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Media Summary

Iran to manage Syrian port of Latakia

The Guardian and Independent report that militants in Gaza have fired two rockets towards Tel Aviv, the first such attack since the war between Israel and Hamas in 2014. The Guardian  reports that Israel has responded by attacking positions in Gaza. Rocket sirens sounded in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, alerting residents to rush to bomb shelters. Videos posted online by locals showed empty streets and captured the blare of ‘code red’ sirens, used to warn of imminent attacks. There were no reports of damage or casualties, the Israeli army said, and no group in Gaza immediately claimed the attack, but in a statement, Hamas’s military wing denied responsibility for the attack. As well as the Strip’s rulers, Hamas, other armed factions operate in the territory, including Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed organisation that has launched rockets in the past. In Gaza, explosions were heard in the north and south of the territory according to Palestinian witnesses who said Israeli planes bombed two Hamas security positions.

In the Guardian, former Israeli Attorney General, Professor Michael Ben-Yair, and five others have put their names to a letter welcoming  the recent UN report into the demonstrations at the Gaza border. The letter says: “The UN Human Rights Council, which mandated the inquiry, is an imperfect body, but the UN commission of inquiry was independent. Its report is a truthful and objective indictment of Israel’s brutal crackdown, while also addressing Palestinian violations.” It concludes: “Next week, countries of the world will have to take a position on the UN report at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. We urge all countries, including the UK, to support it unambiguously.”

Reuters reports that Israel’s Shin Bet security service suspects Iran hacked the mobile phone of Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest rival in the April 9 election. Gantz, a former chief of Israel’s armed forces, was informed of the hack five weeks ago and the Shin Bet believed Iranian state intelligence had accessed the ex-general’s personal information and correspondences. The Shin Bet declined to comment.

The Times reports that Iran is preparing to take control of Syria’s main commercial port, advancing its plans to secure a trade route from Tehran to the Mediterranean and establishing a significant foothold on Israel’s doorstep. Talks began last month to transfer the container port at Latakia, 150 miles northwest of Damascus, to Iranian management from October 1, when its lease expires, according to The Syria Report, which tracks growing Iranian and Russian commercial influence in the war-ravaged country. That would give Tehran unhindered access to the facility, which has 23 warehouses and was handling three million tonnes of cargo a year before the conflict. The port would be the Mediterranean link on an emerging trading route through the so-called Shia Muslim crescent from Iran through Iraq — where Tehran already exerts huge economic influence — and Syria.

In the Times, Richard Spencer asks how long the fragile alliance between Iran and Russia can last. Spencer writes that, traditionally hostile, the two states have become wary friends, bound together by a shared distrust of America. In Syria they have been forced ever closer by the need to protect their key Arab ally. Assad’s power is now assured. His rebuilt army has learnt enough from the war to hold the line with less outside help, but neither Iran nor Russia will want to give up the presence they have fought so hard to win in Syria. Co-existence may not be easy: beyond taking on America, the two have different longer-term goals.

The Guardian reports that at a pledging conference in Brussels on Thursday, foreign ministers have pledged as much as $7bn (£5.3bn) to help Syrian refugees inside the country and on its borders, as European officials consider the possibility of large-scale refugee returns later this year if Russia can persuade Bashar al-Assad to stop his regime’s systematic intimidation and obstruction. The $7bn is short of the UN’s 2019 target of $8.8bn, but an improvement on the pledges made at this time last year. The $7bn total also includes $1.5bn previously pledged to Turkey as part of a two-stage commitment to reduce the number of refugees reaching Europe. Donors at the conference said that the funds must not prop up the Assad regime. In a statement, while acknowledging it may be hard to police, they said: “Funding shall in no way benefit or assist parties who have allegedly committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, or indirectly entrench social and demographic engineering.”

The Independent reports that former UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has said Shamima Begum and other ISIS suspects held in Syria should be brought home to face justice. His comments come after the death of Begum’s three-week-old baby, which has sparked criticism of the British government’s handling of her case. “It is only right that the foreign women at the camp should return to their countries of origin and where it is deemed necessary ensure they face due process,” he told the Independent. He added: “Whatever the possible crimes of the parents, foreign children at al-Hol camp are clearly innocent victims of the conflict and should be repatriated to their home countries in order to ensure their safety and wellbeing.”

Reuters reports that Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to US-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday as the jihadists lost ground in their last shred of territory. Many of the men were limping as they crossed out of the Baghouz enclave along a dirt path over a rocky hill, with weeping children and fully veiled women, dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them. Some men trudged along on crutches with bandages wrapped around their legs. Women hoisted children onto their shoulders to get them up the hill, leaving strollers and blankets behind in the dust. Adnan Afrin, a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said hundreds of people were emerging, adding to the many thousands who have streamed out of Baghouz in recent weeks.

The Telegraph reports that Egypt has begun a desperate bid to curb its birth rate. With the country’s population due to hit 100 million people later this year, Egyptian authorities have launched the “Two Is Enough” campaign to try to convince people to have no more than two children. The campaign was launched at the direction of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s president, who has warned that the dangers of overpopulation are the second greatest threat to his country after terrorism. The strains are already evident as Egypt has 40 per cent less water than it needs for a population of its size, while a battered economy struggles to provide decent jobs for the millions of young people entering the work force each year. A live population clock on the website of Egypt’s statistics authority shows how the public is growing by 2.5 million people each year. Projections show the country could top 150 million by 2050.

The Independent reports that on Thursday, Saudi Arabia resisted growing demands for transparency in the trial of government operatives allegedly behind the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey, where Khashoggi’s killing took place, said Interpol had issued “red notices” for 20 suspects at the request of the Istanbul prosecutor pursuing the case. The move is meant to put pressure on Riyadh. Rejecting growing calls for an international inquiry, president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission Bandar al-Aiban claimed the defendants had been brought to a third hearing after their 3 January indictment. But Turkey and others have demanded more transparency in a trial that has been largely hidden from public view. “Shedding light on the incident and bringing to justice all murderers and instigators is a requirement under our international order and a guarantee of the kingdom’s international reputation,” said Fahrettin Altun, a spokesperson for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a statement. The statement added: “We urge Saudi Arabia to tell the world which individuals are currently on trial on what charge(s), in order not to raise any questions about the sincerity of the judicial proceedings in the kingdom.”

All the Israeli media report on the unexpected missiles fired towards Tel Aviv last night. Haaretz notes this is the first time missiles were fired at the middle of the country since 2014. Maariv includes the reactions from across the political spectrum. “Anyone who thinks that you can buy quiet by paying protection money to Hamas, this is the result,” said MK Omar Bar-Lev of the Labour Party. New Right Chairman Naftali Bennett also criticised government policy fiercely: “It doesn’t matter who was behind the rocket fire, Hamas is responsible. I have been saying clearly this past year: anyone who is lenient toward people who send kites, will get missiles. Anyone who displays restraint toward rockets on Sderot, will get missiles on Tel Aviv. The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all. Not by responding again with firing at sand dunes and not hitting the enemy, but rather with an uncompromising pursuit and systematic assassination of Hamas’s leaders. I call on the prime minister to assign the IDF the task of presenting a plan to defeat Hamas to the security cabinet.” Union of Right Wing Parties Chairman Rafi Peretz joined the criticism: “In response to the Qatari cash suitcases, we received an evening of missiles on Tel Aviv. They fire and we pay. The time has come to stop containing Hamas and to act to topple the Hamas government.” Israel Beteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman, a former defence minister, said: “Just this week the government approved another 20 million dollars for Hamas. Even more protection money does not buy quiet.” In Yediot Ahronot former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, number four on the Blue and White election list, said: “We back the IDF. We must respond with might and not blink. Only a strong offensive action will restore the deterrence that was eroded.” Moshe Kahlon said: “This is very serious and we will respond as necessary. Nobody has immunity. All the organisations in the Gaza Strip are terrorist organisations and this is how they should be treated. I will support a return of the targeted killings policy because I think that nobody in Hamas’s political ranks, or in any other terrorist organisation, has immunity.”

Yediot Ahronot, refers to last night missiles as “Unexpected and Insane” adding: “Something exceptionally unusual had to have happened in the Gaza Strip in the days and hours before the rocket fire to prompt Hamas to decide to break all the rules and to risk another war with Israel. There is no other way to explain this unpredictable and perhaps insane course of action of rocket fire at Israel … that’s why the explanation for this perhaps should be sought in a malfunction or in a panic attack of Hamas’s leaders, out of a fear for their survival in power. The most dramatic event that took place in the day before the rocket fire were large demonstrations by residents of Jabalya because of the economic situation … Hamas’s strength on the Gaza street stems from its ability to read its mindset correctly. Its leaders realised that this was not another demonstration but rather the start of a process that is liable to spell a Palestinian spring in the Gaza Strip, and it decided to block this deterioration by means of its usual solution: directing the anger at Israel.” In conclusion: “The ball is in Israel’s court. Jerusalem can decide that this was an operational malfunction by Hamas and respond in a brief, measured way … or it can leave the score unsettled for now and deliver a blow to Hamas at a timing that it determines … and there is another option, a comprehensive military operation, on the ground and in the air, whose one goal will be to break Hamas’s military strength and bring about quiet for many years, at the cost of a ground operation for a certain amount of time. Israel will eventually do that. The question on the prime minister’s desk right now is whether to do that now.”  In Israel Hayom, Yoav Limor writes: “Ever since the clashes on the border fence began (March 30 of last year), Israel has done all it can to avoid a large-scale clash … the rocket fire on Tel Aviv will force Israel to deviate from this policy, and not just because it’s election season, where the government will be hard put to look weak after a prolonged period of restraint vis-à-vis Hamas. The rocket fire itself — coming late at night, out of nowhere and for no discernible reason — cannot go unanswered without a serious and disproportionate response … Israel is likely to exercise force on a scale that Gaza has not seen since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it will also move to an accelerated level of preparation, since the war will be complicated and require ground action as well.”

All the newspapers report on Channel 12 News’s revelation last night that Benny Gantz’s mobile phone was hacked by Iranian intelligence. In a statement the Blue and White party said: “We don’t comment on issues that are at the heart of state security. It is important to emphasize that this incident happened four years after Gantz finished his tenure as chief of staff, a fact that raises many questions regarding the timing of the report’s publication.”

Yediot Ahronot and Maariv report that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced a plan to reform the selection process for Supreme Court justices, which will include a public hearing in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on each candidate. In its last term, the committee appointed 334 judges, including six to the Supreme Court, constituting 40 per cent of all Supreme Court justices. “When the Supreme Court enters the public arena and discusses moral issues, there is no reason why the public should not know the views of any judge and recognise their legal and ethical worldviews.”

Maariv has published a new opinion poll. The Blue and White party is predicted to win 31 seats, Likud 28 seats, Labour 10 seats, United Torah Judaism, the Unified Right and Hadash-Tal 7 seats, Shas 6 seats, Meretz, Kulanu, New Right, Zehut, Balad-Raam and Israel Beteinu all with 4 seats each.