Tuesday 31 March 2009

'Jesus ossuary trial' stalled after more than three years


Mar. 31, 2009


One of Israel's best-known antiquities dealers said this week he was the innocent victim of a "witch-hunt" initiated by the Antiquities Authority aimed at destroying his career and reputation.

Robert Deutsch, 58, has been on trial at the Jerusalem District Court since September 2005 on six charges of faking and selling priceless antiquities. He is the owner of the Archeological Center, with shops in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and runs twice-yearly antiquities auctions that attract the world's top collectors of ancient Judaica.

Deutsch's co-defendant, leading antiquities collector Oded Golan, is charged with faking the burial box of Jesus's brother and an inscribed stone attributed to King Jehoash that once adorned the First Temple, plus dozens of smaller items.

As Deutsch took the stand this week for the first time after more than three years in court, 120 witnesses and 8,000 pages of testimony, he said the charges against him were "lies and hallucinations."

Golan, Deutsch and three others were indicted in December 2004 on a total of 18 counts of forgery and fraud. The indictments were announced amid great fanfare, with the police and Antiquities Authority officials claiming they had uncovered a grand conspiracy on an international scale in which fake items had been unwittingly bought by museums around the world. They said the five accused were just the beginning.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Antiquities Authority, described the charges against Golan as "the tip of the iceberg."

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

"This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown," said the Israel Police's Cmdr. Shaul Naim, who headed a two-year investigation. "They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions."

But more than four years later, no one else has been charged and no one has been prosecuted over a single fake item from any museum. Charges against two of the five original defendants were dropped, and one man was found guilty on a minor charge.

"They fabricated this entire indictment, the whole thing, from A to Z," said Deutsch, who tried to dismiss his lawyer earlier this year because of spiralling trial costs.

Deutsch is one of the world's leading experts on deciphering ancient Hebrew and other semitic inscriptions. Of the 1,000 known seal impressions from ancient Israel, he has published about half.

According to the Antiquities Authority, Deutsch and Golan conspired to forge an ancient decanter, several inscribed pieces of pottery and dozens of seal impressions - known as bulae - some bearing the names of Israelite kings mentioned in the Bible. They are accused of publishing scholarly papers on the items to enhance their value, and then selling them for thousands of dollars to unsuspecting collectors.

After Deutsch was indicted, he was fired from a teaching post at the University of Haifa and dismissed as a supervisor at the Megiddo excavations.

"I have never faked anything in my life," said Deutsch. "I'm the first person to call something a fake, because it pollutes the profession that I have made my expertise."

On the witness stand, Deutsch said he knew Golan, his alleged co-conspirator, only through business. He said the Antiquities Authority and police had failed to find a single e-mail between the two men, or any evidence linking him to forgery despite repeated raids on his home and shops.

Deutsch said the trial was an attempt to shut down the licensed trade in antiquities in Israel, even though it is legal and he has held a license from the authority for the past 30 years.

"The Antiquities Authority thinks we are no better than antiquities thieves," he said. "They believe that our legal trade is worse than theft because we are encouraging the robbers."

"They went to the Knesset and tried to pass legislation banning trade in antiquities and they failed. Now they are using this trial to destroy our business," he said.

"I don't know how much lower they can get, the people who cooked up this trial," he said. "They misled the prosecution, they misled the press and they came up with all sorts of stories with no basis in reality."

One charge against Deutsch and Golan is that in 1995 they conspired to inscribe an ancient decanter with a text linking it to the Temple service and sell it to billionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff.

"To increase the significance of the decanter and enhance its price," the indictment charges, "Defendant No. 2 published the decanter in a volume of archeology which he authored on the subject of Hebraic inscriptions from the First Temple period."

But Deutsch produced the book in court - exhibit No. 4 - and showed that it was already at the printer in 1994, by which time the decanter was already in the Moussaieff collection. The book cannot have been used to enhance the sale price.

In addition, Deutsch and Golan have both produced compelling evidence to show that the decanter, like the rest of the items, is authentic.

The prosecution, which took nearly three years to present its case, has had difficulty proving the alleged conspiracy. When Oded Golan took the stand last year, he produced plausible explanations for the all the apparent evidence of forgery found in repeated raids on his home, business premises and storage facilities.

Expectations that the prosecution would produce an Egyptian craftsman it alleges actually faked most of the items were dashed when he refused to come to Israel to give evidence.

The star prosecution witness, Tel Aviv University's Prof. Yuval Goren, was forced to recant some of his testimony based on scientific tests that showed the patina - the encrustation that adheres to ancient objects - to be a modern concoction. Further scientific evidence based on isotopic analysis of the patina looked increasingly unconvincing after other scientists tested the same items and came to the opposite conclusion.

Last October, the trial appeared close to collapse after Judge Aharon Farkash advised the prosecution to consider dropping the proceedings.

"After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" the judge pointedly asked the prosecutor. "Maybe we can save ourselves the rest."

"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment? The experts disagreed among themselves" Farkash said.

The trial continues.

Matthew Kalman is the Jerusalem correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle. His stories on the forgery trial can be found at jamesossuarytrial.blogspot.com.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Secular mayor brings business sense to Jerusalem

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's newly elected mayor, is on a mission: to drag this ancient city into the 21st century.

Behind the iconic image of the Old City dominated by the Western Wall of Herod's Temple and the shimmering golden Dome of the Rock, is a near-bankrupt modern metropolis that is slipping deeper into poverty.

Since local taxes are low in contrast to other Israeli metropolitan areas, city services are limited and 56 percent of children and 33 percent of families live in poverty, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Barkat, 49, is a former paratrooper turned high-tech millionaire whose BRM Technologies is a pioneer in anti-virus software. A secular Jew born and raised in a city where 40 percent of its 750,000 inhabitants are ultra-Orthodox, his electoral victory in November reversed a rising religious hold on power.

"He was boosted by internal divisions inside the ultra-Orthodox camp," said David Horovitz, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post.

In S.F. today

Barkat, who refuses to take a salary, will visit San Francisco today to promote investment and tourism. Assisting that effort is Isaac Applbaum, a founding general partner of Opus Capital in Menlo Park, who has reportedly invested millions in Israeli high-tech startups.

"I'm trying to put into practice the mayor's vision to ... rebuild Jerusalem from one of the poorest cities in Israel to one of the greatest," said Applbaum.

As mayor, Barkat has promised to preserve the fragile religious "status quo" whereby shopping malls and buses do not operate on the Sabbath, but movie theaters and non-kosher restaurants are allowed to remain open in secular neighborhoods.

He has also vowed to bring business sense to a city riven by political and religious factions. Mapam, a left-wing Israeli minority party, represents the interests of Palestinian residents who regularly boycott municipal elections. Secular Jews are irate over ultra-Orthodox residents, many of whom are on welfare or receive student stipends and are not obligated to pay taxes.

Problems, not politics

As a businessman and right-leaning independent who only entered politics five years ago, Barkat says he will focus more on solving problems than winning political debates.

"I've brought something that's called 'no surprises' to the way I manage Jerusalem," Barkat told The Chronicle in a recent interview. "When there are problems, let's put them on the table and solve them together. That gains a lot of trust rather than arm-wrestling to see who wins every round."

Years of underinvestment and poor planning have resulted in severe problems in transportation, education and housing, economists say. The city's annual budget of $800 million is less than Tel Aviv's, even though Jerusalem has twice the population. Barkat says only 45 percent of residents over 15 are employed, or 1 taxpayer for every 3 residents, in contrast to Tel Aviv, where 64 percent over 15 are employed and where there are 3 workers for every 3 residents.

One of Barkat's first acts has been to reassess a light-rail project that has snarled city traffic for five years, soared over budget and is three years behind schedule. He has proposed canceling future lines and replacing them with a flexible Bus Rapid Transport system.

More importantly, the new mayor is fixed firmly on creating jobs, building more housing and improving city services. Last year, 17,000 youths left the city to look for work elsewhere, according to city records.

In the absence of tax revenue, Barkat hopes to attract foreign investment in outsourcing of office services such as call centers and health-life sciences centered around the city's renowned Hadassah Hospital and Teva Pharmaceuticals, the latter a world leader in generic drugs.

"As mayor, I intend to focus on those areas where Jerusalem has competitive advantages and build them into business clusters," he said.

Barkat also plans to increase the number of tourists from 2 million to 10 million within a decade in order to create 150,000 new jobs with more tourist events and biblical theme parks.

Christians, Muslims, Jews

"No other city in the world can provide an opportunity to see Christians, Muslims and Jews at their best, with all their differences, and leverage their differences," Barkat said.

Perhaps his toughest challenge will be defusing simmering tension between Israeli and Palestinian residents, the latter who consider themselves living under occupation and comprise one-third of the city's population. Barkat says he can advance relations by improving city services to East Jerusalem, where most Palestinians live. The area was annexed from Jordan after the 1967 Six-Day War.

According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 160,000 Palestinians have no running water; East Jerusalem lacks 40 miles of sewage lines, and the government has built more than 50,000 housing units on expropriated Arab lands and none for Palestinians.

"Definitely there are gaps," Barkat conceded. "My goal is to improve the quality of life of the people, of the residents of East Jerusalem. We will do that. It's my duty."

At the same time, he dismissed criticism leveled this month by visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of plans to demolish 88 Palestinian houses illegally constructed in East Jerusalem. He called her comments "unhelpful" to the peace process.

But Fakhri Abu Diyab, whose house in the Silwan neighborhood has been targeted for demolition, said he had no choice but to build without city permits.

"The municipality refused to let me build on a piece of land that I received from my father and my grandfather," Diyab said. "I was forced to build without a permit. ... What they want is to evict us."

Meanwhile, some analysts say Barkat must soon show results to win over skeptics who regard him as an ingenue rich-kid dabbling in politics.

"He will have to prove himself in office if he is to achieve the second and third terms he has already announced he will seek," said the Jerusalem Post's Horovitz.

E-mail Matthew Kalman at foreign@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Friday 27 March 2009

Matthew Kalman had fun making Brit movie — and hopes he can cut it in Britain

From The Jewish Chronicle
Candice Krieger
March 26, 2009

‘Circumcise Me’. That’s the name of the debut movie by Jerusalem-based news reporter and film director Matthew Kalman.

Mr Kalman, 48, teamed up with photographer David Blumenfeld to co-direct the hit comedy. Circumcise Me: The Comedy of Yisrael Campbell traces the life of Catholic boy-turned-Jewish comedian Yisrael Campbell, whose story turns out to be one of wild self-discovery.

Mr Campbell — formerly known as Chris Campbell — undergoes three conversions: from Catholicism to Reform Judaism, to Conservative Judaism and then to Orthodox Judaism.

The film, which has been generating a lot of interest at film festivals across Canada and the US, has now arrived in the UK.

Mr Kalman, who made aliyah ten years ago, tells People: “During the intifada, I spent a lot of time reporting on and filming people getting blown up. People were generally interested in blood and guts and it was all very depressing. David and I decided we wanted to do something more fun. I went to see Yisrael perform and knew we had our subject.”

They started working on the film in 2005. It took three years to complete. “It was a really long process,” says Mr Kalman, who reports for Channel 4 in the UK, among other media. “I am a news reporter but have always been interested in comedy. I thought making a film would be easy. I was wrong.”

Nonetheless, Mr Kalman is pleased with the outcome. “There is a Life of Brian-type feel to the film,” he says. “It is a really funny, feelgood creation. It’s about the intifada but it’s also about how life is lived in Israel. As journalists here, we often have to cover deaths — but we wanted to capture that absurdist humour.”

Monday 23 March 2009

Blistering Audit Blames Israeli Universities for Hiding Multibillion-Dollar Deficits

Daily News Blog: March 23, 2009

Jerusalem — Israel’s universities have been accused of hiding huge budget deficits and of fiscal mismanagement in a scathing report by the country’s state comptroller, who oversees public institutions.

The official, Micha Lindenstrauss, said the country’s publicly financed universities ran up a deficit of 17.9 billion shekels (nearly $4.5-billion) last year but reported a deficit of only 1.59 billion shekels (about $400-million).

“These institutions go to great lengths in order to intercept any attempts made by the supervisor to enforce efficient supervision,” Mr. Lindenstrauss said in a report issued last week. “Academic freedom does not justify a lack of fiscal restraint or gross deficits.”

He said the major causes of the deficits were generous employment terms and pension plans for senior academic staff members.

After the universities paid their employees the unauthorized additional salary benefits, they were left with less money for their primary purpose, academic instruction and research, he noted. “You cannot cite academic freedom broadly to justify improper management when it has nothing to do with academic issues,” Mr. Lindenstrauss was reported as saying in Haaretz, a daily newspaper.

Mr. Lindenstrauss also said that funds earmarked for building international scientific relations, money that is supposed to be for research, were instead used for other purposes, including to pay retired academics, the families of deceased professors, and senior administrators, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Israeli universities have demanded and been granted hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funds to make up for budget cuts carried out under the previous government.

The comptroller also accused the bodies entrusted with overseeing higher education — the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council of Higher Education and the Finance Ministry — of not doing enough to supervise state-backed educational institutions.

The Council of Higher Education acknowledged the importance of the comptroller’s report and said in a statement that its findings would lead to change in work arrangements and increased efficiency in higher education.

Mr. Lindenstrauss also said the Committee of University Presidents bore specific responsibility for the problems outlined in his report. He said the committee had refused to allow his researchers access to its budgets and had yielded requested information only after being warned that continued foot-dragging would be considered as an attempt to thwart the investigation. He said the size of the deficit was known to the committee for years, but it neglected its responsibility to report the situation to the public.

The Committee of University Presidents denied any wrongdoing but said it was closely examining the report. “We shall act promptly and determinedly to make corrections,” the committee said in a statement. “The universities’ presidents cooperated with the comptroller and gave him all the information to carry out the audit, which is why [the presidents] were so surprised by his comments and rejects his claim that there was a lack of cooperation.” —Matthew Kalman

Friday 20 March 2009

Israeli troops 'admit they killed innocent civilians in Gaza war'

DAILY MAIL 20th March 2009

By Matthew Kalman

Israeli army chiefs began a criminal investigation last night into claims that soldiers killed innocent Palestinian civilians during the recent war in Gaza.

The troops are said to have believed they would not be held to account under relaxed rules of engagement.

The claims were reported in newspapers yesterday, based on a transcript of a discussion at a recruits’ training course.
Gaza attack

Damage: Israeli army chiefs are investigating claims troops killed innocent people

Soldiers who fought in the war, which lasted from December to January, allegedly said: ‘Israeli forces killed civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property.’

In one incident, a Palestinian family whose house had been commandeered, were told they could leave.

As they did, they were killed by a sniper in a ‘breakdown in communication’.

A soldier told students: ‘The commander let the family go and told them to go right. The mother and her two children didn’t understand and went to the left, but they (the soldiers) forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof that it was okay and he should hold his fire.

‘And he did what he was supposed to, following his orders.’

Another added: ‘The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. He killed them.
Gaza attack

‘We fired a lot of rounds and killed a lot of people in order not to be injured or shot at.’

A third soldier said: ‘When we entered a house, we were supposed to bust down the door and start shooting inside and just go up storey by storey – I call that murder. If we identify a person, we shoot them. How is this reasonable?’

He also told of an old woman who was crossing a road when she was shot by soldiers.

‘I don’t know whether she was suspicious or not. I do know that my officer sent people to the roof to take her out. It was cold-blooded murder.’

The level of civilian casualties during the three-week operation caused an international outcry against Israel.

Palestinians say more than half of the more than 1,300 Gazans who were killed were civilians, a figure disputed by Israel.

The soldiers also told of large-scale destruction of Palestinian property. One said: ‘We would throw everything of the windows - refrigerators, furniture. The order was to throw all the contents out.’

Yaakov Amidror, former chief of Israel’s military academies, said: ‘If you see a woman and two children in the crosshairs, it’s pretty clear, there is almost no case in the world that would justify pulling the trigger.’

Israeli officers said they had encountered countless Palestinian suicide bombers who tried to approach the troops and then blow themselves up. They said they had to put the lives of their own soldiers first.

But Danny Mazir, head of the Rabin Academy where the training course was held, said: ‘We expected to hold a discussion about the war. We did not expect the testimonies we heard. We were in total shock.’

Army chief advocate general Brigadier-General Avichai Mandelblit said the accounts ‘paint a picture of unacceptable behaviour, if true’.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Israel's Interdisciplinary Center Draws Praise for Its International Outlook

The private college attracts donors and scholars from around the world
From the issue dated March 20, 2009


Tal Ben-Shahar was once a successful psychology professor at Harvard University. His classes on positive psychology attracted audiences of more than 850 students, making it the most popular course on the campus. But the best-selling author of Heaven Can Wait and Happier left America in 2006 to return to his native Israel and teach at a little-known institution of higher education called the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, here in this seaside resort.

Mr. Ben-Shahar was drawn to the university, he says, because its founders believe it "can make a difference in society, in schools, in politics, in the daily lives of people in Israel and around the world, which I think is the right spirit of academia."

Established in 1994, the center began life as Israel's first private college. Today it offers serious competition to the country's seven publicly financed major universities, attracting faculty members from some of the world's top universities.

In a short time, the Interdisciplinary Center has grown to more than 5,000 students and developed a burgeoning reputation among students and scholars for its commitment to interdisciplinary work and community involvement.

Two years after arriving, the happiness professor is more than happy with his decision to leave the Ivy League behind.

"This place really is about bridging the ivory tower and main street," Mr. Ben-Shahar says.

"There's a real sense of combining between deep reflection and meaningful action."

The center's founder and president is Uriel Reichman, former dean of law at Tel Aviv University. One of his main aims in creating the college, he says, was to attract many of the brilliant Israeli college graduates who had gone abroad, partly to escape the limited academic career prospects in Israel.

With a student body about one-fifth the size of some of the larger Israeli universities, the Interdisciplinary Center offers undergraduate degrees in law, business, government, psychology, communications, and computer science. It offers master's degrees in law, computer science, business, and government.

And as Israel's seven state-funded universities head into another year of conflict over government budget cuts and faculty pay, the center's independence from public financing has given its students and faculty a rare sense of security — and challenge.

"As a private, not-for-profit institution, we have the ability to say to someone, 'Come here and be the champion of something,'" says Jonathan Davis, the center's vice president for external relations.

The center charges $9,000 annually for tuition, compared with $2,000 at most public universities, although it offers scholarships to needy students.

"If our courses are not creative, why should a student come and spend three times the tuition of a subsidized university?" asks Mr. Davis.

Bernard Fisher, a first-year undergraduate business student from Rio de Janeiro, transferred here after a frustrating year at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. A months-long faculty strike wreaked havoc on his schedule, he says.

"Then there was talk of another strike this year. I just didn't have the patience," he says, adding that the quality of teaching at the center is also much better.

"Here, the teachers know you. At Bar-Ilan they had no idea if you even came to class," he says. "The teachers at IDC are very good, and the people here are much more flexible. And you feel they are willing to help so much more. Even though it's the most expensive school in the country, I feel it's worth the money."

Looking Outward

Both professors and students are encouraged to do community service and to work across disciplines.

Mr. Ben-Shahar is developing a course on positive psychology, which looks at traits that enable people and communities to succeed, in cooperation with 160 Israeli high schools. He is developing workshops for teachers, counselors, and students.

Next door to Mr. Ben-Shahar is Yair Amichai-Hamburger, an Oxford-educated Internet researcher and director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology, which studies the effects of the Internet on human relations. He said that colleagues at his previous university laughed when he suggested the establishment of such a center 10 years ago.

"They asked me: 'What does psychology have to do with the Internet?' They didn't realize that the Internet is not just about technology but about the interaction between millions of people," he recalls.

The Interdisciplinary Center's interest in his ideas are what drew him in, he says, and he began working there in 2006.

Today, Mr. Amichai-Hamburger's book, The Social Net: Understanding Human Behavior in Cyberspace, one of the first to focus on the impact of the Internet on social behavior, is a basic textbook for courses in the emerging field of cyberpsychology. His introductory course is compulsory for communications and psychology students at the Interdisciplinary Center and is gradually being duplicated at other Israeli universities.

Across campus, Israel's former ambassador to the European Union, Avi Primor, is developing another first for an Israeli college: a European-studies master's degree, in English, taught jointly by Jordanian, Palestinian, and German professors to students from those regions, and from Israel. It is being offered jointly with the University of Düsseldorf and Al-Quds University, a Palestinian college in the West Bank.

Mr. Primor said he originally approached Tel Aviv University with the idea, but officials weren't interested. In addition, he says, "If this center was at Tel Aviv, I can just imagine the administrative and political complications I would have in order to bring about the trilateral cooperation."

"IDC is flexible, it's open to new ideas, to innovations, and to international cooperation. It's much easier. I'm not sure I would have done it at all somewhere else," he says.

Students say they appreciate the faculty's interdisciplinary approach.

"The professors have a lot of really interesting real-world experience and are teaching in a field they are involved in professionally, where they can bring in their own experience," says Ronit Ledani, who grew up in Boston and is studying government. She transferred after two years at Bar-Ilan University. "I also find the students at IDC are much more motivated. They are really there to learn. They are much more driven."

Ms. Ledani will soon begin working with the children of Sudanese refugees as part of the center's community-outreach program. Students who do community service receive tuition reductions in return.

Global Ambitions

Faculty members at other Israeli colleges say they are impressed with the quality of the Interdisciplinary Center's academic programs but note that it is tailored to a narrow audience, both because of its limited offerings and its high price tag.

"It's good for limited, pinpoint types of activities," says Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. "It's an alternative and competition — exactly what the Israeli higher-education system needs. The system generally is inflexible. It hasn't adjusted to the times. Universities in Israel are extremely bureaucratic, and you have to go through multiple layers of committees, so it's difficult to change things. IDC has a reputation for being able to do things quickly, maybe because it's so small."

Foreign students have also flocked to the institution. Twenty percent of the student body is international, and 25 percent of the incoming class will study in English. The Interdisciplinary Center is the only university in Israel, in fact, to offer degrees entirely in English. Unlike other public universities here, it has no Hebrew-language requirement and does not require applicants to take the Israeli psychometric exam, which is similar to the SAT. "Part of our mission is to fight Israeli bureaucracy," says Mr. Davis. "They have lost thousands of kids who would otherwise have come here."

The center, whose operating budget is supported by tuition revenue, has also been successful in raising money from Israeli philanthropists. Donors have financed the building of the campus as well as the infrastructure. Seventy percent of its annual $12-million development budget, which pays for buildings and facilities, comes from Israelis. The center also has Israel's only alumni fund-raising campaign, says Mr. Davis.

Among the donors to the institution are Ronald S. Lauder, an American businessman and philanthropist; Shari Arison, Israeli's wealthiest citizen; and the Asper family, owners of CanWest Global Communications Corporation.

Mr. Reichman said future plans include a new school of economics, a scientific research institute dedicated to issues of sustainability, alternative energy, water scarcity, and climate change, and a special program for Israeli high-school principals designed to help improve the country's declining high-school system.

And, he says, the center will expand its student-exchange programs. Current partners include the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University.

Mr. Reichman notes that the center draws students from 60 countries. He hopes that eventually 35 percent of the student body, or more, will be drawn from abroad. "We have to continue to emphasize the global aspect of our education because the future of Israel lies in our ability to operate and make the foreign markets our own, and to prepare a new generation of leaders who will do business globally while living in Israel."

Section: International
Volume 55, Issue 28, Page A27

Monday 9 March 2009

Clinton Announces Million-Dollar Scholarship Program for Palestinian Students

NEWS BLOG: March 9, 2009

Ramallah, West Bank — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced a new million-dollar scholarship program to help Palestinian students enroll at Palestinian and American universities.

Mrs. Clinton announced the Middle East Partnership Initiative during a visit to this Palestinian town last week. The four-year program will support about 10 scholarships each year for disadvantaged students to attend four-year courses at Palestinian universities. The program will also offer 25 “opportunity grants” to enable promising but disadvantaged young Palestinians to apply to American-accredited institutions in the United States or the Middle East, a State Department official told The Chronicle.

Once funds are approved by Congress, Mrs. Clinton hopes to begin the program in the 2010-11 academic year. The money is in addition to $900-million in aid to the Palestinian Authority announced by the secretary last week at the donors’ conference, in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

During her visit to an American-sponsored English-language teaching program in Ramallah, Mrs. Clinton said the opportunity grants would create “a larger pool of capable young men and women from places like the West Bank and Gaza” who can “compete along with students in other countries for the opportunity to further their academic training in America.” The secretary spoke on a youth program aired by Palestinian Authority TV.

Last year several Palestinian students from Gaza who were awarded Fulbright scholarships ran into difficulty entering Israel to complete the application process, and two of them were subsequently denied entry visas to the United States on security grounds.

Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, said efforts were being made to enable Gazans to participate in American-sponsored projects despite the security challenges.

“We’ve had several dozen Gazans participate in our programs over the last few months, both educational and professional,” said Ms. Schweitzer-Bluhm.

“It is difficult,” she said. “It’s a challenge to bring Gazans to participate in these programs, but we go through great lengths to try and facilitate their participation, and we have advance coordination with the Israelis to get them the necessary permits.” —Matthew Kalman

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Hillary Clinton and Mahmoud Abbas both tell Iran: Butt out!

Wednesday, March 4th 2009

By Matthew Kalman

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - Hillary Clinton teamed up with embattled West Bank Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in telling Iran to butt out of the region.

In wrapping up her first Mideast trip as secretary of state, Clinton joined with the Palestinian Authority president in denouncing the call of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for all Muslims to join the "resistance" to Israel."We are sending a message to the Iranians and others: Stop interfering in our affairs," said Abbas, who is locked in a power struggle in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

On a brief stop in Ramallah, Clinton charged that the Iranians "are interfering only to deepen the rift between Palestinians." The Iranians were seeking to "intimidate as far as they think their voice can reach," Clinton said.

In Tehran, Khamenei said in a statement that "support and help to Palestinians is a mandatory duty of all Muslims. I now tell all Muslim brothers and sisters to join forces and break the immunity of the Zionist criminals."

The hugs and kisses that marked Clinton's earlier visit to Jerusalem were markedly absent from her more formal meetings with Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad.In response to a reporter's question, Clinton voiced her only negative note about Israeli policy, branding a decision to evict 1,400 Palestinians in East Jerusalem and destroy 88 homes there as "unhelpful."

Clinton also visited a U.S.-supported school providing English-language instruction for high school students and announced a series of scholarships and exchange programs to bring more Palestinians to U.S. universities.

Abbas' presidency, which officially expired in January, is to be shored up by $600 million in U.S. aid and training for his security forces, whose main objective has been to prevent his regime from being overthrown by Hamas.

In Gaza, Hamas officials dismissed Clinton's repeated declarations of support for Israel as "a slap in the face of those who were expecting changes in America foreign policy."

With Richard Sisk in Washington

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wooing Syria to nix Iran nukes

Kahana/Getty Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who presented her with a bouquet.

Wednesday, March 4th 2009

BY Matthew Kalman In Jerusalem and David Saltonstall In New York

Hillary Clinton made her Jerusalem debut as secretary of state Tuesday - and immediately signaled a new diplomatic push to reopen relations with Syria.

Clinton said two American envoys would soon hit the road to Damascus, marking the first direct, high-level talks between the U.S. and Syria since 2005, when relations broke down over Syria's support of terrorist groups.

"We have no way to predict what the future of our relations with Syria might be," Clinton said. "I think it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations."

Officials later said that National Security Council official Dan Shapiro and Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman would head to Syria to get the diplomatic ball rolling.

Syria has long harbored Palestinian terror groups, including Hamas, which Clinton sharply criticized for endangering the lives of innocent Israelis and Palestinians and undermining the well-being of the people of Gaza.

But Syria is also viewed as a potential ally against Iran's nuclear ambitions - a top diplomatic priority for the Obama administration.

"Iran's pursuit of the nuclear weapon is deeply troubling to not only the U.S. but many people throughout the world," Clinton later told ABC News.

Throughout her day, Clinton unequivocally expressed the administration's plans to pursue peace in the Middle East - a peace, she suggested, that hinged on the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"The inevitability of working towards a two-state solution seems inescapable," Clinton told reporters in Jerusalem.

That could put the White House at odds with incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the creation of a Palestinian state in his recent election campaign.

But Netanyahu said after an hour-long sitdown with Clinton that the two had found "common ground" and pledged continued cooperation.

The former First Lady later visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where she laid a wreath in the memorial hall honoring the memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis.

"My visit," Clinton said, "was a powerful reminder of why we are working so hard to advance the security of the State of Israel."

Monday 2 March 2009



Without peace, Gaza aid is useless, admits Blair

March 2, 2009

TONY Blair yesterday made his first visit to the Gaza Strip since he was appointed an international envoy to the Middle East.

The former Prime Minister warned that aid to the devastated Palestinian territory would be pointless without a renewed drive for peace.

Mr Blair did not meet officials from Hamas, the region’s ruling party, during his lightning stopover, but the visit was coordinated with Hamas security, his aides said.

He toured the Israeli town of Sderot, the target of more than 5,000 Hamas rocket attacks in recent years.

Mr Blair said: ‘ I wanted to come to hear for myself firsthand from people in Gaza, whose lives have been so badly impacted by the recent conflict.

‘ These are the people who need to be the focus of all our efforts for peace and progress from now on.’

Mr Blair is today heading for a conference in Egypt, where it is expected that international donors will pledge millions of pounds to rebuild Gaza.

His trip came only hours before Hillary Clinton arrived in the region for her first visit as U. S. Secretary of State. International Development Minister Douglas Alexander is also currently in Gaza City, where he pledged £ 30million in UK aid.

In Jerusalem, outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert threatened Hamas with a ‘ painful, sharp, strong and uncompromising response’ after 11 rockets were fired across the border.

One scored a direct hit on an empty school.