Israel vigilantly guarding against Iranian attacks

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz reportedly discussed the “transatlantic smuggling” of military equipment from Iran to its terrorist proxies in the region with US Chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey during the latter’s recent visit. Gantz expressed Israel’s desire to increase international cooperation against the phenomenon, building on earlier discussions he’d had with his European counterparts during a recent NATO summit in Brussels. “This is extremely complicated since it requires intelligence to know which boat is carrying what, as well as new maritime laws to enable navies to board and seize ships,” a senior defense official explained. Meanwhile, an Iranian official made an emotional statement at a memorial service to assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists on Friday, declaring that "the Zionist regime should be punished in a way that it can’t play such games with our country again."

For the latest intelligence report on Iran, click HERE (PDF)

Cold weekend brings heavy snowfall on Hermon
Israel experienced heavy precipitation over the weekend, including 130 centimeters of snow on  the higher peak of Mount Hermon which overloaded the ski resort, forcing it to shut down for a few hours. There was more snow in other parts of the Golan Heights and heavy rains in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as other areas. Despite the overcast weather, the Energy and Water Ministry had sun on its mind on Sunday, adding NIS 10 million for planning up to 2,000 hectares of future solar-power plants in Israel. The effort is part of a larger move in Israel to lower the Jewish State’s dependence on unreliable sources of energy such as Egyptian natural gas and take advantage of the advanced technology available in Israel.

German pastors visit Yad Vashem as Left Party supports Iran and Syria
Even as pastors from several Evangelical denominations in Germany gathered in Jerusalem to lay wreaths at Yad Vashem to mark the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference last week, deputies from the Bundestag accused the Left Party of aligning itself with Iran and Syria against the Jewish State. The accusations came in response to a proposal by a group of Left Party deputies to drop sanctions against the two countries, adding in their proposal yet another denunciation of Israel and the US. The online letter declares that “the USA together with other NATO states and Israel is keeping both countries (Iran and Syria) in a state of permanent alert so as to wear them down.” The Left Party in Germany has a long history of anti-Israel activity.

Abbas urges release of Hamas legislator
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday urged Israel to release Abdel Aziz Dweik, a member of Islamist terror militia Hamas and the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who was detained by the IDF last Thursday. “I’m not convinced that Dweik had committed any crime,” Abbas told a Russian TV station. “Frankly, this is an arbitrary detention and it’s completely illegal.” The PA has also sent a letter to the Israeli government demanding the release of Dweik and 23 other detained Palestinian legislators, most of whom are Hamas members. The letter also demanded the release of 130 other Palestinians who were jailed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords in 1993, along with other prisoners, many of whom have been convicted of murdering Israeli citizens.

Israeli company Billguard saving consumers money
A recently launched Israeli startup company has already helped hundreds of credit card users save over a half million dollars. Called BillGuard, the company’s website allows card users to register on a simple database which then sends a regular report showing users if they are the victim of the scams, bad billing practices, double charges and errors that cost the average American $300 a year. "10 million US cardholders get hit by some sort of fraud every year," explained Yaron Samid, BillGuard CEO, adding that fraud is a $7 billion a year enterprise. "But banks only catch 30 percent of it themselves."

For the Billguard website, click HERE

Christians in Iran and Syria under intense persecution
Various Christian media reports have shown a sharp rise in attacks against churches and pastors in Iran and Syria over the last month. Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who has become a symbol of government brutality against Christians, is on death row and has refused to renounce his faith and convert to Islam in exchange for release. “After the ethnic cleansing of Jews in 1948 from the Arab countries, Islamic fundamentalism is now trying to push away the Christians from the region” Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist with Il Foglio told the Jerusalem Post. “They want to establish a pure Islamic environment and the mass exodus already began under our noses. In Syria Christians will be persecuted after Assad’s eventual fall, since they were the most loyal allies of the Baathist regime. Christians will be slaughtered or squeezed. From Cairo to Damascus, Arab Christian era is near to its end everywhere.”

US Navy; ‘Iran can’t do a damn thing’

The US Navy sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf on Sunday, a day after Iranian officials tried to save face by telling reporters that the presence of the US military in the region was a long established fact and not a threat to all the people living in the region that the Islamic Republic would vigorously resist, as they have repeatedly said in recent months. Warships from Britain and France, as well as the carrier’s usual escorts, accompanied the Lincoln, with no resistance whatsoever from Iranian forces. "US warships and military forces have been in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region for many years and their decision in relation to the dispatch of a new warship is not a new issue and it should be interpreted as part of their permanent presence," Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Deputy Commander Hossein Salami meekly admitted to the official IRNA news agency on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the White House and several other western governments issued statements reiterating their willingness to engage in negotiations with Iran over its renegade nuclear program, even as French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters on Friday that Iran is pursuing a "senseless race for a nuclear bomb." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast retorted that Sarkozy was "looking for a pretext to put pressure on the Iranian nation" and added that any sensible observer could see that his country’s nuclear program is "transparent" and in "cooperation" with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Elsewhere, even China has joined the international chorus urging Iran to resume talks on the nuclear issue to avoid military escalation.

"Let me share two of my convictions with you," Sarkozy told a group of visiting diplomats in Paris. "The first is that a military intervention would not solve the problem but it would unleash war and chaos in the Middle East and maybe, alas, even more than that. All must be done to avoid a military intervention."

Also on Friday, speaking during an appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle declared that "the European Union will put into place a new and very substantial round of sanctions this coming Monday [January 23]," adding that this would "forcefully make the point that Iran's behavior on the nuclear issue is unacceptable and a danger to world peace."

"We all are seeking clarity about the meaning behind Iran's public statements that they are willing to engage, but we have to see a seriousness and sincerity of purpose coming from them," agreed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Also on Friday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement in Brussels saying that a diplomatic solution remains open to Iran.

Assad regime angrily rejects Arab League ‘interference’

The regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad angrily rejected an Arab League proposal on Monday that would have seen Assad step down and be replaced by his deputy, declaring the idea to be "flagrant interference" in Syria’s “internal affairs.” The plan was hammered out during an Arab League meeting on Sunday in Cairo. Despite the regime’s rejection, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who has taken the most aggressive stance towards Assad since the outbreak of the revolt against him early in 2011, told reporters after the meeting that the League would forward the plan to the UN Security Council and ask for its endorsement. Also on Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced that it would withdraw its observers from Syria, declaring that the Arab League monitoring mission, which was renewed last Thursday, had failed.

In related news, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran admitted on Sunday that the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah, a proxy of the IRGC, had been sent to Syria to protect Iranian assets in the country. The admission was widely interpreted as a sign that Teheran believes Assad is in serious trouble, as key areas of Syria, including neighborhoods in Damascus, have recently slipped from government control, taken over by various rebel elements including the Moslem Brotherhood and terrorist groups with links to Al Qaida and other factions.

The IRGC official also declared that Israel is preparing to invade Syria through the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, but that Russia and China had pledged forces to defend Syria against any outside intervention. Russia also signed a deal in December to supply Assad with 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 Mitten fighter planes.

Meanwhile, opposition groups reported that several dozen more people were killed in Syria over the weekend, adding to the nearly 7,500 variously reported casualties since the revolt began last March.

Dempsey visits Israel amid regional tensions

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff visited IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on Friday morning as a guest of IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, following an informal dinner the previous evening with the generals’ wives. Dempsey had a full schedule, meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Although many topics were no doubt discussed during the meetings, Iran was widely believed to be at the top of the list, as recent public statements have revealed a sharp disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem on the best way to confront the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program. Dempsey’s trip was seen by many observers as an effort to reassure Israel as well as extract a promise not to attack Iran without coordinating with the US. Dempsey will also visit the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial Museum before departing Israel in the early evening.

Netanyahu meets with Righteous gentile in Holland
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his highly successful trip to Holland by meeting with several senior government officials on Thursday, as well as visiting a local synagogue and meeting with Dutch Righteous of the Nations Prof. Johan van Hulst, who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust. Netanyahu presented van Hulst with a Bible and told him;  "It is said that whoever saves a single life it as if he saved the whole world, and you saved hundreds.  On behalf of the Jewish People and all of humanity, I would like to thank you."  Van Hulst thanked the Prime Minister for the Bible, adding that he often studied it. Netanyahu replied, "I work six days a week and my Sabbath joy is to study the Bible."

Iranian crackdown intensifies ahead of elections
Iranian security forces have recently engaged in a fierce crackdown on journalists, including popular blogger Parastou Dokouhaki, who was arrested on January 16 and sent to the infamous Evin prison on the charge of “acting against Iran's national security” which is routinely leveled against political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in the Islamic republic. Several other well known journalists were rounded up in subsequent days, along with prominent intellectuals and activists. "Any type of activities that deals with informing others, can be one of the reason for the arrest -- in some cases [it appears] that there has been no reason for the arrest," Reza Moini of Reporters Without Borders, told  Radio Free Europe.

Finnish air chief visits Israel
The longstanding friendship between Israel and Finland was reaffirmed this week when Lt. Gen. Jarmo Lindberg, commander of the Finnish Air Force, arrived with a delegation from his country to visit the Ramat David airbase. Gen. Lindberg received detailed briefings and joined a pilot from the base for a flight in an F-16. “This visit is very important to us," said Ramat David base commander, Col. Nir. "The spotlight on our capabilities is beneficial for the nation, because it exposes the challenges we face while revealing the Israeli Air Force’s impressive capabilities.”

UK museum rejects call to boycott Israel
In a stinging rebuke to efforts to isolate Israel, the UK’s Natural History Museum in West London on Thursday rejected a demand by a group of scientists to terminate its cooperation with Ahava, the world famous Israeli skin-care products manufacturer. The demand was published in an open letter in Tuesday’s Independent newspaper. Prof. Ian Owens, the museum’s director of science, firmly declared that the museum will disregard any boycott calls. “We work within the legal and policy boundaries established by politicians and policy makers, and would not participate in any academic or educational boycotts that could restrict academic freedom,” he said.

Hamas parliamentarian arrested
The IDF on Thursday arrested senior Hamas official, Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian Authority parliament, on suspicion of involvement with terrorist groups on Thursday. The incident follows a meeting Hamas chief Khaled Mishaal had with the Swiss Middle East envoy in Cairo late on Wednesday as part of efforts to normalize relations with European governments. The Hamas delegation stressed "the importance of Europe being open to the movement and the need to end the bias against one Palestinian side in favour of the other", according to a Hamas spokesman.

Israel continues to help Palestinians despite politics
Despite political tensions that at times threaten to boil over, cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in the field of medicine continues to advance. Nearly 115,000 Palestinian patients were treated at Israeli hospitals in 2011, and over 100 Palestinian doctors interned at Israeli hospitals. "Every year more patients are sent to Israeli hospitals," said Civil Administration Health Coordinator, Mrs. Dalia Bassa. "We hope to train Palestinian doctors and improve Palestinian medicine, strengthening cooperation. Health is a separate issue, Israeli and Palestinian doctors are friends, making medicine a bridge for peace." In related news, the IDF reported on Frieday that during the month of December, 4,373 trucks carrying 139,678 tons of goods including food, medicine, construction material, clothing and other goods entered the Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

For a report on all the supplies Israel sends into Gaza every month, click HERE (PDF)

Iran helping Syria avoid oil sanctions

Syria’s Oil Minister Sufian Allaw admitted during a press conference on Thursday that the Assad regime has lost more than $2 billion in revenues since September 1 as a result of European and US bans on importing Syrian oil, adding that "yhe oil embargo has caused a drop in production of 150,000 barrels, or $15 million, a day." The admission came even as reports surfaced that Iran is assisting the Assad regime in evading the sanctions, by taking Syrian crude to Iran and mixing it in with Iranian shipments, then funneling the profits back to Damascus after taking a small cut. The reports, which first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, have been confirmed by the US Treasury department. The US and EU have also accused Iran of violating a UN weapons embargo by sending armaments and ammunition to Assad in order to assist his brutal crackdown on protests against his regime.

In related news, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao lashed out at critics of his country’s energy trade with Iran on Thursday. "China has normal trading relations with Iran, but will not bargain away its principles,” he told reporters in Qatar, where he is on an official state visit. “We support the UN resolutions related to the Iranian nuclear issue. I believe that China is not the only country to buy oil from Iran... Legitimate trade has to be protected if global economic chaos is to be avoided. China firmly opposes the development and possession of nuclear weapons by Iran, and calls for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East."

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters in Turkey on Thursday that “we want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region. I am calling to all countries in the region, please don’t let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position.”

He added, in reference to recent proposals by the Obama Administration for negotiations with his country that “Mr Obama sent a letter to Iranian officials, but America has to make clear that it has good intentions and should express that it’s ready for talks without conditions. Out in the open they show their muscles but behind the curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk. America has to pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that America this time is serious and ready.”

Western officials have often said that Iran wants to use a demand for talks “without conditions” as a stalling tactic while refusing to address its renegade nuclear program.

Amano; ‘My responsibility to alarm the world’ about Iran

Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a statement on Thursday that it was his duty to warn the world about suspected Iranian activities that point to plans to develop atomic weapons, setting the ground rules ahead of talks between Iran and the IAEA scheduled for Jan 29-31. "What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons," Amano told the Financial Times Deutschland in an article published on Thursday. "We want to check over everything that could have a military dimension. It is my responsibility to alarm the world. The more pieces (of information), the clearer the pattern becomes." Amano added his dismissal of Iranian accusation that his agency had anything to do with the recent assassination of an Iranian scientist. "We did not publish his name. I did not know him," Amano said about the Jan 11 killing of Dr. Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in Tehran.

Elsewhere, the EU agreed on Thursday to the imposition of sanctions on Iran's central bank, freezing assets potentially used to finance its nuclear drive, but stopped short of endorsing a complete embargo on oil. One diplomat who was in the meetings told AFP that efforts to impose an embargo will continue, but fragile economies like Greece and Italy, who depend heavily on imports of Iranian oil, were demanding guarantees “that all is done to protect them."

Finally, the US Navy rescued yet another stricken Iranian fishing boat on Thursday in the third such incident in the last two weeks.

Hezbollah arming heavily from Syrian stocks

The Jerusalem Post reported on Thursday that the IDF has received intelligence that the Iranian backed Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah, which controls Lebanon, has taken advantage of the chaos in neighboring Syria to acquire stocks of highly sophisticated military equipment, including highly accurate air-defense and long-range surface-to-surface missiles. IDF chief of the general staff, Lt. General Benny Gantz warned of the proliferation of advanced weapons to terrorist groups during his address at the NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday. “Only through joint work combining tough and soft power can we deter and in the long term overcome these radical elements,” Gantz said.  “The initiative needs to come earlier by exhausting all of the available means to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Meanwhile, the tempo of training for the IDF has increased dramatically in recent months, as was seen on Tuesday when the IDF paratroopers carried out a brigade-level parachute jump, the first time such a massive exercise has been conducted in 15 years. "We are restoring a capability that we once had," Paratroopers Brigade commander Col. Amir Baram told reporters  "We cannot know what will happen in the changing Middle East.”

Turkish media reports Iran planning to attack US
A report in the Turkish media on Wednesday indicates that the Quds Force, a special unit of Iran's Islamic  Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tasked with carrying out terrorist acts in pursuit of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy goals, is preparing to send a team of commandos into Turkey to carry out attacks on various targets, possibly including the US embassy, consulates. The report also states that gunman from the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah might also be used in the operation. The reports cite a wave of anti-Turkish statements by Iranian politicians and generals in recent months, mostly in response to Turkey’s agreement to host a NATO air defense radar and its criticism of Syria’s president Bashar Assad, Iran’s main Arab ally.

Radioactive material stolen in Egypt
Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported on Thursday that radioactive material was stolen from the site of the Dabaa nuclear power plant during violent protests there last week. The site on Egypt's Mediterranean coast is still in the construction phase and protesters demanding it be moved clashed with police, prompting most of the workers to refuse to approach until things had calmed down, creating an opening for the thieves to move in. In related news, Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi held talks with Iraqi Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi on Wednesday, with talks centering on “training Iraqi officers and exchanging military expertise.”

Moslem Brotherhood website filled with anti-Israel hate
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), issued a report Wednesday on Ikhwanonline.com, the Arabic website of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, showing that it is filled with anti- Semitic and anti-Israel content, in contrast to the adamant denial of anti-Semitism by many of the groups spokesmen. The articles cited include denunciations of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Holocaust denial and articles which warn Muslims against the “Jewish character.” In November, Dr. Abd Al-Rahman Al-Bar, a member of the Brotherhood’s General Guide Office and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, wrote on the website that the Palestinian cause “will remain a prime concern for the ummah [the Arab world], until Allah heralds the end of the racist state of occupation, and until the last of the people of our ummah fights the swindling Jews and their armies and delivers the land from their wickedness.”

Israeli-Arab MK praises ‘martyrs’
A video has surfaced on the internet showing Israeli-Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta'al) at a Palestinian Authority event honoring Palestinian’s who have been killed during clashes with Israeli security forces or while carrying out suicide bombings. In the video, Tibi declares, "there is no greater source of praise…in the history of nations and their conflicts, the martyr is the ultimate source of pride." The martyr, he added, is "the symbol of the homeland" and for Palestinians, "there is nothing more praiseworthy than those who die for the homeland."

Growing crisis in Gaza as human rights activist stabbed
Mahmoud Abu Rahma, International Relations director at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, who has published several essays critical of the Islamist terror militia Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, was is reportedly in critical condition after being stabbed multiple times last Friday evening. According to colleagues, it was the second violent attack against him in the last few weeks. “Who will protect the people from the wrongful acts of the resistance and the government?” Abu Rahma asked in a recent article, referring to the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields in their fight against Israel, as well as incidental victims of other violence in the Strip which the Hamas authorities largely ignore. Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft and tanks engaged a group of gunman attempting to place an improvised explosive device near the Gaza Border fence near Beit Hanoun on Wednesday, killing one and critically wounding another, according to Palestinian medical sources.

For the latest intelligence report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, click HERE (PDF)

Growing sentiment in Syria for all-out armed revolt

Activists in Syria are warning that time is running out for either the Arab League or the UN to contain the ongoing violence there, even as voice continue to call for armed intervention by NATO or possibly a coalition of Arab countries led by Qatar. Calls are also increasing inside Syria to abandon all pretense of a peaceful revolution and wage an all out armed revolt against the regime of president Bashar Assad. “If we were given a protective area or a no-fly zone, the regime wouldn’t last longer than 48 hours,” said Amad, a Homs resident and former military conscript who fled to Jordan last week. “How come the international community came to the Libyan people’s rescue but continues to let Syrians die by the dozens?” “The Arab League protocol, the monitoring team, all they have done is support the regime’s attempts to delay real intervention as it continues to kill,” agreed Abu Ahmed, a Homs resident who lost two brothers in the violence. “If this massacre continues through the spring, Homs will be bled dry.”

The comments reflected a widespread sentiment among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, who have largely given up hope of being saved by any outside force and resigned themselves to the fact that if they ever want to go home they must do the work of removing Assad themselves. Still, there are voices in the opposition warning that talk of a civil war plays into Assad’s hands, and will only lead to the wholesale destruction of Syria, since the regime retains the backing of Iran, as well as regional terrorist groups.

“The use of force will not only lead to internal violence, but will tear Syria apart piece by piece,” warned Haytham Manaa, human rights activists and president of the Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. “People must realize that the greatest threat that faces the popular revolution comes from within.”

Despite such warnings, largely from individuals and groups who have spent much of the last decades in exile and are thus easily dismissed by young Syrians, support is growing for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a growing band of army deserters and others based in southern Turkey who have earned a reputation among displaced Syrians as “guardians of the revolution.”

“We want to maintain the revolution as a peaceful revolution,” FSA leader Col. Riyadh Al Asaad told The Jordan Times in a phone interview from Turkey. “But when the only language the regime understands is force, sometimes you must use force to ensure protection.”

“We support the Free Syrian Army’s role in protecting civilians, rather than using force against the regime, and we believe they will fulfill their role,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council’s executive office.

“We do not want anarchy. We want an organized, disciplined army supported by international forces on the ground, protecting the Syrian people,” another opposition leader said.

But despite what anyone wants, Syria appears to be slipping out of control.

“People are tired of living in fear. If you want to go out to buy bread in Homs you need to bring a gun for protection,” said Salem Homsi, a 20-year-old university student. “After months of going hungry, people are deciding to reach for a gun. If the international community will not help free the Syrian people, the Syrian people are prepared to free themselves.”

Netanyahu in Holland, warns of danger from Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Holland on Wednesday, where he met with Dutch lawmakers  and identified Iran’s renegade nuclear program as “the issue that most concerns Israel” and said that the Netherlands and Israel “stand together in opposing Iran’s feverish pursuit of nuclear weapons while declaring its intention to wipe Israel off the map.” He added that “nuclear arms in Iran are a threat to Israel, the region and the world. Sanctions should be applied to Iran’s central bank and its oil exports – and they should be applied now. I want to thank the Netherlands for its support for strong sanctions on Iran.”

Meanwhile, the White House was refusing to confirm on Wednesday that US President Barack Obama wrote to Iranian leaders expressing a readiness to talk, after reports leaked out of Teheran that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had dismissed a letter from Obama as containing “nothing new.” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that it was in Iran’s best interests to engage major powers in discussions about its nuclear work. "If the Iranians are serious about restarting talks, then they need to respond to that letter," Carney said. "That is the channel by which...the restarting of those talks would take place."

For a closer look at Iran’s quest for atomic weapons, click HERE

Elsewhere, US Defense Secretary Leon Panneta told reporters on Wednesday that the US  is “fully prepared” for any confrontation with Iran over the strategic Strait of Hormuz, but hopes it won’t be necessary.

“We obviously always continue to make preparations to be prepared for any contingency, but we are not making any special steps ... because we’re fully prepared to deal with that situation now,” Panetta said. “We have always maintained a very strong presence in that region. We have a Navy fleet located there. We have a military presence in that region ... to make very clear that we were going to do everything possible to help secure the peace in that part of the world.”

“Our goal has always been to make very clear that we would hope that any differences that we have, any concerns we have can be peacefully resolved and done through international laws and international rules,” he continued. “We abide by those international laws and international rules. We would hope that Iran would do the same. We have channels in which we deal with the Iranians, and we continue to use those channels.”

On the same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a conflict would be a “catastrophe” and went on to explain that “I have no doubt in the fact that it will only add fuel to the fire of the still-simmering Sunni-Shiite conflict. And I do not know where the subsequent chain reaction will end. There will be large flows of refugees from Iran, including to Azerbaijan, and from Azerbaijan to Russia. ... This will not be a walk in the park.

“Additional unilateral sanctions against Iran have nothing to do with a desire to ensure the regime’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation,” Lavrov continued. “It is seriously aimed at suffocating the Iranian economy and the well being of its people, probably in the hope of inciting discontent.”

On Tuesday, Prince Turki Al Faisal, former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia, told a Gulf security conference in Bahrain that his country will use "all available options" to defend itself.

"Any threat to our interests or security will force us to use all available options to defend our interests, and national and regional security," Prince Faisal said in remarks carried by Al Arabiya news channel. "The mounting escalation and persistent tensions might end up in an adventure with unpredictable consequences or in an unwanted military confrontation."

"Iran must not fuel this conflict and must not threaten us when we commit to international decisions," Faisal continued. "It must neutralize the security of Strait of Hormuz and that of the world energy supply. But Iran, "our partner in achieving the objective of security across the region, based on peaceful foundations, has chosen a different policy that constantly undermines regional security and provokes foreign interventions, which it claims it is trying to get rid of."

Palestinian terrorist factions look to merge

Sources from the Palestinian Islamist terror militia Hamas and the even more violent Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group have announced that they are in negotiations to merge into one faction. "An in-depth dialogue has actually begun, both internally and externally, with the aim of uniting," PIJ spokesman Daud Shihab told AFP, adding that previous attempts to merge the groups have failed but that the current effort is being conducted at the highest levels of leadership in the two groups, including the leaders being held in Israeli jails. He concluded by saying that a merger is "in the interests of both the Palestinian cause and the future of the Palestinian liberation movement, particularly in light of the Arab Spring." The talks have caused a stir among observers of Palestinian politics, which are still in flux due to the ongoing efforts of Hamas to form a unity government with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, despite warnings from Israel and the West that such a move would mean the end of cooperation and financial support.

Iran denies violating Syria weapons embargo
Iran has denied charges by France that it is violating a UN weapons embargo on Syria, which were prompted by detailed briefings to the UN Security Council by a panel of experts on arms trafficing. "Unfortunately we often see political positions by officials from some European countries, this time by France, that are baseless and not backed by proof," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday, ignoring extensive evidence of his country’s illegal activities which has been provided by a wide variety of sources including government intelligence agencies, NGOs and the UN. In related news, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the proposed dispatch of Arab forces to Syria, instead requesting international military intervention under the auspices of the UN. Citing the Arab League’s hapless incompetence, FSA leader Colonel Riad Asaad declared “unless these Arab forces are organized by the UN Security Council and supported by NATO air power, their presence would only serve the interests of the regime and not the Syrian people.”

Israeli products gain international recognition
Israel won recognition in two areas on Tuesday when a government issued coin was named coin of the year by Krause Publications, the leading US publisher of numismatics periodicals, and the Israeli designed Any.DO app was voted best Android app of 2011 by Techcrunch. The coin, a two-shekel commemorative coin depicting the prophet Jonah and the whale, beat out 94 other coins, with competition organizers declaring the design’s “simplicity speaks volumes and invokes a little bit of wonder.” It is the 16th commemorative coin in the Biblical Art series issues by the Bank of Israel. The Any.DO app, which allows Android users to organize their daily activities, was downloaded over half a million times within a month of being launched late in 2011.

China growing its influence in the Middle East
Chinese oil giant Sinopec signed a "strategic" energy cooperation agreement with the UAE's state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) on Tuesday, marking yet another advance by a major Chinese entity into the Middle East and another potential supplier of energy to China which will compete with Iran. The agreement came just two days after a major deal with Saudi Aramco to build an oil refinery in the Red Sea city of Yanbu that will process some 400,000 barrels per day. Also on Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Amman, Jordan, delivered a large donation to the National Goodwill Campaign, a charity run by the royal family.

IDF finds unique way to mark Arbor Day
With Arbor Day approaching, the IDF has thrown itself into the traditional Jewish hobby of planting trees with an eye towards helping to preserve the environment as well as making a unique contribution to the defense of the country. “The idea is simple,” a senior officer from the IDF’s Gaza Division explained. “Trees are planted around Israeli towns and communities that are close to the border, making it more difficult for terrorists to accurately target homes and residents.” A project to plant several thousand strategically placed trees began in mid-2011 in partnership with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) – Jewish National Fund. The next step in the project, planting trees along main roads near the border, is scheduled to begin next month.


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