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Latest News in Israel – 29th November

Why would an Arab Muslim serve in the Israeli military?

Why would an Arab Muslim serve in the Israeli military? Because he, like many Israeli Arabs, proudly defend the nation that has given them freedom and opportunity. Mohammad Kabiya, Israeli Air Force reservist, shares his remarkable story.    (Israel Video Network)

At least 3 killed, 1 seriously injured as building explodes, collapses in Jaffa

A building in Jaffa collapsed in a ball of flames after a large explosion there late Monday night, killing at least three people and injuring five, including one man in a serious condition.

The blast took place at a paint store on Yefet Street in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood, completely leveling the one-story building.

Police said early Tuesday that three bodies were found in the rubble after fire fighters managed to extinguish the blaze.

Five people were injured, including one seriously wounded person, a man in his 40s, who was suffering from severe burns, medics said. The injured were evacuated to hospital, and several others were treated for shock.

Medics at the site of an explosion and building collapse in Jaffa

The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear, police said. However, they said it appeared to be an accident and not a criminal or terrorist act.

“There was an explosion in a Tambour paint store, a one-story building that completely collapsed,” Avi Yehuda from the fire service told Israel Radio, adding that there were six fire fighting teams at the scene.

“The firefighters are extinguishing the flames and will then start searching for anybody trapped,” he said.

Medics at the scene said that they had been prevented from going near the building as the fire raged and several rescue teams were there, including the army’s Home Front command rescue team. (the Times of Israel)

Russian spy chief said to visit Israel for Syria talks briefing

The director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service reportedly visited Israel on Thursday to brief Israeli security officials following a meeting between the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran on reaching a political solution to the Syrian civil war.

While in Israel, Sergey Naryshkin met with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, Channel 10 reported Monday.

During the meeting, Naryshkin updated the Israeli officials on Vladimir Putin’s meeting in Sochi a day earlier, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in which the three leaders discussed steps to help broker a peaceful end to the over six-year long conflict in Syria.

The Israeli officials, for their part, reiterated to Naryshkin that Israel is not bound by a ceasefire deal in southern Syria reached earlier this month, nor by any agreements resulting from Putin’s meeting with Erdogan and Rouhani. The Israeli officials also said Israel would continue to act militarily in order to ensure its security interests, according to Channel 10.

In response to the report, a spokesman for the defense minister said, “We never comment on meetings with foreign intelligence officials that may or may not have taken place.”

Last week, Putin held phone conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and other leaders, to brief them on a meeting he held with Assad and the talks with Erdogan and Rouhani.

Naryshkin’s visit to Israel came ahead of a fresh round of UN-backed peace talks set to begin in Geneva this week.

As Syria and its Iranian and Russian backers seek to cement their gains following a string of recent battlefield successes, Israel has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to an Iranian military presence in its northern neighbor.

According to a report on Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Syrian President Bashar Assad via a third party that Israel will intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war if Assad gives formal permission to Iran to establish a military presence in the country.

The warning specified that Israel will depart from the policy of non-intervention it has maintained throughout the six years of the civil war to date if Assad “invites Iranian forces to establish themselves in Syria via an agreement of any kind.”

Iran has provided significant logistical, technical, training and financial support for Assad’s regime and forces, as well as deploying military advisers and some combat troops in Syria. It also arms, trains and funds Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group that has sent thousands of gunmen to fight alongside Assad’s troops.

Thus far, Israel has provided medical and humanitarian aid to victims of the war across its border, has hit back when gunfire has crossed the border, and has used air strikes to target weapons stores and convoys intended for the Hezbollah terrorist organization.

The report noted tellingly that this non-intervention contrasted with previous Israeli policy. In 2006, for instance, Israeli jets broke the sound barrier flying over Assad’s presidential palace in Latakia, in what was seen as a warning to him against supporting Palestinian terrorist groups.

The reference to any formal Syrian “invitation” or “agreement” with Iran, the TV report elaborated, stems from the fact that Iran and Russia have been discussing future arrangements for Syria, under which all foreign forces would have to leave the country, except those which are present by agreement with, or invitation from, Assad.

Russia’s forces are engaged in Syria on the basis of such an invitation, and Netanyahu’s aim in issuing the warning “is to deter Assad from issuing” a similar invitation to Iran.

The Iranians, the TV report noted, want to build “a naval base, possibly for submarines, an air base and arms factories for precision weapons.”

Earlier this month, the BBC, citing a Western security official, reported that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, 14 kilometers (8 miles) south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Israeli border.  (the Times of Israel)

Navy says ship-based Iron Dome ready to knock down missiles on high seas

A year and a half after its first naval test, Israel’s Iron Dome system was declared fully operational for use on a gunship off Israel’s coasts Monday, in what the military described as a “significant milestone” in its efforts to counter the threat of ballistic missiles.

The maritime interception system, designed to protect Israel’s gas fields and shipping lanes from short-range missiles, “added another operational layer” to Israel’s multi-tiered air defenses, joining the long-range Arrow 3 system and mid-range David’s Sling, which were each made operational earlier this year, said Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, the head of the IAF’s Aerial Defense Command.

The so-called “Iron Dome of the Sea” was a multi-year joint collaboration between the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli Navy.

“For the navy, it’s a very high-valued capability because we are trying to defend Israeli land, ships and, of course, our strategic assets,” said Col. Ziv Barak, head of the Weapons Department in the Israeli Navy, referring to Israel’s natural gas extraction platforms.

For now, the Iron Dome has only been installed on one naval ship, the Sa’ar 5-class INS Lahav. But according to Haimovitch, there are plans in the works to put the system on additional existing corvettes.

Earlier this year, the military also announced that two Iron Dome batteries would be put on each of the four Sa’ar 6-class warships that are currently under construction in Germany and are scheduled to be delivered to Israel in 2019.

The soldiers operating the Iron Dome aboard the naval ships are still considered members of the air force despite their maritime deployment. They are part of a new Iron Dome battalion formed in September, Haimovitch told reporters.

The naval Iron Dome system, which was first tested in May 2016, went through its final round of testing on Monday in order for it to be declared operational.

Israeli Air Force and Navy soldiers test a ship-based Iron Dome missile defense system on the INS Lahav corvette,

According to the two officers, the system performed well in its final test and significantly improved from last year.

The operators have been specifically trained to use the Iron Dome on board a naval vessel, Haimovitch said.

He added that the Iron Dome system’s Tamir launcher is now fully connected, not only to the ship’s Adir radar system, but to the entire network of Iron Dome land-based batteries, which it had not been, initially.

“We tested this today and it worked excellently,” he said, noting there was a “huge difference” from how it fared in last year’s test.

Those initial tests were “the first step in the process and now we’re at the final step, the final milestone,” Haimovitch said.

In the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, terrorist groups unsuccessfully tried to strike the natural gas platforms. Though those rocket attacks failed, they revealed the need for the navy to increase its protection of those strategic sites, Barak said.

Any damage to the rig or other rigs under development could be hugely damaging to the Israeli economy, since it provides large amounts of the country’s energy needs and is expected to turn Israel into a gas exporter.

Since the system is only installed on the INS Lahav, if the ship has to go back to port for maintenance, the entire system is effectively off-line until the new ships arrive.

“There are a lot of solutions for our problems,” Haimovitch said. “We are sure that we will do our best with the assets we have.”

With the discovery of natural gas fields off Israel’s coast in early 2009, the navy has had to restructure, retrain and re-outfit itself to protect what the government determined to be a strategic national interest.

The Israeli Navy, which up until that point functioned mostly as a coast guard, had to prepare to defend gas fields approximately 100 kilometers off shore.

This summer, the Defense Ministry revealed that it was investing NIS 1.5 billion ($420 million) deal to outfit the Israeli Navy with maritime systems to protect the country’s gas fields and shipping lanes, in addition to the purchase of four Sa’ar-6 warships purchased from Germany.

The NIS 1.5 billion budget will go to additional missile defense batteries, electronic warfare, navigation systems, command and control centers, communication gear and other naval systems, the Defense Ministry said in July.  (the Times of Israel)

Poll: number of Reform Jews in Israel doubles

Israel’s population of Jews who identify with the liberal Reform movement has more than doubled over the past seven years, despite remaining considerably low, according to a new poll

The seven percent of Jews in Israel identifying with the movement marks a significant increase from the last survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010, which recorded a meager 3.7% of Israeli Jews hailing from the liberal stream.

According to the poll, 44% of Israelis do not identify with any religious stream, while 29% identify as Religious Zionist.

The lowest religious affiliation in the country is with the Conservative movement, with just 4% identifying with the liberal denomination.10% described themselves as Ultra Orthodox in the latest poll, while 5% marked other.

The poll also showed that 56% of secular and 38% of traditional Israelis participated, in the last year, in a wedding or Bar Mitzvah ceremony that was officiated by a Reform or Conservative Rabbi.

The director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, Gilad Kariv, said that the latest statistics confirmed that despite the ongoing opposition by the rabbinical establishment against Reform Jewry and the budgetary discrimination, many Israelis support the movement.

A clear majority of the population—58% versus 33%—supports the right of Reform and Conservative Jews and of Women of the Wall to pray at the Western Wall. The figures also revealed that 49% of those polled agreed that the Kotel compromise damaged the relationship with Diaspora Jewry, while 34% disagreed.

Other numbers indicated a more progressive trend in Israeli society, with 63% of Israelis saying they prefer to pray in a synagogue that does not separate men and women. By contrast, only 11% prefer a synagogue with a partition.

An overwhelming majority, 58%, of Israelis polled rejected the position that the Chief Rabbinate contributes to the identity of the state of Israel and brings the Israeli public closer to tradition. 35% disagreed.

Among traditional Israelis, 64% said they held reservations regarding the role of the Chief Rabbinate and even in the Religious Zionist sector 28% felt the same way.

Granting full equality to the non-Orthodox denominations enjoys a high level of support among the secular public (81%) and for the first time, among the traditional populace, as well (49% versus 40%).

Equality enjoys significant support among center-right irreligious voters (41% Likud, 54% Yisrael Beytenu, and 50% Kulanu); low support among Bayit Yehudi and Shas voters (10%); and substantial support among center-left voters.

Only a slim majority support recognition of Reform conversions in Israel (48% versus 45%). Recognition of marriages conducted by Reform Rabbis is supported by a slightly higher level of support (51% versus 42%)       (Ynet News)

Netanyahu to meet with African leaders at Kenya inauguration

Kenya is a close ally of Israel and the swearing-in of reelected President Uhuru Kenyatta is a “good reason to go to Africa,” a senior diplomatic official said Monday, explaining why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly for a day to Nairobi on Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s decision to go to the ceremony has raised some eyebrows, since the August results were hotly contested by main opposition candidate Raila Odinga, who boycotted a Supreme Court mandated re-vote in October. The entire election process has been marred by violence.

The official said that Netanyahu’s visit is not only about the inauguration, but that bilateral meetings with other African heads of state have been set up, including with the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

Because of security concerns, Netanyahu is not expected to take part in the main inauguration ceremony to be held at the 60,000-seat Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi.

Rather, after landing in the morning and being received in an official ceremony, Netanyahu is scheduled to take part in an event at the Presidential palace, where he will have a joint meeting with some 10 African leaders – including the presidents of Togo, Namibia and Botswana, the prime minister of Ethiopia and the vice president of Nigeria – followed by the bilateral discussions. He is scheduled to be on the ground for just a few hours and will fly back to Israel on Tuesday evening.

Speaking about the visit at the Likud faction meeting on Monday, Netanyahu referred to Kenyatta as “my friend.” Pointing out that this will be his third visit to Africa in 18 months, Netanyahu said: “This tells you about the importance that we in Israel attribute to Africa, and no less importantly, the importance Africa places on strengthening ties with Israel.”

Diplomatic officials deflected criticism that Netanyahu is attending the ceremony even though it was contested and marred by violence, saying that the international community accepted the Supreme Court’s authorization of the second election results, which Kenyatta won by a margin of some 98%. Less than 40% of the electorate took part in that vote, however.

“This is a way of building strong relations with Africa, and Kenya is a major player in East Africa,” one western diplomatic official said of Netanyahu’s visit. He said that the international community largely accepted the results of the elections out of a realization that “if it is not Kenyatta, it will be chaos.”

Kenyatta, who has been president since 2013, defeated former prime minister Odinga in the elections in August, by some eight percentage points. Odinga did not accept the results, alleging that they had been hacked, and challenged them in court.

In early September the Kenyan Supreme Court acknowledged irregularities, and, in a surprise move, nullified the results, ordering new elections, which were held in October.

Odinga, however, boycotted those elections, saying there was no guarantee that those results would also not be tampered with. Without Odinga’s participation, Kenyatta won a landslide victory, which was validated earlier this month by the Supreme Court. That decision was not recognized by Odinga, and he is expected to hold a parallel “swearing-in” ceremony on Tuesday in protest.

Netanyahu has met twice with Kenyatta over the last two years, once in Nairobi, and once in Jerusalem.

Kenya’s media is reporting that some 13 heads of state will attend the swearing-in ceremony, as well as lower-level representatives from numerous other countries, including the US, Britain and China.

Both Kenyatta and Odinga are considered friends of Israel. Kenyatta visited Israel in 2016, the first Kenyan president to do so since Daniel Moi in 1994.

During that visit, Netanyahu characterized the relationship between the two countries – that goes back over 50 years – as “remarkable.”

Netanyahu visited Kenyatta in Nairobi a few months later on the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Africa in some 30 years.

Standing next to Netanyahu in Nairobi, Kenyatta said it would be “foolhardy” for Africa not to cooperate closely with Israel, adding that this would be “like an ostrich burying its head.”

Odinga, too, has a relationship with Israel, having visited the country a number of times, the last time in May when he delivered a lecture at the Hebrew University and also visited the Western Wall. Pictures of him in a kippa and holding a Bible at the Wall were circulated widely on social media.  (Jerusalem Post)