Mark Perry writes: The August beheading of American journalist James Foley shocked Washington’s policy elite, sparking concern over how the U.S. should respond to the emerging threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In retrospect, the gruesome murder was a kind of tipping point for the Obama administration, which had been scrambling to shape a response to both ISIS and the growing perception that its foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, was hopelessly adrift.
At the same time that Foley’s videotaped execution was spurring a series of high-level State Department, Pentagon and White House meetings over the crisis in Iraq and Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was calculating how he might use Foley’s death to explain why his country had killed over 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza over the previous eight weeks.
On the day following the release of a videotape showing the beheading, Netanyahu referred to the Foley murder during an evening press conference in Jerusalem, comparing the extremist group that murdered Foley with Hamas. “Hamas is like ISIS. ISIS is like Hamas,” he said. “They’re branches of the same tree.” The next day, in a message circulated on the Israeli prime minister’s twitter account, he reiterated the claim. “RT THIS,” Netanyahu wrote. “Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They’re enemies of Peace. They’re enemies of civilized countries.” The tweet had the snazzy look of a logo, along with scenes from the beheading video, which were deleted the next day after being widely criticized as inappropriate. [Continue reading...]
McClatchy reports: The green and white flag fluttering above a border checkpoint not far from the Ein Zivan kibbutz on a recent afternoon symbolized the new reality that has taken hold for Israelis who live on the Golan Heights: Islamist rebels now control areas of Syria on the very doorstep of Israeli-controlled land.
For now, the groups, which include al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, are focused on consolidating their positions and pushing toward the Syrian capital, Damascus. But there are worries in Israel that once the Islamist militants establish control, they will turn their guns toward the Israeli-held sector of the Golan.
“Right now it’s not on their agenda, but it’s inevitable,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University.
Just how big a threat the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad are to Israel remains an open topic. Israel has tried to remain aloof from the war in Syria, except to blast Syrian government convoys from the air that Israeli officials feared were transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, Israel’s Lebanese nemesis. Israel’s reaction even to the beheading by the Islamic State of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who held Israeli citizenship, was muted; officials explained they didn’t want to become embroiled in the conflict.
But with the capture Aug. 27 of the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing, Islamist rebels now occupy land adjacent to the Israeli section of the strategic plateau, changing the calculus of concern. Despite attempts by the Syrian army to reassert control, the rebels have captured more villages near the Israeli-held Golan, raising the prospect that the frontier area will become a stronghold of Islamist groups. [Continue reading...]
Haaretz reports: Thousands of Palestinians have left the Gaza Strip for Europe using tunnels, traffickers and boats, testimonies obtained by Haaretz show.
Gazans have been fleeing the Strip since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, but their escape was hardly covered in the media since they have been leaving clandestinely, with the help of paid smugglers.
The sinking of two ships carrying Palestinians from Gaza — one off the coast of Malta last week, and the other off the coast of Egypt — and the drowning of hundreds of passengers have focused attention on the trend.
The Palestinian Embassy in Greece reported yesterday that the ship that sank off the coast of Malta was carrying more than 450 passengers, most of them Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, and that it was rammed intentionally by another ship run by rival smugglers. [Read more...]
Quartz: A few weeks after Israel and Hamas signed an open-ended truce to end their nearly two-month-long war in Gaza, Israeli defense contractors are parading weapons used in the conflict at a conference in Tel Aviv. The annual Israel Unmanned Systems conference, which began Sunday and runs through Friday (Sept. 19), is jointly hosted with the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. According to its website, attendees include “senior officials from commercial and government entities” from Europe, Asia, North and South America.
The conference’s sponsors include the largest Israeli private defense contractors, among them Haifa-based Elbit Systems. Elbit’s Hermes 450 (pdf), a “multi-role tactical high-performance unmanned aircraft system” (UAS)—in other words, a battle drone—operated this summer in the Gaza Strip, and may have carried out attacks. [Continue reading...]
Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith write: Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Former CIA Director Robert Gates said so during his 2006 Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, when he noted—while serving as a university president—that Iran is surrounded by “powers with nuclear weapons,” including “the Israelis to the west.” Former President Jimmy Carter said so in 2008 and again this year, in interviews and speeches in which he pegged the number of Israel’s nuclear warheads at 150 to around 300.
But due to a quirk of federal secrecy rules, such remarks generally cannot be made even now by those who work for the U.S. government and hold active security clearances. In fact, U.S. officials, even those on Capitol Hill, are routinely admonished not to mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal and occasionally punished when they do so.
The policy of never publicly confirming what a scholar once called one of the world’s “worst-kept secrets” dates from a political deal between the United States and Israel in the late 1960s. Its consequence has been to help Israel maintain a distinctive military posture in the Middle East while avoiding the scrutiny—and occasional disapprobation—applied to the world’s eight acknowledged nuclear powers.
But the U.S. policy of shielding the Israeli program has recently provoked new controversy, partly because of allegations that it played a role in the censure of a well-known national-laboratory arms researcher in July, after he published an article in which he acknowledged that Israel has nuclear arms. Some scholars and experts are also complaining that the government’s lack of candor is complicating its high-profile campaign to block the development of nuclear arms in Iran, as well as U.S.-led planning for a potential treaty prohibiting nuclear arms anywhere in the region. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Denouncing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation, a group of veterans from an elite, secretive military intelligence unit have declared they will no longer “take part in the state’s actions against Palestinians” in required reserve duty because of what they called “our moral duty to act.”
In a letter sent Thursday night to their commanders as well as Israel’s prime minister and army chief, 43 veterans of the clandestine Unit 8200 complained that Israel made “no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence” and that information collected “harms innocent people.” Intelligence “is used for political persecution,” they wrote, which “does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence, further distancing us from the end of the conflict.”
The letter, revealed Friday in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper as well as The Guardian in Britain, echoes similar periodic protests by reservists over the years, including a group of 27 pilots who refused to participate in what Israel calls targeted assassinations, and 13 members of the vaunted commando unit known as Sayeret Matkal, both in 2003. But it is the first public collective refusal by intelligence officers rather that combat troops. Unit 8200 has a special role in Israeli society as a coveted pipeline to its high-technology industry.
“After our service we started seeing a more complex picture of a nondemocratic, oppressive regime that controls the lives of millions of people,” said one of the group’s organizers, a 32-year-old sergeant major who was on active duty from 2001 to 2005. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the military prohibits Unit 8200 members from being publicly identified. [Continue reading...]
Samer Badawi writes: As the smoke clears over Gaza and its residents begin to assess the damage of Israel’s 50-day war, no group has been more traumatized than this enclave’s children. They represent roughly half of Gaza’s population and, according to a report released on August 27, died at a rate of twelve a day, every day, during the conflict. Their parents, too, have perished in unprecedented numbers, leaving more than 1,500 of Gaza’s children orphaned.
Alaa Balata is one of them.
I met Alaa during one of the war’s temporary ceasefires. Israeli drones buzzed overhead, and the 17-year-old was surrounded by relatives who had been keeping a close eye on him since his parents perished. It had been fewer than two weeks since the incident, and Alaa spoke in the steady understatement of a person in shock, damming the sadness — at least for now.
When I asked him what happened, Alaa gestured toward the heap of rubble that was his uncle’s home. We were sitting on plastic chairs in a dirt alley flanked by cinder-block walls — a familiar scene in any Palestinian refugee camp. But here, in the heart of Jabalia, the path was strewn with shrapnel—the same dense metal that tore through every member of Alaa’s immediate family on the afternoon of July 29.
“It was the second day of Eid,” Alaa told me. A day earlier, on the first day of the Muslim feast marking the end of Ramadan, Alaa’s father decided to move the family to his brother’s house, which was was deep inside the camp and farther from the Israeli tanks shelling everywhere along Gaza’s border.
“He thought we would be safer here,” Alaa said. [Continue reading...]
Is there nowhere on the face of the Earth where opinion polls aren’t taken? In the wake of the 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza, parts of that tiny strip of land now look, according to photographs, like a moonscape of destruction. At least 10,000 homes were obliterated and thousands more damaged; at least 175 major factories were pummeled into the dust. Its only power plant was destroyed, damaging electricity, water, and sewage systems. Large apartment houses, as well as the ministry of education, schools, and other sites, were hit and sometimes reduced to so much rubble. It was all part of a massive Israeli assault on Hamas, several of whose senior leaders were assassinated, but also on the Palestinian population, involving what looked like collective punishment for its support of that organization or simply living in proximity to it. And indeed, with almost no hope of rebuilding much of their world any time soon, you might think that Palestinians would hold the Hamas leadership at least somewhat responsible for the destruction that has rained down, as assumedly the Israelis wanted them to. But a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), begun in the last day before the ceasefire took hold, and carried out, in part, amid the rubble that is now Gaza, suggests otherwise.
It finds that Palestinian opinion couldn’t be clearer. Support hasn’t been this high for Hamas since 2006, when it won a fair and square democratic election. If a presidential vote were held today, the pollsters of PSR discovered, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas hands down. Here are just a few of the findings: “79% [of Palestinians] believe that Hamas has won the Gaza War; 3% believe Israel came out the winner; and 17% believe the two sides were losers… If new presidential elections are held today and only two [candidates] were nominated, Haniyeh, for the first time since we have started asking about his popularity about eight years ago, would receive a majority of 61% and Abbas would receive 32%. [The] vote for Haniyeh stands at 53% in the Gaza Strip and 66% in the West Bank. Abbas receives 43% in the Gaza Strip and 25% in the West Bank… A majority of 53% believe that armed confrontation is the most effective means to establish a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. Only 22% believe negotiation is the best means to establish a Palestinian state and 20% believe that popular non-violent resistance is the most effective route to statehood.”
As historically has often been the case, massive bombings and other assaults do not destroy the support of populations for movements or governments, but tend to solidify it. In other words, Israeli policy is reducing civilized life for Palestinians in a major way and yet increasing the urge both to fight on and the desire for revenge. It’s an ugly pattern and, as TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky (whose latest book, Masters of Mankind, is due out this week) indicates today, it’s been going on in this same fashion for a remarkably long time, as Israel continues to gobble up Palestinian lands on the West Bank, while working to hem Palestinians in yet further in the Gaza Strip. Tom Engelhardt
Ceasefires in which violations never cease
What’s next for Israel, Hamas, and Gaza?
By Noam Chomsky
On August 26th, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) both accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza that left 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast landscapes of destruction behind. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the Israeli siege that has strangled Gaza for many years.
This is, however, just the most recent of a series of ceasefire agreements reached after each of Israel’s periodic escalations of its unremitting assault on Gaza. Throughout this period, the terms of these agreements remain essentially the same. The regular pattern is for Israel, then, to disregard whatever agreement is in place, while Hamas observes it — as Israel has officially recognized — until a sharp increase in Israeli violence elicits a Hamas response, followed by even fiercer brutality. These escalations, which amount to shooting fish in a pond, are called “mowing the lawn” in Israeli parlance. The most recent was more accurately described as “removing the topsoil” by a senior U.S. military officer, appalled by the practices of the self-described “most moral army in the world.”
Avi Shlaim writes: Israel has a habit of justifying its actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, however illegal and indecent, in the name of security. But denying any security to the other side only perpetuates the conflict.
Five days after reaching a ceasefire with Hamas to end the latest round of fighting in Gaza, the Israeli cabinet decided to appropriate 988 acres of land on the West Bank, near the place where three Israeli teenagers were recently abducted and murdered, to make way for another illegal Jewish city. This is the biggest land grab in three decades. As the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, pointed out: “It was a decision that weakens Israel and damages its security.” What it proves, if further proof is needed, is that Israel’s leaders are determined to prevent a two-state solution to the conflict.
Operation Protective Edge, which came to an end after 50 days of fighting, was the third and deadliest war in six years between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza. Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians. On the Palestinian side, the war left 2,104 dead, mostly civilians, and 12,656 injured; 17,000 houses were destroyed or damaged; 520,000 people, out of a population of 1.8 million, were displaced. The damage to buildings and to the civilian infrastructure, estimated at $6bn, will take many years to repair.
What did Israel gain by unleashing the deadly firepower of the IDF against the caged population of this tiny coastal enclave? Virtually nothing. [Continue reading...]
The Economist: IS’s advance is prompting the 20,000 Druze who inhabit the Golan Heights, alongside a similar number of Israelis, to shift their allegiance. For decades under Israeli occupation they professed their loyalty to Syria. But now, as adherents of an esoteric offshoot of Islam that IS and Jabhat al-Nusra excoriate, they are quietly loosening their ties to Syria. They have stopped exporting their apples there—and their brides. Druze applications for Israeli citizenship have risen sharply, says the Israeli-appointed mayor of Majdal Shams, the biggest of the four Druze towns. Many Druze now look to Israel (and particularly to its Israeli Druze soldiers stationed on the heights) to protect their secular world, where women walk and drive their cars unveiled.
This raises the hopes of those in Israel’s hawkish government who want to extend the annexation of the Golan Heights indefinitely. Whereas a more dovish Israeli government in 1999 came close to a land-for-peace deal with Syria, few Israelis nowadays contemplate such a thing. Indeed, Israel’s current leaders often remind their voters how vulnerable Israel would have been to the threat of jihadists if its border with Syria had been realigned along the shore of Lake Galilee, as was mooted.
An army division, newly equipped with drones, and a new iron fence, are meant to secure the border. The nearby vineyards look set to provide Israel with excellent, if expensive, wine for some years to come.
The Hannibal Directive: How Israel killed its own troops and massacred Palestinians to prevent soldiers’ capture
Max Blumenthal writes: In the southern city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, Aug. 1, 2014 is known as Black Friday. This was the day the Israeli military bombarded the city with almost every mode of destruction available to it, from F-16 missiles to Apache rockets to naval shelling to drone strikes and mortars.
Bulldozers ripped down homes at random while tanks barreled through neighborhoods, shelling anything in sight. In a matter of hours, at least 500 artillery shells and hundreds of missiles were dumped on the city, almost entirely in civilian areas. By the end, at least 190 people had been killed, so many that unequipped local hospitals were forced to store their corpses and body parts in ice cream coolers.
The target of the operation was not necessarily Rafah’s civilian population, though attacking it was part of the Israeli military’s underlying logic. Instead, the army apparently aimed to kill one of its own. Indeed, Israeli forces had invoked the Hannibal Directive, opening up an indiscriminate assault on the entire circumference of the area where one of its soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was allegedly taken captive by an ambush team from the Hamas military wing known as the Qassam Brigades.
Israel Hayom reports: Shin Bet security service officials believe that at least 10 Israeli Arabs have joined the Islamic State terrorist group and are currently fighting with the organization in Iraq and Syria, officials briefed Israeli leaders recently. The information has been discussed at length behind closed doors.
The Shin Bet assessment rests on the fact that since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, dozens of Israeli Arabs have joined various rebel groups currently fighting the Syrian army. The Shin Bet’s intelligence suggests that since the beginning of the civil war at least 25 individuals — Israeli Arabs known to hold radical views — have left Israel to join the “jihad” or holy war.
Meanwhile Thursday, 18 foreign fighters from the Islamic State, including an American jihadist, were killed in a Syrian air raid on a town near the militant group’s main stronghold city of Raqqa in eastern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The Syrian human rights group, which has tracked violence on all sides of the three-year-old conflict, said reliable sources reported that top Islamic State leaders who happened to be in the municipal building of Gharbiya at the time of the raid were among the foreign fighters killed. [Continue reading...]
Bethan Staton writes: Just over a week ago, a young Long Islander called Yochanan Gordon published a blog in the Times of Israel. It argued – poorly – that the only way to deal with the “enemy” facing the Israeli people was to “obliterate them completely.” The headline – “When genocide is permissible” – left little doubt over precisely what this meant.
The outcry that followed the publication – and the Times’ swift removal and apology – showed the sentiment was far from representative of wider society. Because the paper operates an open blog policy the piece hadn’t been seen by any editors before being uploaded. Gordon was a total unknown who in his pompous bio listed a family connection to journalism as his only professional qualification. For many reasons, Yochanan’s argument looked a lot like an aberration.
Except it wasn’t. In the heightened tension following the abduction and murder of three settler teenagers in the West Bank and the Gaza war that followed, Gordon’s blog was merely the crudest note in a chorus of calls for war crimes, of the grimmest hue, against the Palestinian people.
After the bodies of missing teens Gilad, Naftali and Eyal were found, the secretary general of the world’s largest youth Zionist movement, Rabbi Noam Perel, called for a murderous revenge that would “not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins.” At the end of July, Chief Rabbi of the Kiryat Arba settlement Dov Lior used religious texts to justify the potential “destruction of Gaza,” writing that in wartime a “nation under attack” could punish its adversaries in any way, including “taking crushing deterring steps to exterminate the enemy.”
Such words demand a response. “When it comes to language that incites to hatred and violence, it’s a human rights obligation on the state to take action,” explains Michael Kearney, a law lecturer at Sussex University who researches propaganda and incitement in international law. “Direct and public incitement to genocide is, in itself, what we’d call a crime in customary international law. Basically it’s binding on all states to live up to that obligation to prevent genocide and to deal with people who do explicitly incite to genocide.”
Precisely how that obligation might manifest itself is up to the state in question: often symbolic steps to demonstrate that such incitement is not acceptable, Kearney says, might be appropriate.
There has been much outcry among Israeli, Jewish and American communities over statements like these: After widespread condemnation, indeed, Rabbi Perel retracted his statements and apologized. But few measures have been taken against the writers and commentators in question here. Worse, incitement from Israeli politicians hasn’t resulted in serious consequences. At the beginning of July, Knesset member Ayelet Shaked posted an extract from an article by Uri Elitzur on her Facebook page. It defined the “enemy” as the “entire Palestinian people,” and wrote that the “mothers of terrorists” should be destroyed, “as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes.” Aside from the condemnation of commentators, Shaked received no official censure: a day after, three Israeli men kidnapped 16-year-old Mohamed Abu Khdeir and burned him to death. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Israel’s frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.
The Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.
Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
“Iran’s fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.
In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.
“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al Qaeda, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al Qaeda.
Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.
“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it’s very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”
But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.
Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of Assad.
If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad’s forces to further reclaim the initiative. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: The British government said on Monday it deplored an Israeli decision to appropriate a large swathe of land inside the occupied West Bank, saying the move would seriously damage Israel’s international reputation.
On Sunday, Israel announced the appropriation of land in the Etzion Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem, a move which an anti-settlement group said was the biggest such claim in 30 years.
“The UK deplores the Israeli government’s expropriation of 988 acres (1.54 square miles) of land around the settlement of Etzion,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement which echoed U.S. calls to reverse the decision.
“This is a particularly ill-judged decision that comes at a time when the priority must be to build on the ceasefire in Gaza. It will do serious damage to Israel’s standing in the international community.”
Some 500,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory that the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.