Archive for July, 2018

Government forces split East Ghouta apart, leaving residents with ‘nowhere to go’

MAR. 11, 2018

AMMAN: Syrian government forces advanced and cut East Ghouta in two on Sunday, state media reported, while residents said they have “nowhere” to seek safety from a barrage of aerial and ground attacks in the rebel enclave.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) captured the central East Ghouta town of Mudayra on Sunday after “fierce battles with terrorist organizations,” state media outlet SANA reported.

The advance severed rebel supply routes and movement between the pocket’s northern and southern sections, SANA said.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the capture of Mudayra by government forces, which pro-opposition media outlets did not immediately report on Sunday.

In an earlier advance, Syrian government forces captured the central East Ghouta town of Misraba on Saturday, effectively “cutting off” the enclave’s largest city, Douma, from the rest of of the pocket, Hamza Beriqdar, the spokesman for the rebel faction Jaish al-Islam told Syria Direct.

Jaish al-Islam is one the two major rebel factions in control of East Ghouta.

Today, East Ghouta is divided into two main pockets: a northern section, where Douma lies, and a southern section containing a cluster of other cities and towns. The town of Harasta, near Douma, sits in a third pocket of its own, surrounded on three sides by government forces. Roads connecting Harasta to the rest of East Ghouta are within range of government fire and therefore impassable.

“There’s nowhere to go,” Khadeja Homs, a resident of the East Ghouta town of Hamouriyah told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Pro-government forces have encircled and bombarded East Ghouta, where an estimated 400,000 people live, since 2013. Damascus intensified attacks on the enclave last month in an ongoing aerial and ground campaign that has left approximately 1,100 civilians dead and many more injured.

SAA units and their allies have captured more than half of East Ghouta since the escalation began, Iran’s Fars New Agency reported on Sunday, citing Syrian military sources. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the same statistic last week.

As government forces advanced in East Ghouta over the weekend, “the bombing increased in its strength, intensity and duration” Douma resident and journalist Haytham Bakkar told Syria Direct on Sunday from a bomb shelter in the city. “The bombing hasn’t stopped since the morning,” he said.

Airstrikes and shelling over cities across East Ghouta killed at least five civilians on Sunday, according to the Civil Defense.

Increasingly hemmed in by advancing government frontlines, civilians told Syria Direct that their options for places to seek safety from the bombing are narrowing.

“We are now running from neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street and building to building,” journalist Bakkar said.

Abu Anas, another Douma resident who spoke to Syria Direct on Sunday just before the capture of Mudayra, listed a number of towns that were once available to him, should the need to flee his city arise: Misraba, Saqba, Hamouriya. Now, those towns are inaccessible.

“Today, it’s impossible for me to flee,” he said. “There’s only Douma.”

East Ghouta residents moved underground in recent weeks, seeking to ride out government bombings in basements and cellars. But as thousands of East Ghouta residents pack into shrinking pockets of rebel territory, not everybody can find shelter underground.

“There are some who have no place in a shelter,” journalist Bakkar said, “especially after the wave of displacement to Douma that took place after [the fall of] Misraba, Otaya and Bayt Sawa,” all towns captured by pro-government forces over the past two weeks.

‘Fear of the unknown’

Jaish al-Islam spokesman Beriqdar told Syria Direct on Sunday that his faction is not in negotiations with the Syrian government to leave East Ghouta.

On Friday, Jaish al-Islam released 13 militants with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—previously part of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra—from rebel prisons in East Ghouta. The fighters then departed East Ghouta with their families and headed for rebel-held Idlib province.

The departure followed “consultations” between Jaish al-Islam, the United Nations and “a number of international actors,” the faction said via a statement published to its official Twitter account.

Expelling “Jabhat a-Nusra” and its affiliates from East Ghouta is often cited by the Syrian government as the reason for its campaign on the pocket.

Further negotiations regarding the evacuation of a second group of militants are underway, Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry’s Center for Syrian Reconciliation said on Sunday, Russian state media outlet Sputnik reported. The center is a party to the talks.

HTS fighters who departed East Ghouta on Friday left via the al-Wafideen crossing northeast of Douma, TASS reported. Russia designated the crossing as a “humanitarian corridor” in a unilateral decision last month.

The corridor is meant to facilitate civilian departures from the enclave, but few civilians have been able to leave East Ghouta through it so far, Syria Direct recently reported. Russia and the Syrian government accuse rebels of shelling the area to prevent civilians from leaving. Rebels deny the claims.

Underground in East Ghouta, civilians waiting out the fighting know little about any negotiations to decide their fate, said journalist Bakkar.

“The fighters aren’t telling us what’s going on,” he said from his Douma shelter, “and the politicians aren’t saying where they’re headed.”

“Fear of the unknown is ruling the situation now.”

Source: Syria Direct.

Link: http://syriadirect.org/news/government-forces-split-east-ghouta-apart-leaving-residents-with-%E2%80%98nowhere-to-go%E2%80%99/.

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Turkish army, FSA ‘capture Jinderes town’ in Syria’s Afrin

March 08 2018

The Turkish military and Free Syrian Army captured Jinderes town in Syria’s northwestern Afrin district from People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants on March 8.

Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” on Jan. 20 along with elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to clear Afrin of the YPG.

Turkey sees the YPG as a terror group for its ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.

More than 3,000 YPG militants ‘neutralized’ in Turkey’s Afrin op: Army

Some 3,055 YPG militants have been “neutralized” in Turkey’s ongoing cross-border operation in Syria’s northwestern Afrin district, the Turkish Armed Forces said in a statement on March 8.

“In ‘Operation Olive Branch,’ so far 112 villages, 30 critical positions, and a total of 142 spots have been taken under control,” Bekir Bozdag, Deputy Prime Minister said on March 5.

Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on March 2 that 41 Turkish soldiers and 116 FSA militants have been killed since the start of “Operation Olive Branch.” Another 119 have been wounded, state-run Anadolu Agency reported the following day.

The army announced on March 6 that another soldier succumbed to his wounds.

Source: Hurriyet.

Link: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-army-fsa-capture-jinderes-town-in-syrias-afrin-128422.

Gaza residents pray near Israel, as Muslims mark major feast

June 15, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza worshipers knelt on prayer rugs spread on sandy soil, near the perimeter fence with Israel, joining hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world Friday in marking the holiday that caps the fasting month of Ramadan.

The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday is typically a time of family visits and festive meals, with children getting new clothes, haircuts and gifts. In the Middle East, celebrations were once again marred by prolonged conflict in hot spots such as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.

In the Gaza Strip, some worshipers performed the traditional morning prayers of the holiday in areas several hundred meters (yards) away from the heavily guarded fence with Israel. Friday’s prayers marked the continuation of weeks-long protests against a blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the 2007 takeover of the territory by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Since late March, more than 120 protesters have been killed and more than 3,800 wounded by Israeli army fire in the area of the fence.

Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader, joined worshipers in an area east of Gaza City. At one point, as the faithful bowed their heads on their prayer mats in unison, a young man on crutches — presumably injured in previous protests — followed the ritual while he remained standing. Some activists later approached the fence, burning tires.

Protest organizers said they planned to release large numbers of kites and balloons with incendiary materials rags throughout the day Friday, in hopes they will land in Israel. Such kites with burning rags attached have reportedly burned hundreds of acres of crops and forests in Israel.

Protest organizer Mohammed al-Tayyar, a member of a group calling itself the “burning kites unit,” said Friday larger balloons with greater potential for damage would be released after 10 days unless the blockade is lifted. Israel’s defense minister has said Israel is determined to stop such kites and balloons.

The protests have been organized by Hamas, but turnout has been driven by growing despair in Gaza about blockade-linked hardships; unemployment now approaches 50 percent and electricity is on for just a few hours every day.

Hamas has also billed the protests as the “Great March of Return,” suggesting they would somehow pave the way for a return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants — about two-thirds of Gaza’s residents — to return to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled in the Mideast war over Israel’s 1948 creation. Haniyeh told reporters after Friday’s prayers, which were also being held outdoors in another location east of the town of Khan Younis, that protests would continue.

He said a recent U.N. General Assembly resolution blaming Israel for the Gaza violence “shows that the marches of return and breaking the siege revived the Palestinian issue and imposed the issue on the international agenda.” The resolution also said Israel had used excessive force against Palestinian protesters.

Israel says it is defending its territory and civilians living near Gaza. It has accused Hamas of trying to use the protests as cover for damaging the fence and trying to carry out cross-border attacks. Israel and Egypt argue that the blockade is needed to contain Hamas which has a history of violence and refuses to disarm.

In Jerusalem, senior Muslim cleric Muhammad Hussein told tens of thousands of worshipers that a plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, expected to be unveiled by the Trump administration, is unfair and “aims at the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.”

President Donald Trump has promised to negotiate the “ultimate deal” but the plan’s reported, though unconfirmed parameters have been dismissed by the Palestinians as siding with Israel. The Palestinian issue also loomed large in Iran.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing worshipers Friday, praised citizens for showing up at massive rallies last week in support of the Palestinians on Jerusalem Day. That day was initiated by Iran in 1979 to express support for the Palestinians and oppose Israel.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in an Eid al-Fitr message that he believes the “land of Palestine will be returned to owners of the land with the help if God.” Iran and Israel are bitter foes. In Syria, President Bashar Assad attended Eid prayers in the town of Tartous, part of an area that has remained loyal to him throughout seven years of civil war. The coastal region is home to Syria’s minority Alawite population that has been the core of Assad’s support. Assad, an Alawite, traces his family’s origins to Qardaha, a town in the mountains nearby.

Tens of thousands of men from the coastal region are believed to have been killed fighting for the president since 2011, according to Syrian monitoring groups. Assad is now in control of Syria’s largest cities and its coastal region.

In Afghanistan, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani touted a three-day holiday cease-fire with the Taliban, calling for a longer truce and urging the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The Taliban agreed to the cease-fire but leader Haibaitullah Akhunzada reiterated his demand for talks with the U.S. before sitting down with the Afghan government.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Jericho, West Bank and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

Hamas extols Turkey’s swift response to Gaza massacre

16.05.2018

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania

Hamas on Tuesday expressed its appreciation for Turkey’s rapid response to Monday’s massacre committed by Israeli troops against peaceful Palestinian protesters on the Gaza Strip’s eastern border.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency during a visit to Mauritania, where he will take part in a pro-Palestine conference, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri praised the support of the Turkish government and people for the Palestinian cause.

“The Turkish people hit the streets immediately after Monday’s massacre; this was very encouraging,” he said.

According to Abu Zuhri, Turkey’s role is of especial importance as the country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Israel’s ambassador to Ankara left Turkey on Wednesday — at the latter’s request — shortly after the deadly violence on the Gaza-Israel border.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag announced Monday that the Turkish government had declared three days of mourning in solidarity with Gaza’s martyrs.

“We appreciate the Turkish role and hope to strengthen this interaction with the provision of needed humanitarian relief to Gaza, which continues to remain under siege,” Abu Zuhri said.

He also called for opening hospitals to help treat Gaza’s injured, urging Turkish organizations to provide support to struggling Gazan families.

On Monday, at least 62 Palestinian demonstrators were martyred — and hundreds more injured — by Israeli troops deployed along the other side of the border.

Monday’s demonstration had coincided with Israel’s 70th anniversary — an event Palestinians refer to as “The Catastrophe” — and the relocation of Washington’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem, which also took place Monday.

Since the Gaza rallies began on Mar. 30, more than 100 Palestinian demonstrators have been martyred by cross-border Israeli army gunfire.

Last week, the Israeli government said the ongoing border protests constituted a “state of war” in which international humanitarian law did not apply.

Source: Anadolu Agency.

Link: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/hamas-extols-turkey-s-swift-response-to-gaza-massacre/1147798.

Gaza hospitals struggle to cope with high casualty toll

May 15, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Patients with gunshot wounds filled wards and hallways in Gaza’s under-equipped and overwhelmed main hospital Tuesday, with dozens still waiting in line for surgery a day after Israeli soldiers shot and killed 59 Palestinians and wounded hundreds in mass protests on the Gaza border.

The high casualty toll triggered a diplomatic backlash against Israel and new charges of excessive use of force against unarmed protesters. The U.N. Security Council began its session Tuesday with a moment of silence for the dead, and the U.N.’s special Mideast envoy said there was “no justification for the killing.”

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador, and several European countries called for an international investigation. Israel said it has the right to protect its border and nearby communities, accusing Gaza’s ruling militant group Hamas of carrying out several attacks under the guise of the protests. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, came to Israel’s defense, saying no member “would act with more restraint than Israel has.”

Monday’s border confrontation was the culmination of a weeks-long protest campaign to break a border blockade that Israel and Egypt imposed after a Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007. The protests were led by Hamas, but fueled by the growing despair among Gaza’s 2 million people who face worsening poverty, unemployment, 22-hour-a-day power cuts and sweeping bans on travel and trade.

The protests were also driven by anger over the relocation Monday of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem. Palestinians seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as a future capital.

Even before the latest round of bloodshed, Gaza’s health system of 13 public hospitals and 14 clinics run by NGOs had buckled under persistent blockade-linked shortages of medicines and surgical supplies. At Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the main health facility in the strip, these woes were magnified this week.

Anticipating a major influx of casualties ahead of Monday’s mass march, Shifa had set up an outdoor triage station under a green and blue tarp in the hospital courtyard, setting up 30 beds and stretchers there.

Throughout the day Monday, Shifa received about 500 injured people, more than 90 percent with gunshot wounds, said hospital director Ayman Sahbani. Of those, 192 needed surgery, including 120 who needed orthopedic surgery, he said.

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, overwhelmed surgeons working in 12 operating theaters had only performed 40 orthopedic operations, with 80 others still waiting their turn. In the orthopedics department, nerves were frayed Tuesday as relatives worried about wounded family members amid fears their conditions might deteriorate.

In one room, Ibrahim Ruhmi rested on a bed with bandages on both legs. He had been shot in the right leg, while shrapnel hit his left leg. Outside the room his mother was crying on a chair in the hallway, consoled by his 28-year-old sister, Faten.

Suddenly, the young woman started shouting at nurses in a burst of frustration. “His leg will rot,” she yelled. “What are you waiting for? Do you wait for it to rot so you can amputate it?” A Hamas policeman, who was stationed as a security guard on the ward, tried to calm her down, to no avail.

“If you are unable to treat them, why are you letting them go to the protests,” she said of her brother and the others who were wounded by Israeli snipers in the dangerous area near the border fence. Nickolay Mladenov, the special U.N. envoy to the region, told the Security Council on Tuesday that hospitals in Gaza were “reporting an unfolding crisis of essential medical supplies, drugs and equipment needed to treat the injured.”

He said a U.N. official who visited Gaza, “witnessed first-hand patients being brought in on stretchers and left in the hospital’s courtyard, which was being used as a triage area.” “There is no justification for the killing, there is no excuse,” Mladenov said, adding that Israel had a responsibility to calibrate its use of force. At the same time, he said, “messages by Hamas indicate the intention to use mass protests to infiltrate into Israel and attack Israelis.”

On Monday, Israeli forces shot and killed 59 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,300, making it the deadliest single day in Gaza since a 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas. Two more Palestinians were shot dead in scattered border protests Tuesday, bring the total since late March to more than 100, the Health Ministry said.

Israel’s military said 14 of those killed Monday were involved in planting explosives or firing on Israeli soldiers. The diplomatic backlash against Israel was swift following the dramatic scenes from the Gaza border of frantic protesters carrying the wounded to ambulances in clouds of putrid black smoke from burning tires and flag-waving women in robes and headscarves defiantly facing Israeli soldiers in the distance.

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador, and Israel retaliated in kind. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Turkey’s president of hypocrisy, saying that a “man whose hands are drenched in the blood of countless Kurdish civilians in Turkey and Syria is the last one who can preach to us about military ethics.”

Ireland and Belgium summoned the Israeli ambassadors to their foreign ministries for questioning about the Gaza violence, and the two nations, along with Germany, called for an investigation. China called on Israel to show restraint.

In Brussels, Prime Minister Charles Michel called the Israeli actions “unacceptable violence” and said there was a “clear lack of proportionality.” Michel said the violence and killings would be moved onto the calendar of the European Union summit in Sofia on Wednesday and Thursday.

German spokesman Steffen Seibert said the violence “concerns us greatly,” but also accused Hamas of cynically escalating the unrest. South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he was “deeply distressed and broken-hearted by the massacre perpetrated” by Israel.

Also Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered his envoy to Washington to return to the West Bank in a show of protest against the U.S. Embassy move to contested Jerusalem. Meanwhile, there were no signs Tuesday that Hamas had made a breakthrough in shaking off the blockade.

Hamas has said protests would continue weekly, but it was not clear if it would be able to maintain momentum during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week. One leading organizer said the next mass march would be held June 5, to mark the anniversary of the 1967 Mideast war in which Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Tia Goldenberg, Ian Deitch and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

1 dead, dozens hurt by Israeli fire in Gaza border protest

May 11, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Palestinian was killed and 176 were wounded by Israeli army fire Friday as thousands of Gaza residents protested near their sealed border — part of a weeks-long campaign to end a decade-old blockade of the territory.

Later Friday, vandals burned a fuel complex and a conveyor belt on the Palestinian side of Gaza’s main cargo crossing with Israel, causing more than $9 million in damages and disrupting the import of diesel fuel and building materials, the military said.

Friday’s clashes offered a preview of what will likely be a much larger protest — and possibly a border breach — on Monday when the United States relocates its embassy in Israel to contested Jerusalem amid Palestinian outrage.

President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there “is causing the volcano to spew,” said 25-year-old protester Ahmed Deifallah as he stood near the Gaza border, a Palestinian flag draped around his head.

Deifallah, who is unemployed like almost half the Gaza labor force, said he would also join Monday’s protest and is not afraid to die. “We are used to confronting the (Israeli) occupation with our bare chests,” he said. “We are used to wars and no one with us but Allah.”

Friday marked the seventh weekly border protest since late March. The demonstrations have been organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, but are fueled by despair among the territory’s 2 million people. The vast majority are barred from travel and trade, while the blockade has gutted the economy.

As in previous weeks, thousands flocked to five tent camps near the border — some 15,000 people, according to the Israeli military. From the camps, smaller groups moved closer to the fence. They threw stones, burned tires and flew kites with burning rags attached to them, hoping to steer them into Israel to set fields on fire.

The area was quickly engulfed in thick black smoke from the burning tires. Israeli soldiers, some crouching behind sand berms, fired live bullets and tear gas volleys from the other side of the fence.

The Israeli military said protesters also threw pipe bombs and grenades toward Israeli soldiers and damaged the fence. Later Friday, Palestinians vandalized a fuel complex and conveyor belt on the Palestinian side of Gaza’s main cargo crossing, Kerem Shalom, the army said. It said the fuel installation is the only way to bring diesel fuel into Gaza for operating generators for hospitals and other key facilities.

The military distributed a video showing Palestinians cheering as a fire was set. It was the second such attack on the facility in a week. “Hamas continues to lead the residents of Gaza to destroy the only assistance they receive,” the army said.

Nissim Jan, the director of an Israeli company that operates Kerem Shalom in partnership with private Palestinian companies, said he spent large sums to repair last week’s damage. “This time I can’t repair and will not repair it. Where shall I bring money from?” he said.

The Gaza Health Ministry said a 40-year-old protester was killed and 176 were wounded by Israeli fire Friday. Ten of the wounded were in serious condition, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the head. Nearly 800 others were overcome by tear gas or suffered other types of injuries.

Friday’s death brought to 41 the number of protesters killed since March 30. In the same period, more than 1,800 were wounded by Israeli fire. Despite such risks, Gaza’s Hamas leader, Yehiyeh Sinwar, has said he expects tens of thousands to participate in Monday’s protest. He has raised the possibility of a mass border breach, comparing protesters to a “starving tiger,” unpredictable and full of pent-up anger.

Israel has said it will prevent any border breach and has stuck to its open-fire policies, including targeting “main instigators” and those approaching the fence, despite growing international criticism.

Israel says it has a right to defend its border and has accused Hamas of using the protests as a cover for attacking the border. Rights groups say the use of potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters is unlawful.

There are growing concerns that if Israel and Hamas dig in, a widespread border breach could lead to large numbers of casualties. The protests are part of a campaign to break the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant Hamas overran Gaza in 2007.

On Monday, they are also aimed at the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy, which comes five months after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a decision that outraged Palestinians as blatantly pro-Israel.

The Israeli-annexed eastern sector of Jerusalem is sought as a future Palestinian capital — at least by those supporting Hamas’ political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas seeks an Islamic state in the entire historic Palestine, including what is now Israel, but has said it is ready for a long-term truce.

Another large-scale protest is planned for Tuesday, when Palestinians mark their “nakba,” or catastrophe, referring to their mass uprooting during the Mideast war over Israel’s 1948 creation. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out or fled homes in what is now Israel. More than two-thirds of Gaza residents are descendants of refugees.

Meanwhile, Gaza government officials announced that Egypt will open its border with Gaza for four days starting Saturday. Helping reinforce the Israeli blockade, Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing point, Gaza’s main gate to the outside world, closed most of the time since the Hamas takeover.

Egypt opens the crossing from time to time, mainly to allow people in special categories, including medical patients and Gaza residents studying abroad, to leave the territory or return to it. The upcoming opening was framed as a humanitarian gesture ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins next week.

In Jordan, about 7,000 people participated in a “nakba” rally in an area close to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number several million people in the region, including more than 2 million in Jordan.

Friday’s rally took place before a large stage with a view of the Dead Sea and the West Bank. One man walked onto the stage with an effigy of Trump dangling from a noose.

Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Alice Su in Sweimeh, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Netanyahu greets Hungary’s Orban as ‘true friend of Israel’

July 19, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, calling him a “true friend of Israel” despite the outcry over the visiting leader’s past remarks that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic.

Orban and Netanyahu held a joint press conference in Jerusalem following the Hungarian premier’s arrival in Israel the day before. The four-time Hungarian prime minister drew criticism last year for praising Miklos Horthy — Hungary’s World War II-era ruler who introduced anti-Semitic laws and collaborated with the Nazis — and employing tropes that were anti-Semitic in tone against billionaire philanthropist George Soros during his re-election campaign.

Orban evoked anti-Semitic language in denouncing Soros, saying that Hungary’s enemies “do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”

Despite global Jewish condemnation of those remarks, Netanyahu praised Orban for combatting anti-Semitism and thanked him for Hungary’s pro-Israel stance. Netanyahu said the two leaders shared an understanding “that the threat of radical Islam is a real one. It could endanger Europe. It could endanger the world. It certainly endangers us and our Arab neighbors.”

Orban has cast himself as champion of a Christian Europe and adopted an aggressive stance to halt the flow of African and Muslim migrants through Hungary. The populist, right-wing politician campaigned earlier this year for re-election on a staunchly anti-migrant platform.

Orban chalked up his country’s strong bilateral ties with Israel to the two leaders’ “excellent personal ties” and “because the two countries have patriots as leaders.” Netanyahu visited Hungary last year — the first visit by an Israeli premier since the 1980s — and was warmly received by Orban. During the trip, Orban said the European Union’s ties with Israel were “not rational enough,” criticizing its stipulation that closer ties would follow resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Israeli premier has taken flak in Israel for embracing Orban amid the Hungarian leader’s increasing authoritarianism, as well as for striking a deal with Poland over a controversial Holocaust speech law. Critics of the compromise with Poland contend Netanyahu appeared to capitulate to the claim that Poles were only victims of the Nazis. Historians say anti-Semitism was prevalent in pre-war Poland and that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Opposition lawmaker Yair Lapid, whose father was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, scorned Netanyahu ahead of his meeting with Orban. “After he disrespected the memory of Holocaust victims in the agreement with Poland, today Netanyahu will pay honors to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, who hailed and praised the anti-Semitic ruler who collaborated with the Nazis in destroying the Jews of Hungary,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “Shame!”

Lapid and fellow opposition politician Tamar Zandberg, head of the Meretz party, called for a boycott of Orban’s visit. “Netanyahu has a thing with anti-Semitic leaders around the world, from Hungary and Poland, to the head of the Philippines, (Rodrigo) Duterte, who compared himself to Hitler, and instead of suffering condemnation, was invited as well for a state visit with the prime minister of Israel,” Zandberg wrote on Facebook.

Protesters were later expected to demonstrate at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, during Orban’s visit there. Amnesty International in Israel organized a protest against Orban’s visit to the memorial, rejecting “restraint toward the words of praise for anti-Semitism, for racism and anti-democratic persecution.”

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