Monday 27 September 2010

Palestinians Blink in Settlement Poker Match

AOL News Monday, September 27th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Sept. 27) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have emerged victorious -- for now -- after a tense weekend of brinkmanship over West Bank settlement building that wrong-footed the Obama administration, divided the Palestinian leadership and perhaps humiliated both of them.

Netanyahu's refusal to heed President Barack Obama's plea at the United Nations on Friday to extend a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement building was a snub to the U.S. president and created major complications for the Palestinians.

Israeli contractors look at maps as they stand at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Monday, Sept. 27, 2010.

Ariel Schalit, AP
The expiration of an Israeli moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements Monday threw fledgling peace talks into turmoil. Here, contractors check a map at a settlement construction site.

Senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah told AOL News today there was now a clear split between the cabinet of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the negotiating team headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over whether to continue the peace talks that began in Washington in early September.

As tractors and bulldozers fanned out through the disputed area where the Palestinians hope to build their independent state, Netanyahu called on Abbas "to continue the good and sincere talks that we have just started, in order to reach an historic peace agreement between our two peoples."

"My intentions to achieve peace are serious and genuine," Netanyahu said.

"I say to President Abbas: For the future of both our peoples, let us focus on what is really important. Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year," he said.

Only last week, Abbas said Israel "must choose between settlements and peace" and described peace talks without a construction freeze as "a waste of time."

But speaking alongside President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris on Monday, Abbas appeared to blink first in the tense diplomatic poker game with Netanyahu.

"We are not rushing to respond, and we will study the consequences and their effect on the negotiations," Abbas said. "After meetings and consultations, we will formulate a stance and provide the Palestinian response to the cessation of the freeze."

Abbas, who had refused even to meet Netanyahu until nine months into the construction moratorium, said he would convene the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Central Committee of its main Fatah faction to formulate a unified Palestinian response before the matter is discussed at a special meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority cabinet, meeting in Ramallah today, issued a hardline statement that berated "Israeli attempts to bypass the terms of reference of the peace process and the Quartet Statement, which clearly states the need for a settlement freeze."

"The cabinet warned of the dangers of unleashing settlers to build new settlement posts and expand settlements in the West Bank including Jerusalem, in light of Israeli government refusal to extend the settlement freeze," the statement added.

A senior Palestinian official told AOL News that the cabinet had been caught off-guard by Abbas' more moderate response in Paris.

"The Cabinet statement was repeating the things that the president was saying until today. The president said what he said in Paris after the Cabinet meeting," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said the Palestinian leadership was expecting Abbas to suspend the peace talks if the freeze was broken.

He said that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was still in the United States, apparently trying to work out an arrangement that would permit some building while allowing the talks to continue.

One formula would be to impose a "quiet freeze" under which Israel would slow building permits to a trickle and allow construction only in the major settlement blocs that are likely to be involved in a land-swap with the Palestinians in any peace deal.

That way, Netanyahu can hold together his right-wing coalition while pursuing the chance of peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said it was "far too early to tell" if this game plan could produce results, but it was the only way for Netanyahu to stay at the table.

"Obama forced Netanyahu into a 10-month freeze, which was very difficult from an Israeli political perspective. Netanyahu got nothing in return that he could then use to justify extending the freeze. The peace talks are all about land for peace.

"Israel put land on the table, but the Palestinians didn't put their peace cards on the table," Steinberg told AOL News.

"Now we will hear lots of angry words and rhetoric at the Arab League, and we may have a short period of time for other pieces of the puzzle to be put in place," Steinberg said. "The Israelis will be waiting for the Palestinians to give ground on core issues like refugees. If those are in play, Netanyahu can implement a de facto freeze on the ground, but he needs a Palestinian quid pro quo."

While Netanyahu is under pressure to push ahead with settlement building from many members of his own government, and even his own party, Abbas is under pressure to quit the talks.

"I want to appeal to my brothers in the Palestinian Authority who have said that they do not want to renew talks with the enemy if the settlement of the territories continues," Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told the Syrian parliament.

"Negotiations not held from a position of power are absurd. Netanyahu is not the man who can bring peace to the region."

There are threats also from within the Palestinian leader's own Fatah movement.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the military wing of Fatah largely disbanded after their disastrous adoption of suicide bombings during the intifada uprising, warned that its fighters would teach the Israeli settlers "unforgettable lessons" if building continues.

Palestinian Professors and Students Condemn Efforts to Expand Study Abroad in Israel


GLOBAL NEWS TICKER September 27, 2010

Palestinian professors and students in Gaza have condemned plans by eight U.S. universities to offer study-abroad programs in partnership with Israeli colleges. An open letter published on the Web site of the Lebanese Campaign for the Boycott of Zionism, signed by the University Teachers’ Association in Palestine and the Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel, accused the American universities of supporting "Israeli academia's entrenched involvement in ... a long-running subjugation of a people along medieval lines of race and religion." The institutions under scrutiny include Barnard College, Michigan State University, the University of Florida, and the business schools of the University of Maryland and of Washington University in St. Louis.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Israeli Settlement Freeze Ends; Peace Hopes in Doubt

AOL News Sunday September 26th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

KIRYAT NETAFIM, West Bank (Sept. 26) -- A pregnant Israeli woman gave birth Sunday night soon after she was wounded in a gun attack on two Israeli cars driving through the West Bank. The shooting incident underscored the knife-edge atmosphere as Israel marked the end of a 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction that the Palestinians say must continue if peace talks are to make any progress.

Four Israelis were gunned down in the same area of the southern West Bank on Aug. 31, and there have been several days of rioting in Jerusalem after an Israeli security guard shot dead a Palestinian on Sept. 24.

In settlements across the West Bank and Likud Party gatherings elsewhere, opponents of the freeze gathered to declare a renewal of construction while Israeli, Palestinian and American officials scrambled to piece together a formula that would allow the two-week-old peace talks to go forward.

Palestinian labourers work at the construction site of new houses in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, which was established in 1978 and houses some 16,716 people, on September 26, 2010, hours before the end of a freeze on settlement construction.

Jack Guez, AFP/Getty Images
Men work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel on Sunday, hours before the end of a freeze on settlement construction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged settler leaders and right-wingers in his own Likud Party to tamp down their pronouncements on Sunday, but he was largely ignored.

The outspoken statements of hardliners from within his own political movement suggested that he must either abandon peace talks or follow the previous Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and create a new political alignment in Israel if he wants to continue negotiations and enjoy a parliamentary majority.

More than 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, and another 100,000-plus live in new neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem, both occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. Palestinians say that both areas are within the territory of their future state and have demanded an end to all Israeli construction while peace talks continue.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Jewish intellectuals in Paris on Sunday that continuing peace talks without a settlement freeze was "a waste of time." Last week he told the United Nations that "Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements."

But settler leaders said they would not agree to a further moratorium in order to placate Palestinian and American demands.

"For 10 months we've been frozen. The government has restricted the building for Jewish people throughout Judea and Samaria," said Samaria Liason Office director David Ha'Ivri, using the biblical description of the West Bank. "Today the building freeze has come to an end."

"Our building in Judea and Samaria has nothing to do with the peace process. Our building has to do with Zionism, it has to do with the return of the Jewish people to our homeland," Ha'Ivri told AOL News. "This area, Judea and Samaria, is the core, the heartland of the Jewish national homeland. Through great miracles of God's hand we have returned to our homeland and we are building here. We will continue to build here regardless of our aspirations to peace with our neighbors and we call on our neighbors to live with us in peace."

In the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim near Nablus, right-wing leaders gathered to pour the first cement for the cornerstone of a new daycare center they said had been blocked by the freeze. Gershon Mesika, head of the Samaria Regional Council, said 35 babies had been born in the settlement during the past year and would soon be using the new facility. He said the freeze had been "born in sin."

The ceremony was attended by Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset and chairman of World Likud, the international wing of Netanyahu's own party.

Settler leaders chose Kiryat Netafim for the symbolic restart of construction because it represented the national consensus on settlements that has guided Israeli policy for the past generation. The community, now numbering 620 people, was founded 30 years ago and has grown under governments led by all of Israel's major parties, from right to left.

Zeev Elkin, Likud Party chief whip, issued a veiled warning to Netanyahu as he hosted a political gathering at his home in the settlement of Kfar Eldad.

"This is a symbolic gathering place, in one of the frozen communities. Kfar Eldad has people who have been living in caravans for 20 years and have not been able to build their homes. This reality is about to end tonight, and life in Judea and Samaria will return to normal," Eldad declared.

Thousands more Likud activists attended a gathering at the home of Likud minister Yisrael Katz to listen to their host declare that "Hebron, Shiloh and Beit El" – three settlements that are almost certain to be handed over to the Palestinians in any peace deal -- were "part of this historic homeland that belongs to the Jewish people."

"In every future arrangement, we must preserve the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and the residents that live there," said Katz.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Olmert's Revenge Lifts Israeli Security Veil

AOL News: Tuesday, September 21st

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Sept. 21) -- A raucous feud between two former Israeli prime ministers has apparently exposed a closely guarded state security secret, embarrassed the sitting defense minister and left the country's military censor flailing.

Ehud Olmert, the disgraced former premier currently on trial for corruption and bribery, has been dumping loudly on former premier Ehud Barak, the current defense minister. In an extract from his forthcoming memoirs and in a public speech on Sunday, Ehud O. has accused Ehud B. of being indecisive and hesitant -- not qualities Israelis value in the man who might have to order an attack on Iran's nuclear weapons.

Olmert also accused Barak -- Israel's most highly decorated military commander -- of trying to prevent "daring security operations" when Olmert was prime minister.

In this composite photo Former Israel prime minister Ehud Olmert, left and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak can be seen.
AFP / Getty Images
Former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, has accused Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, right, of trying to prevent "daring security operations" when Olmert was prime minister.

Barak described the charges as "pathetic remarks not worthy of a response."

The country's largest newspaper put Olmert's comments on its front page alongside large photos of a site in Syria where a nuclear reactor under construction was mysteriously bombed in September 2007. Israel has never officially confirmed its role in the Syrian raid, whose target remained a mystery until the CIA held a press conference -- complete with spy videos -- nearly a year later.

Olmert himself threw a fit soon after the raid when then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu let it slip in a TV interview that he had been let in on the decision.

"I was privy to the matter from the outset, and I gave my backing. But it's too early to be discussing this," Netanyahu boasted.

Olmert was careful not to utter the word "Syria" himself this weekend, but his spin doctors have been hard at work in the background making sure that reporters understood the hint.

Stories of divisions between Olmert, Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi have been an open secret for some time. Ashkenazi said in a recent interview that he and Barak had disagreed over an operation involving an enemy target. The souring of relations between Barak and Ashkenazi led to a humiliating showdown earlier in the summer when the military chief was abruptly informed he would not be staying on for a customary fourth year in his post.

"Olmert's blabbering has made many journalists very angry, because they have been trying to publish this story or similar stories for months," Shuki Tausig, acting editor of The Seventh Eye, an Israeli media magazine, told AOL News. "Now, in order to take revenge on some political rivals, he is coming out with these so-called secrets."

The episode has also raised questions about the nature of Israel's far-reaching censorship laws, which give the military censor a wide range of powers to prevent the publication of material that could harm state security.

"In this day and age, you simply cannot exert centralized control over information or military secrets, as they are attempting and failing to do. Especially when powerful figures are chafing to expose them," said Richard Silverstein, author of the Tikun Olam blog that regularly exposes Israeli security stories.

Many Israelis welcomed the bombing raid against Syria, a country that backs Hezbollah and Hamas and has close ties with Iran.

"They were trying the beginnings of a nuclear weapons program, that's pretty clear. Any nuclear facility built by Israel's declared enemies -- and by that I don't mean countries in the Persian Gulf -- is cause for concern," said Joshua Teitelbaum, Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Israeli journalists acquiesced to the initial silence over the Syrian raid but believe it was made moot by Netanyahu's boasting and the subsequent CIA briefing.

Olmert's critics suspect that his fighting talk is an attempt at revenge against Barak, who forced Olmert to resign as prime minister over mounting accusations of financial and administrative impropriety. The controversy may also be aimed at pumping up sales for his memoirs. But Israelis are not impressed at the way that closely guarded military secrets can apparently be sacrificed for the sake of a personal vendetta.

Olmert, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009, is currently on trial for multiple counts of fraud and bribery and is being investigated for other alleged corrupt practices, including a huge and unsightly real estate development in Jerusalem. His tactics against Barak could see him charged with additional offenses. On Monday, the Ometz citizen's movement for good government called on the attorney general to put Olmert on trial for revealing state secrets.

"It appears that the prospect of selling a lot of books in Israel and selling the rights to an overseas publisher has tempted Olmert once again to open his big mouth -- and for which I'm deeply grateful, I might add," Silverstein said.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Bombs, Blockades and Unemployment Hamper Gaza's Economy

AOL News September 18, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Sept. 18) -- Abu Jihad didn't seem too concerned about the Israeli spy drones circling overhead as he showed the entrance to his smuggling tunnel that stretches more than half a mile 75 feet below the Gaza-Egypt border. He didn't flinch as the sound in the sky grew into the unmistakable roar of an Israeli F16 fighter-bomber seeking out its target somewhere in the vicinity.

"The Israelis don't bomb civilian tunnels like mine. They bomb the tunnels used to smuggle weapons across from Egypt. I don't do that," he said.

Abu Jihad -- his preferred pseudonym -- said he was more interested in protecting the $300,000 he invested in building the tunnel and the average $20,000 a day he has been earning smuggling consumer goods of all sorts into Gaza. On the best days, he could make as much as $50,000.

But since Israel loosened import restrictions on Gaza in July, his best days may be behind him. And while Gaza's economy has boomed with the freer access to consumer goods, international experts say it remains distorted by the continued blockade, an oversized public sector and rampant unemployment.

Just a half-hour after Abu Jihad ushered visitors through his tunnel on Sept. 15, Israeli jets bombed this Gaza border town, destroying what Israel said was "a Hamas-operated tunnel located on the Rafah border in the southern Gaza Strip" about half a mile away from Abu Jihad's enterprise.

The air strikes came in response to nine mortars and a Grad missile fired into Israel. The Hamas-controlled territory continues to be the launch pad for almost daily attacks against Israel, and the ruling Islamist resistance group refuses to countenance any chances of peace with the Jewish state.

When Israel controlled this area before 2005, many thought the government was exaggerating when it said there were 200 tunnels dug underneath the border. These days, a network of at least 1,200 tunnels has kept the local economy alive during a three-year Israeli blockade. They are all officially registered as "trading projects" with the Rafah Municipality. An operating license costs about $2,500. The fees probably go to the Hamas government, which also collects import duties on the smuggled goods from the merchants who order them.

Abu Jihad says proudly that only about 20 or 30 of the tunnels are as deep and wide as his. He has strong winches at either end, which pull a steel cable attached to a long, boatlike sled made of fiberglass that is filled with goods and pulled from end to end. It is powered by electricity from Egypt that is often interrupted, but a backup generator is on hand for power outages.

When business was at its height, Abu Jihad could charge $2,000 per ton. He once smuggled a cow -- "A small one," he said -- and sent out several desperately ill babies for medical treatment in Cairo hospitals.

He is undeterred by the occasional Israeli air strikes and unaffected by a steel barrier sunk by the Egyptians along the border to a depth of about 50 feet. Colleagues with tunnels nearer the surface either cut through the barrier with a blowtorch or simply dug underneath it and carried on.

But Abu Jihad's business was brought to a sudden halt in July when Israel eased its embargo on consumer goods and began allowing merchants to truck most previously banned items into Gaza through land crossings from Israel. He said he hasn't worked for more than a month. About 6,000 Gazans previously employed in the tunnels are suddenly out of a job. For the first time in three years, the border area around the tunnel openings in Rafah -- many hidden rather obviously beneath flimsy tents -- is almost silent.

The shops are now full of food and clothes. Even luxury electronic goods like washing machines and flat-screen televisions are readily available in sparkling showrooms in Gaza City. According to an International Monetary Fund report produced for a conference next week of international donors to the Palestinian Authority, Gaza's economy has grown by a startling 16 percent this year, compared with just 1 percent in 2009 at the height of the blockade.

But the IMF warns that the situation is far from healthy. The official rate of unemployment has risen from 36 percent to 39 percent in the past year alone.

Employment rates among Gaza's rapidly growing population of 1.5 million are kept artificially high by a bloated public service sector. The largest employer is the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which pays more than 60,000 public servants not to work under the Hamas-controlled Gaza regime.

Hamas itself employs about 35,000 people as civil servants and security officials, while the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that services the half-million refugees in the coastal strip employs another 11,000 people, as well as providing food aid and welfare to the 150,000 refugee families who make up a third of the population. The U.N. World Food Program gives aid to another 60,000 families, and the European Union supports another 40,000 hardship cases.

A World Bank report prepared for the donors conference says the situation is not likely to improve as long as Israel supplies consumer goods but not raw materials that could help rebuild a self-sufficient private sector in Gaza's economy and create new jobs.

"Exports from Gaza continue to remain prohibited, which, combined with the restrictions on entry of some raw materials and inputs, precludes the revival of the private sector," the report says.

The World Bank says per-capita gross domestic product in Gaza is $800, compared with $1,600 in the West Bank and $2,200 a decade ago. Economist Omar Shaban, president of PalThink, a Gaza-based strategic studies think tank, says easing the blockade has ended the careers of men like Jihad, but it has not ended Israel's political and economic suppression of Gaza.

"Why do we need to be poor? Why do you look at me as a person who just needs food?" Shaban asked AOL News. "I need books, I need software, I need toys. I can be part of the civilization of the world. This area has a huge potential. Before the new Israeli policy, we used to have five soft drinks. Now we have seven. I'm still in prison, regardless of the food you provide me. I want to be free. It's not about food."

Wednesday 8 September 2010

8 U.S. Colleges Join in Promoting Israel for Study Abroad


By Matthew Kalman


As part of an effort to raise Israel's profile as a study-abroad destination, eight American universities are starting or expanding programs to send students there.

The projects, which start in 2011 and 2012, were spurred by $400,000 in grants from Masa Israel Journey, a New York nonprofit financially supported by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In the past decade, the Palestinian uprising and two wars have created security concerns that helped lead to a drop in the number of American students choosing to study in Israel.

Israel is 22nd out of the top 25 study-abroad destinations for students from the United States, according to the Institute of International Education, which advised Masa on the programs.

A total of 2,322 American students participated in study abroad in Israel in 2007-8, the most recent year for which data are available, and 2,226 the previous year. By contrast, more than 30,000 went to Britain, the top destination, in 2007-8.

Avi Rubel, director of Masa's North American operations, said that it was too early to know how many students would participate in the new programs, but that he hoped to propel Israel into the top 15 study-abroad destinations in the coming years.

Students wanted to study in Israel, he said, but not all were attracted by the academic programs traditionally offered to them, which have focused on Middle Eastern studies, Hebrew, and religious studies.

"In business, Israel is one of the centers of entrepreneurship in the world. You can have an amazing academic experience and an internship on par with London or anywhere else—it just hasn't been available until now," he said.

"In the research we did with students, they told us that they would go to Israel if those things were available," Mr. Rubel said. "We think students have Israel on their radar screen as a place they would like to go but are actually choosing other destinations because the course work and those experiences haven't been available."

The institutions receiving money from Masa are Arizona State University, Barnard College, Case Western Reserve University, Michigan State University, the New Jersey state-university system, the University of Florida, and the business schools of the University of Maryland and of Washington University in St. Louis.

Some of these efforts are building on existing programs.

Michigan State, for example, has partnerships with four Israeli universities and has sent 101 students to Israel since 2005, 30 of them in the past two months.

"What we hope is that students will choose to study abroad for academic reasons and have an experience that they can't have here on the East Lansing campus," said Cindy Felbeck Chalou, associate director of the university's study-abroad office. "We hope that students will gain from a cross-cultural experience, not only learning about the host country and their people but gaining a perspective of the U.S. that they couldn't gain unless they went abroad and were looking through another set of lenses."

Tuesday 7 September 2010

West Bank Settler Says He'd Sacrifice Again for Peace

AOL NEWS September 7, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
TEKOA, West Bank (Sept. 7) -- From his kitchen window in this West Bank settlement south of Bethlehem, Seth Mandell enjoys a spectacular view across the rolling biblical landscape of the Judean desert toward 2,000-year-old Herodion, the stunning hilltop palace and tomb of King Herod.

If the peace talks launched in Washington last week between Israel and the Palestinians deliver on their promise to conclude a peace deal within a year, it's a view Mandell might have to give up sooner than he planned. His hilltop community of some 15,000 is about five miles from the pre-1967 "Green Line" border between Israel and the West Bank. It is also four miles beyond the 400-mile-long security barrier, which was erected by Israel to stop suicide bombers and will likely become the basis of a future border with the emerging Palestinian state.

"Tekoa is on the wrong side of the security fence," Mandell, a resident of this eclectic community since 1999, tells AOL News. "If you told me that the destruction of the village of Tekoa would mean that tomorrow we would have peace in the Middle East, we would all leave -- all but a small minority. We are willing to sacrifice for peace. The whole country is willing to sacrifice for peace, except for a minority of ideologues."

Mandell does not say that lightly, for his sacrifices have already gone deeper than most. In May 2001, Mandell's son Koby, then 13, was brutally beaten to death in a cave near his home along with Yosef Ishran, 14. It was during the height of the Palestinian intifada, with terrorist killings and Israeli reprisals almost every day. The two friends had skipped school to go hiking in the picturesque valley that leads from this hilltop down to the Dead Sea, but political circumstances transformed a schoolboy prank into a deadly tragedy.

"For myself and for my kids, this is really our home," says Mandell. "This is where Koby grew up. I still have relationships built on what happened to Koby. Even though Tekoa has grown considerably in the last couple of years, I walk into the grocery store and I still know most of the people there. On an emotional level, we are woven into the fabric of this village, of the people here. More than the material loss, which I think we'll be compensated for, it would be a ripping apart of a whole lifestyle. It's more than a bunch of houses, more than a bunch of families, it's almost a unique organism that is unable to be duplicated."

"That'll be the real sense of loss. There is no place like Tekoa. It's a place where you can be yourself, be as intensely religious as you want, and yet be as laid-back and tolerant as you like. That's a big loss for my kids, a big loss for my wife and I. Not as big a loss, however, as losing my son," he reflects.

Mandell, a former Hillel campus rabbi from College Park, Md., and his wife Sherri, a writer and poet, stayed on in Tekoa after the murders. They decided to channel their grief into helping others and created the Koby Mandell Foundation, which every year provides support for more than 800 women and children bereaved through the sudden death of a loved one in a terror attack.

After more than two years without major terror attacks, Camp Koby, the flagship summer event of the foundation, this year opened its doors to children bereaved in other circumstances of sudden death, such as traffic accidents and heart attacks. The experiment was a huge success, says Mandell, with the newcomers easily mixing with the terror family victims, many of whom have been coming to Camp Koby for five years.

"I thought the era of terror attacks was in abeyance, I thought there was a lull. God willing, we're still in the lull," he says.

But now Mandell is preparing to contact the seven children orphaned in last week's attack by Hamas gunmen on a car driving through the West Bank, which killed four residents of the Bet Haggai settlement, including a pregnant woman and a kindergarten teacher for children with special needs.

The attack reinforced Mandell's belief that the willingness of most Israelis to compromise for the sake of peace is not reflected on the Palestinian side.

"Every time there's been a threat of peace, then war breaks out. Every time there's a concession made by the Israelis it has ended up with an intifada or attacks," he says. "I see no evidence that making concessions in terms of land has any peaceful effect. If it did, things would be different."

"I'm completely pessimistic. I don't think the framework necessary for a peaceful resolution exists. There's not enough agreement on the essential issues," he says.

On Sunday, Mandell's pessimism was echoed by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, who declined to attend the ceremonial opening of the peace talks in Washington. Lieberman bluntly told supporters of his Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") Party that the leaders in Washington were "peddling illusions."

"It must be understood that signing a comprehensive agreement in which both sides agree to end the conflict and end all of their claims and recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a goal that is not achievable in the next year or in the next generation, so any historic compromises or painful concessions won't help," said Lieberman.

Lieberman himself lives on the next hill north from Tekoa, in the West Bank settlement of Nokedim. The foreign minister, an avowedly secular immigrant from the former Soviet Union, comes from a political culture light years away from Mandell's liberal American upbringing. But the two share a bleak assessment of the current peace process, where settlements loom as only one of a host of intractable differences.

Friday 3 September 2010

Abbas Flies Home to Violent Opposition

AOL News, September 3rd, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Sept. 3) -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew back from Washington after his first direct peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an uncertain welcome and an unpredictable political future.

Abbas, already governing on borrowed time since his constitutional term of office expired in January 2009, now appears to be ruling alone as well. Hamas, its rejectionist allies and their Iranian patrons denounced the Washington talks from the start. And once they were under way, Abbas was deserted by key members of his own Fatah group, including imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan.

Mahmoud Abbas

Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been deserted by key members of Fatah and faces a power struggle at home.

On the ground back home, there is a power struggle going on between independent moderates like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who believes the unborn Palestinian state can be induced through institution building and economic growth, and extremists like Hamas, who favor a Cesarean section through violence.

Tuesday night's attack by Hamas gunmen that killed four Israeli settler civilians, and a similar attack on Wednesday that nearly claimed the lives of a settler rabbi and his wife, could put into question years of confidence-building security measures. The core of that effort, now in question, was to replace Israeli occupation forces with American- and European-trained Palestinian security forces organized by U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton.

Responding to months of quiet, Israel had dialed back its forces in the West Bank and removed dozens of military checkpoints. The easing contributed to a spike in economic growth in the West Bank and a tangible improvement in the quality of life of its Palestinian residents. The Hamas attacks were designed to warn Abbas -- and Israel -- that the Palestinian president's rule in the West Bank is as fragile as it was in Gaza, where Hamas overthrew Fatah in 2007 in a violent coup in which more than 400 Fatah supporters were put to death and many more brutally maimed.

"We will liberate the West Bank the same way we liberated the Gaza Strip, through resistance attacks," said Abu Obeideh, spokesman for Ezzadeen Al-Qassem, the armed wing of Hamas.

To forestall any such effort, Palestinian security forces unleashed a massive crackdown on Tuesday night, arresting at least 300 Hamas sympathizers and summoning hundreds more for questioning.

"We will arrest anyone who tries to harm the national interests of our people and to undermine the Palestinian security forces," said Gen. Adnan Damiri, a Palestinian security spokesman.

By Thursday, Palestinian security chiefs said they had found the car involved in Tuesday's killings, arrested two suspects and identified a third.

But Abbas' security forces are caught between a hammer and anvil. By solving Tuesday's killings and bringing the perpetrators to justice, they will play directly into the hands of Hamas, who accuse them of being Israel's proxy militia.

"They have become agents of Israeli security," says Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas lawmaker released in 2009 after more than two years in Israeli detention.

Meanwhile, Abbas' own supporters were already distancing themselves from the widely expected failure of the talks launched in Washington this week.

Barghouti and Dahlan, until now fiercely loyal members of the Fatah Central Committee and both potential future leaders, each criticized Abbas' decision to begin peace talks.

Dahlan told the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat the talks were a replay of previous rounds of "negotiations without results" and chided the Americans -- once his paymasters -- for becoming Netanyahu's spin doctors. Barghouti, in written responses from his Israeli jail cell to questions from Reuters, agreed that the talks "are destined to fail" and said they were "without a popular foundation."

That assessment seemed borne out by popular responses to the talks from Palestinians back home. In Manara Square, the central Ramallah venue for political rallies of all kinds, three silent, black-clad figures stood this week holding placards that declared, "Yes to negotiations with Israel." Passers-by said they were employees of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service. Larger meetings opposing the talks were broken up by anonymous young men.

In Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem, evening Ramadan prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque turned into a political rally on Wednesday, with hundreds of worshippers chanting anti-Abbas slogans and condemning the mass arrests in the West Bank.

"It would have been better if the Palestinian Authority had focused on national reconciliation with Hamas before agreeing to these talks," Hatem Abdel-Kader, a prominent Fatah leader in Jerusalem, told AOL News.

"These talks have deepened divisions and increased tensions among the Palestinians, especially because of the feeling that the Palestinian leadership went to Washington against its will," he said.

Abbas' journey home coincided with the last Friday of Ramadan, marked as "Jerusalem Day" in Iran, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to demand the liberation of Jerusalem, the annihilation of Israel and punishment for the United States.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who backs Hamas and other extreme groups with both cash and weapons, accused Abbas and his negotiating team of being accomplices to Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.

"We ask, Who will conduct the talks? Who do they represent? Who gave him the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians? Who has the right to cede part of Palestine to enemies? The region's nations will not allow anyone to give up even one centimeter of Palestine," said Ahmadinejad.

"These talks are doomed to fail," he said, adding, "But more important is that the Zionist regime itself is doomed to collapse anyway."