Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Somali Lawmaker Shot Dead In Drive-By Shooting

Saado Ali Warsame, a Somali member of parliament is seen during a parliament session to endorse Somali prime minister in Mogadishu, Somalia. Gunmen killed a Somali lawmaker, Wednesday, July 23, 2014, in a drive-by shooting in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a police official said. Lawmaker Saado Ali Warsame, who also was a popular singer of Somali folk music, was shot dead by gunmen who pulled up near her car as she was being driven to a hotel, said Somali police Capt. Mohamed Hussein.

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Gunmen killed a Somali lawmaker in a drive-by shooting Wednesday in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a police official said.
Saado Ali Warsame, who also was a popular singer of Somali folk music, was shot dead by gunmen who pulled up near her car as she was being driven to a hotel, said Somali police Capt. Mohamed Hussein. The Somali Islamic extremist militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack on Warsame, one of few women in Somalia's parliament and the first female legislator killed by the group.
She is the fourth lawmaker killed this year in militant attacks that increasingly target members of Somalia's parliament, which has emerged as a pillar of democracy in the Horn of Africa nation. This is the second drive-by shooting of a lawmaker since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which scores of civilians and government troops have been killed in militant attacks.
Mohamed Ali, a Somali lawmaker who knew Warsame, described her as "courageous and patriotic," saying she was the victim of terrorists who "want to cripple the country." Warsame's driver was also killed in the attack which happened in Mogadishu's Hodan district, considered to be one of the safest places in the seaside city because of heavy security presence, according to Hussein.
Al-Shabab, which has links with al-Qaida, has previously carried out attacks against government officials, African Union peacekeepers and United Nations staff in a deadly campaign of suicide bombings and gun attacks. Militant attacks have continued despite al-Shabab being ousted from its bases in Mogadishu in 2011.

US Pushes For Truces As Gaza Battle Rages

An Israeli soldier prays near the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town, sending Palestinian residents fleeing, as the U.S. secretary of state presses ahead with top-gear efforts to end the conflict that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and tens of Israelis.

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as the top U.S. diplomat reported progress in efforts to broker a truce in a war that has so far killed at least 684 Palestinians and 31 Israelis.
But neither side appeared close to backing down, after Palestinian rocket fire led several international airlines to cancel flights to Tel Aviv and Israeli troops clashed with Hamas fighters near the Gaza town of Khan Younis, forcing dozens of families to flee.
Israel has insisted it must substantially curb the military capabilities of the Islamic militant group Hamas -- a position that appears to have gained support within the U.S. administration -- while Hamas has demanded the lifting of a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the impoverished coastal territory.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban following a Hamas rocket that hit near the airport the day before, reflecting his determination to achieve a cease-fire agreement between the warring sides.
He was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after earlier meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon. But U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce.
In Jerusalem, Kerry said negotiations toward a Gaza cease-fire agreement were making some progress, describing unspecified steps forward in the negotiations as he met for a second time this week with Ban.
"We certainly have made steps forward," Kerry said, adding, "There's still work to be done." White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken meanwhile said Hamas must be denied the ability to "rain down rockets on Israeli civilians."
"One of the results, one would hope, of a cease-fire would be some form of demilitarization so that this doesn't continue, doesn't repeat itself," Blinken said in an interview with NPR. "That needs to be the end result."
On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, according to a Palestinian health official.
The Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate some 250 people from the area, which has been pummeled by air strikes and tank shelling since early Wednesday. Hundreds of residents of eastern Khan Younis were seen fleeing their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby U.N. schools.
"The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us," said Aziza Msabah, a resident of Khan Younis. "They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us." Meanwhile, a foreign worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. She did not immediately know the worker's nationality.
Israel also reported that two more of its soldiers have died in the conflict, bringing the military's death toll to 29, without providing further details. Two Israeli civilians have been killed in 15 days of fighting.
The Israeli military did not respond to Associated Press inquiries as to why such heavy fighting was concentrated in Khan Younis, saying only it was conducting operations throughout the Gaza Strip. The fighting was centered on an agricultural area, which Israel has claimed is a site for Hamas tunnels going under the border.
Further north, in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City, which saw intense fighting earlier this week, an airstrike demolished a home, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdul Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather Hassan and his nephew Osama.
The Palestinians say Israel is randomly deploying a wide array of modern weaponry against Gaza's 1.7 million people, inflicting a heavy civilian death toll and leveling entire buildings. By mid-day Wednesday, the Palestinian death toll stood at 684, mostly civilians, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
Israel says it began the Gaza operation to halt Hamas rocket fire into Israel — more than 2,100 have been fired since the conflict erupted — and to destroy a network of cross-border tunnels, some of which have been used to stage attacks inside Israel.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights meanwhile warned both sides against targeting civilians and said war crimes may have been committed. Navi Pillay noted an Israeli drone strike that killed three children and wounded two others while they were playing on the roof of their home. She also referenced Israeli fire that struck seven children playing on Gaza beach, killing four from the same family.
"These are just a few examples where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes," Pillay told the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council, saying such incidents should be investigated.
As the Gaza death toll mounted, a 34-year-old Palestinian man was killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank City of Bethlehem, doctors said, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively quiet.
On Tuesday, U.S. and European airlines canceled flights to Israel after a Hamas rocket hit near the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Germany's Lufthansa airline extended its cancellations for another 24 hours because of lingering safety concerns.
Israeli officials have slammed the cancelations as an overreaction that rewards Hamas, and Israel's own El Al airline is still flying in and out of Ben-Gurion. Even before the flight cancelations, the conflict was taking its toll on the Israeli economy. Military and finance ministry officials have said that the first 10 days of the operation had direct costs of about 2 billion shekels — about $585 million.
Enav reported from Jerusalem.

Russia Fed Conspiracy Theories On Ukraine Crash

A combination of images of Russian nationwide weekend dailies' front pages on downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Moscow Russia, some of them reading "298 Victims of Someone Else's War," and "Kick From Behind." An assassination attempt against Russian President Vladimir Putin. A desperate ploy to draw the West into the battle for Ukraine’s east. A botched mission to commit mass-murder against Russian citizens. Russian news consumers are getting plenty of explanations for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people. While they vary wildly in content, they share one thing in common: All point the finger at Ukraine. None admits the possibility that Russia may bear responsibility.

MOSCOW (AP) — An assassination attempt against Russian President Vladimir Putin. A desperate ploy to draw the West into the battle for Ukraine's east. A botched mission to commit mass murder against Russian citizens.
Russian news consumers are getting plenty of explanations for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people. While they vary wildly in content, all point the finger at Ukraine. None admits the possibility that Russia may bear responsibility.
The story of the airline tragedy that is unfolding for Russians differs starkly from the one that people are following in the West. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told American TV viewers that rebels shot down the plane with Russian weaponry, Russians were being fed a diet of scenarios about forces in Ukraine conspiring to commit an atrocity in the skies.
Yekaterina Andreyeva, one of Russia's most famous TV anchors, delved into one theory hours after news of the crash broke: Putin, traveling home from Brazil, passed along the same flight path as the Malaysian passenger jet less than one hour before it was hit — suggesting an assassination attempt.
"The presidential plane and the Malaysian Boeing crossed paths at the exact point and at the same flight level," said Andreyeva. "The shape of the plane and the length are absolutely similar, and their color would appear almost identical at such a distance."
By Friday morning, the assassination theory was replaced by other scenarios. One focused on the Buk missile launcher that Ukraine says brought down the plane. State-owned Rossiya TV pinned blame on Kiev by saying the rebels did not own one, while Ukraine recently deployed a Buk launcher to the area. An Associated Press journalist saw a Buk launcher — which rebels have bragged about owning in social media — in rebel-held territory near the crash site hours before the plane was brought down.
Rossiya further said that the red, white, and blue of the Malaysia Airlines logo "resembles the Russian tricolor" — hinting at a Ukrainian attempt to blow up a Russian passenger jet. Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia's most-read tabloid, took another tack. It claimed that Ukrainian air traffic controllers redirected the Malaysia Airlines plane to fly directly over the conflict zone, publishing pictures from flight-tracking websites that appeared to show fluctuations in the plane's route.
On Tuesday, the paper appeared to suggest that the jetliner was shot down by a Ukrainian military plane with American help: "A Ukrainian attack plane and an American spy satellite were following the fallen Boeing," a report claimed.
Russia media have suggested that Ukrainian authorities orchestrated the downing to make it look like a rebel attack, in hopes it would be the catalyst for luring Western powers into military intervention.
Nationalist politicians are also heating up the tone in Russian media — and fueling conspiracy theories. "The fact that the plane fell is an American provocation," firebrand member of Parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky told Vesti FM radio station. "They always do everything possible to blame Russia. It's possible that there were corpses that were placed ahead of time in the seats of the plane."
Russian state-controlled television, which is where a majority of Russians get their news, tends to toe the official line and abrupt changes in language on the air can reflect changes in Kremlin strategy. In June, Putin began soft-pedaling his rhetoric on Ukraine after recognizing May 25 presidential elections, in an apparent attempt to stave off Western sanctions.
After the airline tragedy, Putin led the shift to a more aggressive tone. "This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine," Putin said. "And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy."
Outrage has grown in the West over what appears to be a bungled start to the investigation. Rebels allowed a group of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe only a superficial inspection of the crash site on Saturday before firing warning shots when two Ukrainian members of the group attempted to study wreckage.
In Russia, meanwhile, news reports repeat that the rebels have been cooperating with the observers — and blame Kiev for stalling the arrival of international investigators. "Yesterday the OSCE group worked in the field all day at the scene of the plane crash," First Channel's Sunday broadcast began. "So far the Ukrainian authorities do not want to send a group of international specialists to Donetsk."

Israel, Hamas Battle Over Public Opinion Online

Protestors gather in front of the White House in Washington during a demonstration against Israel's military attacks in the Gaza Strip. Beyond the boom of Israeli airstrikes and the stream of rockets fired from Gaza, Israel and Hamas are also battling to control the message emanating from this latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration. Using videos, Twitter, text messages, leaflets and phone calls, both sides have attempted to direct the tone of the fighting for their own public, their opponent’s population and for a global audience.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Beyond the boom of Israeli airstrikes and the stream of rockets fired from Gaza, Israel and Hamas are also battling to control the message emanating from this latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration.
Using videos, Twitter, text messages, leaflets and phone calls, both sides have attempted to direct the tone of the fighting — for their own public, their opponent's population and for a global audience. Propaganda and psychological warfare are nothing new in battle, but technology and social media have exponentially increased the ability of each side to penetrate their intended audiences.
Each side has sought to tip the moral scale in its favor with an international audience. Israel has tried to make its case that it is defending its citizens from unprovoked attacks but taking steps to avoid killing civilians on the other side. Hamas has appealed to the world by pointing to the high civilian death toll from Israel's onslaught on Gaza.
Israel and Hamas are each addressing the other's populations as well. Israel has pushed the message to Palestinians in Gaza that the territory's Hamas rulers are to blame for the bloodshed that's being wreaked. In phone calls that the military makes to Gazans to tell them to evacuate their homes before a strike, the recorded script in Arabic also tells them that Hamas is using them as human shields.
Hamas, in turn, has sent text messages directly to Israelis, warning them that the group will continue firing rockets at them until its demands — like the end of the long-stifling blockade of the tiny Gaza Strip — are met.
"This is a war over public opinion," said Yuval Dror, an expert in digital communications. "It's an inseparable part of battle in the modern age." Israel launched the war on July 8 in response to heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. More than 600 Palestinians and 29 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, which escalated last week with the start of a ground offensive. The war over hearts and minds that has accompanied it has been just as dramatic.
Israel's military has been at the forefront of trying to mold the message. Its spokesperson's office has posted more than 40 videos online since the conflict began, an onslaught of footage aimed at portraying its citizens as under threat from Hamas attacks.
The videos range from raw footage taken from a warplane's cockpit, to high-gloss productions with jazzy graphics. The other main theme in them aims to show Israel is trying not to hit civilians but Hamas is putting them in danger. One picture posted on the military's Twitter feed was a schematic drawing purporting to demonstrate how Hamas tunnels are built intentionally underneath Gazan homes.
In the most sensational offering, Israel released video game-like footage of what the military says is an attempt by Hamas militants to swim from Gaza to Israel to infiltrate and carry out attacks. The video, which has garnered more than a million views on YouTube, shows the suspected militants creeping onto the beach, scampering on sand dunes, and then one by one getting picked off by blasts of Israeli fire. The military says four militants were killed in the incident.
The message was that Hamas is not just relying on rudimentary rockets but is actively trying to attack inside Israel. Hamas quickly countered with its own video, presenting the same message from the other side — apparently trying to intimidate Israelis and show its own population it is striking back against the Israeli pounding of Gaza. Its video, with a suspenseful musical score, shows Hamas navy commandos training. Armed men in full scuba gear are seen weaving through murky green waters, emerging at the water's surface and opening fire.
In other videos, Hamas has sought to boast about its capabilities. Its videos have shown compilations of rockets whizzing toward Israel. Some of its videos are in Hebrew, aiming to intimidate Israelis.
Hamas has sent Israelis personal text messages, warning that they will continue to strike until its conditions for a cease-fire are met, and boasting that "we have forced you to hide in shelters like mice." Hamas warned Israelis on its web site that it would strike Tel Aviv at precisely 9 p.m. in the early days of the fighting. In the end, Tel Avivis fled toward shelters when the sirens went off several minutes past nine and three rockets were intercepted over the city by the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Hamas claims its media campaign has helped unify Gazans behind it and stoke protests against Israel in cities around the world. "We were able to confront their media machine and to win the battle in most cases," said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman.
But there are limits to the effect of media campaigns. There's little sign that Israel's efforts to turn Gazans against Hamas have had any success, with Palestinians unsurprisingly blaming Israel for the shelling demolishing homes, sometimes killing entire families, in pursuit of a Hamas militant target.
Israelis, meanwhile, hardly seem intimidated by Hamas into pushing for an end to the Israeli campaign against the group. Hamas messages in Hebrew have become the butt of Israeli jokes on line, with one Israeli offering grammar tips for a Hebrew tweet on the feed of Hamas' military wing.
And despite attempts to sway world opinion, Israelis know that continuing images of dead civilians will undermine support. "Public opinion has a certain patience limit," said Avital Leibovich, a former Israeli military spokeswoman. "There is a certain point where legitimacy begins to be undermined by difficult images."
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

11 Parents Of Nigeria's Abducted Girls Die

Some of the parents of the kidnapped school girls sit outside a compound during a meeting in Chibok, Nigeria. At least 11 parents of the more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls will never see their daughters again. Since the mass abduction of the schoolgirls by Islamic extremists three months ago, at least 11 of their parents have died and their hometown, Chibok, is under siege from the militants, residents report. Seven fathers of kidnapped girls were among 51 bodies brought to Chibok hospital after an attack on the nearby village of Kautakari this month, said a health worker who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals by the extremists. At least four more parents have died of heart failure, high blood pressure and other illnesses that the community blames on trauma due to the mass abduction 100 days ago, said community leader Pogu Bitrus, who provided their names.

LAGOS, NIGERIA (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — In the three months since Islamic extremists kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, 11 of their parents have died, town residents say.
The town where the girls were kidnapped, Chibok, is cut off by militants, who have been attacking villages in the region. Seven fathers of kidnapped girls were among 51 bodies brought to the Chibok hospital after an attack on the nearby village of Kautakari this month, said a health worker who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals by the extremists.
At least four more parents have died of heart failure, high blood pressure and other illnesses that the community blames on trauma due to the mass abduction 100 days ago, said community leader Pogu Bitrus, who provided their names.
"One father of two of the girls kidnapped just went into a kind of coma and kept repeating the names of his daughters, until life left him," said Bitrus. President Goodluck Jonathan met Tuesday with parents of the 219 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls and some classmates who managed to escape from Islamic extremists. Jonathan pledged to continue working to see the girls "are brought out alive," said his spokesman of the meeting which press were not permitted to attend. The parents showed no emotion after the meeting, but some shook hands with the president.
Chibok, the town where the girls were kidnapped, is cut off because of frequent attacks on the roads that are studded with burned out vehicles. Commercial flights no longer go into the troubled area and the government has halted charter flights.
Through numerous phone calls to Chibok and the surrounding area, The Associated Press has gathered information about the situation in the town where the students were kidnapped from their school. More danger is on the horizon.
Boko Haram is closing in on Chibok, attacking villages ever closer to the town. Villagers who survive the assaults are swarming into the town, swelling its population and straining resources. A food crisis looms, along with shortages of money and fuel, said community leader Bitrus.
On the bright side, some of the young women who escaped are recovering, said a health worker, who insisted on anonymity because he feared reprisals from Boko Haram. Girls who had first refused to discuss their experience, now are talking about it and taking part in therapeutic singing and drawing — a few drew homes, some painted flowers and one young woman drew a picture of a soldier with a gun last week.
Girls who said they would never go back to school now are thinking about how to continue their education, he said. Counseling is being offered to families of those abducted and to some of the 57 students who managed to escape in the first few days, said the health worker. He is among 36 newly trained in grief and rape counseling, under a program funded by USAID.
All the escapees remain deeply concerned about their schoolmates who did not get away. A presidential committee investigating the kidnappings said 219 girls still are missing. But the community says there are more because some parents refused to give the committee their daughters' names, fearing the stigma involved.
Boko Haram filmed a video in which they threatened to sell the students into slavery and as child brides. It also showed a couple of the girls describing their "conversion" from Christianity to Islam.
At least two have died of snake bites, a mediator who was liaising with Boko Haram told AP two months ago. At that time he said at least 20 of the girls were ill — not surprising given that they are probably being held in an area infested with malarial mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and spiders, and relying on unclean water from rivers.
Most of the schoolgirls are still believed to be held in the Sambisa Forest — a wildlife reserve that includes almost impenetrably thick jungle as well as more open savannah. The forest borders on sand dunes marking the edge of the Sahara Desert. Sightings of the girls and their captors have been reported in neighboring Cameroon and Chad.
In Chibok, the town's population is under stress. "There are families that are putting up four and five other families," local leader Bitrus said, adding that food stocks are depleted. Livestock has been looted by Boko Haram so villagers are arriving empty handed. Worst of all, no one is planting though it is the rainy season, he said.
"There is a famine looming," he warned. Chibok and nearby villages are targets because they are enclaves of staunch Christians in predominantly Muslim north Nigeria. The number of soldiers guarding Chibok has increased from 15 to about 200 since the kidnapping but they have done little to increase security in Chibok, said Bitrus. The soldiers often refuse to deploy to villages under attack though there is advance warning 90 percent of the time, he said.
Last month the extremists took control and raised their black flags over two villages within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of Chibok. Last week they ordered residents of another village just 16 kilometers (10 miles) away to clear out, Bitrus said. Every village in the neighboring Damboa area has been attacked and sacked, and all the villages bordering Cameroon have been burned and are deserted, Bitrus said, quoting residents who fled.
The attacks continue despite the fact the military placed the area under a state of emergency in May 2013. Residents feel so abandoned that they appealed this month for the United Nations to send troops to protect them. The U.N. has repeatedly urged Nigeria's government to live up to its international responsibility to protect citizens.
President Goodluck Jonathan insists his government and military are doing everything possible to ensure the girls' release. The Defense Ministry says it knows where they are but fears any military campaign could lead to their deaths.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a new video released this week repeated his demands that Jonathan release detained extremists in exchange for the girls — an offer Jonathan has so far refused. After three months, few Chibok residents believe all the schoolgirls will ever return home.
Associated Press writers Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, Bashir Adigun and Lekan Oyekanmi in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

American Jews, Other 'Lone Soldiers' Serve Israel

Fishbein, a U.S.-born soldier from Los Angeles fighting for the Israel Defense Forces. The two Americans killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip followed in the footsteps of scores of Jews from around the world who have volunteered to fight for Israel. Israel calls them the lone soldiers: They are men and women in the prime of their lives who have left their parents and often comfortable lives behind in places like Sydney, London, Los Angeles and elsewhere to join the Israel Defense Forces, marching in the desert and taking up arms to defend the Jewish state. There are about 2,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the military, said Marina Rozhansky, spokeswoman at the Israel Consul General in Los Angeles.

The two Americans killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip followed in the footsteps of scores of Jews from around the world who have volunteered to fight for Israel.
Israel calls them the lone soldiers: They are men and women in the prime of their lives who have left their parents and often comfortable lives behind in places like Sydney, London, Los Angeles and elsewhere to join the Israel Defense Forces, marching in the desert and taking up arms to defend the Jewish state.
There are about 2,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the military, said Marina Rozhansky, spokeswoman at the Israel Consul General in Los Angeles. Groups for families of lone soldiers have recently started in Los Angeles and other cities, providing a support network as the fighting intensifies.
For Jews who left Israel before the age of 15 or who never lived there, their service is voluntary. For many, it is a calling, a way to get back to their roots and unite the world's Jewish population. Some have dual citizenship. Others speak little to no Hebrew and have only recently been to Israel.
Max Steinberg, 24, who grew up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, joined six months after he visited Israel for the first time on a Birthright Israel trip with his younger brother and sister in June 2012, said Jake Steinberg, who spoke to The Associated Press hours after learning his brother, a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade, was among 13 Israeli soldiers and scores of Palestinians over the weekend who died during the first major ground battle in two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas. The Jewish Journal was first to report Steinberg's death.
"He got there and felt a connection to Israel, saw that as a place he could live and be successful, and he went for it," Jake Steinberg said. Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, the second American killed, was from South Padre Island, Texas, and he felt that same strong connection to the country he had only moved to four years ago.
"Lone soldiers are a kind of star in Israel," according to the Jewish Journal in a report. "For Israeli kids, army service is a rite of passage. But because it is a choice for the young members of the Diaspora who re-direct their own life paths to protect Israel, those enlistees are given a hero's welcome — and a lifetime of Shabbat dinner invitations from their fellow soldiers, who become their surrogate families."
Mike Fishbein, who grew up in Los Angeles, said he felt like he was missing a connection to his Jewish identity in California. He spent a year volunteering and studying in Israel, but that experience only deepened his desire to do more.
"I believe in that country. I believe in the Jewish people and the country's reason to exist, so I thought I can't just go back home to Los Angeles," said Fishbein, who served about two years with the Israel Defense Forces starting in 2009.
After Fishbein enlisted, he spent 30 days learning Hebrew along with more than two dozen others from Panama, South Africa, Australia and other nations. He then went through basic training, which included a 40-mile nighttime march through the desert. He lived for almost four months inside a worn tent from the Vietnam War era.
Israeli troops wondered why he would leave the palm trees and beaches they had seen in movies. "They didn't understand why a kid from Hollywood was there," he said. "But after you stuck around, they would respect you and understand (that) we're here together to try and protect the same thing."
When Fishbein heard of the two Americans killed, it touched him deeply, he said. He has struggled to post on his Facebook page his emotions or even give an explanation to his friends in California as to why he felt the need to serve. He never wanted to join the U.S. armed forces, Fishbein said.
For the 25-year-old commercial production assistant, serving in the Israel Defense Forces was the culmination of milestones in his life, he said. In ninth grade, he accompanied his father with a documentary crew filming the unearthing of Jewish artefacts in a once largely Jewish town in Poland that was destroyed in the Holocaust.
"That was a surreal experience for a ninth-grade kid to go through, but it set me up to go to Israel and serve," he said. "Every lone soldier has had something similar." Josh Reznick, 24, who works for a real estate investment firm in Baltimore, briefly considered joining the U.S. military, but after living on a kibbutz for a year, he realized his calling. He served in the same unit as the two Americans killed during the weekend. He did not know either of them, but he did know one of the fallen Israeli troops.
Reznick believes the Steinberg and Carmeli will be "shining examples" for other lone soldiers. He was inspired by Mark Levin, a lone soldier from Pennsylvania killed fighting for Israel in 2006. He visited his grave site in Israel, where his tombstone is covered in Phillies baseball hats and Eagle jerseys.
"It's very nice living in America and everything is fine. But I'm sure people right before WWII felt the same way about living in Germany," he said. "If only there had been a place to run to for the Jews. That's why it's important to keep Israel, a Jewish nation, alive."
Isaac Cohen, 18, of Silver Spring, Maryland, starts this month at an Israeli military prep school before joining the army next year. He isn't deterred by the recent violence. "They teach you how to survive in Israel," said Cohen, who lived there for six years. "You kind of have to survive there. I feel a lot stronger when I'm there."
Associated Press writers Ben Nuckols in Washington and Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flight 17 Tragic End For Family Of 6 Coming Home

Mohammad Afif. Afif, 19, was killed along with his parents and three siblings when Flight 17 was shot down on July 17. Afif's friends described him as someone who was always able to lift people's spirits.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — Mohammad Afif and his family were about to start a new chapter in their lives. Afif was getting set to begin his university studies in architecture, and his father was preparing to move back to Malaysia with his wife and three of their children after working overseas for several years.
But what was supposed to be a joyous return home turned into a tragedy when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down over Ukraine last week en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people onboard, including 19-year-old Afif and his entire family.
Afif had left Kuala Lumpur in late June to meet with his parents and three siblings, who had been living in Kazakhstan for the past three years. Afif spent the last year on his own back home in Malaysia, completing his foundation year at Taylor's University.
"The way Afif was packing up his things, it felt like he was going away forever," Afif's friend and housemate Khairil Azwan said Monday, describing Afif's packing for his trip to meet with his family.
Khairil was among 70 Taylor's students and faculty members who gathered at the university's mosque for a special prayer session organized by the school. "He was packing like everything, and I think it was a sign because in our religion we believe that 100 days before one dies, there will be a sign to indicate death, but you can only realize what the sign was after the person is gone," Khairil said.
Afif's father, Tambi Jiee, 49, was working in the oil and gas industry in Kazakhstan for the past three years, living with his wife, Ariza Ghazalee, 47, and their two sons, 13 and 17, and 15-year-old daughter. The family, originally from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state on Borneo island, was reportedly very excited about their move to Kuala Lumpur, where Tambi had been transferred by his company.
After being met by Afif last month, the family of six vacationed for a while before boarding Flight 17 in Amsterdam on Thursday to head to Kuala Lumpur. When the Boeing 777 was shot down, allegedly by pro-Russia rebels, the news that Afif and his family had been killed stunned Taylor's University students and faculty members.
"He is very bubbly and he's like the joker of the group," one of Afif's close friends, 19-year-old Nadine Saedah, said, trying to control her tears. "He will bring you up when you feel down. Whenever I was down, he would encourage me."
"I lost a friend, and even though I only knew him for a year in school, it felt like 10 or 20 years. I don't know how to explain it," she said. Others described Afif as being religious and a popular student who made an impact on others, even though he had been at Taylor's for only his foundation year, in preparation for his formal university studies.
"We were actually joking when he was leaving the house to go to the airport a few weeks ago and Afif said, 'Don't worry ... if I don't see you next semester, I'll see you in the afterlife," Khairil said.

Obama Voices Concern About Casualties In Middle East

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Ukraine and Gaza, at the White House in Washington, Monday, July 21, 2014.

CAIRO, EGYPT (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — President Barack Obama called Monday for the international community to focus on ending the fighting in the Gaza Strip, as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Middle East with low expectations but still making a renewed push for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Voicing fresh concern about civilian casualties, Obama reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against rockets being launched by Hamas into Israel. Yet he contended that Israel's military action in Gaza had already done "significant damage" to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and said he doesn't want to see more civilians getting killed.
"We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives," Obama said. "And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel."
As Obama spoke from South Lawn of the White House, Kerry flew to Cairo, where he planned to join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. He will urge the militant Palestinian group to accept a cease-fire agreement offered by Egypt that would halt nearly two weeks of fighting. More than 500 Palestinians and more than two-dozen Israelis have been killed in that time.
Kerry headed almost immediately into a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Kerry is expected to meet with top officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and Arab League President Nabil Elaraby over the next few days. But there were no immediate plans for face-to-face meetings with officials from Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Ramallah, and senior State Department aides said it remained uncertain what could be accomplished in the talks.
Ban said he was disappointed that nine months of US-led talks between Israel and the Palestinians didn't yield better results, but said he arrived with two messages: "Violence must stop and must stop now." He added, "We can't claim victory simply by returning matters to where they stood before, which led to terrible bloodshed."
"Our goal is a cease-fire, and given enough time, that ought to be achievable," said one senior State Department official who briefed reporters traveling with Kerry. "But if it wasn't, then obviously anything that de-escalates the situation on the ground is a movement in a positive direction. So that would certainly be a fallback if we were unable to get the cease-fire that we're aiming for." State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly by name.
Senior State Department officials acknowledged that achieving a cease-fire would prove difficult. It was not clear exactly what Israel and Hamas would each demand in return for agreeing to a truce, but officials said the issue of opening Israel-Gaza border crossings was under discussion.
A truce between Israel and Hamas has been beset by violence three times since 2009, and was last brokered in 2012 by Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. On Monday, the senior State Department officials said they believed it would be more difficult now to reach a new agreement.
Having already deployed an estimated 1,000 ground troops, Israel's military has pushed farther into Gaza than it had in 2012 and the conflict is farther along now than it was then. At the same time, the State officials noted, Hamas believes it was not given what it was promised in 2012 to lay down its arms, making it more skeptical of a cease-fire now. Finally, Hamas's relationship with Egypt, which is negotiating directly with the militant group, has deteriorated since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in last year's coup. Egypt has since outlawed Morsi's party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas.
Sharp ideological divisions in the region have grown even deeper over the last two years. It remains unclear, for example, the extent to which nations like Egypt and Qatar are working together on a cease-fire proposal. Egypt has already offered one plan, which is backed by Israel and the U.S. But Hamas is looking to governments in Qatar and Turkey — both of which are also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood — to make sure its interests are represented
The Obama administration is sharpening its criticism of Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel and other provocative acts, like tunneling under the border. At the same time, the U.S. is publicly encouraging Israel to take further steps to prevent Palestinian deaths.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Israel and its military have standards for avoiding the deaths of innocent civilians on either side. "We would like to see Israel take greater steps to ensure that they're adhering to those standards," he said.
Two Americans fighting in the Israeli military, Max Steinberg of California and Nissim Carmeli of Texas, were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.
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Palestinian Death Toll In Gaza reaches 508

Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour listens as Rwandan U.N. Ambassador Eugene Gasana speaks outside an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the worsening situation in Gaza at United Nations headquarters, Sunday, July 20, 2014. A Jordan-drafted resolution obtained by The Associated Press expresses "grave concern" at the high number of civilians killed in Gaza, including children, and it calls for an immediate cease-fire, "including the withdrawal of Israeli occupying forces from the Gaza Strip."

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The U.N. chief and the U.S. secretary of state headed to Cairo on Monday to try to end two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting that has killed at least 508 Palestinians and 20 Israelis and displaced tens of thousands of Gaza residents.
The new cease-fire efforts by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry followed the deadliest day of fighting since the escalation erupted on July 8. In New York, the U.N. Security Council expressed "serious concern" about Gaza's rising civilian death toll and demanded an immediate end to the fighting following an emergency session.
As Israeli airstrikes continued to pound Gaza, rescue workers near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis were digging out bodies early Monday from the one-story home of the Abu Jamea family, flattened in one of the strikes overnight, said Ashraf al-Kidra, a Gaza health ministry official.
Al-Kidra said the Palestinian death toll from the two-week offensive stood at 508 as of Monday morning. More than half of those victims — 268 — were killed since an Israeli ground operation in Gaza began late Thursday.
That total included 20 bodies that were found at the site near Khan Younis, where two people were pulled alive from the rubble, Al-Kidra said. Elsewhere in Gaza, he said, Israeli tanks opened fire on the home of the Siyam family west of Rafah in the southern part of the strip, killing 10 people, including four young children and a 9-month-old baby girl.
"Without any warning at all they began bombarding us at midnight, at 2 a.m., said Dr. Mahmoud Siyam, the head of the family. "We are not related to any military or political activities. We are civilized people (living) in this area of Gaza, what crime have we committed?"
Meanwhile, the Israeli military said it foiled a Hamas infiltration attempt on Monday through two tunnels leading from northern Gaza into southern Israel. The military said 10 infiltrators were killed after being detected and targeted by Israeli aircraft.
On Sunday, the first major ground battle in two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting exacted a steep price, killing 65 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and forcing thousands of terrified Palestinian civilians to flee their devastated Shijaiyah neighborhood, which Israel says is a major source for rocket fire against its civilians.
Large sections of Shijaiyah were pulverized by a barrage of Israeli tank and artillery bombardments and repeated Israeli air strikes that buffeted the densely populated neighborhood for most of Sunday.
Speaking on national television shortly after the military announced the deaths of the 13 Israeli soldiers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Gaza offensive would continue "as long as necessary" to end attacks from Gaza on Israeli civilians.
Appearing with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that Israel expected to complete its work neutralizing the Hamas tunnels leading into Israeli territory within several days — a possible hint of a timeframe for the end of the operation.
Still, much work remains if diplomats are to succeed in brokering a sustainable cease-fire. On Sunday, Kerry said the U.S. still supports the Egyptian proposal for a halt to the hostilities that Israel accepted and Hamas rejected last week.
Hamas remains deeply suspicious of the motives of the Egyptian government, which has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Hamas closely identifies with. The 13 Israeli soldiers who died in Shijaiyah brought the overall Israeli death toll to 20, including two civilians who died from rocket and mortar fire directed at Israeli towns and villages from different parts of Gaza.
On Sunday evening, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri in Gaza claimed his group had captured an Israeli soldier. An announcement on Gaza TV of the soldier's capture set off celebration in the streets of West Bank.
But there was no official confirmation of the claim in Israel. Earlier, the Israeli ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, said the Hamas claim was untrue. For Israelis, a captured soldier would be a nightmare scenario. Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were involved in grisly killings, for his return in 2011.
__ Enav reported from Jerusalem.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dix Hills Man [Charles Okonkwo, Jr.] Charged In Mother's Assault; Teen Brother Found Dead In Family's Home

LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK (NEWSDAY) A Dix Hills man with a history of psychiatric issues admitted to "hurting" his mother and his teenage brother, who was found dead at his family's home, authorities said Sunday.
Charles Okonkwo Jr., 18, was charged with felony second-degree assault in his mother's beating and could face additional charges in the death of his teenage brother, whose body was found in his bedroom Saturday at the family's home on Norman Court, authorities said.
At his arraignment in First District Court in Central Islip, Okonkwo Jr. was ordered held on $250,000 cash bail or $1 million bond.
Okonkwo's father, Charles Okonkwo, 62, returned home at 6:10 p.m. Saturday from a stay at Huntington Hospital to find his 15-year-old son Bradley Okonkwo dead and the boy's mother, Chinwe Okonkwo, 52,
unconscious in the garage in a pool of blood, Suffolk County police said. Police said they are waiting on autopsy results on Bradley Okonkwo to determine the cause of death.
Charles Okonkwo Jr. initially fled in his family's green 2002 BMW X5, but he and the car later were found a short distance away from the home, police said.
During police questioning, Okonkwo Jr., who has a history of psychiatric issues, "made admissions to hurting" his mother and brother, Assistant District Attorney Raphael Pearl said at the arraignment.
The criminal complaint against Okonkwo Jr. says his mother "sustained serious trauma including facial fractures." She was found "apparently beaten in a puddle of blood near her car," Pearl said.
She remains in critical but stable condition at Stony Brook University Hospital, where she underwent emergency procedures to relieve pressure on her brain, Pearl said.
Okonkwo Jr.'s attorney, Eric Besso of Sayville, called the case "complicated," and noted he hadn't had a chance to speak to the man's family members. "There's a lot to be sorted out, that's all I can say," Besso said.
The judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Okonkwo Jr. and granted two orders of protection, permitting him to communicate with his father but not allowing physical contact with his parents. He is due in court Thursday.
Okonkwo Jr., who wore a light blue jumpsuit and kept his head down during the arraignment, did not enter a plea.
Friends flocked to the Okonkwo home Sunday to offer condolences.
Andrew Salama, 15, of Dix Hills, said he had known Bradley Okonkwo since kindergarten. The two played basketball together and were both going into the 10th grade at Half Hollow Hills High School East in the fall. Bradley's death left Salama "absolutely stunned," he said. "He was always happy. He always joked around. Always outgoing. He's one of those friends that you had to be around."
Lawrence Monwe and his wife, Florence, said they knew the Okonkwos from Nigeria and often spent New Year's together. Okonkwo Jr. had just come back for the summer from his first year at college, they said.
"This is very tragic. No one saw it coming," Lawrence Monwe said. "This was the perfect family you wouldn't expect it to happen to."
The two brothers were often seen playing basketball in front of the home and learning how to drive from their father, neighbors said. The Okonkwos moved into their two-story home in August 2002, said Larry Repanes, who lives across the street. Repanes said he's seen police called to the house at least six times.
By Sarah Armaghan and John Asbury with Jennifer Barrious and Nicole Fuller--Newsday, Sunday, July 20, 2014

Judge Orders James Brown Documents Made Public

 James Brown performs on stage during the Live 8 concert at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. A judge has ordered South Carolina’s attorney general to turn over documents to a freelance journalist investigating the fight over the estate of soul singer James Brown. Sue Summer wants to see the diary of the woman who said she was Brown's wife when he died in 2006, an appraisal of Brown’s assets and other records she requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A judge has ordered South Carolina's attorney general to turn over documents to a freelance journalist investigating the court fight over the estate of soul singer James Brown.
Sue Summer wants to see the records, which include the diary of the woman who said she was Brown's wife when he died in 2006, an appraisal of Brown's assets, and documents about how much trustees and attorneys are being paid from Brown's estate. She requested them under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith Jr. ruled against Attorney General Alan Wilson, who said he shouldn't be forced to release the records because they are part of different lawsuits over Brown's estate.
In his ruling, Griffith said Wilson's position is "inconsistent with both the letter and spirit" of the state's open records act, which only allows public records to be kept secret in very specific circumstances.
State prosecutors have asked Griffith to reconsider his ruling. The diary is already under a court order not to be released, and other documents the judge ruled should be made public have also been put off limits, Wilson said in court filings.
The judge's order gives Wilson until early next week to turn the records over. He can argue some of them should be kept private under the law, but he will have to show them to Summer's lawyer and the judge for a hearing.
Wilson said the process for his office to submit documents it thinks are confidential also doesn't follow open records law. In the reconsideration request, filed Wednesday, Wilson also asks the judge to delay the release of any documents for at least 30 days.
Summer said she was pleased with the order. She said part of the reason she keeps pursuing the story is she wants to make sure Brown's dying wish to pay for scholarships for poor children in Aiken County and Augusta, Georgia, is done.
"It is past time for the secrecy that has surrounded the James Brown estate proceedings to come to an end. It is past time for the public to receive an answer to the question — after seven years, will Mr. Brown's last wishes be honored in the State of South Carolina? The needy children Mr. Brown wanted to help with his education charity are waiting for an answer," Summer said.
Wilson's predecessor, Attorney General Henry McMaster, brokered a deal in 2009 to try to stop several lawsuits over the estate. It gave nearly half to a charitable trust, a quarter to his widow, Tomi Rae Hynie, and left the rest to be split among his adult children.
The state Supreme Court threw that settlement out last year, saying it ignored Brown's wishes for most of his money to go to charity. The lawsuit was brought by the original trustees of Brown's estate. But the justices also ruled they shouldn't be let back into the estate because they managed it so poorly. The dispute remains in court, nearly eight years after the Godfather of Soul died on Christmas Day 2006.
The former backup singer for Brown fought with the estate for years after the singer's lawyers said their marriage was annulled because she was still married to another man when she and Brown exchanged vows. The settlement approved after the trustees were booted included an agreement that Brown and Hynie's marriage was legitimate.
Summer also said no one has any idea what Brown's estate is worth. A professional manager who took control of Brown's assets after McMaster's deal said he wiped out more than $20 million in debt Brown borrowed for a European comeback tour right before his death by cutting deals that put Brown's music on national and international commercials for products like Chanel perfume and Gatorade.
Summer thinks that the manager's work was vastly inflated. In their decision, the state Supreme Court said it had no idea what Brown's estate is now worth — giving estimates from $5 million to more than $100 million.
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