Israeli army fires warning shots into Syria

JERUSALEM -- Israel fired warning shots into Syria on Sunday after an apparently errant mortar shell struck an Israeli military post in the Golan Heights, the latest example of regional spillover from Syria’s civil unrest.

The Syrian mortar caused no damage or injuries, but Israeli military officials have grown increasingly alarmed over how fighting between the Syrian army and Syrian rebel groups has inched closer to the Golan Heights border.

Until Sunday, Israel had restrained itself from responding to the handful of instances in which mortar shells and gunfire struck Israeli settlements or military positions in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

Sunday’s retaliation by Israeli soldiers marked the first such military engagement between Israel and Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel Radio reported that Syrian forces returned fire, though Israeli military officials would not comment on that report.

Last week Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he warned Syrian President Bashar Assad to move the fighting away from the border region. Israel also complained to the United Nations about three Syrian tanks that last month drifted into what it says is a demilitarized zone along the Syrian border.

Though tensions along the normally quiet frontier are rising, Israel is reluctant to get involved in Syria’s unrest, analysts say. Some fear military intervention by Israel -– Syria’s longtime enemy -- could backfire by rallying support around Assad.

“If Israel got involved, it would be good for Bashar since he could say he’s protecting the Arab nation,’’ said Moshe Moaz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University. “But I think both sides are going to be very careful not to be dragged into something that will escalate. If Bashar really upsets Israel, Israel could do something very serious to teach him a lesson.”

In 2007 Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility that it feared could be used to develop nuclear weapons. But overt military clashes between the two countries have been rare in recent decades.

The Israeli action underscores how the Syrian conflict is spilling over its borders and, in at least two cases, prompting retaliatory fire from neighbors.

Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile frontier with Syria, has repeatedly fired retaliatory artillery salvos into Syria in response to Syrian shells landing in Turkish territory.

The Turkish strikes began in October after an apparently errant mortar shell from Syria struck a home in a Turkish border town, killing five people: two women and three children.

Since then, Turkey has had a policy of firing back into Syria when shells from the Syrian side land on Turkish territory. Turkish commanders say they try to target the battery that fired into the Turkish side. There has been no definitive word on Syrian casualties from the Turkish retaliatory fire.

Turkey, though, unlike Israel, has been a major supporter of the Syrian opposition and has been a staging point and logistics center for rebels seeking to overthrow the Syrian government.


Four dead in Gaza Strip fighting

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Four dead in Gaza Strip fighting

Gaza strip
GAZA CITY— Renewed clashes between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip left at least four Palestinians dead Saturday and 30 others wounded, according to Palestinian officials.

The violence began when an Israeli tank patrolling the northern Gaza border was struck by an anti-tank missile fired by Gaza militants. Four Israeli soldiers were wounded, including one in critical condition.

It was unclear which Palestinian militant group was responsible for the attack.

Israel Defense Forces struck back with ground fire and air raids over nearby areas, Palestinian witnesses said. Most of 30 injured Palestinians were residents of a neighborhood east of Gaza City that came under fire when militants fled to their area, Palestinians said.

Among the dead were Ahmed Dardasawi, 18, and Mohmad Harara, 17, Gaza hospital officials said.

The fighting raised fears that violence in the Gaza Strip could escalate. Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, condemned the “Zionist escalation and targeting of civilians," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

Shortly after the Israeli airstrikes, Gaza militants fired numerous rockets into southern Israel. No injuries were  reported. Israel warned citizens living near the border to remain close to bomb shelters.

Back-and-forth violence has rattled the region for months despite efforts to broker a cease-fire.

Several Palestinian civilians have been killed in recent clashes, including a 12-year-old boy struck in crossfire and a mentally unstable young man shot by Israeli soldiers when he drifted close to the border, Palestinian officials said.The two deaths occurred last week.

On Thursday, an Israeli soldier was wounded when an explosive device destroyed a vehicle that was involved in maintenance work along the border fence. 


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Photo: Wounded Israeli soldiers are wheeled into the Soroka hospital in Beersheva, southern Israel, following clashes along the Gaza Strip border, east of Gaza City on Saturday. Credit: Dudu Grunshpan / AFP/ Getty Images

Palestinians hope President Obama's second term will help bring change

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinians expressed hope Wednesday that President Obama’s second term will be more forthcoming than his first one when it comes to resolving their conflict with Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quick to congratulate Obama on his victory and expressed hope that he will help achieve peace in the Middle East.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped Obama's second term would see the implementation of a two-state solution. Palestinians also remain determined to become a nonmember state in the United Nations General Assembly, Erekat said.

Analyst Sam Bahour said he expects Obama will have more leverage and face less pressure from lobbying groups in dealing with issues such as conflicts in the Middle East.

"On the one hand, he is more knowledgeable of the issues, and on the other he has to deal with the changing politics in the region, particularly with the emergence of two new powers in the Middle East — Iran and Turkey — which means the U.S. cannot afford to leave a political vacuum that could be filled by either of these two powers," Bahour said.

Palestinians in general do not expect Obama to change his support of Israel, particularly in light of what Bahour described as "a Congress hijacked by the pro-Israel camp."


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Photo: President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in March. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press

Israel to build 1,285 housing units over Green Line


JERUSALEM -- Israel on Tuesday published tenders for the construction of 1,285 new units of Jewish housing in the Jerusalem area and the West Bank settlement of Ariel, all on land seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, according to the anti-settlement group Peace Now.

The new housing proposals, one of the biggest tender offers in months, includes 607 units in Pisgat Zeev and 606 units in Ramot, both located on land that Israel annexed into Jerusalem but that Palestinians claim for their state.

Another 72 units will be built in Ariel, a large Jewish settlement built deep in the West Bank near Nablus.

Plans for the units were previously announced and approved by the government. The tender offer represents one of the final stages before construction can break ground.

Peace Now officials criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for expanding settlements beyond the Green Line that marks land seized in 1967 and accused the Housing Ministry of trying to hide the last announcement by releasing it on a day that attention was focused on U.S. elections.


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Photo: The Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev in East Jerusalem is seen in 2009 with the Shuafat refugee camp in the background and Israel's separation barrier running between them. Israel said Tuesday that it was pushing forward with construction of more than 1,200 new homes in Pisgat Zeev and another Jewish enclave in east Jerusalem as well as Ariel, a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Credit: Sebastian Scheine / Associated Press

Report: Israel leaders ordered preparedness for Iran strike in 2010

NetanyahuJERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister and defense minister tried to move their country closer to an attack on Iran in 2010 but military and security chiefs resisted, an Israeli television program reported Monday.

The Channel 2 television magazine “Fact” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the military to enter a level of preparedness termed P Plus, reportedly code for preparing for a military strike.

It remained unclear whether they intended to follow through with a strike or just wanted to signal that Israel was prepared to make such a move. Ultimately the instructions to the military were dropped.

In a taped interview that followed the segment, Netanyahu told “Fact” that he was “not eager to go to war” and would be “very happy” to see international sanctions force Iran to rein in its nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful in intent but Israel, the U.S. and others fear will produce a nuclear weapon.

“At the end of the day, as prime minister of the Jewish state, the responsibility is mine to prevent the threat to our existence,” Netanyahu said.

In the feature, which aired Monday night, veteran investigative journalist Ilana Dayan reported that the order was given somewhat casually, at the end of a ministerial forum convened on a different matter.

But Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan, then army chief of staff and head of Mossad, respectively, resisted the instruction, said Dayan's report. Ashkenazi reportedly said the army wasn't ready; Dagan contended that only the security Cabinet could authorize such a step because it might lead to war. Both men have since left their posts.

The report highlights the continuing disagreement between Netanyahu and some of his top security officials on the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program, a topic that in recent years has become a permanent fixture on the agenda in Israel.

Continue reading »

Israel complains about Syrian tanks along Golan Heights border

JERUSALEM –- Three Syrian tanks entered a demilitarized zone Saturday afternoon along the border with the Golan Heights, spurring Israel to file a complaint with the United Nations, Israeli officials said.

Although the tanks did not enter the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel officials said the Syrian military presence is restricted from the border area under a U.N.-monitored cease-fire agreement.
The Syrian tanks were battling Syrian rebel forces when the fighting moved into the demilitarized area, Israeli media reported.

Israeli officials said they did not view the tanks as a provocation or an attempt to draw Israel into the fighting in Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar Assad has devolved into a civil war.

It’s not the first time violence from Syria’s war has drifted into the Golan Heights. In September, errant mortars struck the region.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War and announced in 1981 that it was annexing the region, though the move was not recognized by the international community.


Israel admits responsibility for 1988 assassination

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Israel admits responsibility for 1988 assassination

Israel responsible for Khalil Ibrahim Wazir's 1988 assassination
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

JERUSALEM -- More than 24 years after Palestinian military leader Khalil Ibrahim Wazir was assassinated in Tunisia, Israel acknowledged for the first time that its spy agency Mossad carried out the killing.

Wazir, one of the founders of the Fatah Party and a top aide to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was viewed by Israel as a terrorist and by Palestinians as a freedom fighter.

After refusing for years to publicly confirm Israel's role in the April 16, 1988, assassination, the nation's military censors on Thursday permitted the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot to publish an interview with the commander who led the secret mission. The article had reportedly been suppressed by censors for more than a decade.

Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, was believed to have been behind numerous strikes against Israelis, including a 1978 bus-hijacking attack that killed 38 Israelis, and to have helped organize the 1987 Palestinian uprising known as the first Intifada from his base in Tunisia.

The killing was condemned by the United States and international community and was widely believed to have been carried out by Israel.

According to the report, 26 Israeli commandos participated in the attack on Wazir’s heavily guarded home, including two agents who approached the house posing as a vacationing couple but carrying guns with silencers.

[Updated, 11:19 a.m. Nov. 1: The mission’s commander was Nahum Lev, who died in a 2000 motorcycle accident shortly after giving an interview about the operation to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman.

He told Bergman that he and a male soldier dressed as a woman were the pair who posed as vacationers. The first team killed a bodyguard asleep in his car, while other squads entered the home, killing other guards as well as a gardener who got in the way.

“It was too bad about the gardener,” Lev told the journalist. “But in operations like this, you have to ensure that all potential resistance is neutralized.”

Lev said Wazir was found and shot in an upstairs room as his wife stood nearby. The team escaped without suffering any casualties.]


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Photo: Khalil Ibrahim Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, the Palestine Liberation Organization's military chief on Feb. 10, 1986, in Amman, Jordan. Credit: John Rice / Associated Press

Two new settler outposts go up in West Bank, activists report


JERUSALEM -- Two new outposts of settlers have gone up in the West Bank in recent months, according to a report by the Israeli anti-settlement organization Peace Now.

The organization noted that unlike the usual makeshift set-up of such outposts, the new ones come complete with paved roads and infrastructure connections to electricity and water, suggesting official support.

"They wouldn't have been able to do this without the authorities' assistance," Hagit Ofran of Peace Now told Israeli media. The group said these are the first outposts to enjoy such official backing since 2005.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the settler umbrella group, dismissed the report as "nonsense," saying neither outpost was new or illegal and that both were built inside existing settlement boundaries.

The Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military, was aware of the two locations and has begun procedures to stop work on the site and issue demolition orders, according to Israeli media.

Continue reading »

Right-wing Israeli political parties form super bloc for election

JERUSALEM -– Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced Thursday night that their political parties would run on the same ticket in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu creates a potentially powerful right-wing super bloc that many predict will form the foundation of the next coalition government.

"We must join forces for the sake of Israel’s future," Netanyahu said at a news conference announcing the alliance, which came as a surprise to many of both parties’ members. "A clear mandate will allow me to focus on what’s really important."

Though the two parties have worked together in the same coalition since Netanyahu’s election in 2009 and were widely expected to continue that partnership, the closer alliance marks the first time that the parties will offer a consolidated list of candidates.

"This move will sharpen the differences between right and left, and it will boost our capacity to govern, and to grapple with the challenges facing Israel," said Education Minister Gideon Saar, a Likud member.

He said the parties would not be formally merging.

Continue reading »

Sudan accuses Israel of bombing arms factory

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Sudan on Wednesday accused Israel of launching an airstrike that caused a large explosion at a munitions factory, killing two people, in a residential area of the capital, Khartoum.

Sudan Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said four planes bombed the Yarmouk complex housing a military arms factory in the south of the capital and that an analysis of rocket debris from the explosion confirmed Israel was behind the attack.

"We think Israel did the bombing," Belal said. "We reserve the right to react at a place and time we choose."

The government of Israel, which has been accused in the past of airstrikes in Sudan, didn’t comment on Sudan’s accusations Wednesday.

Belal said the planes used sophisticated technology to evade anti-aircraft systems. The Sudanese government would take the matter to the U.N. Security Council, he said.

Local residents reported seeing fighter jets launch the attack that caused the blast, journalists said.

“One resident I spoke to said he saw two planes. The first plane had large lights and it was basically guiding the plane behind it. When its light became bright, they heard a rocket that followed and there was a large explosion," said journalist Ishmail Kushkush. "I spoke to another resident who said he saw three planes."

Kushkush said witnesses reported two people had been killed.

“All said there was a very large explosion. Shrapnel went in all directions. Houses were damaged. One person told me his entire back room collapsed,” Kushkush said.

Sudan has accused Israel of other attacks in recent years, including the bombing of a truck convoy allegedly carrying arms in eastern Sudan in 2009. Last year, Sudan accused Israel of an attack on a vehicle in the same area, which killed two people. A similar attack occurred in May, killing one.

“The main purpose is to frustrate our military capabilities and stop any development there and ultimately weaken our national sovereignty," Belal said.

Israel has never confirmed or denied involvement in the incidents in 2009, 2011 and in May. There has been speculation, however, that the attacks on vehicles were linked to arms smuggling through Sudan to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.


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Photo: A fire following an explosion at Yarmouk military factory in Khartoum, Sudan. Credit: EPA


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