MARSEILLE, Oct 1, (AFP): A suspected Islamist knifeman killed two women at the main train station in the French Mediterranean city of Marseille on Sunday before being shot dead by soldiers on patrol, local officials and police said. One of the victims had her throat slit by the assailant, a man with a criminal record believed to be in his 30s who shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) at the start of his rampage.
Soldiers serving in a special force known as Sentinelle set up to guard vulnerable areas in terror-hit France responded to the stabbings and shot dead the attacker, whose identity remains unknown. “I was on the esplanade just in front of the station,” Melanie Petit, an 18-year-old student, told AFP. “I heard someone shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and I saw a man who seemed to be dressed all in black.” Heavily armed police sealed off and evacuated the ornate rail terminus in the bustling heart of France’s second-biggest city, stopping all train traffic on some of the country’s busiest lines.
The latest deaths came with France still on high alert and under a state of emergency following a string of attacks in recent years by extremists linked to the Islamic State group or al-Qaeda. Since 2015, a total of 239 people have been killed in France by jihadists, according to an AFP count before Sunday’s incident.
After the lunchtime attack, anti-terror prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into “killings linked to a terrorist organisation” and the “attempted killing of a public official”. Travellers around the station described “controlled panic” as security forces evacuated passengers and looked for possible accomplices, while another witness said white sheets were placed over the bodies of the victims.
“There were police everywhere,” said Francois Jacquel, a retired traveller who was in a waiting room. The incident came only days after the Islamic State group released a recording of what it said was its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging his followers to strike their enemies in the West. France has deployed troops and its air force to the Middle East and is a leading partner in the US-led international coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, where the jihadists are being driven back.
The country has suffered several major terror attacks since 2015, including on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January of that year followed by an assault on Paris bars and the Bataclan concert hall by gunmen 10 months later. In Nice in July 2016, 86 people were killed when an extremist drove a truck into crowds after a fireworks display on Bastille Day. But there have also been numerous smaller attacks on police officers, soldiers or members of the public since then, sometimes carried out by people with severe psychological problems.
Since November 2015, the country has been in a state of emergency which gives the government and security forces greater powers to combat extremists and launch anti-terror raids. New centrist President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to end the state of emergency with a new and controversial security law that will make many of the provisions of the emergency regime permanent.
Despite criticism from rights groups that the law reduces judicial oversight over the actions of the police, the lower house of parliament is set to vote on a first draft of the legislation on Tuesday. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb posted on Twitter that he would travel to Marseille on Sunday, while Prime Minister Edouard Philippe sent his condolences and said “we will not lower our guard.” In August, a man driving a van killed one person and seriously injured another after ploughing into a bus stop in Marseille, raising fears of another terror incident. But doctors said later that the man had severe mental problems and discounted any terror link.
The soldiers who shot the knifeman on Sunday were part of the Operation Sentinelle force composed of 7,000 troops who guard high-risk areas such as transport hubs, tourist sites and religious buildings
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Sunday that the rule of law had prevailed in Catalonia because an independence referendum in the region prohibited by the courts had been blocked.
“Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. The rule of law remains in force with all its strength,” he said in a televised address.
Earlier, Spanish riot police smashed their way into polling stations in Catalonia and fired rubber bullets at protesters outside one Barcelona polling station to try to halt a disputed independence referendum.
Nearly 350 people, including some police, were injured in the melee, officials said.
The officers fired the rubber bullets while trying to clear protesters who were attempting to prevent National Police cars from leaving after police had confiscated ballot boxes from the voting center. The Spanish government has ordered police to stop the voting process in Catalonia, saying it's illegal.
The chaotic confrontations led to a war of words as each side blamed the other for the deteriorating situation.
“Police brutality will shame forever the Spanish state,” Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said as crowds cheered.
Top Spanish officials defended the police actions.
Police acted with “firmness and proportionality,” declared Spanish deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, adding that authorities weren't going after voters but referendum material.
She accused the Catalan government of gross irresponsibility in staging the vote.
“There hasn't been a referendum or the semblance of one,” she said.
Jon Marauri, who is from the Basque Country and witnessed the scenes outside the polling stations, showed an AFP reporter one of the rubber bullets he picked up after police charged hundreds of protesters who were preventing the officers from leaving a polling station.
“I am not the only one who has this, lots of other people picked them up,” the 22-year-old engineering student said as he held the rubber bullet.
Another demonstrator, David Pujol, 37, showed an injury to his leg that he said was caused by a rubber bullet. Several other demonstrators reported hearing rubber bullets being fired.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont lashed out Sunday at the violence used by Spain's national police in dispersing people in Barcelona who wanted to vote.
“The unjustified use of violence, which is both irrational and irresponsible, by the Spanish state will not stop the will of the Catalan people,” he told reporters, accusing police of using “batons, rubber bullets and indiscriminate force” against people demonstrating “peacefully”.
Tensions have been on the rise since the vote was called in early September, crystalizing years of defiance by separatists in the affluent region, which contributes mightily to Spain's economy.
As one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, Catalonia enjoys ample rights but key areas such as infrastructure and taxes are in the hands of Madrid. Separatist Catalans have long complained the region is contributing too much to the state while not getting enough in return.
Catalonia's government spokesman said 337 people have been injured, some seriously, during the police crackdown on Sunday and Spain's Interior Ministry said 11 police officers were injured.
The regional government's spokesman, Jordi Turull, blamed the violence directly on Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
He said actions by Spanish National Police and Civil Guard forces on Sunday were politically motivated and showed “a clear motivation to harm citizens.”
Catalan international affairs director, Raul Romeva, said regional authorities would appeal to European authorities to examine the violations of human rights by Rajoy's government.
Manuel Condeminas, a 48-year-old IT manager who tried to block police from driving away with the ballot boxes, said agents had kicked them before using their batons and firing the projectiles, which were ball-shaped.
Elsewhere, Civil Guard officers, wearing helmets and carrying shields, used a hammer to break the front door glass and a lock cutter to break into the Sant Julia de Ramis sports center near the city of Girona.
At least one woman was injured outside the building and wheeled away on a stretcher by paramedics.
Clashes broke out less than an hour after polls opened, and not long before Catalonia regional President Carles Puigdemont was expected to turn up to vote at the sports center.
Polling station workers inside the building reacted peacefully, breaking into songs and chants challenging the officers' presence.
Puigdemont was forced to vote in Cornella de Terri, near the northern city of Girona, his spokesman told The Associated Press.
The Spanish government and its security forces are trying to prevent voting in the independence referendum, which is backed by Catalan regional authorities. Spanish officials had earlier said that force wouldn't be used, but that voting wouldn't be allowed.
Spain's Constitutional Court has suspended the vote. Regional separatist leaders pledged to hold it anyway, promising to declare independence if the “yes” side wins, and have called on the region's 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots.
Police had sealed off hundreds of voting centers in the hours before the vote to prevent their use. Others were filled with activists determined to hold their ground.
At one school in Barcelona, Spanish riot police forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from a polling station. Daniel Riano was inside the building when the police pushed aside a large group gathered outside and busted in the Estela school's front door.
“We were waiting inside to vote when the National Police used force to enter, they used a mace to break in the glass door and they took everything,” the 54-year-old Riano said.
“One policeman put me in a headlock to drag me out, while I was holding my wife's hand! It was incredible. They didn't give any warning.” National Police and Civil Guard officers also showed up in other polling centers where Catalan officials were expected.
Catalans braved rain to vote and defied police orders to abandon designated voting stations.
Joaquim Bosch, a 73-year-old retiree at Princep de Viana high school, where a crowd was growing Sunday morning, said he was uneasy about a possible police response.
“I have come to vote to defend the rights of my country, which is Catalonia,” Bosch said. “I vote because of the mistreatment of Catalonia by Spain for many years.”
AP reporters saw ballot boxes wrapped in plastic bags being carried into some of the polling stations in Barcelona that were occupied overnight by parents and activists.
The plastic ballot boxes, bearing the seal of the Catalan regional government, were placed on tables, prompting cheers from hopeful voters who had gathered in the schools before dawn.
An amateur video filmed by a voter in Barcelona shows Spanish police kicking, beating and pulling people by the hair in clashes that took place as they tried to stop a referendum on independence in the northeastern region of Catalonia.
The video, acquired by the Associated Press, show National Police officers pulling and pushing people down a stairway at the Pau Claris School in the Sant Marti neighborhood Sunday. At one point, it shows an officer jumping down the steps and apparently stomping on a person on the floor.
One person can be seen being pulled by the hair and others kicked on the ground. People can be heard screaming wildly and shouting “Out!” at the officers.
The person that filmed the video said voters were simply sitting and trying to slow the police operation down. She said she saw no provocations. She asked for her name not to be published.
In an effort to overcome the determined Spanish police efforts, Catalan officials announced that voters would be allowed to cast ballots in any location and could use ballots printed at home.
Regional government spokesman Jordi Turull also said a group of “academics and professionals” had been invited to serve as election observers. The official electoral board appointed by the regional parliament was disbanded last week to avoid hefty fines by Spain's Constitutional Court.
“We are under conditions to be able to celebrate a self-determination referendum with guarantees,” Turull said in a press conference. “Our goal is that all Catalans can vote.”
Courts and police have been cracking down for days to halt the vote, confiscating 10 million paper ballots and arresting key officials involved in the preparations.
On Saturday, Civil Guard agents dismantled the technology to connect voting stations, count the votes and vote online, leading the Spanish government to declare that holding the referendum would be “impossible.”
Mixed reactions in Madrid
On the streets of Madrid there are mixed reactions to the Spanish government's crackdown on the independence referendum in Catalonia, where police were seen beating and kicking voters as they confiscated ballots.
Francisco Lopez, 53, said the authorities' use of force to stop the voting was justified. He says “when there is an unlawful act, the security forces are there to prevent this unlawful act.”
Jose Daniel Rodrguez, a 67-year-old university teacher, disagreed, saying the Spanish government should have let the vote go ahead. He says “in a democratic society, everyone has the right to express themselves.”
Others called for both sides to resolve the situation through negotiations, not police operations.
Ignacio Osorio, 51, says “I believe that from today we have to sit and talk, without conditions.”
Nasim Amiri quit his job selling vegetables to take up arms to defend his local mosque in Kabul, one of the hundreds of civilians recruited to protect Shia religious sites ahead of a key Islamic holy day.
Shia across war-weary Afghanistan are bracing themselves for potential sectarian attacks as they prepare to commemorate Ashura which falls this weekend.
Taliban and Islamic State militants have repeatedly targeted the minority community in recent years and there are fears they will strike again.
Criticised for failing to protect Shia, who number around three million in Afghanistan, the government has taken the unprecedented step of training and arming over 400 civilians to help defend mosques in Kabul.
The move, criticised by some Muslim leaders as inadequate, highlights the impotence of Afghan security forces struggling to get the upper hand in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamist groups.
The plan may be expanded to more cities.
Amiri has spent decades living near Baqir ul Ulom mosque, which was attacked last year, and knows “almost every” worshipper who comes to pray in its cavernous halls.
“I will stand against any threats, I don't mind dying for my people,” said 43-year-old Amiri, wearing a traditional salwar kameez.
“We are not true Muslims if we don't go to the mosque during Muharram and for that we need security.” -
'People are afraid'
Ashura — the most important Shia observance — falls on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the mourning period for the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
In recent years the sacred day has been marred by deadly violence.
In 2011 a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the middle of a crowd of worshippers at the main Shia shrine in Kabul on Ashura, killing 80 people, including women and children.
Almost a year to the day later Kabul police said they had arrested two Taliban insurgents with suicide vests who planned to attack Shia worshippers.
Last October gunmen entered the Karte Sakhi shrine near Kabul University and killed 18 people gathering to mark Ashura, an attack claimed by the Islamic State.
The following day at least 14 Shias were killed in a bombing at a mosque in northern Afghanistan. A few weeks later Baqui ul Ulom mosque was targeted when a massive suicide blast claimed by IS killed dozens of worshippers and badly damaged the building.
It took about eight months to repair the Shia mosque, one of the biggest in the Afghan capital, but the trauma suffered by the congregation has proved harder to heal.
“There are fewer worshippers nowadays compared to the time before the attack,” Mohammad Ali Arefi, the imam at the mosque, told AFP.
“Around a third of the people are afraid and don't show up at prayer time anymore.”
Sayed Sadiq Hussaini, 80, who survived the massacre at Baqir ul Ulom, has continued to worship at the mosque in defiance of the threats.
“No one can stop me from coming to the mosque. I will be a martyr if I am killed in a mosque and while praying,” Hussaini told AFP.
The mosque has introduced tighter security this year including body searches and the deployment of five civilian guards along with the same number of police officers.
“We had no other choice but to arm our own people to protect our mosques because the security forces are too busy fighting,” said Siraj Danish, a member of the Baqir ul Ulom mosque council.
Arefi said he planned to restrict Ashura activities to the mosque and its grounds to reduce the possibility of attacks, instead of commemorating the event on the streets like previous years.
But the 67-year-old imam said he hoped the government would come up with a better plan to protect mosques than just giving weapons to civilians.
“I don't think arming five locals will bring a lot of changes to the security of the mosques,” Arefi said.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered the border with Qatar be reopened to allow pilgrims to carry out their annual pilgrimage to Makkah, official SPA said in Riyadh.
This decision came upon the mediation of Qatar’s envoy H E Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassem Al Thani with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Crown Prince emphasised the “historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people, and between the Saudi leadership and the royal family in Qatar”, the statement added.
King Salman agreed to open the Salwa border crossing allowing all Qatari citizens who want to perform Haj. The King ordered that all Qatari citizens be allowed to cross without the required electronic passes used for pilgrims based on the recommendation of Sheikh Abdullah.
King Salman has ordered the transport of all Qatari pilgrims from King Fahad International Airport in Dammam as well as Al Ahsa International Airport be done free of charge and part of the King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Program for Haj and Umrah.
In addition to that, King Salman ordered to send Saudi Arabian Airlines planes to Doha to transport all Qatari pilgrims directly to Jeddah and for all their costs to be covered at his expense.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 20, (Agencies): President Donald Trump, in the first stop of his maiden trip abroad, received a regal welcome Saturday in Saudi Arabia, feted by the wealthy kingdom as he aims to forge strong alliances to combat terrorism while pushing past the multiple controversies threatening to engulf his young administration.
Trump basked in the pageantry that began with an elaborate airport welcome ceremony punctuated by a military flyover and a handshake from Saudi King Salman.
He later was given a tour of one of Riyadh’s most opulent palaces and sat through an elaborate signing ceremony in which, one by one, the Saudis agreed to military deals with the US government and private businesses. And he largely kept a distance from reporters who were unable to ask about the tumult at home. “That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump said after a late day meeting with the Saudi crown prince, his only utterances to the press by late in the day.
“Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.” Trump is the only American president to make Saudi Arabia, or any majority Muslim country, his first stop overseas – a choice designed in part to show respect to the region after more than a year of Trump’s harsh anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric. The visit kicked off an ambitious international debut for Trump. After two days of meetings here, Trump will travel to Israel, have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican and meet with allies at a NATO summit in Brussels and the Group of 7 powerful nations in Sicily. Trump waved from the doorway after Air Force One touched down and before descending the staircase with First Lady Melania Trump.
The 81-year-old King Salman, who used a cane for support, was brought to the steps of the plane in a golf cart. The leaders exchanged pleasantries and Trump said it was “a great honor” to be there. Several jets then flew overhead leaving a red, white and blue trail. Soon after, Trump tweeted for the first time on international soil as president, writing that it was “great” to be in Saudi Arabia.
At a later ceremony at the grand Saudi Royal Court, the king placed the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the nation’s highest civilian honor, around Trump’s neck. The medal, given to Trump for his efforts to strengthen ties in the region, has also been bestowed on Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Cooperation The king and Trump were overheard discussing natural resources and arms, and the king bemoaned the destruction caused by Syria’s civil war. Trump also agreed to a defense cooperation deal with the Saudis, pledging $110 billion effective immediately and up to $350 billion over 10 years, as well as some private sector agreements. The military package includes tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology. White House officials hope the trip, complete with images of the accompanying pomp and pageantry of a president abroad, will help Trump recalibrate after one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency. Saudi’s ruling family grew deeply frustrated with Obama’s detente with Iran and his restrained approach on Syria. The king did not greet Obama at the airport as he did Saturday with Trump.
Motto Billboards featuring images of Trump and the king and emblazoned with the motto “Together we prevail,” dotted Riyadh’s highways, and Trump’s hotel was bathed in red, white and blue lights and, at times, an image of the president’s face. The First Lady and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, both eschewed a headscarf. Trump had criticized former-lady Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf during a 2015 visit to the kingdom.
Ivanka’s presence dominated Arabic Twitter traffic, with the phrase “bint Trump” — Arabic for daughter of Trump — trending. On Sunday, he’ll deliver a speech on Islam and hold meetings with more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders, who are converging on Riyadh for a regional summit focused largely on combating the Islamic State and other extremist groups. White House aides view the address as a counter to Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, which Trump criticized as too apologetic for US actions in the region.
Trump will call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, casting the challenge as a “battle between good and evil” and urging Arab leaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship,” according to a draft of the speech obtained by The Associated Press. The draft also notably did not contain the words “radical Islamic terror,” a phrase Trump repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for not using during last year’s campaign.
Trump will use this visit to the Middle East to call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, casting the challenge as a “battle between good and evil” and urging Arab Euleaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship,” according to a draft of the speech obtained by The Associated Press. Abandoning some of the harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric of his presidential campaign, the draft of the speech, slated to be delivered in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, envisions new partnerships with America’s traditional allies in the Middle East. It notably refrains from mentioning democracy and human rights — topics Arab leaders often view as US moralizing — in favor of the more limited goals of peace and stability.
“We are not here to lecture — to tell other peoples how to live, what to do or who to be. We are here instead to offer partnership in building a better future for us all,” the document said. Two different sources provided the AP with copies of the draft of his remarks, billed as a marquee speech of the trip. One version, obtained late Thursday, included edits with comments from an administration official, indicating it was still a work in progress. The White House confirmed the draft was authentic, but cautioned the president had not yet signed off on the final product.
“The president has not seen this draft,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said. “This is one of five drafts that have been written by various people. He continues to take input and is writing a final version.” The draft of the speech includes no mention of “radical Islamic terrorism” — a phrase that candidate Trump regularly criticized opponent Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for shying away from. His speech calls terrorism a widespread problem plaguing everyone who loves peace. He positions himself as an “emissary for the American people, to deliver a message of friendship and hope,” according to the draft.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations. This is a battle between those who seek to obliterate human life and those who seek to protect it,” the text reads. “This is a battle between good and evil.” Saudi officials said they aimed to prepare new, streamlined rules covering direct investment by foreign firms within 12 months. Among the deals signed on Saturday, GE said it reached $15 billion of agreements involving almost $7 billion of goods and services from GE itself.
They ranged from the power and healthcare sectors to the oil and gas industry and mining. Jacobs Engineering will form a joint venture with Aramco to manage business projects in the kingdom, and McDermott International will transfer some of its ship fabrication facilities from Dubai to a new shipbuilding complex which Aramco will build within Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, one of the world’s biggest military spenders, is keen to develop a domestic arms industry rather than importing weapons, so several deals were in military industries.
ROME, May 7, (AFP): Some 6,000 migrants hoping to head to Europe were rescued in the Mediterranean on Friday and Saturday in dozens of frantic operations coordinated by the Italian coastguard. Some 3,000 were picked up Saturday by the navy, coastguard, EU border agency Frontex and several NGOs, the coastguard said in a statement. Some of them have already been taken to shore in Italy while others, including 730 onboard a ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), were on their way. The Libyan coastguard told AFP it had picked up around 170 migrants off Tripoli on Saturday, but had failed to rescue others “due to a lack of means”.
The rescues came a day after around 3,000 others were found fl oating in rubber boats and on makeshift rafts after having left Libya, heading towards Italy. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) meanwhile said fishermen had rescued 371 migrants Friday off the coast of the Libyan town of Zuwara. Italy and Libya have moved to boost cooperation in recent months in order to cut the number of people risking their lives by attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.
The Italian government said in a deal signed with Libya in February that it would offer manpower as well as technical assistance to the Libyan coastguard. Rome said this week that it had delivered two speedboats to Libya at the end of last month, with eight more due by the end of June. Some 37,000 people, many of them sub-Saharan Africans, have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of the year — a figure some thirty percent higher than a year earlier, according to the Italian interior ministry. More than 4,500 migrants died or were missing and feared drowned in 2016, and another 1,000 have met the same fate this year.
Danger Meanwhile, over 500 migrants who were trying to cross the Mediterranean in several small boats that were in danger of capsizing have been rescued at sea, a Spanish aid organization said Sunday. Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza says the Golfo Azzurro, a former fishing trawler the group operates, plucked 514 migrants from over a dozen rubber and wooden boats during a 24-hour period from Saturday to Sunday morning. The people rescued were refugees fleeing the war in Syria and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who had set sail from Libya, according to Lanuza.
The rescue boat was filled to capacity and headed for an Italian port since the weather was turning bad, she said. The Golfo Azzurro was operating as part of an NGO rescue fleet coordinated by the Italian coast guard. Also on Sunday, Spain’s maritime rescue service said a rescue boat and helicopter worked together to save three migrants in a small vessel found 4 kilometers ( 2- miles) off the Spanish coast. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in smugglers’ boats in hopes of a better life in Europe, but thousands die each year trying. Libya is one of the prime launching points.
On Saturday, a Spanish navy frigate rescued another 651 migrants off the coast of Libya. In related news, a Belgium-based group of refugee musicians has banded together in an orchestra that blends musical infl uences as diverse as their home countries from Syria to Tibet. The “Refugees for Refugees” project run by Belgian music school Muziekpublique aims to highlight the cultures of the refugees’ homelands and raise money for refugees with concerts and an album.
The orchestra’s 10 members — all Belgium-based refugees — are musicians from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tibet. One of the musicians, Asad Qizilbash of Pakistan, was a well-known player of the sarod, a stringed instrument with roots in Afghanistan. But he fl ed his country in 2010 after militant groups vandalised his music school and threatened him. He was granted refugee status in Belgium in 2012.
TEL AVIV, Israel, May 7, (Agencies): Former Israeli combat soldiers who were thrust into the center of a recent diplomatic row between Israel and Germany, say the sudden international spotlight has given them a bigger stage to speak out against Israel’s 50-year rule over millions of Palestinians.
Breaking the Silence is a group of ex-soldiers-turned-whistleblowers who view Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state as an existential threat to their country. Since 2004, the group has collected testimony from more than 1,100 fellow soldiers who describe the dark side of that rule, including seemingly routine mistreatment of Palestinian civilians stripped of basic rights.
The veterans hope such accounts by former fighters will carry weight and spark public debate about the moral price of the occupation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials in his nationalist government have a starkly different view. They have branded Breaking the Silence as foreign-funded subversives who are trying to defame Israel and its military.
Shunning Two weeks ago, he said he would not receive German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel if the visitor stuck to plans to meet with Breaking the Silence. Gabriel chose the soldiers instead. Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said that shunning visitors who meet with Breaking the Silence is now official policy. The fallout continues this week. The dispute has cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a routine Israel visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the recent attention has been a mixed blessing.
The focus on the diplomatic dust-up “diverts a lot of attention from the real issue, what goes on in the occupied territories,” he said in an interview at the group’s office, tucked away in an old walk-up in a grubby industrial area of Tel Aviv. Israelis have been bitterly divided over what to do with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands they captured in June 1967. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war and retains overall control over the West Bank, with enclaves of Palestinian self-rule. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has enforced a border blockade of the territory since it was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas two years later.
Many Israelis support the idea of Palestinian statehood in principle, but believe it’s not safe to cede war-won territories now. Fears were stoked by three Israel-Hamas wars since 2008 and an escalation of regional conflicts. Meanwhile, partition is increasingly difficult, with 600,000 Israelis already living on occupied lands and settlements expanding steadily. Netanyahu has said he is willing to resume partition talks with the Palestinians, but gaps remain wide.
A majority of his Cabinet ministers oppose a two-state solution and some even call for annexing parts of the West Bank, raising fears among some Israelis that their rule over disenfranchised Palestinians will become permanent. Shaul said he and his comrades are the true patriots, not those clinging to occupied territories. The beginnings of Breaking the Silence go back to Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city, where hundreds of troops guard roughly the same number of Jewish settlers in an Israeli-controlled center partly off limits to Palestinians.
Anonymous More than 100 soldiers have gone on the record, while the rest remain anonymous, for fear of repercussions, but are known to the group’s researchers who check their stories, Shaul said. The research department was able to flag four false testimonies by rightwing activists trying to undermine the group’s credibility, he said. All material is submitted to the military censor before publication to avoid inadvertent harm to Israel’s security, he added. Critics allege that the group is hiding behind anonymous testimony to smear Israel soldiers and help Israel’s enemies press future war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.
They say the group, which does not call for a boycott of Israel, nonetheless feeds into what many Israelis believe is a global trend of unfairly singling out and delegitimizing Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently said her office is urging European countries to stop funding what she called “anti-Israel organizations,” including Breaking the Silence.
“We will ask our friends in the world to respect this red line and to stop contributing to this organization,” she said. Some of the group’s defenders in Israel said they believe it and other anti- occupation organizations are being targeted in an escalating government assault on Israel’s civil society.