Religious extremists shut down the Israeli railway system

The Associated Press reports: Israeli commuters began their work week Sunday with massive traffic jams and a cancellation of train service along one of the country’s busiest routes following a religious and political scuffle that had threatened to shake the governing coalition.

The crisis erupted over the weekend after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, made an 11th-hour decision to halt routine railway repairs scheduled on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Orthodox Jewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, and a religious party in the coalition had threatened to quit the government unless Netanyahu halted the repairs.

Netanyahu’s transport minister, Yisrael Katz, canceled a key train route on the Tel Aviv – Haifa line Sunday because of the delayed repairs. The government dispatched extra buses for some 90,000 affected commuters.

The resulting traffic jams offered a physical illustration of the outsized power the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority wields in Israeli politics.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians offer Netanyahu support to stabilize his coalition, while the government carves out large budgets for ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries. Recent reforms aimed at forcing religious youths to enlist for army service, which is compulsory for most other Jewish Israelis, have been scrapped. [Continue reading…]

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As Trump vs. Clinton captivates world, Netanyahu is unusually silent

The New York Times reports: For three hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel held forth on all sorts of topics — on Israel and the Middle East, on his record and on his plans. One subject that Mr. Netanyahu studiously avoided in his expansive conversation with American visitors last weekend, though, was the United States election.

Much of the rest of the world is absorbed by the contest between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it is a topic Mr. Netanyahu will not touch. Four years after he was accused of meddling in the American election on behalf of President Obama’s opponent, the hardly bashful Israeli leader this time has taken a virtual vow of silence.

The unusual reluctance comes after years of toxic relations between him and Mr. Obama, culminating in an acrid public feud over the American-brokered nuclear agreement with Iran. With Mr. Netanyahu seemingly aligning himself during that fight with Mr. Obama’s Republican critics, some Israel backers feared the country was squandering its traditional bipartisan support. The prime minister now seems intent on extricating himself from the partisan tussle.

“Everybody understands here in Israel that the most important thing for us is to go back to where we were for the last 68 years, which is bipartisan,” said Yair Lapid, a centrist party leader who hopes to succeed Mr. Netanyahu. “This is why nobody will take sides in a presidential campaign.”

But if Israel is staying away from the American campaign, the campaign is staying away from Israel, too. While it was an occasional topic of questioning during primary debates, it has been all but absent from the discussion in the general election.

In part, that reflects a high-octane campaign of invective that has overlooked many policy questions. But it also underscores the plethora of other issues that have seized Washington’s attention, principally the rise of the Islamic State, the war in Syria and relations with Russia. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute, once a dominant part of any White House foreign policy, seems to be slipping to a second-tier issue. [Continue reading…]

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Israel launches up to 50 strikes on Gaza after rocket attack on Sderot

The Guardian reports: The Israeli military has launched dozens of strikes on Gaza in an unusually strong response to a rocket fired from Gaza that landed between two houses in the Israeli community of Sderot.

Responsibility for the rocket attack on Sunday was initially claimed by Ahfad al-Sahaba, one of the small Salafi groups – ultra-conservative Sunnis – that have recently become more active in Gaza, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It prompted a wave of up to 50 retaliatory attacks, according to Israeli military sources, hitting several of Gaza’s armed Palestinian factions.

A security source said raids targeted Hamas’s Izzedin Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s Quds Brigades and the PFLP. Artillery shells also hit the area of al-Bureij in central Gaza and Beit Hanoun in the north. Several Palestinians, including a 17-year-old boy, were reportedly wounded.

The raids broke the pattern of limited Israeli retaliation during periods of relative quiet, leading the Islamist group Hamas to accuse Israel of escalating tensions. According to reports, the Israeli response came in two waves, the first immediately after the rocket attack, the second during the night, involving three Israeli jets and tank fire. [Continue reading…]

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Rights groups say Israel behind death threats campaign

Al Jazeera reports: The threats have come via emails, phone calls, and once with flowers delivered directly to the front door.

Amid months of sustained intimidation, harassment and threats, Palestinian human rights defenders are coming forward to denounce a campaign that they say aims to “plant fear” into their efforts to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations.

“This is a very organised and advanced campaign,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of Al Haq, a prominent Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights organisation.

“The goal is to stop us [from] dealing actively with the [International Criminal Court], cooperating actively with the ICC,” Jabarin told Al Jazeera. “They want to plant fear on our side … when it comes to accountability [and] when it comes to our advocacy work.” [Continue reading…]

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Swiss court backs Iran in decades-old oil row with Israel, ordered to pay $1.1 billion plus interest

Reuters reports: The Swiss Federal Tribunal rejected an appeal, citing lack of due process, against an arbitration ruling last year. The verdict, dated June 27, was available on the Lausanne court’s website.

It also awarded Iran 450,000 Swiss francs ($461,302) in court costs and lawyer fees.

It remains unclear whether Israel will pay up given restrictions its “trading with the enemy” laws.

Lawyers for each side had been locked in an arbitration over the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co (EAPC), a joint venture set up in 1968, when the two nations were friendly, to transport Iranian oil to the Mediterranean.

For a decade, the pipeline successfully carried oil from the Red Sea for export to Europe. But since the Islamic revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power, Iran has been demanding its share of revenues and assets that remained in Israel.

Since the partnership collapsed, EAPC has grown into a complex of energy assets, now mostly handling oil from former Soviet states.

How much profit it has made or how much it is worth is unknown, largely because it is protected in a similar way to Israel’s intelligence agencies, including by gag orders restricting coverage of its activities. [Continue reading…]

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Israel seen as a ‘pariah state,’ says top strategy official

The Times of Israel reports: A top official engaged in the campaign to improve Israel’s international standing said Sunday the Jewish state is seen as an apartheid “pariah state” abroad, while expressing the hope that by 2025, no one will question Israel’s right to exist.

Director-General of the Strategic Affairs Ministry Sima Vaknin-Gil also told the Knesset Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information that Israel is making progress against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

“Today, among the countries of the world, Israel is a pariah state,” she said. “Our objective is that in 2025 nobody in the world will raise the question ‘does Israel have the right to exist?’” [Continue reading…]

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What’s really behind Israel’s attack on Christian charity World Vision?

Ali Abunimah writes: Israel grabbed global headlines on Thursday with sensational allegations that tens of millions of dollars from the Christian relief and advocacy organization World Vision had been diverted to the military wing of the resistance group Hamas in Gaza.

But a day later, the Israeli claims look more than ever like sloppy propaganda. A World Vision official says Israel’s sums don’t add up and it has also emerged that a Mossad-linked Israeli group has been stoking allegations against the charity for years.

An Israeli general has said that Israel is relying on a “confession” extracted by an intelligence agency which is notorious for using torture.

Israel has also instructed its diplomats to smear World Vision, especially among Christian communities around the world.

But if Israel’s intention was to damage international humanitarian efforts in Gaza, it can chalk up a success, at least for now. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian children decried

Al Jazeera reports: Human rights groups have condemned Israel’s approval of a new law allowing the imprisonment of children as young as 12 for “terrorist offences”, and which is expected to apply mostly to Palestinian children in occupied East Jerusalem.

The “Youth Bill” allows authorities to imprison minors convicted of serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder or manslaughter, even if he or she is under the age of 14, the Israeli government said in a statement on Wednesday.

Attacks in recent months “demands a more aggressive approach, including toward minors”, the government said in the statement.

Israeli rights group B’Tselem criticised the law and Israel’s treatment of Palestinian youth in general.

“Rather than sending them to prison, Israel would be better off sending them to school where they could grow up in dignity and freedom, not under occupation,” the group said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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How Benjamin Netanyahu is crushing Israel’s free press

Ruth Margalit writes: In its annual report released this spring, Freedom House, an American democracy advocacy organization, downgraded Israel’s freedom of the press ranking from “free” to “partly free.” To anyone following Israeli news media over the past year and a half, this was hardly surprising. Freedom House focused primarily on the “unchecked expansion” of paid content in editorial pages, as well as on the outsize influence of Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), a free daily newspaper owned by the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and widely believed to promote the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel Hayom’s bias is well documented. A 2013 investigative report on Israeli television revealed drafts of several articles written by the paper’s journalists that had been systematically changed by the editor in chief to remove criticism of the prime minister. For a newspaper to have a political agenda is, of course, nothing new. But Israel Hayom isn’t conservative or right wing in the broad sense. Rather, the paper megaphones whatever is in the interest of the prime minister. Naftali Bennett, a far-right government minister, has said “Israel Hayom is Pravda — the mouthpiece of one man.”

In many ways, the Freedom House report missed the real worrying shifts. Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to control the country’s pages and airwaves go much further than Israel Hayom. For the past 18 months, in addition to his prime ministerial duties, he has served as Israel’s communications minister (as well as its foreign minister, economy minister and minister of regional cooperation). In this role, he and his aides have brazenly leveraged his power to seek favorable coverage from outlets that he once routinely described as “radically biased.” [Continue reading…]

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Views on U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine show little difference between supporters of Clinton and Sanders

Shibley Telhami writes: In the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton, now officially the Democratic nominee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont clashed over U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine. In one debate, Sanders criticized Clinton for not playing an even-handed role in the conflict, and more recently, the candidates’ appointees to the party’s platform committee disagreed over language calling for an end to the Israeli occupation. But is this disparity between the candidates and their surrogates reflected in the views of their constituents? Polls suggest not.

Political scientists are already debating whether Sanders supporters tend to be more “liberal” than those of Clinton on domestic policy, with two political scientists indicating they are not. Based on two national polls I conducted in May and June, these results seem to hold true for U.S.-Middle East policy as well. There is generally little difference between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders on these issues, despite significant demographic differences.

In contrast, the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters is huge on some Middle East policy issues — even larger than on some of the most deeply divisive domestic issues. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish aid flows into besieged Gaza Strip

Al Jazeera reports: The night before Eid, Basem Abu Attia received a call from a local official with some good news: His food package was ready for pick-up.

“I was very surprised,” Abu Attia told Al Jazeera. “I wasn’t expecting anything … I had nothing to give my family, so when the aid came I was overjoyed.”

More aid from Turkey has started flowing into Gaza this week under the terms of the recent Turkey-Israel deal, after the Social Affairs Ministry spent weeks organising the material. Distribution to about 75,000 families dependent on government subsidies began on Tuesday, although delivery was previously expedited to some of the neediest families, including Abu Attia’s.

The aid package included rice, oil, olives, dates and flour – basic items that Abu Attia, who lives in the Nuseirat refugee camp, cannot afford himself. His 10 children, the youngest of whom is three, were elated, he said – “especially with the chocolates”. He hopes that later deliveries will include toys for his children.

Just a week into receiving the package, however, all that remained was a bag of rice and a can of olives.

“We need a long-term programme, and we’re hoping the Turks will help us with this,” said Talla Abu Jomaa, the Social Affairs Ministry representative in Nuseirat camp, who delivered the aid package to Abu Attia.

Uncertainty was cast over the Turkey-Israel deal after a failed coup attempt by members of the Turkish military last week. But as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged in control, Turkish officials confirmed that the agreement remains on course. [Continue reading…]

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Israel should stop settlements, denying Palestinian development: Quartet report

Reuters reports: Israel should stop building settlements, denying Palestinian development and designating land for exclusive Israeli use that Palestinians seek for a future state, the Middle East peace “Quartet” recommended on Friday in a an eagerly awaited report.

The report by the Quartet entities sponsoring the stalled peace process – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – said the Israeli policy “is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.”

“This raises legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions, which are compounded by the statements of some Israeli ministers that there should never be a Palestinian state,” according to the eight-page report.

Amid a spike in violence, the Quartet criticized Palestinian leaders for “not consistently and clearly” condemning terrorist attacks and said illicit arms build up and militant activities in Gaza – controlled by Islamist group Hamas – must stop.

On Friday, an Israeli family car came under Palestinian gunfire near the Jewish settlement of Ottniel and crashed, killing a man, medics said. In the nearby city of Hebron, Israeli police shot dead a Palestinian woman who they said tried to stab one of them after she was detained.

Diplomatic sources said the report carries significant political weight as it has the backing of close Israeli ally the United States, which has struggled to revive the peace talks amid tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. [Continue reading…]

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