Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone shot down in Israel

Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone shot down in Israel
JERUSALEM -- The leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon said Thursday that his group was responsible for dispatching a unmanned drone that was shot down last week over Israel.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address that the drone successfully flew over "sensitive installations" in Israel, exposing what some say were weaknesses in Israel’s air defenses.

Israeli officials, who earlier in the day accused Hezbollah of sending the drone, said they began tracking the drone over the Mediterranean Ocean before it crossed into Israel. They said they allowed it to fly over land only in order to shoot it down in an unpopulated area. The drone was not armed, Israeli officials said, but intended to conduct surveillance.

Earlier Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would “act with determination to defend its borders.”

In a similar incident in 2006, Israel shot down two unmanned drones sent by Hezbollah to northern Israel.


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-- Edmund Sanders

Photo: An image grab from Hezbollah's Al Manar TV shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's militant Shiite movement, delivering a televised speech in Beirut on Thursday. Credit: Al Manar

Israel's Netanyahu calls for early elections amid budget crunch

Benjamin Netanyahu
JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday night that he is disbanding his right-wing government and calling for early elections, blaming a coalition deadlock over how to slash nearly $4 billion from next year’s budget.

Speculation has been rife for months that Netanyahu’s inability to pass a 2013 budget would force him to dismantle what has been one of Israel’s longest-serving coalition governments.

New parliamentary elections, which were expected to take place in October 2013, will likely now occur by February.

Though most polls suggest Netanyahu and his Likud Party will remain in power, the makeup of his next coalition could change if the budget becomes the driving issue, analysts say.

Amid a recent spike in government spending and a weakening economy, Israel’s budget deficit has doubled over the past year, causing concern in financial markets, both in Israel and abroad.

This summer, Netanyahu pushed through tax hikes and other austerity measures, but they were only enough to provide a third of the revenue Israel needs to meet its targets. After several weeks of negotiations, the prime minister said he was unable to reach an agreement with his coalition partners over where to make further cuts.

Religious parties objected to reducing government benefits that many of their ultra-Orthodox supporters receive. Military hawks scoffed at proposed cuts to Israel’s Defense Ministry.

By disbanding the government, Netanyahu is hoping that his reelection will give him a renewed mandate to push through the needed cuts or allow him to create a new coalition that will back him.

Critics, however, said Netanyahu was simply postponing painful -- and likely unpopular-- economic decisions until after the election.

It is the second time this year that Netanyahu has announced the disbanding of his government. In May, he called for early elections amid a political battle over whether to begin drafting religious students into the army.

That election was quickly canceled when the centrist Kadima Party surprised everyone by agreeing to join Netanyahu’s coalition, a move that was supposed to give the prime minister the political leverage he would need to approve a military-draft bill. Two months later, Kadima withdrew in frustration and the proposed military-draft law was shelved.


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-- Edmund Sanders 

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Credit: Bernat Armangue / Associated Press

Gaza militant killed in renewed clashes with Israel

Renewed clashes between Gaza Strip militants and Israeli soldiers left one Palestinian fighter dead and 14 others wounded, while southern Israeli cities were showered with several dozen mortars and rockets
GAZA CITY -- Renewed clashes between Gaza Strip militants and Israeli soldiers left one Palestinian fighter dead Monday and 14 others wounded, while southern Israeli cities were showered with several dozen mortars and rockets.

For the first time since June, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, joined other armed groups in firing rockets at Israel.

The exchange was triggered by an Israeli airstrike over the weekend that targeted a motorcycle carrying two people who Israel said were responsible for cross-border attacks earlier this year.

One of the passengers, Abdullah Mekawi, 25, died from his wounds, Hamas officials said.

Militant groups responded early Monday by firing an estimated 40 mortar rounds and rockets. No Israelis were injured, but some property damage was reported.


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-- Rushdi abu Alouf

Photo: Palestinians gather around the wreckage of motorcycle following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Sunday. The attack was followed Monday by cross-border clashes between Israel and militant groups in the coastal enclave. Credit: Evad Baba / Associated Press

Speculation continues about drone intercepted in Israel


JERUSALEM -- The day after an unidentified drone penetrated Israeli airspace and was shot down by the Israeli air force Saturday, speculation continued about the origin of the small craft or its assignment.

According to statements from the Israeli military, the drone was spotted before entering Israeli airspace and remained under surveillance of both ground and air forces until being downed in the northern Negev, a relatively remote area chosen to avoid damage to civilian areas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the military's response and stressed Israel would continue to protect its "land, sea and air borders" on behalf of its citizens.

The drone entered Israeli airspace Saturday along the country's southern Mediterranean coast. Despite emerging from the direction of the Gaza Strip, the army does not believe it was launched from the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. Theories abound as to the make and mission of the drone -- described by Israeli media as sophisticated. 

"The immediate suspect is Hezbollah," according to one theory published in Haaretz. The Lebanese-based, Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militia is believed to have used drones against Israel before, although coming from the south presents a twist. Another commentator on the website ynetnews.com raised the possibility it was headed toward Dimona, site of Israel's nuclear reactor, to photograph the area, and that this was a message from Iran, testing Israel's capabilities.

Continue reading »

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From evangelical broadcasters in Israel to a salamander seen as a metaphor for the Mexican soul, here are five stories you shouldn't miss from this last week in global news:

Daystar, TBN ready for Messiah in Jerusalem

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In Mexico, the ajolote's fate lies in troubled waters

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Trinity Broadcasting Network co-founder Paul Crouch, center, his son, Matt Crouch, right, and Singapore evangelist Joseph Prince tape a prayer broadcast on the terrace of TBN's new Jerusalem studio. Credit: Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles Times

Netanyahu envoy says U.S. should expand arms aid to Israel

WASHINGTON -- A special envoy of the Israeli prime minister said the United States should expand its arms aid to Israel in light of the increased threats posed by the unstable aftermath of the "Arab Spring" revolutions.

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and foreign policy advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu's  Likud Party, said in an interview Friday that the instability in Egypt, Libya and Syria suggest that the U.S.-Israel security ties will be “probably more important than ever before.”

He said the United States should consider increasing its emergency inventory of military equipment in Israel, and step up joint military exercises with the Israel Defense Forces to demonstrate to neighboring governments the U.S. commitment to regional stability. Since 1990, the United States has stored military equipment in Israel for use by U.S. armed forces or by the IDF in an emergency.

Shoval said political instability and violence in the region and the advance of Islamist parties show that Americans were generally too optimistic about the uprisings.

American assumptions about the region “will have to be continually reassessed and reexamined” by whichever party wins the White House in the November election, Shoval said.

He said he believes Israel’s treaty with Egypt is now “problematic,” though Egyptian officials have generally said they do not intend to end it. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has made encouraging statements, but he won election by a narrow margin and his government could come under strong pressure from more extreme Islamists, Shoval said.

In his position as special envoy, Shoval serves as a communications channel between the prime minister and the U.S. public and lawmakers.

Although Netanyahu has questioned whether the West’s sanctions would persuade Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program, Shoval said the Israeli government has always supported sanctions.

He said the West should make it clear to Iran that it could eventually face a complete trade embargo, even if Western governments are not ready to take such a drastic step yet.


Israeli police: Gunman killed in hotel shooting was New Yorker

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-- Paul Richter

Israeli police: Gunman killed in hotel shooting was New Yorker

Israeli police identified the gunman who opened fire in an Eilat hotel, killing a worker before being shot to death by a counter-terror unit, as a New York man named William Hershkowitz

JERUSALEM -- Israeli police identified the gunman who opened fire in an Eilat hotel on Friday, killing a worker before being shot to death by a counter-terror unit, as a New York man named William Hershkowitz.

Hershkowitz, 23, was from Poughkeepsie in upstate New York, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Officials said he had previously been employed at the Leonardo Club Hotel in Eilat, a southern resort town, and had recently immigrated to Israel as part of a Jewish Agency program.

According to authorities, Hershkowitz came to the hotel Friday morning, apparently intending to confront hotel sous-chef Armando Abed, who had dismissed him a few days earlier.

When a hotel security guard tried to intervene, officials said, Hershkowitz grabbed the guard's handgun and ran into the kitchen, where he fatally shot Abed, 33, who had moved to Eilat from his native Galilee village of Mi’iliya.

Witnesses told local media that the shooting took place as the hotel breakfast hall was filling with guests.

Hershkowitz was killed after a short standoff with an Israel Defense Forces counter-terror unit that was dispatched to the hotel, officials said. Police used a public address system to tell guests to stay in their rooms during the standoff.

The Jewish Agency, which aims to connect young Jewish people with Israel, is now investigating how Hershkowitz got into its Oranim program, which brings Jewish American youth to the country.

Israeli media reported that prior to the incident, program officials had decided that Hershkowitz would return to the United States on Tuesday or stay with family in Israel.


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-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: Israeli soldiers secure the area near the site of a shooting at a hotel in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, Israel, on Friday. Credit: Eliraz Getah / Associated Press

American man opens fire, kills 1 at Israeli resort hotel

JERUSALEM -- A man opened fire in an Israeli hotel Friday morning, killing one man before being shot and killed by a counter-terror unit called to the scene.

Witnesses said the incident took place as the breakfast hall at the Leonardo Club Hotel in the southern resort town of Eilat was filling with guests. Michal Buaron, vacationing at the hotel with her family, told Channel 2 TV they were on their way to the dining hall "when people started running out like a hurricane" and guests were ordered to return to their rooms and stay there.

Israeli media reported that the shooter was a former employee who came to the hotel to have words with another employee with whom he'd fallen out during his employment. When an armed hotel security guard arrived on the scene to intervene, the man reportedly grabbed the guard's handgun and ran into the kitchen, fatally shooting one man.  

A counter-terror unit was quickly dispatched to the hotel, as police issued instructions to guests over a public address system to remain in their rooms. After a short standoff, the shooter was killed.

The circumstances are under investigation, but local media said the shooter was an American citizen in his early 20s and that his victim was a 50-year-old man.

Media reports said the shooter had arrived in Israel on a program for American Jews.

The shooting took place during one of the busiest times of year in Eilat, a Red Sea resort town that attracts many local tourists on vacation during the Jewish holidays.


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Rights watchdog accuses Hamas of torture, abuse of Palestinians

GAZA CITY -- Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living under a criminal justice system that violates their human rights by using torture, arbitrary arrests and warrantless searches, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.

In a 43-page report, the international watchdog group blames the injustices on Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip. Officials of the group warned that if Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. label a terrorist organization, does not reform its justice system, it could face popular revolts similar to those that have swept across Egypt, Libya and Syria.

"After five years of Hamas rule in Gaza, its criminal justice system reeks of injustice, routinely violates detainees' rights, and grants impunity to abusive security services," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of the group. "Hamas should stop the kinds of abuses that Egyptians, Syrians and others in the region have risked their lives to bring to an end."

According to Stork, Hamas is violating international law by subjecting civilians to military courts and denying prisoners their rights. The group accused Hamas of executing three detainees after obtaining forced confessions through torture. In 2011, 147 complaints of torture were filed against Hamas, according to Human Rights Watch.

Hamas officials said they would investigate the allegations, but denied there was widespread use of torture or political arrests.

"Maybe we have some violations from time to time, but it is not a widespread phenomenon," said Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad. "Detention procedures are monitored by local human rights organizations, and we try as much as possible to follow international standards.”

One Gaza resident, who feared being identified, said he was arrested nearly two dozen times during recent protests calling for reforms and reconciliation with the rival Palestinian party, Fatah, which controls the West Bank. The young man said in an interview that he was beaten, shaved, humiliated, prevented from sleeping and burned with cigarettes during his detentions by Hamas.

"Hamas is lying and trying to hide its ugly face from the international community," he said.


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-- Rushdi abu Alouf

Abu Alouf is a special correspondent.

Live from the Holy Land ... our rival's logo!


JERUSALEM — The Holy Land rivalry between U.S. televangelism giants Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar Television is getting a little ugly.

As reported Monday, both broadcasters recently bought expensive new Jerusalem studios — located next-door to each other — as part of a competitive race to expand their footprint and programming in Israel. Both prime properties feature sweeping, unobstructed views of the Mount of Olives, Old City and Mt. Zion.

In the report, TBN accused Daystar officials of working behind the scenes to prevent TBN from obtaining its own channel on Israel’s leading satellite television provider Yes. Daystar, which already has its own channel on Yes, declined to comment on the allegations.

But on Tuesday it sent a not-so-subtle message to TBN, hanging a large “Daystar” sign off its balcony in a position where for the most part it can only be seen from TBN’s balcony 15 feet away.

The sign, which a Daystar crew member said may be permanent, will make it nearly impossible for TBN cameras to get a clear picture of Mt. Zion — without also capturing its rival's name and logo.


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— Edmund Sanders

Photo: The sweeping view of Mt. Zion from Trinity Broadcasting Network's new Jerusalem studios is now partly obstructed by a large sign installed Tuesday by rival Daystar, which owns the studio and terrace next door. Credit: Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles Times


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