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At UN, Israeli officials and hostage families demand international action to bring back Hamas captives

(New York Jewish Week) — A photo of 3-year-old Israeli twins, Emma and Yuli Cunio, lay on a brick walkway across from the United Nations, alongside a red rose and two pairs of children’s shoes.

The image was arrayed among dozens of flyers with photos of other captives held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, each sheet headlined with the word “kidnapped.” In the center of the display, an Israeli flag was wrapped around a tree.

The installation was part of an effort by Israelis and their supporters to demand action from the international community to release the hostages, and show support for some of their families as they visited the United Nations headquarters — with many flying in from overseas. The visit was part of two days of programs and events surrounding the families’ visit, part of a broad effort in New York City to keep the world’s attention on the hostages’ plight.

The outdoor display was set up shortly after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres incensed Israeli officials by  linking the Hamas atrocities to Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza.

“It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” Guterres said in a speech. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

Israelis and supporters rally in support of Hamas hostages outside the United Nations, October 24, 2023. (Luke Tress)

That statement led Gilad Erdan, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, to call for Guterres’ resignation — an unusually harsh break between the Israeli mission and U.N. leadership.

“We have not yet finished identifying bodies burned beyond recognition and the U.N. is already blaming Israel for the massacre of our people,” Erdan said. “The secretary-general is responsible for spreading a blood libel. There is no clearer proof that the U.N. has become a stain on humanity.”

In light of the controversy surrounding Guterres’ statement, the families of the hostages hoped to keep the focus on their captive loved ones.

“We are here not only talking about ourselves, we’re here representing 220 families of kids, Holocaust survivors, women, being held hostage,” said Ruby Chen, a New Yorker whose 19-year-old son Itay is being held hostage, after relatives of the hostages met with Guterres at the U.N. “We urge the international community not to talk, which we just experienced now, but to do.”

Alana Zeitchik, whose relatives are held hostage, said, “I still cry as soon as my eyes open,” 18 days after terrorists took the captives on Oct. 7 in a massacre that killed and wounded thousands.

Photos display images of Hamas captives during a rally outside the United Nations, October 24, 2023. (Luke Tress)

“I just want to get them home. That’s all I think about. All we want is for them to come back and we want the world to come with us to help us,” she said.

Erdan, and Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, castigated the U.N. for its perceived inaction in rescuing the hostages. Erdan and Cohen also demanded that Qatar, which funds Hamas and hosts some of its leaders, act against the group. Cohen canceled a meeting with Guterres after his speech linking Israeli policy to the Hamas attack.

But Israelis’ anger at their own government was also visible on Tuesday. When Cohen spoke at an event on Tuesday afternoon in front of the U.N. alongside the hostages’ families, Israeli audience members berated him with cries of “shame” and “resign.” The backlash caused officials behind the podium to be visibly uncomfortable and prompted demands for quiet from Roz Rothstein, the head of StandWithUS, the pro-Israel activist group that led the event.

Efforts in the United States to assist war victims and return the hostages are driven in large part by the organizers and volunteers who, just weeks ago, were leading the protest movement against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.  Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have been repeatedly shouted down at their appearances since Oct. 7 by members of the Israeli public who blame them for not preventing the Hamas attack. Polls show that most Israelis want Netanyahu to take responsibility for the tragedy and resign following Israel’s war against Hamas.

Cohen stuck to the topic of the hostages.

“There are babies that are captives, twins, Holocaust survivors, and we have one mission – to bring them home,” Cohen said above the heckling. “I want to assure you all that we will not rest until everyone will be back alive and secure to his family.”

Earlier, as the families of the hostages arrived at the U.N., hundreds of Israelis and other supporters lined five blocks of First Avenue, facing the U.N. and bearing red roses and photos of the captives. The crowd chanted “Bring them home” as U.N. staffers and dignitaries strode by and tourists lined up on the sidewalk for U.N. guest passes.

Hundreds of people rally outside UN to demand release of Hamas hostages, as Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives at the UN with some of the families

— Luke Tress (@luketress) October 24, 2023

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, declined to condemn Hamas at the U.N. on Tuesday, hustled past the demonstration, surrounded by his security detail. Some of the demonstrators, many of whom wore black, wept and embraced each other on the sidewalk.

“They took every person that they saw, they killed every human being that they saw, so it should be in the interest of the entire world to end Hamas,” said Michal Zussman, who organized the demonstration, noting that Hamas had taken citizens of dozens of different countries hostage.

“We need our son back,” said Ronen Neutra, whose American son Omer, from Long Island, was taken while stationed on the border with his tank unit. “We demand that the U.N. and all the countries that are involved, and there are 33 different countries with hostages, will get involved and work together hand in hand condemning what happened there and bring our kids back.”

The post At UN, Israeli officials and hostage families demand international action to bring back Hamas captives appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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