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First Test for IDF's Kochavi: 10,000 Pro-Iran Troops Massing to Cross into Syria from Iraq, Report: the US Won't Intervene if Israel Attacks in Iraq

By, DEBKAfile, Reuters & the Jerusalem Post This would be the largest pro-Iranian military increment into Syria since the Hizbullah intervention of 2014 – and Tehran's rejoinder to Israel's warnings. The 10,000 troops massed on the Iraqi border belong to the large Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) aka the Hashd Al-Shaabi militia, DEBKAfile's military and intelligence sources report. The troops have been ordered to stand there by Iran's Middle East commander, Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Their commander is one of his deputies, Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi of Iranian descent. This Iraqi force awaits a green light to cross into northern Syria from President Bashar Assad. It is intended to be Tehran's response to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's "advice" to Iran to "hurry up and get out of Syria" ahead of the IDF's action. Soleimani has responded by "hurrying up" to top up Iran's forces in Syria before Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has had three days to settle into his new job as IDF's Chief of Staff. DEBKAfile's sources note that permission for this large force to cross the border and link up with the Syrian government's army would present Kochavi with his first major test. Tehran is anxious to find out whether Israel – or the US – means to actively halt this major troop buildup by bombing it from the air. If the PMU fighters are not stopped as soon as they set foot on Syrian soil, the Iranians will have won this round and feel able to safely augment the PMU force of 10,000 fighters by pouring thousands more into Syria. The United States has told Iraq that it will not intervene if Israel attacks Iranian targets in the country, Russia Today's Arabic-language news service reported on Thursday. The network, which cited an unidentified Iraqi government official, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conveyed the message during his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in Baghdad last week. Russia Today also reported that al-Mahdi expressed concern about such a move and warned of its grave consequences. In September, the Reuters news agency said that Iran had moved missiles to Iraq. The report quoted three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources, and two Western intelligence sources, all of whom confirmed the transfer of short-range missiles to Iraq throughout several months. Some of the officials added that Iran is helping its allies produce their missiles as well. Iran rejected the Reuters report, claiming it aimed to harm Iran's ties with its neighbors. "Such false and ridiculous news have no purpose other than affecting Iran's foreign relations, especially with its neighbors," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said, adding, "This news is solely aimed at creating fears in the countries of the region." Iraq's Foreign Ministry said it was "astonished" over the Reuters report, saying it was "without evidence" while stopping short of denying its contents. Iran has come under fire for its test-firing ballistic missiles in recent years. The United States has several times imposed sanctions on Iran over the tests, saying its missile tests violate UN resolutions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stressed that Iran will continue to produce missiles for its defense and does not consider that a violation of international agreements.

Israeli Mystery Man Who Could Challenge Netanyahu Speaks, Briefly

By Agence France-Presse

A former Israeli military chief seen as a potential challenger to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has generated buzz without even campaigning, but on Thursday he took a step towards entering the fray. Benny Gantz opened his social media campaign with a 17-second video clip that pledged "something different" for Israel, but which shed no light on his political beliefs -- the source of intense speculation ahead of April 9 elections. He launched himself into politics in December with opinion polls suggesting his new party, Israel Resilience, could win a significant number of seats. But he has yet to make any detailed policy statement or reveal who its other members will be. The widely respected former military chief of staff is thought to hold centrist political beliefs, but he has kept his cards close to the vest. A recent blitz by the ruling Likud that aimed to paint Benny Gantz as left-wing seems to have failed, as a Walla poll found that only 23% of voters see the former IDF Chief of Staff as a leftist. Likely due to Gantz's refusal to grant any media interviews, the poll also found that 26% of the public said they did not know Gantz's political orientation. Among Likud voters, 39% defined Gantz as a centrist while another 48% said that they did not view Gantz as a left-winger. Another 22% of Likud members said Gantz is right-wing. His wry video statement Thursday on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram played to his so-far taciturn image, in marked contrast to the long-winded speeches of political rivals. It began with him introducing his election slogan, "Israel before Everything. Join me, and we'll set out on a new road because we need something different and we'll do something different," he said, concluding with a smile: "I think I spoke too much." His first public comments since registering his party came on Monday when he addressed Israeli Druze leaders outside his home. He reassured them that he would work to amend a contentious law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Israeli Druze, who unlike Israeli Muslim or Christian Arabs are subject to the same compulsory military service as Jews, have been at the forefront of protest against the law, which also makes Hebrew the official language and downgrades the status of Arabic. His statement Monday prompted the Israeli right, including Netanyahu's Likud Netanyahu, to brand him a leftist. Gantz's campaign put out a statement in response saying: "They shot our Druze brothers in the back. We will heal them." Gantz, 59, was military chief of staff from 2011-15, during two wars in the Gaza Strip. According to official party registration documents, Israel Resilience aims at "strengthening the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel." Opinion polls so far show Netanyahu winning the April elections, but the long-serving premier is facing potential corruption charges that could shake up the campaign. Polls published Wednesday evening by state-owned radio and TV broadcaster Kan and by the private Hadashot news company showed that Israel Resilience could win 13 seats in the 120-member parliament, with Likud scoring 31 or 32 seats. The two polls put Gantz's party in either second or third place behind Likud. The Kan poll said Gantz was favored as a potential premier by 31% of respondents, second to Netanyahu, who scored 42%. Some political commentators have suggested that Gantz could join another former armed forces chief, Moshe Yaalon, in a center-right alliance. Yaalon served as Netanyahu's defense minister from 2013 to 2016 but has since become a critic of the premier. He unveiled his own party, Telem, in December.

Egypt, Israel Plan Undersea Gas Pipeline amid Growing Spirit of Cooperation

By VOA News

Egypt and Israel are in talks to build an undersea natural gas pipeline between the two countries to allow Israel to export increasing quantities of gas to Europe, via its Arab neighbor. Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Italy have agreed to increase cooperation as more of the recently developed undersea gas production comes online. Egypt already has a pipeline to Europe, and exports from its large al Zohr undersea field — along with production by its neighbors — are expected to help parts of southern Europe with its gas needs. Egypt's liquefied natural gas plants are increasing production as more natural gas from its large offshore gas fields comes online. Egypt's neighbors, including Israel, also have been increasing cooperation to take advantage of and export undersea natural gas production, which has been slowly ramped up since discoveries of the past several years. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was invited to Egypt's regional natural gas conference Tuesday to discuss further cooperation in exporting Israel's own undersea gas reserves to Europe. Officials from more than a half-dozen countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Greece, Cyprus and Italy attended. Steinitz was the first Israeli minister to be invited to visit Cairo by the Egyptian government since the revolution in 2011, and he lauded the increasing cooperation between the two governments. He says the development of natural gas in Israel, Egypt and Cyprus has become a motor for geo-strategic and political cooperation across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. He adds that Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Greece and Italy will cooperate to develop natural resources for the benefit of the region. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, whose nation's own extensive offshore natural gas reserves have proven to be a boon to both the Egyptian treasury and to its own consumers of natural gas, told a recent gathering that Egypt is working hard to develop the resource. He says that God has blessed Egypt with self-sufficiency and even more than that in natural gas reserves, and it is only to increase the distribution network across the country that the government has raised prices. Political sociologist Said Sadek told VOA that Egypt is becoming a regional hub for gas exports and that its neighbors, like Israel, are making use of the fact it has existing undersea pipelines to Europe in order to increase their own exports. "Already Egypt has long pipelines since long ago and [they are] ready. If other countries want to build a pipeline, it is expensive and it will take a long time and they don't have enough gas for sustainable exports," said Sadek. "Egypt has one of the biggest gas fields in the Mediterranean, al Zohr, and that's why Egypt has this potential that they will be exporting and they will take from smaller fields that the neighbors have and buy them, re-export them and make a [profit]."

Sadek says he does not think gas exports to Europe from Egypt, Israel or Cyprus will affect the dependence of Western Europe on Russian natural gas, however, since most of the Mediterranean gas will be going to southern and central Europe. He also says cooperation between Israel and Egypt will not stir up any serious opposition inside the country. Paul Sullivan, who is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, is not so sure. He told VOA "there are still many in Egypt who are anti-Israel [and that] the pipeline would be under risk." He stresses that the region is "fraught with angst and anger," and he argues that ordinary Egyptians "need to understand how this might help them and not just the super-rich and well-connected."

Thousands of Israeli Parents Opting for 'Dumb' Phones for Kids

By Israel Hayom

In recent months, more and more parents of elementary school-age children are taking steps to battle smartphone madness by giving their children basic mobile devices not equipped with internet access. A special project called Let them Grow Up in Peace is urging parents to hold off buying their children smartphones for as long as possible. The project is offering group purchases of "dumb" phones that can be used only to make and receive calls and text messages. The project was launched a year and a half ago by two mothers, Naama Giladi and Sigal Rubin Shoham. Shoham said, "Before kids age seven or eight go onto social media, they need to develop basic social skills. I think that part of the reason why parents buy [them] smartphones is that they don't want their child to be left out, so the moment it becomes a community project, that prevents the dilemma. We've already brought more than 200 elementary schools nationwide into the project. They're starting to promote the initiative," she said, adding that parents who object to the idea of restricting their children to "dumb" phones argue that the project is "standing in the way of progress. "But the opposite is true – we are on the vanguard. We know how to realize that age eight is too early [for a smartphone]. The addiction to social media can be put off for two or three years without losing anything regarding technology," she said. The project's Facebook page is full of pictures from schools that have already ushered in the "dumb phone" change, as well as requests for advice from parents who want their children's schools on board. Prof. Yair Amichai-Hamburger, head of the Research Center for Internet Psychology at IDC's Sammy Ofer School of Communications, explained that "Studies show that it is very preferable for babies not to be exposed to screens like smartphones and tablets until the age of two, because there is a lot of concern that it could interfere with their cognitive development and concentration. Among children who use smartphones and are active on social media, we sadly see a wide range of possible harm, ranging from chemical changes in the brain along with a chemical activity that indicates addiction, to harm to their self-esteem."

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