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The Murder of Yasser Arafat: "Powerful" - The Times of London

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Lieberman's last waltz?

The Independent

Blow to Netanyahu as top Israeli politician faces corruption charges


 
JERUSALEM
 

The former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ex-nightclub bouncer who became one of the country's most powerful and controversial politicians, faces career oblivion after being charged with corruption.

The Moldovan-born leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our home") party had joined with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party to present a joint list for the general election on 22 January. The merger, designed to strengthen Mr Netanyahu's hand, could now cost him dearly.

Mr Lieberman was indicted at Jerusalem Magistrates Court today on charges of fraud and breach of trust. The 54-year-old is accused of engineering the appointment of an Israeli ambassador to Latvia as payment for a political favour related to another corruption case against Mr Lieberman.

He formally resigned as Foreign Minister two weeks ago after three stormy years in the post, in response to a milder indictment. At the time, he requested an expedited process in order to clear his name before Israel's election. It now seems unlikely that the trial will be concluded by then.

The revised indictment filed by the Israeli state prosecutor carries a charge of "moral turpitude" that would ban Mr Lieberman from holding public office for seven years. A key witness, according to the charge sheet, is the Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former ally and party colleague who was dumped by Mr Lieberman from the election list, effectively ending his political career.

A spokesperson for Yisrael Beiteinu said Mr Lieberman "wants to see the matter quickly resolved in court".

Mr Lieberman's increasingly tangled legal predicament is likely to increase the problems facing Mr Netanyahu.

Far from strengthening his position, since merging the election lists of the two parties, polls predict their combined strength in the new Knesset will fall from 42 seats to 37 seats.

Likud appears to be losing support to the hardline pro-settler Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett, a rising new star who, like Mr Lieberman, is a former chief of staff to Mr Netanyahu.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Is Israel hiding the secret source of Christianity?

By MATTHEW KALMAN
The Times of Israel, December 28, 2012

Were the final resting-places of the family and disciples of Jesus discovered 30 years ago and then hidden as part of a religious-political conspiracy?

The archaeological controversy swirling around two Roma-era burial tombs in Jerusalem refuses to die. Indeed, it has become something of an ugly academic slugfest.

In one corner stands the Israeli archaeological establishment represented by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Professor Amos Kloner of Bar-Ilan University, backed by various respected archaeologists and scholars. In the other stands Simcha Jacobovici, the filmmaker and self-styled “Naked Archaeologist,” backed by another group of respected archaeologists and scholars.

Read the full post HERE

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Bethlehem's new boom


The Independent

O little town with big ideas: Welcome to Bethlehem

Come all ye tourists: that's the message from Bethlehem, which is having some success in overcoming high unemployment and the Israeli blockade, writes Matthew Kalman

 
 
SUNDAY 23 DECEMBER 2012
After years of financial depression amid violent confrontation with Israel, the West Bank city of Bethlehem is celebrating the beginnings of an economic revival.

The ancient city, built around the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square that marks the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born, has recently been re-energised by a combination of overseas investment, micro-finance initiatives and a record-breaking tourism rush.

Despite its location just a few miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem has been cut off from the city since 2003, when Israel hastily erected a security wall during the violence of the four-year-long second Intifada, or mass uprising, citing the need to protect Israeli citizens from Palestinian terror attacks.

Since then, tourism has ebbed during times of conflict and increased – if not exactly flowed – during times of relative peace.

For Bethlehem, the Christmas season has long been regarded as the backbone of the city's economy – a time when increased numbers of tourists bring work and money to the West Bank town – but local businesspeople are now heralding signs that its popularity may begin to stretch further across the year.

Changes in local banking practices initiated by the Palestinian Monetary Authority in 2010 are now bearing fruit, allowing young Palestinian entrepreneurs to take advantage of hundreds of millions of pounds in small-business loans to open new manufacturing and services companies.

Jevara Kharoufeh, who left the family business of carving crucifixes and other religious mementos from local olive wood, successfully launched DejaVu – the city's first bowling alley with a 300-seat restaurant, bar and conference centre – in August with the help of a series of loans.

Mr Kharoufeh was keen for his enterprise to create a new experience for the town's youth.

"We cannot get easily to Jerusalem or Ramallah, so we need to create our own nightlife here in Bethlehem," he said. But it was also intended to give Bethlehem residents new hope of overcoming the high level of unemployment, which many blame on the ban on most Palestinians crossing into Israel to work. DejaVu employs 40 local people, rising to 70 during Ramadan.

The town's new mayor, Vera Baboun – the first woman to hold the post– told The Independent: "In Bethlehem we have the highest rate of unemployment in the West Bank – 18 per cent. We hope that with the change in city council we can look to a better situation."

The Chamber of Commerce, together with the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and the Italian Consulate, have awarded more than 20 micro-finance loans of up to €7m (£5.7m), interest-free, to small business owners such as Abeer Karam.

The Catholic Church has been one of the main organisations to encourage investment, hoping to stem Christian migration from the area and to help Bethlehem's residents overcome the economic crisis.

Ms Karam was born to a Palestinian family in Kuwait and was expelled when Saddam Hussein invaded the Gulf state in 1991. On arriving in Bethlehem she opened a dressmaking and repair business that employed one full-time assistant plus three seamstresses working from their homes.

After receiving a San Miniato micro-loan, she has doubled the space she rents in the El Khoudri Tijari Centre in Bethlehem's Old City, bought a steam press and replaced her old sewing machine with four new ones. She now employs three full-time assistants and 25 homeworkers. Her wedding dresses, combining traditional Palestinian and Bedouin needlework with modern fabrics, sell for up to £800 each to customers from around the world.

The financial incentives have also given rise to social enterprises. Nancy and Susan Atallah used their San Miniato loan to open Diva, a coffee shop where single young women, who mostly stay at home after dark, in accordance with Bethlehem's strict traditional social codes, can spend an evening in safe surroundings without igniting harmful gossip.

New additions to the town's fledgling entertainment industry only boosts tourism, and vice versa. Foreign tourists must pass through Israel or the Israeli-controlled border crossing from Jordan, to visit Bethlehem. Shopkeepers and cafĂ© owners have long lamented that organised day tours to Bethlehem from Israel – the most common way for tourists to visit – were costing their businesses dearly.

Now, as foreign tourism to Israel has increased to record levels, so have visitors to Bethlehem, pushing up demand for trips that last longer than one day, and so lifting income.

Samir Hazboun, the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, says 13 new hotels in the past five years – with two more opening in 2013 – have increased the number of rooms from 1,000 to 5,000. The increase in hotel rooms has resulted in a record 1.8 million overnight tourism stays this year – a 25 per cent increase on 2011.

"There is a very high trend in opening new restaurants, coffee shops and hotels," Dr Hazboun said. "It's a chain. If you open a new hotel it helps the baker, the butcher, the dry-cleaner and everyone who provides services."

However, despite the excitement of new projects and cash injections, Bethlehem's economy remains fragile, and is sensitive to political upheaval. During the week-long Israeli assault on Gaza in November, which killed more than 160 people, West Bank hotels closed and laid-off workers and hundreds of Christmas reservations were cancelled.

On Star Street, the traditional gateway to the old city, 87 of the 102 shops have been closed since the Intifada began in 2000. Restrictions on movement resulting from the Israeli security barrier have cut off hundreds of families from thousands of acres of land, reducing their income and contributing to poverty and unemployment. The failure of the Palestinian Authority to pay government salaries – because of Israel's refusal to transfer tax funds – also reduces local spending power.

On Manger Square, 27-year-old Nabil Giacaman works at Christmas House, the olive-wood factory outlet founded by his grandfather Elias in 1925. Mr Giacaman's family arrived from Italy with the crusaders in the 14th Century. While he acknowledges the improving economic conditions in recent years, the isolation from Jerusalem and the uncertain future of relations with Israel still loom large.

"I have the right to live in freedom without walls and without checkpoints," Mr Giacaman said. "They took ten acres of our olive groves when they built the wall. I have a permit to go through but I can't haul the harvest back without workers, and who knows when the soldiers might open fire? I don't want to die for olives."

Nor does he expect any great improvement after the Israeli elections in January, the results of which are unlikely to change the blockades and the financial penalties imposed by Israel on the West Bank.

"I'm 100 per cent for peace, but I don't hold out much hope," he said. "I don't expect the elections will have any effect on Israeli policies. History says there has been war here since the time of Jesus. We have a saying here: The land of Jesus will always cry."

NRA drags Israel into Sandy Hook firing line


Israelis shoot down NRA's claim that the Jewish State uses more weapons to keep schools safe

In recent years, restrictions on gun ownership in Israel have been tightened, not relaxed.

BY MATTHEW KALMAN / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2012
Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association, appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington D.C. in this December 23, 2012 handout photo.   REUTERS/William B. Plowman/NBC/Handout  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

HANDOUT/REUTER

Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association, appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington D.C. December 23, 2012

JERUSALEM — When it comes to Israel and school shootings, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Israeli security experts said Sunday.

Such shootings are very rare in Israel and have been associated with terror attacks, not crazed gunmen, they said.

Appearing on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, NRA honcho LaPierre said: “Israel had a whole lot of school shootings, until they did one thing. They said we’re going to stop it and they put armed security in every school and they have not had a problem since then.”

But Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the situation in Israel was “fundamentally different” from that in the United States.

“We didn’t have a series of school shootings, and they had nothing to do with the issue at hand in the United States. We had to deal with terrorism,” said Palmor.

“What removed the danger was not the armed guards but an overall anti-terror policy and anti-terror operations which brought street terrorism down to nearly zero over a number of years,” he said. “It would be better not to drag Israel into what is an internal American discussion,” he added.

“There is no comparison between maniacs with psychological problems opening fire at random to kill innocent people and trained terrorists trying to murder Israeli children,” said Reuven Berko, a retired Israeli Army colonel and senior police officer.

In recent years, restrictions on gun ownership in Israel have been tightened, not relaxed.

“Israeli citizens are not allowed to carry guns unless they are serving in the army or working in security-related jobs that require them to use a weapon,” said Berko.

The worst attack on an Israeli school was in 1974, when terrorists from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine took 115 people hostage in a school in Maalot in northern Israel. Twenty-five people were killed as Israeli commandos stormed the building, 22 of them children.

“The attempt to compare the two tragedies is absurd,” said Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University. “Palestinian terror attacks like one one at Maalot — the goal of which was to use the children as hostages in order to free other terrorists — are totally different from crimes committed by deranged people with guns.”

Despite having a standing army of more than 100,000 and police and security guards carrying guns on the street, Israel has strict firearms licensing and supervision.

Licenses must be renewed regularly and cannot be issued to people with a history of mental problems or a criminal background.

“In a country where hundreds of thousands of people carry firearms, it is essential to manage the training, licensing and authorization of those who wish to be armed,” said Yakov Amit, head of the firearms licensing department of the Public Security Ministry.

One wise woman, three wise men

After 1,500 years, frankincense returns to the Holy Land in time for Christmas

By MATTHEW KALMAN
The Times of Israel, December 23, 2012

KIBBUTZ KETURA, ISRAEL – Seven years after I revealed her success in sprouting a 2,000 year-old date palm seed found on Masada, botanist Dr Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has done it again.

1,500 years after the last frankincense tree disappeared from the Holy Land, Dr Solowey has managed to grow the first shoots of a tree whose scented white sap was once worth more than gold.

At Kibbutz Ketura deep in Israel’s Negev Desert, Dr Solowey is carefully nurturing the fragile sapling in her greenhouse, where she is also growing myrrh and balm of Gilead – probably the “gold” brought by the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.

“This is the first frankincense tree to set seed in Israel in 1500 years,” Dr Solowey told me as she presented the tiny sapling for its first public photo-call this week. “It was necessary to bring this variety back to the country because the last people growing these trees near the Dead Sea left and the trees left with them.”

Read the full post HERE

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Syria bombs Palestinian refugees

PRESS RELEASE: Statement by UNRWA on today's events in Yarmouk camp, Syria

UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi has appealed to the Syrian
authorities, and all parties to the conflict, to safeguard the security of
Palestine refugees wherever they reside in Syria. Grandi's appeal takes on
an urgent nature following today's events.


STATEMENT BY UNRWA ON TODAY'S EVENTS IN YARMOUK CAMP, SYRIA

UNRWA PRESS RELEASE / For immediate release

Horrific images captured by news agencies, and reports of numerous
casualties and the flight of Palestine refugees from Yarmouk camp are being
followed up and assessed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency
(UNRWA) with extreme worry and grave concern.

Initial reports indicate that air strikes hit the centre of Yarmouk, and the
camp is said to be in a chaotic state; with ongoing fighting in the southern
parts of the camp inching north-wards, and reports coming in of families
trying to escape on foot as cars and other forms of transportation are not
able to move within the camp.

UNRWA has repeatedly warned that if all parties to the Syrian armed conflict
fail to fulfil their obligations to protect Palestine refugees and respect
their neutrality, the consequences would be devastating and long lasting.
The Agency has advocated to maintain the neutrality of the 525,000 Palestine
refugees in Syria and not implicate them in the conflict. The horrible
events of today raise serious questions about the stability and protection
of the Palestine refugees in Syria.

Thus far, a significant number of Palestine refugees, as well as Syrians,
have been killed, injured and compelled to leave. The killings in Yarmouk
today send a clear and unfortunate signal that calls by UNRWA and others on
all parties to spare civilians and to respect the neutrality of Palestine
refugees are going unheeded.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi has appealed to the Syrian
authorities, and all parties to the conflict, to safeguard the security of
Palestine refugees wherever they reside in Syria. Grandi's appeal takes on
an urgent nature following today's events.

The Agency will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves, and its
dedicated staff will continue to assess the situation and render any needed
assistance.

--Ends--

Quartet out of tune


The Independent

'Useless, useless, useless': the Palestinian verdict on Tony Blair

Former Prime Minister's role as representative of Middle East Quartet comes in for fiercest criticism yet

 
JERUSALEM
 
SUNDAY 16 DECEMBER 2012
 

Palestinian officials say Tony Blair shouldn't take it personally, but he should pack up his desk at the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem and go home. They say his job, and the body he represents, are "useless, useless, useless".

Mr Blair became the representative of the Middle East Quartet – the UN, EU, US and Russia – a few weeks after leaving Downing Street. Last week, he visited the region for what he said was the 90th time since being appointed in June 2007. He spends one week a month based in Jerusalem or globetrotting on behalf of the Quartet. His office is funded by the Quartet members and his 24-hour security detail is on secondment from Scotland Yard but he receives no direct salary.

After four years of renting 15 rooms at the American Colony Hotel for his full-time staff, Mr Blair put down more permanent roots in 2011 by renting the penthouse of a new office building in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.

But senior Palestinian officials and analysts told The Independent the move was unnecessary – his sojourn in the region should be cut short. "The Quartet has been useless, useless, useless," Mohammed Shtayyeh, an aide to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said last week. He suggested that its constant need to reach internal consensus among its warring participants had rendered it ineffective.

"Always the statement of the Quartet really means nothing because it was always full of what they call constructive ambiguity that really took us to nowhere," said Mr Shtayyeh, who had just ended a meeting with Mr Blair. "You need a mediator who is ready to engage and who is ready to say to the party who is destroying the peace process 'You are responsible for it'," he said.

Mr Shtayyeh is not alone. Last February, the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution pronounced the body already dead in a report bluntly entitled The Middle East Quartet: A Post-Mortem.

"The Quartet has little to show for its decade-long involvement in the peace process. Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to resolving the conflict, and in the few instances in which political negotiations did take place, the Quartet's role was usually relegated to that of a political bystander," said the report. "Having spent most of the last three years in a state of near paralysis, and having failed to dissuade the Palestinians from seeking UN membership and recognition in September 2011, the Quartet has finally reached the limits of its utility.

"The current mechanism is too outdated, dysfunctional, and discredited to be reformed. Instead of undertaking another vain attempt to 'reactivate' the Quartet, the United States, the European Union, United Nations, and Russia should simply allow the existing mechanism to go quietly into the night," the report concluded.

Mr Blair rarely travels to Gaza, citing security reasons. The Quartet website features a number of achievements in the West Bank, including the removal of Israeli army checkpoints and upgraded facilities for exports. Palestinian and Israeli officials told The Independent that the Quartet appeared to be taking credit for other people's work.

"I think in general Palestinians are disappointed by the performance of the Quartet," said Ghassan Khatib, vice-president of Birzeit University near Ramallah and a former Palestinian Authority cabinet minister. "I cannot think of any serious thing that the Quartet succeeded to help us in.

"Sometimes Tony Blair speaks about removing checkpoints, but I think Israel was going to remove these checkpoints with or without the Quartet," said Dr Khatib. He said the Quartet's announcements about assisting the Palestinian economy were as hollow as their political achievements, but he stressed that his attitude wasn't personal. "It has nothing to do with Tony Blair … I think it's the Quartet that failed to deliver."

Mr Blair's Jerusalem office did not respond to a request for a comment.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Furore over Israeli settlement plans


The Independent

'If they build here, there will never be peace with Israel'

As Israeli plans to build settlements on the disputed E1 area continue, Matthew Kalman meets the Bedouin people of Ma'ale Adumim who face eviction from the land

MATTHEW KALMAN  MONDAY 10 DECEMBER 2012

From the roof of City Hall in Ma'ale Adumim, municipality spokesman Hezki Zisman has a glorious view in all directions that doubles as a basic geography primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From a distance, the undulating hills, Bedouin encampments and limestone villages rising to the tower-topped mountains of Jerusalem radiate a natural beauty that seems to provide a storybook setting for peace. On closer inspection, the landscape is dotted with military checkpoints and bisected by a concrete security barrier to halt the passage of would-be suicide bombers into Israeli-controlled territory.

As both sides search for the elusive formula that might defuse the conflict that divides the residents of neighbouring hills, recent plans announced by Israel have raised fears that the delicate political tapestry of this complex landscape will be permanently altered.

To the west, the outskirts of East Jerusalem cascade over the Mount of Olives into the deep valley that divides this large West Bank settlement of 40,000 residents from the nearby Israeli capital. To the south lies Abu Dis, a Palestinian-controlled village and home of Al-Quds University, where Yasser Arafat constructed a parliament building for the future state of Palestine only to see it sealed off from neighbouring Jerusalem by the 30-foot high Israeli security wall. To the east, the spectacular folds of the Judean desert plunge 700 metres towards Jericho and the Dead Sea before the horizon soars again up to Amman and the Mountains of Moab.

But Mr Zisman's focus today is to the north, across the main highway leading from Jerusalem to Jericho, where the mayor of Ma'ale Adumim unveiled a plaque in September 2009 renaming the five-square-mile plot of largely barren hillsides as the settlement's newest neighbourhood, Mevasseret Adumim.

"There is no more land, no other area for Ma'ale Adumim to expand in any direction," Mr Zisman says. "It's important because we want to come close to Jerusalem. It's a strategic place for the country. It sits on the main road."

The area, known as E1, has remained almost deserted despite the mayor's plaque. A single winding road dotted with roundabouts leads to the only permanent building, a heavily fortified regional police HQ opened in 2008. There are street lights, electricity cables and water mains, but no houses. Plans to build 3,900 homes have been frozen by international pressure since 2004. A bridge linking the area to the mother settlement across the highway constructed a decade ago has been blocked by boulders.

The Palestinians consider E1 a vital land bridge linking Ramallah and Nablus in the northern West Bank to Bethlehem and Hebron in the south. Its border would allow the future Palestinian state one of its few points of strategic contact with East Jerusalem.

"If implemented, these plans would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve," says Foreign Secretary William Hague.

But last week, Israel defied international objections and revived the E1 development plan in response to the PLO's successful upgrade of its mission at the United Nations to the position of a non-member state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday: "Everybody understands that these suburbs are going to remain part of Israel as a final settlement of peace. The same applies to the narrow corridor that connects Ma'ale Adumim to Jerusalem. This was part of all the plans."

He added: "You'll have a Palestinian state between Gaza and Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, and they are divided by 60 kilometres. That doesn't preclude a Palestinian state, but the fact that Ma'ale Adumim will be connected to Jerusalem in a corridor that is two, three kilometres long, that somehow prevents a Palestinian state. That's not true. It's simply false."

But Abdullah Arare, a Bedouin shepherd tending his flock of 450 goats with his daughter on a hill in E1 overlooking the police station, is certain the Israeli prime minister is wrong.

"This is Palestinian land. If they build here, there will be no peace," says Mr Arare. "How can we build a state without land? This is the link between the cities in the north and the south."

A few miles to the west, close by the security wall that marks the border with Jerusalem, Ibrahim Saidi, his four wives, 30 children and numerous grandchildren, graze their 1,000 sheep and goats and nine camels on the other side of E1. "We have been here for 50 years," says Mr Saidi. "If they build here, we will be unable to graze our flocks and I will have to double the amount of feed I buy for the animals. I can't afford it. I'll have to sell the flocks and stop being a shepherd."

In the neighbouring patch of land just across the wall in occupied East Jerusalem, there is a similar fear of upheaval.

Jadua Al-Kurshan, 55, lives in a valley under the north Jerusalem neighbourhood of French Hill, known in Arabic as Kurshan and in Hebrew as Nahal Og. The community of 17 families, about 90 people, is the last remaining Bedouin encampment within the municipal boundary of Jerusalem. On 1 November, the local planning committee published Plan 13900 advocating the removal of Mr Al-Kurshan's community so the valley can be used as an industrial waste landfill before being landscaped into a new public park.

It is not the first time the Jerusalem authorities have tried to move the Bedouin. The area was an empty space miles from the city when they first moved there in the 1970s. Now the new Israeli suburbs built across the pre-1967 border are creeping towards them.

"Four years ago the municipality gave us an eviction order. We went to court and won. They were told they couldn't remove the people because they didn't have enough evidence to enforce the order," Mr Al-Kurshan says.

The Jerusalem Municipality says Plan 13900 is the result of years of research into possible locations for a badly needed dump that will afterwards be beautified for the benefit of all residents. "There are illegal buildings on the site that have been the subject of legal proceedings," says a spokesman. "The court decided that the moment the municipal building plan was approved the demolition orders would be enforceable."

Sari Kronish, an architect at Bimkom, a group that raises human rights issues in planning procedures in Jerusalem, says the environmental arguments in favour of a landfill and park disguise a policy in which parks are being used to close off development opportunities for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

"I'm concerned at the complete disregard for the people who live there at the moment and the fact that the plan does not include any alternative solution for the people who have livelihoods in this area," says Ms Kronish.

A Bimkom report on plans for national parks in Jerusalem suggests the motivation is as much political as environmental. "Their intention is to curb the development of the Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem," says Ms Kronish.

In the Kurshan/Nahal Og valley, the implications of that policy flow beyond the municipal boundary. The Israeli land barrier that Palestinians fear will destroy the geographical integrity of their future state and weaken its physical connection to Jerusalem begins in Kurshan, which connects directly to E1 and from there to the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Feathery spy in Sudan's sky


The Independent

Meet operative PP0277: A secret agent – or just a vulture hungry for dead camel?

Sudan says he's an Israeli operative – but his handlers say he's too easily distracted for that. Matthew Kalman reports on a spy thriller

 
 
SATURDAY 08 DECEMBER 2012
Shortly before the mysterious bombing of a weapons factory in Khartoum in October, an Israeli operative code name PP0277 left a remote site near Sde Boker in Israel's Negev desert.

Carrying a sophisticated tracking device concealed in a box on his leg, he made his way south across the Sinai desert, over the Red Sea, and into Sudan. On 1 December, however, his mission came to an abrupt halt. Having covered up to 350 miles a day, PP0277 had stopped moving at a village near the Sudanese town of Krinkh.

It was on Thursday that his fate finally became clear when the mayor of Krinkh, Hussein al-A'ali, announced that PP0277 had been captured – declaring him to be an Israeli spy "capable of taking photos and sending them back to Israel".

It was then that Ohad Hatzofe, the Israeli who sent PP0277 on his fateful flight, did not know whether to laugh or cry. For PP0277 is not a top Mossad agent, but a young griffon vulture who, Mr Hatzofe insists, was simply making its semi-annual winter migration to Africa.

Far from sporting a history of directing spying missions inside enemy territory, Mr Hatzofe is an avian ecologist for Israel's Nature and Parks Authority. He has tagged more than 1,000 migrating birds in the past 20 years, all as part of a major international project to track and preserve rare species among the billion-plus birds that fly north, then south, over Israel each year.

Like all such creatures, PP0277 wore tags clearly marking him in English as part of the academic research, asking anyone who found him to contact Mr Hatzofe. And as Mr Hatzofe told The Independent: "It's not very secret, marking a supposed spy with the words 'Tel Aviv University' and my email address."

Nor is their reconnaissance information confidential. The birds are fitted with tiny boxes containing GPS and GSM transmitters with a solar energy panel and three small antennae. The data from the tagged birds is uploaded to Movebank, an accessible international database linked to Google Earth.

Spying missions between the two countries are not unlikely. Sudan is thought by the West to be helping Iran ship arms through Egypt to Gaza to supply Hamas. For its part, Israel is believed to have launched air strikes on Sudanese targets in 2009, 2011 and earlier this year.

But even if the Israeli authorities were to conceive such an outlandish espionage mission, Mr Hatzofe said it would proved somewhat bird-brained as the feathered recruits would make terrible spies.

"If I wanted to send a spy to Sudan I'd send one less interested in dead camels and goats. That tends to distract them," he said. "We have more operatives in Sudan right now and one piece of intelligence we've gathered is that there seems to be a concentration of slaughterhouses not far from Port Sudan."

Nor can Israeli vultures boast an illustrious history when it comes to making it through the airspace of hostile nations undetected. Saudi Arabia detained one of PP0277's fellow vultures last year. Despite similar tags labelling it as a specimen tracked in a similar fashion by the same university, it prompted fears of an airborne "Zionist plot" against the kingdom.

Mr Hatzofe cautioned against Mossad getting any genuine spying ideas from the accusations, however. "I'd condemn anyone who tried using wild animals for military or espionage purposes. These creatures are already becoming rare and that would only put them in greater danger," he said.

Animals at war
Sudan's Vulturegate may sound like a laugh, but the use of living creatures for military purposes is by no means far-fetched: for half a century, for example, the US Navy has had a marine mammals programme which trains dolphins and sea lions for wartime tasks.

Although a 1973 Mike Nichols movie called The Day of The Dolphin would have us believe that the animals are being trained for aggressive missions such as killing enemy frogmen and laying mines or even nuclear weapons, the US Navy insists they are being trained merely for defensive purposes such as mine-detection, sentry duty and the recovery of objects lost on the seabed. Yet the California-based programme has been surprisingly extensive and has involved the use of at least ten species of whales and dolphins – and also investigated, yes, the potential role of birds.

In the Second World War American defence scientists looked at the possibility of pigeon bombs, but abandoned it as impracticable.

The reason suspicions were aroused in the case of the Israeli-ringed vulture in the Sudan is that the miniaturisation of GPS equipment is proceeding apace, and ornithologists are fitting devices to ever more migrant birds to plot their routes. Indy, The Independent's sponsored cuckoo, was fitted with a transmitter in Wales in May and transmitted continuously during his journey back to Africa – until he met his end, by means unknown, in Cameroon in September.

If you wanted a bird as an airborne photography platform, a vulture is probably what you would choose. Vultures do very little flapping and directly rapid flight, spending nearly all their time soaring and gliding. Your problem would be, you couldn't tell it where to go.

Michael McCarthy

Khaled Meshaal in Gaza


The Independent

Khaled Meshaal's return gives Palestinians new hope for unity

Hamas' exiled political leader pledges to work with Fatah on his first visit to Gaza since 1967

 
JERUSALEM
 
Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, ended decades of exile, falling to his knees and kissing the ground as he arrived in Gaza on a visit which many Palestinians hope could help mend the rift with his political rivals in Fatah.

His return to Palestinian territories follows an eight-day conflict last month between Hamas and Israel, in which 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed. The two sides reached a ceasefire and Israel – whose agents tried to assassinate Mr Meshaal in 1997 – is understood to have given tacit agreement to the visit.

But security was tight in Gaza and Israeli officials were offering no guarantees of safe passage. A foreign ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among Hamas leaders. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Shortly after arriving over the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, Mr Meshaal announced his "re-birth". He then prayed with his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, before embracing and kissing dozens of political, religious and militant leaders. "This is a victory for the Palestinian people and his leadership inside Palestine and outside," said his host, Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. In a rare display of unity, senior Fatah officials joined the reception committee.

Mr Meshaal has been living in exile since the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967 forced his family to flee, but managed to build Hamas into a strong force from exile. His return reflects a growing regional acceptance for Hamas as the Arab Spring sweeps more sympathetic governments into power.

Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had bowed to Israeli demands to block Mr Meshaal's passage into Gaza. But his successors in the Muslim Brotherhood have hardened their stance towards Israel, while offering more co-operation to Hamas.

Mr Meshaal's historic visit has for now papered over deep divisions within Hamas over the Islamic group's future strategy towards Israel and the thorny question of future co-operation with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement governs parts of the West Bank after Hamas expelled them from Gaza in 2007. Mr Meshaal vowed to push for unity – the wish of many ordinary Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. "This is a promise from the leadership of Hamas. We will press ahead with reconciliation to end divisions and to stand united against the Zionist occupation," he said.

Surrounded by dark-suited security men with earpieces, Mr Meshaal inspected the wreckage of the car in which the Hamas military chief, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated by Israel last month. He was also expected to visit the home of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader assassinated by Israel in 2004, before participating in a huge rally today to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Resistance Movement. He will leave shortly after.

In his first public comments, Mr Meshaal derided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for endorsing a failed attempt on his life in Amman in 1997. "This is … my third birth. The first was my natural birth in 1956, the second was in 1997, when there was an attempt by the crazed Netanyahu to assassinate me, and this one on the 7th of December 2012. The fourth birth will be in liberating Palestine, in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Haifa and Jaffa," he declared to an audience of dignitaries, security personnel and media.

Mr Meshaal's wife arrived on Thursday, accompanied by more than a dozen family members and Hamas officials. Leaders of Islamic Jihad had hoped to join the commemoration but Israel said that would be a violation of the ceasefire agreement and threatened to assassinate them if they entered Gaza.

Before his guest's arrival, Mr Haniyeh was asked whether he feared Israel might attempt to kill Mr Meshaal. "We don't rule out any foolish behaviour by the Israelis but our people in its steadfastness, and the resistance with its high capabilities, will make the occupation think dozens of times before committing any foolish step. Under the shadow of our guns, the occupation won't be able to hurt any of our leaders," he declared.

Saturday's rally is not being held on the exact date of Hamas's founding, but on the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel. The choice is being seen as a new willingness to seek reconciliation with President Abbas, who hosted King Abdullah of Jordan in Ramallah on Thursday in an apparent attempt to re-direct some of the limelight from Gaza.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Khaled Meshaal in Gaza


The Independent

Hamas leader returns to Gaza to a hero's welcome

Khaled Meshaal is making his first visit in 45 years to celebrate the founding of the group


Khaled Meshaal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, will receive a hero’s welcome when he arrives in Gaza this week for his first visit to the Palestinian territories for 45 years, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the group.


It will be Mr Meshaal’s first ever visit to Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since it overthrew the Fatah administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Both Hamas – whose name is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement – and Fatah are trying to gain domestic support as they try to revive stalled unity talks and hold a long-overdue general election.

The anniversary celebrations have been brought forward by a week to help Hamas maintain its political momentum following the end of the recent conflict with Israel that brought a flood of foreign dignitaries and delegations to Gaza for the first time since Hamas took power.

In Ramallah, the rival Fatah leadership is also riding high on last week’s UN General Assembly victory that upgraded Palestine to a non-member observer state. President Abbas was greeted by a large crowd when he returned from New York this week and is hoping for another popular boost when he welcomes King Abdullah of Jordan for a visit.

On Monday, 12 Fatah fighters who fled Gaza in 2007 were welcomed back and promised an amnesty by Hamas leaders, eager to enhance the spirit of reconciliation. “Join the resistance and stop wasting time. Let’s put our hands together and carry the gun,” urged a senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar.

“I tell Fatah members: those who want to join the victors and who want to celebrate and feel honoured and carry the gun – we open our arms to them on the basis of resistance. Those who want to do different than this we tell them we know our way, which is to Jerusalem,” declared Mr Zahar.

Shortly before the recent conflict with Israel, there were clear signs many Palestinians were growing weary of radical policies after five years of strict Hamas rule in Gaza.

A poll carried out in early November for the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre revealed that 40 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza would vote for Fatah, with Hamas support at just 22.4 per cent. In the West Bank, support for Hamas was even lower at 16.6 per cent.

The same poll showed 65 per cent of Palestinians in favour of “peaceful negotiations” or “non-violent resistance” compared with just 28 per cent who wanted a return to “armed resistance” – the strategy favoured by Hamas.

The exact timing of Mr Meshaal’s arrival and his schedule were being kept secret for security reasons. He is expected to participate in a huge rally on Saturday in al-Kateeba Square in Gaza City after meeting Hamas leaders and visiting victims of recent Israeli attacks including the family of Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military commander assassinated at the start of the conflict. He will be accompanied by his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who has visited Gaza briefly once before.

On Wednesday, carpenters were putting the finishing touches to the central stage in al-Kateeba Square that featured a traditional Arabesque fortress around a camouflage-painted model of a 12-metre-high M-75 rocket used by Hamas to bombard Israel in November bearing the legend “made in Gaza”. Convoys of vehicles carrying young men roared through the streets of Gaza City displaying Hamas flags and playing loud nationalist songs. The streets were decorated with hundreds of Hamas banners mixed with Palestinian flags, as if to emphasise the legitimacy of the Hamas government for the new state of Palestine.

Mohammed Samir, 44, a Hamas supporter, told The Independent he would be “very happy” to see Mr Meshaal in Gaza. “I love this man,” said Mr Samir. “He is a very good, very smart man. For him to reach Gaza proves that we have achieved total victory. It means Gaza is under our control. Until now, Egypt and Israel were preventing people from entering. Now anyone can come to Gaza.

“Psychologically, this will give a positive boost for the resistance and for the citizens who suffered so much in this last war,” he said.

Ayman Farid, 31, who described himself as an independent, said he was unmoved by the imminent arrival of Mr Meshaal. “It makes no difference. I don’t care,” he said.

A Salafi Islamist who gave his name as Abu Mahmoud hinted at the divisions that remain among the ultra-religious Palestinians.

“He’s a bad leader, he’s not even a good Muslim,” he said.

Khaled Meshaal: Leader in exile

Khaled Meshaal has helped build Hamas into strong force since he became leader in 1996. In exile since the 1967 Six-Day War, the 56-year-old was previously prevented from crossing into Gaza by the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, now holds power in Egypt.

Meshaal – who had until recently been based in Syria, but has relocated to Qatar – has been a strong advocate of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, a view he is expected to encourage on his visit to Gaza this week.

Are plans for new Israeli settlements all they seem?


Letter from Jerusalem: Netanyahu watchers spot bluff in bombshell

LONDON EVENING STANDARD 5 December 2012

To a Londoner, E1 sounds like the inner city. The five square miles of swirling, barren hilltops perched on the edge of the Judean desert that make up Jerusalem’s E1 could not be further from the bustling streets of Whitechapel.

There is nothing here to spoil the biblical landscape overlooking the highway to Jericho and the Dead Sea, save for a few Bedouin tribesmen with their herd of goats in a ramshackle encampment and a fortress-like Israeli police headquarters.

But this largely empty piece of land is now the focus of a bitter dispute that many believe could determine the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Viewed north to south, it provides a corridor for the Palestinians from Ramallah to Bethlehem bordering a future capital in East Jerusalem, ensuring the geographical unity of a future Palestinian state. Viewed from west to east, it provides a land bridge between Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements of the Judean desert and Jordan Valley, ensuring continued Israeli control of that area.

Following last week’s UN vote conferring the position of “non-member state” on Palestine, the Israeli government announced plans to speed up West Bank settlement construction, including the development of E1.

Palestinian leaders denounced the move as a death-blow to the two-state solution. Israel’s ambassadors were hauled into foreign ministries from Whitehall to Canberra for a rare dressing-down. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be getting similar treatment in Germany today from Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But long-time observers of Mr Netanyahu caution that the E1 announcement and the accompanying promise to speed up housing starts in East Jerusalem may be more bluff than bombshell. The plan to build on E1 has been on Israel’s drawing-board for at least 20 years.

Meir Margalit, a Left-wing Jerusalem city councillor who has been tracking Israeli statements on East Jerusalem for more than a decade, says the government’s announcement should be seen in light of Israel’s general election, just six weeks away.

“People don’t realise that between the declaration by the prime minister and the day when the bulldozers start to prepare the ground for houses can be up to seven years,” says Mr Margalit.

“Nothing will change in the coming days. Over the last 10 years, of the housing units announced by the government in East Jerusalem, only 20 per cent were actually built. This is for internal consumption. It is more related to our domestic elections than what happened at the UN last week.”

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Furore over Israeli settlement plans


The Independent



Palestinians threaten to take Israel to the ICC


 
JERUSALEM
 
TUESDAY 04 DECEMBER 2012

Palestinian officials are threatening to use the new status conferred by last week’s United Nations vote to haul Israel before the International Criminal Court (ICC) if it continues to expand West Bank settlements.

“By continuing these war crimes of settlement activities on our lands and stealing our money, Israel is pushing and forcing us to go to the ICC,” Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to the Palestinian President, said.

Hanan Ashrawi, an executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the international community should consider trade and other sanctions. “We have to move to concrete steps so Israel knows it has something to lose and will be held accountable, in accordance with international law,” she said.

Days after the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed to build thousands of new homes for Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, officials said they would fast-track plans for 1,700 new homes in Ramat Shlomo, an Israeli neighbourhood across the pre-1967 frontier. The plans caused an uproar when they were first announced during a visit by the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, in March 2010.

On the Mount of Olives, the home of the Abu Alhawa family – constructed without an Israeli permit – was demolished early on Tuesday, 24 hours after Israelis moved in under heavy guard to a building in Jabel Mukaber, an Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Municipal Planning Committee is due to discuss Town Plan 14295 creating 2,610 new residential units at Givat Hamatos in south Jerusalem.

It will be the first new Israeli neighbourhood constructed across the pre-1967 frontier for more than a decade, completing a strategic ring of housing separating Jerusalem from nearby Bethlehem.

Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now Settlement Watch, condemned the plans as “a dangerous provocation which is threatening the stability in the fragile situation of Jerusalem”.