Archive for December, 2013

Official: Israel plans new settlement construction

December 25, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel likely will announce new plans for construction in Jewish settlements next week, an official said Wednesday, a move that is likely to trigger an international uproar and threaten peace talks with the Palestinians.

The timing of the announcement would coincide with the expected release of a group of Palestinian prisoners. The government has announced new settlement construction plans during previous prisoner releases to blunt domestic criticism.

The Israeli official said he “expects” an announcement on new construction next week, but declined to elaborate. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement. Israel’s Channel 2 TV said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to announce “massive construction” next week. Channel 10 TV spoke of 1,000 to 2,000 new homes. Both reports cited anonymous officials close to the prime minister.

Wasil Abu Yousif, a Palestinian official, said the expected announcement is evidence that Israel is “not serious” about pursuing peace. “It’s clear to everyone now that the Israeli government is killing the peace process.” While stopping short of threatening to withdraw from the current round of peace negotiations, he said Israel’s policy would force the Palestinians to seek “more substantial alternatives.”

Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured territories claimed by the Palestinians as parts of a future state, have been a major source of tension in Mideast peace efforts. More than 550,000 Israelis live among 2.5 million Palestinians in these areas, raising fears that the growing numbers will soon reach a point of no return that will make it impossible to partition the land.

For years, the Palestinians refused to negotiate with Israel while settlement construction continued, saying it was a sign of bad faith. But under heavy U.S. pressure, the Palestinians reluctantly agreed to resume talks with Israel last summer.

Under a U.S.-brokered package, Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners. The releases, taking place in four stages, have caused an uproar in Israel because the prisoners have been convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis. Next week’s release would be the third stage.

While Israel did not agree to halt settlement construction, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged restraint. During one visit to Israel, he questioned Israel’s commitment to peace in light of the ongoing construction. Because of the Christmas holiday, there was no immediate American reaction Wednesday.

The international community considers Israeli settlements to be illegal or illegitimate. The European Union said last week it had asked Israel not to announce new construction in connection with the prisoner release, warning Israel would be held responsible for a resulting failure in peace talks.

The Israeli official said Israel is “strictly abiding by understandings reached in the framework of this round of negotiations.” The talks are scheduled to last for nine months, until late April, with the goal of reaching a “framework” agreement.

Egypt’s coup leaders employ Israeli company to secure Suez Canal

Wednesday, 06 November 2013

A report by the Arab Organization for Human Rights has revealed that an Israeli company, Seagull Maritime Security, provides maritime security services for cruises and cargo ships passing through the Suez Canal in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities have granted the company a license to work in the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and in Arab and African ports including Jordan, UAE and Oman.

According to the report the company is one of the few whose guards are allowed to disembark fully armed on the Egyptian Tiran Island.

The company’s official site does not reveal its Israeli identity however several other sites connected to the company reveal the background of the company’s directors and managers as IDF veterans from elite units. The company is a member of the Israeli Association of Private Security Companies. The company was founded by its CEO, Kfir Magen who served as an officer in the Israeli navy, in 2008. According to related sites the company’s directors were prominent leaders of the Israeli army, including Eliezer Marom who served as a navy commander between 2007 until 2011. Marom planned the attack against the Freedom Flotilla in 2010 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008.

The company’s advisory board chairman, Ami Ayalon, served as commander in chief of the navy in 1992 and participated in an attack against the Suez in 1969 which claimed the lives of 80 Egyptian soldiers. Ayalon who served as head of the Shin Bet in 1996 now works within the company.

According to the report several Israeli veterans work for the same company, including Jeremy Weiss who served as a senior commander in the Israeli Special Forces, Yuval Brenner who served as an officer in the Israeli elite scouts unit and Ron Ben- Shimon.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: http://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/8173-egypts-coup-leaders-employ-israeli-company-to-secure-suez-canal.

Egypt and UAE plot to topple Hamas

Wednesday, 04 September 2013

A retired Egyptian general has revealed details of an Egypt-UAE plot to impose a stranglehold on the Gaza Strip and overthrow the Hamas-led government. The plot, claims General Sami Hassan, is for the Egyptian army to act, with funding from the UAE government.

“The plan is led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” tweeted Hassan. “He aims to achieve political and military gains in the coming days.”

General Hassan said that the military will impose even more restrictions on the Palestinians in Gaza, cutting all essential supplies which currently pass through the tunnels. Fuel supplies in particular are being targeted. The Gaza Strip relies on Egypt for 80 per cent of its fuel.

According to Hassan, the process has already started with a media demonisation campaign against the Palestinians and Hamas. As soon as the army creates calm in the Sinai Peninsula, he asserted, it will stir up popular demonstrations.

Al-Sisi has already met with Shaikh Hazza bin Zayed, an adviser to the UAE National Security Authority, and ex-Fatah “strongman” Mohammed Dahlan, said General Hassan. “A sum of $750 million has been allocated for the plot,” he claims, “which will involve returning Gaza to Egyptian control or handing it over to the Palestinian Authority [in Ramallah].”

The decisive meeting, he noted, lasted one and a half hours in Al-Sisi’s office. The following objectives were agreed upon:

Sinai will be “cleansed” of militant groups and nomadic tribes on the border with Gaza will be disarmed.

A drone base will be established by Egypt in Sinai under international supervision. Air strikes will be launched against the “global jihadist movement”.

All tunnels between Gaza and Egypt will be closed, and Egypt will cut off all essential supplies going to Gaza.

Electricity supplies from Egypt to Gaza will be cut off altogether.

An agreement between the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel will be reactivated with the return of international observers to the Rafah Border Crossing.

Hamas will be toppled and the Gaza Strip will be returned to President Mahmoud Abbas’s control.

Power in Gaza will handed over to the PA or people in the UAE’s pay and control, such as Dahlan.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: http://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/7221-egypt-and-uae-plot-to-topple-hamas.

Sharp rise in Europeans fighting in Syria

December 03, 2013

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A new wave of Europeans is heading to Syria, their ranks soaring in the past six months as tales of easy living and glorious martyrdom draw them to the rebellion against Bashar Assad.

The western Europe-based rebels, mostly young men, are being recruited by new networks that arrange travel and comfortable lodging in the heart of rebel territory, and foster a militant form of Islam that Western security officials fear will add to the terror threat when the fighters return home.

The 11 western European countries with the biggest contingents in Syria are estimated to have some 1,200-1,700 people among rebel forces, according to government and analyst figures compiled by The Associated Press. That compares to estimates of 600-800 from those countries in late spring.

The surge has occurred particularly in France, Germany, Belgium and Sweden. It reflects the increasing ease of travel to Syria’s front lines and enthusiastic sales pitches by the first wave of European volunteers.

A 21-year-old Dane became interested in Syria during a prison term in Denmark for assault and robbery, mainly through online rebel videos. He made two trips into Syria that totaled a little more than one month. He drove trucks carrying relief supplies and transported people, he said, but never fought. Nevertheless, he posted photographs online of himself with heavy weapons.

“It is my duty to travel down there. This is a Muslim cause,” said the young man, a Muslim convert who did not want to be identified for fear of pursuit by authorities. On his third trip this year, he said, he was stopped at passport control in Istanbul and sent back to Denmark. No reason was given, but he believes his time with the opposition put him on the intelligence community’s radar. He described being questioned multiple times by Danish intelligence agents, including at the Copenhagen airport after returning from Syria for the first time.

“Right now, I cannot go to Syria,” he said. “I wanted to help with humanitarian work and fight.” Recruitment drives targeting people like the Dane are growing in intensity. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of two main al-Qaida linked groups fighting in Syria, is producing a video featuring a battalion of British fighters “who will be talking to other British Muslims to try and motivate, inspire and recruit them,” said Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization. In France, authorities in recent weeks say they have dismantled two networks of former fighters who have returned from Syria to recruit.

Governments have reported no examples of ex-fighters from Syria creating trouble on their return. But France remains haunted by the case of Mohammed Merah, a French youth of Algerian descent who trained in Pakistan and returned to southern France to attack a Jewish school and kill seven people in 2012. The French government has since outlawed training in terrorism camps abroad.

The United States has also sounded the alarm about young Americans headed to Syria. But distance and expense have kept the numbers from the U.S. far lower: about 20 American citizens, according to the ICSR.

For the Syrian rebels, attracting fresh bodies for the fight has become a matter of urgency as Assad makes gains in the civil war with the help of Iran and Shiite militant group Hezbollah. And despite their lack of battlefield experience, Europeans are also a powerful propaganda tool for a rebel force that is trying to show that its appeal goes wider and deeper than the Middle East. The Europeans have the added potential of being able to raise money in places far wealthier than Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, where many of the other foreign rebels have their roots and fighting background.

Many, if not most, are from second-generation immigrant families from outside Europe with parents who describe themselves as secular and fully integrated. Others — like the Dane — are converts with no prior ties to Islam.

France has counted between 300 and 400 European rebel fighters in Syria; Germany has counted more than 220; Belgium puts its number at 150-200, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, citing recent figures that double previous estimates. Sweden is about to double its estimates to 150-200, according Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist with the Swedish National Defense College. Britain’s total has stayed stable at less than 150, according to recent estimates from U.K. security officials. The Netherlands estimate, which officials said is rising rapidly, is 100-200, according to government and analyst figures. Denmark’s intelligence service estimates “at least 80” fighters from there — with similar numbers from Spain, Austria and Italy. Norway believes about 40 of its citizens have left for Syria in the past year.

“More Europeans have gone to Syria than have gone to all the other conflict zones put together,” including Iraq and Afghanistan, said Thomas Hegghammer, an analyst at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of this for the future of Islamic radicalism in Europe. They’re radicalizing and training a whole new generation of militants.”

Ranstorp agreed: “In the last two months, there has been an acceleration in the number of people going to Syria.” The first Europeans to leave for Syria tended to do so haphazardly — catching a flight to Turkey, hopping a bus and hoping for the best. That’s how the 21-year-old Danish man first went, meandering into a refugee camp and stumbling upon people who told him where to go. Those men are returning home or contacting friends and acquaintances by Skype, Facebook, text message, YouTube, or word of mouth to encourage them to follow. They provide the travel arrangements, and say the life of a fighter in Syria is one of comfort punctuated by the adventure of war.

“I talk to fathers and mothers of young people who have left my city. It’s all well-organized. The air tickets are paid for,” said Hans Bonte, mayor of Vilvoorde, a city of 41,000 in Flemish-speaking Belgium that has seen at least 22 young people leave for Syria, including the most recent group in early November. Bonte, who is chief of security for his town as well as a federal lawmaker, speaks at length to each family and is in constant touch with both them and Belgium’s intelligence services.

Bonte said Belgians who are leaving are younger now — teenagers instead of men in their late 20s, and adolescent girls are beginning to appear among the lists of the missing. “It’s a process of following others (who) are trying to convince people to go over there. They are telling stories that it’s fun over there … they are living in a villa with a pool.”

One Vilvoorde mother, whose older son had already left for Syria, was sleeping on her front steps to keep her 15-year-old from slipping out to follow his brother, Bonte said. One night this fall, the boy pushed his mother aside — threatening to kill her if she stopped him from joining the fight in Syria — and stepped into a waiting car. She has heard from neither son since.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the Assad government is discussing the issue with Western officials “and there is cooperation,” although he did not name any countries. And authorities have encountered teens trying to board airplanes, including some carrying large amounts of cash for the rebellion, said Martin Bernsen, a spokesman for the police security services. “Of course it is difficult to prove where the money goes,” Bernsen said, “so we are worried that it goes to terror-related activities.”

Hegghammer said Syria has worrisome parallels with Afghanistan of the 1980s, where a young Osama bin Laden was among thousands of Muslims to wage battle against Soviet forces. “The gross number of departures is so high that almost whatever the return rate is, you’re going to have substantial numbers of terrorists,” he said.

Recent comments from Andrew Parker, director general of British intelligence agency MI5, underscore those concerns. “A growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have traveled to fight there or who aspire to do so,” Parker said in a recent speech.

Maher, who is in regular contact with a contingent of Britons in Syria, said their cheery photos of fighters living bachelor-pad style in comfortable houses, with all the food they can eat and all the weaponry they could hope for, will continue draw ever larger numbers.

“They send pictures of sweets — of candy — and of pop. You can get all this out there. It’s not a life full of privation,” Maher said. “You get this comfortable life in Syria with the option, the possibility to die a martyr.”

Hinnant reported from Paris. Mark Lewis in Oslo, Norway; Paisley Dodds in London; and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lebanon contributed.

Palestinians: Soldiers shoot dead 15-year-old boy

December 07, 2013

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Relatives say Israeli soldiers shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian boy in the West Bank on Saturday.

Wajdi Ramahi from the Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah said his son, Wajeeh, was killed by a shot to the back. Ramahi said his son was playing football on school grounds and then went to a nearby grocery store to buy something to drink. The father said his son was shot from an Israeli army watchtower in the nearby Beit El settlement. He said his son was dead on arrival at a Ramallah hospital.

The Israeli military says it is looking into the report. The Israelis and Palestinians are currently engaged in backchannel peace talks after a five-year lull.

Possible culprits in Hezbollah commander’s killing

December 04, 2013

Senior Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis was assassinated early Wednesday in southern Beirut — a sharp blow to the Iranian-backed Shiite group. Hezbollah has no shortage of rivals eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership:

— ISRAEL: Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel for al-Laqis’ assassination, saying it had tried to kill him several times already. Israeli officials denied the accusations. Still, the Jewish state could view the fallout from Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria — and the long list of enemies it has created — as cover to move against a senior figure.

Enmity runs deep between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese group waged an insurgency against the nearly 20-year Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon before Israel withdrew in 2000. The Israelis have killed — or have been suspected of killing — high-ranking Hezbollah figures for decades. In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife, his son and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was killed in south Lebanon. But one of the biggest blows came in 2008 when Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah commander, was killed by a bombing in Damascus.

— SAUDI ARABIA: Al-Laqis’ killing came shortly after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking to a TV station, accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the Nov. 19 suicide bombings at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. He indirectly blamed an alliance between Iran rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia for trying to strike at Hezbollah, which is Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon. The allegations spotlighted the Syrian civil war’s sectarian overtones and regional impact. Riyadh backs the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, while regional Shiite power Iran and Hezbollah support Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime is stacked with members of his heterodox sect of Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia fears what it sees as Iran trying to spread its influence across the Arab world. Under this thinking, a Saudi strike against Hezbollah would be a blow to Iran and its regional ambitions. The kingdom does not however have a known history of sponsoring assassinations.

— AL-QAIDA-LINKED GROUPS: Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida are staunch opponents of Hezbollah. One such Lebanese group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the Iranian Embassy attack and said more would follow unless Hezbollah withdrew its fighters from Syria. Extremists and al-Qaida-affiliated factions increasingly dominate the messy mosaic of Syrian rebels. Al-Qaida fighters, whose extreme interpretation of Islam considers Shiites to be apostates whose blood may be shed, have attacked Shiites elsewhere, particularly Iraq, in the past decade. Al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria have proven to be among the most effective in fighting Assad, and they have claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings in the war.

— SYRIAN REBELS: Syrian rebels have been threatening Hezbollah since the group sent fighters to Syria. Two previously unknown Sunni groups claimed responsibility for al-Laqis’ assassination, although the claims could not be verified. Since Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria began, its strongholds have been targeted by rockets and car bombings in apparent retaliation.

Senior Hezbollah commander killed in Beirut

December 04, 2013

BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) — The attackers waited in an olive grove around midnight. As the Hezbollah commander pulled into the garage of his nearby apartment building, they went in after him. Five bullets were pumped into his head and neck from a silencer-equipped pistol — an assassination that reverberated across the Middle East.

The killing early Wednesday of Hassan al-Laqis, described as a member of the inner circle of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was the latest in a series of recent attacks against the Iranian-backed group.

Hezbollah blamed Israel, which denied involvement. However, the Shiite militant group’s open support of Syrian President Bashar Assad has enraged Sunnis and left it with no shortage of enemies eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership. Dozens of people have been killed in deadly car bombings claimed by radical Sunni groups.

The group’s participation in the civil war in Syria is highly divisive and unpopular in Lebanon, where many feel it has deviated from its raison d’etre of fighting Israel and exposed the Shiite community to retaliation.

Most recently, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23. An al-Qaida-affiliated group claimed responsibility, saying it was payback for Hezbollah’s support of Assad.

Al-Laqis’ killing came shortly after Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the embassy bombings in a sharp escalation in rhetoric against the Sunni regional powerhouse. In a three-hour interview with a local TV station, he indirectly suggested an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia was trying to destabilize his group.

The Saudi monarchy is engaged in a proxy war with Iran over influence in the region, and in that, Riyadh has increasingly found common ground with the Jewish state. “The assassination is another notch in tensions between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia,” said Kamel Wazne, founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut.

“There will be repercussions. It’s going to be more like an open battle,” he said. Two previously unknown Sunni groups claimed responsibility on Twitter for al-Laqis’ assassination, but the claims could not be verified.

Al-Laqis, 53, was killed as he returned home from work, Hezbollah said. “The brother martyr Hassan al-Laqis spent his youth and dedicated all his life in this honorable resistance since its inception up until the last moments of his life,” a statement from the group said.

An official close to the highly secretive group said al-Laqis held some of Hezbollah’s most sensitive portfolios and was very close to Nasrallah and his inner circle, often acting as a link with officials in Tehran.

“He was one of the brains behind much of the group’s operations,” the official said. Hezbollah distributed a photo of al-Laqis and said Israel had tried to kill him several times. The image showed a man wearing beige-and-khaki military clothes, with neatly cut black hair and a graying close-cropped beard.

There were conflicting reports on whether he was involved in the Syria war, where the group’s fighters have helped Assad’s troops gain the upper hand in key areas near the border with Lebanon. Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. has seen reports of the killing and was looking to all parties “to cooperate with a full investigation.”

“We’ve been very concerned by recurring instances of sectarian and political violence in Lebanon, and we have talked about the negative impact that Syria has had in Lebanon and Iraq,” she said. Al-Laqis was shot with a pistol equipped with a silencer at close range after he parked in his apartment building in the Hadath neighborhood southwest of Beirut, according to a Lebanese security official and the official close to Hezbollah. Several assailants appear to have been involved, they said.

Muddy footprints led from the olive grove to the parking garage. Yellow police tape blocked off the area, and Hezbollah investigators were at the scene. He was struck by five bullets in the head and neck, the Lebanese official said. The gunmen fled, and al-Laqis was taken to a nearby hospital but died of his wounds, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

“I was trying to sleep, and I heard … a bullet being fired and a dog barking,” said Abdullah, a resident who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons. “I did not bother myself, but later I heard people screaming. … Then our neighbors told us that one of the neighbors was assassinated,” Abdullah said.

Another resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, said none of the neighbors were aware that al-Laqis was a security man and that he went about his business like everyone else.

Al-Laqis did not have bodyguards with him, suggesting he did not want to draw attention to himself. The assassination marked a rare breach of the Shiite militant group’s security — the fourth successful penetration of a Hezbollah enclave in recent months.

It also underscored how the militia has found itself engaged on multiple fronts: Shoring up Assad’s rule in Syria while also keeping up the fight against Israel. Some of Hezbollah’s most loyal supporters in the Shiite community have been reluctant to embrace its fight in Syria.

That involvement has raised tensions in Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities as each side lines up in support of their brethren in the Syrian civil war. That has fueled predictions that Lebanon, still recovering from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of descending into full-blown sectarian violence.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, there have been bloody street battles between rival sides nearly every day, with at least 12 people killed last week. Al-Laqis was buried later Wednesday in his hometown of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon. A few thousand people took part in pouring rain, and women wept as Hezbollah pallbearers carried the coffin, wrapped in the group’s yellow flag, through the streets. Hezbollah fighters fired in the air in mourning.

“The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame,” the Hezbollah statement said. “This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this heinous crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance.”

Israeli officials categorically denied involvement. Still, Israel could view the fallout from Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria — and the long list of enemies it has created — as cover to move against one of the group’s senior figures and settle old scores with Hezbollah and Iran.

Hezbollah has fought several wars against Israel. Al-Laqis’ son, Ali, died fighting Israel in the monthlong 2006 war. Israel’s Mossad intelligence service has been suspected of assassinating Hezbollah commanders for more than two decades.

In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife and 5-year-old son, and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was shot and killed in south Lebanon.

One of the biggest blows for the group came in 2008 when top military commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a bomb that ripped through his car in Damascus. Hezbollah and its primary patron, Iran, blamed Israel’s Mossad for the killing.

Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.