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.


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.


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 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.

TIME Israel

Obama Warns Netanyahu On Peace Talks

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

The President warns of Israel's "aggressive settlement construction over the last couple of years"

President Obama set the table for Monday’s meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by pointedly warning that if current peace talks with the Palestinians fall apart, the United States may not be able to protect its longtime ally from the consequences.

“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” said in an interview with Bloomberg View published late Sunday. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

Israel has built some 200 guarded subdivisions and towns on land it conquered in the 1967 Six Day War. The roads and areas reserved for the 350,000 Jewish residents bar Palestinians from 40 percent of the West Bank, which along with the Gaza Strip would make up the Palestinian state the moderates on both sides see as an end to the conflict.

In 2009, Netanyahu agreed to freeze construction in the West Bank for 10 months as a show of good faith in advance of new negotiations, but that round of talks went nowhere. During the latest negotiations, convened by Secretary of State John Kerry in July, Netanyahu has repeatedly announced new construction. Analysts say the announcements helped mollify critics of the talks in his pro-settler Likud party, but risks framing Israel as an insincere negotiator — and more likely to carry the blame if talks collapse. Palestinian officials say they intend to capitalize on that perception by resuming the effort to punish Israel through diplomatic means. The options run from preparing to bring a case against Israel in the United Nations’ International Criminal Court, whose defining statute appears to consider settlements a war crime, to ramping up boycotts of varying caliber, some directed specifically at companies operating in occupied territories, others against Israel as a whole. Some Palestinian officials also warn that armed resistance also becomes more likely.

Progress in the talks has been so slow that, with a self-imposed April deadline for an agreement looming, Kerry has made the goal an announced “framework” laying out the parameters of a final pact, which would justify extending the talks to try to reach such an agreement. But even that relatively modest goal of an agreed-upon framework is in doubt.

“When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation,” Obama said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, and paraphrasing a Jewish sage. “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”

Before boarding his flight for Washington, Netanyahu made clear to reporters that his priority is Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel’s concern that world powers are being played by the Iranians through negotiations. On the Kerry talks, he sought to push the spotlight to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Obama described as “sincere.”

“The tango in the Middle East needs at least three,” Netanyahu said. “For years there have been two — Israel and the U.S. Now it needs to be seen if the Palestinians are also present.”

The settlers had a few choice words as well. “Incredible,” said senior settler leader Dani Dayan in a Twitter post Monday morning, “that as we see massacres and invasions across the globe, Obama reserved the term ‘aggressive’ to describe construction of houses.’’

TIME Israel

Scarlett Johansson Says She’s No Role Model

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson In Venice in September 2013. Gabriel Bouys—AFP/Getty Images

First Scarlett Johansson endorsed the anti-poverty activist group Oxfam by serving as its ambassador. Then she left that behind in the uproar that followed becoming “Global Brand Ambassador” for SodaStream, an Israeli company that builds its home-carbonation machines on land Israel has occupied since the 1967 war.

Now she says no one should pay any special attention to what she says.

“I don’t profess to know more or less than anybody else,” the actress says in Dazed & Confused magazine, a print-only British monthly that landed her first interview since the SodaStream ruckus erupted in advance of the company’s Super Bowl ad starring Johansson. “If that’s a by-product of whatever image is projected on to me I don’t feel responsible as an artist to give anyone that message. It’s not my jam.”

Johansson’s declaration that “I don’t see myself as being a role model” may be both a bit late and a bit wishful. For movie stars, close public attention pretty much comes with the territory, and she seemed aware enough of the power of her celebrity both when she signed on with Oxfam eight years ago, and in January, when she was hired to promote a gadget that many have embraced as much for reducing the number of cans and bottles in the world as for the tastiness of the fizzy drinks it produces. As Johansson put it, with two exclamation points, in a company press release announcing her hire:

“I’ve been using the SodaStream products myself and giving them as gifts for many, many years. The company’s commitment to a healthier body and a healthier planet is a perfect fit for me. I love that the product can be tailored to any lifestyle and palate. The partnership between me and SodaStream is a no brainer. I am beyond thrilled to share my enthusiasm for SodaStream with the world!!”

Just as much enthusiasm appears to be felt by activists waging a campaign to boycott companies that do business in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the territories Israel conquered in the Six Day War of 1967 and have been occupying militarily — and building on — since. Palestinians want the land for an independent state, along with the Gaza Strip. The Johansson-SodaStream flap brought the campaign celebrity-grade publicity, raising awareness of the issue with exactly the kind of socially-aware, liberally inclined folk who’d consider buying a countertop carbonation system.

TIME Viewpoint

Can Turkey’s Erdogan Stay in Power?

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he arrives at a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he arrives for a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara Feb. 25, 2014 Umit Bektas / Reuters

The Turkish leader’s authoritarian streak is the most important issue ahead of key elections

In its first eight decades as a republic, the biggest question facing Turkey was one of identity. Would it be the secular democracy envisioned by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or a nation governed by the Islamic faith that defined the Ottoman Empire from whose ashes it rose? Ataturk did his best to secure the former option, sending the Caliph packing (on the Orient Express) and ordering Turks to use second names, abandon the fez and write in Roman letters. After he died, his acolytes enforced his vision with a rigidity grounded in an abiding mistrust of the masses. Four times in four decades, Kemalist generals deposed elected governments they deemed dangerous to secular rule.

But everything changed in 2002, when Turks voted the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into government, led by the charismatic and irascible Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Once an avowed proponent of political Islam, Erdogan campaigned for Prime Minister on a platform of personal piety and fair play, especially in economics. Embraced first by the conservative Anatolian heartland distrusted by the Kemalist elite, the AKP’s support grew in subsequent elections.

But as the country prepares for three more polls over the next 15 months, the most pressing issue is no longer about the secular or religious nature of the state. It’s Erdogan. Turks have to decide whether they prefer a strongman over the delicate calibrations required in a system of checks and balances.

(MORE: Turkey’s “House of Cards” moment.)

When spontaneous demonstrations erupted last May over the fate of a city park, Erdogan’s reaction validated the protesters’ assertion that the larger problem was his creeping authoritarianism. Riot police overreacted to the demonstrations, deploying tear gas and water cannons, and international outrage poured in. With the Prime Minister abroad, other AKP leaders, including President Abdullah Gul, struck a politic, palliative tone that lasted only until the boss got back. Erdogan blamed shadowy outside forces, invoking the reliable stewpot of bogeymen—hidden hands, Washington—for the unrest.

He made the same play when a massive graft investigation burst into the headlines in December. In time, the AKP closed ranks, passing bills consolidating power around its embattled leader. Gul signed a measure restricting the Internet and tracking users. Another bill tightened executive control over judges and prosecutors, a convenient move as troubling corruption allegations crept toward Erdogan himself. (The allegations should be best assessed by a judiciary visibly independent both of the Premier and the “parallel government” supposedly run by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic leader resident in Pennsylvania, that Erdogan’s allies claim is driving the probe.)

Municipal elections on March 30 will give voters their first say on all this. The opposition is uninspiring: led by Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party, it is riven by divisions and hampered by the lack of a compelling leader to take on Erdogan. But with the economy sliding, if the AKP ends up losing previous strongholds like Istanbul, the result would embolden Erdogan’s opponents. An electoral setback might also shake loose papered-over tensions within the AKP, perhaps exposing internal rivalries in time for the presidential election in August.

According to an AKP spokesman, Erdogan, who is barred by party rules from returning as Premier, will seek that office. But if the incumbent, Gul, also chooses to run, the resulting split within the ruling party could give voters the credible alternative to Erdogan that the opposition has thus far failed to provide. Gul is a devout Muslim who, in contrast to the Prime Minister’s majoritarian tendencies, talks of pluralism and the rule of law.

A more cynical scenario involves the parliamentary polls set for June 2015. Were Gul to vacate the presidency and were the AKP to prevail in the legislature yet again, analysts note he would be available to resume the premiership in place of Erdogan. Gul already performed that role in 2002, when a prior conviction for Islamist politicking barred Erdogan from immediately assuming office. Another job-swap in 2015 would for now close the door on the possibility that in the absence of a credible opposition, a viable alternative to Erdogan might emerge from within the AKP.

TIME Kurds

WATCH: These Dance Moves May Get You Death Threats in Kurdistan

A racy new music video by Kurdish pop singer Helly Luv has gone viral, but also angered some in conservative Kurdistan

A risqué new music video is making waves in socially conservative Kurdistan, drawing both clicks on YouTube and reports of death threats in social media.

The Guardian quotes the manager of “Helly Luv,” the performance name for singer Helen Abdulla, as saying the threats had been posted online but did not specify where or by whom. “We do not wish to publish names of these Islamic groups because we do not wish to glorify [their] actions,” said Gwain Bracy.

The news report dovetails nicely with the title of the song, “Risk It All,” and the theme of the video, which embraces nearly every opportunity to be provocative. It opens with the singer lighting a Molotov cocktail in a city alleyway of baked brown bricks, then joyfully leading a line of Kurdish children somewhere – possibly astray. In other scenes Luv shimmies in a mini-dress and dances in the baggy-pants jump suit of the Kurdish militia known as peshmerga, meaning “those who face death.”

The flag of Kurdistan is featured prominently, as are a pair of lions. The video was filmed mostly in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government that governs the Kurdish sections of northern Iraq with substantial autonomy. Kurds, who may be the largest ethnic group without a national homeland, also live across the borders of Iran, Syria and Turkey, as well as across Europe.

Luv grew up in Finland and lives in Los Angeles, which both adds to the sensation and the measure of apprehension around the video. With almost 500,000 clicks on YouTube in just two weeks, “Risk It All” is clearly finding an audience – as is Dashni Morad, another Kurdish pop sensation.

But as a member of the diaspora, Luv may be far more comfortable projecting sexuality than the largely rural, traditional and Muslim audience in Kurdistan. Honor killings–in which a woman is slain for “staining the honor” of her family–are not a thing of the past in the region.

Nor is Islamist militancy. Kurds from the area made up the rank and file of Ansar al-Islam, a group associated with al-Qaeda that held territory near Halabja until just before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The group condemned the avowedly secular government then led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, dispatching assassins and suicide bombers against its representatives—people who certainly did face death.

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