sewn into the linings of clothes.

In May, after Saudi authorities discovered more than five million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon, a major blow to local farmers.

According to The Times’ database, the number of pills seized has increased every year since 2017.

The street value of the drugs seized has outstripped the value of Syria’s legal exports, mostly agricultural products, every year since 2019.

Last year, global captagon seizures had a street value of about$2.9 billion, more than triple Syria’s legal exports of $860 million.

Law enforcement agencies have struggled to catch the smugglers, not least because the Syrian authorities offer little if any information about shipments that originated in their country.

The name of shippers listed on manifests are usually fake and searches for the intended recipients often lead to mazes of shell companies.

The Italian seizure of 84 million pills in Salerno last year, the largest captagon bust ever at the time, had come from Latakia. Shipping documents listed the sender as Basil al-Shagri Bin Jamal, but the Italian authorities were unable to find him.

GPS Global Aviation Supplier, a company registered in Lugano, Switzerland, that appears to have no office.

Phone calls, text messages and emails to the company received no response, and the wealth management firm that the company listed as its mailing address, SMC Family Office SA, declined to comment.

Greek investigators have hit similar roadblocks.

In June 2019, workers in Piraeus found five tons of captagon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, inside sheets of fiberboard on their way to China.

Seehog, a Chinese logistics firm. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about the shipment and refused to answer questions.

“You are not the police,” she said, and hung up.

There was one more clue in the documents: The sender was Mohammed Amer al-Dakak, with a Syrian phone number. When entered into WhatsApp, the phone number showed a photo of Maher al-Assad, the commander of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, suggesting the number belonged to, at least, one of his fans.

A man who answered that number said that he was not Mr. al-Dakak. He said that he had acquired the phone number recently.

Loukas Danabasis, the head of the narcotics unit of Greece’s financial crime squad, said the smugglers’ tactics made solving such cases “difficult and sometimes impossible.”

While officials in Europe struggle to identify smugglers, Jordan, one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, sits on the front lines of a regional drug war.

“Jordan is the gateway to the Gulf,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad al-Sarhan, the commander of an army unit along Jordan’s border with Syria, said during a visit to the area.

Overlooking a deep valley with views of Syria, General al-Sarhan and his men detailed Syrian smugglers’ tricks to bring drugs into Jordan: They launch crossing attempts at multiple spots. They attach drugs to drones and fly them across. They load drugs onto donkeys trained to cross by themselves.

Sometimes the smugglers stop by Syrian army posts before approaching the border.

“There is clear involvement,” General al-Sarhan said.

The drug trade worries Jordanian officials for many reasons.

The quantities are increasing. The number of Captagon pills seized in Jordan this year is nearly double the amount seized in 2020, according to Colonel Alqudah, the head of the narcotics department.

And while Jordan was originally just a pathway to Saudi Arabia, as much as one-fifth of the drugs smuggled in from Syria are now consumed in Jordan, he estimated. The increased supply has lowered the price, making it easy for students to become addicted.

Even more worrying, he said, is the growing quantity of crystal meth entering Jordan from Syria, which poses a greater threat. As of October, Jordan had seized 132 pounds of it this year, up from 44 pounds the year before.

“We are now in a dangerous stage because we can’t go back,” said Dr. Morad al-Ayasrah, a Jordanian psychiatrist who treats drug addicts. “We are going forward and the drugs are increasing.”

Reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis in Athens; Gaia Pianigiani in Rome; Kit Gillet in Bucharest, Romania; Hannah Beech in Bangkok; and employees of The New York Times in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Deadly Clashes in Beirut Escalate Fears Over Lebanon’s Dysfunction

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Armed clashes between sectarian militias transformed Beirut neighborhoods into a deadly war zone on Thursday, raising fears that violence could fill the void left by the near-collapse of the Lebanese state.

Rival gunmen, chanting in support of their leaders, hid behind cars and dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. At least six people were killed and 30 wounded. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.

It was some of the worst violence in years to convulse Beirut, aggravating the sense of instability in a small country already buffeted by devastating political and economic crises and inviting recollections of its civil war that ended more than three decades ago.

Since the fall of 2019, Lebanon’s currency has plummeted more than 90 percent in value, battering the economy and reducing Lebanese who were comfortably middle class to poverty. The World Bank has said Lebanon’s economic collapse could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s.

Grave fuel shortages in recent months have left all but the wealthiest Lebanese struggling with prolonged power blackouts and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once vaunted banking, medical and education sectors have all suffered profound losses, as professionals have fled to seek livelihoods abroad.

A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year killed more than 200 people and exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption. The Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated the economic distress and sense of despair.

The fighting on Thursday was part of the continuing fallout from the port explosion.

Two Shiite Muslim parties — Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, and the Amal Movement — had organized a protest calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the blast and determining who was responsible.

As the protesters gathered, gunshots rang out, apparently fired by snipers in nearby high buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters scattered to side streets, where they retrieved weapons and rejoined the fray.

posts on Twitter, saying that the clashes had been caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens in every time and place,” a reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal.

His group accused Hezbollah of exploiting sectarian tensions to derail the port investigation over fears it could be implicated.

Hassan Diab, who, along with his cabinet, resigned after the port explosion.

There had been hope that Mr. Mikati would bring some stability as his new government took shape. But at the same time, tensions over the port investigation grew deeper.

The blast at the port was caused by the sudden combustion of some 2,750 tons of volatile chemicals that had been unloaded into the port years before, but more than a year later no one has been held accountable.

The judge investigating the explosion, Tarek Bitar, has moved to summon a range of powerful politicians and security officials for questioning, which could result in criminal charges against them.

Hezbollah has grown increasingly vocal in its criticism of Judge Bitar, and his inquiry was suspended this week after two former ministers facing charges lodged a legal complaint against him.

Families of the victims condemned the move, with critics saying that the country’s political leadership was trying to shield itself from accountability for the largest explosion in the turbulent country’s history.

On Monday, the judge had issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hussein Khalil, a prominent Shiite member of Parliament and a close adviser to the leader of the Amal party. The warrant leveled serious accusations against Mr. Khalil.

“The nature of the offense,” the document read, is “killing, harming, arson and vandalism linked to probable intent.”

On Tuesday, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued some of his most scathing criticism of Judge Bitar, accusing him of “politically targeting” officials in his investigation and calling for a protest on Thursday.

When Hezbollah followers joined the protests to call for the judge’s removal, witnesses said, the sniper shots rang out.

Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Marc Santora from London. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, and Vivian Yee and Mona el-Naggar from Cairo.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Iran’s Proxies in Iraq Threaten U.S. With More Sophisticated Weapons

BAGHDAD — The United States is grappling with a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq after militia forces specialized in operating more sophisticated weaponry, including armed drones, have hit some of the most sensitive American targets in attacks that evaded U.S. defenses.

At least three times in the past two months, those militias have used small, explosive-laden drones that divebomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases — including those used by the C.I.A. and U.S. Special Operations units, according to American officials.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top American commander in the Middle East, said last month that the drones pose a serious threat and that the military was rushing to devise ways to combat them.

Iran — weakened by years of harsh economic sanctions — is using its proxy militias in Iraq to step up pressure on the United States and other world powers to negotiate an easing of those sanctions as part of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iraqi and American officials say Iran has designed the drone attacks to minimize casualties that could prompt U.S. retaliation.

a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published in April. In the last year, a proliferation of previously unknown armed groups have emerged, some claiming responsibility for rocket attacks on U.S. targets.

thousands of American military contractors operate.

MQ-9 Reaper drones and contractor-operated turboprop surveillance aircraft are stationed in an attempt to disrupt or cripple the U.S. reconnaissance capability critical to monitoring threats in Iraq.

The United States has used Reapers for its most sensitive strikes, including the killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi government official and a leader of Iraq’s militia groups, in Baghdad in January 2020.

While the United States has installed defenses to counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems at installations in Iraq, the armed drones fly too low to be detected by those defenses, officials said.

Shortly before midnight on April 14, a drone strike targeted a C.I.A. hangar inside the airport complex in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, according to three American officials familiar with the matter.

No one was reported hurt in the attack, but it alarmed Pentagon and White House officials because of the covert nature of the facility and the sophistication of the strike, details of which were previously reported by The Washington Post.

talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis demanded that Iran stop those attacks, according to Iraqi officials.

While visiting northeastern Syria last month, General McKenzie, the top American commander for the region, said military officials were developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, bolster radar sensors to identify approaching threats more rapidly, and find effective ways to down the aircraft.

In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some of the drones’ remnants have been partially recovered, and preliminary analyses indicated they were made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran, according to the three American officials familiar with the incidents.

These drones are larger than the commercially available quadcopters — small helicopters with four rotors — that the Islamic State used in the battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reapers, which have a 66-foot wingspan. Military analysts say they carry between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.

Iraqi officials and U.S. analysts say that while cash-strapped Iran has reduced funding for major Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting off smaller, more specialized proxies still operating within the larger militias but not under their direct command.

American officials say that these specialized units are likely to have been entrusted with the politically delicate mission of carrying out the new drone strikes.

Iraqi security commanders say groups with new names are fronts for the traditional, powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran has used the new groups to try to camouflage, in discussions with the Iraqi government, its responsibility for strikes targeting U.S. interests, which often end up killing Iraqis.

The Iraqi security official said members of the smaller, specialized groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and in Lebanon as well as in Iran by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversees proxy militias in the Middle East.

American and Iraqi officials and analysts trace the increased unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the U.S. killing of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.

“Because the Iranian control over its militias has fragmented after the killing of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the competition has increased among these groups,” said Mr. Malik, the Washington Institute analyst.

Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Iran Talks Loom as a New Test of Biden’s Israel Ties

Mr. Dermer, now a private citizen but still a confidante of Mr. Netanyahu’s, said the Biden administration was “engaged in an accommodation of Iran at best, and appeasement of Iran at worst.”

“It’s disastrous for Israel’s national security,” he added.

During his joint appearance with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Blinken said the administration was “consulting closely with Israel, as we did today, on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna around a potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement, at the same time as we continue to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”

With a fifth national election in two years possible in Israel, the long-embattled Mr. Netanyahu’s days in power may be numbered. But David Makovsky, the director of the Koret Program on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he sees no immediate successor to Mr. Netanyahu who is more amenable to the nuclear deal.

Mr. Makovsky said Israeli officials hope to avoid the acrimony with Washington that characterized Mr. Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran. Mr. Netanyahu openly denounced the deal as lacking sufficient limits on Iran’s nuclear activity, in part because many restrictions phase out after a decade, and as failing to address Iran’s support of anti-Israel proxies like Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

But he added that Israeli officials have grown skeptical of talk from Mr. Blinken and other Biden officials about a potential “longer and stronger” deal that would address Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for proxies.

The prospects for a revived nuclear deal not only hinge on negotiations in Vienna, but on electoral politics in Tehran, where a list of seven contenders for the presidential elections next month was announced Tuesday by a panel of clerics that vets the candidates.

Two associates of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who was an architect of the original nuclear deal, were disqualified from the final list on Tuesday, virtually guaranteeing that the next president will be a conservative hard-liner closely aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The candidate most favored to win is Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the judiciary.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Iraqi Activism Fights for Survival Amid Murders and Threats

BAGHDAD — ‘Who killed me?’ the signs asked, alongside images of dead men and women, among the roughly 80 Iraqi activists murdered since late 2019. Young demonstrators held aloft the posters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, illustrating both the enduring spark and diminished strength of Iraq’s anti-government protest movement.

The demonstrators (publicly) and Iraqi officials (privately) say they know who killed many of the activists: Iran-backed militias that have essentially crushed a grass-roots anti-corruption movement that blames Iranian influence, and the militias, for many of Iraq’s ills. In a country where militias — nominally a part of the security apparatus — operate with impunity, the killers have gone unpunished.

The several thousand young men gathered in Baghdad’s central square Tuesday comprised the biggest protest in the Iraqi capital since the anniversary last October of demonstrations in 2019 that swept Baghdad and southern cities and brought down a government. The movement is driven by anger at the government’s failure to make promised reforms, including curbs on Iranian-backed militias.

But in the shadow of assassinations, kidnappings and intimidation of people who criticize the Iraqi government and Iranian interference, turnout on Tuesday was far smaller than organizers had hoped.

Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are clustered. A few of the protesters responded by throwing rocks as police chased demonstrators down alleys. Security forces said the demonstrators later set fire to security vehicles.

“We expected more people to come but some people are afraid — afraid for their jobs and afraid for themselves,” said one of the longtime activists, Dr. Mohammad Fadhil, a physician from Diyala province, speaking before the clashes erupted.

Another protester, Hani Mohammad, said he had been threatened by a group of fighters three days before.

“They came to my house,” said Mr. Mohammad, naming one of the biggest Iran-backed militias, which he did not want to name publicly for fear of retaliation. He said he had already fled.

A year after taking power, prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has largely failed to deliver reforms he promised in response to the 2019 protests, including reining in Iran-backed militias, which are also blamed for attacks on the U.S. embassy and military installations.

Activists who have been killed include protest leaders in the holy city of Karbala, a female doctor in Basra, and a prominent Baghdad security analyst, Hisham al Hashimi, who advised the prime minister. Many of them were shot dead in the streets in view of security cameras or the police, some in the middle of the day.

Though at least one commander has been relieved of duty, no one is known to have been prosecuted.

“What’s the main purpose of these killings? It’s to deter the formation of leadership among the protest movement,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “So you target key leaders that have the potential of rallying the masses, you eliminate them and then you create fear within the rest.”

She said there was little prospect that Iraqi political leaders would reform the system that elevated them to power, or push back against the pervasive influence of Iran, and that intimidation and lack of support had left the protest movement too weak to create change.

“You need leadership, you need organization, you need political machinery, you need funding for that,” said Ms. Slim, listing elements that the diverse movement lacks.

Ali al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said, “The security establishment is not serious in its efforts, beginning from the investigations within security institutions to bringing the case to the court.”

The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told the U.N. Security Council this month that many of the protest leaders were being hunted down with ‘rampant impunity’ ahead of the early elections they had demanded.

In addition to those assassinated, more than 560 protesters, the vast majority of them unarmed, have been killed by security forces and gunmen during the protests themselves since 2019. Most were shot with live bullets or killed by tear gas canisters that became lethal projectiles after being fired directly into the crowd.

Ahead of Tuesday’s protest, one of the main Iran-backed militias, the Hezbollah Brigades, issued what many perceived as a veiled threat to the demonstrators, saying that it and other paramilitary forces “must protect these young men who are deceived,” so they cannot be used by enemies, including the United States. It accused the protesters of aiming to delay the elections planned for Oct. 10.

The assassinations have had a chilling effect on the political campaign. The grass-roots movement that began in 2019 aimed to end the corruption-ridden system of government in place since 2003, where government ministries have been carved up between powerful political blocs and militias.

Activists originally saw the upcoming elections as a chance for a fresh start with new faces, but now they appear likely to return the same factions to power.

“There are no parties with integrity that I can vote for,” said Hadeel, a 19-year-old university student protesting Tuesday in Baghdad’s Nasour square. She did not want to give her last name.

“After the election we will not be able to even protest because the government is going to be stronger than before and the militias will have even more power.”

Despite the danger, the protests Thursday could be a harbinger of a painful summer in Iraq.

The protests in 2019 spread from the southern coastal city of Basra, where citizens took to the streets to demand public services. Iraq last year recorded life-threatening record high temperatures of over 125 degrees, leaving many to swelter without electricity or even clean water.

This summer, a lack of winter rain, water mismanagement and water conflicts with neighboring Turkey and Iran are expected to result in even worse shortages for millions of Iraqis, misery that could fuel renewed mass protests.

Among the protesters Tuesday, there was little fear of the coronavirus ravaging Iraq, where only about 1 percent of the population has been vaccinated. No one in the demonstrations was seen wearing masks, and social distancing in the crowded squares was impossible.

“We know virus exists,” said one of the protesters, Hamza Khadham. “But the violence, injustice and oppression by the government against the people is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

Falih Hassan, Awadh al-Taiee and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

New Political Pressures Push US, Europe to Stop Israel-Gaza Conflict

BRUSSELS — A diplomatic flurry from the White House and Europe added pressure on Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday to halt their 10-day-old conflict before it turned into a war entangling more of the Middle East.

President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel — their second phone call in three days — telling the Israeli leader he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” administration officials said. Although they portrayed the call as consistent with what Mr. Biden had been saying, his decision to set a deadline was an escalation.

And in Europe, France and Germany, both strong allies of Israel that had initially held back from pressuring Mr. Netanyahu in the early days of the conflict, intensified their push for a cease-fire.

French diplomats sought to advance their proposed United Nations Security Council resolution that would call on the antagonists to stop fighting and to allow unfettered humanitarian access to Gaza. It remained unclear on Wednesday if the United States, which has blocked all Security Council attempts to even issue a statement condemning the violence, would go along with the French resolution.

Twitter post afterward, he said, “I especially appreciate the support of our friend @POTUS Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense.”

confronted Mr. Biden during his trip to a Ford plant, and pleaded with him to address the growing violence in the region and protect Palestinian lives.

Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who witnessed that interaction, said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s reluctance to negotiate a cease-fire had made it harder for Democrats across the political spectrum to defend Israel’s actions.

Some saw the second phone call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu as messaging to placate domestic constituents.

Democrats have been pushing Mr. Biden “to take a tougher line and this was his opportunity to demonstrate that he is doing so,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington group that supports Mr. Netanyahu’s policies. He also said Mr. Netanyahu “does not want to give the impression that he’s been told to end this conflict before it’s the right time to do so.”

For European nations, the intensified push for a cease-fire also is based partly on political calculations.

pro-Palestinian demonstrations have sometimes turned into anti-Israeli protests and anti-Semitic attacks, including assaults on synagogues. Governments fear such protests and internal violence will worsen the longer the conflict lasts.

France is on alert for acts of Islamist terrorism, often from French-born Muslims outraged by events in the Middle East. Germany, which welcomed a million mostly Muslim migrants in 2015, is struggling to contain their anger about Israel.

At the same time, the election of Mr. Trump in 2016 also encouraged a right-wing European populism that is anti-immigration and often anti-Islamic, with a clear political identification with “Judeo-Christian values” and strong support for Israel. That is clear in France, with the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, as well as in Germany, with the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Up until now at least, there also had been a gradual de-emphasis of the Palestinian issue by governments, said Kristina Kausch, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

She attributed that de-emphasis partly to Israel’s shelved plans to annex the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of their own ambitions for an independent state, and to the 2020 Abraham Accords, Israel’s normalization of ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, all big defenders of Palestinian rights. Ms. Kausch said there had been a sense that “the Palestinian cause can be put on the back burner, that Arab countries and people don’t care anymore.”

But this new outbreak, Ms. Kausch said, had shown “that the Palestinian cause is alive and kicking.” And no longer ignorable, at least for a while.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At the beginning of this conflict, he said, the United States and Europe had been “largely sympathetic to the Israeli narrative, willing to give them some space to accomplish their military ambitions.”

similar two-page resolution passed by the Security Council during another fierce Gaza war in January 2009, and on which the United States abstained.

The draft resolution seeks a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to Gaza, the condemnation of the rocket barrages and any incitement to violence, the official said.

In Germany, traditional support for Israel and patience with its military campaign appears to be waning.

After speaking with Mr. Netanyahu on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel “sharply condemned the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and assured the prime minister of the German government’s solidarity,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

But given the many civilian lives lost “on both sides,” Mr. Seibert said, “the chancellor expressed her hope that the fighting will end as soon as possible.”

Mr. Maas, the German foreign minister, said on Tuesday that “ending the violence in the Middle East is the first priority,” followed by political negotiations. But he also blamed Hamas for the escalation.

He appeared to be responding to domestic criticism that the government has been too lenient in the face of pro-Palestinian and sometimes anti-Semitic protests.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented that Germany should “concentrate on internal affairs and reflect that the ‘welcome culture’ extended to refugees was astoundingly naïve when it came to anti-Semitism.”

The question for Germany now, the paper said, “is how do we teach those for whom a hatred of Israel is in their DNA that Israel’s security is part of their adopted homeland’s raison d’être?”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Jim Tankersley and Katie Rogers from Washington. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

View Source

New Political Pressures Push U.S. and Europe to Stop Israel-Gaza Conflict

BRUSSELS — A diplomatic flurry from the White House and Europe added pressure on Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday to halt their 10-day-old conflict before it turned into a war entangling more of the Middle East.

President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel — their second phone call in three days — telling the Israeli leader he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” administration officials said. Although they portrayed the call as consistent with what Mr. Biden had been saying, his decision to set a deadline was an escalation. .

And in Europe, France and Germany, both strong allies of Israel that had initially held back from pressuring Mr. Netanyahu in the early days of the conflict, intensified their push for a cease-fire.

French diplomats sought to advance their proposed United Nations Security Council resolution that would call on the antagonists to stop fighting and to allow unfettered humanitarian access to Gaza. It remained unclear on Wednesday if the United States, which has blocked all Security Council attempts to even issue a statement condemning the violence, would go along with the French resolution.

Twitter post afterward, he said “I especially appreciate the support of our friend @POTUS Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense.”

confronted Mr. Biden during his trip to a Ford plant, and pleaded with him to address the growing violence in the region and protect Palestinian lives.

Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who witnessed that interaction, said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s reluctance to negotiate a cease-fire had made it harder for Democrats across the political spectrum to defend Israel’s actions.

Some saw the second phone call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu as messaging to placate domestic constituents.

Democrats have been pushing Mr. Biden “to take a tougher line and this was his opportunity to demonstrate that he is doing so,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington group that supports Mr. Netanyahu’s policies. He also said Mr. Netanyahu “does not want to give the impression that he’s been told to end this conflict before it’s the right time to do so.”

For European nations, the intensified push for a cease-fire also is based partly on political calculations.

pro-Palestinian demonstrations have sometimes turned into anti-Israeli protests, including attacks on synagogues. Governments fear such protests and internal violence will worsen the longer the conflict lasts.

France is on alert for acts of Islamist terrorism, often from French-born Muslims outraged by events in the Middle East. Germany, which welcomed a million mostly Muslim migrants in 2005, is struggling to contain their anger about Israel.

At the same time, the election of Mr. Trump in 2016 also encouraged a right-wing European populism that is anti-immigration and often anti-Islamic, with a clear political identification with “Judeo-Christian values’’ and strong support for Israel. That is clear in France, with the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, as well as in Germany, with the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Up until now at least, there also had been a gradual de-emphasis of the Palestinian issue by governments, said Kristina Kausch, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

She attributed that de-emphasis partly to Israel’s shelved plans to annex the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of their own ambitions for an independent state, and to the 2020 Abraham Accords, Israel’s normalization of ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, all big defenders of Palestinian rights. Ms. Kausch said there had been a sense that “the Palestinian cause can be put on the back burner, that Arab countries and people don’t care anymore.”

But this new outbreak, Ms. Kausch said, had shown “that the Palestinian cause is alive and kicking.’’ And no longer ignorable, at least for a while.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At the beginning of this conflict, he said, the United States and Europe had been “largely sympathetic to the Israeli narrative, willing to give them some space to accomplish their military ambitions.’’

similar two-page resolution passed by the Security Council during another fierce Gaza war in January 2009, and on which the United States abstained.

The draft resolution seeks a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to Gaza, the condemnation of the rocket barrages and any incitement to violence, the official said.

In Germany, traditional support for Israel and patience with its military campaign appears to be waning.

After speaking with Mr. Netanyahu on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel “sharply condemned the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and assured the prime minister of the German government’s solidarity,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

But given the many civilian lives lost “on both sides,” Mr. Seibert said, “the chancellor expressed her hope that the fighting will end as soon as possible.”

Mr. Maas, the German foreign minister, said on Tuesday that “ending the violence in the Middle East is the first priority,’’ followed by political negotiations. But he also blamed Hamas for the escalation.

He appeared to be responding to domestic criticism that the government has been too lenient in the face of pro-Palestinian and sometimes anti-Semitic protests.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented that Germany should “concentrate on internal affairs and reflect that the ‘welcome culture’ extended to refugees was astoundingly naïve when it came to anti-Semitism.’’

The question for Germany now, the paper said, “is how do we teach those for whom a hatred of Israel is in their DNA that Israel’s security is part of their adopted homeland’s raison d’être?”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Jim Tankersley and Katie Rogers from Washington. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

View Source

A Press Corps Deceived, and the Gaza Invasion That Wasn’t

The Israeli military abruptly announced after midnight on Friday that its ground forces had begun “attacking in the Gaza Strip,” saying it on Twitter, in text messages to journalists, and in on-the-record confirmations by an English-speaking army spokesman.

Several international news organizations, including The New York Times, immediately alerted readers worldwide that a Gaza incursion or invasion was underway, a major escalation of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.

Within hours, those reports were all corrected: No invasion had taken place. Rather, ground troops had opened fire at targets in Gaza from inside Israeli territory, while fighters and drones were continuing to attack from the air. A top military spokesman took responsibility, blaming the fog of war.

But by Friday evening, several leading Israeli news outlets were reporting that the incorrect announcement was no accident, but had actually been part of an elaborate deception. The intent, the media reports said, was to dupe Hamas fighters into thinking that an invasion had begun and to respond in ways that would expose far greater numbers of them to what was being called a devastatingly lethal Israeli attack.

headlined a report by its military reporter, which called the spread of misinformation to foreign journalists a “planned ploy.”

The Israeli press cited the military as saying the plan had worked. That claim could not be independently verified.

Hezbollah missile attack had caused Israeli casualties.

The spokesman’s office waited two hours — long enough for Hezbollah fighters to declare victory and stand down — before announcing that no Israeli troops had actually been hurt.

provided answers with certitude: “This is not a ground invasion. Repeat: There is no ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. I don’t understand this strange briefing.”

By then, according to Israeli reports, the military operation had already concluded.

View Source

Iran Rattled as Israel Repeatedly Strikes Key Targets

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In less than nine months, an assassin on a motorbike fatally shot an Al Qaeda commander given refuge in Tehran, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist was machine-gunned on a country road, and two separate, mysterious explosions rocked a key Iranian nuclear facility in the desert, striking the heart of the country’s efforts to enrich uranium.

The steady drumbeat of attacks, which intelligence officials said were carried out by Israel, highlighted the seeming ease with which Israeli intelligence was able to reach deep inside Iran’s borders and repeatedly strike its most heavily guarded targets, often with the help of turncoat Iranians.

The attacks, the latest wave in more than two decades of sabotage and assassinations, have exposed embarrassing security lapses and left Iran’s leaders looking over their shoulders as they pursue negotiations with the Biden administration aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement.

The recriminations have been caustic.

The head of Parliament’s strategic center said Iran had turned into a “haven for spies.” The former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps called for an overhaul of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus. Lawmakers have demanded the resignation of top security and intelligence officials.

explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant last month. But it was unclear who he was, whether he had acted alone and if that was even his real name. In any case, he had fled the country before the blast, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said.

killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, in January of last year. Israel assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and a brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards, in November.

Even if General Hejazi died of natural causes, the cumulative loss of three top generals was a significant blow.

The attacks represent an uptick in a long-running campaign by the intelligence services of Israel and the United States to subvert what they consider to be Iran’s threatening activities.

Chief among them are a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful, Iran’s investment in proxy militias across the Arab world, and its development of precision-guided missiles for Hezbollah, the militant movement in Lebanon.

daring nighttime raid to steal a half-ton of secret archives of Iran’s nuclear program from a warehouse in Tehran.

Israel has also reached around the world, tracking down equipment in other countries that is bound for Iran to destroy it, conceal transponders in its packaging or install explosive devices to be detonated after the gear has been installed inside of Iran, according to a former high-ranking American intelligence official.

an explosion in the Natanz nuclear plant in July. The explosives had been sealed inside a heavy desk that had been placed in the plant months earlier, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the former chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said.

The explosion ripped through a factory producing a new generation of centrifuges, setting back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by months, officials said.

more recent explosion at Natanz this month except that it destroyed the plant’s independent power system, which in turn destroyed thousands of centrifuges.

It would have been difficult for Israel to carry out these operations without inside help from Iranians, and that may be what rankles Iran most.

execution.

But the infiltrations have also sullied the reputation of the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guards, which is responsible for guarding nuclear sites and scientists.

A former Guards commander demanded a “cleansing” of the intelligence service, and Iran’s vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said that the unit responsible for security at Natanz should be “be held accountable for its failures.”

The deputy head of Parliament, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, told the Iranian news media on Monday that it was no longer enough to blame Israel and the United States for such attacks; Iran needed to clean its own house.

As a publication affiliated with the Guards, Mashregh News, put it last week: “Why does the security of the nuclear facility act so irresponsibly that it gets hit twice from the same hole?”

But the Revolutionary Guards answer only to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and so far there has been no sign of a top-down reshuffling.

After each attack, Iran has struggled to respond, sometimes claiming to have identified those responsible only after they had left the country or saying that they remained at large. Iranian officials also insist that they have foiled other attacks.

were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.

But any overt retaliation risks an overwhelming Israeli response.

“They are not in a hurry to start a war,” said Talal Atrissi, a political science professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut. “Retaliation means war.”

Conversely, the timing of Israel’s latest attack on Natanz suggested that Israel sought if not to derail the talks, to at least weaken Iran’s bargaining power. Israel opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and opposes its resurrection.

the covert, regionwide shadow war between Israel and Iran has intensified with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria and tit for tat attacks on ships.

But as Iran faces a struggling economy, rampant Covid-19 infections and other problems of poor governance, the pressure is on to reach a new agreement soon to remove economic sanctions, said Ms. Vakil of Chatham House.

“These low-level, gray zone attacks reveal that the Islamic Republic urgently needs to get the J.C.P.O.A. back into a box” to free up resources to address its other problems, she said, referring to the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.

View Source

Testing an Opaque Security Power, Michigan Man Challenges ‘No-Fly List’

“For over two years, I’ve tried to get off the no-fly list, but the government won’t even give me its reason for putting me on the list or a fair process to clear my name and regain my rights,” Mr. Chebli said in a statement released by the A.C.L.U. “No one should suffer what my family and I have had to suffer.”

The Justice Department had no immediate response to the lawsuit. But it has defended the legality of the government’s terrorism watch lists and its related practices in litigation over the past decade, arguing that the procedures are lawful and reasonable given the national security interests at stake.

Mr. Chebli’s case is a sequel to a major lawsuit by the A.C.L.U. during the Obama administration that challenged government procedures for reviewing whether it was appropriate to put someone’s name on the no-fly list. In 2014, a federal judge in Oregon ruled that those regulations were inadequate and violated Americans’ Fifth Amendment right to due process.

In response, the government promised to overhaul the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program to ensure that Americans would be told if they were on the list and given a meaningful opportunity to challenge the decision. (It also removed seven of the 13 original plaintiffs in that case from the no-fly list. Several remaining plaintiffs pressed on, but that judge, and later the appeals court in San Francisco, upheld the revised procedures as applied to them.)

Citing Mr. Chebli’s inability to obtain information about the government’s evidence about him or to challenge it in a hearing before a neutral decision maker, the new lawsuit said that the revised procedures are both unconstitutional and that they violate statutory law, including a federal law that protects religious liberty, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, because he is unable to travel to Mecca for the required Muslim pilgrimage.

“More than two years ago, Mr. Chebli filed an administrative petition for redress, but the government has failed to provide any reason for placing him on the no-fly list or a fair process to challenge that placement,” it said. “As a result, Mr. Chebli has been subjected to unreasonable and lengthy delays and an opaque redress process that has prevented him from clearing his name.”

Beyond the Oregon case, the new lawsuit takes its place among a constellation of related litigation that has tested the limits of the government’s terrorism watch-listing powers and individual rights.

View Source