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U.S. shifts Sinai troops for safety

April 29th, 2016

Bt W.J. Hennigan /

The Pentagon has shifted more than 100 U.S. soldiers from a desert camp near the Egypt-Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula after a barrage of attacks by militants linked to Islamic State.

The U.S. troops, part of a little-known peacekeeping force that helps maintain the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel, were transferred about 300 miles south to a more secure area.

The move comes as the Obama administration is considering whether to scale back the 700 U.S. troops in the Sinai and instead use remote sensors, cameras, and other technology to monitor the border.

Sinai Province, a militant group that last year declared allegiance to Islamic State, has carried out multiple attacks on military outposts in the northern Sinai. Its fighters have killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers, including eight this month when militants fired a rocket at their armored vehicle.

The extremist group claimed responsibility after a bomb exploded aboard a Russian-chartered passenger jet over the Sinai on Oct. 31 and killed all 224 passengers and crew. In July, the group hit an Egyptian frigate in the Mediterranean Sea with a shoulder-fired missile.

The Multinational Force of Observers, or MFO, has 1,680 troops from a dozen countries. The Americans, who live behind blast walls and travel in armored vehicles, have increasingly found themselves at risk in the insurgency.

Four were injured when their convoy hit two roadside bombs in September. Several weeks earlier, an American soldier was shot in the arm when gunmen targeted the camp, near the northern Sinai village of Al-Joura.

The Pentagon responded last summer by sending 75 more troops plus counter-mortar radars and new communication equipment.

As peacekeepers, the U.S. troops aren’t authorized to fire at the militants — only the Egyptians are allowed do that.

The recent attacks were among the topics that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed Saturday in a closed-door meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi on Saturday in Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb.

Any major change in the peacekeeping force must be approved by all signatories to the accord, which followed the wars between Egypt and Israel and in 1967 and 1973.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter formally notified Israel and Egypt this month that the U.S. is reviewing its role in the force. U.S. defense officials say the review involves reducing the number of U.S. troops, not a full withdrawal.

Many of the troops, including staff headquarters, already have moved from El Gorah in the northern Sinai to a smaller installation near Sharm el Sheik on the southern tip of the peninsula.

“The Pentagon has valid concerns about troop safety,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But the U.S. tinkering with its force numbers, even if slightly, can give the appearance that it is second-guessing the mission, which is worrisome for the Egyptian government and provides a propaganda tool” for Islamic State.

The U.S. government provides $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. It has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the 1979 peace accord with Israel.

The Obama administration briefly suspended military aid in 2013 to push Sisi, who had seized power in a military coup, to improve his government’s human rights record.

Despite continued U.S. criticism over Sisi’s jailing of political opponents and activists, Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited here Wednesday to show support for Egypt’s government.

“We talked about ways in which we can hopefully resolve some of the differences and questions that have arisen about the internal politics and choices for the people of Egypt,” Kerry said after talking with Sisi.

Kerry did not detail the “differences,” but added that Egypt is “critical to the peace and security” of the region.

2 Jewish visitors beaten, ejected from Temple Mount for bowing in prayer during Passover

April 27th, 2016

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Muslim worshippers attacked two Jewish men on the Temple Mount on Tuesday after the Jews bowed in prayer in violation of the visiting rules.

The Jewish men were beaten as they prostrated themselves. The Muslims clashed with police attempting to protect the Jewish visitors, who were ejected from the site.

A video of the incident posted on social media by a Palestinian news website shows dozens of Muslim worshippers punching police trying to protect the men, who are still on the ground. The police then push back.

Jewish prayer is forbidden at the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Temple Mount is administered by Jordan’s Muslim Wakf.

At least eight Jewish visitors were removed from the Temple Mount on Tuesday (April 26, 2016) for allegedly attempting to pray. Jewish visitors were removed on Sunday and Monday for the same offense.

Jordan condemned the increase in Jewish visitors to the site, including many tourists who came to Israel for Passover. During the holiday’s intermediate days, there are expanded visiting hours for Jews at the Temple Mount, and Muslim worshippers are prevented from ascending to the Mount during certain visiting hours.

On Monday, Jordan’s media affairs minister, Mohammad al-Momani, released a statement accusing “Israeli settlers and police” of storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He called Israel’s actions at the site “a violation of international laws and conventions” and said it could lead to “serious consequences.”

The Prime Minister’s Office in Israel responded to the threats, saying, “There is absolutely no basis to these claims,” and that “Israel is behaving responsibly, and Jordan knows that.”

Additional security forces have been put on patrol in the Old City of Jerusalem because of increased tensions at the Temple Mount and throughout the city in the aftermath of a bus-bombing in Jerusalem last week.

New documentary Are we ready to laugh at the Holocaust?

April 26th, 2016

By Andrew Silow-Carroll / JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

Mel Brooks doing a Hitler bit in an interview for

Mel Brooks doing a Hitler bit in an interview for The Last Laugh, director Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary about Holocaust humor. (Tangerine Entertainment)

NEW YORK (JTA) — In The Last Laugh, a new documentary about humor and the Holocaust (you read that right), the comedian Judy Gold tells this joke: If the Nazis forced her to stand naked on a line with other women, would she hold her stomach in?

How you, or anybody, feels about a joke like that is the point of the documentary, which includes interviews with a slew of mostly Jewish comedians and a cinema verite portrait of an elderly Los Angeles-area survivor, Renee Firestone, who seems to have lived through the Holocaust with her sense of humor largely intact.

The Last Laugh, which was a feature documentary at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, is a hybrid in other ways as well. Director Ferne Pearlstein wanted to explore not only the limits of humor and free speech today, but how Shoah victims and survivors used humor as a salve, defense mechanism, and weapon despite their powerlessness.

At a Nevada survivors’ convention filmed in the incongruous setting of The Venetian resort in Las Vegas, one survivor recalls how his fellow concentration camp inmates would mock the SS guards’ latest orders. Contemporary footage shot at the Theresienstadt concentration camp shows inmates performing comic skits and a children’s opera with apparent gusto. We now know that the Nazis allowed these theatricals for their own propaganda purposes, and that many of the performers were subsequently murdered at Auschwitz. But survivors tell of the relief, however temporary, provided by the performances.

“You have to remember, these were people who were living their lives,” Pearlstein, who co-wrote the film with her husband, Robert Edwards, said in an interview last week. “They didn’t think, ‘I am going to die.’ They still might have made a joke because they were living their lives.”

In some ways, the uses to which survivors put humor gave permission to the comedians, most of them Jews, who spun Holocaust-related jokes even in its immediate aftermath. Mel Brooks, a frequent talking head in the film, reminisces about his days at the Borscht Belt hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains soon after the war had ended.

“I got a lot of laughs with Hitler,” he says, calling it his revenge on the Nazis. He’d go on to make the 1968 movie The Producers, which stunned audiences with its chorus-line Nazis and prancing Hitler. The shock had largely warn off by the time The Producers had become a hit Broadway musical in 2001, perhaps proving Steve Allen’s famed formula, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Yet The Producers also illustrates a key point in the film: Making fun of the Nazis is OK, making fun of the Holocaust not so much. Actor Robert Clary, the French-born Buchenwald survivor who played Corporal LeBeau in the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, is asked how he could have appeared in a comedy set in the kind of camp where 12 of his immediate family members were murdered. He points out that the show was set in a POW camp, not a concentration camp.

But though Brooks insists “I don’t give a s–t what’s in good taste,” even he has his limits. The film delves into the controversy that brewed after the late Joan Rivers said of the supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a child survivor, complains in an interview that Rivers’s joke trivializes the Holocaust. Even Brooks says of the joke, “I can’t go there.”

But as tasteless as it may be, the Rivers joke ridiculed Germans, not their Jewish victims – all but saying that 70 years after the Holocaust, the German people can’t escape their guilt or culpability.

In fact, few of the jokes in The Last Laugh are as tasteless or transgressive as some commentators in the film suggest. The commentators include director Rob Reiner, comic Gilbert Gottfreid, comedienne Lisa Lampanelli, and sitcom director Larry Charles. Larry David’s “Survivor” episode from Curb Your Enthusiasm, the “Soup Nazi” gag from Seinfeld, a Louis C.K. bit about auditions for Schindler’s List, or Ricky Gervais’s Anne Frank jokes — none carries the shock of a single utterance of, say, the “N-word.”

Even Gold’s joke, which she tells almost apologetically, is not a joke about Holocaust victims but her own vanity.

Of all the comics heard in The Last Laugh, only Sarah Silverman seems to come close to violating taboos. In a bit from her 2005 concert film Jesus is Magic, Silverman recounts how her “Jewy” niece referred to the “60 million” who died in the Holocaust. When Silverman says the correct number is 6 million, the niece asks what the difference is.

“Because 60 million would be unforgivable, young lady,” Silverman replies.

To appreciate Silverman’s joke, you have to be familiar with her faux naive persona – the bigot too self-involved to realize she is a bigot. Renee Firestone, the survivor, is clearly not on her wavelength. In one scene she is shown watching Silverman on YouTube.

“I don’t think this is funny,” she says.

Pearlstein recalls the moment as one of the most uncomfortable during their weeks of filming.

“Renee is so resilient,” the director says. “She uses her sense of humor to get through things, but she doesn’t think everything is funny. That makes her a perfect guide for that reason.”

Including Firestone’s story, Pearlstein says, “Let us remember what we’re laughing at.”

But The Last Laugh doesn’t bestow or withhold permission as to what an audience should and shouldn’t find funny. If Foxman, the arbiter of anti-Semitism, comes across as a bit of a killjoy in the documentary, that’s because it is at heart a comedian’s movie, and Holocaust humor is understood on their terms. Comedians have one obligation and one obligation only, they insist: to make people laugh.

The last word, spoken early in the film, belongs to Gold, who declares, “It’s all about the funny.”

Passover Week Tension on Temple Mount

April 24th, 2016

By Joshua Mitnick /

Orthodox Jews from the Temple Mount Institute dressed like priests participate in the reenactment of the Passover sacrifice ceremony in Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, on April 18, 2016.  (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency)

Orthodox Jews from the Temple Mount Institute dressed like priests participate in the reenactment of the Passover sacrifice ceremony in Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, on April 18, 2016. (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency)

They are activists on rival sides in the struggle for the plaza that is Jerusalem’s holiest and most contested spot. Madeline Issa calls it Al Aqsa Mosque. Rabbi Yakov Idels calls it the Temple Mount.

Both have been scarred by events at the contested Old City esplanade, but their devotion to the place keeps them coming back. Now, with the onset of the Jewish holiday of Passover, officials worry that religious pilgrims like Issa and Idels could spark a new, religiously inspired conflict in Jerusalem.

Issa is a 23-year-old Islamic activist who had been visiting the Al Aqsa Mosque compound daily before police started banning her last September for harassing Jewish visitors. Now, she brings busloads of Muslim pilgrims to the mosque and risks new arrest by slipping past police incognito just to be at the third holiest site in Islam.

Last week, short of breath and anxious, she donned a colorful head scarf and large sunglasses as she made her way through a narrow Old City alley toward the Israeli police post at the entrance to the plaza that flanks the gold-domed mosque. She described an almost compulsive need to keep visiting.

“I want to enjoy the breeze of Al Aqsa. I want to fill my body with Al Aqsa before they ban me permanently,” she said.

Idels is a 46-year-old rabbi who also feels a spiritual pull to the holy site. For Jews, the plaza is Judaism’s holiest spot: the location of the ancient Jewish Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago. A month after Issa’s ban, Idels watched Israeli police arrest his teenage son for swaying in meditation — a violation of rules that ban non-Muslim visitors from praying at the plaza.

“The Temple Mount is a wound. It’s a place where every time you touch it, it’s sensitive,” says Idels, sitting opposite bookshelves lined with traditional texts in his house in the West Bank [aka Samaria] settlement of Bracha (Hebrew for “Blessing”). “That Temple is supposed to be the place where peace comes from. And today it’s the opposite. It’s the place where fighting erupts.”

As Idels readies to return to the plaza with a tour group for Passover, which began at sundown Friday, authorities are bracing for the possibility that this year will see a repeat of the fall holiday season, when the religious turf war at the Old City plaza boiled over into clashes, arrests, and police restrictions — and ultimately sparked a six-month wave of Palestinian knife attacks that spread from Jerusalem to the West Bank [Judea and Samaria]. Though Jerusalem has somewhat calmed, many people see the relative stability as fragile.

Passover is one of three Jewish holy days that, since the Exodus from Egypt (ca. 1450 B.C.), mandated a pilgrimage to the ancient Jewish Temple for offerings.

When Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war [Six-Day War], it left a Jordanian religious organization in charge of the holy sites on the plaza. It also left in place a centuries-old Jewish religious ban, accepted by the majority of the rabbinic establishment at the time, on renewing ritual at the plaza or rebuilding the Temple.

The ancient Temple’s retaining wall, known as the Western Wall, was tapped as the main site for Jewish ritual.

But in recent years, a growing group of Israelis like Idels have been lobbying the government to assert more sovereignty and allow prayer on the plaza. After disturbances last year, a series of understandings between Israel and Jordan succeeded in reestablishing stability by keeping provocateurs from the plaza and avoiding age and gender restrictions on Muslim worshipers, according to a report on the plaza by the International Crisis Group.

Muslims “still view the very access of many religious Jews on a Jewish holiday as a threat,” said International Crisis Group analyst Ofer Zalzberg. “They fear that it strengthens the Jewish claims” to ownership of the site, and it would crimp Muslims’ access.

Last week, amid rising tension, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of an effort by extremists to foment riots by spreading lies about Israeli plans to allow Jewish ritual at the plaza and crimp Muslim worship. In a public message to the “Palestinians” and Jordan, he insisted that Israeli policy hadn’t changed. Israeli police will deploy reinforcements in Jerusalem and also ban Israeli politicians from visiting the plaza during the holy days.

The Temple Mount, Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall have been notorious as a focus of religious and nationalist acrimony for decades. In 1929, rumors that Jews were bent on taking control of the mosque sparked rioting that killed hundreds. A visit to the Jerusalem plaza in 2000 by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, the future prime minister, triggered protests that eventually became the second Muslim intifada, or uprising.

In recent years, amid the rise in visits of Jewish pilgrims to the plaza, Islamic groups have rallied activists to pray, study, and assert their presence. Some of those activists used rocks and fireworks in violent clashes with Israeli police.

Issa, a “Palestinian” citizen of Israel, said she has answered the call by visiting the site daily and organizing buses of pilgrims from her home village of Kafr Qassem, an Israeli Arab community northeast of Tel Aviv. “They say it’s their Temple Mount, but it’s for me and other Muslims.”

An activist with a branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, she is known as a murabitat, one of a group of women who go to the holy plaza to both pray and confront religious Jewish visitors, yelling “Allahu akbar!” — Allah is greater — and sometimes even spitting in their direction.

Before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, last fall, Israel banned murabitat from the plaza. The Islamic Movement in Israel was outlawed. Now, Israeli police easily recognize Issa, in her plain white hijab, and turn her away.

“It was very painful,” she said, her eyes momentarily welled with tears as she recounted the first time the police blocked her from the plaza last September. “It choked me.”

Some blame Jewish activists for the tension and violence at the holy site. Idels, however, contends that the problem lies with activists such as Issa. He says the plaza should be a place of peace and inter-religious “connection,” but that it should also be a place where Jews can come to pray.

“Going up to the Mount isn’t supposed to injure anyone else. It’s not to provoke. It comes from a place of the rights we have to this [place],’’ he says. Other Temple Mount activists openly fantasize about razing the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine on the plaza and rebuilding the ancient Temple, which Idels hypothesized was “impossible.”

Among the shelves of religious texts in his modest salon, Idels keeps a signed copy of a book on the Temple Mount by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a mentor who was one of the first rabbis to argue for a new Temple to be built and for Jewish prayer at the plaza — flouting the ban by the rabbinic establishment on Jewish ritual there. Goren’s teaching on the Temple Mount “was very meaningful in my life,’’ Idels says.

On the eastern side of the plaza, opposite the golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine — and reputedly the site of the ancient Jewish Temple — Idels has a spot where he often pauses to meditate, praying for the Jewish people, for peace, and for his family. That is where, in October, his teenage son went too far, closing his eyes and swaying [davening].

“The police immediately jumped on him and took him away for a half-day, like the lowest criminal. I felt humiliated and helpless,’’ he says. “It’s a terrible feeling of disgrace to stand in a place that belongs to you, the holiest place, and there’s a prayer ban. … When the Arabs come and claim that our prayer injures them, it’s their problem.”

Issa said she’s convinced the tensions in Jerusalem are an excuse to ban Muslim faithful like herself, but she says it’s impossible for her stay away. “Al Aqsa is my soul, and I feel that my death will take place there,’’ she said.

Israeli Soldier Charged with Manslaughter in Terrorist’s Death

April 21st, 2016

By Josh Mitnick / Los Angeles Times

Sgt. Elor Azariya is hugged by his mother

Sgt. Elor Azariya is hugged by his mother

Israel’s military prosecutor on Monday, April 18, formally charged a young combat medic with manslaughter in the shooting of a Palestinian knife attacker in the West Bank last month, saying that the soldier violated open-fire rules and acted without justification.

The prosecutor accused Sgt. Elor Azariya, whose identity was revealed Monday for the first time, of firing from close range at the head of Abdel Fattah Sharif, who had been lying prone on the ground with multiple bullet wounds for several minutes after the knife attack on an Israeli soldier in Hebron.

“The terrorist … had not carried out another attack and did not constitute an immediate or substantial threat to the defendant or the other civilians and soldiers,” according to the one-page indictment submitted to a military court in Jaffa. “In his actions, the defendant illegally caused the death of the terrorist al Sharif.”

The defense team for Azariya, who is also accused of behavior not fitting a soldier, says that he opened fire fearing that Sharif was wearing an explosives belt.

The shooting, which was caught on Palestinian video publicized by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, is a rare instance in which the army accused one of its own in the death of a Palestinian. It has kicked up a politically polarizing solidarity campaign on Azariya’s behalf that has aimed unusually harsh criticism at the army top brass and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who have been accused of hastily judging the medic rather than backing him up.

Palestinian officials allege that the shooting of Sharif is part of a policy by Israeli security agencies to respond to assailants with deadly force even after there is no immediate threat. The United Nations Middle East coordinator for the peace process, Nikolay Mladenov, condemned the shooting as an “apparent extra judicial execution.’’

Defense attorney Ilan Katz told Israeli reporters outside the courthouse on Monday, “There won’t be a conviction…. We will seek a complete exoneration. The evidence is weak.”

The soldier’s father, Charlie Azariya, encouraged supporters to attend a rally on Tuesday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

Solidarity protests have hailed the soldier as a hero. Many Israelis sympathize with a conscript perceived to have acted impulsively in the throes of a dangerous situation.

At a demonstration outside the military court, supporters held signs reading, “We are all with the combat soldier.”

The incendiary atmosphere prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weigh in on Monday, saying that although he understood the concern of the soldier’s family, open-fire regulations were necessary to protect soldiers’ safety as well.

“I want to tell the public: Lower the flames. The Israel Defense Forces backs up its soldiers,’’ he said.

The incident occurred the morning of March 24, when Sharif and another knife assailant attacked an Israeli soldier who was lightly wounded. Sharif’s partner was killed, but he was left alive with multiple bullet wounds, according to an autopsy.

Supporters of Azariya say that he acted in the heat of the moment and can’t be judged by those who were not on the scene.

Data from the Israeli human rights watchdog Yesh Din indicate that the military prosecutor has investigated 262 cases of deaths of Palestinians and foreign nationals by soldiers since 2000. Those investigations led to 22 indictments, but just one manslaughter charge and conviction, for the killing of a British national.

Morgan Freeman strikes ‘Israel’ from post amid criticism

April 20th, 2016

Morgan Freeman in Jerusalem (Facebook)

Morgan Freeman in Jerusalem (Facebook)

American film star and television host Morgan Freeman removed the word “Israel” from a photo taken in Jerusalem, after a Facebook post received torrents of criticism from anti-Israeli activists.

Freeman visited Israel in October to film an episode of National Geographic’s “The Story of God,” a series that charts the role of the Deity (and other deities) in world culture. On April 12 he posted a picture from the Holy City with the location “Jerusalem, Israel,” as part of the promotion for the show.

As has become commonplace in such cases, the post quickly turned into a battleground between supporters and detractors of the Jewish state. Pro-Israelis congratulated the actor on his visit to the country, while pro-Palestinian activists criticized the photo, or urged him to recognize Jerusalem as Palestinian.

The controversy was apparently a bit much for Freeman — or for those who run his social media accounts — and the location, and the word “Israel,” were promptly dropped from the caption.

A similar incident occurred recently with martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme, who in March faced a wave of angry comments when he posted a photo of himself on Facebook with the caption “Shalom from Jerusalem, Israel!”

Van Damme had been visiting an Israeli kabbalah center for “spiritual guidance” in the wake of the terror attacks in his native Belgium.

The star subsequently took out the words “Shalom” and “Israel” from the caption, which then read “Hello from Jerusalem!”

At military parade, Iran displays S-300 missiles

April 17th, 2016

Associated Press

Iran unveils Russian-made S-300 air defense missiles at National Army Day parade • In speech at parade, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vows to defend Muslim countries against terrorism and Israel, but insists neighbors should not feel threatened.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends National Army Day parade in Tehran, Sunday April 17, 2016 | Photo credit: Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends National Army Day parade in Tehran, Sunday April 17, 2016 | Photo credit: Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday vowed to defend Muslim countries against terrorism and Israel while insisting that Iran’s neighbors should not feel threatened.

Speaking during a National Army Day parade in which Iranian forces displayed sophisticated air defense systems recently acquired from Russia, Rouhani praised Iran’s role in helping the Syrian and Iraqi governments roll back the Islamic State group.

“If tomorrow your capitals face danger from terrorism or Zionism, the power that will give you a positive answer is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rouhani said. But he added that Iran would only help if Muslim countries asked it to, and said its military power was purely for defensive and deterrent purposes.

“The power of our armed forces is not against our southern, northern, eastern, and western neighbors,” he said.

Rouhani appeared to be referring to Gulf Arab states, which have long viewed Iran as seeking to dominate the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran are longtime rivals that back opposite sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

During the parade, the army displayed Russian-made S-300 air defense missiles delivered earlier this month.

In 2010, Russia froze a deal to supply the sophisticated systems to Iran, linking the decision to UN sanctions. President Vladimir Putin lifted the suspension last year following Iran’s deal with six world powers that curbed its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

The United States and Israel have expressed concern over the missile systems, fearing they could upset the regional balance of military power.

Iran also displayed tanks, light submarines, short-range missiles, and other weapons.

Singapore PM on historic visit to Israel

April 17th, 2016

Official trip by Lee Hsien Loong — the first ever for a leader of the Asian country, despite warm ties. He will visit Temple Mount

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during his meeting with President Barack Obama in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, November 22, 2015 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during his meeting with President Barack Obama in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, November 22, 2015 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will arrive in Israel Monday, April 18, 2016, for the first ever official visit by a Singaporean head of state.

Lee will be accompanied by a 60-member delegation, including his foreign minister and water resources minister, the Government Press Office said in an email.

The trip includes a reception at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Lee will receive an honorary doctorate. He will also visit the flashpoint Temple Mount holy site in the city during his five-day trip.

He is also set to tour the Old City of Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Jaffa, and meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, President Reuven Rivlin, and former president Shimon Peres.

He will also travel to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders.

Lee’s visit marks the first for a Singaporean leader since Israel and Singapore established diplomatic relations in 1969.

Last March, President Rivlin traveled to Singapore to pay his respects at the funeral of the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who died at 91. The funeral concluded the president’s four-day trip to Singapore, marking the first visit of an Israeli president since Chaim Herzog to the prosperous island country in 1986.

Israel worked with Lee’s government to play a major role in the country’s development, as Israeli generals were tasked with setting up the country’s armed services after major unrest caused it to become independent from Malaysia in 1965. Today, much of the country’s military is based on the Israel Defense Forces’ model of training, conscription, and reserve duty.

Passover song – Ma Nishtana by Shtar

April 10th, 2016

posted by on April 7, 2016

The popular Jewish band Shtar just released an amazing song for Passover, “Ma Nishtana.” They turned a Seder-night classic into an inspirational song that everyone can get into. They based their song on “See You Again,” originally performed by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Put.

These Orthodox Jewish musicians are taking the Internet by storm.

Palestine’s Anti-Corruption Crusader

April 7th, 2016
Najat Abu Bakr

Najat Abu Bakr


Najat Abu Bakr has accused Palestinian Authority officials of rampant theft. Now they’re going after her.

In mid-March, the biggest political standoff in years ended in the West Bank, and barely anyone in Washington noticed.

A parliamentarian from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s own party filed accusations of corruption against senior Palestinian Authority officials and then fled to the parliament building after the Palestinian Authority issued an arrest warrant for her. In the course of two weeks, Najat Abu Bakr’s sit-in protest sparked a political firestorm that drew crowds of Palestinians into the streets. It took weeks of tenacious negotiating, but she was finally able to secure safe passage back to her home district in Nablus.

The story began in February, when Abu Bakr accused PA minister of local governance Hussein al-Araj – a close Abbas associate – of pocketing roughly $200,000 in a water well deal. The Palestinian Authority leadership, widely recognized as a cesspool for corruption and for stifling criticism against the government, issued an arrest warrant shortly after her accusations. Abu Bakr then fled to the safety of the parliamentary building to avoid arrest. She has since turned over files documenting purported evidence of Araj’s case and other high-level corruption to the PA’s anti-corruption czar and the Fatah party head in parliament. It is still unclear whether the charges will ever be acknowledged or addressed.

This was not Abu Bakr’s first tangle with the Palestinian leadership over corruption. In 2013, she publicly sparred with former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a man—ironically—who was widely celebrated for his anti-corruption policies, over accusations that the technocratic leader was misusing funds for a personal security detail. In 2014, she blasted Fayyad’s successor, Rami Hamdallah, for clamping down on labor unions. She also accused PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki of nepotism in 2013 after al-Maliki elevated an official convicted of corruption to the post of ambassador.

However, her latest showdown with Abbas and company is unprecedented. Palestinian politicians typically invoke the cause of anti-corruption to score political points on the street. Few present documentation on alleged corruption, and the last time anyone sought refuge in a Palestinian Authority facility on this scale was when the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was cornered in the presidential Muqata compound by the Israelis in response to his stoking the violence of the second Intifada.

At the same time, it’s a surprise we have not seen more of this. Corruption allegations have dogged the Palestinian Authority since its inception in the early 1990s. For example, an International Monetary Fund audit found in 2003 that Arafat had funneled $900 million in public funds to a special bank account from 1995 to 2000. Another report found that Arafat and his cronies had transferred nearly $300 million to Swiss bank accounts between 1997 and 2000. When Abbas succeeded Arafat as president of the PA in 2005, the U.S. hoped the long-time negotiator—with the help of Fayyad—would be able to reform the corrupt Palestinian system.

But Abbas and Fayyad failed to reverse course, and in 2006 Palestinian voters punished them for it by rewarding their rivals in Hamas. The Islamist group’s surprise victory in the legislative elections that year was due in no small part to their successful efforts to brand themselves as a transparent alternative to Abbas’s corrupt Fatah party. As one Fatah member lamented, his party had “paid the price because of its corrupt administration and a bunch of corrupt leaders.”

Rather than addressing the problem, Abbas seemed to embrace his role of corrupt autocrat. In the wake of a brief but bloody civil war that separated the West Bank and Gaza in 2007, Abbas consolidated his control over Fatah and the PA in the West Bank, pushing transparency and good governance to the bottom of his list of priorities. He forced out Fayyad in 2013 to the great chagrin of Western champions that sought to build a credible government in Ramallah from the ground up. A European Union audit found later that year that they PA had “mismanaged” over three billion dollars from 2009 to 2013.
Abbas finally set up an anti-corruption commission in 2010, but his 81-year old anti-corruption czar recently announced he has only recovered $70 million in five years. And in a recent interview, he insisted that the problem of corruption is simply not as bad as the stream of media reports over two decades suggest.

International donors are not buying it. According to a Reuters report, aid from the EU and others to the PA has fallen from around $1.3 billion per year to $700 million. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah released a statement in December declaring international aid had fallen 43% since 2011. And the financial crisis has had a real impact. After the government’s refusal to increase teacher salaries per a 2013 agreement, thousands of teachers have recently taken to protest in the streets.

These problems are not going to go away, either. Palestinian perception of corruption in the PA stood at 81% in 2014. Abbas’s rivals know this and continue to hammer home the problem as a means to score points on the Palestinian street. Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled senior Fatah official and rival of Abbas, regularly blasts Abbas as a “corrupt dictator” and even filed a lawsuit against Abbas in 2013 insisting “the Palestinian Authority and its leadership are tainted by corruption on a grand scale.” As does Jibril Rajoub, another senior Fatah official and aspiring successor to Abbas, who has called for a “balance of power through free democratic elections.”

Rajoub’s calls resonate on the Palestinian streets for a reason. Abbas is now eleven years into his four-year term. The corruption is as much political as it is financial. It was the toxic combination that ultimately prompted millions to take to the streets in of Arab capitals in the chaotic Arab Spring protests. The Palestinians have, until now, eluded such a crisis. But as Najat Abu Bakr’s sit-in demonstrated, the need for reform remains dire.

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