Thursday 30 November 2006

Ideology yields to new vision in Olmert's offer to Palestinians

Thursday, November 30, 2006
Page A - 15

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Standing by the grave of Israel's famously pragmatic founding prime minister, Israeli leader Ehud Olmert set out a new vision of Israeli policy, abandoning ideology in favor of an attempt at peacemaking that David Ben-Gurion himself might have drafted -- peace, statehood and prosperity for the Palestinians in return for an end to violence.

In his speech Monday, Olmert performed an abrupt about-turn on the question of releasing Palestinian prisoners, endorsing a mass prisoner swap in return for the freedom of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He pulled back Israeli troops from Gaza, allowing a fragile cease-fire to take effect, and ordered the army to hold its fire even when Palestinian rockets continued slamming into southern Israel.

"This is a significant opening that President George W. Bush should pounce on when he visits the Middle East this week, so that the Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic flirting can be expanded into serious negotiations," said commentator Rami G. Khouri.

The Palestinian response to Olmert's overtures was predictably skeptical, with Hamas at first dismissing the speech as a "conspiracy." But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah party welcomed the speech, describing it as "useful."

Abbas' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said it shows the Israeli prime minister now has confidence that negotiations with the Palestinians can be fruitful. "I believe Mr. Olmert knows he has a partner, and that is President Abbas. He knows that to achieve peace and security for all, we need to shoot for the endgame." Reinforcing the notion of Olmert and Abbas as potential negotiating partners, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet, separately, with both of them today.

Perhaps the most interesting Palestinian comment this week came from Khaled Mashaal, the hard-line Hamas political leader, who spoke on Sunday about establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza instead of the policy set out in the Hamas charter -- that Israel must be completely destroyed.

"When the leaders of Israel and Hamas in the same weekend offer each other long-term peace deals, you just know in your bones that we are passing through a potentially historic moment," said Khouri, executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

Emad Gad, senior researcher on Israel at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he believes Hamas will tell its supporters a state limited to the West Bank and Gaza would be only a step toward liberating land inside Israel. "But I think if they accept this solution, it will be the permanent solution," Gad said. "I think they will have this article (calling for Israel's destruction) in their charter for 10 years -- but after that, this article will be finished."

By endorsing a prisoner release and refraining from retaliating for sporadic rocket attacks even after Israel's cease-fire went into effect on Sunday, Olmert was effectively negotiating -- albeit indirectly -- with the hated militants of Hamas, a high-risk strategy.

The new approach is in stark contrast to Israel's decision to attack the Gaza Strip after Shalit's capture on June 25, and the subsequent decision to attack Lebanon after Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two more in a cross-border ambush on July 12. In both cases, Israel demanded the unconditional release of its soldiers and vowed it would not negotiate with their captors or release prisoners in exchange for their freedom. All three soldiers are still being held.

"The prime minister said during this last Lebanese war that releasing terrorists is just a prize to the terrorist groups, and he was right," said Avi Bachrach, whose son Ohad was killed by Palestinian militants near Jericho 11 years ago. "That's why we started a war. How can he now look into the eyes of all of the parents who lost children in the war and to the families who have injured soldiers and say that it was all in vain?"

Israeli commentators are divided over the reasons behind Olmert's sudden change of heart. Jerusalem Post columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote that Olmert is desperately trying to salvage his government, whose popularity is sinking fast in the polls.

"He is leading a discredited administration that is perceived by a wide majority as having dismally failed in the Lebanon war and not done anything right since," said Pfeffer.

Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the government was forced to abandon the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank -- its main pledge during the last election campaign -- after the summer's bruising war against Hezbollah.

"Since the war in Lebanon this summer, it has been quite clear that Olmert's government lacks a political agenda," said Baskin. "Governments without an agenda and without a political horizon that provides hope to the people do not survive for very long. Olmert had continued to hope that he could revive his plan for unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank, but that has grown increasingly unpopular in Israel. Recognizing the need for a new agenda, Olmert understood that he could not present anything new without a calming of the violence, and he has finally understood that a cease-fire must be bilateral."

With his popularity plummeting in the wake of the summer's war in Lebanon, which many Israelis regard as an embarrassing failure, Olmert's abandonment of ideology could be the biggest step toward peace in a decade. A number of forces have coalesced to make this a good time for movement where none was possible before.

Hamas has accepted that it cannot continue to govern the Palestinian Authority, despite its landslide victory in the parliamentary elections in January. Its refusal to abide by past agreements with Israel, its open commitment to continued violence and its refusal ever to negotiate peace triggered an international boycott, which has left the government bankrupt and more than a million Palestinians without a regular income.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has agreed to resign his post, and Hamas has agreed in principle to participate in a coalition government that would be headed by a nonpolitical figure. On-and-off talks between Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government are unlikely to be resolved soon. But Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, also heads the Palestine Liberation Organization, which recognized the Jewish state in 1993 -- making him the only Palestinian empowered to negotiate with Israel. It's an arrangement that suits Hamas, which still does not want to be directly involved in peace talks, and also suits the Israelis, who will not talk to Hamas unless its leaders explicitly renounce violence and recognize Israel.

In his speech on Monday, Olmert offered a mass release of Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit's return. The prime minister said that if the Palestinians form a new government willing to negotiate, he will start peace talks aimed at dismantling settlements and withdrawing Israeli forces from large parts of the West Bank in order to create "an independent and viable Palestinian state ... with full sovereignty and defined borders.

"We, the state of Israel, will agree to the evacuation of many territories and the settlements that we built there. This is extremely difficult for us, like the splitting of the Red Sea. We will do it for real peace," he said.

Palestinian commentators tried to understand what effect Olmert's offer would have on their own political landscape. Analyst Muhammad Hawwash, writing in the new English-language Palestine Times, said Olmert stopped short of "launching a political initiative," but placed just enough on the table to give the cease-fire a chance. He said it could help Palestinian leaders persuade the militant factions to stop attacking Israel -- if only to stop military reprisals -- and release desperately needed funds to pay the salaries of Palestinian government workers.

"The cease-fire might in fact survive, since several parties need it," wrote Hawwash. "Hamas wants to demonstrate that it controls the firepower, and the Palestinian president wants to maneuver Palestinian political life around ... change, adaptation and the unknown."

Anticipated changes in U.S. Middle East policy may indeed have been preying on Olmert's mind. Since the Democratic victory in the midterm elections and leaks from the report on Iraq by the Iraq Study Group, Israeli leaders have been concerned that the Bush administration will temper its backing for Israel's tough approach with overtures to the Arab world -- including Syria, which sponsors Hezbollah, Hamas and other Palestinian extremists. Bush reportedly is being advised by other Middle Eastern leaders to resume efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, which would necessarily mean lifting the embargo on Hamas.

"Olmert may have heard about this change during his recent visit to Washington and decided to take some pre-emptive steps in that direction," said Baskin.

Wednesday 29 November 2006

Israeli olive branch: Olmert touts peace push



JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a dramatic bid for peace with the Palestinians yesterday, offering wide-ranging concessions and recognition of a Palestinian state in return for a permanent end to violence.

Olmert said if the Palestinians formed a new government that was willing to negotiate with Israel, he would start peace talks aimed at dismantling settlements and withdrawing Israeli forces from large parts of the West Bank in order to create "an independent and viable Palestinian state ... with full sovereignty and defined borders."

"We, the state of Israel, will agree to the evacuation of many territories and the settlements that we built there. This is extremely difficult for us, like the splitting of the Red Sea. We will do it for real peace," he said.

Speaking at the graveside of Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Olmert also offered a mass release of Palestinian prisoners in return for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted on June 25.

Olmert urged the Palestinians to abandon radicalism and said they were standing at "an historic crossroads."

He also ordered the Israeli Army not to respond for a second day as rockets slammed into southern Israel, breaking a fragile day-old truce.

Spokesmen for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Olmert's overtures, but the Hamas-led government dismissed them as "a conspiracy ... a maneuver."

Only a few weeks ago, Olmert dismissed talk of a prisoner swap and demanded Shalit's unconditional release. The sudden about-face came after five months of violence and a sudden buildup of Israeli military forces around Gaza which appeared to convince the Palestinians they would be invaded if they did not end the daily rocket attacks.

The Israelis also told the Palestinians that a ceasefire was the only way to end an economic boycott that has reduced the Palestinian Authority to near bankruptcy.

Friday 24 November 2006

US firms turn to Israel as outsourcing alternative

Besides lower costs, nation boasts pool of educated, English-speaking workers

November 24, 2006

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- For US firms looking to slash costs by farming out work abroad, eyes may turn first toward bargains like Bangalore or Beijing.

Luckily for Israel, it has other charms.

In the past year there has been greater enthusiasm for outsourcing services to Israel, which differentiates itself from India and the Far East by offering a vast pool of highly educated workers who are native English speakers and share a cultural affinity with the West.

The heightened interest comes as the government is offering firms a $200-per-month subsidy for each worker employed by foreign companies. While Israel's workforce still doesn't come as cheap as its rivals, salaries are far less than in America. And perhaps surprisingly, all the figures for economic growth, credit ratings, and investment this year indicate the instability in Israel has not affected business at all.

"In the past 18 months, 700 new jobs have been created in outsourcing in Jerusalem alone. The industry is growing rather rapidly, from 100 employees three years ago to more than 1,500 today," said Jafar Sabbah, codirector of StartUp Jerusalem, a nonprofit created to stimulate employment.

MyPrepForce, a company based in Westport, Conn., that provides Web-based programs for bookkeeping and payroll services for accounting firms and large corporations in the United States, previously outsourced financial functions to India but now says work will be handled by in Jerusalem.

"Israelis have better English language fluency -- especially since so many are US expats or have American parents -- than in other countries; their customs and values are similar to those of US citizens; the infrastructure and security in Israel is much better than in other foreign countries; and Israelis have a high work ethic," said Greg Fern, executive vice president of MyPrepForce, a division of FSO Technologies Inc., also based in Westport.

Eli Kazhdan, a former chief of staff for the Israeli Ministry of Industry and Trade who is now a consultant to outsourcing companies in Israel, said most of the jobs are medium-to-high-end call center work, legal and paralegal, and information technology. Immigrants have become a major resource because they speak a variety of languages that can benefit a host of international companies. "Israel is in a unique position due to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world," Kazhdan said. "This is where Israel has its competitive edge. We are able to cut costs without compromising on quality."

In a 2005 survey, consulting firm AT Kearney ranked Israel among the most attractive places worldwide for outsourcing. Last year The Economist ranked Israel in the top 20, and Red Herring magazine dubbed Jerusalem a "new hot spot" for outsourcing.

Though wages in Israel are generally lower than what companies pay in the United States, Israel is no cost rival for places such as India. According to a 2006 survey by consultants at Catalyst IT Partners Ltd., the average fully loaded cost per seat per hour for a call center in Israel was $19, compared with $12 in India and $40 in the United States. The survey also reported typical contact center wages were $7 per hour in Jerusalem, compared with $3 in Mumbai and $10 on the US East Coast.

In Modi'in Illit, a settlement of 22,000 people just inside the West Bank, 150 women are employed at CityBook Services performing paralegal work such as checking lease contracts and property titles for clients across the Northeastern United States. CityBook's arrival in this ultra-Orthodox Jewish, or "haredi," township halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv triggered a small social revolution, as 50 percent of families are below the poverty line and many of the men are full-time students in yeshiva seminaries, drawing social benefits. The community is not a normal part of the Israeli workforce because it has been stigmatized as insular, nonproductive, and too dependent on welfare.

Chaya Milgraum, 22, a mother of two originally from Worcester, said she began working at CityBook two years ago because she and her husband, who was then a full-time yeshiva student, "really needed it."

"There was a little opposition from my parents and my parents-in-law because they're not used to the woman going out to work; only the husbands go to work," Milgraum said. "At the beginning it was hard but then they said, 'You know what? It's good for you -- you're getting out, you're taking care of yourself, and you feel good about going to work.' "

CityBook gives the women four months training and pays well above minimum wage in a modern working environment that respects their religious values. This means strict physical separation between men and women, modest dress by both sexes, kosher kitchens, , and time allowed for prayer. "These people would not work in a Tel Aviv high-tech company because it just doesn't fit with their lifestyle," Kazhdan said.

Joe Rosenbaum, an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Lakewood, N.J., founded CityBook three years ago as an offshoot of Madison Title, his insurance and property-services firm also based in Lakewood. He said pay is 40 to 50 percent lower in Israel than in the United States, but CityBook pays 60 percent.

Rosenbaum plans to create 40 jobs for the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem.

"There's a tremendous reliability, work ethic, and commitment," he said. "They are very careful not to waste time and are extremely grateful for the opportunity afforded them, so they go way beyond the call of duty. It's an unbelievable solution."

IDT Global, a Jerusalem unit of US communications giant IDT Corp., leads Israel's outsourcing sector with 1,000 employees operating call centers for clients around the world in a wide variety of languages and providing a broad range of outsourced services from graphic design to accountancy and paralegal work. IDT Global says its clients include AOL, Western Union, Sears, OneTel, and Barnes & Noble.

Lloyd Lurie, chief operating officer of IDT Global, said his staffing level has leaped 50 percent in the past 18 months with increasing demand from the United States, Canada, Britain, and Europe. He said Israel was unique in being able to offer multilingual operations under one roof, saving a company from having to farm out each language operation to a different country.

"If someone is looking for a generic, low-cost provider, let them go to India or the Philippines -- we're not competing," he said. "What we provide is a quality of work that is the same quality as they would find in their own native country, but the prices are lower.

"In Israel we have immigrants who lived in these countries, so they are not only familiar with language and speak it at a high level, but they are also familiar with the culture as well . . . It's very difficult to provide from other places. There's only so much you can learn from a crash course."

Ancient treasures lure modern thieves

With Israeli, Palestinian authorities busy with other matters, Bedouins rob tombs much as forefathers did

Mountasser, a 7-year-old Bedouin, displays artifacts that he and his siblings found near their West Bank village. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Friday, November 24, 2006
Page A - 18

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Herodion, West Bank -- At least two nights a week, Abu Moussa, the Bedouin leader of Herodion, takes his sleeping bag, tools and a small group of men and heads into the mountains to practice the trade he learned from his father and grandfather before him -- robbing the treasures of ancient tombs.

It's a tradition that goes back centuries, and these days it is considered illegal by both Israeli and Palestinian police. But as the Palestinian economy crumbles in the face of Israeli security restrictions and crippling international sanctions against the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, ancient treasures buried in the biblical landscape have become a major source of income for many West Bank residents.

"The mountains and valleys in this area are full of caves. All the boys and men in the village search the caves to look for antiquities, and they bring whatever they find to me, because I am the mukhtar, the leader of the village, and I know about all these things," said Abu Moussa, 50, displaying a table covered with treasures, including a 3,000-year-old Canaanite earthenware jug, several oil lamps, decorated bowls, and fistfuls of ancient coins, weights and arrowheads.

"I take everything and I sell it to dealers in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and we share the proceeds among all the village. This is how we support ourselves and make a living," he said.

The tiny Bedouin village has only 150 inhabitants, who until recently earned a living as shepherds who tended the flocks and sold milk and cheese, or as day laborers in Israel. But since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000, they have been unable to enter Israel, and the spiraling economic crisis has drastically reduced demand for their dairy products.

"We used to have 700 sheep in the village; now we have only about 100 left. I myself had more than 100 sheep, and now I have only 15. We had to sell them or kill them for food because we have no money," said Abu Moussa, who would not allow his full name to be used.

"Today these treasures are the main income for the village," he said. "The most expensive piece I ever found was a coin from Bar Kochba, the Jewish prince at the time of the Romans. I sold that one for $15,000. But usually even the most expensive items are only worth about $300 or $400, and we might find one or two of them in a month," he said.

Sleeping by day and moving at night to escape the scrutiny of Israeli army patrols and Palestinian antiquities police, Abu Moussa and his fellow villagers move through the mountains and valleys around Wadi Kareitoun, which winds from the spectacular first-century palace of Herodion through the Judean desert to the Dead Sea about 15 miles away.

The barren landscape is perforated with thousands of natural caves, many of them used as burial tombs dating back to the Canaanite period about 3,000 years ago. Some are still sealed. Others were robbed long ago, perhaps by Abu Moussa's ancestors. Many contain the bones of poor hermits and simple shepherds, but others were used to bury wealthy people whose worldly goods accompanied them to the grave.

"Buried along with the bones are all sorts of coins, jugs and jewelry," said Abu Moussa. "The ancient people believed in reincarnation, and they thought that if they buried their possessions in the grave, they would have them to use when they came back to life. There are jugs and bowls and lamps. Sometimes the jugs and other items are full of gold coins.

"Everything has been preserved because the caves were sealed after the burial and the water has never touched it. Only the metal objects have survived in the open fields, because other items have decayed over the centuries," he said. "Many coins were dropped on the ground, and as the rains come, they are washed up to the surface and we can find them."

The Israel Antiquities Authority has been trying for years to stop the activities of scavengers like Abu Moussa, but without success. The removal of archaeological artifacts, valuable or not, from ancient tombs destroys their scientific value and hinders detailed research.

Under Israeli law, antiquities must all be registered and cannot be sold to private collectors. But the law is widely flouted, and vast quantities of ancient treasures are spirited out of the country to collectors abroad willing to pay ever-increasing prices. The Antiquities Authority has a special unit, with police powers, that patrols the areas under Israeli control to catch tomb robbers, and an intelligence network that tries to trace the movement of antiquities dug up from the Holy Land. It also cracks down on dealers suspected of trading in pilfered treasure.

Since the withdrawal of Israel from large areas of the West Bank, the outbreak of the intifada and the building of the separation barrier, Israel has just about given up trying to police desert areas like the one where Abu Moussa operates.

Not just Bedouins are in on the search for antiquities -- impoverished Palestinians, too, take part in the illegal searches. The Palestinian Authority has a special Tourist and Antiquities Police unit, but they were never very vigilant in protecting artifacts, and with the breakdown of Palestinian Authority control under the Hamas government, they are almost completely ineffective.

Abu Moussa is every inch the traditional Bedouin mukhtar. He has two wives and 19 children, and on the belt of his robes he carries a well-greased shabriyeh, a traditional Bedouin dagger with a jewel-encrusted silver handle. He also has a small library of books on ancient coins and antiquities in English, German and Hebrew.

"I have a metal detector; it's 80 years old. My grandfather got it from the British. This is now my profession. I can tell everything. I am an expert -- Byzantine, Roman, Islamic, Canaanite," he said.

On a rocky ledge just below his home, there is a cave whose entrance has been carved into a fine stone doorway. This old tomb has been empty for decades, but in just a few minutes' searching among the rocks outside, Abu Moussa's children pick up more than a dozen items, including a rare Byzantine coin found by 7-year-old Mountasser. They hand the treasure to their father, who will sell it to the dealer next time he calls.
Artifacts found near Mountasser's West Bank vilage. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

S.F.'s newest consul enjoys being Bedouin, proud to be Israeli

Ishmael Khaldi, who will be Israel's first Bedouin diplomat, says his family's ties with its Jewish neighbors go back to the 1920s. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Ishmael Khaldi, who began life as a nomad, is first Muslim envoy to rise through ranks

Friday, November 24, 2006
Page A - 11

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Ishmael Khaldi lived in a Bedouin tent until he was 8 years old, walked 4 miles round trip to school each day and still goes home on weekends to what he calls the "Middle Ages" to tend to flocks of sheep.

But next Saturday, Khaldi will leave his tiny village of Khawalid -- population 450 -- in the northern Galilee region and fly to San Francisco to become Israel's first Bedouin diplomat and the nation's first Muslim to rise through the ranks of the Israeli foreign service.

Of the more than 1 million Israeli Arabs, only 170,000 are Bedouins, many of whom were once nomadic desert dwellers. In recent years, Arab radicals in the Israeli parliament and Islamic movements who deplore the existence of the Jewish state have dominated Israeli-Arab relations, and the 6-year-long Palestinian intifada has stretched their allegiance to Israel to a breaking point.

But Khaldi, while conceding that the situation of Arabs in Israel "is not perfect," is an unrepentant Israeli who says he is not betraying his Arab "brothers" by becoming the new Israeli consul to San Francisco.

"Many of us are proud to describe ourselves as Israelis. Everyone who lives here is an Israeli," Khaldi told The Chronicle in an exclusive interview on the eve of his departure for San Francisco. "Israel is in a clash with the Arab world, with our fellow Muslim brothers, with the Palestinians. It's a big challenge. But I am sure that Israel's enemies are not Arab culture, nor Arab heritage, nor the Muslim religion. It's a political situation."

Khaldi, 35, is no newcomer to the United States or the Bay Area. He arrived in the United States after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and was soon in demand as a speaker at college campuses. "I'm a Bedouin and we are nomads, so I felt at home traveling coast to coast on a Greyhound bus. Twice," he said.

During his stay in the United States, Khaldi said he was shocked to discover that American students were unaware of Israel's large Arab minority and the fact they have the right to vote, elect members to parliament, and become judges, professors and senior army officers.

Khaldi said his family's ties with its Jewish neighbors go back to the days of the early Zionist pioneers from Eastern Europe who settled in the Galilee region in the 1920s.

"From the late 1920s until 1948 when the state was established, the first pioneers came and lived mainly in the north, building kibbutzim," or collective farms, Khaldi said. "The people who came were very sophisticated. They were mainly Yiddish speakers. ... Local Bedouins established very close relations with them, even though they were two different cultures and two different worlds with almost nothing in common. It's something that not many people know.

"My grandmother, who passed away only last year, spoke Yiddish. She was a shepherdess, she never went to school, but she had human contact almost every day with the people from (the next-door kibbutz) Kfar Hamaccabi. She worked with them while they were planting orchards."

Khaldi was born into a family of six brothers and five sisters. Each day after school, they tended to the family's sheep, goats and cows. Because the village only got running water and electricity five years ago, Khaldi did his homework hunched over a gas lamp. Such privations might have alienated the young man, but by the time he entered a prestigious Arab high school in Haifa at age 14, two of his brothers already were serving in the Israeli army.
"Of course, there is a lot of frustration, and we are facing a lot of problems. But to make it into hatred and a grudge? We must go one step forward."

Khaldi said there is still a long way to go before the Bedouin minority achieves full equality in Israeli society, but he noted that more Bedouins are graduating from high school, entering universities and getting better jobs than ever before.

"You can look at the differences and say: 'The government treats us as second- or third-class citizens,' or it can be a challenge. It's our challenge to use the differences and try to understand and combine the best of both worlds. The way is long. It's not easy," he said.
Khaldi first encountered anti-Zionist radicalism in high school, he said, and didn't like it. Once during a memorial day for Israel's fallen soldiers, Khaldi and two classmates stood at attention to mark two minutes of silent tribute. The gesture provoked derision and insults from fellow Arab students. "There was a clash with the rest of the Arab kids. They were not respectful," he said.

In following years, Khaldi was turned down twice for an Israeli Foreign Ministry training course before finally being accepted. Meanwhile, he acquired a bachelor's degree in political science from Haifa University and a master's degree in international relations from Tel Aviv University. He has served as a border police officer in Jerusalem and as an official in the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Khaldi also has begun a project called "Hike and Learn with Bedouins in the Galilee" that has brought thousands of young Jews to Khawalid to learn about Bedouin culture and history. He said these encounters inspired him to become a diplomat.

But even after an intensive six-month Foreign Ministry diplomatic training course, he says he still looks to village traditions for guidance.

"I come from a culture where negotiations are the best way to understanding," he said. "The tribes used to live and compete with each other and fight and kill each other, but at the end of the day they would have to make sulha (a peace pact). This is the way. ... At the end of the road, you need to find a common ground, you need to find a solution. Something that will satisfy both sides."

Khaldi is well aware that he will be treated with suspicion by Israeli critics but believes his story presents a true picture of modern Israel.

"I am always torn," he said. "I am torn between modernity and tradition. I am torn between two totally different worlds. I am Israeli above everything."

Sunday 19 November 2006

United in grief, Mideast kin say end 'madness'

Sunday November 19, 2006


JERUSALEM - The father of an Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas
united with Palestinian families devastated by an Israeli military
attack in Gaza this month to issue a plea to stop what they called
"the madness" of mutual violence.

Noam Shalit, the father of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the soldier abducted
nearly five months ago, traveled to the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel
Aviv last week to meet the bereaved Palestinians and visit their
injured relatives being treated in Israel.

About 20 people were killed when Israeli artillery shells aimed at
rocket launch sites struck several Beit Hanoun homes, almost all of
them belonging to one family. Officials later acknowledged that a
malfunction caused the shells to veer off target.

"I know this will not bring about Gilad's release, that's not why I
went," Shalit told the Daily News. "I am not disconnected from what is
happening in Gaza, and I felt I had to visit as an act of
identification and empathy with the innocent Palestinian victims of
Israel's military actions in Beit Hanoun."

Three of the 40 wounded were transferred to the Tel Aviv hospital
after Israel offered medical assistance to the victims.

Usama Ahmed al-Athamna, who lost many family members in the attack,
including his wife and mother, said he appreciated the gesture and,
despite his grief, was praying for the soldier.

"I truly thank Gilad's father for the visit, and I pray that his son
is returned home safe and sound and that it will bring an end to the
tragedy we had at home," al-Athamna said.

Rasan Gasan, whose brother Basem died of his wounds Friday after being
injured in Beit Hanoun, said: "I want to thank Gilad's father for
coming to visit us. It breaks our hearts, more than they are already
broken, that this man's heart breaks for us.

"I hope his son is brought home soon, and I ask both governments:
Enough, stop. They are continuing negotiations through bloodshed when
it's better to sit at a table of peace and speak eye to eye. We can
reach an agreement through peace, not bloodshed," Gasan said.

Shalit also urged the Israeli and Palestinian governments to "end the
violence which brings more violence and hatred in a perpetual cycle
that must be broken. ... We are all victims of the same madness.

"From firing rockets toward populated centers to two terribly
erroneous shells, the common denominator is that the civilian
population pays the price," he added.

Shalit said he was sure the "vast majority" of Israelis and
Palestinians wanted an end to the fighting.

He said he had issued personal appeals to the Hamas leadership in
Syria to release his son but never got a reply. "In Damascus, the
Hamas leaders live well and apparently don't want to take any notice
of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza," he

Shalit was also critical of his own leaders.

"Judging from the results after five months, it's clear that from my
point of view the efforts of the Israeli government so far have been a
failure," he said.

Friday 17 November 2006

Unconventional, but Orthodox

Jewish women in the West Bank know the language of outsourcing

Deena Porat is director of human resources at Citybook Services, a U.S. outsourcing firm that employs ultra-Orthodox women from the West Bank. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Friday, November 17, 2006
Page D - 1

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Modiin Illit, West Bank -- When a major property company decided to purchase a prestigious Manhattan skyscraper a couple of years ago, its managers faced the challenge of reading through the 200-page contracts of each of the building's 300 tenants before they could finalize the deal.

It was the kind of back-office paralegal work that could have taken weeks and cost a small fortune. But thanks to the initiative of a New Jersey businessman, the work was carried out in a couple of days a third of the way around the world by a dedicated team of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, at a fraction of the cost.

This work, known as lease abstracting, is one of the mainstays of Citybook Services Ltd, a company in the ultra-Orthodox -- or "haredi" -- township of Modiin Illit on the edge of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Citybook is a flagship company in Israel's fast-growing outsourcing sector, which takes advantage of the country's large immigrant community to provide English, French, Spanish and Dutch language back-office services to companies in the United States and Europe, including paralegal and accounting work, call centers, graphic design and software development.

Salaries are 40 to 50 percent lower in Israel than in the United States, and because of the time difference -- 10 hours later in Israel than in California -- work can be commissioned at the end of the working day in America, completed overnight during Israel's daytime hours and be ready for stateside clients by morning.

IDT, a Jerusalem company, leads the outsourcing sector, with 1,000 employees operating call centers for clients around the world in a wide variety of languages.

In a 2004 survey, consulting firm AT Kearney ranked Israel as one of the top 25 most-attractive places worldwide for outsourcing. In February 2005, the Economist ranked Israel in the top 20 and in September 2005, Red Herring magazine called Jerusalem a "new hotspot" for outsourcing.

"Israel is in a unique position, due to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world," said Eli Kazhdan, a former chief of staff of the Ministry of Industry and Trade who now acts as a consultant to outsourcing companies. "This is where Israel has its competitive edge. We are able to cut costs without compromising on quality."

Citybook's arrival in Modiin Illit has not only benefited its clients, it has also set off a small social revolution, providing 150 jobs for women in the impoverished ultra-Orthodox sector, in which more than half of families are below the poverty line -- about $1,000 per month for a family of four -- and many of the men are full-time students in yeshiva seminaries.

"It brings them into the workforce in a non-coercive way, very much taking into account their religious sensitivities and sensibilities," said Kazhdan. "These people would not work in a Tel Aviv high-tech company, because it just doesn't fit with their lifestyle. Citybook has created a high-tech environment, which enables these workers to go from welfare to employment without compromising religious values."

Citybook provides the women with four months of training and salaries well above the minimum wage in a work environment that respects their conservative religious values as well as their needs as working wives -- such as short working hours and a room set aside with two hospital-standard breast pumps for nursing mothers.

Two more Israeli companies have followed Citybook to Modiin Illit, creating a total of 500 jobs in a community with a population of only 22,000.

"People think that to help the haredi community you need to concentrate on welfare programs, but the key to helping them is to give them the means to support themselves," said Mayor Yaakov Guterman, who visited Citybook recently.

The fast-growing town is situated just inside the West Bank, which means it is an illegal Israeli settlement in the eyes of most of the world. But Guterman says it is built entirely on land purchased for the purpose in 1967 and its position near a major highway midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem means it is likely to be annexed to Israel in any future peace settlement.

Joe Rosenbaum, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish businessman from Lakewood, N.J., founded Citybook three years ago as an offshoot of Madison Title, an insurance and property services company that insures $5 billion in liabilities, also based in Lakewood.

The venture has been so successful that he is planning to create an additional 40 jobs for ultra-Orthodox workers in Jerusalem.

"I had this vision with all the global outsourcing going on all over the world," said Rosenbaum. "Employees from the orthodox community have unique qualities. There's a tremendous reliability, work ethic and commitment. They are very careful not to waste time and are extremely grateful for the opportunity afforded them, so they go way beyond the call of duty."

Yocheved Katz, Citybook's office manager, said the company began "as an experiment with 12 women doing research and checking titles for Madison, and grew from there."

"The ladies in New Jersey stopped doing the research. Now they are much more available for client service and other things, which really help the company over there," said Katz.

Chaya Milgraum, a 22-year-old mother of two originally from Worcester, Mass., said she began working at Citybook two years ago because she and her husband, who was then a full-time yeshiva student, "really needed it." Now she lives right next door and the journey from home to work takes just a few minutes.

"There was a little opposition from my parents and my parents-in-law, because they're not used to the woman going out to work, only the husbands go to work," said Milgraum. "At the beginning it was hard, but then they said, 'You know what, it's good for you -- you're getting out, you're taking care of yourself, and you feel good about going out to work.'

"It was very important for me to come somewhere with a haredi environment. It's easier to get along with everybody when you're all in the same ballpark. When I was single, I worked alongside my mother in a totally mixed office, with men and with non-Jews. It was very nice, but I do enjoy working in an all-women environment."
Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders are among those walking by female employees at the Modiin Illit office of Citybook Services. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Heart-broken victims united in bid for peace

Father of captured Israeli consoles Palestinians at hospital

shalit hospital.jpg
Usama Ahmed al-Athamna (with beard) and Noam Shalit (right) talk with the media outside the Tel Aviv hospital where Israel is treating Palestinian civilians wounded in last week's shelling of Beit Hanoun in Gaza. Photo by Yedioth Ahronoth

Friday, November 17, 2006
Page A - 17

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- In a moving scene of reconciliation and hope, the father of the Israeli soldier whose capture started the current round of fighting in Gaza visited a Tel Aviv hospital Thursday to see Palestinians injured in last week's Israeli bombardment of Beit Hanoun.

And two Palestinians whose families were decimated by the attack joined Noam Shalit in offering prayers for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the recovery of the injured and an end to the holding of his son.

"I came in order to express my sympathy with the families from Beit Hanoun, who lost 23 of their loved ones and have a large number of injured here at the center," said Shalit after visiting the wounded Palestinians. His son, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was seized on June 25 in a cross-border operation that also killed two soldiers and wounded six others.

Usama Ahmed al-Athamna, who lost his wife, mother and 16 other family members in the Israeli artillery strike, said he was praying for the health and safe return of the Israeli soldier.

"I truly thank Gilad's father for the visit, and I pray that his son is returned home safe and sound and that it will bring an end to the tragedy we had at home," al-Athamna said.

Rasan Gasan, whose brother Basem died of his wounds in the hospital last Friday after being injured in Beit Hanoun, said, "I want to thank Gilad's father for coming to visit us. It breaks our hearts, more than they are already broken, that this man's heart breaks for us.

"I hope his son is brought him soon, and I ask both governments, enough, stop. They are continuing negotiations through bloodshed when it's better to sit at a table of peace and speak eye to eye. We can reach an agreement through peace, not bloodshed," Gasan said.

Shalit's visit to the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv came a week after Israel admitted that its artillery guidance system malfunctioned on Nov. 8, sending huge shells crashing into civilian homes in Beit Hanoun, killing 20 people. Three more subsequently died from their injuries. Three of the 40 wounded were transferred to a hospital in Tel Aviv the day after the attack after Israel offered medical assistance to the victims.

"I have met the families, and I can see that the people of Beit Hanoun are peace-seeking and not involved in terror, and they only want to provide for themselves," Shalit said.

"I feel that the Athamna family and the other families who lost their loved ones are exactly like the Slutzker family in Sderot and my family in the Galilee," he said, referring to the family of the woman killed by a Hamas rocket attack on Wednesday. "We are all victims of the same madness, the same incessant wars and illogical violence, from firing rockets towards populated centers, to two terribly erroneous shells, the common denominator is that the civilian population pays the price."

Early reports from Gilad Shalit's captors said he had been wounded and had received medical treatment, but since the first week of his capture the only information about him has been assurances by leaders of both Hamas and Fatah, the two major Palestinian political parties, that he is still alive. Egypt has been leading international efforts to secure his release, but so far without success.

Noam Shalit said after leaving the Israeli hospital that the injured Palestinian children lying unconscious were paying the price of "these useless wars." He urged the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders to "end the violence which brings more violence and hatred in a perpetual cycle that must be broken.

"We aren't looking to see who is to blame or who started it. I hope there will be developments in negotiations with a new Palestinian government that will allow for a fresh start when all this madness ends soon," Shalit said.

"It is time to end this affair. So much suffering has been caused since June 25 to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians," he said.

"One of the main obstacles in bringing Gilad home is that the Hamas leadership is in Damascus and unfortunately won't heed our calls. Unfortunately, they don't see the suffering of the Palestinian people, the residents of the Gaza Strip, and they are apparently living the good life in Damascus," Shalit said.

Monday 13 November 2006

Barrier clogs West Bank olive harvest


"They never offered me any compensation. They just uprooted the trees and took them away." -- Abdullah Abdel Khatib, an olive farmer in the West Bank. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Monday, November 13, 2006
Page A - 9

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Deir al Ghusun, West Bank -- Seventy-year-old Abdullah Abdel Khatib took a break from harvesting his olives in a hillside grove in the northern West Bank and gazed out at the spectacular view across northern Israel to the Mediterranean Sea 15 miles away.

"I was born in this village," he said. "This is my land, and so I have to be here."

But tending to his 10-acre olive grove is not as simple as it used to be. He lost about 360 of his 1,300 olive trees when the Israelis built their controversial security barrier right through his land. At this point just north of Tulkarem, the barrier veers sharply away from the "Green Line" -- the border between the West Bank and Israel -- and dives eastward, slicing off several square miles of Palestinian territory and effectively annexing it to Israel.

Half of Khatib's real estate and about 300 of his remaining trees ended up on the western side of the barrier, a 50-yard-wide strip containing a touch-sensitive wire mesh fence, two barbed-wire barriers, an anti-vehicle ditch, an intrusion-tracking dirt path and a military patrol road.

"They never offered me any compensation," he said. "They didn't offer any to my neighbors either. They just uprooted the trees and took them away."

In the four years since work began on the barrier, the annual autumn olive harvest has become a flash point for violence. Many olive harvesters have been attacked, beaten and even shot by Jewish settlers who claimed they suspected the Palestinians of using their labor as cover to approach the settlements and plan attacks.

Soldiers have prevented other farmers from picking the olives even when they have the correct permits, and have beaten or harassed the Palestinians when they refused to leave. After one such incident near Nablus recently, the Israeli army apologized -- but not before the family involved had lost a full day's work.

Still, despite the election of a Hamas government to lead the Palestinian Authority and the consequent freezing of most contacts between Palestinian and Israeli officials, all sides seem to be making an effort this year to reduce the tension so the olives can be collected successfully.

In June, the Israeli High Court ruled that Palestinian farmers must be permitted access to their land for the harvest. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz commissioned a report from the World Bank on the importance of the harvest, and ordered Israeli security personnel to protect farmers from harassment by unruly settlers.

"It is not possible to overestimate the importance of olives to the Palestinian economy," the World Bank report said. "Not only are olives the single biggest crop in what remains a largely agricultural economy, but they have deep cultural significance."

"The olive tree is strongly connected to our traditions, customs and existence on this land," said Shaker Judeh, a senior official at the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. "It was also called the blessed tree and enjoys a religious status, as it is mentioned many times in the Holy Quran."

So far, things have been peaceful in the area where Khatib is picking his olives.

"This year, it was coordinated with Israeli forces to allow farmers to access their lands for the harvest, but many farmers are not granted permits," said Judeh. "They are giving more permits to the farmers and the owners, but there are still problems over people denied permits on the grounds of security."

Every day, Khatib and his neighbors pass large red warning signs in Arabic and Hebrew put up by the Israelis to mark a 100-yard exclusion zone on the Palestinian side of the barrier. The signs tell anyone entering the area not to carry firearms or approach the barrier without proper authorization.

Just next to Khatib's land is Gate 690, one of three crossings in the area that are opened twice a day so farmers authorized by the Israelis can tend their land on the other side. Israeli troops in full battle gear check Palestinian farmers passing through the gate.

Permits are hard to obtain, but Khatib has secured permission for his laborers to collect the olives from his trees across the barrier. More than 90 percent of the olives are used to make oil. It takes 9 to 13 pounds of olives to produce a gallon of olive oil, which his family uses or sells.

The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture is expecting a bumper crop -- as much as 35,000 tons of olive oil, compared with an average 25,000 in recent years. The bounty could throw a lifeline to Palestinians like Khatib, struggling with an extended economic crisis caused by the continued conflict with Israel and an extensive security clampdown.

"The Palestinian economy has come to the point of collapse," said Talal Dweikat, the local Palestinian governor. "There is real starvation and real suffering among the Palestinian people. Dozens of families cannot secure their daily needs."

The World Bank report estimated that olive trees account for nearly 45 percent of cultivated land in the Palestinian territory. About 100,000 people, it said, are dependent on the olive harvest for their livelihoods. But the Israeli barrier and security checkpoints, designed to clamp down on the movement of arms and suicide bombers, also have prevented olive oil and other produce from being exported abroad. The result has been a surplus of oil in the Palestinian territories, leading to a reduction in price that has further weakened the local agricultural economy.

Khaled Alayan, the mayor of Deir al Ghusun, said the barrier had transformed the lives of the villagers "into a nightmare."

"Having a permit does not ensure that we go through the gate. It depends on the mood of the soldier whether we pass through the gate or not," Alayan said. He said unemployment in the village had risen to around 60 percent, and the municipality was owed about $700,000 in unpaid water and electric bills.

"One main source of income for this village was that many of the people used to work inside Israel," he said. "One thousand families used to depend on the income from family members working inside Israel. Because of the wall, 1,000 families have lost their source of income."

Khatib said six of his seven sons used to work in Israel, but now are unemployed.

"We can see signs of the deterioration in the economic situation because women are selling their jewelry, and others are selling property. Many people in the village have become dependent on donations from other people or international organizations," said Alayan.

Among the organizations that have stepped in to help is the U.N. World Food Program, which has targeted Deir al Ghusun as part of a campaign to save the poorest Palestinian farmers from destitution by purchasing 1,500 tons of olive oil, at a cost of $4 million.

"We identify the poorest among the farmers, and we buy a quantity of olive oil which otherwise they couldn't sell and they couldn't store, and we redistribute this olive oil to our beneficiaries who are scattered over the West Bank and Gaza," said Arnold Vercken, the program's director for the Palestinian territories.

He said such purchases helped stabilize the market price, provided a much-needed cash injection for the "poorest among the poor" and gave Palestinians receiving food aid a high-nutrition product.

The olives picked by Khatib and his neighbors end up at the olive press in the center of their village, where Yousur Eid sat watching amid a roar of machinery as her olives were ground into paste beneath two huge, rolling stones. The paste was spread on straw mats and pressed to produce thick, green, fragrant oil, which she collected in a big plastic jerrican.

"I have 30 olive trees, which I share with another family," said the 75-year-old grandmother, keeping an eye on the precious liquid. "It took us a week to harvest the crop, and I get two-thirds of it. This looks like a good year. It looks like we will have about five or six gallons of oil, and I will use it to make moussakhan -- my favorite dish of bread, olive oil and chicken. You are invited to come and eat it with us."

Saturday 11 November 2006

Beating in Jerusalem ends gay Palestinian Americans' plans

One man in group allegedly attacked by angry Muslims

David Sheen, an activist from Oakland whose shirt reads, "My God is a lesbian," was arrested in Jerusalem before a gay pride rally. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Saturday, November 11, 2006
Page A - 3

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- A group of gay Palestinian Americans canceled a planned pride march in East Jerusalem on Friday after one of them was beaten unconscious by a local man who said he was from the Waqf Muslim religious authority.

The beating incident occurred on the same day an Israeli gay pride rally went ahead as scheduled, though without a planned march through city streets. The march had been called off after threats by religious and right-wing opponents to mount huge counterdemonstrations. Only minor violence marred the event.

East Jerusalem was close to total lockdown Friday -- a combination of a three-day general strike called in mourning for the deaths in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun on Wednesday, and the resulting Israeli security alert to prevent retaliatory suicide attacks.

Israeli security officials said they had more than 80 specific intelligence warnings of planned terror attacks against Israeli targets and raised the alert level to Daled or "D," the highest. Israeli police clamped a total closure on the West Bank, preventing all Palestinians from entering Israel except those living in East Jerusalem.

In the East Jerusalem beating, two men -- one wielding a knife -- came looking for the group of gay Palestinian Americans who were staying at the Faisal Hostel near the Damascus Gate of the Old City. One of the assailants identified himself as being from the Waqf, the clerical trust that administers Muslim religious sites in the city.

"I'm pretty terrified right now," said Daoud, an MBA student from Detroit who declined to give his full name. "We left the hostel immediately, but when my friend went back to collect some things, they were waiting for him. They asked if he was with 'the homos' and then started beating him."

He said the victim, from Chicago, was badly beaten, knocked down a flight of stairs and left unconscious. The man, whose name was withheld for his safety, was taken to the El-Mokassed Hospital in East Jerusalem for treatment.

"It was very scary. These two guys came in and said they had heard we were planning to march. They drew a knife and said if we marched they would cut our heads off. They sounded like they meant it," he said.

Daoud said nine gay Palestinian Americans had come to Jerusalem to join the pride march. "Maybe I was just being naive. I heard about the pride rally, and I thought it would be nice for us to do something together as a gay community," he said. "We got a different kind of reception instead."

In America, he said, "you have some tolerance and appreciation and understanding of what it means to be gay and to be a Palestinian. We're discovering the hard way it's not so acceptable here."

Rotem Biran, 25, a hotel sales executive from Tel Aviv, said she was disappointed not to be able to march with the Palestinians from East Jerusalem. But by the time she arrived at the Faisal Hostel, Daoud and his friends had disappeared.

"Gay Palestinians are really afraid," she said. "It's not the same as being Jewish and gay. For them, it's dangerous. They can't really do anything openly in their own community because it's so strict, so they come all the way to Tel Aviv to be with other gay people."

Friday's rally, held at the Hebrew University sports stadium, was a low-key affair that passed off largely peacefully. More than 2,000 participants were protected by about 3,000 police officers. One ultra-Orthodox protester who managed to sneak into the event was arrested after he jumped onstage and began screaming anti-gay slogans.

Across town, California-born David Sheen, a founder of the East Bay City Repair project in Oakland, was one of 30 gay activists who were arrested after trying to march to the stadium where the rally was being held. Sheen, 32, wore a pink shirt bearing the words "My God is a lesbian," in Hebrew.

Sheen, who describes himself as an "eco-freako," now lives in southern Israel and builds houses from earth. He said it was important for gay people in Israel to rally and speak out "because we're beautiful. And because we live here, and these are our streets."

Noam Federman, an anti-gay religious activist, warned people not to touch the marchers for fear of catching AIDS and held a banner denouncing their "abomination." Five people with him were arrested after they were found carrying brass knuckles, knives and sticks.

"We want to prevent the gays from marching inside Jerusalem," said Federman. "Jerusalem is a holy city to the Jewish people. We waited 2,000 years to get the privilege of having Jerusalem in our hands -- not to desecrate the city."

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the Vatican and Muslim officials had all spoken out this week against the gay march through the streets of Jerusalem, a city holy to all three religions. Ultra-Orthodox Jews had staged rowdy protests all week and threatened violence if the march went ahead.