Tuesday 16 May 2006

Trial sheds light on shadowy antiquities world

JERUSALEM -- Testimony in a Jerusalem District courtroom is giving a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of biblical antiquities.

Three of Israel's most respected experts in ancient archeological treasures are on trial, charged with 18 counts of fraud, receiving money through deception, damaging antiquities, and violations of Israeli antiquities laws.

The defendants -- collector Oded Golan, dealer and writer Robert Deutsch, and former Israel Museum conservator turned dealer Rafi Brown -- are accused of faking a range of artifacts, including the burial box of Jesus's brother, a wine decanter used in Solomon's Temple and ancient seal impressions and inscriptions, some of which were sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Since the trial began in September 2005, witnesses have described furtive encounters with Arab graverobbers, international smuggling, and transactions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a handshake.

Lawyers involved in the case expect court proceedings to continue for at least another year.

Oded Golan, the first accused, shot to worldwide attention in November 2002 as the man behind a sensational discovery that rocked the world of biblical antiquities: a first-century stone ossuary, or burial box, with an ancient Hebrew inscription identifying it as the last resting place of ''James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The ossuary was exhibited in Toronto and hailed by scholars as the first physical link ever discovered to the family of Jesus. But when the 2-foot long limestone box returned to Israel in March 2003, it was seized by the Israel Antiquities Authority and submitted to a committee of experts to determine its authenticity.

Meanwhile, the Antiquities Authority was already investigating Golan in connection with another item, the Joash stone. This was a black stone tablet with an ancient Hebrew inscription that appeared to record the renovation of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem by King Joash in the ninth century BC. If genuine, it would be the first physical evidence of the temple ever recovered.

The committee of experts was asked to rule on both items and in June 2003 announced that both were modern fakes. Golan was arrested on suspicion of violating Israel's antiquities laws and repeatedly interrogated while police raided his apartment and two other properties in Tel Aviv. There they seized a range of tools and materials that they said could be used to fake ancient artifacts.

In December 2004, the Israeli police indicted Golan, Deutsch and Brown. Charges against two others were later dropped.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, described the charges against Golan and his alleged colleagues as ''the tip of the iceberg."

''These forgeries have worldwide repercussions," Dorfman said. ''They were an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people."

Commander Shaul Naim, head of the two-year police investigation, said: ''This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown. They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions."

Naim said forgers managed to fake inscriptions, decorations, and even the patina -- the thin sediment created over centuries by moisture collecting on the item underground or in a cave. ''We believe that there are many more items in museums and collections around the world which are yet to be identified," he said.

The opening days of the trial were devoted to four days of testimony from multimillionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff of London, a key prosecution witness. He described extraordinary scenes where dealers, experts, and even Israeli diplomats came to his home, produced rare antiquities from their pockets and negotiated sales worth many thousands of dollars.

Prosecutors said Moussaieff was swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for fake items by all three defendants.

Moussaieff's purchasing power is legendary. He once paid $1.5 million for a single clay impression of a royal seal used by one of the early kings of Israel. No one has questioned the authenticity of that item, but a collection of 28 seal impressions he bought for $200,000 is now said by the Israeli police to be mostly fakes, fabricated by Golan and Deutsch.

Moussaieff, 82, told the court he bought the temple decanter from Deutsch for $150,000. Police said it was an authentic item but the inscription was faked with the help of Golan, who received half the money. Moussaieff also described buying several inscribed pieces of pottery from Golan and Deutsch for $200,000, and similar pottery from a dealer acting for Rafi Brown for $180,000. Police said those items were also fakes.

Moussaieff told the court he stood by the authenticity of every item in his collection but said if he had been fooled, he only had himself to blame.

''I'm not stupid, I don't throw money away just because someone has come to sell me something," Moussaieff said in an interview during a break in the trial. ''I'm suspicious of everything and everybody, particularly when there are large amounts of money involved. I still believe these items are genuine. I think the James ossuary is genuine."

Moussaieff said he had spent millions of dollars on his collection of antiquities intending to prove the truth of the Bible.

Both Golan and Deutsch reject all the charges against them and accuse the Israeli authorities of a witch hunt, insisting that all the items are genuine.

''There is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations relating to me," Golan, who has been under house arrest at his parents' home for more than a year, said in an interview.

Deutsch also denies ever faking antiquities. ''The authorities have ruined my reputation and I have lost my university teaching position because of the baseless charges," he said during a break in the proceedings.

The court will have a hard time deciding between the experts who are due to give evidence. The findings of the committee appointed by the Antiquities Authority have been questioned by geologists, epigraphers and archeologists.

In his defense, Golan is planning to call Dr. Wolfgang Krumbein, a world expert in ancient stone from Carl von Ossietzky University in Germany. Krumbein carried out extensive tests on the items in Jerusalem and said in a written report that he found ''no indisputable evidence confirming the claim that any or all of the items had been produced in the last several decades."

Friday 12 May 2006

Unique restaurant reflects Israeli social issue

Gap between rich and poor growing wider

JERUSALEM -- The widening gap between rich and poor in Israel is nowhere more apparent than on Agrippas Street in downtown Jerusalem near Mahane Yehuda, the colorful fruit and vegetable street market.

Upscale restaurants and workers' eateries jostle for space along the crowded street, including the Carmei Ha'Ir restaurant, where this week David, a regular diner, was at his usual table next to a large fish tank.

''The food here is very good, first class, and the service is good," said David, who preferred not to give his last name. ''Please will you join me for some lunch? It's on me."

There was no check for David at the end of the meal because this unique restaurant is a soup kitchen where diners can expect courteous waiter service and a cheery welcome whether they can afford to pay or not.

The growing clientele of Carmei Ha'Ir reflects a worsening social crisis in Israel, which figured large in the general election.

Newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima Party won only 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, far less than predicted. Voters gave unexpected support to the economic program of the Labor party, which promised a 33 percent rise in the minimum wage to $12,000 and more money for health, education, and social welfare.

What's more, a stunning seven seats also went to the new-born Pensioners' Party, whose platform demanded mandatory pensions for workers, a raise in the state pension, and dignified compensation for elderly Holocaust survivors.

''We will have to change priorities regarding social issues and this is of utmost importance for economic stability," Olmert told reporters after the election. ''We want to bring about a reduction in social gaps, an increase in employment and a reduction in the number of people in distress."

At Carmei Ha'Ir, the homeless and unemployed and families on welfare share tables with workers from the local market. Tourists are stunned to discover they pay whatever they like. According to Yair Harosh, the soup kitchen's founder and director, one man recently left a check for $5,000 in the box by the door, which serves as a cash register.

David says he lost his regular job as a janitor at a rabbinical college three years ago, and he's had trouble making ends meet ever since. His hands are disabled, so he eats directly off the plate and drinks soup through a straw. None of that is a problem at Carmei Ha'Ir, where he's welcomed by staff and fellow-diners alike as an old friend.

''Before, I was kind of ashamed to go into a soup kitchen. I had my pride. But the food here is like you'd buy in a restaurant. And the people here are very nice. They help you whenever they can," said David, who immigrated to Israel from his native Indiana 31 years ago.

''These are very tough times," said David. ''There was the bombings, the security situation, and with the security situation a lot of economic and social programs went down. . . . They could start that bombing again and everything will turn back to security. It got so bad. Now the people are saying so much for security. Let's get to the basic things of people eating. Food."

Carmei Ha'Ir opened three years ago serving 100 meals a day. As Israel's economy has declined, the kitchen's work has expanded. Each day its volunteer staff serves 500 diners in the restaurant, prepares and distributes 400 sandwiches for poor schoolchildren and makes 200 weekly supermarket-style deliveries of fruit and vegetables to impoverished families.

Internal Revenue inspectors turned up recently demanding to see the books. Harosh explained to the disbelieving civil servants that the meager earnings paid only a fraction of the expenses. Carmei Ha'Ir is currently half a million dollars in debt, owed to their bank overdraft and suppliers, Harosh says, and are looking for donors to help out.

After eating lunch, the inspectors each dropped a 100-shekel bill (about $20) into the box.

''It's the first time anyone ever got any money out of the Israeli Internal Revenue," laughed Harosh.

From the outside, Israel's economy looked in good shape even before Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. agreed last Friday to pay $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar, an Israeli machine tools manufacturer. The deal, which sent the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange soaring to record levels, also created a $1 billion tax windfall for Olmert's new government, and nearly equaled the entire foreign investment in Israel for the whole of 2005.

''In 2005, Israel's economic recovery continued and became even more firmly based. GDP grew rapidly by 5.2 percent," said Stanley Fischer, governor of the central Bank of Israel, presenting his annual report on the Israeli economy last month.

Foreign investment in Israel is at an all-time high, last year topping $5 billion. The shekel is steady against the dollar and other major currencies, and unemployment which soared in the early years of the intifada is back down to around 9 percent after peaking at 10.7 percent in 2003. More than 1.9 million tourists arrived in Israel in 2005, a 27 percent rise over 2004. And per capita GDP rose from $5,612 in 1980 to $16,452 in 2003.

But the headline figures hide a growing ''social gap" between rich and poor that has been troubling commentators for some time.

The same day the Iscar deal was announced, Olmert increased bread prices by 7 percent. The Pensioners' Party threatened to quit the government, saying the measure disproportionately hurt the poor and the elderly. The showdown imperiled Olmert's thin parliamentary majority.

Highlighting the growing gulf in incomes, the Israeli financial daily The Marker reported that in 2005, salaries of the 120 most senior executives of public companies listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange rose an average 48.5 percent. Meanwhile, the average Israeli wage remained stuck at around 90,000 shekels ($19,500).

According to figures compiled by the Adva Center, which compiles information on equality and social justice in Israel, child poverty levels rose sharply from 1977, when 22.9 percent of children were beneath the poverty line to 2005, when 34.1 percent of children were in that bracket.

According to Shlomo Swirski and Etty Konor-Attias, authors of ''Israel: A Social report 2005," the widening gap between rich and poor occurred even as Israel was experiencing steady economic growth.

''Growth alone does not guarantee general prosperity," they wrote. ''During the 1990s, the fruits of growth in the Israeli economy were unevenly distributed. . . . The income of persons in the top income bracket continued to grow during the first years of the second intifadah, 2001 and 2002, whilst most of the population experienced a drop in their standard of living."

The man most popularly blamed for the widening gap is Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party took a drubbing in the election. He was finance minister from 2003 to 2005 and oversaw a series of budget-slashing measures, which many agree saved the Israeli economy from collapse, but whose burden fell mostly on the poor.

Netanyahu also championed the privatization of a series of state monopolies. The result was increased competition and lower prices, but ownership of the major industrial companies in Israel became concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite of wealthy families.

Ari Shavit, commentator for the Haaretz daily, said the election results showed Israelis voting to roll back Netanyahu's initiatives.

''Social-democracy is back. After a long period of moral coma, the Israeli nation is once again demanding justice," wrote Shavit.

According to social activist Eliezer Yaari, director of the New Israel Fund, there is a clear link between the acceptance of Olmert's diplomatic initiative to dismantle settlements and his social policy.

''This election showed that there is a readiness for concession and a deep understanding that growth, personal security and economic stability cannot go with occupation," said Yaari. ''If people want to assure a certain well-being to their children, certain things have to be given up, including occupation."

Sunday 7 May 2006

Palestinian medical crisis looms

As funds cut, many patients worsen, die

By Matthew Kalman and Sa'id Ghazali, Globe Correspondents | May 7, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian doctors say the cutoff of funds to the new Hamas-led government is causing a growing crisis in the Palestinian healthcare system, and has already contributed to the deaths of some patients.

For the first time since he became director of the Ramallah Hospital in 1998, Dr. Husni Atari said, the facility is running out of medicines, sterile dressings, and other disposables. None of his 346 doctors, nurses, and ancillary staff has received salaries from the Palestinian Ministry of Finance since February, he added in an interview.

Ramallah Hospital is the main medical referral center for the West Bank, with 155 beds, treating 20,000 in-patients and 70,000 emergency cases each year.

''The doctors and other staff are still coming to work even though they have not been paid. Soon they will have no money to get to the hospital. When I look at my store cupboards, I see things are in danger of collapse. If this goes on, we will have to close," Atari said.

Many Western countries, led by the United States, have banned financial transactions with the Palestinian government because they consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The United States and other countries have said they will continue to provide humanitarian aid, and some Arab governments have offered to make up the lost funding. But international banks have been unwilling to transfer the funds to Palestinian organizations for fear of being accused of violating the ban.

At the Shifa Hospital in Gaza, dozens of kidney patients have seen their dialysis sessions cut because of dwindling supplies because of the cutbacks in funding, and five patients have already died, doctors and nurses say.

''More than 160 patients who have kidney failure eventually will die," said Ayman al Sisi, a senior nurse in charge of the renal department. He said five patients had died recently because of a lack of proper treatment resulting from the drop in resources.

At the same hospital, Asmaa al Saidi, a 56-year-old breast cancer patient, was lying unconscious and close to death because the hospital has run out of supplies to perform chemotherapy, which doctors said had been readily available until the funding freeze.

''What crime has my mother done to be punished by Israel and the US?" asked her son, Ismail Siyam, 38. ''I blame any one with a sense of humanity who does not help us."

At the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, the outlook also is bleak. Dr. Anan Masri, a pediatric cardiologist who has been deputy minister of health for the past 18 months, said supplies were so sparse that he feared for the lives of 800 dialysis patients in Palestinian facilities throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

''We have an emergency here," Masri said. ''It is like a war but even worse, because the people do not understand why the situation is so bad when it seems to them like an ordinary day."

The alarms are not just coming from the Palestinians. On Friday, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, declared that a ''crisis is on our doorstep," warning of a shortage of medical supplies at hospitals and a large increase in the number of refugees coming to its centers seeking food aid and cash assistance, Agence France-Presse reported.

Israeli officials said they are doing their best to avert a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian Authority and are allowing a free flow of medical and humanitarian supplies.

''We regularly allow medical supplies into Gaza through the Karni crossing with priority for the solution needed to treat dialysis and cancer patients," said Yossi Temach, a spokesman for the Israeli administration responsible for links to Gaza. ''We don't know which address this is going to, we simply allow the supplies to pass into Gaza."

The United States says it is sensitive to the hardships the Palestinians face and that it has recently increased humanitarian assistance through nongovernmental organizations and through the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees.

''We don't want the Palestinian people themselves to suffer from a lack of assistance from the international community," Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Friday in Boston during a meeting with reporters and editors from The Boston Globe. He stressed that isolating Hamas ''is a very principled issue that we will not compromise on."

The Palestinian Authority government is bankrupt and has been unable to pay March or April salaries to its 167,000 civil servants, whose pay supports about one quarter of the 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel suspended some $950 million in annual payments to the Palestinians of customs and taxes for goods and services conducted through Israel. The European Union suspended about $600 million in annual budgetary assistance.

Hamas ministers have managed to raise some funds from Gulf states and other supporting nations, but the bank-transfer problems have held up donations.

''The problem is not with raising money," Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told reporters in Gaza City last week. ''The problem is how to transfer this money to the Palestinians."

In Jenin, Palestinian activist Adnan al Sabbah, 56, and two other local men have begun a hunger strike to protest the international sanctions. ''I do not want to stay alive watching the Palestinian children, men, and women die from cancer and kidney failure," Sabbah said in a telephone interview.

The US sanctions are also threatening charities providing Palestinians with healthcare, said Steve Sosebee, founder and director of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, an Ohio-based organization that treats more than 2,000 critically ill children each year.

As part of the group's efforts, Dr. Walid Yassir, an orthopedic surgeon from Tufts New England Medical Center, is scheduled to come to Bethlehem in June to perform spine surgery for children with scoliosis and to train local doctors. But Yassir's visit is now pending clarification of the US rules, Sosebee said.

''It's better for the children not to leave their families, and taking family members along makes it very expensive. We get more bang for the buck bringing the doctors here, and we get the added benefit of local physicians working alongside them and learning from them," Sosebee said.

Under guidelines issued by the US Treasury Department last month, US citizens and organizations must conclude all direct transactions with the Palestinian Authority by May 14 unless specifically permitted to continue. The order does not apply to contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, or non-Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Molly Millerwise, spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, said by telephone from Washington that the PCRF missions would have to be judged case by case, depending on ''the precise terms of the proposed activity."

But for Palestinian doctors, the sanctions feel like a death blow.

''If this goes on more than a couple of weeks, the healthcare system will collapse in Palestine," said Mahmoud Nashashibi, a Palestinian pediatric cardiologist who operates a heart clinic funded by Sosebee's organization at the El-Mokassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. ''The healthcare issue should be viewed differently from the political question of Hamas."

Roy Greene of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Boston.

Thursday 4 May 2006

Abbas seeks dialogue in a divided society

Palestinians' internal rifts deepen crisis

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- As conflict between Palestinian factions worsens and an economic crisis deepens, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has invited 120 political, business, and community leaders to meet and find solutions to end the turmoil.

Abbas's ''national dialogue conference," which was to have started Tuesday, has been postponed until mid-May. Some analysts said it could be the last chance to avert civil war -- and they said the delay suggests Hamas, Fatah, and other groups are so divided that they cannot even agree on how to talk through their deep differences.

Abbas is hoping the delegates can solve three major issues: the current political divisions within Palestinian society; relations with Israel; and reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group founded by the late Yasser Arafat, so it can embrace Hamas for the first time and resume its role as the diplomatic representative of the Palestinians.

Two elections have left power in the Palestinian Authority divided between Abbas, the president, who is from the Fatah Party, and Hamas, which won a large majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council election in January and now controls the newly appointed Cabinet.

Abbas and the Fatah Party favor peace talks with Israel that would lead to a two-state solution, while Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and seeks its total destruction. Hamas favors continued ''armed resistance" against Israel, although it has largely observed an informal truce for 15 months. Fatah wants a total cease-fire.

Hamas's surprise victory has prompted Western governments and Israel to cut off most funding of the Palestinian government, producing a dire financial crisis in the authority.

Abbas is proposing that Hamas run the internal affairs of the Palestinian Authority, with the PLO handling diplomacy. To achieve this power-sharing, he must persuade Hamas to join the PLO and then agree on a program acceptable to both sides.

Technically, the PLO remains the supreme representative of the Palestinians, a status that became blurred after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Israel and the international community found themselves negotiating with PLO leaders including Arafat and Abbas himself, some of whom also held positions in the Palestinian Authority and most of whom were also Fatah loyalists.

The crisis has been made more urgent by growing economic problems, triggered by past Fatah government corruption and exacerbated by an international boycott since Hamas's victory that has cut off international aid and left the Palestinian Authority bankrupt. More than 160,000 civil servants, whose salaries support one quarter of the population, have not been paid since February.

Walid Awad, Abbas's spokesman, wrote in the daily Jerusalem Post this week that if the suspension of financial assistance to the Palestinian government continued, ''it is likely that unemployment will skyrocket, the Palestinian education and health sector will crumble, crime rates will increase, chaos and civil disorder may engulf the Palestinian territory and perhaps beyond."

Salah Bardawil, spokesman for the Hamas parliamentary faction, said in an interview that Hamas would join Abbas's national dialogue and suggested that Hamas could work with the PLO, but that the differences were ''deep and serious."

''We don't want a confrontation with them," Bardawil said. ''We are prepared to recognize the PLO, but we want to see real reforms and changes in the PLO, which should be done through national dialogue."

He added: ''We are opposed to negotiations with Israel that do not produce anything and are a waste of time while Israel is carrying out its attacks and aggressions against the Palestinians and taking unilateral measures in the Palestinian areas."

One sign of the international community's growing despair was the resignation on Monday of James Wolfensohn as a special envoy representing the Middle East ''Quartet" of the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia.

''The Palestinians need to understand that it is not business as usual," Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, said during a news conference in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. ''With the government of Hamas having taken over with the Palestinians, it's a very difficult moment to be able to try and negotiate any independent type of arrangements that would affect the future of Gaza and the West Bank, because of the emphasis that Hamas puts on the destruction of the state of Israel and the less than communicative relationship with that state."

Some Palestinian commentators share Wolfensohn's criticism of Hamas.

''The real problem is with those who are sitting in Damascus and who are pushing their noses into our affairs," said Yusef Kazaz, director of the Voice of Palestine radio station, which is affiliated with Fatah, referring to the exiled Hamas leadership based in Syria. ''Instead of trying to find solutions, they are busy fragmenting the Palestinian issue and putting it in the deep freeze after we've already been waiting for 50 years."

Wolfensohn's brief was to help the Palestinian economy after Israel's pullout from Gaza last year. But the entire agricultural export market from the Gaza Strip has been brought close to collapse by the repeated closure of the Karni border crossing, the main transit point for goods, food, and medicine between Gaza and Israel. Israel insisted it had warnings of another impending terrorist attack at the site, where a bombing in January 2005 killed six Israelis.

Last Wednesday, Palestinian police said they thwarted a major attack at Karni, stopping a car packed with explosives that was approaching the crossing from within Gaza.

Israel's Shin Bet secret service said the attempted attack was masterminded by Hamas military chiefs -- a claim strongly denied by Hamas leaders, who say they are still observing a year-long period of calm. Privately, Hamas leaders blamed Fatah for staging the incident.

Meanwhile, Fatah leaders have blamed Hamas for a leaflet distributed in Gaza last weekend signed by ''the Unification and Jihad of the Levant and Egypt," an Al Qaeda-affiliated group that claimed responsibility for last week's suicide attacks in Dahab and last year's bombings in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and Amman, Jordan.

In the leaflet, the group threatened the lives of members of Abbas's inner circle, accusing them of being apostates. It was the first time such explicit threats had been issued against Palestinian leaders. Security was immediately stepped up around Abbas's home in Ramallah.

But Bardawil said Hamas would not let the crisis reach that point.

''Civil war is not a possibility," he said. ''It's a red line for both of us, no matter how deep our differences are. There will not be civil war. We haven't reached that level yet. And I hope we won't."