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A crowd waits to collect gas masks from Post Office
workers at a Jerusalem shopping centre.
Picture: Sylvie Le Clezio Source: Supplied
Holocaust factor at work
The Australian
John Lyons
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

IN one of Jerusalem's biggest shopping centres, halfway between the Aroma cafe and the Crocs shoe store, Israelis are preparing for war. Scores of people gather to pick up gasmasks. They each take a number and wait for hours for the free masks. Some are patient, others agitated. One woman accuses a man of pushing in, but he replies that he bought a ticket for 30 shekels ($7.25) from someone who had been waiting for hours. The explanation does not help; a shouting match begins. There's a hint of panic in the air.

"Are you staying or leaving when the war comes ?" one woman inquires. "Which war ?" I ask. "Iran," she says. "I have a British passport and an Israeli one so I will decide whether my dog and I will leave." One man, Yair Kahana, wants a baby mask for his six-month-old girl. A former soldier and now in marketing, Kahana says the masks will be useful for a chemical attack but not a biological one. "With a biological one, your whole body needs to be covered but it's better than nothing," he says. When I ask who would win a war — Iran or Israel — he answers the way one may discuss a sporting contest. "At the moment it's tactics, about who shoots first," he says. "Iran's defence is very good but I think the Israeli military is better, smarter. I trust the Israeli army. The important thing now is that Israel tells the world we are not afraid of Iran."

Joshua Azrad, an accountancy student, walks away with 14 masks. "I've collected for all my family — my brothers, their children," he says, trying to carry 14 boxes. This is what a country preparing for war looks like.

While Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that "all options are on the table" with Iran, the panic at this shopping centre suggests Israelis believe a war is coming. The question "Will Israel attack Iran ?" now dominates discussions among Israelis. Everyone has an opinion. Mine, based on discussions with senior Israeli officials, is that the chance of Israel attacking Iran before the US election in November is 50-50. The chances of an attack after that will grow significantly, in my assessment, if Republican candidate Mitt Romney is elected. Romney has given the green light for an Israeli attack but Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent, has made clear he does not want one.

Netanyahu has recently demanded, publicly, that the US draw "red lines"indicating the stage of development of Iran's nuclear program, measured in the level of uranium enrichment, that is unacceptable. Obama refused, further straining the relationship between the two.

Much of the Israeli media has criticised Netanyahu for publicly pressuring the US. The mass-selling Yedioth Ahronoth reported that a high-ranking Israeli official said Netanyahu had "sabotaged and harmed" the relationship with the US and caused Israel to be more isolated than ever "and instead of the world mobilising against Iran it was mobilising against an Israeli strike on Iran". The official was quoted saying: "The US administration has assembled a coalition against Netanyahu. It is no wonder that he has been flooded in the past days by calls from leaders who conveyed a sharp message to him against an attack on Iran."

The people at this shopping centre clearly believe war is a real possibility. Israelis have been through so many wars they almost have an instinct for them. "Some war is coming," Kahana says. "If not Iran then Gaza or Syria or Egypt — it's not stable around us." Kahana believes Iran represents a threat to Israel's existence, a fear fired by Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pledge to "wipe Israel off the map". "I don't want to return to what happened in the Shoah," Kahana says. "The consequence of the Holocaust is that we only trust ourselves — not America, not Europe, not anybody."

Prominent Israeli historian Tom Segev says the Holocaust has become a central element of the collective identity of Israelis. "The Holocaust factor is something that people overseas often don't understand," he tells The Australian. "Some think we use the Holocaust for our own needs, and we do sometimes. But at the same time there are very, very genuine Holocaust sentiments and it is difficult to distinguish between them at times. "Netanyahu may be manipulating the Holocaust factor now to advance his view on Iran, but undoubtedly many Israelis genuinely fear Iran in terms of Holocaust fears. It is not enough to say the government is manipulating the Holocaust for foreign policy ends." Israel's sense of isolation was heightened when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, general Martin Dempsey, said the US would not be "complicit" in an attack on Iran. The comment stunned Israel's leadership.

Logistically, Israeli jets can reach Iran but they would need to fly over Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Although the Saudis, being Sunnis, would welcome a strike on Shia-dominated Iran, they will not assist. Iraq would refuse any support, but the Israelis believe the government in Baghdad is so weak its response to Iraqi airspace being violated would be negligible.

Tehran insists its program is civilian but the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said it was concerned Iran was engaged in "activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile". A likely Israeli target would be the Fordow facility underground, so "bunker-buster" bombs would be needed. Last year Newsweek reported that the US had provided Israel with 55 GBU-28 bunker busters capable of penetrating 6m of reinforced concrete.

One senior Israeli official familiar with the latest thinking of the Netanyahu government tells The Australian: "He (Netanyahu) is aware of those in the opposition who say that Israel, even if it makes a strike and risks retaliation, might only delay the Iranian program two or three years and that they may come back stronger than ever. "The real opposition in Israel stems from the fact that we are talking about an Israeli-only strike. If the alternative were an Israeli-American or American-led strike the opinion would be different. Israel doing it alone is what worries many in the military establishment and public."

Recently there has been a run on gasmasks because of concerns about Iran and reports Hezbollah in Lebanon may obtain chemical weapons from Syria.

The latest view of the Israeli cabinet is that Iran will go to "a threshold position" of developing the capacity to assemble a bomb but stop short of actually manufacturing one. "Ambiguity is where they (Iran) prosper," the official says. "Who would dare take on Iran if within three months they can develop a nuclear bomb ' On the other hand they will not have a bomb. I think Netanyahu, inside his soul, is convinced, when push comes to shove, that we can only rely on ourselves. And push has come to shove because the Iranians are on the verge of crossing the threshold. He also sees wall-to-wall opposition from the military establishment."

That "wall-to-wall opposition" includes the most recent heads of Israel's leading intelligence services, Mossad and Shin Bet. Do they know something the rest of us don't ' Meir Dagan, director of Mossad from 2002 until 2010, describes a military strike as "a stupid thing". "There will be a war with Iran, which is one of those things which we know how it starts but not how it finishes," he said recently, observing that Iran had "impressive capabilities". His assessment: that Iran will fire two or three missiles a day and then use Hezbollah, "which has tens of thousands of Grad-style rockets and hundreds of long-range missiles, Scuds and others".

Dagan says Iran also may enlist Hamas, in Gaza, and Syria. His preferred course is "what is being done to Iran" at present — an apparent reference to the covert campaign of targeted assassinations of scientists and viruses being injected into Iran's computer systems.

Israel's outgoing home front defence minister, Matan Vilnai, predicts an Iranian counterattack will last a month and 500 Israelis will die. Defence Minister Ehud Barak agrees with that figure. Others opposed to a strike include the recent head of the Israeli Defence Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi; President Shimon Peres, who opposes a strike by Israel alone; and the immediate former head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, who believes an attack may accelerate Iran's efforts to make a bomb.

Former judge Eliyahu Winograd, who ran the inquiry into Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah, says an Israeli strike "may endanger the future of the country". He has attacked Barak for saying that no more than 500 Israelis will die. "Did you count ?" he asked.

Another former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, rejects Netanyahu's view that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat. "We have deterrent capability and preventive capability," he told Haaretz newspaper. "We will be able to prevent a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv and we will prevent a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv." He added: "I am absolutely appalled when I hear our leaders talking as though there were no Israel Defence Forces and as though there were no state of Israel and as though Auschwitz is liable to be repeated." Halevy says an attack is "liable to foment a generations-long war" and Israel should "do all we can to prevent a bomb and prevent bombing and resolve the crisis creatively". By "creatively", he suggests embracing Iran — offering "trains and oil refineries and a place of honour in regional trade".

Some regional players also sound warnings. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says an Israeli attack will lead to an "apocalypse".

Segev fears a repeat of the type of situation that occurred in 1967 when Israel attacked Egypt. "In June 1967 it was fear, genuine Holocaust fear, that led Israel to strike Egypt," the historian says. "It was a particularly irrational reaction. No one really knew what the intentions of Egypt were, but they threatened to exterminate Israel and we believed them. "The question is, how could we believe them ' And the answer is that these (Israelis) were people who had gone through the Holocaust once and they were prepared for the next holocaust."

He says, in 1967, rabbis secretly sanctified football fields and parks for cemeteries for the hundreds of thousands of expected bodies. "Only a society that has experienced a Holocaust can prepare so meticulously for the next. "What I'm afraid of is that we are in a similar situation right now. Iran has given us reason to identify them with the Nazis. It talks about exterminating us as it develops a nuclear weapon and denies the Holocaust."

As to whether Israel should strike now, the US and Israel disagree. "The root of the disagreement between the US and Iran is not different intelligence material," the Israeli official says. "The evaluation of the material is the difference. We're now into the grey zone. Is it OK for Israel to be in the twilight zone ' What if they (Iran) only take one step down the road ' It's the twilight zone that worries us. The Americans believe they can respond when Iran has clearly crossed the point of no return, while we say we can't wait until then. We are incredibly small and deafeningly close to Iran."

To weigh this matter, Netanyahu will draw on Barak's experience. But, ultimately, the decision will be his. From this "twilight zone" it is possible that one day in the next few months the world will wake up to a war between Israel, a nuclear power, and Iran, on the brink of becoming one.


Same Day
Launch an attack on Iran and nothing will remain of Israel, warns Tehran
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies

TEHRAN has warned Israel that "nothing will remain" of its state if it decides to launch an attack on Iran. The leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, General Mohammad Jafari, also warned that Iran might close the Straits of Hormuz if it were attacked, withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and attack US bases in the Middle East.

"Our response to Israel is clear: I think nothing will remain of Israel," General Jafari told a news conference in Tehran. "Given Israel's small land area and its vulnerability to a massive volume of Iran's missiles, I don't think any spot in Israel will remain safe."

He also said Iran warned that oil shipments through the strategic Straits of Hormuz would be in jeopardy if a war broke out between Iran and the US. "If a war breaks out where one side is Iran and the other side is the West and US, it's natural that a problem should occur in the Strait of Hormuz. Export of energy will be harmed. It's natural that this will happen," General Jafari said.

He said any counter-attack from Iran would begin near Israel's borders — an apparent reference to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Israel's north, and Hamas in Gaza, to Israel's south. Hezbollah is believed to have about 40,000 missiles in the south of Lebanon near the border with Israel. In the event of a counter-attack, Iran may ask Hezbollah, a close ally, to become involved.

General Jafari's unusually detailed warning came as Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took to US television to increase pressure on President Barack Obama to draw "red lines". Mr Netanyahu wants Mr Obama to state at what point of development of Iran's nuclear program will the US agree to intervene militarily. The US has refused to do so, saying such judgments need to be made according to circumstances.

Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes but Mr Netanyahu told US television that Iran was six to seven months from being able to develop a bomb. "In six months or so, they'll be 90 per cent of the way there," he said. "You have to place that red line before them now, before it's too late."

After Mr Netanyahu's appearance, the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, said: "The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country, leaders of these countries, don't have, you know, a bunch of red lines that determine their decisions." Mr Netanyahu has been calling for months for the US to specify the red lines. His critics in Israel argue that he is already seen as supporting the candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney and that by repeating the calls for red lines so close to the November 6 US election, he is putting undue pressure on Mr Obama.

One of Israel's leading commentators, Nahum Barnea, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that while Mr Netanyahu's focus over the past year had led to increased sanctions, the effectiveness of the approach had changed. "Israeli pressure (recently) caused more harm than good," he wrote. "The public conflict with the American administration weakened Israel's deterring power; got the state involved, against its better interests, in the US elections race; caused unnecessary economic and political danger; and did not in any way advance the struggle to stop Iran."

Netanyahu's supporters argue that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and it is Mr Netanyahu's duty to put as much pressure as he can on the US.

Mr Netanyahu was asked at the weekend by Israel Hayom newspaper whether he was in conflict with the US. "This isn't a conflict," he said. "This is a matter of stressing the Israeli interest and that is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of Israel. "Look, I've been saying these things for 16 years. "In the beginning I was almost alone when I warned of the danger, and then others joined me."

Israeli strike will unite Arabs
Weekend Australian
James Hider, Tel Aviv, The Times
Saturday, September 22, 2012

AN Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could enrage the Muslim world so much that the leaders of Egypt and Jordan would have to cancel their peace treaties with the Jewish state, US officials have warned Israel. The Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonot, quoting a senior Israeli official, said Washington had relayed the message that Arab leaders would have to bow to popular anger if Israel carried out such a strike. "Today the Arab leaders do not control their peoples, the streets control the leaders," the unidentified US official told his Israeli counterparts. "An Israeli strike is just what the Iranians need. The entire Arab and Muslim street will take to the streets to demonstrate."

Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt was the first with an Arab country and is the cornerstone of the Jewish state's regional security policy. The later treaty with Jordan has also become a mainstay of its defence strategy. Since the uprisings that have shaken the Arab world in the past 18 months there have been increasing calls in both countries for the treaties to be reviewed or scrapped as populist leaders play to longstanding anger.

Last August, a mob of angry Egyptians ransacked the Israeli Embassy causing the ambassador to flee the country after Israeli forces accidentally killed six Egyptian border guards while repelling a deadly, cross-border attack by Islamist militants from Sinai. Last week, a crowd scaled the walls of the US Embassy in Cairo, ripping down the Stars and Stripes and replacing it with an Islamist flag in fury at a video produced in California ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. The US official reportedly told the Israelis: "What happened with the film is just a preview of what will happen in the case of an Israeli strike."

Washington wants to continue with a regime of tough sanctions to pressure Iran to rein in its nuclear program, a strategy publicly criticised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants the US to set strict deadlines for Iranian compliance backed with the threat of military action.

The deep differences on the issue have sparked new tensions in the already contentious relationship between Mr Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. The relationship was expected to get worse after the Prime Minister's scheduled appearance in a TV advertisement in Florida yesterday (AEST) publicly denouncing the Obama administration's policy on Iran. The US news website Politico said the advert was funded by the non-profit advocacy group Secure America Now, which is not required to disclose its donor sources to tax authorities. Mr Netanyahu said: "The fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to a nuclear bomb. The world tells Israel 'wait, there's still time'. And I say wait for what ' Wait until when ?" Yitzhak Levanon, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, told The Times that he did not agree with the alleged US assessment. "The Egyptian government understands that keeping the peace treaty with Israel is in Egypt's interests as much as Israel's," he said.


Same Day
Palestinian Authority 'on brink of collapse'
John Lyons
Additional Reporting: Agencies

THE Palestinian Authority is on the brink of collapse, according to an insider who warns this would cause "chaos and complete uncertainty". Ghassan Khatib, until recently the PA's spokesman and a former Palestinian minister and peace negotiator, said the protests by Palestinians across the West Bank last week had caused the PA's most dangerous crisis since it was established in 1994. "What needs to be said today is that all of the factors that led to this volatile situation remain in effect," he said. "Whether the spark is political or economic, another blow-up is just around the corner."

Mr Khatib, now a lecturer in contemporary Arab studies at Birzeit University, was writing for the website of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre. He wrote: "If the crushing nature of the Israeli occupation and the seeming indifference of the donor community persist, the next emergency could easily bring the Palestinian Authority to its end. "Such a collapse would certainly transform the reigning atmosphere of calm into chaos and complete uncertainty, which will have widespread negative consequences for all."

His warning comes as the PA faces financial collapse and as its president Mahmoud Abbas prepares for what appears to be his final effort to gain UN status for "Palestine". Next week, the PA will attempt to convince the majority of the UN's 193 General Assembly members to grant it "non-member observer status".

Last year, an effort to be granted statehood failed following an international diplomatic effort against the move by Israel. The PA had lobbied members of the UN Security Council for statehood. While members of the council were divided, the US made clear it would use its veto power, backing Israel's position that any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needed to come from direct negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will begin negotiations with the PA immediately and without preconditions. But the PA has refused to hold negotiations while Israel continues to build in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are regarded as illegal under international law. Settlement construction grew 660 per cent in the first half of last year following the 10-month freeze on new construction, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

Initially, the protests in the West Bank were triggered by the cost of living and directed at Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the PA. But the protests have widened to target Mr Abbas and Israel's occupation. While the PA administers parts of the West Bank, overall the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation. A report in Saudi newspaper Al-Watan this week said Mr Abbas had told confidants that when he returned from his UN bid in New York they would need to find a new leader.

The PA's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, yesterday said should the PA successfully gain observer status it would strengthen its legal rights. "Palestine will become a country under occupation," he told Reuters. "Israel will not be able to say that this is a disputed area. "The terms of reference for any negotiations will be about withdrawal, not over what the Israelis say is legal or not legal."

Mr Erekat indicated the upgraded status would allow Palestinians to use international tribunals. "Yes, the occupation will continue, the settlements will continue, the crimes of the settlers may continue, but there will be consequences," he said. "Those who don't want to appear before the international tribunals must stop their crimes and it is time for them to become accountable."

Netanyahu letter slams Iran 'death sentence'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent, Agencies
Friday, September 28, 2012

PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told the Israeli public Iran is trying to "sentence us to death". In an open letter, the Israeli leader said he was doing everything he could to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The letter was released hours before Mr Netanyahu flew to New York to address the UN General Assembly.

He promised to reply strongly to a speech to the UN this week by the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who referred to "uncivilised Zionists". Mr Ahmadinejad told the UN: "Arms race and intimidation by nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction by the hegemonic powers have become prevalent. Continued threats by the uncivilised Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation are a clear example of this bitter reality."

In his letter, released on the eve of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Mr Netanyahu said: "On the day that we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life, a stage was given to the tyrannical regime in Iran, which aspires at every opportunity to sentence us to death. "On the eve of Yom Kippur, which is sacred to the Jewish people, the Iranian tyrant chose to call publicly before the entire world for our disappearance. This is a black day for those who chose to remain in the hall and to hear those words of hatred. History proves that anyone who has wanted to wipe us off the map has failed at that task."

Mr Netanyahu was expected in his UN speech to repeat his call for "red lines" on the Iranian issue — a statement of the stage of development when the West would intervene. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes but refuses to allow international inspectors. The Obama administration has refused to set any strict deadline, saying such a decision needs to be based on several factors.

Former US Middle East adviser Dennis Ross yesterday said the gaps between Israel and the US on the Iranian program were closing. Israel Radio News reported Mr Ross saying officials from both countries were discussing the "nuclear threshold" Iran would not be allowed to cross. He said such an agreement needed to be made secretly and with a mutual understanding that military force would be used before Iran crossed that threshold. Several former heads of Israeli intelligence fear an attack may only delay Iran's program.

The Middle East took centre-stage at the UN yesterday. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned Russia and China that the blood of dying children in Syria would leave a "terrible stain" on their hands unless they ended their protection of Bashar al-Assad's regime. In his most provocative attempt to end the impasse blocking further international action against Assad, Mr Cameron said that those shielding him were in effect assisting his "reign of terror" that had left as many as 20,000 civilians dead.

Mr Cameron used his second address to the General Assembly to place responsibility for the atrocities in Syria on the shoulders of Moscow and Beijing, the Security Council members that have stood in the way of UN resolutions condemning Assad. He said that testimony from the refugees fleeing Syria had highlighted the "horrors" of Assad's forces, with "schools used as torture centres" and "children as target practice". "The blood of these young children is a terrible stain on the reputation of this United Nations. And in particular a stain on those who have failed to stand up to these atrocities and in some cases aided and abetted Assad's reign of terror," Mr Cameron said. As he spoke, Syrian opposition groups reported the discovery of 107 bodies in a Damascus suburb, including women and children. Some victims apparently had had their throats cut.

Syrian rebels said yesterday that the previous 24 hours had been the bloodiest single day of the 18-month revolt, with some 305 people reported killed. "This is the highest toll in a single day since March 2011. And this is only counting those whose names have been documented. If we count the unidentified bodies, the figure will be much higher," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the London-based dissident group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 30,000 have been killed since the revolt began.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, points to a red line he drew on a graphic of a bomb
while addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Source: Getty Images

Click here to see video

Later Same Day
Israel puts pen to Iran's nuclear timetable

ISRAEL leader Benjamin Netanyahu flourished his marker pen on the floor of the United Nations on Thursday to draw a literal red line across Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions. The dramatic intervention, in which he used a cartoonish graph based on a diagram of a bomb with a lit fuse to represent Iran's enrichment program, was designed to underscore what he said was an imminent threat.

"The hour is getting late, very late," the prime minister declared, warning that Iran was on course to enrich enough uranium to arm a nuclear device by as early as mid-2013, and demanding that the world intervene to halt it. "At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs — and that is by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear weapons program," he declared, deploying his red pen. "To be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program — on Iran's efforts to enrich uranium."

Citing reports from UN nuclear watchdog the International Energy Agency, Mr Netanyahu said that Tehran had already amassed 70 per cent of the enriched uranium that it needed despite international economic sanctions. Mr Netanyahu was apparently referring to a report from the IAEA in August that said Iran had stockpiled 184 kilos of uranium enriched to a 20 per cent level, which must be further enriched to 90 per cent purity for use in a bomb. The Islamic republic says it needs to enrich the uranium to the 20 per cent level for a medical research reactor, but Israel and much of the West worry it will be put back into the centrifuges and refined to weapons grade.

"By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and moved on to the final stage," the Israeli leader said, referring to the process of creating bomb fuel. "From there it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb," he claimed. "Nothing could imperil our future more than an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

He recounted a long list of "terrorist" attacks which he blamed on Iran's Islamic regime, declaring: "Given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine this aggression with nuclear weapons. "If their terror networks were armed with atomic bombs, who among you would feel safe in the Middle East ' Who would be safe in Europe ' Who would be safe in America ' Who would be safe anywhere ?" he asked.

Israel has refused to rule out unilateral action to halt the Iranian nuclear program, but Mr Netanyahu warned that this would be impossible if the fuel was moved out of large-scale enrichment factories and into small weapons labs. "The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear facility installations that we can definitely see and credibly target," he said. This would imply a window for any Israeli attack in first half of next year, after the US presidential election but before enrichment is complete.

Many of the leaders meeting in New York this week warned against unilateral action. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rejected "shrill talk of war." But Mr Netanyahu said his plan to impose a clear limit of Iran's actions, one that the international community would enforce in some unspecified way, would head off this danger and force Tehran to abandon its quest. "Faced with a clear red line Iran will back down," he said. "Red lines don't lead to war, red lines prevent war."

Before the speech, Israeli officials said they were acting in lockstep with the policy of Israel's closest ally, the United States, despite Washington's rejection of the idea of a publicly declared red line for action. "What he will say regarding red lines will help ensure this goal will be achieved," a Netanyahu aide said. "Netanyahu is convinced that the US and Israel can work together to achieve this common goal."

When he spoke to the UN on Tuesday, Mr Obama certainly had tough words for Iran, warning that the United States would "do what we must" to prevent the Islamic Republic from getting its hands on a bomb. "Make no mistake. A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy," Mr Obama said. But relations between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama are reportedly frosty, and the White House has declared the red line idea unhelpful. Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu are expected to talk by telephone on Friday, but no meeting is scheduled.

Mr Netanyahu's apocalyptic speech overshadowed one by his Middle East rival Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who came to New York to plead to be allowed to join the United Nations with enhanced observer status. There were also crisis talks between the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Congo and of Rwanda, Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame, designed to head off new tensions between the neighbors, amid a wave of rapes and killings. And UN members continued to agonize over the civil war in Syria, with envoys wrangling over ways to halt the bloodshed, and UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi lobbying them for strong and united backing for his mission.

Abbas UN bid aims to bypass US
Weekend Australian
Saturday, September 29, 2012

PALESTINIAN Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants a new super observer UN status for Palestinians, as he condemned Israel's settlement campaign in the occupied territories as "ethnic cleansing". One year after his emotional bid for full membership of the UN, Mr Abbas returned to the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday to warn Israel's tactics were a sign that it "rejects the two-state solution". He called on the UN Security Council to pass a binding resolution setting out a path to end the two-year deadlock in talks between the Palestinians and Israel.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the speech as "libellous". Mr Abbas also faced condemnation from the Hamas government in Gaza, but earned a standing ovation from the UN audience.

The Palestinian bid for full UN membership has been blocked at the Security Council by the US, so Mr Abbas returned to seek a more modest strengthening of the Palestinians' observer status. He said he would seek a vote at the UN General Assembly in the coming months to approve Palestine as a "non-member state of the United Nations".

As a permanent Security Council member, the US can veto any council resolution backing full membership for Palestinians. But no country can block a resolution in the General Assembly, where an overwhelming majority of the 193 member states would back Mr Abbas. "We are confident that the vast majority of the countries of the world support our endeavour, aimed at salvaging the chances for a just peace," Mr Abbas said.

Direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations have been frozen for two years. Mr Abbas refuses to have talks while Israel continues to build and approve new Jewish settlements. The US condemns the Israeli construction, but protects its close ally from UN criticism.

"Developments over the past year have confirmed what we have persistently drawn attention to and warned of — the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine," Mr Abbas said, lashing out at "attacks by terrorist militias of Israeli settlers". He said the new settlements in and around Jerusalem and demolition of Palestinian homes were "a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people". Israeli authorities say the houses they demolish are illegal, but they have faced criticism from the UN and major powers.

"We are facing relentless waves of attacks against our people, our mosques, churches and monasteries, and our homes and schools," Mr Abbas said. "They are unleashing their venom against our trees, fields, crops and properties, and our people have become fixed targets for acts of killing and abuse with the complete collusion of the occupying forces and the Israeli government," Mr Abbas said.

Extract: Turkey outrage at Syrian 'aggression'
The Australian Online
Thursday, October 4, 2012

TURKEY has demanded that the UN Security Council take action against Damascus after a volley of Syrian shells crashed over its border and killed five Turkish women and children. Turkish artillery fired a retaliatory salvo back at Syrian targets, marking a sharp escalation in the crisis between the neighbours, while Ankara's envoys sought support from NATO and the United Nations. The cross-border shelling hit the Turkish town of Akcakale and was the first to kill Turkish civilians, making this the most serious clash since June, when Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet and killed both its crewmen.

'This is an act of aggression by Syria against Turkey, ' Ankara's UN Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan said in a letter to Guatemalan Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, who heads the rotating presidency of the 15-nation council. 'It constitutes a flagrant violation of international law as well as a breach of international peace and security. Turkey calls for an immediate end to such unacceptable violations. '

Diplomats at the United Nations said the council was expected to approve a text that condemned the shelling in 'the strongest terms ' and urged Syria 'to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. ' 'Such violations of international law constitute a serious threat to international peace and security. The members of the Council demand that such violations stop immediately, ' the draft under discussion reads. Most of the members of the Security Council were ready to support the statement, but Syria's ally Russia asked that its release be delayed until Thursday while its diplomats consult with Moscow. Earlier, Turkey had already consulted its NATO military allies and won a strong statement of support.

'The alliance continues to stand by Turkey and demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally and urges the Syrian regime to end flagrant violations of international law, ' a NATO statement said. The transatlantic alliance said Syria's 'recent aggressive acts at NATO's southeastern border marked a 'flagrant breach of international law. ' The most powerful NATO ally, the United States, was quick to condemn Syria's aggression. The Pentagon dubbed the attack 'depraved ' and said it underlined the need for strongman Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed Turkey's 'deepest concern ' to UN chief Ban Ki-moon and also briefed Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League peace envoy to Libya. Ban encouraged Davutoglu to 'keep open all channels of communication with the Syrian authorities with a view to lessening any tension that could build up as a result of the incident, ' spokesman Martin Nesirky said. The UN chief also urged Damascus to 'respect fully the territorial integrity of its neighbors as well as to end the violence against the Syrian people, ' Nesirky said.

Meanwhile, car bombs tore through Syria's second city Aleppo, leaving dozens dead. Two blasts went off in quick succession near a military officers' club around Aleppo's Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, ripping off a hotel's facade and flattening a two-storey cafe, an AFP correspondent reported. A third exploded soon after at an entrance to the Old City in Bab Jnein, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a military official said. The Observatory said at least 48 people were killed and almost 100 wounded, adding "most of them were regime troops". An official said 37 people died.

On the battle front, rebels attacked a political intelligence branch in Aleppo, as well as a market where a large number of troops were posted, the Observatory reported. "The rebels are now attacking regime troops in the heart of the city," its director Abdel Rahman told AFP. "This is part of the decisive battle, and the regime can no longer claim to control the city," he added.

In the northwestern province of Idlib, rebels killed at least 15 troops when they attacked and destroyed three army posts in the village of Bdama, near Jisr al-Shughur, said Abdel Rahman. Army shelling and helicopter gunfire killed at least 16 people including three children in Sahn, a village in the central province of Hama where rebels have a strong presence, he added. Nationwide, violence killed 147 people on Wednesday, said the Observatory.

UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due back in the region this week to try to revive talks aimed at ending the bloodshed, although the UN says it is still unclear if he will be able to enter Syria.

Extract: Turkey ups ante in Syrian attack
The Australian Online
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, October 5, 2012

TURKEY has launched renewed attacks on Syria for a second consecutive day in a dangerous escalation of the conflict, and its government secured the approval of parliament for cross-border military operations. After five civilians in a Turkish village were killed by a Syrian mortar, Turkey responded with heavy fire that was reported to have killed several Syrian soldiers.

The rapidly growing tension threatens to draw Turkey, with the second-largest army in NATO, into a conflict with its embattled neighbour. In an emergency session last night, the 550-seat Turkish parliament agreed by 320 votes to a government request to allow military operations inside Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later stressed Turkey has no intention of going to war with Syria, but said it would always defend its borders and its citizens. "No country should dare test our determination on that," Mr Erdogan said. Turkey said Syria had apologised and vowed such an incident would not happen again.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged "maximum restraint", and Western powers as well as Syria allies China and Iran issued similar appeals. The United States said Turkey had taken "appropriate" and "proportional" action in firing back at Syria, but said tensions must not to escalate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the developments as "very, very dangerous … All responsible nations need to band together to persuade the Assad regime to have a ceasefire, quit assaulting their people and begin the process of political transition".

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said: "We are not blinded by rage, but we will protect our rights to the end in the face of such an attack on our soil that killed our people." An emergency meeting of NATO was called at Turkey's instigation to protest against the Syrian attack. Under NATO rules, an attack on one NATO member can be considered an attack on all members but it was not clear what Turkey wanted NATO to do. Turkey also wrote to the UN Security Council.

Syria's Information Minister Omran Zoabi apologised for the killing of the five Turks but added: "In the case of border incidents, the countries involved should be wise and responsible especially when there are terrorist groups operating in the border area."

Tehran pulls unit as Syria row grows
The Australian
Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv and David Jones, Tehran, The Sunday Times
Monday, October 8, 2012

IRAN has withdrawn 275 members of a covert operations unit from Syria as it faces an economic crisis at home and bitter criticism about the cost of its support for President Bashar al-Assad. The men belong to a brigade known as Unit 400, part of Iran's elite Quds (Jerusalem) force, which has fought alongside Assad's security apparatus against Sunni rebels. They flew out of Syria last week, according to a Western intelligence source, whose information was confirmed by a relative of a Unit 400 officer.

The withdrawal was seen in some quarters as a sign of waning confidence among Iran's Shia leaders in Assad's ability to survive the revolt. It came as Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, faced an unexpected challenge with the collapse of Iran's currency, the rial, and protests on the streets of Tehran from hitherto loyal supporters.

There are signs that Iran's oil wealth — which bankrolls its nuclear program, help for the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon and covert support for Assad — is eroding. Iran faces new sanctions for its nuclear weapons program and is in a war of nerves that Western intelligence officials predict will either wreck the country's economy or force Tehran to abandon its quest for the bomb.

The fall in the value of the rial brought angry merchants on to the streets of Tehran last week as a financial panic swept the country and families faced soaring food prices. "Our donkey president has done this," said a man selling walnuts to a crowd of panicked people jostling around money changers. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is accused of incompetent economic management by his critics. So far, nobody in Iran has dared to question the government's "peaceful" nuclear program. There have, however, been loud complaints about an estimated $US5 billion ($4.9bn) of Iranian money spent to prop up the Assad regime in Damascus.

Senior Western intelligence officials, who discussed Iran a fortnight ago, have accelerated political pressure for even harsher sanctions. The success of those imposed so far has been instrumental in persuading Israel to extend its timetable for military action against Iran's nuclear sites, Western officials believe. Banking sources in Hong Kong say Iran is running down its $70bn in foreign reserves and it has pressed in vain for better terms from Chinese buyers of its oil. Crude oil exports have plunged by almost half to about a million barrels a day since sanctions bit at the end of last year. Oil traders in Asia say the decrease is costing Iran about $4.7bn every month.

The currency's fall is rapidly impoverishing ordinary Iranians and destroying the hopes of the middle class for educating children abroad or buying imported goods. The frustrations boiled over last week when merchants from the Grand Bazaar protested on the streets of Tehran.

The turbulence was ominous for the Islamic regime. It has counted on support from the bazaar, which helped to finance the 1979 revolution. Iran's bazaars are teeming warrens of commerce, gossip and street politics. Long before the internet, merchants heard all that was going on as they sat among sacks of pistachio nuts, baskets of saffron and piles of carpets. Many became multi-millionaires after Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionaries repaid their support with business privileges.

But long-suffering Iranians have vented their woes on bazaaris as families grapple with inflation of up to 70 per cent a year. "The poor live on subsidies and the rich with friends in the government make millions on their cheap dollars," said Sara, a middle-aged woman clutching a stack of 10,000-rial (79c) bills, each bearing Ayatollah Khomeini's face. The currency chaos has made it all but impossible for ordinary people to buy poultry or meat, an opposition website, Kalame, claims. Nonetheless, it was a shock when video appeared on YouTube showing men marching through bazaar corridors chanting "Ahmadinejad is a traitor".

Dissidents claim 20,000 people joined one protest. The semi-official Fars news agency said 16 people were arrested in scuffles outside the central bank.


Same Day
Israel downs mystery drone

JERUSALEM: Israel has scrambled fighter jets to intercept a drone that crossed deep into Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean Sea, shooting the aircraft down over the country's southern desert, the military said. The incident marked the first time in at least six years that a hostile aircraft has penetrated Israel's airspace, and Israeli officials said yesterday they were taking the incident seriously, raising the possibility of retaliatory action.

It was not immediately clear who launched the drone on Saturday night, but suspicion quickly fell on the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed group is known to have sent drones into Israeli airspace on several previous occasions. Tensions are running high between Iran and Israel over Tehran's nuclear program, which the West believes is cover for the development of atomic weapons. The Islamic Republic denies the allegations, and says its program is for peaceful purposes only. Israel has threatened to carry out a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons.

Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich said Israeli ground systems detected the drone, which flew over the Gaza Strip but did not originate there. They alerted the air force, which scrambled the jets to intercept the aircraft. She said Israel was still trying to determine where the drone took off. Nobody was hurt in the incident. Colonel Leibovich said Israeli jets escorted the drone before bringing it down in the northern Negev area, which is largely uninhabited.

The drone, which was downed near the Yatir Forrest close to the West Bank, had spent about 20 minutes in Israeli air space, an Israeli military official said. Israeli media reported that the aircraft was not carrying explosives and could have been a surveillance drone. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel viewed "this incident of attempting to enter Israeli airspace very severely and we will consider our response later".

Extract: Mitt Romney flexes his foreign policy muscles
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Wednesday, October 10, 2012

MITT Romney has promised a larger role for the US in world affairs if he is elected president next month, and pledged to assist Washington's allies in arming the rebel fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. In an address to the Virginia Military Institute yesterday, Mr Romney sought to boost his foreign policy credentials, chipping away at Mr Obama's claim to offer leadership on security and defence. Foreign policy has been a consistent strong point for Mr Obama in opinion polls during the lead-up to the election.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Romney sought to take advantage of a softening in general polling figures for the Democrat President following a flat debate performance last week. In a stinging critique the Republican contender portrayed Mr Obama as a weak leader, saying the risk of conflict in the Middle East region was "higher now than when the President took office". Citing the President's response to violence in Libya and elsewhere, Mr Romney claimed Mr Obama was "indifferent" to the quest of many in the Middle East seeking freedom and dignity in the face of violent extremists and evil tyrants. While he knew the President hoped for a safer, freer and prosperous region, he said hope did not amount to a strategy.

Mr Romney accused Mr Obama of failing to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 people have been massacred over the past 20 months during a rebel uprising. "In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organise those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets," he said.

Iran, Mr Romney said, had never been closer to developing nuclear weapons that could threaten Israel's future. "I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the US and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability," he said. "I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the east Mediterranean and the Gulf region — and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and co-ordination."

In Iraq, Mr Romney said costly gains made by US troops before their "abrupt withdrawal" ordered by Mr Obama had been eroded by rising violence. He did not spare Mr Obama from criticism of the planned withdrawal from war in Afghanistan either, and challenged the President's portrayal of him as a warmonger. "The route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11."

Mr Romney said the President had a responsibility to "use American's great power to shape history — not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events". The Obama administration has imposed tough sanctions on Iran, and Israel attests that defence co-operation with the US has never been stronger, even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would prefer the US to set some "red lines" for the regime in Tehran. Mr Romney proposed no red lines yesterday. In one sign of the impact of his strong debate performance last week, a Pew Research poll released yesterday showed the Republican now ahead 49 to 45 per cent among likely voters.


Same Day
Tehran scoffs at Israeli defences
The Wall Street Journal

TEHRAN: Iran has accused Israel of launching cyber attacks on its oil facilities and derided the Jewish state's air defences, although it did not take responsibility for a drone that entered the Jewish state's airspace Saturday before Israel shot it down. Tehran's comments Monday came as political pressure inside Iran rises over the country's fragile economy, partly the result of Western sanctions against its nuclear program. Legislators, who have been sparring with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over a range of issues, said they would try to require him to testify over Iran's economy in the coming weeks.

Tehran has grappled with an acute currency crisis since last week, when the long-dipping Iranian currency, the rial, began to plunge. On Sunday, parliamentarians lambasted President Ahmadinejad for a 25 per cent drop in the rial's value against the dollar in the prior week. Mr Ahmadinejad blames currency speculation and the economic sanctions.

Some analysts said the accusations against Israel could be the regime's attempt to provide a distraction from internal political wrangling and deflect attention from its domestic problems. "They are worried that their deterrence has been eroded," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre, an Israeli college and research centre. He said that if the drone was sent by Hezbollah, Iran's ally in Lebanon, it shows a measured" response to the pressure. "They are being careful not to start a war."

Mohammad Reza Golshani, head of information technology at the state-owned Iranian Offshore Oil, told the Mehr news agency in Iran on Monday there had been "a new cyber attack on the information system of offshore facilities in the past few weeks," referring to an oil platform. He said Iran repelled the attack. Mr. Golshani told Mehr that "an examination of the attacks showed they had been planned by the Zionist regime and several other countries."

Meanwhile, a top military commander in Tehran on Monday insisted Israel's air defences were weak. Saturday's drone incursion into Israel shows the country's Iron Dome anti-missile defence system "is ineffective," said Jamaluddin Aberoumand, a deputy co-ordinator for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Some Israeli politicians and analysts speculated that the aircraft was launched by Hezbollah.


Later Same Day
Extract: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls early general election

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called an early general election. "For the state of Israel, it is preferable to have a short election period of three months than a long election campaign which would last a whole year and hurt Israel's economy," Mr Netanyahu said. Elections for Israel's 19th parliament had been due to take place in October 2013 but the Israeli leader moved to bring forward the date after failing to garner the support of coalition partners for an unpopular austerity budget which must be passed by the end of this year.

Mr Netanyahu has been trying to push through an austerity budget prepared by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that commentators say has virtually no chance of being adopted by the end of 2012. "I finished my talks with party leaders in the coalition and I reached the conclusion that at this time, it is not possible to pass a responsible budget," Mr Netanyahu said. "We are facing an election year and unfortunately in an election year it is difficult for parties to put the national interest over party interests," he said.

The Knesset is likely to be dissolved next week within days of starting its winter session on October 15. Mr Netanyahu's announcement ends weeks of speculation about whether he would bring forward the election in a bid to bolster his position and capitalise on his popularity.

In his address, Mr Netanyahu burnished his government's security and economic credentials, presenting himself as the only guarantee in the face of regional "upheavals" and the global economic crisis. "In another few months, we will finish the fourth year of the most stable government in recent decades," he said. "This stability helped us to achieve the two objectives we promised the citizens of Israel: first, we strengthened security in a period of dangerous upheaval all around us in the Middle East. And secondly, we strengthened the economy during another upheaval — that of the ongoing global financial crisis. "There is only one way to preserve these achievements — in the face of the regional upheavals and the global economic crisis, we have to continue with a responsible security and economic policy," he said, calling on the public to reelect him.

Early poll to favour Benjamin Netanyahu
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, October 11, 2012

ISRAEL will go to an early election that is likely to be dominated by the nuclear threat from Iran and the rising cost of living. The virtually dead peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is unlikely to be a major issue.

Neither the Palestinians nor the peace process were mentioned yesterday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he made his prime-time election announcement. The issues are not priorities for Israeli politicians, given the stable security situation inside Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The dominant domestic issue is set to be the rising cost of living, which last summer led to large protests, and the major foreign policy issue is likely to be Iran's nuclear program.

Mr Netanyahu recently told the UN General Assembly that Iran could have the capability to make a nuclear bomb within months — an assessment confirmed by a report released yesterday by the Institute for Science and International Security. The Washington-based think tank said Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make an atomic bomb within two to four months and then would need an additional eight to 10 months to build the device.

Israelis were due to go to the polls in October next year. Mr Netanyahu did not set a date for the election, but it is expected to be in January. Announcing the election, Mr Netanyahu listed the aim of ensuring Iran did not have a nuclear bomb as a priority. He said the election had been made necessary because of the difficulties in passing his new budget, which includes major spending cuts.

After more than three years of one of Israel's most stable coalition governments in years, Mr Netanyahu is seeking a new mandate while his political stocks are high. He goes into the campaign with solid leads over any potential challenger.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu's predecessor who left office to fight corruption charges, is under pressure to declare himself a candidate. Mr Olmert has been cleared of most of the corruption charges but still has some related legal issues to address. A former mayor of Jerusalem, Mr Olmert is seen as the only other player on the political stage with the stature to challenge Netanyahu. He also made resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority when prime minister and appeals to those Israelis who support a Palestinian state. Kadima, the centre-left party that gained the largest number of votes at the 2009 election, is in a state of chaos after Shaul Mofaz replaced Tzipi Livni as leader.

"My obligation as Prime Minister is to put the national interest above all else, and therefore I decided that the good of Israel requires going to elections now, as soon as possible," Mr Netanyahu said yesterday. "A three-month election campaign would be more preferable for Israel than a long campaign that would last an entire year and harm the economy."

Extract: Hezbollah trumpets Israel drone mission
The Australian Online
Friday, October 12, 2012

THE head of Lebanon's Hezbollah boasted that his Shiite militant group sent a sophisticated unmanned drone over Israel last week, saying the device was built by the Jewish state's archfoe Iran. Hassan Nasrallah's acknowledgement of the drone which Israel shot down on October 6 came shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed at Hezbollah and vowed to defend his country against further "threats."

"A sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft was sent from Lebanese territory … and travelled hundreds of kilometres over the sea before crossing enemy lines and into occupied Palestine," Mr Nasrallah said on television. "It overflew sensitive and important installations for dozens of kilometres until the enemy spotted it near (the nuclear site) Dimona," Mr Nasrallah added on Hezbollah's television Al-Manar. He did not identify the installations. Mr Nasrallah insisted that "possession of such an aerial capacity is a first in the history of any resistance movement in Lebanon and the region." "It's not the first time (that a drone was sent) and it will not be the last. We can reach all the zones" of Israel, said Mr Nasrallah, referring to a less sophisticated drone sent by Hezbollah during its 2006 war against Israel. He said the latest drone was "Iranian built and assembled in Lebanon."

An Israeli official questioned by AFP in Jerusalem said he was not surprised that the drone was made in Iran. "The fact that Hezbollah weapons come from Iran does not surprise anyone," the official said on condition of anonymity. The Israeli premier earlier accused Hezbollah of launching the previously unidentified drone and vowed to protect Israeli borders against further intrusions. "We are acting with determination to protect our borders … as we prevented last weekend an attempt by Hezbollah," Mr Netanyahu's office quoted him as saying. "We shall continue to act aggressively against all threats."

On Wednesday, army radio and the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily said the air force had only managed to shoot down the drone on the second attempt last Saturday. Both reports said that the first missile fired by the F-16 jet missed the drone which was eventually brought down by a Panther missile, the military's most advanced air-to-air projectile. A senior air force source quoted by Yediot played down the incident saying it was not unreasonable given the drone's small size. "This is not a failure, no other army in the world with Israel's aerial defence systems could prevent the infiltration of such aircraft," he said.

Extract: Syria fighting rages amid talks with Turkey
The Australian Online
Sunday, October 14, 2012

FIGHTING continues to rage in Syria, as peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Germany's foreign minister held talks with Turkish officials amid tensions between Damascus and Ankara. Rebels and activists said a Syrian regime warplane was shot down near Aleppo, while part of the embattled northern city's historic Ummayad mosque was set ablaze in fighting as rebels attacks army positions inside, monitors said. And a car bomb blast near Damascus killed eight people, including a child and two women, in Al-Nabak on the road to Homs province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for reform of the UN Security Council to help resolve the crisis, after Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto powers to block resolutions condemning Syria. "It's time to change the structure of international institutions, starting with the UN Security Council," Mr Erdogan told reporters, calling for "wider, fairer and more effective representation." In Istanbul, Mr Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also held talks on Syria with visiting Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, Turkish news agency Anatolia said. With rebels controlling large swathes of the border area, several incidents of cross-border fire from Syria this month sparked retaliatory shelling by NATO member Turkey and raised concern about potential escalation.

After his meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Mr Davutoglu repeated that Turkey would not tolerate any further border incidents. "We will hit back without hesitation if we believe Turkey's national security is in danger," he said. Mr Westerwelle reiterated Germany's support for its NATO ally Turkey while at the same time appealing for restraint. "We are on Turkey's side but we also call on Turkey to show moderation," he said. He also backed Turkey in a row over its interception of a Syrian plane from Moscow. "It was morally justified for the Turks to do that," said Mr Westerwelle, adding that Germany would have done the same thing.

Turkey intercepted a Moscow to Damascus flight on Wednesday, confiscating its cargo. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian Air passenger plane had been carrying radar equipment that could have either civilian or military uses, and insisted that Moscow had violated no laws.

Mr Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat who is the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, arrived in Istanbul from talks in Saudi Arabia. He is due in Tehran on Sunday for talks with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian state television channel's website reported, a day before heading for Baghdad to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The envoy is on a regional tour aimed at finding a solution to the conflict in Syria after Damascus rejected a UN call to implement a unilateral ceasefire.

The UN estimates that more than 2.5 million people have been affected by the fighting. There are more than 348,000 Syrian refugees registered in neighbouring countries, but many more are unregistered.

Extract: Tensions soar as Syria bans Turkish flights
The Australian Online
Monday, October 15, 2012

SYRIA has banned Turkish flights from its airspace and Turkey has made a similar tit-for-tat move, as regime forces pressed their counterattack against rebels to regain territory lost in northern battlegrounds.

The reprisal for Turkey confiscating a cargo of what Russia said was radar equipment being flown from Moscow to Damascus came despite a flurry of diplomacy intended to calm soaring tensions between the neighbours. Syria accuses Turkey of channelling arms from Gulf Arab states to rebels fighting its troops, who have been under mounting pressure across large swaths of the north, including in Aleppo. The Syrian flight ban went into force from midnight local time "in accordance with the principle of reciprocity", SANA state news agency said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said later that Ankara had already banned Syrian civilian flights from its airspace. "Yesterday (Saturday) we closed our airspace to Syrian civilian flights as we have previously done for Syrian military flights," he said. "As we have established that civilian flights were being misused by the Syrian defence ministry to transport military material, we sent a note yesterday to the Syrian side," Mr Davutoglu said. Ankara has taken an increasingly strident line towards its southern neighbour since a shell fired from inside Syria killed five Turks on October 3. It has since repeatedly hit back for cross-border fire, prompting growing UN concern and a hasty series of diplomatic contacts.

Tensions from the conflict are also being felt in neighbouring Lebanon, and hundreds of people took to the streets of Beirut for two separate rallies, one supporting the Damascus regime and the other calling for its downfall.

With the violence raging, UN and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday went to Iran, which handed him an "unofficial detailed proposal" aimed at ending the conflict in its closest ally, Syria. Mr Brahimi, on his second regional tour after taking up his post at the start of last month, welcomed the initiative but reiterated a call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Damascus to initiate a ceasefire.


Same Day
Israeli raids on Salafist militants kill five in Gaza

TWO Gazans have died in an Israeli strike, raising to five the total number killed as Israel pressed a series of raids targeting militants, among them a top Salafist leader. Palestinian witnesses said the latest Israeli strike targeted a motorcycle near Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, killing two militants in their early 20s. The Israeli army confirmed the strike, saying it had targeted "a terrorist rocket squad."

Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry, said the strike killed Ezzedine Abu Nasira, 23, and Ahmad Fatayer, 22, and left another two people in critical condition. An Israeli army spokeswoman said they were targeted after firing a rocket into Israel that landed in the Eshkol regional council flanking the southern sector of the Gaza border, without causing injury.

It was the third deadly Israeli raid within 24 hours and came just hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "act aggressively" against anyone threatening to attack Israelis. "Global jihad is increasing its efforts to strike at us and we shall continue to act aggressively and forcefully in response," he told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting, saying the military would also engage in "preventive strikes."

The surge in bloodshed began on Saturday night when the air force targeted a motorcycle in the northern town of Jabaliya, killing top Salafist leader Sheikh Hisham al-Saedini, 43, and a fellow militant called Fayek Abu Jazar, 42. Saedini, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, headed a Salafist group called Tawhid wal-Jihad, or the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which has claimed responsibility for firing a handful of rockets at Israel over the past six weeks. A 12-year-old bystander was wounded in the raid, medics said. Several hours later, warplanes targeted two militants from the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the southern city of Khan Yunis, killing one and critically wounding the second. The dead militant was identified as Yasser Mohammad al-Atal, 23. The strike came shortly after a rocket hit an open field in the Eshkol region, with the army saying the dawn raid had targeted "a terrorist squad."

Saedini was one of the top Salafist militants in Gaza who founded the Mujahedeen Shura Council at the end of 2008. He was buried in Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. The Israeli army said it had targeted Saedini over his group's involvement in "significant terror activity against Israeli civilians and … soldiers." It said his group was behind an attack in late January 2009 that killed a soldier and seriously wounded another, and said he had in recent days been "planning a complex attack to be carried out along the Sinai border" in collaboration with Salafi operatives inside Egypt.

Fatah claims win after Hamas vacates stage
The Australian
Monday, October 22, 2012

RAMALLAH: Fatah supporters were claiming victory yesterday before the official results in the first West Bank election since 2006, in a local poll boycotted by Hamas. In the southern city of Hebron, supporters of the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, were out on the streets celebrating yesterday. The movement claimed in a statement to have won in most of the municipalities, towns and villages on the West Bank. "We consider the victory as a major popular referendum on the movement's political program and its national performance," spokesman Ahmad Assaf said.

Polling stations shut yesterday after 12 hours of voting and preliminary results were expected to start coming overnight. Shortly after the end of voting, Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Central Elections Commission, said 277,000 of the 505,600 eligible voters had cast ballots, putting the turnout at 54.8 per cent. "The elections went very smoothly," he said in Ramallah.

The last time Palestinians voted was in the general elections of January 2006: the Islamist Hamas movement won by a landslide. Hamas also chalked up major wins during local elections in 2005, the first time it participated in the democratic process. This time, however, Hamas refused to take part following the collapse of unity talks with rival Fatah. That left Fatah pitted against independents and leftist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The vote was held only in 93 of the West Bank's 354 municipalities, as candidates in another 179 localities were appointed unopposed. Elections in the remaining 82 areas will be held on November 24, the CEC said.

In parts of Ramallah, roadworks blocked several streets and the stench of sewage filled the air as residents went out to decide who would be on the next municipal council charged with running the city. While some welcomed the opportunity to vote, others were sceptical about the prospect of change. "I don't expect much from these elections, despite what I hoped for, because there aren't any qualified candidates," said Mohammed Zahdeh, 60, from Hebron. "This is a farce, not an election," said Abu Abdullah, 56, a trader from Nablus. "We want real elections that represent us, where people are capable of serving their country, and don't just bandy around political slogans."

Mr Abbas voted at a school in el-Bireh, near Ramallah, and expressed disappointment the election was not happening in Gaza.

Egypt reins in Gaza militants
The Australian
Friday, October 26, 2012

JERUSALEM: The heaviest flare-up in fighting between Israel and militants from Gaza's ruling Hamas movement in months has subsided after Egypt helped to restore calm. Israeli defence official Amos Gilad told Army Radio yesterday that Egyptian security forces had "a very impressive ability" to convey to the militants that it was in their "supreme interest not to attack".

Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said Egypt conveyed Israel's desire to contain the violence. He said Hamas told Egypt that militants would call a ceasefire if Israel did. The Israeli military says militants haven't attacked southern Israel since Wednesday night. It says the military hasn't struck Gaza since Wednesday morning.

The agreement put an end to 24 hours of bloodshed, which saw a series of Israeli airstrikes that killed four Palestinian militants, while armed groups fired more than 70 rockets and mortars over the border, seriously wounding two Thai workers. Among those firing on Israel was the armed wing of Gaza's ruling Islamist Hamas movement — the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades — which said three of the dead were its own militants. A fourth man was from the Popular Resistance Committees, which also claimed to have fired rockets at Israel.

The latest surge in violence began on Tuesday evening, shortly after a state visit to Gaza by the Qatari emir to inaugurate a multi-million-dollar project to rebuild the Palestinian enclave. Militants fired 80 rockets and mortars on Wednesday and Israeli aircraft struck four times. Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on rocket launchers, killing two Palestinian militants, according to Gaza medical officials. Two other Palestinians were killed on Tuesday.

Yesterday, Israel's UN ambassador, Ron Prosor, wrote to the Security Council warning members that if they did not condemn the rocket attacks, "there could be tragic consequences" because Hamas and other militants would interpret the silence "as a green light for terror". Israel carried out a broad military offensive in Gaza four years ago in response to years of rocket fire. Salvos from Gaza have largely subsided since then.

"Hamas will receive its punishment for what has happened here," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also warned that any continuation of rocket fire would prompt a "much more extensive" Israeli response.

Israel's man typically calm in chaotic times
The Australian
Deborah Haynes and Richard Beeston, The Times, London
Thursday, November 1, 2012

THESE are troubling times for Ehud Barak, Israel's veteran Defence Minister.

His country faces the prospect of Hezbollah militants in Lebanon gaining chemical weapons and long-range missiles from Syria at the same time as it grapples with the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran. And there is strife even closer to home, with the constant risk of attack by Hamas from Gaza as well as a new front opening for militants based in lawless terrain within Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel.

Piling on the pressure, Mr Barak's term as Defence Minister may also be coming to an end, his party expected to fare poorly in January's general election. But the former prime minister and military general is no stranger to crisis and he discusses each challenge with a calm that comes from decades of exposure to politics and war.

Speaking to The Times at a hotel in west London, he talked frankly about his worry over the conflict in Syria enabling Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group, to gain access to weapons of mass destruction in a game-changing boost to its already hefty arsenal of about 60,000 rockets, stored in Lebanon.

Syria's civil war also poses an opportunity for Israel. Mr Barak noted that the demise of Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Hezbollah and Iran, would badly damage the network of Shia militancy that has threatened Israel's existence. "When Assad collapses, it will mean a major blow to both Hezbollah and even Iran. The whole radical axis will be shattered," he said. Syria is the cornerstone of Iran's foreign policy, enabling the country to channel arms and financial aid to the Shia militants in Lebanon. Syria was Iran's "only stronghold within the Arab world", Mr Barak said. "I don't expect them to give up their nuclear aspirations just because Bashar al-Assad fell, but they will be somewhat weaker and more vulnerable."

The Iranian nuclear question is the most pressing foreign policy issue for Israel, which is trying to garner support from Britain and the US for a pre-emptive military strike against the well-protected facilities in Iran where uranium is being enriched. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, and his Defence Minister had been the most vocal proponents of a pre-emptive Israeli airstrike as early as this year, but their timeline shifted in apparent response to a reduction by Tehran of its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent, a level regarded as a step away from weapons-grade.

Mr Barak said he did not know why the Iranians had decided to reprocess dozens of kilograms of the material into fuel rods for a research reactor (also part of IAEA's report on 31st August), speculating that it might have been to deter an Israeli strike before the US elections or to make it appear to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, that the regime had a legitimate reason for such a level of enrichment. The decision had put back any immediate plans Iran had for acquiring a nuclear bomb, but the "moment of truth" had only been delayed by "eight to 10 months", he said.

In September Mr Netanyahu said that Tehran was on track to cross what the Israelis regard as a "red line" in terms of uranium enrichment production levels by the next northern spring or summer, a threshold Israel is anxious to prevent it from breaching. "Dealing with Iran before they cross this point of no return is not a simple issue, it is not a picnic," Mr Barak said. "It is not without complications, dangers and even certain potential unintended consequences. But to deal with Iran several years down this stream, once it turned nuclear, will end up being much more complicated, much more dangerous, much more costly in terms of human life and the financial resources. That is what calls for sincere, serious thought now about it before it might become too late."

Mr Barak said that he would be delighted if international sanctions and diplomatic efforts were to prompt Iran's religious leaders to scrap their nuclear goal, but admitted: "We are extremely sceptical about the chances that it will happen." While military action was a last resort, the minister was clear that it remained an option.

Doubt has been raised over whether Israel's military is able to hit Iran's nuclear plants effectively because a number of the facilities are deep underground, requiring bunker-busting bombs deployed only by the US. Mr Barak conceded that a unilateral attack would not destroy the nuclear program, but it would cause a significant delay. "I believe the Americans can probably delay it by a longer period," he added.

There are plenty of informed people inside and outside Israel, however, who oppose any form of pre-emptive military action and argue for more time for diplomacy to take effect. Another factor that could change all calculations was whether the Iranian regime is able to survive a local version of the Arab Spring. "The real competition is between the need to block Iran before it turns nuclear … and the survivability of the regime," Mr Barak said.

Comment: Spring 'prime time' for strike
Deborah Haynes

NEXT northern spring is shaping up to be prime time for a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, if Israeli calculations are to be believed. Israel has talked of a "red line" cutting through the complicated process of enriching uranium that it says Tehran cannot be allowed to cross. Allow the program to progress too far and it becomes too late for military intervention to have a meaningful effect, it is argued.

But such talk plays into Israel's hands, particularly when the Israeli government would prefer to see the US, with its far superior firepower, take over responsibility for launching an attack against Iranian nuclear sites. Eminent dissenting voices inside Israel, notably Meir Dagan, the country's former spy chief, believe that attacking Iran would ultimately accelerate Iran's nuclear program by uniting the country against its enemies.

Rebel car bomb kills 50 amid Syrian talks
The Australian Online
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A SYRIAN rebel car bomb has killed 50 pro-regime fighters as air strikes pounded rebel positions and the opposition held talks. The suicide car bomb attack on a military post in the central province of Hama struck early on Monday, killing at least 50 government troops and loyalist militiamen, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The attack was one of the deadliest on pro-regime forces since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule in March last year.

State television and the Britain-based Observatory said a car bomb attack had also killed 11 people and wounded dozens in the west Damascus district of Mazzeh, home to many embassies and state security offices. Regime aircraft meanwhile continued to pound rebel-held positions around the country, with one air strike killing at least 20 rebel fighters in the town of Harem in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Observatory said.

The rebels have scored significant gains in recent weeks and hold swathes of territory in the north, but have come under intense bombardment from the air as Assad's regime seeks to reverse its losses. An air strike in the Idlib province town of Kafr Nabal killed 14 civilians, the Observatory said, with a video posted on the internet by activists showing rescuers carrying blood-soaked bodies amid burning cars and uprooted trees. "Bashar, even if you kill us all, we will stay determined to bring you down!" one man shouts in the video.

Fighting also erupted in southern districts of the capital on the edge of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, the Observatory said, with Palestinian sources saying 31 people had died from shelling at the camp on Sunday and Monday. In second city Aleppo, fighting broke out at a roundabout at the northwestern entrance to the city in Zahraa district and on the airport road to the southeast, the Observatory and residents said.

The bloodshed added urgency to a meeting of the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Qatar, where the United States is reportedly pressing for a new umbrella organisation to unite the fractured opposition. According to the reports, which emerged after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the SNC was not representative, long-time dissident Riad Seif is touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative. Seif on Sunday denied planning to head such a government, while SNC chief Abdel Basset Sayda denounced what he called "efforts to bypass the SNC".

On Tuesday, SNC members will debate a proposal put forward by Seif to create a new political body to represent the opposition, folding in the SNC and other anti-regime groups. The initiative will top the agenda of a broader meeting on Thursday called by Qatar and the Arab League.

On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused countries that support the Syrian rebels of encouraging them to fight rather than pressuring them to negotiate. Countries that do have influence over the rebels, among them some Gulf Arab states and Western powers such as the United States, should encourage them to "sit at the negotiating table", Mr Lavrov said.

Bashar al-Assad rejects exit: 'I live and die in Syria'
The Australian Online
Friday, November 9, 2012

A DEFIANT President Bashar al-Assad has rejected calls that he seek a safe exit, vowing he will "live in Syria and die in Syria" and warning that the world cannot afford the cost of a foreign intervention. And as fighting continued around the country, the Red Cross said it was struggling to cope with Syria's worsening humanitarian crisis.

"I am not a puppet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country," Assad said in English in an interview with Russian state-backed Russia Today (RT) television. "I am Syrian, I was made in Syria, I have to live in Syria and die in Syria," he said, according to transcripts posted on RT's website.

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron floated the idea of granting Assad safe passage from the country, saying it "could be arranged," although he wanted him to face international justice. Assad, who has made only rare public statements in recent months, also warned against a foreign intervention in Syria's escalating conflict, saying such a move would have global consequences and shake regional stability.

"We are the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region … it will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific," the transcript said. In a separate video extract of the interview, Assad added: "The price of this invasion, if it happens, is going to be big, more than the whole world can afford."

Many in Syria's opposition, including rebels battling pro-regime forces, have urged world powers to intervene to stop the escalating bloodshed. Today heavy clashes for control of the mainly Kurdish northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border killed 16 soldiers and 10 rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian state television reported that "troops killed dozens of terrorists who tried to attack Ras al-Ain" and the rebels then fled back into Turkey. Turkish media reported five Turks wounded by ricochets from across the border.

Fresh violence also broke out in the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Qadam and in Mazzeh in the west of the capital, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground. It said at least 86 people were killed on Thursday, including 38 soldiers. The Observatory says more than 37,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, first as a protest movement and then an armed rebellion after the regime cracked down on demonstrations.

In Geneva, International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer said the aid group was finding it difficult to manage a crisis that has also forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. "The humanitarian situation is getting worse despite the scope of the operation increasing," he told reporters. "We can't cope with the worsening of the situation." In Qatar, meanwhile, Syrians from a wide spectrum of opposition to Assad were meeting to begin hammering out a government-in-waiting world powers will accept as credible and representative.

Syrian rebels unite as Israel targeted
The Australian Online
Monday, November 12, 2012

SYRIA'S opposition has agreed to unite against Bashar al-Assad and elected a moderate cleric as its first leader, as Israel fired warning shots into the war-torn country after mortar fire hit the Golan.

After four days of marathon talks in Qatar, the Syrian National Council finally signed up to a wider, more representative bloc centred on a government-in-waiting, as demanded by Arab and Western states. Muslim cleric Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, 52, a Damascus moderate who quit Syria three months ago, was elected head of the new grouping, with prominent dissident Riad Seif and female opposition figure Suhair al-Atassi chosen his deputies.

The Israeli warning shot across the UN-monitored ceasefire line between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights came after a mortar round fired from the Syrian side hit an Israeli position. It came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet Israel was "ready for any development" and as his defence minister warned a "tougher response" would follow.

Reservations in SNC ranks about what many members saw as a move to sideline it had prompted repeated delays in the Doha talks and mounting frustration among other dissident groups and the opposition's Arab and Western supporters. But after negotiations ran into the early hours of Sunday and resumed in the afternoon, the anti-Assad factions agreed to form a "National Coalition of Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition."

"We signed a 12-point agreement to establish a coalition," said Mr Seif, who championed the US-backed reform proposals on which the agreement was based. In a copy of the document obtained by AFP, the parties "agree to work for the fall of the regime and of all its symbols and pillars," and rule out any dialogue with Assad's government. They agreed to unify the fighting forces under a supreme military council and to set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas. A provisional government would be formed after the coalition gains international recognition, and a transitional government after the regime has fallen.

Former Syrian premier Riad Hijab who defected in August hailed the agreement as "an advanced step towards toppling the regime." The deal came after the SNC, previously seen as the main opposition group, heeded Arab and Western pressure to embrace groups that had been unwilling to join its ranks.

Mr Khatib, the imam of the central Umayyad mosque in Damascus before he was arrested for supporting the uprising, is seen as an independent as he is not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist party. His deputies also hail from mixed backgrounds, with Mr Seif reportedly backed by Washington and Ms Atassi belonging to a Homs family active in the secular opposition. A third vice president will remain vacant for a Kurd.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a ceremony marking the eighth anniversary of
Yasser Arafat's death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Source: AP

Later Same day
Palestinians push for UN seat, Arafat autopsy

THE Palestinians will submit a bid to the General Assembly this month for non-state membership of the United Nations, despite US opposition. President Mahmoud Abbas also spoke out in favour of the exhumation of veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's body to establish the cause of his death and revealed Russia was involved in the efforts.

"We're going to the United Nations in November 2012, not 2013, or 2014," Mr Abbas said at an event commemorating the eighth anniversary of the death of Arafat. "Israel's hysterical reaction to our UN bid is due to its desire to continue the occupation and we are under pressure of late from multiple parties to waive our just demand, but we will not," Mr Abbas added. His spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina revealed that US President Barack Obama told Mr Abbas that his administration opposes the Palestinian bid for non-state membership. "There was a long telephone conversation," he told AFP. "Obama expressed the opposition of the United States to the decision to go to the UN General Assembly."

Mr Abbas explained "the reasons and motives for the Palestinian decision … including the continued (Jewish) settlement activity and Israeli aggression against citizens and property." Israel and the United States are both opposed to the Palestinian plan, insisting that a Palestinian state can only result from peace negotiations, which have been suspended for the past two years.

Palestinian envoys to the United Nations on Thursday unveiled the resolution they plan to submit to the General Assembly seeking observer state status. The resolution would call on the assembly to accord observer membership and urge the UN Security Council to "consider favourably" an application Mr Abbas made for full membership last year. The Palestinian application stalled over the opposition of the United States, which wields veto powers.

This year, the Palestinians said they would instead seek enhanced status at the General Assembly, where no one member can block a resolution, and they are expected to comfortably win sufficient support. Mr Abbas gave no date for the resolution's submission, but officials have floated the dates of either November 15 or 29.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, chaired a meeting of Israel's envoys to the European Union to draw up a response to the Palestinian initiative, his office said. The move is fiercely opposed by Israel, and Israeli ministers have reportedly already met to discuss potential sanctions against the Palestinians if they proceed with the bid.

On the Arafat probe, Mr Abbas also revealed in his speech that the Palestinians were coordinating with Russia, as well as Swiss and French experts, on the planned exhumation. Mr Arafat died in a French military hospital near Paris on November 11, 2004 and French experts were unable to say what had killed him, with many Palestinians convinced he was poisoned by Israel. "We are currently in coordination with the French investigators, the Swiss experts, and also the Russian government to open the tomb," Abbas said.

French prosecutors opened a murder inquiry in August after Al-Jazeera television broadcast an investigation in which Swiss experts said they had found high levels of radioactive polonium on Mr Arafat's personal effects. A French team is due in Ramallah on November 26 to begin work on exhuming the body, Palestinian sources told AFP last month, adding Swiss experts would arrive at the same time for an operation that could take "several weeks or a month." Mr Abbas also asked at a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week for the help of Russian investigators and experts, a Palestinian source said on condition of anonymity.

Polonium is a highly toxic substance rarely found outside military and scientific circles. It was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 in London shortly after drinking tea laced with the poison. The French murder inquiry was opened in late August at the request of Arafat's widow Suha, who had refused to give her permission for an autopsy at the time of his death.

Mr Abbas later on Sunday left on a tour of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Switzerland, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

Rocket salvo sparks Israeli warning to Hamas of Gaza offensive
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ISRAEL has warned of a major new military offensive in the Gaza Strip as hostilities on two of its borders — Gaza and Syria — have escalated. As Israel estimated that up to 100 rockets were fired from Gaza in 24 hours, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would "strike with an ever-growing intensity". "Hamas is responsible for the rocket fire and all other attempts to harm our soldiers and civilians, even when other groups participate. And it is Hamas that will pay the heavy price," he said. Israeli media reported that Egypt was attempting to broker a ceasefire.

Many of the rockets fired into Israel from Gaza in recent months have been fired by Islamic Jihad and other Salafist groups in Gaza who do not answer to Hamas. But Hamas has claimed responsibility for the latest spate.

Israel intensified attacks after a rocket hit one of its military jeeps on Saturday on patrol on the Israeli side of the border, injuring four soldiers. Israel's response killed four Palestinians. Rocket fire from Gaza then intensified, hitting several homes in Sderot, the Israeli city closest to Gaza. Four Israeli civilians were wounded. One resident, teacher Moshik Levy, whose car was hit as he was driving, told Army Radio: "Shattered glass from my car windshield exploded into my face. "I started bleeding. I didn't understand what was happening. Thankfully I was alone."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet yesterday: "The world needs to understand that Israel will not sit with arms crossed when faced by attempts to hurt us." Leading Israel military analyst Alex Fishman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper yesterday that "a limited military operation" was inevitable. "Israel has no interest in replacing Hamas with a more extreme element," he wrote. "The limited military operation should achieve one main goal: a long-term ceasefire. And this can be achieved if the targets that are chosen take into account minimal harm to the civilian population."

Israel on Sunday night, Australian time, fired an anti-tank missile as a warning shot into Syria from the Golan Heights after a mortar shell from Syria hit one of its defence posts. It was the first time Israel has fired into Syria since 1973, breaking 40 years of quiet on the border. In recent months, several shells from Syria have landed in the Golan Heights, but have not hit any facilities. It is not clear whether the shells are being deliberately fired into Israel or are stray shells from the fighting between Syrian troops and opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army. Israel Radio News last reported that the Israeli Defence Forces believed the firing into Israel was accidental.

The strategically important Golan Heights were taken by Israel during the 1967 war and are still claimed by Syria. Israel is on alert for any movement of Syria's chemical and biological weapons. Its main concern is that amid the current chaos in Syria some of those weapons may be transferred to Syria's ally, Hezbollah, in neighbouring Lebanon.

President Barack Obama has said that, for the US, the movement of those weapons would trigger a possible direct intervention in Syria. The intelligence services of several countries are believed to be along the Jordanian and Turkish borders trying to monitor those stockpiles. Defectors from the Syrian regime have said they believe President Bashar al-Assad would be prepared to use those weapons against his own people if he felt cornered.

Stakes rise as Israel shells Syria
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

ISRAEL was on alert last night to escalate the cross-border conflict with Syria after confirming "direct hits" on Assad regime military targets. After firing an anti-tank missile on Sunday night (AEDT) as a warning shot on the disputed Golan Heights, Israel deliberately targeted military facilities in Syria yesterday.

Israeli Defence Forces spokesman Major Arye Shalicar told The Australian Israel had hit its intended targets. "A mortar shell was fired for the second day at an IDF post in the central Golan Heights," he said. "We say this is part of the internal conflict inside Syria. We have no interest in being part of the internal Syrian conflict. We have no interest to be dragged into it. It's an internal Syrian conflict but today we fired tank shells in response. We can confirm direct hits."

While Major Shalicar refused to give details of the operation, an Israeli military source said Syrian mobile artillery facilities were hit. They were believed to be Jeeps or pick-up trucks which had fired shells from moving positions. The source said it appeared the targeting of Israeli positions was deliberate. "If you see it is intentional then you have to set some warning that enough is enough," the source said.

Yesterday's development came after mortar shells were fired into Israeli territory for a second consecutive day. On the first day, Israeli military officials had said it was possible a mortar shell which hit an Israeli military outpost was an errant shell from the fighting between the troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition Free Syrian Army. But yesterday Israeli officials made clear they believed the firing was intentional. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would take a "tougher response" if the shelling continued.

Meanwhile, tensions also grew on the Syria-Turkey border as Syrian jets bombed opposition strongholds. Four Turkish civilians were killed last month when a mortar shell from Syria hit a village on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey responded with mortar fire for several days.

Yesterday, thousands of people were reported to have fled the Syrian town Ras al Ayn to the Turkish town Ceylanpinar due to the fighting. At least one Syrian shell was reported to have landed in Ceylanpinar and Turkish soldiers were said to have watched from foxholes as Syrian jets bombed the area.

Turkey is the second-largest military in NATO behind the US and its army dwarfs Syria's. However, public opinion in Turkey is strongly against any war with Syria. Traditionally, Turkey and Syria have enjoyed good relations but those relations have broken down due to what Turkey has said is the unacceptable brutality of the Syrian regime's crackdown against its internal uprising.

The developments on the Israeli and Turkish borders confirm fears among many in the West that the Syrian crisis is spreading through the region. Fighting has also spilled across Syria's border with Lebanon. In recent months several people in Lebanon have been killed as supporters of the Assad regime have fought opponents.

Israel's other "front", Gaza, was quieter yesterday as militant factions appeared to be observing a truce. Israeli says about 100 rockets were fired in a 24-hour period from Gaza early this week, leading to Israeli responses that killed several Palestinians. Israel yesterday warned that Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, would be held responsible even if other groups in the strip were firing the rockets. "Hamas bears responsibility," Minister for the Environment Gilad Erdan told Israel Radio. "The heads of Hamas should pay the price and not sleep at night."

But Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Israel was not currently gearing towards an escalation. It quoted a security official saying Israel feared Hamas could fire longer-range missiles targeting Tel Aviv.

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