Archive for July, 2015

Israel passes law sanctioning force-feeding prisoners

July 30, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s parliament passed a contentious law on Thursday that would permit the force-feeding of inmates on hunger strike, eliciting harsh criticism over the practice.

The law allows a judge to sanction the force-feeding or administration of medical treatment if there is a threat to the inmate’s life, even if the prisoner refuses. It passed with a 46-40 vote in favor — a slender margin in the 120-seat Knesset. The remaining lawmakers were sent from the early morning vote.

While the law applies to all prisoners held in Israeli jails, Palestinian prisoners have used hunger strikes as a tool to draw attention to their detention without trial or charges. Scores of Palestinian inmates have held rounds of hunger strikes over recent years and, with many prisoners hospitalized, their failing health has caused tensions to flare among Palestinians.

Israel fears that a hunger-striking prisoner’s death could trigger unrest. Israel in the past has acceded to hunger-striking prisoners’ demands and at times has released prisoners. “The hunger strikes of the terrorists in jail have turned into a tool they use to try to pressure and threaten the state of Israel and to cause it to release terrorists,” said Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. “The new law allows us to prevent a threat to the prisoners’ lives and to prevent them from putting pressure on the state.”

David Amsalem, a lawmaker with the ruling Likud party who backed the law, said it “creates the right balance between the state’s interest to protect the prisoner’s life and his rights and sovereignty over his body.”

Under the new law, Israel’s prison service would need to seek permission from the attorney general to ask a judge to allow the force-feeding of a prisoner. The judge would then weigh a doctor’s opinion, the prisoner’s position as well as security considerations before ruling in the matter, according to Amany Daiyf, from the group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which opposes the law.

Critics say force-feeding is unethical and amounts to torture. The Israeli Medical Association, which has urged physicians not to cooperate, plans to challenge the law in the Supreme Court. “Israeli doctors … will continue to act according to medical ethical norms that completely prohibit doctors from participating in torture and force-feeding amounts to torture,” said Leonid Eidelman, the head of the association.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel called the law “shameful,” saying “it pushes the medical community to severely violate medical ethics for political gains.” The fate of the prisoners is deeply emotional for Palestinians, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. Palestinians view the thousands of prisoners held by Israel as heroes. Several hundred are held in administrative detention, according to the Palestinian prisoner advocacy group Addameer, where they can be held for months or years without charge or trial.

Qadura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, called the law “ugly” and said it violated the prisoners’ right to conduct a hunger strike.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

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In shift, Turkish jets strike Islamic State targets in Syria

July 24, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a major tactical shift, Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria on Friday, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost. A Syrian rights group said the airstrikes killed nine IS fighters.

Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia and borders the Middle East, had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. In a related, long-awaited development, Turkey said it has agreed to allow U.S.-led coalition forces to base manned and unmanned aircraft at its air bases for operations targeting the IS group.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said Turkey’s military would also take part in the operations. The ministry would not provide details on the agreement, citing operational reasons, but said it expected Turkey’s cooperation to “make a difference” to the campaign. The statement did not say which bases would be used, but Turkish media reports said they would include Incirlik, Diyarbakir and Batman, all in southern Turkey near the border with Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed earlier that Turkey had agreed to let the U.S. use Incirlik air base for operations “within a certain framework.” A U.S. official said the agreement was reached during a phone call this week with President Barack Obama.

In June 2014, the Islamic State group launched a blitz, capturing large parts of Iraq and of Syria — which has been ravaged by a four-year-old civil war. The group subsequently declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it controls. The U.S.-led coalition has been striking the group in both Syria and Iraq.

Turkish police also launched a major operation Friday against extremist groups including the Islamic State, detaining more than 290 people in simultaneous raids in Istanbul and 12 provinces. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the airstrikes Friday had “removed potential threats” to Turkey, hitting their targets with “100 percent accuracy.” He did not rule out further airstrikes, saying Turkey was determined to stave off all terror threats.

“This was not a point operation, this is a process,” Davutoglu said. “It is not limited to one day or to one region … the slightest movement threatening Turkey will be retaliated against in the strongest way possible.”

A government official said three F-16 jets took off from Diyarbakir air base in southeast Turkey early Friday and used smart bombs to hit three IS targets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules requiring authorization for comment.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the three Turkish airstrikes were all near the border, hitting north of the village of Hawar al-Nahr, east of the Rai area and west of the town of Jarablous.

He said the airstrikes killed nine IS fighters, wounded 12 others and destroyed at least one IS vehicle and a heavy machine gun. The private Dogan news agency said as many as 35 IS militants were killed in the airstrikes, but did not cite a source.

The Observatory also reported that an airstrike targeted a post near the border with Turkey for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. It said it was not clear if Turkish warplanes or those of the U.S.-led coalition struck the Nusra Front position.

Davutoglu said Turkish planes did not violate Syrian airspace Friday, but he did not rule out incursions in the future. He denied news reports claiming that Turkey had told the Syrian regime about the airstrikes, but said it had contacted NATO allies before the operation.

The agreement on the Turkish air bases follows months of U.S. appeals to Turkey and delicate negotiations. Davutoglu said Friday that an agreement that takes Turkey’s concerns into account had been reached, but did not elaborate.

Turkey’s moves came as the country finds itself drawn further into the conflict in neighboring Syria by a series of deadly attacks and signs of increased IS activity inside Turkey itself. A government statement said the airstrikes were approved Thursday after IS militants fired from Syrian territory at the Turkish military outpost, killing one soldier. A funeral was held Friday for the slain Turkish soldier, Yalcin Nane, where mourners denounced IS violence, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Officials said Friday’s airstrikes were codenamed “Operation Yalcin” in his honor. The agency said as many as 5,000 police officers were involved in Friday’s sweep against suspected extremists, which also targeted the PKK Kurdish rebel group and the outlawed far-left group DHKP-C. Davutoglu said those detained included 37 foreign nationals but did not name their home countries.

One DHKP-C suspect, a woman, was killed in a gunfight with police in Istanbul, Anadolu reported. The agency said those detained in Istanbul included Halis Bayuncuk, an alleged IS cell leader in the city who is suspected of having helped recruit supporters.

On Monday, a suicide bombing blamed on IS militants killed 32 people in Suruc, a Turkish town near the Syrian border. The bombing ignited protests from Turkey’s Kurds, who said the government had not done enough to prevent attacks from the IS group.

Turkish officials say the Suruc bombing could be retaliation for Turkey’s crackdown on IS operations. In the last six months, more than 500 people suspected of working with the IS group in Turkey have been detained, officials say.

Butler reported from Istanbul. Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed.

After delays, construction begins on destroyed homes in Gaza

July 23, 2015

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Undeterred by scorching heat, Palestinian workers in Gaza on Thursday hammered nails into wooden boards and jolted steel bars as they lay the foundations for the first group of homes to be rebuilt since the war with Israel last summer. The work brought a rare glimmer of hope to a territory that remains devastated a year after the fighting.

The long-awaited reconstruction started in Shijaiyah, one of Gaza’s areas that was hardest hit during the 50-day war between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group. “Thank God!” said Sharif Harara, 50, who stood under the sun as the workers laid the foundation of his new residence. “After a year of suffering in rental homes, our God brought his mercy.”

Last year’s fighting was the third and most devastating war between the bitter enemies since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival Palestinian Authority, dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party. Over 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side were killed in the fighting.

The war also destroyed 11,900 homes and damaged about 140,000 dwellings, according to the Palestinian Minister of Public Works Mufeed al-Hasayneh, whose ministry oversees the rebuilding. One year later, thousands of houses with minor or moderate damage have been repaired under strict guidelines agreed to by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But so far, no new homes have been built to replace those that were completely destroyed.

Reconstruction efforts have also been hampered by unmet international funding promises, the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which remains the internationally recognized government for the Palestinians, and continued Israeli security restrictions — though Israel has recently taken steps to increase the flow of goods into Gaza.

Shijaiyah is one of Gaza City’s most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods. Entire city blocks were laid to waste there in fierce fighting between hundreds of Hamas gunmen and Israeli troops.

The first houses are being rebuilt as part of a Qatari-funded project that will see 1,000 housing units reconstructed. For residents in Shijaiyah, where entire blocks remain flattened, it was a rare sign of progress and hope.

Harara used to have a two-floor home for his 10-member family. His new house will only have one floor. But he doesn’t mind, he said. “I quickly signed on it to get rid of the suffering,” he said. Harara’s old home was one of over 60 housing units in a bloc of buildings shared by his extended family that was destroyed by artillery shells and airstrikes last summer.

Only four housing units are being rebuilt in the Qatari project. The four homes were the first to receive Israeli approval for the necessary building materials, according to Al-Hasayneh. But he said Israel has approved requests to build more than 630 additional homes funded by Qatar. In addition, plans are in the works for another 1,000 homes funded by Kuwait, he said.

“I think within two weeks, there will be a revolution in construction,” said al-Hasayneh, the Palestinian minister. Harara’s brother, Ziad, a teacher who also lost his house, said he was excited to see Sharif’s new home begin to take shape. “This gave me a huge hope,” he said, standing outside a tent he erected on the empty lot where his house once stood.

But others were less positive. Among them was Hussam Harara, 37, a cousin of Sharif and Ziad. His home is nearby, in an apartment building that was moderately damaged. “Those with total destruction started rebuilding while nobody gave us any money to repair,” he said.

He frowned as he pointed out a freshly painted white mosque that was quickly repaired by Hamas. “This is a Hamas mosque,” he said. “They repaired the mosque and the house that has children was not repaired.”

Israeli PM launches Twitter account for Iranians

July 13, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister opened a Twitter account in Farsi on Monday, seeking to reach out to the Iranian public as world powers were getting closer to a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes the emerging deal, and he used his inaugural tweet to criticize it and what he described as Iranian hypocrisy. His first tweet included an image of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “has said Iran should fight the U.S. regardless of the agreement, while Rouhani leads demonstrations expressing hatred.”

Netanyahu’s office said the Farsi account will publish content similar to his English and Hebrew accounts to engage the Iranian people directly. Netanyahu has a popular following on Twitter and often tweets videos and photos with messages critical of the Iranian government and nuclear negotiations.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, said Netanyahu’s aggressive rhetoric could backfire with his Iranian audience. “I’m worried … Netanyahu is going to cause more damage if he continues with the same messages,” he said.

The account quickly gained more than 600 followers, with many users mocking him and saying there was a grammatical mistake. Twitter, Facebook, and other popular social media sites are technically banned in Iran but Iranians are active on Twitter through proxy servers.

Key leaders, including Khameini, Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Jared Zarif, all have large followings and tweet official statements. Netanyahu’s office said it has not decided whether to interact with politicians on the new Twitter feed.

Netanyahu has lobbied against the emerging deal, saying it would leave too much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact. On Monday, he complained in Jerusalem that world powers are ready to make an agreement “at any price.”

Earlier Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the deal with Iran will force the Jewish state to “defend itself, by itself.” Yaalon said Israel’s assumption was that a “bad nuclear deal” was imminent — one that would not succeed in closing a single reactor or destroy a single centrifuge in Iran.

Israeli navy peacefully intercepts Gaza-bound vessel

June 29, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s navy intercepted a Swedish vessel attempting to breach a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip early Monday and was redirecting it to an Israeli port, the military and the activists said.

The military said that after exhausting all diplomatic efforts, the government ordered it to block the vessel. Israeli naval forces boarded the Marianne ship and searched it in international waters without needing to use any force, the military said.

The ship was carrying about 20 activists, including Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas and former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki. Three other ships that were part of the original flotilla reversed course before encountering the Israeli navy.

The Freedom Flotilla group posted a photo on Twitter apparently showing a group of its activists onboard a ship. It said in the post that Israeli forces intercepted the Marianne and it was currently en route to Ashdod port. The ship was expected to arrive in Ashdod in 12 to 24 hours.

Petros Stergiou, a member of flotilla’s media team in Athens, said the group would continue its acts of protest until the blockade of Gaza was lifted. “Once again, the Israeli state commits an act of state piracy in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “The government continues this policy of non-tolerance, which means that it will continue to enforce the collective punishment against the 1.8 million people in Gaza.”

A 2010 Israeli raid against a Gaza-bound flotilla left nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists dead. It sparked international criticism of Israel and delivered a serious blow to its previously close ties with Turkey.

Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas militants took power in 2007. Islamic militants in the coastal strip have fired thousands of rockets toward Israel and have repeatedly tried to smuggle in arms through the sea.

While Israel insists there is no siege, there are severe restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade, with virtually no exports. The international community, including the United Nations, has repeatedly called for an end to the blockade.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the naval blockade of Gaza is in accordance with international law and has been endorsed by a United Nations committee. “This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organization and ignores all of the horrors in our region,” he said. “We are not prepared to accept the entry of war material to the terrorist organizations in Gaza as has been done by sea in the past.”

Israel says it transfers about 800 trucks a day into Gaza and recently brought in more than 1.6 million tons of goods. It says it assists in hundreds of humanitarian projects, through international organizations, including the building of hospitals and clinics.

Pair of lions kept as pets by Gaza family arrive in Jordan

July 05, 2015

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Two young lions that had been kept as pets in a Gaza refugee camp traveled Sunday to Jordan where their final destination will be a wildlife sanctuary.

A Gaza family had bought the lions as cubs from a local zoo that was damaged in last year’s war between Israel and Gaza’s rulers from the Islamic militant Hamas group. The family kept Mona and Max in their small home in the crowded Rafah refugee camp.

The lions and their handlers arrived in Jordan on Sunday evening after leaving Gaza earlier in the day, said Dr. Amir Khalil of the British charity Four Paws. The journey hit an unexpected delay on Friday when Four Paws made its first attempt to take the lions out of Gaza, via the Erez crossing with Israel.

Israel and Egypt have severely restricted travel in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Cogat, the branch of the Israeli military that handles movement from Gaza to Israel, said the animals and their entourage showed up without prior notification after the crossing was already closed Friday. For several hours, the one-year-old cats were trapped in no-man’s land when Hamas denied their re-entry back into Gaza.

The group eventually checked into a Gaza hotel to wait for the crossing to reopen Sunday. Mona and Max were tied next to their crates in the hotel’s garden.