Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to block a liberal women’s group from praying at the Western Wall on Friday morning, creating a tense standoff in the latest flash point of a broader battle over religion and identity that has engulfed Israel.
Heeding calls from their rabbis, religious teenage girls turned up in large numbers to protest the group’s insistence on praying at the wall in religious garb traditionally worn by men. The girls crammed the women’s section directly in front of the wall by 6:30 a.m., forcing the liberal women to conduct their prayer service farther back on the plaza. There, hundreds of police officers locked arms in cordons to hold back throngs of black-hatted Orthodox men who whistled, catcalled, and threw water, candy and a few plastic chairs.
“The University of Cambridge released a statement late Wednesday saying that Hawking had told the Israelis last week that he would not be attending “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.”
Earlier, the university said that news reports saying Hawking was boycotting the conference were wrong, and that the noted physicist’s decision to cancel his visit to Israel stemmed from health reasons alone.”
Israel and Iran’s ally Hezbollah will soon miss the old days of fighting each other.
The reason: Fundamentalist al-Qaeda-affiliated movements who hate both Jews and Shiites with a passion are emerging in Syria. These include groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has openly and publicly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda commander Ayman Al Zawahri.
Such groups are growing in numbers. According to an article in the Small Wars Journal quoting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report for December 2012, “Newly formed opposition groups are more likely to affiliate and attach themselves to Islamist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra than to the FSA [Free Syrian Army] or other less radical opposition groups.”
Hezbollah is already facing such groups in Syria, causing it to lose four to five fighters a day. Once Assad falls or even before, extremist al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are very likely to increase the ferociousness of their attacks against Shiites and Alawites living in Syria. Bosnia-style massacres or even larger ones can not be ruled out. Such groups could also start attacking Hezbollah-controlled points on Lebanon’s border with Syria. There is also a significant chance that they will try to permeate Lebanon in order to attack its Shiite citizens using suicide bombers — a well known method used by al-Qaeda against Shiites in Iraq for many years.
Meanwhile, we in Israel could expect hit-and-run machine-gun and mortar attacks and even Katyusha launches against Israeli border posts and cities by such groups. Efforts to penetrate Israel’s border could increase significantly.
The huge reservoirs of natural gas discovered off the coast of Israel now flowing toward shore have the potential to transform the once energy-strapped country into a lean, green manufacturing machine — capable of supplying cheap, clean energy to its citizens, factories and vehicles for a generation.
Until now bereft of the petroleum bonanza that created the modern Middle East, Israel suddenly finds itself a major player in the Mediterranean, and perhaps even the European, natural gas market.
The deepwater fields, first discovered in 2009 and 2010, will soon turn Israel into an energy exporter, putting the Jewish state in the enviable — but very tricky — position of trying to sell billions of dollars in surplus gas to neighbors who range from cool to downright hostile.
The questions are: To whom? And how?
Some Israeli leaders have suggested a “gas for peace” strategy whereby Israel, through the energy companies, provides gas at competitive rates to neighbors who want to buy.
But they also acknowledge that some Arab countries might refuse gas — at any price — coming from Israel. For years, many oil-rich Arab nations have declined to directly supply Israel with oil.
“There is an interesting cocktail of possibilities,” said Pinhas Avivi, political director of multilateral, global and strategic affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “The trick is to use the gas to solve problems, not create new problems.”
‘Israel is still my enemy, but when my enemy does a neat job — I admit it,’ writes one Syrian commentator
The alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian missiles en route to Hezbollah in Syria over the weekend have left Arab observers conflicted; for while many have been hoping — secretly or publicly — for a decisive military strike against President Bashar Assad, few expected or indeed wished for it to come from Israel.
Until early Sunday’s strikes on military targets near Damascus, conventional wisdom within the Syrian opposition was that Israel secretly supported Assad and was preventing his ouster. A Syrian Muslim Brotherhood official told The Times of Israel last year that Israel was pressuring the US and Russia to prop up Assad. A refugee from Daraa living in Jordan argued that Israel wanted Assad in power, because losing him would mean losing the Golan Heights, captured in 1967, and destabilizing Israel’s quietest border.
Reports to the contrary did little to change this impression. It was Israel which is said to have struck Assad’s nuclear facility under construction near the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor in 2007 and, more recently, Israel reportedly killed an Iranian general en route to Lebanon on Syrian soil. Israel never officially claimed responsibility for those strikes, but former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak told CNN as early as May 2012 that Assad’s fall would help Israel by weakening Iran and Hezbollah. Such facts never seem to confuse the skeptics, however.
As the quintessential enemy of the Arab and Islamic world, Israel must be aligned with Assad, went the logic of many domestic Assad opponents. Now, though, Israel’s apparently brazen confrontation with the Assad regime — while many Arab leaders have spent the last two years merely verbally endorsing (or secretly dreaming) of such a move — has created something of a cognitive dissonance for these oppositionists.
Assad Green-Lights Palestinian ‘Operations’ Against Israel on the Golan Heights, Threatens Missile Attacks
Two mortar shells struck Israel’s Golan Heights on Monday in the early evening local time. Though the IDF described the mortars as accidental spillover from fighting across the border in Syria, they are bound to deepen fears of escalating violence in the region.
On Friday and Sunday Israel reportedly struck Iranian and Hezbollah assets based in Syria. The Israelis have subsequently made extensive efforts to dampen tensions - IAF jets had conducted the air strikes from Lebanese air space, staying out of Syria - but nonetheless Damascus has been signaling that it may escalate the situation.
Most pointedly, Syrian state TV announced today that President Bashar al-Assad was activating Palestinian groups to retaliate against Israel.
The Post reports: “Israeli forces have carried out an airstrike against a shipment of sophisticated missiles bound for the Lebanese political and military organization Hezbollah, officials in Washington, Lebanon and Israel told reporters Saturday…. Lebanese authorities and residents had already reported unusually intense Israeli overflights during the previous 48 hours, suggesting the warplanes may have struck their target from Lebanese airspace.” Israeli planes struck again on Sunday outside Damascus.
So much for the suggestion by critics of stronger U.S. action that Syria’s anti-aircraft system is formidable. It seems someone in the Israeli government took a not-too-subtle swipe at the Obama administration’s equivocating on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. “Israeli officials described the missiles targeted in the Friday strike as ‘game-changing’ weapons, according to the Associated Press. They said they were not chemical weapons, but advanced, long-range, ground-to-ground missiles.” Translation: When Israel draws a red line, it means it.
Not only does the Israeli action contrast with the U.S. government’s fecklessness, but it also raises the issue of whether the United States would prefer Israel police the Middle East. It is unbecoming for a superpower to let little Israel take on the Iranian surrogates. It will likely unnerve our allies elsewhere and embolden foes in other parts of the world.
As for the Middle East, when a U.S. president is this passive and unwilling to act in accord with its words, the West and the Sunni states can take comfort in knowing that Israel is there to rein in the mullahs and their surrogates.
Two other events are significant. Both emphasize the degree to which American reticence is tipping the balance of power in the region toward Iran.
Syrian deputy FM says alleged Israeli strikes on targets on outskirts of Damascus a “declaration of war”; Syrian information minister says strikes “open the door to all possibilities” after emergency cabinet meeting.
Syria has stationed missile batteries aimed at Israel in the aftermath of alleged Israeli air strikes in the country, the website of Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen TV, considered close to the regime of President Bashar Assad, quoted a top Syrian official as saying on Sunday.
The report came as Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said on Sunday that alleged Israeli air strikes against three targets on the outskirts of Damascus “open the door to all possibilities.”
The minister’s comments at a press conference came after an emergency cabinet meeting organized to respond to what a Western source said was a new strike on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Although Zoabi did not hint at a concrete course of action, he said it was Damascus’s duty to protect the state from any “domestic or foreign attack through all available means.”
Israel’s airstrikes into Syria come as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war.
Syria has condemned the Israeli airstrikes against targets around Damascus, saying the attacks aim “to give direct military support to terrorist groups” fighting the government.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry also said Sunday in a letter sent to the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council that the “Israeli aggression” killed and wounded several people and “caused widespread destruction.”
Syria’s government refers to rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime as “terrorists.”
Earlier Sunday, Israel’s military moved two Iron Dome batteries as part of “ongoing situational assessments.”
The move came hours after Israel carried out what an intelligence official said was an airstrike in Damascus that attacked a shipment of Iranian-made missiles bound for Hezbollah.
The attack, the second in three days, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties.
The attack, which reportedly took place Friday morning, was the second such strike this year, further raising fears that Syria’s two-year civil war could spill over into neighboring countries.
Israeli warplanes have attacked a shipment of missiles at Damascus International Airport that was bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, officials from the United States, Israel and Lebanon told reporters Saturday.
The attack Friday coincided with mounting pressure on the Obama administration to formulate a response to the growing risk of weapons proliferation in the Syrian war, notably the possibility that chemical weapons are being used in the conflict and could fall into the hands of extremists.
It also came amid renewed reports of sectarian violence in the northern coastal region of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad where his supporters allegedly killed at least 50 and perhaps as many as 100 Sunni Muslim villagers in recent days, drawing a sharp condemnation Saturday from the State Department.
Israeli officials told the Associated Press and Reuters that the target of the airstrike was a consignment of advanced, long-range, ground-to-ground missiles destined for Hezbollah, the political and military organization that dominates Lebanon’s government and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
The shipment did not contain chemical weapons, but the missiles were potentially “game-changing,” one official told the Associated Press.