Wednesday 27 April 2005

Militants' patience for cease-fire is wearing thin

Militants Munif Remawi (left) and Mahmoud Remawi (right) had no objection to giving their real names or being photographed. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

United, ready: 2 fighters back truce -- but only to a point

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Page A - 3

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank -- Mahmoud Remawi was a year away from a law degree when his university career was interrupted. Munif Remawi was studying sociology.

The two cousins still look like the carefree students they once were, chatting animatedly in a Ramallah cafe. But the pistols tucked into their waistbands beneath their baggy tops as they snatch a rare hour in the fresh air betray their new lives. Both are in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah party that dominates the Palestinian government.

Unlike many of their comrades, the Remawis have no objection to giving their real names or being photographed. "Our names and faces are known to the Israelis. They are already trying to kill us. It makes no difference," says Munif, 27, with a shrug and a half-smile.

For security reasons, their sojourn in the cafe is too brief for them to order lunch. But their message is clear: Time is running out for new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The current cease-fire is for a limited period only," says Munif. "Unless the political dialogue produces real results from Israel, the intifada will resume."

Until last month, the two Remawis were hidden away with about two dozen of their Al-Aqsa comrades in a crumbling building in the Mukata, the presidential compound in Ramallah, where they enjoyed the protection of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then Abbas. They emerged, usually under cover of darkness, to attack Israeli settlers and soldiers before fleeing back to the Mukata for safety. Many of them have been hunted down and arrested or killed by Israeli security forces.

But after several Al-Aqsa gunmen smashed up a restaurant frequented by the Palestinian leadership and fired shots at Abbas' office building, the Palestinian president ordered them out of the compound.

Al-Aqsa supported the candidacy of Abbas and the tahdiyeh (calm) proclaimed in March after the Sharm el-Sheikh summit between Abbas and the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

"I signed a document declaring that I submit to the authority of the Palestinian Authority and whatever agreement it makes with Israel or any other country," says Munif. "We all signed this document to prove that we are trying to be positive, that we are suspending attacks on Israel. But the Israelis are continuing with their policy. They are continuing to kill us, arrest us and grab our land to build the wall and the settlements." He was referring to the barrier Israel is erecting to divide Israel from Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and the announced expansion of Jewish settlements close to Jerusalem.

"We are united behind our leaders," says Mahmoud, 26. "If the politicians succeed in making the necessary progress toward independence, the liberation of our capital in Jerusalem and the right of return for the refugees in exile, there will be no reason to continue the intifada. But if there is no progress, the intifada will be resumed."

The two young men say they would like to go back to their studies and their lives, but feel compelled to continue the struggle as long as the Israeli military dominates the Palestinian territories.

Mahmoud, who is from the village of Beit Rima north of Ramallah, says he saw his family recently for the first time in three years. He has been engaged for four years to a woman from Jenin but has been unable to visit her, let alone get married.

"It's impossible for us to lead a normal life and get married as we want to," says Mahmoud. "The families of our fiancees keep finding reasons to postpone the wedding. They'd rather keep their daughters from becoming widows."

They refuse to talk about the specific operations in which they have been involved, and their only sign of discomfort is when asked if they approve of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

"Most revolutions in the world might have made mistakes, and it is right to see the results of the actions and correct them," says Mahmoud. "But for Palestinians who see their families cut down in their own homes, we have no other way to fight the Israeli Apaches (attack helicopters) and F-16s (fighter jets). These attacks restore the balance of fear, so Israeli civilians will put pressure on their government to stop the military attacks against our people."

In fact, the opposite happened. The worst month of suicide attacks -- March 2002, when dozens of Israeli civilians were killed, culminating in the suicide bombing that killed 29 people attending a Passover seder in Netanya -- triggered an all-out Israeli invasion of West Bank cities and a monthlong siege of Arafat's headquarters.

As the brief encounter ends, Mahmoud, the student-lawyer-turned-gunman who wants to get married, delivers a more hopeful message.

"Our struggle is not in order to die. It is in order to live in freedom and make a future for our kids," he says.

Saturday 16 April 2005

Hope dims for school pushing Mideast peace

Both sides hassle Palestinian project that bridges conflict

Page A - 1
Saturday, April 16, 2005

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

El-Khadr, West Bank -- Amid stirrings of hope that Israelis and Palestinians can negotiate a peaceful settlement to their decades-long conflict, a school that has battled to promote peace and coexistence among children in the area faces extinction.

The Hope Flowers School, near Bethlehem, has survived threats from Palestinian bureaucrats and shells from Israeli tanks since its founding. Its programs promoting dialogue and contact between Israeli and Palestinian students have attracted worldwide attention and a visit in 1998 from then- first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But Hope Flowers now faces a demolition order from the Israeli government, and its education license has been frozen by the Palestinian Authority.

Perched in a valley between the village of El-Khadr south of Bethlehem and the sprawling Israeli settlement of Efrat, Hope Flowers has tried for years to bridge the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians through classroom projects and encounters between its Palestinian students and children from the other side.

"The idea of the school is to create a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis who believe in peace and coexistence," said school Principal Ibrahim Issa, 31, whose father, Hussein, was its founder. "We believe that by bringing many children together from both sides, we can create a new generation who will find a peaceful resolution to our conflict."

However, Israeli roadblocks erected after the Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 have prevented students from reaching the campus. Armed attacks by Hamas militants against Israeli soldiers and settlers in March 2002 triggered such heavy exchanges of fire that the campus had to be evacuated with the assistance of the Red Cross and the U.S. Consulate.

Fewer students

The violence has taken its toll. Enrollment fell from a high of 500 students in 1998 to just 120 last year. Since the uprising, or intifada, Hope Flowers has been forced to close its high school and now offers classes only for students age 12 and younger. This year, enrollment has grown to 180, and Issa is determined to keep it rising.

Now that Palestinian and Israeli schoolchildren in the area are unable to visit each other, however, Hope Flowers is carrying on its outreach through a program sponsored by Building Bridges, an Israeli-German-Palestinian program.

The school's philosophy of nonviolence and neighborliness has attracted support from donors in the United States and Europe. The largest single donor to the meager annual budget of $275,000 is the Orange County Middle East Peace Fund, which donates $35,000 to $55,000 in funds from individual donors each year.

The U.S. consul general intervened to save Hope Flowers when Israeli officials issued a demolition order in 1999, saying the school was constructed without the required permit, as many of the buildings in the area are. Issa says his father, who died in 2000, hoped the area would be transferred to Palestinian control before the Israeli order could be implemented, but then the intifada broke out, and the peace process ground to a halt.

Now, the demolition order has been renewed. Issa believes that the Israelis want to demolish the cafeteria and claim the land to build a section of the West Bank security barrier dividing Israel from Palestinian-controlled areas. He says plans for the barrier show it would cut to within 130 yards of the school cafeteria, well within the 164-yard no-man's-land required on either side of the wall. Maps issued by the Israeli government are not precise enough to show whether the fence will cut through the campus, as Issa fears.

A spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration, which issued the demolition orders, said the order "has no connection whatsoever to the building of the security fence."

He added that officials were not aware that any of the buildings scheduled for destruction were part of a school. "If it is part of a school, it's possible that the Civil Administration will reconsider the demolition order," he said.

However, demolishing even the school cafeteria also would mean destroying the school's water system, which lies beneath it. Replacing the system would cost about $120,000 -- well beyond the school's means, Issa said.

The water is used in the school's greenhouses, whose crops help fund scholarships for poor students. Hope Flowers needs the money because the Palestinian Ministry of Education provides no financial support to the school. The ministry froze the school's license in September, saying a retaining wall above the schoolyard needed repair.

'They don't toe the line'

"They know we haven't got the $70,000 needed to repair the wall," he said. "It is just a pretext."

Palestinian officials declined to answer questions about the school.

Ruth Shapin, secretary of the Orange County Middle East Peace Fund, says the Palestinian Authority withholds support from the school "because they don't toe the line. They teach peace and democracy, including cooperation with people of goodwill on the Israeli side."

"It behooves the international community to protect this little school," she added.

But four years of pressure from all sides have taken their toll, even on erstwhile supporters.

An example to live by

Benjamin Waxman, a marketing consultant from Delaware who now lives in the neighboring settlement of Efrat and helped the school build a computer laboratory, was a longtime supporter.

"They were the genuine item, not faking it,'' said Waxman. "I'm convinced that whether we have one state or two states, we have to learn to live together."

Christina Cody, 25, of Ashland, Ore., volunteers at Hope Flowers, helping to organize trauma training sessions for teachers and counselors at nearby schools.

She witnessed the school's work during a Building Bridges session with German exchange students.

"There came a point when it was clear the Palestinian students had pro- Nazi feelings against Jews," she said. "The German students got involved and helped them to take a deeper look at those feelings by drawing on their own experiences in Germany. Even though they were only teenagers, they were able to help the Palestinian students understand where such anti-Jewish feelings could lead."

Friday 1 April 2005

Palestinian gunmen shoot up restaurant favoured by PA

Posh eatery had played host to Canadian ministers and other visiting dignitaries

Friday, April 1, 2005 Page A15


Special to The Globe and Mail

RAMALLAH -- Until the gunmen opened fire on Wednesday night, Darna was the smartest restaurant in Ramallah. Daylight yesterday revealed piles of broken furniture, shattered glass and bullet holes in the sparkling stainless-steel kitchen.

This week, Darna played host to Ken Dryden, the Minister of Social Development. Justice Minister Irwin Cotler was there a couple of months ago. Other visitors pictured on the kitchen wall include Kofi Annan, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

The attack on the prestigious restaurant, a favoured watering-hole for Palestinian ministers and socialites that opened in December of 2003, was carried out by angry members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the terrorist wing of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's mainstream Fatah group.

Officially, the Brigade denied any involvement, but the gunmen wore no masks and were easily identified by eyewitnesses as the fugitives who fled to the Mukata presidential compound in Ramallah under the protection of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to escape arrest or assassination by Israel.


Mr. Abbas has been conducting intensive talks with the fugitives, ending with a request for several of them to leave the compound.

They refused, and instead went on a rampage through Ramallah, firing shots at Mr. Abbas's office and wrecking several restaurants. Across town, their supporters burned tires and threatened Palestinian police officers.

A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security forces ordered six of the fugitives to either hand over their weapons or leave the compound after "they were involved in kidnappings, blackmailing, harming people, shooting them."

"They were warned many times to stop their behaviour and actions," the official said.

Another security official warned that the security forces were "considering taking harsh steps against them."

"They have crossed the red line. They attacked the presidential headquarters. They are defying the Palestinian Authority and now we have to take harsh steps against them, otherwise they will control the city and spread chaos," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The fugitives were still reeling from the death of Mutasen Al-Aqra, 26, a leader and founder of the al-Aqsa Brigade who had been living in the Mukata for three years. He was killed in a mysterious car crash on Tuesday.

"We didn't do it," said Ramzi Abeid, a Mukata fugitive identified by many of those present at Darna as the leader of the rampaging gang.

"We are Fatah, we take our orders from Abu Mazen," he insisted, using Mr. Abbas's popular nom de guerre.

Off the record, the Brigade said the sacking of Darna was supposed to send a message to the Palestinian leadership not to ignore them. The venue was chosen as a place where senior officials routinely spend hundreds of dollars entertaining their friends, as a warning to end the still rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

Darna's proprietor, Osama Khalaf, gazed forlornly at the wreckage and quietly cursed those responsible.

"I hope this means the end of those gunmen," Mr. Khalaf said. "They are playing against their own people. The Palestinian Authority should take measures."

As visitors went by to express sympathy and young men toting Kalashnikov rifles stood guard outside, Mr. Khalaf said he would not be intimidated.

"I built this place," he said. "I invested during a very critical time: the invasions, the closures, the checkpoints. The Israelis didn't frighten us, so those people won't frighten us either. We will continue and become even more successful."

Yesterday, the dozen or so fugitives still living in the Mukata had disappeared. Green-uniformed paramilitary police patrolled the city in a show of strength.

The incident demonstrated the fragile nature of Mr. Abbas's attempt to dissuade the gunmen from the path of terrorism and incorporate them into his security services. He has been paying them 800 shekels a month (about $200 U.S.) and offered them jobs with the security forces, but they are demanding more money and a more specialized role that recognizes their patriotism in fighting Israel.

The confrontation with the Brigade is while Mr. Abbas tries to defuse the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, bringing them all under the political banner of an expanded Palestine Liberation Organization.