Civilian situation in Syria’s east Ghouta ‘spiraling out of control,’ warns UN aid official

The humanitarian situation of civilians in Syria’s east Ghouta is spiraling out of control, a senior United Nation aid official has warned in the wake of escalating conflict which resulted in more than 40 civilian deaths on Monday alone.   

UN News 1969-12-31 20:00:00

UN chief extends condolences to people, Government of Iran in wake of tragic plane crash

Deeply saddened to learn of the tragic airplane accident today near Yasuj, Iran, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has extended his heartfelt condolences to the country’s people and Government.

UN development agency remains committed to support Lebanon, says agency head

Reverberations of the Syrian conflict – which has now lasted longer than World War II – are being felt throughout the region, including in Lebanon, which shares most of its land border with the war-torn country, and hosts hundreds of thousands of its refugees, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned on Friday.

Florida high school student claims Nikolas Cruz warned him before attack: ‘You’d better get out of here’

A freshman student at?Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School claims that gunman?Nikolas Cruz gave him a chilling warning before launching one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history on Wednesday.?

Chris McKenna told the Sun Sentinel?that he came face-to-face with Cruz in the school's?second floor hallway?in the moments before the shooting, which claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty members.

McKenna, 15, told the outlet that he was on his way to the bathroom when he ran into Cruz, who was in the process of loading his weapon, an AR-15 rifle.

"You'd better get out of here," Cruz said, according to McKenna. "Things are gonna start getting messy."

McKenna says he briefly froze upon hearing the comments and then fled the building, alerting?assistant football coach Aaron Feis?on his way out.?

"I told him I saw a gun," McKenna said. "He said 'let me go check it out.' Then he drove me to the baseball field, dropped me off, and went back to the school. That's the last I saw of him."

Feis was confirmed dead in Wednesday's attack after he reportedly lept in front of a female student to protect her from gunfire.

Column One: Trump, Netanyahu and the post-Oslo era

If the peace process ends, Netanyahu will present his own plan.


US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)

You wouldn’t know it from the news, but this week, the probability that Israel will apply its law to areas of Judea and Samaria rose significantly.

This week was first time that either Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or the Trump administration ever addressed the possibility of Israel applying its law to areas of Judea and Samaria.

Lawmakers from Bayit Yehudi and the Likud have prepared separate bills on the issue. MK Bezalel Smotrich’s Bayit Yehudi party bill calls for Israel to apply its law to Area C – the parts of Judea and Samaria located outside Palestinian population centers.

The second bill, proposed by Likud MK Yoav Kisch, calls for Israel to apply its law to the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. The Likud’s central committee unanimously passed a resolution in December calling for the government to implement such a policy.

On Monday, Netanyahu met with the Likud Knesset faction to convince the lawmakers to postpone consideration of Kisch’s bill. Netanyahu gave two justifications for his position.

First, he said that he wants to discuss the issue with the Trump administration. Netanyahu explained, “On the topic of applying sovereignty [in Judea and Samaria], I can tell you that for some time now I have been discussing the issue with the Americans.”

Netanyahu continued, “Our relationship with them is a strategic asset to the State of Israel and the settlement enterprise.”

Netanyahu’s statement was very general. The media chose to interpret it to mean that Netanyahu was lobbying the Trump administration to support the application of Israeli law to parts of Judea and Samaria.

But that is not at all what he said. He said that he is discussing the issue with the Americans and that he wants to maintain the good relations Israel now enjoys with the Trump administration because those relations are a strategic asset for Israel.

The second guiding principle Netanyahu said inform his position on applying Israeli law to parts of Judea and Samaria contradicts the notion that he wants the Trump administration to adopt the cause of applying Israeli law in Judea and Samaria as an American position.

Netanyahu said he opposes Kisch’s bill because he believes that applying Israeli law to the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria is “an historic undertaking.”

Netanyahu said, “This has to be a government initiative and not a private one, because this is a historic undertaking.”

Before considering the implications of Netanyahu’s second guiding principle, we need to examine carefully consider the US position on the issue.

Netanyahu’s general statement to the Likud Knesset faction provoked a media maelstrom. The outcry compelled the Trump administration to respond. The manner it responded to the media storm was instructive.

The administration’s first response came at the conclusion of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo. Tillerson was in Egypt on the first leg of his regional tour to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Given his hosts’ opposition to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December, the State Department was certainly not interested in having the US embroiled in Israeli discussions about applying Israel law to areas in Judea and Samaria.

And yet, in his media appearance, Tillerson ignored the issue. He told reporters, “The Trump administration remains committed to achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

As the media storm in Israel and the region over Netanyahu’s remarks expanded with Palestinian condemnations of his statement, a senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem clarified Netanyahu’s remarks to reporters.

The senior diplomatic source explained that Netanyahu “has not presented the United States specific proposals for annexation, and the US has not expressed its agreement with any such proposal. Israel updated the US on the varying proposals that have been raised that the Knesset. The US expressed its clear position that it wishes to advance President Trump’s peace plan. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position is that if the Palestinians maintain their refusal to negotiate, Israel will present its own alternative.”

This statement is the most revealing statement any senior official has made on the issue of applying Israeli law to areas of Judea and Samaria. The senior official told us several things we didn’t know.

First, Netanyahu plans to wait to present any new Israeli position on Judea and Samaria until after Trump presents his peace plan.

Second, Netanyahu will postpone consideration of any plan to present an independent Israeli initiative if the Palestinians agree to return to the negotiating table.

Finally, like Tillerson, the senior Israeli official did not say that the US opposes Israeli plans to apply Israeli law to parts of Judea and Samaria.

Later on Monday, in response to virulent criticisms of the US following Netanyahu’s remarks, the Trump administration stiffened its tone.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel issued what the media presented as a harsh rebuke of Netanyahu’s statement before the Likud Knesset faction members.

“Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false, Raffel said.

“The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian initiative.”

Did Raffel’s statement tell us anything new? Not really.

The senior diplomatic source said Netanyahu has updated the administration on the various proposals for applying Israeli law to areas of Judea and Samaria. He didn’t say Netanyahu held discussions with administration officials about the various proposals. And the senior diplomatic source said that the US remains committed to advancing Trump’s peace plan.

In other words, there is no inherent contradiction between Netanyahu’s statement at the Likud faction meeting, the statement by the Israeli senior diplomatic source, Tillerson’s statement and Raffel’s statement. None of them said that Israel is interested in having the US support applying Israeli law to Judea and Samaria. None of them said the Trump administration opposes applying Israeli law to Judea and Samaria.

They all said the Trump administration is committed to advancing its own peace plan....

US and Israel Stand United Against Iranian Aggression: Ambassador Danon

"For the wicked and the deceitful open their mouth against me; they speak to me with lying tongue."
(Psalm 109:2)


Danny Danon, Israeli Ambassador to the UN, speaks at the “Build Bridges, Not Boycotts” conference at the UN in New York. (YouTube)

Respective UN ambassadors Danny Dannon and Nikki Haley express their countries’ powerful alliance as Israel and the US troops face a common enemy in Syria.

“The US & Israel will always stand together in the face of Iran’s aggression and provocations as it attempts to destabilize the region,” Danon wrote on Twitter. “The international community mustn’t stand idly by as the Iranian threat grows rampant.”

Danon made his statement shortly after his US counterpart, Nikki Haley addressed the UN Security Council regarding the developments in Syria. Haley slammed Iran while defending the Israeli downing of an Iranian drone that penetrated?Israeli airspace....

Tillerson to Hariri: Iran’s Influence ‘Unhelpful to Lebanon’s Long-term Future’


US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lebanon's Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri at Grand Serail, Beirut (Feb. 15 2018)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri in talks at the Grand Serail in Beirut on Thursday that Washington supports “a free, democratic Lebanon, free of the influence of others… We know that Lebanese Hezbollah is influenced by Iran. This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon’s long-term future,” he said.

But Hariri didn’t seem to get the message.

The Lebanese prime minister who insists his Future party is so intent on his nation maintaining independence from Hezbollah, instead blamed Israel for difficulties along the country’s southern border. Hariri claimed during a joint presser with Tillerson after their talks, “Lebanon is committed to Security Council Resolution 1701 and 2373. We want to move to a state of permanent ceasefire, but Israel’s daily violation of our sovereignty hinders that process, as does Israel’s escalating rhetoric. “This needs to stop,” he said, adding, “Lebanon’s southern border is the calmest border in the Middle East, and I asked Secretary Tillerson to help keep it that way.”

The day before his arrival in Beirut, Tillerson noted in talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II that the United States knows “Hezbollah is part of the ‘political process’ in Lebanon.”

Responding to questions from reporters in Beirut, Tillerson commented, “Lebanon has been under enormous pressure. We are engaging with the governments of both Lebanon and Israel to ensure Lebanon’s southern border remains calm.

“It is unacceptable for a militia like Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government. The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese Armed Forces.”

Tillerson said Hezbollah is “not just a concern for the United States; the people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hezbollah’s actions and its growing arsenal bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon.” Hezbollah’s entanglement in regional conflicts “threatens the security of Lebanon and has destabilizing effects in the region,” he added.

Suspect in fatal Florida school attack is former student with ‘anger’ issues


(Photo: WILFREDO LEE, AP)

PARKLAND, Fla. — The suspected gunman in Wednesday's fatal attack at a Florida high school is a former student who teachers and former classmates?say had an angry disposition that led to him being expelled and flagged as a danger on school grounds.

At one point, the former student had been listed by school administrators as a potential threat — particularly if he was carrying a backpack on campus.

The 19-year-old suspect was?identified as Nikolas Cruz by the Broward County Sheriff's?office. Cruz, whose first name also appears as Nicolas in some official records,?was arrested Wednesday a short distance away from the school near a home, after leaving 17 dead in the afternoon attack.

The official said the killer used a military-style rifle, and that students apparently recognized the suspect during the assault. He was also equipped with a gas mask and smoke grenades, police said.

Cruz had been expelled and did not graduate from the school, according to police. He had previously attracted so much concern that school administrators banned him from campus, said Jim Gard, a math teacher at?Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Cruz’s mother Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia on Nov. 1 neighbors, friends and family members said, according to The?Sun Sentinel. Lynda Cruz and her husband, who died of a heart attack several years ago, adopted Nikolas and his biological brother, Zachary, after the couple moved from Long Island in New York to Broward County.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel confirmed that Cruz was a student at the school at one time, but was not at the time of the shooting.?

Israel said the shooter was outside and inside the school at points during the attack.

Cruz' former classmates say he had a hot temper and a history of making dark, gun-related jokes.?

As friends hiding from the shooter sent photos and videos over Snapchat to 19-year-old Jillian Davis, she started to recognize the man her friends described.

The shooter she saw in photos was Cruz, she said, a classmate who participated in Davis’s ninth grade JROTC group.

?She recalled him as withdrawn and having "a?lot of anger management issues."

"Finding out it was him makes a lot of sense now,” Davis said.

Cruz would joke about shooting people or shooting up establishments, she added. At the time, she thought it was normal, violent teenage jokes. Cruz would also talk a lot about having guns and using them in different situations, she said.

Joe Melita, former head of the Professional Standards & Special Investigative Unit at Broward County Public Schools, said students at Douglas High appeared to be evacuating classes after someone pulled the fire alarm when shots rang out and students were told to shelter in place.

There may also have been smoke bombs involved, school district security officials told him. He said several district security officials knew of the shooter. “They were familiar with who the young man was,” said Melita, now a visiting professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

Gard said the former student had been aggressive toward other students.

“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” Gard told the Miami Herald. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”

More: 'Multiple fatalities': At least 14 victims in Florida school shooting

More: Florida high school shooting: Here's what we know

More: Florida school shooting is the 6th to injure students this year

Gard, who taught the student,?said he believes the school administration sent out an email warning teachers that the student had made threats against others in the past, the Herald reported.

Another student interviewed on the scene by local television station Channel 7 said the student had guns at home.

Gard described chaos at the scene of the shooting Wednesday. “Six kids ran back into my room, and I locked the door, turned out the lights and had the kids go to the back of the room,” Gard said.

“Within a minute a code red was announced,” Gard added, referring to the school code for a lockdown.

“I told the kids to hang in there, it may still be a drill.”

In Calcutta, tens of thousands at pro-Israel rally by far-right Hindu movement

Marking 10 years of the Hindu Samhati movement, demonstration includes violent dust-up with media, arrests of protesters, and mass conversion of 14-member Muslim family

Holding pro-Israel banners aloft, some 70,000 people assembled in the center of Calcutta on Wednesday to mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of the far-right, anti-Muslim Hindu Samhati nationalist movement.

The rally, which organizers are claiming is the “largest pro-Israel rally in history,” eclipses a similar demonstration held in 2014, which saw a reported crowd of 20,000.

Wednesday’s rally included speeches by nationalist figures such as Maj. Gen. Gagandeep Bakshi, a decorated career soldier expert in counter-terrorism, from a stage in the heart of one of the poorest areas of India. The event culminated in a celebratory presentation to the crowd of a family of 14 former Muslims who converted to Hinduism.

70,000 Hindus in India rally for Israel under Hindu Samhati Banner in Kolkata, February 14, 2018 (Vijeta Uniyal)

Banner slogans included, “Jerusalem: Eternal Capital of Israel,” “India-Israel: Ancient Cultures, Modern Miracles,” and the inclusive “India-Israel Represents Honoring Women’s rights, Freedom of Speech, Respect for Human Rights, Liberty and Equality for All, Democracy.”

According to a press release, Hindu Samhati founder Tapan Ghosh passed a resolution “by voice vote” urging the Indian government to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Ghosh told the large Hindu nationalist crowd, “Moving our embassy to Jerusalem will honor Israel’s long-standing commitment to peace and strengthen the bond between our two ancient peoples.”

70,000 Hindus in India rally for Israel under Hindu Samhati Banner in Kolkata, February 14, 2018 (Vijeta Uniyal)

Ghosh compared the millennia-long struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland in Israel to the battle Hindus now wage in India, according to the press release. “In West Bengal… Hindus are being attacked by hostile neighbors just as Jews are fighting for their existence in little Israel. This struggle for survival unites Hindus and Jews, apart from the 2,500 years of glorious history that unites both the communities,” according to the release.

The rally ended as violence broke out among Hindu Samhati members and journalists after the on-stage presentation of the family of converts.

70,000 Hindus in India rally for Israel under Hindu Samhati Banner in Kolkata, February 14, 2018 (Vijeta Uniyal)

According to The Indian Express, Hindu Samhati leader Ghosh told the crowd, “Hussain Ali and his wife Moyna Bibi, as well as 12 family members, have been reconverted. Their ancestors were converted, and now we welcome them as Hindus on stage. Earlier we used to do this (conversion) secretly, but now we will do this in public.”

According to The Hindu, when journalists attempted to interview the family, Hindu Samhati supporters attacked and pushed them.

Among the detained or arrested Hindu Samhati members was Ghosh, who was taken for questioning, according to online news site The Hindu.

70,000 Hindus in India rally for Israel under Hindu Samhati Banner in Kolkata, February 14, 2018 (Vijeta Uniyal)

Joint commissioner of Kolkata police Praveen Kumar Tripathi told The Hindustan Times that “Hindu Samhati chief Tapan Ghosh and three other activists have been arrested in the case of assault on media persons in Kolkata on Wednesday evening.”

What is Hindu Samhati and what does it stand for?

Ghosh founded Hindu Samhati in West Bengal after leaving the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) Hindu nationalist movement in 2008. The RSS supported the establishment of Israel in 1948. West Bengal has seen increased Hindu-Muslim tensions in recent years.

According to news source NDTV, “Till recently, the Hindu Samhati was viewed as a fringe group and, politically, largely ignored. But over the last couple of years, it has grown a public profile by being vocal and active during the communal tensions at Bashirhat and earlier at Dhulagarh.”...