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Gaza residents pray near Israel, as Muslims mark major feast

June 15, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza worshipers knelt on prayer rugs spread on sandy soil, near the perimeter fence with Israel, joining hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world Friday in marking the holiday that caps the fasting month of Ramadan.

The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday is typically a time of family visits and festive meals, with children getting new clothes, haircuts and gifts. In the Middle East, celebrations were once again marred by prolonged conflict in hot spots such as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.

In the Gaza Strip, some worshipers performed the traditional morning prayers of the holiday in areas several hundred meters (yards) away from the heavily guarded fence with Israel. Friday’s prayers marked the continuation of weeks-long protests against a blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the 2007 takeover of the territory by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Since late March, more than 120 protesters have been killed and more than 3,800 wounded by Israeli army fire in the area of the fence.

Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader, joined worshipers in an area east of Gaza City. At one point, as the faithful bowed their heads on their prayer mats in unison, a young man on crutches — presumably injured in previous protests — followed the ritual while he remained standing. Some activists later approached the fence, burning tires.

Protest organizers said they planned to release large numbers of kites and balloons with incendiary materials rags throughout the day Friday, in hopes they will land in Israel. Such kites with burning rags attached have reportedly burned hundreds of acres of crops and forests in Israel.

Protest organizer Mohammed al-Tayyar, a member of a group calling itself the “burning kites unit,” said Friday larger balloons with greater potential for damage would be released after 10 days unless the blockade is lifted. Israel’s defense minister has said Israel is determined to stop such kites and balloons.

The protests have been organized by Hamas, but turnout has been driven by growing despair in Gaza about blockade-linked hardships; unemployment now approaches 50 percent and electricity is on for just a few hours every day.

Hamas has also billed the protests as the “Great March of Return,” suggesting they would somehow pave the way for a return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants — about two-thirds of Gaza’s residents — to return to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled in the Mideast war over Israel’s 1948 creation. Haniyeh told reporters after Friday’s prayers, which were also being held outdoors in another location east of the town of Khan Younis, that protests would continue.

He said a recent U.N. General Assembly resolution blaming Israel for the Gaza violence “shows that the marches of return and breaking the siege revived the Palestinian issue and imposed the issue on the international agenda.” The resolution also said Israel had used excessive force against Palestinian protesters.

Israel says it is defending its territory and civilians living near Gaza. It has accused Hamas of trying to use the protests as cover for damaging the fence and trying to carry out cross-border attacks. Israel and Egypt argue that the blockade is needed to contain Hamas which has a history of violence and refuses to disarm.

In Jerusalem, senior Muslim cleric Muhammad Hussein told tens of thousands of worshipers that a plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, expected to be unveiled by the Trump administration, is unfair and “aims at the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.”

President Donald Trump has promised to negotiate the “ultimate deal” but the plan’s reported, though unconfirmed parameters have been dismissed by the Palestinians as siding with Israel. The Palestinian issue also loomed large in Iran.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing worshipers Friday, praised citizens for showing up at massive rallies last week in support of the Palestinians on Jerusalem Day. That day was initiated by Iran in 1979 to express support for the Palestinians and oppose Israel.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in an Eid al-Fitr message that he believes the “land of Palestine will be returned to owners of the land with the help if God.” Iran and Israel are bitter foes. In Syria, President Bashar Assad attended Eid prayers in the town of Tartous, part of an area that has remained loyal to him throughout seven years of civil war. The coastal region is home to Syria’s minority Alawite population that has been the core of Assad’s support. Assad, an Alawite, traces his family’s origins to Qardaha, a town in the mountains nearby.

Tens of thousands of men from the coastal region are believed to have been killed fighting for the president since 2011, according to Syrian monitoring groups. Assad is now in control of Syria’s largest cities and its coastal region.

In Afghanistan, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani touted a three-day holiday cease-fire with the Taliban, calling for a longer truce and urging the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The Taliban agreed to the cease-fire but leader Haibaitullah Akhunzada reiterated his demand for talks with the U.S. before sitting down with the Afghan government.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Jericho, West Bank and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

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1 dead, dozens hurt by Israeli fire in Gaza border protest

May 11, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Palestinian was killed and 176 were wounded by Israeli army fire Friday as thousands of Gaza residents protested near their sealed border — part of a weeks-long campaign to end a decade-old blockade of the territory.

Later Friday, vandals burned a fuel complex and a conveyor belt on the Palestinian side of Gaza’s main cargo crossing with Israel, causing more than $9 million in damages and disrupting the import of diesel fuel and building materials, the military said.

Friday’s clashes offered a preview of what will likely be a much larger protest — and possibly a border breach — on Monday when the United States relocates its embassy in Israel to contested Jerusalem amid Palestinian outrage.

President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there “is causing the volcano to spew,” said 25-year-old protester Ahmed Deifallah as he stood near the Gaza border, a Palestinian flag draped around his head.

Deifallah, who is unemployed like almost half the Gaza labor force, said he would also join Monday’s protest and is not afraid to die. “We are used to confronting the (Israeli) occupation with our bare chests,” he said. “We are used to wars and no one with us but Allah.”

Friday marked the seventh weekly border protest since late March. The demonstrations have been organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, but are fueled by despair among the territory’s 2 million people. The vast majority are barred from travel and trade, while the blockade has gutted the economy.

As in previous weeks, thousands flocked to five tent camps near the border — some 15,000 people, according to the Israeli military. From the camps, smaller groups moved closer to the fence. They threw stones, burned tires and flew kites with burning rags attached to them, hoping to steer them into Israel to set fields on fire.

The area was quickly engulfed in thick black smoke from the burning tires. Israeli soldiers, some crouching behind sand berms, fired live bullets and tear gas volleys from the other side of the fence.

The Israeli military said protesters also threw pipe bombs and grenades toward Israeli soldiers and damaged the fence. Later Friday, Palestinians vandalized a fuel complex and conveyor belt on the Palestinian side of Gaza’s main cargo crossing, Kerem Shalom, the army said. It said the fuel installation is the only way to bring diesel fuel into Gaza for operating generators for hospitals and other key facilities.

The military distributed a video showing Palestinians cheering as a fire was set. It was the second such attack on the facility in a week. “Hamas continues to lead the residents of Gaza to destroy the only assistance they receive,” the army said.

Nissim Jan, the director of an Israeli company that operates Kerem Shalom in partnership with private Palestinian companies, said he spent large sums to repair last week’s damage. “This time I can’t repair and will not repair it. Where shall I bring money from?” he said.

The Gaza Health Ministry said a 40-year-old protester was killed and 176 were wounded by Israeli fire Friday. Ten of the wounded were in serious condition, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the head. Nearly 800 others were overcome by tear gas or suffered other types of injuries.

Friday’s death brought to 41 the number of protesters killed since March 30. In the same period, more than 1,800 were wounded by Israeli fire. Despite such risks, Gaza’s Hamas leader, Yehiyeh Sinwar, has said he expects tens of thousands to participate in Monday’s protest. He has raised the possibility of a mass border breach, comparing protesters to a “starving tiger,” unpredictable and full of pent-up anger.

Israel has said it will prevent any border breach and has stuck to its open-fire policies, including targeting “main instigators” and those approaching the fence, despite growing international criticism.

Israel says it has a right to defend its border and has accused Hamas of using the protests as a cover for attacking the border. Rights groups say the use of potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters is unlawful.

There are growing concerns that if Israel and Hamas dig in, a widespread border breach could lead to large numbers of casualties. The protests are part of a campaign to break the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant Hamas overran Gaza in 2007.

On Monday, they are also aimed at the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy, which comes five months after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a decision that outraged Palestinians as blatantly pro-Israel.

The Israeli-annexed eastern sector of Jerusalem is sought as a future Palestinian capital — at least by those supporting Hamas’ political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas seeks an Islamic state in the entire historic Palestine, including what is now Israel, but has said it is ready for a long-term truce.

Another large-scale protest is planned for Tuesday, when Palestinians mark their “nakba,” or catastrophe, referring to their mass uprooting during the Mideast war over Israel’s 1948 creation. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out or fled homes in what is now Israel. More than two-thirds of Gaza residents are descendants of refugees.

Meanwhile, Gaza government officials announced that Egypt will open its border with Gaza for four days starting Saturday. Helping reinforce the Israeli blockade, Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing point, Gaza’s main gate to the outside world, closed most of the time since the Hamas takeover.

Egypt opens the crossing from time to time, mainly to allow people in special categories, including medical patients and Gaza residents studying abroad, to leave the territory or return to it. The upcoming opening was framed as a humanitarian gesture ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins next week.

In Jordan, about 7,000 people participated in a “nakba” rally in an area close to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number several million people in the region, including more than 2 million in Jordan.

Friday’s rally took place before a large stage with a view of the Dead Sea and the West Bank. One man walked onto the stage with an effigy of Trump dangling from a noose.

Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Alice Su in Sweimeh, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Netanyahu greets Hungary’s Orban as ‘true friend of Israel’

July 19, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, calling him a “true friend of Israel” despite the outcry over the visiting leader’s past remarks that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic.

Orban and Netanyahu held a joint press conference in Jerusalem following the Hungarian premier’s arrival in Israel the day before. The four-time Hungarian prime minister drew criticism last year for praising Miklos Horthy — Hungary’s World War II-era ruler who introduced anti-Semitic laws and collaborated with the Nazis — and employing tropes that were anti-Semitic in tone against billionaire philanthropist George Soros during his re-election campaign.

Orban evoked anti-Semitic language in denouncing Soros, saying that Hungary’s enemies “do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”

Despite global Jewish condemnation of those remarks, Netanyahu praised Orban for combatting anti-Semitism and thanked him for Hungary’s pro-Israel stance. Netanyahu said the two leaders shared an understanding “that the threat of radical Islam is a real one. It could endanger Europe. It could endanger the world. It certainly endangers us and our Arab neighbors.”

Orban has cast himself as champion of a Christian Europe and adopted an aggressive stance to halt the flow of African and Muslim migrants through Hungary. The populist, right-wing politician campaigned earlier this year for re-election on a staunchly anti-migrant platform.

Orban chalked up his country’s strong bilateral ties with Israel to the two leaders’ “excellent personal ties” and “because the two countries have patriots as leaders.” Netanyahu visited Hungary last year — the first visit by an Israeli premier since the 1980s — and was warmly received by Orban. During the trip, Orban said the European Union’s ties with Israel were “not rational enough,” criticizing its stipulation that closer ties would follow resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Israeli premier has taken flak in Israel for embracing Orban amid the Hungarian leader’s increasing authoritarianism, as well as for striking a deal with Poland over a controversial Holocaust speech law. Critics of the compromise with Poland contend Netanyahu appeared to capitulate to the claim that Poles were only victims of the Nazis. Historians say anti-Semitism was prevalent in pre-war Poland and that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Opposition lawmaker Yair Lapid, whose father was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, scorned Netanyahu ahead of his meeting with Orban. “After he disrespected the memory of Holocaust victims in the agreement with Poland, today Netanyahu will pay honors to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, who hailed and praised the anti-Semitic ruler who collaborated with the Nazis in destroying the Jews of Hungary,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “Shame!”

Lapid and fellow opposition politician Tamar Zandberg, head of the Meretz party, called for a boycott of Orban’s visit. “Netanyahu has a thing with anti-Semitic leaders around the world, from Hungary and Poland, to the head of the Philippines, (Rodrigo) Duterte, who compared himself to Hitler, and instead of suffering condemnation, was invited as well for a state visit with the prime minister of Israel,” Zandberg wrote on Facebook.

Protesters were later expected to demonstrate at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, during Orban’s visit there. Amnesty International in Israel organized a protest against Orban’s visit to the memorial, rejecting “restraint toward the words of praise for anti-Semitism, for racism and anti-democratic persecution.”

1 Palestinian killed, 40 hurt in Gaza-Israel border protests

April 06, 2018

KHUZAA, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians torched piles of tires near Gaza’s border with Israel on Friday, sending huge plumes of black smoke into the air and drawing Israeli fire that killed one man in the second large protest in the volatile area in a week.

At least 40 protesters were hurt, including five seriously, the Gaza Health Ministry said, but did not provide a breakdown of the types of injuries. Friday’s death brought to 23 the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza over the past week, including 17 protesters.

Friday’s march was the second in what Gaza’s Hamas rulers said would be several weeks of protests against a decade-old border blockade of the territory. Israel has accused the Islamic militant group of using the protests as a cover for attacking Israel’s border, and has warned that those approaching the fence put their lives at risk.

On Friday, thousands of Palestinians streamed to five tent encampments that organizers had set up at various points from north to south, each about several hundred meters from the border fence. In one camp near the border community of Khuzaa, activists moved closer to the fence and torched large piles of tires, engulfing the area in black smoke meant to shield them from Israeli snipers.

Israeli troops on the other side of the fence responded with live fire, tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets. Water cannons trained a stream of thick liquid at the fence. Within minutes, several young men with gunshot wounded began arriving at a field clinic at the camp.

Mohammed Ashour, 20, who had been among the first to set tires on fire, had been shot in the right arm. He rested on a stretcher placed on the ground. “We came here because we want dignity,” he said before paramedics carried him to an ambulance to be transported to the strip’s main hospital.

Yehia Abu Daqqa, a 20-year-old student, said he had come to demonstrate and honor those killed in previous protests. “Yes, there is fear,” he said of the risks of advancing toward the fence. “We are here to tell the occupation that we are not weak.”

An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, portrayed the protests as riots, and said Hamas organizers are trying to use them as a diversion to “open up the fence and then to insert terrorists into Israel.

Israel has drawn sharp criticism for its open-fire orders along the border, including the warnings that those approaching or trying to damage the fence would be targeted. The U.N. human rights office said Friday that it has indications that Israeli forces used “excessive force” against protesters last week.

Rights groups have branded orders permitting the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters as unlawful. A leading Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, issued a rare appeal to Israeli soldiers this week to refuse “grossly illegal” open-fire orders.

Conricus said snipers are used “sparingly” and only against those that pose a “significant threat.” A White House envoy urged Palestinians to stay away from the fence. Jason Greenblatt said the United States condemns “leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters — including children — to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed.”

In all, 23 Palestinians were killed in Gaza over the past week, including 17 protesters, according to Gaza health officials. The six other deaths included three gunmen killed in what Israel said were attempts to attack the border and three men who were struck by Israeli tank fire.

Last week’s turnout was apparently driven by the organizational prowess of Hamas as well as the growing desperation of Gaza residents who live in what has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison.

The crowd size was seen as a test for Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seized the territory in 2007 from its political rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ahead of Friday’s march, Hamas announced it would pay compensation to families of those killed or injured, ranging from $200 to $500 per injury and $3,000 per death.

The idea of mass protests was initially floated by social media activists, but was later co-opted by Hamas, with the backing of smaller militant factions. For Hamas, it’s perhaps the last chance to break a border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007, without having to succumb to demands that it disarm.

The blockade has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern. It has also devastated Gaza’s economy, made it virtually impossible for people to enter and exit the territory and left residents with just a few hours of electricity a day.

Hamas leaders billed the final protest, set for May 15, as the “Great March of Return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, implying they would try to enter Israel. But they stopped short of specifically threatening a mass breach of the border fence.

Israel has warned that it will not permit a breach of the fence and said it has a right to defend its sovereign border. Military officials have said Hamas has used the protests as a cover for damaging the fence, planting explosives and, in one incident, opening fire on soldiers.

Israel argues that Hamas could have ended the suffering of Gaza’s 2 million people by disarming and renouncing violence. Hamas has refused to give up its weapons — even at the cost of derailing talks on getting Abbas to assume the burden of governing Gaza, seen by Israel and Egypt as a prerequisite for opening Gaza’s borders.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, and Josef Federman on the Gaza border contributed to this report.

Jordan, Israel, Palestinians in rare Japan-hosted meeting

April 30, 2018

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The Japanese foreign minister has presided over a rare meeting of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials to push ahead with an agro-industrial park intended to enhance cross-border trade and cooperation.

Taro Kono, the Japanese minister, acknowledged late Sunday that it “has not been easy for the four parties to get together under current circumstances.” Israel and Jordan only recently patched up relations after a months-long diplomatic crisis. Officials from Israel and the Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank meet only intermittently because of ongoing deadlock in peace efforts.

Sunday’s meeting focused on the Japan-backed Jericho Agro-Industrial Park in the West Bank, near an Israeli-controlled border with Jordan. Twelve companies operate at the park, launched more than a decade ago. Kono says he hopes more will join, including Japanese firms.

Israel launches widest Gaza daytime assault since 2014 war

July 14, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military carried out its largest daytime airstrike campaign in Gaza since the 2014 war Saturday as Hamas militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel, threatening to spark a wider conflagration after weeks of tensions along the volatile border.

No casualties or major damage was reported on either side, and Israel said it was focused on hitting military targets and was warning Gaza civilians to keep their distance from certain sites. But it still marked a significant flare-up after a long period of a generally low-level, simmering conflict.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the latest Israeli sortie, the third of the day, struck some 40 Hamas targets including tunnels, logistical centers and a Hamas battalion headquarters. He said the escalation was the result of the sustained Hamas rocket attacks, its fomenting of violence along the border and its campaign of launching incendiary kites and balloons that have devastated Israeli farmlands and nature reserves.

“Our message to Hamas is that we can and will enhance the intensity of our effort if needed,” he said. “What Hamas is doing is pushing them ever closer to the edge of the abyss … Hamas will have to understand that there is a price to be paid.”

Israel has been warning Hamas in recent weeks that while it has no interest in engaging in the kind of conflict that led to the sides fighting three wars over the past decade, it would not tolerate Gaza militants’ continued efforts to breach the border and its campaign to devastate Israeli border communities with incendiary attacks.

On Friday, thousands of Palestinians gathered near the Gaza border for their near-weekly protest. A 15-year-old Palestinian who tried to climb over the fence into Israel was shot dead. Later the military said an Israeli officer was moderately wounded by a grenade thrown at him.

Gaza’s health ministry said Saturday that a 20-year-old struck by gunfire Friday during the protests in the southern Gaza Strip had also died of his wounds. The Islamic militant group Hamas that rules Gaza has led border protests aimed in part at drawing attention to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. The demonstrations have been fueled in large part by pervasive despair caused by the blockade, which has caused widespread economic hardship.

Over 130, mostly unarmed, Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since protests began on March 30. Israel says it is defending its sovereign border and accuses Hamas of using the protests as cover for attempts to breach the border fence and attack civilians and soldiers. Most recently, it has been struggling to cope with the widespread fires caused by the incendiary kites and balloons floating over the border.

In a statement, the military said Hamas’ activities “violate Israeli sovereignty, endanger Israeli civilians and sabotage Israel’s humanitarian efforts that aim to help Gazan civilians.” Sirens wailed overnight and throughout the day Saturday in southern Israel as waves of rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza amid the airstrikes. Israel said at least six of the projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defense system.

In a relatively rare admission, Hamas said it fired the rockets to deter Israel from further action. Most of the recent rockets from Gaza have been fired by smaller factions but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said it was an “immediate response” that was meant to “deliver the message.”

Israel said more than 30 rockets and mortars were fired early in the day with fresh barrages resuming each time it attacked. As a precaution, the military shut down a nearby beach. The military said its jets targeted two Hamas tunnels as well as other military compounds, including those involved in the production of the kites and balloons. Tit said the Hamas battalion headquarters in northern Gaza was completely destroyed.

Ireland to discuss bill banning Israel settlement produce

June 28, 2018

Ireland’s parliament will discuss a bill promoting a ban on Israeli settlement goods next month, after a postponement in January, reported Haaretz.

In a tweet posted yesterday, Irish Senator Frances Black announced “on July 11th, my bill to ban illegal #SettlementGoods is in the Seanad”.

Black added: “We’re close to a historic move for justice in #Palestine, but I need your help! Plz take 2m to ask your TDs & Senators to support the bill.”

The senator also posted a video urging Irish citizens to tell their lawmakers to back the initiative to boycott produce made in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Haaretz notes that “the discussion at the Irish senate regarding the bill was postponed in January after Ireland’s Ambassador to Israel, Alison Kelly, was summoned for a talk at the Foreign Ministry to clarify the legislative initiative at the demand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Read: Ireland’s book of condolence for Palestinians killed in Gaza blocked by pro-Israel groups

Kelly told Netanyahu that the Irish government actually opposed the bill, and subsequently informed Rodica Radian-Gordon, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Western Europe, “that the bill was not a Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement-linked initiative”.

At the time, slamming the bill, Netanyahu said its sole purpose was to “support the BDS movement and hurt the State of Israel”. The Prime Minister’s Office stated that the bill “backed those who wish to boycott Israel and completely opposes the guiding principles of free trade and justice”.

As recalled by Haaretz, “a group of Israeli activists, among whom were former Knesset members, lawyers, former ambassadors, artists and academics, penned a letter asking Irish lawmakers to support the bill” in January.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180628-ireland-to-discuss-bill-banning-israel-settlement-produce/.

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