Israel is carrying out an unprecedented wave of deadly strikes in Syria targeting cargo trucks, infrastructure, and people involved in Iran’s weapons lifeline to its proxies in the region, six sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
The sources, including a Syrian military intelligence officer and a commander in the regional alliance backing Damascus, said Israel had shifted strategies following the Oct. 7 rampage by Hamas fighters into Israeli territory and the ensuing Israeli bombing campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon.
Although Israel has struck Iran-linked targets in Syria for years, including areas where the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah has been active, it is now unleashing deadlier, more frequent air raids against Iranian arms transfers and air defense systems in Syria, the sources said.
The commander in the regional alliance and two additional sources familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking said Israel had abandoned the unspoken “rules of the game” that previously characterized its strikes in Syria, and seemed “no longer cautious” about inflicting heavy casualties on Hezbollah there.
“They used to fire warning shots — they’d hit near the truck, our guys would get out of the truck, and then they’d hit the truck,” the commander said, describing Israeli raids on arms transfers handled by Hezbollah before Oct. 7.
“Now that’s over. Israel is now unleashing deadlier, more frequent air raids against Iranian arms transfers and air defense systems in Syria. They bomb everyone directly. They bomb to kill.”
The intensified air campaign has killed 19 Hezbollah members in Syria in three months — more than twice the rest of 2023 combined, according to a Reuters count. More than 130 Hezbollah fighters have also been killed by Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon in the same period.
The Israeli military did not respond to questions from Reuters about its escalating campaign. A senior Israeli official, briefing journalists on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah had initiated this round of fighting with attacks on Oct. 8, and that Israel‘s strategy was one of retaliation.
Asked last month about a reported Israeli strike in Syria, Israel‘s military chief said Israeli forces work throughout the region and take “whatever action necessary” to show Israel‘s determination to defend itself.
IRANIAN FORCES KILLED
Israel began striking Iran-linked targets in Syria years ago, but sources familiar with the strikes said it had appeared to avoid killing Hezbollah members if it could.
A regional intelligence officer said Israel feared a high casualty figure would prompt a retaliation from Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israeli villages just across the border.
But with exchanges of fire now taking place on a daily basis following the Oct. 7 attack, Israel is willing to be “less cautious and less restrained in killing Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria,” the officer added.
In a televised address on Jan. 5, Hezbollah head Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the group had lost “a number of fighters in Israeli shelling in Syria in several places in the last three months.”
“We had a formula before the [Oct. 7] Aqsa Flood operation — if they killed any of our brothers in Syria, we would respond on the Lebanon front — which was calm. Practically, this formula’s conditions have changed. Why? Because the whole front is lit up now,” he said.
An Israeli drone strike on Dec. 8 killed three Hezbollah terrorists planning possible operations in northern Israel, and another strike on Quneitra in southern Syria targeted two Hezbollah fighters responsible for weapons transfers, the commander in the pro-Syrian alliance said.
Four more were killed in late December in a strike on buildings and trucks being used by Iran-aligned militia groups along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The strikes have also hit Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria. One in early December killed two Guards members, and another on Dec. 25 killed a senior adviser to the Guards who was overseeing military coordination between Syria and Iran.
“He would never have been killed before the new reality that came into force after Oct. 7,” said one source familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking and operations in Syria.
THREAT TO ASSAD
Others have hit infrastructure in southern Syria: one air defense base was struck on Dec. 28 after an anti-aircraft defense system was also hit.
The Syrian intelligence officer said the strikes were hitting defensive equipment even before troops could install it. The airports in Syria’s capital Damascus and northern Aleppo, which Iran has used to transfer arms, have been rendered almost continually out of service by strikes.
“Israel is telling [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad: you are allowing Iranians and Hezbollah to transfer weapons and entrench themselves — so we will disrupt your lifeline and you will find yourself in a tight spot,” the regional intelligence source said.
Israel has repeatedly said it does not seek a second war front in Lebanon or Syria.
Despite the intensification, the Syrian military — which leaned heavily on both Hezbollah and Iran while fighting rebels during its civil war — has not opened its own front.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in a state of confrontation or open war with Israel,” the Syrian intelligence officer said.
Assad himself was discouraged from taking any action in support of Hamas after he received threats by Israel, three sources with direct knowledge of the threat told Reuters.
Two of the sources said the threats of retaliation by Israel were delivered by the United Arab Emirates. A UAE official said such assertions were “baseless and unfounded.” There was no response from Syria’s information ministry to a request from Reuters for comment on the allegations.
The third source said the message resonated with Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah took that threat seriously as it would have cost them everything they had built in Syria in recent years,” he said.
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Major Israeli Tech Entrepreneur Gil Shwed Retires
Gil Shwed, one of Israel’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, announced his retirement on Tuesday, bringing an end to his 30-year tenure as CEO of Check Point, an Israeli software firm.
“This year Check Point celebrated 30 years since its establishment, in which we managed to generate growth and reached a peak in almost every parameter. I feel that this is the right time for me to focus on Check Point’s next leap,” Shwed, 56, said. “We are now looking for a replacement for the position of CEO. It’s a process that will take time and even when it ends I will remain involved. I want to focus less on the daily work, and more on the future of the company.”
Check Point was founded in 1993 by Shwed, Shlomo Kramer, and Marius Nacht. Shwed and Kramer were friends from their time together in Israel’s elite cyber unit 8200.
The company provides AI-powered advanced software and hardware for cyber security to more than 100,000 customers globally, bringing in more than $2 billion per year in revenue.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv and publicly traded on the NASDAQ, Check Point has a market cap of more than $19 billion dollars, making it Israel’s second most valuable company, $2 billion less than automobile giant Mobileye Eye. Shwed’s role as CEO has allowed him to amass a fortune of $4.4 billion due to his 20% share ownership in the company.
Shwed is also a recipient of the Israel Prize, an annual award given to Israelis who have shown a high level of excellence in their specific fields. Shwed was given the first award in the technology field when it was introduced in 2018.
Israel’s Leading Hotel Chain Expands Internationally
Israel’s leading hotel chain Isrotel has announced the opening of their first hotel outside of the country.
The brand, under a new division called ALUMA, meaning “ray of light” in Hebrew, will open its Skylark Hotel in Athens, Greece next month.
“We succeeded in doing the best in Israel, creating a culture that people love, so if you know Isrotel you will want to visit,” Benny Levy, the VP of sales and marketing at Isrotel, told The Algemeiner.
Levy says just because they are expanding outside of the Jewish state, “We aren’t stopping opening in Israel … Outside of Israel the potential is endless, it is a significant opportunity.”
Lior Raviv, CEO of Isrotel, added, “ALUMA is an international chain of hotels that will benefit from Isrotel’s longstanding experience and uncompromising standards of excellence, offering global travelers a wide range of city hotels and leisure resorts to choose from, and providing unique hospitality experiences. As a sister company of Isrotel, ALUMA is guided by our approach to hospitality as a way of life.”
They said most of the workers will be Israelis, ensuring the culture of the brand remains. “Israeli tourists, and especially loyal guests of Isrotel, who return to us time and again due to our hospitality experience and high standard of service, will find those same qualities and sense of a ‘home away from home’ at ALUMA, backed by the international standards of perfection and excellence,” added Raviv.
According to Isrotel, the Skylark hotel will be followed by the Anise Hotel, also in Athens, a month later. An additional hotel in Athens and one in Thessaloniki will open by the end of 2024. They said the total investment in the project is 70 million euros, with plans to expand elsewhere in Europe in the future.
Isrotel has 23 hotels across Israel, including eight in the resort town of Eilat in the south of Israel. Their international move comes as Israel’s National Planning and Construction Council announced this week the changes to the city’s height limitations for hotels, allowing up to 20 floors from the previously permitted eight floors.
Tourism Minister Haim Katz praised the move, saying, “We are bringing good news to Eilat. Hundreds and even thousands of rooms will be added in the city. The move will encourage competition, remove excess bureaucracy for a hotel that wants to renew itself, and allow entrepreneurs who have not yet built to increase supply.”
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Investment Firm Announces Recommendations for Preventing Corporate Anti-Israel Bias
Morningstar, Inc., a Chicago based investment firm managing over $250 billion in assets, has issued a report including several recommendations for reducing anti-Israel bias in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings its Sustainalytics subsidiary assigns to corporations.
For several years, Sustainalytics gave poor ESG ratings to Israel affiliated companies, a practice that led Jewish civil rights groups and lawmakers to suspect that the company was violating state laws against engaging in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate and weaken the Jewish state.
The firm denied the allegations, but a review of the its ratings by JLens, a leading Jewish investor network, found that Sustainalytics created “BDS blacklists” and used in its internal reports “politicized anti-Israel language” to describe Israel. JLens’ work, which was the first to raise alarms about the issue, led to Morningstar’s cracking down on the practices and adopting policies for ensuring that Sustainalytics does not become a BDS collaborator.
Released on Jan. 31, Morningstar’s new report builds on that commitment, outlining several policy changes, including: eliminating a designation which identified companies as being involved in “occupied territories/disputed region,” quashing reliance on disinformative media reports aimed at distorting a company’s ESG rating, and appointing legal experts to examine matters relevant to international human rights law.
“We welcome Morningstar’s commitment to eliminate anti-Israel bias in Sustainalytics research products,” Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on Wednesday. “We look forward to ongoing engagement with Morningstar to ensure the expert recommendations are fully and effectively implemented.”
The ADL took a leading role in combating anti-Israel bias in ESG ratings, incorporating JLens in Nov. 2022. ADL noted at the time that BDS activists target firms managing ESG rated funds, which attracted over $500 billion in investments in 2021, a 55% increase from the previous year, according to JP Morgan. During 2022’s proxy season, a time when publicly traded companies hold annual meetings to assess performance and weigh suggestions from shareholders, Israel was named in eight of 20 resolutions targeting foreign governments, “making the country only second to China.”
Morningstar’s recommendations will shield ESG from political bias and increase its reliability, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law founder and chairman Kenneth L. Marcus explained in a statement applauding the report.
“Anti-Israel external forces are doing everything they can to infiltrate campuses, boardrooms, the [United Nations]., sports leagues, and the securities industry,” he said. “We commend Morningstar for engaging with us, examining their ESG product, and committing to make the changes necessary to ensure that their rating system is apolitical, objective, and honest. We believe that implementing the experts’ report is critical to achieving this goal.”
Ari Hoffnung, managing director of JLens, added that “investor are entitled to research that is both objective and devoid of any anti-Israel bias.”
Last July, Morningstar removed 109 negative “controversy ratings” that Sustainalytics subsidiary had given to companies operating in Israel. The firm has also stopped referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ or ‘occupied territory” and committed to educating its employees about antisemitism and amassing information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from “independent, recognized experts.”
Morningstar, however, has repeatedly denied that it ever supported BDS. In June 2022, Morningstar CEO Kunal Kapoor issued a statement arguing that an external review of Sustainalytics found no evidence that it “encouraged divestment from Israel” but acknowledged that at least one of its departments singled out businesses “linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “sometimes used inflammatory language and failed to provide sourcing attribution clearly and consistently.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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