Saturday 20 August 2011

One man's stand against an Israeli settlement

Matthew Kalman reports from Jerusalem on a Palestinian farmer's extraordinary story

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Independent


Said Ayid on his land next to Har Homa, also known as Jabal Abu Ghneim, where he has lived for 73 years

Said Ayid was born under the British Mandate, grew up in Jordan, raised his eight children under Israeli occupation and now lives on the edge of a sprawling new Israeli neighbourhood under the token protection of the Palestinian Authority.

But throughout those 73 years he has not moved an inch.

Two weeks ago, the Israeli government announced the addition of 930 new units in Har Homa, the new neighbourhood built in the past decade on the adjacent hillside south of Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967.

That number might have been higher, but Mr Ayid's tiny farm is the next parcel in line and he refuses to sell. His stubborn reluctance to leave his home has become a solitary stand against the concrete sprawl threatening his land and his livelihood.

"This was my grandfather's house. I was born here. I've lived every minute of my 73 years right here. I never even went to school. As long as I am alive, I will not leave my land," Mr Ayid told The Independent as Israeli bulldozers gouged out another few metres of his property.

In 1998, Robin Cook, who was then the British foreign secretary, provoked a diplomatic dispute with the Israelis when he visited the future site of Har Homa, then a pine-covered hilltop known to the Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim that overlooked Bethlehem and the adjacent village of Beit Sahour. Mr Cook was accompanied by senior Palestinian officials and hundreds of protesters.

The politicians and protesters gave up the fight years ago, and the Palestinian Authority, while praising Mr Ayid's "steadfastness", have lifted neither finger nor chequebook to help him.

"My son went to the President's office in Ramallah to ask Abu Mazen (the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas) for help, but they did nothing," Mr Ayid said. "Thousands of Palestinians used to come here and protest but in they end they achieved nothing."

Mr Ayid inherited 25 dunams (6.25 acres) from his father, but seven years ago a platoon of Israeli soldiers and paramilitary border police arrived, sealing off 1.5 acres of his property that lay within the expanded municipal boundary of Jerusalem. He watched in frustration as bulldozers tore apart the agricultural terraces where he grew wheat and laid the foundations for two large residential blocks. The land was expropriated by an Israeli government order. He fought the decision in the Israeli courts without success.

Israel offered him compensation but he rejected it, refusing even to discuss a figure for fear that it would legitimise the next step: eviction.

"I refused to accept it on principle. If I signed an agreement allowing them to take that part of the land, they will take the rest," he said.

Twice, Israeli officials have appeared on his doorstep offering to buy the remaining property.

"They said 'name your price' but even if they gave me $10m (£6m) what's the use? How could I ever face God if I sold my land? Even if they fill the valley with their money I wouldn't take it," he said. "One day I will die. If I am poor I will die, if I am rich I will die. If I lose my land, the money doesn't mean anything."

Today, Mr Ayid scrapes a living for his extended family of 50 by tending a handful of goats and sheep and growing wheat and olives as the towering blocks of Har Homa form a spreading arc from west to north to east around his land.

To the south, the Israelis built an anti-terrorist security barrier five years ago across a route used by suicide bombers to enter Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Now Mr Ayid is completely encircled.

His grandfather owned another 2.5 acres of olive groves a 10-minute walk away in Beit Sahour. His brothers moved there before 1967. Today they cannot enter Jerusalem, while his Israeli permit allows him access only to his land. For medical treatment, food and emergencies, he must take an expensive half-hour trip through an Israeli checkpoint via Bethlehem.

"Since they built the wall, I have been isolated, cut off from Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. I'm sure they would love to take this land next," he said.

One morning during Ramadan he watched as Israeli surveyors mapped out a new access road and sewage line within the property he still retains. He will not be connected to the new drain, nor to the fresh water supply piped to the edge of his property. Instead he must draw water from a well. An Israeli electricity grid ends a few metres away, but his power comes from a line his father hooked up decades ago.

When the plans for Har Homa were first approved by the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, they seemed uncontroversial to the Israelis. The new project was one of a ring of southern Jerusalem neighbourhoods planned to secure Israeli control of Jerusalem. Located within the newly extended municipal boundary of Jerusalem, one-quarter of it would be built on land bought for Jewish settlement back in the 1930s that was subsequently occupied – illegally, in Israel's view – by Jordan.

But then came the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, accompanied by the rapid northward expansion of Bethlehem, and the Palestinian demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Although Mr Rabin had no intention of ceding land in Jerusalem, the Har Homa plan suddenly seemed untimely and it was shelved.

Under Jerusalem's right-wing mayor, Ehud Olmert, and the right-wing, pro-settler government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the plan was revived and, despite international condemnation, building began in 1999. Today, 20,000 Israelis live in Har Homa and thousands more will populate the homes now being built. Palestinians say that, in addition to being built on illegally occupied land, the completed neighbourhood will form a physical barrier between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour to the south and the East Jerusalem villages of Um Tuba, Beit Safafa and Tsur Baher to the north.

"This plan changes the potential border between Israel and Palestine in Jerusalem more than any other East Jerusalem plan that has been approved in recent years and will make a permanent status agreement on Jerusalem incrementally more difficult," said Danny Seidemann, a human-rights lawyer who is a critic of Israeli policies in East Jerusalem.

Monday 15 August 2011

Mass protests and tent cities shake Israeli government

The Irish Times - Monday, August 15, 2011

Incensed by low pay, soaring living costs, economic inequality and high poverty rates, people have taken to the streets, writes MATTHEW KALMAN in Tel Aviv

DAPHNI LEEF is an unlikely revolutionary. The 25-year-old Israeli film school graduate comes from a comfortable, middle-class home and wants to direct movies.

But last month Leef pitched a tent in the middle of Tel Aviv’s smartest neighbourhood to protest rising living costs, sparking nationwide protests of more than 300,000 demonstrators, rattling the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and turning swathes of Israel’s cities into hippy-style tent communes.

Some Israeli politicians have dismissed Leef as a spoilt, drug-taking, middle-class fake, but she said the past month had changed her view of her country forever.“People seem driven,” said Leef in an interview near the leafy boulevard where she first pitched her tent. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

“I think people feel it just has to work. We demand social justice. We don’t want to negotiate it. We just want it. I am very proud for the first time in 25 years, genuinely proud, to be a part of this Israeli public,” she said. “I am proud to be here. Proud to fight for the social rights that we deserve. And I am very proud to be a part of such a non-violent uprising. I think it’s unbelievable.

“We’re fighting for very basic things,” she said. “Being able to keep a roof over our heads, to have a decent education system, a healthcare system, employment and welfare.” Two months ago, Leef received an eviction order from her Tel Aviv apartment. During fruitless weeks searching for a home within reach of her film-editing job she discovered that rents had doubled in five years.

“I couldn’t find anything in my range. Everything was ridiculously expensive and in a horrible state,” she said.

“Then I started crunching the numbers. I’m supposed to be the best-case scenario. I’m 25 and I do not have a family to support. I have an occupation. And for some reason I can’t find a way to finish the month without going further into debt.” Leef had read about Hooverville, the tent city in New York’s Central Park during the Great Depression in the 1920s. On Bastille Day, July 14th, she invited her Facebook friends to pitch camp on the grassy, tree-shaded median of the elegant Rothschild Boulevard. Ten people turned up and went to sleep. They awoke to a social revolution.

“In less than four days we were 1,500 people. By the end of the week we were 5,000,” she said.

Tent cities sprang up across Israel, accompanied by large, peaceful demonstrations. The protests followed strikes by doctors, social workers and municipal workers over low pay and tough conditions.

Leef said people were incensed by low pay, the high cost of living and confusion about Israel’s supposed economic boom.

“If we’re not making money, but the country is, then where does the money go?” she asked.

At first, the campers were ridiculed by government ministers, but the tents multiplied, questions were raised in parliament and debates erupted on television. Finally, Netanyahu appointed a government committee to negotiate and draft new policies.

But Leef said she would not be negotiating. “This is not two governments, one against the other,” she said. “You have the people demanding to be treated with respect, for the priorities to change, for the system to change, and then you have the government, the people we elected, who we pay to do their job. Being a film student, I don’t think I should be in negotiation with them. I don’t have the knowledge. I can talk to you from the place where I’m aching from, but I don’t know what’s going on in the budget. I have no clue.”

Stav Shaffir (26), a graduate student in history and philosophy and one of the original campers, was clearer about possible demands.

“We feel like the government started a war on its people,” she said, suggesting a tax increase for top earners from 40 per cent to 55 per cent, and a cut in VAT.

“We want to change the economic system from neo-liberal to a welfare state,” she said.

This week there were more than 1,000 tents lining Rothschild Boulevard, symbol of Tel Aviv’s recent makeover from dusty backwater to hip vacation destination. Beneath the billboards offering million-dollar holiday homes, next to the sushi and espresso bars, washing lines hung across the cycle path and the grass verge was covered with mattresses and old sofas. There were communal kitchens, blow-up paddling pools and hundreds of posters demanding free education, cheaper housing, more jobs, better transport and social equality.

Volunteers offered haircuts, legal advice, first aid and childcare. There were tents of religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. People played guitars, smoked water pipes, watched TV on large screens and smooched.

As a tribute to the Egyptian revolutionaries, the meeting-point where the protesters gather each night to debate, listen and hear visiting lecturers is called “Tahrir Corner”. Leef said she admired the Arab Spring but insisted her aim was to change priorities, not the government.

“If you’re an elected public official and for a month it just gets bigger and bigger, people screaming out their pain, how can you ignore it?” she said.

Outside one tent, Dana Turgeman (32), an artist, designer and single parent from Hadera in northern Israel, watched as four-year-old Muoar worked on his colouring book.

“My rent has just been increased from €500 to €600 per month. By the time I’ve paid for rent and kindergarten and babysitters and food and electricity, my bills are more than twice what I can earn,” she said.

“I have debts of €20,000. I’ve borrowed from my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles but I’ll never be able to pay them back. I used to think it was just me. Now I know I’m not alone. Something in this country has to change.”

Since the 1990s, Israel’s economy has been transformed. Rapid privatisation and a high- tech revolution remade Israel as a world leader in information and medical technology. The country sailed through the world economic crisis. Unemployment is below 7 per cent. Last year, the economy grew faster than the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany or France.

But the new wealth has failed to reach the Israeli middle class. The OECD says Israel’s poverty rate is twice the average of other developed countries, while its welfare and education spending is significantly lower. Thirty-nine per cent of Israelis find it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current incomes.

Economic reform delivered wealth into a handful of pockets, replacing creaking socialism with cartel-based capitalism. A 2010 report revealed 10 large business groups controlled 30 per cent of the market value of public companies, while 16 control half the country’s money.

Shaffir said the tent cities were a new beginning.

“We have built a new society, with schools and kindergartens and lectures and kitchens that serve three meals a day and we’ve even developed a special sign language that allows us to hold discussions and vote with over 100 people at a time,” she said . “It has to work, it must work, and it will work, because this won’t happen for another 10 to 15 years.”

Palestinians to apply for UN statehood next month

THE INDEPENDENT, Monday 15 August 2011

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will present a request for formal recognition of statehood to the United Nations on 20 September, officials confirmed this weekend, saying they have the support of 117 UN member states.

Israel and the US oppose the idea, saying it is a unilateral move in a process that should be negotiated between the parties. European nations have yet to decide their vote.

Officials in Ramallah said Palestine would seek recognition as the 194th member state of the United Nations, echoing UN General Assembly resolution 194 of December 1948, which refers to the return or compensation of refugees following the establishment of Israel.

Mr Abbas will personally hand the request to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will refer it to Lebanon, the current president of the UN Security Council.

The United States has already said it will cast a veto in the Security Council, depriving the process of any legal value, but the Palestinians hope to win a solid majority and a moral victory in the General Assembly.

Mr Abbas told a meeting of his Fatah faction that the decision to seek UN recognition was "a result of Israeli intransigence and refusal to hold serious negotiations that would lead to ending the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital," according to the Palestinian news agency WAFA.

Mr Abbas added that "seeking UN recognition does not oppose the peace process and does not aim to isolate Israel. Rather, it will reinforce the two-state solution," WAFA reported.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, who held four rounds of secret peace talks with Mr Abbas before they were abandoned in August on the orders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: "A UN declaration would be meaningless and only prolong the conflict. I hope that both sides return to the negotiating table before September."

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki said the UN had "a moral, legal, political and historical responsibility to recognise Palestine as a state and grant it full membership".

Some Israeli leaders have voiced strong concerns about the emerging Palestinian bid. They fear that large-scale rallies could turn violent, plunging the region into another bloody intifada. The Israeli daily Haaretz said the tone of Israeli government reaction bordered on "hysteria".

Sunday 14 August 2011

Palestinians attack East Jerusalem settlement approval

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

THE INDEPENDENT Friday, 12 August 2011

The Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has accused Israel of "a total disregard for Palestinian rights" after its Interior Ministry announced the approval for the construction of more than 4,000 housing units in East Jerusalem.

The Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he had authorised the building of 625 homes in Pisgat Zeev, 1,600 in Ramat Shlomo, and 2,000 in Givat Hamatos. The Israeli government says the project had been given the green light to help solve a severe housing shortage.

The neighbourhoods were all built by Israel across the pre-1967 border in territory previously held by Jordan that was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War and annexed to Jerusalem. Legally, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are permitted to live in such suburbs, but very few actually do. Ramat Shlomo is designated as a strictly ultra-orthodox Jewish area.

Last week, Israel was internationally condemned when it announced it was building 930 units in Har Homa, an Israeli suburb built across the Green Line on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem close to Bethlehem. Critics included the EU and the US State Department, which said it was "deeply concerned".

In a statement, Mr Fayyad condemned the decision, describing the areas as "occupied territory that belongs to Palestinians". "The Government of Israel continues to expand settlement activity while it makes claims that it wants to return to the negotiation table," he said. "Their actions clearly demonstrate Israel's intentions to conduct their affairs outside the realm of international law and show total disregard for Palestinian rights. The Palestinian government calls upon the international community to take immediate action to force Israel to comply with international law and cease and desist from its illegal expansion and annexation of Palestinian land."

Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said he was "alarmed" by the Israeli announcement and noted that the Ramat Shlomo plan "was already condemned by the Quartet on 12 March 2010 during an initial planning stage". "This provocative action undermines ongoing efforts by the international community to bring the parties back to negotiations and shape a positive agenda," he said.

The 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo will be built almost immediately. The project caused a major rift in Israel-US relations when it was announced in the middle of the first official trip to the country by US Vice-President Joe Biden last year. "[The projects] are being approved because of the economic crisis here in Israel. They are looking for a place to build in Jerusalem, and these will help," said Interior Ministry spokesman, Roi Lachmanovich. "This is nothing political, it's just economic."

The Israeli government has been rattled in recent weeks by mass demonstrations demanding a solution to the country's severe housing shortage. Peace Now accused the Israeli government of "cynically using the current housing crisis in Israel to promote construction in the settlements".

Tool Creates Fresh Web Apps from Aging Code

Visual WebGui makes an application accessible via the Web without altering its code.

Technology Review

Published by MIT

Friday, August 12, 2011

By Matthew Kalman

A tool that lets developers turn existing software into fully functional browser-based applications is becoming an increasingly popular way to make business applications accessible via the Web.

Visual WebGui, an application originally run on a Web server using virtualization software and a layer of code that renders its interface functional in the modern Web standard HTML5, lets companies offer Web access to their applications without completely rewriting the code.

While it is possible to access applications through a browser using just virtualization, this can be slow for data-heavy business applications such as those used by banks and insurance companies. It also requires installing an application on the user's computer.

Made by Gizmox, of Tel Aviv, Israel, Visual WebGui is being used by companies and institutions such as SAP, IBM, Visa, Thomson Reuters, Shell, Texas Instruments, and Goodyear. So far, the company says, 35,000 apps built using its platform are in production. In June, Citrix, a major supplier of remote-desktop software, announced an investment of $2.5 million. The Gizmox platform works with Microsoft's .Net development, and Microsoft is partnering with Gizmox by promoting the software through its marketing platform.

"We decided we were going to look at the basic architecture of the Web and change whatever [was] necessary to reproduce the experience of the desktop in terms of richness, performance, user experience, and security," says Gizmox CEO Navot Peled. "We call it transposition. We can take a code that was written basically for an architecture that was targeting the desktop, put it through some processes and some tools, and generate code from the other side that can run on top of a Web server and be a Web application, cloud application, or mobile application."

Gizmox generates income by charging about 20 cents per line of code to use the company's code-conversion tools. The largest program so far had 7.5 million lines.

The technology requires 10 percent of the bandwidth and 50 percent of processing power of other virtualization-based solutions, enabling it to function on tablets and smart phones with lower-power CPUs.

"Anyone who can take corporate applications built on Microsoft tools and turn them into Web apps in a secure way—that's important," says Jonathan Medved, a venture capitalist turned mobile entrepreneur. "Anything that keeps them in the game relative to the burgeoning world of Web apps is very strategic for Microsoft, and for players like Citrix who have built themselves on Microsoft foundations."

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Hamas-Fatah deal in sight after prisoner release agreed

The Irish Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2011


PALESTINIAN FACTIONS Fatah and Hamas have moved towards healing a deadly rift by agreeing a mutual release of prisoners and the appointment of joint committees to address outstanding grievances.

The breakthrough after months of stalemate came ahead of a push for UN recognition in September.

After lengthy talks in Cairo, Fatah representative Azzam Al-Ahmad said: “Today’s meeting was very successful and it revived the reconciliation agreement, hindering all attempts to fold it. Our adherence to this agreement was also confirmed in this meeting.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zahri said the agreement was “important, because it is a reassuring message to the Palestinian people and it reflects the seriousness of both parties in implementing it”.

Fatah, the ruling party of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has been locked in a bitter dispute with the Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement since 2007 when Hamas fighters staged a bloody coup and ejected Fatah from the Gaza Strip.

Hundreds of loyalists were killed in the fighting, most of them from Fatah.

Since then, Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip while Fatah has ruled the West Bank, although it has continued to pay the salaries of thousands of civil servants and prisoners’ and martyrs’ families in Gaza. Each side has arrested the other’s supporters in the territory they control and traded accusations over collaborating with or provoking Israel.

Last May, the two sides agreed to establish an interim government made up of independent political figures that would prepare for long overdue elections.

Mr Abbas met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal publicly in Cairo to seal the deal. However a follow- up meeting planned for June collapsed amid mutual recrimination.

So far, no interim government has been formed and the promised co-operation on security issues has not materialised.

There is disagreement over the future of prime minister Salam Fayyad. Mr Fayyad is seen by many as the architect of an economic boom in the West Bank and one of the few Palestinian leaders trusted by western donors, but Hamas wants him replaced.

To further complicate matters, the unity deal has been attacked by Israel and the United States which say the deal will legitimise Hamas terror tactics. The Islamic resistance movement refuses to negotiate peace or to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

The committees set up during talks in Cairo at the weekend will address remaining grievances over the granting of passports, social reconciliation, institutions affiliated to each side shut down in Gaza and the West Bank and prisoners.

Ma’an News agency reported that there are 70 Hamas prisoners in the West Bank and 37 Fatah prisoners in Gaza.

Khaled Amayreh, a prominent critic of the Palestinian Authority based in Hebron, said that while the renewed commitment was welcome, Palestinians were waiting to see concrete results after years of on-off talks between Fatah and Hamas.

“We hope and pray that . . . we reach the moment when the rift and all its scars, ramifications and repercussions will be a thing of the past,” Mr Amayreh said.

“The release of political prisoners, which is supposed to take place before the end of Ramadan, will be a real breakthrough,” he added.

But Omar Shaban, head of the Gaza think tank Palthink, was more sceptical.

“Political unity is an illusion,” he said.

Monday 8 August 2011

British aid cash is handed to families of suicide bombers


From Matthew Kalman
in Jerusalem

BRITISH aid cash is being given to the families of suicide bombers, it was claimed last night.

The Palestinian Authority, which gets £86million of British aid a year, has authorised payments of almost £5million to the families of ‘martyrs’.

Another £3million has been given to 5,500 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The payments, using taxpayers’ cash donated from Britain and the European Union, have been described as ‘ludicrous’ by one Tory MP.

The Palestinian Authority, which oversees the West Bank, has introduced a new law which pays the families of suicide bombers out of its civil service budget.

According to the official Palestinian daily newspaper, AlHayat Al-Jadida, payments to the families of ‘martyrs’ – those killed fighting Israel, including suicide bombers – totalled 3.5 per cent of the budget.

‘ Every terrorist in prison, including those whose acts led to the deaths of Israeli civilians, are on the PA payroll,’ said Itamar Marcus, of Palestinian Media Watch.

‘The salary goes directly to the terrorist or the terrorist’s family, and prisoners receive their salaries from the day of arrest.’

Tory MP Philip Davies said the payments were ‘ludicrous’. He added: ‘People think overseas aid is to try to alleviate terrible poverty in places where they can’t afford to look after themselves. But it’s being put to these kind of purposes.

‘It would be bad enough at the best of times, but at a time when we have got no money, it is utterly inexcusable.’

Last month, Britain committed to giving £86million a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority until 2015.

The payments to families and prisoners are on a sliding scale, from £250 a month for prisoners sentenced to less than three years, to a maximum of £2,140 a month for anyone serving more than 30 years. The payments compare with salaries of £515 for a regular Palestinian civil servant and £480 for officers in the Palestinian security forces.

Minister of State Alan Duncan said in February: ‘We are very careful how we spend our money in the occupied Palestinian territories. We would abhor any money falling into the hands of extremists.’

The Government is under pressure for the amount of aid it is handing out at a time of austerity. It plans to increase foreign aid payments by 35 per cent to £11.4billion by 2015. This comes despite several scandals involving aid. Last week, it was revealed that money to Ethiopia was being used as a political tool and those who oppose the government do not receive handouts.

David Cameron has admitted that the controversial pledge to spend billions more on international aid was a ‘difficult commitment’ at a time when spending programmes were being slashed at home.

The Prime Minister admitted that some aid had been ‘ wasted’, but continued to dismiss ‘aid sceptics’.

COMMENT Aid for terrorists

BARELY a week goes by without new evidence that much of Britain’s bloated overseas aid budget is ending up in the wrong hands.

It is simply unacceptable that money that Britain sends to the Palestinian Authority – £86million a year until 2015 – may be going to terrorists and the families of suicide bombers.

Palestinians in Israeli prisons, many of whom are terrorists, have been placed by the Palestinian Authority on its official payroll as civil servants – and the longer their sentence, the bigger their salary. It also makes payments to the relatives of ‘martyrs’ killed fighting Israel, including suicide bombers.

At a time of austerity, as this paper has strongly argued, the Government’s spendthrift attitude to our aid budget is beyond comprehension. It may be right that we should support the Palestinian government. But only if every penny of our aid is monitored to ensure it does not end up in the wrong hands.