Thursday 30 July 2009

Israel’s Mini Spy in the Sky

Written by Matthew Kalman
THE MEDIA LINE Thursday, July 30, 2009

[Lachish training base, Israel] The Israeli army has unveiled its latest tactical weapon – a miniature spy-in-the-sky that can be launched by an infantry unit in the battlefield to see over hills up to 10 miles away.

Called the Skylark I-LE, it weighs only about 15 pounds and has a wingspan of about nine feet. Carried in a backpack by a foot soldier, it can be assembled by a two-man team and ready for launch by catapult in less than 10 minutes. It is then controlled by a simple laptop computer system.

The Skylark does not carry any weapons. Instead it has a payload of advanced optical and thermal imaging that can send high-resolution images directly to the field unit 24 hours a day, in light or darkness, enabling them to track enemy movements, problems with the terrain, or the presence of non-combatants on the battlefield.

It can also be used for force protection and perimeter security, using surveillance to defend against threats within a 10-mile range.

Although it looks like a remote-controlled toy, it carries an onboard computer, advanced avionics and a high-tech stabilizing payload based on much larger unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Each mini-Skylark costs about $50,000. Elbit Systems, the Israeli manufacturer, says the tiny craft has already logged more than 3,000 operational missions with allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the Second Lebanon war in 2006, Skylark mini-UAVs were operated by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) units performing close-range reconnaissance missions in support of the ground forces, providing valuable real-time intelligence. Because they are small and almost silent, Skylarks were able to operate at very low altitudes practically undetectable.

The Skylark flew more than 600 operational hours for the IDF during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last January.

“Before the infantry got in Gaza our teams threw the UAVs over Gaza and searched the entire area where they were going to go and said if it was clear, not clear, if you should go or take another route because it would be hard to walk there, or if there was an enemy over there,” Sgt David Tzoor, commander of an IDF artillery unit, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview at the Lachish training base in southern Israel.

“You can watch the enemy before it comes to you or before you are going to attack it, to plan all sorts of operations,” Tzoor said. “It can direct fire to any given target. The operator on the ground system operates the camera and gives the plane commands.”

“You can’t identify someone’s face but you can say if it’s a woman or a man or if he carries a weapon,” he said. “If it’s a dog, if it’s a cow, for example – you can detect those kinds of things.”

Tom Zayderman, chief instructor for manufacturers Elbit Systems, says you shouldn’t judge the Skylark by its small size.

“It’s the size of a toy aircraft but it’s much smarter than a toy aircraft,” Zayderman told The Media Line. “It has a flight control computer in it. You have the payload which is the camera. It looks easy and simple but it’s very complicated avionics and electricity inside of it, so it’s very different.”

“It’s pretty easy to operate,” said Zayderman. “You don’t need any experience. It’s a very friendly system and it’s based on the concept of autopilot autonomous flight. It allows the operator to focus on the image, to focus on the mission and the UAV will do all the flight by itself.”

“It can handle sandy areas like in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Skylark One has had a lot of flight operational hours, and here in Israel in a very rocky area,” he said.

The Skylark can stay airborne for more than three hours and when it’s time to land the operator sends a command that inflates a small airbag under the fuselage and cuts the engine. It simply floats back to the ground, ready to be used again.

Peace Process at “Five to Midnight” Warns UN Envoy

Written by Matthew Kalman
THE MEDIA LINE Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The United Nations’ senior diplomat in Jerusalem has urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to join the US-led drive to restart peace talks and called for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called for a halt to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and condemned the fact that “not one spade has been put in the ground” to help Palestinians in Gaza reconstruct their homes after the war there last January.

“Time is not on our side here,” Serry told The Media Line in an exclusive interview at UN headquarters in Jerusalem.

“It may be five to midnight,” Serry warned. “I think the international community is aware of that – you see this determined drive on the part of the international community. I hope the parties are also ready for it.”

“Sometimes when I drive around here in the West Bank or in Jerusalem, see how Palestinians and Israelis are living very near to each other but also in a continued situation of conflict, it is almost as if the situation resembles two Siamese twins deeply unhappy to live in one body and increasingly unable to separate,” he said. “That’s why I believe it is very important that there is a determined drive this time.”

Earlier in the week, Serry condemned the eviction of Palestinians from a disputed home in East Jerusalem whose ownership is claimed by Israelis.

“Jerusalem is of course dear to the hearts of both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

“Israelis and Palestinians are living together in this beautiful city. What we have seen lately is an upsurge of house demolitions, eviction orders either imposed or actually already carried out, and also some Israeli activities, construction activities, in the city. This comes right at the time when the international community, under the renewed, vigorous leadership of the United States is trying actually to resume negotiations.”

“In that situation, to have these kinds of things in Jerusalem which can easily inflame the tensions here - which according to the UN also have no basis in international law - that’s just very unhelpful,” he added.

Serry said he was encouraged by the efforts of US envoy George Mitchell to hammer out an Israeli agreement to freeze West Bank settlements in return for confidence-building measures from Arab states.

“We have to convince that government that it is in the interests of all Israelis to have a peace process leading to the two-state solution. Netanyahu has accepted that goal now I think, which is important. There are important discussions ongoing now on the need for a credible settlements freeze and based on that I think parties will have to resume the negotiations and conclude them soon,” he said.

“We don’t want a process for the sake of a process, which we have seen too often here in the Middle East. So I very much welcome the American initiative to re-commit the parties to their commitments.”

But Serry said he was disappointed at the stalemate over efforts to begin the reconstruction of Gaza, where thousands of Palestinian homes and facilities were damaged during Operation Cast Lead last January.

“The present situation for us is completely unacceptable,” he said.

“What is it – six months now that we’ve had a devastating war in Gaza and not one spade has been put in the ground to help thousands of Gaza families actually to rebuild their affected homes. We have put on the table a very practical proposal to kick-start some reconstruction, doing it also under the flag of the United Nations. We believe that we can also then reassure everybody that the materials imported will be used for their intended purpose.”

He said a proposal put forward months ago by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has not yet been adopted and suggested that Israel was holding out for the release of Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas more than three years ago and held incommunicado in Gaza.

“I met yesterday with President Abbas who reassured me of full Palestinian support,” he said. “I think we also have very important backing from the Quartet and certainly also Egypt would like to see an improvement. If you ask me what is the real issue on the Israeli side, I think it is Gilad Shalit. We are aware of a kind of cabinet decision that Israel will allow humanitarian goods to pass the crossings into Gaza and that is indeed happening – although also not really very satisfactory to us. But they will not allow any serious amounts of construction materials to go into Gaza as long as that issue is not resolved.”

“Let me make it very clear that at the United Nations every month when I brief the security council we are calling for his release,” said Serry. “Of course the very fact that Hamas is holding him is a human rights violation. The very fact that he hasn’t been visited by for instance the ICRC for over three years now. I’m aware that negotiations are ongoing. I very much hope that both parties will be able to resolve this issue and I really call also on Hamas to negotiate now in good faith so that we hopefully see his release very, very soon in the context of a prisoner exchange.”

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Jersey's Corruption Scandal: The Israeli Connection

Two men are taken into custody in New Jersey on July 23 during a federal probe of public corruption and international money-laundering
Amy Newman / The Record / MCT / Landov

By Matthew Kalman / Jerusalem Tuesday, Jul. 28, 2009

The mass arrests in the New Jersey corruption scandal last week were big news — in Israel. Images of prominent rabbis and Jewish businessmen being cuffed and arrested after morning prayers filled the front pages under headlines trumpeting the discovery of the "Jewish laundry" used to bribe prominent New Jersey officials allegedly using Israeli charities. In particular, Israeli commentators seized on the connection between several of those arrested and prominent figures in Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardi Torah Guardians Party, founded by the octogenarian Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who remains its spiritual leader.

Among those arrested on July 23 were Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim and Rabbi Edmund Nahum, who are reportedly close to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his son, Rabbi David Yosef. Ben Haim and Nahum were allegedly major fundraisers for Shas and Yosef family networks of educational institutions. According to a report on Israeli television, Rabbi David Yosef was also said to have been the target of Solomon Dwek, the FBI's chief informant, who asked the rabbi to help him launder a check for $25,000. David Yosef reportedly declined.

Leaders of Shas, which won 11 seats in the Knesset and is the fourth largest member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, told TIME the party has no connection to the scandal. Roei Lachmanovich, spokesman for Shas Party leader Eli Yishai, told TIME that fundraising by the American rabbis for Sephardi institutions in Israel did not mean they were connected to Shas. He said that Shas institutions — including the rabbinical schools, or yeshivas — received their budget directly from the Israeli government and denied that Shas had been involved in any money-laundering or illegal activity. Furthermore, he said that Rabbi David Yosef was not a member of Shas and did not represent the party. "Besides the fact that he is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's son, he has no formal connection to the Shas organization," said Lachmanovich.

One of those arrested was a Brooklyn man, Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, who was charged with trading in human organs. In Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox community this week, Rosenbaum, who claimed to be a real estate dealer, was described as a macher (fixer) who assisted renal patients in finding appropriate medical treatment in the United States. According to the official complaint, however, Rosenbaum planned to give an Israeli donor $10,000 and then charge the client who requested the kidney $160,000. The payment would be laundered through what Rosenbaum described first as a "congregation," then as a charity. According to published reports, Rosenbaum ran the Brooklyn branch of Kav Lachayim, a charity for sick children that was once supported by convicted financier Bernie Madoff.

The Shas media reacted to the entire scandal with countercharges of anti-Semitism. Yitzhak Kakun, editor of the Shas newspaper Yom Le'Yom told the Jerusalem Post: "The FBI purposely attempted to arrest as many rabbis as possible at once in an attempt to humiliate them." Meanwhile, Nissim Ze'ev, a Shas Knesset member, said, "The U.S. police are trying to make it seem as though there is some kind of Jewish mafia."

This is not the first time, however, that the Shas party has been embroiled in a corruption controversy. Two Shas ministers have been convicted on corruption charges in recent years. Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem, explains that some parts of the ultra-orthodox community tend to disregard secular law, despite a tenacious adherence to the minutest detail of Jewish religious ritual. Says Halevi: "You have a kind of borderless community that in its best expressions maintains international charity efforts that are second to none. But the dark side of this is a mentality that often too easily slides into rationalizations for acts that cannot be rationalized, with the idea that the end justifies the means. Here we are raising money for charitable institutions, and therefore we're allowed to cut corners." Halevi adds: "There have been other examples in the past of drug-running happening under cover of certain religious institutions here. There have been too many examples of abuse in the past."

Sunday 26 July 2009

Palestinians Take on Israeli Troops in an Imaginary Game of 'Wall Soccer'

The Media Line
Published Sunday, July 26, 2009

In recent weeks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced to an imaginary game of soccer.

It all began with a seemingly innocent ball in a TV advertisement for Cellcom, Israel's leading cellphone provider.

The advertisement opens with a squad of Israeli soldiers driving along a walled section of the barrier built by Israel to separate the West Bank from Israel.

Suddenly, something hits the hood of the soldiers' Jeep. Leaping from the vehicle ready for battle, the soldiers quickly realize it was a loose soccer ball kicked, presumably, by Palestinians playing soccer on the other side of the barrier.

The soldiers kick the ball back over the wall, call in 'reinforcements' and within minutes over two dozen Israeli soldiers are playing soccer over the wall with unnamed, unseen Palestinians on the other side. The soldiers cheer each other on and jump around happily to a soundtrack of upbeat, heartening music extolling Cellcom’s products.

"At the end of the day, what do we all really want?" the voiceover asks rhetorically. "To have a little fun."

To many Israeli viewers, such advertisements cleverly bring much-needed wit to an otherwise bleak situation, eliciting feelings of hope and camaraderie between the populations on both sides of the barrier.

But to the Palestinians living on the other side of that barrier, however, the advertisement was an Israeli company trying to financially capitalize on a naive fantasy of brotherly rapport created in the minds of Israelis unaware of the reality the barrier symbolizes for them.

The original advert:

Simple parodies, most produced by Israelis, began appearing immediately. One depicted Israel responding to the soccer ball with a missile strike. The soldiers, seen in the original Cellcom advertisement cheering on the soccer game taking place across the wall, are seen in the parody cheering and dancing as missiles are dropped on Palestinian territories.

"What do we all really want?" asks the original Cellcom voiceover as the missiles strike home. "To have a little fun."

Another parody depicts soldiers repeatedly kicking a soccer ball onto a bound, blindfolded Palestinian on the other side of the barrier.

Activists in the West Bank village of Bi'lin, a hot spot of activism against the Israeli barrier, took the parody to a new level, trying to incorporate efforts to kick around a soccer ball into their weekly demonstration against the barrier.

"I wish that commercial were reality," Iyad Burnat, head of the Bi'lin Popular Committee, told The Media Line. "But soldiers do not 'play' with us, and this is not our choice."

"We often try to speak with the soldiers and say let's talk, or even play together," he said, "but each week we have non-violent protests against the barrier and they respond very violently."

"We are always trying to come up with new strategies for non-violent resistance," Burnat explained. "When we saw what they had on Israeli TV it was suggested that we use the soccer ball idea to show the soldiers that these are non-violent demonstrations - we are just playing football... But they responded with the usual tear gas, rubber bullets and high-pressured water cannons."

Bi'lin's residents' efforts to play soccer with the Israeli soldiers were filmed and used to produce yet another sarcastic parody of the original advertisement. In the clip, which has been viewed over 110,000 times, documentary footage of the Palestinian activists trying to play soccer near the barrier as Israeli soldiers respond with tear gas is contrasted with the optimistic soundtrack from the original Cellcom advertisement.

"This barrier causes extensive suffering to us and many other Palestinians," Muhammad Hatib, a Bi'lin resident and member of the Bi'lin Popular Committee, told The Media Line. "We want to show the reality, so we started playing football and kicked it over to the army."

"The army's response was violence, tear gas and grenades," Hatib continued. "No one expected any other behaviour. Every week we hold non-violent protests and a lot of us have been killed and injured."

Bi'lin residents, who have been engaged in a long battle with Israel over the presence of the Israeli barrier in the village, argue the Israeli cellular company was seeking to profit off false Israeli impressions of the morality of the country's armed forces.

"They didn't even show the faces of Palestinians, as if there is no one on the other side," Hatib added. "They just showed a beautiful and kind army, as if all they do is play soccer, dance and smile."

A number of Cellcom employees interviewed by The Media Line did not feel the controversy was deserved.

"Some workers felt it was fine, some didn't, but people are talking about our company and that's the point," said one mid-level Cellcom employee, who asked not to be named.

"Personally I didn't understand why they made such a big deal," the Cellcom employee added. "It's a nice clip actually. It's dark humor but doesn't cross the line and it shows that actually we do have something in common... not everyone wants wars."

Kobi Snitz, an Israeli activist who regularly attends the Bi'lin demonstrations, said the Cellcom advertisement plays on a common distortion in many Israelis' approach to the conflict.

"To tell jokes about Palestinians and the situation they face is not unusual in Israel," he told The Media Line. "What makes this ad attractive to Israelis is the idea that the soldiers are decent people and the situation is not only tolerable, but something that can be made light of."

"That's an offensive distortion," he said. "For a sense of perspective, imagine the reaction if someone made a funny commercial exploiting Jewish suffering throughout history. That wouldn't be seen as funny."

It is not clear how long the soccer protest strategies will continue, but Bi'lin residents say without reciprocation from the Israeli side, they may soon run out of balls.

"We had three soccer balls," Bi'lin resident Hatib added. "We played a bit and then kicked two of them over the barrier. But after the first two balls weren't returned some kids took the last ball and said 'it's not worth it, the Israelis will never really kick it back.'"

Friday 24 July 2009

Israel to U.S.: Keep Out of Jerusalem

Written by Matthew Kalman
THE MEDIA LINE : Sunday, July 19, 2009

JERUSALEM - Israeli leaders demanded on Sunday that the United States stop interfering with construction plans in East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem City Councillor Yakir Segev said the State Department was making “a grave mistake” in protesting a new residential project in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

“I think it will be right for the U.S. and the international community not to interfere with the micro-management of municipal affairs in Jerusalem,” Segev told The Media Line.

“It is not a matter for the international community. It’s a free country and a free market,” said Segev.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a chorus of angry comment after Israel’s ambassador in Washington was summoned to the U.S. State Department over plans to build 20 private homes on the site of the Shepherd’s Hotel.

But Palestinian officials welcomed the American intervention and condemned the new houses as “settlements” that undermined peace talks.

The former Shepherd’s Hotel is in an area of luxurious Arab villas which was captured by Israel along with East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. It was bought in the 1980s by American businessman Irving Moskowitz, who is a key figure behind efforts to purchase buildings in East Jerusalem to house Israelis. The area is now part of the Jerusalem Municipality, whose planning committee approved the construction of the housing project.

Ambassador Michael Oren was summoned to the State Department last Friday where US officials said the project should be halted in line with the U.S. demand for a freeze on all settlement building in the West Bank.

But Netanyahu said that Jerusalem was in a separate category.

“United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told ministers at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “Our sovereignty over it is cannot be challenged. Residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city.”

“In recent years hundreds of apartments in Jewish neighborhoods and in the western part of the city have been purchased by – or rented to – Arab residents and we did not interfere,” he said.

“We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem,” the Prime Minister continued. “I can only describe to myself what would happen if someone would propose that Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods in New York, London, Paris or Rome. There would certainly be a major international outcry.”

The local planning committee of the Jerusalem Municipality said it “operates according to equal criteria for all issues of construction permits, without regard to race, creed, gender, religion, or national identity of the resident or property owner. The acquisition of the land that includes the Shepherd’s Hotel was legal and received the necessary renovation and construction.”

Yakir Segev, the Jerusalem City Council member responsible for East Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the US State Department had no place in determining “a local planning issue.”

“I think it’s a grave mistake,” Segev told The Media Line. “The issue with the lands and houses is totally different from the West Bank.”

“You can argue whether Israeli settlements in the West Bank are right or not, but in Jerusalem it’s all private land, and if a certain Arab citizen wants to sell his house to a Jewish one, it’s not a matter for the municipality to interfere,” he continued. “It is of course not a matter for the international community. It’s a free country and a free market. The same with an Arab citizen who wants to buy a house in a Jewish neighborhood – no one is going to prohibit him from doing that.”

The building was originally constructed in the 1930s for Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem who was eventually deported by the British during the Second World War. The British Mandate authorities confiscated the building after his deportation and used it as a British military base. After the 1949 War of Independence it was transferred to the Jordanians who added to the building and it became the Shepherd’s Hotel.

After the 1967 Six Day War, the Israeli government took over the building and used it for the Ministry of Justice and as a district courthouse. In November 1985 it was purchased in a public tender by C and M Properties – believed to be one of Moskowitz’s companies – and then rented back to the Israeli government who used it as a base for their Border Police units for some 15 years. It has been abandoned ever since, pending planning approvals.

The site is known to the Palestinians as Karm Al-Mufti, because of its association with Husseini.

Palestinian leaders have accused Israel and private entrepeneurs like Moskowitz of “Judaizing” East Jerusalem. Segev said that “only a few hundred” Jews live inside Arab neighborhoods that were annexed by Jordan after the end of the British Mandate.

Jordan expelled all surviving Jewish residents from the Old City, East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the 1949 armistice. But more than 200,000 Israelis - Jews and Arabs - now live in large new neighborhoods built across the old border inside the expanded Jerusalem municipal boundary.

Ahmad A-Ruweidi, head of the Jerusalem unit at the Palestinian president’s office, hailed the US intervention as “a positive step.”

“There’s now pressure but this came late,” A-Ruweidi told The Media Line. “This should have happened a long time ago. The settlements should have stopped in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is an occupied city and Israel’s actions on the ground won’t change the fact that it’s an occupied city.”

“The people in the streets of Jerusalem would never accept Abu Mazen conducting negotiations with Israel if there were settlements and house demolitions in Jerusalem,” he said.

A-Ruweidi rejected the idea that it was a purely local municipal issue and said the Palestinian Authority would continue to bring international pressure to bear on the Israelis regarding construction in Jerusalem.

“The Palestinian presidency is in constant contact with all the international parties relevant to the political process in the Middle East and especially with the US administration, the Quartet, European countries, non-aligned countries and with Arab and Muslim countries,” he said. “The world now has a united position against settlements and house demolitions in Jerusalem. The settlements constitute a humanitarian crime.”

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Blair Optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Written by Matthew Kalman

BEIT JALLAH, WEST BANK - Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now a Middle East peace envoy, said during a visit to the West Bank on Tuesday that he remains optimistic about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians despite a freeze in peace talks and increasingly bitter divisions between warring Palestinian factions.

Blair, who in June 2007 was appointed special representative of the Quartet—the UN, EU, U.S. and Russia—said he was encouraged by the performance of Palestinian security forces who have helped calm crime and violence in the West Bank, and called on Israelis and Palestinians to work together to help develop the Palestinian economy.

He also denounced Israel’s 400-mile-long security barrier as “a symbol of division.”
“The world in which we are living today is a world that, in the end, works through barriers coming down, through people learning to live with each other, through people from different cultures and different faiths, different races actually mixing together and working together,” Blair told the launch reception of, a rare joint Israeli-Palestinian high-tech startup.

Blair hailed, which gives users a free way to access their desktop and files from any computer with an Internet connection, as “an immensely creative exercise” and a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. The company’s CEO, Zvi Schreiber, is an Israeli who is unable to visit his main office, which is in Palestinian-controlled Ramallah. The mixed Israeli-Palestinian staff has been forced to hold their meetings at a dusty service station in the desert on the road to Jericho – one of the few places where both sides have full access and also feel safe.

“Creativity knows no race or color or boundary,” Blair said. “Palestinians and Israelis are both highly creative people. Given the chance, they will make something of their lives, make something of the opportunities that are given them. This is an immensely creative exercise and I hope a very successful one in business terms and in what the company can do for the future.”

“It’s very poignant and extraordinary that we’re here in front of the separation barrier,” said Blair, referring to the 30-foot-high gray concrete slabs cutting through the biblical landscape. “The fact that Israelis and Palestinians have come together in order to found this project, this company, and the fact that they are doing it in this way and the fact that we are here in front of this symbol of division, but in the creation of something unifying, is I think a wonderful and heroic thing to achieve.”

Turning to the wider issues of peacemaking and Palestinian development, Blair said he is confident that most people on both sides wanted to see the region prosper despite the political obstacles.
“We need a political solution, but we also know that it’s not just about politics - that it’s also about people’s lives and it’s about economic development and it’s about business, too,” he said.

“Sometimes it can be very difficult with all the challenges to get some hope, and I’m an optimistic person by nature – you’ve kind of got to be when you’re employed by the Quartet on this deal – it’s always somewhat of a challenge for your general innate optimism,” said Blair. “When you leave aside all the politics and all the business to do with the Quartet and all the high-level negotiation and you just talk to people, you realize one very simple human truth, which is, in the end humanity makes progress when it learns from each other and to live with each other – and that is usually, and most often, the hope of all human beings from whatever walk of life and wherever they come from.”

But not all Palestinians share Blair’s optimistic outlook. Many of them have criticized Blair’s two years as Quartet representative for producing very little in concrete terms. Early in his tenure, he announced a series of economic projects for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but none of them have come to fruition.

Earlier on Tuesday, Blair visited Nablus, where EU and U.S.-trained Palestinian police and security services have been deployed in co-ordination with the Israeli army, who has removed more than 140 of their own security checkpoints to facilitate the movement of Palestinians around the West Bank.

"When the Palestinian people are given greater freedom, where there is security provided by the Palestinian people themselves, then the economy can grow and the people can get greater prosperity," Blair told reporters in Nablus, but officials involved in the security training told The Media Line that Blair was barely involved in the U.S. and EU training programs, which started before he arrived in the region.

The appointment in January of former Senator George Mitchell as U.S. President Barack Obama’s special Middle East envoy has created further confusion about Blair’s precise role. The hierarchy between Blair and Mitchell remains unclear.

Blair has concentrated his energies on trying to develop Palestinian governmental institutions and the economy, but for many his efforts have fallen short of expectations. In June 2008, Blair helped organize a Palestinian investment conference in Bethlehem that brought in more than 650 prospective investors from abroad and where several projects were announced.

Odeh Shehadeh, CEO of the Wassel logistics group in Ramallah that put the conference together, said all the projects announced in Bethlehem had actually been planned beforehand. He was dismissive about Blair’s contribution so far.

“What we’ve been seeing and hearing from the Quartet and Tony Blair is just talking, there is nothing materialized on the ground,” Shehadeh told The Media Line. “They just keep talking and they have never been able to facilitate or to solve any problem or to remove any restriction from the Israeli side, unfortunately. He’s just keeping doing workshops and meetings, submitting proposals, studies, projects, whatever and all of it just for nothing.”

“One of our Wassel Group companies, PalExpo, we were the event manager of that big conference. It was huge and big and great and the first of its type in Palestine, but for what? For bringing people together, not for making business or making investments. Because since that time, none of the projects that were announced or were decided at that time has materialized. In fact some of the projects that have materialized have been designed and planned and agreed upon even before that conference,” he said.

Monday 13 July 2009

Brigham Young U. Marks More Than 2 Decades in Israel

July 13, 2009

As Brigham Young University, the first American institution to build a campus in Jerusalem, marks more than two decades in Israel, it is about to be joined by two other American-run institutions in the city. Steven Williams and Kimberly Matheson (above) study at BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, which overlooks the Mount of Olives. (Photograph by David Blumenfeld)



Kimberly Matheson sits before an arched window that frames a breathtaking view of the Old City of Jerusalem. The sunlight reflects off the golden Dome of the Rock behind her and the sound of birdsong in the tiered gardens outside mingles with the muezzin's call to prayer from the minarets of the nearby mosques.

It seems redundant to ask the Near Eastern-studies major why she signed up for Brigham Young University's study-abroad program in Jerusalem. Until this year, its Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was the only campus in the Holy Land run by an American university.

"You can read books as much you like, but man, until you have spent a week in Egypt and you are sick of sand and those flies are everywhere and you can't keep anything in your stomach and that heat — it's so much more real," says Ms. Matheson, one 240 Brigham Young students who have spent $10,000 each to enroll in the university's Jerusalem center.

"It's worth it," she adds. "Unequivocally, absolutely. Everyone says this will change your life. I did not anticipate the far-reaching effects of it."

Like many American universities, Brigham Young has been running a study-abroad program in Israel for decades. But it was the first university to build a campus here, in 1984, on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

Having a campus in Israel has changed both the intensity of the students' experience and the face of the city. It has also illustrated the difficulty of running a study-abroad program in a politically unstable country. Brigham Young shut down its Jerusalem center for six years following the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, and it is now struggling to rebuild its enrollments. Such challenges are increasingly common as American universities expand their international offerings into new and less familiar regions of the world.

This fall Brigham Young will be joined in Jerusalem by two other American colleges. Bard College will inaugurate a program for its students in a dedicated facility on the campus of Al-Quds University on the outskirts of the city. And Southeastern University will open its new George Wood Jerusalem Studies Center downtown.

Overcoming Suspicions

To build its campus, Brigham Young, a Mormon institution, leased land on the Mount of Olives, which was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Palestinians initially objected to the Israeli authorities' decision to lease occupied territory, and Israelis were suspicious of the Mormon practice of proselytizing.

But university officials say they won over the local community by employing a mix of Palestinians and Israelis on the staff, sending student volunteers into local social and medical programs, and making the campus accessible to residents, who attend regular concerts and other events here.

The campus, designed jointly by an Israeli and an American architect, cascades down the ancient mountainside on eight levels. The centerpiece is a stone, teak, and oak-trimmed auditorium with huge windows framing a view of the golden Dome of the Rock, the black-domed roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the white cupola of the newly reconstructed Hurva Synagogue — three important and symbolic institutions representing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

On Sundays, Jerusalemites are treated to free concerts in the auditorium featuring top local classical and jazz musicians and a 3,000-pipe Marcussen organ, considered the finest in the Middle East.

Students study the Bible, the ancient and modern Middle East, and either Hebrew or Arabic.

Unusually for Jerusalem, the faculty, administrative, security, and support staffs are integrated — American, Israeli, and Palestinian. The director is an Israeli; his assistant, Tawfic Alawi, is a Palestinian.

Mr. Alawi lives next to the center and started work there as a security guard 17 years ago. He is now assistant director.

"At first, people wondered what this big building was. We did not know who these Mormons were. They turned out to be good neighbors and good friends to the local community," Mr. Alawi says. "They employ local people and bring business to the neighborhood. Now it is part of our society. When the center reopened two and half years ago it was seen as a sign of better times after some difficult years."

An Immersion Experience

S. Kent Brown, associate director of the center and a retired professor of ancient scripture, says students gain an enormous amount by spending an entire semester in Israel.

"The payoff comes in on-site experience," he says. "We conduct a series of field trips that run in tandem with classroom instruction, so that when we're talking about the era of Moses and Joshua, we take students to Jericho. When we're talking about the era of the monarchy, we visit the places that were inhabited alternately by Israelites and Philistines. It's pretty heady stuff to read the story of David and Goliath and then step into the spring bed in the Valley of Elah and pick up a stone."

But the university doesn't shy away from current events. Speakers at the center's weekly forum for students on current affairs have included the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, the former Palestinian cabinet ministers Yasser Abed Rabbo and Hanan Ashrawi, and other senior officials from both sides of the conflict.

Students are encouraged to explore the city and participate in a range of humanitarian and cultural activities, from helping out at orphanages or a nearby maternity hospital to Sunday-morning bell ringing at the YMCA.

Andrew Skinner, a former dean of religious education at the Provo campus, who is on his fourth tour in Jerusalem, says the effect carries across the curriculum.

"It's pedagogically different," says Mr. Skinner. "Is there a difference between reading about an experiment and performing one — or actually living in the laboratory observing the experiment for oneself? This is one of the greatest human laboratories you can possibly find, so how can you not be pedagogically, fundamentally changed by the experience?"

Instability and Safety

But the intensity of Jerusalem also has its downside. The university closed the center in November 2000 after the Palestinian intifada erupted that September. Brigham Young had intended to open the center again in 2006, but then the war in Lebanon postponed the reopening until January 2007.

Now students are issued local cellphones for security updates, and the center's Web site carries breaking news on security alerts in the country. If trouble breaks out in the city, the center sends text messages to the students to tell them to stay away from certain areas and return to the campus.

The campus itself is protected by its own mixed Israeli-Palestinian security detail, and it has never been a target of violence. (Other American colleges with programs in Israel rely on their host universities for security.)

Students say they understand the security concerns.

"We're required to go out in groups," says Steven Williams, a 22-year-old second-year music major from Colorado.

The center appears to have been successful in deterring would-be attackers by consciously building ties with the local community. University staff members are acutely aware that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the next building along the ridge, was the target of a Hamas bomber who killed nine staff members and students there in July 2002.

"Both communities know we hire people from both sides. In a way that's as good a security blanket as anything else," says Mr. Brown. "Our security staff is very dedicated, and they guard the campus 24 hours a day — but it's soft security. Nobody carries a weapon. It's only on rare occasions that parents have expressed concern when a child has wanted to come. We have simply said they should look at our record."

Even though the violence never entered the campus, it took a toll. Before the intifada, there were 170 students in each session. Now there are only 80. The university is hoping the numbers will return to their previous level.

But the security concerns that closed the center for six years have been replaced by economic ones.

"We want to increase the number of students to the previous level, but the question is how soon we can do it," says Mr. Brown. "If somehow the economy were to become a little bit cheerier, then the numbers of applicants would likely rise."

Sunday 12 July 2009

Playing for Peace: Palestinian and Israeli Teenagers Groove

Written by Matthew Kalman

Published Sunday, July 12, 2009

An unusual scene in Tel Aviv: Palestinian and Israeli teenagers – Christians, Muslims and Jews – have just spent two weeks together recording a music track, writing their own lyric and producing a video clip to upload to YouTube.

The 19 youngsters, aged from 14 to 17, gathered at the headquarters of Windows for Peace, a veteran people-to-people organization that tries to bridge the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian youth through workshops, a regular magazine in Hebrew and Arabic, and other joint activities.

The song – “A Step for Peace” - and the accompanying video filmed on the streets and beachfront of Tel Aviv, is a strong expression of the futility of war and their hopes for peace, with a piercingly direct lyric laced over a rap groove.

“We must understand war is not the way, hatred will go away. We want peace, we need peace, oh yeah,” they sing. “We can make the future bright. We should all have equal rights. No racism, no discrimination - together we can change the situation.”

The project is the brainchild of Rob Cowan, founder of the Point Blank music production and DJ college in London, who says music is a powerful way to bring young people together.

“I believe in the power of music as a tool for social regeneration. I believe that the arts can have a place and that we’re just doing our small bit. This is something that we want to do. Hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction,” Cowan told The Media Line.

Natalie Baddour, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Bethlehem, said she savoured the opportunity to spend time with her Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv because it would usually be impossible for a Palestinian to enter Israel.

“I hope it will at least influence a couple of people to get them to know what we go through and how we deal with the situation here in Palestine and in Israel and how the two countries communicate and how they live together,” said Natalie, who was spending her third summer at a Windows workshop.

“We all have such different points of view and we come from such different backgrounds so it’s hard to get to one certain point where we all can agree instead of disagreeing and having all these issues, but we’ve worked together for the past three years so we kind of got used to the fact that we may not always agree on anything,” she said.

Natalie said the participants kept in touch through texting and Facebook and had become good friends. Even though it was her first experience writing music, she felt the group had something to say and she was proud of what they had produced.

“I’m really attached to it because it expresses a lot of what we feel and what we go through and also the message of this particular song and the lyrics are very important to us – for both parties, Israelis, Palestinians and of course the Arab Israelis as well. We communicate with the lyrics of the song,” she said.

“The main point is that we want peace and we want to live together peacefully,” she added.

Her friend Tamara Abu Hemameh, another 15-year-old from Bethlehem, said participating in Windows made a huge impact on her attitudes towards Israelis.

“Actually, it changed my life because before I went to Windows I was thinking that Israeli people are really bad and they think of us bad and they don’t like us so when I met the group it was a shock for me,” she said. “Now I really changed all my thoughts about the Israeli people and I’m really happy about it.”

“We just tell everybody in Bethlehem that we are in Windows and it’s really cool and we’re meeting the Israeli people and they’re really good,” she added. “I’m really proud of myself, proud of the group, everyone, really. It’s good.”

Rob Cowan, who has years of experience using music to reach disaffected young people in London, said the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers were an inspiration.

“They’re incredible. They’re fantastic young people. They’ve really been engaged,” he said. “I think they see this as an opportunity for them to communicate with each other, to discuss their thoughts, but also as an opportunity to work on something and learn some skills. The idea is after we leave they’re going to have the skills to carry on doing this kind of work in the future without us necessarily being here the whole time.”

During the two weeks the group spent working on the project, they lived, ate and shared every moment of their lives together.

The instructor was Pakistan-born Mohammed Nazam, a tutor at Point Blank and founder of Baraka, a multi-faith band from London, who said he was “touched and honoured” to be working with the youths.

"It's important that during challenging times like these the people and organisations who are working for peace step up a gear and show the world that there are ways of increasing understanding and crossing religious, national and cultural divides. The work that Windows for Peace are doing with Israelis and Palestinians is incredibly important. I absolutely believe that no matter what, hatred and war are truly not viable options," Nazam said.