Wednesday 28 April 2010

Is Netanyahu Quietly Freezing Jerusalem Settlements?

By MATTHEW KALMAN / JERUSALEM Wednesday, Apr. 28, 2010

A Palestinian woman holds a banner reading "No to occupation" in front Israeli border policemen during a protest near a disputed house in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem. Maya Hitij / AP

Israel insists that it has no intention of heeding the Obama Administration's demand that it halt construction in East Jerusalem. "Jerusalem will grow," Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat tells TIME. "With the American administration, without the American administration." Barkat insisted that he has not been asked to freeze any plans for building new Israeli housing in East Jerusalem, and also that he would refuse to do so. That's the same message Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to reiterate. But there are plenty of indications that a de facto freeze may already be in effect on the ground.

Take Plan number 12705 for the new Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, which would demolish 40 low-rise Palestinian homes built in traditional local stone to make way for modern apartment blocks up to 18 stories high, containing 200 residential units for Israelis. There have been weekly demonstrations at the site since the landowners, Nahalat Shimon International, began evicting the Palestinians who had been living in the area when it was captured by Israeli forces in the war of 1967. Despite U.S. demands that Israel halt construction on territory occupied in 1967 in order to restart peace talks, Shimon HaTzadik Plan 12705 was approved by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior on March 2, and forwarded to the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee. (See pictures of Jerusalem, a divided city.)

But while nobody's admitting that Plan 12705 is under some sort of political freeze, it appears to have been stalled by bureaucratic inertia. The Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee has met several times since March 2, but Plan 12705 hasn't been on its agenda. Likewise with other plans for residential development in East Jerusalem. Over at the Interior Ministry, the District Planning Committee has not convened since the visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, during which Israel-U.S. ties were plunged into a crisis by the announcement of a plan to build 1,600 new housing units on occupied land. Meir Margalit, an opposition member of the Jerusalem City Council, tells TIME that an unofficial freeze is already in effect, despite the official denials.

"Since Vice-President Biden was here, they refuse even to bring to the committee projects for Jewish buildings in East Jerusalem," says Margalit. (See pictures of Palestinian 'Day of Rage.')

"The committee told them wait for better timing. De-facto, not one project of settlers in East Jerusalem has been approved or come for approval to the committee," he says. "Just to give the possibility to start negotiations, the government and municipality must stop building. It's very important to do it because peace is more important than houses."

Margalit says a major religious housing project slated for the north of the city neighboring Ramallah, was recently canceled after U.S. intervention.

"What's going on? Actually, we don't know exactly," says Yakir Segev, another councilor and close ally of the mayor who oversees East Jerusalem. "We don't know specifically about an obvious order or directive that was given by the prime minister's office. There's all kind of hints and an atmosphere that it is not wanted. There is kind of an overall message that we're getting that it's not really desirable to the government."

Aryeh King, head of an Israeli group buying land in East Jerusalem for private housing, confirms that his projects are being stalled.

"They are not saying there is a freeze, but in practice that's what's happening," says King. "There are plans that are simply not being presented, they never get onto the agenda. They don't admit that they're not considering them. They say it's in process and it stays in process. Things that usually take days are taking weeks, and things that usually take weeks are taking months."

Developers say the logjam in the planning process is creating havoc in the local housing market, where the scarcity of small apartments has caused a 30% rise in home prices in two years.

"This is the United States' contribution to raising the price of real estate in Jerusalem," says Nadav Lisovsky, vice president for marketing at B. Yair Building Corporation, one of Israel's largest developers. He says there is an effective freeze on almost all new projects across the pre-1967 border.

Whether or not the undeclared freeze is enough to get the Palestinian side into U.S.-brokered indirect talks remains to be seen, but the next crisis may already be looming. On Monday, the government said it was considering approval of Derech Ha'avot, an illegal settler outpost near Bethlehem, which would make it the first official new Israeli settlement since 1996 — and a clear challenge to both the Obama Administration and the Palestinians.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Techie Mystery: Why Did Israel Ban the iPad?

By MATTHEW KALMAN / JERUSALEM Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2010

Not since Adam and Eve has the appearance of an Apple in the Holy Land caused such uproar. Israel is a wonderland of high-tech innovation but it is certainly no Garden of Eden for iPad users, who can expect to have their new Apple tablets confiscated on arrival by Israeli airport customs. El Al stewardess Alona Gur tells TIME she was one of the first people to lose her new iPad and she is furious about it. "I was in New York and I checked with the Israeli customs to see if it was OK to bring one and they said sure, just go through the red channel [that is, declaring it at customs] and pay the taxes," says Gur. "Two days later I arrived at Ben-Gurion and did exactly as they said, but that morning the Ministry of Communications ordered them to confiscate all iPads." "It's crazy," she says, "I feel as though I live in a fourth-world country. And the customs are charging me 45 shekels ($12) a day for storage until I can take it back to America."

The ban by the Israeli Ministry of Communications has left users fuming and techies baffled. Dozens of confiscated Apple tablets are now being stored at Ben-Gurion Airport until their owners collect them on their way out of the country. The ministry says the iPad's Wi-Fi system is configured for the United States and does not conform to the European standards used in Israel, so it operates at higher power levels and is liable to cause interference on the wireless frequency. "A consumer who imports a British car designed to drive on the left knows that in Israel we drive on the right and the car is not suitable for use in Israel," says ministry spokesman Yechiel Shavi. (See pictures of the unveiling of Apple's iPad.)

But others don't quite buy the reasoning. Aviv Eilon, a Tel Aviv attorney specializing in technology law, dismisses the automobile comparison as "demagogic." He says the iPad conforms to the European standards approved in Israel and uses the same Wi-Fi devices as other Apple computers already in use in the country. "This was really annoying. It was a nonsense explanation. I went to the FCC website and saw that the iPad already correlates with the European standards," he says. "Poor old Israel," says Harel Shattenstein, an analyst who blogs on and "Even if the Wi-Fi standard is different it won't cause any danger because most of the wireless networks in Israel are private." (Read TIME's review of the iPad.)

Israeli experts say they cannot find any technical reason for the ministry's decision. "I can't understand why they are banning the iPad. I really don't know. It doesn't make sense and it disturbs me as a technology freak," says Dor Zakai, Operating Systems and Hardware Team Leader at John Bryce Training in Israel. "Now it's the iPad. What's next?"

One commentator, Aharon Etengoff, has openly speculated on his blog that the Ministry of Communications is acting to protect the monopoly of iDigital, Apple's sole official Israeli importer, which is owned by Chemi Peres, son of the Israeli president. There was no official comment from iDigital, but company executives there say they are also baffled by the ministry decision. The Ministry of Communications tells TIME it is in discussions with iDigital to determine "how and when the iPad can be allowed for harmless use in Israel at the earliest. The Ministry expects Apple's answers in a few days and believes that this issue will be resolved in satisfactory way very soon." (See the best travel gadgets of 2009.)

Alona Gur says she was told privately by a ministry official that the iPad was banned because it interferes with Israeli military frequencies. There was a similar problem when Bluetooth first came to Israel, forcing the military to release those frequencies for civilian use. But the spokesman for the Ministry of Communications says he had no information about that. "I don't know about the military frequencies," says Shavi.

Meanwhile, leaders of Israel's business community are concerned about the damage to the country's image as a leader in high-tech that has fueled Israel's economic revival. Robert Ilatov, a lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary sub-committee for the advancement of high-tech industries, wants the ban rescinded. "This has not earned us a lot of respect in the high-tech world. I have asked the minister to reconsider his decision because it doesn't seem to make any sense. I don't think they checked it sufficiently," Ilatov tells TIME. (See pictures of vintage computers.)

There has been a firestorm of protest in Israel's high-tech blogosphere, where one anonymous contributor offered the following advice: "The solution is simple. Go through the green channel, don't declare your iPad at customs, and you're sorted. The iPad works perfectly in Israel. I speak from experience. Mine arrived this morning."