Tag Archives: Israel

Iran blames Israel for sabotage at Natanz site as U.S. begins talks to re-enter nuclear deal

Iran blamed Israel on Monday for a sabotage attack on its underground Natanz nuclear facility that damaged its centrifuges, an assault that imperils ongoing talks over its tattered nuclear deal and brings a shadow war between the two countries into the light.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack. It rarely does for operations carried out by its secret military units or its Mossad intelligence agency. However, Israeli media widely reported that the country had orchestrated a devastating cyberattack that caused a blackout at the nuclear facility. Meanwhile, a former Iranian official said the attack set off a fire.

The attack further strains relations between the United States, which under President Joe Biden is now negotiating in Vienna to re-enter the nuclear accord, and Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to stop the deal at all costs. Netanyahu met Monday with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose arrival in Israel coincided with the first word of the attack.

At a news conference at Israel’s Nevatim air base Monday, where he viewed Israeli air and missile defence systems and its F-35 combat aircraft, Austin declined to say whether the Natanz attack could impede the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with Iran in its nuclear program.

“Those efforts will continue,” Austin said. The previous American administration under Donald Trump had pulled out of the nuclear deal with world powers, leading Iran to begin abandoning its limits.

‘We will take revenge’

Details remained scarce about what happened early Sunday at the facility. The event was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began referring to it as an attack.

A former chief of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said the attack had also set off a fire at the site and called for improvements in security. In a tweet, Gen. Mohsen Rezaei said that the second attack at Natanz in a year signalled “the seriousness of the infiltration phenomenon.” Rezaei did not say where he got his information.

This photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/The Associated Press)

“The answer for Natanz is to take revenge against Israel,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said. “Israel will receive its answer through its own path.” He did not elaborate.

Khatibzadeh acknowledged that IR-1 centrifuges, the first-generation workhorse of Iran’s uranium enrichment, had been damaged in the attack, but did not elaborate. State television has yet to show images from the facility. However, the facility seemed to be in such disarray that, following the attack, a prominent nuclear spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi walking above ground at the site fell seven metres through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Natanz would be reconstructed with more advanced machines. That would allow Iran to more quickly enrich uranium, complicating the nuclear talks.

“The Zionists wanted to take revenge against the Iranian people for their success on the path of lifting sanctions,” Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying. “But we do not allow (it), and we will take revenge for this action against the Zionists.”

Previous target of sabotage

Officials launched an effort Monday to provide emergency power to Natanz, said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. He said enrichment had not stopped there, without elaborating.

The IAEA, the United Nations body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the blackout at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges there during an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

This photo released July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire at the Natanz facility. Authorities later described the mysterious explosion as sabotage. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/The Associated Press)

In July, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for that, as well as the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Israel also has launched a series of airstrikes in neighbouring Syria targeting Iranian forces and their equipment. Israel also is suspected in an attack last week on an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout, but it remains unclear what actually happened there. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of the blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.'”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is penetrable, he said.

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Why Israel is leading the world with COVID-19 vaccinations

Every day, the online research publication Our World In Data releases information about vaccine doses being administered across the globe. And every day, one country emerges as a world leader: Israel.

For example, when the University of Oxford-based organization released its Jan. 1 data, the total number of vaccination doses administered per 100 people for Canada was 0.26. For the U.S., it was 0.84. The United Kingdom: 1.47. And for Israel it was 11.55, 44 times more than Canada.

But Israel, with a population of nine million,  was also tied for third in the world in total number of doses (1 million), behind China (4.5 million) and the U.S. (2.79 million). Canada’s dose count totalled just under 100,000.

As Max Roser, founder and director of Our World In Data tweeted on Friday: “the country is rapidly getting to a point where mass deaths and mass lockdowns are over.”

The reasons for Israel success are multifaceted, and there may be lessons that Canada itself can learn.

‘Should be commended for it’

“I think it’s remarkable watching how organized Israel is in terms of getting access to a tremendous amount of vaccines and mobilizing vaccine rollout in a very expedited manner,”  said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and member of the Ontario government’s vaccine distribution task force.

“And they should be commended for it.”

But the rollout is not without some controversy. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip will not be vaccinated by Israel, a responsibility that some aid groups believe Israel shares with Palestinian officials.

Still, the country continues to garner praise.  Since the start of its vaccination campaign on Dec. 20, Israel has inoculated just over 11 per cent of its population — one million of its citizens — and aims to vaccinate a quarter of all Israelis by the end of the month.

Certainly, Israel’s small size, and dense population, especially compared to a sprawling country like Canada, gives it an inherent advantage in terms of reaching its population with a vaccine, suggested Allon Moses, director of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Moses said the fact that Israel’s medical services are centralized, provided by four main health maintenance organizations (HMOs) has made it easier to reach the population through emails and advise people to make appointments. (Everyone over the age of 18 must register with one of the four government-subsidized HMOs.)

WATCH | The National reports on Canada’s challenges with vaccination rollout

The provinces are behind targets of getting COVID-19 vaccine into Canadians’ arms, and experts say logistical challenges are largely to blame but are hopeful the arrival of the Moderna vaccine will help speed things up. 3:22

Israel’s experience in war and battle has also meant the country “is built on dealing with emergency, the country is built on recruiting soldiers to help,” Moses said.

About 700 paramedics on reserve duty have joined the civilian vaccination campaign in order to make the operation more efficient, the Israel Defence Forces said in a statement.

“So we are a small country with a relatively good infrastructure of medicine and a lot of good-willed people who are willing to help to get the country to be vaccinated in record time,” Moses said.

Digitized medial record system

Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University, also lauded the country’s digitized medical record system as “one of the best in the world,” which is  helping with the organization of vaccination efforts and helping keep track of those on the priority list who should get a shot.

Perhaps most significantly, Israel was able to secure a large supply of vaccines — although how many has not been disclosed — but enough to vaccinate a million of its population. (Israel will have a two-week break in the vaccination of the general public due to an expected shortage of vaccines, the Jerusalem Post reported.)

Davidovitch said Israel and its tech-based economy, and connections to the pharmaceutical industries, made it an attractive candidate for Pfizer to supply its vaccines.

“It’s important to have vaccines being distributed in a place that will be very successful,” Davidovitch said. 

As well, Davidovtch said Israel had been preparing for a couple months in advance for the vaccine rollout. 

There have been more than 150 vaccine clinics running across the country, while vaccination vans travel to periphery towns.

People wait to receive a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, Israel, Tuesday, Dec. 29. ‘We are a small country with a relatively good infrastructure of medicine and a lot of good-willed people who are willing to help to get the country to be vaccinated in record time,’ one expert said. (Tsafrir Abayov/The Associated Press)

In comparison, Ontario, with a population of 14.5 million, has only 19 vaccination clinics across the province. These 19 sites all contain the special freezers needed to store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Pfizer has advised Canadian health officials to administer early doses of the vaccine at the sites where they are first delivered in large batches. Health officials have been told by Pfizer that too much movement of the vaccine can lead to deterioration.

Repackage vaccine

But according to Israel’s health ministry, it is the first country in the world to repackage the vaccine to distribute it across the country.

“Fortunately, the solution for safe transport of the vaccines allows us to vaccinate in small and remote locations, in retirement homes and nursing homes,”  Hezi Levy, Director General of the Ministry of Health, said in a statement.

Vivian Bercoviic, a former ambassador of Canada to Israel, suggested that politics may also be at play. With an election slated for March, a successful vaccine rollout campaign certainly would be a boon for the political fortunes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu.

“So he knows that if he is able to turn Israel into this beacon of accomplishment in terms of national vaccination program, it will not only reflect well on him personally, but it’ll be a matter of national pride.”

(Our World In Data)

Bogoch said that while Israel deserves all the praise it receives for its speed in administering the vaccine, it is easier for smaller countries to more efficiently administer vaccines in general.

“Canada has pretty significant logistical hurdles just based on the size of the country. We have rural populations, we have remote Indigenous populations, and everybody needs access to this. Even the northern part of the country is also going to pose some significant challenges as well.”

He said that it’s pretty clear that per capita, Israel certainly has access to significantly more vaccines to begin with per capita. And because Israel has so many, it likely started planning administering the vaccines much earlier. 

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Ont., and an associate professor at McMaster University, said Canada could take some lessons from Israel.

He said Canadian officials could also learn how Israel is setting up its registration system and how it appears to be managing through bureaucratic hurdles.

But most importantly, Canada could learn how Israeli officials been able to transport the vaccine around to other locations.

“Israel has been able to move the vaccine around to multiple different places, multiple different sites, pop ups and that type of thing,” he said. “The ability to to not centralize in a single place, does help with the distribution. They can mobilize more volunteers.”

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Israel to hold snap election, the country’s 4th in 2 years

Israel will hold a snap election in March after its parliament failed on Tuesday to meet a deadline to pass a budget, triggering a ballot presenting new challenges for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Campaigning in Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years gets underway with Netanyanu facing public anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and while he is engaged in a corruption trial, the first against an Israeli prime minister.

Israel’s longest-serving leader will also have to contend with a new rival from the right, Gideon Saar, a defector from Netanyahu’s Likud party who an opinion poll on Israel’s Kan public TV on Tuesday showed was drawing even with him. The election is scheduled for March 23.

Netanyahu, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing, and the current defence minister, centrist politician Benny Gantz, established a unity government in May after three inconclusive elections held since April 2019.

But they have been locked in a dispute over passage of a national budget key to implementing a deal in which Gantz was to have taken over from Netanyahu in November 2021.

The Speaker of the Knesset declared its dissolution late on Tuesday in a session broadcast on live television, saying a snap election was automatically triggered by its failure to approve a budget.

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Palestinian Authority urges Israel to return to talks focused on 2-state solution

The Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister on Saturday urged Israel to return to talks based on a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ahead of the transition to a new U.S. administration.

Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki’s comments came in a joint statement with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi of Jordan.

In a news conference after their meeting, al-Malki said that the Palestinian Authority is ready to co-operate with U.S. president-elect Joe Biden on the basis of achieving a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital on territory Israel captured in the Six Day War in 1967. Biden will be sworn into office on Jan. 20.

“We are ready for co-operation and dealing with the new U.S. administration, and we are expecting that it would redraw its ties with the state of Palestine,” he said.

The diplomat said co-ordination with Cairo and Amman is a “centre point” that would establish a “starting point” in dealing with the incoming Biden administration. Egypt and Jordan are close U.S. allies.

In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an international conference early next year to launch a “genuine peace process,” based on United Nations resolutions and past agreements with Israel. The Palestinians urged that the conference be multilateral, since they contend the United States is no longer an honest broker.

Palestinian negotiators have suffered numerous setbacks under the Trump administration and complained about what they say are biased pro-Israel steps from Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sidelined the Palestinian Authority, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, slashed financial assistance for Palestinians and reversed course on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians.

Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war. The international community considers both areas to be occupied territory, and the Palestinians seek them as part of a future independent state.

WATCH | Some young Palestinians see no end to the Israeli occupation:

The dream of a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears in retreat, in large part because of the failure of the international community to insist upon it. 9:47

Israel annexed East Jerusalem and considers it part of its capital — a step that is not internationally recognized.

It has also built a far-flung network of settlements that house nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem since their capture in 1967.

The Palestinians want both territories for their future state and view the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace — a position with wide international support.

Security co-ordination

Al-Malki also said they have returned to security co-ordination with Israel, after Israeli authorities sent a “message, for the first time, that they are abiding to all agreements” made with the Palestinians.

In May, Abbas, the Palestinian president, announced that the Palestinian Authority would cut ties with Israel, including security co-ordination, following Israel’s pledge to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

In a statement following their meeting, the three foreign ministers said they would work to rally international support against Israel’s “illegitimate measures,” which include settlement expansion, demolishing dozens of Palestinian homes and seizing their land.

“These are illegitimate Israeli actions on the ground that affect all chances to reach a comprehensive peace process that can only happen by the two-state solution,” Safadi, Jordan’s top diplomat, told the news conference.

The ministers said in their statement that Jerusalem’s status should be resolved in the negotiations, calling for Israel “as the occupying power, to stop all violations that target the Arab, Islamic and Christian identity of Jerusalem and its sanctuaries.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also met with the Jordanian and Palestinian ministers, according to his office.

WATCH | Israel signs agreement with Bahrain, U.A.E. to normalize relations:

A historic Middle East agreement has been signed at the White House, after U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker a deal for Israel to normalize relations with both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. 1:58

He said in a statement that Egypt has been working toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “taking into account the regional and international changes.”

He was apparently referring to the election of Biden as the U.S. president and the normalization deals between Israel and four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Those deals, crafted by the Trump administration, dealt another heavy setback for Palestinians.

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Israel finally swears in government after 3 elections

After three deadlocked and divisive elections, a year and a half of political paralysis and another three-day delay because of political infighting in his Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally swore in his new government on Sunday.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a vote of confidence in Netanyahu’s new administration to end over 500 days of upheaval.

Over the weekend, both Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz announced their appointments for the new government — the most bloated in Israeli history with an expected 36 Cabinet ministers and 16 deputies.

Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, announced last month they would be putting their differences aside to join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.

Their controversial power-sharing deal calls for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government’s first 18 months before being replaced by Gantz for the next 18 months. Their blocs will also have a similar number of ministers and mutual veto power over most major decisions.

A protester wearing a protective mask demonstrates against Netanyahu in front of his residence in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics have already accused the government of being out of touch by creating so many Cabinet posts at a time when unemployment has soared to 25 per cent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But because Netanyahu’s bloc includes several smaller parties, he still only has a limited number of Cabinet ministries to hand out to the Likud rank and file.

A mini-insurgency by angry senior Likud members forced Netanyahu to seek a delay in the swearing-in ceremony last Thursday. To mollify his backbenchers, Netanyahu created a series of new ministries with questionable responsibilities, such as “community development,” “settlement affairs” and “higher education and water resources” and a minister to be the liaison between the parliament and the Cabinet. Each ministry means paying for drivers, staff and office space.

Yair Lapid, the new opposition leader, said the machinations have led to a loss of “trust of the Israeli public.”

“The coronavirus is an excuse for a corrupt party at the expense of the taxpayer. After all the empty talk of an `emergency government,’ the government being formed today is the largest and most wasteful in the history of the country,” he said. “It’s not just the waste, it’s the contempt. The complete contempt for the crisis facing the Israeli public.”

The deal has already led to the dissolution of Gantz’s alliance with Lapid after he reneged on his central campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges and faces a criminal trial starting next week. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal could only come about after the country’s Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.

‘The public wants a unity government’

Gantz and Netanyahu fought to stalemates in three bitter election campaigns over the past year.

After the most recent vote in March, Gantz appeared to secure enough support in parliament to pass legislation that would have barred the indicted Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister. But in a stunning about face, Gantz agreed to enter a partnership with his arch rival.

Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented what would have been a fourth costly election in just over a year.

Benny Gantz speaks in Israel’s parliament on Sunday. (Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson’s Office via Reuters)

In his speech to parliament, Netanyahu acknowledged that compromises had to be made but that another election would have been far more devastating.

“The public wants a unity government and this is what the public is getting today,” he said. “We chose to serve the country together.”

Gantz will start out as defense minister, with party colleague and fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi serving as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s top deputy in Likud, outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz, will become finance minister. Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu’s closest ally, will become the new parliament speaker.

Netanyahu, right, Benny Gantz, wear face masks at the Israeli parliament on Sunday. (Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson’s Office via Reuters)

The coalition will also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some other individual defectors. It was voted into office by a 73-46 margin, with one lawmaker in the 120-seat Knesset skipping the vote.

The main point of contention for critics has been the newly created position of “alternate prime minister.”

The post, initially held by Gantz, could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process. There are also deep suspicions about whether Netanyahu will keep his part of the bargain and ultimately cede the premiership to Gantz.

Gantz took his oath of office as “the alternate prime minister and future prime minister” immediately after Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister.

Indictment looms over Netanyahu

The new position is supposed to enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and, key for Netanyahu, an exemption from a law that requires public officials who are not prime minister to resign if charged with a crime.

Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving allegedly trading favours with wealthy media moguls. He denies any wrongdoing and blames the charges on a media-orchestrated plot to oust him.

Since his indictment last fall he has repeatedly lashed out at the country’s legal system as well, with his political allies taking special aim at the high court and accusing it of overreach and political interference. His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns.

Netanyahu also pledged to push forth with controversial plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s nationalist base is eager to push for annexation before the U.S. elections in November — after which Trump could be replaced by Joe Biden, who has said he opposes unilateral annexation. The coalition agreement allows him to present a proposal as soon as July 1.

“The time has come for anyone who believes in the justness of our rights in the land of Israel to join a government led by me to bring about a historic process together,” he said.

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Israel heads to the polls once again amid political gridlock — with no end in sight

If ever there were a case for voter fatigue, Israel’s third election in less than 12 months is surely it.

One Israeli newspaper actually ran a headline last week describing fears about the coronavirus as “The Most Exciting Thing about Israel’s Boring Third Election.”

The two main contenders in this endurance contest — Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and former military chief Benny Gantz — are still standing.

The mention of the coronavirus is not a random one. With polls consistently pointing to the possibility of yet another stalemate, campaign strategy has been all about getting the vote out. Fears of a pandemic could get in the way of that.

Netanyahu and Gantz won 35 seats each last April, while Gantz edged ahead in September with 33 to Netanyahu’s 32.   

Israel’s system of proportional representation means parties usually have to rely on coalition partners to gain the 61 seats needed for a majority in the Knesset. 

No single issue seems to have moved the needle significantly enough over the past several months to swing voters in one direction or another, leading to predictions of a fourth poll in the fall.

“Voting is not about any rational policy. It’s about identity,” said Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

“We have very clear and strong predictors. The more religious you are, the more you are right wing; the least [religious], the more you are left wing or at least centre.” 

There is certainly some truth to that along Israel’s border with Gaza in the south. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has traditionally done well in so-called development towns like Sderot, built in the 1950s to house Jewish immigrants arriving in the recently established state.

The city’s mayor, Alon Davidi, a Likud member, wants to see a tougher government response to persistent rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in neighbouring Gaza.

Alon Davidi is a Likud member and mayor of Sderot, a southern town near the Israeli border with Gaza. Last week, a children’s playground in Sderot was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Netanyahu has had a decade to deal with what the mayor describes as a worsening problem. But he still supports him, he says, because Netanyahu understands offering concessions to the Palestinians doesn’t work.

“Netanyahu, I think, is the best prime minister that we have [had] in there beside maybe [David] Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. 

“If you go all over the south, you will see that everyone [votes] Netanyahu,” he said, with the exception, he added, of people living in kibbutzim who typically don’t vote to the right. 

And he’s right — at least in Betty Gravi’s case. She has lived on the Nir Am Kibbutz for nearly 60 years.

“We arrive to a time that he [has] to finish,” she said of Netanyahu. “I am convinced that it’s impossible to continue for years in the same way.” 

Betty Gavri looks towards neighbouring Gaza from a hill top near her home in the Nir Am Kibbutz. ‘We can see them and they can see us,’ she says, ‘and for a long time we [could] also visit each other and we did.’ (Lily Martin/CBC)

The Nir Am Kibbutz is right next to the Gaza border, with clear views into the 41-kilometre-long strip. Part of Gavri’s job is to record any damage to kibbutz land from Gaza rocket fire in order to be able to claim government compensation.

She plans to vote for Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party, even though his policy isn’t much different than Netanyahu’s on security issues.

Gavri hopes a change in Israel’s leadership might offer a little hope for people living on both sides of the Gaza border. Some two million Palestinians have been living under a punishing Israeli and Egyptian blockade for 12 years, imposed after Gaza was taken over the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), says Israel – and the international community — should be concerned about the levels of despair in the strip.

Matthias Schmale is the director of UN Relief and Works Agency operations in Gaza. UNRWA feeds more than one million people in Gaza. (Lily Martin/CBC)

“It’s sometimes called the world’s biggest open-air prison and it often feels like this,” he said. “This is an increasingly fertile ground for extremist groups to take hold and to influence people. If you have nothing left to lose, you will go to the fence knowing you might be killed and shot or do things that are worse.” 

Schmale says the UN is providing food aid to half of Gaza’s population. Unemployment is at around 50 per cent and higher still for young people, many of whom have never once left Gaza.

People joke that if the coronavirus ever did make its way to Gaza, it would turn and run.

Few Gazans believe the outcome of Israel’s election will make any difference to their fate or those of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Children are seen playing in a Gaza City alley. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Back across the border, Gavri clearly believes that Israel needs to re-engage with the Palestinians, especially given all the talk of Israel annexing the Jordan Valley and settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“I don’t know” of any situation where you would only negotiate with yourself, she says. “This is something quite problematic.”

But so is a country so deeply divided that it has been unable to elect a working government.

Netanyahu is due to stand trial on corruption charges later this month. But even that doesn’t seem to have shifted any significant numbers in terms of support one way or the other.

“Most of the parties in the world would already say: ‘Mr Netanyahu, we really liked you, we really admired you, but if you could, step down and let another person come in,'” said Rahat. “Netanyahu has succeeded over the years to convince people that he is not replaceable. The wonder is [this belief] really held on for three elections. That’s remarkable.”

It certainly adds to the sense of déjà vu.

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Netanyahu takes shelter after rocket reportedly launched during rally in Israel

A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip at a southern Israeli city on Wednesday as it hosted a campaign rally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted him to take shelter briefly before resuming the event, Israeli TV stations reported.

The Israeli military confirmed the launch against Ashkelon, which is 12 kilometres from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome air defence interceptor.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas Islamists and where a smaller armed faction, Islamic Jihad, exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence last month. 

Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu, who is campaigning to keep the helm of the conservative Likud party in an internal election on Thursday, being escorted off a stage by bodyguards. The reports said he was taken to a shelter after sirens sounded. 

It was the second attempt after a September appearance by Netanyahu in the nearby town of Ashdod was briefly disrupted by a rocket siren. 

Israel sparked the November fighting in Gaza by assassinating Baha Abu al-Atta, an Islamic Jihad commander it accused of ordering the launch against Ashdod. 

“He [al-Atta] is no longer around,” Netanyahu said in a video circulated on social media that showed him smiling after he retook the stage in Ashkelon, to cheers from onlookers.

Veiled threat from Netanyahu

In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday’s attack, he added: “Whoever tried to make an impression just now should pack his bags.” 

While Netanyahu is widely expected to retain Likud’s leadership, he faces a tough battle ahead of a March general election in Israel — its third in a year, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu’s standing has been dented by an indictment on corruption charges that he denies. 

Netanyahu’s failure to stem attacks from Gaza has been invoked by his political rivals. 

“The situation in which Israeli citizens live at the mercy of terrorists and the prime minister of Israel is unable to tour parts of his country is a badge of shame on the security policy in the south — and a loss of deterrence that no sovereign country can accept,” Gantz, a former military chief, said in a statement on Wednesday. 

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Israel, Islamic Jihad truce appears holding despite rockets

A ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Islamic Jihad militant group appeared to be holding Thursday despite an earlier barrage of rocket fire that briefly disrupted a truce to end two days of intense fighting that killed at least 34 Palestinians, including three women and eight children, and paralyzed parts of Israel.

Before the truce was announced, a predawn Israeli airstrike killed eight members of the same family in Gaza. Among them were five children, the youngest seven years old.

It was the deadliest single attack since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza. Islamic Jihad claimed no link to the family and the Israeli military offered no details on the strike.

Israel had hailed the Gaza operation as a victory, defending its policy of targeting militants in their homes despite civilian deaths, and vowed to continue the tactic. Islamic Jihad said it had succeeded in getting Israel to agree to a ceasefire based on several demands, including a halt to Israeli targeted killings of the group’s leaders.

Islamic Jihad spokesperson Musab al-Berim said the Egyptian-brokered deal went into effect early in the morning. An Israeli military spokesperson tweeted the Gaza operation “is over.” Some restrictions were lifted on residents of southern Israel and traffic returned to the streets of the Palestinian coastal territory.

But after hours of calm, a barrage of five rockets blasted out of the territory, setting off air raid sirens in southern Israel and testing the fragile truce. No group claimed responsibility for the new wave of rockets, but Israel did not immediately respond, an indication that ceasefire deal was intact.

Targeted killing

The fighting first erupted early Tuesday after Israel killed a senior commander of the Iranian-backed militant group who was said to be behind a string of rocket attacks and who Israel said was believed to be planning a cross-border infiltration.

The rare targeted killing by Israel sparked the heaviest fighting with Gaza militants since May. Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets toward Israel, while Israel responded with scores of airstrikes.

Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group, much larger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, stayed out of the latest escalation — an indication it would be brief.

An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome defence missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is seen above Gaza city on Tuesday. (Bashar Taleb/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel typically does not publicly acknowledge deals with militant groups, and on Thursday officials said the only unwritten agreement was that Israel would hold fire so long as Islamic Jihad did. Military spokesperson listed a series of accomplishments after the two-day spasm of violence, including the killing of some 25 militants in targeted strikes.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the policy had “proved itself” and would continue. “Everyone who was a top military official, who was set to carry out and was involved in terror or rocket firing against Israel was eliminated,” he told Israeli Army Radio. “And we intend to continue with this.”

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett warned Gaza militants they were not safe anywhere.

“A terrorist who tries to harm Israeli citizens will not be able to sleep soundly, not in his home and not in his bed and not in any hiding place,” he said.

Critics of Israel’s contentious policy say it amounts to extrajudicial killings that endanger civilians.

But Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesperson, defended the attacks on militants’ private homes, saying Islamic Jihad commanders used their residences to store weapons, making them legitimate targets.

Palestinians say 34 killed

Palestinian officials say 34 people were killed in the fighting, including at least 18 militants. They say eight children, including a pair of seven-year-olds, and three women were among the dead.

The rocket fire crippled life across southern Israel and on Tuesday, also in the country’s heartland in and around Tel Aviv, as non-stop air-raid sirens cancelled schools and forced people indoors. At least three people were lightly wounded from shrapnel or shattered glass. Most rockets landed in open areas or were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.

Much of Gaza resembled a ghost-town, with almost no vehicles on the roads except for ambulances evacuating the wounded.

Al-Berim, the Islamic Jihad spokesman, lauded the group’s efforts against Israel, saying it “had its word, confronted the aggression,” and “defended the Palestinian people.”

Shortly after al-Berim’s ceasefire announcement, two rockets were fired out of Gaza, setting off sirens in southern Israel. It was not immediately clear whether the launches were intentional or misfires caused by electronic timers. Israel didn’t respond.

Islamic Jihad said the fire was likely because word hadn’t spread to all members about the halt to violence.

The Israeli military’s Home Front command tweeted that it was lifting restrictions in certain areas but leaving them in place in the areas surrounding Gaza.

In Gaza, cars could be heard back on the streets as the territory appeared to be springing back to life. Israeli military drones still buzzed overhead.

UN and Islamic Jihad officials were in touch Wednesday with Egyptian mediators, who typically broker agreements to end fighting in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Wednesday. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Late Wednesday, Islamic Jihad’s leader, Ziad al-Nakhalah, announced three conditions for an end to the fighting: an end to targeted killings, a halt in Israeli shootings of protesters at weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border and easing a 12-year-old Israeli blockade that has devastated Gaza’s economy.

Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority. Israel considers Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which both seek its destruction, to be terrorist groups.

The killing of Islamic Jihad’s Bahaa Abu el-Atta on Tuesday coincided with a strike in the Syrian capital of Damascus that targeted another Islamic Jihad commander. Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for that attack and the commander was not killed, but the strikes stepped up Israel’s regional conflict with Iran and its proxies.

Israel often strikes Iranian interests in Syria and the fresh fighting looked to awaken Israel’s increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region.

Iran supplies Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money. Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has some of its leadership in Beirut and in Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.

As Iran’s proxy in Gaza, the group is key to Tehran’s strategy of keeping pressure on Israel on all fronts.

Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbour, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Hamas also receives some support from Iran.

Caretaker government

The violence came at a touchy time in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after two elections ended inconclusively and after he failed twice to form a governing coalition.

His main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, is now trying to cobble together a government, but his chances appear slim. If he fails by next week, Israel could be on its way to an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum typically rally behind the government during a military operation, and Netanyahu has briefed Gantz before and during the violence, setting off speculation the conflagration may succeed to push the men toward an agreement.

The escalation also comes ahead of an expected indictment against Netanyahu for a number of corruption allegations.

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Israel vows to keep hitting militants as 18 killed in Gaza

Israeli airstrikes killed more Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza on Wednesday as rocket fire toward Israel resumed after a brief overnight lull, raising the death toll in the strip to 18 Palestinians in the heaviest round of fighting in months.

The military said more than 250 rockets have been fired at Israeli communities since the violence erupted following an Israeli airstrike that killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander accused of being the mastermind of recent attacks. Israel stepped up its battle against Iran and its proxies across the region.

The latest fighting brought life in much of Israel to a standstill. Schools remained closed in Israeli communities near the Gaza border and restrictions on public gatherings continued as rockets rained down.

Those attacks came after the early morning strike on Tuesday killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife as they were sleeping. Rocket fire from Gaza reached as far north as Tel Aviv, and two people were wounded by shrapnel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a special cabinet meeting that Israel has no interest in sparking a wider confrontation but warned the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad that Israel will keep pounding them until the rockets stop.

“They know we will continue to strike them without mercy,” Netanyahu said. “They have one choice: either stop these attacks or absorb more and more blows.”

Gaza’s Hamas rulers have yet to enter the fray — a possible sign the current round of violence could be brief.

Egypt, which frequently mediates between Israel and Gaza militants, has been working to de-escalate tensions, according to Cairo officials. The Islamic Jihad rejected the efforts, with spokesman Musab al-Berim saying the group’s priority is to “respond to the crime and confront the Israeli aggression.”

Seeking to keep the outburst under control, the Israeli military has restricted its operations to Islamic Jihad, and nearly all the Gaza casualties so far have been members of the militant group.

An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome defence missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is seen above Gaza city on Tuesday. (Bashar Taleb/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s new defence minister said Israel wouldn’t hesitate to carry out additional targeted killings against those who threaten it.

“Whoever plans to harm us during the day, will never be safe to make it through the night,” he said after taking office Tuesday.

Netanyahu appointed him to fortify his hard-line political base as he clings to office after two inconclusive elections. Bennett has long advocated tougher action against Palestinian militants but wasn’t part of the plans to strike Abu el-Atta.

No Israeli deaths have been caused by the rockets attacks, mostly thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, which the military said intercepted some 90 per cent of the projectiles. A few homes suffered direct strikes, though, and there was a near miss on a major highway, where a rocket crashed down just after a vehicle had passed.

In Gaza, the Islamic Jihad said 38-year-old Khaled Faraj, a brigade commander, was killed early Wednesday along with another militant from the group’s Quds radio network. Four others were killed in an airstrike, including a father and two sons, and two others were targeted later. Their identities were unclear.

Along with Tuesday’s pre-dawn strike in Gaza, another strike attributed to Israel targeted a senior Islamic Jihad commander based in Syria. The strikes appeared to be a new surge in the open warfare between Israel and Iranian proxies in the region.

Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbour, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In Gaza, it supplies Islamic Jihad with cash, weapons and expertise.

Netanyahu has also claimed Iran is using Iraq and far-off Yemen, where Tehran supports Shia Houthi rebels at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing the government, to plan attacks against Israel. Hamas also receives some support from Iran.

Israel frequently strikes Iranian interests in Syria but Tuesday’s attack in Damascus appeared to be a rare assassination attempt there of a Palestinian militant.

Despite the disruption to daily life, there appeared to be widespread support in Israel for the targeting of Abu el-Atta — a “ticking bomb” who was actively orchestrating new attacks, according to officials. Netanyahu said the military operation was approved by the cabinet 10 days in advance.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Wednesday. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

“We showed that we can strike terrorists with minimum damage to innocents,” Netanyahu said. “Anyone who harms us, we will harm them.”

Still, some opposition figures suggested the timing could not be divorced from the political reality in Israel, where Netanyahu leads a caretaker government while his chief challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, is currently trying to build a coalition government of his own.

Despite their rivalry, both men support a unity government, but each demands that he lead such a government.

Gantz said he’d been briefed on the airstrike in advance, calling it “the right decision.” Netanyahu updated his rival on developments later, according to his office.

Israel’s attorney general is to decide in the coming weeks whether to indict Netanyahu. An indictment would increase pressure on him to step aside. Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as one best capable of steering the country through its many security challenges.

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Arab bloc in Israel endorses Benny Gantz for prime minister

The Arab bloc in Israel’s parliament broke with tradition Sunday and endorsed Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz for prime minister, giving the former military chief an edge for the job over incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.

The historic endorsement highlighted the first day of President Reuven Rivlin’s crucial consultations with various party representatives. He’s set to meet with all the parliamentary factions before selecting his candidate for prime minister, after a deadlocked repeat election made forming any new government a daunting task.

It is the job of Israel’s largely ceremonial president to pick the politician with the best chance of forming a stable coalition government. While usually a formality, this time Rivlin plays a key role after an election earlier this month in which neither of the top candidates has an outright majority of 61 members in the 120-seat parliament. 

Near-final results show Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, while Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won 31 seats, three less than it had before. With the Arab bloc — known as the Joint List — deciding to end its usual policy of withholding support for any candidate in the wake of elections, Rivlin could be prompted to ask Gantz to form a government.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures as he hands out pamphlets during an an election campaign event in northern Israel earlier this month. Odeh said the Joint List endorsed Gantz ‘to bring an end to the era of Netanyahu.’ (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

This is the second time in five months that Likud failed to secure a clear election victory. The centrist Blue and White party led by Gantz has a slight lead with nearly all votes counted.

Gantz has so far rebuffed Netanyahu’s calls to join a unity government with both Likud and Blue and White joining.

“We want to bring an end to the era of Netanyahu, so we recommend that Benny Gantz be the one to form the next government,” Joint List party head Ayman Odeh told Rivlin.

An increased turnout by Israel’s 21 per cent Arab minority saw the Joint List win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping. Though the Arab-led parties have never sat in an Israeli government, Odeh said he is planning to become opposition leader in the case of a unity government. This is the first time since 1992 that Arab-led parties have endorsed a candidate by selecting Gantz over Netanyahu. 

Netanyahu denounced the Arab party support of Gantz. He said it meant only two choices: “a minority government that leans on those that reject Israel as a Jewish, democratic state,” or a “broad national government.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, centre, and Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, stand next to each other at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli President Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem Sept. 19, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Its support does not mean it will sit in the governing coalition, but its backing gives Gantz’s centre-left bloc 57 seats, compared to Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of 55.

With that nod, Gantz looks to edge Netanyahu in the number of lawmakers who will endorse him.

‘This is what the people want’

In a meeting with Likud party leaders, Rivlin said it was up to the “two biggest parties, the first and second that are almost equal in size, to join forces … so that you together manage and establish a system that brings a stable government.”

“This is what the people want. None of us can ignore that,” he said.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu and Gantz will continue to seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

Lieberman on Sunday reiterated his call for a unity government and said he would not recommend either candidate in his meeting with Rivlin.

Religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. Full official results are due to be published on Wednesday. 

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