Friday 30 July 2010

Saudi, Syrian Leaders Try to Avert Civil War in Lebanon

AOL NEWS, July 30th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

- Five years after Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad returned to Beirut today as the country's potential savior, accompanied by his erstwhile rival, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

It was Assad's first visit to Lebanon since Syrian agents were blamed for the Hariri assassination, and no Saudi monarch has set foot there since 1957. What's brought them together there now is a bid to avert a looming crisis that threatens to tear apart Lebanon's fragile national unity government and plunge the country back into civil war.

Saudi, Syrian and Lebanese leaders meet in Lebanon
STR / AFP / Getty Images
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, center, welcomes Saudi King Abdullah, left, and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on Friday.

The crisis was precipitated by leaks from the United Nations Special Tribunal on Lebanon, established to investigate Hariri's murder. The leaks indicate that officials of Hezbollah will be indicted for the massive car bomb that killed him.

In a series of recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has denounced the special tribunal as a Zionist plot and says he will not accept the indictment of any Hezbollah operatives. Since Hezbollah is part of Lebanon's shaky governing coalition, its displeasure could quickly lead to a full-scale government breakdown, if not a renewal of the 2008 clashes that brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The relationship between Hezbollah and other Lebanese parties is already tense. The group has been accused of putting the interests of its Iranian paymasters ahead of the Lebanese and continues to pose a military challenge to the Lebanese army in the south of the country, despite a U.N. resolution that forbids Hezbollah from maintaining an armed presence in the area.

Casting a shadow over the already complex domestic situation is Israel, which went to war against Hezbollah in 2006 and remains at the heart of the conspiracy theories that run rife in Lebanon. On Thursday night, Israeli public television revealed that the "prime suspect" in Hariri's murder is Mustafa Badr Al-din, a member of Hezbollah's inner circle and brother-in-law of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus, Syria, two years ago. There was no independent confirmation of the Israeli story.

Lebanon's current prime minister, Saad Hariri, is Rafik Hariri's son. He emerged as a leader of the March 14 Alliance -- a broad-based movement of national unity formed after the assassination. But now Hariri's pursuit of his father's killers could bring about his political demise.

Over dinner a few weeks ago, Nasrallah angrily rejected a compromise offered by Hariri in which the culprits in his father's murder would be described as "rogue elements" within Hezbollah – a notoriously disciplined and centralized organization.

"The prime minister has been waiting for years for the indictment to be announced and for the trial to proceed," Hilal Khashan, professor of political studies at the American University in Beirut, told AOL News. "Now he is caught in the middle between the two camps. He is damned if he accommodates the tribunal, and he'll be damned if he accommodates Hezbollah."

Enter President Assad and King Abdullah, who have been vying for control of Lebanon for years. The country has long been considered a Syrian client and until 2005 was effectively occupied by a garrison of 30,000 Syrian troops. Abdullah backed Rafik Hariri's anti-Syrian stance, and after the assassination, the Saudis threw their weight behind Saad Hariri and the March 14 Alliance.

After years of blaming Syria directly for his father's death -- buttressed by the findings of the tribunal's initial investigation -- Hariri suddenly flew to Damascus in December 2009 to renew Lebanese-Syrian ties with Saudi blessings.

"The Saudis came to the conclusion that they can never have the upper hand in Lebanon and that they must work through Syria," says Khashan. "They told Hariri to reach terms with them. Syria has been exonerated from the assassination of Hariri, and the assassination has been downgraded to involve a few members in Hezbollah.

"The fact that the Saudi king and the Syrian president are coming together to Beirut indicates the prominent role of Syria, and it gives it Saudi legitimacy," he says.

But for many Lebanese, questions about the tribunal remain. Its first investigative report prominently mentioned the Syrian president and ordered the arrest of four senior Lebanese military and security officials, who were held for three years and eight months, then released.

In May 2009, Der Spiegel revealed that Lebanese investigators had found a link between eight cell phones used at the time of the attack and a network of 20 other phones belonging to Hezbollah's military wing.

Nasrallah promptly denied the Der Spiegel report, calling it "fabricated." He is said to have explained privately that Hezbollah was indeed carrying out its own military operation in the area on that day, but it was unconnected.

Observers note that Der Spiegel is a favored channel for Israeli intelligence leaks. The apparent Israeli connection was boosted further with a string of arrests of employees of Lebanon's Alpha cellular phone company, who were supplying Israel with data and passwords. Some observers believe that Israeli intelligence could have faked the information linking Hezbollah to the cell phones used by the assassins.

In July, Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, announced that he expected internal tensions in Lebanon when the tribunal announces its findings in the autumn.

Next Tuesday, Nasrallah has promised to reveal more information about the tribunal. By then, we might know whether the Syrian-Saudi gambit has saved Lebanon from a new civil war.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Jurists Seek to Put Iranian Leaders in the Dock

AOL NEWS July 28, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (July 28) -- As the European Union announced new, tougher sanctions this week against Iran, a blue-chip coalition of lawyers and human rights activists reiterated its demand that Iranian leaders be brought before the International Court of Justice for incitement to genocide and the brutal repression of their own citizens.

The Responsibility to Prevent Coalition, chaired by former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and supported by a who's who of international law experts, says the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "a clear and present danger to international peace and security ... and to its own people."

The group's 200-page report, "The Danger of a Nuclear, Genocidal and Rights-Violating Iran," catalogs Iranian violations of international law and human rights abuses against its own citizens. The authors argue that the international community should act now to defuse a "toxic mix" of policies that threaten world security: "the nuclear threat; the genocidal incitement threat; state-sponsored terrorism; and the systematic and widespread violations of the rights of the Iranian people."

"Iran has already committed the crime of incitement to genocide prohibited by the Genocide Convention," said Cotler, a law professor at McGill University and a Liberal member of the Canadian parliament.

In an interview with AOL News during a stopover this week in Jerusalem, Cotler said that Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for the annihilation of Israel were a clear violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention and required a response from the international community.

"The enduring lesson of the Nazi Holocaust and more recent genocides in Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur is that they occurred not just because of the machinery of death, but because of state-sanctioned incitement like the rhetoric we see coming from Ahmadinejad's Iran," Cotler said.

Under the Genocide Convention, Ahmadinejad could be brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague if the case is referred to the U.N. Security Council, he said.

"States have a legal obligation to prevent Iran from carrying through with its deadly course of action," Cotler said. "Every state party to the Genocide Convention can initiate an inter-state complaint before the International Court of Justice against Iran. This is not just a policy option, but an international legal obligation of the first order."

Cotler said that Ahmadinejad's position as head of state did not give him immunity in international law. "In the case of Sudan, the U.N. Security Council referred the criminality of President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court, and the court just recently cited him also for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity," he said.

The coalition -- which includes former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, former Canadian Prime Ministers Kim Campbell and Paul Martin, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami and Egyptian democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim among its members -- has published a dossier of Iran's alleged violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention and other international laws.

The report exposes Iran as second only to China in the number of death sentences carried out each year, with the highest number of juvenile executions anywhere in the world -- 26 in three years, with 140 more on death row. According to the rights group Stop Child Executions, Iran carried out 80 percent of all juvenile death sentences from 2005 to 2008. The coalition's report says also that Iran has imprisoned more journalists than any other country as part of a systematic policy of domestic political repression.

International pressure proved effective in securing a stay of execution in one recent case where an Iranian mother of two was sentenced to death by stoning after she was found guilty of adultery, but the coalition says hundreds more cases of abuse go unnoticed.

"In Iran there is a massive assault on human rights and the rule of law, while dangerous state-sanctioned incitement to genocide continues unabated, the whole amidst a culture of impunity," Meir Shamgar, Israel's former chief justice, said at a news conference in Jerusalem earlier this month.

At the same forum, Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, said it was time to hold Iran to account for its serial abuses of its own citizens' human rights.

"As the international community decided to present charges against the president of Sudan towards his war crimes inside Sudan, I think that's the same thing the international community should have to do towards Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran," Eid said.

Cotler, who has won support for the coalition initiative during recent trips to Australia, the United States, Jordan, Israel, Britain, Italy, Argentina and Sweden, said Monday's announcement of tougher EU sanctions against Iran were "a welcome step" but urged the international community to act with resolve.

"The main thing now is to ensure that these sanctions are enforced," he said. "In the decade 2000-2010, even while the U.S. had sanctions legislation in place, they awarded $107 billion in contracts to firms trading with Iran. Thus far, the sanctions are only targeting the Iranian nuclear threat -- a policy that is essential and necessary -- but the threat from Ahmadinejad's Iran has the three other elements: incitement to genocide, assistance to terrorism and violations of human rights. If sanctions focus only on the nuclear issue, we run the risk of appearing to ignore the other threats or even sanitize them."

PM labels Gaza a 'prison camp': Fury as Cameron calls for lifting of blockade and attacks Israel

By Jason Groves and Matthew Kalman
DAILY MAIL 28th July 2010

David Cameron was condemned last night by Israel for describing Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ on his visit to Turkey.

Addressing businessmen in the capital Ankara, the Prime Minister said: ‘The situation in Gaza has to change. Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.’

Later, at press conference with the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Cameron condemned the Israeli attack on a Gaza aid flotilla in May which left nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists dead.

Provocative: David Cameron and Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

Provocative: David Cameron shakes hands with Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara

Last night Israel hit back with Ron Prossor, the country’s ambassador to London, saying: ‘The people of Gaza are the prisoners of the terrorist organisation Hamas [the radical Palestinian group which controls it]. The situation in Gaza is the direct result of Hamas’ rule and priorities.’

Danny Danon, deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset parliament and a leading member of the ruling Likud party, said Mr Cameron’s statement was ‘worrying’.

He added: ‘It is the wrong message to the wrong audience at the wrong time. The Prime Minister should never lose sight of reality. Namely, Gaza is not a prison.’

Mr Cameron had also said in his speech to the businessmen: ‘Let me be clear. The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable and I have told prime minister Netanyahu we will expect the Israeli inquiry to be swift, transparent and rigorous.’

He said Turkey could ‘make the case for peace’ as Israel and the Palestinians moved towards direct peace talks in the near future. Last month, Mr Cameron had compared Gaza to ‘an open prison.’

Asked about his remarks on Gaza later at the press conference with Mr Erdogan, Mr Cameron said: ‘The fact is we have long supported lifting the blockade of Gaza, we have long supported proper humanitarian access.

‘Even though some progress has been made we are still in the situation where it is very difficult to get in, it is very difficult to get out. So I think the description is warranted.’

And speaking afterwards he stood by his description, saying that ‘even though some progress has been made we’re still in a situation where it’s very difficult to get in, it’s very difficult to get out’.

However, he attempted to play down his criticism by acknowledging Israel’s security fears over rocket attacks fired by militants in Gaza.

Condemnation: Mr Cameron criticised the Israeli attack on a Gaza aid flotilla in May, which left nine people dead

Condemnation: Mr Cameron criticised the Israeli attack on a Gaza aid flotilla in May, which left nine people dead

‘We [Britain and Turkey] both share the view that direct talks [between Israel and the Palestinians] is the right answer,’ he said.

In Jerusalem, one Israeli government official said of Mr Cameron’s remarks: ‘We have to be very careful how we respond. We do not want to trigger a major crisis. We will wait and see if he says it again.’

Channel 2, Israel’s most popular television channel, raised the temperature by mistranslating Mr Cameron’s comments as referring to Gaza as a ‘concentration camp’.

In London, the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank which comments on international affairs, said the Prime Minister had used ‘deeply hostile rhetoric’ and ‘blundered’.

A spokesman said: ‘What precisely does a British Prime Minister think he is doing suggesting that Israel should free up its borders with a zone packed full of would-be suicide bombers?’

The Conservative Home website, a grassroots Tory forum, said Mr Cameron’s comments would divide the party but please the Liberal Democrats.

It added: ‘The use of such an emotive term and the lack of any balancing condemnation of the Hamas regime that terrorises Gaza will also disappoint Conservative supporters of Israel.’

The Gaza Strip is home to 1.5million people, a third of them refugees living in basic housing in camps run by the UN.

It is 25 miles long and between four and seven miles wide. The enclave is bordered on the east and north by Israel, on the south by Egypt and to the west by the Mediterranean.

Gaza was occupied by Israel between 1967 and 2005, when Israel withdrew some 6,000 settlers and a garrison that together controlled about 40 per cent of the area.

Gaza was administered jointly with the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority from 1994 until 2006, when Hamas won a parliamentary election, leading to a year of tense coalition government with Fatah.

In 2007, Hamas seized control of the area in a bloody coup in which more than 400 Fatah supporters were killed and hundreds more maimed. Since Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas and its allies have fired some 5,000 rockets across the border at nearby Israeli towns.

Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in a three-week campaign that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of Palestinian homes.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Israel Bank Chief Warns Ultra-Orthodox: Get a Job

AOL NEWS, July 21, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (July 21) -- God himself labored for six days before resting on the Sabbath -- but at least two-thirds of Israel's ultra-orthodox Jewish men aren't working at all, and it's becoming a major economic problem.

The governor of Israel's central bank warned on Monday that the rising number of ultra-orthodox men who refuse to join the workforce could trigger "social conflict" unless they take a lesson from the Bible and get to work.

Israel's robust economy, fueled by a generation of high-tech entrepreneurs, has helped the "Start-Up Nation" weather the global recession ahead of the U.S. and Europe. Also, Israel earlier this year won admission to the OECD, the exclusive club of the world's top economies. Israel's expenditure on R&D, at nearly 5 percent of Gross Domestic Product, is the highest in the world and its booming technology sector has brought enviable economic growth and stability at a time of global crisis.

But the growing ultra-orthodox population, their deepening poverty, noninvolvement in the labor force and private school system that encourages a nonproductive, scholarly lifestyle, could threaten the country's future economic stability.

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer told reporters on Monday that poverty was still a major challenge among Israeli Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews.

He said that while poverty is falling among Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, it is increasing among the 10 percent of Israelis who are ultra-orthodox. That's largely because of an agreement allowing religious students exemption from military service that over half a century has mushroomed into almost an entire community living off the state. In order to claim the exemption, seminary students must remain at their studies until age 28.

The problem has become a major issue in political power-play between the secular majority parties and the tiny religious parties that hold the balance of power in Israel's fragile government coalitions. The 700,000 ultra-orthodox among Israel's population of 7.5 million are Israel's poorest sector. They have large families, with an average of nearly seven children per couple. Sixty percent of the community lives below the poverty line and the proportion is rising.

"This is not sustainable," warned Fischer. "We can't have an ever-increasing proportion of the population continuing to not go to work. So it's going to change, somehow or the other. The question is does that change happen in social conflict, in political conflict, or can it be helped to happen consensually and constructively?"

"Around 70 percent of the men don't work in the formal labor force. This is an absolute guarantee of being poor, if you don't work," Fischer said. "This is not a problem in the United States among the haredi [ultra-orthodox] community -- there, they work," Fischer said. "It is a problem in Israel. The question is why."

He said government incentives encouraging haredi students to claim welfare contributed to the problem and required a change in government policy. Last month, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that giving stipends to needy seminary students while denying them to secular university students is illegal. Religious parties have vowed to change the law.

Fischer's views are shared by Dan Ben-David, director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, who says nonemployment in the ultra-orthodox sector has skyrocketed in recent years. Ben-David says nearly one in five Israeli men between ages 35 and 54 are not part of the labor force -- 60 percent higher than the average among nations in the OECD.

"People say that the haredim don't work, that it's a religious or a cultural thing, but that isn't true," Ben-David said. "Thirty years ago they did work. Then, the rate of nonemployment was 21 percent. Now it's 65 percent. It grew threefold."

"It is still possible to change direction," he added. "The government must understand the implications of these trends and adopt a comprehensive program to change them without delay,"

The OECD highlighted the problem in accepting Israel to its ranks, urging "profound policy changes" and "efforts to encourage the Haredim to strengthen their vocational skills as part of a drive for a more self-sufficient -- and less poverty-ridden -- balance between religious worship and work."

But Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Finance Committee of Israel's Knesset parliament and a legislator for the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, told a government conference on religious sector employment last month that it was Bible study by haredim that had saved Israel from the global economic crisis.

"The haredim, who 30 years ago were foretold as the market's ruination, have prospered, and with them Israel, which suffered last from the global recession and was the first to recover. I would say this is a case of divine providence," Gafni said.

He said the low work rate among the ultra-orthodox was due to employer discrimination.

"Not a day goes by that I don't get a call from a haredi man asking me to help him find a job. What can I do? When a haredi man applies to a high-tech company he is the last one to be hired," he said. "I can understand the employers, too. After the media paints haredim as flag-burning rioters who have to take maternity leaves all the time, why would they hire them? We are not parasites. We want to work and contribute to the gross national product, but 80 percent of those looking for work can't find it."

Friday 16 July 2010

Is Holy Land Archaeology Being Hyped by Politics?

AOL NEWS, July 15 2010

Matthew  Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (July 15) -- Bible-era scholars say they are getting fed up with headline-grabbing archaeological discoveries that seem more influenced by modern political agendas and showmanship than by scholarship.

Some recent announcements have been tainted with "exaggeration and speculation the likes of which haven't been seen since pieces of the 'true cross' were found all across Europe in the Middle Ages," said Jim West, adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology and moderator of an influential online forum for Bible scholars.

The latest possible case in point came this week, when Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University announced that she had unearthed "the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem" after sifting debris from a site between the Temple Mount and the City of David, in Jerusalem. The fragment of clay tablet about 1 inch square is inscribed with cuneiform lettering in ancient Akkadian, the everyday language of Jerusalem in the 14th century B.C.

Israeli  archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of  Archaeology holds the clay fragment at her Jerusalem office on Monday.
Gali Tibbon, AFP / Getty Images
Israeli archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology holds the clay fragment containing "the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem" at her office on Monday.

The claims Mazar's team attached to that tiny shard, however, were massive. Dr. Mazar said the discovery provides "solid evidence of the importance of Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age" and "lends weight to the importance that accrued to the city in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E." Her colleague Wayne Horowitz said there was "a great likelihood, because of its fine script and the fact it was discovered adjacent to in the acropolis area of the ancient city" that the fragment was part of "royal missive." Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University said the clay used testified "to the likelihood that it was part of a tablet from a royal archive in Jerusalem containing copies of tablets sent by the king of Jerusalem to Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt."

Within hours, experts on ancient Jerusalem were wondering how such a tiny fragment could produce such a wealth of history.

"We already knew there was a king in Jerusalem at the time," says Meir Ben-Dov, a veteran archaeologist who explored the same area with Mazar's grandfather from 1968 onward. "It's the first time they've found a little shard here, but it doesn't tell us anything we didn't know already. This find has no significance."

This is not the first time Mazar has come under fire from colleagues for making grandiose claims. In August 2005, she unearthed an impressive building from the 10th century B.C. and tagged it as the palace of King David. Earlier this year, she said a large stone wall discovered by her grandfather and Ben-Dov was built by Solomon, provoking a withering response from the scholarly community.

But Mazar is hardly an exception. Many scholars are concerned that archaeology is being used to score political points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And nowhere more so than around the City of David, a rich archaeological mound just south of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque identified in the 19th century as the possible site of King David's ancient city, now covered with crowded Palestinian housing.

The City of David is in the village of Silwan in east Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War but which Palestinians considered the only acceptable capital of an independent Palestinian state. Because of its historical significance, the site has been declared an Israeli national park, but it is managed by El-ad, a right-wing Israeli group that also seeks to move Israeli residents into the contentious neighborhood. Some find the mix of politics and archaeology combustible.

"My primary concern is that archaeology is being turned to political use and as nothing but a means to raise funds for ideologically driven projects. This certainly seems to be the case in the City of David dig," Quartz Hill's West says.

Last Sunday, Ir Amim, a Jerusalem co-existence group, petitioned Israel's High Court to end El-ad's control of the site and return it to the National Parks Authority. "The state of Israel has privatized one of the most sensitive historic sites in the country -- and transferred it to the hands of a private organization with a clear political agenda," says Yehudit Oppenheimer, the group's director.

But bullhorn archaeology isn't the sole domain of the Israeli right. Shimon Gibson of the independent Albright Institute of Archaeological Research was greeted with loud skepticism in 2004 when he declared a cave west of Jerusalem to be the hiding place of John the Baptist. Earlier this month, professor Adam Zertal of Haifa University identified a site as "Sisera's hometown, as mentioned in the book of Judges" based on the discovery of a single bronze linchpin from a chariot wheel. Further afield, Christian archaeologists have made numerous contested claims to having found Noah's Ark in Turkey.

While El-ad tries to prove King David's ancient links to Jerusalem, Palestinians are trying to do the opposite. Thousands of tons of debris potentially rich in archaeological treasures have been hauled off the Temple Mount without proper supervision during mosque renovations in the past decade. Until recently, an official guide to the mosque for visitors denied that Solomon's Temple had ever stood there.

There have been riots over unfounded claims by Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel headed by Sheikh Raed Salah that Israeli excavations are undermining the foundations of Al-Aqsa, threatening it with collapse.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Gaza-bound ship alters course after Israeli warning

Israeli Arab lawmaker Haneen Zoabi in her office at the Knesset,  the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem last month. The Knesset voted on  Tuesday in favour of scrapping Ms Zoabi's diplomatic privileges, after  she was accused of siding with the state's enemies by taking part in an  aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/ReutersIsraeli Arab lawmaker Haneen Zoabi in her office at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem last month. The Knesset voted on Tuesday in favour of scrapping Ms Zoabi's diplomatic privileges, after she was accused of siding with the state's enemies by taking part in an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Thursday, July 15, 2010


A SHIP sponsored by a Libyan charity that announced it would breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza with 2,000 tons of supplies reached an Egyptian port yesterday after altering its course. This followed a warning from Israel’s navy not to head to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

An Egyptian official said the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea arrived in El Arish, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast about 45km (27 miles) south of the border with Gaza, in mid-evening and would begin unloading cargo.

“Medical supplies and passengers will enter Gaza through the Rafah border , while food will enter through the Awja border,” said Capt Gamal Abdel Maqsoud, who is in charge of the port.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, an Arab member of the Knesset parliament warned of “a threat to democracy” after she was stripped of some of her parliamentary privileges as punishment for participating in the last blockade-busting flotilla in May.

Legislator Hanin Zoabi was on board the Mavi Marmara on May 31st when it was stormed by Israeli commandos and nine Turkish activists were killed. She says she was below deck during the raid and did not witness the killings.

The Israeli navy said it was monitoring the Moldovan-flagged ship that had been re-dubbed Al-Amal ( The Hope ) as it headed south yesterday after a night of slow progress due to engine trouble.

“You are in charge of the people on the ship, and any attempt to enter the area will be your fault only,” an Israeli naval officer warned the captain in a message broadcast on Israel Radio.

A reporter from Al-Jazeera on board the vessel said the Israeli ships were blocking its passage east to Gaza. He said the activists on board from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Association headed by Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, were determined to break the blockade.

A website recording the ship’s position ceased to function as it came within about five miles of El-Arish yesterday.

In Gaza City, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh led Palestinian demonstrators preparing to welcome The Hope to the tiny fishing port in Gaza City. He urged the ship to stay on course.

“Don’t fall for any tricks and don’t dock in any other port other than the one in Gaza. You are our sailing hope at sea,” said Mr Haniyeh at a ceremony in Jabalya, north of Gaza City, where he named a street after the Turkish flotilla.

Israel has eased the land blockade on Gaza, but Mr Haniyeh demanded “a complete end to the siege”. Dan Meridor, the deputy Israeli prime minister, said that all goods except weapons or other military material could be transported by land from Egypt or the Israeli port of Ashdod.

“What we want is to set the arrangement for inspections, so we can always check and not allow them to bust their way in,” Mr Meridor said in a radio interview.

Ms Zoabi of the National Democratic Assembly Party said she was not surprised that the “vengeful majority” in Israel’s parliament had voted to revoke her diplomatic passport and legal privileges.

“It is no wonder that a state which denies a million Arab citizens their basic rights is also revoking the rights of an MP who faithfully represents her voters,” said Ms Zoabi, one of 10 Knesset members representing Arab parties. There are also four Druze MPs who represent Zionist parties.

“This is a dangerous precedent for the Arab public, and a hostile message,” she said.

Israel Radio aired yesterday what it said was the navy’s warning to the captain that he would be held responsible for any showdown at sea.

On June 5th , the navy commandeered the Irish-owned aid ship Rachel Corrie after it refused orders to turn back or dock in Ashdod for its cargo to be vetted for overland transfer to Gaza.

An Israeli inquiry by a military panel into the navys killing of the Turkish activists concluded on Monday that there had been faults in planning the May 31st interception but that commandos had resorted to live gunfire in self-defence.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Israeli top officials to testify over botched ship raid

IRISH TIMES, Wednesday, July 14, 2010


ISRAEL’S PRIME minister, defence minister and military chief of staff will testify early next month before a commission of inquiry into the botched commando raid on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza in May that left nine civilians dead and Israeli diplomacy in tatters.

But the next challenge to Israel’s maritime blockade of the embattled Hamas-controlled enclave is expected today.

By yesterday afternoon, the Hope, a Moldovan-flagged ship carrying a crew of 12, nine activists and 2,000 tonnes of supplies, was 120km off the Gaza coast.

An official log filed by the ship’s captain with authorities in Greece says its final destination is El-Arish, an Egyptian port on the northern Sinai coast near the Gaza border.

Israeli military officials said they had made initial radio contact with the Hope. An Al-Jazeera reporter on board said Israeli officials had threatened the ship unless it changed course away from Gaza. The Israeli military denied making threats, but said the vessel would not be allowed through the blockade.

“We asked them what their plans are and to identify who is on the boat. We’re waiting to see if they go to El-Arish as they first said they would. Taking over the ship is the last resort,” an Israeli army spokesman told The Irish Times.

The ship set sail for Gaza last weekend sponsored by the Tripoli-based Gaddafi International Charity and Development Association headed by Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader. Activists on the ship say they have invited the Israeli navy to board the vessel and inspect its cargo before allowing them to proceed.

“No weapons, no guns, no weapons on board,” said a crew member identified only as Angelo in a radio message apparently transmitted to the Israeli navy and broadcast on Israel Radio.

Last month, Israel raised restrictions on hundreds of goods it says will now be allowed through land crossings after inspection, but has vowed to keep the maritime blockade in place. Israel says it needs to inspect goods imported into Gaza in order to stop rockets and other weapons from reaching Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since it overthrew the Fatah forces of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Israeli court concedes extra powers for flotilla inquiry

IRISH TIMES, Tuesday, July 13, 2010


PEACE CAMPAIGNERS in Israel claimed victory yesterday in a legal tussle with the Israeli government to increase the powers of a commission investigating the botched raid on a Turkish aid vessel that left nine civilians dead and Israeli diplomacy in tatters.

A compromise decision of the Israeli supreme court opened the door for the Turkel Commission, which includes David Trimble as one of two international observers, to subpoena soldiers and military commanders – a move the Israeli government had fought to prevent.

Meanwhile, the military’s own operational inquiry into the pre-dawn commando raid on the Mavi Marmara on May 31st levelled scathing criticism at the higher echelons of the Israeli navy, citing a series of intelligence and planning failures that led to the deaths of the vessel’s passengers and international embarrassment for Israel.

As a direct result, Israel has been forced to ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip after a four-year siege failed in its declared aims of bringing down the Hamas government and securing the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

The “Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010” was created under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court justice Yaakov Turkel in June, but no sooner had hearings begun than Turkel demanded his powers be increased. At the same time, the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) movement petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the commission either be reconstituted as a full state commission of inquiry or scrapped.

On July 4th, the Israeli government bowed to Judge Turkel’s demands and reconstituted his inquiry into a government inquiry commission, which under Israeli law has powers to subpoena witnesses and compel them to testify under oath. But it excluded military personnel.

Veteran Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery told The Irish Times that the government’s decision was illegal, since the newly empowered commission had the right under law to summon any witness, including soldiers.

Mr Avnery said yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was “a double victory” for Gush Shalom.

“It was the first time in the history of Israel that the court agreed to intervene in a matter concerning boards of inquiry. There have been many petitions before and they all have been refused,” said Mr Avnery.

“Second, the court actually said that if Turkel wants to interrogate soldiers he can do so. If the government does not accede to this demand, then we all go to the court again and the court will do what it deems fit.

“There’s a strong hint that then they will compel the government to agree,” he said.

The government had argued that the parallel military inquiry that reported yesterday made it redundant for Judge Turkel’s commission to also question soldiers, but they agreed to the compromise suggested by the court.

The findings of the military inquiry headed by reserve Brig Gen Giora Eiland appeared to raise more questions than they answered.

“The team concluded that not all possible intelligence-gathering methods were fully implemented and that the co-ordination between navy intelligence and the Israel defence intelligence was insufficient,” the committee said in a statement.

“The anticipated level of violence used against the forces was underestimated . . . The operation relied excessively on a single course of action, albeit a probable one, while no alternative courses of action were prepared for the event of more dangerous scenarios,” said the committee.

Monday 12 July 2010

Israel will not allow aid ship to dock in Gaza

IRISH TIMES, Monday, July 12, 2010


ISRAEL WILL not allow an aid ship sent by a Libyan group to reach Gaza, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday, just over a month after Israeli commandos killed nine activists in a raid at sea.

“I say very clearly, no ship will arrive in Gaza. We will not permit our sovereignty to be harmed,” Mr Lieberman said on army radio.

The Moldovan-flagged Amalthea , renamed Hope , left Greece on Saturday bound for Gaza on a trip organised by a charity chaired by Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy’s son Saif al-Islam Gadafy.

The group said the ship was carrying some 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine and complied with international rules.

Confusion surrounded the final destination of the Hope yesterday.

“Our mission is humanitarian and this is not a military operation or an act of terror,” Mr Gadafy told al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, said the ship was aiming to break the blockade and head for the tiny fishing port on the beach at Gaza City. “The land and sea siege on Gaza can’t continue,” said Mr Tibi. He said the ship was carrying “food, particularly baby food, cereal, various kinds of juice, various medicines, especially for kidney patients, a generator and other aid that doesn’t include prohibited items.”

Mr Tibi said the activists on board were not intending to mount any violent resistance if they were intercepted by the Israeli navy but said the ship should be allowed to continue on to Gaza after an inspection.

Jamal al-Khudari, chairman of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, said in Gaza that they were expecting the ship there some time on Wednesday. “The ship’s crew will not surrender to the Zionists’ threats not to reach the Strip and dock in Ashdod,” he said.

In Jerusalem, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the sea blockade would remain in place – a policy that he had explained to American and UN officials during a trip to the US last week. “I found broad support for our decision to lift the civilian blockade on Gaza while strictly maintaining the security blockade, and the understanding that we are doing what must be done in order to prevent the entry into Gaza of weapons, missiles and rockets, out of concern for the security of Israel’s citizens,” Mr Netanayahu told cabinet ministers.

Meanwhile, a former top Palestinian peace negotiator has warned that Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem had turned the city into “a ticking time bomb”.

Ahmed Qurei, the former Palestinian prime minister, told a Hebrew University of Jerusalem conference that Mr Netanyahu’s policies were endangering the chance of restarting peace talks.

Saturday 10 July 2010

200,000 join 12-day march seeking Gilad Shalit release

Aviva Shalit: "The time has come to say Stop! Enough!"Aviva Shalit: "The time has come to say Stop! Enough!"

IRISH TIMES, Saturday, July 10, 2010


FOUR YEARS after their soldier son Gilad was captured in a cross-border raid from Gaza, Noam and Aviva Shalit took to the road on a 12-day pilgrimage from their home on the Lebanese border to Jerusalem in an attempt to finally secure his freedom.

More than 200,000 people are believed to have joined them on the march, which attracted adoring press coverage and a raft of celebrities from supermodel Bar Refaeli to “Three Tenors” conductor Zubin Mehta, who staged a special concert for the family by the Israel Philharmonic in the desert on the Gaza border.

Hamas has demanded the release of 1,000 prisoners held by Israel for Sgt Shalit’s safe return (he was promoted from corporal while in captivity), including dozens responsible for the bloodiest suicide bomb attacks of the last intifada.

In polls, 72 per cent of Israelis said they were prepared to pay that price, and a similar number said they saw no other way to secure Sgt Shalit’s release. More than 80 per cent said they backed the Shalit family’s decision to take to the streets to pressure the Israeli government after four frustrating years in which their son has been denied any access from the Red Cross or other independent outsiders. The last communication was a video message recorded by Hamas almost a year ago.

“Four years of hell is too much,” Aviva Shalit told a rally in Jerusalem marking the end of their long march and the start of a vigil in a protest tent outside the official residence of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, where a huge portrait of the soldier hangs alongside a counter recording the number of days since his capture.

“There are no more excuses. My son has endured 1,474 days of hardship and pain in Hamas captivity. The time has come to say Stop! Enough!” she declared.

Israel is haunted by the experience of previous prisoner exchanges, when the release of convicted terrorists has backfired badly.

In a speech on July 1st that enraged the Shalit family, Mr Netanyahu, whose brother was killed leading the Entebbe rescue of hostages in 1976, said Israel could not pay “any price” for the soldier’s release.

“The most famous deal was the Jibril deal of 1985, in the framework of which 1,150 terrorists were released. Almost half of them returned to engage in terror and to murder dozens of Israelis at their own hands,” he said.

He must also consider the political cost of rewarding Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority government of President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom the Israelis are trying to open direct peace talks.

The Hamas list of prisoners to be released is headed by Marwan Barghouti, Mr Abbas’s likely successor as Fatah leader and Palestinian president.

Fury as UK envoy hails terror chief: Hague faces calls to sack our woman in Beiruit

By Jason Groves and Matthew Kalman
DAILY MAIL 10th July 2010

William Hague was under pressure to sack Britain's ambassador to the Lebanon last night after she heaped praise on the spiritual leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah.

In an extraordinary 'personal statement' on the Foreign Office website, Frances Guy paid tribute to Sheikh Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who inspired a string of terrorist attacks against Israel and the West.

Fadlullah, who died last weekend at the age of 74, became infamous in 1983 amid claims he had personally authorised the truck bombing of two barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French paratroopers.

Frances Guy

Controversy: British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy, pictured with Ayatollah Fadlallah, has sparked anger after praising the Hezbollah cleric in her blog

He was also behind the kidnapping of dozens of hostages, including Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. He recently issued a fatwa legitimising suicide bombing.

Diplomat and extremists

But writing on the Foreign Office website this week Miss Guy, Britain's ambassador to the Lebanon since 2006, hailed Fadlallah as a 'true man of religion' and said he was the man she admired the most.


  • Born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1935 after his parents moved there from Lebanon to study theology. He returned to Najaf to study Islamic sciences for 22 years before moving to Lebanon
  • The Muslim cleric was staunchly anti-U.S., but condemned the 9/11 terror attacks and had a progressive view towards the role of women in Islamic society
  • Fadlallah was the target of several failed assassination attempts, including one in 1985 when a car bomb exploded in Beirut
  • He died on Sunday at the age of 74 after a period of bad health. Thousands attended his funeral on Tuesday and Lebanese authorities declared it an official day of mourning.

Under the headline 'The passing of a decent man', she wrote: 'If I was sad to hear the news (of his death), I know other people's lives will be truly blighted.

'The world needs more men like him, willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace.'

Earlier this week the American news network CNN sacked its Middle East editor Octavia Nasr for voicing similar sentiments about Fadlallah.

Miss Guy's comments have now been removed from the Foreign Office website.

Foreign Office sources said Mr Hague was 'deeply unimpressed' by her actions.

Last night the Foreign Secretary was under mounting pressure to remove Miss Guy from her post following an outcry in Israel over her views.

In a statement Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to London, said: 'In 1983, the Holocaust-denying Sheikh Fadlallah murdered almost 300 American and French servicemen in Beirut.

William Hague at a press conference yesterday with Turkish Foreign  Minister Ahmet Davutoglu

Pressure: William Hague, pictured at a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has been urged to sack Mrs May

'It is surprising that the British Ambassador believes that, "the world needs more people like him".'


  • First emerged as a Shi'a military organisation in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Its forces were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard
  • It became one of the first Islamic resistance groups to employ suicide bombing, against members of the Israeli Defence Force during the war between 1982 and 2000
  • At the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah became a political group, winning 12 seats in the 1992 elections and launching the al-Manar TV station
  • Hezbollah operates several hospitals, news services, and educational facilities within Lebanon
  • Many countries designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, and claim it is funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Colonel Richard Kemp, a former adviser on terrorism to Tony Blair, said Miss Guy's position was probably untenable.

'The Foreign Secretary should consider whether she is a suitable person to remain in such an important and sensitive post,' he said.

'As a minimum she should be required to issue a full apology. Hezbollah have other political and social functions but they are above all a terrorist organization.

'Hezbollah carry out terrorist acts on behalf of Iran. They are responsible for helping to train and equip extremists in Iraq who attacked and killed British soldiers.

'They are potentially even more dangerous than Al Qaeda.'

A Foreign Office spokesman said: 'The ambassador expressed a personal view on Sheik Fadlallah. This did not fully reflect Government policy and the blog has been taken down.

'While we welcomed his progressive views on women's rights and inter-faith dialogue, we also had profound disagreements - especially over his statements advocating attacks on Israel.'


Revered: Supporters of Fadlallah jump on his coffin during the funeral procession. The cleric was viewed as one of Shia Islam's highest authorities

Thursday 8 July 2010

Israelis welcome warm Obama reception for PM

The Irish Times - Thursday, July 8, 2010
Barack Obama listening to Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of  the White House on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Kevin LamarqueBarack Obama listening to Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque


ISRAELI GOVERNMENT ministers yesterday expressed satisfaction with the warm reception given to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu by President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday. Palestinians, though, were sceptical and some Israeli commentators derided the carefully staged photo-ops as “soap opera”.

It was Mr Netanyahu’s fifth meeting with Mr Obama in little more than a year and marked a stark contrast to their last encounter, when the Israeli prime minister was left cooling his heels during an Obama family dinner and then hustled out a back door.

Officials travelling with Mr Netanyahu indicated that Israel had agreed to an unofficial extension of a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements to pave the way for direct peace talks with the Palestinians. “I think that the success of this meeting expresses the depth of the basic relationship between us and the US, and between us and the Obama administration, and of the importance of this special relationship on the subject of Israel’s security,” said defence minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. “There were more things discussed than have been published in the media,” he said. “I don’t want to delude us – there will be ups and downs and difficult moments throughout the process, but I believe and hope that we, in the next few weeks, will be in the middle of direct talks that will promote the chances for peace and will ensure the security and interests of Israel.”

Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in the settlement of Nokedim near Bethlehem that is likely to be evacuated or destroyed in any peace deal, was uncharacteristically upbeat about the White House meeting, to which he was not invited.

“It’s important to conduct direct negotiations and it’s important to keep the diplomatic process alive. This dialogue . . . is important in itself.” Mr Lieberman warned, however, that it was “unrealistic” to expect the two sides to settle all their differences in the two-year timeframe that Mr Obama has proposed.

He said Mr Netanyahu told him after the meeting that the settlement issue was not central to the agenda but he indicated he would support a slowdown in construction for the sake of diplomacy.

Palestinian officials wondered if Mr Obama’s extravagant welcome for Mr Netanyahu that included a cheesy fireside chat between wives Michelle and Sara didn’t have some connection with shoring up Democratic support among Jewish voters in the crucial mid-term congressional elections.

“How can you conduct meaningful negotiations when Israeli bulldozers are digging up the land where we hope to establish the Palestinian state?” asked Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. “The whole world and the US administration knows that the one who is blocking the door to direct negotiations is Netanyahu,” he said.

Israeli commentator Aluf Benn said Mr Obama’s hardline approach had failed to shift Mr Netanyahu. “Obama is changing his tactics. Instead of punishing Netanyahu with sticks, he is trying to entice him with carrots,” Mr Benn wrote in the Haaretz daily.

Israel Takes Intelligence Gamble on Hezbollah

AOL NEWS, Thursday July 8

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (July 8) -- In a rare and risky maneuver, the Israeli military has made public detailed intelligence on Hezbollah's military deployment in southern Lebanon, including data, maps and surveillance photographs.

Military chiefs say the material amounts to proof of a massive build-up of Hezbollah firepower in Lebanese villages close to Israel's northern border. Analysts suggest that Israel has displayed its intelligence in a bid to forestall any Hezbollah plans for an attack.

Israel also named the top Iranian commander in Lebanon as Hossein Mahadavi, a senior officer of the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Israeli intelligence identified Mahadavi as "commander of Iran's overseas division" in charge of liaison between Tehran and Hezbollah.

By revealing such detailed intelligence data, Israel risks exposing its sources and giving Hezbollah clues on how best to redeploy its forces to new positions.

Several Lebanese citizens have been arrested in recent months and charged with spying for Israel.

Israel and Hezbollah last went to war in July 2006 after Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two others kidnapped. The bodies of the missing solders were exchanged two years later for Samir Quntar, a Palestinian Liberation Front gunman from Lebanon convicted of killing three Israelis in a 1979 attack.

Now there are fears that growing tensions along the Lebanese border could spark a repeat of that monthlong conflict, in which more than 1,100 Lebanese and 159 Israelis were killed as Israeli troops invaded southern Lebanon and Hezbollah rained up to 300 rockets a day on northern Israel.

Israel says that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and banned the transfer of rockets and weapons to Hezbollah, has been largely ineffective.

France has demanded a Security Council debate after French troops in the UNIFIL peacekeeping force were attacked, beaten and disarmed by villagers on July 3.

Israeli intelligence says the Shiite group now has thousands of fighters deployed along the border and an arsenal of more than 40,000 rockets supplied via Syria and Iran that could strike deep inside Israel -- even as far as Tel Aviv.

In a highly unusual on-record briefing, Col. Ronen Marley, commander of the Western Brigade on Israel's tense northern border, told reporters that "Hezbollah is establishing itself with increasing strength in the villages. Every day they are collecting significant intelligence on our forces along the border and every day they are engaged in digging, building and laying communications infrastructure to prepare themselves for war."

As an example, he produced aerial photographs taken by Israeli spy drones of Al-Khiam, a complex used as a detention camp during Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that is now home to 23,000 people.

One building, marked in red on the photograph and highlighted with a large "X" in an extraordinary 3-D graphic that could have come from an arcade video game, is identified by the Israelis as a weapons storage facility located less than 150 yards from a school.

Marley revealed previously classified photographs to show what he said was a unit of 90 Hezbollah militants operating in Al-Khiam. He said more than 200 rockets were stored in the village.

He said Hezbollah had transformed more than 100 villages in the border area into "military bases" in preparation for an Israeli attack.

"By declassifying the intelligence, Israel is preparing the world," Jerusalem Post security analyst Yaakov Katz told Sky News. "It is to get the world to realize what will happen if there is a war. If there is a war there will be large-scale civilian casualties and vast devastation."

But Gerald Steinberg, head of the Project on Conflict Resolution at Bar Ilan University, says Israel's aim is deterrence, not aggression.

"I don't think Israel has any interest in launching a war against Hezbollah -- just the opposite," Steinberg said, recalling that Israeli commanders had held a series of similar briefings in early 2006, in which they analyzed the rocket threat from Lebanon and laid out Israel's battle plan should Hezbollah dare to attack.

"Hezbollah failed to understand that message, and when it launched an unprovoked attack across the border in July 2006, the Israeli army unleashed the battle plan it had previewed," Steinberg said. "Later, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted that if he had heeded Israel's warnings, he would not have started that war. This time, it looks like Israel is determined to dissuade Hezbollah from using its huge rocket arsenal again, and so the Israelis are sending this very clear deterrent message."

Hezbollah has not commented on the Israeli military's statements. Earlier this week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat that there would be no war between Israel and Lebanon "as long as there has not been any operation to launch missiles or cross the border."

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Israeli soldier to be charged over deaths of Gaza women

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


AN ISRAELI soldier is to face manslaughter charges for shooting dead two Palestinian women during Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in January 2009.

Eyewitnesses said Raya Salma Abu Hajjaj (64) and her daughter Majda (35) were shot while walking with a group of 31 family members, most of them children, waving a white sheet in surrender as they tried to seek cover from the advancing Israeli forces.

The case was one of 30 documented in a UN report prepared by a special committee headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, but the army said it was already investigating the incident when the report was published.

The soldier, identified only as First Sergeant S of the Givati Brigade, will be the third Israeli soldier to stand trial for offences during Operation Cast Lead.

This was a three-week aerial bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that destroyed hundreds of homes and left some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

Maj Gen Avichai Mendelblit, the Israeli military advocate general, said yesterday he had decided to take legal action against Israeli soldiers involved in several incidents during the incursion. Some officers and soldiers would face criminal indictments as a result of their conduct, while others would face disciplinary hearings.

A criminal investigation is also under way in the case of the deaths of 29 members of the Al-Samouni family in an air strike.

“More than 150 incidents have been examined and nearly 50 investigations have been launched by the military police criminal investigations division since the operation’s conclusion,” a statement from the Israeli army said.

Critics have accused Israeli forces of wanton killing and destruction during the invasion, but the army said the military operation was “limited in the scope of fire and forces used”.

“IDF soldiers operated in crowded urban areas while Hamas made deliberate and cynical use of the Palestinian population, creating a complex security situation,” the army statement continued.

“Hamas operated from within civilian homes, schools, kindergartens, mosques, hospitals and UN facilities while the population in the Gaza Strip was made hostage.”

Israeli rights activists said the military indictments barely scratched the surface.

Roi Maor, executive director of the Yesh Din legal rights group, accused the Israeli army of “massive failure to investigate” most of those responsible for suspected war crimes. “From September 2000 to 2009, only 18 soldiers were indicted for the deaths of Palestinian civilians and only four were convicted, most of them on very light charges,” Mr Maor said. “This hardly changes that grim statistic.”

Sarit Michaeli of the B’Tselem human rights group called for an independent investigation into “the widescale killing of uninvolved civilians and the extensive damage that was wreaked on the Gaza Strip”.

Israel Holds Firm in Banning Gaza Residents From Studying in the West Bank

July 7, 2010

By Matthew Kalman


The Israeli High Court has dashed hopes that Israel's decision to ease the blockade on Gaza will also enable students there to study in the West Bank.

In a ruling on Wednesday, judges here denied a petition by Fatima Sharif, a lawyer in Gaza, to attend classes at Birzeit University in the West Bank, where she has enrolled in a master's program in human rights and democracy.

The Israeli army effectively banned all Palestinian students in Gaza from attending West Bank universities several years ago and lately has been arresting and deporting those found in violation of the rule.

In 2007 the court instructed the army to reconsider the blanket ban and recommended that exceptions be granted in "cases that would have positive human consequences."

"Today the Defense Ministry admitted that since this judgment was handed down, Israel has not issued a single permit to a student from Gaza," said Sari Bashi of Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, a human-rights group that represented Ms. Sharif.

Ms. Sharif said she believed her case fitted the criteria laid down by the court in 2007 because the course is not available in Gaza, where she works for an advocacy organization, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

"I want to go back to Gaza at the end of my master's-degree studies to raise awareness about human rights within the society in Gaza. I firmly believe that every person has rights that they must be made aware of, including where these rights are violated, whether from within their own society or from without," she said.

The Ministry of Defense, the respondent in the case, told the court that an Israeli government decision on June 20 to ease the blockade on Gaza "does nothing to expand the criteria" for entering Israeli-controlled territory, "and it certainly does not permit passage for purposes of master's-degree studies."

Wednesday's decision appeared to set a harsh new precedent by accepting the Ministry of Defense statement without even referring to the 2007 ruling.

"We evaluated the case of the petitioner and were not convinced that in the current political-security situation, her personal circumstances justify intervening in the respondent's decision," the judges said in a written decision. "In a series of recent decisions, the court has not intervened in the policy of the respondent, and there is no justification to act differently in the case of the petitioner," they wrote.

Nomi Heger of Gisha, who argued the case for Ms. Sharif, said, "I regret that the court declined to follow its own case law and evaluate Ms. Sharif's request in the framework which the court itself established in 2007, namely the need to consider exceptions to the general ban."

Gisha officials said there is no possibility of appealing the decision, but, in light of the Ministry of Defense's admission that no students had been allowed to leave Gaza for the West Bank in the past three years, they plan to ask the ministry to clarify its understanding of the meaning of "positive human consequences."

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Palestinians pack a punch through boycott of products made in Israeli settlements

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A joint initiative of the Palestinian Authority and private business is co-ordinating consumer power, writes Matthew Kalman in Ramallah, West Bank

UNDER THE logo “Your conscience, your choice”, a large yellow tag hanging in the window of Sana Obeidi’s pharmacy in Ramallah declares the shop to be free of any products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The tag is in every shop window in Ramallah Hospital Street, and in more than 70 per cent of the 66,000 Palestinian shops throughout the West Bank.

The declaration, along with a pledge signed by shopkeepers not to buy settlement products and an official government certificate, is the result of a nationwide “Store to Store” campaign launched by Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad. “Our goal is to ensure the Palestinian market is free of Israeli settlement produce by the end of this year,” said Mr Fayyad.

“This will help ensure that the Palestinian economy can be self-sufficient,” he said. “Our goal is that every store in Palestine will carry our stickers. Then our homes will be cleared of the symbols of the occupation.”

Ms Obeidi said she supported Fayyad’s campaign, even though she personally had no need for it. “I’ve had this pharmacy for 20 years and I’ve never bought settler products,” said Ms Obeidi, whose sister lives in Dublin.

“If we buy from them, they use our own money to buy weapons to use against us.”

A booklet distributed to every Palestinian home in May listed some 500 items produced in the settlements, from food and wine to electronic goods and cosmetics. The boycott, which has aroused resentment in Israel, is being co-ordinated by the Al-Karameh (“Dignity”) National Empowerment Fund, a joint initiative of the Palestinian Authority government and private businesses.

“This is a Palestinian national programme to clear the West Bank of settlement products,” says Hitham Kayali, general co-ordinator of Al-Karameh.

“It comes as part of the government’s two-year plan to establish a Palestinian state. Our political stand against settlements is quite clear for obvious reasons but we have clear economic issues with settlements as well. In building our Palestinian state, and the institutions of that state, the main obstacles we face in building a prosperous economy are settlements.”

According to the Israeli pressure group Peace Now, more than 280,000 people live in 121 settlements throughout the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. The settlements have long been cited by the Palestinians as a key obstacle to a peace deal with Israel through the creation of an independent state.

Mr Kayali says that while the built-up area of Israeli settlements covers only about 2.8 per cent of the land in the West Bank, some 40 per cent of the territory that Palestinians want to see inside their future state is controlled by Israel. “We Palestinians have the right not to be part of the settlement lifeline,” he says.

The campaign is aimed at settlement products, not the $3 billion worth of Israeli goods imported by Palestinians yearly. “We welcome Israeli goods. This is a glimpse at the future. Through this campaign, every Palestinian can show support for a two-state solution,” he says.

Mr Fayyad wants to back up the campaign with tough legislation. A new law has been approved under which shopkeepers found violating the ban will face fines of up to 10,000 Jordanian dinars (€11,170) and five years in prison.

In addition, some 22,000 Palestinians have been ordered to stop working in the settlements and cease patronising settlement stores. Palestinian officials driving government-issued cars have been warned that their vehicles will be confiscated if they are seen in the car parks of settlement shops.

Naftali Bennett, director general of the Yesha settlers’ council, says the campaign will have a negligible impact on the settler economy. He accused the Palestinian prime minister of sacrificing the welfare of his own people in pursuit of a political agenda and estimates the salaries of those working in the settlements support about 15 per cent of the Palestinian population.

“These are supermarkets where Israelis and Arabs shop together. There are lots of joint industries where roughly half are Palestinian employees and the other half are Israeli employees,” he says.

Mr Bennett says an independent Palestinian state is doomed to be overrun by Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007.

He offers instead a vision of settlers and Palestinians living together without an independent state. “Salam Fayyad wants to eliminate what I think is the favourable option of peaceful co-existence. That’s why he wants to sever all economic connections between Jews and Arabs. I think the very opposite. I think we ought to do everything in our power together to build more joint industries, to do more trading among each other.”

But back on Ramallah Hospital Street, ordinary Palestinian shopkeepers are relishing the idea of playing their part in detaching themselves from the hated settlements. “People here are poor, they don’t have enough money. We should be buying products made by Palestinians, not settlers. That would help our own people,” says Abu Majd Tarifi, a grocery store owner who says he stopped buying settler produce five years ago.

Israel eases Gaza blockade, issues blacklist items

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


IN RESPONSE to growing international pressure, Israel announced on Sunday it was easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip after four years in which only a trickle of basic foodstuffs, fuel, medicine and other items were allowed into the Hamas-controlled enclave.

The Israeli defence ministry published an 11-page booklet which for the first time set out a list of “controlled items” that would continue to be banned.

These include “weapons and war material, including problematic dual-use items” including carbon fabric tape, chopped glass fibres, gas tanks, drilling equipment and epoxy resins.

In an attempt to prevent Hamas from building bunkers and other military facilities, Israel will allow cement and other construction material for “internationally-funded and supervised projects approved by the Palestinian Authority”. Under the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel controls all goods access to the Gaza Strip, including land, sea and air passages. Egypt, which controls a land crossing into Gaza at Rafah, enforces a strict ban on goods from its territory.

For years, Palestinians have circumvented Israeli and Egyptian inspection through some 200 tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border used to smuggle in commodities from weapons and explosives to luxury cars and live animals.

The blockade was implemented following the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. His parents, who have attracted tens of thousands of supporters during a 10-day march to Jerusalem, said Mr Netanyahu had “surrendered” without securing their son’s release. Last night, the Shalit family and an audience of thousands attended a concert in Shalit’s honour by the Israel Philharmonic on the Gaza border.

“We have made great effort to ease the plight of civilian population and make things difficult for terror groups,” Yossi Gal, director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, told reporters in Jerusalem.

Israel said it would sharply increase the number of trucks carrying goods into Gaza.

Tony Blair, peace envoy for the Middle East “Quartet” of the UN, EU, US and Russia, hailed the Israeli move as “a significant milestone.” “The list of controlled items is tightly defined to protect Israel’s legitimate security needs,” said Mr Blair. “The number of projects to improve health, education, water and sanitation facilities that have received approval in the last few days has increased, and should continue to grow. These changes . . . should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza.”

As the list was published, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak met in Jerusalem with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, the first public top-level contacts between the two sides since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister in February 2009.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Turkey threatens to close airspace to Israel

Saturday, July 3, 2010


RELATIONS BETWEEN Israel and Turkey slumped to a new low yesterday after Ankara threatened to close its airspace to Israeli civilian aircraft unless it receives a public apology and compensation for its citizens killed in a commando raid on a Turkish ship sailing to Gaza on May 31st in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade.

“Ankara’s indignation over Israel will lead to further retaliatory measures in all fields if Israel refuses,” said the Turkish Zaman daily.

Turkey has already recalled its ambassador, frozen orders for military equipment and closed Turkish airspace to Israeli military flights, ending nearly 20 years of close co-operation during which Turkey was Israel’s most important Muslim ally.

Turkey’s demands were spelled out in a secret meeting in Brussels on Wednesday between Turkish foreign minister Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu and Israeli trade minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Those talks triggered a row within the coalition of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu because they were held without the knowledge of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

After the meeting, Turkish officials said they believed Israel was considering paying compensation to the victims aboard the Mavi Marmara, now docked in Haifa port. Mr Ben-Eliezer denied he agreed to any compensation.

The deepening row has already cost the Turkish economy an estimated $400 million after more than 50,000 Israeli tourists initiated an unofficial boycott and cancelled their holiday reservations.

But Mr DavutoÄŸlu appears determined to make Israel pay for its attack.

“DavutoÄŸlu reminded Ben-Eliezer of Turkey’s demands from Israel, including an apology, payment of compensation to families of those killed and wounded, an international inquiry and an end to the blockade of Gaza,” said a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman. “The meeting provided an opportunity to convey in person the steps we expect to see taken so that relations can be repaired.”

“We will continue to pursue the issue,” Mr DavutoÄŸlu said in parliament. “We gave voice to our demands. We have brought our demands to the agenda at every opportunity.” A senior Turkish diplomat told Zaman that Turkey did not want to sever relations with Israel but was ready for such an eventuality. “Destroying such ties is easier than establishing them. But we are ready to face the negative impact of cutting these ties in an eventual absence of an apology from the Israeli side,” he said.

The Turkish Hurriyet daily said the Israeli government had signalled it was willing to consider compensation, paving the way for further talks.

“There will be a second meeting if the Israeli side takes a step toward [meeting] our demands,” a Turkish diplomat told Hurriyet .

But the report was quickly denied in Jerusalem. “We have no plans to do that, and the minister did not promise anything in that regard during his meeting with the Turkish foreign minister two days ago,” Mr Ben-Eliezer’s office said.

US officials, who were instrumental in initiating Wednesday’s talks after weeks of tension between the two countries, expressed the hope that relations could still be salvaged.

“A relationship between Turkey and Israel is not only in the best interest of the region, it supports our interests in the region as well,” said US state department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. “We certainly support this kind of dialogue that hopefully can help repair the fractures that have existed in recent weeks and months.”

Friday 2 July 2010

Israel and Turkey hold secret talks in bid to mend fences

Friday, July 2, 2010


ISRAEL AND Turkey have held secret high-level talks in an effort to repair their crumbling relations after the deaths of nine Turkish activists in an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound ship at the end of May.

According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the secret two-hour session in Brussels on Wednesday between Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli industry minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was initiated after strong pressure from President Obama.

The two ministers discussed ways to restore ties between Israel and Turkey, according to Turkish media reports. The meeting was mediated by an Israeli businessman and the US ambassador in Ankara.

The surprise meeting came as Turkey, once Israel’s closest Muslim ally, stepped up its demands for an international inquiry into the flotilla deaths, plus a public apology and compensation from Israel. Last week it closed its airspace to flights by the Israeli military, with whom it once had a very close relationship.

Mr Ben-Eliezer has longstanding ties with Turkey. Mr Davutoglu, a former university professor, is regarded as the strategic architect of Turkey’s aggressive new foreign policy consequent on strong opposition to its membership of the European Union.

The fact that Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was not made aware of the talks triggered a public row yesterday.

With 15 members in the 120- seat Knesset, Mr Lieberman’s party is prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner. Without it, the government does not have a majority.

In a statement, Mr Lieberman’s office slammed the incident as “an insult to the norms of accepted behaviour and a heavy blow to the confidence between the foreign minister and the prime minister”.

Mr Netanyahu’s office cited “technical reasons” for the failure to inform the foreign ministry, but that only increased Mr Lieberman’s rage. “The prime minister’s office should have considered and dealt with this matter differently, or at the very least consulted,” he said in a live radio interview.

He cited a long list of people who knew about the meeting when he didn’t, including American officials and his arch-rival Ehud Barak – the defence minister and Labour party leader.

But Mr Lieberman stopped short of threatening to resign – a move that would bring down the government.

“We have no thoughts of quitting. We won’t give anyone that pleasure,” he said.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Israeli inquiry into flotilla raid runs into trouble

Thursday, July 1, 2010


A COMMISSION of inquiry set up by Israel to examine the botched raid on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza on May 31st that left nine activists dead has run into problems after only two days.

Yaakov Turkel, the retired Israeli supreme court justice chairing the commission, has demanded that it be enlarged and its powers extended beyond its original remit to include the power to subpoena witnesses of its own choosing. The original mandate barred the commission, in which David Trimble is an observer, from examining the government’s preparations before the incident. The defence ministry had also refused to allow any military or defence officials to give evidence.

But amid rumours that Judge Turkel was threatening to quit unless the commission was given some teeth, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to extend some of the judge’s powers, including the right to recommend sanctions against individuals found guilty of wrongdoing. But the government still refuses to allow soldiers to give evidence.

The decision came after Gush Shalom, a left-wing group, filed a high court petition challenging the legality of the inquiry. Its leader Uri Avnery said the government had been forced to “admit Gush Shalom’s main contention – that the Turkel commission, with the very narrow authority and mandate given it by the government, was not able to conduct a serious investigation into the circumstances that led to the killing of nine passengers on the Gaza flotilla”.

“A thorough and independent investigation is needed,” he said.

Analyst Ze’ev Segal of Haaretz said the judge had no choice.

“Currently, the Turkel commission is crippled, dependent entirely on the government’s goodwill,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Israel moved to ease international pressure and the prospect of more aid flotillas sailing to Gaza by increasing the number of trucks carrying allowable merchandise into the enclave each day from 100 to 150, and eventually to more than 300.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the new policy as “a step in the right direction” at a joint news conference with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman.

Nasser al-Sarraj, the assistant undersecretary of the Palestinian ministry of national economy, said home and office furniture, electrical appliances, sanitation tools, paint, and several non-electric metal tools would be permitted into Gaza for the first time since 2007.

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government, dismissed the Israeli move as “lies” designed to mask its continued control of Gaza.

The Israeli decision has been met with dismay in some quarters. The parents of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, who have embarked on a 10-day march to Jerusalem to mark the fourth anniversary of his capture, said the sanctions should not have been lifted without their son at least being allowed a visit by the Red Cross.

Shortly before dawn, a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza destroyed a packing plant in southern Israel. There were no casualties.