November 21, 2018

Iran: Explosion occurred during research on weapons that could strike Israel

A massive explosion that killed 17 troops including an officer regarded as the architect of Iran’s missile defenses last week took place during research on weapons that could strike Israel, the Islamic Republic’s military chief said on Wednesday.

Iran has insisted the blast at a military base on Saturday, which rattled window and nerves in parts of the capital Tehran 45 km (28 miles) away, was an accident and denied speculation of possible sabotage by Israel or the United States.

“This recent incident and blast has no link to Israel or America but the outcome of the research, in which the incident happened as a consequence, could be a strong smack to the mouth of Israel and its occupying regime,” armed forces chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA.

Asked on Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday about the scope of damage from the blast, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he did not know, but added: “May there be more like it.” There was no indication that the explosion was a deliberate attack.

Iranian officials had previously said the accident happened while munitions were being moved at the base, without linking it directly to weapons research.

Brigadier General Hassan Moqaddam, hailed as the founder of Iran’s missile program, was the most senior casualty.

Iran already has missiles, the Shahab-3, first tested in 1998, that it says could reach Israel, which has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites if diplomacy and pressure fail to stop it getting the bomb.

Iran denies its nuclear work is aimed at developing atomic weapons but doubts about that were reinforced by a report published by the United Nations nuclear agency last week, a few days before the explosion.

The U.N. report further strained Iran’s relations with the West and the Iranian parliament is debating ending cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a prospect that Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sought to play down.

“Our response to this report is the one of patience and vigilance,” Salehi told state broadcaster IRIB on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting.

“Westerners like to push us toward a hasty reaction and they like to hear that Iran says it would withdraw from the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).”

Salehi said Iran would soon send a detailed and analytical rebuttal of the concerns raised in the report, which he called “unstudied and unjust.”

He also said Iran remained open to resuming the talks with world powers concerned about its nuclear program that stalled in January, and that he had presented a counter-proposal to Russia about how those talks might be structured.

“We presented another proposal and informed the Russian officials of that proposal and all our efforts are to find a way out of the faked nuclear issue,” he said.

Russia has sought to revive he talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany (P5+1) that stalled in January.

Reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Huge blast kills 17 at Iran military base

A massive explosion at a military arms depot near the Iranian capital Tehran on Saturday killed 17 Revolutionary Guards and wounded 15, a spokesman for the elite fighting force told the semi-official Fars news agency.

Officials said the blast was an accident which happened as troops were moving munitions at a base in Bidganeh, near the town of Shahriar, some 45 km (28 miles) west of Tehran.

The explosion shook homes and rattled windows for miles around, at a time of mounting international tension over Iran’s nuclear program.

“Today at 13:30, (0900 GMT), an explosion happened in one of the Revolutionary Guards’ bases while a consignment of explosive devices was being moved out from the arsenal, besides that some munitions in the arsenal exploded which created a terrifying sound,” Revolutionary Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif told state TV.

Sharif initially said 27 people had been killed but later revised that figure down to 17.

Residents in western suburbs of Tehran told Reuters they had felt the blast, some assuming it to be a moderate earthquake.

The explosion started a fire at the base which raged for hours. Surrounding streets were closed and reporters were kept away from the scene.

Some media reported there had been two explosions and the head of Iran’s Red Crescent organization said there was a risk of further blasts.

Mahmoud Mozafar told the Mehr news agency that only six paramedics had been allowed into the Amir Al-Momenin military base and that thick smoke was hampering the rescue operation.

There were no reports linking the blast to any air strike or other attack. Tension has risen in recent weeks between Iran and its enemies Israel and the United States, which have not ruled out attacking facilities whose occupants they believe are working toward making nuclear weapons.

Sharif denied what he said was speculation in the Western media that the military base was linked to Iran’s nuclear program.

“This blast is not related to any nuclear tests that some foreign media have reported,” he told Mehr.

Tehran denies Western accusations, that were given some credence by a report from the UN nuclear agency this week, that its nuclear program has military ends.

On October 12 last year a similar blast at a Revolutionary Guards munitions store killed and wounded several servicemen in Khoramabad, western Iran. Authorities said that explosion was an accident too.

Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri and Hossein Jaseb; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Tim Pearce

Suspected gas explosion injures 11 in Netanya restaurant

Eleven people were injured Friday after an explosion rocked a Netanya restaurant and caused part of the building to collapse.

The two-story restaurant is located on Pinkas street in Netanya’s old industrial area.

Eleven foreign workers from China who were sleeping in the top floor sustained light injuries and suffered from smoke inhalation. Seven of them were taken to Laniado Hospital and four to Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center.

A fire that raged after the explosion hampered search and rescue efforts, but the flames were eventually put out.


Netanya explosion kills one, cause uncertain

An explosion near a coffee shop in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya killed at least one person and injured several others.

The cause of the explosion, which occurred shortly after midnight early Friday morning, remains uncertain. Police are investigating.

The explosion caused part of a building to collapse, reportedly leaving some people trapped.

The Israeli website Ynet reports that the coffee shop where the explosion occurred was host to illegal activities.

Netanya has been the site of Palestinian terrorist attacks in the past, but it has also been an epicenter for violence between rival Israeli organized crime families, which have sometimes used bombings to settle scores.

Jewish couple among the dead in Marrakesh cafe explosion

A Jewish couple were among more than a dozen people killed in an explosion Thursday in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Massoud Weizman, 32, and his wife Michal, 30, lived in Shanghai, China, but were visiting Massoud’s parents in Casablanca for Passover. They apparently dropped by the cafe overlooking Marrakesh’s Jamaa el-Fnaa square just before the bomb exploded. The spot is popular with tourists; 10 of those killed were foreigners. Authorities are treating the incident as a terrorist attack.

Michal, who is an Israeli citizen, was pregnant.

Morrocco’s King Mohammed VI has ordered an investigation into the bombing. The country’s last major terrorist attack was in 2003. The king reportedly has arranged for a charter flight to fly family members from Morocco to Israel, where the young couple will be laid to rest on Monday.

The Weizmans were actively involved in Shanghai’s ex-pat Jewish community, Rabbi Sholom Greenberg, head of Chabad of Shanghai, told Michal was on the parents’ committee at the Jewish preschool attended by the couple’s three-year-old son David Yosef, and Massoud was a regular at the center’s Torah study classes.

“We lost very precious people. The entire community is in shock. Messod and Michal were very special and beautiful people with the kindest of hearts and purest of souls. They were a sincere young couple with an open home,” Greenberg told reporters.

David Yosef was with his grandparents when his parents were killed.

Witnesses told Reuters they saw a man carrying a bag entering the cafe right before the explosion. Other witnesses told reporters the man was a suicide bomber. The explosion ripped through the first and second floors of the building, and body parts were found scattered throughout the wreckage.

Jewish couple among the dead in Marrakesh cafe explosion

A Jewish couple were among more than a dozen people killed in an explosion Thursday in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Massoud Weizman, 32, and his wife Michal, 30, lived in Shanghai, China, but were visiting Massoud’s parents in Casablanca for Passover. They apparently dropped by the cafe overlooking Marrakesh’s Jamaa el-Fnaa square just before the bomb exploded. The spot is popular with tourists; 10 of those killed were foreigners. Authorities are treating the incident as a terrorist attack.

Michal, who is an Israeli citizen, was pregnant.

Morrocco’s King Mohammed VI has ordered an investigation into the bombing. The country’s last major terrorist attack was in 2003. The king reportedly has arranged for a charter flight to fly family members from Morocco to Israel, where the young couple will be laid to rest on Monday.

The Weizmans were actively involved in Shanghai’s ex-pat Jewish community, Rabbi Sholom Greenberg, head of Chabad of Shanghai, told Michal was on the parents’ committee at the Jewish preschool attended by the couple’s three-year-old son David Yosef, and Massoud was a regular at the center’s Torah study classes.

“We lost very precious people. The entire community is in shock. Messod and Michal were very special and beautiful people with the kindest of hearts and purest of souls. They were a sincere young couple with an open home,” Greenberg told reporters.

David Yosef was with his grandparents when his parents were killed.

Witnesses told Reuters they saw a man carrying a bag entering the cafe right before the explosion. Other witnesses told reporters the man was a suicide bomber. The explosion ripped through the first and second floors of the building, and body parts were found scattered throughout the wreckage.

Egypt again halts gas supply to Israel following explosion

Egypt has again shut off its gas supply to Israel following an explosion on its pipeline in the Sinai.

The explosion early Wednesday morning rocked the area and caused 65-foot flames, according to reports.

While Egyptian officials would not speculate on the cause of the blast, a security source told Reuters that an unidentified armed gang attacked the pipeline.

Egypt supplies Israel with about 40 percent of the natural gas the country needs to produce electricity. The supply of gas from Egypt was shut off for a month and has not returned to full levels since terrorists in the Sinai tried to blow up the pipeline in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in. On March 27 terrorists failed in a second attempt to bomb the pipeline after explosives failed to detonate.

Israeli officials on Wednesday called for the country to find ways to reduce its dependency on other countries for gas, and urged the government to quickly develop newly found gas fields off the coast of Israel.

Israel Electric Company said it had enough gas in the pipeline for the next few days and then would switch to alternative fuels such as coal and diesel to produce electricity.

The supply of gas to Jordan was also interrupted.

The pipeline between Egypt and Israel opened in 2008. Selling gas to Israel was unpopular on the Egyptian street from the time the pipeline opened.

Egyptian authorities have extended Mubarak’s detention to question him regarding the gas deal with Israel, in which Egypt lost more than $714 million, Egyptian prosecutors say. Candidates to replace Mubarak have said they plan to renegotiate the contract with Israel.

After Santa Monica bombing, shuls ponder openness vs. security

Nobody thought much about the shabby but quiet middle-aged man who showed up last weekend at an Orthodox study hall in suburban Cleveland.

But when police came Monday and arrested the man, Ron Hirsch, 60, on charges of setting off a bomb next to the Chabad synagogue in Santa Monica, Calif., it sent shock waves throughout the Jewish community.

It also raised the question of how Jewish institutions should balance openness with security.

“You want people to feel safe, but still welcome,” said Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in downtown Los Angeles.

Jewish institutions in the United States have beefed up security since 9/11, following the lead of Israeli embassies around the world as well as synagogues and Jewish centers in Europe and South America. But measures designed to thwart terrorists can make worshipers feel uncomfortable and newcomers unwelcome. No one wants to pray in a fortress, religious leaders say.

“It’s a dilemma we face every day,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad of Yorba Linda, Calif.

Cleveland-area Jews were particularly disturbed that Hirsch, a transient who often slept near the Santa Monica Chabad shul and asked for handouts at Jewish doors, sought out an Orthodox neighborhood when he fled Los Angeles for Ohio last Friday. Those interviewed surmised that Hirsch knew he would be welcomed as a fellow Jew, with few questions asked.

“He felt comfortable enough to come into a community that offered him shelter and offered him money because the Orthodox community is very hospitable and takes care of its own,” Rabbi Sruly Wolf of Cleveland Heights told The Associated Press.

Churches traditionally have kept their doors unlocked round the clock on the principle that the house of God should be open to all, but few U.S. synagogues follow that practice over concerns about everything from petty vandalism and Torah thefts to anti-Semitic attacks.

At the same time, some rabbis fear that overdoing security will keep away precisely those unaffiliated Jews they want to attract.

“We should not send the message to a Jew that walking into the synagogue is dangerous,” Eliezrie told JTA.

A year ago, he said, half a dozen unfamiliar young men walked into his synagogue right before Saturday morning services. He went to the lobby to check them out—“I was welcoming, but wondering,” he recalls—and learned that they were being initiated into a Jewish fraternity and had to visit five Chabad centers on one Shabbat.

Eliezrie invited them in for kiddush and wouldn’t let them leave until they listened to his 6-year-old grandson pontificate on the weekly Torah portion.

“If I would have overreacted, I would have driven them away,” he said.

Eliezrie said metal detectors and security guards do more harm than good—but he’s in a quiet suburb. Those in the big city, where transients are more common, have more to worry about, he acknowledges.

At Sinai Temple, a large Conservative synagogue in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, visitors are screened, wanded and eyeballed by a bevy of security personnel. Members of the congregation get a special decal allowing them to park in the building’s secure parking lot. The temple employs a full-time security director and brings in nearly three dozen guards for High Holidays services that draw upward of 5,000 people.

“On Shabbat we have 1,000 people at services,” Lesner said. “More than half of them are not members. They’re all screened, but we do it in a dignified manner. I’ve never had anyone refuse and walk away.”

Temple Beth Sholom, a large Reform synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla., also runs a tight ship. The synagogue was rebuilt four years ago, and a perimeter wall of Jerusalem stone was constructed around the building.

“It looks very pretty, but we did it on purpose,” Rabbi Gary Glickstein said. “There is just one entrance, so we can control access.”

Glickstein said it has the optimal balance between security and openness.

Beginners’ services, also called learners’ minyans, are particularly confounding for security concerns because they are consciously trying to attract newcomers rather than congregants who know each other.

“Too much security and people get turned away,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which sponsors services for unaffiliated Jews throughout the United States. “We have beginners’ services, so that means you have all kinds of strange people walking in.”

The key, he says, is to keep tight security outside and a discrete watchfulness inside.

“We have a committee of lay leaders who keep an eye out to make sure nothing untoward occurs,” Rosenbaum said.

In general, rabbis say, worshipers who seem suspicious have to be watched, but discretely, so they and everyone else in the room is unaware of the surveillance.
Eliezrie says no one would be denied access to the kiddush or not counted in a minyan because of such suspicions.

“A human being is a human being,” Eliezrie said, adding that he’s never had to ask someone to leave his synagogue. “I’m going to treat everyone with respect. “I have to welcome him in and just wonder a little bit.”

Explosion near Chabad of Santa Monica may have been a bomb [UPDATE]

[UPDATE: FRIDAY, APRIL 8 — 4:30 p.m.] ” title=”Patch” target=”_blank”>Santa Monica reports.

The explosion occurred at the Chabad House Lubavitch of Santa Monica, not the Santa Monica Synagogue, as previously reported. The Chabad House is located at 1428 17th St.; the Santa Monica Synagogue is at 1448 18th St.

Rabbi Isaac Levitansky told Santa Monica Patch on Thursday morning that he wasn’t sure if the bomb was intended for the synagogue, or what the motivation for planting it may have been if it was.

“We didn’t hear anything” when the bomb exploded, he said. “We were in the middle of morning prayers. Thank God everyone was OK.”

Read more at ” style=”color:#0000FF;text-align:left”>View Larger Map

Japan turns to U.S. in face of worsening nuclear crisis

Japan said Wednesday that further assistance from the United States was needed to help keep the nuclear cores at a power plant from overheating, after last week’s quake and tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling systems.

Tokyo may also request the help from members of the U.S. military stationed in Japan, government spokesman Yukio Edano said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has sent two experts to Japan, and had been asked to send cooling equipment.


Third explosion rocks earthquake-damaged Japan nuclear plant

A third explosion in four days rocked the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in northeast Japan early Tuesday, the country’s nuclear safety agency said.

The blast at Dai-ichi Unit 2 followed two hydrogen explosions at the plant – the latest on Monday – as authorities struggle to prevent the catastrophic release of radiation in the area devastated by a tsunami.

The troubles at the Dai-ichi complex began when Friday’s massive quake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast knocked out power, crippling cooling systems
needed to keep nuclear fuel from melting down.


Japan braces for potential radiation catastrophe as 140,000 could be affected

Japan faced a potential catastrophe Tuesday after a quake-crippled nuclear power plant exploded and sent low levels of radiation floating toward Tokyo, prompting some people to flee the capital and others to stock up on essential supplies.

The crisis appeared to escalate late in the day when the operators of the facility said that one of two blasts had blown a hole in the building housing a reactor, which meant spent nuclear fuel was exposed to the atmosphere.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged people within 30 km (18 miles) of the facility—a population of 140,000—to remain indoors amid the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.


Our Soft Underbelly

I am writing you with a broken heart and tearful eyes. Not attempting to propagandize, not wanting to mislead.

Just wanting you to know, because this piece of news was excluded from many news agencies, at the request of Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The pictures were simply too horrific to publish, and though Israel could use it as an effective public-opinion campaign, we chose not to — in respect of the 11 bereaved families.

I couldn’t write down what happened in Gaza, though I tried. Anything I will write will make you take sides. The media makes us take sides all the time. It is not for me to present a biased, one-sided truth, which you will be forced to accept. It is not for me to feed you with slogans. Please find the story yourselves, or give me a few days before I can reflect on what happened.

However, one truth does exist. Eleven dead soldiers in Gaza, literally torn into pieces, buried today on Mount Herzl. Eleven kids who are all between the ages of 19-23; 11 kids who could have been my best friends. My heart is breaking as I am writing these words. I served in the army for two years, and I am writing you as a soldier. These guys could have been my best friends, and they died in a way in which they did not deserve.

My country is torn into pieces. These kids are our soft underbelly. They are everyone’s children, because it is we who sent them to the front, and we who asked them to protect us. They are the best guys we have! And they would give anything it takes to make my niece, my parents and myself sleep quietly at night.

These guys did what they were told to do, and were torn into pieces in two explosions. They could have been my best friends, or my brothers. But now they are just pieces of body wrapped with the flag of Israel.

It is a turning point in this war, so they said on the news. It must be a turning point in this damned war. Because we cannot go on like this, we simply cannot — and neither can they.

Shira Kaplan is a 20-year-old Israeli from Herzliya who attended Seeds of Peace in 1997, 1998 and 1999. She served for two years in the Israel Defense Forces in the intelligence division. She plans on beginning her university studies next year, with a likely concentration in Middle Eastern studies and international relations.

A Teen Spared From Terror

Hilla Hayo, 16, was not a victim of the Dolphinarium attack in Tel Aviv on June 1, 2001 — but she could have been. The teenager, who, along with four classmates, spent 10 days at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills this October as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, canceled her plans at the last minute the night of the explosion. She and her pal were planning to go to Pacha, the Dolphinarium’s neighboring club whose patrons were also struck when the bomb was detonated.

"My best friend got sick and we decided not to go," remembered Hayo.

While Hayo may have dodged a bullet that fateful night, the anecdote seems just one of the many threatening situations she has confronted as an Israeli teen. Without hesitation, she described the deafening bombs she occasionally hears from her home in Yad Eliyahu, a city just south of Tel Aviv, and the eerie vibrations from the impact. Then there was the time that she saw an actual suicide bomber run by the buses at a central mall in Tel Aviv.

"I feel safe here," she said, looking around the crowded lobby of the West Hills Jewish Community Center. "I don’t feel as safe in Israel."

Even having a social life involves being wary of terrorism.

"I have a lot of fights with my parents about going out at night," Hayo said. "When I had a boyfriend who had a car, they felt better because they knew I could return safely without taking public transportation."

But living with fear hasn’t robbed her of hope or typical teenage enthusiasm. From teaching her host family Hebrew rap songs to serenading the New Community Jewish High School student body and faculty on the night before she flew back to Israel, Hayo is a spirited teenager whose zest for life is intact. Unlike some of the other girls from Ironi-Tet who visited Los Angeles, Hayo is open to friendships with Arab teens. Upon her return home, she was looking forward to singing with her band, continuing to be involved with her school’s student council and becoming a doctor someday, after spending two years in the Israeli army.

"We donít want to let the Palestinians stop our lives because then they win," Hayo told The Journal. "We want to show them we’re not afraid."

World Briefs

Israel: U.S. Would Assassinate Saddam

Israeli officials reportedly believe that if the United States moves against Iraq, it will be to assassinate Saddam Hussein and members of his family. According to an assessment prepared for the prime minister and foreign minister, the purpose of the action is to bring about a regime change without causing the entire country to collapse, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Meanwhile, Scott Ritter, a former chief U.N. weapons inspector said that Israel should oppose an American attack on Iraq. An American strike on Baghdad would be a disaster for Israel, Ritter told Ha’aretz. He said it would make Israel vulnerable to an Iraqi attack, would undermine regional stability and further anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab public and would increase terrorism against Israel.

Five Wounded in Blast

Five Palestinian youths were lightly wounded Tuesday in an explosion in a school near Hebron. A second bomb was found in the schoolyard and defused. Israeli officials are investigating whether Israelis were responsible for the blast, which occurred in an area under Israeli security control. The explosion went off in the courtyard of the Ziff secondary school south of Hebron, said the principal, who accused Jewish extremists. Nearly all 380 students were in class at the time.

Peres Supports Diplomatic Efforts

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres applauded the efforts of an international team of diplomats to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After meeting Tuesday in New York with officials from the so-called Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — Peres reiterated Israel’s willingness to withdraw from Palestinian areas as soon as the security situation improves. On Wednesday, Peres spoke out against terrorism during an address before the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at the start of a Cabinet meeting that no progress could be made without “total cessation of violence and terror.”

Israel Warns Lebanon

Israel will not allow Lebanon to divert water from the Wazzani river, which is shared by the two countries, Israel’s defense minister warned, saying that it is a “violation of every agreement we have signed in the past,” Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Tuesday. The Wazzani feeds into the Hatzbani River, which provides about 10 percent of Israel’s water. On Monday, an American delegation, including a water expert, visited the region in an effort to mediate the crisis. The officials watched as Lebanese workers laid pipes to pump water from the Wazzani.

Al Qaida Linked to Pearl Death

A member of Al Qaida was identified as one of the killers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, according to The Associated Press. The identification was made by a Pakistani held but not charged in the January kidnapping of Pearl, who was killed earlier this year after admitting to his Jewish roots in a video made by his abductors. If the identification proves true, it would mark the first time that Al Qaida was linked to Pearl’s death.

Lanner Sentencing Postponed

The jail sentencing of New Jersey Rabbi Baruch Lanner on sexual abuse charges has been delayed until Oct. 4. Lanner, 52, was found guilty in Monmouth County, N.J., Superior Court on June 27 of endangering the welfare of two girls who attended the Hillel High School in Ocean Township, N.J., where he was principal from 1992 to 1996. He also was the girls’ supervisor in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth wing of the Orthodox Union. Lanner faces 10 to 20 years in prison and a maximum $300,000 fine at the sentencing, which was postponed from Sept. 13. Lanner has maintained his innocence, and has 45 days to appeal after his sentencing. He remains free on $100,000 bail.

Forward Sells Radio Station

The Forward Association reached an agreement to sell its radio station to ABC Inc. for $78 million. The planned sale of WEVD-AM by the publisher of a family of Jewish newspapers bearing the Forward name follows an agreement announced in September 2001, under which ABC’s ESPN subsidiary was granted the right to provide programming on WEVD and ABC acquired an option to initiate negotiations for the purchase of the station.

Briefs compiled by Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Tunisian Jews Defy Attack

Jews here persevered with their annual Lag B’Omer celebration this week in spite of a recent terrorist attack that rocked their tiny island community. The numbers were down from past celebrations, but still hundreds of tourists came to join the 1,000 Jewish Jerbans for the pilgrimage festivities.

The explosion of a gas truck — fatalities now number 18, including 13 German tourists — was first dismissed by Tunisian authorities as an accident. But then it became clear it was a deliberate act of terrorism, officials say, and the government has moved quickly to denounce the violence and contain the damage.

Tunisian authorities quickly paid to restore the El Ghriba synagogue, which traces its roots back more than 2,000 years. The government also encouraged and promoted the Lag B’Omer festivities, even inviting foreign journalists to see the reaction, both private and public, of this Muslim nation that prides itself on being a peaceful country. Their Muslim neighbors came out of their houses to watch and show support.

"The Jews are our brothers," a young Muslim man said proudly, even though he asked that his name not be used. "No matter what our religion, we’re all Tunisians."

Jews from all over the world — and especially Tunisians who live in France and Israel — come in droves to celebrate the pilgrimage festival that takes place at El Ghriba, the oldest and most famous synagogue in North Africa. The Jewish tourist frenzy reached a peak in the year 2000 when more than 8,000 people arrived for the festivities.

It is difficult to pin down the exact origins of the Jewish community in Jerba, a popular tourist site for Europeans off the coast of the Northern African nation of Tunisia. Most people concur with the legend that it was first settled by Jews who fled Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. They settled in two separate communities: Hara Kabira and Hara Seghira. Their descendants still live there today, engaged in a thriving and observant Jewish community, replete with Jewish schools, synagogues and kosher food.

Outbreaks of violence and harassment have periodically upset the peaceful co-existence between Jews and Muslims here. Often the tensions were a reflection of the situation in the Middle East.

The bulk of Tunisian Jews, which once numbered 100,000, emigrated in waves. The first wave came with the establishment of Israel in 1948, then with the end of French rule in 1956, and again in 1967, when the Six-Day War sparked anti-Jewish rioting, despite the relative moderation of the country’s then-president, Habib Bourguiba.

In the early 1990s, with the start of the Oslo peace process, Jews here were optimistic about their future.

Tunisia, once the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat, was among the Arab countries that established low-level diplomatic relations with Israel in the mid-1990s.

It has since cut those ties.

The minister of tourism, Mondher Zenaidi, hosted a dinner and expressed his personal horror at the attack in Jerba. This year’s pilgrimage was a "victory against obscurantism and fanaticism," he was quoted as saying as he pledged that Tunisia would protect religious freedoms.

He acknowledged that Tunisia had cut off official diplomatic relations with Israel because of the current strife in the Middle East, but he insisted that this had nothing to do with the situation of Jews in Tunisia.

"Jews and Muslims are brothers," he said. "They are both Tunisians."

One Last Chance

Yasser Arafat faces what may be his final chance to draw back from the brink of all-out war. After two days of heavy bombardment in retaliation for a series of bloody terror attacks, Israel paused airstrikes Wednesday to give Arafat a few hours to prove that he is serious about cracking down on Palestinian terror.

Israel’s Cabinet, in a stormy late-night meeting Monday, designated the Palestinian Authority as a terror-supporting entity that “must be dealt with accordingly.”

The Israeli government also declared that two groups affiliated with Arafat — the Tanzim militia and the Force 17 presidential guard — are terrorist organizations.

The Cabinet decisions came after a weekend of terror bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that left 25 Israelis dead and nearly 300 injured. The Cabinet members demand unspecified “actions more wide-ranging than those taken against Palestinian terrorism until now.”

But the Cabinet deliberately left Arafat a loophole.

“This determination is subject to change — by Cabinet decision — if the Palestinian Authority fulfills its commitments, according to the agreements, to prevent and foil terrorism, punish terrorists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure,” the communique read.

The Cabinet placed the onus on Arafat. Forceful and credible action on his part against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups still could prompt Israel to revoke what is almost a declaration of war against the Palestinian Authority.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had demanded that the decision be deferred for a week to give the Palestinian Authority a chance to show that this time it is serious about fighting terror.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected this idea, Peres and his Labor Party colleagues walked out of the Cabinet meeting before the vote. An angry Peres said the decision adopted by the Cabinet majority meant Israel would seek to overthrow the Palestinian Authority by force.

Though it has no illusions about Arafat’s responsibility for Palestinian terror, Labor does not want to discredit him as a potential negotiating partner, believing that the lack of a legitimate Palestinian leader would be even worse.

During a visit Tuesday to Romania, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other world leaders to discuss the crisis, Peres sought to portray the Cabinet decision as relatively restrained, arguing that the Cabinet had ordered the army to hit Palestinian Authority buildings and property — not people.

Israeli airstrikes on Monday and Tuesday targeted empty Palestinian installations, including Palestinian security targets in the West Bank and Gaza, several of Arafat’s helicopters and the runway of the Palestinian airport in Gaza.

The strikes were halted Wednesday, when Sharon and Peres, decided to give Arafat the breathing spell he’d requested.

In a series of telephone calls Wednesday between Arafat and Peres, the Palestinian leader complained that Israeli airstrikes were preventing him from arresting terrorists.

Peres later told Israel Radio that he’d said to Arafat, “We are giving you a list of 36 people who, as we know, are terrorist leaders. I strongly recommend that you put them in jail.”

There was added urgency for Arafat to take action after a suicide bomber struck Wednesday in Jerusalem.

The terrorist, who was wearing a nail- and metal-studded bomb, succeeded only in killing himself in what appeared to be a botched attack after the bomb went off prematurely. Eight people were slightly wounded.&’9;

But political observers in Israel still believe Sharon has not been given a green light by the United States — assuming he needs one — to topple the Palestinian Authority.

Bush and other top U.S. officials supported Israel’s right to act in its own self-defense this week, statements that gave implicit support for the Israeli air strikes.

Bush and Sharon met in the White House on Sunday, before Sharon cut short his U.S. trip to deal with the escalating situation in Israel. In addition, the Bush administration greatly increased its pressure on Arafat to clamp down on terror.

In an interview aired Wednesday on ABC, Bush said, “It’s now time for Mr. Arafat to prove whether or not he is for peace.”

Despite such comments, there is no evidence that the Bush administration has written off Arafat.

Just two weeks ago, the administration offered its vision for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. If Arafat is seen to be making a real effort against Palestinian terror, the United States could resume its pressure on Sharon to respond with concessions that ease Arafat’s political predicament.

That, indeed, has been Peres’ prescription all along.

17 Years Ago: Armageddon

Early Tuesday morning, my wife and I stared dumbly at the television, mumbling words like hijacked, explosion, collapse. My daughter, 5, looked up from her cereal, confused and frustrated. What language are you speaking? she asked. They were words almost unspoken in American living rooms. But no longer.

Along with untold lives, Tuesday’s terror attacks destroyed much that we cherish.

What we know has died is our sense of security, our feeling of confident invulner-ability from the violence that wracks others in faraway lands. It has all come home.

Reports of victims filter in; they do not yet flow. It’s 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and we don’t have an inkling of how crushed we will feel tomorrow, and next week, when the innocent faces behind the smoke and flames become known to us. Any hour now, we can expect to be even more devastated.

Those of us who follow the events in the Middle East can only be surprised by the enormity of the attack. Suicide missions have murdered and maimed Israeli civilians for years now. The weapon hasn’t shifted — only its aim. Such attacks are the end result of a process of cruel miseducation and propaganda, abetted by governments that provide shelter for terrorists and spew justifications for their murder. These terrorists, the governments that protect them, and the civilians who cheer them on, can only pray that America’s retaliation is as targeted as Israel’s has been.

For years, terrorism experts have been warning us that the danger to America lay not in conventional war, but in acts of terror. Their worst-case scenarios hardly measure up to what has happened, but it is a fair question for American citizens to wonder how its government failed in its primary responsibility: to protect its citizens. Now it must turn its failed defensive into a massive offensive.

Already, some people are suggesting that terrorists attacked America because of its support of Israel. Of course, we know this is not the case. Israel cannot be held responsible — even indirectly — for the recent desecration of our country. Because terror is not against Israel supporters. It is against democracy, against humanity.

That should have been obvious by now: The people who died Tuesday were Jews, Christians and Muslims. They were all colors, all creeds, rich and poor, and many different nationalities. It will take a similar coalition of peoples and nations to band together to extirpate these terrorists. America must lead the way. America may not be invulnerable, but it is hardly vanquished.

The Jewish community of Los Angeles, unfortunately, is familiar with coping with tragedy.

Many community centers and day schools took the brave and reassuring step of remaining open. Our focus, as a community, turned as if by reflex from feeling shock to giving aid and comfort. There is still much we can do: to get help, to give blood or to donate money, see our listings on page 14.

By Tuesday afternoon, synagogues throughout the Southland started to open their doors to congregants, offering a place for solace and communal prayer. Hundreds, if not thousands of Jews, chose to attend. They recited Psalms and heard prayers for peace. Some voiced demands for retribution. Most important, they had a place to go to share their grief and disbelief.

And come next week, Rosh Hashana 5762, they will have a place to return to, to pray for a sweeter year.

Shana Tova.