. My Twitter feed shows photos of friends in shelters, and of Palestinian children in Gaza mangled by Israeli retaliation. In intimate wars, there is no escaping the battle, or the images.

“Why is Hamas doing this?” a friend asked — because everyone sees the inevitable and fearsome retribution Israel is able to inflict.

The simplest answer is, because it’s Hamas. If Hamas cared about Palestinian children, it would cease its fire. If its warriors didn’t want to paint themselves in the blood of innocent women and children, it would stop. If it wanted to build the Gaza economy, with Israel as a partner, it would quit. But it can’t: Hamas is the heir to the same dead-end ideology that has compelled Arab nations to reject and battle Israel from the beginning of the state. This current conflict is one more skirmish in that longer war. Israeli tanks rolled across Gaza in June 1967 to thwart an Egyptian army advance — and the battle goes on.

Israel captured and then occupied Gaza for decades, then withdrew unilaterally to allow Palestinians to shape their own future. But Hamas decided the future lay in … 1967.

Israel, of course, is not what it was then. It has rockets that can intercept and shoot down rockets midair. It has cities and an economy far more resilient than it had decades ago. It has people who know — intimately — what it takes to live next to a neighbor who wants to destroy them.

By the time I checked back in with Simone, she had endured several air raid sirens, several fast walks to the shelter or reinforced hallways, where people brought their laptops and their dachshunds, and stood around and talked.

She told me she was now embarrassed to think how frightened she was in her first message to me.

“You kind of get used to it,” she said.

Economic costs of Gaza fighting

Last Friday, Moshe Ahituv (not his real name) received another call-up from the Israeli army. A captain in the home front command, he had already completed 43 days of army reserve service this year.

Moshe, 40, is an English teacher and the father of two toddlers. His wife is a physical therapist and they are about to purchase their first apartment in Jerusalem. He says the emotional cost of the fighting in the Gaza Strip has already taken a toll.

“The kids aren’t sleeping well, and my three-year-old daughter is behaving badly at nursery school,” he told The Media Line. “It’s also frustrating for me. I spend a lot of time on buses getting from home to my base. I could be home with the kids then or working to bring home money to my family.”

There is also an economic toll. While the government will pay for his missed days at work, he will not receive compensation for the private tutoring hours he has been forced to cancel, which amounts to $400 per week.

Israelis and Palestinians are paying a heavy economic price for the cross-border fighting in Gaza. From orange trees in Gaza damaged during an Israeli airstrike to small restaurants in southern Israel who have no customers, to tourists cancelling trips to Israel and Bethlehem, to destroyed buildings in Gaza, the economic costs on both sides is astronomical.

The business information company IDI estimates the fighting in Gaza will cost the Israeli economy $75 million dollars per day in lost productivity. Many small businesses in southern Israel, in particular, are suffering.

“Usually on the weekends we are full, but this past weekend we had just two tables – both of journalists,” Elad Zaritsky, 35, the owner of Linda, a bistro restaurant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashqelon, told The Media Line. “We’ve already lost thousands of dollars and we simply can’t continue like this. If the fighting continues much longer, we may have to close.”

Zaritsky says small businesses like his operate with only a narrow profit margin. He says the restaurant has been open for five years. Four years ago, during Cast Lead, Israel’s last major ground operation in Gaza, his business also suffered. The government did give him compensation, but he says it did not nearly cover his losses.

Tourism in Israel is also beginning to suffer, although this is the low season for tourism, between the Jewish holidays of the fall; and Chanuka and Christmas in a few weeks.

“Incoming groups for the near future are down 10 percent and individual bookings are down 15 percent,” Ami Etgar, the general director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association told The Media Line. “But groups that are already here have not left.”

Across the border, inside Gaza, life has virtually come to a standstill. While most residents keep a stock of food supplies including flour, oil, sugar and tea in their homes, most shops and businesses remain closed.

“Banks are closed and ATM machines are running out of cash,” Azzam Shawwa, the general manager of the Quds Bank told The Media Line. “But who wants to risk going out when there are airstrikes?”

Shawwa said there is also concern about the electricity supply to Gaza. While Israel has continued to provide power to the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, the electricity must go through transformers to change the voltage. Some of those transformers have been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, and the spare ones are already being used, he said.

“Even before this, some places only had electricity for 12 hours a day,” Omar Shaaban, an economist at Palthink, a Gaza-based think tank told The Media Line. “Now some places only have electricity for six hours a day. Some of us have generators, but there is a shortage of fuel for the generators. I just turned my generator on to answer some emails, but I’m going to have to turn it off soon.”

Shaaban says it’s too early to assess the economic damage caused by the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed at least 95 Palestinians and wounded hundreds. Dozens of buildings in Gaza have been completely destroyed.

“Our economy is losing at least $2 million dollars per day,” Shaaban said. “And that’s in addition to the agricultural sector which has already lost $25 million dollars. The economy has been completely suspended. Agricultural products were supposed to be exported this week from Gaza, but now that didn’t happen.”

Back across the border in Israel, more people seem to be staying home, even in areas that have been relatively free of missile strikes.

“There are many fewer passengers going from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Raof Basila, an Arab citizen of Israel who drives a shared-taxi between the two cities. His colleague, Fadi Abu Katish, agrees. He told The Media Line that while fifty drivers normally transport more than 1,500 passengers each day, the drivers are now alone in their vehicles.

Basila added a pensive note. “People are afraid to go out,” he said. “It is not good for either side. Both sides need peace.”

Truth and consequences: When Hamas targeted The Holy City

Jerusalemites have an age-old custom of ushering in the holy Sabbath earlier — a full 36 minutes before sunset — than anywhere else in the world. So, last Friday evening, I rushed through the Old City’s Arab souk, weaving my way past Christian pilgrims, Korean tourists and Israeli bargain hunters to reach the Kotel, aka the Western Wall. There, under the joyful supervision of Jerusalemite Rabbi Chaim Cheshin, I was about to usher in 25 hours of cellphone- and Facebook-free bliss.

At the Wall, Friday night prayers are all about joy, singing and — yes, even dancing — black- frocked Chasidim commingling with freshly scrubbed North American students. Lekhah Dodi is the poetic tefilah that welcomes in the Sabbath Queen.

“Come in peace … come in joy accompanied by you faithful …” rings out its final line.

In a nanosecond, any thoughts of peace or spirituality were erased. First a siren, followed by escalating bullhorn pleas from police for the hundreds of the faithful to rush for cover at the entrances to the ancient Kotel tunnels.

For this Friday night at least, the profane defeated the holy. Hamas had chosen to expand its deadly rockets to target the city holy to three faiths.

Later, when I reached my daughter’s place in Rehavia, in West Jerusalem, we adults had some explaining to do to my five grandchildren. “Why did Bubbe and Ema rush us to the bottom of the staircase?”

“Why are the sirens so loud?”

“When will the next azaka [alert] come?”

“Why are they trying to hurt us?”

Why, indeed.

Go explain Hamas to a child in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba and, yes, even in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Go ahead, adults — explain to them how in the hell did the world allow these religious thugs to amass thousands of rockets, deploy them from among their own civilians? How is it that NGOs, Christian activists and tenured professors continue to bestow the mantel of victimhood on thugs who hide behind the skirts of women and in bunkers under hospitals? How come so many in the international media depict suicide bombings and thousands of Hamas rocket attacks as legitimate responses to Israeli “occupiers” who occupy not one millimeter of the Gaza Strip?

Most of all, explain to those children the source of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired hatred of Jews and Judaism not seen in the world since Nazi Germany.

But this not 1938 or 1942. Today, the Jews have a democratic state and a military that deploys drones, not to indiscriminately kill the innocent and guilty, but to efficiently target mass murderers and terrorists.

Israelis have had enough. They see what is happening in Syria, and right, left and center, Israelis have come together to tell the world they will not subcontract the safety of their kids or mortgage their future to the whims of a cynical and uncaring international community.

It’s an important message surgically delivered by the Israel Defense Forces.

We can only hope and pray that Israel does what it has to to remove Hamas’ terrorist threat once and for all — whatever it takes.

On Shabbat morning, I was speaking to a friend of mine who is the maître d’ at the King David Hotel. I asked him what his Friday night was like in East Jerusalem. He told me how his granddaughter started shaking with fright when the sirens went off.

There we were, two grandfathers looking at each other for a long moment, silently reflecting on the same question: What will it take for our grandchildren to be able to live in peace?

I have no magic formula, but this past Shabbat in Jerusalem underscored one uncomfortable but unshakable truth: Peace will never be possible in the Holy Land unless and until the evil that is Hamas is uprooted.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  He spent the last ten days in Israel.

Pogroms interrupted: The era of Jews fighting back

As I’ve been watching images of Hamas rockets falling on Israel, I’ve asked myself: If Hamas had the ability to murder thousands of Jews, wouldn’t they? And if Israel didn’t have a strong army, wouldn’t we surely witness another pogrom? 

Since the destruction of the Second Temple some 2,000 years ago, has there been a more physically abused people than the Jews?

How many Crusades and Inquisitions and pogroms have been recorded where Jews were virtually helpless to defend themselves?

Oh sure, we always managed to survive and pull through. We were strong with our values, our Torah, our culture and our wits in adapting to whatever limits were imposed on us.

But physically? We were always at the mercy of our landlords.

My ancestors in Morocco survived only because they knew their place. You never heard of a Moroccan Jew fighting for the same rights as Moroccan Arabs. Jews were the dhimmis, the second class citizens of the state. And still, there were stories of pogroms against Moroccan Jews.

The physical abuse of Jews reached its darkest and most murderous hour with the Holocaust.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say you have to reach your own bottom before you can turn things around. Well, the Holocaust was our absolute bottom.

Perhaps not coincidentally, within a few years we were blessed with our own sovereign state. What would happen now? Would our enemies still come after us?

Indeed they did, but this time, something weird happened.

The Jews fought back.

A ragtag band of Jews fought mano a mano against five invading Arab armies and won.

That miraculous victory saved Israel and signaled a new era in the story of the Jews.

The era of Jews Fighting Back.

We’ve been in that era now for 64 years, and the truth is, we’ve become pretty good at it.

This has shocked our enemies. After 2,000 years of seeing Jews cower so as not to get slaughtered, they've seen these weak Jews transformed into fighting warriors.

This doesn't seem very “Jewish.”

Even among Jews, this success has created a lot of handwringing and intellectual agony: What shall we do with all this power? Are we using it responsibly? Will it corrupt us?

I have to confess, I’ve had very little agony over this. The Jews’ ability to finally fight back has been a source of great satisfaction for me.

Of course, I’d be a lot happier if we were at peace and didn’t have to fight in the first place– if we weren’t surrounded by enemies trying to destroy us.

I wouldn’t have to shed tears when I’m alone in my car, thinking of Israel at war, or talk to my daughter in Herzliya about bomb shelters.

But if Israel is destined to live, at least in the near term, surrounded by enemies, what are we to make of this dark circumstance?

Is it possible that all this fighting might be serving an additional purpose, beyond the essential one of defending the country?

As I’ve been reflecting on all this, the thought occurred to me that maybe Israel is more than a country.

Maybe it’s also a statement.

An official statement that says to the world: The Jews will never go away.

This statement of strength after 2,000 years of weakness is so astonishing that it needed a singular, dramatic instrument to make the point.

And what better instrument than a strong country?

A country so powerful it has managed to thrive on so many levels despite being virtually under siege for 64 years.

So, that is my Jewish take on all this ugly fighting: Our enemies need to see, once and for all, that the Jews will never go away.

Maybe only then will there be peace.

The other night, at a Technion event at the home of Frank Lunz, our Consul General, David Siegel, said: “Our enemies have tried for thousands of years to destroy us, but they’ve always failed.”

The difference now is that we’re surviving on our own terms, not by cowering but by holding our heads high.

I’m sure some people will find this tone of defiance a little unseemly, not very nuanced.

But there’s no nuance in hatred. There’s no nuance in the desire to murder Jews. There never has been.

The statement that the Jews will never go away is a statement that must be made. We can thank Israel for making that statement in the most compelling way possible, even at the risk of upsetting a world not used to seeing Jews fight back.

At the Technion event, they played a video showing some of Israel’s global accomplishments, such as finding renewable energy, curing diseases and helping crippled people walk.

We can thank Israel for that statement, too: A world in which the Jews survive is not just good for the Jews, it’s also good for the world. 

Iranian warships dock in Sudan, report says

Two Iranian warships docked in Sudan on Monday, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported, less than a week after Khartoum accused Israel of attacking an arms factory in the Sudanese capital.

Two people were killed after fire broke out late on Tuesday at the Yarmouk arms factory in the south of Khartoum. Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said four military planes attacked the Yarmouk plant and Israel was behind it.

Asked by Israel's Channel Two News about Sudan's accusations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: “There is nothing I can say about this subject.”

IRNA said the helicopter carrier Khark and the destroyer Shahid Naqdi were carrying: “the message of peace and friendship to neighbouring countries and were ensuring security for shipping lanes against marine terrorism and piracy”.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said that the vessels docked in Port Sudan on the Red Sea and the fleet's commanders were scheduled to meet Sudanese navy commanders.

Sudan, with close ties to Iran and Sunni jihadis, has long been seen by Israel as a conduit for weapons smuggled to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, via the Egyptian Sinai desert.

In May, Sudan's government said one person had been killed after a car exploded in the eastern city of Port Sudan. It said that explosion resembled a blast last year it had blamed on an Israeli missile strike.

Israel declined to comment on the May incident or the 2011 blast, which killed two people. It also neither admitted nor denied involvement in a similar incident in eastern Sudan in 2009.

Iran said in June it had plans to build more warships and increase its presence in international waters, particularly to protect its cargo ships around the world.

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden in January hijacked an Iranian ship carrying 30,000 tonnes of petrochemical products to a North African country.

Preparing for war, Israel’s North looks to lessons from 2006

When missiles rained down on northern Israel from Lebanon six years ago, surgeons at Rambam Hospital in Haifa worked, terrified, on the building’s eighth floor.

That summer, missiles had struck fewer than 20 yards away, endangering the staff and patients of northern Israel’s largest hospital and the central facility for treating soldiers injured in the fighting.

“There wasn’t even a bomb shelter because we thought they’d never bomb a hospital,” said David Ratner, Rambam’s spokesman. “We weren’t ready. The message we got was that we needed to become a hospital that could treat people under attack.”

The experience has pushed Rambam’s wartime operating room a dozen stories down, to the third level of an underground parking garage that will become, should bombs fall again, one of the world’s largest emergency hospitals. At 645,000 square feet, the three stories will house 2,000 medical stations — enough to care not only for those wounded physically or psychologically from the war zone, but also for the most critically ill inpatients and outpatients needing regular treatments like dialysis.

“This changes us from a laid-back hospital to a machine,” Ratner told JTA. “People aren’t going to stop having babies” during a war.

As tensions between Iran and Israel heat up, and amid fears that Syria’s civil war could spill over into Israel (in a first since the war began, Syrian shells landed in Israel’s Golan Heights last month), Israeli cities and institutions like Rambam are planning for a potential repeat of the missile fire seen during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Any war with Iran is expected to prompt retaliatory strikes by Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy militia in Lebanon, and possibly by Hamas, which controls Gaza and has received funding and weaponry from the Islamic Republic.

In 2006, northern Israel was caught largely unprepared for war. For six years before that, following Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, the region enjoyed relative quiet. But more than 4,000 missiles were fired at Israel during the 34-day 2006 war, prompting massive numbers of residents to flee their homes and leaving 163 Israeli soldiers and civilians dead. On the Lebanese side, there were more than 1,000 dead.

In the six years of quiet that have followed the war, area residents say they have remained on guard. Nahariyah, a city of more than 50,000 on Israel’s northern coast situated less than 10 miles from the Lebanese border, suffered hundreds of rockets and two deaths in the 2006 war.

Since then, the city has improved its emergency services by renovating its bomb shelters and implementing its part of a national attack alert system. Nahariyah’s hospital, like Rambam, has an emergency underground wing. But Izik Moreli, manager of Nahariyah’s security division, said the unpredictable nature of a terrorist threat means that the city may never be fully prepared for war.

“I think we’re much more prepared,” Moreli said. “But I hope we don’t encounter things we don’t expect, like we did in 2006.”

Security officials in the North credit Israel’s streamlined Home Front Defense Ministry, part of the Defense Ministry, for spearheading the improvements, including the national alert system, drills to prepare for crises, and improved oversight and evaluation of emergency preparedness.

In mid-September, the Israel Defense Forces conducted a surprise drill in the Golan Heights simulating a response to an attack there.

The Home Front Command, created in 1992 after Scud missiles hit Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, reflects the IDF’s view that “the home front is no less a battlefront than any other location,” Eytan Buchman, an IDF spokesman, told JTA.

The National Emergency Authority, a division of the Home Front ministry, will run a national disaster simulation drill on Oct. 21 that will cover interruptions in communication and mobilization of forces that also would activate during wartime.

American Jewish communities have supported the National Emergency Authority’s efforts through the Jewish Federations of North America. Since 2006, U.S. Jewish federations have raised $350 million for the North, much of which has gone to renovating bomb shelters — for air conditioning, light fixtures, water coolers, toilets and television sets in the underground spaces. The funding also has provided for social, economic and educational programs according to Lee Perlman, JFNA’s managing director of program and planning for Israel and overseas.

The Gulf War also brought widespread distribution of gas masks to Israel amid fears that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein would launch biological or chemical attacks against Israel. This summer, gas mask distribution accelerated again as Syria’s government indicated it would consider using its stockpile of chemical and biological weapons in the event of a foreign attack.

Some Israeli politicians still worry that the country is unprepared for war, and they’ve been critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for seeming to move the country closer to an attack while Israeli cities are left exposed. Bomb shelters in northern Israel can hold only 60 percent of the local population, and almost half of Israelis do not own gas masks.

“Israel has failed to learn from the Second Lebanon War,” said Ze’ev Bielski, chairman of the Knesset’s Subcommittee for the Examination of Home Front Readiness, according to the Times of Israel. “The bomb shelter situation is still dire for millions of Israelis.”

But according to Meir Elran, director of the Homeland Security Program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, the statistics are not cause for grave concern. He said that while the number of bomb shelters is not ideal, the situation is manageable because people will be safe as long as they remain inside a building. Building bomb shelters for every citizen would cost too much money and take too much time, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense that there would be a bomb shelter for everyone,” he said. “It’s a question of cost and benefit. No one on the world has this, and it doesn’t make sense for here.”

Elran added that providing gas masks to the entire population also is cost inefficient, especially given that “the other side understands very well that if it uses chemical weapons, our reaction will be very severe.”

Sometimes, Elran suggested, the best defense is a good offense.

“The shorter the war is and the more severely the other side will be hurt,” he said, “the better it will be for Israel.”

Israel says Syrian mortar strike was attack on NATO

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Thursday a deadly Syrian mortar strike on a Turkish town had to be considered an attack on a member of the NATO alliance.

Israel is technically at war with Damascus and occupies the Golan Heights that it seized in the 1967 war and later annexed, but it has generally taken a cautious line on the uprising in its Arab neighbor.

“One has to say that according to the NATO treaty, it was an attack on a member of NATO, and that means France,” Meridor told reporters during a visit to Paris, referring to France's membership of NATO.

Syria and Israel have not exchanged fire in three decades, and a parliamentary briefing in July by the Israeli armed forces chief about the risk of “uncontrollable deterioration” in Syria were interpreted by local media as a caution against opening a new fighting front with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meridor said he did not want to go into details about the incident but said the deaths in Syria had to end.

“Syria is in a horrible situation, a civil war. Each day men, women and children are being killed and it must be stopped,” Meridor said after meeting France's foreign and defense ministers.

“We are in a process that isn't finished. We don't see the end for now.”

Turkey's government on Thursday said “aggressive action” against its territory by Syria's military had become a serious threat to its national security and parliament approved the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders if needed.

Immediately after the incident, Ankara, which has the second-largest army in NATO, called a meeting of the organization's North Atlantic Council.

Syria has apologized through the United Nations for the mortar strike in Turkey and said such an incident would not be repeated.

Israel has been particularly worried that Hezbollah, the Iranian-inspired Shiite militia in neighboring Lebanon, may gain access to the chemical weapons should Assad's grip slip amid a 18-month-old insurgency.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, has close ties both with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, which was originally set up to oppose Israel.

“The alliance with Iran is extremely worrying (for us). Iran on one side, Hezbollah on the other, with Syria in the middle. For us, it's very important that this unholy alliance is broken,” Meridor said.

“If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a vital strike on Iran,” he said.

Reporting By John Irish

Everything is easier than doing good

Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Clinton urges Egypt, Israel to talk about Sinai

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt’s foreign minister to keep lines of communication open with Israel amid tensions over an Egyptian push against militants in the neighboring Sinai desert, the State Department said on Thursday.

Clinton spoke with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr on Wednesday and stressed the importance of acting transparently as Cairo deploys aircraft and tanks in Sinai, for the first time since a 1973 war with Israel, to pursue Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 border guards in an August 5 attack.

“This call was in keeping with a series of contacts we’ve had in recent days with both Egyptians and Israelis encouraging both sides to keep the lines of communication open,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Israeli officials have expressed concern over the Egyptian deployment, saying the vehicles’ entry into the Sinai was not coordinated and was in violation of a 1979 peace treaty.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has not lodged a formal protest, preferring to try and resolve the issue in quiet contacts including U.S. mediation to avoid worsening ties with Cairo, already strained since Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolt last year.

Nuland said the Sinai security situation should be addressed “in a way that first and foremost strengthens Egypt’s security but also has a positive impact on the security of neighbors and the region as a whole.”

Nuland declined to say whether the United States believed Egypt had been insufficiently transparent or failed to keep Israel informed.

“Our view is that effective mechanisms do exist and that they just need to continue to be used,” she said.

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

But Israeli media have speculated that coordination with Egypt may suffer after a shakeup this month of Egypt’s military, including Islamist President Mohammed Mursi’s dismissals of officials Israel had long been in contact with.

Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Vicki Allen

Peres says Israel can’t go it alone in Iran, trusts Obama

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday came out against any go-it-alone Israeli attack on Iran, saying he trusted U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

His comments appeared to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who have both raised the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike, despite assurances from Washington it will not let Iran get the atomic bomb.

“I am convinced this is an American interest. I am convinced(Obama) recognizes the American interest and he isn’t saying this just to keep us happy. I have no doubt about it, after having had talks with him,” Peres told Channel Two television.

“Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can delay (Iran’s nuclear program). It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”

[Related: Israel minister: Possible war with Iran could be month-long affair]

A flurry of comments by Israeli officials and media reports over the past week have put financial markets on edge by appearing to suggest an attack could be launched before the U.S. presidential election in November.

An unidentified top “decision maker”, widely believed to be Barak, told Haaretz newspaper last Friday that Israel “cannot place the responsibility for its security and future even in the hands of its greatest ally”, a reference to the United States.

Peres said in the interview that he did not believe Israel would launch an attack on Iran before November.

As president, Peres, 89, has little political power in Israel. But he has won the respect of many Israelis while serving in the post and his opposition to any unilateral action poses an additional challenge to Netanyahu.

A political source close to Netanyahu issued an angry response to Peres’ comments shortly after the president’s interview was aired.

“Peres has forgotten what the role of Israel’s president is. He has forgotten that he made three major mistakes in regard to Israel’s security … his greatest mistake was in 1981 when he thought bombing the reactor in Iraq was wrong and, to the fortune of Israel’s citizens, Prime Minister Begin ignored him,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In 1981 Israeli warplanes destroyed the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad.

Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, had cautioned that a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state and ignored then opposition leader Peres’ warnings against the strike.

AMERICAN PRESSURE

At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was important that military action be the “last resort”, adding that there was still time for sanctions and diplomatic pressure to work.

“I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Panetta said.

During a visit to Jerusalem at the start of the month, he made some of his strongest comments yet on curbing Tehran’s nuclear project. “We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period,” he told reporters.

In parliament on Thursday, Barak said Israeli deliberations on a course of action were continuing.

“There is a forum of nine (ministers), there is a (security) cabinet, and a decision, when it is required, will be taken by the Israeli government,” Barak said.

“This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. The issue is complicated, but the issue is being deliberated,” he added.

Israeli officials have told Reuters that the prime minister’s cabinet was split on the issue, while the top military leadership was believed to be opposed to any mission that did not have full U.S. support.

“Over the past several months, a wide-ranging and unbridled public relations campaign has been conducted in Israel. Its only aim has been to prepare the ground for premature operational adventures,” said opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, who pulled his Kadima party out of the ruling coalition in July.

Iran rejects Israeli and Western allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons, and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked – retaliation that could draw the United States into the conflict.

Additional reporting by Maayen Lubell; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams

‘Women and War’

Growing up in Beverly Hills, Marissa Roth remembers her father and mother, both European refugees, as parents who repressed their emotions and personal suffering, and forbade their children to cry.

So there is some irony, or perhaps compensation, in the title of Roth’s one-woman photo exhibition, opening Aug. 16 at the Museum of Tolerance, titled “One Person Crying: Women and War.”

The exhibit consists of 88 gelatin silver prints, culled from some 27,000 photos taken over 28 years in a dozen countries torn by fighting, massacres and natural catastrophes.

Almost all the subjects of Roth’s lens are women, in order “to reflect on war from what I consider an underrepresented perspective,” she said. “The project brought me face-to-face with hundreds of women who endured and survived war and its ancillary experiences of loss, pain and unimaginable hardship.”

There are photos so eloquent that no explanations or commentaries are needed, such as the picture of Sara Duvall, holding a flag and a photo of her Marine Corps son killed in Iraq.

Or the two fully veiled Afghan women, who make Roth wonder what lies under the burqa. Also, the 12-year-old Pakistani girl, her head completely shaved, who, Roth said, “implored me to continue my project and kept me going.”

Los Angeles Times international correspondent Carol J. Williams, who has seen her share of wars, commented, “Marissa Roth’s images of women who’ve survived war are alternately disturbing, inspiring and illuminating of the staggering burdens borne by those fighting with their hearts and minds to protect home and family.

“The battle to restore normalcy drags on for years after the shooting stops, and women’s forced roles as provider and protector forever transform their relationships and family status when the men, whether victorious or vanquished, stagger back home.”

Marissa Roth Photo by Iris Schneider

Over nearly three decades, Roth and her 35mm Nikon FE2 camera have portrayed women’s lives amid war and the aftermath in Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania, Japan, Northern Ireland, Germany, Cambodia, Bosnia and The Philippines.

In parallel, she had covered on-the-spot news stories across the globe for major publications and was part of the Los Angeles Times photo team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

And, particularly in the early 1980s, there was Roth, the commercial photographer, who shot high society fashions and red carpet Oscar receptions, as well as the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

By inclination and family background, Roth seemed fated to become a roving witness to history in the making.

Both parents separately fled the gathering European storm clouds in late 1938, her actress mother from Budapest, and her father from Novi Sad, then part of Yugoslavia and now Serbia.

They met during a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the Queen Mary, but then lost sight of each other after landing in New York. Five months later, they bumped into each other in — where else? — Times Square, and the shipboard meeting eventually culminated in marriage.

Roth’s paternal grandfather had been a textile manufacturer in the old country and her father followed up in the new California home by establishing a clothing line in West Hollywood.

Another member of the family was Roth’s uncle, violinist Feri Roth, founder of the famous Roth Quartet.

Born and raised in Beverly Hills, Roth went through the city’s renowned public school system, augmented by private finishing school classes.

At 10, she was given a Brownie camera and started snapping pictures of family and friends and taking photo classes in school. At 17, she got her first 35mm camera, “instantly taking to it,” she said, and set up her own darkroom.

“Afghan Kite,” Los Angeles, California 2002

However, showing an early rebellious streak, she said she “loathed Beverly Hills as soulless and phony, the whole status thing. I was conscious of the civil rights movement and very aware of Vietnam and the woman’s movement. I yearned to be a hippie. I was wild inside but a good girl outside.”

Another factor was the impact of the highly popular illustrated magazines of the time, such as LIFE, Look and National Geographic. Through them, she said, “I began to understand visual language, and the magazines’ coverage of world events probably turned me into a journalist, rather than an artist.”

After high school, she left “phony” Beverly Hills for the real world and people at the University of Colorado, but after two years found Boulder a bit too “small townish.”

She transferred to UCLA and launched her future career as a staff photographer on the Daily Bruin, covering the campus but also the Hollywood film and rock scenes.

Twice married and divorced, Roth is quite open about her age (55) and personal relationships.

“Photography saved me when I was in my early 20s and I met a lovely guy, who was killed in a plane crash,” she recounted. “That event changed my life and shattered my innocence. It pushed me to live my life flat out, to seize life’s moments.”

Among Roth’s emotional impressions during her career, a few stand out.

“In late 1984, I went with my father to his birthplace of Novi Sad, and we found the house where he grew up,” she recalled.

“Beckie Dixon.” Beckie Dixon’s son Christopher was the youngest Marine killed in Iraq in August 2005. He had just turned 18 a few months earlier. Photographed on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 12, 2005, at the moment that she found his memorial flag, in Columbus, Ohio.

That was also the house where her grandfather and great-grandfather were killed by rampaging Hungarian troops, who staged their own pogroms of Jews and Serbs in January 1942, dragging bodies across the ice and dumping them into the Danube.

A few years later, she traveled to Afghanistan and met some of the 100,000 women widowed during the nine-year war (December 1979 to February 1989) between their country and the Soviet Union.

“Something happened to me there,” Roth said. “I found a completely different world, where women were completely segregated.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Roth photographed the bombing of Kosovo, wedged between Serbia and Albania, and atom bomb survivors in Hiroshima.

After reading the book “A Woman in Berlin,” which described the mass rapes by Soviet troops immediately after the conquest of the city in the spring of 1945, Roth traveled to Germany in 2008 to meet and photograph some of the victims.

“I had seen Warsaw and Auschwitz, and it was hard for me to go to Berlin. I kept seeing the ghosts of the past, but I tried to be as nonjudgmental as possible,” she commented.

The Museum of Tolerance also hosted Roth’s 2005 photographic exhibit of 70 Holocaust survivors serving as volunteer guides and lecturers.

“One Person Crying: Women and War,” curated by Howard Spector, opens Aug. 16 and is scheduled to run through Oct. 18 at the Museum of Tolerance. For more information, call (310) 553-9036 or visit jewishjournal.com.

Jack Jacob: The general who saved India from more war

Lt. Gen. Jack Jacob, a national hero in India for likely saving hundreds of thousands of lives, is planning to fade away.

“I’ve just had my 89th birthday,” he says, “I think I’ve earned the right to rest.”

So Jacob, India’s “top-ranking Jew,” stayed home on his recent birthday, preferring to be alone in his modest New Delhi flat while enjoying his birthday cake, a special delivery from Nachum’s—Calcutta’s famous Jewish Bakery and now among the last of the once many Jewish-owned establishments in the city.

Sitting on his golden brocade sofas—he calls them his “thrones”—Jacob’s answers to a retinue of questions are instantaneous and measured. He occasionally illustrates his point with passages from English poetry from the first half of the last century.

He has loved two women, he says, but they did not wait for him. His brothers are no longer alive; he has no contact with extended family. Calcutta’s Jewish community has mostly migrated to Israel.

“My friends and peers are all gone,” Jacob says.

Jack Farj Rafael Jacob, wildly accomplished and widely respected, is best known for his decisive role in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Indians and historians generally agree that his courage, strategic thinking and chutzpah changed the course of South Asian history.

What had started as a freedom fight by the Eastern wing of Pakistan (now Bangladesh) against mainland Pakistan to the west—the two geographically separated regions straddle India—turned into a full blown humanitarian crisis. Estimates from historians and governments range from 500,000 to 3 million people being massacred in the conflict along with countless thousands of rapes and other atrocities. As a result, some 10 million refugees streamed over the border into India, which then declared war on Pakistan.

Jacob, then chief of staff of the Indian Eastern command, knew that a protracted war, of which he was the Indian commander, would claim countless more lives. As the war began, trudging through swamp terrain, his troops enacted a daring plan to capture Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan.

Two weeks into the war, Pakistan’s commander in East Pakistan, Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, invited Jacob to lunch to discuss a cease-fire. Jacob wrote up an “instrument of surrender” document for his counterpart and flew with it across enemy lines, unarmed and accompanied only by one staff officer.

Niazi was given a stark choice: Surrender unconditionally and publicly, and receive the protection of the Indian Army for all minorities and retreating troops, or face an Indian military onslaught. Jacob gave Niazi 30 minutes to decide.

Jacob, as he retells it, went out to the veranda, pacing for the full half hour. Exhibiting his legendary self-control, the general appeared relatively calm while puffing his pipe and asking the Pakistani sentry about his wife and children. But knowing that he had been bluffing, “I appealed to God for help and said the Shema Yisrael,” he told JTA.

Niazi agreed to the terms. The next day, 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered. Jacob had but 3,000 Indian troops, 30 miles away, behind him.

Multitudes were likely saved by this surrender, still studied by military students. Recognizing his role, last month the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh awarded Jacob a certificate of appreciation for his “unique role” in the formation of the nation.

Jacob was born into the once vibrant Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta in 1923. His was a deeply religious family, and his parents hired Hebrew teachers for him and his brothers. But Jacob says he “just wasn’t interested, something I now deeply regret.”

That was before poetry and war pulled him away. It was before he saved forests and wildlife from destruction and his (secret) efforts to cultivate the now 20-year-old Israel-India relationship. It was before he became a national hero.

When his father fell ill, the children were sent to a boarding school high in the Darjeeling hills. Jacob excelled in his studies and fell in love with the virgin forests, developing his lifelong passion for the outdoors. As a teenager he loved poetry and was especially influenced by the work of wartime poets. World War II had started and the Jacobs adopted a family of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe.

“I was appalled by their stories, by the atrocities,” he says, “I joined the British Army to fight the Nazis.” Jacob’s father initially disapproved, but eventually gave his blessing out of respect for his son’s motives.

When India gained independence in 1948, Jacob continued to serve in the Indian Army, swiftly rising in the ranks.

“The only place I encountered anti-Semitism was from the British in their army,” he says. “Among Indians it does not exist.”

After retirement in July 1978, he was appointed as the governor—usually a ceremonial position—of the small southwestern state of Goa. In another display of Jacobian chutzpah, he imposed the rarely used “Governor’s rule” to combat an acute parliamentary crisis “reminiscent of a game of musical chairs.”

He battled corruption, paid back high-interest loans and saved large tracks of forest from the mining industry by designating those lands as wildlife reserves. Jacob was next appointed governor of Punjab. When he left the post, graffiti went up on the walls: “Without Jacob, who will feed the poor?”

Jacob still will not share details of his role in forging the diplomatic bond with Israel. However, when Israel’s ambassador to India arrived in Delhi this year, he brought a personal letter for Jacob from Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“I need not reiterate the importance that Israel attaches to its relations with India, and want to express our appreciation for your support,” Peres wrote. “We are proud that as an Indian Jew, you have played such an important role in the defense and development of your country, and trust that your friendship will serve to promote deeper and broader ties and cooperation between Israel and India.”

Peres also congratulated Jacob on his new best-selling autobiography, “An Odyssey in War and Peace.”

Jacob has been to Israel several times, even before the forging of diplomatic relations. He was on stage as an honored guest during the 1995 opening ceremony for the Jerusalem 3000 celebrations. Over the years, Jacob had developed close friendships with Israelis such as Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. He had a particular fondness for Motta Gur, the Israeli paratrooper commander whose forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967.

“Your military achievements were of much interest in my country,” Gur once wrote to Jacob in a letter delivered via a mutual friend in the days before Israel-India relations. “Your performance is, without a doubt, one of the best in modern warfare.”

Today, Jacob’s uniform hangs in the Israeli military museum Latrun. He even donated his mother’s silver wedding girdle and jewelry to the Indian Jewish museum in Lod, Israel.

Was he ever tempted to move to the Jewish state and offer his military expertise?

“Israel has outstanding military leaders of their own, they do not need me,” he says. “Besides, India has always been very good to us. I am very proud to be a Jew, but am Indian through and through. I was born in India and served here my whole life; this is where I want die.”

Then, quoting from one of his favorite poems—“Invictus” by W.E. Henley—Jacob rests his chin on chest, closes his eyes and recites these lines in the fading evening light:

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”

Israel: Syria Government Still in Control of Chemical Weapons

The Syrian government is still in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, a senior Israeli defense official said on Tuesday.

Israel’s foreign minister warned separately that the Jewish state would act decisively if Syria handed over any chemical or biological weapons to its Hezbollah enemies.

“The worry, of course, is that the regime will destabilize and the control will also destabilize,” the defense official, Amos Gilad, told Israel Radio.

But he added: “At the moment, the entire non-conventional weapons system is under the full control of the regime.”

Western countries and Israel have voiced fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erodes.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said Israel would consider military action to ensure those weapons did not reach Assad’s Hezbollah guerrilla allies in Lebanon. Israel says Hezbollah has some 70,000 rockets in its arsenal.

But Israel appeared to harden its line on non-conventional weapons reaching Hezbollah when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday that decisive action would have be taken against such a move.

“The moment we see Syrians transfer chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah this is a red line for us. And from our point of view it is a clear casus belli. We will act decisively and without hesitation or restraint,” Lieberman said.

On Monday, Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign nations intervened in the 16-month-old uprising against Assad’s rule.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Angus MacSwan

Teshuva in Liberia: Moving from ruin to reconciliation

Sometimes, when you visit a place that is full of so much pain, the stories — and days — begin to bleed into one another. 

The stories of the people of Liberia, whose ferocious civil war ended only nine years ago, reveal horrifying trends through 14 years of fighting. Scant memories are shared nowadays of life before the war (not easy, but peaceful at least), many more of the terror as waves of rebel forces pushed their way through the country, massacring thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, many never to return. There are stories of families torn apart, stories of unthinkable brutality, the constant and consistent terror of violence unabated, the devastation of social structures (all schools and medical centers in the country shut down, the private sector evaporated completely) and desperate food shortages for far too many years. 

Yes, all war is devastating, but the war in the West African nation of Liberia was characterized by a particular brutality — perhaps because it was orchestrated by a man with a compulsion toward the obscene, specializing in vicious and pervasive rape of women and girls as young as 3 years old, perpetrated often by boys and young men not much older than their victims. When this war made it to the headlines of the Western press, it was generally because of this noxious detail: the small boys who were abducted and initiated into Charles Taylor’s army by being shot up with drugs and forced to commit heinous crimes against members of their own villages — often their own families. This ensured that they’d dedicate themselves wholly to the war effort, having eviscerated all hope of returning home. Later, this tactic was taken up by Taylor’s enemies as well — warlords who attacked the same tired population in their own effort to wrest power from the powerful in Monrovia.

Toward the end of my time in rabbinical school, in the late 1990s, I began to study human rights and conflict resolution in earnest. At the time, Charles Taylor had become president of Liberia and was presiding over the second deadly phase of civil war there, while perpetuating the war in neighboring resource-rich Sierra Leone. Over the course of that decade, two lush and promising African countries were crushed by waves of senseless violence perpetrated against civilians — murder, rape, torture and, especially in Sierra Leone, amputations: arms, legs, breasts, ears. (It was his criminal acts in Sierra Leone that earned Taylor his recent conviction in The Hague, sentencing him to 50 years in prison.) As the fighting raged in both countries, I’d run between Talmud classes to the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University to watch video clips of these boy soldiers — some 10 or 11 years old — riding around the countryside on the backs of beat-up pickup trucks with their rifles, cigarettes and sunglasses. They clearly had no comprehension of the devastation they were causing, no sense that the atrocities they were committing would take generations to heal. I found myself wondering what would happen to the boy soldiers and their families when the war ended. This question haunted me, and I set out to determine whether the vast Jewish literature on teshuvah — reconciliation and forgiveness — might offer any insight that could help bring healing once the fighting ceased.

After a decade and a half of fighting, the war that transformed Liberia’s beautiful countryside into a post-apocalyptic nightmare reached a triumphant denouement. In 2003, as the conflict reached a fevered pitch with Taylor’s enemies closing in on the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women came together proclaiming the simple message: “We want peace. No more war.”  WIPNET (the Women in Peacebuilding Network), a group of extraordinary women led by Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, wore white T-shirts and scarves and sat in the blazing sun and pouring rain, refusing to move until the men made peace. “We were not afraid,” one of the women of WIPNET told me. “Either we will die from war or we will die fighting to make peace.” The women stared down generals, warlords and soldiers. Gbowee stood before President Taylor and proclaimed:

“The women of Liberia are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children.  Because we believe, as custodians of our society, that tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’ ”

And the women prevailed, ultimately bringing down the Taylor regime and disarming the rebels and militias on all sides. In the first free election after the war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gbowee) was chosen to be the president of the new Liberia — a nation devastated by war and desperate for healing. 

I traveled to the region with Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and a small cohort of Jewish thought leaders and philanthropists to see the country in the aftermath of conflict and disarmament. We set out to meet the architects of peace and the leaders of NGOs working toward women’s empowerment, social and economic justice, and sustainable development, and to hear perspectives on the possibility of reconciliation. A few years ago, Liberia began a truth and reconciliation process, but it was aborted midcourse when it became clear that high-ranking government officials would be implicated for wartime actions. As a result, talks of reconciliation have stalled, and while Gbowee and some others continue to plead for a reinvigorated reconciliation process, the people I spoke with talked mainly of moving on. “You must forget about it,” a young woman whose little brother was shot as he stood by her side, told me through tears. “Otherwise you’ll never be able to move on with your life.”

“Forgive and forget. It’s the only way to start living again,” a member of the hotel staff told me.

“We just want peace,” our driver, Mike, said. “Who did what, who didn’t do what — it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re willing to lay down their arms, that’s all that I care about.” 

Forgive and forget? Move on? These words made me tremble every time I heard them. Perhaps it is because of my Jewish bias for justice. The fact is, there can be no justice without, well, justice — which is why I see a reconciliation process as both a spiritual and political necessity. How can a society be rebuilt when the man in the market stall next to you killed your child or raped your sister? And even if it’s possible to forgive and forget, is that really a social value? 

A true reconciliation process in Liberia presents some serious challenges, not the least of which is the absurdity many perceive in investing money and resources into a lengthy reconciliation process at a time when the country is starving for basic services. Liberia’s heath systems were utterly destroyed in war, and there are now only a few dozen doctors serving a population of nearly 4 million people in decrepit and under-resourced hospitals and clinics. Maternal and infant mortality rates are among the world’s highest, and children commonly die for lack of basic medical care. (We saw a young girl walking around with an infected open sore on her leg, something that would have been treated easily in the United States. I shudder to think what will happen as that infection inevitably spreads and she loses her ability to walk.)  Because all of the schools were shuttered for 14 years, there is now an entire population of 8- to 30-year-olds who do not know how to read or write. The private sector remains virtually nonexistent, and foreign economic investment is often spent to the detriment of the Liberian people, as multinational corporations reap extraordinary profit from the land and sea and share little with the population. Only 2 percent of the country is on the electrical grid, and even in our very lovely hotel in the capital, there was no electricity or running water for much of our stay. And, as President Sirleaf shared with our group, rape remains a blight on the nation — she identifies it as one of the three greatest challenges the country faces. Teenage pregnancy is among the highest in the world; women have little access to contraceptives and therefore tend to have six to 10 children, etc., etc., etc.

And yet, I continue to wonder what chance this country — or any, really — has for recovery if it does not deal responsibly with its past. 

It is true that healing takes time, and it may be that in another five to 10 years people will be ready for a reconciliation effort that interests few today. Whether it is implemented now or in a decade, it is clear to me that, for people to recover from the devastation of war, a sincere and robust national reconciliation effort is essential. The rush to move on as soon as arms are put down is understandable, but it fails to adequately address people’s deepest wounds, thereby threatening to undermine an already fragile peace. Placing reconciliation, even forgiveness, in the heart of the political arena and making it a national priority can create space for the possibility of healing and rebuilding.

Every conflict is unique, and as a result, there can be no one formula for an effective reconciliation process. What worked in South Africa would not have been successful in Guatemala, Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland. Specific cultural and religious assumptions must be central to the construction of any postwar effort. Nevertheless, there are several elements of teshuvah, the Jewish process of return and reconciliation, that I believe could offer a framework for healing in Liberia and other post-conflict regions. The first is the presumption that transformation is possible, both for an individual and for a society: Who you were in your darkest moment, high on drugs and war, is not who you must forever be. Second, one can choose to engage the enemy with empathy and compassion without diminishing one’s own pain or letting the perpetrator off the hook. War is the ultimate in dehumanization; reconciliation is about people beginning to see humanity in one another again. Third, there are certain crimes that are beyond the scope of full teshuvah — complete return — including rape and murder, trademarks of this war, like most. Nevertheless, some things can be done to restore social harmony and help rebuild a country’s infrastructure at the same time.


Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR (www.ikar-la.org), an L.A.-based Jewish community working to reanimate Jewish life by fusing spiritual practice and social justice, tradition and soul, piety and chutzpah. This year, she was noted as the No. 5 rabbi in the country by Newsweek/ Daily Beast, and she was listed among the Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews three years in a row.

Arab lawmaker: compulsory national service ‘an act of war’

Forcing Israeli Arabs to do mandatory national service, which is being debated in the Knesset, is “a declaration of war” an Arab Knesset member has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We shall strongly resist. [Arab] youth will not obey mandatory national service,” Balad Knesset member Jamal Zahalka told Netanyahu, according to Ynet. “The attempt to force compulsory service on Arab youth is a declaration of war on the Arab sector.”

Netanyahu announced on Thursday that “Arab citizens, along with the haredim, must carry their equal share of the burden,” Ynet reported.

The prime minister and deputy prime minister Shaul Mofaz are to meet today to complete a plan to gradually integrate Arabs and haredi Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces or to perform some form of national service.

A leading Islamic leader in the country also forcefully rejected the call for compulsory national service for the country’s Arabs.

“The Islamic Movement will not accept the proposal to enlist Arabs into national service because it will pave the way for IDF service which we will not be part of it,” Ynet reported Sheikh Kamal Khatib, deputy head of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, as saying.

Russia says downing of Turkish plane not provocation

Russia said on Tuesday Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane should not be seen as a provocation and warned world powers against using the incident to push for stronger action against Damascus.

It was Moscow’s first reaction to Friday’s downing of a Turkish military aircraft by Syrian air defenses, which gave a new international dimension to the worsening conflict in Syria.

Turkey’s NATO allies condemned Syria’s action as unacceptable but stopped short of threatening any military response. Turkey also plans to approach the U.N. Security Council.

“It is important that what happened is not viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action (by Syria),” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

Moscow repeated its calls for restraint, warning that any political escalation would be “extremely dangerous” and threaten international efforts to salvage a moribund six-point Syrian peace plan drawn up by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“Once again, we call on all sides to act exclusively in the interests of such an agenda (the peace plan) and not to take steps that go beyond its limits,” the ministry said.

“We believe that the best course of action is restraint and constructive interaction between the Turkish and Syrian sides in order to clarify all the circumstances of the incident.”

Syria provides Moscow with its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars, and hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would attend a meeting on Syria that Annan is trying to arrange on Saturday but suggested it would not produce results without the participation of Iran, a close Syrian ally.

“Iran must be present. Otherwise the circle of participants will be incomplete and will not gather everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides,” Lavrov told reporters, on the sidelines of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Jordan.

Annan has also said Iran should attend, but diplomats say the United States, Saudi Arabia and others objected to the idea.

Putin later on Tuesday also voiced support for involving Iranian officials in talks seeking an end to the violence, saying it would be “counterproductive” to neglect Syria’s neighbor in negotiations to resolve the conflict.

“The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the process the better because almost every neighboring country has some influence on some forces inside the country,” Putin said.

“It is better to involve Iran in this conflict resolution, receive its support,” he said.

Russia has used its power of veto in the U.N. Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international sanctions over Damascus’s crackdown on the 16-month-old revolt.

Moscow has backed Annan’s plan, insisting it is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria and arguing firmly against any kind of military intervention.

So far Annan’s attempts to get the Syrian opposition and government to begin talks aimed at ending the conflict have failed, but he is pushing for a meeting of key regional players and permanent U.N. Security Council members in Geneva on Saturday, hoping to kickstart political negotiations.

Reporting by Gleb Bryansky in Amman and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, editing by Andrew Heavens

Assad says Houla killings monstrous, crisis will end

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned on Sunday the “abominable” massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.

Assad repeated earlier pledges to enforce a crackdown on opponents he says are terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with opposition figures who had avoided armed conflict or outside backing.

His remarks were at odds with those of U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous – that army shelling killed many Houla victims and that pro-Assad militiamen probably killed the others, many of them women and children.

Assad made his comments in a speech to parliament, a rare public appearance one day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the specter of all-out civil war was growing in Syria and the world needed to see action, not words, from Syria’s leader.

In his hour-long address, Assad made no specific response to Annan’s plea for bold steps to end the conflict, and regional power Saudi Arabia accused him of using Annan’s peace plan to buy time for his military offensive against the rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had urged Russia to push harder for “political transition” in Syria, language which Washington uses to mean ending Assad’s rule.

Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.

“This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements,” said a relaxed-looking Assad. “If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near.”

Dismissing worldwide criticism, which includes accusations from U.N. investigators that both government and rebel forces have committed gross human rights violations, the 46-year-old former eye surgeon drew parallels with his earlier profession.

When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound “do we say to him: ‘Your hands are covered in blood’?” Assad asked. “Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”

Last month’s massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria’s relentless bloodshed – undimmed by Annan’s April 12 ceasefire deal – could engulf the Middle East.

Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah.

Western states accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25 Houla killings, a charge Damascus has denied.

Assad said the Houla killings and other bloody incidents were “ugly and abominable” massacres. “In truth even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen, especially the Houla massacre,” he said.

SYRIA FACES “REAL WAR”

He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month’s election for parliament, whose new members Assad was addressing.

“We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political program. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism,” Assad said. “The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside.”

Clinton, who held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, said she told Lavrov there was a need to “focus on a path forward for a political transition.”

“Assad’s departure does not have to be a precondition but it should be an outcome,” she told a news conference in Stockholm.

Russia has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions which could have led to U.N. action against Assad, and has backed his assertion that militants are to blame for Syria’s bloodshed.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has called for international efforts to arm Syrian rebels, said Assad was using Annan’s peace plan to buy time to crush rebels.

“We notice that each initiative presented…has been accepted by Syria but has not been implemented,” Prince Saud said. “I do not think that he will deal any differently with Annan’s initiative.”

He also accused Damascus of stoking sectarian tensions which recently spilled over into Lebanon, where Syria maintained a military presence for nearly three decades until it withdrew in 2005 under international pressure.

Fifteen people were killed in clashes on Saturday in the Mediterranean city of Tripoli, the worst violence to shake Lebanon since the start of Syria’s uprising.

“What happened in Tripoli is without doubt a continuation of what is happening in Syria,” Prince Saud said. “We have noticed for some time that the regime in Syria is trying to turn this into a sectarian struggle”.

In Syria itself nine civilians were killed on Sunday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. That followed the killings on Saturday of 33 civilians and 61 soldiers, the Observatory said, one of the highest death tolls for security forces since the unrest broke out.

Half the soldiers and security forces were killed in attacks on military armored vehicles in the northern town of Ariha in Idlib province, and in clashes near the central town of Rastan, the Observatory said.

Assad said authorities would maintain their crackdown on the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents.

“We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return. I urge those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge.”

His speech failed to win over sceptics. Abdelbaset Sida of the opposition Syrian National Council dismissed it as rhetoric.

“Assad wants to remain the head of a repressive system at all costs. He does not want to admit that his time his over and that the Syrian people do not want him,” he told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul.

Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must take “bold and visible” steps immediately to change his military stance and honor his commitment to cease violence.

Annan criticized Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the crackdown. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut, Arshad Mohammed and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Asma Alsharif in Jeddah; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Tim Pearce

Calif.’s oldest female vet, 102, reaches out with compassion

This Memorial Day, World War II Veteran Bea Abrams Cohen will be attending ceremonies at Los Angeles National Cemetery, paying tribute to all the men and women who have died fighting while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. But for this 102-year-old resident of Los Angeles, who is certainly California’s oldest female veteran — and possibly the oldest nationwide — it’s the living veterans, especially those who are suffering or in need, who have garnered most of her attention these past seven decades. “I want them to be treated with dignity and compassion,” Cohen said recently.

She backs up her words with actions. Last winter, walking into the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, Cohen saw veterans going sockless. She promptly requested that all guests at her 102nd birthday party, celebrated by more than 150 people at the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Airport on Feb. 21, bring new white socks to donate to the veterans. She collected more than 700 pairs.

Cohen knows firsthand the toll war can take on a family. She was born Shayna Bayla Hershcovi on Feb. 3, 1910, in Bucharest, Romania, the third child of Joseph and Matilda Hershcovi. She never knew her father; he died a soldier in the Romanian army when she was 3.

Her widowed mother, a seamstress, moved the family to the village of Buhusi. There, she agreed to an arranged marriage with Hyman Abrams, who had moved from Buhusi to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1890, and who had become a widower when his wife died after the birth of their ninth child. “He knew no American woman would agree to take care of nine children,” Cohen said. Abrams sent money, and the family prepared to leave.

But soon after, Bea and her family heard unusual noises and ran outside to see airplanes — a strange and wondrous sight — flying very low across the sky. Cohen waved at one of the pilots. “He had a mustache,” she said. She believes the planes were headed to bomb a nearby factory. It was 1914 and the beginning of World War I. The family’s departure to America was delayed.

Finally, they arrived in Fort Worth, in 1920, with Cohen, her sister and mother dressed in red wool coats with lamb collars and buttons specially tailored by her mother. Cohen adjusted to her new, large family and enrolled in both public and Hebrew school. She was confirmed and also graduated high school.

Bea’s military service photo.

In 1929, following one of Abrams’ older daughters, Cohen, her mother,  Hyman Abrams and one brother relocated to Los Angeles, living off West Adams Street, near a kosher chicken shop and a few blocks from Beth Jacob Congregation. The rest of the children eventually joined them. Cohen attended school to learn shorthand and bookkeeping. After a short stint at the May Co., she worked at Adele’s Sportswear. Hyman Abrams, whom Cohen called Papa, died in 1939.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Cohen was on a movie date at the Pantages Theatre, located downtown, when, after 10 minutes, the screen went dark, the lights went up and a voice announced, “We’re at war. Go home.” Cohen was stunned.

Soon after, she returned to school to learn riveting, and she subsequently was hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in Santa Monica, working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift. “We never knew what kinds of planes we were working on. It was top secret,” she said.

But Cohen wanted to do more to pay back America. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) toward the end of 1942, at age 32, turning down a 5-cents-an-hour raise offered by Douglas Aircraft. After completing basic training in Des Moines, Iowa, Cohen was stationed in Utah and Colorado. 

She then enlisted in the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which, unlike WAAC, was part of the regular Army. She was stationed overseas at Elveden Hall, 90 miles from London, and there, as Pfc. Abrams, she worked with top-secret mimeographed documents. Soon after she arrived, she again heard planes flying overhead. She went outside to see the sky full of American bombers heading to Normandy, France, for D-Day.

Cohen returned home on Sept. 28, 1945. In early November, she met Ray Cohen, who had been a Marine gunnery sergeant and was imprisoned on Corregidor Island in the Philippines for more than three years. They married on Jan. 28, 1946, and had two daughters, Janice and Susan.

Cohen joined a group for former prisoners of war with her husband. Also, in 1955, she joined the Jewish War Veterans and became chairwoman for child welfare, where she worked with the United Cerebral Palsy-Spastic Children’s Foundation for 35 years, including initiating annual visits to Disneyland for the children.

Cohen became legally blind in 1990, and her husband died in 2003, but neither tribulation slowed her pace or her passion.

Today, Cohen continues to attend monthly POW meetings for family members and volunteers most Wednesdays at the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles during bingo games. She also has an active Jewish life, becoming a bat mitzvah at age 100 at Culver City’s Temple Akiba and attending Shabbat services there several times a month. She also prepares a seder every year, doing most of the cooking herself.

In addition to collecting new white socks, Cohen, after seeing amputee veterans sitting uncovered in their wheelchairs, began collecting lap robes — knit, crocheted or quilted 50-by-50-inch blankets. “I need some, if anybody wants to make a donation,” she said during an interview. In fact, whenever she goes to a doctor’s appointment or a meeting at the VA, she always brings a lap robe or two and some new socks. And she always finds grateful recipients.

Cohen will also be participating in a new gardening group to be held at the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles, bringing gladiolus and hydrangea cuttings from her yard.

And as if that’s not enough, this veteran who took upholstery classes off and on from 1961 to 2011 and who proudly displays her self-upholstered chairs and sofa in her Westchester home, is looking for a location and funding for an upholstery class for returning or unemployed veterans who want to learn a trade.

“Never forget our veterans,” Cohen told a reporter. “They are our heroes.”

To donate socks or lap robes or for more information, contact:

Sock donations:
West Los Angeles VA Hospital
Clothing Room – Bldg. 500, Room 0441
11301 Wilshire Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90073
310.478.3711, ext. 43535

Lap robe donations:
Jeanne Bonfilio
Public Information Officer
California Department of Veterans Affairs
11500 Nimitz Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90049
424.832.8219

House explicitly counts out Iran war nod in bill

The U.S. House of Representatives explicitly stated that tough measures it recommended for Iran in a major defense bill did not authorize war.

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran,” said an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that directs defense spending, passed in the House on Friday.

The act includes substantive references to Iran, among them a “declaration of policy” that the United States shall “take all necessary measures, including military action if required, to prevent Iran from threatening the United States, its allies, or Iran’s neighbors with a nuclear weapon.”

It also authorizes combat assessments of Iran’s forces and sufficient forces in the Persian Gulf to face Iran.

A number of dovish groups, including several within the pro-Israel community, have been lobbying lawmakers to include explicit denials in various legislation that such proposals authorize war.

The amendment counting out a war authorization was initiated by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Walter Jones. (R-N.C.).

Americans for Peace Now and J Street praised the amendment’s inclusion.

“Having urged Congress since the inception of these Iran-related motions to clarify that they are not aimed at authorizing the use of force against Iran, we welcome the adoption of this amendment, as well as other important verbal statements,” Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman, told JTA.

Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, said the amendment “slams the brakes on those in Congress who would drive the United States toward a third war in the Middle East.”

Israeli commanders won’t be charged in Cast Lead killings

Israel’s military said it will take no legal actions against the commanders who ordered the attack on a compound that resulted in the deaths of 21 members of a Palestinian family.

In a letter Tuesday to the human rights group B’Tselem, which had filed a complaint against the killings, the Israel Defense Forces prosecution said the case was closed after its investigation concluded that the accidental killing during Operation Cast Lead was not done “in a manner that would indicate criminal responsibility.”

On Jan. 4, 2009, Israeli soldiers gathered about 100 members of the extended Samouni family into a house in Gaza City. The following morning another military unit, believing they were terrorists holed up in the house, shelled the building, causing it to collapse on the occupants. Nine children were among the dead.

Following the IDF’s decision, B’Tselem called for an independent body to look into the incident.

“It is unacceptable that no one is found responsible for an action of the army that led to the killing of 21 uninvolved civilians, inside the building they entered under soldiers’ orders, even if this was not done deliberately,” said Yael Stein, the director of research for B’Tselem. “The way the army has exempted itself of responsibility for this event, even if only to acknowledge its severity and clarify its circumstances, is intolerable,”

Egypt’s new politics make Israel ties a target

To mark the day Egypt regained control of the Sinai peninsula from Israel, a group of protesters pledged they would this week cover a memorial to Israelis killed in the war with an Egyptian flag bearing the words: “Sinai – the invaders’ graveyard.”

The gesture will be one of the most public expressions of anger against Israel since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, marking the emergence of a long-repressed hostility among many ordinary Egyptians.

But while some of the new breed of politicians who emerged after the revolution are only too happy to exploit such defiance, there are still powerful reasons why mainstream leaders are not ready to burn their boats with Israel.

Calls for such a public act of protest would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, for whom the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was a cornerstone of regional policy.

Under him, public antipathy towards Israel – a nation with which Egypt has fought four wars – was kept in check, often brutally. It changed when the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted on Jan. 25 last year. Egyptians now openly voice frustrations and are demanding Egypt’s new political class listen.

“After the Jan. 25 revolution, the regime fell and with it everything linked to treaties and protocols,” said Saeed al-Qasas, head of the Revolutionaries of Sinai, which vowed to cover on Wednesday the Dayan Rock memorial, a large stone erected in the desert with names of fallen air force personnel.

Egypt’s transition to democracy from autocratic rule is transforming the political landscape at home but also promises to shift foreign policy of the Arab world’s most populous nation which was the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel.

None of the mainstream politicians emerging in Egypt have said they would abandon the treaty, but the new order promises to make what was often described as a “cold peace” colder still, raising tensions on a sensitive border if mishandled.

Yet, even after handing over power to a new president by July 1, the generals who have ruled since Mubarak’s fall are likely to act as guardians of a deal that brings them $1.3 billion U.S. military aid a year.

Egypt, its economy in tatters, also can’t afford to alienate the United States or other Western states whose governments and investors are likely to be vital in reviving growth and creating jobs, crucial points to any Egyptian political career.

But Israeli politicians are already fretting over the political changes in Egypt and worry about the rise of Islamists, who swept the parliamentary election and are strong contenders in the presidential vote that starts on May 23-24.

One senior Western diplomat said the army, mainstream Islamists and other leading politicians recognised the benefits of maintaining a deal that kept the border peaceful for three decades.

“But there is zero traction in broader society,” the diplomat said, adding that this could encourage Islamists to test how far the boundaries of ties could be pushed.

Islamists and their rivals in Egypt’s presidential race, the final stage of a turbulent political transition, are already using Israel as a political punchbag to chase votes. They are vowing no repeat of Mubarak’s cosy ties with Israel.

“Democracy is about responding to public sentiment and public sentiment has little interest in maintaining a real relationship with Israel,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.

He suggested Egypt could follow Turkey’s example where once-close ties with Israel had worsened sharply after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks in May 2010 in a raid on a ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip.

“What people should be focusing on is how domestic developments in Egypt will alter its foreign policy. I think the model here is probably something resembling Turkey’s approach to Israel, that you maintain diplomatic cooperation but there is a lot of anti-Israel bluster and symbolic gestures,” he said.

One such gesture may have been a decision this week to scrap a 20-year deal reached in 2005 to export Egyptian gas to Israel. It drew applause among the Egypt public, although both sides said commercial differences not politics were behind the move.

Professor Uzi Rabi at Tel Aviv University said that gas deal decision pointed to a region more “attuned to the street.”

“We are in (the midst of) a continuing deterioration in Israel-Egypt relations. One must hope that the interests will overcome the inflammatory direction,” he added.

The gas deal had long been criticised in Egypt’s opposition media and by the public even when Mubarak was in office. They said the gas was sold too cheaply and benefits were pocketed by Mubarak’s associates. The pipeline was sporadically attacked.

But the number of attacks has soared since the anti-Mubarak uprising. The line has been blown up 14 times in that period, halting the flow for much of the time. Officials and former Mubarak associates behind the deal have also been put on trial for corruption.

Islamists were swift to laud the gas deal’s cancellation and have been among the most critical of Israel, although such criticism crosses the broad spectrum of Egypt’s politicians.

“There is no doubt the peace treaty is unfair to the Egyptian side,” Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman and a senior figure in Egypt’s biggest Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, although he said all treaties would be “respected”.

He pointed to limitations on troop numbers allowed in Sinai since Israeli completed the pull back in the 1980s from the peninsula it occupied in the 1967 war. He also complained that Israelis were allowed into that area of Egypt with no visa.

The outspokenness of politicians taps a deep vein of anger against Israel but also reflects a desire since Mubarak was ousted to be more assertive and end what many saw as Mubarak’s subservience to policies of the United States and the West. Restoring Egypt’s “dignity” is a common refrain in speeches.

“Egypt’s next president can’t be like his predecessor, he can’t be a follower who executes policies put to him from outside,” Mohamed Mursi told his first news conference as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

The challenge for Egypt’s new politicians, keen to win over the public, will be putting the genie back in the bottle as they respond to the popular mood and test the boundaries of how far they challenge ties with Israel.

A miscalculation risks riling U.S. politicians, quick to rally to Israel’s defence, and alienating a major donor with the might to sway international investment and support.

“It is not about explicit policies or some kind of master plan the Brotherhood has, but how misperception breeds misperception,” said Brookings’ Hamid, adding there was a chance that Egypt, Israel or the United States could misjudge events.

Some Israeli officials have shown increasing signs of worry as they have watched Egypt’s political drama unfold.

Amos Gilad, a top aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, said this month he was “concerned” about future relations with Egypt and said he was “not so sure” the Brotherhood was committed to peace, a break with the usually cautiously optimistic line.

An Israeli newspaper cited Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying Egypt was more dangerous to Israel than Iran, a country Israelis accuse of building nuclear weapons. Lieberman would not confirm those comments when asked later.

One of Israel’s biggest worries is the security vacuum in Sinai where Islamic radicals, some blamed for blowing up the gas pipeline, have gained a foothold as policing of the area collapsed after Mubarak’s fall. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “kind of Wild West”.

Yet, the Brotherhood, the dominant group in Egypt’s emerging democracy for now, may share Israel’s concern for the rise of extremism on its border. The Brotherhood has long been branded too pragmatic by more radical Salafis.

“So I think there is potential for a kind of understanding in the Sinai,” said Brookings’ Hamid, pointing to Gaza nearby where the Brotherhood-inspired Palestinian group Hamas cracked down on hardline Salafi Islamists.

And even the more hostile voices to Israel in Egypt seem to know the “red lines” that shouldn’t be crossed over a peace deal that won back the Sinai, which is now scattered with popular Red Sea tourist resorts where Israelis mingle with other visitors.

The Revolutionaries of Sinai had originally wanted the Dayan Rock memorial destroyed, but now said covering it in a flag would suffice. “We will make do with this,” said Qasas. “Though we call for its removal.”

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood

Homs shelled as Syria demands ‘neutral’ U.N. mission

Syria challenged the United Nations chief over the size and scope of a U.N. truce monitoring mission on Wednesday, resisting a larger presence as its army shelled targets in the city of Homs in violation of the ceasefire.

Despite the seven-day-old truce agreement between government and rebel forces, explosions rocked the battered Khalidiyah quarter of Homs as the army resumed what has become a daily barrage of heavy mortar shelling, and plumes of black smoke drifted over the rooftops.

In northern Idlib province, six members of the security forces were killed by a bomb placed by an “armed terrorist group”, state news agency SANA said. It was the second such attack in two days.

While the truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week, in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, the army has kept up attacks on rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Beijing that no more than 250 truce monitors were needed, and they should come from what he called “neutral” countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which have been more sympathetic to Assad than the West and the Arab League states.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to present proposals for the next phase of the mission on Wednesday to the Security Council. He says more monitors are needed for credible supervision of the truce in a country the size of Syria in the 13th month of a conflict marked by extreme violence and over 10,000 deaths.

An advance party of a half a dozen U.N. peacekeepers in blue berets, led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, toured towns near Damascus on Wednesday in two white U.N. Land Cruisers with a Syrian police escort.

In Erbin their convoy was mobbed by anti-government protesters who chanted demands to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. A banner was plastered on one U.N. car reading: “The butcher continues killings. The observers continue observing, and the people continue with their revolution. We only bow to God.”

With the flashpoint cities in Syria scattered over several hundred kilometers, Ban said he had asked the European Union if it can supply helicopters and planes to make the proposed monitoring mission rapidly and independently mobile, but Moualem said Syria would supply air transport if necessary.

A political source in neighboring Lebanon said Damascus has already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.

The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that might require 50,000 troops or more. Russia and China, Syria’s powerful friends on the Security Council, have made clear they would block a U.N. mandate to use force. They are likely to back Damascus as the terms of the mission are thrashed out later this week.

Assad says Syria is under attack by foreign-backed terrorist and that for their own safety, the unarmed observers would have to coordinate every step of their operation with Syrian security to protect them from “armed gangs”.

STILL NO PULLBACK

The rebel Free Syrian Army fighting to topple Assad says it will stop shooting if he keeps his pledge to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw tanks, heavy weapons and troops from urban areas, which critics say he clearly has not done since the truce took effect a week ago.

Apart from the shelling of targets in Homs, the city at the heart of the revolt, troops have swept towns and villages in raids to arrest suspected opponents of Assad. Activists say scores of people have been killed since the ceasefire officially came into force last Thursday.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that four law enforcement members and a civilian were killed on Tuesday when “an armed terrorist group threw a bomb at a bus” in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city after the capital, Damascus.

It said terrorists were attacking and killing loyalist troops in their homes and kidnapping judges.

Internet video showed what anti-Assad activists said was renewed shelling of Homs shortly after dawn on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, reported explosions and heavy gunfire in the southern city of Deraa early on Wednesday. It confirmed the five killed by a bomb in Aleppo.

ADVANCE PARTY

Ban said on Tuesday that the ceasefire was being “generally observed”, though there was still violence. He said the 250 observers Assad will accept would be “not enough, considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.

Annan delivered a status report to Arab League ministers, who called on Assad to let the U.N. observers do their job.

“We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. “We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.”

Equipment for the mission, including vehicles, is already being transported to Syria via Beirut from a U.N. logistics base in Brindisi, Italy.

Diplomats say Annan’s main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria’s supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.

TIME TO ARM THE REBELS?

The mission must have Syrian consent, and Moualem said “this commitment does not cancel out the right to self defense and appropriate response against any attack on government forces, infrastructure, civilians and private or state property”.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria’s powerful, Russian-armed forces, but other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war, threatening the wider region.

Russia is also critical of Western and Arab states backing the Syrian opposition-in-exile in the “Friends of Syria” group.

France said it would host a foreign ministers meeting of the group on Thursday in Paris, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the fragile ceasefire.

Western sanctions have halved Syria’s foreign reserves and should be stepped up to force Damascus to comply with the U.N.-backed peace plan, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told officials from 57 countries meeting in Paris.

Additional reporting by Ayat Basma and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Will Waterman

Nuclear talks aim to ease fears of Iran war

Major powers will hold their first talks with Iran this week in more than a year, hoping Tehran will give enough ground on its nuclear program to extend negotiations and avert the threat of a Middle East war.

Israel has hinted at military action against Iran, arguing time is running out to stop it developing atomic arms; Iran says it could retaliate by closing a major oil shipping thoroughfare, aware that would push up crude prices and hit the world economy.

The six powers – the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain – will not lay out demands when the talks open in Istanbul on Saturday, a Western diplomat said, but will be looking for signs Iran is ready to make concessions.

“The onus is on them in this first meeting to demonstrate that they are serious about a negotiation over their nuclear program. If they are, we will get into detail on what that would look like,” the diplomat added.

Iran – which will be represented by its chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili – says it will put forward “new initiatives” in Istanbul but has given no details. Tehran says its nuclear program is purely peaceful.

The West hopes that tough sanctions on Iran’s oil exports will persuade Tehran to take meaningful steps – possibly on ending higher levels of uranium enrichment.

But they will be wary of any Iranian attempt to buy time with “talks about talks” on resolving the decade-long dispute.

The discussions will be “a gauge as to whether Iran is indeed serious about dealing” with international concerns, a Western envoy said, adding that Tehran’s track record did not “augur well”.

The last time Iran and the powers – led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – sat down together in early 2011, they could not even agree an agenda.

“The clock is definitely ticking. This may be the last best chance for diplomacy,” senior researcher Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.

If diplomacy fails, “you could be looking at the possibility of conflict in the region,” said Daniel Keohane of FRIDE, a European think-tank.

ENRICHMENT FLEXIBILITY?

Iran has consistently ruled out suspending all enrichment, a process which can have both energy and weapons purposes. But it has hinted it may stop refining uranium to higher levels and diplomats and analysts expect this to be a focus of discussions.

Two years ago, Iran spurned U.N. demands to halt enrichment and ramped up processing to 20 percent fissile purity, a major step on any path to the 90 percent level required for nuclear explosions. The West responded with broad sanctions on Iranian banks and oil exports.

The country’s 20 percent enrichment at an installation deep inside a mountain is “very high on our list of things where Iran would need to stop to begin convincing us about the peaceful nature of their program”, a third Western diplomat said.

Iranian nuclear energy chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani said on Sunday Tehran might scale back this production – which compares with the up to 5 percent level suitable for fuelling nuclear power plants – once it has what it needs for medical isotopes.

“The ‘enrich what we need’ principle provides the Iranians with a face-saving solution for halting enrichment at 20 percent,” said analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

But a U.S.-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), noted that Abbasi-Davani had also talked about the need for 20 percent enriched uranium for a planned second research reactor it had not yet declared to the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“Abbasi-Davani’s offer to halt 20 percent enrichment at some point in the future should not be accepted and the (six powers) should reject anything less than an immediate freeze,” ISIS said.

NO IRANIAN CHANGE OF HEART?

Russia and China last month joined the four Western powers in expressing “regret” at Iran’s expansion of this higher-grade enrichment, most of which is now taking place at the underground site to protect it from possible Israeli or U.S. attack.

But Moscow and Beijing have made clear their opposition to any new U.N. measures and have criticized unilateral punitive steps by the United States and EU.

Israel says it fears Iran will soon have moved enough of its nuclear program underground to make it virtually impervious to a pre-emptive Israeli attack, creating what Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently referred to as a “zone of immunity”.

If Iran limits its nuclear activity, which it says is to generate electricity and produce isotopes for cancer treatments, it would probably expect to be rewarded with an easing of sanctions.

“There is a need for both sides to meet each other half way, to show some flexibility,” a senior diplomat from a non-Western country said, calling for “creative and innovative ideas”.

Western punitive steps over Iran’s refusal to back down have piled pressure on the economy, said Mohammed Shakeel, an independent analyst based in Dubai across the Gulf from Iran.

“The country’s economy is showing strong signs of strain: real Gross Domestic Product is likely to contract over the next year or two as the mainstay of the economy – oil production – is expected to fall and export revenue declines,” Shakeel said.

But there is no indication tougher sanctions have prompted a change of heart by Iran’s top authority, clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one of the Western diplomats said.

“We see no sign of it changing the strategic calculus of the supreme leader,” he said.

On Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck a defiant tone, saying the Islamic state would not surrender its nuclear rights “even under the most difficult pressure”.

While the substance of Ahmadinejad’s comments was not new – he has made similar statements many times before – the timing may be interpreted as a sign of Iranian unwillingness to negotiate transparent curbs on enrichment.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich