‘No surrender,’ say Syrian rebels as talks with Russia collapse

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad gesture in the town of Busra Al-Harir, northeast of Daraa, Syria in this handout released on June 28, 2018. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
Updated 30 June 2018
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‘No surrender,’ say Syrian rebels as talks with Russia collapse

  • Negotiations between the Russians and Syrian rebels to end days of violence in the country’s south collapsed on Saturday after opposition forces rejected Moscow’s call for surrender.
  • Shortly after talks were abandoned, airstrikes intensified on rebel-held parts of Daraa province that border Jordan.

JEDDAH: Negotiations between the Russians and Syrian rebels to end days of violence in the country’s south collapsed on Saturday after opposition forces rejected Moscow’s call for surrender, a rebel spokesman and a war monitor said.

Shortly after talks were abandoned, airstrikes intensified on rebel-held parts of Daraa province that border Jordan.

The negotiations on Saturday came hard on the heels of a similar initiative on Friday, when the Russians tabled their demands to halt the Moscow-backed regime’s offensive on rebel-held areas along the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“The talks collapsed because the Russians insisted on their conditions and wanted us to surrender,” said rebel spokesman Ibrahim Jabawi. “The (rebel) negotiating team refused to surrender or accept the Russian conditions.”

Meanwhile, a string of Syrian rebel-held towns and villages accepted regime rule as insurgent lines in parts of the southwest collapsed under intense bombardment. More than 160,000 people fled the raids, according to the UN.

The southwest was an early hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad and defeat there would leave rebels with just one remaining stronghold — the area around Idlib province bordering Turkey in the northwest.

State television broadcast footage from the towns of Dael and Al-Ghariya Al-Gharbiya, where people were shown chanting pro-Assad slogans. A war monitor and a military media unit run by the terrorist Shiite group Hezbollah said numerous other towns and villages had agreed to accept Assad’s rule.

Opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi said: “It is not Assad’s army that has seized any town, it is the Iranian militias and mercenaries brought from Afghanistan and other countries.”

The “criminal air power of Russia” is bolstering the regime’s advances on the ground, he said. 

Al-Aridi said the announcements are not coming from the Syrian state television. “It is the Lebanese Shiite and Iran-supported channel with all sorts of lies and persistent attempts to frustrate people and put them in the state of a psychological disarray,” he said.

Small demonstrations shown on television featured civilians who were frightened to death and forced into hoisting Assad flags and chanting pro-Assad slogans under pressure from mukhabrat (intelligence), he said. “Among them were those who have been all along with the regime due to fear or some sort of affiliation.”

Al-Aridi said: “The Russian tactic is ‘shock and awe.’ They are hitting civilian targets, including hospitals. They are terrorizing Syrians. Any loss of life among civilians is an emotive issue and that affects our fighters. The Russians want to demoralize them.” 

He accused the Russians of announcing short cease-fires that they breached themselves. “They lied when they blamed the fighters for that. Their purpose is to create psychological pressure and chaos.

“By spreading stories of surrender and pro-Assad protests, the Russians want to create the impression among civilians that everybody has abandoned them. Their propaganda works to make the fighters feel defeated. They also project the fighters as outlaws and an obstacle to peace in order to destroy their reputation.” 

Al-Aridi said the opposition is doing its best to help civilians. “We are in contact with the international community to stop the violence.”

Bahia Al-Mardini, a human rights campaigner and founder of Syrian House, an organization that helps Syrians in the UK, told Arab News: “All we see from the regime and Assad’s media is propaganda. It is not a surprise that when (the Russians and the regime) target civilians and hospitals — that people try to gain time and talk about negotiations in the hope of a positive international move.” 

Al-Mardini, who fled persecution by Assad, said: “Syrians will not accept the criminal regime. The more they kill, the more Syrians will refuse Assad and hope for democracy in the future.”

She said: “We need the support of the international community. All the Syrian people ask the same question: Why is the UN not doing more to stop Assad and stop the support for Assad? Syrians are asking why the UN does not do more to stop him killing civilians.”

Meanwhile, fierce battles continued around Daraa city, near the Jordan border, where the army was trying to capture a disused air base, rebels said, while the northwestern chunk of Daraa province remains in opposition hands.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air raids continued as displaced people headed to the border areas in search of safety, while the UN warned of a humanitarian catastrophe. 


Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

Updated 30 min 25 sec ago
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Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

  • The gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to be widening
  • American rabbinical students plant olive trees in a Palestinian village

AT-TUWANI, West Bank: Young American rabbinical students are doing more than visiting holy sites, learning Hebrew and poring over religious texts during their year abroad in Israel.
In a stark departure from past programs focused on strengthening ties with Israel and Judaism, the new crop of rabbinical students is reaching out to the Palestinians. The change reflects a divide between Israeli and American Jews that appears to be widening.
On a recent winter morning, Tyler Dratch, a 26-year-old rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, was among some two dozen Jewish students planting olive trees in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the southern West Bank. The only Jews that locals typically see are either Israeli soldiers or ultranationalist settlers.
“Before coming here and doing this, I couldn’t speak intelligently about Israel,” Dratch said. “We’re saying that we can take the same religion settlers use to commit violence in order to commit justice, to make peace.”
Dratch, not wanting to be mistaken for a settler, covered his Jewish skullcap with a baseball cap. He followed the group down a rocky slope to see marks that villagers say settlers left last month: “Death to Arabs” and “Revenge” spray-painted in Hebrew on boulders and several uprooted olive trees, their stems severed from clumps of dirt.
This year’s student program also includes a tour of the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, a visit to an Israeli military court that prosecutes Palestinians and a meeting with an activist from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.
The program is run by “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” a US-based network of rabbis and cantors.
Most of T’ruah’s membership, and all students in the Israel program, are affiliated with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements — liberal streams of Judaism that represent the majority of American Jews. These movements are marginalized in Israel, where rabbis from the stricter Orthodox stream dominate religious life.
The T’ruah program, now in its seventh year, is meant to supplement students’ standard curricular fare: Hebrew courses, religious text study, field trips and introductions to Jewish Israeli society. Though the program is optional, T’ruah says some 70 percent of the visiting American rabbinical students from the liberal branches of Judaism choose to participate.
The year-long program is split into one semester, focused on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and another, on alleged human rights abuses inside Israel.
T’ruah claims its West Bank encounters aren’t one-off acts of community service, but experiences meant to be carried home and disseminated to future congregations.
“We want to propel them to action, so they invite their future rabbinates to work toward ending the occupation,” said Rabbi Ian Chesir-Teran, T’ruah’s rabbinic educator in Israel.
The group began its trip in the most Jewish of ways, a discussion about the weekly Torah portion that turned into a spirited debate about the Ten Commandments.
“The Torah says don’t covet your neighbor’s fields, and we’re going to a Palestinian village whose private land has been confiscated for the sake of covetous Jews building settlements,” Chesir-Teran said.
As their bus trundled through the terraced hills south of Hebron, students listened to a local activist’s condensed history of the combustible West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
As part of interim peace deals in the 1990s, the West Bank was carved up into autonomous and semi-autonomous Palestinian areas, along with a section called Area C that remains under exclusive Israeli control.
The destinations of the day — the Palestinian villages of At-Tuwani and Ar-Rakkes — sit in Area C, also home to around 450,000 Israeli settlers. Palestinians seek all of the West Bank as the heartland of a hoped-for independent state.
The group was guided by villagers to their olive trees — an age-old Palestinian symbol and a more recent casualty of the struggle for land with Israeli settlers.
Israeli security officials reported a dramatic spike last year in settler violence against Palestinians.
Yishai Fleisher, a settler spokesman, blamed the attacks on the “atmosphere of tension” in the West Bank. “We’re against vigilantism, unequivocally,” he said.
As Israeli soldiers watched from the hilltop, Palestinians and Jews dug their fingers into the crumbling soil, setting down roots where holes torn out of the field hinted at recent vandalism.
Dratch said he came of age in Pennsylvania during the violent years of the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. “My religious education was steeped in fear of Palestinians,” he said.
But in college, Dratch’s ideas about Israel changed. Dratch says he still supports Israel, while opposing its policies in the West Bank. “I realized I could be Zionist without turning my back on my neighbor, on Palestinians,” he said.
With hundreds of young American rabbis sharing such sentiments, some in Israel find the trend alarming.
“I worry about a passion for social justice becoming co-opted by far-left politics among future American Jewish leaders,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research center in Jerusalem.
“Future rabbis are marginalizing themselves from the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews,” he added.
As Israel heads toward elections in April, opinion polls point to another victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious, nationalist allies.
In the US, meanwhile, surveys show American Jews, particularly the younger generation, holding far more dovish views toward Palestinians and religious pluralism. Netanyahu’s close friendship with President Donald Trump has further alienated many American Jews, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Two weeks after visiting At-Tuwani, the group received disheartening news: half of the 50 trees they’d planted had been uprooted, apparently by settlers. The students scrambled to make plans to replant.
Dratch said that while his time in Israel has provided him with plenty of reasons to despair, he still harbors hope for change.
“We’ll be sharing these stories to give people a full picture of what it means to care about this place,” he said.