Sunday 24 December 2006

Holy Land's woes sink Bethlehem's Christmas spirit

Strife ruins celebrations, local economy

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Sunday, December 24, 2006
Page A - 21

Bethlehem , West Bank -- This is the first Christmas season that Hamas has hosted in Bethlehem, and things are not looking good in the town where Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.

"This is the saddest Christmas. As you see, Manger Square is empty," said Mayor Victor Batarseh, a Roman Catholic mayor who was elected last year with support from Hamas. Only a statute requiring that the mayor and half the municipal council of Bethlehem must be Christians prevented Hamas and other Islamist groups from making a clean sweep of local government posts.

In the days leading up to Christmas, only a trickle of tourists visited the holy sites, half the shops were closed, and decorations were sparse. The foreign aid that once poured into Bethlehem has dried up, a victim of the international aid boycott imposed on the Palestinian Authority in March when the Hamas-led government took control of Gaza and the West Bank.

Like almost all public employees across the Palestinian territories, Batarseh and his workers have not been paid since the spring.

The Hamas government had promised to give Bethlehem $50,000 for the celebrations. Sheikh Raed Habib, a prominent Hamas supporter and the preacher at the Omar Ibn Khattab Mosque opposite the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, approved of the allocation for Christmas despite the government's financial crisis.

"I am pleased that Hamas is helping to make Christmas," he said. "It is our duty to help with the decorations and congratulate our Christian brothers on their holiday. Muslims consider Jesus as one of the prophets, and we also celebrate his birth, but not as a major holiday."

Yet by Saturday, the promised money from the government had still not arrived. A municipal official said that even if it came, it would likely not be spent on Christmas lights. "We will pay the salaries -- that's more important," he said, on condition of anonymity.

Instead, the festive street decorations on the main road to Manger Square were donated by an Israeli-Arab Christian from the Galilee region of Northern Israel, who took shelter in Bethlehem with his family during the summer war to avoid the Katyusha rockets of Hezbollah.

Other Christmas lights were provided by local business owners, some of whom saw an opportunity to advertise their products. The Peace Center in Manger Square balked at displaying a banner wishing the people "Happy Christmas and Happy Eid from the Palestine Electric Corporation."

Before the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, burst out three months before Christmas 2000, about 50 buses a day made the 5-minute drive from nearby Jerusalem, bringing thousands of tourists who thronged the church, souvenir shops and local restaurants. These pilgrim dollars fueled a thriving trade in souvenirs fashioned from olivewood, mother-of-pearl and cheap silver. The town prospered.

But after six years of the intifada and Israeli military incursions, the tourists have disappeared, and Bethlehem's economy is in ruins. The town of 30,000 is now almost encircled by Israel's separation barrier, which has strangled Bethlehem's livelihood, cutting off the town from Jerusalem and deterring all but the most determined visitors.

Israel says it built the barrier to deter cross-border attacks, but Batarseh said it has transformed Bethlehem into "a big prison whose keys are in the hands of the occupier."

Only about 100,000 tourists have visited Bethlehem in 2006, compared to nearly 2 million annually before the intifada.

A fragile cease-fire in 2005 had encouraged some tourists to return, but this summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon discouraged most visitors. The eruption of deadly clashes between Fatah, the former ruling party, and Hamas two weeks ago was the final nail in the coffin.

"The political situation in Lebanon and the instability of politics in Palestine has affected tourism and pilgrimage," said Batarseh. "We have 65 percent unemployment and about 2,000 bedrooms in hotels that are empty."

Local leaders insisted that Bethlehem is safe. They said the kind of gunbattles that erupted in Gaza would not be repeated in the West Bank, where skirmishes between Hamas and Fatah have been fewer and less ferocious.

"What is happening in Gaza is alien to our culture, alien to our history, alien to our heritage as Palestinians," said Salah Tamari, the Fatah governor of the Bethlehem district. "We want Bethlehem to be a model. People in Bethlehem are aware of their mission. Bethlehem has a message of peace, for Palestinians first and then to humankind. Here we co-exist and live in harmony."

But for many Christians in Bethlehem, the new political domination of Hamas is only the latest phase in a process that has left them feeling isolated and vulnerable. Samir Qumsiyeh, owner of a local Christian TV station, has documented more than 90 incidents of anti-Christian violence carried out in the Bethlehem area in recent years and 140 cases in which Christian land has been taken over by what he describes as "Islamic mafia gangs."

George Rabie, a 22-year-old taxi driver and rapper from the neighboring town of Beit Jala, said he was beaten up two months ago by a group of Muslims from Hebron who reacted to the crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror. "It is a type of racism," he said. "We are a minority, so we are an easier target."

Farid Azizeh, an elderly restaurateur and former city councilman, was shot in the face and blinded after he got involved in a dispute with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah. Last year, his 16-year-old granddaughter was abducted by her Muslim boyfriend and was rescued only after the intervention of the Latin Patriarch.

Among the few pilgrims in town just before Christmas was Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who led a delegation of British church leaders to Bethlehem as a sign of solidarity. The clerics prayed in the Church of the Nativity along with Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Syrian bishops.

"We are here to say in this so troubled, complex land, that justice and security is never something which one person claims at the expense of another, or one community at the expense of another," Williams said. "We are here to say that security for one is security for all, and for one to live under threat of occupation or of terror is a problem for all and a pain for all," he said.

The visit to Bethlehem by the British church leaders was "the most important visit this Christmas," said Mayor Batarseh. "This event makes us feel that we are not left alone, and there is somebody who cares about our plight."

Mysterious Santa helps Bethlehem's neediest

The identity of the wealthy man who distributes toys and candy to poor Christian and Muslim families is known only to a few. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Sunday, December 24, 2006
Page A - 17

Bethlehem, West Bank -- In a darkened room at a secret location in downtown Bethlehem, a small group of anonymous Palestinians is preparing for a secret mission.

Packages are being checked and placed in special bags. In one corner, a man in paramilitary fatigues nurses a semiautomatic machine gun.

Another man is being dressed in heavy disguise before being sent on his mission.

Everyone in this tight-lipped group is sworn to silence. The identity of the man behind the operation is a well-guarded secret.

Soon after night falls, in the twisting alleys of Hosh Nassar, a poor part of the old town near Manger Square, a man in heavy disguise carrying a large bag climbs the steps to the home of the Mickel family and knocks at the door.

Seven-year-old Daniel Mickel opens the door and stares into the face of Santa Claus. "Ahlan W'sahlan! -- Welcome!" he yells, and runs to fetch his brother Amir, 8, and his mother, Terry.

Baba Noel, as Santa is called here, has brought toys for Daniel, Amir and their older brother and sister, as well as chocolates for the family. It is a welcome moment of holiday cheer for the family, which has been living in poverty since 45-year-old Issa Mickel was confined to bed with a brain tumor seven years ago.

"We need help; we are in real trouble," says Terry Mickel as the boys tear open their presents. "This visit from Santa Claus has made the children very happy."

Around the corner, 13-year-old Myrna Siryani is excitedly waiting for the knock on her door after receiving a call from Santa last week asking what she would like as a gift.

"He spoke to me in Arabic!" says the delighted teenager. "He asked me what present I would like, and I said I wanted clothes, because I am too old now for toys."

This weekend, dozens of Bethlehem's poorest children, both Christian and Muslim, received the gifts they requested from the man in the white beard and red suit as he crisscrossed the town in a bright yellow taxi.

But few people know the real identity of the Secret Santa of Bethlehem. It's the closely guarded secret of a local businessman who in the past six years of acute economic distress has given away tens of thousands of dollars to the most impoverished families in the town.

"I try to go to the poorest families, those in real need, where the father is unable to work or perhaps isn't there anymore," he said, hiding his anonymity behind the nickname Abu Christmas -- his personalized version of Baba Noel.

"I ask people I trust to provide lists of the children who need help, on condition they do not tell anyone where the gifts have come from," he said. "They are only allowed to say that we are a secret Christian group that works undercover to make these families happy."

The young children choose toys and dolls. Teenagers usually want clothes, so Abu Christmas gives them vouchers to spend at a local clothing store. He said his only regret was that his own business has fared so badly, because of the drop in tourists to Bethlehem, that this year he will be able to deliver presents to only about 70 children instead of the 150 he has helped in previous years.

In addition to his Christmas operations, the same benefactor has stepped in numerous times in recent years to assist neighbors who have fallen on hard times.

"I believe that if a man needs food, you don't give him fish -- you give him a fishing rod and teach him how to use it," he said.

One grateful recipient of his help said the secret Santa could have bought "one or two houses" with the money he had given away in the past five years.

"I don't know how much the total is," said Abu Christmas. "I don't keep a notebook.

"I do this every day. If I started to calculate the amount, it could be a problem, so I'd rather forget. I'm sure that God will give me back much more than I have given away.

"There are so many people in need, I wish I could help everyone," he said. "I just want to see the children happy."
Daniel Mickel, 7, and his sister, Jessica, 13, receive presents from Abu Christmas, a nickname for the man who appears each year. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Thursday 21 December 2006

Christians see little future in little town of Bethlehem

Jennifer Satara sits in front of housing built by the Catholic Church, where she lives with her family. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Thursday, December 21, 2006
Page A - 13

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Bethlehem -- Bethlehem native Bashir Satara dreamed of living in the United States.

For three years he worked at a string of casual jobs from New York City to the Bay Area, but he could not get a green card, and finally had to go back. So he did the next best thing -- he tried to create a little of the Bay Area in the West Bank.

Inspired by one of the eateries where he had worked in Martinez, he opened the first fast-food joint in Bethlehem, which he called First Subway Express. Now it's the only place in town open after midnight and is successfully supporting three families.

But his story is atypical.

Thousands of Christians like Satara have left Bethlehem in the past six years, but few return. Cash-strapped residents, struggling to survive in a town where the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada and Israeli security measures have reduced tourism to a trickle, have been quitting Bethlehem in droves.

"Why do people leave? Because they need housing, education, they need money," said Father Shawki Baterian, general administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Victor Batarseh, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, said last week that unemployment in the town has risen to 60 percent and urged people to visit over Christmas to help the economy.

Satara entered the United States in the summer of 2000 on a tourist visa and stayed on as an illegal resident. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was stopped by police who discovered he had no valid visa. He was questioned by the FBI and immigration officials, but was allowed to walk away after he requested political asylum.

He traveled to Martinez to join his parents, Maurice and Mary Satara, who had arrived a few days before Sept. 11 and managed to stay another two years. Mary Satara had two sisters living in Sacramento, and the elder Sataras became legally registered residents of California.

In May 2003, Bashir Satara was in an automobile accident. The car he was driving was impounded and he was fined $70 for not having a license. He decided it was time to leave.

He and his parents returned to the family's ancient stone house in the twisting alleys of Bethlehem's old marketplace, but all of them wondered whether their decision wasn't a terrible mistake.

Bashir Satara, a 23-year-old Palestinian Christian, found it almost impossible to make a living.

"Everything was closed," he said. "Everything inside the house was wrecked. It had been broken into by the Israeli army and by the Palestinian militants. Most people I knew had left, and all my friends were thinking of leaving because they had no work."

Then he had his brainstorm. He opened the first fast-food joint in Bethlehem, First Subway Express, with a loan from a sympathetic Christian businessman.

A generation ago, Christians comprised 80 percent of the population of Bethlehem, but today they are just 15 percent. Since the beginning of the intifada -- which broke out less than three months before the much-advertised Christmas 2000 celebration -- nearly 10 percent of the 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza have emigrated, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

In response to this drain, Christian institutions are trying to keep their community from disappearing altogether from the place Jesus was born. One way is to give them a roof over their heads.

Bashir's brother Carlos Satara, 32, is among dozens of Christian families living in modern subsidized housing built by the Catholic Church. He now lives with his wife and two small children in the Child Jesus, an apartment complex built by the Custos of the Holy Land and the Franciscan Fathers, in order to provide Christian families with affordable housing.

"Before I took this home, I was thinking of leaving Palestine. I even got a visa for Canada. Now it's still difficult, but it's better than before," Carlos Satara said.

The Custos -- the head of the Franciscan Order, directly appointed by the pope -- has built several similar complexes in Bethlehem since the intifada began.

"The problem of houses for the Christians of the Holy Land is very serious," said the Custos, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in an interview posted on his Web site. "Emigration is a truly dramatic problem. ... You must remember that the poor never leave, they will always remain with us since they do not have the money necessary to emigrate."

Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Catholic bishop of the Holy Land, Jordan and Cyprus, has also sponsored a series of housing projects in Bethlehem and other Christian areas with a total value of $10 million, providing accommodation for more than 200 families.

"We are living in a situation of struggle, occupation and chaos," said Father Baterian. "We have no proper government. Sometimes the church takes the role of the government itself.

"Our main aim is to give Christians a chance to stay in the Holy Land. ... We try as a church to provide all the basic things so the people can choose. We tell them: You have a mission to stay here, but sometimes they cannot bear it, so they choose to leave."

Baterian said the Patriarchate projects were generally built on church-owned land, then offered for sale or rent at subsidized rates. He said the Nativity housing project in Bethlehem, with 52 units, provided work for 600 people while it was being built.

The Patriarchate has just finished construction at the Annunciation, an apartment block in Beit Jala, the town neighboring Bethlehem, where Issa Fawadleh, 43, his wife Elise and three teenage daughters, were preparing to spend their first Christmas in their new home.

"We were all living in one room in a tiny house in the old city, so we couldn't wait to move into this apartment with three bedrooms and a large living room," said Fawadleh. "The church helped us by spreading the payments over a long period. If not for the Patriarchate, we would have had to stay in our old home until we die."

Fawadleh has a job at the local sock factory. He said the lack of work in the West Bank means that many people would be unable to find decent housing without such projects, but he had never thought of leaving.

"Many people from here have left the country because they weren't able to study, find jobs or get married," he said.

"They had to leave. It wasn't their fault. If they had all those things, they would have been able to stay," Fawadleh said.

Hanna Siniora, a prominent Palestinian Christian from East Jerusalem and co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the church had finally done what was necessary to help the dwindling Christian community.

"I hope it's not too late," said Siniora. "It's very much needed. It will help Palestinian Christians to stay in the Holy Land. We don't want to see our churches end as museums."

But Father Baterian said that housing wasn't the only condition for keeping Christians in Bethlehem.

"Most of all they need stability. You can provide people with everything, but if they don't have peace they will leave," he said.

Bashir Satara sits in the First Subway Sandwich shop, which he opened after his return from the U.S. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Sunday 17 December 2006

Abbas threatens election showdown

As violence between Fatah and Hamas escalates, the president insists he will order a new vote

Page A - 1
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, reacting to street battles and gunfights between supporters of his Fatah movement and the opposition Hamas that led to at least six deaths and scores of injuries in the last week, threatened Saturday to call early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Abbas was trying to seize the political initiative after Hamas leaders told a vast crowd in Gaza on Friday that the Palestinian president had launched "a war" against Hamas and against God.

"Since the people are the source of authority, we will return to them and let them say their word," Abbas told the sympathetic crowd, most of them Fatah supporters, during a 90-minute televised address Saturday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "I decreed the formation of the government, and I can sack it whenever I want to."

Hamas leaders took the call for new elections seriously, denouncing it as "an attempted coup."

To his audience, Abbas appeared genuinely angry -- but his forceful tone belied the fact that he had little to offer Palestinian voters except to renew his threat to call elections, something he has done repeatedly in recent months.

Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian affairs analyst for the Jerusalem Post, said a new ballot could well prove a disastrous gamble for Abbas, because Hamas was expected to win new parliamentary elections and might also challenge the Fatah leader for the presidency.

"Hamas is not afraid of these threats," Abu Toameh said in an interview. "Fatah is the same party which lost the last election because of the corruption of its officials and its refusal to allow the younger generation to enter the leadership. If there is an election anytime soon, Fatah is almost certain to lose again."

Abbas stopped short of setting a date for the election and left open the possibility of a unity government involving both Fatah and Hamas. Still, his vague formula was enough to spark renewed clashes in Gaza -- where pro-Hamas marchers took to the streets and at least 21 people were injured in gunfights, including one this morning involving the presidential guard -- and to win promises of support from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is scheduled to arrive in Ramallah on Monday.

Abbas was elected Palestinian president in January 2005, but the rival Hamas party won parliamentary elections -- and thus control of the government -- last January. The Palestinian Authority has been in political and economic crisis ever since. Most of the international community, led by the United States, Europe and Israel, imposed an economic boycott on the Hamas government when it refused to recognize Israel, honor past agreements or give up violence.

The ensuing economic squeeze has left the one-third of Palestinians who are employed by the government without salaries for months, pushing the private sector into severe recession. More than $600 million in tax revenues, equal to more than half the annual budget of the Palestinian Authority, has been frozen by Israel.

A recent online poll published by the daily Al-Quds newspaper suggested that support for Fatah has slumped badly since the last election. It predicted Hamas would win an early parliamentary election with 45.98 percent of the vote compared with 33.66 percent for Fatah. In the national vote in January, Hamas scored 44.45 percent and Fatah 41.43 percent.

Abbas has been engaged for months in fruitless talks with Hamas leaders over the formation of a nonpolitical or unity government whose appointment would end the international blockade. But Hamas leaders have refused to compromise, particularly on issues that require dealing with Israel. In June, Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid that triggered five months of Israeli army incursions in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

Three weeks ago, Abbas persuaded Hamas to stop firing rockets across the border at Israel, initiating a shaky cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip. But since then, there have been increasing clashes between the Palestinian factions. They culminated last week in the shooting deaths of three young sons of a Fatah intelligence officer and the killing of one of the bodyguards of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader. The latter attack was an apparent assassination attempt as Haniyeh returned to Gaza after the Israelis kept him from bringing $35 million in cash to help pay the government's bills.

"We are living through difficult and miserable times," Abbas said on Saturday. "To break the vicious circle and prevent our lives from deteriorating further and our cause from eroding, I have decided to call early presidential and legislative elections."

Hamas leaders said Abbas' proposal was "unconstitutional." Palestinian law allows the president to fire the prime minister, but is ambiguous on whether he can call early parliamentary elections. Parliament is elected every four years.

"If Abbas is tired of the situation, he should resign instead," Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters in Gaza. "There will be no early elections, God willing."

Israelis are fearful that increased support for Hamas could mean a return to Palestinian attacks across the border. Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the Israeli leader "respects" Abbas "and hopes that he will have the capability to assert his leadership over the Palestinian people, and to bring about a government that will comply with the international community's principles."

In Gaza, legislator Mohammed Dahlan, one of Abbas' closest confidants, hit back at accusations that he was behind the attempted shooting of Haniyeh late Thursday, and noted that "since Hamas' election victory in January, more than 300 Palestinians have been killed as a result of lawlessness and 15 Fatah members have been assassinated."

"Hamas' allegations are simply a means of masking its failures towards the Palestinian people," Dahlan said in a statement circulated to the media.

"This Hamas government has failed to demonstrate that it has a plan to build, but has aptly demonstrated that it has a plan to destroy. It is time for Hamas to stop acting as though it is in the opposition and start taking on the responsibilities of being the head of the government," his statement said.

Even though Abbas berated Hamas in unusually harsh language, accusing the group of practicing "unacceptable terror" against its opponents, he did not actually dismiss the government, dissolve parliament or set a date for new elections. That leaves open the option of a national unity government with both Hamas and Fatah -- which would still not recognize Israel and satisfy the international community.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, a former Fatah loyalist turned independent, told reporters in Ramallah that "an opportunity must be given to resume the dialogue and form a national unity government. ...

"President Abbas didn't set a date for holding early elections and kept the doors for dialogue opened," she said. "We should do our best to save the country from more bloodshed."

Latest developments in the internal Palestinian crisis

What happened: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday he will call early elections for both president and parliament, but did not set a date. Abbas, of the Fatah party, has failed to reach agreement on a unity government with Hamas, the majority party in parliament. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, refuses to modify his party's anti-Israel stance.

What's next: Aides say Abbas will meet with the Central Election Commission within a week to discuss preparations for elections, which would take place three months after he issues a presidential decree ordering elections. Under Palestinian law, the president has the power to dismiss the prime minister or call a state of emergency, which in effect would dissolve parliament.

Possible presidential candidates

Mahmoud Abbas, 71: Incumbent president from Fatah, elected overwhelmingly in 2005 to succeed the late Yasser Arafat. A pragmatist who opposes violence, Abbas has called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After Hamas unseated Fatah in January parliamentary elections, he failed to win back disaffected voters. He has said he would not run for re-election, but that was before he cut his own term short. September polls gave him 31 percent of the vote in a presidential race.

Marwan Barghouti, 47: Charismatic leader of Fatah's young guard, serving multiple life sentences in Israel on murder convictions related to Palestinian uprising. Supports the so-called two-state solution -- a Palestinian state alongside Israel -- but advocates using force to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Widely seen as the only Palestinian leader capable of unifying squabbling Palestinian factions.

Mustafa Barghouti, 52: Independent lawmaker who heads the Palestinian National Initiative, a small left-leaning grouping that favors a two-state solution. Ran for president against Abbas in 2005, receiving about 20 percent of the vote.

Mohammed Dahlan, 45: Fatah lawmaker widely considered to be the most powerful figure in the Gaza Strip, with little support in the West Bank. Former Palestinian security chief, has been involved in peace negotiations with Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew from time jailed in Israel. Has good contacts with Israel and the United States and is at odds with Hamas, having acted against the militant group harshly when security chief. Hamas accuses him of masterminding assassination attempt on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Ismail Haniyeh, 46: Current prime minister and senior Hamas leader, considered the most popular Palestinian politician after Abbas. In keeping with Hamas' line, he does not recognize Israel, says he will not renounce violence, and calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza in return for a 10-year truce.

Ahmed Qureia, 67: Former Palestinian prime minister from Fatah, commonly known as Abu Alaa. Key architect of 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel and led Palestinians in negotiations with Israel for years.

Associated Press

Thursday 14 December 2006

U.S. training Fatah in anti-terror tactics: Underlying motive is to counter strength of Hamas, analysts say

This is a copy of a training manual distributed to officers of the Presidential Guard during a two-week course held in Jericho earlier this year. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Thursday, December 14, 2006
Page A - 17

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jericho, West Bank -- U.S. officials training Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas are emphasizing urban anti-terrorist techniques as part of a systematic effort to bolster Abbas and his Fatah loyalists to counter the political success of Hamas, according to Palestinian analysts and officers receiving the training.

But one officer who has received the training says the purpose of the newly beefed-up force is to protect the Palestinian president from assassination.

The Presidential Guard, made up entirely of Fatah activists loyal to Abbas, has been increased to 1,000, up from about 90 officers under his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. A new black-uniformed rapid deployment force -- Al-Tadakhwal -- has recently been formed to respond to emergencies. The Presidential Guard is commanded by Gen. Munir Zobi in the West Bank and Gen. Haj Musbar in Gaza.

Officers have also received training from U.S. officials inside the Mukata, the presidential compound in Ramallah that contains Abbas' office and Arafat's grave.

The Chronicle has obtained a training manual distributed to officers of the Al-Haras Al-Rayassi, Abbas' Presidential Guard, during a two-week course held in Jericho earlier this year at which the chief instructor introduced himself as a U.S. Secret Service officer who served during the Reagan administration. The manual, titled "Advanced Protective Operations Seminar," is emblazoned with the logo of the Counterterrorism Training Group, which includes the U.S. government seal.

Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth after news of the training sessions leaked out that since Iran is helping arm and fund Hamas political and military activities, the United States wants to prevent "moderate forces" in the Palestinian territories from being eliminated.

"We are involved in building up the Presidential Guard, instructing it, assisting it to build itself up and giving them ideas. We are not training the forces to confront Hamas," Dayton told Yedioth. "Hamas is receiving money and arms from Iran and possibly Syria, and we must make sure that the moderate forces will not be erased," Dayton said.

But one of the officers trained by Dayton's team said the American general is being naive and does not understand internal Palestinian politics.

"Ever since the Hamas election victory, security has been tightened around (Abbas)," said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The fear is that someone from Hamas will try to assassinate him, and we must be ready to deal with this threat. The main threat to the security of the president is from the militia of Hamas."

When the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 with a mandate to handle its own policing, Arafat set up a string of 14 overlapping and often competing security forces -- each one controlled by a rival political or former guerrilla chieftain, but all of them ultimately loyal to him and his Fatah party. Arafat used these forces to control political opponents like Hamas and also maintain loyalty through patronage and the payment of salaries.

The United States had helped train the initial security forces, but ended its aid when the Palestinian uprising called the intifada began in September 2000. During the intifada, many trained security officers engaged in attacks on Israeli targets or joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Fatah militant wing.

Earlier this year, after it assumed control of the Palestinian government following its success in January's parliamentary elections, Hamas announced the formation of its own security service, the Executive Force, and placed Jamal abu Samhadana, a prominent militant, at its head. Samhadana was killed in an Israeli raid in June.

Abbas had denounced formation of the new police force as unconstitutional, saying that only the Palestinian president could command armed forces. On Dayton's advice, the U.S. training program began again over the summer, but so far it has been limited to the officers directly responsible for the personal security of Abbas and his VIP guests, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Jericho last month.

Training seminars for the Presidential Guard are being held in various locations around the West Bank. A two-week course called the Advanced Protective Operations Seminar was recently held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho, where participants were instructed in counterterrorism techniques. The manual from that course gave detailed advice on a range of security issues from airport and event security planning to securing motorcades, residences and offices. Suggested tactics included the use of "protective intelligence," "counter-snipers" and a "counter-assault team."

An official from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv traveled to Ramallah earlier this year to instruct about 60 Presidential Guard officers in securing vehicles and sites against bomb threats and suspect devices. The session, according to one of the participants, lasted about two hours and took place in a large meeting room close to Abbas' office in the Mukata compound.

"We are helping the Palestinian Authority security services to enhance their abilities, concentrating on the Presidential Guard," said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are also helping the Presidential Guard take on expanded responsibilities, like security at the border crossings in Gaza."

The American effort is part of a broader international package of support to bolster Abbas loyalists as Hamas threatens to increase its parallel Executive Force to 6,000 men. Training for Fatah forces also is provided by Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Britain, Spain and the European Union have provided communications equipment, vehicles and logistical support.

But there are fears the American assistance program could backfire.

"The U.S.' involvement in attempts to bring down the Hamas government has only made things worse for Abbas and Fatah," wrote Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, in a commentary titled "Guns and Poses."

"The U.S. believes that by giving Abbas more rifles and cash, it would be able to bring about regime change. But in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no shortage of weapons. Tons of explosives, rifles and missiles are smuggled across the Egyptian border nearly every day. What the Palestinians need is not more rifles -- which they never use to stop Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other militias anyway -- but good governance and credible leaders," he wrote.

"American meddling in Palestinian affairs is backfiring, because many Palestinians are beginning to look at Abbas and Fatah as pawns in the hands of the U.S. and Israel. This does not help Abbas and moderate secular Palestinians, who are facing the dangers of the growing power of Islamic fundamentalism."

Abbas' guard members wear distinctive green uniforms with a shoulder patch bearing the name of the force and the Palestinian flag. Each officer carries a semiautomatic Kalashnikov assault rifle and Motorola communications equipment. Plans to replace the outdated Kalashnikovs of the Presidential Guard with lightweight Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns were scrapped because of Israeli opposition.

"It's a great shame the Israelis wouldn't allow us to have the new equipment. In a hostage situation inside a building, the MP5 is much more effective than the Kalashnikov, which is too large to handle indoors and has a very strong recoil," said the Presidential Guard officer who had been through the training.

The Israelis, this officer said, have refused to permit the supply of new weapons, tear gas and flak jackets to the Presidential Guard, based on their experience in the past when the CIA trained dozens of Palestinian security officers only to watch in dismay as many of them joined the ranks of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades during the intifada.

"I'm not thrilled at the idea of the Americans training Fatah militias or the Palestinian police," said Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "Until now, both Fatah and the Palestinian police have been a great disappointment to those who believed they could overcome terror as they promised they would. The opposite has happened. In the best case, they were simply passive. In the worst cases, they actually encouraged terrorism."

Sunday 10 December 2006

Next battleground will be a familiar one, Israelis say

In Golan Heights, tensions with Syria are on the increase

golan06 1.jpg
Jamie Ben-David, a San Diego native living in Israel, polices along a minefield in the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Sunday 10 December, 2006

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Oz 77, Golan Heights -- From afar, the only thing that Jamie Ben-David could see moving in the picturesque valley of Kuneitra was a white U.N. jeep racing between the manicured fruit groves.

But as he drew nearer, the pastoral view was soon shattered. In the foreground lay rusted barbed-wire fences with yellow and red warning signs describing the fields of hidden land mines. And through his high-power binoculars, the bullet-riddled houses in the ghost city of Kuneitra and the remains of Syrian and Israeli battle tanks suddenly came into focus.

Ben-David, a 34-year-old San Diego native who moved to Israel two years ago, adjusted the black machine-pistol on his hip and clambered up the side of Oz 77, a disused Israeli military bunker with a commanding view of the Valley of Tears below, where the Syrian advance was halted in the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

Thirty-three years later, Ben-David, an officer in a volunteer Israeli Border Police unit, has come to the Golan Heights to help prepare for the next war. According to Israeli military intelligence, the battle will erupt here within the next two years. And the status of the Golan broke into the news Wednesday, when the Iraq Study Group advised President Bush to pressure Israel to return the disputed land to Syria if it cooperates on other matters of importance in the Middle East.

"If you look at all the pieces of the puzzle, you can see the writing's on the wall as far as the intentions of our enemies are concerned," Ben-David said. "When they say they want to kill us and wipe us off the map, I tend to believe them. We are taking it seriously to try and prepare and be ready if they carry out what they say they want to carry out."

The Golan is a largely flat plateau that soars 500 yards above the Sea of Galilee, punctuated by towering volcanic mountains and rising in the north to the peak of Mount Hermon and the mountain ranges of southern Lebanon. Today it has a population of about 36,000, half of them native Druze whose villages were overrun by Israel, the other half Israeli settlers who farm the rich volcanic soil that produces some of the country's best Chardonnay wine grapes.

Until 1967, the Golan Heights belonged to Syria, which used it as a launchpad for the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israelis beat the Syrians back up the narrow passes onto the plain as far as Kuneitra, and the area eventually was annexed in 1981 by Israel. In the 1973 war, the Syrians swept back across the plateau, where Israeli and Syrian armored divisions staged the second-largest tank battle since World War II before the advancing army was beaten back. The Syrians surrendered only after Israeli troops came within striking range of the capital Damascus, about 25 miles away.

The 1973 cease-fire left the two sides more or less where they ended in 1967, facing each other across a half-mile wide no-man's-land patrolled by the United Nations. To the west, on the Israeli side, stand hollow volcanic mountains now bristling with antennas and state-of-the-art eavesdropping equipment. On the east are the man-made Syrian bunkers dubbed "pitas" by the Israeli army because of their resemblance to the flat Arab bread.

After 30 years of quiet, the volcanoes of the Golan are rumbling again. Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, combined with the diplomatic fallout from the U.S. war in Iraq, has upset the delicate balance that has kept the peace since 1973.

Now, the Iraq Study Group report on the Iraq war, made public with great fanfare last week, has placed the Golan Heights back on the U.S. diplomatic agenda. The report's authors, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and ex-Rep. Lee Hamilton, recommended that Washington enter into face-to-face talks with Damascus and encourage Israel to enter direct negotiations to return the Golan to Syria, accompanied by U.S. security guarantees.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected that call Thursday, saying, "In my view, Syria's subversive operations, its support for Hamas -- which may be what's preventing real negotiations with the Palestinians -- do not give much hope for negotiations with Syria any time soon."

The Israeli military has closed the north-south border road to civilian traffic for fear of a cross-border abduction such as the one that sparked the war in Lebanon on July 12.

A security official at one of the Israeli border settlements, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army was at its highest alert since 1973, and there was a feeling that war could be imminent.

He said a Syrian tank advance was not possible in the southern area of the Golan, which is scarred by deep ravines, but further north toward Kuneitra, the flat plain is easily traversed, inviting the advancing forces to sweep southward down the border road, which is edged by tank traps. The road itself is marked by chicane-type back-and-forth twists running through 20-foot-high mounds of large boulders, built by Israeli army engineers and packed with explosives. In case of war, he said, they will be detonated, blocking the road with large rocks and rendering it impassable to Syrian tanks.

But Israeli intelligence officials are not so sure the war will resemble 1973, according to a report published in the Israeli daily Haaretz. They think the Syrians have learned the lessons of the summer's war in Lebanon. If war comes, it may resemble a Hezbollah campaign -- cross-border raids, hails of rocket fire and guerrilla-type combat using shoulder-held anti-tank rockets instead of traditional battles.

Amos Yadlin, head of Israeli military intelligence, said in July that Syria was creating a military force modeled after Lebanon's Hezbollah. He said it could well be the Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights, which was formed in June and includes Palestinians refugees living in camps near Damascus.

In an Aug. 25 interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al Ra'i Al-Aam, an official of the new Front said, "The sons of the occupied Golan, and the sons of proud Arab Syria, are continuing on their path, since the international community has abandoned them and turned its back on them. There is no other option left for us other than to adopt the Lebanese resistance as our patience has come to an end."

According to the latest monthly Peace Index poll, conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, only 18 percent of Israelis believe there will be long-term peace with Syria. Two-thirds -- 67 percent -- of Israelis reject the idea of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a full peace treaty, and half -- 51 percent -- believe that sooner or later, there will be another war with Syria in the Golan Heights.

"The Jewish public firmly opposes the formula of full peace with Syria for full withdrawal from the Golan, even at the risk of imminent war," said Peace Index authors Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann.

Sami Bar-Lev, head of the local council at Katzrin, the largest Israeli town on the Golan Heights, disagreed with the Iraq Study Group recommendations on negotiating a return of the region. "The pre-1967 borders are not holy borders. They are frontiers drawn by the British and the French, and we don't need to go back to them -- we will never return to them," he said.

Israeli opposition to returning the Golan Heights is based in part on the conflicting signals coming from Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to permit the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical Palestinian groups to operate in Damascus, and Syria is the main conduit for arms transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Assad is also moving closer to Iran.

During the summer, Assad began calling for peace talks with Israel and the return of the Golan. Yet at the same time, he and his ministers threatened to take military action.

"If in the next coming months there will not be a political solution, military resistance will be the only solution for Syrians," Syria's Information Minister Mohsen Bilal declared during a high-profile tour of the Golan Heights in August.

Israel responded to the saber-rattling by dispatching Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to the Golan, where he spent an entire week on a well-publicized inspection of the Israeli brigade guarding the border.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters recently, "There's no indication that Syria wishes to be a stabilizing force. They are causing problems in Lebanon of extraordinary proportions. They have been totally unhelpful to (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). ... They have stood side by side with militant Palestinian factions ... and they have insulted the moderate Arab states that are devoted to the road map," said Rice, alluding to the U.S.-backed peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

"That's not a very good record on which to suggest that just going and talking to Syria is going to get a change in their behavior," she said.
golan06 2.jpg
The flat area near Kuneitra, Syria, seen from the Israeli side, has been the site of ferocious fighting. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Friday 8 December 2006

Gates slip on nukes irks Israel

Friday 8 December


JERUSALEM - Israel already has a beef with America's soon-to-be defense secretary - the guy can't keep a secret.

Robert Gates, at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, became the first U.S. official to confirm that Israel has nuclear weapons.

Though the world has long suspected Israel has nukes, Gates officially let the news slip when he speculated on why Iran might be seeking the means to build an atomic bomb.

"They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Gates went too far. Israel's nuclear deterrent capability was more effective if it remained unclear whether it had such weapons at its disposal, he said.

Yuval Shteinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, described Gates' comments as "worrisome."

"The claim that Iran is developing nuclear weapons for defense and deterrence purposes is not compatible with Iran's declaration about wiping Israel off the map," Shteinitz said.

Also yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not expect President Bush to accept the James Baker-Lee Hamilton committee's recommendation to reopen ties with Syria.

Speaking to Israeli newspaper editors in Tel Aviv, Olmert said conditions were not yet ripe for peace talks with Syria and that Damascus would first have to end its backing of terrorist groups.

"In my view, Syria's subversive operations, its support for Hamas - which may be what's preventing real negotiations with the Palestinians - do not give much hope for negotiations with Syria anytime soon," he said.

Olmert told his audience that he rejected the basic formula of the report, which linked the success of future U.S. policy in Iraq to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The attempt to create linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue - we have a different view," Olmert said. "To the best of my knowledge, President Bush, throughout the recent years, also had a different view on this."

Sunday 3 December 2006

New missile offers strafe minus strife

Sunday 3 December


JERUSALEM - The Israelis have added a sinister but smart new weapon to their arsenal - a missile that "loiters" over a target long enough to make sure it's the enemy before striking with deadly force.

Dubbed Delilah after the siren who brought down the biblical Samson, it was unleashed by the Israeli Air Force for the first time during the Lebanon invasion in the summer - and with impressive results.

"The IAF has released footage showing a Delilah deployed against a convoy of trucks suspected of transferring weapons from Syria into Lebanon for the Islamic Resistance," Jane's Defense Weekly reported. "The footage was taken from the Delilah's electro-optic payload."

Manufactured by the Israel Military Industries company, it's described as a "standoff precision air-to-ground, loitering, high subsonic missile with man-in-the-loop."

It's also designed to have a "high kill effect and low collateral damage" by "providing a visual image of the target and the ability to loiter and gather intelligence before strike," Rafi Eitan of IMI told Jane's.

Translation: If a terrorist target turns out to be a civilian-packed house or mosque, Delilah can be called off in time.

Originally developed as a ground-launched cruise missile, Delilah has a range of up to 150 miles and is fired from U.S.-built Israeli F-16D fighter jets. It has an electro-optics system that enables its controllers to view the target from the air before attacking.

Apart from its warhead, which can be changed depending on the target, it also contains a computerized navigation system and an independent turbo-jet engine.

Delilah can be programmed to strike a target or to serve as a drone and send back pictures so commanders can assess battlefield damage.

The success of the missile in Lebanon encouraged IMI to launch a marketing campaign in Europe, where they are touting Delilah as "the ultimate weapon for precision deep strike against high quality challenging, moving and relocatable targets."

The British Royal Navy has already expressed an interest in Delilah for the "next-generation long-range, air-launched, anti-surface warfare weapon."

Lasting peace uncertain despite Mideast cease-fire

BOSTON GLOBE | December 3, 2006

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- The most intense week of Middle East diplomacy in a year -- including high-profile pressure from Washington on the Israelis as well as Palestinians -- has produced a long-awaited cease-fire but failed to spur any concrete moves toward a long-term peace process.

Negotiators on both sides said that even Washington's renewed interest in the conflict can't end a long stalemate between the two sides, paralyzed on the one hand by Palestinian infighting and international sanctions against Hamas, and on the other by an Israeli government considered too weak to deliver serious compromises.

The week began with a burst of optimism when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced a cease-fire in Gaza. That energized peace supporters for the first time since November 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a major agreement on freedom of movement for Palestinians that United Nations monitors say was never implemented.

But the momentum toward deeper negotiations had fizzled by Thursday, when Rice paid an anti-climactic visit to Israeli and Palestinian leaders and both sides downplayed any prospects for a breakthrough.

"Frankly, I do not expect anything to come of this," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. "To me, it looks like a situation where perhaps there could be talks, though even that is doubtful.

"Mr. Abbas seems to be completely powerless to really make his views accepted by the Hamas government, and public support for the Israeli government is not exactly skyrocketing," Shoval said.

A recent poll published in the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv indicated that if new elections were held, Olmert's governing Kadima party would plummet from its current 29 seats to 18 in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. The survey suggested that the Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, would form the next government with 29 seats.

Palestinian leaders planned crisis meetings over the weekend after lengthy on-off talks between Fatah and Hamas on a coalition government broke down. Formation of a new government, devoid of Hamas domination and willing to cooperate with Israel, is seen as the first step toward reviving the stalled peace process.

Abbas told Rice after their meeting in Jericho: "We have reached an impasse, a deadlock. This is painful to us because we know how much our people are suffering."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas had abandoned efforts at trying to form a coalition with Hamas and would consult with Palestine Liberation Organization leaders "and study the options, anything short of a civil war."

The week's events showed how quickly the mood can swing in the Mideast, and how slim the prospects of a new round of peace talks are after more than five years of stasis and fighting.

After five months of violence in and around Gaza, Abbas made a rare phone call to Olmert Nov. 25 to announce a unilateral cease-fire, which went into effect last Sunday morning.

On Monday, despite sporadic Palestinian rocket attacks that violated the cease-fire, Olmert took a major policy shift and agreed to the mass release of Palestinian prisoners in return for the freedom of a captured Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. He also ordered the Israeli army, which had been planning a major military invasion of Gaza, not to respond to the rocket strikes and to begin coordinating security measures with their Palestinian counterparts for the first time since Hamas took power.

Olmert told the Palestinians that if they ended violent attacks and formed a new government willing to recognize Israel, he would immediately begin peace talks, release blocked Palestinian funds, and work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"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," Olmert said.

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

Abbas described Olmert's speech as "very encouraging."

"This is a big departure from what we have seen before," said Ephraim Halevy, former head of Israel's Mossad secret service and the Israeli National Security Council. "On the Palestinian side, Mr. Abbas has taken some very courageous steps and shown he has leadership mettle of which he was not all that abundant in the past. For the Israelis, Mr. Olmert has said a few things which are a departure from what was up to now Israeli policy on key issues."

The sudden surge of good will reached as far as Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister. He appeared to break with the traditional Hamas call for Israel's destruction by endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"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," commentator Rami G. Khouri wrote in the Daily Star of Beirut.

But most Palestinians remain skeptical of US policy, regarding it as skewed in favor of Israel.

"The United States is considered a dishonest broker," said Mohammed Dajani, professor of American studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "It is seen as biased, supportive of Israeli policies while denying Palestinian rights and moving within the orbit of Israeli policy."

Some suggested that US engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue would help win support from Europe and moderate Arab states as the United States gathers allies to deal with pressing problems in Iran and Iraq.