July 19, 2018

Netanyahu halts Facebook bill at last-minute

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented the passage into law of a bill Wednesday that would have required all online media providers to remove terrorist content.

The bill passed on Monday in the Knesset Law Committee and was set to pass into law in the plenum on Wednesday night. But Netanyahu asked that it be removed from the Knesset’s agenda.

“Out of concern that freedom of expression could be harmed and to guarantee the rights of Israeli citizens to freely express their criticism online, the prime minister asked to halt the legislation of the Facebook bill and return it to its original goal of preventing online incitement to terror,” a Likud spokesman said. “The prime minister believes the current version of the bill could be interpreted too broadly and permit censoring of opinions and gravely harming freedom of expression in Israel.”

There was concern that in the bill’s current format, police could ask a court to remove anything from the Internet without the person who put it online even being able to respond in court. Zionist Union MK Revital Swid, who initially proposed the bill, praised the prime minister for his step, saying that it had been turned into something she never intended.

“The bill was supposed to apply only to Facebook, Google and other Internet giants and require them, for the first time, to remove content that incites to terror,” she said. “But what passed in the committee was so broad and went so far that it applied to every crime and every website. It should apply only to incitement to terror.”

The justice minister would be required to report annually on the bill’s implementation to the Knesset Law Committee. The bill was initiated by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud).

Erdan expressed outrage at Netanyahu’s decision, saying that the bill would have only applied to crimes that could have led to “a criminal endangerment to personal, public or national security,” or could severely damage the Israeli economy or infrastructure.

Knesset Law Committee chairman Nisan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) said the bill was extremely important and he had worked on it for a year and a half with all relevant government ministries and security officials to find the proper balance.

“There were apparently greater forces at work who prevented the bill from passing,” Slomiansky said. “It is unfortunate that the prime minister did not see the bigger picture.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Slomiansky met with Netanyahu but failed to persuade him to reconsider.

The Israel Democracy Institute applauded Netanyahu’s decision to reevaluate the Facebook Law, saying that the bill was initially formulated to help fight terrorism, but evolved into a draconian law that would allow the state far- reaching authority to remove “criminal” content from social media – including news platforms.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior researcher at IDI, explained that “the law would enable the state to decide whether or not content violates the Israeli penal code and remove such content, including anything from insulting a state employee, or a call for a tax boycott,  to incitement to murder or terrorism. Should the current bill pass, the Start-Up Nation could be set back decades in terms of freedom of speech.”



Gaza group vows to continue launching flaming kites at Israel

A Palestinian resistance group responsible for the launching of incendiary kites and balloons towards Israel on Wednesday denied that it had agreed to freeze its attacks.

The group, called the Al-Zawari Unit, said in a statement that its members don’t receive orders from any faction in the Gaza Strip.

The group is named after Mohammed al-Zawari, an aviation engineer who was assassinated near his home in Sfax, Tunisia on

December 15, 2016. Zawari, a senior operative of Hamas’s military wing Izzadin al-Qassam, commanded the terrorist group’s drone manufacturing program.

The Al-Zawari Unit was responding to a report in the east Jerusalem daily Al-Quds which claimed that Hamas had agreed to gradually reduce the number of incendiary kites and balloons being launched towards southern Israel.

Al-Quds quoted unnamed “informed sources” as saying that Hamas leaders who met in the Gaza Strip took the decision in order to avoid a war with Israel. The Hamas decision followed contacts with Egypt, which pointed out the need to stop the attacks so as not to give Israel an excuse to launch a major military operation in the Gaza Strip, the newspaper said.

According to the report, the arson attacks will be halted by next week.

In response, the Al-Zawari Unit said that the report was “completely untrue.” It also denied a report that Hamas had deployed forces along the border with Israel in order to prevent the attacks.

Hamas officials did not comment on the report.

“This morning, our unit went out to launch its balloons towards our occupied territories to prove to everyone that we don’t receive orders from anyone, and that our peaceful protest will continue until we achieve our demands and until the siege [on the Gaza Strip] is lifted,” the Al-Zawari Unit added. “The factions in the Gaza Strip will not stand in the way of the peaceful protest.”

Despite the announcement, sources in the Gaza Strip said Wednesday that Egypt has been pressuring Hamas to stop the kite and balloon attacks.

The sources said that Egyptian intelligence officers warned Hamas leaders that Israel was close to launching a major military operation in the Gaza Strip in response to the attacks.



Nuclear chief: Iran builds new centrifuge rotor factory

Iran has built a factory that can produce rotors for up to 60 centrifuges a day, the head of its atomic agency said on Wednesday, upping the stakes in a confrontation with Washington over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work.

The announcement came a month after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he had ordered agencies to prepare to increase uranium enrichment capacity if a nuclear deal with world powers falls apart after Washington’s withdrawal from the pact.

Under the terms of the 2015 agreement, which was also signed by Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The other signatories have been scrambling to save the accord, arguing it offers the best way to stop Iran developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran has said it will wait to see what the other powers can do, but has signaled it is ready to get its enrichment activities back on track. It has regularly said its nuclear work is just for electricity generation and other peaceful projects.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the new factory did not in itself break the terms of the agreement.

A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the organization is aware of the announcement but has “no comment.”

“Instead of building this factory in the next seven or eight years, we built it during the negotiations but have not started it,” Salehi, said, according to state media.

“Of course, the [Supreme Leader] was completely informed and we gave him the necessary information at the time. And now that he has given the order this factory has started all its work.”

The factory would have the capacity to build rotors for up to 60 IR-6 centrifuges per day, he added.

Separately, Salehi said that Iran now had a stockpile of up to 950 tons of uranium. He said Iran had imported 550 tons of uranium before the nuclear agreement and had acquired approximately another 400 tons after the agreement was finalized, bringing the total stockpile to between 900 and 950 tons.

Salehi did not specify where the additional 400 tons of uranium had come from.

Last month, Salehi announced that Iran has begun working on infrastructure for building advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility.



Rabbis: UTJ may stay in coalition though Haredi enlistment issue unsolved

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received good news early Wednesday when the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudat Yisrael Party of the United Torah Judaism faction decided to remain in his government, despite the haredi conscription issue remaining undecided.

UTJ and Aguda leader Ya’acov Litzman had threatened to quit the government if a new conscription bill that helps haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) avoid army service had not been passed before the Knesset begins its extended summer recess on Thursday. The decision of the rabbis means he will not have to leave his post as deputy health minister.

There had been a possibility that Litzman would leave alone or with only the four Agudat Yisrael MKs, with the rest of UTJ splitting and remaining in Netanyahu’s coalition.

Coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) told reporters on Monday that those possibilities were “an urban myth.”

The government has formally requested that the High Court of Justice allow a seven-month extension to the deadline the court had set to pass a law for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription by September.

It is unclear whether the court will accept the extension request, but it will likely not wish to see the chaotic situation that would be created if the current law expires in September when all haredi men of military age would be required by law to serve, and liable to arrest by military police if they did not enlist.

The High Court struck down the previous arrangement in September 2017 as discriminatory, and gave the Knesset 12 months to pass a new law.

The government tarried, however, and a Defense Ministry special committee presented only a draft bill this June, which includes enlistment targets and financial sanctions against the general yeshiva budget if the targets are not met.

Yesh Atid has asked the Supreme Court not to approve the extension.



Intense bombardment in south Syria kills over a dozen

BEIRUT — Talks to cede the largest opposition holdout in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, triggering an intense overnight bombing campaign on the densely populated town of Nawa that killed over a dozen people and injured over a hundred, activists and rescuers said Wednesday.

Separately, some 7,000 Syrians were expected to be evacuated from two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria as part of a negotiated deal with insurgents who have besieged them for three years.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight “frenzied” bombing campaign in the southwestern town of Nawa and its surrounding areas continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles launched. The Observatory said at least 12 were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.

Khaled Solh, head of the local Syria Civil Defense known as White Helmets, said they have documented 14 killed while Nawa’s only hospital was bombed and rendered non-operational late Tuesday. He said only one ambulance was able to access the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 injured. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.

Images from across the frontier in the Israeli Golan Heights showed large plumes of smoke rising over the Nawa area, as the bombing continued Wednesday. Hundreds of civilians were seen taking cover in shelters peppered along the frontier, apparently seeking safety in the de-militarized zone between the two countries.

In less than a month, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.

They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights. In recent days, they have turned to the last pockets of the opposition near the frontier with Israel.

Alongside the military offensive, the government has resorted to “reconciliation” agreements whereby it negotiated capitulation deals in a number of villages to restore government control in the localities that have been in rebel hands for years.

Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. That has encouraged displaced civilians to return to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed.

But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught and a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again.

On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.

The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted the southern tip of the region, which is held by a terror group affiliated with the Islamic State group.

The offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open from the onslaught. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters demanding protection who approached the frontier Tuesday.

Meanwhile, about 7,000 Syrians were expected to be evacuated from two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria ending their three-year siege by insurgents in control of the surrounding area. Dozens of buses arrived in the Foua and Kfraya villages to transport the evacuees Wednesday, according to Syrian state media.

Evacuations have been used as a bargaining chip for various deals between the government and insurgents and has been criticized by the UN as forced displacement. A negotiated deal to evacuate them earlier this year had faltered after the evacuation of only 40 from a third village.

The evacuees’ first stop is government-controlled Aleppo city.



An all-female Orthodox ambulance corps gets a film of its own

JTA — Like many heavily Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, Borough Park has been served for decades by an all-male volunteer ambulance corps called Hatzalah.

The corps caters to a religious Jewish community with particular needs and customs — including one custom that can increase the tension for patients in already stressful emergency situations.

The strict boundaries between men and women are familiar to anyone who has attended an Orthodox synagogue or has read the stories of airplane flights being delayed because ultra-Orthodox men refuse to sit next to women.

In the event of a medical emergency, the male Hatzalah volunteers may touch women — if, for example, a woman needs to be moved to a stretcher or requires assistance while giving birth. But while Jewish law has its exemptions, women concerned about the rules of modesty have plenty of reasons to prefer treatment by a female EMT.

“93Queen,” Orthodox filmmaker Paula Eiselt’s big-screen debut, documents one woman’s attempt to create an all-female version of Hatzalah with only strictly observant Orthodox members. In a statement, Eiselt explains that over four years of filming, she essentially operates as a one-woman crew.

The film opens July 25 in theaters in New York City and August 14 in Los Angeles, with a wider release to follow.

The woman behind the female corps is Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, a lawyer and Borough Park native. She assembles a group of volunteers who are tentative at the start. And, not surprisingly, her plan sets up a clash with the establishment Hatzalah and its supporters. Opponents threaten to boycott the hospital that is training the women and the companies that sell them medical supplies. They also post nasty comments on Twitter, such as “God have mercy if you wait for them to get their make-up and the right dress on.”

But Freier’s leadership and inner strength help the members of what they call Ezras Nashim (“helping women”) persevere.

“The worst thing you can tell me is that I can’t do something because I’m a woman, a religious woman,” she says.

Part of Freier’s fortitude manifests itself in a my-way-or-the-highway manner. When she insists that only married women can join the team, some members object — including an experienced EMT who recently became religious — and others resign.

“There’s a whole host of issues that come up in a marriage that will give you that level of maturity,” she says.

Though the film is gripping, the viewer is never entirely sure how it all works. The women on call respond from wherever they are to the scene of the emergency. However, it does not appear that Ezras Nashim owns its own ambulance. It contracts with a private company to provide patient transport. Who staffs that ambulance? Men? Do the women EMTs accompany patients in the ambulance?

There are other questions. At one point Freier says she refuses to let the project fail because that might blemish her image and hurt her plans to run for a judgeship. Was the ambulance fight just a way to build a political base, to get her name out there? Does it matter?

In the end, Freier must be doing something right: Last year, Ezras Nashim won the New York Basic Life Support Agency of the Year award, a high honor. And in 2016 Freier was elected as a judge in New York City’s 5th Civil Court District, becoming what is believed to be the first Hasidic woman elected to public office in the United States.

Eiselt calls her film a story of “proud Hasidic women challenging the status quo of their own community and refusing to take no for an answer from the all-powerful patriarchy.” Regardless of your background — religious or atheist, feminist or non-political — “93Queen” is a film that will get your juices boiling.