Israeli defense minister quits over Gaza truce in blow to Netanyahu

Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement to the media following his party, Yisrael Beitenu, faction meting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation on Wednesday in protest at a Gaza ceasefire that he called a “capitulation to terror”, weakening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government.

“Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman told reporters, referring to Israelis subjected to a surge in Palestinian rocket attacks before Tuesday’s truce took hold.

Lieberman said his resignation, which will go into effect 48 hours after he submits a formal letter to Netanyahu, also withdraws his far-right Israel Beitenu party from the coalition.

Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio himself, his party said. The loss of Israel Beitenu’s five seats will leave him with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, a year before Israel’s next election.

Political commentators had speculated that Netanyahu, who has high approval ratings despite being dogged by multiple corruption investigations, might bring forward the ballot.

They also saw in Lieberman’s decision to quit a bid to poach votes from Netanyahu and far-right cabinet rival Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, ahead of an election.

Netanyahu’s Likud played down the option of an early poll.

“There is no need to go to an election during what is a sensitive period for national security. This government can see out its days,” party spokesman Jonatan Urich said on Twitter.

A Palestinian gestures as he holds sweets during a rally celebrating the resignation of Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A Palestinian gestures as he holds sweets during a rally celebrating the resignation of Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

CRACKS IN COALITION

The cracks in the coalition could soon widen, however.

In Jewish Home, which has eight lawmakers, there were calls for Bennett, now education minister, to succeed Lieberman as defense chief.

Bennett did not immediately comment. Were he to withdraw from the ruling coalition, a snap election would be inevitable. But as defense minister, he could be no less a thorn in Netanyahu’s side than Lieberman.

Lieberman and Bennett have spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, even as the government authorized a Qatari cash infusion to the impoverished enclave last week and limited itself to air strikes rather than a wider campaign during this week’s fighting.

Israel has fought three wars in Gaza since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.

Violence persisted on lower scale on Wednesday, with Palestinians saying a Gaza fisherman was shot dead by Israeli forces. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the troops across the border identified a suspect approaching the Gaza fence and opened fire at him.

In a separate incident, the military said troops captured a Palestinian who tried to cut through the fence and threw grenades at them.

Netanyahu cast Israel’s handling of Gaza as prudence.

“Leadership also means standing up to criticism when you know things that are classified and which you cannot share with the public that you love,” he said in a speech. “Our enemies begged for a ceasefire, and they know well why.”

Hamas saw victory in the Lieberman’s departure. On Gaza City streets, Palestinian burned Lieberman’s photo and some motorists handed out candies to passersby in celebration.

“Lieberman’s resignation is a recognition of the defeat before the growing force of the Palestinian resistance,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “It also showed a state of weakness that has overcome the Israelis.”

Born in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman established an electoral base among fellow Russian-speaking immigrants. He also counts among his supporters other Israeli Jews who share his suspicions of Israel’s Arab minority or oppose the religious authority and political clout of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Peter Graff, Richard Balmforth)

Jordan says nearly 300 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ leave for West

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', are seen inspecting the damage at a Roman ruin site in Daraa, Syria December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – Nearly 300 Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families who fled Syria for Jordan three months ago have left for resettlement in Western countries under an U.N. sponsored agreement, Jordan said on Wednesday.

In July the rescue workers who had been operating in rebel-held areas fled advancing Russian-backed Syrian government troops and slipped over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he had helped the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders and that there had been fears that the rescue workers’ lives were at risk.

Jordan had accepted them on humanitarian grounds after getting written guarantees they would be given asylum in Canada, Germany and Britain, Jordanian officials said.

The “White Helmets”, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces in the country’s civil war.

Its members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said 279 of the 422 people who took sanctuary in the kingdom had left, with 93 others due to leave by Oct. 25, near the end of a three-month period the authorities had given them to stay.

Another group’s departure would be delayed for two weeks until mid-November as there were new-born babies and people receiving medical treatment among them, al-Qatarneh told Reuters.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)

Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli city draws Gaza air strikes

Israeli sappers work on a house that the Israeli military said was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Beersheba, southern Israel October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the largest city in southern Israel early on Wednesday, prompting Israeli air strikes that killed a militant in the Palestinian enclave.

Egypt, which sent a delegation to Gaza on Tuesday for the latest round of talks on a long-term ceasefire, postponed a visit there by its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, following Wednesday’s surge in violence, Palestinian officials said.

The rocket hit a two-story house in Beersheba before dawn, the Israeli military said. It gutted most of the home, blowing out concrete walls and its stone facade, showering its yard and an adjacent street with rubble.

The family living there managed to take shelter in a reinforced room after alert sirens sounded, said officials in the city about 40 km (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

Another rocket launched from Gaza and aimed at central Israel fell into the Mediterranean Sea, the military said.

After the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with his defense minister and top generals at military headquarters near the Gaza border, which has seen more than six months of sometimes violent Palestinian protests.

Netanyahu said that in a statement that unless attacks from Gaza ceased, “Israel will act with great force” to stop them.

With a nod to the Egyptian talks, Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists and other major militant groups took the unusual step of denying responsibility for Wednesday’s launchings, saying they rejected “all irresponsible attempts to sabotage the Egyptian effort, including the firing of the rockets”.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility from any of the other smaller groups that operate in Gaza, and by mid-afternoon the area was quiet.

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio there was evidence to back up the Hamas statement. But he said Israeli policy dictated an “immediate and forceful retaliation” against Hamas because the groups controls Gaza.

The European Union, in a statement from Brussels, said indiscriminate attacks against civilians were completely unacceptable and mortar and rocket fire by Palestinian militants must stop immediately.

EXPLOSIONS

Israel’s military said it struck armed training camps in Gaza and also targeted a squad about to launch a rocket.

Health officials in Gaza said a 25-year-old Palestinian man, identified by Al-Mujahedeen Brigades, a small militant faction, as one of its members, was killed. Five other Palestinians were wounded in separate attacks.

Many people in Gaza awoke to the sounds of explosions. Families crowded into a nearby hospital where the dead man’s mother collapsed over his body.

Pillars of smoke rose from the sites bombed by Israel, including a port Hamas is constructing in the southern Gaza Strip and a naval police position.

Cairo has been holding talks with Hamas on a truce with Israel and ways to end 11 years of division with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in the occupied West Bank. A Palestinian source said Egyptian officials in Gaza have been in touch with Israel to try to avoid further escalation.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the 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.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in JerusalemWriting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce

Fishing boats are seen at the seaport of Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel allowed commercial goods back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, in a sign of an easing of tensions as neighboring Egypt pursued a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian enclave’s dominant armed faction.

But the prospect of an agreement between Israel and the Islamist group prompted concern within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that Hamas would take advantage of any respite from fighting to build up its rocket arsenal.

At Israel’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza, consignments of fruits and vegetables, fuel and construction material moved into the territory of two million people on Wednesday morning, a Reuters camera crew said.

Israel announced on Tuesday it would lift the commercial goods ban it imposed on July 9 in response to the launching by Palestinians of incendiary balloons across the frontier.

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

There have been fewer reports in recent days of such incidents, which have burned large tracts of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel.

Israel also expanded Gaza’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from 3 to 9 nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union said.

The Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s set a 20 nautical mile limit, which was never implemented. Since then the zone has ranged in size between 3 and 6 nautical miles.

“We are hoping for a big catch at nine miles now,” said Khader Baker, 25, who owns two fishing boats. “There had been almost no fish within three miles. We nearly starved.”

Prior restrictions on the import of commercial goods that Israel says could also be used for military purposes remained in effect, a Palestinian border official said. He said they included balloons and tires.

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

COMPREHENSIVE TRUCE

Egypt and the United Nations have been trying to broker a comprehensive truce to prevent more fighting and to ease the deep economic hardship in Gaza.

Hamas officials said Palestinian factions were in Cairo to discuss terms for a ceasefire with Israel, whose security cabinet convened on Wednesday to consider the issue.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in the governing coalition, put Netanyahu on notice that his faction would vote against an agreement with Hamas.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity so that it can rearm itself with tens of thousands of rockets,” Bennett said in a statement.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by Hamas and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has wrecked its economy, creating what the World Bank has described as a humanitarian crisis with shortages of water, electricity, and medicine.

Israel says it has no choice but to enforce its blockade to defend itself against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)

Hamas fires rockets, Israel bombs Gaza amid talk of truce

A Palestinian man inspects a Hamas site that was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Al-Mughraqa on the outskirts of Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eli Berlzon

GAZA/SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) – A Palestinian official said on Thursday armed factions in Gaza were prepared to halt a round of rocket attacks on southern Israel if the Israeli military stopped its strikes after two days of cross-border violence.

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child, and a militant from the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, were killed in the Israeli attacks, and at least five civilians were wounded, local medical officials said.

The Israeli military said seven people were wounded in southern Israel. One was identified by her employer as a Thai agricultural worker.

The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in an effort by the United Nations and Egypt to broker a truce to end months of violence and alleviate deepening humanitarian and economic hardship in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised the prospect of an imminent end to the current fighting.

“Factions of the resistance consider this round of escalation over as far as we are concerned, and the continuation of calm depends on the behavior of the occupation,” the official said, using militant factions’ term for Israel.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the official’s remarks.

The official, at a command center used by armed groups in Gaza, said they had been “responding to crimes” by Israel – a reference to the killing on Tuesday, in disputed circumstances, of two Hamas gunmen.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

The latest fighting has stayed within familiar parameters. The rocket fire from Gaza has not targeted Israel’s heartland and the Israeli military said its air strikes were limited to Hamas installations.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, told Israel Radio before the Palestinian officials comments that Israel was “not eager for war” but would make no concessions to Hamas.

An Israeli policeman walks next to the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Netanyahu was due to hold a security cabinet meeting later in the day after consultations with security officials.

Rocket warning sirens sounded almost non-stop in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and other border communities from sunset on Wednesday. Many residents have a reinforced room in their homes where they can shelter. The military said more than 180 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza.

Ambulance sirens echoed through the night in Gaza, where families huddled at home as powerful explosions shook buildings. The Israeli military said its aircraft struck more than 150 facilities belonging to Hamas.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: “I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel.”

The United Nations, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an “unprecedented effort” to avoid serious conflict, but cautioned that “the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people”.

Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which time it has fought three wars against Israel, the latest in 2014.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Netanyahu to Putin: remove Iran from Syria, Assad safe from Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 11, 2018. Yuri Kadobnov/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russia on Wednesday that Israel does not intend to threaten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and asked Moscow to work to remove Iranian forces from Syria, an Israeli official said.

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” the official, who requested anonymity, quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin during a meeting in Moscow.

Russia was already working to distance Iranian forces from areas of Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and had proposed that they be kept 80 km (50 miles) away but this fell short of Israel’s demand for a full exit, the official said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Israel threatens ‘harsh response’ to any Syrian forces in demilitarized Golan

People walk near the Israel-Syria border line as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel threatened a “harsh response” on Monday to any attempt by Syrian forces advancing against southern rebel areas to deploy in a Golan Heights frontier zone that was demilitarized under a 44-year-old U.N. monitored truce between the neighboring foes.

Syrian government forces backed by Russia have launched an offensive in the southern Deraa province and are widely expected to move on rebel-held Quneitra, which is within a part of the Syrian Golan covered by the armistice.

Israel worries that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could let its enemies Iran and Hezbollah move forces into the area, giving them a foothold near its border. Tehran and the Lebanese group both back Assad in the complex conflict.

“For our part we will sanctify the 1974 disengagement agreement, and there too we will insist that every last letter be abided by, and any violation with meet a harsh response from the State of Israel,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told his parliamentary faction in broadcast remarks.

Assad’s conduct in southern Syria is expected to come up in talks in Moscow on Wednesday between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, whose 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war turned the tide in Assad’s favor, has largely turned a blind eye to repeated Israeli air strikes in Syria targeting suspected Iranian or Hezbollah emplacements and arms transfers.

But diplomats on both sides say Russia has made clear that it would oppose any Israeli action endangering Assad’s rule.

On Sunday night, Syria said its air defense repelled an Israeli sorties against the T4 air base in Homs province, where seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel died in an April 9 attack that Damascus and Tehran also blamed on Israel.

Israel, in keeping with its customary reticence on such operations, declined all comment.

“Regarding yesterday – I read about it in the newspapers today and I have nothing to add,” Lieberman said on Monday.

“Perhaps just one thing, that our policy has not changed. We will not allow Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and we will not allow Syrian soil to be turned into a vanguard against the State of Israel. Nothing has changed. There is nothing new.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrew Heavens)

Israel must prevent entry of refugees from Syria to Israel: minister

An undated image from material released on June 29, 2018 by the Israeli military relates to an Israeli humanitarian aid supply over the border to Syria. IDF/Handout via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel must prevent the entry of refugees fleeing fighting in Syria, a senior Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

The remarks by Yuval Steinitz, energy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, came on the same day that the Israeli military said it had transferred humanitarian aid to southern Syria.

“I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Tel Aviv Radio 102FM.

More than 120,000 people in southwestern Syria have been forced to flee since the Syrian government launched an offensive to recover an area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from rebels, a monitoring group said.

The Israeli military said an increased number of Syrian civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations “to Syrians fleeing hostilities”.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing.

Israel has refused to accept refugees fleeing the more than seven-year conflict in Syria, a country with which it remains officially in a state of war. Israel also accuses Iran of stationing military bases and personnel in Syria to use the war- torn country as a launchpad for attacks into Israel.

However, Israel has taken in several thousand Syrians for medical treatment since 2011. Wounded Syrians have been treated at field hospitals set up along the frontier with Syria in the Golan, and in Israeli hospitals.

“We will continue to do what is necessary (for the refugees). I don’t want to go into details (but) our greater worry is … that Iran is trying to turn Syria into a forward military post to confront Israel,” Steinitz added.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Most foreign envoys absent as Israel, U.S. launch embassy festivities

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claps after handing U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman a letter of appreciation, during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel launched celebrations on Sunday for the U.S. Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem, a move whose break with world consensus was underscored by the absence of most envoys to the country from a reception hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Monday’s slated opening of the new embassy follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision he said fulfilled decades of policy pledges in Washington and formalized realities on the ground.

The Palestinians, who want their own future state with its capital in east Jerusalem, have been outraged by Trump’s shift from previous administrations’ preference for keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv pending progress in peace efforts.

Those talks have been frozen since 2014. Other major powers worry that the U.S. move could inflame Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and on the Gaza Strip border, where Israel reinforced troops in anticipation of the embassy opening.

Most countries say Jerusalem’s status should be determined in a final peace settlement, and say moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attend a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attend a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Addressing dignitaries at the Foreign Ministry, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the Israeli prime minister urged others to follow Washington’s lead.

“Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it’s the right thing to do,” Netanyahu said. “Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it advances peace, and that’s because you can’t base peace on a foundation of lies.”

Netanyahu said that “under any peace agreement you could possibly imagine, Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital”.

Jerusalem, which is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, was decorated with roadside flowerbeds in the design of the U.S. flag and posters reading “Trump make Israel great again”.

“Tragically, the U.S. administration has chosen to side with Israel’s exclusivist claims over a city that has for centuries been sacred to all faiths,” the general delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to the United States said.

The U.S. Embassy move “gives life to a religious conflict instead of a dignified peace,” it said in a statement.

Israel said all 86 countries with diplomatic missions in Israel were invited to the event, and 33 confirmed attendance. Among those present were delegates from Guatemala and Paraguay, which will open their own Jerusalem embassies later this month.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

EUROPEAN RIFT

Attending the Foreign Ministry gathering were representatives from Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, but none from western European Union states – suggesting a rift within the bloc over Trump’s Jerusalem move.

No-show nations withheld comment on Sunday.

The EU mission in Israel tweeted on Friday that the bloc would “respect the international consensus on Jerusalem … including on the location of their diplomatic representations until the final status of Jerusalem is resolved”.

Outside Jerusalem’s ancient Damascus Gate, Israelis danced in another celebration on Sunday, marking the capture of the Old City from Arab forces in the 1967 Middle East War.

Hundreds of Israeli rightists entered Al Aqsa mosque compound, an icon of Palestinian nationalism and a vestige of ancient Jewish temples. Witnesses said some prostrated themselves in Jewish prayer, violating religious restrictions at the site and sparking scuffles with Muslim worshippers.

Israeli police said several people were forcibly removed and questioned.

The U.S. Treasury secretary called the embassy relocation “a sign of the enduring friendship and partnership between our two countries” and also referred to the U.S. withdrawal last week from the Iran nuclear deal, a move welcomed by Israel and some U.S. Arab allies in the Gulf but lamented by other world powers.

The Palestinians plan to demonstrate against Monday’s inauguration from Arab districts abutting the Jerusalem site.

On the border with Gaza, Palestinians have also held protests as Israel prepares to mark 70 years since its creation, an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of them were displaced from their homes.

More than 40 Palestinians have been killed in the latest violence.

In a recorded speech released on Sunday, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri criticized Trump’s decision on the embassy, as well as the leaders of Muslim countries he said had sold out the Palestinians. He also said Israel’s Tel Aviv was Muslim land.

The Trump administration has sought to keep the door open to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy by saying the embassy move did not aim to prejudge Jerusalem’s final borders. The U.S. consulate in the city, tasked with handling Palestinian ties, will remain.

Washington has not asked Israel to initiate peace moves in exchange for the embassy relocation, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman told reporters on Friday: “There was no give and take with Israel with regard to this decision.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Warren Strobel in Washington; Editing by Edmund Blair and Daniel Wallis)

Israeli minister threatens Assad over any Iranian attacks from Syria

Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz is seen during a quadrilateral Ministerial Summit in Nicosia, Cyprus December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel could respond to any Iranian attack on it from Syria by toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, an Israeli security cabinet minister said on Monday, hinting that Assad himself may be targeted for assassination.

Israel and Iran have traded blows over Syria since February, stirring concern that major escalation could be looming ahead of next week’s review decision by U.S. President Donald Trump on the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran.

On April 9, an air strike killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members at the Syrian base. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed unspecified retaliation, drawing Israeli counter-threats to broaden attacks on Iranian military assets in Syria.

Sharpening these warnings, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday that Assad may find himself in Israel’s sights.

“If Assad allows Iran to turn Syria into a military vanguard against us, to attack us from Syrian territory, he should know that would be the end of him, the end of his regime,” Steinitz told the Ynet news site.

Asked if that meant Israel might assassinate Assad, Steinitz said: “His blood would be forfeit.” He also appeared to suggest that his remarks did not reflect Israeli government policy, saying: “I’m not talking about any concrete proposal.”

There was no immediate response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office or from Israel’s Defence Ministry.

A Ynet text story had quoted Steinitz as saying explicitly that Israel would kill Assad, but this was not borne out by a video clip of the interview.

Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Russia have been reinforcing Damascus against a 7-year-old Syrian rebellion. The Israelis worry that Iran’s garrison will remain, linking with Hezbollah to form a broad Syrian-Lebanese front against them.

On Sunday, Israeli media carried what they described as an alert by Israel’s intelligence services that Iran was planning a missile salvo against Israeli military bases from within Syria.

Some analysts interpreted the publication as a warning to Iran that its plans were known, lest it try to carry out the missile strike without explicitly claiming responsibility.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Syria, where Moscow wants to see Assad’s rule restored.

“Whoever is interested in Assad’s survival should do the honor of telling Assad to prevent attacks on Israel,” Steinitz said, alluding to Putin.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Hugh Lawson, William Maclean)