Israel abandons plan to forcibly deport African migrants

FILE PHOTO: A boy takes part in a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli government said on Tuesday it had abandoned a plan to forcibly deport African migrants who entered the country illegally after failing to find a willing country to take in the migrants.

The government had been working for months on an arrangement to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese men who crossed into Israel through Egypt’s Sinai desert.

“At this stage, the possibility of carrying out an unwilling deportation to a third country is not on the agenda,” the government wrote in a response to Israel’s Supreme Court, which has been examining the case.

The migrants will again be able to renew residency permits every 60 days, as they were before the deportation push, the government said.

The migrants and rights groups say they are seeking asylum and are fleeing war and persecution. The government says they are job seekers and that it has every right to protect its borders.

Despite Tuesday’s climbdown, the government said immigration authorities would still try to deport migrants voluntarily, drawing criticism from rights group Amnesty International.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said that after failing to reach agreement with any country to take them in, he would try to draft legislation that would allow the reopening of detention centers in Israel for the migrants.

The Supreme Court has previously struck down legislation that permits such detention and ordered the facilities shut.

“I’M THRILLED”

The government’s U-turn was welcomed by those targeted for expulsion.

“I’m thrilled. I’m speechless. I was so scared every day. If I can stay here it will be good, I’ve lived here so long – I have a job, I have Israeli friends. I am used to the place,” said Ristom Haliesilase, a 34-year-old Eritrean who lives in Tel Aviv, working as a carer for the elderly.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home.

Around 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary program, but Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.

After pulling out of a U.N.-backed relocation plan a few weeks ago, Israel shifted efforts toward finalizing an arrangement to send the migrants against their will to Uganda.

A number of migrant rights groups then petitioned the Supreme Court to block any such policy.

Amnesty also welcomed Tuesday’s decision but criticized Israel’s plan to continue with voluntary deportations.

“… in reality there is nothing voluntary about them. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers agree to them under pressure. Israel remains under the obligation not to transfer anyone to a country” where they would be unsafe, said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty will closely monitor the deportations, it said.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israeli troops kill four Palestinians in fourth week of protests

A demonstrator gestures as he hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

y Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead four Palestinians and wounded 12 in renewed unrest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday as a series of mass protests in the enclave reached its half-way mark.

Some Palestinians brought wire-cutters to cut through the border fence. As the crowd grew, Israeli soldiers called out warnings in Arabic over loudspeakers to individuals who approached the border fence.

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Despite the warnings, two Palestinians were killed and 12 wounded by Israeli gunfire, Palestinian health officials said, bringing the death toll in the past few weeks of protests to at least 33. Several hundred people have also been wounded by Israeli sharpshooters.

Away from the border, Israeli-American Hollywood actress Natalie Portman announced she would not attend a ceremony in Israel to accept a million-dollar prize because of “distressing” events in the country.

The protests have been staged every Friday for the past month to push demands for Palestinian refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel. They are expected to culminate on May 15.

The Israeli military said that in the latest incident, about 3,000 Palestinians were rioting and tried to approach what it called security infrastructure. Troops responded “with riot dispersal means and are firing in accordance with the rules of engagement,” it said.

The use of live fire has drawn international criticism but Israel says it is protecting its borders and takes such action when protesters come too close to the border fence.

It accuses Hamas, the Islamist militant group which rules Gaza, of staging riots and trying to carry out attacks. Although the main protest campaign is intended to be peaceful, Gazans have hurled stones and burning tyres near the border fence.

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Some protesters on Friday fitted kites with cans of flammable liquids which they flew across the border to start fires in Israel.

“We aim to distract the soldiers from shooting and wounding or killing our people. Israeli soldiers will be worried those fire-kites may fall on their heads or torch bushes around them,” said Mohammad Abu Mustafa, 17, who lost his right leg a few months ago after being shot by an Israeli soldier.

“These kites also torch bushes and trees and not only cause them losses, but keep them busy trying to put out fires,” he said, leaning on crutches.

Early in the morning, the Israeli military used a new tactic, dropping leaflets into Gaza warning residents to not approach the border.

“The Hamas terror organization is taking advantage of you in order to carry out terror attacks. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is prepared for all scenarios. Stay away from the fence and do not attempt to harm it,” said the leaflets scattered by Israeli aircraft in areas along the border.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, denies this.

PACKED IN

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

The protest campaign, dubbed The Great March of Return, is leading up to May 15, when Palestinians mark Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe, commemorating their displacement around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.

It takes place at a time of growing frustration over the prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognize disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital further fueled Palestinian anger.

In an apparent sign of concern over the bloodshed on the border, the actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, said she would not attend a prize ceremony in Israel.

In a statement, the Genesis Prize Foundation quoted a representative for Portman as saying: “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”

It gave no further details of her reasons. But the foundation said it “admires her humanity, and respects her right to publicly disagree with the policies of the government of Israel”.

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, suggested the actress was supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate Israel economically over its treatment of Palestinians. Israel sees the BDS movement as an attempt to delegitimise it.

The Genesis Prize is awarded to individuals for excellence in their professional fields and “who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values”.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing Angus MacSwan)

Israel at 70: the drummer, the baker, the rescuer

Amin Alaev (R), 55 (R), Aviva Alaev (2nd R), 22, Allo Alaev (C), 85, Amanda Alaev (2nd L), 13, Ariel Alaev (L), 51, and Avraham Alaev, 7, pose for a photograph in their rehearsal studio in Rishon Lezion, Israel March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – The cantor’s grandson came from Tajikistan. The baker, who survived Auschwitz, came from Czechoslovakia. The emergency responder is a sixth-generation Jerusalemite. Together in one land, they celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary on Wednesday evening.

Since 1948, Israel has been home to Jewish immigrants from around the world. And when they arrived in their new home, many stuck to what they knew, and who they knew, handing down family trades from generation to generation.

Dressed in a traditional Bukharan floral gown and embroidered cap, 85-year-old Allo Alaev plays the doyra – a central-Asian frame drum.

The Alaevs came to Israel from Tajikistan in 1991, one family among the 1 million Jews who have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism in 1990.

The master percussionist is accompanied by two sons and five of his grandchildren playing rhythmic, fast-tempo folk music on an accordion, violins and a darbuka drum.

“My father was a famous singer there, his father was a cantor and my mother was a famous doyra player. I learned how to play it from her,” said Allo, the family patriarch.

Israel’s cultural mix has been a boon. “It’s only made our music better,” said his son Ariel, 51. “Music has no borders.”

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family's late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family’s late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

BREAD OF GENERATIONS

Keeping a family trade has provided a sense of stability for some Jewish immigrants who survived the Holocaust.

Jolanda Wilheim came to Israel in 1949, after she and her husband had been in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.

Their daughter, Myriam Zweigenbaum, said her father’s father had owned a bakery before the war, so when her parents moved to a new land where they had nothing else to fall back on, they drew on family knowledge to start their own bakery.

Wilheim, 96, still works in that small bakery in central Israel, with her daughter and two granddaughters.

“I feel I’m living out what it was that the Nazis had tried to cut down more than 70 years ago,” said Wilheim’s granddaughter, Keren Zweigenbaum, 38.

Despite the wars that Israel has fought with its Arab neighbors – and the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Israel is seen by many Jewish immigrants as a safe haven in the Middle East.

The oldest Israelis remember the anti-Jewish sentiment that swept through the Middle East in the middle of the 20th century, fanned by Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. The turmoil saw entire Jewish communities leave countries in which they had lived for centuries, even millennia.

That flight only accelerated after the establishment of Israel and the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, which fueled anger across the Arab world at the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the conflict.

The fate of those Palestinians – the vast majority of whom have never been able to return – is inextricably linked with that of Israel. The events of 70 years ago that Israelis celebrate are cause for mourning among Palestinians, who commemorate them as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”.

CHARITY AND CARE

But not all Israelis are newcomers. David Weissenstern’s ancestors have been in Jerusalem for six generations. They were among the first families who moved out of the walled Old City in the 19th century, and built the first Jewish neighborhoods outside it.

Weissenstern, his son and grandson are part of Zaka, an Israeli emergency rescue and recover organization. Most of its volunteers, like him, are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Often first on the scene of car accidents and militant attacks, one of their tasks is to collect the body parts of victims, to ensure their proper burial.

“Treatment of the dead is one of the greatest Jewish edicts,” said Weissenstern, 71. His family, he said, has always kept communal Jewish edicts of charity and care for the other:

“If you make a dollar more or a dollar less, that’s less important. What matters is what you’ve given to others.”

By contrast, Aharon Ben Hur, 84, only came to Israel in 1951 from Iraq, once home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East.

Ben Hur’s father and young brother were among 180 Baghdad Jews killed in 1941, in a pogrom known as the Farhud. He now runs two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, with his son and grandson.

“In Iraq, as a boy, my parents suffered,” he said. “When we came to Israel, it was another life.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Kevin Liffey)

Israel says new Gaza tunnel foiled, lifts veil on detection lab

FILE PHOTO: Construction work can be seen on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Israel March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it destroyed a guerrilla tunnel from the Gaza Strip and gave rare details on a classified military laboratory spearheading efforts to foil the cross-border digs.

Palestinian gunmen used tunnels to blindside Israeli forces during the 2014 Gaza war. Israel has since been developing detection technologies and laying down an underground frontier wall which, it says, will end the Gaza tunnel threat by 2019.

It is the fifth such detection in as many months and Israeli officials regard publicity around their tunnel hunts as a double-edged sword.

They hope it will discourage new digs but worry it could prompt militants to preempt the razing of any existing passages by using them for attacks.

The most recent discovery was of a passage running “kilometres” from within Gaza to just over the border, Israel’s military said on Sunday, accusing the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists of being behind the project. Hamas did not comment.

“We were able to detect, and we destroyed it, using similar means that we have used in the past,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

“There was no use of explosives, but rather, we filled the tunnel, which rendered it useless for a very long period of time.”

Conricus did not elaborate on the means of detection nor how the tunnel was filled. Such details are secret in Israel, which has received U.S. congressional funding for the project.

Later on Sunday, Israel went public with a military laboratory it set up in 2016 to pool anti-tunnel expertise.

The laboratory “uses innovative ground research, which includes scanning of cavities and their dynamics, (and) strives to develop new discovery and mapping techniques”, a military statement said.

A video release showed soldiers, with faces obscured, poring over maps and computer screens at an undisclosed location.

Israel offered no explanation for its publication about the laboratory, which followed a surge in Gaza border protests that organisers want to peak in mid-May – the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, which Palestinians mourn as a catastrophe.

Israeli army snipers have killed 31 Palestinians during the demonstrations, drawing international censure. The military says it is taking necessary action against people suspected of trying to damage the border fence or provide cover for Hamas attacks.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has denied having any such plans.

The tunnel whose discovery was made public on Sunday crossed the border with Israel near the site of intensive Palestinian disturbances, Conricus said. “I wouldn’t think that it’s a coincidence,” he added, without elaborating.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said geophysicists from his ministry were involved in the anti-tunnel efforts, as well as researchers from the Technion, an Israeli university, and from state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Thousands of Palestinians protest at Gaza-Israel border, one dead

A girl hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – A Palestinian was killed and more than 200 others wounded during clashes with Israeli troops as thousands gathered in protest along the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, Gaza officials said.

Palestinians hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, where Israeli army sharpshooters are deployed. Some in the crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device and tried cross into Israel, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian medical officials said Israeli troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and wounding 220.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and responded “with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Palestinians had arrived en masse at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 31 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

The Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached during the recent clashes, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli forces wound 30 more Palestinians in Gaza-Israel border protests

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an axe during clashes with Israeli troops, during a tent city protest along the Israel border with Gaza, demanding the right to return to their homeland, the southern Gaza Strip March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded 30 Palestinians during a large protest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday in which demonstrators hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, Palestinian medics said.

Some in the Gaza crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device, according to the Israeli military.

Thousands of Palestinians arrived at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 30 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and “responding with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence, and deployed army sharpshooters along it.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

In recent days the Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Threat of U.S.-Russia clash hangs over Syria

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia (L) and Bolivia's Ambassador to the United Nations Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz speak to the media outside Security Council chambers at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The prospect of Western military action in Syria that could lead to confrontation with Russia hung over the Middle East on Friday but there was no clear sign that a U.S.-led attack was imminent.

International chemical weapons experts were traveling to Syria to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on the town of Douma which killed dozens of people. Two days ago U.S. President Donald Trump warned that missiles “will be coming” in response to that attack.

The allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were eager on Friday to lay blame for the crisis not with him but with Trump.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said international relations should not depend on one person’s morning mood, in apparent reference to Trump’s tweets.

“We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks,” said Dvorkovich, speaking at a forum.

Russia has warned the West against attacking Assad, who is also supported by Iran, and says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

Vassily Nebenzia, Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he “cannot exclude” war between the United States and Russia.

“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” he told reporters. “We hope there will be no point of no return.”

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria: “The conditions do not point to a total war happening…unless Trump and (Israeli leader Benjamin) Netanyahu completely lose their minds.”

U.S. allies have offered strong words of support for Washington but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Trump was also expected to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday France had proof the Syrian government carried out the Douma attack and would decide whether to strike back when all necessary information had been gathered.

ASSAD TIGHTENS GRIP

Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any U.S.-led military action, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

He met his national security team on the situation in Syria later in the day and “no final decision has been made,” the White House said in a statement.

“We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,” it said.

A team of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was traveling to Syria and will start its investigations into the Douma incident on Saturday, the Netherlands-based agency said.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Assad, crushing what was once a center of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.

He has cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country, with rebels and jihadist insurgents largely contained to two areas on Syria’s northern and southern borders.

They still control the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey, and a southern region around Deraa, on the border with Jordan. Turkish forces and rebel allies control territory in northern Syria, while U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold wide areas of the northeast, and pockets of Islamic State fighters remain.

But none of those any longer directly threaten Assad’s grip on power, which has been reinforced by Russian air power and Iran-backed fighters on the ground.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Trump says Syria attack ‘could be very soon or not so soon’

FILE PHOTO - The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook sails in the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, Turkey August 28, 2015. REUTERS/Yoruk I

By Guy Faulconbridge and Vladimir Soldatkin

WASHINGTON/LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Fears of a military confrontation between Russia and the West ran high on Thursday but U.S. President Donald Trump cast doubt over the timing of his threatened strike on Syria in response to a reported poison gas attack on a rebel enclave.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” said Trump in his latest early morning tweet.

That appeared a day after he tweeted that missiles “will be coming” after the April 7 chemical weapons attack alleged to have killed dozens of people, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister Theresa May prepared to convene a special cabinet meeting at 1430 GMT to weigh whether Britain should join the United States and France in a possible military action.

May recalled ministers from their Easter holiday to debate action over what she has cast as a barbaric poison gas attack by Syrian government forces on civilians in the formerly rebel-controlled town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus.

There were signs, though, of a global effort to head off a dangerous conflict pitting Russia against the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.

“The situation in Syria is horrific, the use of chemical weapons is something the world has to prevent,” Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis said on Thursday morning.

“But also it’s a very, very delicate circumstance and we’ve got to make this judgment on a very careful, very deliberate, very well thought-through basis.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would decide whether to strike Syrian government targets after the reported attack by internationally banned chemical munitions in Douma once all the necessary information had been gathered.

“We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective,” Macron said, adding that all the necessary verifications had to be carried out first.

He said he would also strive to prevent an escalation of conflict across the Middle East.

A girl looks on following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

A girl looks on following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

SYRIA “MOVES TARGETS”

At the eye of the storm, Assad said any Western action “will contribute nothing but an increase in instability in the region, threatening international peace and security”, Syrian state television reported.

Russia, Assad’s most important ally in his seven-year-old war with rebels, said it had deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces.

“They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying.

Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid fallout from possible missile strikes, U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Syria’s attempt to shelter aircraft, perhaps by locating them alongside Russian military hardware that Washington might be reluctant to hit, could limit damage that the United States and its allies might be able to inflict on Assad’s military.

World stocks edged down as anxious investors stayed wary of risky assets.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, striking a cautious tone after Trump’s threat of missile strikes, said on Wednesday the United States was still assessing intelligence about the suspected toxic gas attack.

Both Syria and Russia have said reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers in Douma and have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the government.

The Russian military said it had observed movements of U.S. Navy forces in the Gulf. Any U.S. strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defences. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned on Wednesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

The Syrian conflict has increasingly widened the rifts between Moscow, Washington and European powers and inflamed the bitter rivalries that run across the Middle East.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Syria, Iran and Russia say Israel was behind an air strike on a Syrian air base on Monday that killed seven Iranian military personnel, something Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Wednesday and urged him to do nothing to destabilize Syria. Netanyahu’s office said: “The prime minister reiterated that Israel will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said the Western threats were “based on lies” about the poison gas assault, after meeting Assad.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had spoken to Trump on Wednesday and would speak to Putin on Thursday night about the chemical attack.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin wanted to be consulted before any Western military action. “It’s important at the same time to maintain pressure on Russia,” he said. “If we want to do that, we the Western partners cannot diverge in our approaches.”

May has ordered British submarines to move within missile range of Syria in readiness for strikes against the Syrian military that could begin as early as Thursday night, London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper said on Wednesday.

The BBC reported that May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in military action. She would not seek approval from parliament, the BBC said, despite calls from the opposition Labour Party for parliament to be given a say.

Parliament voted down British military action against Assad’s government in 2013 in an embarrassment for May’s predecessor, David Cameron. That then deterred the U.S. administration of Barack Obama from similar action.

British Minister Davis said his decision then to vote against action was based on a lack of clear evidence and a lack of a clear plan. “Those two things, I’m assured, we will get an answer to today,” he said of Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut, William James in London,; Andrew Osborn in Moscow and John Irish in Paris, Graham Fahy in Dublin; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli air force gives Tel Aviv a scare as Syria tensions flare

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter jet releases flares during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli police emergency lines lit up on Thursday after warplanes roared over the Tel Aviv coast, dropping anti-missile flares and performing aerobatics at a time of tension along the border with Syria.

It was just a rehearsal – practice flights are held every year – for the Israeli Air Force’s annual Independence Day national flypast on April 19, but no prior announcement was made.

“Many calls were received from worried citizens about noise from a squadron of planes in the Tel Aviv area,” police said in statement. “We would like to make clear they were training for the Independence Day aerial display. There’s no emergency.”

Under clear skies over Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean beach, two F-15 jets maneuvered through a series of sharp turns, climbs and dives in what appeared to be a mock dogfight as the sound of their engines crackled through the streets.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, and Israel held top-level security consultations over concerns it might be a target for Syrian or Iranian retaliation.

Trump said on Thursday that a possible strike against Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all”.

Despite the tensions, the commander of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, flew to Poland on Thursday morning to take part in Holocaust Remembrance Day events.

The Israeli military tweeted a video of him boarding a plane but did not immediately say when he was scheduled to return. A source in the delegation told Reuters, however, that Eizenkot would be back by nightfall.

In Israel, sirens blared for two minutes during the morning to mark the remembrance day, bringing traffic to a standstill as motorists and pedestrians stood to honor the six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

Civil defence authorities issued the customary notice beforehand that in the event of a real emergency, the sirens would sound in a rising and falling, rather than a constant, tone.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by David Stamp)

African migrants in limbo as Israel seeks Uganda deportation deal

Pepole take part in a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Ker

By Maayan Lubell

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel is finalizing a deal to deport thousands of African migrants to Uganda under a new scheme after agreements with Rwanda and the U.N.’s refugee agency to find homes for those expelled fell through.

About 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary program but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.

In January, Israel started handing out notices to male migrants from Eritrea and Sudan giving them three months to take the voluntary deal with a plane ticket and $3,500 or risk being thrown in jail.

The government said from April it would start forced deportations but rights groups challenged the move and Israel’s Supreme Court has issued a temporary injunction to give more time for the petitioners to argue against the plan.

Government representatives told the court on Tuesday that an envoy was in an African country finalizing a deportation deal after an arrangement with Rwanda to take migrants expelled under the new measures fell through.

The representatives did not name the country in court sessions open to the public though Israeli lawmakers have previously said the two countries it was planning to deport migrants to were Rwanda and Uganda.

Israeli Deputy Foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely also identified the countries it was seeking to strike new deportation deals with as Uganda and Rwanda in closed-door comments leaked to Israeli Army Radio.

After the Rwanda deal fell through, the government struck an agreement with the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) to relocate 16,250 migrants to Western countries but Netanyahu scrapped it after an outcry from right-wing politicians furious that thousands more would be allowed to stay in Israel.

The fate of tens of thousands of migrants who entered Israel illegally through its desert border with Egypt and were granted temporary visas has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a national home for Jews and a haven from persecution.

Israeli rights groups say the country can absorb the estimated 37,000 migrants still there, or should find them safe destinations such as those agreed under the defunct UNHCR deal.

The rights groups have accused Netanyahu, who is under police investigation for corruption, of playing political games to appeal to his right-wing supporters.

The government calls the migrants “infiltrators” and says they have come to find work. The migrants and rights groups say they are asylum seekers fleeing persecution.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

The U.N.’s refugee agency and rights groups are also concerned because many of the Africans who left previously for Rwanda and Uganda voluntarily did not get the protection they were promised and some ended up back on the migration trail.

Both countries have denied having any deals with Israel to resettle migrants. Uganda, a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants in East Africa, also denied there were discussions about accepting deportees under the new scheme.

“We are not aware of any Israeli envoy here. Let Israelis tell you who that envoy here is going to sign an agreement with, sign with who? With the foreign affairs, with the president, minister of internal affairs, with who? On what date are they signing?” Okello Oryem, Uganda’s junior foreign affairs minister told Reuters on Wednesday.

At the Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem, one of the three judges asked the state representatives why Uganda was denying the deal, if indeed there was one. The state said it would provide the court with an explanation in a closed session.

Five migrants interviewed by Reuters said they had been told by immigration officials this year that they could go either to Uganda or Rwanda, if they chose to avoid detention.

Ristom Haliesilase, an Eritrean migrant living in Tel Aviv, said he was given until April 15 to decide whether to be deported, or detained.

“My mind is full of worries. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. The first thought I have in the morning is what will they do to me today?” said Haliesilase. “It’s heartbreaking. It breaks the people. It breaks the community.”

Many migrants live in cramped apartments in poor parts of Tel Aviv where eateries serve Eritrean food, clothing stores with signs in Tigrinya display traditional garb, and abandoned warehouses have been converted into makeshift churches.

‘IT’S ALL A SCAM’

Rights groups such as the International Refugee Rights Initiative have been documenting the plight of Eritrean and Sudanese men who have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda for several years.

In the past few months UNHCR has also documented at least 80 cases of Eritreans who found none of the protection promised upon their departure from Israel, prompting them to go on a perilous trail through conflict zones to reach Europe.

Along the way they were subjected to arrests, torture and extortion before trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy, UNHCR said. Israeli rights groups have documented dozens more such cases.

Under the voluntary scheme, asylum seekers say they were given the option of going back to their country of origin, remaining in detention in Israel or flying to a third country where they were promised they could stay and work legally.

Sajir, 27, an Eritrean now living in Uganda, told Reuters by telephone that he flew there in January after spending five months in Israeli detention.

“They said that my life would be sorted there,” Sajir said, speaking in Hebrew. “But it’s all a scam.”

Notices handed out this year to migrants already in detention or those trying to renew their visas have promised residency and work permits in their destination country. “A local team that will meet you at the airport will provide guidance in the first few days,” the document says.

Sajir said when his flight landed in Uganda, he and 10 other migrants were not taken through passport control. “We were taken out the back. Then someone loaded us onto a bus and took us to a hotel,” he said.

The group was met by a man who offered to set them up with traffickers to take them to Sudan, Kenya or Ethiopia – for a price, he said.

“We got no visa, no papers. There is no work here. It is no good. I cannot stay here. I will try to go to Sudan soon or somewhere, to Libya and then to Europe,” Sajir said.

Israel’s Immigration Authority and the prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala, Steve Scherer in Rome and Corinna Kern in Tel Aviv; writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by David Clarke)