Sunday 23 December 2001

Oh little town of silent streets, how still it is

23 December 2001

By Matthew Kalman

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — In the city where the Bible says Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, Christians might not be in the right mood to celebrate this Christmas.

After 15 months of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel, Bethlehem is a city ravaged by grief, damaged by violence and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Normally, just before Christmas, Manger Square would be packed with pilgrims standing in line for hours to enter the Church of the Nativity, descend into the grotto and kiss the silver star marking the traditional site of the holy infant's birth. But this year, often not a single pilgrim or foreign tourist is in evidence. The grotto is empty and eerily silent. Souvenir shops have been shuttered.

Michael Giacaman usually keeps his souvenir shop open on Christmas Eve well past midnight to serve the floods of tourists who flock to the traditional processions and singing of carols.

This year, his plans have changed: "I might open for half a day," says Giacaman, surveying the empty square from the doorway of his shop. Two years ago, with millennium celebrations at their height, he sold an armful of mother-and-pearl and olive wood souvenirs to visiting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Now, days go by without any sales.

"No tourists come here, so the shop sells nothing," he says. "We've had to export all our olive wood souvenirs to America."

In his office overlooking the square, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser is counting the cost of the violence.

"We have 22 people dead and 150 injured," says Nasser. "The commercial center was badly damaged by Israeli tanks, which caused about $15 million of damage in 10 days. Our entire yearly budget is only $3 million. We have 70% unemployment, zero tourists in the hotels and maybe three restaurants open out of 86."

He says at least 500 residents have emigrated to escape the situation. "This Christmas, there is no peace, no joy and no stability," he sighs. "Fifty percent of our population are children, and they are the worst affected. I see it in my own grandchildren. They cannot sleep alone — they are haunted by the sounds of gunfire and missiles."

Most of Bethlehem's 28,000 residents are Muslims. Officially, they are united against the common enemy, Israel. Privately, many Christians blame their Muslim neighbors for inviting Israeli reprisals by shooting at the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Some Christians have been shot in mysterious circumstances, including an elderly former city councilor who refused to follow the instructions of the masked Palestinian gunmen who roam the streets.

The signs of increasing Muslim extremism are clear to see. Opposite the empty Church of the Nativity stands the Mosque of Omar, adorned with a huge banner pledging allegiance to the terrorist Islamic Jihad group, supposedly outlawed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Our goal is Allah, our model is Mohammed, our constitution is the Koran, our path is Jihad (holy war)," proclaims the banner. "Dying for the sake of Allah is our highest wish."

Such a public display of Islamic fundamentalism in one of Christendom's holiest sites would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

As this Christmas approaches, the people of Bethlehem have seen too much death to focus on that holiest of births.

"Each year, we are newly born with Christ in this city," says Nasser. "Bethlehem belongs to all Christians. They should come and visit us, particularly now. We need their solidarity to survive."

But the only visitors are people such as Trevor Baumgartner, a 27-year-old child-care provider from Seattle who has come to Bethlehem for the first time to join a group protesting human rights abuses in Israel. He has been in Bethlehem for several days of political training and has not yet visited the Church of the Nativity.

"We here are choosing to engage in this fight through non-violent theory and practice on the ground, and part of that is being here," he says. "I guess you could call this a pilgrimage."

Arafat vows to defy Israel's ban

23 December 2001

By Matthew Kalman USA TODAY

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Sunday that he would defy an Israeli ban and travel here for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Israeli officials have demanded that Arafat arrest the assassins of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi before they allow him to leave Ramallah. He has been confined to that West Bank city since early this month, when Israel destroyed his helicopters and demanded he fight Palestinian terrorism.

"No one can prevent me from reaching Bethlehem," Arafat said in Ramallah. Although he is Muslim, Arafat has gone to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations each year since 1995, when the town was turned over to Palestinian authorities. "It is my duty, and I will see to it that I fulfill it," he said. "I will go there even if I have to go on foot."

The mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, said he would boycott midnight Mass tonight at the Church of the Nativity — believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus — if Arafat can't attend.

Last Christmas, the Israeli secret service escorted Arafat's convoy by road back from Bethlehem to Ramallah because his helicopter was grounded by driving rain. This year, Israeli tanks and ground forces are blockading Ramallah to prevent Arafat from leaving the city.

Israel has lifted restrictions on Palestinian Christians traveling in and out of the West Bank, so they can attend Christmas services in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

Israel said Arafat had been given information on the assassins who killed Zeevi on Oct. 17 but was doing nothing to apprehend them, to disband terrorist organizations or to stop attacks on Israel.

Arafat has been under pressure from the United States and the European Union to crack down on militants. This month, he ordered radical groups to end suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Over the weekend, both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations agreed to suspend such attacks in Israel.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdul Rahman said he had asked Pope John Paul II "to intervene to stop this attack on religious traditions and against the Palestinian people."

Also Sunday, a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed as "imaginary and without any foundation" newspaper reports of a secret peace agreement between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and a Palestinian official. The reports said Peres and Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, had agreed on the establishment of a Palestinian state "within eight months" in Gaza and the 42% of the West Bank currently under full or partial Palestinian control.

The latest wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence is in its 15th month.

Sunday 16 December 2001

Arafat's call for peace met with skepticism

16 December 2001

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

JERUSALEM — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in a televised address Sunday to the Israeli and Palestinian people, called for an end to "armed attacks" and suicide bombings against Israel.

He also called for peace talks and said he wished to see a real Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital coexisting with Israel.

Arafat's address crushed hopes that he would issue a clear call for an end to the 15-month intifada (uprising) against Israel. He did not mention Hamas or Islamic Jihad by name. The militant Palestinian groups have been declared terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union.

The Palestinian leader has been under intense pressure from the international community to rein in terrorists who have stepped up a campaign of suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli civilians.

In response to Sunday's address, Israeli and U.S. leaders said they were still waiting for Arafat to take action against terrorists. "Nobody heard anything we haven't heard before," Israeli Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai said. "The proof will be in his actions, not his words."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called Arafat's words "constructive" but said, "He must turn these important words into effective and sustained action against terror and violence."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on Fox News Sunday, blamed the Palestinians for the breakdown of truce talks mediated by special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni. Powell recalled Zinni to Washington over the weekend amid a new wave of Palestinian attacks and Israeli retaliation. "We sent Gen. Zinni over to try to get that dialogue going, and all of that was blown up by these terrorist organizations on the Palestinian side," he said.

Reading a prepared statement in a broadcast marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Arafat said, "I reaffirm the comprehensive and immediate cessation of all armed attacks, and I renew my call for a comprehensive halt of any attacks or operations, especially the suicide attacks which we have always condemned."

Arafat called for a renewal of the dialogue that produced "the peace of the brave" — a reference to his 1993 peace accord with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. "We are not asking for the impossible, and we do not pose any threat to Israel's existence," he assured Israelis.

Earlier on Sunday, Palestinian security forces closed down offices and institutions linked to Hamas, which has taken responsibility for a wave of recent attacks in which more than 40 Israelis have died.

Israeli forces, meanwhile, continued military operations in Palestinian towns and villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza. More than a dozen Palestinians were killed over the weekend. Last week, Israel said it was cutting ties with Arafat and would be responsible for the security of its citizens.

Thursday 13 December 2001

U.S. envoy weighs giving up his cease-fire mission

13 December 2001

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

RAMALLAH, West Bank — U.S. peace envoy Anthony Zinni was considering whether to continue his 2-week cease-fire mission in the face of Israel's refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leader's failure to carry out his promise to close down extremist installations.

Zinni has been trying to negotiate a cease-fire and create an atmosphere in which Arafat could move decisively against the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups. He will decide by Sunday whether to give up on his efforts. The United States and Israel have labeled both Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations. They are responsible for a new wave of bloody attacks against Israelis.

Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles Thursday at security targets in Gaza and in the West Bank, including a Palestinian government building in Ramallah and an office of Arafat's Fatah organization in Jenin. The attacks were retaliation for Wednesday's terrorist ambush near an Israeli settlement that killed 10 Israelis.

A U.S. official familiar with Zinni's efforts said the main stumbling block to implementing a cease-fire was Arafat's refusal to make the "hard decision" to end terrorist activity.

But Israel also came under renewed scrutiny for declaring it will cut off contact with Arafat. Secretary of State Colin Powell directed Zinni and U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer on Thursday to seek an explanation from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the Israeli Cabinet's action. He also referred to Arafat as "the elected head of the Palestinian Authority."

Israeli Cabinet ministers announced early Thursday that contact with Arafat was being cut. But they stressed there were no plans to topple him. "We have reached the point where Arafat has ceased being relevant as far as Israel is concerned to deal with the whole question of terrorism," Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said. "From today onward, we will do everything we have to as a nation to defend ourselves."

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a senior Arafat adviser, called Israel's new attacks "a formal declaration of war."

Tuesday 11 December 2001

Europe adds Hamas, Islamic Jihad to terrorist list

December 11, 2001

By Matthew Kalman and Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY

JERUSALEM — The European Union labeled the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad "terrorist networks" for the first time Monday. The EU demanded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat dismantle the groups and order an end to armed attacks on Israel.

The decision by the EU to add Hamas and Islamic Jihad to its list of international terrorist groups — a list that also includes Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization — puts Europe more closely in line with U.S. policy, which strongly supports Israel. The move, Israelis say, also indicates that Western nations are united in their frustration with Arafat.

"I think certainly the American effort here and the terrorist attacks last week were eye-opening" to European foreign ministers, said Danny Seaman, director of Israel's government press office. "Many of them are coming to the conclusion that Arafat isn't doing anything."

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ziad Abu Zayad said the EU is mistaken in its impression of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He said the two organizations should be regarded as Islamic resistance to Israeli occupation: "These groups are not international terrorist groups."

Israel didn't escape criticism Monday from the EU, which often has blamed the Israelis for violence in the region that has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in 14 months. The EU foreign ministers called on Israel to withdraw its forces from Palestinian-ruled areas, freeze the size of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and end its practice of having security forces assassinate suspected Palestinian terrorists.

Meanwhile, violence on both sides continued. Israeli security forces killed a Palestinian teenager and toddler Monday in an attempt to assassinate an alleged Islamic Jihad terrorist in Hebron in the West Bank.

In the attack, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a car carrying Mohammed Ayoub Sidr, 26, a senior leader of Islamic Jihad who Israel says is responsible for suicide bombings in Jerusalem and shooting attacks near Hebron. Sidr was injured in the attack. Burhan Himuni, 3, who was riding in the car, and Shadi Arafe, 13, who was in a taxi nearby, were killed.

In the past 2 weeks, Israeli civilians have been hit by a wave of suicide bomb attacks.

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for an attack Sunday in Haifa that injured 29 people. Hamas admitted responsibility for suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 25 a week earlier. Israel retaliated after last week's bombings with fighter-jet attacks on Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad installations.

Also Monday, as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders in an attempt to restart peace negotiations, Palestinian forces fired several mortars into Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza Strip.

Friday 7 December 2001

Saudis airing anti-Semitic TV series for Ramadan Based on Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The National Post (Canada)
December 7, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

A major Arabic TV channel has produced a 30-part dramatization of the notorious anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to be broadcast throughout the Arab world as a special program for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Horseman Without a Horse is a multi-million-dollar production starring leading Egyptian actor Muhammad Subhi in 14 different roles with a large international cast from Egypt, Syria and France. The program was made by Arab Radio and Television (ART) a popular satellite channel based in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.

Roz Al-Youssuf, an Egyptian weekly, said in an admiring preview that the series successfully debunks Jewish claims that the Protocols – the supposed minutes of the Jewish clique that controls the world – were a forgery invented by anti-Semitic propagandists in Tsarist Russia.

"For the first time, the series' writer courageously tackles the 24 Protocols of the Elders of Zion, revealing them and clarifying that they are the central line that still, to this very day, dominates Israel's policy, political aspirations and racism," the paper reported.

The Protocols, which first surfaced in Russia at the end of the 19th century, have fed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that suggest Jews seek to exercise world domination through control of the media, banking system and political movements.

They were popular in Nazi Germany and are required reading among neo-Nazi groups to this day. The Protocols have sold thousands of copies in several Arabic editions and are particularly popular in Egypt and Syria.

News of the ART production comes as Dubai TV continues its nightly broadcast of Terrorman – a Ramadan satire depicting Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, drinking the blood of Arab children.

Since Sept. 11, one often-repeated fantasy that has been pushed is that the Israeli Mossad was behind the World Trade Center attack – a gruesome twist on the Jewish conspiracy theory that finds its most potent statement in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Tuesday 4 December 2001

U.S. raids Texas charity called front for Hamas

4 December 2001

By Judy Keen and Matthew Kalman

President Bush, moving to fulfill his pledge to dismantle all terrorist groups with global reach, announced Tuesday that authorities had raided a Texas charity he said is a front for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The announcement of the first U.S. crackdown on a U.S. group with no known links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network underscores the administration's anger with Palestinians' role in Middle East violence.

On Tuesday, Israel launched a second wave of airstrikes on Palestinian Authority facilities in the West Bank and Gaza in retaliation for weekend suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 25 Israeli civilians.

U.S. officials said action against the charity was accelerated after Hamas, which is on a State Department list of terror groups, claimed credit for last weekend's bombings.

Bush said the Treasury Department has frozen the assets of the Holy Land Foundation, based in Richardson, Texas. The group raised $13 million from Americans last year. Authorities closed its offices in Texas, California, New Jersey and Illinois. They also blocked the accounts of a bank and holding company with ties to Hamas that are based in the West Bank.

Bush said the money raised by the foundation helped Hamas recruit and train suicide bombers and support their families. "Those who do business with terror will do no business with the United States or anywhere else the United States can reach," he said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement from the foundation denying that it gives money to Hamas. The statement said the foundation "has been unfairly targeted in the nationwide smear campaign to undermine Muslims and the institutions that serve them."

In a speech to Congress on Sept. 20, Bush said the war on terrorism "begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." Michael Zeldin, an official in the Clinton Justice Department, called Tuesday's action "the first objective proof" that Bush plans to go after all terrorists.

In the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared to enter a dramatic new phase Tuesday as Israel branded Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority a "supporter of terrorism" and stepped up airstrikes on Palestinian targets.

Two Palestinians were reported killed and dozens injured as Israeli helicopter gunships and fighter bombers fired missiles at eight Palestinian facilities in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel said the buildings had been used as terror bases. "All eight targets that were attacked were installations of security forces operating at the behest of the Palestinian Authority," Israeli army spokesman Ron Kittrey said.

Israeli security officials said a third of Israel's casualties in the past 14 months of violence have been suffered in attacks by "moderate" groups allied to Arafat.

Israeli bulldozers also wrecked the runway at Gaza International Airport. This move and Monday's destruction of Arafat's helicopters in Gaza City effectively consigned the Palestinian leader and other senior officials to the Palestinian-controlled territories.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said attacks on Palestinian installations prevented Arafat from meeting Israel's demand that he round up terrorists. He accused Israel of "tying Mr. Arafat's arms and legs, throwing him into the sea and telling him to swim."

The Palestinian Authority said it rounded up more than 100 militants after the weekend attacks, but Israel said those arrested were not senior commanders.

Israeli officials insisted they had no intention of toppling Arafat, but they said Israel had put peace talks on hold until it had completed its "war against the terrorism on our own doorstep."

Making his first public comments since the Israeli offensive began, Arafat hit back at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, telling CNN, "He doesn't want a peace process to start."

The new Israeli policy was hammered out at a stormy Cabinet meeting where right-wing ministers led by Sharon voted to adopt a resolution branding the Palestinian Authority "an entity that supports terrorism, and must be dealt with accordingly."

Labor Party ministers led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres refused to participate in the vote. Peres told reporters in Bucharest Tuesday that his party might consider quitting Sharon's coalition if it tries to topple Arafat. Former Israeli foreign minister David Levy, a member of the Labor Party, worried about the Israeli move linking the Palestinian Authority with terrorism. "Is Arafat a partner, or is he our bin Laden?"

Palestinian leaders said Israel is making a grave mistake. "It is a most dangerous decision," said Hussein A-Sheikh, senior Fatah leader on the West Bank. "Israel now regards the entire Palestinian people as the enemy."

Keen reported from Washington; Kalman reported from Jerusalem.