TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Restates Support of Israel in Synagogue Speech

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month at Adas Israel Congregation May 22, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images President Barack Obama delivers remarks in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month at Adas Israel Congregation May 22, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

President Obama sought to reassure American Jews that he fully supports the state of Israel while reiterating the need for a two-state solution at a Northwest Washington synagogue on Friday.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security and my commitment to Israel’s security is and always will be unshakable,” Obama said, adding that not doing so would be a “moral failing.”

Obama spoke at the Adas Israel Synagogue on the inaugural “solidarity sabbath,” a holiday meant to consolidate support for Jews amid rising anti-Semitism that falls toward the end of Jewish Heritage Month. On Friday, lawmakers were slated to appear in congregations across the country to mark the day.

In the wake of attack at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a string of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe, there’s been growing attention to the persecution of Jews across the world. Obama noted that the rise of anti-semitism should not be treated as “passing fad.”

“When we allow anti-Semitism to take root, our souls are destroyed,” Obama said. “It will spread.”

The statements follow a wide-ranging interview published by The Atlantic on Thursday, in which President Obama stressed his love for the Jewish state of Israel, telling commentator Jeffrey Goldberg that supporting the rights of Jews abroad is equivalent to supporting the freedom of African-Americans at home.

“There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law,” he said. “These things are indivisible in my mind.”

On Friday, he reiterated those sentiments, reflecting on his own introduction to the Israeli community. “For a young man like me grappling with his own identity, Obama said, “the idea that you could be grounded in your history as Israel was but not be trapped by it. That idea was liberating”

Obama’s statements to Goldberg and before the congregation at Adas Israel on Friday come amid nuclear negotiations Iran that have put strain on one of the U.S.’ closest relationships. But he made clear Friday that criticism is not going to change his mind.

“I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium,” he told Goldberg.

And on Friday, before a crowd in a packed synagogue where the rabbi called him a “champion of freedom,” Obama sought to reassure the congregation that he could be both a friend and a critic of Israel.

“It’s precisely because I care so deeply … that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I feel,” he said.

TIME Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Calls Off West Bank Bus Segregation

Israelis ride the "Shabus" in Jerusalem on May 1, 2015
Gali Tibbon—AFP/Getty Images Israelis ride the "Shabus" in Jerusalem on May 1, 2015

Palestinians enter Israel for work each day from the West Bank

(JERUSALEM) — Israel’s prime minister has overruled his defense minister and called off a proposed plan to segregate Palestinians from Israelis on West Bank buses.

An official in the prime minister’s office said Benjamin Netanyahu called Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon Wednesday to tell him he found the proposal “unacceptable” and the two decided to freeze the plan.

Earlier on Wednesday, Yaalon launched the three-month pilot program following repeated complaints from Jewish settlers who ride the buses and say the Palestinian workers constitute a security threat and frequently engage in sexual harassment of female Jewish riders.

Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel for work each day from the West Bank and often ride alongside Jewish settlers.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog attacked the decision, saying it marked a “stain on the face of the country.”

TIME Vatican

Vatican Recognizes State of Palestine in New Treaty

Pope Francis celebrated the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima during his traditional weekly General Audience in St. Peter's square on May 13, 2015 in Vatican City.
Stefano Costantino—Splash News/Corbis Pope Francis celebrated the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima during his traditional weekly General Audience in St. Peter's square on May 13, 2015 in Vatican City.

The treaty is the first legal document to establish official diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and the Palestinian state

(VATICAN CITY) — The Vatican has officially recognized the state of Palestine in a new treaty.

The treaty, which was finalized Wednesday but still has to be signed, makes clear that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic relations from the Palestine Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine.

The Vatican had welcomed the decision by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 to recognize a Palestinian state. But the treaty is the first legal document negotiated between the Holy See and the Palestinian state and constitutes an official diplomatic recognition.

“Yes, it’s a recognition that the state exists,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is due to visit Pope Francis on Saturday before the canonization of two new saints from the Holy Land a day later.

The Vatican has been referring unofficially to the state of Palestine for at least a year.

During Pope Francis’ 2014 visit to the Holy Land, the Vatican’s official program referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine.” In the Vatican’s latest yearbook, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See is listed as representing “Palestine (state of).”

The Vatican’s foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, acknowledged the change in status, given that the treaty was initially inked with the PLO and is now being finalized with the “state of Palestine.” But he said the shift was simply in line with the Holy See’s position.

TIME Israel

Israel’s New Government Promises Little Progress on Peace Talks and Unstable Rule

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015, to announce reaching a coalition deal for forming a new government.
Gali Tibbon—AFP/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015, to announce reaching a coalition deal for forming a new government.

Benjamin Netanyahu has created a government in which he is one of the most moderate members

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have managed to patch together a new coalition government 90 minutes before the deadline to present a ruling majority to the country’s President, but it is one that offers little hope for new peace talks with the Palestinians or stable government for Israel.

The resulting government commands only 61 out of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats and is comprised of parties that are either reluctant or outright opposed to restarting peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. With few voices in the new government in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict, which is the desired outcome of the U.S. and most of the international community, Netanyahu is likely to continue to find himself on a collision course with the international community in general and the Obama Administration in particular.

The paper-thin majority Netanyahu sets out with in his fourth term as Prime Minister looks far from the “stable and broad-based government” he confidently asked voters to allow him to establish when he dissolved his coalition last December, deeming it ungovernable.

The parties in Israel’s new government are all right-wing or religious, with the exception of Kulanu (in English-All of Us), headed by Moshe Kahlon, who defines himself as centrist and brings with him pragmatists such as Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to Washington. Kahlon, however, is a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and does not appear to have moved significantly far from that party’s conservative positions on security and defense issues. It is only if Netanyahu’s government runs so afoul of the international community that it winds up hampering Kahlon’s economic agenda as Minister of Finance that the new government could be forced to be more moderate, says Professor Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“This is a government that is very cohesive ideologically on the security agenda. The hawkish parties would prefer not to give anything up and to build more settlements,” Hazan says. “Kahlon has a domestic economic agenda and he may be the most moderate in this cabinet. But he is a former Likudnik who is very comfortable with Netanyahu’s security agenda, and unless the world acts very harshly and it seems like it will affect Kahlon’s economic plan, such as with threats of boycotts, Kahlon is unlikely to interfere with Netanyahu’s stance.”

In a dramatic turn of events in the 48 hours before the deadline to form a government, Netanyahu’s one-time ally and now rival, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that he would not be joining the new government. Lieberman heads the hardline Israel Beitanu party, and allied himself with Netanyahu’s Likud in the 2013 election, resulting in Lieberman’s re-appointment as Foreign Minister. But Lieberman, who has a base of conservative voters who are immigrants from the former states of the Soviet Union, saw his support in the March 17 elections dwindle, giving him just six Knesset seats. Subsequently given short shrift in the coalition-building process, Lieberman decided to turn his back on Netanyahu and deprive him of six seats that would have allowed for a more comfortable governing majority.

Netanyahu was left having to give in to the demands of the last party with whom he needed to sign a coalition agreement, the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett. That party’s main agenda includes expanding settlements, increasing the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, and upholding an uncompromising stance on Palestinian demands for statehood. During Israel’s war with Hamas last summer, Bennett was continually critical of Netanyahu for not hitting “hard enough” and publicly opposed Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw Israeli ground forces from the Gaza Strip, promoting instead a full re-occupation of the Palestinian territory that Israel left in 2005.

“Bennett was a relentless public critic of his own cabinet, demanding harsher action in Gaza, bemoaning the stewardship of the conflict,” Times of Israel editor David Horovitz notes in a column questioning the achievements of Netanyahu’s gambit to dissolve his last government with the intent of forming a stronger and more stable one.

In the final days of haggling over posts, Bennett took the education ministry for himself, and demanded that Ayelet Shaked, a 39-year-old politician who became a first-time legislator in 2013, be appointed Justice Minister.

“She replaces Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister, which puts her in charge of the ministerial committee for legislation, and that is the committee that has to approve every piece of legislation that comes through the Knesset,” Hazan explains. “This is a bottleneck. Laws in the Israeli parliament can only pass if the ministerial committee approves them, and this committee can block it. This committee is one that Netanyahu fought to get control of again, and with Shaked there he’s closer to doing that, but it gives her enormous power.”

Netanyahu has not appointed a new Foreign Minister, holding that portfolio for himself as he is permitted to do under Israeli law. Analysts believe this holds open the possibility that he can still convince Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union, which includes the left-of-center Labor party, to join the government at a later point. Moshe Yaalon, who was Netanyahu’s last Defense Minister, will retain his position, making it likely that Israel’s position on local and regional defense issues — including for example Israel’s opposition to a potential Iran nuclear deal — will remain unchanged.

TIME Israel

Israel’s Netanyahu Forms New Coalition Government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015, as he announced reaching a coalition deal for forming a new government.
Gali Tibbon—AFP/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015, as he announced reaching a coalition deal for forming a new government.

President Reuven Rivlin's office said Netanyahu called late Wednesday to inform him the deal was done

(JERUSALEM) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday completed the formation of a new coalition government, reaching a last-minute deal with a nationalist party just before a midnight deadline.

The late-night deal saved Netanyahu from the unthinkable scenario of being forced from office. But it set the stage for the formation of a narrow coalition dominated by hard-line and religious parties that appears to be on a collision course with the U.S. and other allies.

With a slim majority of just 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, Netanyahu could also struggle to press forward with a domestic agenda.

After Netanyahu’s Likud Party won March 17 elections with 30 seats, it seemed he would have a relatively easy time forming a coalition. But during a six-week negotiating process, the task turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated, as rival coalition partners and members of the Likud jockeyed for influential Cabinet ministries.

The talks stalled this week when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a longtime partner of Netanyahu’s, unexpectedly stepped down and announced his secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party was joining the opposition.

That left Netanyahu dependent on Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a former aide who has a rocky relationship with Netanyahu. The talks with Bennett stretched throughout the day and well into the night before Netanyahu called President Reuven Rivlin, as required by law, to announce the deal.

Netanyahu had until midnight to speak to Rivlin. Otherwise, the president would have been required to ask another politician to try to form a government.

The Jewish Home party is linked to the West Bank settler movement. It opposes peace moves toward the Palestinians and has pushed for increased settlement construction on occupied lands — a policy that is opposed by the U.S. and European countries.

His other partners include Kulanu, a centrist party focused on economic issues, and two ultra-Orthodox religious parties.

TIME celebrities

Natalie Portman Doesn’t Know Where Her Oscar Is

Natalie Portman arrives at the UCLA Younes Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies 5th Annual Gala held at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 5, 2015 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Breuel-Bild—ABB/picture-alliance/AP Natalie Portman arrives at the UCLA Younes Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies 5th Annual Gala held at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 5, 2015 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"It's a false idol"

Natalie Portman opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about her feelings on Israel, her thoughts on being a Jew in post-Charlie Hebdo Paris and her directorial debut of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a film shot entirely in Hebrew (Portman was born in Israel). But in between all those very serious topics, Portman also revealed that she loves Broad City, even though she doesn’t have a television (she says she watches it on her computer). And she said she doesn’t know where she put the Oscar she won for 2010’s “Black Swan.”

You can read the full interview at The Hollywood Reporter, but here are some key takeaways:

On her Oscar: “I think it’s in the safe or something. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it in a while. I was reading the story of Abraham to my child and talking about, like, not worshipping false idols. And this is literally like gold men. This is lit­er­ally worshipping gold idols—if you worship it. That’s why it’s not displayed on the wall. It’s a false idol.”

On Netanyahu’s re-election: “I’m very much against Netanyahu. Against. I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was reelected. I find his racist comments horrific.”

On whether she is nervous about being a Jew in Paris: “Yes, but I’d feel nervous being a black man in this country. I’d feel nervous being a Muslim in many places.”

On her marriage to dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied: “The disappointments are always in myself, and like, when you’re faced day to day with someone looking at you, it’s like a mirror that you have to yourself, and you can see your own good behavior and bad behavior. And it’s a beautiful challenge to be the best person in the mirror that you can be. I mean, I don’t beat myself up over it, but I’m not always as generous as I feel like I could be.”

TIME Israel

Why the Latest Protest Against Police Brutality Is Happening in Israel

Demonstrators confront Israeli policemen, during a demonstration of Ethiopian Jews at RABIN Square in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2015.
Omer Messinger—AP Protesters confront Israeli policemen during a demonstration of Ethiopian Jews in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2015

Scores are hurt in weekend protests in Tel Aviv as Ethiopian Israelis rally against what they say is long-running racism

Masses of protesters gathering in the streets, some throwing rocks and bottles at the police. In full riot gear, the police respond in force, shooting tear-gas canisters, percussion bombs and water guns. By the end of the evening, 46 injured people are sent to area hospitals.

Scenes of violent protest are something that people in Israel are used to seeing periodically, though it is usually in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time, though, the rage involves youth Israelis of Ethiopian descent who are angry at their own government.

Complaints of discrimination in all sectors of society — including housing, education and the workplace — are common from Ethiopian Israelis. But the issue of police brutality toward the group came to the forefront in the past week when a video surfaced last Thursday showing police beating a young Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform. A protest against police brutality spilled over into violence in Jerusalem last Thursday night. Those protests continued over the weekend, and on Sunday evening, Rabin Square in the heart of Tel Aviv began to look like an intifada-era conflict zone.

What are Ethiopian-Israelis angry about? Since they began immigrating to Israel in the 1980s, Ethiopians have struggled to integrate into Israeli society. There are more than 135,00 Israelis of Ethiopian origin, according to the most recent figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Some came to escape famine and persecution, and all grew up on the idea of Israel as their ultimate homeland. By now, a new generation is Israeli-born, but they still face discrimination that, in the words of one activist, “is more latent than official.” In addition, some of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment question their Jewishness, which makes it difficult for them to get married in a country where civil marriage doesn’t exist.

But what touched off the current rage, so strikingly similar to the street protests over police brutality that have taken place over the past few months in the U.S., was a CCTV video. It captured an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier being thrown to the ground and beaten by two white policemen. In the video we see the policemen accost the soldier and push him, who then pushes back, and then the two men throw him to the ground and kick him.

“After being beaten up, after being violated again and again and being discriminated against, many Ethiopians wind up in jails,” says activist Fentahun Assefa-Dawit. He notes that 40% of minors in the Israeli correction system are of Ethiopian descent. “What’s different this time is the footage. And all the youngsters who might have been through this something like this, now they have proof that it occurs.”

Assefa-Dawit is the executive director of Tebeka–Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis, an organization that receives more than 1,000 complaints of discrimination and abuse a year. It takes up the strongest cases of Ethiopians who have suffered discrimination, some of which have gone to Israel’s Supreme Court. But for young people outraged by what they’ve experienced, change is coming far too slowly.

“When an Ethiopian applies for a job, as qualified as he might be, as impressive as his CV might be, he is not going to be invited for the interview because he has an Ethiopian name,” Assefa-Dawit told journalists on Monday in a conference call before heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is conferring with Ethiopian community leaders in an effort to calm the outrage. “When a local rabbinate office refuses to register a couple who wants to get married because they’re Ethiopian, when you see a school that says we cannot take more children because they have a quota of how many Ethiopians they will enroll, you can imagine what the feeling of young people will be,” he says.

Shimon Solomon, who came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 at the age of 12, was a member of the Israeli parliament in the last government with the Yesh Atid party. He says that although he has repeatedly brought the issue of police brutality towards Ethiopians to the authorities for several years, nothing has been done.

“What we saw in the video is nothing compared to what goes on, in fact it was less shocking that what happens to people in our community at the hands of police,” Solomon tells TIME. “When we speak to people in their neighborhoods, we hear that it’s happening all the time, that the police allow themselves to act brutally and take people aside and beat them for no reason. We turned to the police and ask them to fix this situation, but it just continued like nothing happened.”

Solomon says that the protest on Sunday started with peaceful intentions, but a small group of “anarchists — some Ethiopian and some not” wanted to push things in a more radical direction. “We wanted an aggressive demonstration, not a violent one,” says Solomon. “The point of a protest is to bring attention to a situation, not to make the situation worse.” Solomon says he was disappointed that as the anger across the Ethiopian community grew, there was silence from Israel’s leaders. “It’s too bad that he didn’t come out immediately to decry the violence and hatred.”

Netanyahu met on Monday with Ethiopian leaders in an attempt to douse the flames amid reports that there would be further protests this week. The Prime Minister is moving closer to forming a government but has still not presented one since his re-election on March 17. On Monday he decried racism and violence, and arranged a meeting with Damas Pakedeh, the soldier who was filmed being beaten by two policemen.

“I was shocked by the pictures that I saw,” Netanyahu said in comments released by his office. “We cannot accept this and the police are dealing with it. We need to change things.”

TIME Israel

Israeli Protest Against Racism Turns Violent

One man held a sign reading: "Bibi, you had better not let Baltimore reach Israel"

Several thousand people from Israel’s Jewish Ethiopian minority protested in Tel Aviv against racism and police brutality on Sunday, shutting down a major highway and clashing with police on horseback long into the night.

The protest was mostly peaceful during the day, but by nightfall became violent with at least 20 officers hurt and “multiple protesters” arrested, Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers in riot gear. Police deployed officers on horseback and used stun grenades to try and control the crowds in central Tel Aviv. Local media reported protesters tipped over a police vehicle and set fires near city hall.

Channel 2 TV said the protesters came from all over the country.

“I am here to fight for our rights,” a woman named Batel from the northern city of Nazareth Illit told the station.

“I don’t want to be beaten by police,” said the 21-year- old, who didn’t give her last name. “My parents didn’t immigrate here for nothing. I want equality.”

Simmering frustrations among Israel’s Ethiopian community boiled over when footage emerged of an Ethiopian Israeli in an army uniform being beaten by police last week. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, many of them secretly airlifted into the country in 1984 and 1990, but their absorption into Israeli society has been difficult. Although they are Jewish, Ethiopian community members complain of racism, lack of opportunity in Israeli society, endemic poverty and routine police harassment.

Police chief Yohanan Danino told Channel 10 TV that “the use of violence by a small minority of the many protesters does not serve their struggle.” He added, “Whoever harms police or civilians will be brought to justice.”

Activists told the station they don’t want violence to escalate to the level seen in Baltimore where the death of a man in police custody sparked riots. One man held a sign reading: “Bibi, you had better not let Baltimore reach Israel,” referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.

Police said thousands of people took part in Sunday’s protest. Protesters blocked roads in central Tel Aviv as well as a main highway leading to the city during the day.

It was the second such protest in several days and supporters say the demonstrations will continue. The first rally last week in Jerusalem turned violent as well, but on a smaller scale.

Protestor’s marched in Tel Aviv, with some blowing whistles or chanting “violent police officers belong in jail.”

Netanyahu said he will meet Monday with representatives of the community as well as the beaten solider.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich told Channel 2 the officers caught in the footage are “a disgrace” and are being investigated. He said Israel’s police force “needs to examine itself” and that more needs to be done to help the Ethiopian community.

TIME Israel

Israel Says Air Strike on Syrian Border Targeted Militants

Israeli soldiers patrol on the Israeli-Syrian border near the town of Majdal Shams, in the Israeli occupied Golan, on Apr. 26, 2015,
Jalaa Marey—AFP/Getty Images Israeli soldiers patrol on the Israeli-Syrian border near the town of Majdal Shams, in the Israeli occupied Golan, on Apr. 26, 2015,

It did not offer any casualty figure for the strike

(JERUSALEM)—Israel’s military said Sunday it launched an airstrike on its border with Syria after spotting militants carrying a bomb in the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

The military said it carried out the strike after troops saw “a group of armed terrorists” approach the border with an explosive intended to target Israeli troops. It said that Israeli aircraft “targeted the squad, preventing the attack.”

It did not offer any casualty figure for the strike. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four Syrian soldiers were killed by a missile fired from Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said it was not clear whether the missile was fired by a plane or from a vehicle.

On Twitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent messages commending the soldiers involved in the strike.

“Any attempt to harm our soldiers and civilians will be met with a determined response like the military action tonight that thwarted a terror attack,” Netanyahu said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility of the attack launched from inside Syria, which has been in the grips of a civil war since 2011. Syrian state media did not immediately report on the strike.

Israel has tried to stay out of the war in Syria, but it has spilled into the country before. In September, the Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet in airspace over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move that has never been internationally recognized. In August,Israel shot down a drone that came into the same airspace from Syria.

Israeli troops also have responded to occasional mortar fire from Syria. Israel says some of the attacks may have been accidental spillover, while others have been intentionally aimed at Israeli civilians and soldiers. It has always held Syria responsible for any cross-border fire.

Israel and Syria are bitter enemies. While relations are hostile, the ruling Assad family in Syria has kept the border area with Israel quiet for most of the past 40 years. Israel is concerned that the possible ouster of embattled President Bashir Assad’s ouster could push the country into the hands of Islamic State extremists or al-Qaida linked militants, or plunge the region further into sectarian warfare.

It also repeatedly has threatened to take military action to prevent Syria from transferring advanced weapons to its ally, Hezbollah. Israel is believed to have carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent years that have targeted sophisticated weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles.

There were reports in Arab media last week that Israel had carried out another attack on such weapons in Syria. Israeli officials have not commented.

But just hours before the border strike Sunday night, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned Syria and Iran against arming Hezbollah with such weapons.

“We will not allow the transfer of quality weapons to terror groups led by Hezbollah and we know how to reach them and those that dispatch them at any time,” Yaalon said. He added that Iran is continuously trying to find ways to arm Hezbollah with the weapons.

TIME portfolio

These Teenagers Are Israel’s Future Soldiers

They learn how to assemble an AK-47 assault rifle and how to react in an urban, house-to-house fighting situation

In a country where military service is mandatory (three years for men and two for women) groups of young Israeli teenagers are increasingly joining advance-training programs to prepare – physically and mentally – for duty.

“In Israel, once you join the army, you become a grown-up,” says Oded Balilty, an Associated Press photographer based in Tel Aviv. “One day, you’re a teenager, the next you’re a soldier with a gun. And so, some of them want to prepare themselves and feel more comfortable with the idea of being a soldier.”

For Israelis, conflict has become a fact of life — Israeli reservists can be called into active duty during times of crisis. “Yet, most kids will often only hear about it in the news; they don’t really live it,” says Balilty. “Of course, during wartime, they go down to shelters if necessary, but they mostly hear about it from their parents and friends around the dining table. Teenagers care about different stuff. They care about dating girls; they care about parties; they care about their iPhones and their iPads.”

For most of them, war only becomes a reality when they start their military service, and end up on the front lines.

Balilty spent six days following 400 students taking part in military combat fitness-training programs organized by Excellent Training, an independent company founded by Nir Cohen, a former Israeli paratrooper. Students meet three times a week, over a year, and are put through grueling exercises designed to strengthen them ahead of their military service. “For example, those who train to join the Navy are sent in the water when it’s cold weather,” says Balilty. “They go in and out, and at the same time the instructors are asking them questions about the history of Israel to see if they’re focused and if they are mentally stable. It’s very intense. [The instructors] want to simulate the tension and stress that soldiers are under in the military.”

The students also learn how to assemble an AK-47 assault rifle, and how to react in an urban, house-to-house fighting situation.

Excellent Training is just one of the many companies, founded by former members of the Israeli military, that have been offering these training programs in the last decade. “There are many others in each large city [in Israel],” says Balilty, who has followed several of these groups in recent months.

In the end, says Balilty, “these teenagers are definitely more ready than most of the teenagers that go straight into the army. I’ve seen 16 and 17-year-old kids that were really mature. Other kids tend to be more scared about joining the army. They can break mentally. So I think this [sort of training] is really helping them.”

Oded Balilty is an Associated Press photographer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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