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Israel Calls In Army To Try To Halt Wave Of Stabbings

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government moved to dispatch soldiers to Israeli cities and weighed posting checkpoints outside Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem after Palestinian assailants carried out multiple attacks Tuesday, leaving three Israelis dead and more than a dozen wounded.

A 2-week-old wave of violence that has unsettled many Israelis has raised the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has struggled to contain the surging Palestinian unrest. His security cabinet met for hours on Tuesday to discuss further countermeasures.

Daily stabbings by Palestinian assailants have spilled over from Jerusalem and the West Bank to other Israeli cities, and clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli troops have erupted across the West Bank and along the perimeter fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday morning, the wail of police sirens in Jerusalem signaled another attack in the city. Two Palestinians armed with a gun and a knife boarded a bus in the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv in East Jerusalem and attacked passengers, killing two men and wounding seven other people, one of them seriously, police and hospital officials said.

A witness said that one of the Palestinians shut the doors of the bus, trapping passengers inside as the attack went on, until police who rushed to the scene fired into the vehicle, killing one assailant and seriously wounding the other.

Across town a short time later, a Palestinian employee of the Israeli phone company drove one of its vehicles onto a sidewalk and rammed people at a bus stop. Police video showed the driver emerging with a meat cleaver to attack the victims before he was felled by a shot, then shot again on the ground by a security guard. An ultra-Orthodox Jew was killed in the attack, and three other people were wounded.

Police reported two more stabbings in Ra’anana, a town north of Tel Aviv, where five people were wounded.

All of the Palestinian attackers Tuesday were from East Jerusalem, whose residents carry Israeli ID cards and can move freely around the country. The national police operations chief, Aharon Aksol, told Israeli Channel Two television that there were plans to erect manned barriers at exits from Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to check cars and pedestrians. He said police would be bolstered by army soldiers who would be posted in public places and on city streets.

So far the Israeli measures have been unable to stop what appear to be spontaneous attacks by individuals with no organizational support of militant groups.

Alaa Abu Jamal, who plowed his vehicle into the bus stop, worked with Israelis at the phone company. Though his employers said he gave no outward signs of his intentions, he had publicly justified an attack by two of his relatives who killed five people in a shooting and stabbing attack at a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014.

In a videotaped news interview at the time, he called the assault a “natural reaction” to “the pressures of the occupation forces on the Palestinian people, the humiliation in Jerusalem in general, and the ongoing raids on Al-Aqsa.”

He was referring to Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam.

Clashes last month in the mosque compound, a contested holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, triggered the current wave of unrest.

A Facebook posting last December by Baha Alayan, one of the attackers on the bus, listed “The Ten Instructions of the Martyr” and a last will and testament, which ended with the words, “See you in Paradise.”

(Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

An Israeli policeman perform a security check on a Palestinian man at a checkpoint in Jabel Mukaber, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem October 14, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Election Race Tightens In Israel As Polls Show Netanyahu’s Party Trailing

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

JERUSALEM — With less than a week remaining before Israel’s elections, the race appears tighter than it has at any time since the start of the campaign, throwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the defensive.

Three public opinion polls published Tuesday and Wednesday show Netanyau’s conservative Likud party lagging by margins of three to four parliamentary seats behind the center-left Zionist Union alliance.

That gives Labor party leader Isaac Herzog, who formed the Zionist Union alliance with former justice minister Tzipi Livni, a fighting chance of unseating Netanyahu, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office.

Analysts caution, however, that the key to Herzog’s success will be his ability to cobble together a parliamentary coalition from an unwieldy collection of smaller parties, some of which have openly rejected partnerships with one another. That test will come after the March 17 balloting.

Herzog on Tuesday said he was up to the challenge. “I’ve proven that I know how to bring distant people together, that I know how to make connections, and that I have the required political skills,” he said.

With both Likud and the Zionist Union projected to win no more than 25 seats each in Israel’s 120-member Parliament, Netanyahu and Herzog will compete to enlist enough smaller parties to form a majority in the legislature. In Israel’s political system, the leader with the greatest chance of putting together a viable coalition traditionally gets the nod from the president to form a government.

While Netanyahu is seen to have a numerical edge in forming a coalition with rightist, center-right and ultra-Orthodox parties who are his natural allies, a stronger showing by the Zionist Union may give Herzog a first crack at forming a government, drawing smaller parties to him.

Recent polls suggest that momentum has shifted toward the Zionist Union, reflecting what analysts say is a desire for change among many voters, even as polls show that more Israelis consider Netanyahu more qualified than Herzog to be prime minister.

Rafi Smith, a prominent pollster, said that Likud has been losing voters to other rightist and right-of-center parties, while the Zionist Union has maintained its strength throughout the campaign.

“The Zionist Union is drawing votes while the Likud is leaking votes,” Smith said. Still, he added, negative feelings toward Netanyahu had not been translated into “positive enthusiasm” for Herzog, which would catapult him into a commanding lead.

Lacking the charisma and dynamism of other politicians, Herzog, 54, a lawyer and former Cabinet minister, has worked hard to make himself a more convincing candidate to ordinary Israelis.

A scion of a prominent family, he is the son of Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, the grandson of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, and the nephew of Abba Eban, who as ambassador to the United Nations was considered the country’s most eloquent orator.

The release of the latest poll numbers have set off alarms in the Likud.

Yisrael Katz, a party leader and a minister in Netanyahu’s outgoing Cabinet, acknowledged Wednesday in an interview on Army Radio that “there is definitely a real concern, to be frank,” about the slide in support. A text message to Likud supporters warned that the party was in real danger of losing the election.

Netanyahu has ramped up the pace of his campaign appearances in recent days, visiting Jerusalem’s raucous Mahane Yehuda market, a traditional Likud bastion, and exhorting backers at party meetings to get out the vote.

The prime minister also has sharpened his rhetoric in an effort to draw conservative voters drifting to other rightist parties. In a Likud campaign message, he promised that “there will be no withdrawals” from the occupied West Bank and “no concessions” to the Palestinians. He later lashed out at what he called “a huge effort, worldwide, to topple the Likud government,” an apparent reference to support by foreign contributors for the campaign to unseat him.

Herzog retorted on Israel Radio that a rattled Netanyahu “is feeling pressured and shooting in all directions, making false accusations.”

“I will replace him,” he said, “and I will form the next government.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr

Israel Intelligence Reservists Say They’ll No Longer Spy On Palestinians

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — More than two dozen reservists from the Israeli army’s elite intelligence-gathering unit have sent a public letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the army chief of staff declaring their refusal to serve on intelligence missions against Palestinians.

The 27 reservists are part of a group of 43 signatories of the letter who identified themselves as veterans of the unit, known by its number, 8200.
Their protest, made public Friday, carried special weight because of the elite status of the secretive unit, which specializes in electronic surveillance and is the largest unit in the Israeli army. Its work includes collection of data used to monitor and target Palestinians.

The letter asserts that despite the prevalent perception that intelligence work “is free of moral dilemmas and only contributes to the reduction of violence and harm to innocent people … we learned during our military service that intelligence is an integral part of the military control of the occupied territories.”

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are “completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence,” as opposed to citizens of Israel and other countries where there are restrictions on information gathering by the authorities, the letter asserts.

“We cannot in good conscience continue serving this system and violate the rights of millions of people,” the letter says.

The letter was released weeks after an Israeli offensive against Islamist militants in Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, but organizers said the declaration was more than a year in the making.

The army defended Unit 8200’s work, saying that it operated under ethical guidelines strictly supervised by senior officers and that the military intelligence branch has “no record” of the violations alleged by the reservists.

In personal testimonies about their work made available to McClatchy, veterans of the unit described pervasive and unfettered intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Palestinians, including use of information about sexual preferences and medical conditions to coerce people into becoming informers.

The 8200 unit analyzes electronic data gleaned from wiretapped phone calls, emails, and radio communications in the Palestinian areas and across the Middle East, and key information collected by the unit has been shared with the United States. The unit also handles the military’s cyber-warfare operations.

The army statement said that the unit gathers “critical information” and its training program places “a special emphasis on morality, ethics, and proper procedure.”

“Soldiers and officers in the unit act in accordance with their training and remain under the strict supervision of high ranking officers,” the army said. “The Intelligence Corps has no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place.”

However, testimonies provided to McClatchy by signers of the letter, who did not identify themselves publicly under army secrecy rules, portray the unit’s activities differently. They describe unbridled prying into Palestinians’ private lives to gain intimate information that could be used to turn them into informers.

“We knew the exact medical conditions of some of our targets,” said one signer. “I felt bad knowing precisely the problems of every one of them and about us talking and laughing about this information freely, or that we knew exactly who was cheating on his wife, with whom and how often.”

The reservists’ letter was not the first of its kind to be published in Israel. In 2002, dozens of reserve combat soldiers signed a declaration that they would refuse to carry out occupation duty in the Palestinian areas. In 2003 a similar pledge was made by more than a dozen reservists from the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and a group of 27 reserve pilots declared their refusal to fly missions in Palestinian population centers, attacks they said harmed innocent civilians.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana

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Nusra Front Sets Demands For Releasing U.N. Peacekeepers

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Washington Bureau

JERUSALEM — The al-Qaida-linked rebels who captured dozens of Fijian United Nations peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights last week have set demands for their release, including removal of the Islamist group from a U.N. terrorist list and compensation for the deaths of its comrades in fighting with members of the international force, the commander of the Fijian army said Tuesday.

Militants from the Nusra Front seized the 45 Fijian peacekeepers last Thursday in a buffer zone where more than 1,200 U.N. observers are stationed between Israeli and Syrian lines.

Fighters from the Islamist group also surrounded and attacked two positions of Filipino peacekeepers, some of whom were extricated by U.N. forces while others escaped.

Fighting in the buffer zone has intensified between Syrian forces and anti-government rebels, including members of the Nusra Front. Last week the rebels seized the Quneitra crossing to the Israeli-held sector of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau mostly captured by the Israelis in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Speaking in the Fijian capital of Suva, the army commander, Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga, said the Nusra Front had made three demands for the release of the peacekeepers: removal from the U.N. list of terrorist groups, delivery of humanitarian aid to Ruta, a suburb of Damascus that’s a stronghold of the group, and payment for the killings of three of its combatants in exchanges of fire with U.N. peacekeepers.

The Nusra Front also accused the U.N. of failing to help Syrians under attack by government forces during the country’s civil war, and it alleged that the peacekeeping force was assisting the Syrian army in its movements through the buffer zone.

“Negotiations have moved up to another level with the professional negotiators now in place,” Tikoitoga said, referring to hostage negotiators the U.N. sent to Syria. “The rebels are not telling us where the troops are, but they continue to reassure us they are being well looked after. They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas.”

“We’ve been assured by U.N. headquarters that the U.N. will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers,” the general said.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

AFP Photo

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Gaza Cease Fire Begins; Egypt To Mediate Talks On Longer Truce

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — A planned 72-hour cease-fire between Israel and Hamas began Tuesday as Israeli forces completed their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and both sides prepared for indirect talks in Egypt on a longer truce to end a nearly monthlong war.

The Israeli withdrawal made it more likely that the cease-fire would hold. A planned three-day cease-fire last week collapsed in less than two hours when Hamas gunmen attacked Israeli forces in Gaza.

The Israeli army said it had completed its task of destroying or putting out of commission 32 networks of Hamas tunnels it had uncovered, some of which led across the border into Israel.

The military said it remained in “defensive positions around the Gaza Strip” and would respond to any attack. The United Nations said the army had declared a 500-yard “no-go zone” on the Gaza side of the border.

An Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo to participate in indirect truce talks with Hamas, mediated by Egypt, according to Israeli news reports. Hamas has demanded the lifting of border closings imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, while Israel has called for demilitarizing the Gaza Strip, ridding it of Hamas rocket stocks and preventing further construction of tunnels.

International efforts began to raise money to rebuild homes and other buildings that were damaged in the hostilities. More than 500,000 Palestinians fled their homes during the fighting — nearly 30 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population — and the homes of 65,000 people were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, according to U.N. figures. The Israelis also severely damaged Gaza’s sole power plant.

Mohammed Mustafa, deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority government, which is based in the West Bank, told the Associated Press that efforts had begin to arrange a pledging conference of donor countries in Norway at the beginning of September. Tony Blair, the envoy of the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — is helping to arrange the conference, his office said.

Hamas and other Palestinian factions represented in Cairo are demanding that internationally funded reconstruction be overseen by the Palestinian unity government, which is backed by Hamas and the mainstream Fatah movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had delivered a major setback to Hamas by destroying the tunnel network.

“The operation struck at a strategic network that Hamas had invested a tremendous effort in for years,” Netanyahu said. “There is no guarantee of 100 percent success, but we did everything to achieve the maximum.”

Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, chief of the army’s southern command, said the offensive, which began with air and artillery strikes and was followed by a ground push, had produced “a significant potential for deterrence” that could prevent further rocket firing at Israel by militants in the Gaza Strip.

The halt to the fighting enabled Palestinians in Gaza to return to devastated neighborhoods, taking in scenes of vast destruction left by weeks of Israeli shelling and bombardments.

People stocked up on supplies and retrieved belongings from the ruins of their homes.

The U.N. said that more than 1,800 Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli campaign launched July 8, more than 85 percent of them civilians, including more than 400 children. The Israeli military says it killed about 900 militants in ground fighting.

The army said it lost 64 soldiers and that rocket strikes had killed two Israeli civilians and a Thai laborer in Israel.

AFP Photo/Jack Guez

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Israel Pulls Troops Back From Gaza, But Continues Bombardment

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — Israel pulled back most of its troops in the Gaza Strip closer to the Israeli border and withdrew some units from the territory, redeploying its forces in what it said would be an ongoing offensive against Hamas.

But airstrikes continued and the United Nations said nine Palestinians were killed and 27 were injured in a missile strike outside one of its schools housing thousands of war refugees in the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Local health officials said 10 were killed.

The incident was the second deadly strike on a U.N shelter in a week, and it drew a sharp condemnation from UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who called it “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”

The U.S. State Department also issued an unusually harsh response.

“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which 10 more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed,” said the statement from State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”

“U.N. facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks,” Psaki said. “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

The statement called for a “full and prompt investigation” of the incident and other recent shellings of UN schools.

The Israeli army said it had targeted three Islamic Jihad militants on a motorcycle near the school, and was “reviewing the consequences of the strike.”

Israeli officials said the pullback of ground troops was ordered as the army neared completion of its mission to uncover and destroy networks of Hamas tunnels in Gaza, some dug across the border to Israel.

But the redeployment also appeared driven by a desire to cut Israeli losses in ground fighting, which has killed 64 soldiers, a far higher toll than in the previous Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, in 2009.

“We’re downscaling while remaining present on the ground,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, The nearly monthlong Israeli campaign against the militant Islamist group Hamas was continuing, he said..

More than 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in Israeli bombardments and shelling since the start of the offensive on July 8, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Three civilians have been killed by rocket strikes in Israel.

Lerner would not elaborate on how many soldiers had been withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. Israeli media said significant infantry and armored forces had left the territory, but remained stationed nearby.

Israeli forces on the ground continued to operate in some Gaza areas, wrapping up operations to destroy the Hamas tunnel networks, Lerner said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that after completing the destruction of the tunnels, the army would deploy “in places convenient for us” in order to reduce “friction,” suggesting a pullback from forward positions in built-up areas.

On Saturday the army notified Palestinians living in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya that it had completed operations there and that they could return to their homes, although many houses in the town were destroyed or damaged by Israeli shelling and bombardments.

With the borders of the Gaza Strip sealed and Israel striking across the coastal enclave, Palestinians who were ordered by the Israeli army to leave their homes for their own safety say nowhere is secure.

Last Wednesday, at least 15 Palestinians sheltering in an UNRWA school were killed when Israeli shells struck the compound. The army said it was responding to mortar rounds fired by militants in the vicinity of the school.

At least six U.N. schools have been shelled since the start of the current conflict in Gaza, and in some cases the army said it was returning fire after being attacked by militants firing from near the facilities.

With the war in its fourth week, UNRWA and the World Health Organization warned of an unfolding “health disaster” in the Gaza Strip, saying that Gaza medical facilities were “on the verge of collapse.” They said critical medical supplies at hospitals were almost depleted, damage to the power supply had left the hospitals dependent on unreliable backup generators, and inadequate water and sanitation created risks of outbreaks of diseases.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are sheltering in terrible conditions,” said Robert Turner, the UNRWA director of operations in Gaza. “We are now looking at a health and humanitarian disaster. The fighting must stop immediately.”

Representatives of Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the mainstream Fatah movement, met in Cairo on Sunday with Egyptian officials to discuss cease-fire terms. Israel is not attending the talks, saying that after the collapse of a temporary cease-fire with Hamas on Friday, it would act unilaterally to protect its security. However, Israeli officials were reported to be in contact with their Egyptian counterparts to follow the talks.

AFP Photo/Jack Guez

Israel Names Two Suspects In Disappearance Of Teens, Says They Also Are Missing

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — Israel on Thursday named two Palestinians it said had kidnapped three Jewish teenagers who disappeared while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in the West Bank two weeks ago.

The Shin Bet security agency identified the Palestinians as Marwan Kawasmeh and Amer Abu Eisha, saying they were operatives of the militant Islamist group Hamas in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Both have been missing since the night the teenagers vanished, and information on their disappearance was reportedly relayed to the Israelis by the Palestinian security services.

The Israeli announcement, which could not be independently confirmed, was the first disclosure of intelligence information in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that Hamas members had seized the missing teens.

Despite widespread searches in the Hebron area by Israeli army forces, there has been no evident progress in finding the teenagers and those believed to have seized them. Nor has there been a credible claim of responsibility by any Palestinian group. While Hamas leaders have welcomed the apparent kidnapping as a means to free Palestinian prisoners in an exchange, they have avoided any declaration of involvement.

Along with the searches for the teenagers — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16 — Israeli forces have carried out a sweeping crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting nearly 400 Palestinians, about 300 of them with suspected links to the militant group.

Four Palestinians have been shot and killed by Israeli forces in several days of street clashes triggered by raids that targeted charities, welfare organizations, media offices and student groups suspected of links to Hamas.

Accusing Hamas of kidnapping the Israeli teens, Netanyahu has seized on the episode to condemn a reconciliation agreement between the militant group and the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The two factions have backed a recently formed unity government that has won broad international acceptance despite strong Israeli protests.

Referring to Abbas’ strong denunciation of the suspected kidnapping in a speech last week, Netanyahu said Thursday: “I now expect President Abbas … to stand by those words and break his pact with the Hamas terrorist organization that kidnaps youngsters and calls for the destruction of Israel.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Photo: Templar1307 via Flickr

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U.S., Israel Split Over Hamas Backing Of Palestinian Government

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — The inauguration of a Palestinian unity government backed by the militant Islamist group Hamas has opened a public rift between Israel and the United States over policy toward the interim Cabinet sworn in Monday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The announcement by Washington that it would do business with the new government — a Cabinet of technocrats backed by Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas as part of a reconciliation deal — has drawn sharp rebukes from Israeli officials.

Their remarks reflect mounting concern about growing international acceptance of the new Palestinian government, which received expressions of support Tuesday from the European Union and the United Nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in comments Tuesday to the Associated Press distributed by his office, said the U.S. announcement “deeply troubled” him, adding that Hamas had murdered “countless innocent civilians.”

“All those who genuinely seek peace must reject President Abbas’ embrace of Hamas, and most especially I think the United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian president that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable,” Netanyahu said.

In rare open criticism of the Obama administration by an Israeli envoy, Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said Israel was “deeply disappointed” by a State Department announcement Monday that the United States intends to “work with” the unity government and maintain American aid to the Palestinian Authority because the new Cabinet doesn’t include members of Hamas.

Israel, the United States and the European Union consider the militant Islamist group — which refuses to recognize Israel and has carried out suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli cities — a terrorist organization.

“Had Hamas changed, it would be one thing,” Dermer wrote late Monday in a Facebook posting. “But Hamas hasn’t changed. It remains as committed to Israel’s destruction today as it was yesterday.”

“This Palestinian unity government is a government of technocrats backed by terrorists, and should be treated as such,” Dermer added. “With suits in the front office and terrorists in the back office, it should not be business as usual.”

The Israeli security Cabinet authorized Netanyahu on Monday to impose unspecified “additional sanctions” on the Palestinian Authority, and it reiterated Israel’s refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry had phoned Netanyahu before her announcement to inform him of the American position.

“At this point, it appears that President Abbas has formed an interim technocratic government that does not include ministers affiliated with Hamas,” Psaki said. “Moving forward, we will be judging this government by its actions. Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we’ll be watching closely to ensure that it upholds principles that President Abbas reiterated today.”

Acroll via Flickr

Video Of Israeli Soldier Confronting Palestinians Yields Outpouring Of Support

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — An Israeli soldier caught on video as he loaded and aimed his rifle during a street confrontation with Palestinian youths has become an unlikely hero in Facebook postings by Israeli soldiers, embarrassing the military.

The video was posted online by a Palestinian group, Youth Against Settlements, to highlight abusive behavior by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. But rather than provoking outrage, it triggered a wave of support in Israel.

The incident and the online responses have caught the army off-guard, highlighting the challenge that social media poses to traditional channels of command in the military. The episode has also thrust a spotlight on the challenges that Israeli combat soldiers face doing occupation duty, much like police work, in close contact with a civilian population.

The video was shot in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, where Israeli forces protect several hundred Jewish settlers who live in the heart of the city. In the video, the soldier, who’s been identified as David Adamov, is seen in a close-quarter face-off with a few Palestinians.

In the video, one of the Palestinians touches Adamov, who pushes him away, then loads his rifle and brandishes it as another youth passes behind him. Adamov curses, lashes out with a kick and threatens to put a bullet in the head of the Palestinian who’s shooting the video.

Many Israelis who viewed the video saw not military brutality but a soldier under threat. Outrage grew when rumors circulated that Adamov had been jailed over the episode. In fact, he’d been sentenced to 20 days in a military prison for an unrelated incident in which he was charged with assaulting two of his superior officers.

Scores of soldiers posted images of themselves on Facebook and on other social media, holding homemade signs that said, “We are also with David of the Nahal Brigade.” The brigade is one of the army’s infantry branches whose soldiers do stints in the West Bank.

A popular Facebook page that’s garnered more than 127,000 “likes” features images of soldiers from various units — their faces covered to avoid disciplinary measures — holding up messages of support for Adamov. One image shows a soldier’s handcuffed hands opposite stones, a Molotov cocktail and a knife — all weapons that Palestinians have used against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

At the top of the page is a call “to end the abandonment of Israel Defense Forces soldiers,” along with the message, “The blood of our soldiers is not cheap.”

Amos Harel, military commentator for the liberal newspaper Haaretz, called the phenomenon “the first digital rebellion” in the military and a signal of frustration by soldiers who must serve occupation duty.

“It reflects the lack of agreement by combat soldiers in the field with the policy of restraint dictated to the units in dealing with Palestinian residents,” Harel wrote. “Soldiers even complain a great deal about lack of backing from their commanders for those who have gotten caught up in such confrontations.”

Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups argue that soldiers often show a lack of restraint in their treatment of Palestinian civilians, frequently resorting to violence and opening fire in cases when they could have used nonlethal weapons and made arrests.

But the case of the soldier in Hebron didn’t provoke much soul-searching in Israel, where it was widely perceived as another example of the trying conditions under which service members operate when facing a hostile Palestinian population.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the rightist Jewish Home party, said in a Facebook posting that he would have acted the same as Adamov, who’d “done the right thing” against a group of provocateurs.

“This isn’t a reality show on TV,” Bennett wrote. “This is a complex and very dangerous reality that IDF combat soldiers face every day.”

The episode also drew attention to the subversive role that digital technology can play in the military, where Israeli soldiers carrying smartphones can get protest messages out to the public easily, circumventing army discipline and the chain of command.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, ordered an investigation into the Hebron incident and the social media campaign by soldiers.

“It’s important to remember and tell our subordinates clearly that Facebook is not a command tool,” he told a meeting of the army’s general staff, according to Israeli media. “It is here, and that’s a fact, but it is not a replacement or even a parallel channel for dialogue between commanders and their soldiers.”

Yehuda Shaul, a leader of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli anti-occupation group that publicizes accounts by former soldiers of their service in the West Bank, including descriptions of brutality and abuse, said the online campaign in support of Adamov drove home an important message that should serve as a wake-up call to the Israeli public.

“I see it as a good thing,” Shaul said. “By coming out and supporting him by the hundreds, the soldiers are saying what we’ve been saying for years: That’s what we do all the time. This is how you behave. This is the only way to maintain an occupation.”

AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams

U.S. Scrambles To Save Imperiled Middle East Peace Talks

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — U.S. officials on Wednesday clung to the idea of revived Middle East peace talks even after tit-for-tat provocations by the Palestinians and Israelis in recent days signaled that Secretary of State John Kerry’s signature diplomatic effort was in danger of collapse.

Palestinian officials on Wednesday formally applied to join 15 international treaties and conventions, pressing ahead with a surprise move that was explained as retaliation for Israel’s failure to carry out an agreed-upon release of Palestinian prisoners by March 29. Israel has said it wants the Palestinians to agree first to extending talks beyond an April 29 deadline.

Joining the treaties, including the Fourth Geneva Convention on protection of civilians in wartime, would give the Palestinians additional diplomatic leverage to challenge Israel’s occupation and settlement of territory as they strive for a state, and it runs counter to U.S. insistence that the step should come only after a deal has been reached with Israel.

Scrambling to salvage Kerry’s efforts, officials at the White House and State Department said the “unhelpful, unilateral actions” of both parties wouldn’t dissuade the United States from its role as interlocutor. They reiterated that reaching a two-state solution in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was in the interest of U.S. national security, but there was no word on when or whether another round of talks would take place after this latest escalation.

The Obama administration appeared to have been caught off guard by the developments, which prompted Kerry to cancel a visit to the region.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry had “worked as hard as is humanly possible” toward serious talks and suggested that it was cynical to paint the effort as doomed. Just restarting talks was a milestone, she said, arguing that concessions from both parties could ease this “tough moment” and build on eight months of intense bargaining. Kerry spoke by phone Wednesday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, though few details of those conversations were released.

“We’ve seen unhelpful actions on both sides, but I would also reiterate that both sides have made courageous decisions throughout this process and we believe there’s still room and time for the two parties to keep doing so,” Harf said.

Palestinian plans to join international agencies after the United Nations voted in 2012 to grant Palestine the status of a non-member observer state have been sharply opposed by Washington and Israel, who say they undermine a negotiated solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But Palestinian officials said they took the latest step after Israel failed to carry out the prisoner release, which would be the fourth time prisoners have been freed since the negotiations started in July.

Some Middle East analysts described the Palestinian move as muscle-flexing by Abbas under heavy domestic pressure, and predicted that maneuvering will continue ahead of the deadline for extending the talks.

Announcing that he had canceled his travel to Israel and the West Bank, Kerry also kept to the idea that the setback was only temporary. He said with both sides were continuing and that it was “completely premature” to write off the negotiations.

Israeli news outlets reported that an emergency meeting to save the talks was in progress Wednesday between U.S. envoy Martin Indyk and negotiators from both sides. The State Department would say only that Indyk and his team remained on the ground and that details of private meetings wouldn’t be divulged.

The Palestinian letters of application were submitted to Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and to representatives of Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to Saskia Ramming, spokeswoman for Serry. She said the letters would be referred to the appropriate bodies, where they would be reviewed.

Aside from the Geneva Conventions, the Palestinians are also asking to join the Hague Convention on the laws of war, and conventions against torture, racial discrimination, genocide and apartheid, among others, according to a list made public by Palestinian officials.

Netanyahu was pointedly silent about the Palestinian move, and his spokesman said only that “there are ongoing discussions” about ways to continue the negotiations.

Before the Palestinian announcement, Kerry was said to be hammering out a deal to extend the talks that would include the release of Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 for spying for Israel, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and curbs on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

Abbas said Tuesday that the move to join international agencies was not meant to put Palestine on a collision course with the Obama administration. “We do not want to use this right against anybody or confront anybody,” he said. “But we were left with no option. This is our right.”

Nader Said, who heads AWRAD, a Ramallah-based polling and research organization, said that Abbas had been under public pressure to resist further concessions in the negotiations with Israel and stood to gain from the perception that he had stood up to Israel and the U.S.

“Now he has shown that he is steadfast, and it will retrieve his popularity, at least in the short run,” Said said. “People will see him as a strong leader who said no.”

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst, said that Abbas’ move was intended “to up the ante and squeeze as many concessions as possible in return for his agreement to extend the negotiations.”

The talks remain “in play as long as Kerry is making the effort,” Alpher added. “I don’t see him throwing in the towel. I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Menahem Kahana AFP

Israel Attacks Syrian Bases After Four Soldiers Wounded

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions early Wednesday after an explosion wounded four Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights frontier, the military said, in the most serious flare-up of violence there since the start of Syria’s 3-year-old civil war.

A Syrian army announcement said one person was killed and seven wounded in the Israeli air attacks on three sites on the outskirts of the city of Quneitra, near Israeli lines on the Golan Heights.

Israel captured the strategic plateau from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War. After decades of calm along the frontier, the fighting in Syria occasionally has spilled over the cease-fire line, with shells and small arms fire hitting the Israeli-held Golan, sometimes drawing Israeli artillery or anti-tank rockets in response.

On Tuesday, an explosive device detonated near an Israeli patrol along the frontier near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-held Golan, wounding four soldiers, one seriously. The Israeli army said it initially responded with artillery fire at Syrian military positions.

Early Wednesday, Israeli aircraft targeted “several Syrian army positions which aided and abetted the attack,” including a training facility, military headquarters and artillery batteries, an Israeli army statement said.

Israeli analysts said the attack on the Israeli patrol came from an area controlled by Syrian government forces and may have been the work of a pro-government militia or Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group that has sent fighters to Syria to support the forces of President Bashar Assad.

The Israeli army said that on Friday another explosive device was set off against soldiers on the Golan Heights frontier with Lebanon, drawing retaliatory fire toward a Hezbollah target.

On March 5, a bombing attempt was foiled when troops fired at “two Hezbollah-affiliated terrorists” who were identified trying to plant an explosive device along the frontier with Syria in the northern Golan Heights, the army said.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said after Wednesday’s airstrikes that “we consider the Assad regime responsible for what happens from its territory, and if it continues to cooperate with terrorist elements seeking to strike Israel, we will continue exacting a heavy price from it.”

The Israeli statements did not name a group as responsible for Tuesday’s bombing.

AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana

Israel Approves Bill To Require Military Service Of Ultra-Orthodox

By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — After a contentious national debate, the Israeli parliament passed a landmark bill Wednesday designed to end blanket exemptions of young ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military service.

The issue had been the focus of intense public controversy in recent years, with critics of the exemptions calling for drafting the ultra-Orthodox for military or other national service as part of an equal “sharing of the burden” among all Israelis.

Under an arrangement reached in Israel’s early years, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students were exempted from military service to allow them to pursue full-time religious studies, subsidized by the government.

But their ballooning numbers over the decades — reaching tens of thousands — generated increasing resentment among many Israelis who perform mandatory military service and annual reserve duty.

The demand for “sharing the burden” was a major focus of last year’s elections and the centerpiece of the campaign of Yesh Atid, which emerged as the second-largest party in Israel’s governing coalition and has led the drive for changes to the military draft.

“Today is the beginning of an historic change, and the change brought by this law already starts tomorrow morning,” Yaakov Peri, a Cabinet minister from Yesh Atid, told the legislature.

The new bill stops short of requiring universal conscription of young ultra-Orthodox men, but it does set quotas for a gradual increase in the annual draft of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the goal of calling up 5,200 by mid-2017 — about 60 percent of those of draft age.

The bill passed 67-1 in the 120-member Knesset. Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote to protest coalition efforts to assure a majority by passing the legislation as part of a package of three controversial bills this week.

The new bill was made necessary after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the existing legislation governing ultra-Orthodox exemptions was unconstitutional.

The bill’s provision for criminal penalties against draft dodgers if the induction quotas are not met provoked outrage in the ultra-Orthodox community, where Torah study is venerated as a supreme value.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to the draft brought Jerusalem to a standstill with a mass prayer gathering to protest the legislation. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested earlier this week in New York.

Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community, about 10 percent of Israel’s population, have argued that the country’s Jewish character is preserved by those who devote their lives to religious study.

“Today the state of Israel lost the right to be called a Jewish state,” said Moshe Gafni, a prominent ultra-Orthodox legislator, adding that his constituents would neither “forget nor forgive” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the bill’s passage.

But Ayelet Shaked of the rightist Jewish Home party, who headed the committee that drafted the bill, called it “historic and important.”

“For 65 years there was an almost sweeping exemption for yeshiva students, but the coalition has submitted an amendment that is proportional, gradual and right,” she told parliament.

Jim Watkins via Flickr