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Latest News in Israel – 25th July

Updates from Israel and the Jewish World

Compiled by Dr Ron Wiseman

Shin Bet foils Iranian effort to recruit Israeli spies via social media

Iran has tried to recruit a wide network of agents in Israel via social networking sites, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced on Wednesday.

The combined Shin Bet, Israel Police and IDF operation foiled the network, which aimed to recruit individuals in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza “for the benefit of Iranian intelligence,” the agency said in a statement.

The sources were asked to gather information on military bases, sensitive security installations, personnel, police stations, hospitals and more, as part of preparing targets for terrorist attacks in Israel by Iran.

According to the Shin Bet, while the network was directed by Iran, it operated from Syria and was led by an individual known as Abu-Jihad, who tried to recruit people by initiating contact from fictitious Facebook profiles and then speaking with the target through messaging applications.

Since April, a broad counterterrorism operation has been implemented against recruits in Israel and the West Bank in which a number of Israeli citizens were involved, after intelligence indicated that they had been contacted and recruited by Iranian handlers.

During the investigation, intelligence showed that the recruits had transferred information to their handlers in Syria, and had stated their intention to carry out terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, both civilian and military.

Nevertheless, the Shin Bet said, “the vast majority of Israeli citizens refused to cooperate with them, because they suspected it was a hostile element and cut off contact with them.

“An Israeli who receives a request from a network that he suspects is related to a terrorist body or organization is requested to update the police and to disconnect from that party immediately,” the Shin Bet said, adding that “security forces will continue to act with determination to thwart any activity by Iran and terrorist elements acting on its behalf against the security of the state.”

In recent months, several other similar operations by Hezbollah and Hamas have been foiled by Israeli security agencies. Several Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have been arrested following intelligence showing that they had been recruited online by terrorist groups in order to gather intelligence for attacks.

“Using social networks is a method known to intelligence agencies as being used by terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah, to recruit activists,” the Shin Bet said.

In mid-April, the Shin Bet, in cooperation with the Israel Police, arrested 32-yearold Thaer Shafut from the Hebron area on suspicion of being in contact with Iranian intelligence.

A Jordanian national, Shafut “had entered Israel on behalf of Iranian intelligence in order to carry out missions designed to advance the formation of cells in Israel and in the West Bank for use in covert Iranian activity.”

According to the agency, Shafut first came into contact with Iranian intelligence when he was in Lebanon, where he met with two Arabic-speaking operatives who went by the pseudonyms “Abu Tzadak” and “Abu Jafar.”

He held meetings with his Iranian handlers in 2018-19 in Lebanon and Syria. Throughout the year, he was instructed to establish a commercial infrastructure in Israel to serve as cover for future Iranian activity, apparently to gain access to Israel and the West Bank, and recruit spies to assist in gathering information to further Iranian interests.

He entered Israel in July-August 2018 and April 2019, and began to contact local elements who he hoped would assist him.

An indictment was filed against him on June 10 by the military advocate-general’s office, accusing him of contact with an enemy, contact with a hostile organization, and conspiracy to smuggle enemy funds into the area.  (Jerusalem Post) Anna Ahronheim

US blocks UN condemnation of Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes

The United States on Wednesday reportedly blocked an attempt to get the UN Security Council to issue a formal condemnation of Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes on the edge of Jerusalem earlier this week.

The draft statement, circulated to the 15-member Security Council on Tuesday by Kuwait, Indonesia and South Africa, expressed “grave concern” and warned that the demolition “undermines the viability of the two-state solution and the prospect for just and lasting peace,” Reuters quoted diplomats as saying.

After the US said it could not support the statement — such condemnations require consensus from all Security Council members — a revised and watered-down version was circulated. This too was rejected by the US.

Israel has come under fire from the Palestinians and the international community over the demolition of 12 residential buildings in an area known as Wadi al-Hummus, which is part of the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher. The area falls just outside of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and is part of the Palestinian Authority-controlled area of the West Bank.

Israel said the buildings were constructed illegally and built too close to the security barrier that was built to prevent entry of terrorists from the West Bank. In the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for the demolitions, the buildings were razed Monday in an operation that involved hundreds of members of the security forces.

According to the United Nations, some 20 people already living in the buildings were being displaced, while 350 owners of properties that were under construction or not yet inhabited were also affected.

On Monday, several nations and international bodies, including France, Jordan, Qatar, the EU and the UN, condemned Israel’s razing of the buildings.

The EU said the demolitions undermined efforts to broker a lasting peace in the region, while senior UN humanitarian officials in the region expressed “sadness” over the demolitions and warned that many other homes could face “the same fate.”

“Israel’s policy of destroying Palestinian property is not compatible with its obligations under international humanitarian law,” the senior officials said.

Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the civil affairs department of the PA, called Monday’s demolition a “crime” and demanded international intervention.

The demolitions capped a years-long legal battle over the buildings, built along the invisible line straddling the city and the West Bank. Residents say the buildings are on West Bank land, and the PA gave them construction permits.

Palestinians have charged that the security concerns are a pretext to push them out of the Jerusalem area, and say it is nearly impossible to receive construction permits from Israeli authorities, resulting in a housing shortage in Arab neighborhoods in the city. Residents of Sur Baher fear another 100 buildings in the area in a similar situation could be at risk in the near future.

Residents say Wadi al-Hummus is the only direction Sur Baher is able to expand as the barrier and increased Israeli building in the capital have hemmed in the neighborhood from other directions.

Though Wadi al-Hummus is on the Israeli side of the security fence, the PA takes responsibility for the residents there.

Israel gained control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. It later annexed East Jerusalem in a move never recognized by the international community. Israel says the security barrier is needed to prevent Palestinian terrorists entering the country from the West Bank to carry out attacks.   (the Times of Israel) Staff

Rabbis are making it harder for Israeli immigrants to prove they’re Jewish, study says

Mikhail (not his real name), who immigrated to Israel with his parents during a wave of migration from the countries of the former Soviet Union, recently was engaged.

He went to the Chief Rabbinate to register his upcoming wedding — couples must prove their Jewish identity — and like many “Russian” Israelis was asked to return with documents proving his Jewishness. Mikhail was asked to present seven different documents that included things like his grandparent’s Jewish marriage contract and his mother’s birth certificate.

According to Itim, an Israeli organization that shared Mikhail’s story, the Chief Rabbinate was unconvinced by one of the documents and thought it raised the possibility that Mikhail was not Jewish. It decided to place him on the list of non-Jewish citizens who cannot marry a Jewish Israeli through the Chief Rabbinate — in Israel, the only way a Jew may marry.

Adding insult to injury, the Chief Rabbinate put all of Mikhail’s siblings on what some critics are calling the “blacklist” and threatened to retroactively annul his parents’ marriage.

Mikhail’s story is not unusual, and is becoming even more common, according to Itim’s director, Rabbi Seth Farber. And in an increasing number of cases, the Chief Rabbinate has asked people, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, to undergo DNA testing to prove their Jewish roots.

“A new culture has developed within the Rabbinate that suspects everyone and relies on documents and science and technology, and not on religious norms,” Farber, whose organization helps Israelis navigate the nation’s Orthodox-run religious monopoly, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

A study recently released by the Israel Democracy Institute and Itim warns that over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union or of Ethiopian descent may need to undergo a process to validate their Judaism.

The study showed an increase in the proportion of cases that ended with a ruling that the applicant was not Jewish, from 2.9 percent in 2011 to 6.1 percent in 2016 to 6.7 percent in 2017.

Although those numbers may appear small, Itim and other advocates say the process is humiliating, demoralizing, unnecessary and undertaken with no clear or uniform standard for validating a person’s Jewishness.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate controls marriage and divorce. In order to marry through the Chief Rabbinate, spouses must prove they are Jewish. It’s not difficult for Israelis who have been in the country for generations: The marriage certificates of their parents and grandparents issued by the Chief Rabbinate are on file.

Immigrants to the country must prove to a rabbinical court that they are Jewish. Defenders of the Chief Rabbinate’s policies say tens of thousands of emigres from the former Soviet Union came under Israel’s Law of Return and needed to have only one Jewish grandparent to qualify for citizenship. Jewish law, or halacha, they say, only recognizes as Jewish those whose mothers are Jews, or who themselves converted to Judaism under approved authorities. The demand for a paper trail assures those claiming to be Jewish really are, they say.

According to the study, however, “This move represented a major departure from the halakhic tradition, which holds that individuals’ declaration that they are Jews is sufficient for them to be recognized as such.” It also deviated from a halachic principle that emphasizes the “presumption of Jewishness” for members of an established community or from a pool of Jews with similar backgrounds.

Shuki Friedman, one of the study’s authors and the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, said the rabbinical courts can be a very unpleasant experience for the person whose Judaism is being investigated. The Chief Rabbinate appoints a “Jewish investigator,” who assesses the the applicant’s documents and is familiar with the history of the Jewish communities in the areas from which the immigrants originated.

Some rabbis are now asking individuals whose Judaism is in question to take DNA tests to prove they are Jewish. This is not official policy for the Chief Rabbinate, Friedman stresses — but it might just be a matter of time.

Farber said that in the past two years his organization has represented at least 14 people who were asked to take DNA tests, which he calls a “scientifically flawed and Jewishly misguided approach to proving Jewish identity.”

Earlier this month the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Israel’s highest religious court, struck down lower rabbinical courts’ requests for DNA tests for two families.

If the requests for such genetic tests continues to increase, Farber said he will ask the civil Supreme Court to rule that the Chief Rabbinate has no authority to order such tests.

The Chief Rabbinate, he said, argues that it does not force anyone to undergo a DNA test if he or she does not want to. But in practice, declining leaves prospective spouses in limbo, for they cannot marry without the Chief Rabbinate’s go-ahead. The DNA test issue was taken up by Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents many immigrants from the states of the former Soviet Union.

A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate did not respond to JTA’s request for an interview.

Farber said that a cloud of suspicion about Jewishness now surrounds anyone who comes from overseas, including Jews from the United States.

“Instead of a country who welcomes immigrants, we suspect them,” he said.

A 2010 statement of principles on Jewishness was supposed to standardize what the Chief Rabbinate expected in terms of the rules and regulations for determining Jewishness. But it has not been able to standardize things enough.

The IDI-Itim study includes recommendations for the Chief Rabbinate to make the process less cumbersome and more respectful for those who must undergo a verification process.

Among the recommendations: Codify a halachic policy that “recognizes the presumption of Jewishness and rules of evidence that were the norm for the Jewish people over the generations”; train rabbinical court judges so that they acquire expertise on the issue; and reduce the number of investigations of Jewishness and make such investigations less threatening and less intrusive.

Friedman said there is potential to change the process to make it more “friendly,” but it will not change the procedure dramatically. For real change to occur, the Chief Rabbinate would have to adopt a different halachic attitude toward the issue. And Friedman is not very optimistic about that.

Farber believes it is going to take a Knesset law delineating the reach of the Chief Rabbinate to improve the situation.

“It needs a government that is willing to understand that the Zionist enterprise needs to be embracing,” he said, and to tell the Chief Rabbinate that it is overstepping its legal and religious authority.  (JTA) Marcy Oster

An imam’s message from the Auschwitz death camp

It is common for the Jewish people to visit the Auschwitz death camp as well as other concentration camps where the Nazis committed the worst atrocities. But how often do you have an imam visit? How often are people like Mohamad Tawhidi willing to risk their lives to share the truth? Sadly, not often. Listening to Imam Tawhidi is extremely powerful. Hearing him speak about the millions of Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust is so important. So many deny the Holocaust ever even happened, or they deny how many Jews were killed, but Tawhidi went to the actual place of so much death. He chooses to fight against antisemitism.

Imam Tawhidi’s Message:

“Never Again.” Tawhidi wants the world to remember how crucial it is that “this never happens again. That the atmosphere for this is never created again. That we do not pave the way for these crimes to happen again.”

This imam is particularly speaking to the American Congress and about those in it who are extremely antisemitic. The fact that an imam has the courage to speak out against the people in his religion who are radicals is unique. Listening to Mohamad Tawhidi speak from Auschwitz against antisemitism and hatred is reassuring that there are good people in the world. There are people who stand up to the horrific antisemitism that has been taking place worldwide, and now even in the American Congress. If only the rest of the world had the courage to speak up.  (Israel Unwired)


US House overwhelmingly passes anti-BDS resolution

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution on Tuesday that rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, after some Democrats expressed concern last week that the measure could cause infighting within the party leading up to the 2020 election.

The bill — formally known as House Resolution 246 — also calls for increased security aid to Israel and a two-state solution. It passed by a vote of 398-17, with five abstentions.

Sixteen Democrats opposed the bill, including representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Both support the BDS movement.

One Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, voted against the resolution.

The measure “opposes the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS Movement) targeting Israel, including efforts to target United States companies that are engaged in commercial activities that are legal under United States law, and all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.”

It also says that the BDS campaign “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations in favor of international pressure.”

Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois originally sponsored the resolution, which had gained 349 co-sponsors by the time it was voted on.

Tlaib forcefully castigated the measure after it was introduced two weeks ago, saying it was an effort to silence BDS supporters.

“Our [First Amendment] right to free speech allows boycott of inhumane policies,” she tweeted. “This bill is unconstitutional.”

The powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — applauded its passage.

“The resolution sends a powerful message that the House of Representatives explicitly rejects discrimination directed against the Jewish state through economic, cultural and political boycotts” the group said. “Underscoring the House’s solid pro-Israel position, the resolution was cosponsored by 350 representatives — strong majorities of both parties.”

Last winter, Omar was intensely criticized for saying that AIPAC paid American politicians to take pro-Israel positions, which some criticized as promoting an anti-Semitic trope. Omar has since apologized but recently told CBS News that she did not regret what she said.

A number of high-profile legislators cautioned last week against moving forward with the motion, anxious that it could create internecine divisions as the party prepares to try to unseat US President Donald Trump.

“I think the timing would not be very wise to take up additional measures around the Middle East,” Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Politico.

He added that Democrats should focus their attention on combating the Trump administration, not waging fights within the party. “Donald Trump just brought us all together,” he said, “so let’s take advantage of that.”

According to Politico, other House Democrats had warned Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a staunch pro-Israel lawmaker and Democratic leader, against bringing the bill before the full House.

The resolution also comes a little more than a week after Trump sparked a controversy over his tweets telling four liberal freshmen Congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, and accused them of hating Israel.

Liberal US Jews said the president was trying to “weaponize” Israel to defend his racists tweets.

On Tuesday Omar, one of the congresswomen targeted by Trump, introduced a resolution affirming the right of Americans to participate in boycotts as an expression of free speech.

“It is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement,” Omar told the Al-Monitor news site in comments published late Tuesday.

That resolution currently has three sponsors, Omar, Tlaib, and Georgia Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon who famously marched on Selma. (the Times of Israel) Eric Cortellessa

Former Ambassador Sharma praises Israel in first speech to Aussie Parliament

Newly minted Liberal Party MK and former Australian ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma gave his maiden address to Parliament on Wednesday and praised it for its grit, technology and dynamism.

“My four years as Australia’s ambassador to Israel left me with a high degree of admiration and respect for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and all they have achieved under tremendously trying circumstances,” he said.

Sharma posted parts of his speech in 20 different Twitter posts, with his comments about admiring Israel and the Jewish people garnering more “likes” than any of the other tweets.

The new MK also said in his speech that his time in Israel “taught me how valuable a thriving technology sector can be for the dynamism and health of the rest of the economy. This isn’t about job losses, it’s about capturing the jobs of the future.”

He won a Parliament seat in May in eastern Sydney’s heavily Jewish district of Wentworth, a seat once held by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Sharma was a highly regarded, active and high-profile ambassador during his years in Israel from 2013 to 2017, developing close contacts with senior government officials. One of those officials described Sharma after his election victory as a “true friend” of Israel “with all his heart and soul.”

In an op-ed piece for The Australian Jewish News after the election, Sharma wrote that he will “remain a great enthusiast and supporter for the relationship between Australia and Israel,” and that he will “always stand up, forcefully and passionately, for Israel’s legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jewish people and Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Israel, he wrote, “faces security challenges and dilemmas that are incomprehensible in Australia and the West. But far too often, Israel is held to different standards, or singled out for disproportionate criticism, in the international community and in the United Nations and other bodies. I will always speak out for Israel against such unjustified attacks and unwarranted criticism.”  (Jerusalem Post) Herb Keinon

U.S.: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Will Not Be Decided by International Consensus or International Law – Jason D. Greenblatt (U.S. Mission to the UN)

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason D. Greenblatt told the UN Security Council on Tuesday:

  • “This [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict will not end on the basis of an ‘international consensus.’…Those who continue to call for international consensus on this conflict are doing nothing to encourage the parties to sit down at the negotiating table and make the hard compromises necessary for peace. In fact, they are doing the opposite – allowing people to hide behind words that mean nothing.”
  • “Let us not forget that day when the United Nations could not even find a way to build an international consensus behind the fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization that relentlessly attacks Israelis by incendiary balloons, missiles, attack tunnels and other means, sometimes while hiding in residential neighborhoods filled with Palestinian families. Hamas, which ghoulishly holds [the remains of] Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul as bargaining chips. Hamas, which…continues to vow to destroy Israel.”
  • “And how is it that we can’t find an international consensus that the Palestinian Authority rewarding terrorism and the murder of Israelis using public funds, some donated by countries in this very room, is abhorrent and must be stopped.”
  • “This conflict is also not going to be resolved by reference to ‘international law’ when such law is inconclusive….There is no judge, jury, or court in the world that the parties involved have agreed to give jurisdiction in order to decide whose interpretations are correct.”
  • “The same holds true for the status of Jerusalem….No international consensus or interpretation of international law will persuade the United States or Israel that a city in which Jews have lived and worshipped for nearly 3,000 years and has been the capital of the Jewish State for 70 years, is not – today and forever – the capital of Israel.”
  • “Let us not lose sight of the fact that Israel has already conceded at least 88% of the territory captured by Israel in the defensive war it had no choice but to fight in 1967.”
  • “The dispute over the territory is a question that can only be resolved in the context of direct negotiations between the parties. And I am focused on how to get those parties back to that table.”


On the lighter side:

WATCH: Lost mule strolls duty free shops at Ben-Gurion airport

A mule casually entered the departure hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport overnight Wednesday, to the delight of surprised passengers and staff.

Airport staff fed the animal before notifying the Ministry of Agriculture.  (WIN)