…As Syrian regime targets hospital and refugee camp, killing at least 22***
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted Thursday on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the nation’s attorney general said.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced the decision following lengthy investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged dealings in three cases.
Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister criminally charged while in office. He’s not required by law to step down, but he’s likely to face severe pressure to do so.
Speaking on live TV later on Thursday, the prime minister said it was a very sad day and that efforts to indict him equated to a coup.
“Tonight,” he said, “we are witnesses to an coup attempt against a prime minister through an investigation process which is contaminated and tendentious.”
The bribery charge could carry a sentence of up to 10 years, while a charge of fraud and breach of trust could lead to a three-year sentence.
In one case, Netanyahu allegedly accepted lavish gifts from two wealthy friends — Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer — in exchange for political favors, such as promoting the moguls’ business interests or obtaining visas.
The gifts from Milchan and Packer are estimated to amount to more than 1 million shekels, about $280,000.
Mandelblit recommended charges against Netanyahu back in March.
The case in which Netanyahu allegedly received expensive gifts from the two businessmen in exchange for favors was dubbed “Case 1000.” For that, Mandelbilt recommended charges of fraud and breach of trust.
In “Case 2000,” the prime minister is accused of agreeing to limit the distribution of one newspaper to receive more favorable coverage in another. For that, Mandelbilt recommended a charge of breach of trust.
The third case, “Case 4000,” Netanyahu, while serving as communications minister and as prime minister between 2015 and 2017, allegedly intervened with regulators in a way that benefited the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest telecommunications firm in exchange for positive news coverage on a site owner by that shareholder. He also allegedly demanded negative coverage of political opponents.
In Mandelblit’s announcement of the indictment, he urged for the protection of the legal system and called for the attacks against himself and his colleagues to stop.
He added that he first announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in February and gave the prime minister’s lawyer ample time to prepare a defense. After reading their arguments carefully, Mandelblit said, he and his colleagues rejected most.
At the end of Netanyahu’s televised speech Thursday night he said he’d continue “to lead the country, by the letter of the law, exactly as written.”
“I will continue to lead the country responsibly and with dedication,” he added, “while concerned about our security and future.”
In the meantime, at least 22 civilians have died after the Syrian government shelled a displacement camp and hospital, rescue workers and residents have said, as Bashar al-Assad continues to pound the last pocket of opposition-held territory in the country.
The camp hosting 7,000 people near the village of Qah in Idlib province was hit by a ground-to-ground missile on Wednesday night carrying illegal cluster-bomb submunitions. The attack killed at least 16 people, injured dozens more and started fires which blazed through the flimsy tents.
Another rocket damaged the Qah maternity hospital 30 metres away from the camp, killing two women and six children and injuring four medical workers, the Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) said in a statement. All patients were evacuated and the facility has now been abandoned.
Earlier on Wednesday, Russian military aircraft targeted the town of Maaret al-Numan in southern Idlib, killing six.
“All the children started crying, people started running towards the olive orchards trying to escape,” said Zaher Ghara’a, a 42-year-old resident who has lived in the camp for six years.
“I saw tents burning then heard the White Helmets [Syrian civil defence service], ambulances and fire engines approaching. My cousin’s van was damaged but the tyres were still good so he helped transporting people to hospitals. It was covered in blood by the time he finished.”
It took two hours to extinguish the fires and evacuate the wounded, said Ibrahim Abu al-Laith, a White Helmets spokesman, adding that the area was still off-limits on Thursday due to unexploded ordnance.
Bombardment by Assad’s forces and his Russian allies has killed more than 1,300 people and sent almost 1 million fleeing to the Turkish border since an attack on Idlib and the surrounding countryside began in April.
Wednesday’s attack on Qah, however, was much further north than the campaign’s parameters to date, sparking fears that the already ferocious assault could escalate.
Aid agencies have repeatedly warned that attacking Idlib puts the lives of 3 million civilians in danger and could trigger the worst humanitarian disaster of the almost nine-year war to date. Originally home to about 1 million people, the province’s population has been swollen with civilians displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country.
The incident at the Qah clinic marks the 65th attack on 47 health facilities in the area since April.
The facility was supposedly on a UN no-strike list shared with parties active in Syrian airspace, but Damascus and Moscow have been repeatedly accused of using the GPS coordinates to deliberately target civilian infrastructure.
“I think the regime targeted this camp on purpose,” said Dr Muheeb Qadour, the director of nearby Atmeh hospital, who rushed to the scene to help.
“The hospital is just for women and children and it’s near the border, away from the frontline. There are no military headquarters in this area.”
A ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey in September last year was supposed to save Idlib from the impending regime attack, but it unravelled after the hardline Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) wrested control of the area from more moderate rebel groups in January. A Russian-announced unilateral ceasefire in August was also never fully implemented.
“Turkey is the guarantor of the alleged ceasefire but the regime and Russia haven’t abided by the agreement,” said Ghara’a. “It’s just a weak excuse, a trick.”Many in Idlib have expressed anger at Turkey, which backs Syria’s opposition groups, for abandoning them to focus on Ankara’s new campaign against western-backed Kurdish forces in Syria’s north-east, where it is relying on Russia to act as a mediator.
ABC with additional report from Guardian UK