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“Proof of Life” – New book about Syrian conflict tells spellbinding story of one man’s search for a young American who went missing in 2014

Author Daniel Levin
cover of “Proof of Life”

Review by BERNIE BELLAN The war in Syria which began in 2011 following upon earlier upheavals in the Arab world that were ignited by what became known as the Arab Spring has, by and large, vanished from the headlines of the world’s newspapers.

Once Russia intervened on the side of Bashar Al Assad in 2015, along with Iran and its Hezbollah acolytes, the tide was turned in favour of Assad. It is true that American troops, along with their various allies in Syria, were instrumental in ridding Syria of ISIS, but there were many more factions fighting the Assad regime than ISIS.
The complex world of what really amounted to inter-tribal warfare in Syria resulted in some of the most atrocious acts imaginable committed by all sides in the conflict, although when it came to the use of military hardware to massacre entire populations, Assad’s forces set new levels of barbarity in terms of the degree to which they were willing to gas, bomb, and murder innocent civilians throughout the conflict.

Within this nightmarish world, however, there were many individuals who not only did not suffer at all during the conflict – they actually thrived. Some were members of different militias who capitalized on capturing Western journalists and humanitarian workers in Syria, holding them for huge ransoms when they could.
We in the West were witness to the horrendous brutality that ISIS was capable of when it came to dealing with those captured Westerners – including their beheadings on a regular basis, but other groups were also willing to engage in equally savage treatment of innocent Westerners. In the cases of those other groups, however, the goal by and large was to trade Westerners for money.
Often captured journalists or humanitarian workers would be traded back and forth among groups. There were different reasons for the shuffling around of prisoners. For one, it made it almost impossible for anyone wanting to retrieve those prisoners to keep track of them. Secondly, at different times different groups placed different values on certain prisoners, depending on where they came from and with whom those groups were in a position to negotiate.

Into this hellish world stepped Daniel Levin, a Swiss-born Jew now living in the United States whose expertise is in negotiating with some of the world’s most unsavory characters. Levin is a lawyer by training and his legal negotiation skills were put to good use when he began working “with a European foundation and select individuals in Syria” in what became a project known as “Project Bistar”.
The purpose of Project Bistar, Levin explains in an incredibly fascinating new book (that is yet to be released for sale to the public) titled “Proof of Life”, was to mediate between the warring sides in the Syrian conflict, “in the hope of working quietly behind the scenes toward a negotiated settlement and, at a second stage, identifying young, next-generation individuals of the Alawite, Sunni, Druze, and Christian communities with leadership potential.”
Levin explains that, until 2015 when the Russians intervened on his side, Assad appeared amenable to a negotiated settlement, especially when rebel forces were inflicting terrible damage on his own forces.

With that as background information, in 2014 Levin found himself thrust into a situation totally unexpectedly in which his negotiating skills were put to a supreme test.
As a press release that was sent to me in January described it, “Daniel Levin was at his office one day when he got a call from an acquaintance with an urgent, cryptic request to meet in Paris. A young man had gone missing in Syria. No government, embassy, or intelligence agency would help. Could he? So begins a suspenseful, shocking, and at times brutal true story of one man’s search to find a missing person in Syria over eighteen tense days.”

Thus begins “Proof of Life: The Undercover Search for a Missing Person in Syria, where Arms, Drugs, and People Are for Sale“.

This lengthy preamble to my review of the book was necessary to provide some context for what the book is all about. Since the story that Levin tells – and the events which he describes are all true – although he has changed the names of most of the characters in order to protect the identities of individuals whose lives might be in danger, even years after the events which he describes.
Reading “Proof of Life” is like reading any well-written, fast paced thriller – except in this case, knowing that what you are reading really did happen will often leave you feeling physically ill when you realize the depths to which humans are capable of sinking to the present day. And I’m not just talking about the depravities of various armed groups around the world, many of which are Islamic it must be said (whether in the Middle East, Africa, the Philippines or any other of a number of areas in which offshoots of Al Qaeda or ISIS still hold sway).

Some of the most notorious characters in “Proof of Life” are not at all involved in actual fighting; instead they are the parasites who see opportunities in conflict situations to make vast sums of money supplying such commodities as drugs and women to the fighters.
It was within this dangerous and completely shadowy world that Levin found himself when he was asked to help obtain information about a young American by the name of Paul Blocher who had somehow entered into Syria sometime in 2014 – and disappeared.
As Levin describes it, he was contacted by an old friend who asked him for a favour, which was to use his various and very useful contacts throughout the region to do what he could to find out what happened to Blocher.
What follow sin the book is a complex series of encounters with some fascinating characters, most of whom are Arabs of varying nationalities, in locations including Ankara, Beirut, Washington, Amman, and Dubai, as Levin pursues a trail replete with scattered bits of information that bring him ever closer to the one character who he is certain can reveal what actually happened to Paul Blocher.

Throughout reading this book I couldn’t help thinking that Levin, who doesn’t at all hide his Jewish identity, was quite fearless in his willingness to seek out individuals whose reputations would leave just about anyone else terrified to even go anywhere near them, let alone try and arrange to meet them.
Given that he had been tasked with an assignment that very few individuals in the world would be capable of performing, as you read the very careful preparations he continually put in place prior to his meeting any of these dangerous individuals, although Levin doesn’t describe to any extent how he developed his unique expertise in negotiation and subterfuge, you can only marvel at the thinking he displayed at all times in planning his course of action.

At a certain point in the book though, the name of a drug known as “captagon” began to take on a prominent role in the story. I had to digress from reading “Proof of Life” to acquaint myself with just what Captagon is.
Captagon is a powerful amphetamine that is most popular in the Middle East, where it is both the recreational drug of choice in such countries as Saudi Arabia and the drug that was used by all sides during the Syrian conflict that, in the words of a BBC correspondent describing how Captagon is used in Syria,“gives people a euphoric feeling that they can take on the world and are relatively indomitable. [It] suppresses appetite and gives you a very long burst of energy, something like 18 to 24 hours.”
“Amphetamine use by fighters is commonplace, but I wondered if the specific properties of Captagon made it the perfect war drug.
“ ‘That depends on what your values are in the war,’ “ according to Max Kravits, a researcher who has spent years studying the use of Captagon in the Syrian conflict.
“ It is incredibly deteriorating and debilitating and it makes fighters take risks they otherwise wouldn’t take. But if your goal is simply to take said hill regardless of the human cost, it certainly seems to be doing the job.’ “

As Levin pursued his quest to find out what happened to Paul Blocher, he was led ever closer to the one man who, it is had become apparent from a variety of sources, would be able to tell Levin what happened to Blocher.
That man’s name was “Anas” and if you ever wanted to conjure up a more insidious villain you would be hard put to find anyone more absolutely evil than Anas. When Levin finally saw Anas for the first time – and he made sure that he was carefully hidden so that Anas did not see him, he was blown away by Anas’s physical appearance: A massive six foot five, so muscular that he said Anas’s wrist was as big as Levin’s thigh. (It turns out that Anas was a steroid junkie, which both explained his enormous physique and the almost constant bouts of rage to which he was prone.)
And, although you can’t help but fear for Levin as he entered into the proverbial lion’s den, knowing that this is a true account, the overriding question as he describes his eventual face to face encounter with Anas, was how was he going to pry information out of someone who, it turns out, was actually capable of killing his own child to exact revenge on a wife who dared to leave him.

“Proof of Life” was just recently published (in 2021, as a matter of fact) and the copy I was sent was a review copy. But, as I was reading this incredibly fascinating book (and I know I use that phrase all too often in describing books that I love), I kept thinking to myself: All right, we know that Israel is engaged in an ongoing war of sorts with Iran in Syria, as Iran uses Syria as its base for arming Hezbollah, and that threatens to turn into a major all–out war with Hezbollah, but what of the actual conflict in Syria itself between Assad and all those factions that were fighting his regime? Has it all quieted down or are we just not hearing about it any more?

Here’s the answer, as Daniel Levin writes in his postscript to “Proof of Life” (and again, it was just written in 2021):
“These days, conventional wisdom holds that the conflict in Syria has been decided. The war is over. Bashar al-Assad and his regime won with the help of Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; the opposition, the Kurds, and ISIS were defeated. Sure, some nasty things did happen, but it’s time to move on and rebuild the country.
“Turns out, conventional wisdom is not particularly wise. This war is not over. The killings have not stopped. The chemical gassings, the cluster bombs, the executions, the torture, the human trafficking the annihilation of entire villages – they all continue. For millions of trapped Syrians, the nightmare never ends. A small group of privileged men connected to the regime through family or business have amassed unimaginable fortunes as they control the war economy, trading everything – food, medicine, fuel, heating, oil, drugs, weapons, prisoners, young girls – and looting the destroyed cities for scrap metal, copper, steel, and anything of value. Like in all war, the only ones left are a few extremely rich individuals and many extremely poor people. Everyone in between has been wiped out. Yes, the war economy is alive and well, and this war will last as long as that remains the case.”
The insights that Levin offers throughout this book – and what I just quoted is but one example of the level of knowledge that he brings forth about of what is really going on in Syria – may differ from commonly accepted wisdom about what has happened in Syria of late. Yet, Levin’s profound understanding of the Middle East left me with only one conclusion about the Arab world: It is a cruel jungle, often surrounded by a façade of material wealth that only disguises the fact that it is thoroughly tribal in nature – and an extremely dangerous world in which to set foot.
Lucky for the Israelis who are now establishing connections throughout much of the region – they know what they’re getting into. They’ve been operating in what is probably the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world for a very long time. I’m sure that Israel has a lot of Daniel Levins around who know how to negotiate their way through the metaphorical landmines into which Israel is now stepping.

“Proof of Life” is set to be released to the public in May 2021.

 

 

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Popularity of Online Casino Games in Canada

In recent years, the popularity of online casino games in Canada has surged, captivating the attention of a diverse audience seeking thrilling entertainment. With the convenience of accessing these games from the comfort of home, Canadians are exploring the vast world of virtual casinos that offer an extensive array of gaming options.

Diverse Selection of Casino Games:

One of the key factors contributing to the widespread appeal of online casino games in Canada is the vast selection available. There are hundreds of top casino games online, covering every genre imaginable. From classic table games like poker and blackjack to immersive slot machines with captivating themes, Canadian players have a plethora of options to choose from.

The Rise of Online Slots:

Among the various casino games, online slots have witnessed a significant surge in popularity. The ease of gameplay and the potential for substantial payouts make slots a preferred choice for both seasoned players and newcomers. With themes ranging from ancient civilisations to popular movies and TV shows, online slots offer a diverse and engaging experience for players of all preferences.

Convenience and Accessibility:

The accessibility of online casino games is a key driver behind their growing popularity in Canada. Players no longer need to travel to a physical casino to experience the thrill of gambling. Instead, they can enjoy their favourite games with just a few clicks on their computer or mobile device. This convenience has opened up the world of online gambling to a broader audience, attracting both seasoned gamblers and those trying their luck for the first time.

Technology Advancements:

Advancements in technology have played a pivotal role in enhancing the online casino gaming experience. High-quality graphics, realistic sound effects, and seamless gameplay contribute to an immersive environment that mirrors the excitement of traditional brick-and-mortar casinos. Additionally, the integration of live dealer games brings an authentic touch to online gaming, allowing players to interact with real dealers in real-time.

Regulatory Environment:

The regulatory environment in Canada has also contributed to the popularity of online casino games. While each province has its own regulations, the overall legal framework allows for a thriving online gambling industry. This has given rise to reputable online casinos that prioritise player safety and adhere to strict industry standards, ensuring a fair and secure gaming environment.

Social Aspect and Community Engagement:

Online casinos in Canada are not just about individual gameplay; they also provide a platform for social interaction. Many online casinos feature chat rooms and community forums where players can connect, share experiences, and discuss strategies. This sense of community adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the gaming experience, making online casinos a social activity beyond the solitary pursuit of winning.

The popularity of online casino games in Canada is undoubtedly on the rise, driven by a combination of diverse gaming options, convenience, technological advancements, and a favourable regulatory environment. With a wide array of top casino games available at their fingertips, Canadians can indulge in the excitement of gambling from the comfort of their homes. As the online casino industry continues to evolve, it’s clear that virtual gaming is here to stay and will likely continue to captivate audiences across the country.

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Features

Life in Israel four months after October seventh

Orly & Solly Dreman

By ORLY DREMAN

(Special to the JP&N) Feb. 1, 2024

In every news broadcast that we hear that “The IDF spokesman is permitted to announce”… then every person in Israel sits down, holds their breath and waits to hear the names of the soldiers fallen in action that day. This causes deep sadness to every family in Israel. For example, I found out the son of my T.V technician was killed and my handyman’s son was seriously injured. Death in Israel is so personal.

Our synagogue recently mourned twenty seven year old Inbar Heiman who was kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music nature party on October seventh and was murdered in captivity. She was a gifted young woman filled with love and compassion. She was a creative artist that was supposed to enter her senior year at university this academic year. We had prayed and wished that she would return until her family received the tragic news of her death.

When we made personal medical visits to the Hadassah hospital, we often heard helicopters overhead bringing in wounded soldiers from Gaza. In the surgery department we saw a reserve soldier being released after six weeks in the hospital. His wife and newborn baby were with him. The department had a touching farewell gathering with Israeli flags, music and cakes. This is how every soldier who leaves the hospital is treated. More than fourteen thousand civilians and soldiers were hospitalized since October seventh with most of the injuries being in the hands and legs, burns, head and eye injuries.

We seldom are in the mood to go to a restaurant these days, but if we do, such outings are accompanied by guilt feelings. Is it right to go when our people are suffering?- the hostages are starving. We all wear the metal disc that says “Bring Them Home now- Our hearts are captured in Gaza”. They occupy our thoughts pervasively. Some of the hostages have suffered untreated gunshot wounds and the hygiene conditions are poor, many of them not showering for four months, sitting thirty meters under the ground in dark tunnels, with no electricity and suffering from extreme malnutrition. Some of them have diseases like Celiac, Asthma, Colitis, Diabetes, Fibromialgia, heart diseases and allergies. They are getting no medications and time is running out for them. Twenty five of them have already perished. What sort of civil society will we be if we abandon them?

Whole families are recruited for combat duty in different areas of the country. It might be a brother and a sister fighting in Gaza or a father in Judea and Samaria while another brother is fighting on the Lebanese border. If you ask soldiers who have lost their siblings in combat if they wish to go back to fight after the shiva, they do not hesitate, even though it is so hard on the parents. This demonstrates the dedication of Israeli citizens and their wish to complete the task of exterminating the Hamas, while at the same time knowing their family member did not die in vain. The grief is intergenerational and we are even acquainted with grandparents whose grandchildren are in combat and they are given the opportunity to go to workshops that help them with their anxiety.

In a Knesset Committee it was recently reported That many survivors from the Nova party have taken their own lives. Others continue to experience the trauma of the horrific events. They cannot sleep nor eat. Many were sexually abused and even though they were not murdered they continue to experience the pain- the sights, voices- cries for help and the fear. They are in a sense also fighters who awaken to a new existence everyday and continue to fight for their existence.

At the military cemeteries there is one funeral process after another and the families are asked to leave the site to make room to prepare for the next funeral. Wounded soldiers arrive in ambulances, on hospital beds or wheelchairs in order to eulogize their fallen comrades.

The reservists who return home after months of combat are having troubles adjusting because this war, like the War of Independence, is very meaningful. It is the most justified war our homeland has encountered. Upon their return there is a big downfall in physical and mental energy. A stranger cannot understand this. These soldiers were disconnected from normal civilian routine for a long time and they had difficult and intimate experiences with their combat mates. They have lost friends and did not have time to mourn. They must release the stress they were exposed to. They are back in body but not always in spirit. They also might be recruited again in the near future to the southern or the northern front, the war is not over. Many men who were injured worry about their future fertility and sexual functioning.

They entertain such existential thoughts as would it be better that I am killed in action before I have children and leave no descendants, or losing my life and leaving behind orphans. Dozens of children remain orphaned from both parents. They also have witnessed their family members being murdered and their homes burned down. Years ago, Solly treated and did a follow up on a family where both parents were murdered in a terrorist attack. Even though the children were adopted by loving relatives they suffered from survivor guilt and this expressed itself in such phenomena as dropping out of school, turning into juvenile delinquents and having trouble in intimate relations.

The evacuees from the south and the north are dispersed in hundreds of hotels in the center of the country. Hence, they have no permanent home, have no privacy and many have no work, nothing to do for months on end and experience feelings of powerlessness. Some pupils are not capable of returning to their temporary schools because of anxieties, depression and fear. Some teenagers have turned to drugs and alcohol which increases violence and vandalism. For them school is experienced as a waste of time. Their friends were murdered, some still have relatives in captivity and everything is falling apart. They also experience sleep disruptions and are in no mood to study. For them life is a living hell. Some families are moved from city to city several times. The children do not have friends in the new locations and they feel lonely and express a lack of social support.

In the realm of parenting many mothers even those who were NOT directly exposed to the dramatic events reported that their children cry more (eighty three percent). Others say the children have difficulties sleeping (seventy three percent), have concentration problems (fifty four percent) and many children are developing eating disorders. In sixty percent the anxiety of the children is so high it hurts functioning. For example, they are often afraid to leave the house. Other disturbances were reported such as bed-wetting, insisting on sleeping with their parents and acts of anger and aggression.

We, as Israelis are also concerned with our Jewish brethren who are experiencing thousands of antisemitic incidents, higher than the number of all incidents in the last decade. There are many Jews in the diaspora who are considering emigration to Israel after experiencing antisemitic events such as seeing their synagogue, Hebrew school, kosher butcher and other Jewish businesses being stoned and burned. For them Israel is their safest haven.

On a more optimistic note the Jewish people have prevailed over thousands of years despite terrible events. In spite of the uncertainty not everything is lost. We are united and strong. The soldiers are full of motivation and good values. I firmly believe that if we are patient and persist, the Jewish people and the state of Israel will prevail.

Orly Dreman is a 10th generation Israeli. Her cousin, Ruvi Rivlin, was a former president of Israel. Orly’s father was a diplomat who served both in North America and in Europe.
By profession Orly is an English teacher. She has dealt with children suffering from ADD.
Since childhood, Orly has been involved in voluntary work with the disabled, the challenged, new immigrants, the elderly and others. 

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Features

The Critical Job Roles in Online Business

More companies than ever are embracing remote working. As of 2023, around 16% of businesses have a fully remote working model, with many more adopting a hybrid one. All of this should come as welcome news to anyone looking for a better work-life balance. As well as saying goodbye to grueling commutes, remote employees can embrace lucrative salary packages, generous benefits, and more. Ready to reap the benefits of online work yourself? Below are just a handful of remote working opportunities to consider.

Video Game and Casino Platform Development

Whether it’s creating Canadian online slots for real money casinos or an open-world epic, great games need talented developers. Thankfully, this is one sector where the typical rules of the 9-5 don’t apply. In the US, an experienced game developer can expect to take home around $103,000 annually. For a midweight casino games developer, a starting salary of around $65,000 is fairly respectable.

Software Engineering

If you have a background in software engineering, you’re in luck. Currently, it’s one of the highest-paid online roles around, with an average salary of $108,000. There’s no one size-fits-all remit for a software engineer, but typical roles include designing applications, testing, and creating system upgrades.

UX Design

User experience is becoming increasingly important as companies strive to make their digital products more accessible. Unsurprisingly, there’s a high demand for user experience designers, with many positions now advertised as remote-first roles. You’ll need to have sufficient software and development experience to excel here. What’s more, you’ll need to work closely with clients to meet the needs of the consumer. If you think you could do well in a role like this, expect an annual salary in the region of $97,000.

Web Design

One role you’ll never struggle to find is that of a web designer. It’s a pretty broad field, so expect a lot of disparity when it comes to job remits and starting salaries. At a minimum, a web designer worth their salt should be able to create accessible websites for a wide range of clients. You’ll also need to be familiar with coding languages and testing. Less experienced web designers can expect to command a starting salary of around $43,000. If you’ve been working professionally for more than a few years and have a solid portfolio to back you up, you can easily negotiate twice that amount.

Entry-Level Online Roles

For digital natives, remote working will come as second nature. Don’t have the skills to land a web designer or developer job? Not to worry. There are an increasing number of entry-level remote roles out there.

Customer service roles are readily available, with positions to cater to all experience levels. At the bottom rung of the ladder, you might be tasked with making sales calls or resolving complaints from customers. A customer service agent can comfortably make around $40-50,000 a year. If you operate on a commission basis or can take advantage of a generous bonus scheme, you could easily double this annually.

Is Remote Working Here To Stay?

Even as many businesses encourage workers back to the office, there’s an deniable upward trend in the number of remote and hybrid-only roles on the job market. Video conferencing technology and collaboration tools are making it easier than ever for remote teams to remain connected. Meanwhile, company executives are finding it hard to argue with significantly reduced overheads and increased productivity.

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