Lebanese wary as Israel destroys Hezbollah border tunnels
By SARAH EL DEEB
Friday, December 14
MAYS AL-JABAL, Lebanon (AP) — As Israeli excavators dug into the rocky hills along the frontier with a Lebanese village, a crowd of young Lebanese men gathered to watch.
The mood was light as the crowd observed what Israel says is a military operation — dubbed “Northern Shield” — aimed at destroying attack tunnels built by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. The young men posed for selfies, with the Israeli crew in the background, as they burned fires and brewed tea to keep warm.
But Lebanese soldiers were visibly on high alert, deploying to new camouflaged posts behind sandbags and inside abandoned homes. About two dozen U.N. peacekeepers stood in a long line, just ahead of the blue line demarcating the frontier between the two countries technically still at war.
The scene highlights the palpable anxiety that any misstep could lead to a conflagration between Israel and Lebanon that no one seems to want.
Underscoring such jitters, shadowy figures appearing across the misty hills of the border village of Mays al-Jabal last weekend sparked panic, and Israeli soldiers fired in the air to warn a Lebanese military intelligence patrol, according to Lebanese reports. Israel said it fired at Hezbollah members who came to the site to dismantle sensors installed to detect tunnels.
Israel’s tunnel search comes at a time when the civil war in neighboring Syria seems to be winding down. Hezbollah had sent hundreds of troops to Syria in 2013 to fight alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. With Assad’s forces emerging victorious, attention now seems to be returning to the tense Israel-Lebanon border.
Israel said its troops have discovered at least three tunnels along the frontier — a tactic used by Hezbollah in previous wars — and called on the international community to impose new sanctions on Hezbollah.
The militant group, which fought a bruising but inconclusive war with Israel in 2006, has not commented on the Israeli operation or statements.
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Thursday that neither Israel nor Lebanon wanted to go to war, but noted that Israel violates Lebanese airspace and international waters on a regular basis.
He said the Lebanese army “will deal with this issue” after receiving a full report from the U.N peacekeeping force, but did not elaborate.
The peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, has confirmed the presence of tunnels and said it is working with both sides to address the situation in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In southern Lebanon on Thursday, Lebanese army soldiers observed the frontier in Mays al-Jabal, taking photos of their Israeli counterparts operating only a few meters (yards) away. At times, the Lebanese soldiers asked the young men to move back, away from the frontier.
Lebanese homes and farms are nestled at the bottom of the hill where the operations run from daybreak until sundown. No civilian Israeli homes visible from that tense border.
Ali Jaber, a 21-year-old resident of Mays al-Jabal, said he believes that Hezbollah is more popular after the Syria war, and that this is the reason Israel is now turning to it. “But whoever puts up a shield and is hiding and making fortifications must be scared,” he said.
Hussein Melhem, a 19-year old electrician from the village, came to watch. His cheeks ruddy on a cold but clear day, he covered his head with a tight hood. He alleged that Israel is trying to change the border.
“If they could occupy all of this, they would,” he said, in an apparent reference to Israel’s 18-year military occupation of southern Lebanon which ended in 2000. “But the resistance will prevent them.”
As a seven-year-old in 2006, Melhem and his family left Mays al-Jabal when Israel invaded. His village was badly damaged but has since largely recovered and he said he found their home intact.
It is hard to forget about war in the villages and towns along the frontier. Pictures of Hezbollah fighters who died in the 2006 war, as well as the one raging in neighboring Syria, known locally as the “Sacred Defense,” are everywhere. Posts on town squares boast of defeating Israel or urge the locals to “know their enemy.”
During the Syrian civil war, Israel has frequently carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian-allied forces, particularly Hezbollah. Israel says it aims to prevent sophisticated weaponry from reaching Hezbollah, which it considers its most pressing security concern.
In Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warnings have raised suspicions that he is also using the tunnel operation as a diplomatic pressure card.
Netanyahu has called for more sanctions against Hezbollah. In a visit to the frontier earlier this week, he warned that if Hezbollah tries to disrupt the search for tunnels, “it will be hit in a way it cannot even imagine.”
In Israel, some newspaper commentators have been critical of the U.N. peacekeeping force, whose mandate Israel and the United States have unsuccessfully attempted to expand to include “intervention and deterrence.”
About 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the north from Mays al-Jabal, Israeli soldiers are also operating along another frontier to uncover what they suspect is a tunnel location.
There, a high concrete wall separates them from the Lebanese village of Kfar Kela. Red-roofed Israeli homes on a hill overlook the diggers, who had cleared peach trees to make room for their work. Lebanese residences, some of them luxury summer homes, sat atop hills hundreds of meters from the wall.
U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese army separately patrol the area. Israel began building the wall in 2012, and this section was completed weeks ago. While graffiti covers the older slabs of concrete, water has collected under the newer segment of the wall.
A U.N. peacekeeping force was working to clear the water after Lebanese residents complained it comes from irrigation drainage from the other side.
Shooting near West Bank settlement kills at least 2 Israelis
By TIA GOLDENBERG
Thursday, December 13
JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian gunman got out of a car and opened fire at a bus stop outside a West Bank settlement on Thursday, killing two Israeli soldiers before speeding away, the Israeli military said.
The military said the assailant also wounded two other people, including another soldier who was critically wounded. It said troops were searching the area for the attacker and that it was sending reinforcements.
Hours later, the army said it shot and killed a Palestinian man who attempted to ram his car into soldiers on a West Bank road. One soldier was lightly hurt. And in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police said they killed a Palestinian assailant who stabbed two officers.
Thursday’s bloodshed extended a violent week that began with a shooting outside a West Bank settlement on Sunday, resulting in the death of a baby who was delivered prematurely following the weekend attack, and continued with the killing of two Palestinians wanted in a pair of earlier attacks on Israelis in the West Bank.
While the West Bank experiences occasional deadly violence, often between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters, most of the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed in recent months has been concentrated in the Gaza Strip, where some 175 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in border protests.
Thursday’s shooting occurred at a location about a 10-minute drive south from the place of Sunday’s attack.
“In recent days, we definitely feel like the situation (in the West Bank) is getting worse,” said Shalom Galil, a paramedic who assisted at the scene of the shooting, told Israeli Army Radio.
Following the attack, Israel set up checkpoints at the entrances to the West Bank city of Ramallah, searching cars entering the city and checking drivers’ IDs. Some Israeli-controlled roads were completely blocked to Palestinian traffic.
Speaking at a military ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “settle the score” with the attacker who killed the two soldiers. “Our guiding principle is that whoever harms us or tries to harm us will be held responsible,” he said.
The clampdown on Ramallah, the Palestinians’ economic and administrative center, was an unusual step that signaled the severity with which Israel viewed the violent flare-up.
Walid Whadan, spokesman of the Palestinian civil affairs ministry, said Israel had not taken such measures in Ramallah since the second Palestinian uprising that ended more than a decade ago.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the gunman fled toward Ramallah and that the measures were also meant to prevent additional attacks. “We know that when there is one attack there may be others,” he told reporters.
He said the army was bolstering its forces in the West Bank with a focus on securing roads and launching a “massive manhunt” for the Palestinian gunman.
Conricus declined to comment on whether there was a connection between Thursday’s shooting and the attack earlier this week, but he said the army was “investigating such theories,” and responding to the current “environment of incitement” in the West Bank.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the latest round of violence, criticizing both militant attacks and the tough Israeli response.
In a statement, Abbas’ office accused Israel of creating a “climate” conducive to violence through its frequent military operations in Palestinian cities. He also accused Israel of incitement against him.
“This atmosphere created by the frequent Israeli raids of the cities, and the incitement against the president and the absence of the peace hopes, lead to this series of violence that both people are paying the price for,” the statement said.
Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim the territories for their hoped-for state.
Thursday’s shooting came hours after Israeli security forces tracked down and killed a Palestinian accused of killing two Israelis.
Israeli police said Ashraf Naalweh was found armed near the West Bank city of Nablus and was killed during an arrest raid.
Israel accuses Naalweh of shooting to death two Israelis and wounding another at an attack in a West Bank industrial zone in October. He fled the scene and Israeli forces have been searching for him since.
Police said they had made a number of arrests in their attempt to hunt down Naalweh and suspected he was planning on carrying out another attack.
In a separate incident late Wednesday, Israeli forces killed Salah Barghouti, a Palestinian suspect wanted in the drive-by shooting earlier this week at a West Bank bus stop.
In Sunday night’s attack, assailants in a Palestinian vehicle opened fire at a bus stop outside a West Bank settlement, wounding seven people, including a 21-year-old pregnant woman, before speeding away.
The militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip said that both Barghouti and Naalweh were members, but it stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attacks the two carried out.
“The flame of resistance in the (West) Bank will remain alive until the occupation is defeated on all our land,” Hamas said.
Also Thursday, police said an assailant stabbed two officers in Jerusalem’s Old City, wounding them lightly. The officers opened fire on the attacker and he was killed, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Police identified the man as a 26-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank. It released security camera footage that shows the man lunging toward the officers and appearing to stab them.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
As sentencing looms, Flynn is upbeat, has adoring fans
By MICHELLE R. SMITH and JENNIFER McDERMOTT
Friday, December 14
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Days away from being sentenced in the Russia probe, former national security adviser Michael Flynn is not exactly hiding his face in shame.
People close to him tell The Associated Press that as the possibility of prison looms, Flynn is relaxed and hopeful, eager to get through Tuesday’s sentencing and move forward. He’ll be the first official in President Donald Trump’s administration to be sentenced in the case.
Flynn has been having fun with his old high school gang, going out on the town to see an Elton John concert and watch the New England Patriots and Boston Celtics play, friends tell the AP. Random people approach him in public with hugs, handshakes and requests for photos. His supporters plan to rally outside the courthouse the day of his sentencing, and a lucrative consulting gig could await him.
The retired three-star general pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the then-Russian ambassador to the United States during Trump’s White House transition. In a filing this week, his lawyers highlighted Flynn’s long and distinguished military service and extensive cooperation with prosecutors in asking that he be sentenced to probation and community service, rather than prison.
The special counsel investigating whether Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign coordinated with Russia has said Flynn was so helpful that he was entitled to avoid time behind bars, even though sentencing guidelines recommend up to six months in prison.
Despite the extensive cooperation, Flynn has not drawn any of the vitriol that Trump has hurled at those who have turned on him — most notably his former fixer Michael Cohen. The president on Thursday called Flynn a “great person.”
Flynn has given 19 interviews to prosecutors, five of those before he pleaded guilty, according to his filing. His lawyers said he turned over thousands of documents, and the special counsel’s office has said that he has also aided a criminal investigation they haven’t yet revealed.
While Flynn’s lawyers acknowledged he had made a “serious error in judgment” and “shown true contrition,” he has an extended group of supporters who believe he’s an American hero being unjustly prosecuted because of his association with Trump. Tuesday’s filing added fuel to that idea.
His lawyers detailed his FBI interview, including that agents did not warn him in advance that it was a crime to lie to the FBI, and suggested Flynn was discouraged from bringing a lawyer into the meeting.
Members of Flynn’s family and friends tweeted this week that he had been entrapped, set up or ambushed by the FBI. His son, Michael Flynn Jr., complained of a double standard with Democrat Hillary Clinton because she had lawyers in her FBI interview.
Trump on Thursday tweeted that the special counsel gave Flynn “a great deal because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated.”
“They want to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements. Sad!” Trump wrote.
In the time since he left the White House just weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Flynn has moved back to Middletown, Rhode Island, where he and his wife, Lori, grew up and where they have a deep social network.
Thomas A. Heaney Jr., a retired Army colonel who has been friends with Flynn since they were 9 years old, said they have been out more than a dozen times in Rhode Island and elsewhere when Flynn has been recognized by people on the street.
“Every single circumstance I’ve been witness to, people are in support of him, and they voice that opinion to him when they see him. And they are upset about the way he’s been treated. That’s the general theme each and every time,” Heaney told the AP.
Flynn has remained mostly out of the public eye since his guilty plea, with occasional public appearances in front of friendly audiences. The closest he’s gotten to commenting on his case was in a campaign appearance for an ultimately unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate in California earlier this year, telling the crowd he wasn’t there “to complain about who has done me wrong or how unfair I’ve been treated or how unfair the entire process has been.”
Several supporters who came together in a private group chat on Twitter plan to rally outside the federal courthouse when he is sentenced, according to organizer Pasquale Scopelliti. Flynn wrote a foreword to Scopelliti’s self-published book, “America First: The MAGA Manifesto,” earlier this year. He said Flynn was not involved in the rally.
Scopelliti said they hope to counteract Flynn detractors who they expect will be shouting “Lock him up!” — a reference to Flynn’s anti-Clinton “Lock her up!” chant during the 2016 Republican National Convention.
“He is our hero, absolutely,” Scopelliti said.
The “hero” label puzzles U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and former federal prosecutor, who said Flynn committed a serious crime of lying to the FBI about a national security matter while in the White House and serving as national security adviser.
He said Flynn may be benefiting from Trump’s labeling of the special counsel investigation as a “witch hunt” and “hoax.”
“I think that’s part of a political campaign designed to discredit the special counsel, but some people do believe it,” Whitehouse said.
As for what’s next for Flynn, those close to him said he has a number of options, including consulting or writing a book. Over the summer, a firm headed by lobbyists who recently represented the government of Qatar announced Flynn was coming to work there. Flynn’s attorneys quickly said he hadn’t joined Stonington Global. As of Thursday, its website still listed Flynn as joining it as director of global strategy. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“His Rolodex has got to be amazing,” longtime friend Rocky Kempenaar said. “I just know he’s not done. I don’t know what he’s got up his sleeve. He loves our country, he just wants to give and give and give.”
Among Flynn’s fans is former Trump national security aide Sebastian Gorka, who worked with Flynn in the White House. He floated another idea on Twitter and Fox News this week: that Trump should bring on Flynn as his new chief of staff.
Michael Cohen claims Trump knew hush money payments wrong
By MICHAEL BALSAMO
Friday, December 14
WASHINGTON (AP) — Shaken and facing a prison term, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer said Friday that Trump directed him to buy the silence of two women during the 2016 campaign because he was concerned about how their stories of alleged affairs with him “would affect the election.” He says Trump knew the payments were wrong.
Michael Cohen — who for more than a decade was a key power player in the Trump Organization and a fixture in Trump’s political life — said he “gave loyalty to someone who, truthfully, does not deserve loyalty.” Cohen spoke in an interview with ABC that aired Friday on “Good Morning America.”
Cohen said that “of course” Trump knew it was wrong to make the hush-money payments, but he did not provide any specific evidence or detail in the interview. Federal law requires that any payments made “for the purposes of influencing” an election must be reported in campaign finance disclosures.
Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Cohen appeared shaken over the series of events that swiftly took him from Trump’s “fixer” to a man facing three years in prison.
“I am done with the lying,” Cohen said. “I am done being loyal to President Trump.”
He added: “I will not be the villain of this story.”
Cohen was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in federal prison after pleaded guilty to several charges, including campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. Prosecutors have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.
The decisions to pay off Daniels, who alleged she had sex with a married Trump in 2006, during the run-up to the 2016 election was made soon after an old “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, in which Trump was heard talking about groping and trying to have sex with women, Cohen said.
“He was very concerned about how this would affect the election,” Cohen said.
The hush money wasn’t initially reported on campaign finance documents and, in any case, far exceeded the legally acceptable amount for in-kind contributions. The federal limit on individual contributions is $2,700.
As to whether Trump knew it was wrong to make the payments, Cohen said, “First of all, nothing at the Trump organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump. He directed me to make the payments, he directed me to become involved in these matters.”
Trump has denied directing Cohen to break the law and has asserted in a barrage of tweets over the last several weeks that Cohen is a “liar” who cut a deal in order to get a reduced prison sentence and to help himself and his family.
Loyalty has long been a core value for Trump, who has been stung by the behavior of Cohen and other former associates who have dissociated themselves from the president, intent on saving themselves. That list also includes former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman and former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.
“He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth,” Cohen said. “And here is the truth: People of the United States of America, people of the world, don’t believe what he is saying. The man doesn’t tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”
“Instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do? He attacks my family,” Cohen said.
Cohen insists that Trump is a different person now than when he was running his real estate empire in New York and said he believes the pressure of being the president of the United States is “much more than he thought it was going to be.”
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement that was signed days before the 2016 election and she’s currently suing to dissolve that contract.
In August 2016, the parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer reached a $150,000 deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair, which it never published, a tabloid practice known as catch and kill.
Cohen insisted he just reviewed the McDougal deal and said the payment was negotiated directly between Trump and David Pecker, the chief executive officer of the tabloid’s parent company.
Both Cohen and American Media Inc. now say they made hush-money payments were to help Trump’s 2016 White House bid. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan reached a non-prosecution agreement with the company.
In a separate case, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his work on a possible Trump real estate project in Moscow and said he did so to be consistent with Trump’s “political messaging.”
The charges in that case were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. Mueller’s prosecutors have said Cohen has provided key information in their investigation. Cohen has said he is continuing to cooperate with investigators in the Russia probe, which the president has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.”
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.