TIME Israel

Hamas in Gaza Takes War Against Israel Underground, Literally

An Israeli soldier looks at a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, just outside the southern Gaza Strip, Oct.13, 2013.
An Israeli soldier looks at a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, just outside the southern Gaza Strip, Oct. 13, 2013. Amir Cohen—Reuters

Israeli officials have discovered yet another tunnel reaching into their country from Hamas' territory in Gaza, the fourth such find in 18 months, raising fears the organization is planning ambushes from yet-undiscovered passageways under their feet

The discovery of yet another concrete tunnel reaching into Israel from the Gaza Strip has alarmed the Israeli military, now increasingly fearful of an ambush by militants attacking from underground. The latest tunnel, discovered late last week, was revealed on Tuesday to be the longest yet, reaching almost half a mile into Israeli territory.

It was also the fourth discovered in the last 18 months, and was unearthed, like others, by chance —in this case after heavy rains washed away topsoil, exposing concrete noticed by an Israeli farmer. Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs Gaza, acknowledged ownership and military intent. Lined with concrete and outfitted with electric lights and ventilators, the passage was tall enough to allow dozens of fighters to emerge inside Israel in a matter of minutes, perhaps to swarm nearby kibbutzim, overrun lightly manned military posts and kidnap local residents or soldiers.

“The possibility of a multi-pronged attack is the nightmare of every commander along the Gaza fence,” a senior officer in the Israel military’s southern command tells TIME.

Israeli officials acknowledge they have no firm idea how many other tunnels may be in place under the 24-mile southern boundary of the Palestinian enclave. Efforts to detect tunnels using technology have so far failed. Under Hamas, more than 1,000 tunnels were dug beneath Gaza’s six-mile western border with Egypt, mostly for the transfer of goods. Since the overthrow of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, the tunnels have been mostly shut down. But on the Israeli border, Hamas is increasingly looking underground for a military advantage, especially since the 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit. He was seized by militants who emerged from a tunnel that came out behind the tank where Shalit and two others soldiers (both killed in the encounter) were stationed, facing toward Gaza. After being held for five years, he was exchanged for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners by Israel–the single unvarnished triumph scored by Hamas in seven years in power.

“The tunnels we are inaugurating today are the new Hamas strategy in the war against Israel—the strategy of the tunnels,” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya announced on Sunday at a rally marking the ten-year anniversary of Israel’s assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.”From below ground and above ground, you, the Occupiers, will be dismissed. You have no place in the land of Palestine… What the resistance forces are preparing secretly for the next confrontation with Israel is beyond imagination for Israel.”

Israeli officials say they take the threat seriously. The Israel Defense Forces are working from scenarios that range from kidnapping a soldier to the armed takeover of a nearby kibbutz, and everything in between, including combined and parallel attacks. The military operates on the assumption that Hamas would not waste the element of surprise by using the tunnel in a small scale skirmish, but rather with a significant, spectacular ambush.

“If as a result of an attack by fifty Hamas combats coming out of the tunnels, twenty five people, among them children, will get killed in one of the Israeli villages close to the borders, that is going to be an event that will strike the Israeli society in shock,” says one Israeli military source. “This will be the Hamas achievement.”

The understanding is based in part on the fact that Hamas would only act boldly if it chose to discard the cease-fire it has enforced in Gaza since November 2012, when Israel carried out an offensive dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense.” In the logic of “resistance,” the group would need something substantial — numerous Israel casualties, for instance – in order to claim victory in the face of what would surely be massive retaliation from Israel.

With that in mind, Hamas has taken great pains to keep the underground channels secret from the prying eyes and ears of Israeli intelligence, always substantial in Gaza. In October, after Israeli troops discovered a mile-long tunnel, Haniyeh said “thousands of heroes have been working in silence, below ground, to prepare for the coming battles in Palestine.” But an Israeli official says that in the interests of operational security in fact only about 100 fighters are involved, carefully vetted from Hamas’ military wing. Precautions around the digging itself sound like scenes familiar to prison escape movies: The work is slow, in order to prevent detection by Israeli surveillance. In any given moment only between five to seven people work underground, says the Israeli official. The waste and dirt are evacuated in sacks and boxes in order not to raise suspicion.

The official says the tunnel typically starts a few hundred meters from the fence, inside a house or chicken coop owned by Hamas supporters, who give their consent and receive compensation. (The Israeli military located a tunnel originating in the side room of a mosque, apparently on the assumption that Israeli forces would not attack a holy place.) The depth at the entrance runs to a depth of 18 to 20 meters. As the diggers proceed, engineers follow pouring concrete to reinforce the walls and the ceiling. The electricians follow later, installing lights, and ventilation. Communication lines are also spread along side the tunnel in order to enable communication between the various parts of the tunnel, in the absence of a cellular reception, which at any rate, would be vulnerable to interception by Israeli’s signal-intelligence services.

If the digging goes well, without cave-ins from the sandy soil or flooding from groundwater, a 1,500 meter (nine-tenths of a mile) tunnel can be dug in nine to ten months. That said, the Israeli sources noted that one of the tunnels discovered was dug over two years. The final third, perhaps 500 meters, extends into Israel, but stops several meters short of the surface, in order to be breached when the order is given for offensive action.

That order would be carried out by special forces Hamas has trained specifically to operate from the tunnels, according to Israeli officials. Their target is presumed to be civilian enclaves such as Kibbutz Ein Ha’shlosha, which stands near the “mega-tunnel” discovered in October. But the presumption is based on the tunnels already known. In recent years Israel’s renowned military research establishment has found an apparently effective defense for the rockets militants long have fired out of Gaza – the Iron Dome anti-missile system. But for two decades the quest for a technology that will detect what Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman of the Israeli army’s southern command this week called “these infernal tunnels” has come up dry.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Mass Death Sentencing of 529 People Stirs Global Outrage

A relative of a supporter of Egyptian ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is supported as he faints outside the courthouse on March 24, 2014 in the central Egyptian city of Minya, after the court ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters after only two hearings.
A relative of a supporter of Egyptian ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is supported as he faints outside the courthouse on March 24, 2014 in the central Egyptian city of Minya, after the court ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters after only two hearings. AFP/Getty Images

The death sentence for 529 defendants, unprecedented in modern Egyptian history, came after a controversial one-day trial that casts Egypt's military-backed government in even worse light amid its ruthless crackdown on dissent

With the abrupt sentencing of 529 defendants to death after a one-day mass trial that allowed no genuine defense, Egypt’s state institutions appear to be taking their cues from the terrorists they claim to be targeting. The order Monday by a judge in Upper Egypt brought condemnation from rights groups and foreign observers in terms familiar to the aftermath of a car bomb — “indiscriminate,” “mass killing,” “grotesque,” “disaster,” “exterminationist.” Legal experts scrambled to find an instance in modern history where more executions were ordered in a single go, and came up empty.

“This is way over the top and unacceptable,” Mohammed Zarei, a human rights attorney in Cairo, told the Associated Press. Egypt’s courts, he said, were turning “from a tool for achieving justice to an instrument for taking revenge.”

That has been the trend across the state apparatus since last July 3, when Egypt’s military deposed the elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the insular Islamists who had failed to bring the country together following the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. The new government’s methods have been unapologetically blunt: 1,400 to 2,000 killed, including nearly 1,000 in August on a few blocks of the Cairo streets where Brotherhood loyalists camped out for weeks to protest the coup. The death sentences announced Monday arose from riots that broke out in response to that Cairo assault in August; protesters in Minya, 150 miles south of the capital, attacked a police station and a deputy commander was killed.

If blunt force has come to be expected in the street, however, it still stands out in a courtroom. Outraged reports from Minya took their weight from accumulation of details — the airing and discussion of which are usually the point of a trial, but that judge Said Youssef refused even to hear. The wife of one defendant, an attorney who frequently represented Brotherhood members, told Buzzfeed that phone and visitor logs showed he was in a meeting when the charges claimed he had been arrested. Another defendant was confined to a wheelchair by paralysis at the time of the disturbance.

Defense attorneys complained that they had no chance to examine investigative files running more than 3,000 pages. Only a fraction of the defendants were even present in the courtroom, where decorum deteriorated and bailiffs moved in after the judge refused to postpone proceedings so defense lawyers could read the evidence.

“The judge stood up, looked at us, put his hands on his belly and announced: Monday is the verdict,” defense attorney Yasser Zidan told AP.

The stunning sentence that followed could yet be overturned by Egypt’s Grand Mufti. But Monday’s verdict stirred international opprobrium against an Egyptian regime that has arrested 16,000 citizens, declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” and jailed journalists, human rights advocates and democratic activists who had been leaders in the 2011 uprising that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said it was “pretty shocking” that 529 people were sentenced to die for the death of one policeman and it “defies logic” that they were all tried appropriately within just two days. “There’s no place for politically motivated convictions in a country that’s moving toward democracy,” she said.

Dissent is not brooked by the current military-backed government. It pointedly refuses to draw any distinction between the Brotherhood, which historically eschews violence, and militant Islamist extremists who are waging guerrilla and terror attacks against the state in the Sinai peninsula, and occasionally on the mainland. Monday’s sentence reflected the government’s continued willingness not only to alienate Egyptians sympathetic to the Brotherhood, but label them as an enemy. “You cannot sentence 528 people to death at once,” one observer Tweeted, giving an alternate total also circulating in reports. “That is a civil war.”

The stage was set for Tuesday, when 682 more defendants are scheduled for trial, including the top Brotherhood official, Mohamed Badie, whose title is Supreme Guide. The proceedings are, once again, in Minya.

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Erdogan Turns Off Twitter, Turns Up the Nationalism

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news briefing in a ceremony for signing agreements between Iranian and Turkish officials in Tehran on Jan. 29, 2014.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news briefing in a ceremony for signing agreements between Iranian and Turkish officials in Tehran on Jan. 29, 2014. Ebrahim Noroozi—AP

The country's powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is raging against social media and dismissing critics as corruption allegations swirl. Incriminating audio recordings surfaced on the social network in February

Until Friday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul had not posted anything on his Twitter account for a solid month. But he got busy after the country’s Prime Minister took the extraordinary step of banning the site inside Turkey.

“I hope this ban will not last long,” Gul wrote. “If there is a violation of privacy on Twitter, only the related pages should be blocked. The platform is impossible to block altogether. Such a ban is also unacceptable.”

Though not nearly as pithy as Erdogan—“Twitter, mwitter!” the Prime Minister declared at the Thursday campaign rally where he announced the ban—Gul’s prompt use of a banned site said almost as much as the great torrent of outrage unleashed worldwide by Erdogan’s audacious move. Gul, after all, is the official who, while expressing reservations, signed the legislation allowing state organs to ban the internet – a move that cost him 80,000 followers at @cbabdullahgul. Widely seen as the alternative to Erdogan in the ruling Justice and Development Party, known in Turkey as AKP, Gul has tried to navigate a course within the parameters of party loyalty but still wide of the premier’s authoritarian streak.

But it may no longer be possible now that Erdogan has become Turkey’s honeybadger.

“I don’t care at all,” he said Thursday. And he may not. Earlier this week, the national election board ruled that his party’s newest ad violated Turkish law by using the national flag to solicit votes. In fact, the flag is the whole point of the ad, which features Turks clamoring to restore a massive standard cut loose by a mysterious man in a trenchcoat (the shadow of its slow descent casting kitchens and workplaces into darkness). The ban found Erdogan nonplussed. “We will ban the ban,” he declared.

Erdogan has also vowed to ban Facebook and YouTube. (“Out of the question,” Gul replied March 7.) The Prime Minister’s particular loathing for social media began last summer, when protests broke out in Istanbul over a park, and swelled into a rebellion against his autocratic tendencies. “There is now a scourge called Twitter,” Erdogan announced June 2. “This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society.”

It’s certainly a menace to his career. Twitter is where links to audio recordings of alleged wiretaps showed up in February, apparently capturing Erdogan instructing his son to move millions in cash out of his house after hearing investigators were raiding the homes of other politicians.

The apparently devastating tapes surfaced online only after prosecutors and police involved in the investigation were fired by Erdogan’s government. The premier dismissed the most damaging as a “montage,” yet confirmed the authenticity of others. In one he is heard instructing the obsequious head of a Turkish news channel to cut short an interview with a political opponent. Erdogan also affirmed as authentic a tape telling a justice minister to keep an eye on the criminal case repeatedly brought against a media magnate Erdogan regarded as hostile.

Such is the state’s power over much of Turkey’s mainstream media, which infamously failed to cover the Istanbul protests that international news channels covered live. But the Internet is not so easily contained. As a messenger, it’s pretty much impossible to kill. Which may be why Erdogan is also wrapping himself in the flag. Polls consistently measure Turkey as just about the most nationalist country in the world.

Erdogan is circling the wagons or, rather, mustering his horde: Consider the Central Asian song that Erdogan has appropriated as his campaign theme, a martial chant from the steppes for a leader surrounded by enemies, but fiercely fighting back.

“The international community can say this, can say that,” Erdogan said as he announced the Twitter ban. “I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.”

TIME Iran

Iran Marks Persian New Year With a Looming Economic Crisis

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, in Tehran, March 20, 2014.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, in Tehran, March 20, 2014. Office of the Iranian Presidency—AP

On Friday, the day Iranians celebrate Nowruz, or Persian New Year, Iran's government will enact massive cuts to food and energy subsidies that will hit Iranian consumers hard and may make things difficult for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

In the seven months since Hassan Rouhani took office as President of Iran, his country’s economy has taken a slight turn for the better. Inflation dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent, while an interim agreement with world powers on Iran’s nuclear program produced some relief from sanctions and access to a portion of previously blocked oil revenues.

But those gains–and the vital stability they brought to the country’s troubled economy—may be short-lived. On Friday, timed to the Iranian new year celebration of Nowruz, the government’s 2014 budget takes effect, bringing with it new cuts in subsidies on food, fuel, energy and utilities. The cuts, once phased in over the coming weeks, will sharply ratchet up prices paid by ordinary citizens. The price of fuel is expected to rise by 71 percent. The next electricity bill an Iranian opens will be 24 percent higher. Water is going up 20 percent.

All told, Tehran will stop spending $25 billion it had been spending to hold down the price of essential goods and services. Instead, consumers will be exposed to something closer to real market prices—and Rouhani to the wrath of an Iranian public already strapped for cash.

“People just don’t have enough money to spend,” says Houman Kordestani, sales manager of Iran Tissue Company. He stood in his stall at the Tehran Mosalla New Year Sales Fair, an annual affair offering discounts in advance of the March 21 Nowruz holiday, and so sparsely attended this year that salesmen spent most of their time talking to one another, or staring at their phones. “In the last 19 days I’ve only sold 130 million Rials ($5,200),” says Kordestani. “It won’t even pay for my stall let alone the 4 employees I’ve got here.

“We thought it would be better with the new president.”

Rouhani campaigned on a platform that promised to improve Iran’s long dysfunctional economy by reducing the country’s international isolation. Negotiations aimed at reassuring the West about Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington and others fear could produce atomic weapons, are meant to free Iran from the crippling economic sanctions that still cost Iran $8 billion a month in lost revenue, on top of $60 billion in assets frozen overseas.

The latest round of talks, aimed at a permanent settlement, concluded on an upbeat note in Vienna on Wednesday, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying he saw “signs” of a comprehensive agreement by the July deadline. By then, public pressure for a deal may be increasing in Iran, as consumers stung by the loss of subsidies look for relief from lowered sanctions.

“In the present circumstances of Iran’s economy, my only hope is that the nuclear talks are successful,” says a manufacturer of canned tuna at the fair, speaking anonymously out of fear of political repercussions. The factory owner said he had to fire most of his employees after his production sagged badly after a first round of subsidy cuts, in 2010. Carried out under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, those subsidy cuts hastened the political demise of the conservative president, who had run as a man of the people.

“Before my customers used to buy tuna by the box,” the factory owner says. “After the first round of subsidy reforms they just buy two or three cans. If the next round of reforms is anything like the last one I’ll have to pack up next year.” His factory has shrunk from 98 workers producing 10 tons daily to a payroll of 25 and 2 tons a day, he says.

Lawmakers have tried to take some of the edge off the cuts. The $25 billion being removed from the budget is a fraction of the $70 billion (some estimates say $100 billion) that Iran’s government spends on subsidies. And expected price increases are intended to be less drastic than four years ago. Also, as in 2010, the impact of the lost subsidies will be softened to some extent by direct cash payments to low-income Iranians. Legislators also are directing money formerly spent on subsidies to go to health care and the country’s relatively small private sector—the Iranian economy is still dominated by the government.

Still, economists fear the cuts will result in the inflationary spike that occurred in the 2010 round, and was aggravated by the loss in value of the Iranian Rial because of sanctions.

“The objectives of the plan are good ones but the method has major flaws,” says Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a professor in Tehran University Faculty of Economics and former lawmaker. “In its present form this plan will increase inflation and liquidity, and force producers in the private sector out of the market.”

The cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has cast the shared hardship as a patriotic enterprise, declaring a “Resistance Economy.” The program’s 24 points include reducing dependence on oil, boosting manufacturing and diversifying imports. “If Islamic Iran follows the policies of resistance economy, not only will it overcome all economic problems, but will also defeat the enemy, who is waging an all-out economic war against our great nation,” reads the communiqué posted Feb. 19 on Khamenei’s official website.

But Khamenei, who was appointed to his office by a panel of clerics 25 years ago, does not have to worry about re-election. Rouhani’s four-year term may have only begun in August, but it may well be decided by the blend of economic and foreign policy challenges that defined his campaign. Iranians, at least, see the topics as one.

“Rouhani has entered the nuclear talks with sincerity and moderation; he is trying to rebuild Iran’s international relations,” says Khoshchehreh, the economist. “However if he is rebuffed again as he was in the 2003 negotiations [which Rouhani led as Khamenei’s chief nuclear negotiator], than Iran’s moderation will be replaced with hard-line positions just as Ahmadinejad replaced the reformist government behind the 2003 talks.”

TIME Israel

Israel Strikes Syria as Threats From Rogue Forces Grow

There's no evidence the Syrian government was involved in setting up a booby trap that injured four Israeli soldiers, but Israel's defense minister says it holds "the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory" as Syria's civil war spirals out of control

The wave of airstrikes Israel carried out on Syria overnight not only demonstrated how it’s being drawn into the civil war there, but also the challenges awaiting Israelis on a battlefield crowded with non-state actors.

Israel launched the attacks, which the Syrian government said killed one soldier and injured seven, to retaliate for the injuries to four of its own soldiers by a booby trap buried along the border fence with Syria the day before. The device was detonated after the Israelis left their armored vehicle to proceed on foot toward a shepherd, who may have been stationed near the fence to draw them toward the bomb according to the Israeli military. It was the fourth violent incident on Israel’s northern border this month, and the first to result in injuries, one of them serious.

Yet there was no sign that the Syrian military was involved in placing the booby trap or was involved its detonation. Israel apparently struck a divisional headquarters, a training base, and an artillery battery because those sites were fixed, near the border, and available as targets. It may not have had any other options. Of the four known armies operating on the northern side of the border fence, only one, clad in the fatigues of the Syrian Armed Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, has a fixed address. So that’s where the missiles were directed.

“We hold the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained in a statement, “and if it continues to collaborate with terrorists striving to hurt Israel then we will keep on exacting a heavy price from it and make it regret its actions.”

In the Israeli media, blame for the strike was laid at the feet of Hizballah, the Shiite militia that supports Assad. No evidence was provided, but Hizballah had vowed revenge for Israel’s Feb. 24 attack on a weapons convoy. It was the sixth such airstrike aimed at preventing Hizballah from moving advanced weapons systems out of Syria, but the first to hit inside Lebanon, the militia’s home base.

Hizballah is a non-state actor mostly in name. It fields some 20,000 fighters and possesses a huge military infrastructure. But while many of the fighters are working in Syria, where they have helped turned the tide of the war toward Assad, the organization’s infrastructure is based in Lebanon. And for political reasons, Israel is not eager to send its planes where their bombs would be seen as punishing not only Hizballah but also the Lebanese state that the West, including Israel, prefers to shore up as a counterweight.

“For us it’s very important to give the Lebanese Armed Forces its sovereignty, its ability to carry out its duty,” a senior Israeli officer on the Lebanese border told TIME in a January interview.

Already arrayed along Israel’s border with Lebanon, Hizballah is also now free to operate along the portions of the border with Syria still controlled by Assad’s forces. However, in a stretch of border that for several miles abuts territory held by the Free Syrian Army—the most moderate of the rebel groups—Israel will even allow the FSA to leave its wounded fighters near the fence for retrieval by the Israelis, who take them to Israeli hospitals for treatment.

Farther to the south, however, where the borders of Israel, Syria and Jordan come together, Syrian territory is held by rebels of a more fundamentalist streak, according to Israeli officials. Across the entire theater of war, the most effective militias remain those aligned with al-Qaeda.

“What we see is many organizations from the area coming to power,” says the senior Israeli officer, “and all these organizations have a common enemy, which is us.”

The same is true on Israel’s southern flank. Jihadi groups have made a battleground of Egypt’s largely ungoverned Sinai peninsula. And in the Gaza Strip, militant Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad have launched scores of rockets toward Israel’s civilian population. The groups are all more radical than Hamas, the militant organization that won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and a year later took over Gaza outright.

Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, but the rising challenge from more radical groups has prompted some Israeli opinion leaders to officially recognize it as a government. In a column published on the news site Ynet by former national security adviser Giora Eiland, the operative logic was the same that led Israeli jets to government targets in Syria: “The more Gaza is a state, and the more we treat it as one, we’ll have more stimuli against it, stimuli which can force it to maintain peace and quiet, which is our main interest.”

The same holds true to the north, of course. What’s less clear is how much of the Syrian state actually remains to be engaged, or deterred, by Israel’s military.

TIME

Palestinian Leader Abbas Brings Weak Hand To White House Meeting

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting President Obama at the White House, March 17, 2014.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting President Obama at the White House, March 17, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is visiting President Obama at the White House today and expected to feel pressure to continue peace negotiations with Israel beyond their April deadline, even though the talks have gone so poorly

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President who has built his career on his willingness to negotiate, goes to the White House today with his work cut out for him. President Obama will pressure the Palestinian moderate to continue peace negotiations with Israel beyond their April deadline, even though the talks have gone so poorly that Secretary of State John Kerry months ago abandoned hope for a final agreement by next month and made the goal a “framework” statement describing U.S. hopes for a pact.

Abbas, who owes a measure of his position in the Palestinian leadership to Washington’s historical support of his moderate approach, may be personally inclined to give Obama what he wants. He has little personal appetite for the alternative – confrontation, either at the United Nations, which convenes in September, in the marketplace, where activists are promoting a boycott of Israel’s West Bank settlements (or of Israel itself), or even the streets, where violence is lately growing.

But Abbas’ position was a lonely one from the start; the leadership councils of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his own Fatah party strongly opposed even beginning talks last summer. And the days before his departure for Washington showcased how visibly Palestinian politics has fractured in recent months, further undermining Abbas’ claim that he can negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.

In the Gaza Strip, the population of 1.7 million is governed not by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority but by Hamas, the militant party that won 2006 legislative elections a year after Abbas was elected president. Hamas kicked Fatah out of Gaza in 2007. Founded on a premise of relentless armed resistance, Hamas famously refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, or even the point of negotiations.

“Hamas is not a problem,” Abbas said in a January. “Just leave it to us.” But it appears to be a persistent problem. Just Sunday, when Fatah tried to put its people on the streets of Gaza City – to make the kind of show of popular support for Abbas that was mounted in Ramallah and elsewhere on the West Bank – Hamas barred the demonstration.

Which is not to say Hamas has a firm grip on Gaza. The group has been isolated by neighboring Egypt, which last month declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and appeared powerless last week to prevent Islamic Jihad, a more radical militant group also supported by Iran, from launching scores of rockets into Israel. The barrage breached a ceasefire Hamas had effectively enforced for 16 months, and suggested that Gaza, already divided from the West Bank, was splitting into more political shards.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, home of another 2.5 million Palestinians, Abbas struggled to appear in charge of Fatah, the secular party that has long dominated Palestinian politics. He lashed out on March 10 against a political rival he had already cast into exile three years ago – the former Fatah security chief in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan – claiming Dahlan had ordered six murders and suggesting he had been involved in the mysterious death of Fatah founder Yasser Arafat. “Who killed Yasser Arafat?” Abbas asked a closed meeting of party leadership, in remarks later cleared for publication. “This is not evidence, but indications that deserve consideration.”

It all distracts from Abbas’ ceaseless efforts to burnish the image of statesmanship, and recast the image of the Palestinian movement. It also raises the stakes for the meeting with Obama, given that talks are supported by just half of Palestinians. A large majority feels the negotiations are doomed, according to polls. “Most Palestinians do not trust the process,” says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a polling firm based in Ramallah.

A report in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat says Abbas will leverage the one thing he can offer — his continued participation in the talks. The price, according to the report, will be a freeze on further construction of Jewish settlements, plus the release of more Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Prisoner releases do serve to shore up support for a Palestinian leader, but Al-Hayat says Abbas will up the stakes by demanding freedom for two prisoners who are leaders themselves: Ahmed Sa’adat, head of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah activist so popular he often prevailed in presidential polls even while a prisoner.

It would be a bold request. Sa’adat was sentenced to 30 years in 2008 by an Israeli court that held him responsible for a 2001 terror attack that killed Israel’s tourism minister. Barghouti was sentenced to five life terms in 2004 for ordering terror attacks during the Second Intifada. “He should rot in jail until he dies,” Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz posted on Facebook after hearing the report. The release of either would revivify the Palestinian political landscape simply by virtue of being what those politics have ceased to be – unexpected.

TIME Israel

Israeli Army Sees Rise in Christian Arab Recruits

Israeli Defense Forces soldiers train urban warfare
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers are seen during warfare training in Israel's northern El Yakim base, Feb. 27, 2014. Abir Sultan—EPA

The past year has seen a dramatic increase in Arab Christians enlisting in the Israeli army, doubling the number of each of the preceding three years — a sign, say some, of splintering loyalties among Israel's Palestinian population

Jewish Israelis are compelled to make themselves available to Israel’s military, but the obligation has never been applied to the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who identify as Palestinian, and are sometimes called Israeli Arabs. As descendants of the people that Jewish armies fought and defeated to create the state of Israel in 1948–but, who, unlike the 700,000 who fled or were forced out of their homes, were permitted to stay—young Palestinians living Israel were never expected to carry arms to defend it.

Yet a few do. Last year 100 Arab Israelis joined the Israel Defense Forces, double the number of each of the preceding three years. All were Christians, “a minority within a minority,” notes Gabriel Naddaf, the Greek Orthodox priest who is promoting enlistment, and with it a controversial separate identity for the 160,000 Orthodox and Catholics among the 1.7 million Israeli citizens who regard themselves as Palestinian.

Many Israelis, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, welcome the move, proudly displaying Arab Christian recruits as an indicator of the country’s commitment to a certain sort of pluralism, even as it presses negotiators for the Palestinians who live beyond Israel’s immediate borders to recognize Israel as “a Jewish state.”

Palestinian leaders regard IDF recruitment–as well as a Knesset vote last month designating a seat for Christians on an employment commission—as a cynical, divide-and-rule tactic intended to splinter the solidarity of a national liberation movement conceived, in the 1960s, around a newly emerged Palestinian identity. “It’s an expression of the way the Israeli system thinks and works,” says Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official: “Dividing people, defining them by religion, trying to discriminate.”

Father Naddaf says that’s fine by him. In Israel, he says, military service is a key to success in life and Christians want to do better. “Enough of the lies regarding Christian identity and the nationality of the Christians in Israel,” Naddaf tells TIME. “We want to integrate into Israeli society. We want to contribute to the society we live in. And we want to represent ourselves. No one else will.”

The priest said Christians have learned from the examples of other non-Jews who advanced in Israeli society by serving in the military: the Druze and Bedouin, Arabic-speaking residents of Israel who have never identified as Palestinian. In 2012, along with two other Orthodox priests, Naddaf established the “Israeli-Christian Recruitment Forum” to encourage army enlistment. The forum has its own flag—a sword in the shape of a cross behind the Israel’s own Star of David standard—but the two other priests are gone. “Unfortunately they withdrew because of the threats,” says Naddaf, who has received so many threats to his own life that Israel’s internal security service rates him at level four on a scale of one to six, he says.

Which bring us to another driver of the nascent movement: The dire situation facing Christian populations from Iraq to Egypt to Syria. “We are caught between the hammer and anvil,” says Ezak Hallak, a Nazareth lawyer for the Forum, quoting a Hebrew expression. “In our hearts, we support Israel, the Jews. I think the Christians in the Middle East are getting slaughtered because we are not speaking what is in our hearts. Stand up for yourself. There is no other way to face the craziness of the radical Arabs. No other way in the world.”

How controversial is an Arab joining the IDF? After enlisting, Naddaf’s son, Jabron, was attacked on the street by a man shouting “traitor”—a word even his friends would have used just two years ago, Jabron Naddaf says, “but it’s not the case any more.” And indeed, the idea of serving in the IDF brought no strong reactions from a half dozen people—all Muslims—interviewed on the street in downtown Nazareth, the town where, according to lore, Christ came of age.

“Whoever wants to go in the army, he can go,” says Fareed Irshid, 49, a driver at Mary’s Well Taxi stand, adjacent to the site where tradition says the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin. “I can’t come out against the laws of the state if I want to live here.”

“Even I said to my son: ‘If you want to you can go to the army,” says Issam Munasra, 51. “For the person, it gives you a lot if you go into the army. It builds you. And also you don’t feel you owe the state. You’ve given to them.

“You have to do something for the country,” Munasra says.”I’m a taxi driver for 30 years. Let’s say my son serves in the army, he can do better.”

The lone dissent was heard from Amir Sharif, 18, in the passenger seat of a sleek black sedan driven by his cousin. “It’s not our state,” he says. “We don’t get the rights that Jews are getting. If we were, then we should consider it.”

And yet, a few months ago, he considered it himself. “I thought about it a little bit,” Sharif says, and adds: “But you know, if you’re an Arab in the army, they send you to the frontline first.” He smiles. A little joke. “I don’t hate Israel,” he says.

TIME

Israel Says It Stopped ‘Game-Changing’ Rockets from Reaching Gaza Strip

Israel intercepts Iranian arms shipment to Gaza militants
A photograph supplied by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) shows a Syrian made M-302 missile after it was seized by Israeli troops at the Red Sea, March 05, 2014. Israeli Defense Forces/ — EPA

An Israeli source tells TIME that a cache of Iranian rockets — which could carry warheads with more than 300 pounds of explosives — bound for the Gaza Strip that Israel reportedly intercepted this week would have considerably improved militants' arsenals

According to a senior Israeli military source, the rockets seized by Israeli naval commandos Wednesday en route to the Gaza Strip were more destructive than any known to exist in the Gaza Strip, where the cargo were believed headed from its starting point in Iran. The Syrian-made rockets found aboard have a range of 90 kilometers, or about 56 miles—far enough to reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem from the Palestinian coastal enclave—and could carry a warhead with more 300 pounds of explosives.

“They could have been a game-changer had they reached the Gaza Strip,” says the Israeli official, speaking to TIME on condition of anonymity. “The weight of the rockets warheads is over hundred and fifty kilos, and the blow they can inflict on dense centers of population could have caused massive damage, both in casualties and property.”

Iran denied knowledge of the shipment, as did Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the militant Palestinian groups based in Gaza that Tehran has long supplied with arms.

So far 40 of the M-302, type A, ground-to-ground rockets have been discovered on the Klos-C, which Israel officials said was boarded with the captain’s permission near Port Sudan in the Red Sea. The number of rockets found on board may climb after the ship reaches the Israeli port of Eilat early Sunday morning, and all the containers on board can be scanned. The cargo apparently did not include launchers, but the military official said the M-302s could be launched out of assorted launchers.

Israel knows the damage such rockets can inflict. Hizballah, the Lebanese militant group, used both A and B types of the M-302 rockets against Israel in the Second Lebanon war in 2006. The strikes reached populated areas in the northern cities Afula and Haifa. In Haifa, eight railway garage workers were killed. Many more were wounded in the M-302 strikes.

The prospect of such weapons in Gaza is unpleasant to Israeli strategists. During both the most recent major Gaza battles, Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, militants fired warheads weighing 15 kilos, or 32 pounds. That’s just ten percent of the weight of the M-302 warheads. “No doubt terror organizations are making great efforts to achieve powerful strategic weapons, in the light of past experience, when the rockets used so far hardly reached Tel Aviv metropolis, and caused relatively little damage,” the Israeli official says.

The rockets carry no guidance system, and so cannot be aimed with any accuracy. But their range is significant–placing most of Israel’s population within danger.

And while Israelis have had striking success in knocking such simple ballistic missiles out of the air with its Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, the system is not foolproof. Some rockets get past it, and one battery can cover the skies above only one city at a time; Israel may not have enough Iron Domes to make good on its name. People still rush to bomb shelters when the wail of a siren warns of incoming.

Thus “Operation Full Disclosure,” as the Israelis called the intercepting of the Iranian cargo. A joint effort of the Israeli Army and the Mossad overseas intelligence agency, surveillance of the rocket shipment had been going on for months. The cargo was tracked from its origin in Syria, to its transit by air cargo to Tehran, then to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas where it was loaded on the Panamanian-flagged vessel. The Klos-C then proceeded to the Iraqi port of Um Qasr on what amounted to a diversion. Israeli officials said the the captain was presented with a new, false manifest.

Iran denied the cargo was its own, on what Western security officials have described as a well-worn route for arms shipments to Gaza. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took specific issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion–following his speech at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee–that the rockets showed the “true face” of Iran lurking behind the charm displayed by Zarif and his boss, President Hassan Rouhani.

“An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza,” read a Thursday post on Zarif’s Twitter account. “Captured just in time for annual AIPAC anti Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”

TIME Palestine

Palestinians Say Boycott-Israel Movement Is a Path to Peace

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-POLITICS
Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a Cabinet session in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 28, 2013 Issam Romawi—AFP/Getty Images

As American-authored talks appear likely to fail, Palestinian leaders are turning to boycotts as their best chance for a violence-free peace with Israel. When the negotiations do collapse—an outcome they regard as inevitable—their plan is to resume a diplomatic assault

The visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not appear to do much to enhance the chances for success in struggling peace talks with Palestinians. Netanyahu’s White House meeting on Monday was framed by a published warning from U.S. President Barack Obama to get serious about the talks, and a show of defiance from Netanyahu. Then the next day, the Israeli Premier pushed the onus on his opposite number, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a stem-winding speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, that divided the world into forces of light and darkness.

“If you look at it from the position of the Palestinians and the Israeli position, we’re pulling apart,” Xavier Abu Eid, spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) negotiations unit, tells TIME. “It’s not like we’re getting closer.”

But that’s what most of the Palestinian leadership expected when Secretary of State John Kerry forced the two sides together in July. Only one member of the PLO executive committee voiced support for renewing negotiations on the terms Kerry offered — with no freeze on construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and no agreement the 1967 borders would be the rough basis for a Palestinian state.

“We got nothing,” says Hanan Ashrawi, an executive-committee member, disregarding Israel’s release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good will. Still, polls show only half of Palestinians support the talks, and 70% believe they will fail — hardly an endorsement for Abbas, who overruled the PLO executive committee to agree to the talks, and has nothing yet to show for it.

“He’s trying to show seriousness of intent,” Ashrawi tells TIME. “But there are limits. He can go only so far without losing his standing, his support, his credibility. It’s not easy to go against Palestinian public opinion. We do not have a one-man show, a dictatorship. Public opinion is angry and … that increases support for alternatives, and that increases support for violence.”

“That’s why we got together and found support for other nonviolent means.”

Palestinian leaders are readying for a confrontation without violence. Once the talks fail — an outcome they regard as inevitable — the plan is to resume a diplomatic assault on Israel. The main venue will be the U.N., where the General Assembly in 2012 granted Palestine state status. The institution, broadly supportive of Palestine, offers other levers to pressure Israel, including access to the International Criminal Court.

“The U.N. is one place where you can show respect for multilateralism, international law, where you can empower the Palestinians, check Israeli violations and give people hope,” Ashrawi says. “So I described this is as a model, responsible legal approach — human approach — in order not to make the only alternative violence.”

The Palestinian public likes the idea, telling pollsters they would support a U.N. challenge to Israel even if it costs them crucial foreign aid.

At the same time, other activists are trying to pressure Israel economically, by identifying companies that do business with the settlements on occupied Palestinian territories. The effort was showcased in January when film star Scarlett Johansson stood by her endorsement of SodaStream, a beverage company that operates from a settlement, despite a hue and cry from activists calling for a boycott on such companies. Netanyahu mentioned Johansson twice in his AIPAC speech, which equated the boycott movement with anti-Semitism. “From antiquity to the Middle Ages to modern times, Jews were boycotted, discriminated against and singled out,” he said.

That historical reality exists beside another: the effort to deny financial support for settlements was pioneered years ago by Israeli Jews who refused to buy vegetables or wine produced on settlements. The effort to alter Israeli policy has since developed into a hydra-headed movement, which ranges from withholding investment from specific companies doing business in settlements because they are considered illegal under international law, to a broad boycott of all things Israeli. But even opponents acknowledge it appears to be picking up steam.

“I see it gaining ground,” says Ashrawi, “and I see how Netanyahu and others are reacting hysterically, trying to dismiss it but becoming obsessive about it, trying to say it’s not going to work because ‘We are the superior people in this part of the world, we are the people with values,’ unlike our barbaric neighbors, in other words. I’ve never heard such patronizing language.”

Israel should be grateful that Palestinian leaders are resorting to courts and diplomacy instead of violence, she says.

“And we don’t see it as a punishment,” Ashrawi adds. “We see it as a process of rectification, to address all the flaws, built in and imposed, that plagued the negotiations since 1991. This is a responsible, positive approach. Instead we’re getting bashed.”

TIME Gaza strip

Gaza’s Isolation Grows As Egyptian Court Outlaws Hamas

The Islamist group's marginalization could help the more moderate Fatah faction

The lot of the beleaguered Palestinian militant group Hamas grew still worse on Tuesday, when an Egyptian court banned the Islamist organization and ordered confiscation of its assets inside Egypt. The ruling threatens to complete the physical isolation of the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave that’s home to 1.6 million Palestinians and has been governed by Hamas since 2007. The Strip is already surrounded on three sides by the Israeli military – including gunboats that challenge any vessel that ventures beyond six nautical miles into the Mediterranean Sea. And now, on its western boundary, Gaza faces an Egyptian government that has officially declared the ruling party an enemy organization.

“Whoever threatens Egypt’s security should understand that there will be consequences,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told a news conference, after learning of the ruling from a reporter’s question.

If enforced, the ruling’s implications will accelerate the descent of a Hamas already in political free-fall. Not 18 months ago, Hamas was hosting the Emir of Qatar in a state visit that served to reinforce Hamas’ credibility as a political entity. The Emir arrived from Egypt, crossing into Gaza at the international border station at Rafah, on the Strip’s western boundary. At the time, Egypt was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, the mothership of political Islam that had spawned Hamas and won every election in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

But the military coup in July removed the President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart, and Tuesday’s ruling demonstrates just how potent a force Egyptian nationalism has become in the ensuing months. Mubarak also hated Hamas, but it’s a Palestinian group and pro-forma solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel prevented his government from doing what Egypt’s military-backed rulers have done since July 3. After blaming Hamas not only for working with Morsi, but for sheltering militants who have turned Egypt’s Sinai peninsula into a war zone, Cairo has shuttered hundreds of tunnels carrying goods and gasoline into Gaza, and threatened military action. The Rafah crossing, long Gazans’ only outlet to the world, is now often shut down, sending patients to plead for entry into Israel for medical care unavailable in the Strip.

Hamas, which has trod carefully around Egypt’s new rulers, promptly condemned the court ruling, perhaps hoping to prevent its implementation. “The decision harms the image of Egypt and its role towards the Palestinian cause. It reflects a form of standing against Palestinian resistance,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

Besides Israel, the ruling will also likely serve to strengthen the hand of Fatah, the secular Palestinian party that was kicked out of Gaza in 2007 but governs the West Bank and its 2.5 million residents. Fatah, through the Palestinian National Authority set up by the 1994 Oslo Accords, has workaday administrative relations with Israel, and already does what Hamas cannot do in Gaza – arrange daily passage of hundreds of truckloads of goods into the enclave from Israel. Fatah’s brief may now have to extend to the Rafah crossing, in the event Egypt stops recognizing the authority of travel documents issued by Hamas. Shoring up Fatah may in fact be a goal of Egypt’s campaign against Hamas, though one obscured, as so many things are these days, by the wrath Cairo directs at anyone who can be tied to the Brotherhood that was itself banned on Christmas Day.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46,438 other followers