Syria Crisis

Israelis Stay Calm, Prepare For Worst As Syria Spillover Risks Rise

Waiting at the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel
Waiting at the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel
Hadrien Gosset-Bernheim

HAIFA – His pack is ready: spare clothing, two clean uniforms, his combat boots and a charger for his smartphone. If he is called, Haim Halévy, a 32-year-old from Haifa, will only have a few hours to join his field regiment stationed on the Golan Heights. The fateful phone call may arrive today, tomorrow, in a week or maybe never.

Since Barack Obama announced on Saturday his decision to seek Congressial approval to conduct American strikes in Syria, this Israel Defense Forces reservist, a certified public accountant in civilian life, does not really know what to think anymore.

“The worst part of it in this interim period is not knowing what fate has in store for you,” explains Halevy, who is used to being mobilized each time Israel’s northern border is placed on high alert.

Let’s just say that for him, as for the rest of Israel, the coming days and the Jewish New Year's celebration of Rosh Hashana, which starts on Wednesday evening, are likely to consist of a lot of waiting.

Since the beginning of the most recent crisis sparked by the accusations of chemical weapons use by Bashar al-Assad’s troops, and the international community’s balking in mounting a response, Israel is worried about getting drawn into the conflict. It is true that Syria, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have been multiplying statements to announce that in case of American strikes, Israel will be “wiped out” by thousands of missiles.

Trust yourself

In the face of such threats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared Israel confident, but on-the-ready. "Our fellow citizens know we are prepared for any scenario. Our enemies have good reasons not to test us. And they also know why,” he declared Sunday morning in reaction to the delay announced the day before by the White House.

The American decision was seen as a climb down by the Israeli public opinion, which is always suspicious towards Barack Obama. “The Americans, who keep explaining to us why we should let them deal with the Iranian threat, just shot themselves in the foot,” a top official of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “What is happening proves that in case of danger, Israel can only count on itself.”

The business-as-usual atmosphere that the Israeli authorities are trying to inspire does not, however, prevent the Israel Defense Forces from being placed on maximum alert and the already mobilized reservists have still not been sent back home. And for those who still have doubts, the deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile battery system on the outskirts of large cities shows that the threat of a conflagration in the region is taken very seriously by Jerusalem.

On Saturday, the installation of one of these batteries in a Ramat Gan park, near Tel Aviv, was actually the main attraction of the day, bringing dozens of onlookers to look at the system that is supposed to protect them against possible missiles. A way to stave off boredom for the young, on-duty soldiers standing in the heat, who found themselves overwhelmed by fruit juice, biscuits and even sushi brought over by supportive neighbors.

Launched with notable success during the operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza last November, the Iron Dome system has become an essential element of Israel’s strategy: Sure of its military superiority, the Jewish State knows that the protection of its large cities’ inhabitants, now consistently targeted during periods of conflict, is its Achilles’ heel.

To be sure of that, one just needed to see the crowd still rushing this weekend outside the gas mask distribution center in Ramat Aviv, a comfortable neighborhood in northern Tel Aviv. If the atmosphere was a little calmer these last days, the crowd still had to wait several hours before receiving the precious piece of equipment.

Ever since they saw the vulnerability of their hinterlands during the second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Israeli authorities swore they would not make the same mistake again. According to official figures, 60% of the population, and up to 85% in the center of the country, is now equipped with a chemical attack protection kit. But this did not prevent Israelis discovering to their horror the disarray of gas mask distribution procedures and the deplorable condition of some of the bomb shelters.

Despite the controversy set off, the government and the army refuse to set up additional measures. They say it is pointless to cause panic when the chances that Assad attacking Israel are considered very “slim.”

Still, nothing will stop them from preparing for the worst.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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