TIME faith

The AIPAC Wars are Underway Again

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the cheering audience as he arrives to speak to the AIPAC meeting at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2014, in Washington. Carolyn Kaster—AP

The latest attack on AIPAC is seriously flawed

AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—is a lobby created by American Jews and devoted to improving relations between the United States and Israel. Every 5 or 6 years a book or major article is published, containing an “exposé” on how AIPAC operates. The latest version, a 12,000-word article written by Connie Bruck and entitled “Friends of Israel,” appears in the September 1 edition of “The New Yorker.”

The problem with this most recent effort, like the ones that precede it, is that it tells us very little we don’t already know. The workings of AIPAC are not a secret. The organization was founded 50 years ago with a small office in Washington, D.C., but now has a hundred thousand members and a grassroots presence in every state and congressional district. It does not endorse candidates or raise funds for campaigns, but many in the Jewish community will donate or not depending on whether a politician backs AIPAC positions.

AIPAC is committed to the proposition that Israel is a vital ally of the United States, and it supports military aid and political backing for the Jewish state. It operates by initiating email campaigns, offering trips to Israel for politicians and community leaders, developing constituency groups that will contact their Senators and Congressmen, and providing educational programs. In short, it does what all lobbies do, and while it lacks the clout of the banking or oil lobby, it is enormously effective for the simple reason that the American people are supportive of Israel. In addition, AIPAC is very good at its job.

If this sounds admirable, it is. In America’s vibrant democracy, a group of citizens has come together to defend another democracy, a tiny state surrounded by enemies in the radicalized Middle East. What then is there to “expose”?

Bruck offers more or less the same far-fetched answers that we heard from the last major “exposé,” written by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in 2007. AIPAC, she suggests, basically controls American foreign policy in the Middle East. Members of Congress are victims of the AIPAC machine, forced by its political pressure to put the interests of Israel before the interests of America. Furthermore, as Israel has moved to the right, AIPAC has allowed itself to become a tool of rightwing Republicans who want to use Israel as a wedge issue to undermine President Obama. But, Bruck concludes, things are looking up. The American public, members of Congress, and even American Jews are fed up with the increasing extremism of both AIPAC and the Netanyahu government, and AIPAC’s support is declining.

The Bruck article does offer a few interesting insights, but its hostility to AIPAC and Israel is so intense that it is impossible to take seriously. Bruck professes to see AIPAC as a terrible bully, but the kind of arm-twisting that she describes happens every day in Washington. Since lobbying and tough talk on every issue imaginable are the very lifeblood of our political system, why exactly is advocacy for Israel any less legitimate than advocacy for any of the other matters, foreign and domestic, that come before Congress?

Furthermore, Bruck’s portrayal of Israel as the villain in Gaza is the best gauge of how she really feels about the Jewish state. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, more than 15,000 rockets have been fired at Israel’s civilian centers, traumatizing the population and bringing ordinary life in large parts of Israel to a halt. While the civilian casualties in Gaza are tragic, Israel is the victim of Hamas, and not the other way around.

And finally, the picture that she presents of members of Congress borders on the absurd. They do pay attention to AIPAC—and to other lobbying groups, their own sense of duty, and most important, what they see, rightly, as the pro-Israel sentiments of their constituents. Even an American public that does not hold Senators and Congresspersons in high regard is not prepared to accept as credible that they are mindless automatons, disregarding principle and blindly accepting AIPAC’s dictates.

Bruck gets some things right. While the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is a serious issue and a legitimate concern of Congress, we see from Bruck’s account that AIPAC bungled its handling of the matter. And she is right that despite its claim of bipartisanship, it has not always done well in that regard. As an example of AIPAC’s professed intentions, she quotes a statement by the AIPAC spokesman: “Our position in support of the Oslo process and the two-state solution have generated criticism from some on the right, just as our stand for strong prospective Iran sanctions has spurred criticism from on the left.” Fair enough. But while AIPAC leaders frequently talk about Iran sanctions, they hardly ever mention the two-state solution—or the settlements that may prevent such a solution from happening. These subjects are virtually absent from their educational materials and their annual conferences. If AIPAC is serious about bipartisanship and about bringing more Democrats, liberals, and young people into the AIPAC tent, it will need to advocate for the two-state solution that it already supports.

These virtues notwithstanding, the Bruck article is seriously flawed. AIPAC is one of American Jewry’s proudest accomplishments, and is invaluable for the survival of Israel—America’s most devoted Middle Eastern ally. An honest and thoughtful analysis of the organization would have been welcome. Sadly, what Ms. Bruck provides is a biased exposé, filled more with fantasy than with fact.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Middle East

Israel and Palestinians Reach Open-Ended Cease-Fire Deal

The sign of victory as people gather in the streets to celebrate after a deal had been reached between Hamas and Israel over a long-term end to seven weeks of fighting in the Gaza Strip on Aug. 26, 2014 in Gaza City.
Palestinians in Gaza City celebrate in the streets after a deal had been reached between Hamas and Israel over a long-term end to seven weeks of fighting in the Gaza Strip on Aug. 26, 2014 Momen Faiz—NurPhoto/Corbis

Truce ends the seven-week war, but it's an open question whether longer-term political talks will resume

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced Tuesday that Israel and various Palestinian militant factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad had reached a cease-fire deal to end seven weeks of devastating war, and to postpone negotiations over several remaining issues for one month.

The news follows weeks of intense efforts on the part of the Egyptian government to broker a truce between the sides, both of whom were keen to emerge looking victorious, or at least successful, from a bruising war that resulted in the death of nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 70 Israelis.

Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev told the BBC that the cease-fire would meet Israel’s primary goals of keeping its citizens safe. The deal, he said, “commits Hamas to ending all hostile activity against Israel from Gaza. Now if that in fact does happen, and we hope it does, that is, for us, victory.”

Abbas’ role in announcing the deal from his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank was evidence of the more prominent role that Egyptian, Israeli and other officials have sought in Gaza for the Palestinian President, whose Fatah party and security forces were ousted from the coastal strip in a Hamas coup in 2007.

In an evening speech making the deal official, Abbas said that he would soon present a detailed plan aimed at establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, a reference to Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel occupied in the Six-Day War. He also indicated that he would not return to another round of negotiations with Israel amid what seems like such a discouraging prognosis for progress; the last round of talks ended in failure in April.

“The question now is, What’s next?” Abbas said. “Gaza suffered three wars and are we expecting another one? We will consult friends and the international community, and we can’t continue with cloudy negotiations.”

What’s in the Deal
The deal calls for an “open-ended” cease-fire and an Israeli agreement to ease its strict closure policy on Gaza, which Palestinians consider a siege. In theory, this means Israel should ease access at five crossings into Gaza that it controls, opening them up for a better flow of commercial goods and humanitarian needs, and most importantly, for building materials at the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

This latter aspect, according to a Palestinian source close to Hamas, has held up a deal in recent weeks as Hamas thought it necessary to hold out for the free flow of materials such as cement and steel as part of the reconstruction of Gaza. Also included in the deal is an Israeli agreement to allow Gazan fisherman to fish in waters up to 12 nautical miles off the coast by the end of the year — more than doubling the distance they were able to travel offshore in recent years, leading to overfishing.

What Hamas did not get, but had demanded throughout the past month, are three other things that the sides have agreed to postpone discussing for one month. These include the creation of a Gaza seaport, an airport and the release of approximately 50 Hamas activists who were rearrested by Israel in June. After having let them go in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in October 2011, Israeli forces arrested them in West Bank raids following the kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers in mid-June. A senior Hamas official last week took responsibility for that attack.

Also postponed for a month is the demand by Hamas for Egypt to open the border crossing at Rafah. Egypt said it would work that out in a separate, bilateral agreement, with sources suggesting that that Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi wanted to take a wait-and-see approach before agreeing to ease Egypt’s own closure of the Hamas-run territory. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority forces are expected to take over responsibility for administering Gaza’s borders from Hamas, Reuters reports.

The agreement seems to lack exact details as to what precisely it would mean for Israel to “ease” its blockade of Gaza, leaving room for disagreements as in past years. Moreover, the deal largely mirrored the November 2012 cease-fire agreement that ended a week of war known as Operation Pillar of Defense. Exactly how “open-ended” this cease-fire ends up being thus remains to be seen.

Hamas Declares Victory
Hamas proclaimed itself victorious on Tuesday night, as details of the deal leaked out. Gazans gathered in several places throughout the strip and shot celebratory gunfire into the air.

“We are here today to declare the victory of the resistance, the victory of Gaza, with the help of God, and the steadfastness of our people and the noble resistance,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said at a news conference at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.

The deal fulfilled what the Palestinian group had hoped for during the weeks of negotiations, said Gershon Baskin, an Israeli academic who has acted as a go-between Israel and Hamas on several occasions, including in the lead-up to the Shalit prisoner exchange deal almost three years ago. “Hamas has been ready for an agreement for two weeks, and has made it clear its achievements would not be military but political. What was important to them was to get building materials into Gaza,” he said.

Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior member of the Hamas political wing who has not been seen in public in some time, was one of several top Hamas officials to speak to the crowd of thousands gathered in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood Tuesday.

“We’re going to build our port and our airport, and if they attack the port, they attack the port. But anyone who attacks the airport will have their airport attacked again,” al-Zahar said, according to an Agence France-Presse report, in a reference to the numerous rockets launched at Israel’s Ben Gurion International airport. Though none of these succeeded, a Hamas rocket that targeted a town near the airstrip caused the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend the landing of several U.S. airlines there for several days in July.

Netanyahu Faces Hard Sell
Israel seems less in the mood for celebrating. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who informed his cabinet of the cease-fire deal Tuesday evening, has a more complicated job of selling the war’s achievements to Israelis. While the vast majority of Israelis believed he was justified in going to war, according to polls, not all of them are ready to end Operation Protective Edge with Hamas seemingly undeterred — and many are fearful that a cease-fire is simply a time-out until the next round. Whereas 82% of Israelis supported Netanyahu in mid-July, when he first sent in ground troops, a new poll showed his approval rating sunk to 32%.

Three of Netanyahu’s most prominent right-wing coalition partners — Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovich — announced their opposition to the cease-fire deal. The heads of local councils in southern Israel also announced Tuesday night that they flatly rejected the cease-fire agreement.

Itamar Shimoni, the mayor of Ashkelon, one of the cities hardest hit by the rocket fire, called the deal a “surrender to terrorism” and added: “We wanted to see Hamas defeated and begging for its life, but instead we’re seeing Israel running to the negotiation table every opportunity that presents itself.”

The upper echelons of Netanyahu’s team and senior Israel Defense Forces officials, however, will present it much differently. “The Israeli spin will be that Hamas shot most of their rockets and that won’t easily be replenished, and that most of the tunnels were destroyed and can’t be rebuilt,” Baskin tells TIME. “The big question is whether the regional political process will restart, as it should.”

TIME Israel

Hopes for a Cease-Fire Rise as the Gaza War Drags On

A Palestinian walks on the rubble of a mosque that was partially damaged by an airstrike on Aug. 25, 2014 in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian walks on the rubble of a mosque that was partially damaged by an air strike in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, on Aug. 25, 2014 Roberto Schmidt—AFP/Getty Images

The Gaza war has reached its eighth week, and people on both sides keep dying. But there are reports of a potential truce

Israeli and Palestinian media outlets were abuzz with reports Monday that the various factions involved in the Israel-Hamas conflict were close to agreeing on a cease-fire deal following renewed efforts by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help negotiate a truce. Either way, the possibility of reaching a cease-fire with a longer shelf life seemed to increase the likelihood of the sides reaching a cease-fire that would also be the prelude to a return to peace talks.

Khaled al-Batsh, an Islamic Jihad official attending the Cairo talks, was the source of reports that on the possible cease-fire. But a senior Hamas official, Izzat al-Rishq, said the sides had yet to agree on a cease-fire in Gaza, according to Israeli daily Haaretz, while another Lebanon-based Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, would only confirm in a Hamas radio interview that “efforts are under way to stop the Israeli aggression.” Late Sunday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on Israel and Palestinian factions to agree to a cease-fire without a time limit attached and to return to the peace negotiations.

A senior Israeli official reached by TIME says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is declining to comment on the rumors of a possible cease-fire and suggests “exercising caution” in giving credence to the reports. A report on Israel’s Walla! news site suggested that Egypt would make an announcement on a deal late Monday, one that would include a reopening the Rafah crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt and the expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone to 12 nautical miles, two of Hamas’ demands. If the cease-fire is maintained, the report says, Israel will allow more commercial products into Gaza, including construction materials.

Still, Israel and Hamas have very different visions about how the conflict should end — which makes it challenging to reach an agreement satisfactory to all sides. “The dilemma is that Israel is not willing to talk before reaching a cease-fire, while there is still shooting going on, and the Palestinian factions insist that they want achievements in exchange for agreeing to a cease-fire,” says Ghassan Khatib, a veteran Palestinian political analyst and the vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank.

Adding intrigue about what the week may hold, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview Saturday with the Egypt’s Sada El Balad station that in the coming days he would introduce his own plan for solving the greater Israel-Palestine conflict. Many analysts here have speculated that this will likely be built on the Arab Peace Initiative — also called the Saudi Peace Initiative — first put forward in 2002. In the plan, moderate Arab states would recognize Israel in return for Israel recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Any such plan would, naturally, including a program for rebuilding Gaza, but Israel is concerned that materials like cement and steel will be used refresh Hamas’ military capabilities — including the tunnels that became the focus of the Israel Defense Forces’ recent Gaza invasion.

Abbas said he would be discussing the initiative this week with other top Palestinian officials in Ramallah. “It will be an unconventional solution, but I’m not going to declare war on Israel,” Abbas said in the interview. “I have diplomatic and political solutions.” He suggested that he doesn’t expect Washington to support his initiative but added that “in the end, our Arab brothers will go with us.”

Khatib believes that Abbas’s statement indicates that Saudi involvement would play a key role in a peace deal. “Saudi and international parties are trying to bridge the gap by giving guarantees, meaning that they would set up a mechanism by which a third-party will guarantee freedom of movement to and from Gaza, but check that this cannot be used for the rearming of Gaza.” Egypt, he says, would like to play this role — or at least a pivotal one. The three key European players — France, Germany and Britain — all are offering assistance as well. The three countries are reportedly working on a proposal for a U.N. resolution to end the fighting, according to a report leaked to Haaretz, as part of a plan to return Gaza to Palestinian Authority control under international supervision — the territory has been run by Hamas since June 2007 — end the Israeli embargo on Gaza and resume peace talks.

The alternative, it seems, is continued war. Each side has made it clear other over the past week than they are ready to keep fighting indefinitely. With the conflict between Israel and Hamas already dragging on far longer than expected — it is now heading into its eighth week — politicians on both sides in the conflict have begun to refer to the possibility of war of attrition. That’s a reference to the ongoing fighting following the 1967 Six-Day War, one that continued for another three years, pitting Israel against Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian and even Soviet forces. Netanyahu and his Defense Minister told Israelis on Aug. 24 to expect a protracted war and “if necessary,” a delay of the start of the school year next week, at least for schools that are in the line of fire from Gaza.

In the meantime, both sides have continued their attacks. Israel has carried out 70 air strikes in the Gaza Strip over the past two days, the IDF said in its Twitter feed, while over the same period Israel was targeted by more than 230 rockets and mortars from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant factions in Gaza. On Sunday a 4-year-old Israeli boy was laid to rest after he was killed in a mortar attack from Gaza on Friday, triggering an exodus of Israelis from communities near the Gaza border, which are not protected by the country’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. The boy’s death brought the number of Israelis killed in the ongoing war to 68, including 64 soldiers. That same day a Palestinian mother and her four children were killed in an Israeli air strike on Gaza. At least 2,120 Gazans have been killed in the conflict, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Barring a lasting cease-fire, both numbers will keep rising.

TIME Middle East

Hopes of Prolonged Truce Dashed as Gaza Conflict Reignites

Smoke rises as Palestinians stand atop the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians stand atop the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on August 20, 2014. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa — Reuters

Talks in Cairo collapse after rockets are fired from Gaza into Israel

Fighting in Gaza continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning after talks between Israel and Hamas over a cease-fire collapsed in Cairo.

The negotiations in the Egyptian capital came to an abrupt end after three rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel eight hours before the latest truce was set to expire. Hamas denied launching the initial barrage of artillery on Tuesday night, but later claimed responsibility for rockets fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Israel responded to the salvos with renewed airstrikes into the Gaza Strip and pulled its negotiation team from Cairo, where it had been engaged in talks with Palestinian representatives over the establishment of a prolonged truce.

“The Cairo process was built on a total and complete cessation of all hostilities and so when rockets were fired from Gaza, not only was it a clear violation of the cease-fire but it also destroyed the premise upon which the talks were based,” Mark Regev, the spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters.

The Palestinian team was also set to depart Egypt, reported Haaretz.

On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Peter Lerner accused Hamas of firing 70 rockets into Israel since Tuesday. No Israeli causalities have been reported since the hostilities reignited. Israeli officials went on to label Hamas’s actions as a “grave and direct violation” of the truce.

“This is the eleventh cease-fire that Hamas has either rejected or violated,” tweeted Regev.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that Hamas accused the Israelis of attempting to “assassinate” one of the group’s top military commanders, Mohammed Deif, during an air raid in Gaza City that reportedly killed his wife and child. There has been no confirmation whether Deif was also killed during the strike.

Following ten days of relative calm in the battle-fatigued strip, where more 380,000 people are displaced, Hamas and Israel remain at loggerheads, with both parties continuing to make demands that neither side appears willing to accept.

“On the Israeli side, you have a demand that is not going to be implemented under any circumstance — and that’s the disarmament of Hamas,” Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program, tells TIME.

“And on the Hamas side you have a demand that is not going to be implemented under any circumstances and that’s a full lifting of the what Hamas calls the blockade or siege of Gaza.”

Approximately 2,000 Palestinians and more than 60 Israelis have been killed in the month-long war between Hamas and Israel. However, analysts suggest that the worst fighting may, at least for the time being, have passed.

“I think that there is a real sense of exhaustion with this conflict on all sides,” says Thrall. “The most likely scenario is that the most violent period of this conflict is behind us, but no one can predict for sure.”

TIME Middle East

Israel-Gaza Talks Collapse as Fighting Resumes Where It Left Off

Destruction is seen from the bathroom of a Palestinian apartment in the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun, on August 18, 2014.
Destruction is seen from the bathroom of a Palestinian apartment in the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun, on August 18, 2014. Thomas Coex—AFP/Getty Images

Renewed rocket fire from the Gaza strip was met with Israeli airstrikes Tuesday, as Egypt negotiations were called off

Hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed and peace negotiations in Cairo were called off Tuesday, with Israeli negotiators called home to Jerusalem hours before an already prolonged cease-fire was due to expire.

Militants in Gaza launched three rockets in the direction of the Israeli city of Beersheba at close to 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday afternoon, Israel Defense Forces reported. They fell in open areas and no one was injured. But the very fact of even a trio of rockets being launched tested the doctrine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials had reiterated in recent days: that Israel would not negotiate under fire, and would not accept even a “drizzle” of rocket fire from Hamas and its allies in Gaza.

“If Hamas thinks that through the continued drizzle of rocket fire it will force us to make concessions, it’s mistaken,” Netanyahu warned on Sunday. The metaphor of this drizzle – or tif-toof as it’s referred to in Hebrew – has become the new catch-phrase being used in Israel to embody a zero-tolerance policy to rockets. Tens of thousands of Israelis, including residents of the southern parts of Israel who have often been subjected to rocket fire even when there isn’t a full-scale conflict going on, protested in Tel Aviv last Thursday night, demanding a more definitive solution to the problem.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett, said after the renewed fire Tuesday that it was impossible to negotiate with Hamas. “When you hold negotiations with a terror organization, you get more terror,” he said. “Hamas thinks that firing rockets helps in securing achievement in negotiations, therefore it is firing at Israel even during a cease-fire. Rockets are not a mistake [for Hamas], they are a method.”

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, accused Israel of dragging out the talks and of not being serious about reaching an agreement. “Israel’s foot-dragging proves it has no will to reach a truce deal,” Abu Zuhri said. “The Palestinian factions are ready to all possibilities,” he added, presaging the likelihood of a return to further conflict.

He also said that he had “no information about rocket fire coming from Gaza,” making it unclear as to which group actually launched the rockets. There are smaller militant groups than Hamas operating in Gaza; the largest of them, Islamic Jihad, has a delegation attending the talks in Cairo.

The return to hostilities is hardly the outcome everyone was waiting for as negotiators neared the end of their deadline for reaching a deal to bring a brutal and bloody summer of fighting to an end. Only a day earlier, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations meeting in Cairo were reported to be very close to reaching an agreement, as the nearly week-long ceasefire was extended for another 24 hours.

However, there were still large gaps on key issues. Hamas has demanded a complete lifting of the closure on the Gaza Strip, as well as permission to build an international seaport in Gaza. Israel has said it will not allow Hamas to use looser restrictions to rearm or to rebuild tunnels into Israel.

After the three initial rockets, further rocket salvoes on southern Israel were reported Tuesday afternoon. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF Spokesperson said that the IDF “will continue striking terror infrastructure, pursuing terrorists, and eliminating terror capabilities in the Gaza Strip, in order to restore security for the State of Israel.”

TIME Iran

One Result of the Gaza Conflict: Iran and Hamas Are Back Together

Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian ambassadors abroad during a ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 13, 2014.
Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian ambassadors abroad during a ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 13, 2014. EPA

Iran and Hamas were once tightly allied, but the Syrian war drove them apart. Now, after the Gaza conflict, the two sides are making up

Correction appended, 8/19/14

Long considered to be the biggest sponsor of Islamic militants battling Israel and designated as terrorist groups by the United States, Iran’s relationship with the Palestinian group Hamas was once touted as among its strongest. Not only had Iran brought Hamas on board the so-called Axis of Resistance, alongside its other regional allies Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, but the Islamic Republic had always publicly boasted of its wide ranging support for the group, from providing financial backing to shipping weapons.

However, when the Arab Spring spread into Syria in 2011, the majority Shiite Iran’s long-standing alliance with Hamas deteriorated significantly when the militant group opted to break step with Tehran and support the mainly Sunni rebels against Syria’s Bashar Assad. The falling-out came to a head when the political leaders of Hamas moved their base from Syria to Qatar, a regional rival of Iran.

In retaliation Iran, Syria and Hezbollah reportedly ended their support for Hamas in all fields, effectively ousting it from their Axis of Resistance and cutting off one of Hamas’ most vital lifelines. “The Iranians are not happy with our position on Syria, and when they are not happy, they don’t deal with you in the same old way,” the deputy political leader of Hamas Moussa Abu Marzouk in February 2012, according to the Associated Press.

When the latest battle between Hamas and Israel, called the Zionist Regime in Tehran, flared up in early July, Iran initially remained relatively quiet, though it denounced Israel for the loss of life among civilians. But the number of Palestinian casualties grew, including many children and women, attracting significant international attention and sympathy. (As of Aug. 10 nearly 2,000 Palestinians had been killed according to the UN, along with 66 Israelis.) For Iran, the Gaza conflict was seen as an opportunity to improve its standing in the Islamic world, which had suffered—especially among Sunnis—thanks to its steadfast support of Assad.

Seeking to take advantage of this opportunity and to regain its position as the foremost supporter of the Palestinian militant groups battling Israel—and to reconcile with Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East—a significant number of Iranian officials have now gone on the record to voice their support for Hamas, the main militant group in Gaza, over its latest battle with Israel. “We are prepared to support the Palestinian resistance in different ways,” said the commander of the revolutionary guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafaria, during a speech on Aug. 4, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “Just as until now any show of strength in Palestine which caused the defeat of Zionists has its roots in the support of the Islamic Revolution [of Iran].”

The first sign of this shift came on July 29, when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the resistance against Israel in a speech, calling on the Islamic world to equip Palestinians according to his official website Khamenei.ir. Two days later Khamenei was echoed by one of Iran’s top military officers, Major General of the Guards Qasem Soleimani, who commands the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guardians Corps. Soleimani published a rare public letter to the “Political leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all the resistance,” lauding their continued efforts against Israel. The letter promised that Iran “will continue to perform our religious duty to support and help the resistance till the moment of victory when the resistance will turn the earth, the air and the sea into hell for Zionists,” according to the official IRNA news agency.

That was followed by numerous officials, MPs and military figures, all issuing statements in support of Hamas, and echoing Khamenei’s call for unity among Muslims. “In our defence of Muslims we see no difference between Sunni and Shiite,” said General Jafari, the commander of the guards, in an Aug. 4 speech. Some even promised a supply of weapons to Hamas, which has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. “You will get the weapons and ammunition you need no matter how hard it might be to do so,” said Mohsen Rezaei, the former wartime commander of the revolutionary guards in a public letter to the commander of the military wing of Hamas Mohammed Deif, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

With Iran already deeply involving in shoring up the Iraqi and Syrian governments against militant Sunni groups, it is doubtful that these promises of support and weapons for Hamas could be fulfilled anytime soon, and while the Islamic Republic is also striving to break the impasse in its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and other powers, arming militant groups against Israel, America’s main ally in the region, could be potentially disruptive for those talks. But in his letter to Deif, Rezaei tried to address that doubt, writing that “Israel is mistaken in its belief that the instabilities in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and the pressure on Iran from the United States’ economic blockade has given them an opportunity.”

In the meantime Iran has continued its charm offensive on Sunni Muslims. The head of the influential State Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, met with Iran’s top Sunni clerics and activists recently, and called for unity among all Muslims. Promising them that Iran intended to support and defend all Abrahamic religions and sects—Rafsanjani condemned any act that could cause divisions among Muslims. Backing up that position, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced on Aug. 3 that it had shut down the offices and arrested the staff of four extremist Shiite satellite channels that regularly incite intolerance and hatred against other Islamic sects, especially Sunnis.

Hamas—which has been politically isolated since its last remaining backer, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power—has welcomed reconciliation with its old ally and benefactor. Hamas’ official representative to Iran, Khalid al-Qoddoumi, reportedly said on Aug. 9 that Iranians “have always been the first in line to help and support our people.” Reports from the semiofficial ISNA news agency also indicate that a long postponed visit to Iran by the head of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, is set to happen soon. For Israel, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has had one more unexpected and unwelcome outcome: Iran and Hamas are together again.

Correction: Because of an editing error, the date of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry’s announcement that it had shut down the offices and arrested the staff of four extremist Shiite satellite channels was misstated. It was Aug. 3.

TIME Middle East

Poll: 92% of Israeli Jews Say Operation Protection Edge Was Justified

Talks resume in Cairo, as fresh 3-day truce holds in Gaza
A general view of a Merkava tanks near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, 11 August 2014. Abir Sultan—EPA

A poll of Israeli public opinion in the aftermath of the ground invasion of Gaza finds overwhelming approval of the military operation among Israeli Jews.

A total of 92% of Israeli Jews agreed that Operation Protective Edge was justified, according to the monthly Peace Index poll published Tuesday by the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think-tank, and Tel Aviv University. The survey found that even amongst self-described left-leaning Israeli Jews, 67% thought the operation was justified.

But Jewish Israelis weren’t so unified on the question of whether the Israel Defense Forces used the appropriate amount of firepower in its operation. While 48% thought the amount was just right, some 45% think too little firepower was used. 6% felt the IDF used too much.

Published two weeks after Israel announced the withdrawal of all ground troops in Operation Protective Edge from Gaza on Aug. 5, the poll found that just 13% of Israeli Arabs believed the government had achieved most or all of its goals, compared with 44% of Israeli Jews.

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders meet to discuss a cease-fire the real question is whether peace will be brought to the troubled region. Sadly 71% of Israeli Jews thought chances were low that Operation Protective Edge would lead to three or more years of quiet from Gaza. Amongst Israeli Arabs the figure was 49%.

 

TIME Israel-Gaza conflict

Israeli Left Finds Itself Isolated After Gaza War

Polls show that most Israelis supported the launch of Operation Protective Edge

The past month has not been an easy one for left-leaning organizations in Israel. A July poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a non-partisan Israeli think-tank, found that 95% of Israelis believed Operation Protective Edge was justly launched. More than two weeks into the fighting support remained unwavering.

Inside the country, only a few groups have been vocal in their condemnation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Adalah are all notable examples. But perhaps the loudest has been human rights group B’Tselem. Founded in 1989, it’s been persistent in its criticism of the Gaza conflict.

Running across its homepage are the names of all children killed in the recent Gaza war. B’Tselem had hoped to broadcast this list on Israeli radio but the clip was blocked by the Israeli Broadcast Authority (IBA), which said the advert’s content was “politically controversial.” On Thursday, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s Supreme Court had overturned B’Tselem’s appeal against IBA’s decision.

That added to what has been a difficult month for the non-governmental organization. Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s director, told TIME: “The last month has been unprecedented… We received death threats, people told the police we should be accused of treason, we faced attempts of physical violence.” After repeatedly filing complaints to the police, El-Ad says B’Tselem was forced to hire its own security.

“The Israeli public has veered to the right,” says Dan Goldenblatt, Israeli co-director at Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, a non-profit think-tank that works to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “It’s more nationalistic, more racist, more xenophobic, more anti-Arab.”

B’Tselem’s situation worsened last week after the National Civilian Service removed the group from Israel’s national service volunteer list, though this decision was put on hold on Sunday pending an investigation. If upheld, it would mean that those eligible to opt for national service over military conscription won’t be able to work for the organization.

Sar-Shalom Jerbi, the National Civilian Service’s administration director, said the original decision was made because B’Tselem “crossed the line in wartime [by] campaigning and inciting against the state of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, which is the most moral of armies.”

Despite this backdrop, groups like B’Tselem are unlikely to be silenced. Abraham Bell, Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Goldenblatt are united in agreement that the left is usually critical of the government over incursions into Gaza, even if that’s an unpopular stance to take at the time.

Although strongly critical of Israel during the war, B’Tselem has also condemned the role Hamas has played in the conflict. A statement on its website contains the line in bold: “Hamas did, indeed, violate international humanitarian law during the fighting.” Though this sentiment is undoubtedly shared by its detractors, they might not agree with B’Tselem’s succeeding paragraph which begins: “However, Israel is wrong in shirking responsibility for the consequences of its actions and in laying them at Hamas’ door.”

Yariv Oppenheimer, the general director of Peace Now, another NGO which was founded in 1978 and campaigns for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, is also critical of Hamas, telling TIME: “We think that Hamas is not a partner for peace… [it's] a terrorist organization, officially it doesn’t recognize the right of Israel to exist.” Oppenheimer adds however that “Israel should not just criticize Hamas but speak to other Palestinian groups like the Palestinian Authority… We should say to our neighbors that people who come with peace will be able to reach an agreement with us.”

Peace Now and B’Tselem’s refusal to censure Hamas as strongly as the Israeli government perhaps explains why they’re seen as lenient toward the organization. Bell told TIME: “I haven’t done a comprehensive survey but as far as I can see, most of the [left-wing] criticism has been towards the government… B’Tselem’s criticism has been almost exclusively towards the Israeli government.”

Though B’Tselem might be perceived as unduly critical of the government, it hasn’t gone unheard. “We’ve seen a surge in public interest in B’Tselem’s work and public statements,” El-Ad says, though he adds: “I understand that many people are upset with our statements and interest doesn’t equal support.”

The same can’t be said for Peace Now. The group has declined in the decades since its founding. Unlike B’Tselem, Peace Now has been fairly quiet on the current conflict. “I admit that in the last few weeks it was very difficult to have a clear position on [Israel's] right to respond [in Gaza],” Oppenheimer says. He adds however that the group held a protest against the war in Tel Aviv on Saturday that attracted over 10,000 people by his estimate.

For Oppenheimer, a shift in public mood is to blame for their dwindling support. “In the past people were much more optimistic and romantic about the idea of peace,” he says. “People in Israel have suffered a lot of disappointment over the last decade.”

Though Bell agrees people are disappointed he blames the left-wing organizations for their own failure. “Groups like Peace Now, they managed to implement the major parts of their platform and it didn’t go as expected,” he says.

Left-wing groups originally pushed for negotiations with the Palestinian leadership to achieve territorial compromises, Bell explains, and then hopefully a lasting peace deal. When talks failed, the leftist groups called for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which also failed to bring peace. “It’s not clear to Israelis that accommodation or unilateral withdrawal will bring peace or international support,” says Bell. In the IDI’s latest peace poll just 3.2% of Israelis believe negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, will lead to future peace.

B’Tselem’s El-Ad suggests such views are partly the result of the government’s stance. “There has been a huge effort by the political leadership to sell to the public that there’s no partner for a politically agreed solution,” he says. “The strategy that’s being pitched is the only way to deal with Gaza is force.”

Bell, however, is not convinced. “It’s very hard in Israel to control the public opinion from a governmental position,” he notes. “I think the [government's] rhetoric is the result, not the cause [of people's loss of faith].” Nevertheless Bell doesn’t think this is the end of Israel’s left. “I don’t think [these groups] are ever going to truly disappear, I think that people are naturally optimistic.”

TIME Middle East

Hamas: Israel Will ‘Face a Long War’ If Palestinian Demands Not Met

A Palestinian man looks through the window of his house to buildings damaged by an overnight airstrike in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.
A Palestinian man looks through the window of his house to buildings damaged by an overnight airstrike in Gaza City, July 22, 2014. Alessio Romenzi for TIME

The militant Islamic group wants an end to Israel's long-standing economic blockade on Gaza and fewer movement restrictions on its people

The offers for peace made to the Palestinian delegation in Cairo don’t meet the demands of the people in Gaza, Hamas’ head of foreign affairs said Saturday, raising the prospect of a long-term conflict.

“Israel must accept the demands of the Palestinian people or face a long war,” Osama Hamdan said in Arabic on his official Facebook page on Saturday, according to an English translation by Reuters.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told the Al-Aqsa Hamas TV station he has demanded an end to Israel’s long-standing economic blockade on Gaza, Reuters reports, and that Israel reduce movement restrictions on the 1.8 million residents of the territory.

Hamas and Israel are not meeting face-to-face in Cairo, as Israel considers it a terrorist organization.

The current violence in Gaza began July 8 when Israel responded to rocket fire from the territory, eventually launching a ground operation and killing more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. Sixty-seven Israelis have died in the conflict as well, and over 400,000 Gaza residents have been displaced.

TIME foreign affairs

My Jewish Family’s Incredible Shrinking World

Rabbi Shmuel Segal of the Jewish educati
Rabbi Shmuel Segal of the Jewish education centre looks up at the Chanukkah lights in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, December 20, 2011. Odd Andersen —AFP/Getty Images

Synagogues from the UK to France have been defaced, and there's no sense of outrage to be found

My first flight was international, 2,500 miles from my birthplace in Kyubishev, Russia, to Rome, Italy in 1978. Italy was a common stopover for Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. We stayed three months in a small apartment in Ladispoli, a suburb of Rome. I ate a lot of chocolate and oranges while my parents learned Italian and waited to hear that America would let us in.

When we got to Brooklyn, they got busy working. In Russia, my father had been a doctor, my mother a teacher. Here, he drove a cab and she knitted yarmulkes for the local Judaica store.

My parents had spent their lives looking at maps of the world and planning where they would go when they were free. We were poor, but they saved all of their money for the traveling we would do. The world was suddenly so big, after a lifetime of insurmountable Soviet borders, and we were going to go everywhere. My first trip was to Venezuela in 1983.

The first few days we stayed at the Caracas Hilton. It was magical. I had never seen a pool that big. I may have never seen a pool at all. No one spoke English but, well, neither did we, so a lot of the conversations were an interpretive dance. We’d act out eating to find the restaurant and spoke in pidgin Italian and hoped it was close enough. Somehow it always was.

Two days later we flew to Canaima National Park, our real destination. We slept in a hut, swam in red water and saw piranhas. We’d hear animals outside of our door at night. I saw little children on monkey bars at a nearby school and marveled at how similar they were to me.

No one goes to Venezuela anymore. It became, for all intents and purposes, off-limits years ago. The State Department warns American travelers about kidnappings and suggests not visiting.

We traveled a lot through my childhood and adolescence. My parents were partial to weird places: Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana in South America, and the Amazon River, where I saw bugs the size of my head and met people who didn’t use currency so they traded their handmade goods for Disney World t-shirts. We saw beautiful, safe places, along with the strange and dangerous. Istanbul, Punta del Este, Buenos Aires and a tiny island called Îles des Saintes all stick out in my mind. But what I remember most from our family trips is the smell of sewage, impoverished children selling gum to tourists and an element of danger everywhere we went as my parents forced my brother and me to really see our wide, strange world.

When I traveled alone for the first time, I wanted something more…familiar. I didn’t want to worry about drinking the water; I didn’t want to do that interpretive dance. My first trip alone, at 17, was to England, Scotland and Wales. They spoke our language, sort of, but everything was different enough to mark it foreign. I got off the bus in beautiful Edinburgh and ended up falling deeply in love with Scotland, visiting again the next summer, then living there two separate times during college. When I tell my 4-year-old daughter about that time, I add that I’ll take her there someday.

Will I, though?

My children both had passports before they turned one. Unfortunately, the big world, the one my family couldn’t wait to see, is getting smaller. I keep track of places off-limits to me because I am Jewish, and that list grows all the time. I check Wikipedia for countries that don’t “recognize” Israel. Those are the ones where I know definitively I am unwelcome. North Africa is tough. I’m only partially surprised Sudan doesn’t recognize Israel, even though U.S. Jews showed an overwhelming support for Darfur. Truth be told, I’m in no rush to get to Mali or Somalia. I guess I’ll miss out on Morocco.

The Middle East is even more fraught, of course. “You can go to United Arab Emirates, certainly to Dubai,” people say. Can I? “Don’t be too open about being Jewish but they don’t care there. They’re very modern.” My husband was born in Israel and it says so on his American passport. They don’t allow Israelis into the United Arab Emirates, at least that’s the official policy of this “modern” country. Even if he wasn’t marked for exclusion, I’m not keeping my Jewishness a secret. If Saudi Arabia opened its doors to me tomorrow, I still wouldn’t go. I’m not covering my head. I’m a woman of the free world, I have spent my life being grateful for this, knowing that a twist of fate gave me freedom I could have so easily not have had.

I wore a Star of David around my neck the entire time I lived in Scotland. I think I’d be uncomfortable doing the same now. The rage emanating from Europe toward Jews is white hot. A synagogue in Surrey was defaced. Another synagogue was vandalized in Miami of all places. But what’s lacking when it happens in Europe is any sense of outrage from the Europeans. In Miami the atmosphere was “how could this happen here?” In Europe there is no such question. Of course it happens there. In France, when synagogues get firebombed, as they do with alarming frequency, there isn’t a national movement to say they won’t stand for it. They very much stand for it. French Jews are the scapegoats for the real problems in France, between the French and those the French call “the Arabs,” even though “the Arabs” have lived there for decades and should just be French by now. Forget Turkey, a country I once enjoyed visiting. They went off the rails years ago. It’s an election year in Turkey now, so obviously Israel is the top issue in a country with 9% unemployment.

Israeli performers get disinvited from a festival in Edinburgh as if disinviting artists from countries whose politics you don’t like is a normal thing to do. Where is the outrage? They pretend it’s because of Israel, not because they’re Jews. Then the Jewish Film Festival gets canceled in London. An embarrassment. Britain should hang its head in shame. It doesn’t. A crowd in Germany (in Germany!) shouts “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Where is Germany’s soul-searching that this goes on within its borders? Forget Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem signing an anti-Israel letter in a Spanish newspaper. No big deal when the second-biggest newspaper in Spain prints a piece arguing Jews “are not made to co-exist,” with references to how good they are with money, how they deserved expulsion, wondering how they still exist (“persist”) at all.

So no, I won’t be taking my daughter to Scotland anytime soon, or any place where Jews are made to feel unwelcome. I still want to see the whole world and show it to my children, but much of the world right now does not want to see us. I’d take my children to places off the beaten path. I don’t want it to be all Hiltons for them. Sometimes it has to be the hut. But I won’t take my children to places where they are hated for who they are.

I’ve heard that I shouldn’t let a few anti-Semites keep me from traveling. But it’s not the anti-Semites who are the problem. It’s the people in these countries sitting idly by and not saying that these people canceling Jewish film festivals or writing despicable op-eds don’t speak for them. The silence is what is so troubling. The optimist in me hopes things change and that the world opens up to us again. A lot would need to change for that to happen. I wonder if my kids will see Edinburgh or Caracas first.

Karol Markowicz is a writer in New York City.

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