Posts Tagged ‘ The Zionism Plague ’

Israel soldiers destroy Palestinian coronavirus testing center

July 20, 2020

Israeli soldiers demolished a Palestinian security checkpoint used to test for coronavirus in the occupied West Bank, according to Wafa news agency.

The checkpoint was set up by Palestinian security forces at the entrance to the occupied West Bank city of Jenin to prevent the spread of the virus.

A total of 468 new coronavirus cases and three deaths from the disease were recorded in the occupied Palestinian territories over the past 24 hours, confirmed the Ministry of Health today, leaving the active cases at 8,360 and total deaths at 65.

It added that 40 patients are currently in intensive care units, including three placed on respirators, with no reports of recoveries.

Israeli forces also injured a Palestinian man at the Jenin refugee camp, reported Wafa.

Local sources said soldiers stormed Jenin and its refugee camp early this morning to arrest activists. Occupation forces shot at Palestinians in the area, according to the reports, injuring one person in the leg.

Two people were arrested before the soldiers left the city and the checkpoint was destroyed.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, Israeli authorities continue to abuse the most vulnerable Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank, as part of decades-long attempts to drive them out of the area, and to similarly mistreat Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

According to B’Tselem, last month saw a spike in Israeli demolitions, which left 151 Palestinians, including 84 minors, homeless – despite the danger of remaining without shelter during a pandemic.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200720-israel-soldiers-destroy-palestinian-coronavirus-testing-centre/.

Israelis angry at Netanyahu over new outbreak, economic pain

July 10, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — With an unprecedented new surge in coronavirus cases battering Israel’s economy, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants was dispatched to a TV studio recently to calm the nerves of a jittery nation. Instead, he dismissed expressions of some of the public’s economic pain as “BS.”

The flippant comment by Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi is symptomatic of what critics see as a bloated, out-of-touch government. It also has become a rallying cry for anti-Netanyahu protests spreading, like the virus, across the country.

One out-of-work Israeli erupted in anger during a live television interview, berating Netanyahu and warning the country is “going to burn” if aid is not given soon. It is a dramatic turn of events for Netanyahu, who claimed credit and was widely praised for Israel’s successful management of the early stages of the crisis. Now his approval ratings are plummeting, and public health experts warn that Israel is close to being unable to cope.

At the start of the pandemic, Netanyahu moved quickly to close the country’s borders and impose strict measures to contain the virus. By May, Israel was among the first in the world to reopen its economy. Netanyahu boasted on TV that other countries were looking to Israel as a model.

But the exit strategy appears to have been bungled. Now facing a drastic surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases, the country has begun re-imposing restrictions, such as limits on public gatherings. Critics warn the government waited too long to respond.

“The management of the corona crisis is a humiliating national failure, it is dangerous and without precedent,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said this week. “People are furious, and they are right to be furious.”

Just two months ago, Netanyahu had sounded optimistic. After three costly and inconclusive elections in just under a year, he had managed to convince his chief challenger, retired military chief Benny Gantz, to join him in an “emergency” government with a mandate to tackle the coronavirus. Despite steep criticism, they established the largest government in Israeli history, arguing that its 34 ministers, some with dubious job titles and responsibilities, were essential to provide stability in uncertain times.

By late May, as the number of infections subsided, the country triumphantly reopened for business. The new government got distracted by ambitious plans to annex parts of the West Bank in the face of international criticism.

“We want to make your lives easier, to allow you to go out and get some air, to go back to routine as much as possible, to drink a cup a coffee, and to have a beer as well. So, first of all, enjoy yourselves,” Netanyahu said at the time.

From just a handful of cases, contagion quickly spread. Authorities now report record levels of more than 1,000 new cases a day, higher than any peak in the spring. Experts charge that Israel let its guard down. Ran Balicer, a professor of public health and member of the national epidemic management team, said Israel reopened too quickly and slammed the brakes too late.

“For weeks we have been seeing the illness spread in Israel at one of the fastest rates in the world,” he wrote in the Haaretz daily. “A large proportion of experts believe that the critical time for intervention, for the ‘final braking point,’ is right before us. And the problem is that it is coming at a time when we don’t have enough effective tools to halt the spread of the illness.”

Israel, like other countries, is struggling to balance containing infections and protecting the economy. Unemployment shot up to more than 25% during the first surge and many jobs have yet to come back. Small businesses, the self-employed and particularly the dining, entertainment and tourism industries are warning that another large-scale shutdown will be a death blow.

In the face of an angry electorate, Netanyahu’s support has tumbled. A Midgam Research & Consulting poll on Channel 12 TV found just 46% of respondents approved of Netanyahu’s job performance, down from 74% in May.

Scrambling to respond, Netanyahu said Thursday that the government would pay monthly stipends over the coming year to help the unemployed, self-employed and business owners hurt by the corona crisis. “The government will do everything that is required to ease the economic distress,” he said.

The sight of desperate Israelis lining up at soup kitchens and near-daily protests by out-of-work people has been damaging to Netanyahu’s populist brand. Hanegbi’s gaffe on TV added fuel. Asked about families struggling to put food on the table, he said: “This nonsense that people don’t have anything to eat is BS.”

He apologized and Netanyahu distanced himself. But the damage was done. Protesters demanded the government deliver on a promised relief package and attacked it for being obtuse to their suffering. “Minister Hanegbi, what he did in this situation is that he gave the people on the ground a green light,” screamed Eyal Altratz, an unemployed sound technician, in a Channel 13 TV interview. “I’m promising the prime minister: Listen carefully. Liar. If we don’t get the money in the next few days, you’re going to have a world war here.”

Though most of the anger has been focused on livelihoods, those involved in fighting the pandemic have been more concerned about public health. A top Health Ministry official credited with helping contain the initial outburst stepped down this week over differences on how the new government was handling the current spike. In her resignation letter, Sigal Sadetsky, the outgoing head of the public health services department, bemoaned how the “handling of the pandemic had lost direction.”

Unlike the initial response, she said recent actions have been clumsy, dismissive of health considerations and leading Israel to a “bad place.” Yuval Karni, a commentator for the Yediot Ahronot daily, said Netanyahu was suffering the consequences of his centralized management style in which he has taken credit for success, blamed others for failures and sidelined potential rivals and experts.

“Netanyahu is paying a political price for a decade of smugness,” he wrote. “Now Netanyahu is alone, at his most difficult time. And ours.”

Belgium votes on recognizing State of Palestine, imposing sanctions on Israel

June 25, 2020

The Belgian Chamber of Representatives will today be voting on whether to “formally recognize the State of Palestine.”

The resolution, said Socialist MP Malik Ban Achour, urges the federal government “to formally recognize the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel and to consider this recognition as a contribution by Belgium to the solution based on the coexistence of two democratic and independent states having the right to live in peace and security with mutually recognized, accepted and respected borders. ”

The 150-member House of Representatives will also debate a second resolution calling for the government to prepare a list of ‘’counter-measures’’ to be implemented if the Israeli annexation plan goes ahead on 1 July.

MPs from left-wing parties, including the Socialist Party and members of the French and Green parties, proposed the resolutions.

Earlier this week, more than 1,000 members of parliament from across Europe signed a letter warning Israel against annexing parts of the occupied West Bank.

The legislators said they “share serious concerns about President Trump’s plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the imminent prospect of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory.”

According to private daily Al-Bawaba, the resolution supporting EU punitive measures against Israel passed in a committee earlier this month with an easy majority and is likely to pass in the plenary.

However, the measure to recognize a Palestinian state passed by one vote in the Foreign Affairs Committee and is considered less likely to be approved by the plenary.

Sweden became the first EU member to officially recognize Palestine in 2014, though other parliaments have since called on their governments to do so.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200625-belgium-votes-on-recognising-state-of-palestine-imposing-sanctions-on-israel/.

Israeli defense minister apologizes for Palestinian’s death

June 01, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister apologized on Sunday for the Israeli police’s deadly shooting of an unarmed Palestinian man who was autistic. The shooting of Iyad Halak, 32, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday, drew broad condemnations and revived complaints alleging excessive force by Israeli security forces.

Benny Gantz, who is also Israel’s “alternate” prime minister under a power-sharing deal, made the remarks at the weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet. He sat near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made no mention of the incident in his opening remarks.

“We are really sorry about the incident in which Iyad Halak was shot to death and we share in the family’s grief,” Gantz said. “I am sure this subject will be investigated swiftly and conclusions will be reached.”

Halak’s relatives said he had autism and was heading to a school for students with special needs where he studied each day when he was shot. In a statement, Israeli police said they spotted a suspect “with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol.” When he failed to obey orders to stop, officers opened fire, the statement said. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld later said no weapon was found.

Israeli media reported the officers involved were questioned after the incident as per protocol and a lawyer representing one of them sent his condolences to the family in an interview with Israeli Army Radio.

Lone Palestinian attackers with no clear links to armed groups have carried out a series of stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks in recent years. Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups have long accused Israeli security forces of using excessive force in some cases, either by killing individuals who could have been arrested or using lethal force when their lives were not in danger.

Some pro-Palestinian activists compared Saturday’s shooting to the recent cases of police violence in the U.S.

Israeli leader vows to push ahead with annexing West Bank

May 25, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday pledged to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in the coming months, vowing to move ahead with the explosive plan despite a growing chorus of condemnations by key allies.

The Palestinians, with wide international backing, seek the entire West Bank as the heartland of a future independent state. Annexing large chunks of this territory would all but destroy the faint remaining hopes of a two-state solution.

In an apparent reference to the friendly administration of President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said Israel had a “historic opportunity” to redraw the Mideast map that could not be missed. Israeli media quoted him as saying he would act in July.

“This is an opportunity that we will not let pass,” he told members of his conservative Likud party. He added that the “historic opportunity” to annex the West Bank had never before occurred since Israel’s founding in 1948.

The comments threatened to push Israel closer to a confrontation with Arab and European partners, and could deepen what is becoming a growing partisan divide over Israel in Washington. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war. It has settled nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers in the territory, but never formally claimed it as an Israeli territory due to stiff international opposition.

But the Trump administration has taken a much softer line toward Israeli settlements than its predecessors. Trump’s Mideast team is dominated by advisers with close ties to the settlements, and his Mideast plan, unveiled in January, envisions leaving some 30% of the territory under permanent Israeli control while giving the Palestinians expanded autonomy in the rest of the area. The Palestinians have rejected the plan, saying it is unfairly biased toward Israel.

With Trump’s re-election prospects uncertain this November, Israeli hard-liners have urged Netanyahu to move ahead with annexation quickly. The Israeli leader’s new coalition deal includes an official clause allowing him to present his annexation plan to the government in July.

Netanyahu told party members in a closed-door meeting that “we have a target date for July and we don’t intend to change it,” Likud officials said. The plan has already exposed a partisan divide in Washington. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the U.S. presidential elections, recently said that annexation would “choke off” hopes for a two-state solution. 18 Democratic senators warned in a letter this week that annexation could harm U.S.-Israeli ties.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has said annexation would violate international law and vowed to use “all our diplomatic capacities” to stop it. Closer to home, the Palestinians last week cut off security ties — a valuable tool in a shared struggled against Islamic militants — with Israel to protest the annexation plan.

Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country that maintains behind-the-scenes relations with Israel, announced its “rejection of the Israeli measures and plans to annex Palestinian lands.” The Arab League has condemned it as a “war crime,” and both Jordan and Egypt — the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel — have harshly criticized it.

Netanyahu spoke a day after beginning his trial on corruption charges. The prime minister launched a blistering tirade against the country’s legal system when he arrived at court, accusing police, prosecutors and media of conspiring to oust him. As he spoke, hundreds of supporters cheered outside.

Speaking to Likud on Monday, Netanyahu said he was “very moved” by the support. Critics have said his attacks on the justice system risk undermining the country’s democratic foundations.

Israel’s Netanyahu attacks justice system as trial begins

May 24, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — To the sounds of his impassioned supporters chanting outside, a defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strode into a Jerusalem courtroom Sunday to face corruption charges in a long-awaited trial that has overshadowed three inconclusive elections and deeply divided the country.

As he entered the courthouse to become the country’s first sitting prime minister to go on trial, Netanyahu launched into a lengthy tirade against the nation’s justice system in which he accused police, prosecutors, judges and the media of a deep state-type conspiracy aimed to oust him against the will of the people.

“I stand before you with a straight back and head raised high,” he said, surrounded by leading Cabinet ministers of his Likud party. “The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years.”

The standoff, and Netanyahu’s own fiery rhetoric, looked to worsen the nation’s deep divisions just after Netanyahu swore in what he called a “unity” government with a former rival. Critics have said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks on the legal system risk irreversible damage to citizens’ faith in state institutions.

Outside the courthouse, hundreds of supporters rallied in his defense, packing a narrow street while waving Israeli flags and banners denouncing what they called a corrupt prosecution seeking to topple a leader of historic proportion. Others gathered at his official residence to demonstrate against what they called a “crime minister” and carried posters calling for his resignation. They faced off across police barricades with more of the prime minister’s backers.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family. He denies the charges, which come after years of scandals swirling around the family.

Netanyahu entered the Jerusalem courtroom wearing a blue surgical mask, following public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. He refused to sit until TV cameras left the room, and remained in the front row throughout the session.

During the proceedings, the lawyers and judges also wore masks, with the three-judge panel sitting behind a glass divider. In a hint of what could lie ahead, his lawyer said the defense would need several months to study the hundreds of reams of evidence and to build its legal team.

Netanyahu did not speak during the one-hour session, rising just once to confirm he understood the charges. He will not be required to attend future hearings during a case that legal analysts expect to stretch over several years. The next hearing was scheduled for July 19.

Before the session, Netanyahu said police and prosecutors had conspired “to stitch up” a case against him, and said the evidence was “contaminated” and exaggerated. He called for the court proceedings to be broadcast live on TV to ensure “full transparency.”

“While the media continues to deal with nonsense, with these false, trumped up cases, I will continue to lead the state of Israel and deal with issues that really matter to you,” he said, including efforts to resuscitate the economy and prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to go on trial. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, went to prison for corruption but resigned long before the trial. Netanyahu’s fitness for office was the key issue in the three deadlocked elections over the past year. After vowing never to sit with an indicted prime minister, Netanyahu’s challenger, Benny Gantz, agreed in March to form a power-sharing coalition with his rival, in part to prevent another election.

Gantz, who has made the defense of the legal system one his hallmarks, said he was sure Netanyahu would receive a fair trial. “I repeat and emphasize that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he tweeted.

Their new government was sworn in just last week for Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive term. Netanyahu held his first Cabinet meeting with the new government just hours before heading to court. Neither he nor any of his ministers addressed the looming trial.

Netanyahu and his allies have spent months lashing out at the law enforcement system, and a new round of attacks could test the new government. Dozens of Netanyahu supporters outside the court in east Jerusalem wore masks and T-shirts depicting Netanyahu as a martyr and held posters lambasting the attorney general who indicted him.

“We won’t allow an image of Netanyahu being humiliated,” said Ran Carmi Buzaglo, one of the protesters. “The only reason that they forced him to come here, even though the law allows him to be absent, is to show an image of him in the defendant’s chair.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who recently filed a police complaint following anonymous threats against him, vowed that the case will be handled like any other — “in a professional, business-like manner and within the courtroom halls.”

“We will continue to act without fear, even against the preposterous attempts to associate non-professional interests to law enforcement agencies,” he said. Several of Netanyahu’s Likud Cabinet ministers, including the newly appointed internal security minister who overseas the police, came to the court to back him.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Netanyahu’s “wild and inciteful outburst” at the courthouse was “final proof that a criminal defendant cannot continue to be prime minister.” In a sign of the tensions, the prosecutor in the case left the courtroom accompanied by a state-issued bodyguard because of threats against her.

Under the coalition deal, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for the next 18 months, and “alternative prime minister” for the 18 months after. He will not be legally required to step down during what is expected to be a lengthy trial.

Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.

Israel’s Netanyahu, unbeaten in elections, is going on trial

May 23, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — After entering the record books last year as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu will once again make history when he becomes the country’s first sitting leader to go on trial.

Surrounded by security guards, Netanyahu is set to march into Jerusalem’s district court for arraignment on a series of corruption charges on Sunday. The stunning scene will push Israel into uncharted political and legal territory, launching a process that could ultimately end the career of a leader who has been undefeatable at the ballot box for over a decade.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and offering favors to media moguls in exchange for favorable news coverage of him and his family.

In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial influence over the firm’s popular news website.

Netanyahu has denied the charges, claiming he is the victim of an “attempted coup” by overaggressive police, biased prosecutors and a hostile media. “It’s the classic deep state argument,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University. Netanyahu claims “an unelected movement is trying to remove him from power just because he is a representative of the right,” she said.

Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to go on trial. Both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Moshe Katsav went to prison in the 2010s — Olmert on corruption charges and Katsav for rape. But they stepped down to fight the charges.

As opposition leader in 2008, Netanyahu led the calls for Olmert to leave office, famously saying a leader “up to his neck” in legal troubles had no business governing a country. But as the investigations have piled up, culminating with his indictment last November, Netanyahu has changed his tune. He has rejected calls to resign while repeatedly lashing out at the country’s legal system.

Among his favorite targets have been a former police chief and the current attorney general — both Netanyahu appointees — and the country’s Supreme Court. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently filed a complaint to police over anonymous threats sent to his mobile phone.

Netanyahu’s conspiratorial claims of victimhood have played well with his base of religious and nationalist supporters. But it is unclear whether they will hold up in court, given the lack of evidence.

In the courtroom, the legal arguments are more likely to focus on his claims that his gifts were genuine shows of affection from close friends and that he never received anything in return for the favors he is accused of offering.

The case is expected to last for several years, given the vast number of witnesses and documents that are expected to be presented. Netanyahu has done his best to avoid this moment. During a three-year investigation, which was slowed by Netanyahu’s trips abroad and occasional security crises, he repeatedly claimed that investigators would “find nothing because there is nothing.”

He briefly tried, but failed, to win parliamentary immunity from prosecution. In March, his hand-picked justice minister delayed the trial by two months, citing coronavirus restrictions. This week, judges rejected Netanyahu’s request to stay home on Sunday and allow his lawyers to represent him. Netanyahu had argued that his presence was unnecessary and costly, and that having his security detail in the courtroom would violate social-distancing requirements.

Nonetheless, he enters the courtroom with renewed strength. After three bruising elections over the past year, Netanyahu was sworn into office this week for a fourth consecutive term. All three elections were seen as referendums on his fitness for office, and all ended in deadlock. After the most recent vote in March, his rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to have mustered enough support in parliament to pass legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment.

But in a stunning turnaround, Gantz, citing fears of a fourth expensive election and the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to shelve the legislation and instead form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for Netanyahu to remain in power. In a key ruling, it said an indicted politician may serve as prime minister — even though Israeli law requires all other office-holders to resign if charged with a crime.

Under their deal, Netanyahu was forced to yield some powers to Gantz, with each wielding a veto over most key decisions. Gantz will hold the title of “alternate prime minister,” and after 18 months, they will swap jobs.

Talshir, the political scientist, said the agreement creates troubling conflicts of interest. Netanyahu made sure he would be involved in the appointments of key officials, including Supreme Court judges and the next attorney general, who could influence any appeals process.

“Netanyahu’s perspective all this year was interfering with his own trial,” she said. Under the deal, the alternate prime minister, like the premier, will not be required to resign due to criminal charges. That could ensure that Netanyahu remains in office throughout his trial and even into a possible appeals process.

It will also give him the opportunity to continue to attack the legal system. Netanyahu’s eldest son Yair, who often acts as his unofficial spokesman, posted a profile picture on Twitter that spells the word “prosecution” with a sewing machine as the first letter. The message: the case against the prime minister is unfairly “stitched up.”

Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said such attacks on the courts have caused great damage by persuading many Israelis to question the authority and integrity of Israel’s democratic institutions.

“It might be the most harmful thing that has happened to Israel’s democracy, this one and a half years of attacking the whole basis of the rule of law,” he said. “I hope we will have a long rehabilitation from that. But we’re not even in the start of it.”

20 years after withdrawal, Israel, Hezbollah brace for war

May 20, 2020

KFAR CHOUBA, Lebanon (AP) — Twenty years after Hezbollah guerrillas pushed Israel’s last troops from southern Lebanon, both sides are gearing up for a possible war that neither seems to want. Israeli troops are striking Hezbollah targets in neighboring Syria and drilling for what could be an invasion of Lebanon. The militant Hezbollah group is beefing up its own forces and threatening to invade Israel if provoked. The bitter enemies routinely exchange warnings and threats.

“We are preparing seriously for the next war. We’re not taking any shortcuts because we understand we have to be extremely strong to defeat the enemy,” said Col. Israel Friedler, an Israeli commander who has been overseeing a weeks-long exercise simulating war with Hezbollah at a base in northern Israel.

Hezbollah emerged as a ragtag guerrilla group in the 1980s, funded by Iran to battle Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. A protracted guerrilla war, characterized by roadside bombs and sniper attacks, eventually forced Israel to withdraw in May 2000. With the exception of an inconclusive, monthlong war in 2006, the volatile frontier has largely remained calm.

Since then, Hezbollah has evolved into the most powerful military and political entity in Lebanon. The party and its allies dominate Lebanon’s parliament and are the main power behind Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.

“Domestically, Hezbollah has emerged to become the preponderant force in Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. But regionally, he said, “the position of Hezbollah is precarious” due to Israeli pressure, domestic turmoil and problems for its Iranian benefactors.

The group can ill afford another massive clash with Israel. The Lebanese economy is in shambles, around half the population is now estimated to live in poverty — including in Hezbollah strongholds — and the group’s finances are suffering because of U.S. sanctions imposed on it and Iran. The group also suffered heavy losses in the Syrian civil war, losing some 2,000 fighters while battling alongside the forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Once seen as a liberation movement, Hezbollah is now seen by many in Lebanon and the region as an Iranian pawn.

Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, says the group has no interest in going to war but has been preparing for battle for a long time. “The battle will not be a battle of missiles only,” he said, a reference that Hezbollah might try to invade parts of northern Israel.

In a region filled with adversaries, Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. During the 2006 war, the group launched some 4,000 rockets into Israel, most of them unguided projectiles with limited ranges. Today, Israeli officials say Hezbollah possesses some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel. They say it has sophisticated anti-tank missiles, night-vision equipment and cyber warfare capabilities.

Hezbollah operates along the border, in violation of the U.N. cease-fire that ended the 2006 war. It also has established a presence in southern Syria, near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, providing an additional front in a future war. Most critically, Israel believes Hezbollah is trying to develop and build precision-guided missiles.

Sheikh Ali Daamoush, a top Hezbollah official, claimed the Israelis are afraid of Hezbollah’s missile program. “The Israelis should be worried and scared because the resistance now has the will, intention, capabilities and force to make Israel face a great defeat in any coming confrontation,” he said.

That confrontation may come sooner than anticipated. Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in neighboring Syria in recent years, most of them believed to have been aimed at stopping Iranian arms shipments or missile technology for Hezbollah.

Syria has accused Israel of carrying out at least seven airstrikes in the past two months alone, believed to have targeted Iranian and proxy interests. Israeli warplanes and reconnaissance drones have been violating Lebanese airspace on almost daily basis in recent weeks.

Israeli officials say that neither Iran’s troubles — including the coronavirus crisis, plunging oil prices and U.S. sanctions — nor Lebanon’s domestic problems have changed Hezbollah’s behavior. They point to a recent attempt by Hezbollah to fly a drone into Israeli airspace and an incident last month in which alleged Hezbollah operatives damaged a fence along the Israeli-Lebanese frontier.

The Lebanese border town of Kfar Chouba, overseen by three Israeli positions, was quiet Wednesday, three days after Israeli troops shot and wounded a Syrian shepherd who had crossed into Israeli-held territory. The area is a disputed enclave along the frontier between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, where tensions often play out.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Israeli troops have been participating in a massive exercise at the Elyakim military base. On a recent day, four Israeli tanks rumbled up to the edge of a ridge and fired powerful 120-millimeter shells streaking across the valley, scoring direct hits on targets several kilometers (miles) away. Ground troops maneuvered through a mock Lebanese village. Air force, navy and cyber units joined the drill.

Friedler, the Israeli commander, said if there is another war, Israel will have no choice but to cross the border to halt Hezbollah fire. He said battling an enemy entrenched in civilian areas is like “fighting with handcuffs on,” but insisted that his troops are ready.

“It won’t be easy. But without a doubt it will be much harder for them. They don’t have the means to stop us,” Friedler said. Hezbollah has also vowed to cross into Israel in any future war. In late 2018, Israel uncovered and later destroyed what it said was a network of cross-border tunnels.

Despite these tensions, residents along Israel’s northern border say that life has greatly improved since Israel withdrew from its self-declared “security zone” two decades ago. Nisim Shtern, a farmer in the northern Israeli border town of Kerem Ben Zimar, spent time in southern Lebanon as a soldier in the mid-1980s and remembers times when Katyusha rockets rained down on the area.

Shtern, who grows pomegranates and wine grapes in his orchards, says day-to-day life is good, but that some residents still get jittery. Even so, he said Israel made the right decision to withdraw. He said he trusts the army to take quick and decisive action whenever needed.

“We need to strike them hard and get out,” he said. “If there’s a problem, take care of it with maximum force.”

Federman reported from Elyakim Military Base, Israel.

Jordan warns Israel of ‘massive conflict’ over annexation

May 15, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — Jordan’s king warned Israel of a “massive conflict” if it proceeds with plans to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, as European Union foreign ministers agreed on Friday to step up diplomatic efforts to try to head off such a move.

Israel has vowed to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, which could spell the end of the long-stalled peace process by making it virtually impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved a step closer by reaching an agreement to form a government after more than a year of political deadlock.

President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians, gave a green light to annexation, but most of the rest of the international community is strongly opposed.

“Leaders who advocate a one-state solution do not understand what that would mean,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published Friday. “What would happen if the Palestinian National Authority collapsed? There would be more chaos and extremism in the region. If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” he said.

Jordan is a close Western ally and one of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Abdullah declined to say whether annexation would threaten that agreement. “I don’t want to make threats and create an atmosphere of loggerheads, but we are considering all options. We agree with many countries in Europe and the international community that the law of strength should not apply in the Middle East,” he said.

At a video-conference, EU foreign ministers reaffirmed their support for a two-state solution and opposition to any annexation. The ministers, whose countries are deeply divided in their approach to Israel, agreed to ramp up diplomatic efforts in coming days with Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and Arab countries.

“We reaffirm our position in support of a negotiated, two-state solution. For this to be possible, unilateral action from either side should be avoided and, for sure, international law should be upheld,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing the meeting.

“We must work to discourage any possible initiative toward annexation,” Borrell told reporters in Brussels. “International law has to be upheld. Here, and there, and everywhere.” He made no mention of the use of sanctions, saying only that the EU will use “all our diplomatic capacities in order to prevent any kind of unilateral action.”

The ministers had planned to welcome the formation of a new Israeli government and offer the bloc’s cooperation, but Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner, Benny Gantz, have postponed the swearing-in of their controversial new Cabinet as the Israeli leader tries to quell infighting within his Likud party.

The ceremony, originally scheduled for Thursday, is now planned for Sunday to give Netanyahu more time to hand out coveted Cabinet appointments to members of his party. Their coalition agreement allows him to present an annexation proposal as soon as July 1.

The EU has long been committed to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with the possibility of mutually agreed land-swaps. Israel seized east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want all three to form their future state.

The bloc has already rejected Trump’s Mideast plan, which would allow Israel to annex about a third of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with heavily conditioned statehood in scattered territorial enclaves surrounded by Israel.

“In our opinion, an annexation is not compatible with international law,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday. “From our point of view, changes to borders must, if at all, be the result of negotiations and happen in agreement between both sides.”

Jordan has been lobbying the EU to take “practical steps” to make sure annexation doesn’t happen. In a statement, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi “stressed the need for the international community and the European Union in particular to take practical steps that reflect the rejection of any Israeli decision to annex.”

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Israel swears in new government after 3 deadlocked elections

May 14, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — After three deadlocked and divisive elections, and a year and a half of political paralysis, Israel was finally swearing in a new government on Thursday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu securing a historic fifth term in office thanks to a controversial power-sharing deal with rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, announced last month they would be putting their differences and animosity aside after three hard-fought campaigns to join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.

It came at the price of the dissolution of Gantz’s Blue and White party and reneging on his key campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who has been indicted of corruption charges and faces an upcoming criminal trial. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal, resulting in the most bloated government in Israeli history and potential clauses to help Netanyahu cling to power, could only come about after the country’s Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.

Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented Israel from being dragged once again to another costly election that would have been its fourth in just over a year.

The ceremony at parliament introducing the country’s 35th government is set to kick off late Thursday, under strict social distancing guidelines. Last-minute jockeying Thursday over Cabinet appointments could delay the event.

The deal calls for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government’s first 18 months before being replaced by Gantz for the next 18 months, with their blocs having a similar number of ministers and virtual veto power over the other’s major decisions.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, said that the main achievement was the mere fact that it should allow the government to resume functioning after the longest political deadlock in Israeli history. But he said the deep distrust between the opposing camps following a prolonged campaign of aggressive, even violent, rhetoric left doubts on how they could govern together.

“The jury is still out if indeed the political deadlock is over and if we have a broad government that will exercise its authority,” he said. “The main tests of the new government are the paralysis test and the reconciliation test.”

Gantz will start out as defense minister, with party colleague and fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi serving as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s top deputy in Likud, outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz, will become finance minister. Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu’s closest ally, will become the new parliament speaker. The coalition will also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some other individual defectors to add up to 73 out of parliament’s 120 members.

The main point of contention for critics has been the newly created position of “alternate prime minister,” a post that could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process. There are also deep suspicions about whether Netanyahu will keep his part of the bargain and ultimately cede the premiership to Gantz.

Still, the new position is supposed to enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and, key for Netanyahu, an exemption from a law that requires public officials who are not prime minister to resign if charged with a crime.

Netanyahu has been indicted with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving trading favors with wealthy media moguls. He denies any wrongdoing and blames the charges on a media-orchestrated plot to oust him. Since his indictment last fall he has repeatedly lashed out at the country’s legal system as well, with his political allies taking special aim at the high court and accusing it of overreach and political interference. His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns.

Another hot topic will be Netanyahu’s intention to introduce Israeli plans to annex large parts of the West Bank as early as this summer. The coalition agreement allows him to present an annexation proposal as soon as July 1. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived Wednesday for a lightening-quick visit to discuss it as part of a Trump Mideast plan that envisions handing 30% of the West Bank to permanent Israeli control.

The Palestinians claim the entire West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the heartland of an independent state. Annexing chunks of this territory would likely put an end to the Palestinians’ already diminishing hopes of a two-state solution and would anger the international community, which overwhelmingly supports Palestinian statehood.

Gantz says he will only support such a move with international backing. By including two members of the more dovish Labor party in his bloc, he looks to be tempering the ambitions of Netanyahu’s nationalist base to push for annexation before the U.S. elections in November — after which Trump could be replaced by Joe Biden, who has said he opposes unilateral annexation.

Netanyahu’s plan also took a setback when his longtime religious nationalist allies, the pro-settler Yemina party, opted not to join the coalition after Netanyahu rejected its demands for key spots. Naftali Bennett, the outgoing defense minister, said in a Facebook post that Netanyahu “chose to get rid of Yemina, which was his nationalist backbone,” and that his party would serve the country from the opposition instead.

Still, Netanyahu looks to have a parliamentary majority for annexation if it comes up for a vote.