Netanyahu defiant over legal reforms as Scholz urges compromise

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bellevue Castle in Berlin on Mar. 16, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 16 March 2023
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Netanyahu defiant over legal reforms as Scholz urges compromise

  • The package of judicial reforms has sparked weeks of protests in Israel since its introduction by Netanyahu's hard-right coalition
  • Scholz admitted he was watching the debate unfold in Israel "with great concern" and said that "as Israel's friend, we hope that the last word has not been spoken"

BERLIN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday fiercely defended disputed legal reforms on a visit to Berlin, where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged him to reconsider a compromise.
The package of judicial reforms has sparked weeks of protests in Israel since its introduction by Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, prompting Israel’s president to warn the nation may be on the brink of “civil war.”
Scholz admitted he was watching the debate unfold in Israel “with great concern” and said that “as Israel’s friend, we hope that the last word has not been spoken” on President Isaac Herzog’s proposals for compromise.
Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, on Wednesday presented compromise plans — swiftly rejected by Netanyahu who said they would “only perpetuate the existing situation and do not bring the required balance between the powers.”
In Berlin, Netanyahu put on a defiant front, arguing his plans merely sought to bring Israel’s democracy “in line with what is common and acceptable in just about every Western democracy.”
He also hit out at “slanders and falsifications” against his own and his coalition’s intentions.
“Israel is being constantly... maligned. I’m supposed to be some... potentate who’s abolishing democracy and all this nonsense,” he charged at a press conference, standing next to Scholz, adding, “this is absurd, it’s preposterous.”
Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties, says the reforms are needed to limit judicial overreach, but protesters say they threaten Israel’s liberal democracy by weakening key checks and balances.
Ten consecutive weeks of nationwide demonstrations have followed, with critics also alleging the proposed changes aim to protect Netanyahu as he fights corruption charges in an ongoing court battle.
With the strife far from easing, Herzog warned late Wednesday that “anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach, has no idea what he is talking about.
“It is precisely now, in the State of Israel’s 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance. Today, I say to you what I told them: civil war is a red line.
“I will not allow it to happen,” he said, adding he was convinced the majority of Israelis want a compromise.
The changes proposed by the coalition would allow lawmakers to override Supreme Court decisions that strike down legislation with a parliamentary majority, and then deny the court the right to review such a move.
It would also make it harder for the Supreme Court to strike down legislation it deems to contravene Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi constitution.
Israeli protesters returned to the streets on Thursday, with some holding up placards saying the reforms spelled “the end of democracy.”
In Berlin, several hundred protesters also turned out at the Brandenburg Gate, a short distance from the chancellery where Netanyahu and Scholz held talks.
Among them was Israeli Oren Goldberg, 44, who had traveled from the Netherlands to Berlin to join in the protest.
“I’m here to give a big welcome to the want to be dictator in Israel, to show him we won’t accept it,” he told AFP.
The controversy in Israel puts Germany in an uncomfortable position.
The two nations forged strong diplomatic ties in the decades after World War II, with Berlin committed to the preservation of the Israeli state in penance for the Holocaust.
Successive German governments have described Israel’s national security as a crucial foreign policy priority.
Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit on Monday said Netanyahu is the “elected prime minister of Israel and therefore also a normal guest in Germany.”
But amid the row in Israel, in carefully worded statements, German leaders have voiced their worries.
On the eve of talks with Netanyahu, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he planned to raise the reforms with the Israeli prime minister.
Israel is the “only democracy in the whole region, a country with a strong constitutional state,” he said. “What I would like to see is that what we have admired about Israel... is preserved.”


Calls for probe, ceasefire follow Israeli gunfire near aid convoy

Updated 01 March 2024
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Calls for probe, ceasefire follow Israeli gunfire near aid convoy

  • “The Israeli army must fully investigate how the mass panic and shooting could have happened,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on X
  • European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, also writing on X, said “every effort must be made to investigate what happened and ensure transparency”

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: World leaders on Friday called for an investigation and a ceasefire nearly five months into the Gaza war, a day after dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed rushing an aid convoy.
Israeli troops opened fire as Palestinian civilians scrambled for food aid during a chaotic incident Thursday which the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry said killed more than 100 people in Gaza City.
The deaths came after a World Food Programme official had warned: “If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza.”
The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded the convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over.
An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat.”
Gaza’s health ministry called it a “massacre” and said 112 people were killed and more than 750 others wounded.
The fatalities helped push the total number of Palestinian war dead in Gaza to 30,228 mostly women and children, according to the ministry’s latest toll.
Overnight Thursday-Friday 83 people were killed in strikes, the ministry said.
The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.
Israel’s military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.
“The Israeli army must fully investigate how the mass panic and shooting could have happened,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on social media platform X.
Her French counterpart Stephane Sejourne said: “there will have to be an independent probe to determine what happened,” and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani urged Israel “to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities.”
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, also writing on X, said “every effort must be made to investigate what happened and ensure transparency.”
The head of Libya’s Presidential Council, Mohamed el-Manfi, appealed for “an urgent investigation” by the United Nations Security Council into the “unprecedented crime.”
US President Joe Biden — whose country provides billions of dollars in military aid to Israel — said Washington was checking “two competing versions” of the incident.
Aerial footage of the incident made clear “just how desperate the situation on the ground is,” a US State Department spokesman said. Washington was pushing Israel to allow in more aid, he said.
The Gaza City aid incident came with talks progressing toward a ceasefire, but would now complicate those efforts, Biden said.
The White House later said it had asked Israel to probe the “tremendously alarming” deaths. Deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said the event “needs to be thoroughly investigated.”
Qatar’s foreign ministry condemned “in the strongest terms the heinous massacre committed by the Israeli occupation” and called for “urgent international action” to halt the fighting in Gaza.
Further afield, in South America, Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced the suspension of arms purchases from Israel after the “genocide” in Gaza City.
While the situation is particularly acute in Gaza’s north, Gazans are struggling for food, water and medical care throughout the territory including in far-south Rafah where around 1.4 million people have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.
Israel is threatening to send in troops against Hamas fighters in Rafah.
Information conflicted on what exactly unfolded in Gaza City.
A witness, declining to be named for safety reasons, said the violence began when thousands of people rushed toward aid trucks, leading soldiers to open fire when “people came too close” to tanks.
Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the military had fired “a few warning shots” to try to disperse a “mob” that had “ambushed” the aid trucks.
“Thousands of Gazans” swarmed the trucks, “violently pushing and even trampling other Gazans to death, looting the humanitarian supplies,” he said.
When the crowd got too big, he said the convoy tried to retreat and “the unfortunate incident resulted in dozens of Gazans killed and injured.”
Aerial images released by the Israeli army showed what it said were scores of people surrounding aid trucks in the city.
Ali Awad Ashqir, who said he had gone to get some food for his starving family, told AFP he had been waiting for two hours when trucks began to arrive.
“The moment they arrived, the occupation army fired artillery shells and guns,” he said.
Hagari denied Israeli forces carried out any shelling or strikes at the time.
Looting of aid trucks has previously occurred in northern Gaza, where residents have taken to eating animal fodder and even leaves to stave off starvation.
The chief of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said no UN agency had been involved in Thursday’s aid delivery, and called the incident “another day from hell.”
Among its war aims, Israel says it is fighting to bring home 130 hostages captured by militants on October 7 who remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure over the captives.
On Friday relatives and supporters of the hostages rallied outside the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv in a call for help to secure their release.
At another protest in the city on Thursday night, Alon Lee Green, 36, said things were at a crossroads.
“It’s either we are going into an eternal war that will never stop,” he said, “or we’re going to a diplomatic agreement, an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”


WHO says Gaza health system ‘more than on its knees’

Updated 58 min 9 sec ago
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WHO says Gaza health system ‘more than on its knees’

  • WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva: “All the lifelines in Gaza have more or less been cut”
  • “The food supplies have been cut off deliberately. Let’s not forget that”

GENEVA: People in the Gaza Strip are risking their lives to find food, water and other supplies such is the level of hunger and despair amid the unrelenting Israeli assault, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
“The system in Gaza is on its knees, it’s more than on its knees,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva. “All the lifelines in Gaza have more or less been cut.”
Lindmeier said this had created a “desperate situation,” as seen on Thursday, when more than 100 people seeking humanitarian aid in Gaza were killed.
Gaza health authorities said Israeli forces shot dead the Palestinians as they waited for an aid delivery. Israel blamed the deaths on crowds that surrounded the aid trucks, saying victims had been trampled or run over.
“People are so desperate for food, for fresh water, for any supplies that they risk their lives in getting any food, any supplies to support their children, to support themselves,” Lindmeier said.
While aid is reaching southern parts of the Gaza Strip, it is too slow to avert a hunger crisis even there. Aid barely makes it to northern areas that are further from the main border crossing and only accessible through more active battle fronts.
“The food supplies have been cut off deliberately. Let’s not forget that,” Lindmeier said.
Israel has said the failure to get enough aid into Gaza to meet humanitarian needs is due to UN distribution failures.
A senior UN aid official told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that one quarter of the population of Gaza is one step away from famine and widespread famine could be “almost inevitable” without action.


Hamas, other Palestinian groups stress ‘unity’ at Moscow talks

Updated 01 March 2024
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Hamas, other Palestinian groups stress ‘unity’ at Moscow talks

  • Meeting in Moscow brought together Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and other Palestinian groups for talks on the war in Gaza and an eventual post-war period.

Ramallah: Palestinian factions including rivals Hamas and Fatah said on Friday they would pursue “unity of action” in confronting Israel after representatives met at Russia-hosted talks.
The meeting in Moscow on Thursday brought together Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and other Palestinian groups for talks on the war in Gaza and an eventual post-war period.
It came on the heels of the resignation of the Palestinian Authority government, which is led by Fatah and based in the occupied West Bank.
Outgoing prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called for intra-Palestinian consensus as he announced the resignation, and some analysts said the development could pave the way for a government of technocrats that could operate in the West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza after the war.
Arab and Western leaders have been pushing for reforms to the Palestinian Authority as they discuss possible reconstruction efforts.
A statement on Friday by the Palestinian factions represented in Moscow said there would be an “upcoming dialogue” to bring them under the banner of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Thursday’s “constructive” talks saw agreement on points including the need for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the creation of a Palestinian state, the statement said.
While Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered “terrorist” entities by Western powers, the PLO is internationally recognized as representing Palestinians in the Palestinian territories and diaspora.
Discussions in recent years about integrating Hamas into the PLO have ended in failure.
In recent years, Moscow has strived to maintain good relations with all actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Fatah and Hamas.
Russia’s relations with Israel have become strained amid Moscow’s criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza and rejection of a Palestinian state.
The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
At least 30,228 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory military offensive in Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.


Israeli strike in Syria kills Iran Guard, two others: reports

Updated 01 March 2024
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Israeli strike in Syria kills Iran Guard, two others: reports

  • Three violent explosions shook the center of Banias during the dawn strike on a villa that sheltered “a group affiliated with Iran“
  • Iran’s official news agency IRNA later said Reza Zarei, a member of the IRGC’s navy, had been “killed at dawn today by the usurping Zionist regime"

BEIRUT: An Israeli strike in Syria on Friday killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard and two other people, reports said, in the third consecutive day of Israeli attacks on Syria.
Three violent explosions shook the center of Banias, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, during the dawn strike on a villa that sheltered “a group affiliated with Iran,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
A building was destroyed, killing the Iranian and two other non-Syrians who were with him, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA later said Reza Zarei, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ navy, had been “killed at dawn today by the usurping Zionist regime.”
The government-controlled city of Banias is home to an oil refinery with Iranian tankers docking at its port.
On Thursday, Israel killed a Hezbollah fighter in a strike on Syria, close to the Lebanese border, the Observatory said, hours after similar attacks.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on targets in Syria since civil war broke out in 2011. The strikes have mainly targeted Iran-backed forces including militants from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement as well as Syrian army positions.
Iran is a key political, military and financial backer of the Assad government, and has sent military advisers and volunteers to bolster its forces.
Tehran says it has deployed forces in Syria at the invitation of Damascus, but only as advisers.
The strikes have increased since Israel’s war with Palestinian militant group Hamas began on October 7.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes but has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to expand its presence in Syria. Iran backs Assad’s government and Hezbollah, which supports Hamas.
Syria’s war has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and displaced millions since it broke out in March 2011 with Damascus’s brutal repression of anti-government protests.


UN experts: Sudan’s paramilitary forces carried out ethnic killings and rapes that may be war crimes

Updated 01 March 2024
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UN experts: Sudan’s paramilitary forces carried out ethnic killings and rapes that may be war crimes

  • Report to the UN Security Council,paints a horrifying picture of the brutality of the Rapid Support Forces

UNITED NATIONS : Paramilitary forces and their allied militias fighting to take power in Sudan carried out widespread ethnic killings and rapes while taking control of much of western Darfur that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, United Nations experts said in a new report.
The report to the UN Security Council, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, paints a horrifying picture of the brutality of Rapid Support Forces against Africans in Darfur. It also details how the RSF succeeded in gaining control of four out of Darfur’s five states, including through complex financial networks that involve dozens of companies.
Sudan plunged into chaos in April, when long-simmering tensions between its military led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, broke out into street battles in the capital, Khartoum.
Fighting spread to other parts of the country, but in Sudan’s Darfur region it took on a different form: brutal attacks by the RSF on African civilians, especially the ethnic Masalit.
Two decades ago, Darfur became synonymous with genocide and war crimes, particularly by the notorious Janjaweed Arab militias against populations that identify as Central or East African. It seems that legacy has returned, with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor Karim Khan saying in late January there are grounds to believe both sides are committing possible war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Darfur.
The panel of experts said Darfur is experiencing “its worst violence since 2005.”
The ongoing conflict has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis and displaced approximately 6.8 million people — 5.4 million within Sudan and 1.4 million who have fled to other countries, including approximately 555,000 to neighboring Chad, the experts said.
The RSF and rival Sudanese government forces have both used heavy artillery and shelling in highly populated areas, causing widespread destruction of critical water, sanitation, education and health care facilities.
In their 47-page report, the experts said the RSF and its militias targeted sites in Darfur where displaced people had found shelter, civilian neighborhoods and medical facilities.
According to intelligence sources, the panel said, in just one city — Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state near the Chad border — between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed.
The experts said sexual violence by the RSF and its allied militia was widespread.
The panel said that, according to reliable sources from Geneina, women and girls as young as 14 years old were raped by RSF elements in a UN World Food Program storage facility that the paramilitary force controlled, in their homes, or when returning home to collect belongings after being displaced by the violence. Additionally, 16 girls were reportedly kidnapped by RSF soldiers and raped in an RSF house.
“Racial slurs toward the Masalit and non-Arab community formed part of the attacks,” the panel said. “Neighborhoods and homes were continuously attacked, looted, burned and destroyed,” especially those where Masalit and other African communities lived, and their people were harassed, assaulted, sexually abused, and at times executed.
The experts said prominent Masalit community members were singled out by the RSF, which had a list, and the group’s leaders were harassed and some executed. At least two lawyers, three prominent doctors and seven staff members, and human rights activists monitoring and reporting on the events were also killed, they said.
The RSF and its allied militias looted and destroyed all hospitals and medical storage facilities, which resulted in the collapse of health services and the deaths of 37 women with childbirth complications and 200 patients needing kidney dialysis, the panel said.
After the killing of the wali, or governor, of West Darfur in June, the report said, Masalit and African communities decided to seek protection at Ardamata, just outside Geneina. A convoy of thousands moved out at midnight but as they reached a bridge, RSF and allied militias indiscriminately opened fire, and survivors reported that an estimated 1,000 people were killed, they said.
The panel stressed that disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians — including torture, rapes and killings as well as destruction of critical civilian infrastructure — constitute war crimes under the 1949 Geneva conventions.
The RSF was formed out of Janjaweed fighters by Sudan’s former President Omar Al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades, was overthrown during a popular uprising in 2019, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for charges of genocide and other crimes during the conflict in Darfur in the 2000s.
According to the panel, the “RSF’s takeover of Darfur relied on three lines of support: the Arab allied communities, dynamic and complex financial networks, and new military supply lines running through Chad, Libya and South Sudan.”
While both the Sudanese military and RSF engaged in widespread recruitment drives across Darfur from late 2022, the RSF was more successful, the experts said. And it “invested large proceeds from its pre-war gold business in several industries, creating a network of as many as 50 companies.”
The RSF’s complex financial networks “enabled it to acquire weapons, pay salaries, fund media campaigns, lobby, and buy the support of other political and armed groups,” the experts said.
United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who visited Chad in September, called the report’s findings “horrific” and expressed “deep disappointment” that the UN Security Council and the international community have paid such little attention to the allegations.
“The people of Sudan feel that they have been forgotten,” she said.
In light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan and the broader region, Thomas-Greenfield demanded that the Sudanese military lift its prohibition on cross-border assistance from Chad and facilitate cross-line assistance from the east. She also demanded in a statement Wednesday that the RSF halt the looting of humanitarian warehouses and that both parties stop harassing humanitarian aid workers.
“The council must act urgently to alleviate human suffering, hold perpetrators to account, and bring the conflict in Sudan to an end,” the US ambassador said. “Time is running out.”