Monday 23 July 2007

No vacancy in Blair's bid for housing in Jerusalem

Hilltop compound sought, though his work is in West Bank

Monday, July 23, 2007

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will find no space at the inn when he turns up today at Government House, the U.N. headquarters in Jerusalem where he has asked to live and work in his new job as Middle East special envoy.

His new diplomatic colleagues are already incensed at the way Blair's appointment was sprung by the United States last month on the Quartet -- representing the United Nations, European Union, Russia and United States -- and their dismay increased this week when Blair requested accommodations and offices for himself at Government House, a picturesque hilltop compound in southern Jerusalem built in 1930 to house the British High Commissioner under the Palestine Mandate.

It sits on the summit of the Hill of Evil Counsel, where Judas Iscariot is said to have betrayed Jesus for 30 shekels of silver, and has spectacular views to the north over the Dome of the Rock, the Old City of Jerusalem and southwards over Bethlehem, Herodion and the Judean Desert.

Francesco Manca, spokesman for the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization -- which controls Government House -- said there is no empty office space for Blair and the only available living quarters is a two-room apartment that is already occupied by the head of the truce organization, Australian Maj. Gen. Ian Campbell Gordon.

"At present we have nothing," Manca said. "The current situation in Government House is that we are looking for office space for our existing purposes without the addition of anyone new. We are already at the stage where we are using freight containers for extra office space. This is a usual U.N. solution in Sudan but not in Jerusalem. There is no empty house here."

Manca pointed out that Blair's predecessor, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, also considered Government House but set up his office at the American Colony Hotel across town.

"The idea of having Blair here cannot be implemented immediately. Even if this is chosen as the place, significant changes would have to take place to make it feasible," he said.

The prospect of Blair and perhaps a dozen support staff taking up residence in the already overcrowded compound at Government House has set diplomatic tongues wagging in Jerusalem.

Blair probably chose Government House because of its relative isolation and well-established security systems, but U.N. officials do not relish the prospect of hosting such a high-profile tenant who is considered a high-risk target because of his controversial involvement in the Middle East as prime minister.

Blair is considered so unpopular with ordinary Palestinians, who regarded Saddam Hussein as a hero and are firmly opposed to the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq, that it will be impossible for him to stay in Ramallah, even though his new job working with the Palestinians seems to demand it.

"For security reasons, he has to be in Jerusalem," said a U.N. official. "Security is a major problem. Because of his former role as prime minister he would be in danger in the West Bank."

An elegant sandstone chateau built in a 16-acre compound strategically located on a hilltop overlooking the Old City, Government House opened in 1930 to serve as the headquarters for the British high commissioner to Palestine. Since 1948, it has been the headquarters of UNTSO, set up to monitor the Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian cease-fires.

In 1994, the newly appointed special coordinator for the Middle East peace process and his staff (UNSCO) asked to set up their offices there, and were housed in freight containers and hastily constructed modern buildings set up in the grounds. Built in an octagon from locally quarried stone in a blend of traditional Arabic and Mediterranean styles, the main building is surrounded by shaded terraces set among the landscaped formal gardens with a huge ornamental fountain at their center.

The compound is hidden from view by pines and cypress trees, high walls, a severe gateway and modern security systems supplemented with razor wire, anti-car-bomb barricades and cameras.

Diplomats in Jerusalem already are smarting from Blair's comments at his first press conference as special envoy in Lisbon on Thursday, where he appeared to demand a wider political mandate than the narrow task of building Palestinian institutions, the role assigned him by the Quartet.

"If there is going to be a Palestinian state, it is very important to build the capacity of the institutions for this state to be a viable one," said Marc Otte, the EU special representative to the Middle East peace process. "That is the topic on which he will concentrate at the outset, for the time being. The rest, we'll see."

"He expects a political mandate. So far he does not have one," said another UN official. "Blair's focus is only now on building Palestinian institutions and fundraising to build those institutions. His political role is limited. He may be expecting a wider political role. But at the moment, he's not been granted that role. It's not part of his mandate," said the official.

"This might upset a lot of people, including other envoys of other countries. This is your role. You go outside that and it means you are overlapping other people's work. It's a big problem."

This article appeared on page A - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday 22 July 2007

Cinnamon cure for diseases

22 July 2007

From Matthew Kalman

A PASSAGE from the Bible may hold the key to fighting the most dreaded diseases of the 21st century, using a cinnamon-based remedy developed by high priests of Old Testament times.
Zoology professor Michael Ovadia, of Tel Aviv University - a world-renowned expert on antidotes for snake venom - made the discovery after hearing a passage from the Bible which described temple priests anointing themselves with oil.
"The High Priests, the Cohens, would prepare a holy oil used on their bodies before they made a ritual animal sacrifice, " Ovadia said. "I had a hunch that this oil, prepared with cinnamon and other spices, played a role in preventing the spread of infectious agents to people."
The special properties of cinnamon have been known since ancient times, when it was used as a cure for many ailments including diabetes, coughing and sore throats. Today, cinnamon extracts boasting healing properties are widely available.
But simply munching a cinnamon stick will not cure HIV or flu.
"You cannot just take the cinnamon by itself, " Professor Ovadia said, "because the essential oils can be damaging to humans in high doses." But the sweet smell of cinnamon could be wafting through airports, railway stations and other crowded public places as a protection against HIV, herpes, bird flu and other dangerous viruses.
Patented cinnamon extract could be installed in air-conditioning systems, face masks and even aerosol sprays.
The Tel Aviv team's patented formula, codenamed VNF, can attack a broad range of viruses.
In animal tests, it stopped viruses in less than a minute.
Human testing is still some way off. But Dr Nissim Chen, of the university's business arm, said: "We think it could be used in vaccinations against avian influenza."

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Proposed Huge Jump in Israeli Tuition Prompts Renewed Threat of Student Strike

Tuesday, July 17, 2007



Student leaders in Israel are threatening a nationwide undergraduate strike if the government imposes a 70-percent jump in tuition and carries out other recommendations of a committee that on Monday published a wide-ranging report on reforms in higher education.

The Shochat Committee's proposals include doubling the higher-education budget, to $2.5-billion; providing $225-million in new research funds; doubling the budget of Israel's National Science Foundation, to $120-million; providing special undergraduate scholarships in the humanities; and rewarding outstanding researchers and academics in an effort to stop an Israeli "brain drain" to the United States.

"The implementation of these reforms will be like injecting oxygen into a system that has suffered severe deterioration," said a former finance minister, Avraham Shochat, who led the committee. "This is the most comprehensive and thorough reform proposal to strengthen the higher-education system in Israel that has ever been presented."

Mr. Shochat said the reforms, if enacted, would increase access to higher education for all Israelis wishing to attend university, add 450 new lecturers to the academic staff, reduce class sizes, and improve centers of excellence in research and teaching.

The committee, composed of Education and Finance Ministry officials, academics, and a former university president, recommended "unprecedented aid systems for increasing accessibility." That goal would be attained through increased scholarships for students from poorer families and from sections of society where university attendance is not strongly encouraged.

But the most controversial aspect of the proposals was the recommendation to raise undergraduate tuition from about $2,000 to $3,500 a year.

Mr. Shochat said that most of the fee for each student should be absorbed by a long-term loan, which would only become repayable a year after graduation, and then only if the student was earning a wage comparable to a high-school teacher. He said students would actually pay less while studying, enabling everyone in Israeli society to attend college "irrespective of their socioeconomic status or the financial situation of their parents."

Students declined an invitation to sit on the committee, and ended a crippling 41-day strike in May with a promise from the government that they would be consulted before any of the proposals were adopted. On Monday they appeared to be poised to reject the reform program.

"We will not accept loans. We will not allow this farcical reform to go ahead," said Itai Shonshein, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students.

He said the apparent doubling of the higher-education budget was "an illusion" because the budget had been halved in recent years.

"They are replacing the money taken by the government with the money of the students," he said.

Mr. Shonshein threatened that if the government did not allow the students to exercise a veto over the proposals, "the next school year will not open."

Saturday 7 July 2007

Palestinian Art Institute to Open in September

July 7, 2007


The first higher-education institution in the Palestinian territories dedicated solely to art has selected its first 12 students.

The International Academy of Art Palestine, which plans to open in September, will offer a four-year program and be based in Ramallah.

The academy, backed by the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art, has applied for accreditation from the Palestinian Ministry of Education to grant undergraduate degrees in contemporary visual arts.

The academy's project director, Maria C. Khoury, an education specialist who graduated from Harvard University and Boston University, said she hoped the academy would become "the international portal in the Arab world for contemporary art."

The academy has leased the historic Aref Al-Aref house in Ramallah, which housed the town's first Palestinian art gallery when it opened in 1979. The project is the brainchild of four Palestinian artists who wanted to establish a dedicated institute to teach a new generation of local artists and develop a curriculum appropriate to local conditions.

The money for the academy's first three years of operation was donated by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in partnership with the Oslo National Academy of the Arts.
Section: International
Volume 53, Issue 45, Page A31

Thursday 5 July 2007

Freed BBC journalist: Captivity like being buried alive

Thursday, July 5th 2007


JERUSALEM - BBC reporter Alan Johnston stepped into the bright sunshine yesterday after being held captive in a darkened room for 114 days and proclaimed: "It is unimaginably good to be free."

Johnston, 45, was snatched from his car in broad daylight on a side street in Gaza City on March 12 and held by a radical Islamic group calling itself the Army of Islam.

He was released early yesterday after Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, threatened to storm the militant stronghold where he was being held and kill his captors.

The freed journalist told reporters he was kept in isolation, unable to see sunlight.

"It was the most appalling experience, on and on, like being buried alive, removed from life," said Johnston, looking pale and gaunt but otherwise in good health despite his nearly four-month ordeal.

He said it was "always frightening" and "occasionally quite terrifying."

"I just didn't know when it would end or how it would end," he said.

Johnston called his captors "dangerous and unpredictable," but said he developed a "surreal, 'Odd Couple'" relationship with one "extraordinarily moody guard."

"I dreamt many times of being free again and always woke up in that room.... The last 16 weeks have been the very worst of my life."

Johnston said the one silver lining during his captivity was that he had a radio and was able to listen to his BBC colleagues.

"How many kidnap victims are able to sit and listen to their friends giving them messages of support from around the world? I felt at one point as though all the journalists in the world were coming to the rescue," Johnston said.

The reporter said he owed his release to Hamas. "I'm pretty sure that if Hamas hadn't come in and turned the heat on, I'd still be in that room."

Immediately after his release, Johnston was hustled off to a meeting with former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who briefly draped a Palestinian flag around the reporter's shoulders.

Israel and the rival Palestinian party Fatah called Johnston's release a stage-managed Hamas publicity stunt.

"They released Johnston without getting anything in return because they want to make a good impression on the world," said Israeli cabinet minister Gideon Ezra.

Fatah officials said Hamas had given the kidnappers cash and weapons for Johnston's release.

Johnston was expected to spend some time resting at the British Consulate in east Jerusalem before flying home to see his family.

In Scotland, his parents said they were "overjoyed" to get a phone call from their son.

"It's been 114 days of a living nightmare and just to hear his voice," said his father, Graham Johnston.

"All he said was: 'Hello, Dad' and I [said]: 'Hello, son, I hear you're all right.' He said: 'I'm a 100%.'"

Sunday 1 July 2007


Sunday July 1,2007

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

TONY Blair’s appointment as a Middle East peace envoy has been met with anger and derision across the region where he hopes to bring an end to decades of conflict.

Political commentators and ordinary ­citizens were united last night in condemning the former Prime Minister as little more than a puppet of American President George W Bush.

Officially, Palestinian moderates close to President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Mr Blair’s appointment. So did Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who hailed him as a “true friend of the State of Israel”.

But behind the scenes, few expect Mr Blair to solve the intractable problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – some predicted he would not last long in his new job.

In Gaza, radical groups shrugged off Mr Blair’s appointment as an irrelevance.

“Blair is led by the Zionist-American plan and project,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “He makes no independent decisions and is practising terrorism against Arabs. Such a person cannot be a representative for peace.”

Blair is led by the Zionist-American plan and project.

Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Al-Batch said: “I don’t think Tony Blair will do anything good, he is only obeying the United States and its crimes.

“He appears to be an on-off button controlled from the White House. How can such a person be a peacemaker after being a warmonger? He is not welcome at all here.”

Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, described Mr Blair as a “loser”.

“He lost control of the leadership of his country,” Mujahed said. “He was a loser in Iraq. So the international community is trying to hide his total failure by exporting him and sending him to the Palestinian territories. We don’t expect any success or help at all from this man.”

Political commentators were equally hostile towards Mr Blair. Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz warned that though he may have brought peace to Northern Ireland, he faces a far tougher task in the Middle East.

“Here, among our foes, the appetite for death has long since turned in upon itself,” Horovitz said, “and breaking the addiction may be beyond the powers of even the most energetic and persuasive of spurned British Prime Ministers.”

Mr Blair is the latest in a series of high-powered political emissaries to be sent to the Middle East since the start of the Palestinian intifada uprising in September 2000, by a quartet comprised of the US, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

The list includes American Senator George Mitchell, former CIA director George Tennet, former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn and US General Keith Dayton. All have failed – particularly Dayton, whose plan to buttress Fatah fighters in the Gaza Strip against a Hamas takeover collapsed two weeks ago.

Even moderate voices cast doubt on the wisdom of handing the job to Mr Blair.

An editorial in Al Bayan, the government paper of the United Arab Emirates, said: “Certainly the man is endowed with great experience and competence, but is he capable of assuming such a mission at this precise moment, he who goes all the way as a Bush man?”

Ordinary Palestinians dismissed Mr Blair as just another western interloper, out of touch with the reality of Middle East life.

“He came here so many times and we are still in the same situation, actually things are worse,” said shopkeeper Mohammed Abu Amin, in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “He does not understand the Palestinians and he does not seem able to get Israel to change its policies.”

Despite the onslaught of criticism, there was one voice prepared to speak up for Mr Blair. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice hailed his record “at the forefront of international efforts to promote peace and reconciliation around the world, from Northern Ireland to the Balkans and beyond”.

But Mr Blair’s highly restricted mandate is limited to building Palestinian institutions and critics claim it will allow little scope for his skill at peacemaking. Leaving him only to become a high-powered fund-raiser for the Palestinians who have received more international aid per head, in the past 15 years, than any other nation on earth.