Monday 29 January 2001

Israel calls off talks until after election

Monday, January 29, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak suspended all diplomatic contacts with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last night and cancelled a summit meeting planned for tomorrow in Stockholm.
The terse announcement was made shortly after a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland turned into a public embarrassment for Israeli cabinet minister Shimon Peres, as Mr. Arafat launched a scathing attack on Israeli policy.
The suspension of contacts until after Israel's election on Feb. 6 does not include links aimed at combatting violence and terrorism.
Mr. Barak stressed that his government "continues to adhere to the peace process on the basis of upholding Israel's vital interests." But his statement represented a dramatic contrast to the optimism expressed on Saturday at the end of a week of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at an Egyptian resort.
Yesterday's discussion in Davos began politely enough, with Mr. Arafat gently insisting that Mr. Peres deliver his speech first. The Israeli Nobel laureate, who is closely associated with continued efforts to reach a deal with the Palestinians, said Israel remained committed to peace. "We never initiated any pressure upon the Palestinians. Nor did we aim our guns just out of bad will, only when it was needed to defend our lives."
But his Nobel peace partner shot back with a withering dissection of Israeli attacks against Palestinians.
"I wouldn't wish an Israeli child to have to live a single hour of the lives that Palestinian children are now having to live suffering under repression and under bombardment," he said.
"The current government of Israel is waging and has waged for the past four months a savage and barbaric war as well as a blatant and fascist military aggression."
Mr. Peres, his hands clasped tight together in a double fist, was clearly taken aback. Only a day earlier, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators said the sides had never been so close to a peace treaty.

Monday 22 January 2001

Hope is dim at Mideast peace talks

Violence persists with arrest of Palestinian woman accused of luring youth to his death

The Globe and Mail,
Monday, January 22, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak shrugged off widespread criticism last night over his decision to accept a Palestinian invitation to 10 days of intensive peace talks before next month's prime ministerial election.

"By staying away from the talks in Taba, we would be serving the interests of the Palestinians and I have no intention of doing that," Mr. Barak said. "It is our duty to continue to test the possibility of reaching an agreement or understandings that would first and foremost reduce the level of violence."

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gathered for the talks in the Egyptian resort of Taba, neither side was optimistic amid positions that appear to be hardening and continued violence that has killed more than 380 people, most of them Palestinians. Yesterday, a Palestinian youth was shot dead during riots in Gaza and what appeared to be a car bomb in preparation exploded prematurely in East Jerusalem.

But Ariel Sharon, the right-wing challenger who has led Mr. Barak by as much as 20 points in recent opinion polls, accused the Prime Minister of electioneering.

"There is no doubt that the renewal of talks tonight is an attempted grab for electoral purposes by a government that does not exist," Mr. Sharon said.

Meanwhile, even senior members of Mr. Barak's own government challenged the legitimacy of conducting negotiations in the shadow of the Feb. 6 election.

"If you're so convinced we're going to win, then why not arrange to meet the Palestinians on Feb. 7 in the evening?" cabinet minister Haim Ramon jeered.

The negotiating teams faced each other in a Taba hotel room to discuss procedural issues.

"We were hard-working," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told journalists after the session adjourned 2½ hours later. The talks were due to resume this morning.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem in Gaza, was also upbeat, saying he hopes the talks produce an agreement "as soon as possible."

But the Israeli cabinet formally resolved to three basic principles yesterday: No Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount holy site (known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary), no right for Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and support for the 180,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

These "red lines," as Mr. Barak called them, were rejected by other Palestinian leaders.

"These are very difficult conditions, which we cannot accept," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said. "If this is Barak's starting point, the talks are doomed to failure."

Mr. Shaath said his side will not be pressured by the looming Israeli election.

"We're not going to make an agreement just because time is running out," he said. "Under this terror of time, you cannot reach an agreement that can last."

Meanwhile, real terror continued to grip the Israeli public after the slaying of Ofir Rahum, a 16-year-old schoolboy whose bullet-riddled body was discovered last week on the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Ramallah.

He disappeared after withdrawing a large amount of cash from the bank and skipping school to meet a mystery woman in Jerusalem, 80 kilometres away, after meeting her in an Internet chat room.

Amneh Muna, a 23-year-old Palestinian journalist and political activist, was arrested in the early hours Saturday at her home in the West Bank village of Bir Naballah, just north of Jerusalem.

She was interrogated yesterday by Israel's Shin Bet security service at a compound in Jerusalem. Shin Bet prevented her from talking to anybody, including her family-appointed lawyer, and secured a court order prohibiting publication of her picture.

In an interview at the family home, hours after her arrest, Ms. Muna's brother, Tariq, denied that she was involved in the killing and described how 50 masked Israeli troops surrounded the house to arrest her.

Mr. Muna, 30, said his parents, brother and two sisters were called from their home in the dead of night, one by one, then asked to watch as dozens of soldiers searched the house.

"They took away hundreds of documents and newspapers and every photograph we have of my sister, including family albums," Mr. Muna said.

"They also took her identity card, credit cards and about $2,000 cash in U.S. dollars and Israeli shekels. They also took all the family's mobile phones. They were searching for about two hours."

He said the first the family heard about the connection to the killing "was on the TV news. It's just not true. She's not that kind of person."

The slain youth's father said yesterday that the family is concerned about other young people entering what he called the "black hole" of the Internet.

"I don't want revenge," Shalom Rahum said. "I just want all the children, everyone who goes into these chat rooms, to be careful. I hope my son will be the last victim and other young people will learn the consequences."

Tuesday 16 January 2001

Palestinian minister offers amnesty

Outcry stops execution of collaborators as Israel seals Gaza over killing of settler

The Globe and Mail,
Tuesday, January 16, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian minister of justice, apparently stung by an international outcry over the firing-squad executions of two Palestinians convicted of collaborating with Israel, offered an amnesty to other suspects yesterday.

"Those who surrender will be pardoned, so long as they give themselves up within the next 45 days and reveal all their activities," Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein said.

Meanwhile yesterday, Israel suspended peace talks for a day and sealed off the Gaza Strip after the kidnap and murder of a Jewish settler. About 100 Israeli settlers went on a rampage after his death, burning Palestinian buildings and cars.

Mr. Abu Medein said seven alleged collaborators had surrendered since the executions of Alan Bani Odeh and Majdi Mikkawi on Saturday. The two were tried and convicted by Palestinian security courts, which gave them no right to a defence or an appeal. Two other men were condemned to death by a similar court in Bethlehem on Saturday.

The men were accused of providing intelligence to Israel to assist in assassinating Palestinian militia leaders and officials, more than 30 of whom are believed to have been killed in recent pinpoint attacks.

The European Union issued a protest against the executions and asked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to commute the two death sentences handed down Saturday.

In Ottawa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Canada is "deeply troubled" about the executions and is urging the Palestinian Authority to commute the other death sentences.

"At this critical moment in the Middle East, we would hope that all parties would refrain from any deliberate action that aggravates the situation further," spokeswoman Valerie Noftle said.

But Faisal Husseini, the senior PLO official in Jerusalem, said the Palestinian leadership should be more resolute in hunting down traitors and called on Mr. Arafat to "take a clear decision to execute the traitors."

In the West Bank village of Burkin yesterday, a suspected Palestinian collaborator was shot dead by a hit squad at the door to his home.

Earlier, the body of kidnapped Jewish settler Rony Tzalah, 32, was discovered in an onion field next to his greenhouse in the Israeli settlement of Kfar Yam in the southern Gaza Strip. He had been shot in the head.

After the body was discovered, about 100 Jewish settlers went on a rampage, destroying nearby Palestinian-owned greenhouses and empty houses, setting fire to cars and trees, and shooting toward the homes of their Palestinian neighbours. No injuries were reported, but the Israeli army had to bring in firefighters to douse the flames.

Mr. Tzalah's death provoked an angry response from Israel, which called off planned peace talks in protest, although they are due to resume today.

"This is a serious blow to the peace process," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is under strong pressure to call off all talks while fighting continues.

Monday 15 January 2001

Palestinians warn of more executions

Arafat urged to commute further sentences after 'collaborators' killed by firing squad

The Globe and Mail,
Monday, January 15, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is under pressure to commute two planned executions after an outcry over the deaths by firing squad of two Palestinian men on Saturday.

All four were accused of collaborating with Israeli forces to assassinate terrorist leaders in recent weeks. The men were all convicted in lightning trials by Palestinian security courts, whose rulings cannot be appealed and whose proceedings have been condemned by human-rights groups.

Alan Bani Odeh, 25, was executed by a Palestinian police firing squad as a chanting crowd of 5,000 gathered outside a police station in Nablus Saturday morning. Majdi Mikkawi, 28, was shot at the same time in Gaza.

Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein said two more men sentenced to death on Saturday would also be executed this week, and a dozen more would follow. The condemned men's only recourse now is Mr. Arafat, who must approve all executions.

"Anyone we lay our hands on will not merit the mercy of the Palestinian people or the mercy of Palestinian law. Palestinian blood is pure blood and may not be spilled by agents," Mr. Abu Medein said.

But the head of a human-rights group suggested actions may not follow such tough talk. "I don't believe the Palestinian Authority is going to execute any more, at least in the coming weeks," said Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

"There is a big fight against collaborators but the Palestinian Authority has to consider international pressure," Mr. Eid said. "The coverage has affected the reputation of the Palestinian Authority and its justice system."

Mr. Eid said it was the duty of foreign governments who donate aid to the PA to monitor events in the Palestinian areas and ensure democratic rights. The executions were only the fourth and fifth death penalties carried out in the more than six years of the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak joined in criticism of the executions yesterday, which Israeli media featured prominently.

"It is regrettable that the Palestinian Authority, which aspires to be a recognized entity, has recourse to show trials that recall dark periods of history," Mr. Barak said in a statement.

The Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, which has also criticized Israeli policies, condemned the executions, saying: "The fact that in these cases the defendants were not accorded a fair trial, had no effective opportunity to defend themselves and no opportunity to appeal makes these executions especially grave."

Mr. Bani Odeh was found guilty last month of helping Israeli agents assassinate Ibrahim Bani Odeh, a distant relative and a leader of the Hamas terror group. The court found he supplied a car to Ibrahim Bani Odeh, which had a bomb hidden in the headrest of the driver's seat. It was detonated as the Hamas leader drove through Nablus, killing him instantly. Mr. Bani Odeh admitted meeting Israeli agents, but said he did not know the car was rigged when he agreed to lend it to his relative.

On Saturday morning, as a huge crowd gathered outside the gates of the police station in Nablus, Mr. Bani Odeh was permitted a final meeting with his mother, wife and two small daughters.

After 15 minutes, his wife, Siham, emerged in tears, cradling their infant daughter in her arms. "He swore to me that he is innocent," she said. "He never knew they were planning to kill Ibrahim. He asked me to look after the children and he asked his mother to take care of all of us."

Several hundred people from the crowd were allowed into the police station's courtyard to witness the execution. At 11 a.m., Mr. Bani Odeh was taken to the courtyard, tied to a pole and blindfolded. As he stood there, his brother walked up to him and said "Allah yisamhak" (May God forgive you). He was executed by a squad of six hooded police officers.

Among the onlookers was Ibrahim Bani Odeh's widow, Rakiyeh. "I thank President Arafat for bringing justice," she said. We are very happy today to see that this traitor, who helped kill my husband, is being punished."

The second man, Mr. Mikkawi, was found guilty of giving Israel information that led to the Nov. 22 killing of four Fatah members, one of them his uncle, Jamal Abdel-Razek. Mr. Mikkawi was executed in Gaza. No members of the public witnessed his death, but it was videotaped and broadcast yesterday on Israeli television.

Hours after the executions, four men suspected of collaborating with Israel were tried by a PA security court in Bethlehem for their alleged role in the death of Fatah militia leader Hussein Abayat, who was killed in an Israeli rocket attack in November. Two of the men, Mohammad Deifallah Khatib and Husam Deen Moussa Hmeid, were sentenced to death by firing squad, while two others drew life in prison.

Palestinian leaders said there were at least a dozen more suspects accused of helping the Israelis and that all of them could expect the same fate.

Tuesday 2 January 2001

Arafat agrees to new round of peace talks with Clinton

Car bomb injures 30 in Israeli town as fighting escalates in West Bank, Gaza

The Globe and Mail,
Tuesday, January 2, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed last night to visit Washington for what could be a decisive meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton on the future of the Middle East peace process, as a bomb attack in Israel and fighting throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip raised tension on the ground.

The two men reportedly held a lengthy telephone conversation late yesterday about Mr. Clinton's proposals for renewing peace talks with Israel. Direct talks have been stalled since July's failed summit at Camp David, Md., and almost buried by the fighting of the past three months. More than 350 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians, and six more died yesterday.

Mr. Clinton needs an answer soon if he is to realize his dream of clinching a peace deal before he leaves the White House later this month. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has already accepted the U.S. proposals as a basis for new talks, but Mr. Arafat originally said he could not give a final answer until after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled for Thursday.

Mr. Arafat's plans to meet Mr. Clinton this afternoon raised hopes that a breakthrough might still be possible, despite yesterday's violence and rhetoric. Earlier, though, a senior Palestinian official said Mr. Arafat will reject the U.S. proposals.

"The Palestinian leadership has decided to respond in the negative to the American proposals," said Sakher Habash, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at a rally in Ramallah to mark the 36th anniversary of the Fatah movement's first terror attack against Israel. "The Palestinians will continue with their struggle until independence."

And Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who spoke to Mr. Arafat yesterday, said there were "no indications" a deal would be sealed before Mr. Clinton's term ends.

Hours before Mr. Clinton and Mr. Arafat spoke, a large car bomb exploded in the centre of the busy Israeli seaside resort of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.

One person was seriously injured and about 30 more wounded by shrapnel when the booby-trapped vehicle exploded as a crowded rush-hour bus was passing on Netanya's main thoroughfare.

"There were three explosions, one after the other," said Mickey Ratz, who witnessed the explosion. "I was only 20 metres away. I saw a car on fire. There was shattered glass all over the place. I saw a lot of blood."

Israeli helicopters hovered over the city trying to locate a car that was seen fleeing the scene at high speed just before the attack, and police said the injured man might be the bomber.

Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, denied carrying out the attack. But just yesterday morning, senior Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantissi was quoted in a Persian Gulf newspaper threatening more attacks on Israel.

"Hamas has stepped up its operations and has carried out bomb attacks from afar to protect the lives of its fighters," said Mr. Rantissi, whom Mr. Arafat released from a Gaza jail last week. "We might be forced to use the old [suicide attack] methods if that is the only way to cause losses to the enemy."

Israeli security officials have warned of a possible increase in Hamas attacks in the run-up to the election for prime minister planned for Feb. 6. A wave of suicide bombings during the 1996 election campaign left nearly 100 Israelis dead and swept right-wing firebrand Benjamin Netanyahu to office in a surprise victory over peace champion Shimon Peres.

"After this attack, we can't hold back any longer," Israeli cabinet minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday. "That's it -- we have run out of patience. Now we need a more immediate and firm response. Mr. Arafat is responsible for everything that is happening and he will have to suffer the consequences. We can't continue with negotiations with the Palestinians as long as these attacks continue."

But Palestinian cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Israel was also to blame.

"The latest escalation is a direct result of the events that started three months ago," he said. "We have warned and cautioned against such an escalation. The only way to escape the cycle of violence and attacks is by returning to the negotiating table and reaching an agreement on the basis of UN resolutions, which means a full withdrawal from the [Israeli-occupied] territories."

Meanwhile, six Palestinians died yesterday after clashes with Israeli troops. Among them was 10-year-old Muad Abu Adwan, who died of wounds suffered Sunday in crossfire in the West Bank town of Hebron, where Palestinians shot at Israeli houses throughout the night and Israeli soldiers and settlers returned fire.

Jewish settlers, angered by Sunday's slaying of hard-line Rabbi Binyamin Kahane, blocked roads to West Bank Arab villages. The resurgent violence has increased pressure on Mr. Barak, who trails badly in polls with slightly more than a month before an election in which he has staked his job on reaching a deal with the Palestinians.

Yesterday, Mr. Netanyahu threw his weight behind the candidacy of Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

And Mr. Barak renewed a threat of "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians unless a deal is reached. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said that a security fence was already being prepared along those border stretches that both sides seem to agree on.

The Prime Minister told army radio that if the talks do not resume, Israel will consider establishing its permanent borders without Palestinian input.

"We must part from the Palestinians. It is one of our highest priorities to do so in an agreement, but we will have to prepare to do so without an agreement if it becomes clear that the Palestinians are not interested in an agreement."

Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, meanwhile, warned Mr. Barak against rushing into any agreement before the election.

Monday 1 January 2001

Would-be messiahs back in action

Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Matthew Kalman

Monday, Jan. 01, 2001

The plump American with the smiling, round face and woollen cap standing outside a Jerusalem department store was keen to talk about international relations.

"All this is leading to a Third World War, you know," he said, referring to the continuing unrest in the West Bank and Gaza. "China will play a major role, and millions of people are going to be killed.

"I'm here on a mission," he confided. "I've been sent here to try and prevent this war."

He took out his identification and presented some impressive credentials. According to his genuine-looking U.S. passport, the 40-something man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a large knapsack was none other than King David -- the Hebrew ruler who made Jerusalem his capital 3,000 years ago.

It was a pleasure to see him. The streets of Jerusalem have been lacking John the Baptist, the prophet Isaiah and other would-be messiahs who were regular features in the holy city until about a year ago.

Many of them were gripped by the Jerusalem Syndrome, a recognized psychiatric disorder in which perfectly normal people become so entranced by Jerusalem's religious atmosphere that they assume the identities of biblical characters or become modern-day prophets.

But because of a security crackdown by Israel and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the prophets, kings and gods were rounded up and kicked out as 2000 approached and many feared that some millennialist sects might spark violence in this tense region.

"Every year we examine about 150 patients, of whom 40 or so require hospitalization," said Dr. Yair Barel, director of the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem. "There was one case where two different patients insisted they were the Messiah, so I decided to put them in a room together to see if they would come to their senses."

It didn't work, he said. "Each thought the other was an impostor."

Despite the security fears, or perhaps because of them, Dr. Barel said, the expected rise in the number of cases of Jerusalem Syndrome during 2000 did not materialize.

Only a few sufferers have ever proved dangerous. One was a fundamentalist Australian Christian who tried to burn down the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in 1969, which could have sparked an all-out Middle East War.

Since 1969, Muslims have been afraid that Israel is planning to rebuild Solomon's Temple there. Palestinians justify their current intifada (uprising) by invoking Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the compound on Sept. 28.

In the months before last January, Israeli security forces were on high alert for the possibility that apocalyptic millennialists would attack the mosque or stage mass suicides in Jerusalem in an attempt to hasten the End of Days.

Dozens of fundamentalists -- most of them quite harmless -- were rounded up and expelled from Israel in late-night raids.

According to Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, published this week by the Free Press, a U.S. publisher, the overzealous police actions were not entirely misplaced.

"The expectation of The End is part of significant streams within all three of the monotheistic religions," Mr. Gorenberg said in an interview. "In all three, there are significant numbers of people whose vision of the end focuses geographically on Jerusalem and specifically on the Temple Mount."

Mr. Gorenberg said it is no surprise that the seven-year-long Oslo peace process left until the end any discussion about the Temple Mount, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews and regarded by evangelical Christians as the site of the Jewish Temple, which must be rebuilt before the Second Coming.

Numerous Web sites analyze current events in the light of biblical prophecy, suggesting that we are living through the End of Days. Currently enjoying huge success in the United States are the Left Behind books, a series of novels by fundamentalist Christians Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Mr. Gorenberg said the fact that nothing happened last New Year's Eve has not destroyed belief in the apocalypse. Now that 2000 and 2001 have both begun quietly, the tension is even greater.

"This is really the point at which millennial and messianic groups become interesting and most unstable, when their expectations have been dashed via the continuation of history," he said.