July 2, 2018

Around 2,000 protest at Gaza border as balloons spark 15 fires in Israel

Fifteen fires broke out in Israel Friday due to incendiary balloons and kites launched from the Gaza Strip. Firefighters doused the blazes.

Around 2,000 Palestinians were demonstrating along the border, a drop from participation at the height of the rallies and riots in May, when tens of thousands took part.

Around 35 people were reported wounded during the protests from tear gas and Israeli fire. Several Palestinian medics were also said hurt from smoke inhalation.

Palestinians claimed a small Israeli drone downing incendiary kites and balloons was brought down in central Gaza.

On Thursday an Israeli tank fired on two Palestinians as they attempted to break through the security fence east of Rafah in southern Gaza. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said one of the two later died of the injuries he sustained in the incident.

The military said that when troops later searched the area, they found a number of Molotov cocktails the two had apparently intended to use in an attack.

Also Thursday about 20 fires were started by incendiary balloons and kites in the Eshkol, Sdot Negev and Sha’ar Hanegev regions, engulfing communities in smoke, charring nature reserves and killing many animals in what has lately become a daily routine.

A suspected explosive device was also found in Israeli territory, attached to a balloon, police said.

Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have launched countless kites, balloons and inflated latex condoms bearing flammable materials, and occasionally explosives, into Israeli territory, sparking near-daily fires that have burned thousands of acres of farmland, parks and forests.

Israeli leaders have been split on how to respond to those responsible for the airborne arson attacks, with some calling for the IDF to shoot the kite flyers and balloon launchers on sight, while others argue that it would be a step too far.

The IDF has carried out multiple warning strikes in recent weeks at groups of Gazans preparing to launch incendiary devices toward Israel. The army has said repeatedly that it will act to prevent the launch of the airborne incendiary devices and explosives.

Overnight Wednesday, the Israeli military carried out a number of strikes in Gaza in response to the launches. Terror groups in Gaza launched over a dozen rockets toward Israel in retaliation for the strikes, setting off warning sirens and sending thousands of Israelis to bomb shelters.

In recent weeks, the military has adopted a policy of targeting Hamas positions in response to repeated incendiary kite and balloon attacks from Gaza in an effort to force the group, which rules the coastal enclave, to stop launching the arson devices and to force others in the Strip to abandon the tactic as well.

However, Hamas is attempting to maintain that the near-constant airborne arson attacks, which have burned thousands of acres of Israeli land, do not warrant retaliatory strikes by Israel and therefore accuses Jerusalem of violating the tacit ceasefire between the two sides.

“Bombings will be answered with bombings,” Hamas said after its rocket attacks on Wednesday.

It was the third such exchange between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks.

Israeli leaders have warned that the military is prepared to take more intense offensive action against the phenomenon.



IDF sends aid to Syrians fleeing Daraa in overnight ‘Good Neighbor’ operation

Israel transferred several dozen tons of humanitarian aid to refugee encampments in southwestern Syria in an overnight operation late Thursday, as tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing an offensive in neighboring Daraa province by Bashar Assad’s forces and the Russian military.

The IDF said it would likely continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the area, but insisted it would not allow Syrian refugees to cross the border.

“The IDF is monitoring what is going on in southern Syria and is prepared for a variety of scenarios, including continuing to provide humanitarian aid to fleeing Syrians. The IDF will not allow Syrian refugees into Israeli territory and will continue to act to protect Israel’s security interests,” the military said in a Hebrew-language statement on Friday.

The operation lasted “several hours,” the army said, and delivered some 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 15 tons of baby food, three pallets of medical supplies and 30 tons of clothes and shoes to the refugees.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said following the aid operation that Israel was “prepared to provide any humanitarian assistance to civilians, women and children,” but stressed that “we will not accept any Syrian refugees into our territory.”

Since the renewed attacks by pro-regime forces began earlier this month in the Daraa province, tens of thousands of Syrian civilians have been streaming to the nearby Israeli and Jordanian borders, seeking refuge.

A number of camps have been set up in the area, but these generally lack access to fresh water, electricity and other basic needs. In many cases, these camps are overflowing, without sufficient shelters. Some Syrians are reportedly sleeping outside at night.

The army said it shipped the supplies to four camps simultaneously in the southern and central Syrian Golan Heights.

“In these camps, located near the border, there are several thousand Syrians living in deteriorating conditions, without access to water, electricity, food sources or basic necessities. In recent days, there’s been an increase in the number of Syrians living in these camps,” the IDF said.

The refugees along the border are fleeing an offensive by Syrian government forces seeking to reclaim the strategic region that extends along the border with Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights, and which was until recently part of a US-backed and negotiated truce.

Airstrikes pounded rebel-held areas in southwestern Syria on Thursday, killing at least 17 civilians in an underground shelter and driving thousands more from their homes, as scores of displaced people protested near the Israeli border demanding international protection.

Signaling that the humanitarian crisis is likely to deepen, UN officials said that because of the fighting, no aid has entered from Jordan to reach the estimated 50,000 people displaced since Tuesday. Jordan, which is already hosting 660,000 registered refugees, says it cannot accept any more and has sealed its border, despite appeals from aid groups.

Near the Golan Heights, scores of the newly-displaced raised banners in protest. Thousands have fled to the area, saying they thought the proximity to Israeli forces would deter Syrian air raids. One activist said the camps are about three kilometers (two miles) from the frontier.

Israel has been providing aid to southwestern Syria since 2013, including treating chronically ill children who have no access to hospitals, building clinics in Syria, and supplying hundreds of tons of food, medicine and clothing to war-ravaged villages across the border.

Since Syria disintegrated into a brutal civil war in 2011 that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, Israel has struggled with how to deal with the humanitarian disaster taking place on its doorstep, a dilemma made even more complicated by the fact that Israel and Syria remain officially at war.

Israel initially responded by providing medical treatment to Syrians wounded in the war who arrived at its border, treating more than 3,000 people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel, since 2013.

But last year, the army revealed that since June 2016 it has quietly been working on Operation Good Neighbor, a massive multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation to keep thousands of Syrians who live along the border from starving or falling ill due to the lack of food and basic medical care.

In its first year, the operation saw over 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, come to Israel for treatment. The hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment and clothing sent across the border were clearly labeled in Hebrew and came from Israeli companies.

The IDF also facilitated the construction of two clinics within Syria, which are run by locals and NGO workers. This includes logistical coordination and sending over building materials and medical equipment, the army has said.

The clinics are meant to support 80,000 Syrians living in the area near the Syrian city of Quneitra, just across the border.

Inside Israel, another clinic was constructed at the army’s Outpost 116, which is guarded by the IDF but staffed by NGO officials.

As part of the operation, the army has also stepped up the amount of humanitarian aid it transfers to Syria, in some cases dramatically.

According to IDF figures, the quantity of food sent to Syria increased tenfold last year, from a few dozen tons between 2013 and 2016 to 360 tons from 2016 to 2017.

The quantity of clothes, baby formula, medical supplies, diesel fuel and generators being transferred to Syrians have also significantly increased in that time.

Israel has also sent hundreds of tons of flour, oil, sugar, salt, canned beans and dry goods, as well as several cars and mules.

Most of the aid was donated by NGOs over the years, the army says, but some were also provided by the Israeli government directly.



Jewish editor among 5 killed in Annapolis newspaper shooting

One of the five victims killed in a shooting at a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, was Jewish.

Gerald Fischman, 61, the editorial page editor at the Capital Gazette, was killed Thursday along with four others — sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34; editor Rob Hiassen, 59; reporter and editor John McNamara, 56; and reporter Wendi Winters, 65 — by a lone gunman.

Jarrod Ramos, 38, of Laurel, Maryland, was arrested and  charged with five counts of murder, the Baltimore Sun reported. The report did not say how he pleaded. Police said Ramos had been the subject of critical coverage in the paper.

Fischman, who worked for the Capital Gazette since 1992, was known for his annual editorial on Christmas, despite the fact that he was Jewish, the Sun reported. Colleagues described him as a quiet, committed professional who was humorous, extremely knowledgeable and polite. He always wore a V-neck cardigan, regardless of temperature, and often would work a midnight to 5 a.m. shift. Colleagues typically would arrive in the morning to find sticky notes from Fischman on their desks asking them to fact-check his editorials.

“He was kind of a mysterious guy,” reporter Joshua Stewart told the Sun. “He wasn’t social, and this was the most interaction we had with him. It was a testament to his work.”

The Sun also said he married late in life, to a Mongolian opera singer he had met online. At an awards event shortly after he wed — Fischman won many regional prizes for his work — he was asked him how he met his wife.

“I typed ‘Mongolian opera singer’ into a dating site,” he replied.

Ramos’ dispute with the Gazette began in 2011 when a columnist wrote about a criminal harassment case against him. He brought a defamation suit against the columnist and the organization’s editor and publisher. A court ruled in the Capital Gazette’s favor and an appeals court upheld the ruling.

Police said 170 people were inside the Gazette’s building during the attack. Staffers scrambled to find cover from the bullets, some diving behind desks, witnesses said. At least three people sustained serious injuries in the shooting, Radio WMFE reported.

Smith, the sales assistant, “was kind and considerate, and willing to help when needed,” her boss, Marty Padden, told the Sun. “She seemed to really enjoy to be working in the media business.”

Smith lived with her fiance in eastern Baltimore County and actively posted images documenting her social life.

Hiassen’s wife, Maria, told NBC that her late husband “loved being a dad, an editor who helped shape young talent, and a creative writer and humorist.” The couple had three children together.

McNamara was a veteran reporter and editor. On his LinkedIn page, he described himself as a beat reporter for University of Maryland athletics and the Baltimore Orioles minor league system. He also helped put together the daily sports section.

Winters “was in many ways the best part of the newspaper in that she cared so much about the city,” said former Gazette editor Steve Gunn. Winters worked as community reporter for the paper. She had four children.



Retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Jewish legacy

NEW YORK — Not an hour after Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement as associate justice on the Supreme Court, the National Council of Jewish Women tweeted its dismay.

“Justice Kennedy’s retirement could drastically shift the balance of the Supreme Court, and threaten the very rights and liberties we’ve fought so hard to protect,” NCJW tweeted Wednesday. “We need a justice who will stand up for all of our rights – not just the wealthy and powerful.”

NCJW’s is a voice of the Jewish liberal majority, which tends to support abortion rights, a strong divide between church and state, an extensive social welfare safety net and a liberal approach to immigration.

For that majority Kennedy was, at least since 2005,  the essential and persuadable swing vote on an ideologically partitioned court. He was responsible for the 5-4 rulings that legalized same-sex marriage and preserved Roe v. Wade. Although prone to disappoint liberal and centrist groups — upholding President Barack Obama’s policy of warrantless wiretapping, voting to limit campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United and removing key provisions of the Voting Rights Act — he was nevertheless seen as the last check on what is likely to become a deeply conservative court.

“In the last few years, Justice Kennedy has loomed large at the Supreme Court because he so often cast a deciding swing vote, often in historic ways, as in [same-sex marriage] or Citizens United,” Marc Stern, general counsel at the American Jewish Committee, told JTA. “While he was not the liberal justice many Jews would no doubt have preferred, he served as a reminder that constitutional law and the Supreme Court can be something other than pure predictable partisan politics.”

And as a swing vote, Kennedy’s rulings on religious liberty also won him support from conservative Jewish groups. His vote proved decisive in the Hobby Lobby case, which found that family-owned corporations need not pay for employee contraception insurance if doing so violates their religious values, and earned praise from Orthodox groups like the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America.

“The Court’s ruling stands for the proposition that — even when the government seeks to implement valuable policy goals — it must do so without trampling upon the conscientious beliefs of American citizens,” the Orthodox Union said following Hobby Lobby decision, adding that “there are many other ways to meet the policy goals without infringing on religious liberty.”

Kennedy, who will be 82 when he retires effective July 31 and is the 14th longest-serving justice, decided countless cases regarding religious liberty, many of which were important to — and divided — American Jews on all sides.

They include the decisions to legalize same-sex marriage, preserve Roe v. Wade and deregulate campaign finance, as well as prevent public schools from requiring student prayer and bar the government from endorsing a particular religion, among others.

“On church and state he was persuadable,” Stern told JTA, but adding, “He was more or less on the conservative side of Establishment [Clause] issues.”

Kennedy, as reflected in his invention of the famed “coercion test,” believed that religious liberty, based upon the First Amendment, while expansive, did not mean the government could make certain religious behavior mandatory.

Throughout his three-decade tenure, Kennedy was a fierce defender of religious liberty for those of all faiths. Even in his same-sex marriage opinion, which was lauded by liberals, Kennedy extended a rhetorical olive branch to social conservatives. He wrote that people opposed to same-sex marriage, including Agudath Israel of America, which filed a brief to the Supreme Court in opposition, “reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

Kennedy’s most notable liberal votes – on same-sex marriage and abortion – were in line with left-wing and centrist Jewish organizations. Thirteen Jewish groups, among them organizations representing the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative streams, joined an amicus brief supporting same-sex marriage. Several national Jewish organizations applauded the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision striking down a Texas law that restricted abortion access.

In 2015, Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, which ruled that a boy born to American parents in Jerusalem did not have the right to have his birth nation listed as Israel on his passport. Kennedy’s opinion declared that the executive branch, at the time headed by Obama, maintained the exclusive right to decide the sovereignty of any territory, including Jerusalem.

Kennedy’s thinking, although focused on executive power, not Jerusalem’s status as the Israeli capital (“This case is confined solely to the exclusive power of the President to control recognition determinations,” he wrote), provoked anger from diverse swaths of the American Jewry.

“Many Jews, not all, did not welcome the Jerusalem decision,” Stern told JTA, carefully refusing to speak for the panoply of American Jews. The Anti-Defamation League, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Hadassah, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and NCJW, among others, signed a brief expressing displeasure with the decision. The American Jewish Committee filed a brief as well, also issuing a statement expressing disappointment in the decision.

“Whether he was good or bad for the Jews depends on where you think the Jews ought to be,” Stern told JTA, also noting, however, that “he’ll be missed.”

On both sides of the political divide, activists increasingly value judicial partisanship over Kennedy’s ability to cross ideological lines.

When the next justice is appointed, Stern said, “demands in ideological partisanship will be very strong.”



Israel’s military graduates first female tank commanders

JERUSALEM — The Israeli army has its first female tank commanders.

Four women completed the tank commanders course on Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces announced.

“We can say after a year and four months that an armored combat team can carry out operational duties in the Border Defense Array under the command of a female tank commander,” said Brig.-Gen. Guy Hasson, head of the Armored Corps.

The Armored Corps’ pilot program began last July to determine whether or not women could be integrated as tank combat soldiers into the Border Defense Array. Women had been prohibited from serving in tanks in the belief that they could not handle it physically. Female soldiers do, however, serve as tank instructors.