Palestinians vote in first local elections since 2005


RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinians headed to the polls Saturday in the West Bank’s first local elections in seven years, selecting new leaders for 93 cities and villages.

Turnout was light in the morning but picked up as the day progressed, according to officials from the central elections commission.

As they cast their votes, many Palestinians expressed pride and happiness that the long-delayed local elections were finally being held.

“It makes me feel that democracy is well here,” said Tareq Makhlouf, 26, a U.S.-born Palestinian who moved to Ramallah last year.

Others said they hoped the new slate of local leaders would bring change.

“It is time to see new faces in the municipalities,” said Faisal Darras after casting a vote at a Ramallah polling station. “Seven years of the same faces is enough .... Elections should be held every four years, not every seven.”

The Palestinian Authority had attempted to conduct local elections several times since 2010, but votes were canceled due to political instability and the fracture between the two main Palestinian parties, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, did not allow voting to take place in the seaside territory and urged its supporters in the West Bank to boycott Saturday’s poll.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cast his vote in al-Bireh, Ramallah’s sister city. It is believed he voted for his party’s list, the Fatah-led Independence and Development bloc, one of only two lists running in the city.

“This is a day of democracy for the Palestinian people,” Abbas said.

He expressed hope that the Palestinian people would soon be able to vote in presidential and legislative elections as well. The last national election was held in 2006.

Counting the votes will start soon after the polls close Saturday evening, but preliminary results will not be announced before Sunday afternoon, election officials said.

Because of the Hamas boycott, most analysts predict Fatah lists will dominate the new local councils.


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Photo: A Palestinian woman looks at a voter registration list outside a polling station in the West Bank city of Hebron. Credit: Abed Hashlamoun / EPA

Israeli navy intercepts Gaza-bound protest ship

JERUSALEM -- Israeli navy commandos early Saturday intercepted a Gaza Strip-bound ship carrying about 30 pro-Palestinian activists as it attempted to break through a maritime blockade of the  impoverished seaside territory.

Israeli military officials said that after the ship refused to alter its course, soldiers took control of the vessel and directed it toward the Israeli port of Ashdod.

No injuries were reported.

The ship, called Estelle, was the last attempt by activists to bring attention to Israel’s naval blockade around Gaza. The boat carried cement and other supplies that Israel currently restricts from entering Gaza because it says they could be used to build military bunkers or weapons. Among the passengers were parliament members from Greece, Norway, Sweden and Spain, activists said.

In 2010, Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on a similar protest ship when passengers violently resisted being taken over.

The Israeli government has called the protest ships a provocation and defended its naval blockade as necessary to ensure that militant groups in Gaza do not receive weapons.

Critics say Israel should relax its restrictions on land borders to permit the importation of more building supplies.

“If Israel wants to exercise its authority as occupying power to stop ships from reaching Gaza, it must fulfill its obligation to allow free movement of people and goods via the land crossings, subject only to individual security checks," said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli group that has criticized the blockade.

-- Edmund Sanders

U.S. soldiers arrive in Israel for largest-ever military exercise

Military exercise
JERUSALEM -- More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have begun to arrive in Israel for the largest-ever joint military exercise between the two nations to test their cooperation in the event of a large-scale missile attack against Israel.

The three-week, $30-million war games are purely defensive in nature and unrelated to any specific regional threat, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said during a briefing with reporters Wednesday.

Israel is particularly worried about recent turmoil and new threats in the region. Syria’s unrest is raising fears about the fate of its chemical weapons. Israel has threatened to launch a military attack against Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program. An Iranian-built unmanned spy drone sent by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group was shot down over Israel last week.

Militants in the Gaza Strip this week, for the first time, fired an antiaircraft missile against Israeli planes. Israeli officials believe that weapon and many more like it were smuggled into Gaza from Libya after the revolution in that country.

But Franklin stressed that the exercise, which will include tests of U.S.-made Patriot and Aegis missile defense systems, had been planned for two years and was not intended to send any signal about possible upcoming military operations.

The drill is “not there to send a message,” he said.

In the same telephone briefing, however, Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel said that “anyone who wants can get any kind of message he wants from this exercise.”

Israel relies heavily on its close cooperation with the U.S. military to serve as a deterrent against its enemies.

The exercise will simulate a multifront missile attack against Israel, Nuriel said.


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Photo: A U.S. soldier works on an anti-missile system in an earlier U.S.-Israeli military exercise. About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are arriving in Israel for joint military exercises to take place over the next three weeks. Credit:  Ziv Koren / European Pressphoto Agency

Israeli military calculated calorie needs of Gazans during embargo

JERUSALEM -- Israel’s military calculated the minimum number of calories per day that Gaza Strip residents would need to avoid malnutrition during its embargo of goods into the restive territory from 2007 to 2010, court documents released Wednesday show.

Military officials said the so-called “red lines” document was only a draft and was never used in setting policy or determining how much food it would allow into the Hamas-ruled coastal strip. The paper, which the military fought for more than three years to keep classified, was only intended to ensure Gaza did not fall into a humanitarian crisis, officials said.

But Israeli human rights activists and Palestinian officials said Israel’s practices during the embargo closely mirrored the document’s recommendations, including how many truckloads of food were allowed in, how many calves Gazans would receive for slaughter and what types of food would be banned, such as chocolate and olive oil.

“In many cases the policy reflected exactly what was in the document,” said Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli group Gisha, which filed a lawsuit against the military to force the document’s release.

“The documents show that Israel used its control to put pressure on the Hamas regime by making civilians suffer,” said Bashi, whose group opposes the embargo.

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Israeli Army Radio ban on protest song raises controversy

JERUSALEM — A leading Israeli radio station's decision to ban for broadcast a protest song is stirring controversy and underscoring the sensitive intersection of art, politics and freedom of speech in the country.

"A Matter of Habit," recently released by veteran Israeli musician Izhar Ashdot, describes the slippery slope Israeli soldiers go down, from fear and confusion to complacency, until "killing is a matter of habit."  The lyrics, written by Ashdot's life partner, novelist Alona Kimhi, reportedly were inspired by her tour with Breaking the Silence, an organization of former combat soldiers whose website says it is dedicated to exposing the "reality of everyday life in the occupied territories." 

The song was welcomed by liberals as a protest of Israel's actions in the West Bank but fiercely criticized by others, who defaced Ashdot's official Facebook page last month, with one angry reader referring to Ashdot as a "draft-dodging dog" — though he didn't evade mandatory service.

Army Radio stuck by an advance invitation that Ashdot perform in its studios but expressly vetoed the playing of this song. The station later issued a statement saying there was no room on the military station for a song that "denigrates and denounces those who have sacrificed their lives for the defense of the country."

"I am worried when songs are banned for broadcast in a democratic country," Ashdot told Israeli media, adding he was shocked by the "incitement" against him that the statement encouraged. The decision and statement were issued by Yaron Dekel, a veteran journalist appointed to be the station's military commander in February.

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Gaza militants killed in Israeli airstrike

GAZA CITY -- An Israeli airstrike Saturday killed two Palestinian militants and wounded two civilians, medical officials in the Gaza Strip said.

One of the militants, Hisham Sueidani, 43, was believed to be the highest-ranking member and co-founder of  an extremist Islamist group called Tawhid and Jihad, which professes to draw its inspiration from Al Qaeda, officials said. Sueidani's assistant was also killed in the strike, officials said. The pair were targeted as they rode a motorcycle in northern Gaza.

Medical officials said two bystanders were injured, one a 10-year-old boy.

Israeli officials said the group has been responsible for several attacks against Israel.

In addition to firing rockets into southern Israel, Tawhid and Jihad was blamed for the 2011 kidnapping and slaying of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni.


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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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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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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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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 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.

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