Jerusalem: Don’t call it a religious conflict

Rachel Shabi writes: They are horrifying images of a house of prayer drenched in blood. That an ultra-orthodox synagogue in West Jerusalem was chosen for this latest, gruesome attack, in which four Jewish-Israeli men were killed by two knife-wielding Palestinians, has detonated appalling historic associations and has been widely condemned. This attack has also, inevitably, sparked descriptions of a “religious war” in the region – depicted in media headlines as being in various stages of development: either a current reality or an unavoidably impending one. Those who insist on stressing the religious dimension are bolstered by the reaction from Hamas to this attack, as the Islamist group has, with bleak predictability, praised and celebrated it.

And once again the media framing designates the starting point – and therefore, implicitly, the causes – of the current bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians. Most importantly, in this context, is the question of who or what set off the religious incitement in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government has repeatedly blamed the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But its own security services quickly quashed such accusations: Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, told a Knesset committee that Abbas (who has no control over Jerusalem) was not involved in igniting violence among East Jerusalem Palestinians.

Indeed, Cohen added, if anyone could be accused of exacerbating tensions, Israeli government officials and legislators are the first in line.

For some months now, this hard right coalition government has not just tolerated but actively supported a movement agitating for “Jewish prayer rights” at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – a sacred site to both Muslims and Jews. Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party are a visible, vocal part of this campaign. There has been a tendency in some quarters to see the prayer issue as a kind of harmless coexistence campaign focused on equal rights. It is not. This movement goes against a long-established status quo agreement, whereby non-Muslims can visit, but not worship at this holy site housing both the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

But more than that, it runs contrary to what Jewish religious leaders have been saying for centuries, which is to rule against Jewish prayer at Temple Mount. Today, there is only one, growingly influential rabbinical strain that says otherwise and that’s the one guiding the religious-settler movement, which should make it abundantly clear that the issue is political, not religious. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli cabinet backs nationality bill that risks wider rift with Arab minority

The New York Times reports: The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved draft legislation that emphasized Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature in a move that critics said could undermine the fragile relationship with the country’s Arab minority at a time of heightened tensions.

The promotion of a so-called nationality law has long stirred fierce debate in Israel, where opponents fear that any legislation that gives pre-eminence to Israel’s Jewishness could lead to an internal rift as well as damage Israel’s relations with Jews in other countries and with the country’s international allies.

The vote on Sunday also highlighted political fissures within the governing coalition amid increasing talk of early elections. The bill, a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed 14 to 6, with two centrist coalition parties opposing it. Parliament still has to approve the bill for it to become law. [Continue reading…]

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Europe takes stronger measures, albeit symbolic, to condemn Israeli policies

The New York Times reports: European nations, Israel’s largest trading partners and a historical bastion of support, are taking stronger measures to support Palestinian sovereignty and condemn what many see as aggressive, expansionist Israeli policies.

After years of mounting frustrations widely expressed but rarely acted on, politicians from Britain, France, Spain and Sweden have embraced symbolic steps to pressure Israel into a more accommodating stance toward the Palestinians.

Last week, European Union foreign ministers issued a statement that condemned the growing violence in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Israeli expropriation of land near Bethlehem in the West Bank, and plans for new settlement construction, and urged Israel to change its policy on Gaza.

It ended with an unusual warning: “The future development of relations with both the Israeli and Palestinian partners will also depend on their engagement toward a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli analyst and pollster, said, “Israel is losing Europe on three levels: Public opinion has shifted decidedly against Israel in most E.U. countries, the E.U. itself is increasingly thinking about and implementing policies against Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and, most recently, the waves of parliamentary discussions and votes in favor of recognizing Palestinian statehood.”

Statements and nonbinding votes in support of a Palestinian state do not seem likely to have an immediate, tangible impact on Israel’s core political or economic interests. Israel continues to enjoy good diplomatic relations with the major European powers.

Yet the actions reflect surging antipathy in Europe’s public discourse that threatens to drown out residual support for the Jewish state. Many leaders do not rule out sanctions on Israeli interests, especially in territories beyond the country’s 1967 boundaries, if they see no progress toward a two-state solution. [Continue reading…]

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Leader of Catholic church in England and Wales shocked by devastation in Gaza

The Guardian reports: The archbishop of Westminster said he was deeply shocked by his first visit to Gaza on Sunday, and that he had seen “a deeply depressing situation in a devastated region where people are trapped”.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, toured neighbourhoods of Gaza that were virtually flattened during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the summer. He visited a hospital and an industrial zone that were badly damaged by air strikes and shelling, and an orphanage caring for dozens of traumatised children, some of whom had been given up by parents unable to care for them.

“I was deeply shocked at the effects of war and endemic poverty,” he told the Guardian. “Pope Francis has said there must be an end to war, and when you see the effect in a place like Gaza it reinforces that.”

There was little sign of rubble being cleared, let alone reconstruction, he said. “It’s astonishing the number of people with the appearance of nothing to do – people just sitting on the streets. There is only the barest sense of order. This is not an economy that is going to be able to support its population.” [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s options in Syria

Henri J. Barkey writes: Press reports suggest that President Obama has ordered a review of Syria strategy (though the White House is denying this). He has already made it clear that he does not favor direct U.S. intervention in Syria. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost large swathes of territory to a rebellion that has so far cost the lives of 200,000 Syrians, he shows no signs of giving up. What is worse, the chaos in Syria and neighboring Iraq has given rise to a virulent jihadist movement in the form of the Islamic State (IS), which has conquered vast territory throughout the region.

The options such a review would produce are unlikely to change policy anytime soon. This is not only because there are no good ones out there that can transform the situation, but also because the Syrian crisis has become part of a larger global struggle with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potential countermoves, especially in Ukraine, serve as a deterrent to American action in Syria.

Here are some of the options Obama’s advisers would likely present him. [Continue reading…]

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Biden in Turkey, warns about corrosive effect of concentration of powers

The Guardian reports: US vice-president Joe Biden on Saturday warned that a concentration of powers under a head of state was “corrosive” as he visited Turkey – which has been accused of increasing authoritarian tendencies.

Biden made the remarks before meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in August became the Turkish president after more than a decade as prime minister. Critics have accused Erdogan of seeking to centralise powers in a powerful presidency, which until he took office was largely a ceremonial role.

At a joint news conference held after a four-hour talks session, Biden said he and Erdogan had discussed a transition of power in Syria, away from President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

McClatchy adds: Biden’s visit here also brought forth the first signs of policy convergence. Midway through the discussion here, the Turkish government disclosed that it is willing to train and equip Iraqi government forces, a dramatic shift to support Iraq’s new leadership of Prime Minister Haider Abadi after years of tensions with his predecessor, Nouri al Maliki. Turkey also disclosed it is training Peshmerga militias under control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

This all seemed to have come about as part of the preparations for the Biden talks. Davutoglu pledged to train and assist national guard units that Abadi is setting up to fight the Islamic State, the Turkish official said. “We are always ready to give any kind of contribution” to the Iraqi authorities, added the official, who disclosed the policy changes on condition he not be identified by name.

Before returning to meet with Biden, Davutgoglu visited Irbil, the capital of the largely autonomous Kurdish region, and a camp where Turkey has already begun training Peshmerga forces, the official said. Just a few years ago, Turkey and the KRG were frequently at loggerheads over the KRG’s willingness to host armed Turkish separatists who were at war with the Turkish state.

Biden’s visit to Istanbul was his first since the blow-up last month that followed his public criticism of Turkey for “contributing to the rise” of the Islamic State. Erdogan said if Biden didn’t apologize for his remarks, he will be “history to me.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. plans to arm Iraq’s Sunni tribesmen with AK-47s, RPGs, mortars

Reuters reports: The United States plans to buy arms for Sunni tribesmen in Iraq including AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds to help bolster the battle against Islamic State militants in Anbar province, according to a Pentagon document prepared for Congress.

The plan to spend $24.1 million represents a small fraction of the larger, $1.6 billion spending request to Congress focusing on training and arming Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

But the document underscored the importance the Pentagon places on the Sunni tribesmen to its overall strategy to diminish Islamic State, and cautioned Congress about the consequences of failing to assist them. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan military welcomes expanded U.S. combat role as Taliban threat intensifies

The Washington Post reports: The 18 Afghan soldiers were trapped in a mountainous outpost about 50 miles south of the capital, running out of ammunition. Taliban insurgents had surrounded them. There was only one way out: the Americans.

So the Afghans made the call, and soon Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighter jets and Predator drones were in the sky overhead. Not a single weapon was fired by U.S. forces, but their presence was enough to send the militants running for cover. That allowed the Afghan military to send in reinforcements.

“The Americans saved the lives of my soldiers,” said their brigade commander in recounting the incident, which he said happened two weeks ago. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “They would have all died without the air support.”

The incident helps explains why Afghan military and police commanders in some of the most volatile areas of the country welcomed reports Saturday that the Obama administration plans to expand the U.S. military’s role here next year. [Continue reading…]

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The slow death of Russian independent media

Andrei Malgin writes: Ominous storm clouds were gathering over the Ekho Moskvy radio station last week. That is serious because Russia only has one opposition-minded television channel, Dozhd, one such newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, one such weekly magazine, The New Times, and one such radio station, Ekho Moskvy. So if anything happens to that radio station, a very noticeable gap will appear in the already modest ranks of Russia’s independent media.

The reason for the scandal with Ekho Moskvy was a phrase that one of the radio station staff members permitted himself to post on Twitter. He wrote that when he learned of the death of the son of Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, he realized that there is a higher justice. Although he offered no further clarification, his readers understood his meaning.

They knew that while driving several years ago, Ivanov’s son had run down and killed an elderly woman in a crosswalk in front of numerous witnesses. Not only was he never punished for his crime, he put pressure on investigators and relatives of the deceased, even going so far as to file false charges against the woman’s son-in-law for having supposedly beaten him at the scene. And now Ivanov’s son has drowned while swimming in the sea.

Of course, it was improper to post such a comment on Twitter, and the author himself soon realized that and removed it a few hours later. But in those few short hours it managed to set off a rapidly escalating chain reaction. [Continue reading…]

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How America’s digital capitalists are taking us all for a ride

John Naughton writes: One useful side-effect of the revelations that a senior executive of the cyber-minicab outfit Uber was caught musing about the attractions of hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on journalists who are critical of the company is that it has lifted the veil on what we might call digital capitalism.

Uber, you may recall, is a lavishly-funded San Francisco startup whose mission is to disrupt taxi services in cities worldwide. It has already sparked protests and demonstrations in its targeted cities, including London, and begun to attract the attention of regulators and municipalities everywhere.

Although Uber’s activities have attracted a good deal of media attention, much of it has been strangely uncritical, admiring, even. It has been portrayed as a standard bearer for Clayton Christensen’s cliched idea of “disruptive innovation”. Existing taxi businesses and franchises are seen as lazy, cosy, sometimes corrupt municipal monopolies that gouge customers (many of whom are, of course, journalists).

Uber, in contrast, is cool, modern (it works via a smartphone app, so it must be cool), a worthy surfer on the wave of creative destruction that is capitalism’s way of renewing itself. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Dejohnette, Hancock, Holland and Metheny — ‘Cantaloupe Island’

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Syria’s underground war

The Los Angeles Times reports: For three days, Syrian rebels dug through a wall of a library that housed a trove of historical religious texts, and underneath an adjacent road.

When they were done with the 50-foot-long tunnel, they waited at one end of it for a tank to drive by, and blew it up.

The explosion cut off the road, a crucial supply route for government soldiers stationed at the nearby 13th century citadel, but it also destroyed what was left of the Waqifiyya Library, already damaged during months of clashes.

Rebel commander Iyad Saqaan, who in 2006 had helped furnish the library with woodwork from his studio, had also overseen the digging of the tunnel. Sitting on a mound of rubble, skipping rocks as if perched on the edge of a lake, Saqaan pursed his lips, shook his head and said, “What alternative do we have?”

As the increasingly destructive Syrian conflict drags on, outgunned rebel groups have become dependent on guerrilla-style tactics better suited to a lopsided battle.

Government forces are now on the verge of laying siege to parts of Aleppo long held by opposition groups that began the rebellion against President Bashar Assad in 2011. An estimated half a million residents could be cut off from food, medicine and fuel in a city that was once Syria’s commercial hub.

The rebels, who have also lost ground in northern Syria to the militant group Islamic State, acknowledge that they don’t have the weapons to stave off a government advance here. Losing Aleppo would be a major setback for the rebels, both symbolically and military, as it is the last provincial capital where they still hold significant ground.

With limited ability to succeed on the front lines, the rebels have taken to digging tunnels under bases, buildings and roads and setting off explosives, trying to kill a few dozen soldiers at a time. They have also launched homemade rockets, often inaccurate, at government forces stationed in landmark structures, frequently killing civilians. In the process, they are helping destroy Syria’s history and infrastructure and, with the deaths of civilians, undermining popular support for their cause.

“It has become an underground war,” said Capt. Abu Baraa, a commander with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebel brigades, who defected from the Syrian army.

Casualties have included many of the country’s most treasured sites, which date back centuries. In Aleppo alone, 121 historical buildings have been damaged or destroyed, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

A recent analysis of satellite imagery showed that five of the six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have incurred significant damage.

The agency says the tunnel explosions placed the citadel and surrounding buildings at high risk of destruction. Rebels contend they have had little choice but to attack historic buildings because that’s where the government forces are.

“We are open to all possibilities — tunnels, car bombs,” said Abdulkareem “Abu Firas” Laila, a spokesman for the Islamic Front. “Everything is a possibility in order for the revolution to continue.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led airstrikes said to have killed more than 900 people including 52 civilians in Syria since September

Al Jazeera reports: Heavy fighting has been reported in a suburb of Damascus as government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad try to wrest the area from control of rebel fighters.

The suburb of Jobar on Saturday was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting the rebels holding the area have seen in the past year, they told Al Jazeera.

It comes as a prominent Syrian activist group monitoring the civil war said US-led air strikes in the country have killed more than 900 people since September.

Both fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and civilians were included among the dead, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The activist network said air strikes have killed 785 ISIL fighters, as well as 72 members of al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda based in Syria.

The group also said strikes have killed 52 civilians, including eight women and five children. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq says ISIS stole 1 million tonnes of grain, took it to Syria

Reuters reports: Iraq believes Islamic State militants have stolen more than one million tonnes of grain from the country’s north and taken it to two cities they control in neighboring Syria, the agriculture minister has said.

Falah Hassan al-Zeidan said in a statement posted on the Agriculture Ministry’s website on Sunday that the government “had information about the smuggling by Islamic State gangs of more than one million tonnes of wheat and barley from Nineveh Province to the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.”

Reuters was unable to verify the information.

When Islamic State pushed from Syria into northern Iraq in June, they swiftly took over government grain silos in Nineveh and Salahadeen provinces, where about a third of Iraq’s wheat crop and nearly 40 percent of the barley crop is typically grown.

The former head of the Grain Board of Iraq told Reuters in August that Islamic State militants had seized 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes of wheat in Nineveh and the Western province of Anbar and transferred it to Syria for milling.

However, it is not known precisely how much wheat the militants seized over the summer, as they forced hundreds of thousands of people – including many farmers – off their land in what amounted to a purge of the ethnically and religiously diverse area. [Continue reading…]

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How Israel teaches its citizens all the wrong lessons

William Saletan writes: Across Israel, anger at Arabs is building. In the wake of a horrific Palestinian terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue — and concurrent with violent protests by Palestinians — several assaults by Jews against Arabs have been reported. Arab workers are reporting a rise in job discrimination. In a poll published Thursday, 58 percent of Jews endorsed a decision by the mayor of Ashkelon, a major city, to bar Arab citizens of Israel from working near young schoolchildren.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says these discriminatory outbursts and policies are wrong. “We must not generalize about an entire public due to a small and violent minority,” he asserts. But Netanyahu teaches this kind of prejudice every day, by demolishing the homes of the families of suspected terrorists.

Israel has employed this policy, off and on, for decades. It’s rooted in old military laws and based on the idea that it deters prospective terrorists. The government doesn’t have to show that the family members who live in the house — grandparents, children, cousins — are guilty or even suspected of any crime. And the policy applies only to Arabs, not to Jews.

The first lesson this policy teaches Israelis is that it’s legitimate to inflict suffering on innocent people in order to discourage terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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In secret, Obama extends U.S. role in Afghan combat

The New York Times reports: President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

In an announcement in the White House Rose Garden in May, Mr. Obama said that the American military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that the missions for the 9,800 troops remaining in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and to hunting the “remnants of Al Qaeda.”

The decision to change that mission was the result of a lengthy and heated debate that laid bare the tension inside the Obama administration between two often-competing imperatives: the promise Mr. Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan, versus the demands of the Pentagon that American troops be able to successfully fulfill their remaining missions in the country.

The internal discussion took place against the backdrop of this year’s collapse of Iraqi security forces in the face of the advance of the Islamic State as well as the mistrust between the Pentagon and the White House that still lingers since Mr. Obama’s 2009 decision to “surge” 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Some of the president’s civilian advisers say that decision was made only because of excessive Pentagon pressure, and some military officials say it was half-baked and made with an eye to domestic politics.

Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban — and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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Allure of ISIS for Pakistanis is on the rise

The New York Times reports: Across Pakistan, the black standard of the Islamic State has been popping up all over.

From urban slums to Taliban strongholds, the militant group’s logo and name have appeared in graffiti, posters and pamphlets. Last month, a cluster of militant commanders declared their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State.

Such is the influence of the Islamic State’s steamroller success in Iraq and Syria that, even thousands of miles away, security officials and militant networks are having to reckon with the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Its victories have energized battle-weary militants in Pakistan. The ISIS brand offers them potent advantages, analysts say — an aid to fund-raising and recruiting, a possible advantage over rival factions and, most powerfully, a new template for waging jihad. [Continue reading…]

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The roots of the jihadist resurgence in Iraq

Craig Whiteside, in a two-part series at War on the Rocks, writes: In the Sunni areas where the Iraqi government had little control, it did not take long for the Islamic State to slowly and methodically eliminate resistance one person at a time. For example, in the small but strategic town of Jurf ah Sakhar south of Baghdad, and on the Sunni-Shia fault line, there were 46 Awakening members reported killed between 2009 and 2013, in 27 different incidents. Most were shot singly or in pairs in the first three years of the campaign, and four were Sheiks from the local Janabi tribe and leaders of the council. By my count, 1,345 Awakening members across Iraq have been killed since the beginning of 2009, and this is a massive undercount as the data is only based on confirmed media reports of killings. More importantly, there are obvious patterns of activity that focus on the contested areas that the Islamic State wants to control.

While the killing of one of the founders of the Awakening, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha in late 2007, attracted some attention, most killings were barely noticed by the Iraqi government or in the media. This is despite the fact that the Islamic State proudly claimed such kills, albeit several months later, in their periodic operational reports. [Continue reading…]

Part Two: As part of the Islamic State’s military campaign to return to relevance, introduced in the first part of this series, they constructed a multi-layered plan to free their members in Iraqi prisons.

To accomplish this feat, the Islamic State created a brigade that specialized in targeting the criminal justice system as a whole, with assassination squads responsible for killing judges, prosecutors, investigators, prison staff, and witnesses. Physical infrastructure was also targeted, including crime labs, detention facilities, and courtrooms. [Continue reading…]

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