Israeli Citizens Flee the Border, Ukraine Faces New Challenges, and New Threats to U.S. Security

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Tens of thousands of Israelis are fleeing their homes near the border of Gaza as fear and frustration grow in a war between Israel and Hamas that appears to have no end in site. The government on Monday has offered assistance in the first large scale voluntary evacuation in the eight week war with the school year fast approaching, Ian Deitch reports, Gaza attacks triggers Israeli exodus from border. Officials estimate 70 percent of the 40,000 inhabitants of the farming communities along the Gaza border have left including hundreds on Monday. According to Gaza officials, the fighting has killed 2,100 Palestinians, leveled thousands of buildings and left tens of thousands displaced. The death toll on the Israeli side has remained low due to air raid sirens, bomb shelters and the Iron Dome missile defense system. In a TV interview Sunday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said, “It is their right to leave, and we will assist them with temporary solutions. The state of Israel will not run away from terror organizations. It fights terror organizations.” Israeli education officials said the children will be absorbed into areas schools, but Tamir Idan, a regional council head in southern Israel, said schools will not open next week if rocket fire persists. The fighting in Gaza has caused more disruption to students as officials have delayed the start of classes which should of started on Sunday.The Israeli military said it carried out 65 airstrikes Monday, while the Palestinian militants fired more than 100 rockets into Israel. Palestinian health officials said seven people were killed, while one Israeli was wounded by Palestinian fire.

On Tuesday, meanwhile in Ukraine, Ukrainian military reportedly captured a group of Russian paratroopers who crossed into Ukrainian territory on a mission, but Moscow claims they ended up there by mistake, Andrei Makhovsky and Alessandra Prentice report, Ukraine Releases Footage Of Captured Russian Soldiers. In addition, the military reports pro-Russian separatist forces were shelling the town of Novoazovsk and buildings were ablaze with 12 Ukrainian soldiers killed and 19 wounded in the past 24 hours, according to military spokesman Andriy Lysenko. Earlier, the security services released video footage claiming that it shows testimonies from Russian paratroopers detained by the Ukrainian government forces while fighting with pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine. The video provides the strongest evidence so far to back up claims by Kiev that Russia is involved in the conflict and the intensified fighting in the east overshadowed the meeting of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the Belarussian capital Minsk. Russia denies giving military help and a Russian defense source, quoted by RIA Novosti, said the servicemen had strayed into Ukrainian territory by mistake during border patrol. Lysenko in a briefing stated, “It wasn’t a mistake, but a special mission they were carrying out.” In the footage posted to Kiev’s Anti-Terrorist Operation Facebook page, one of the soldiers who identified himself as Ivan Milchakov listed his personal details including the name of the paratroop regiment based in the Russian Town of Kostroma. In the video, he said: “I did not see where we crossed the border. They just told us we were going on a 70-kilometer march over three days. Everything is different here, not like they show it on television. We’ve come as cannon fodder.” Another man named Sergeant Aleksei Generalov said: “Stop sending in our boys. Why? This is not our war. And if we weren’t here, none of this would have happened. They would have sorted things out with the government themselves.” Social network pages appear to corroborate the men’s story that they are active in the Russian military. The Russian soldiers were detained with personal documents and weapons near Amvrosiyivka in the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian state security service reports. Lysenko said Russian Mi-24 helicopters has fired on a border post Monday killing four border guards, while rebel forces backed by an armored column allegedly moved across the border from Russia attacked Novoazovsk on Monday aiming to open up a new front. In a Facebook post, Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said: “Officially they are on military exercises in various corners of Russia. In reality they are involved in military aggression against Ukraine.” The same day, Tuesday, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine sat down for talks meeting fact to face for the first time since June to discuss the fighting that has engulfed Ukraine’s east. Nataliya Vasilyeva reports, Putin sits down with Ukrainian president for talks, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko were joined by the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan and three senior officials from the European Union in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. As talks began, Poroshenko said: “The fate of my country and Europe is being decided here in Minsk today. The interests of Donbass (eastern Ukraine) have been and will be taken into account.” Opening the meeting, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko urged both sides to “discard political ambitions and not to seek political dividend.” Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain leverage over the mostly Russian speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union. THe fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April and has killed 2,000 people, 726 Ukrainian servicemen and forced 340,000 to flee, according to the U.N.

While internationally Ukraine has faced many challenges and criticism from rivals and allies, internal conflict has forced Poroshenko to dissolve parliament and call for new elections to take place quickly. Jim Heintz reports, Ukrainian president dissolves parliament, Ukraine’s president on Monday announced in a statement via his website that he has dissolved parliament and called for early elections on October 26. He said the move was in coherence with the Ukrainian constitution commenting that the ruling coalition collapsed several weeks ago. Poroshenko stated: “Many deputies who are in the Rada (parliament) are direct sponsors or accomplices, that is to say allies of the militant separatists….I have decided to prematurely end the authority of parliament.” Under the law, the election must be held within 60 days of the decree being published.

Back in the Middle East, the Associated Press reported, The US has begun surveillance flights over Syria, the White House and U.S. officials have announce surveillance flights over Syria following President Barack Obama approval, but has yet to approve military actions inside Syria due to lack of intelligence on the militants. Pentagon officials have drafted potential options for the president that include airstrikes, while one official said the administration needs reliable intelligence from Syria and called the surveillance flights important to obtain data. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday the U.S. wants more clarity on the militants in Syria. Dempsey explained: “Clearly the picture we have of ISIS on the Iraqi side is a more refined picture. The existence and activities of ISIS on the Syrian side, we have … some insights into that but we certainly want to have more insights into that as we craft a way forward.” The U.S. began launching strikes against the Islamic State inside Iraq earlier this month with Obama citing the threat to American personnel in the country and the humanitarian crisis in the north, while top Pentagon officials said the only way the threat from militants can be eliminated is to attack the group in Syria as well. The president has tried to avoid getting involved in Syria’s long standing bloody civil war, however, due to the execution of American journalist James Foley in Syria and the group threatening to kill other U.S. citizens held in Syria, the president has changed his tune. Dempsey said the U.S. has been meeting with allies in the region to help develop a better understanding of the threat and believes those talks are setting “the conditions for some kind of coalition to form.” Dempsey believes key allies in the region will join the U.S. in quashing the Islamic State group including Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Prior to the airstrikes in Iraq, the U.S. had already stepped up air surveillance of the Islamic State inside Iraq earlier this year. In addition the administration run some surveillance missions over Syria when an attempted mission to rescue Foley and other U.S. hostages failed earlier this summer. A top Syrian official said Monday any U.S. airstrikes without consent from Syria would be considered an aggression. Speaking in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters his government is ready to cooperate and coordinate with any side including the U.S. or join any regional or international alliance against the Islamic group. However, any action taken would be coordinated with the Syrian government adding: “Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression.” He said Damascus has long warned of the threat of terrorism and the need to cut off resources and funding, but no one listened. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the west will “have to choose what is more important: to change the regime and satisfy personal antipathies with the risk that the situation will crumble, or find pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat, which is the same for all of us – terrorism.” Moscow and Damascus have been close allies for decades providing it will weapons and funding to help support Assad through the current conflict. Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, said: “The Syrian government is trying to say they are on the same side as the international community. The old claim from Day 1 that the Syrians have tried to make is that they are fighting pure terrorism. There’s no revolution, no rebels, no opposition. I don’t see this sort of call being acceptable, especially on the regional level. The Americans might find themselves forced to cooperate under the table with the Syrians. But I don’t think Arab countries will accept Syria as a member of the club fighting the Islamic State.” Referring to the failed attempt at rescuing U.S. citizens held by the militant group, al-Moallem said: “Had there been prior coordination that operation would not have failed.” The minister did condemn the killing of James Foley, but asked: “Has the West ever condemned the massacres by the Islamic State … against our armed forces or citizens?”

The Death Tolls Rise in Israel, Eastern Ukraine and Syria, While the West Levies Heavier Sanctions on Russia

On Tuesday, Israel unleashed its heaviest attack against Hamas in the three week war striking symbols of the militant group’s control in Gaza and firing tank shells that shut down the only power plant, according to Palestinian officials. Karin Laub and Peter Enav report, Israel hits symbols of Hamas rule; scores killed, the station’s shutdown disrupted power and water to 1.7 million people in the narrow Palestinian coastal territory. On Tuesday evening, Palestinian health officials reported that 10 members of an extended family were killed and 50 others wounded in Jebaliya refugee camp in norther Gaza due to intense tank shelling. Mousa al-Mabhouh, a volunteer for Gaza’s Civil Defense, described the shelling: “It was like an earthquake. Roofs collapsed, walls cracked and wounded people everywhere.” The strikes came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned of a prolonged campaign against Hamas dealing a significant blow to plans of a sustainable truce in fighting. Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 1,175 Palestinians have been killed since July 8 including 100 on Tuesday, while Israel reports 53 soldiers and three civilians killed. Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza Energy Authority said: “We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room. Everything was burned.” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, did not comment on the plant explosion, but told the Associate Press that Israel’s latest strikes signal “a gradual increase in the pressure” on Hamas, while Israel is “determined to strike this organization and relieve us of this threat.” International calls for a ceasefire have increased in recent days as the extent of the destruction in Gaza becomes apparent with tens of thousands of Gazans have been displaced by fighting in the border areas. Despite appeals, both sides are holding out for bigger gains, The military said Palestinian militants fired at least 64 rockets Tuesday at Israeli cities. Since the the war began, the U.N. has found weapons hidden it its schools. Agency spokesman Chris Gunness said: “We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school. This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises.”

While Israel continues unabated in its efforts to crumble Hamas, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu continues to criticize the U.S. specifically Secretary of State John Kerry on the handling of a ceasefire deal. On Monday, Netanyahu defended the Gaza air and ground offensive in a televised speech saying, “there is no war more just than this.” Karin Laub and Tia Goldenberg report, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu warns of prolonged campaign in Gaza war, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry keep pressuring Israel to accept an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire amid a torrent of criticism from Israel over Kerry’s latest bid to secure a ceasefire with Hamas. The Obama administration pushed back Monday accusing Israel of launching a misinformation campaign against Kerry. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other.” The White House agreed by saying it was disappointed by Israeli reports that cast Kerry’s efforts to negotiate a cease fire more favorable to Hamas. Kerry’s response, according to Matthew Lee’s article Kerry shrugs off Israeli criticism, “I have taken hits before in politics, I am not worried about it. This is not about me. I am not going to worry about personal attacks,” adding that he and President Barack Obama are convinced “it is more appropriate to try to resolve the underlying issues at a negotiating table than to continue a tit-for-tat of violence that will invite more violence and perhaps a greater downward spiral which would be much more difficult to recover from.” In regards to Netanyahu and the push for a ceasefire: “Prime Minister Netanyahu himself said to me, ‘Can you try to get a humanitarian cease-fire for this period of time?’ And if it weren’t for his commitment to it, obviously the president of the United States and I would not be trying to make this effort. Now either I take his commitment at face value or someone is playing a different game here, and I hope that’s not the fact.” At the National Pres Club, House Speaker John Boehner on Monday remarked as Donna Cassata reports, Boehner urges US solidarity with Israel: “At times like this, people try to isolate Israel – but we are here to stand with Israel. Not just as a broker or observer – but as a strong partner and a trusted ally. Well, it doesn’t mean issuing vague, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand statements. No, it means backing up our words, and showing solidarity with our friend. We will not equate professional militaries with terrorist organizations that use human shields and seek to maximize civilian casualties. And we insist that the demilitarization of Gaza be not just a House goal but a shared, uncompromising U.S. and international objective.”

Examining the U.S. Israeli relationship deeper, Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, believes that Israel’s power over the U.S. comes in the forms of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee which holds major political clout along with other hardline elements of the Israel lobby. In his article, AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy, Walt explains that in every occasion where the death toll exceeds 500, Israel has used weapons provided by U.S. taxpayers to attack the captive and impoverished Palestinians in Gaza. As usual, according to Walt, the U.S. government is siding with Israel, even though most American leaders know Israel instigated the latest round of violence, is not acting with restrain, and makes Washington look callous and hypocritical in the eyes of the world. Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis groups points out that the latest round of fighting is neither vengeance for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli hikers in the West Bank nor to protect Israel from Hamas’ rockets, Netanyahu’s real purpose is to undermine the power share agreement between Hamas and Fatah that could lead to a unified Palestinian leadership and result in a two state solution. Therefore, he want to isolate and damage Hamas and drive a wedge between the two factions. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu confirmed that he is dead set against a two state solution and will never allow it while in office. According to Walt: “Worst of all, the deaths of hundreds more Palestinians and a small number of Israelis will change almost nothing. Hamas is not going to disband. When this latest round of fighting ends, the 4.4 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza will still be Israel’s de facto prisoners and still be denied basic human rights. But they are not going to leave, mainly because Palestine is their homeland, but also because they have nowhere to go, especially given the turmoil in other parts of the Middle East. Eventually another ceasefire will be negotiated. The dead will be buried, the wounded will recover, the tunnels now being destroyed will be rebuilt, and Hamas will replenish its stockpile of missiles and rockets. The stage will then be set for another round of fighting, and Israel will have moved further down the road to becoming a full-fledged apartheid state.” Walt points out that as soon as fighting starts and even if Israel instigates it, AIPAC will demands that Washington stands with Tel Aviv and Congress will pass a resolution endorsing Israel. Even if the lobby cannot get everything it wants when it wants it, the lobby is still able to keep $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel flowing each year, prevent U.S. presidents from pressuring Israel and can get U.S. to wield its veto power when a resolution criticizing Israel’s actions is floated in the U.N. Security Council, according to Walt. This situation has allowed Israel to ignore requests from Washington for “two states for two peoples” since Israel gets generous support no matter what it does. Walt sums up the situation best: “Historians will one day look back and ask how U.S. Middle East policy could be so ineffectual and so at odds with its professed values — not to mention its strategic interests. The answer lies in the basic nature of the American political system, which permits well-organized and well-funded special interest groups to wield significant power on Capitol Hill and in the White House. In this case, the result is a policy that is bad for all concerned: for the Palestinians most of all, but also for the U.S. and Israel as well. Until the lobby’s clout is weakened or politicians grow stiffer spines, Americans looking for better outcomes in the Middle East had better get used to disappointment and prepared for more trouble.”

While Israel contends with the world and criticizes its closest allies, fighting continues uncontrolled in Eastern Ukraine as the West agrees to wider sanctions on Russia and the U.S. accuses Russia of treaty violations. Mstyslav Chernov reports, 22 Civilian Deaths Reported After One Day Of Shelling In East Ukraine, at least one person killed after three shells hit an apartment block in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine and around 50 people took refuge in an underground car park amid the smell of household gas. Rebels accuse the government of using heavy artillery against residential neighborhoods, while Ukraine’s government accuses separatist of targeting civilians to discredit the army. On Monday U.S. and European leaders agreed to impose wider sanctions on Russia’s financial, defense and energy sectors as Ukraine said its forced move toward the crash site of Malaysian flight 17, Gabriela Baczynska and Aleksandar Vasovic report, The West Agrees To Wider Sanctions On Russia Over The Crisis In Ukraine. The new sanctions, discussed via phone with U.S. President Barack Obama, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, aim at increasing the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin after Malaysian airliner was shot down over territory held by pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Tony Blinken, a national security advisor to Obama, said: “It’s precisely because we’ve not yet seen a strategic turn from Putin that we believe it’s absolutely essential to take additional measures and that’s what the Europeans and the United States intend to do this week.” In Brussels, EU sources said diplomats reached a preliminary agreement on a new list of companies and people, including Putin associates, to be targeted by asset freezes. EU member states are expected to reach a final deal on Tuesday on measures including closing the bloc’s capital markets to Russian state banks, an embargo on future arms sales and restrictions on energy technology and technology that could be used for defense. After the leaders’ call, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The latest information from the region suggests that even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists. Leaders agreed that the international community should therefore impose further costs on Russia and specifically that ambassadors from across the EU should agree a strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible.” Earlier in thr day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at a news conference: “We will overcome any difficulties that may arise in certain areas of the economy, and maybe we will become more independent and more confident in our own strength.” One pro-government militia said 23 of its men has been killed in fighting in 24 hours, while a rebel commander said 30 of his soldiers had been killed. The United Nations in their report said 1,100 people have died in the three months of fighting between government forces and separatist rebels who have set up a pro-Russian republic in the east.

While Gaza continues to incur heavy fighting during a major Muslim holiday, Syrian President Bashar Assad prayed at a Damascus mosque on Monday as his own country battles Islamic extremists and reports unprecedented high death tolls. Zeina Karam reports, Syria Suffers Record Death Toll, the military causalities come as fighting intensified in the past two weeks with al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group trying to eliminate all opponents and the government as well as the rebels deal with a series of setbacks. The Britain based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,240 soldiers and other Assad loyalists have died in the past 10 days in northern Syria. The director, Rami Abdurrahman, said they are among 1,800 deaths in the same period which is a record number since the uprising against Assad in March 2011. According to activists, Syria’s three year civil war has already killed more than 170,000 people. Despite the raging civil war, Assad was re-elected last month in a vote confined to government controlled areas which his oppositions and Western allies dismiss as a sham. He was sworn in a third term and confidently declared victory, in his inauguration speech, and praised his supporters for “defeating the dirty war” against Syria. Shortly after his speech, government losses began due to the Islamic state group fighter launching attacks against army positions in northern and central Syria. Beyond Syria, the Islamic State fighters have taken large expanses of land in northern and western Iraq in a blitz offensive beginning last month and declared a self-styled caliphate across their territory on the Iraq-Syria border.