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Arrests in Itamar Massacre

Two Palestinians, 18-year-old high school student Hakim Maazan Niad Awad and 19-year-old Amjad Mahmud Fauzi Awad (both “affiliated with” the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP), have been arrested for the murders on March 11 of five members of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar. (The suspects are not related.) They are from the village of Awarta, which is a little over a mile from Itamar. They appear to have received a great deal of assistance from friends and family after the murders, and several accomplices have also been arrested.

The suspects have confessed to and reenacted the crime, which was premeditated. Neither has expressed remorse.

Several new details have come to light since the lifting of the gag order: the two sleeping boys (4-year-old Elad and 11-year-old Yoav) were killed first, then the parents, both of whom apparently attempted to fight off the attackers. The suspects then left the house, but one of them went back to decapitate the baby girl, Hadas (three months). According to Israel Radio, Amjad said he had not known there were two other children in the house. Had he known, he said, he would have killed them too.

UPDATE: Here are a few more details about one of the alleged killers. The 18-year-old, Hakim Awad, stabbed several “youths” in October 2010 in a personal feud. His father, Maazan, a member of the PFLP, served five years in jail for murdering a female cousin and burning her body. His uncle, Jibril Awad, also a member of the PFLP, transported a terrorist to Itamar — the same settlement where the Fogel massacre was committed — in 2002, where he shot to death the wife and three children of Itamar security officer Boaz Shevo. (Jibril has since died in a gun battle with the IDF.)


US: Iran Is Helping Assad Crush Syrian Protests


The Americans, who are typically highly reluctant to acknowledge the Iran-sized elephant in the room, are saying that the Iranians are helping Assad crush the Syrian protest movement (200 dead at last count, and there are now reports that soldiers who refuse to fire on protesters are themselves being shot). No one can purport to be surprised by Iran’s backing of the dictator, but there are implications to US officials saying it out loud.

It suggests that it’s dawned on the State Department — perhaps even on Hillary, for whose risible characterization of Assad as a “reformer” she is rightly being pilloried — that while an Iranian takeover of a post-Assad Syria is a definite possibility, the Syrian people will not welcome the prospect of submitting to the regime that helped Assad mow down their countrymen. And that is a resentment that can be leveraged.

If it is publicly recognized in the West that Iran is helping Assad carry out his domestic bloodbath, Westerners might ultimately be just a little less credulous about accepting an Iranian proxy as the grand savior of the Syrian people. It is not a foregone conclusion that a post-Assad Syria will go the way of south Lebanon — indeed, the protesters of Daraa are already chanting “No to Iran, no to Hezbollah!” It’s good to see that the Americans are listening.


Make No Concessions: An Ex-Islamist Speaks

This video clip shows an interview with Tawfik Hamid, former member of the radical Egyptian terrorist organization Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and ex-protégé of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who may be familiar to you as Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command in al-Qaeda. Hamid was raised in a secular family but became interested in religion while in medical school, where he was recruited into Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. Note that Hamid came from an extremely comfortable background: his father was an orthopedic surgeon and his mother a French teacher. He is yet another example of the educated, disaffected child of privilege who turns to extremism to fill an ideological gap in his life — more evidence of the vacuity of the notion that terrorism is the response of the hopelessly poor and disenfranchised.

In the clip, Hamid describes being taught by his religious mentors to use violence against non-Muslims and also against Muslims who do not conform to their version of Islam. He was sufficiently radicalized to have been invited to participate in the kidnapping and burying alive of a police officer, an act he was unable to stomach. He ended up renouncing Islamic extremism completely, and began to promote “a reformation [of Islam] based upon modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts,” as he puts it on his site.

Hamid’s former friends attempted at first to seduce him back to the group through ideological appeals, but were unsuccessful. They resorted to death threats that apparently still continue. He is now the Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomoc Institute for Policy Studies and the author of Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam.

When asked by the interviewer who the enemy was defined to be by his jihadist masters when he was a young radical, Hamid doesn’t mention the Jews or Israel:

“Women’s rights were the first enemy for us. Strange, but this was the first enemy, truly.  …That’s why when you see radical groups, the first thing they do is they suppress women. The first thing, before anything else, they tell women not to go out, to wear the hijab….[T]he first enemy was  not a political enemy; it was women’s rights. This is what we typically hated, and the West represented for us the guardian of women’s rights.”

The interviewer cited the incessant debate within Israel (where the video was recorded) as to whether or not we should make concessions to extremists. Hamid responded:

Never do concessions to radicals. The moment you do concessions, the more they attack you. For example, when radicals attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the response was weak. This…encouraged the radicals of al-Qaeda to attack the US again on September 11, in three years. So too the cartoon issue with the Prophet Mohammed. The radicals didn’t demonstrate for a four-month period — until the magazine apologized. Then they started demonstrating. So concessions mean nothing for them but a green light , an invitation to attack you more. So my advice to you: never do concessions.

He goes on to say that the responsibility is now on the side of the Arabs to bend toward the Jews and Israel, who have, as he says, “done your best.” Now, Hamid says, “it’s our turn to do something. We always expect concessions, and the world also expects concessions only to come from the Israelis and the Jews. But it’s now our turn…otherwise the problem will not be solved.”

This is obviously a dangerous position to hold, but Hamid is not worried. If Islamists succeed in assassinating him, he says, “they will not kill my voice…[T]here will be thousands of Tawfik Hamids coming to stand against their evil.”


Watch Your Backs, Muslim Infidels

Coptic Christians and Israelis are hardly the only people in this neck of the woods with cause to worry about the emboldenment of Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt following the collapse of the Mubarak regime. As far as the Islamists are concerned, Sufi Muslims are no less an enemy.

If this is news to you, that’s hardly a surprise. Sufis have been victimized by their fanatical Muslim brethren for years, but Muslim-on-Muslim violence — at least the kind that does not directly threaten a dictator’s regime — has never interested the international media to any great extent. The continued inatttention is curious, as there does appear to be some interest out there in finding  that allegedly rare flower, the moderate Muslim. It’s unclear to what extent Sufi Muslims qualify for this designation — the eagerness in some precincts to perceive them as cuddly, Western-friendly Muslims in diametric opposition to their bonkers Wahhabist coreligionists is a serious oversimplification — but Sufism is characterized by an allegorical rather than a literal interpretation of the Koran, and has been receptive to positive influence by other religions. In the eyes of the Islamists, therefore, Sufis are insufficiently devout at best and traitors to Islam at worst. The Islamist message to them matches their message to Christians and Jews: shape up, submit at once to our tenth-century version of Islam, or die, infidel.

Among their other assorted outreach activities, fanatical Islamists favor rampaging through Sufi holy places, a tactic with an antecedent in the destruction by the Taliban of the giant Buddhist shrines of Afghanistan in 2001. The desecration and destruction of Sufi shrines, and concurrent attacks on Sufis themselves, have been going on at least since 2005, when Islamists set off a bomb at the shrine of the 17th century Sufi Bari Imam in Islamabad. That attack killed eighteen people. Islamists have slaughtered Sufi villagers with rockets in Peshawar and assaulted the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti, a revered South Asian Sufi, at Ajmer Sharif in India. The list of terrorist attacks on Sufis goes on, particularly in Peshawar, which is home to many shrines of Sufi mystics.

Now that Mubarak is out of the picture, Egypt is the new front in the Islamist war on Sufis. Stephen Suleyman Schwartz — himself a convert to Sufi Islam and founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC — discusses this trend in a recent article inNewsgram:

In Egypt, Islamist radicals had, recently, mainly targeted Coptic Christians, but anti-Sufi aggression commenced with depredations in Alexandria, in which the Sufis account for one in eight of city-dwellers, and Sufi shrines and mosques are prominent landmarks.  Indeed, the city’s most famous mosque, named for and sheltering the tomb of Al-Mursi Abu’l Abbas, a Spanish-born 13th century Sufi, was one of the first sites reportedly invaded by extremists.  Radicals also have tried to seize control of the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in Alexandria, which was the scene of mass demonstrations against the Mubarak government coordinated with those at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Schwartz makes an important and surprising point about resistance to “radical agitation among Muslims from the Balkans to Indonesia”:

[O]rdinary Muslims, often living in a rural, village environment, are a bulwark against the radicals.  This view is counter-intuitive to many non-Muslims, especially in the West, who presume that radicalism is a product of poverty and insufficient development…radical Islam [in fact] appeals to an educated elite that has had no time for religion but which, feeling a nostalgia for faith amid their busy lives, respond to the appeal of a stripped-down Islam, denuded of its spiritual and local customs, that requires little application and, above all, is “not their father’s Islam.”

The Sufis in Egypt are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Schwartz notes that the Sufis of Alexandria have begun to organize committees to protect their shrines, and Sufi leaders are attempting to put together a political party to oppose the Wahhabist jihadi ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps more to the point, Professor Ahmed Al-Sayeh of Al-Azhar University, the “supreme academic institution for Sunni Muslims,” is procuring a machine gun to be used to protect Sufi shrines along the Nile.


Hamas Targets Israeli School Bus; Teen Critically Injured

I participated earlier this afternoon in a press conference given by Maj. Avital Leibovich, head of the Foreign Press Branch of the IDF Spokesperson’s office. She informed us that earlier today, Palestinians in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus inside sovereign Israel, critically injuring a 13-year-old child and seriously injuring the driver. As the bus was apparently approaching the end of the route, the two victims were the only passengers left on the bus. The strike occurred just outside Kibbutz Sa’ad.

The yellow regional council bus was clearly identified as carrying children. Though there have not yet been any claims of responsibility, Israel holds Hamas, which controls Gaza, responsible for all acts of aggression against Israel emanating from their territory.

Maj. Leibovich described the attack as part of an “ongoing attempt by Hamas to try to escalate in the south by targeting Israeli civilians through many means,” and indicated that the IDF is “operating” in the area. An Israeli attack helicopter is reported to have machine-gunned a target in the center of Gaza City for the first time since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, and an Israeli F-16 is said to have bombed a “major Hamas security compound.” Both the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council and the IDF Spokesperson’s office are reporting that a barrage of mortar shells and Qassams has been fired at the border area from Gaza since the bus attack this afternoon.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, speaking to UN Security Council ambassadors today, described the bus attack as “another example of how Gaza has turned into a terror state. None of you would give up on the security of your country, and Israel will also defend itself. Hundreds of thousands of mothers and children in southern Israel cannot sleep peacefully at night as a result of the rocket fire from Gaza.”

PM Netanyahu also addressed the attack during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, stating that Israel will not put up with terrorist attacks that no other country would tolerate.


Aluf Benn: Let the Flotillas Run the Blockade

Aluf Benn has a provocative editorial in today’s Haaretz advising the Israeli military to lighten up about the armada of “humanitarian aid” ships that are planning to run the Gaza blockade in May. About 1,000 protesters are expected to head this way aboard twenty ships, and “feverish preparations” are afoot among the Israelis to head it off. Benn’s point is that the military option — which some in the IDF are claiming is the only option — is simply not viable unless the protesters are trying to bring arms into Gaza. And if they aren’t, Benn argues, we would be exceptionally stupid to treat them as anything other than minor pests. If we give them more photo ops of Israeli soldiers descending on ships full of civilians, we align ourselves in the eyes of the international viewing public with the Arab dictators now pointing their weapons on protesting citizens. The only choice, he says, is to let them in.

Opening the gates will neutralize the danger inherent in the new flotilla. In the absence of a confrontation on the high seas, the ships’ passengers will disembark on the coast at Gaza and will attract barely ten seconds of media coverage. The Middle East is burning with the flames of revolution, and while the West witnesses history being written before its eyes, no one will pay attention to a few demonstrators cursing Israel and waving signs condemning it. With that it will be over. The ships’ passengers will be seen as a nuisance rather than as heroes, and their hosts in Gaza will quickly be fed up with their presence.

Benn acknowledges that the protesters, who are “boiling with their hatred of Israel and their will to undermine its legitimacy,” will not be satisfied with a few seconds of international attention, and even grants that he “understand[s] the motivations of Israeli officials and officers who want to teach them a lesson.” But that satisfaction would be short-lived:

Nothing is going to convert these “Free Gaza” activists into ardent Zionists, not embracing them or shooting at them. The danger they present lies in the support they mobilize among less involved segments of the public in Turkey and the West and in enlisting them in the fight against Israel. Convincing such people that Israel is an evil, criminal country requires that it be portrayed as such. It’s very simple. Like a bull in the ring, Israel, too, reacts instinctively with fury at the sight of the red cape, but then the bull is stabbed to death to the cheers of the crowd.

Benn reminds Israel that the point of the blockade is solely to prevent arms from making their way into Gaza. Arms interception should therefore be the only justification for Israeli interference with the armada, an assertion that contains a criticism of Israeli intelligence that was voiced by Claire Berlinski and others at the time of the Mavi Marmara: surely an intelligence service as sophisticated as ours is capable of detecting what’s in the holds of ships populated by people avowedly hostile to Israel and being sailed towards our enemies. As he puts it:

Someone with the capacity to locate and capture the arms ship Victoria in the middle of the Mediterranean and a Hamas engineer in Ukraine can, and must, also uncover what is hiding on the flotilla ships. If the flotilla organizers are so foolish as to smuggle rockets and bombs in the ships’ hulls and are then caught red-handed, Israel would enjoy a huge public relations coup. In the absence, however, of confirmed information on the presence of weaponry on the protest armada, it should be allowed to pass through.

Benn concludes by noting that the world has changed since last spring, and we will be even more vilified than we were the first time around if we are perceived to be using our military might against innocent protesters.

In the spring of 2011, firing at unarmed demonstrators is associated with yesterday’s dictators, with Gadhafi and Assad and the president of Yemen. Israel must not become associated with such a band of criminals. No “easing of the blockade” will soften international outrage at the sight of masked soldiers violently taking control of civilian ships. Instead of stopping the flotilla, we must stop the foolishness. There is no other available trick to head off a new international imbroglio.


Getting to Know the Engineer: Hamas’s Military Capability Revealed

Dirar Abu Sisi in Israeli custody, April 4, 2011This one is straight out of le Carré.

On the evening of February 18, Dirar Abu Sisi, a 41-year-old engineer from Gaza and director of its sole power station, boarded a train in Kharkiv in the Ukraine, bound for Kiev. In the early hours of February 19, two men in civilian garb were seen by the train’s conductor and porter entering Abu Sisi’s compartment. Shortly thereafter, the men were observed escorting Abu Sisi off the train.

Abu Sisi vanished completely until eight days later, when he called his wife to tell her he was in a prison cell near Ashkelon, on the southern coast of Israel. Nothing more was heard until March 20, when Israel announced that Abu Sisi was being held in “administrative detention,” a British Mandate-era legal status generally employed with regard to security prisoners. The Ukrainian conductor and porter have retracted their statements and now claim to have seen nothing on the train, and the Ukrainian government has denied any involvement in either the capture or the rendition.

When Abu Sisi’s capture became public, the first wave of news indicated that he is thought to have information about the status of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who has been held hostage by Hamas for over four years. That may still turn out to be the case, but it appears that there is a great deal more to Dirar Abu Sisi.

Abu Sisi is believed to have been recruited into Hamas’ weapons developing committee in 2002. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually running the committee. In 2009, following Operation Cast Lead, Hamas apparently decided to establish a military academy. Abu Sisi was given the task of setting it up and running it.

The creation of the academy is but one of many striking details to emerge from Abu Sisi’s interrogation. If the intelligence is to be believed, Hamas has developed a military capability on the level of what one might expect from an established country. They have moved well beyond gatherings in basements for lessons on how to build suicide belts. Over the past five years, their weapons capacity has apparently increased four-fold, and their military apparatus has evolved to the point that it entails not only brigades, battalions and special forces, but also an in-house defense industry. Abu Sisi’s skills are alleged to have been behind the rapid development of that industry.

The indication of in-house weapons manufacture is particularly interesting. As the Jerusalem Post suggests, that initiative might reflect a desire on Hamas’s part to “become independent one day of its patrons in Tehran and Damascus. It could also be a sign of Hamas concern that one day Israel, Egypt and the rest of the world will begin to take more effective steps to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza, meaning that its supply from Iran will slow down.”

Yesterday, Israel’s Southern District Prosecution in Beersheva handed down an indictment alleging that Abu Sisi — who emphatically denies any connection to Hamas — “was engaged in the development of missiles to be launched by Hamas, including increasing their range and ability to pierce steel so as to penetrate armored vehicles and thus strike at soldiers. Abu Sisi is accused of nine charges regarding activity in a terrorist organization, hundreds of counts of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and production of weaponry offenses.”

The indictment also names a Ukrainian professor at the Kharkov Military Engineering Academy, Konstantin Petrovich, as Abu Sisi’s mentor. Petrovich is identified as “an expert in Scud missile control systems,” and it is from him that Abu Sisi — who completed a doctorate in electrical engineering at Kharkov — allegedly “acquired extensive knowledge in missile development, control systems, propulsion and stabilization.”

The indictment alleges that under Abu Sisi’s direction, Hamas lengthened the range of its homemade Qassams from six to 22 kilometers, and the armor penetration capability of its anti-tank missiles from six to 26 centimeters. Abu Sisi is believed to have been developing a mortar shell that could penetrate meter-thick armor and damage a Merkava tank. The indictment claims, too, that Hamas has attempted to acquire Russian anti-aircraft missiles, as well as missiles that could hit Israeli naval vessels


And So It Begins: The Muslim Brotherhood Flexes Its Muscles

Well, that didn’t take long.

The Islamic fundamentalists at the helm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are now calling openly for “modesty police” to combat so-called “immorality” in public areas. There has also been, in addition to a rise in Islamist attacks on Christians, a rash of desecrations of tombs of popular Muslim mystics (suffis) of whom the Islamists disapprove.

Maye Kassem, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, calls these developments “incredibly worrying to many Egyptians. The salafis [Islamic fundamentalists] were always undercover in Egypt and now they are emerging as a political force. They are getting too vocal.” She warns that the elections planned for September are scheduled too soon to allow liberal opposition parties to organize and will almost certainly result in “a dictatorship, which is not what we were fighting for.”

The Islamists in Egypt are shrewd judges of timing and are already organized, giving them a tremendous leg up in the rush toward September. The persistent desire among distant observers to perceive Tahrir Square as having been a beacon of incipient pluralism is giving the Islamists the latitude to come out of the closet and start mouthing off with impunity, an opportunity they are seizing with gusto.

Issam Durbala, a member of the Brotherhood’s Shura council, told the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm that he favors the establishment of a virtue police along the lines of that which existed in medieval Islamic societies. “The new police must have a department with limited authorities to arrest those who commit immoral acts,” he said, referring apparently to violations of dress and behavior in marketplaces and other public areas. Sa’id Abd Al-Azim, a leader of the salafi movement in Alexandria, instructed Egyptian Christians to Muslim up quick or face the consequences: “If the Christians want safety they should submit to the rule of God and be confident that the Islamic sharia will protect them.”

Nagib Gibrail, a Coptic attorney and head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights, warns that there are already “areas in Egypt where Christian girls can’t walk outside after eight o’clock in the evening for fear of being kidnapped. Moderate Muslims should be more scared than Christians. It is very worrying that the military regime hasn’t issued a statement declaring Egypt a secular state.”

Not only has the military done no such thing, but it has extended a hand to Iran. Last week, Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, expressed a hope that Egypt would “[open] a new page with all countries, including Iran,” a gesture reciprocated by Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. Shiite Iran and the Sunni Brotherhood are hardly inevitable allies, but Iran has gone a long way toward mending fences by arming and financing Hamas, the Brotherhood’s arm in Gaza. Neither party is averse to a marriage of convenience, and Iran in particular will do whatever it can to establish itself in Egypt.

Western audiences might not be able to spare much attention for moderates like Maye Kassem, but perhaps they’ll listen to American-Yemeni cleric and Al-Qaeda mouthpiece Anwar al-Awlaki. “I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco?” he wrote last week in Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s English language magazine. “The mujahedeen around the world are going through a moment of elation.”


Assad’s Getting Ready to Rumble

But not with whom you think.

As you know, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tantalized his people before his recent public address with a mysterious promise to tell them something they wanted to hear — and then failed to rescind so much as a semicolon of the emergency law that has been in place since 1963. Instead, he took the opportunity to apportion blame for the unrest on the usual suspects: Israel and the US.

That didn’t have its usual mollifying effect, so he had one of his advisors drop an insinuation that it was in fact the Palestinians who have been rousing the Syrian rabble to oppose the regime.  (The walls are closing in on the Palestinians in other hot spots as well: Qaddafi is blaming them in part for his troubles, and demonstrating Jordanians have been heard shouting at them to “go back to the West Bank.”)

Now, the Syrian regime has treated its 700,000 Palestinians very roughly — it has shelled refugee camps in the past, and is perfectly capable of summarily imprisoning or forcibly deporting them in large numbers. Hamas, the leadership of which is based in Damascus, is making confident noises about the health of its relationship with Syria, but the PA is rattled.

Hafez Barghouti, editor of the PA-funded newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, characterized Syria’s accusation of Palestinian incitement as an indication of Syria’s “political bankruptcy,” and noted in a telling swipe that “Syria…played a role in Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip.” He even went so far as to level a thinly veiled threat: “The Palestinians have nothing to do with the Arab revolutions, although they have 1,000 reasons to intervene to settle scores with the Arab regimes.” Haaretz quotes Palestinian political analyst Adel Abdel Rahman, who says similarly that the Palestinians have become the “rack on which Arab leaders hang their cowardice and collusion against each other. They think the Palestinians are weak and that they could use them whenever they want to cover up their defectiveness.”

But are the Palestinians Assad’s real enemy, or is this just another smokescreen?

Hariri and Assad

They’re small potatoes. The mutual animosity being expressed is deeply felt and can easily get ugly, but is no more the main story here than the Israel-did-it canard. Assad has an ideological enemy close at hand (aside from the rank-and-file Syrians who are daring to express a taste for freedom).  That enemy is Sa’ad Hariri, deposed Lebanese PM, son of PM Rafik Hariri who was assassinated by Syrian ally Hezbollah, and leader of the Lebanese opposition. And Assad has Hariri in his sights.

MEMRI reports that Syrian state television has accused the Al-Mustaqbal movement — which is headed by Sa’ad Hariri — of attempting to transport arms to Syrian dissidents. Syria claims to have intelligence linking Al-Mustaqbal to the unrest in Latakia and Daraa — where, according to NOW Lebanon, protesters have dared to chant against Iran and Hezbollah — and threatens to take a dim view of such meddling in internal affairs. A spokesman for Al-Mustaqbal has denied the accusation, but a denial might not be enough.

MEMRI cites an article by Ghassan Sa’ud, a columnist for the pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, in which he  directly accuses Sa’ad Hariri and Al-Mustaqbal of trying to spark a civil war between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria and thereby “topple the Syrian regime.” The rather hysterical-sounding piece ends with a direct threat: “The regime…has declared it is entering a phase of ‘fighting the conspiracy and thwarting fitna [civil strife],’ and that the Al-Mustaqbal faction, and especially the Lebanese Forces [party]… are part of this preparation for fitna. One may assume that Al-Mustaqbal and the [Lebanese] Forces will not emerge unscathed from the Syrian regime’s struggle against fitna.”

As always, the big question is where Iran will choose to come down in all this. Ahmadinejad can play it one of several ways: he could offer to assist his ally openly via Hezbollah — not necessarily a practical option, since Hezbollah will shortly have its hands full when the UN tribunal on the Hariri assassination goes public — or he could sit back, let Assad fall, and then set up a proxy to fill the vacuum in Syria. The Iranian-Syrian alliance managed to engineer the collapse of Lebanon into Hezbollah’s lap — Hezbollah is Iran’s arm in Lebanon, and the Hezbollah yes-man who is now the Lebanese PM is a direct Syrian appointee — but it is up to Ahmadinejad to assess whether or not Assad has outlived his usefulness.

Assad is no doubt aware of this calculation, and his boldness in calling out Hariri suggests he already has Iran’s assistance lined up, should he need it. The Palestinians might get caught in the crossfire, but the real fight here is between Assad and Hariri for the souls of both Syria and Lebanon. Hariri might fold early, but he’s shown some steel. This could get interesting.


Goldstone on Israeli War Crimes: “Never Mind”

Be honest — did you see this one coming?

Richard Goldstone has pulled back from the accusations contained in the UN’s Goldstone report that Israel committed war crimes and intentionally targeted civilians during Operation Cast Lead. “The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” he writes in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, thus confirming that as far as the UN was concerned, in the absence of evidence, the Israelis were guilty.

The damage caused by the Goldstone Report to Israel’s reputation was severe, and there is indignant talk here this morning about the insufficient level of contrition contained in Goldstone’s mea culpa. I suggest we focus instead on the attention his editorial has brought to Hamas’s contemptuous flouting of international law (since its contemptuous flouting of the value of Israeli lives tends to provoke yawns rather than outrage). Goldstone points out that “the laws of armed conflict apply no less to non-state actors such as Hamas than they do to national armies” — an obvious point, perhaps, but obscure to the august thinkers who populate the UN Human Rights Council. They don’t listen to us, but they might listen to Goldstone.

A pipe dream, you say? Could be. But this public declaration of the accountability of Hamas sets what might turn out to be a useful precedent. Goldstone not only retreated from the report’s accusation that Israel targeted civilians but stated that Hamas did do so, and continues to do so — and added that it is the obligation of the Human Rights Council to address Hamas’s ongoing assault on Israeli civilians. “That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality,” he writes. “The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.”

Aluf Benn, writing in Haaretz, makes the point that Goldstone’s editorial might reap other benefits too. “Goldstone’s op-ed provides Turkey and Israel the opportunity to rehabilitate their relations, which soured over Cast Lead,” he writes. “If Israel’s explanations [of Cast Lead] are worthy of consideration, it may mean its explanations about the flotilla are, too.”

It would be nice if, as Netanyahu has proposed, the Goldstone Report is shelved once and for all, but that’s unlikely. A rewrite would be nice. But an admission by the jurist at the head of the report that it was fundamentally flawed is significant in and of itself. Goldstone’s retraction is unlikely to reverse the tide of Israel’s delegitimization to any great extent, but it’s surely to be celebrated that every once in a while, truth gets a toehold. Especially when it happens at the UN.