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Will Israel's Northern Border Become Hizbullah-Land if Assad Wins?

By The Jerusalem Post. DEBKAfile

Years after Bashar Assad's regime lost southern Syria to rebels and jihadist groups, government forces, backed by Iranian militias and Hizbullah, are pushing deep into a strategically located rebel-held enclave along Israel's northern border.

After seven years of deadly civil war that has involved superpowers and dozens of rebel and jihadist groups, the Syrian regime has regained 70% of the country with the help of Russian air power and Iranian-backed foot soldiers.

In a new expansion of Iran's influence in war-torn Syria, Syrian army forces supported by Iranian-backed militias have been pushing deeper into the last rebel-held enclave near a strategic border area with Israel and Lebanon.

The army and Shiite forces advanced east and south of the Sunni rebel-held bastion of Beit Jin, backed by some of the heaviest aerial bombing and artillery shelling since a major assault began over two months ago to seize the area, rebels said.

The Syrian army said it had encircled the village of Mughr al Meer, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, as troops moved toward Beit Jin amid fierce clashes. A Western intelligence source confirmed rebel reports that Iranian-backed militias, including the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbullah, are playing a major role in the ongoing battles.

"The Iranian-backed militias are trying to consolidate their sphere of influence all the way from southwest of Damascus to the Israeli border," said Suhaib al Ruhail, an official from the Liwa al Furqan rebel group, which operates in the area.

The offensive on Beit Jin – near the rebel-held city of Quneitra along the Israeli border – has Israel concerned. It is part of Assad's push to reassert control of the remaining rebel-held areas of the countryside west of Damascus.

Iranian entrenchment on the Golan Heights, an area of key strategic importance, has concerned Israel since the start of the Syrian conflict. But according to Lt. Col. (res.) Mordechai Kedar, a researcher at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Israel can tolerate Assad's presence on the Golan – so long as Iran and Hizbullah steer clear.

Israel "cannot tolerate the Iranians and its tentacles, like Hizbullah, to establish themselves on the Golan," he said. "The question isn't what the Syrian regime is doing, the question is, is it a cover for Iran and Hizbullah to create `Hizbullah-land' on Israel's border."

Seven years after Syria's disintegration began, the day-after scenario for the country is not black and white. With the endgame in Syria looking to favor Assad, Israel fears the Alawite dictator's victory will strengthen Iran's foothold in the Golan and see the deployment of hostile Shi'ite militias, including Hizbullah forces, along its border.

"The situation today is that Syria is breathing from the lungs of other countries," Kedar said. "The full name of Syria is `the Syrian Arab Republic.' But is it really still Arab and Syrian, or is it sustained by Russia, Turkey and Iran?"

From Israel's point of view, he said, out of all the possible victors in Syria – Assad, Iran or the jihadists – Assad is the lesser of three evils. Israeli defense officials have repeatedly voiced concern over the growing Iranian presence on its border and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hizbullah – from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria – stressing that both are red lines for the Jewish state.

Israel has carried out at least 100 strikes targeting Hizbullah fighters, weapons convoys and infrastructure in Syria since January 2013, preventing what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says would be "game-changing weaponry" from falling into the hands of the guerrilla organization.

Israel is believed to be behind dozens of more air strikes, including one on an alleged Iranian military base in al-Kiswah, outside Damascus, earlier this month. Officials have also warned that the IDF would not allow Iran to establish a military foothold within 40 kilometers of the border, and "the Iranians understand this," Kedar told The Jerusalem Post.

Reuters reported that Hizbullah and other Iranian-backed militias were playing a role in the Beit Jin offensive. But according to Aymenn al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, there is currently no major Hizbullah or Iranian presence.

"It's possible Hizbullah is playing a role, though the information is scant. But this is still not the same as leading the offensive," he said, adding that the "main forces leading it are the 4th and 7th divisions of the Syrian army with local militia support."

Tamimi said the main foreign militias playing a role in the offensive were the Iraqi "Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein" and the "Death Battalion," embedded in 4th division of the Syrian army. Nonetheless, the offensive is "led by Syrian army divisions and is a logical extension of the government's campaign to regain the West Damascus countryside.

"I do think the Iranians want a long-term presence in southern Syria. But I don't think every move by the government to reclaim an area in southern Syria should be seen through that lens," he said.

Israel has been lobbying both the United States and Russia to deny Iran, Hizbullah and other Shiite militias any permanent bases in Syria, and to keep them away from the Golan Heights.

The southwest of Syria is part of the de-escalation zone in southern Syria agreed upon last July between Russia and Washington. The agreement was the first such understanding between the two powers. The area has not seen Russian bombing, unlike other cease-fire areas in Syria.

Diplomatic sources said several thousand Shiite fighters, who have been amassing from outside Quneitra province in the Syrian Golan Heights, are pitted against hundreds of Islamist and mainstream Free Syria Army rebels who are closing ranks under the banner of the "Union of Fighters of Jabal al Sheikh" group, which comprises mainly local fighters.

With the Syrian army and Iranian-backed offensive widening, the rebels have called on youths to enlist, and mosque imams in Beit Jin called on people to take up arms and fight the army.

Rebels still have a sizeable presence in central and southern Quneitra. Western diplomatic sources have said the crushing of the Sunni rebel presence in areas they have controlled since 2013 will allow Hizbullah to launch another secure arms supply line from its border in southern Lebanon into Syria.

DEBKAfile's military sources estimate that the only way the rebels can escape the Syrian-Hizbullah crunch is by going on the offensive against the Druze village of Hader to break open an escape route to the south. But the obstacle there is a pledge which Israel gave Israeli Druze leaders in November not to allow rebel forces to attack Hader. The pledge was given in the wake of violent Druze riots on the Golan and threats from Israeli Druze, some of whom hold high military ranks in the IDF, to cross the border and defend Hader themselves.

This Israeli pledge to its Druze citizens is the strongest card the Syrian, Hizbullah and Iranian forces are wielding to compel the Hayat al-Tahrir al-Sham to surrender. After that, the three forces would move in and take up positions in the captured the Beit Jin enclave, and gain a jumping-off pad against Israel and its Hermon outpost. The way this affair is playing out makes naught of Israel's government and military leaders' solemn vow to keep Iran and Hizbullah far from its borders.

Report: Israel Held Secret Talks with Cuba

By IsraelNationalNews.com

Israel held secret talks with Cuba in recent years with the aim of establishing relations with the Communist state, according to a report by Israel's Channel 10. According to the report, Israel reached out to Cuba several months after the Obama Administration restored American relations with Cuba in 2014, 50 years after the two nations cut ties.

Israel decided to examine the possibility of establishing ties with Cuba and approached Canada with a request to mediate between the parties. Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold approved the plan. Israel reportedly sought to focus on the issue of tourism, a topic of importance to both nations.

After several months in which the two countries messaged one another, an invitation arrived from Havana, and Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for Latin America, Modi Efraim, was secretly sent in mid-2016 to hold talks with Cuban officials. According to the report, Israel asked that Cuba stop leading anti-Israel initiatives at the UN, and Cuba on its part asked Israel to stop supporting the American embargo.

Israeli officials said the talks were positive, but that the idea was shelved after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the subsequent deterioration in relations between Cuba and the US.

Ynet To Shut Down English Website

By IsraelNationalNews.com

Yediot Aharonot is shutting down its English Ynet web site after two years of operation and will fire most of its 11 workers, a company official told The Marker business website. Ynet's English editor Jeff Barak said that the staff will stop working at the end of this month following a company decision to concentrate on the Hebrew-speaking market.

Yediot Aharonot is Israel's largest Hebrew newspaper. Ma'ariv, the second-largest Hebrew newspaper, also launched an English website, and then shut it down after one year because of lack of revenues.

The remaining popular daily news web sites are Arutz 7 (IsraelNN.com), the left-wing Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post, which has gone through recent ownership changes, lawsuits, and budget cuts.


Jewish Trove Hidden from Nazis, Soviets Give Up Its Secrets

By AFP

For decades, a confessional in a church in Lithuania's capital Vilnius kept a precious secret: a trove of documents offering an unprecedented glimpse into Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust. The cache, with documents dating back to the mid-18th century, includes religious texts, Yiddish literature and poetry, testimonies about pogroms as well as autobiographies and photographs.

"The diversity of material is breathtaking," David Fishman, professor of Jewish History at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, told AFP via telephone, describing the discovery as a "total surprise. It's almost like you could reconstruct Jewish life before the Holocaust based on these materials because there is no aspect and no region and no period that is missing."

The trove was discovered earlier this year during a clean out of the church that was used as a book repository during Soviet times. The documents, together with a larger cache found in Vilnius nearly three decades ago, are "the most significant discovery for Jewish history since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s," Fishman said.

An 1857 agreement between the Jewish water carriers in Vilnius and the city's famous Ramailes rabbinic Talmudic academy, or yeshiva, offers a telling insight into everyday life 160 years ago.

In exchange for copies of the Bible and Talmud, the yeshiva agreed to let the water carriers use a room for prayers on the Sabbath and holidays free of charge. A ledger of the patients of Zemach Shabad, a famous Jewish doctor and social and political activist whose monument stands in central Vilnius, was also among the documents seen by AFP.

Known as the "Jerusalem of the North" before World War II, Vilnius -- Vilna in Hebrew and Vilne in Yiddish -- was a hub of Jewish cultural and religious life and home to hundreds of Jewish social, religious, cultural and scientific organizations.

Established in 1925, the YIVO Yiddish Scientific Institute was among the most important. Co-founded by Shabad, it documented and studied Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Its New York branch was founded in 1926, and became the institute's headquarters in 1940 as Nazi Germany invaded Eastern Europe. After occupying Vilnius in 1941, the Nazis destroyed the Jewish community and plundered its cultural wealth.

Jewish poets and intellectuals were coerced by the Nazis in the Vilnius ghetto into selecting Yiddish and Hebrew books and documents for a planned institute in Germany about the people they had slated for annihilation.

But that was not the end of the threat. After the war, a Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, intervened to save those documents that had survived the Nazis from the country's new Soviet occupiers, who were bent on destroying them as part of dictator Joseph Stalin's anti-Jewish purges.

Ulpis deftly hid some of the manuscripts "under a pile of Soviet journals -- that's why no one bothered to look, that's why they weren't discovered sooner," Renaldas Gudauskas, director of Lithuania's National Library told AFP.

There they remained untouched for decades in the confessional in St. George's Church that the Soviets used as a book repository after the war. It was only earlier this year when any remaining papers were being cleared out to hand the building back to the Catholic Church that the pile of Jewish documents was stumbled upon.

They were transferred to Lithuania's newly renovated national library in Vilnius which already holds a larger archive of Jewish documents discovered in the capital after the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly three decades ago. The entire collection includes roughly 170,000 pages, Lara Lempertiene, head of the national library's Judaica Research Center, told AFP.

The New York-based YIVO Institute has spearheaded a bid to put the collection online along with Jewish documents from Vilnius that the US Army found in defeated Germany in 1946 and sent to New York.

Launched two years ago, the cyberspace history project aims to put the overall total of more than one million documents online in a digital archive highlighting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust. Archives that were once scattered on both sides of the Atlantic "are now conceptually, intellectually and physically being reunited," says Lempertiene.

For Simonas Gurevicius, one of the city's few Jews who still speaks Yiddish, the newly discovered archive proves that Hitler and Stalin ultimately failed to wipe out his language and the civilization built around it. "The star of the Northern Jerusalem nearly burnt out, but its light is still shining," Gurevicius told AFP.

Some 195,000 Lithuanian Jews perished under the 1941-44 Nazi German occupation. Today, there are around 3,000 Jews living in the NATO and EU country of 2.8 million people.


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