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Tuesday, 29 July 2003

A voice for optimism reborn on Israeli-Palestinian radio

Cease-fire inspires restoration of broadcasts for peace

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Ten years after the maverick Voice of Peace radio station ceased broadcasting from a floating studio "somewhere in the Mediterranean" off the Israeli coastline, a new namesake jointly run by Israelis and Palestinians is gearing up to air its first programs in November.

Much has happened in the intervening decade, during which Israelis and Palestinians soared to new heights of hope for reconciliation through the Oslo peace process only to plunge into an abyss of hatred and war. The peace camp --

particularly in Israel -- has been all but silenced by the violence of the past 33 months.

But with a brittle hudna, or cease-fire, apparently holding and signs of growing cooperation between the governments of Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, people on both sides are daring to believe that they might just be exiting the three-year nightmare.

The resurrection of the Voice of Peace is a powerful public expression of the faith still held by the people who pioneered the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a decade ago that dialogue and mutual generosity can bring about an end to the bloodshed.

The radio station was operated from 1973 to 1993 by Israeli activist Abie Nathan on a vessel known as the Peace Ship. Saddled with a $300,000 debt due to operating costs and declining advertising revenues, Nathan closed down the station in 1993. He had hoped to attract investment to turn the ship into a floating peace museum, but when that did not work out he scuttled it. The Peace Ship lies today at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

But the Voice of Peace is back for a rerun, with an annual budget of nearly half a million dollars, 80 percent financed by the European Union. It is a joint project by Givat Haviva, an Israeli center for Jewish-Arab dialogue, and the Palestinian weekly newspaper the Jerusalem Times.

The station will mainly broadcast music, with three hours of original programming in Arabic, Hebrew and English. It will be managed and run by a joint Israeli-Palestinian staff.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister who was the prime mover of the Oslo Accords, said in an interview that he is optimistic about the chances for peace.

"There is a wind for peace, and it will be very hard for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to escape the wind," Peres said. "They turn their sails, hoping there will be a mild wind, but it will pick up in strength, and it will be very hard for both sides to stop it."

Peres said joint initiatives like the radio station could have a powerful impact in changing perceptions on both sides. The indefatigable politician's Peres Center for Peace has just reached agreement with the Israeli and Palestinian ministries of education to include 15 lectures on peace in next year's high school curriculum.

Peres said the effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq on the Middle East had boosted the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The United States, in spite of all the criticism, has gained strength and prestige in the Middle East," he said. "Today, they are the only power in town.

"They are doing a double job -- fighting terror and eliminating the reasons for terror. They want the Palestinians to do their utmost in order to stop terror, and they want the Israelis to do what they can in order to eliminate the reasons for terror."

Hanna Siniora, the Palestinian publisher of the Jerusalem Times and a former PLO representative in Jerusalem, was one of the earliest advocates of dialogue with Israelis. Even the Palestinian extremists who firebombed his car to protest his early peace moves failed to dissuade him.

Siniora said the Voice of Peace would build confidence and hope and "reflect the silent majority in both camps who want to see peace and a political settlement."

"All the polls that have been taken both in Israel and in Palestine have shown that at least 65 percent of the population of both countries actually want peace and want a settlement based on a two-state solution," Siniora said.

"Today we have a new window of opportunity," he said. "We are in a period of a cease-fire and a peace process that up till now, despite the difficulties,

is moving forward."

Gershon Baskin, another veteran of the Middle East peace dialogue, was reached in Antalya, Turkey, where he was hosting a conference of 40 Israeli and Palestinian school principals. Two weeks ago, the co-founder of the Israeli-Palestine Center for Research and Co-operation had convened a similar gathering of 100 teachers from both sides.

Baskin said there was no alternative to dialogue.

"I'm always optimistic," he said. "I don't think that one can engage in the kind of work we're doing, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, without having an overall optimism.

"My optimism may be seeded with a kind of apocalyptic kind of fear that if we miss the opportunity for peace we are by our own hands committing suicide as a nation. I think both peoples are."

Baskin added, "I talk to Israelis and Palestinians every day, both common folk and leaders, who are tired of the deadlock, tired of the violence, tired of living without hope. People suffered tremendously over the past 32 months and I think people honestly want to move forward."

Friday, 18 July 2003

Palestinian intellectuals feeling pressured to toe the line

Pollster's results on 'right of return' make him a target

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, July 18, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank -- The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is usually a quiet place dedicated to academic analysis and learned discussion, but a riot broke out at the sleepy think tank this week.

A furious mob smashed glass and furniture, trashed potted plants and pelted the center's director, Khalil Shikaki, with eggs on Sunday.

His crime? Publishing the results of an opinion poll of Palestinian refugees that suggested only 10 percent of them would exercise the long-sought "right of return" to their former homes in what is now Israel if that right were granted.

Shikaki was only the latest Palestinian intellectual to learn that deviating from the Palestinian Authority's political line can be dangerous.

His findings seem to fly in the face of accepted Palestinian policy that the right of return for some 4 million refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip be a touchstone of any Middle East peace settlement.

A leaflet distributed by the protesters accused the Columbia University-educated Shikaki of "selling himself to the U.S. dollar" and "deviating from the consensus of the Palestinian people."

The leaflet also mentioned another prominent Palestinian who has dared to question the idea of the right of return -- Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al- Quds University in Jerusalem.

Years ago, Nusseibeh was beaten up at Bir Zeit University for promoting dialogue with Israelis. Last year, he was dismissed as the PLO's representative in Jerusalem after he publicly questioned whether demanding the right of return was either logical or feasible.

The leaflet distributed in Ramallah on Sunday recalled how Nusseibeh was denied entry to the campus of Al-Najah University in Nablus two months ago and prevented from discussing a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

"We warn anyone who considers harming the national rights that their fate will be similar to that of Shikaki and Nusseibeh," said a statement by the group that organized the egg-throwing, the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugees' Rights.

"They will be ostracized and put on popular trial," the statement continued.

"The committee salutes the masses who care about their rights and who do not allow mercenary academics to spread their poison among our people.

"The committee calls on the Palestinian prime minister not to be lenient on such people and to take a clear position opposing their activities and to put them on trial for high treason."

Palestinian police stood by as the Nablus-based group, which is believed to be affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, disrupted Shikaki's press conference. Group members then sauntered over to Arafat's headquarters, where they were received warmly.

Analysts say an atmosphere of intimidation stifles free debate about vital issues facing Palestinian society. They say the pressure comes not just from popular committees but also directly from the Palestinian Authority government.

Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has not commented on the Shikaki incident.

"People are often very cautious about expressing their political views, especially with regard to the government and sensitive issues," said Khaled Abu Toameh, an ex-PLO employee who is now an independent reporter and analyst. "Some writers and journalists have been punished by the Palestinian Authority for simply expressing their views. In one case, a group of intellectuals was imprisoned or beaten up by Palestinian Authority thugs for signing a petition calling for reforms."

Abu Toameh added: "There has been a slight improvement in recent years with more people speaking out openly in favor of reforms and against corruption, but you always have the feeling that you're being watched.

"It's not as bad as Syria or Saddam's Iraq, but it can be frightening. Palestinian journalists know that you don't mess around with sacred cows."

Perhaps for this reason, there aren't many independent Palestinian analysts like Shikaki. While there is some freedom of expression in academic circles, the media practices widespread self-censorship.

Israel maintains military censorship on security-related stories, and police will often obtain a court order gagging reporting on unfolding investigations. But there is notable freedom of political, anti-government and even anti-military comment in the Israeli media.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pressure from above tends to dictate the content of Palestinian media -- and even of international news agencies.

The most blatant example in recent years was on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of joyful, cheering Palestinians took to the streets of Nablus and other West Bank towns to celebrate the attacks on New York and Washington. Footage of the embarrassing street party was suppressed by senior Palestinian Authority officials, who telephoned the local bureau chiefs of the international news agencies and threatened physical harm to their camera crews if the film was shown.

The Associated Press and the Foreign Press Association protested the intimidation, but the footage stayed on the shelf.

Several years ago, Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian Authority- owned daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, straightforwardly told a seminar of media students at Bethlehem University, "At this point in our national development, it is not always appropriate to publish everything. As editor, part of my job is to censor the material I feel does not contribute to the immediate task of building the Palestinian nation."

Abu Toameh observed, "I am often criticized, even by Palestinian journalist colleagues, for exposing embarrassing truths which they feel are best kept away from public gaze. They don't attack me for publishing stories because they are untrue, because they can't."

Shikaki, for his part, has taken Sunday's incident in stride.

"I do believe that the word of the overwhelming majority of the refugees that we have interviewed is indeed much, much stronger than the views of a small number of rioters who attacked the center," he told National Public Radio. "I really don't give those people a great deal of weight."

Tuesday, 15 July 2003

Daily decisions at Israeli border

Commander must balance needs, security

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jenin, West Bank -- Col. Fouad Halhal was enjoying a rare afternoon at home with his children last Saturday when the telephone rang. It was an urgent call from the Jalameh checkpoint, which controls the border crossing between the West Bank city of Jenin and northern Israel.

A soldier under his command said a Palestinian ambulance carrying a desperately ill 3-year-old girl with a blood clot on the brain was asking permission to rush the child to Ramban Hospital in the nearby Israeli city of Haifa, the only chance of saving her life.

"We had a problem," said Halhal. "We had a warning that a massive car bomb was being prepared in Jenin and they were trying to smuggle it into Israel. We also knew that ambulances had been used in other areas to smuggle explosives."

"But I had no hesitation whatsoever," he said. "I ordered the soldiers to allow the ambulance to pass without delay, and without any security check. Unfortunately, this incident ended in tragedy and the girl died at the hospital. But it was the right decision, despite the security risks."

Halhal faces similar decisions every day as commander of the DCO -- District Coordination Office -- at Salem, which supervises contact with the Palestinian civilian authorities in Jenin, one of the West Bank's most militant areas.

The Jalameh checkpoint and the surrounding countryside have been the entry points for scores of Palestinian suicide attackers bent on attacking Israelis in nearby towns or blowing themselves up on buses plying the highways that pass close to the West Bank border.

On May 19, a woman passed the checkpoint, hitched a ride into Afula and blew herself up at a shopping mall, killing three people and injuring 70.

Halhal and his men must deal with everything from stopping suicide bombers to facilitating the movement of Palestinian cucumbers destined for Israeli markets.

A tall Israeli Arab with a shaved head, Halhal is a member of the Druze sect, known throughout the Middle East for their loyalty to the state they serve. A proud member of the Israeli armed forces, he is nevertheless responsible for making sure Palestinian ambulances and food supplies get through while his colleagues in the security branch of the military try to stop the terrorists.

His officers take pains to distinguish themselves from Israel's fighting troops who, as the focus of Palestinian rage, often come under attack from anyone from small boys throwing stones to militants firing shoulder-fired missiles. All of Halhal's men speak fluent Arabic and drive white jeeps to set themselves apart from the troops in their tanks.

"I am an Israeli army officer, so I understand the security implications of the day-to-day activity," he said, "but my job is to protect the humanitarian and civilian needs of the 200,000 Palestinians who live in this area, which sometimes means I have to argue with my colleagues on the (security) side."

These days, Halhal is focused on matters more prosaic than terrorists. It is the height of the cucumber harvest, and he has to ensure that thousands of tons of the vegetables make their way through the checkpoint and into the markets of northern Israel.

Such assistance is no small matter for the Palestinian economy, since about 85 percent of its exports go to Israel.

Imad Zakarni, 39, who represents a group of Jenin farmers, transports more than 300 tons of vegetables into Israel each day, down from about 1,000 tons before the latest Palestinian uprising began 33 months ago.

"We rely on Israel for about 50 percent of our sales," said Zakarni. "The past two years have been very difficult. . . . Before they opened the checkpoints, we had to smuggle our produce into Israel or throw it away."

"Before the intifada, Jewish Israeli merchants would come every day," he added, "but now they are too scared, so we only deal with Israeli Arabs."

Jenin, known in Israel as the capital city of the suicide bombers, was the scene of intense fighting during last year's Operation Defensive Shield, when 53 Palestinians and 26 Israeli soldiers were killed in close combat in the booby-trapped houses of the crowded refugee camp.

Despite the danger, Halhal said he and his officers were inside Jenin every day, making sure the local hospital continued to function, escorting ambulances and ensuring supplies of electricity, food and water.

Israel has withdrawn its troops to the edges of Jenin, returning frequently to search for weapons or terror suspects, and an uneasy calm now prevails.

About 10,000 people pass through the checkpoint daily, mostly laborers with long-term permits allowing them to get to jobs on the other side of the border.

Other Palestinians can approach the Jenin side of the DCO with requests to travel into Israel for various purposes -- study, business or health. Halhal receives 200 to 300 requests for new permits every day.

A notice in Arabic at the window asks for urgent medical cases to come to the front of the line, and Halhal said there are standing orders that they be processed immediately.

He and the other members of his Civil Administration Unit, which helps to administer the occupied territories, have a complex relationship with the people of Jenin. Officially, they denounce his unit as part of the Israeli occupation, but over time, a relationship has developed between the two sides.

A huge aerial photograph of Jenin fills an entire wall of Halhal's office.

A 650-square-foot block in the middle of the refugee camp that was razed by Israeli bulldozers and Palestinian explosives can be seen clearly.

Halhal points to a factory on the outskirts of town. "This is the medical oxygen factory of Ibrahim Hadad, which provides oxygen for all 14 Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank from Jenin to Hebron," said Halhal. "If a truck is delayed even by one day, there would be no oxygen in the hospitals."

"Despite all the military operations and the dreadful events which have made Jenin the suicide capital, the factory has continued to work and the trucks have departed, with our cooperation and protection," he said, with a note of pride in his voice.

But he was quick to make his loyalties clear:

"I'm not doing this as a favor to the Palestinians. I'm doing it because my whole reason for serving in the army is to defend a democratic and humane society." To him, he said, "that's what the army is for."

Friday, 11 July 2003

Cease-fire holdout rules Jenin refugee camp

Zakariya Zubaideh, 27, lost his mother and brother in the Israeli assault on Jenin. Photo by Matthew Kalman, special to the Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
July 11, 2003

By Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jenin refugee camp, West Bank — Zakariya Zubaideh is head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the most extreme wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, in Jenin, the most militant outpost of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

That pedigree -- coupled with his refusal to abide by the 2-week-old cease- fire with Israel -- makes him a wanted man.

The tall, dark and slim 27-year-old speaks in a disarmingly gentle voice with a slight lisp. But even before you notice the silver Smith & Wesson pistol nestling on his hip, you see scars on his face and bloodshot clouds in his eyes, the results of a mortar bomb that blew up in his face two years ago.

"My vision is blurred during the day. I only see clearly at night," said Zubaideh.

Right now, he is seeing red.

Alone among the armed Palestinian groups, Zubaideh and his men refuse to accept the cease-fire, or hudna, hammered out by the commanders of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"This hudna doesn't concern me or any other party," Zubaideh said defiantly.

"Until now, no one has consulted with us, and we haven't received instructions to stop the fighting from the leadership. They made this agreement on their own. They didn't consult with anyone."

He pours scorn on the Palestinian leaders in their "air-conditioned rooms" on the cosmopolitan boulevards of Ramallah and says his intifada will never end without a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.

Here in Jenin, an isolated town surrounded by Israeli troops at the northern tip of the West Bank, Zubaideh is king and his exploits the stuff of legend.

He was 13 when he was first shot -- in the knee, while throwing stones during the first intifada. He soon graduated to Molotov cocktails, which earned him four years in an Israeli jail.

Released under the Oslo peace accords, Zubaideh was exiled to Jericho but returned to Jenin using faked identity papers. He became a building laborer inside Israel but was eventually caught and returned to Jenin. Deprived of work, he turned to stealing cars for a few years, ending up with another jail sentence, this one for 15 months. He was released just before the start of the second intifada in October 2000.

In April 2002, Zubaideh helped lead armed Palestinian opposition to the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, the most bloody confrontation of what Israel called Operation Defensive Shield, launched in response to the killing of 30 people at a Passover Seder ceremony.

In separate battles, Israeli soldiers fatally shot in the head Zubaideh's mother, Samira, while she was looking out her window; his brother, Taha, was also killed. The family home was destroyed. Zubaideh says he survived 16 days under the rubble.

Now he is aware that his own days may be numbered. Israeli troops have been after him for months. Last week, Palestinian security forces issued an arrest warrant after his men shot and killed a Bulgarian laborer driving past the nearby West Bank village of Yabed on June 30, the day after the hudna was declared.


But it appears that Zubaideh has little to fear from the Palestinian Authority. At an interview this week, he was accompanied by Atta Bourneli, the Fatah secretary-general in the Jenin area and a man in direct contact with Arafat, who ordered Zubaideh's arrest.

A few weeks ago, a delegation of Palestinian Cabinet ministers visited the Jenin refugee camp to speak to the residents. Zubaideh told them they were not welcome and sent them packing, according to several sources. They came again, this time to the city of Jenin, and the same thing happened.

Israeli intelligence officials say they are convinced that Zubaideh's refusal to abide by the cease-fire is part of a plan that has been well coordinated with Palestinian leaders, especially Arafat.

"No one asked Zubaideh to stop fighting because they don't want him to," agreed a local Palestinian analyst who insisted on anonymity. "He is their trump card, their deniable bargaining chip in talks with the Americans and the Israelis."

Zubaideh says he doesn't need the central leadership, although he swears undying loyalty to Arafat. He says his Brigades unit receives no money or support from Ramallah or anywhere else, but Western diplomats on the ground say there is money pouring into Jenin from Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

"I tell you, we do not need any help from anyone," Zubaideh said. "We have sold the jewelry of our women to buy weapons. We pay from our private money -- not to mention (what) we have taken from the Israelis.

"Here in the camps we have about 20 weapons which we captured from them. There are also members who go inside the settlements and steal weapons. I started out as a car thief. I know how to get there."

But there is another, unexpected side to Zubaideh -- his past involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peace projects.

A decade ago, an Israeli actor set up a theater studio in Zubaideh's own home, where young Palestinians rehearsed plays based on ancient legends replete with contemporary meaning.

"My house was the first to be opened for the Israelis," he said. "Israeli peace activists used to come to us, and we had a joint Palestinian-Israeli theater. Every day, 200 Jews used to come to the camp . . . to sleep, work and act. My brother also had a certificate of journalism from Givat Haviva, a peace center in Israel.

"I'm one of those who extended their arm for peace with the Israelis, but they chopped it off," he said bitterly. " . . . In the end, they killed my mother and my brother. They also demolished my house."

Displaying the perhaps tortured logic of someone who has felt the sting of such a close personal loss, Zubaideh said that he chose his present path "when I became convinced that the Israeli people, not the government, don't want peace."

Noting that it was a Labor Party defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who ordered the Israeli operation in Jenin, he said, "The Labor Party is responsible for the killing of my mother and the massacre in the camp. I accuse the Israeli peace camp of the killings and the destruction."

Now, he says, the only way to achieve peace is to fight for the complete withdrawal of Israel from the occupied lands.

Elsewhere, Palestinians have cautiously welcomed the cease-fire, evidence of their fatigue after nearly three years of fighting and thousands of casualties.

But Zubaideh says the people of Jenin are behind him.

"We have many members in the area," he said. "The entire Palestinian people are the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades."

Tuesday, 8 July 2003

Don't free prisoners, families of slain Israelis say

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israeli families whose loved ones have died in Palestinian terror attacks have appealed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not to succumb to growing pressure for the release of more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

But Palestinian leaders and the prisoners' families say the step is essential to bolster a shaky, week-old truce and increase the standing of reformist Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel said on Sunday that it will release 350 prisoners, but the Palestinians are demanding more. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, said in a statement Sunday that "we are ready to carry out the most powerful and dangerous military attacks inside Israel and in the settlements" unless a full release is carried out.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reiterated on Monday that Israel would not turn loose prisoners who have "blood on their hands" -- a reference to those who killed Israelis or aided the killers.

Late in the day, the prisoners announced a hunger strike to protest Israel's refusal to grant a general amnesty.

Opposition leader Shimon Peres of the Labor Party said the government stood at a crossroads: "One is not to release prisoners who would endanger our security; the other is to put an end to the intifada.

"I don't think we have to give (the Palestinians) everything they want, but we do have to show them support -- and allow Abu Mazen (as Abbas is known) to show them something."

Jailed members of radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad reportedly were instrumental in brokering the current cease-fire. Now, Abbas is under pressure to repay them by securing their release.

But on Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet ruled out a general amnesty when it approved strict legal criteria for deciding which prisoners would be freed. It specifically barred anyone who had planned or carried out attacks on Israelis, including most of the 1,000 or so jailed members of radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The prisoner issue strikes deep within Israeli and Palestinian society.

Tzafi Adonian-Haas, whose husband Eli was killed by a Hamas suicide bomber in a Jerusalem market in 1997, said she opposed the release of convicted terrorists.

"I think they should stay in prison," she said as she played with her two grandchildren, who she said had brought some hope back into her life.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about Eli. I feel as though I lost half of myself. If they had carried out these attacks in the United States, they would get the electric chair or life in prison."

As for calls by some bereaved Israeli families to release the prisoners for the sake of future peace, Adonian-Haas said, "We tried releasing prisoners during the Oslo peace process, and it got us nowhere. Now we have more than 800 Israelis dead, and I don't believe in these agreements any more.

"It's a matter of trust, and I just don't trust them."

Across town in the Palestinian village of Lifta, Mohammed Odeh and his wife had just returned from visiting their son Bilal in Ashkelon Prison, where he is serving an 18-year sentence for attempted murder.

"I feel as though I have lost him," said Mohammed, sitting in the shade of the vines in his garden. "I'm just waiting for him to come back. There is hope that sooner or later the Israelis see that this is impossible."

Bilal, 26, a university graduate in social work, was the leader of a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell that detonated a series of car bombs packed with mortars in central Jerusalem two years ago. Several people were injured in the blasts, but no one was killed.

"He did what any other Palestinian would do under occupation, and I am proud of him," said Mohammed.

Fadel Tahboub is a former Palestinian militant who has become a peace campaigner. He was captured in the late 1960s after staging a cross-border raid into Israel from Jordan and spent the next 15 years in jail. He now helps run the People's Peace Campaign, a joint Israeli-Palestinian project based in East Jerusalem that is trying to hammer out some basic principles for mutual coexistence.

But the gray-haired veteran, who is also a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's parliament in exile, the Palestine National Council, said the prisoner issue could undermine any attempt to move toward peace.

"For us, these people are not terrorists but national heroes for carrying out resistance to the occupation," Tahboub said.

"The cease-fire will collapse if they do not release them," he warned. "It will weaken Abu Mazen, and he will fall."

But Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Hisham Abdel Razek, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, that it would be "impractical" to consider releasing Hamas prisoners when the group's leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, had vowed to resume attacks after the truce expires.

"When Rantisi goes on television and says that after the (cease-fire) in three months they will continue the war to wipe out the Jewish state, it is not exactly smart to demand of us to release fighters to annihilate the Jewish state," he said.

"Some of the most terrible violence has taken place as a direct result of the actions of many of the Palestinians now sitting in Israeli jails," said professor Gerald Steinberg, a political science lecturer and analyst at Bar- Ilan University.

"Over the past 10 years, on many occasions Palestinians were released from Israeli jails as part of a goodwill gesture, and they came back and committed more terrorist acts. While the Palestinians are demanding a large number of prisoner releases, I think it's extremely important for the Israeli government to say no and to pursue the legal process."

Sunday, 6 July 2003

Mosque destroyed, Nazareth remains divided

Muslims vow they'll try to rebuild

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, July 6, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Nazareth, Israel -- Christians here are quietly celebrating after Israeli bulldozers moved in last week to destroy the foundations of an illegal mosque being built next to the Church of the Annunciation in the boyhood town of Jesus.

But few people in Nazareth expect this will be the end of the affair, which has pitted Muslims against Christians, Arabs against Jews, and the Vatican against Israel.

Local Christian leaders were keeping a low profile, wary of a fresh outbreak of the riots that swept the city in May 1999, when the Vatican branded the planned building of the Shihab al-Din mosque "a provocation." Since then, tensions have simmered. Last May, the Brethren Church in this northern Israeli city was hit by four Molotov cocktails after rumors circulated that the congregation was evangelizing among Muslims.

"We're celebrating, but privately and behind closed doors," said a Christian spokesman on condition of anonymity.

The dispute split the city council of Nazareth, whose nearly 60,000 inhabitants are 30 percent Christian and 70 percent Muslim. Mayor Rames Jarrisi, a Christian, spent last Tuesday morning in a police helicopter over the city, supervising the demolition operation. He had campaigned for years against the mosque.

Many local Muslims -- though certainly not all -- called the decision to destroy the mosque "a provocation."

"It is being done for no reason," said Salman Abu Ahmed, a Muslim who is the city's deputy mayor. "It is the first time that a mosque has been demolished in this country. I haven't heard of any synagogue or church being demolished in this country. It goes against the consensus here."

But Atef Fahoum, son of a former mayor and trustee of the White Mosque, the oldest in Nazareth, said the demand for a new mosque on the contested site had more to do with politics than religion. "I went to that school as a child, when the British were still here, and there was never a mosque on that site," said Fahoum. "They are just doing this to make trouble. I'm very sad. We are not accustomed to such trouble in Nazareth. For hundreds of years we have lived in peace and love and harmony. We don't like troublemakers."

Natan Sharansky, an Israeli Cabinet minister who chaired the last of three separate government inquiries into the planned mosque, expressed relief that "finally justice and law are being restored to Nazareth."

"How were these mosque foundations built?" asked Sharansky. "They were built as a result of a chain of scandals, violence, blackmail and threats. There would be a sea of blood if they were not allowed to illegally build a mosque on a holy Christian site."

RUMORS OF PAPAL VISIT

The dispute began in 1997. The millennium was approaching and there were rumors that Pope John Paul II would visit the Holy Land. The Oslo peace process was in full swing, and the Israeli economy was booming.

Tourism was expanding, and the Christians of Nazareth expected millions of pilgrims to visit the spot where the Virgin Mary had been told she would have a baby. So the city fathers decided to raze an aging municipal school building next to the Church of the Annunciation to make way for a new city plaza.

The area was flattened, awaiting a final decision from the local planning committee. But there remained in one corner of the site an ancient tomb believed to belong to Shihab al-Din, nephew of the Muslim warrior Salah al-Din, who died fighting the Crusaders.

A small Muslim group moved onto the site, erected a tent and declared it "Waqf" -- inalienable Muslim holy land. They said they would build a mosque on the site and began preparing plans and finances.

The city council refused to give planning permission. The mayor said that land records showed the old school site had been owned by the local municipality since Ottoman times. A local court ruled that the land belonged not to the municipality, but to the national government. Then the politics began.

A controversial decision by the government to allow the building of a mosque on the site was greeted with dismay by Christians all the way up to the pope himself.

Some observers said it was a blatant attempt by the right-leaning government of Benjamin Netanyahu to attract Muslim votes in the 1999 election. It failed. Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak, whose government also approved the plan.

But the Nazareth council continued to object. Christians called a "strike" and shut down the country's churches in protest just before Christmas 2001. More pressure was piled on as the pope and President Bush both referred to the dispute. Finally, in March 2002, Sharansky's committee blocked the building plan and offered the Muslims a larger site less than half a mile away.

Back in Nazareth, building work began anyway. Unhindered by Israeli authorities or municipal inspectors, pro-mosque campaigners began laying the foundations of a vast complex, completing three underground levels before they were stopped.

TO SUPREME COURT

The case went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which also rejected the case for the mosque, triggering Tuesday's demolition operation.

Professor Yosef Dan of the Hebrew University said the failure of the campaigners to erect the mosque was of historic proportions, calling it "the first Christian success in the Muslim world for 60 years."

"It was only the unbridled support of three bodies -- the Vatican, the European Union and the United States -- that enabled the Israeli government to take the decision to destroy the mosque in Nazareth," said Dan. "Without this unprecedented unity in the West, Israel wouldn't dare to send bulldozers to destroy the foundations of a mosque."

But the campaigners said their struggle was far from over.

"This is a black day," conceded Nawwaf Al-Zoeby, at the Shihab al-Din mosque. "They demolished the mosque because we don't have a building license. We'll continue with the procedures to try and get a permit and build the mosque."

Thursday, 3 July 2003

Israel pulls out of Bethlehem

Palestinians hopeful, but must rebuild after uprising, occupation

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Thursday, July 3, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Bethlehem, West Bank -- Uniformed Palestinian police officers returned to the streets of Bethlehem Wednesday, marching into the brilliant sunshine in Manger Square to the surreal accompaniment of chimes from the Church of the Nativity and the amplified call to prayer of the muezzin at the Omar Mosque.

The Palestinian Authority regained full security control of this West Bank city for the first time in more than a year after negotiating the full withdrawal of Israeli forces. Troops had occupied Bethlehem in an effort to stop suicide bombers reaching nearby Jerusalem and to halt frequent shooting attacks on the adjacent Jerusalem suburb of Gilo.

Bethlehem's economy has been crippled by the 33-month Palestinian uprising, during which control of its streets passed to armed gangs and terrorist groups, triggering an Israeli invasion. Many official buildings were destroyed by Israeli missiles, while the invaders' rumbling tanks smashed electricity, water and transport facilities.

Mayor Hanna Nasser said he was pleased to see the Israelis go but that as long as Bethlehem remains hemmed in by army roadblocks -- cutting off residents from jobs in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank -- it is "a ceremonial withdrawal, not a real one."

The move followed Monday's Israeli pullback in the Gaza Strip and an upbeat meeting Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Both leaders seemed determined on Wednesday to encourage a rising mood of cautious optimism. Israel released eight Palestinian prisoners in a symbolic move designed to show continued goodwill, and Sharon announced that the Israeli Cabinet would discuss more prisoner releases early next week. For his part, Abbas vowed to imprison anyone breaking the cease-fire and urged his people to embrace peace.

The United States announced it was giving $30 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority to rebuild damaged roads and public services. President Bush declared himself "really happy with what we've seen so far."

But he warned that extremists could still destroy the fragile steps toward peace.

"There are people there who still hate," Bush said. "They hate Israel. They hate the idea of peace. They can't stand the thought of a peaceful state existing side by side with Israel, and they . . . may be willing to . . . attack."

The threat emerged again Wednesday afternoon when thousands of Israeli drivers were brought to a halt around Tel Aviv as police, acting on an intelligence warning, sealed off all main roads to search for a suspected suicide bomber believed about to strike in central Israel.

In Jericho, Palestinian security forces jailed two would-be suicide bombers authorities said were captured on their way to carry out an attack. And in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians opened fire on the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom, injuring four people.

Bethlehem Police Commander Alla Hosni, overseeing the deployment of blue- uniformed officers armed with AK-47 assault rifles, expressed determination to make the handover stick.

"We have fulfilled all our commitments to Israel," he said. "Bethlehem is our territory, and we are now responsible for security.

"No one must shoot at the Israelis, especially now they have withdrawn as agreed with us. Anyone who violates this security arrangement is betraying the interests of the Palestinian people."

Hosni said his officers would stake out Bethlehem's perimeter to prevent anyone from trying to attack Israel and triggering another invasion of the city.

"We will not allow any armed group to operate," he vowed. "The only people allowed to carry weapons are the official Palestinian police and security personnel."

Municipality Director Jamal Salman said that the local economy is in ruins with the destruction of the Christian-centered tourist industry and that unemployment is running at 65 percent. He added that at least 2,000 of the city's 24,000 people have left since the intifada began, most of them Christians.

"The situation is very difficult for me," said Jumana Murad, a 22-year-old college graduate trained to work in tourism but who has never had the chance. "I sit at home with nothing to do.

"I am engaged and I don't see my fiance because he lives in Jerusalem and I cannot go there," she added. "He manages to reach Bethlehem just once a week because of the roadblocks. I hope God will help us."

Walid Zawarha, a CIA-trained former officer in the Palestinian secret service, said he hopes peace is coming but doubts it.

"The Israelis are still near Bethlehem and the checkpoint is still there," he said. "It's like being in a big prison. I haven't been to Jerusalem for four years although it's 10 minutes away. My wife is expecting a baby this week. The day I can take him to Jerusalem, I will know peace has finally arrived."

But Zawarha and other residents expressed mixed feelings about the renewal of Palestinian control. Zawarha said he quit his job in the security forces because they were corrupt and mistreated local Christians in the period prior to the intifada.

"The problem was that everyone had guns, machine-guns," he said. "Two or three guns in each house. Now the Israelis have taken everything, and it's clean. The Israelis left only about five wanted people in Bethlehem. It's clean, quiet."

Zawarha said he is confident that the revamped Palestinian security forces will not permit a reversion to the anarchic conditions before the intifada. But some of the city's dwindling Christian population said they fear they will once more become second-class citizens to the Muslim majority.

"We hope the Palestinian Authority will now put an end to the state of lawlessness that prevailed here," said Ramzi Sahhar, a local merchant. "We want security and order. We want one authority, not many people with guns.

"We want peace. We have suffered enough. Our economy has been destroyed, and we haven't worked for three years."

Tuesday, 1 July 2003

Cease-fire challenges Fatah fighters

They distrust truce with Israel

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank -- The fashionable young men sitting in the cafe in Ramallah on Monday resembled young lawyers or business executives on their day off. As they talked and ordered another round of strong black coffee, their sports jackets fell open to reveal pistols, cellular phones and walkie-talkies hanging from their belts.

These are the street fighters of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which is blamed for the deaths of many Israelis in the past 33 months, either by shootings or suicide bombs.

After 1,000 days of their bloody uprising against Israel, these young men are at a crossroads.

On Sunday, the Fatah leadership announced a six-month cease-fire, on condition that Israel fulfill a long list of difficult demands. Later, the Martyrs Brigades endorsed the truce. The Fatah decision followed Sunday's unilateral declaration of a three-month hudna, or conditional truce, by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

As the Palestinian ground troops in this war absorbed orders from their leaders, some reacted with defiance, while others expressed a mood of victory or a sense that Israel could be tripped up by this diplomatic maneuver.

In Gaza, Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi hinted that the truce was more of a tactical maneuver than a real attempt to end the violence.

"We are sure that Israel will break this hudna, and then the whole world will have to start supporting the Palestinian people," said al-Hindi.

In the village of Yamoun nestling in the nearby hills, gunmen of the Hamas terror wing Izzadine Qassam expressed disdain for the truce.

"This cease-fire will not hold because Israel is continuing its aggression against the Palestinians," said the local Hamas commander. "We should not give Israel a breathing space, and the struggle should continue. We do not see ourselves as a party to this. We are the ones who are paying the price on the ground, and we have a duty to defend our people. There can be no peace with the Jews until they withdraw from all of Palestine."

But for the rank and file of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the truce presents a real quandary.

Some of their friends have been arrested or killed by Israeli troops. If the young men support the cease-fire, they must stifle their desire for revenge.

On the other hand, the truce has the blessing of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, and these cadres are fiercely loyal to Arafat, referring to him familiarly by his nom de guerre, Abu Ammar, or simply as "Ra'is" -- the chief. Some are full-time salaried officers in the Palestinian mukhabarat secret intelligence force commanded by Tawfiq Tirawi, one of Arafat's closest confidants. Others subsist off cash handouts from the Ra'is.

Arafat's word carries weight among these cadres.

Nasser Katami, a young Fatah politician with close ties to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said, "The hudna relies on the extent of Israel's commitment and the existence of a political vision. A hudna means calming the situation. We will honor the agreement for as long as Israel meets all the conditions."

He admitted, however, that "there are some marginal elements who don't accept it."

Hussein al-Sheikh, a close confidant of Arafat who is believed to be the operational commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said he was still engaged in "serious consultations and contacts with all the Fatah cadres, including the wanted men who are hiding in the mountains and who are scattered throughout the West Bank."

On Monday, those consultations had not yet reached Jenin in the northern West Bank, from where Al Aqsa gunmen set out to shoot at an Israeli car passing the nearby village of Ya'bad, killing a 46-year-old Bulgarian working on a road construction project.

"We are not committed to this defeatist cease-fire," said the local leader of the brigades, dressed in military fatigues, his face hidden by a tightly wrapped red kaffiyeh headdress.

"How can there be a hudna when the entire Palestinian people are under siege and when President Arafat is under house arrest and the Israeli army is continuing with its aggression?" he asked. "The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are opposed to this agreement, and I'm not talking only abut Jenin but in many other places in the West Bank. We will continue the struggle until we achieve all our rights."

Even if the militants can be persuaded to halt their attacks, it seems unlikely that they will agree to the demand made by Israel and Washington that they give up their weapons.

A poll published Monday by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found only 9 percent of Palestinians believe the paramilitaries should hand over their weapons, and only 25 percent support the ending of the armed intifada uprising.

Rashid Abu Shabak, a Palestinian security commander in Gaza, said the Palestinian Authority had "no intention" of disarming the armed groups.

"Those who think that the 'road map' (peace) plan means disarming Palestinian factions are mistaken," he said.

That mood was echoed in Tulkarem where the local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs said he would abide by the cease-fire but would never give up his gun.