New York police: Anti-Semitic incidents nearly doubled over last year
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New York police: Anti-Semitic incidents nearly doubled over last year

US Jewish leadership group welcomes Trump repudiation of anti-Semitic vandalism; Israel said to again deny entry to Human Rights Watch official

  • New York City police officers stand guard in Times Square on December 31, 2016. (Angela Weiss/AFP)
    New York City police officers stand guard in Times Square on December 31, 2016. (Angela Weiss/AFP)
  • Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir (YouTube screenshot)
    Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir (YouTube screenshot)
  • Executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
    Executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
  • IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian attacker, in Hebron, surrounded by family and supporters as he arrives to hear his verdict in a courtroom at the Kirya military base, Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
    IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian attacker, in Hebron, surrounded by family and supporters as he arrives to hear his verdict in a courtroom at the Kirya military base, Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
  • An aerial view of the Israeli 'Tamar' gas processing rig 24 km off the Israeli southern coast of Ashkelon. Noble Energy and Delek are the main partners in the oil field, October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
    An aerial view of the Israeli 'Tamar' gas processing rig 24 km off the Israeli southern coast of Ashkelon. Noble Energy and Delek are the main partners in the oil field, October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
  • Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to the press during a visit to the West Bank settlement of Ariel on February 1, 2017. (Flash90)
    Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to the press during a visit to the West Bank settlement of Ariel on February 1, 2017. (Flash90)
  • A tank takes part in a training exercise near the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
    A tank takes part in a training exercise near the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they happened.

Defense minister: ‘No pardon’ for Hebron shooter soldier Azaria

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman says he opposes a military pardon for Hebron shooting soldier Elor Azaria, sentenced last month to 18 months in prison by the Jaffa Military Court.

Azaria shot and killed Palestinian Abdel Fattah al-Sharif last March, a few minutes after Sharif had stabbed an IDF soldier from Azaria’s unit and was lying wounded on the ground.

The court ruled that Azaria had violated military rules of engagement and convicted him of manslaughter.

“First of all, no pardon,” Liberman tells the Ynet news site, apparently contradicting calls from many right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to grant Azaria such a pardon. “You can shorten [the sentence], but only after a sentence is given, 16 days from its announcement,” Liberman says.

The defense minister says he opposes a pardon once a court issues a conviction and sentence for manslaughter for an IDF soldier, but suggested he would have preferred a disciplinary, rather than a criminal, process for handling the incident in the first place.

He tells Ynet: “I’ve said more than once that this whole legal track, appeal after appeal, was the wrong path, but that’s what the family decided.”

Under law, Azaria has two possible tracks for obtaining a pardon, either from the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who has already vehemently criticized Azaria’s actions and so is considered an unlikely target for a pardon appeal, or the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.

IDF investigating reports of shooting toward kibbutz near Gaza

The IDF is investigating reports of shots fired toward Kibbutz Karmiya, north of the Gaza Strip.

An army spokesperson says the military has heard about the incident, but is still verifying the information.

— Judah Ari Gross

Germany arrests 2 Syrian extremists, 1 accused of war crimes

BERLIN — German authorities arrest two Syrians suspected of being members of the extremist Nusra Front, one of whom is alleged to have been involved in the murder of dozens of civilians.

The federal prosecutor’s office said Thursday that 35-year-old Abdalfatah H.A. is suspected of war crimes over the killing of 36 Syrian government employees by his unit in March 2013. The statement says he carried out “so-called Shariah death sentences.”

A spokeswoman for the prosecutors’ office, Frauke Koehler, declined to confirm German media reports that the man came to Germany as an asylum-seeker.

The other suspect, 26-year-old Abdulrahman A.A., belonged to the same combat unit as Abdalfatah H.A. and both participated in an armed battle against Syrian government troops, including taking over a big arms depot near Mahin in November 2013.

Prosecutors say the Nusra Front unit the men belonged to also included Abd Arahman A. K., a Syrian in his early 30s who was arrested in Germany last June on suspicion of being part of a plot to carry out a bomb attack in Duesseldorf.

— AP

Man moderately wounded in E. Jerusalem gunfire

A 45-year-old man was moderately wounded from gunfire in East Jerusalem.

Magen David Adom rescue service medics took him to the Shaare Zedek hospital in the city.

There is no immediate word on the circumstances of the gunfire.

Moderately strong quake hits southeastern Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey — A Turkish government agency says an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5.5 has hit southeastern Turkey.

The government crisis management center says the earthquake was centered in the town of Samat, in Adiyaman province.

The US Geological Survey put the magnitude at 5.6 and said the quake was very shallow at around 10 kilometers (6 miles) deep.

It was not immediately clear if there was any damage.

— AP

Shots fired at IDF force on Gaza border, none hurt

Shots are fired at IDF forces stationed near the border fence with Gaza, the army says.

No one is hurt in the incident, but bullets holes are identified in a vehicle belonging to the IDF force.

— Judah Ari Gross

EU threatens fines for failing to take in refugees

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The EU on Thursday steps up warnings that countries could be punished if they fail to share the burden of mainly Syrian refugees stranded in Greece and Italy.

Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos says member states have until September to take in 160,000 Syrian and other refugees from the two countries, which have been on the frontline of the migration crisis.

So far only 13,500 have been relocated in a process bogged down by general inertia and resistance from Eastern European states which oppose Muslim immigration.

“If we don’t have tangible efforts by September… the commission will not hesitate to make use of its power,” Avramopoulos, who is Greece’s EU commissioner, tells a news conference.

The EU has been trying to convince members states “to do their duty,” he says.

— AFP

Arabic media reports IDF shelling in Gaza after shots fired at Israel

Arabic media reports IDF forces are shelling Hamas positions in Gaza after troops come under fire near the security fence.

There is no word yet on damage or casualties.

— Judah Ari Gross

IDF strikes 2 Hamas posts in Gaza with planes, tanks

Palestinian media reports say the IDF fires two tank shells at a Hamas surveillance post near the border fence not far from the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya in the northern part of the Strip.

The army clarifies that it is striking two positions, not one, and the fire includes both shells and airstrikes.

The shooting is seen by both sides as a response to gunfire that struck an IDF patrol on the Israeli side of the Gaza border fence a short time earlier.

No one is hurt in any of the incidents, according to both Israeli and Palestinian reports.

Syrian Kurds call for buffer with Turkish forces

US-backed Syrian Kurdish troops say Russia has brokered an agreement between them and Turkish-backed opposition fighters. The deal seeks to avoid clashes between the two mutually hostile rivals, both fighting the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, says that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line as rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River.

In this Wednesday, March 1, 2017 frame grab from video provided by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, Syrian forces take up positions during fighting between Government forces and Islamic State group militants in the ancient city of Palmyra, near Homs, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

In this Wednesday, March 1, 2017 frame grab from video provided by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, Syrian forces take up positions during fighting between Government forces and Islamic State group militants in the ancient city of Palmyra, near Homs, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tells reporters in Ankara there was no such agreement between Russia and the Syrian Kurds.

Kurdish-led forces captured the northern town of Manbij from IS last August, prompting Turkey to deploy troops into northern Syria.

Turkey considers the Kurdish forces a terrorist organization, linked to its home-grown Kurdish insurgency.

— AP

Merkel in Egypt to reduce migrant flows

CAIRO — German Chancellor Angela Merkel lands in Cairo Thursday on a two-day trip to Egypt and Tunisia, in a push to limit migrant flows to Europe through North Africa, especially chaos-torn Libya.

Turmoil exploited by people smugglers since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi has made Libya the main gateway for African migrants seeking to make dangerous Mediterranean crossings.

Merkel, who faces elections in September, is under intense pressure to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to Germany, which has taken in over one million migrants since 2015.

Her government urges the North African states to step up border controls and speed up repatriations of migrants whose asylum applications are rejected.

Merkel is scheduled to meet Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on Thursday, followed by meetings with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Egypt’s top Muslim cleric.

She will depart to Tunisia on Friday to meet Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

— AFP

Le Pen loses EU immunity over IS atrocity tweets

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Parliament on Thursday lifts French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s immunity from prosecution over her tweeting of images of Islamic State atrocities.

The move paves the way for France to pursue a case against the far right National Front leader, after prosecutors launched a probe in 2015 over the graphic pictures, which included the decapitated body of US journalist James Foley.

“The result is clear, a big majority is in favor of the lifting of immunity,” acting parliament speaker Dimitrios Papadimoulis said.

The ruling is effective immediately for Le Pen, a National Front MEP, European Parliament officials tell AFP.

But the decision concerns only the tweets, and not a separate probe into allegations that Le Pen misused public funds when hiring a parliamentary aide, they say.

The development is the latest twist in France’s dramatic presidential election campaign, coming a day after rightwing candidate Francois Fillon vows to continue his bid for power despite the fact he is to be charged over his own fake jobs scandal.

— AFP

In first, Israel begins gas exports to Jordan

An Israeli company says Thursday it has started exporting gas from an offshore field to Jordan, the country’s first ever exports of natural gas.

The exports to Jordan began in January, Delek Drilling — part of a consortium leading the development of Israel’s offshore gas reserves — tells AFP.

There was no formal announcement at the time but it is the first time Israel has ever exported natural gas, a company spokeswoman says.

Jordanian firms Arab Potash and Jordan Bromine signed a deal in 2014 to import 2 billion cubic meters (around 70 billion cubic feet) of gas from Israel’s Tamar field over 15 years.

At the time reports said the deal was worth $771 million.

Jordan is one of only two Arab countries to have a peace deal with Israel but the 1994 agreement is unpopular among Jordanians — almost half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

However, the resource-poor Arab country has few alternatives to tackle shortages.

In September 2016, a larger deal worth an estimated $10 billion was signed to export gas from the Leviathan offshore field to Jordan.

In the face of protests, Jordanian Information Minister Mohamed Momani defended the deal, telling state television it would cut $600 million a year from the state’s energy bill.

Deliveries from Leviathan are expected to begin in 2019.

— AFP

Court delays Azaria prison sentence due to appeal

The Jaffa Military Court grants IDF soldier Elor Azaria a delay in serving out his sentence until after his appeal.

Azaria was set to start his 18-month prison sentence on Sunday, March 5, after he was convicted of manslaughter last month in the shooting death of a Palestinian assailant last year in Hebron.

30,000 eggs, 1,100 lbs of meat caught in West Bank smuggling sting

Israeli agriculture inspectors catch 30,000 eggs that were being smuggled from the Palestinian Authority into Israel in recent days, along with some 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of beef.

The items were not produced with any known veterinary oversight, officials say.

Local churches come to support threatened North Carolina JCC

Tami Gross, mother of Times of Israel military affairs reporter Judah Ari Gross, is an employee of the Asheville, North Carolina, JCC that was among the centers evacuated this week due to a bomb threat.

She writes on Thursday: “We were greeted this morning by 20+ reps from local churches with flowers coffee pastries donuts chocolates signs pins – basically support. It was really something to see”

— Judah Ari Gross

Kremlin: Sessions controversy an impediment to new relations

MOSCOW — The intense attention being given to the new US attorney general’s meetings with Russia’s ambassador could obstruct improved Washington-Moscow relations, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says Thursday.

The spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, tells reporters he did not know about the meetings last year between Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Jeff Sessions, who at that time was a US senator. Sessions also was a policy adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Matryoshkas, traditional Russian wooden dolls, including a doll of US President Donald Trump, top, are displayed for sale in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Matryoshkas, traditional Russian wooden dolls, including a doll of US President Donald Trump, top, are displayed for sale in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

News of the two meetings has added fuel to the controversy over whether Russia was improperly involved with Trump’s campaign. It spurred calls in Congress for Sessions to recuse himself from an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election.

Peskov says it is normal for Russian diplomats to meet with US lawmakers. Sessions’ office has said the meetings were in his capacity as a senator rather than as a Trump campaign adviser.

He characterizes the reaction to the news of the Sessions meetings as “an emotional atmosphere (that) leads to resistance to the idea of some kind of US-Russia dialogue.”

— AP

US Jewish leadership group welcomes Trump repudiation of anti-Semitic vandalism

An American Jewish umbrella group welcomes US President Donald Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitic vandalism in his speech to Congress Tuesday night.

“It is significant that President Trump chose to open his first address to Congress and the nation by clearly identifying and strongly condemning the recent acts of anti-Semitism targeting Jewish communal facilities, cemeteries and organizations across the country,” a statement by Conference of Presidents chair Stephen Greenberg and executive vice chair Malcolm Hoenlein says on Thursday.

“By reaffirming America’s strong commitment to speaking out against hate, President Trump sent an important message of support to the American Jewish community at a very difficult time and set an example for other political, religious and civic leaders to follow.”

They add: “We trust that law enforcement officials will vigorously investigate these heinous acts, identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice and we look forward to working with the Trump administration to turn back the rising tide of anti-Semitism and all forms of hate. We also express appreciation for President Trump’s reaffirmation of the US commitment to Israel.”

French Jewish teacher conceals his kippah after machete attack

On the eve of a landmark trial for terrorism in France, the alleged victim of the teenage defendant says he has begun concealing his kippah following the suspected attack.

Benjamin Amsellem, a teacher from Marseilles, tells the news website 20 Minutes on Tuesday about how his life was turned upside down following last year’s incident, in which police say a radicalized youth of Turkish descent lightly wounded Amsellem using a machete in Marseille.

Having moved to the Paris region as part of his therapy, Amsellem, who says he never used to fear wearing a kippah in Marseille, now prefers “to wear a hat instead of the kippah in places where I don’t feel safe,” he says during the interview, which is published one day before the opening of his alleged attacker’s trial Wednesday in a Paris juvenile court.

According to the AFP news agency, which defined the trial as “a sad precedent,” it is the first time that a minor under the age of 18 is being tried in France for allegedly committing a jihadist attack. The youth, whose name was not published in the media, was 15 when he allegedly attacked Amsellem in January 2016 and fled the scene of the incident after Amsellem fought him off using a Hebrew bible book to shield his body from the knife.

— JTA

Hamas refuses to let a Gaza dad name his baby Mahmoud Abbas

Hamas authorities reportedly prevent a Gazan father from naming his baby boy after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying the name is “forbidden” in Gaza.

The Palestinian news site Wattan24, affiliated with Abbas’s Fatah party, reports Thursday that 32-year-old Gaza resident Fayiz Badran wants to name his newborn after Abbas due to his “love and appreciation” for the president.

However, when Badran recently took his baby to Hamas’s interior ministry headquarters in the north of the enclave, officials told him the name Mahmoud Abbas is “rejected and forbidden in the Gaza Strip.”

Badran, who the report notes is an employee of the PA, reportedly remains steadfast in his quest to name his child after the PA president.

— Dov Lieber

Donors pledge $190m after Trump’s anti-abortion move

BRUSSELS — Donor countries on Thursday pledge 181 million euros ($190 million) for charities providing access to safe abortion in response to President Donald Trump’s bar on US funding, organizers say.

The donations come at a “She Decides” conference in Brussels which is attended by 50 countries including Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium.

“I think that the Trump administration decision is a wrong decision, and I’ve never seen any evidence that supports that decision,” Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo says as he opens the conference.

“You see almost 50 countries here saying we think that this is important and we want to continue working on this.”

In one of his first acts as president, Trump reintroduced the global gag rule, enacted by Ronald Reagan in 1984, which prohibits foreign charities from using US federal funding to provide abortion services, information, counseling or referrals.

— AFP

Montreal police investigate second anti-Semitic sermon at mosque

MONTREAL — Police are asked for the second time in three weeks to investigate a newly found video showing a hate sermon against Jews coming from the same Montreal mosque.

Only this time the imam is different.

The video, released online Tuesday by the Middle East Media Research Institute, shows Sheikh Wael Al-Ghitawi in November 2014 delivering a sermon at the Al Andalous Islamic Center in the St. Laurent borough against the “people who slayed the prophets, shed their blood, and cursed the Lord…”

Rabbi Reuben Poupko of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, or CIJA, tells the National Post, “This is a bizarre strain of radical propaganda.”

Early last month, a video from August 2014 released on YouTube shows a different imam from the mosque calling on Allah to “destroy the accursed Jews” and that they be killed “one by one.”

In reaction to that video, the mosque characterized the imam’s phrasing as “clumsy” and “unacceptable.”

— JTA

Palestinian teen caught throwing rocks at cars east of Jerusalem

A 17-year-old Palestinian boy is caught throwing rocks at cars on the main road from Jerusalem to the nearby settlement city of Maale Adumim, just northeast of the capital.

A police patrol that sees the boy throwing the rocks chases after him and arrests him.

His parents are also called to the station.

— Judah Ari Gross

Young woman found dead on beach near Haifa

A young woman in her 20s is found dead Thursday on the beach north of Atlit, near Haifa.

The woman’s identity is not yet known. Police launch an investigation.

Sweden introduces military draft for men and women

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Sweden’s left-leaning government introduces a military draft for both men and women Thursday because of what its defense minister calls a deteriorating security environment in Europe and around Sweden.

Sweden abolished compulsory military service for men in 2010 because there were enough volunteers to meet its military needs. It has never had a military draft for women.

The government says “the all-volunteer recruitment hasn’t provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel. The re-activating of conscription is needed for military readiness.”

This is a Saturday Aug. 1, 2015 file photo of Swedish Army personnel as they take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Stockholm. (Vilhelm Stokstad/TT, File via AP)

This is a Saturday Aug. 1, 2015 file photo of Swedish Army personnel as they take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Stockholm. (Vilhelm Stokstad/TT, File via AP)

In September, non-NATO-member Sweden stationed permanent troops on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist described the move as sending a signal after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its “increasing pressure” on the neighboring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

There have also been reports of airspace violations by Russia’s military aircraft in the Baltics and a military buildup in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which sits across the Baltic Sea from Sweden.

— AP

Egypt appeals court acquits Mubarak over protester killings

CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt’s top appeals court on Thursday acquits ex-president Hosni Mubarak of involvement in the killing of protesters during the 2011 revolt that ended his three-decade reign, a judicial official says.

Mubarak had been sentenced to life in 2012 but an appeals court ordered a retrial, which dismissed the charges two years later.

Thursday’s ruling by the Court of Cassation is final.

The trial was Mubarak’s final one, after prosecutors leveled various charges against him following his February 2011 resignation.

He was accused of inciting the deaths of protesters during the 18-day revolt, in which about 850 people were killed as police clashed with demonstrators.

Mubarak, 88, has spent most of his time in a military hospital since his arrest in 2011.

— AFP

Al-Qaeda confirms coalition strike kills top leader

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Al-Qaeda confirms that top leader Abu Khayr al-Masri, believed to be the organization’s number two, is killed in an air strike by the US-led coalition in Syria.

In a statement, two branches of the jihadist group, including the powerful Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), called Masri a “hero” and said he was killed “during a Crusader drone strike” in Syria.

“All of al-Sham (Syria) will bear witness to the latest crime of America and the Crusader alliance,” the statement dated Wednesday says, in reference to the US-led coalition bombing jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

It also expresses its condolences to al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Masri is a son-in-law of the group’s founder Osama bin Laden and is believed to be Zawahiri’s deputy.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said earlier this week that a February 26 coalition raid on the town of Mastumah in Idlib province had killed Masri.

Egypt-born al-Masri, 59, was one of the most prominent figures in Al-Qaeda to have roots in the era before the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to the Soufan Group, a private security and intelligence consultancy.

— AFP

Israel said to again deny entry to Human Rights Watch official

Human Rights Watch official Omar Shakir has again been denied entry into Israel, despite assurances by Israeli officials he could enter the country on a tourist visa, the group says Thursday.

Shakir is the Israel and Palestine director of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

The Israeli government views the New York-based group with suspicion, arguing its reports on Israel are heavily influenced by pro-Palestinian politics rather than a close adherence to a human rights agenda.

The group counters that Israel’s attempts to exclude the group’s officials from the country “impedes our ability to document abuses by all sides and to engage the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and partners to improve the human rights situation for all.”

Ex-NBA star Stoudemire sorry about gay teammate comments

Former NBA player Amare Stoudemire apologizes for telling an Israeli website that he would avoid a gay teammate.

Stoudemire told Walla Sport when asked about the possibility of having a gay teammate: “I’m going to shower across the street, make sure my change of clothes are around the corner.” When asked if he was joking, he said “there’s always a truth within a joke.”

In a statement Thursday by his current team, Israel’s Hapoel Jerusalem, Stoudemire says the questions were “hypothetical” and all his answers had “a comedic undertone.” He says he’s “deeply sorry for offending anyone” and he’s “open to creating a dialogue to assist the fight the LGBT community encounters daily.”

In this March 28, 2016 file photo, then-Miami Heat forward Amar'e Stoudemire shoots during warmups before the Heat met the Brooklyn Nets in an NBA basketball game, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper, File)

In this March 28, 2016 file photo, then-Miami Heat forward Amar’e Stoudemire shoots during warmups before the Heat met the Brooklyn Nets in an NBA basketball game, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper, File)

Stoudemire’s comments drew criticism from gay former NBA players Jason Collins and John Amaechi.

When Stoudemire played for the New York Knicks in 2012, he was fined $50,000 by the NBA after tweeting a gay slur at a fan.

— AP

Syria army retakes ancient Palmyra from IS

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian troops backed by Russian jets complete the recapture of the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group Thursday, the Kremlin says, in another blow to the jihadists.

Bolstered by air strikes and ground troops from their ally Moscow, Syrian government forces have battled through the desert for weeks to reach Palmyra.

The oasis city has traded hands several times during Syria’s six-year civil war and became a symbol of IS’s wanton destruction of priceless cultural heritage in areas under its control.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informs President Vladimir Putin of Palmyra’s recapture, a Kremlin spokesman tells news agencies in Moscow.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, says that the jihadists had totally withdrawn from the desert city but not before mining several areas.

“The Syrian army is still clearing neighborhoods of mines and has not spread out into the whole city yet,” says its director, Rami Abdel Rahman.

— AFP

Congress looks to help Holocaust survivors reclaim assets

Legislation to assist survivors in obtaining restitution of assets stolen in the Holocaust is introduced in the US House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, or JUST, introduced this week, requires the State Department to report on the progress of certain European countries on the return or restitution of wrongfully confiscated or transferred Holocaust-era assets.

In the Senate, the bill is introduced by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida. In the House, Reps. Joe Crowley, D-New York, and Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, introduced the measure.

The JUST Act builds on the international Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues of 2009, which affirmed that the protection of property rights is an essential component of a democratic society based on the rule of law, and recognizes the importance of restituting or compensating Holocaust-related confiscations.

Numerous Jewish groups are backing the measure.

— JTA

2 Missouri students arrested in harassment of Jewish student

Two University of Missouri students are arrested for alleged anti-Semitic intimidation of a Jewish student.

Campus police arrest Erich Eastman 18, and Noah Rogers, 19, both of Columbia, Missouri, earlier this week. They are released after each posting $1,500 bail.

According to the alleged victim, Eastman and Rogers have been harassing him for six months, including with anti-Semitic notes and comments.

The university’s interim chancellor, Hank Foley, in an email sent Tuesday to students and other members of the campus community says the two students’ “behavior is abhorrent and antithetical to our core value of respect. It simply will not be tolerated,” the student newspaper the Columbia Missourian reports.

The Boone County Prosecutor’s Office has opened a criminal case against Eastman and Rogers, who are also facing possible expulsion from the university.

— JTA

Sen. Sanders asks envoy nominee Friedman if US funds should go to Gaza

Sen. Bernie Sanders asks David Friedman, US President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel, whether he would back using funds earmarked for assistance to Israel to help rebuild the Gaza Strip.

Sanders in a letter he hands Friedman after they meet Wednesday also asks whether he thinks the tax-exempt status of groups that fundraise for settlers should be reviewed. JTA obtains a copy of the letter on Thursday.

The questions in the letter are significant as they suggest the path forward for Israel policy among progressive Democrats.

Sanders has emerged as a de facto leader of progressives following his insurgent but unsuccessful campaign last year for the Democratic presidential nomination. In perhaps the best-received speech over the weekend at the annual conference of J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, Sanders pushed the theme that pro-Israel Jews need not hesitate to criticize Israeli government policies.

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at the J Street 2017 National Conference at the Washington Convention Center, Feb. 27, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at the J Street 2017 National Conference at the Washington Convention Center, Feb. 27, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

His letter outlines three questions for Friedman: whether he supports a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the appropriateness of an ambassador having deep involvement in the settler movement as a fundraiser and advocate, as Friedman does; and regarding Israeli assistance.

— JTA

New York police: Anti-Semitic incidents nearly doubled over last year

Anti-Semitic incidents are up 94 percent in New York City over this time last year, the New York Police Department reports.

The figure is part of a 55% increase overall in the number of hate crimes in the city as compared to the same time last year.

Through the first two months of this year, 35 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported, compared to 18 through February 2016.

Overall, the total number of hate crime incidents in the city for the first two months of 2017 is 68, up from 44 last year, according to the NYPD. Among the incidents, six people were targeted for being black, three for being Muslim and eight for their sexual orientation.

New York City police officers stand guard in Times Square on December 31, 2016. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

New York City police officers stand guard in Times Square on December 31, 2016. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

“Hate crimes are up in this city. They’re driven primarily by anti-Semitic hate crimes,” Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce says at a news conference Wednesday, according to reports.

Patrols are added near Jewish community centers and synagogues in response to the increased anti-Semitic hate crimes, according to DNAInfo. The patrols will increase even more as Passover nears in April, the NYPD says.

“I understand against a backdrop of growing numbers of anti-Semitic incidents all over this country and all over this world, which is a pattern that has to be addressed profoundly. We’re trying to do it here in this city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio says. “But the backdrop is worrisome. … This is becoming more widespread, and I’ve been very clear about, an atmosphere of hate has been fostered in recent months in America, and we have to stop it.”

— JTA

Trump says he has ‘total’ confidence in AG Sessions amid Russia contacts

President Donald Trump says he has “total” confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions as calls mount for the attorney general to resign or recuse himself over his contact with a Russian envoy.

Trump made the comment in Newport News Thursday. Asked if Sessions should recuse himself, he said “I don’t think so.”

Democrats are demanding that Sessions resign after the revelation that he had twice talked with Moscow’s envoy to the US during the campaign.

Sessions’ conversations with the ambassador seem to contradict his sworn statements to Congress during his confirmation hearings.

Some Republicans are joining Democrats in calling on Sessions to step aside from a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and others, waves to a small crowd of supporters upon his arrival at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP/Jason Hirschfeld)

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and others, waves to a small crowd of supporters upon his arrival at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP/Jason Hirschfeld)

— AP

Trump giving speech on defense spending aboard USS Gerald Ford

US President Donald Trump is giving a speech on defense spending amid his proposal for a $54 billion increase to the military budget.

He will speak aboard the USS Gerald Ford with Defense Secretary James Mattis.

White House learns of Sessions-Russia contacts from media — report

Senior Trump administration officials say the White House learned of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ communications with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign from media reports on Wednesday.

Trump hails $54 billion defense spending proposal

In a short speech aboard USS Gerald Ford, US President Donald Trump hails his proposed $54 billion increase to the Pentagon’s budget, calling it “one of the largest increases in history.”

Trump was joined by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who did not give an address.

The president did not take questions and did not address the firestorm sparked late Wednesday by media reports that Attorney-General Jeff Sessions had not disclosed during confirmation hearings his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US during the presidential campaign.

Asked earlier Trump if Sessions should recuse himself from an investigation into Russian interference during the campaign, Trump said: “I don’t think so.”

Revelations of the contacts, first reported by The Washington Post, came amid a disclosure by three administration officials that White House lawyers have instructed aides to Trump to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian meddling in the American political process.

The officials who confirmed that staffers were instructed to comply with preservation-of-materials directions did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.

— AP contributed to this report

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