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Israel Steps Up Gaza Offensive, Kills Senior Hamas Figures



Al-Aqsa Mosque

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel on Wednesday pressed ahead with a fierce military offensive in the Gaza Strip, killing as many as 10 senior Hamas military figures and toppling a pair of high-rise towers housing Hamas facilities in airstrikes. The Islamic militant group showed no signs of backing down and fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities.

In just three days, this latest round of fighting between the bitter enemies has already begun to resemble — and even exceed — a devastating 50-day war in 2014. Like in that previous war, neither side appears to have an exit strategy.

But there are key differences. The fighting has triggered the worst Jewish-Arab violence inside Israel in decades. And looming in the background is an international war crimes investigation.

Israel carried out an intense barrage of airstrikes just after sunrise, striking dozens of targets in several minutes that set off bone-rattling explosions across Gaza. Airstrikes continued throughout the day, filling the sky with pillars of smoke.

At nightfall, the streets of Gaza City resembled a ghost town as people huddled indoors on the final night of Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan. The evening, followed by the Eid al-Fitr holiday, is usually a time of vibrant night life, shopping and crowded restaurants.

“There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide,” said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist who fled with a dozen other relatives to a family home in central Gaza after bombs pounded his apartment building in Gaza City. “That terror is impossible to describe.”

Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire throughout the day and into early Thursday. The attacks brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) to the north, for a second straight day.

The military said sirens also wailed in northern Israel’s Emek area, or Jezreel Valley, the farthest the effects of Gaza rockets have reached since 2014. The Israeli army also shared footage showing a rocket impact between apartment towers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva early Thursday, apparently sparking a large fire. It said the strike left people wounded and caused “significant damage.”

“We’re coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK,” said Motti Haim, a resident of the central town of Beer Yaakov and father of two children. “It’s not simple running to the shelter. It’s not easy with the kids.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll rose to 69 Palestinians, including 16 children and six women. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas acknowledged that a top commander and several other members were killed.

Rescuers pulled the bodies of a man and his wife from the debris of their home that was hit by rockets in the latest Israeli airstrikes early Thursday, relatives said.

A total of seven people have been killed in Israel, including four people who died on Wednesday. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a 6-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.

The Israeli military claims the number of militants killed so far is much higher than Hamas has acknowledged.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said at least 14 militants were killed Wednesday — including 10 members of the “top management of Hamas” and four weapons experts. Altogether, he claimed some 30 militants have been killed since the fighting began.

More raids conducted early Thursday were aimed at several “strategically significant” facilities for Hamas, including a bank and a compound for a naval squad, the military said.

While United Nations and Egyptian officials have said that cease-fire efforts are underway, there were no signs of progress. Israeli television’s Channel 12 reported late Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet authorized a widening of the offensive.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate launching of rockets” from civilian areas in Gaza toward Israeli population centers, but he also urged Israel to show “maximum restraint.” President Joe Biden called Netanyahu to support Israel’s right to defend itself and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he was sending a senior diplomat to the region to try to calm tensions.

The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point was the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims, where police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who threw chairs and stones at them.

Hamas, claiming to be defending Jerusalem, launched a barrage of rockets at the city late Monday, setting off days of fighting.

The Israeli military says militants have fired about 1,500 rockets in just three days. That is roughly one-third the number fired during the entire 2014 war.

Israel, meanwhile, has struck over 350 targets in Gaza, a tiny territory where 2 million Palestinians have lived under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007. Two infantry brigades were sent to the area, indicating preparations for a possible ground invasion.

In tactics echoing past wars, Israel has begun to target senior members of Hamas’ military wing. It also has flattened three high-rise buildings in a tactic that has drawn international scrutiny in the past.

Israel says the buildings all housed Hamas operations centers, but they also included residential apartments and businesses. In all cases, Israel fired warning shots, allowing people to flee, and there were no reports of casualties.

The fighting has set off violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, in scenes unseen since 2000. Netanyahu warned that he was prepared to use an “iron fist if necessary” to calm the violence.

But ugly clashes erupted across the country late Wednesday. Jewish and Arab mobs battled in the central city of Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, despite a state of emergency and nighttime curfew. In nearby Bat Yam, a mob of Jewish nationalists attacked an Arab motorist, dragged him from his car and beat him until he was motionless.

In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said it thwarted a Palestinian shooting attack that wounded two people. The Palestinian Health Ministry said the suspected gunman was killed. No details were immediately available.

Still unclear is how the fighting in Gaza will affect Netanyahu’s political future. He failed to form a government coalition after inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, and now his political rivals have three weeks to try to form one.

His rivals have courted a small Islamist Arab party. But the longer the fighting lasts, the more it could hamper their attempts at forming a coalition. It could also boost Netanyahu if another election is held, since security is his strong suit with the public.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

The International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas. In a brief statement, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she had noted “with great concern” the escalation of violence and “the possible commission of crimes.”

The ICC is looking into Israeli actions in past wars in Gaza. Israel is not a member of the court, does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction and rejects the accusations. But in theory, the ICC could issue warrants and try to arrest Israeli suspects while they are traveling overseas.

Conricus, the military spokesman, said Israeli forces respect international laws on armed conflict and do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties. Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group fires rockets from residential areas.

Emanuel Gross, a professor emeritus the University of Haifa law school, said Israel should “take into consideration the concerns of the ICC.” But he said he believes the military is on solid legal ground while rockets are striking Israeli cities.

“That’s the real meaning of self defense,” he said. “If you are attacked by a terrorist group, you defend yourself.”

Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.



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International Criminal Court Ruling Brings Hope for Palestinians



Department of State

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Many Palestinians see a ruling by the International Criminal Court that it has jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories as a belated chance of justice for victims of Israeli attacks.

But for many Israelis, Friday’s ruling is worrying because they say they are the “good guys” defending themselves against Palestinian violence.

The ruling, delivered by a pre-trial chamber of three ICC judges, could lead to criminal investigations of Israel and Palestinian militant groups including Hamas. No probe was expected in the near future, however.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she would now examine the decision and pointed to the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and militant groups in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the 2018 Gaza border protests and Israeli settlements in occupied territory.

In Khan Younis in Gaza, Palestinian Tawfiq Abu Jama said 24 members of his extended family had been killed in an Israeli air strike during the seven-week conflict in 2014 – in which the dead included more 2,100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, as well as 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians.

Abu Jama said he regarded the ICC decision as “possible justice that came late and better than never … we don’t trust Israeli courts.”

An investigation into the Khan Younis strike, carried out by the Israeli military’s judicial arm, concluded that it was lawful, and had targeted a militant.

On the Israeli side of the border, Israeli Gadi Yarkoni, who lost both his legs in a Palestinian mortar bomb attack during the same war, said he was angered by the ruling.

“We are the good guys here, we don’t fire in order to kill innocent children but they fire at us in order to kill civilians,” said Yarkoni, who is head of the Eshkol Regional Council, bordering Gaza. “I weep for every civilian killed in Gaza and the West Bank but we are defending our borders.”

The two sides agreed on one thing – neither expects a swift outcome from the ICC.

An Israeli official who requested anonymity said “it’s not like arrest warrants are going to be issued tomorrow morning,” adding that Israel would coordinate steps with Washington over the court’s ruling.

The official described the ruling as political.

HURDLES AHEAD

Diana Buttu, an international lawyer and former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the Palestinians still faced many hurdles.

“The road to actual justice is a long one, for the ICC will undoubtedly face political pressure not to proceed,” Buttu said.

She said it was not the first time an international court had declared Israeli acts illegal, and previously “the world did nothing in response.”

The ICC decision was just three weeks the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, during which the United States imposed sanctions on two ICC officials, including Bensouda.

After U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration last month, the State Department said Washington would “thoroughly review” the Trump-era sanctions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday’s ruling was anti-Semitic and that Israel would “fight this perversion of justice with all our might.”

Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki said it was an “historic day” and that Israel had previously been treated “above the law.”

But Palestinians are not exempt from the court’s scrutiny. Hamas, designated by Israel and the West as a terrorist organisation, has been accused of intentionally attacking civilians and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

But a Hamas official in Gaza welcomed the ruling and said it did not fear investigation.

“Hamas resistance and the resistance of the Palestinian people is legitimate and consistent with International Humanitarian law,” said spokesman Hazem Qassem.

The Israeli military (IDF) said it regretted the ICC ruling and would continue to defend the security of Israel and its citizens “while adhering fully to the IDF Code of Ethics, the values of the IDF, and national and international law.”

(Additional reporting by Rami Amichay on the Israel-Gaza border, Ali Sawafta and Zainah El-Haroun in Ramallah and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Timothy Heritage)





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Hungarian Politician Known For Anti-LGBTQ Stance Resigns After ‘Orgy’ Bust



Belgium

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A former European Parliament lawmaker from Hungary resigned from his country’s ruling party Wednesday after being swept up in a scandal involving what media reports called an orgy that police in Brussels broke up last week amid Belgium’s covornavirus lockdown.

Jozsef Szajer, who on Sunday resigned his seat in the European Union’s legislature, resigned as a member of Hungary’s ultra-conservative Fidesz party in a one-sentence letter to the party’s director, ending a 30-year career with the political party he co-founded.

Szajer acknowledged Tuesday that he had attended the Brussels party, but he did not comment on its nature. Belgian newspaper HLN and other media reported that police had disrupted a sex party attended by two dozen men above a café, and that one attendee, a Fidesz MEP, had attempted to flee the scene. HLN said several diplomats were also present.

In comments to pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Wednesday described Szajer’s actions as “not compatible with the values of our political community.”

“We will not forget or deny his 30 years of work, but his actions are not acceptable and indefensible. After what happened, he made the only correct decision by apologizing and resigning from the European Parliament and leaving Fidesz,” Orban said.

The Brussels prosecutor’s office confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday that police ended a lockdown party in a downtown Brussels flat on Friday evening after they were called because of a night-time disturbance. The office did not confirm that it was a group sex party, and a Brussels police spokeswoman declined to comment.

In a statement, the prosecutor’s office later said police found about 20 people in the apartment. After police checked their identities, two partygoers invoked diplomatic immunity, it said.

The prosecutor’s office added that a third man was arrested after a passer-by told police he had tried to escape. Identified by the initials S.J. and a birth year of 1961, the man was unable to show I.D. and was escorted to his residence, where he produced a diplomatic passport.

The initials and birth year are consistent with Szajer’s.

“The man’s hands were bloody. It is possible that he may have been injured while fleeing,” the prosecutor’s office said, adding that police found drugs in the man’s backpack.

All those who attended the party have been reported for violating anti-COVID measures banning social gatherings. In addition, a police report has been registered against S.J. for an alleged narcotics violation.

Szajer denied using drugs at the party, and said he offered to have an on-the-spot drug test taken, which police declined.

“Police said an ecstasy pill was found. It’s not mine, I don’t know who placed it or how,” Szajer said in his statement.

It was the latest in a series of scandals involving members of Fidesz, which has vocally heralded Hungary’s role in defending Christian family values. Orban, the head of the party, is a prominent critic of the liberal political culture of Western Europe. He has laid his political power on a foundation of what he calls “illiberal” Christian democracy.

Szajer, a Fidesz founding member, was one of the lead architects in 2011 of a new Hungarian Constitution, which opponents criticized for enshrining conservative Christian ideology into the nation’s guiding document and limiting the rights of women and LGBT people.

In July, a Budapest court sentenced Fidesz member and former Hungarian ambassador to Peru Gabor Kaleta to a 1-year suspended prison sentence and fined him for possessing more than 19,000 sexually explicit images of minors.

In 2019, video was leaked of Fidesz politician Zsolt Borkai participating in an orgy on a yacht in the Adriatic Sea. Borkai, the mayor of a medium-sized city 70 miles from the Hungarian capital, was reelected despite the scandal. Fidesz said at the time it considered the issue “a private matter.” Borkai later resigned.

In a statement Tuesday, Szajer apologized to his family, colleagues and voters.

“I ask them to evaluate my misstep on the background of 30 years of devoted and hard work. The misstep is strictly personal,” he wrote. “I am the only (one) who owes responsibility for it. I ask everyone not to extend it to my homeland, or to my political community.”





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Greece Erupts As Court Rules Far-Right Golden Dawn Party A Criminal Organization


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A Greek court ruled on Wednesday that the far-right Golden Dawn party was operating as a criminal organization, delivering landmark guilty verdicts following a politically charged five-year trial against dozens of defendants.

The court ruled that seven of the 18 former lawmakers, including Nikos Michaloliakos, the head of the party which had become Greece’s third largest during the country’s financial crisis, were guilty of leading a criminal organization. The others were found guilty of participating in a criminal organization.

As news of the guilty verdicts broke, cheers and celebrations erupted among the crowd of at least 20,000 people gathered in an anti-fascist rally outside the Athens courthouse. A small group threw Molotovs and stones, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon.

The marathon trial had been assessing four cases rolled into one: the 2013 fatal stabbing of Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, physical attacks on Egyptian fishermen in 2012 and on left-wing activists in 2013, and whether Golden Dawn was operating as a criminal organization.

The 68 defendants included the 18 former lawmakers from the party that was founded in the 1980s as a neo-Nazi organization and rose in prominence during the country’s decade-long financial crisis.

“It feels like a day of victory in Greece,” said Antonis Fourlis, editor-in-chief of HuffPost Greece. “It’s a great relief for all Greeks that after all the country has gone through with the economic crisis and now COVID-19, that there is still hope.”

Fourlis said ahead of the decision the leaders of Greece’s political parties all issued statements condemning Golden Dawn. “It’s a step forward for the political system. All political parties except a small far-right group are hailing the judgement, which sends Golden Dawn out of the political spectrum as criminals.”

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the verdict “ends a traumatic cycle” in the country’s public life.

“Its political dimension has, fortunately, been judged by the victory of democracy, which expelled the Nazi formation from Parliament (in elections),” he said. “Now, the independent judiciary is giving its own answer.”

Thousands of people gather for a protest outside a court in Athens, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.



Thousands of people gather for a protest outside a court in Athens, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

The three-member panel of judges also found Giorgos Roupakias guilty of the murder of Fyssas, prompting applause inside the courtroom and among the crowd outside. Roupakias had been accused of being a party supporter who delivered the fatal stab wounds to Fyssas. Another 15 defendants — none of them former lawmakers — were convicted as accomplices.

Leaving the courthouse, Fyssas’ mother Magda Fyssa, who had attended nearly every court session over the last five years, raised her arms and shouted: “Pavlos did it. My son!”

All five people accused of attempted murder against the fishermen were also found guilty, while the four accused of attempted murder in the attacks against left-wing activists were found guilty of the lesser charge of causing bodily harm.

Only 11 of the 68 defendants were present, with the rest represented by their lawyers. None of the former Golden Dawn lawmakers were in court.

“The ruling demonstrates that they were just a gang of knife-wielding thugs who took their orders from the top,” said Thanassis Kambayiannis, one of the lawyers representing the fishermen.

After the verdicts, defense lawyers began summations ahead of sentencing, a process that could last several days. Those convicted of leading a criminal organization face up to 15 years in prison, while the others face up to 10 years. Roupakias faces a life sentence.

“Today marks a huge victory for justice and respect for Greece and the entire world,” Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Assoicated Press. “It sends a strong message that hate crimes are not and should not be tolerated in a democratic society.”

Security was tight at the courthouse, with around 2,000 police, drones and a police helicopter deployed.

The head of Greece's extreme far-right Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos testifies on Nov. 6, 2019, in the Court of Athen



The head of Greece’s extreme far-right Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos testifies on Nov. 6, 2019, in the Court of Athens as part of a long-running trial over the party’s activities in which he and several former party lawmakers are accused of running a criminal organization.

The crowd at the anti-fascist rally waved banners with slogans including “Fyssas lives, crush the Nazis,” and chanted “The people demand the Nazis in jail.” More than 5,000 people held a similar rally in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

Outside the courthouse, protester George Kounanis, who works as an employment equality campaigner for LGBT workers, said he was relieved by the verdict.

“We have lived under the threat they posed for years. They have beaten, threatened and verbally abused same-sex couples. They hate everything that is not Greek and macho,” he said. “But we never cowed and never stopped speaking out against them. So it does feel like a vindication. A lot of people supported them, so we cannot be complacent.”

Politicians from across the political spectrum, from the governing conservative New Democracy party to Greece’s Communist Party and the former governing left-wing Syriza party, also attended.

At the crux of the case was whether the string of violent attacks could be linked to Golden Dawn’s leadership. During the trial, the prosecutor recommended the acquittal of many of the party members for lack of evidence.

Golden Dawn denies any direct link to the attacks and described the trial and charges against the party’s leadership as an “unprecedented conspiracy” aimed at curbing its rise in popularity.

HuffPost Greece contributed reporting.





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