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Latest News in Israel – 1st May

Graves of Israel’s fallen soldiers adorned with flags for Memorial Day

Slowly and silently, a group of IDF soldiers moved from section to section of the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on Wednesday, from the graves of the soldiers who fell in 1948 to the casualties from Operation Protective Edge in 2014, placing a small Israeli flag marked with a black ribbon at each and every headstone as part of the “Flag for the Fallen” project, which is being held for the 16th year.

The graves are being decorated in preparation for the events of Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism, which begin on sundown Sunday. By the time Memorial Day begins, every grave of a fallen soldier in Israel’s military cemeteries and in the military sections of civilian cemeteries will be marked with the special flag.

Graves

IDF soldiers place flags on graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem,

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, Israel Police Commissioner Insp. Gen. Roni Alsheikh, head of the Families and Commemoration Department of the Defense Ministry Aryeh Muallem, Yad Labanim Chairman Eli Ben Shem, and IDF Widows and Orphans Organization Chairwoman Tami Shelach were present at the ceremony.

Eizenkot told those gathered that “IDF soldiers and officers will continue to operate in the spirit of the legacy of the fallen — a legacy of love for their country and a deep sense of devotion. That has always been the greatness of the people of Israel, the ability to rise above the pain and the regret, to remember the past and act for the sake of the future.”

“We will hold our heads high and vow to carry on the mission for which the best of our sons and daughters died — ensuring our existence as a free people in their own country. May the memory of the fallen be a blessing,” the chief of staff said.

Addressing the bereaved families, Eizenkot said, “Dear families, a few days from now you will visit your loved ones’ graves in pain, light a candle in their memory and remember in your hearts who they were and what they will never be. I know that words cannot fill the empty space in your hearts, so all that is left is to promise that we will continue to do everything possible to continue their path. Today, we will also remember IDF soldiers missing in action and the fallen soldiers whose burial places are unknown. We will not rest until we have brought everyone back within our borders.”

Also on Wednesday, some 6,000 youth from all over the country paid visits to the graves of 148 fallen soldiers who were Holocaust survivors and laid to rest in Israel’s military cemeteries, who have no relatives to visit their final resting places on days of remembrance. A state ceremony honoring the Holocaust survivors who were killed in the War of Independence was held at Mount Herzl cemetery.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, met on Wednesday with a delegation of IDF widows and children left fatherless representing the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization.

This is the fourth year members of the organization have met with the prime minister at his office in Jerusalem. During the meeting, each child present talked about his or her late father and showed something he had left behind. Illai Pereg, 15, whose father, Israel Police Superintendent Patrick Pereg, was killed in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, showed Netanyahu his father’s dog tag, which he always carries with him. Ziona Netanel, the widow of Capt. Yehonatan Netanel, who was killed in Operation Cast Lead in 2008, showed Netanyahu a prayer book, including the Prayer for the IDF written by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, that her late husband had carried with him into battle.

Segev Ohayon, 13, who lost his father, Hanan Ohayon, a first lieutenant in the Israel Prison Service, in the 2010 Carmel forest fire, said, “Dad wasn’t supposed to take part in the mission. He fought to go on it and for me, he’s a hero.”

Raz Efrati, the son of Staff Sgt. Maj. Ehud Efrati, killed in the Gaza Strip, showed Netanyahu a family photo album.

At a separate event, Netanyahu also took part in a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in memory of Israelis killed while representing the country abroad.  (Israel Hayom)

Israel unveils Remembrance Hall for fallen soldiers ahead of Memorial Day

Israel’s Defense Ministry unveiled a Remembrance Hall for the country’s fallen soldiers for the first time on Thursday, ahead of next week’s Memorial Day.

The site, located at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery and next to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, is currently in the final stage of construction and is meant to commemorate every one of the more than 23,000 soldiers killed since before the establishment of the state.

“To remember each one is not a simple thing,” said Aryeh Mualem, head of the Defense Ministry’s Families and Commemoration Department. “This is exactly the place to remember each one of them.”

Visitors will descend a flight of broad stone steps into a corridor where video of soldiers from different eras, starting with the pre-IDF Palmach forces, are projected onto a wall. The hall leads to an open space lined with benches, with an 18-meter-tall (59 feet) column made from over 6,000 stone bricks opening like a chimney into the sky overhead.

A spiral path, supported by concrete pillars, winds upward around the column. The names of the fallen soldiers and the dates of their deaths are inscribed on the bricks lining the wall of the 260-meter (853-foot) path. A candle will be lit on the anniversary of each death. The names are arranged by the date the soldiers were killed, regardless of rank or unit, starting with the most recently killed at the bottom of the path. Light from the outdoors shines through gaps in the bricks. Commemorative columns toward the top of the path will display photos and information on soldiers who were killed on that day of the year.

The end of the passageway, bearing the names of fighters killed in the 1930s, opens into the Mount Herzl cemetery.

Many visitors will have a personal connection with soldiers who were killed, Mualem said, and will be able to locate their specific stone in the wall on a series of computers spaced throughout the path. Visitors will also be able to take a photo of a name and get information on the soldier and their story through an app.

Remembrance Hall

Names

The names on the bricks are arranged by date of death, regardless of the soldier’s rank or unit

The memorial will allow the country to remember the soldiers as individuals, Mualem said, which is especially important today because many of their parents and relatives are getting old.

“Who will remember their son when they pass on?” Mualem said. “We need to remember every one of them.”

Construction of the memorial began in January 2015. The structure cost NIS 75 million ($20 million), with another NIS 14 million invested in multimedia. The site will first open to families of fallen soldiers on this year’s Memorial Day, May 1.  (the Times of Israel)

YoM Hazikaron photo

Jerusalem: 4000 Years in 5 Minutes

Arab media reports Israeli strike on Syrian army near border

Arab media and Syrian opposition forces reported Saturday night that the Israeli Air Force had carried out strikes near the border town of Quneitra.

The strikes reportedly targeted Syrian army forces in the area. Sky News Arabic reported explosions and said Israeli choppers were sighted in the area.

However, Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen network quoted Syrian army officials who denied an attack had taken place.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, and no official comment from Israel.

On Thursday a Patriot missile intercepted a Syrian drone that entered Israeli airspace. According to the IDF, the missile successfully downed the unmanned aerial vehicle over the Golan Heights.

On Wednesday, Arab media reported that Israel attacked a Syrian Army air base near Damascus.

Israel would not officially comment on whether it had carried out the strike. However, Syrian officials insisted the Jewish state was behind the attack, which reportedly targeted a stash of weapons that were bound for the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group.

Though he didn’t explicitly acknowledge Israel was behind it, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said the attack was consistent with Israel’s policy of preventing arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria since that country’s civil war erupted in 2011, most of which it has said targeted arms convoys or warehouses of Hezbollah, which is a key supporter of the Syrian regime.

Last month, the army said it conducted several strikes near the Syrian desert city of Palmyra, targeting what it said were “advanced weapons” belonging to Hezbollah.

The strikes prompted Syria to launch ground-to-air missiles, one of which was intercepted over Israeli territory in the most serious flare-up between the two neighbors since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.  (the Times of Israel)

Israeli ambassador speaks of fresh Palestine peace initiative

Israel is pressing for a fresh Middle East peace initiative involving Arab states, Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, told a meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London as pro-Palestinian activists mounted a vocal protest outside.

Regev said Israel “wants to see larger and greater involvement from the Arab world” in new peace negotiations. Pragmatic Sunni Arab states saw a “convergence of interest” with Israel in relation to Iran and had “significant cards to play”, he added. He said that Israel had approached Donald Trump’s administration about “trying to get the peace process back on track”.

Protesters’ chants were clearly audible from the first-floor seminar room at the London university college where Regev engaged in an hour-long question-and-answer session with an audience of about 60 people. There was heavy Israeli security inside, while police officers monitored the protest outside.

For the most part, Regev restated familiar Israeli government positions on settlements, barriers and checkpoints and the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Eric Heinze of Queen Mary University chaired the meeting and opened by saying that many people considered Regev a war criminal for his defence of Israeli actions in Gaza when he was the government spokesperson. In reply, Regev said he had done his job, “to represent the democratically elected government of Israel” with pride.

Later he said: “Israel cherishes freedom of expression and freedom of speech. To the people outside, I would say this: they claim to be the friends of the Palestinians. But by supporting a hardline, maximalist Palestinian position, are they friends of the Palestinian people? They are chanting, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ – meaning Israel has no right to exist. I’d like to tell them that Israel is not going away.”

Several hundred pro-Palestinian and and a smaller number of pro-Israel activists gathered outside Soas before the event, waving rival flags and playing rival music through loudspeakers.

One protester, Nadia, said she “fundamentally disagreed” with supporters of Israel being allowed to display the country’s flag, which she described as “symbol of hatred”. She said: “We should not be giving platforms to hate speech. Freedom of speech is bullshit. Democratic liberal western values are being used to excuse colonialism.”

Another pro-Palestinian protester, James, said that hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners were on hunger strike and “their voices have been silenced while the chief spokesman for apartheid Israel has been given a platform”. Soas had become an “unsafe space”, he said. “There are students with increased levels of agitation and academic fear.”

Laurence Rosenberg, wrapped in an Israeli flag and describing himself as a proud Zionist, said he had come to “open a dialogue”. He said he would be happy to see the Palestinian ambassador speaking at the university. “But at its core, the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement is against freedom of speech.”

Regev was invited by Soas Jewish and United Nations societies, but 40 student societies at the school and 150 academics from UK universities wrote to its director, Valerie Amos, urging her to stop the meeting.

A letter signed by more than 100 Soas staff said the event “could cause serious tension on campus and result in a charged atmosphere that will be detrimental to the wellbeing of all faculty, staff and students”.

Soas, one of the world’s leading institutions for the study of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, has a significant number of Palestinian students and pro-Palestinian activist groups. The small minority of Jewish students at the school have complained of feeling uncomfortable and unable to speak freely on campus.

Since the start of the academic year, Regev has visited about 20 UK universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Manchester Met, King’s, UCL, Queen Mary, Imperial, Bath, Bristol and Birmingham. His was the first visit by an Israeli ambassador or diplomat to Soas since 2005 . (the Guardian UK)

Liberman: Ties between Israel, Arab states ‘more crucial for them than us’

Almost a year into his role, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman seems to have adjusted to the position. Leaning back in his chair in his office in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, the once brash hard-liner who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party seemed relaxed as he sipped his coffee.

His appointment as defense minister last May was greeted by criticism from across the political spectrum; a poll broadcast on Channel 2 at the time showed that only 27% of Israelis considered him suitable for the role, while 51% favored his predecessor Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon.

Some voiced concern that he lacked the experience to take charge of the IDF despite his 20 years of government service including stints as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as a minister in four ministries including the Foreign Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry. They pointed to the short military service Liberman did in 1982 after he immigrated to Israel from Moldova.

Other critics expressed concern with Liberman’s hawkish and controversial policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Throughout his career, Liberman has been one of the country’s more controversial and polarizing politicians, famous for making inflammatory statements. During the 2015 elections, while serving as foreign minister, he reportedly said of disloyal Israeli Arabs: “Those who are with us deserve everything. But those who are against us, there is nothing we can do, we need to take an axe and chop off their heads – otherwise we will not survive here.”

BUT THAT was Liberman before last May. Since taking office, he has toned down his rhetoric and has turned into one of the more pragmatic and moderate voices in the current government. In many circles he is being spoken of as the government’s “responsible adult.” While some members of the coalition came out recently in favor of annexing West Bank settlements, Liberman rejected the notion and voiced support for a two-state solution. He also recently approved a long list of Palestinian construction projects in Area C of the West Bank, traditionally off limits to Palestinians.

Another example was at the Munich Security Conference in February where he called for working with Sunni Arab states to defeat radicalism in the region and called on them to help solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. According to Liberman, two states with population exchanges was the only solution.

In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Liberman said that the Arab Peace Initiative approved by the Arab League in 2002 has “some good points and some very bad points, such as the ‘right of return,’ which we will never accept.”

“With all due respect,” he continued.

“I don’t see any other country in the Middle East where they [the Arab League members] have succeeded in bringing peace.”

“We don’t have any illusions, but we are open to dialogue with Arab states. It’s more crucial for them than it is for us.”

Iranian-made Emad missile is displayed during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran last year (Reuters)Iranian-made Emad missile is displayed during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran last year (Reuters)

According to Liberman, the Arab Sunni states understand that the biggest threat for them is not Israel but Iran and Iranian proxies, pointing to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the Houthi militia in Yemen.

“Iran is a big threat to the entire region, not just to Israel,” he said. “We are a strong country able to protect ourselves; maybe the others are not. Iran is trying to undermine many countries,” referring to Tehran’s regional expansion to countries such as Bahrain and Yemen.

“We need to explain to our allies that Iran is the biggest threat in the region. I am surprised to see that there is [more of] an understanding in the world about this,” he said. “At the Munich Security Conference last month [in March], Iran was the biggest topic. Everyone spoke about Iran, not about the Palestinians. The speech by [Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister] Adel al-Jubeir was very interesting; it was the first time I saw a high-ranking Saudi official talking about this.”

Liberman said that Israel has not seen more moderate behavior from Iran since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the opposite seems to be true. For example, a competition was organized in Tehran for the best Holocaust denial cartoon, offering a prize of $50,000. There has been continued development and testing of ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and there have been parades in Tehran featuring those ballistic missiles with Hebrew inscriptions reading “Israel must be wiped out.” A State Department report recently identified Iran as the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

According to Liberman, Iran is the biggest sponsor not only of world terrorism, but also of weapons smuggling. He told the Magazine that it is “very clear that terrorist organizations are unable to survive without Iran,” which despite its weak economy, continues to finance terrorist groups to the tune of $300 million a year or more.

Due to the continuing arms embargo prohibiting states from exporting weapons to Iran, there is major asymmetry when comparing Iran to other countries in the region, such as the rich Gulf countries, yet Tehran’s arms industry produces numerous weapons that are ending up in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen. A recent report by Conflict Armament Research, a UK-based organization, found that Iran has been increasing its support for the Houthis in Yemen, including supplying kamikaze drones, which the group has been crashing into targets such as the radar systems of Patriot missiles. According to Liberman, the endgame of Iran’s role in Yemen is to get to the Saudis, and therefore Israel needs to coordinate its activities with the Americans and other moderate Sunni states in the region.

“The ball is in their court. They know that Israel is a very strong and reliable ally and it is in their interests to work with us. We are open to all kinds of dialogue with all moderate states,” Liberman said.

The current US administration under President Donald Trump shares the same vision and concerns about Iran. There “is no doubt that they are ready to handle this challenge,” he said, adding that Defense Secretary James Mattis “has a great amount of experience in this region and understands its complexities.”

US Defense Secretary James Mattis (center), during his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (not pictured) in Saudi Arabia (Reuters)US Defense Secretary James Mattis (center), during his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (not pictured) in Saudi Arabia (Reuters)

TURNING TO the threats posed by terrorist groups along Israel’s borders, Liberman said that Israel is coordinating with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel, which has a 240-kilometer border with Sinai, has been closely cooperating in Sinai in the fight against ISIS militants since Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s rise to power.

Speaking to Army Radio in February, Liberman called Islamic State “annoying” and “hindersome,” describing them as “random [amateurs] who have decided to build themselves an army,” adding that “if you are talking about Hamas and Hezbollah then [Islamic State’s Sinai force] is not even a terrorist group.”

Israel has “adopted a very clear policy regarding Hamas and Hezbollah,” Liberman told the Magazine. “We have no intention to launch any military operation on either border. We are acting under strict conditions: if someone fires a missile at our territory we will respond in very tough way, and if we see any attempt to smuggle weapons and any other attack planning activities, we will respond.”

Weapons smuggling into the Hamas-run Gaza enclave from Sinai has decreased since the group began working on improving ties with Egypt, but in the last few months there has been gunfire targeting IDF troops along the border. Several rockets have been launched at Israel from Gaza, claimed by small jihadist groups, as well as several from Sinai, fired by Islamic State militants. Nevertheless, Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire coming from the Strip.

“It’s not our business to look for every small Salafi group in Gaza. We have only one address. The launching of rockets by Salafi groups is the responsibility of Hamas. They say every day that they are the authority and they are the rulers of the Gaza Strip. If you take responsibility then you pay the price,” Liberman said.

No Salafi group will overpower Hamas, Liberman added.

“Islamic State is getting closer to being suffocated in Raqqa and Mosul, and I don’t see additional support forthcoming for these groups in Gaza, Lebanon or Syria.”

Regarding Syria, he said that while Israel does not want to interfere in the war-torn country, it will continue to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Iranian-backed Hezbollah. “We are trying to protect our security interests.”

With Israel admitting to carrying out air strikes against weapons convoys heading to Hezbollah, Russia and Israel have implemented a system over Syria to coordinate their actions in order to avoid accidental clashes. Officials have met several times in the past year to keep the mechanism working, but according to Liberman, there is no “cooperation” with the Russians in Syria, only “consultations.”

Calling Syria an “artificial country,” Liberman said that “the Shi’a tried to impose an artificial solution and maintain it. That’s mission impossible! It is crucial for the government to represent the total mosaic of the country.”

Despite Bashar Assad being “none of our business, he has no ability to bring stability to Syria. He as well as Iran and their militias will have to leave Syria,” Liberman said. “Stability in Syria requires the removal of Assad and free and fair elections for the Syrian people.”

WITH THE summer coming, there are some predictions that the already volatile situation in the Gaza Strip and along the northern border will erupt into another war with Hamas and Hezbollah. Chuckling when asked if and when a war might break out, Liberman said he doesn’t see one in the near future.

“It’s not about us and Gaza; the entire region is complicated and explosive. We are the only country that is in good shape. On our southern borders we have ISIS, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It’s a complicated region. Despite that, we still succeed in keeping ourselves stable and safe,” he said with a smile.

“We try to avoid war because no one wants a war, but sometimes even despite our best intentions and desires there can be accidents that can lead to a war,” Liberman said, ending with one final warning: “If someone wants to impose a war on us, it will be a completely different war than they have ever seen before.”  (Jerusalem Post)

Israel may lose Europe in Jerusalem sovereignty battle at UNESCO

Israel fears Europe might abstain or support a resolution that would reject Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, which UNESCO’s executive board in Paris is likely to vote on at its meeting on Tuesday, diplomatic sources told The Jerusalem Post.

Representatives from European nations and Arab states held consultations in Paris on Thursday to agree on a common text for Tuesday’s meeting.

If the text has European support, Israel fears it would be more difficult to sway other executive board members to reject that resolution or any other anti-Israel clauses in the text.

Israel is concerned that such a text would delegitimize the government of the Jewish state. The main governing bodies – the Knesset, Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry and Supreme Court – are all located in the capital city of Jerusalem.

“A significant and active partnership has emerged between the Europeans and the Arabs to design an Arab document that is anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish, that rejects Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and harms our holy places,” Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris Carmel Shama-Hacohen told the Post.

Israel’s envoy to UNESCO Carmel Shama-HaCohen puts a resolution against Jewish ties to the Temple Mount in the ‘trashbin of history.’ (Photo Erez Lichtfeld)

He added that the cynicism of pushing forward such a resolution on Israel’s Independence Day is the kind of tactic one would expect from Arab states, but not European ones.

“When more and more nations are moving to Israel’s side, our European friends that intimately know our history, and that of the Jewish people, have decided to join forces with the Arab nations against the State of Israel,” he said.

The EU Embassy in Tel Aviv said the EU tries to avoid “bringing broader political conflicts into these discussions.

“The EU generally tries to coordinate positions in UN bodies, and in this process bring texts closer in line with EU policy,” a representative said. “The EU does not have a common position on the text tabled by Palestine and Jordan on Jerusalem, though our mission has shared some suggestions for amendments by some member states with the representatives of Palestine, Jordan and Israel.”

A diplomatic source added that the objective of the European talks with the Arab states was to find language that set a more moderate tone.

An initial March draft put forward solely by Arab states said: “Any action taken by Israel, the occupying power, to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration on the city of Jerusalem, are illegal and therefore null and void and have no validity whatsoever.”

This text would mark the first time the UNESCO executive has been asked to reject Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem, although other UN bodies have used similar language in the past.

Eleven of the 54 UNESCO Executive Board members are EU states. This includes: Estonia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. The United States is also a board member.

It is presumed that the US would oppose the resolution and likely that the UK would do so as well.

The resolution comes as President Donald Trump is weighing the question of relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The international community is split over recognition of Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem, with many countries acknowledging Israel’s governing bodies there without formally accepting its status as part of Israel. Just last week, Russia recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It is not, however, a member of the UNESCO board.

Such a text would highlight Jerusalem’s tenuous political status in the eyes of the international community, which already places its embassies in Tel Aviv rather than in Israel’s capital.

Tuesday’s text is also expected to reaffirm that the Jewish holy sites of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem are “an integral part of Palestine.” Muslims consider both places to be holy to Islam and refer to them as the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque.

Absent from the text is the controversial issue of the Temple Mount.

For the last two years, Arab states at UNESCO, backed by the Palestinians, have attempted to reclassify the Jewish holy sites of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount solely by their Muslim names of the Buraq Wall and al-Haram al-Sharif, respectively.

In the March draft text of the Jerusalem resolution, there was no mention in any language of the two holy sites. Instead, the resolution reaffirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls for the three monotheistic religions.”

It does, however, have a line asking for reaffirmation of past texts referencing the sites only by their Muslims names.

Last year, five European countries voted against the resolution ignoring Israel’s ties to the Temple Mount: Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia and Lithuania, while six European countries abstained.

Berlin and Jerusalem have been at odds over the last few months, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refusing to meet this week with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel during his visit to Israel. Netanyahu was upset that Gabriel had met with the left-wing group Breaking the Silence. (Jerusalem Post)

Israel planning 15,000 east Jerusalem homes

Israel intends to build 15,000 new homes in east Jerusalem, the Housing Ministry said on Friday despite US President Donald Trump’s request to “hold back” on settlements as part of a possible new push for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

A formal announcement of the plan, quickly condemned by the chief Palestinian negotiator, could come around the time Trump is scheduled to visit Israel next month.

Israel views all of Jerusalem as its “eternal and indivisible capital,” but the Palestinians also want a capital there. Most of the world considers Jerusalem’s status an issue that must be decided through negotiations. The last peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Housing Minister Yoav Galant told Israel Radio that his ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality had been working on the plan for two years, with proposals for 25,000 units, 15,000 of which would be in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed.

“We will build 10,000 units in Jerusalem and some 15,000 within the (extended) municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. It will happen,” he said.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said Israel’s move was a systematic violation of international law and a “deliberate sabotage” of efforts to resume talks.

“All settlements in occupied Palestine are illegal under international law,” he said in a statement. “Palestine will continue to resort to international bodies to hold Israel, the occupation power, accountable for its grave violations of international law throughout occupied Palestine.”

Channel 2 news said an announcement on building could be made on “Jerusalem Day” which this year, according to the Hebrew calendar, falls on May 24, when Israel celebrates its capture of the eastern part of the city.

This year marks the 50th anniversary, with a large number of celebrations planned. Trump’s visit is expected to take place on or shortly after May 22.

Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Trump told Reuters in an interview at the White House on Thursday that he wanted to see a peace deal.

“I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever.”

The US leader met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington in February and is to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 3.

In January, two days after Trump took office, Netanyahu said he was lifting restrictions on settlement construction in east Jerusalem, just as the city’s municipality approved building permits for hundreds of new homes.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Netanyahu’s government came under repeated censure for building in settlements, which the previous US administration saw as an obstacle to peace. Under Trump, Netanyahu expected more of a green light to ramp up settlement building, but it hasn’t been straightforward.

While Trump has said he does not think settlements are necessarily an obstacle to peace, he did directly ask Netanyahu during a White House press conference in February to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

In 2010, Israel announced its intent to build homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by then-vice president Joe Biden, who condemned the plan. It caused huge embarrassment to Netanyahu, who suspended the plan before reintroducing it in 2013.

Most countries consider settlement activity illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees, citing biblical, historical and political connections to the land – many of which the Palestinians also claim – as well as security interests.

The east Jerusalem neighborhoods where building is planned are Givat Hamatos, East Talpiot, Ramot, Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaakov, Ramot Shlomo, Gilo and Atarot. These areas extend in an arc from north to south around the eastern side of Jerusalem, forming something of a buffer with the West Bank.  (Jerusalem Post)

US approves possible $440 million arms sale to Israel

The US State Department approved a “Possible Foreign Military Sale” to Israel, according to a Defense Security Cooperation Agency press release published on Friday.

The agency said that the Israeli government requested to purchase 13 76-mm. naval guns, as well as a variety of naval maintenance materials and tools, technical, logistics and support services, operations and maintenance training and other related supplies and services. The estimated cost of such a deal is $440 million.

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel,” said the press release. “And it is vital to US national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability… This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a strategic regional partner that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”

In terms of specifics, the agency said the equipment “will improve Israel’s capability to meet current and future threats in the defense of its borders and territorial waters. The naval guns will be installed on Israeli Navy Sa’ar 4.5 and Sa’ar 6 missile patrol boats. One gun will be located at an Israeli naval training center to be used for training maintenance personnel.”

In September, Israel and the US signed a defense agreement worth $38 billion over 10 years, the largest such pledge in American history, which was hailed by both countries as a cornerstone of their alliance.

The deal incorporates several budget lines that have previously been negotiated and approved by Congress each year, and requires Israel to abide by these terms over the course of the next decade, through 2029, without further lobbying of the US legislature for additional funds.

Israel will receive $3.1b. in foreign military financing this fiscal year, followed by $3.3b. in subsequent years, plus $500 million designated to missile defense. Israel will return any money Congress may allocate in its 2017-2018 budget for Israel beyond the $3.1b., acting National Security Adviser Ya’acov Nagel, who negotiated the deal on Israel’s behalf, said.

At the time of the signing, then-US president Barack Obama praised the agreement as an example of his “unshakable” commitment to the Jewish state.

“For as long as the State of Israel has existed, the United States has been Israel’s greatest friend and partner, a fact underscored again today,” he said.  (Jerusalem Post)