Saturday 31 December 2011

Vast Syrian crowds demand Arab League observers' help

The Independent Saturday 31 December 2011

Emboldened protesters turn out in hundreds of thousands to put new pressure on Assad

Loveday Morris and Matthew Kalman

In the largest demonstrations for months, as many as a million Syrians poured on to the country's streets yesterday, determined to draw their plight to the attention of Arab League observers who some fear will turn a blind eye to atrocities by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The protesters who swarmed on to public squares and roads from the country's most northerly cities to its southern border towns appeared emboldened by the presence of up to 100 monitors.

About 250,000 demonstrated in the central province of Hama, with a similar number in Idlib, near the Turkish border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The organisation put the total number on the streets at nearly one million, in the biggest display of anti-government sentiment since at least July. In Homs, the city at the heart of the revolution, television footage showed dancing protesters chanting: "Revolution of glory and freedom Syria".

"This Friday is different from any other Friday. It is a transformative step. People are eager to reach the monitors and tell them about their suffering," said Abu Hisham, an activist in Hama.

But, even with the Arab League team present, the violence continued, and appeared to take a more sinister turn. The Observatory claimed to have spoken to two people injured when a nail bomb was used by security forces to disperse a 70,000-strong demonstration in the Damascus suburb of Duma.

Live rounds and tear gas were also reported to have been fired on the protesters. With press access in the country severely restricted, such reports are difficult to verify.

Five were reported to have been shot dead when security forces opened fire on protesters in the southern city of Deraa, and another five were killed in Hama, with a total of 20 dead in the clashes across the country, according to the human rights group. Five people were snatched by security forces in an overnight raid in Homs, it claimed.

The Syrian government had posted snipers on rooftops and deployed its forces at trouble spots after opposition groups called for mass demonstrations to mark the first Friday prayers of the Arab League mission.

The team is in Syria to verify the government's compliance with an Arab League plan to end the violent crackdown, which includes the removal of tanks from the streets.

Human rights groups have accused the government of hiding artillery from observers. Yesterday activists in Idlib said tanks had been concealed. "They have moved the tanks out of main streets," said a member of the opposition Local Co-ordination Committee.

Comments from the head of the monitoring group, the Sudanese general, Mohamed Mustafa al-Dabi, who said he saw "nothing frightening" during his visit to Homs this week, have raised concerns among the opposition.

"70,000 people were shot with tear gas as they approached Clock Square. How can you not see anything?" said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

While the remarks by General Dabi met with disbelief in the West, the Russian foreign ministry yesterday described his statement as "reassuring".

The comments came as government forces opened fire on demonstrators after Friday prayers in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the southern city of Deraa and elsewhere. In an indication of the diminishing levels of confidence in the Arab League team, protesters in Damascus chanted: "The monitors are witnesses who don't see anything."

The Local Co-ordination Committees said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab observers began their one-month mission on Tuesday.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said that violence was continuing. "It's not only a matter of deploying the monitors," she said. "It's a matter of the Syrian government living up to its commitments to withdraw heavy weapons from the cities and to stop the violence everywhere."

Meanwhile, the Turkey-based commander of the anti-government Free Syrian Army said he had ordered fighters to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with the monitors.

Colonel Riad al-Asaad said his forces had so far been unable to talk to them. "I issued an order to stop all operations from the day the committee entered Syria last Friday," Colonel Asaad said.

Arab League: The Observers

The Arab League mission in Syria descended into farce almost as soon as it began. Despite video footage showing Syrian forces continuing their bloody crackdown on protesters in Homs on Wednesday, the man overseeing the League's observation of the unrest described the situation as "calm", adding "there were no clashes".

Mustafa al-Dabi, a Sudanese general, was head of military intelligence following the 1989 coup led by Omar al-Bashir (subsequently accused of war crimes). It is alleged that General Dabi encouraged a brutal crackdown on rebels. He also cultivated Sudan's links with Syria.

Even as General Dabi spoke on Wednesday, the body of a child allegedly murdered by Assad's forces was placed on the bonnet of a white Arab League 4x4. He went on to say that there was "nothing frightening" in the town.

Friday 30 December 2011

Syrian protesters die as Arab group tours cities

Friday 30 December 2011

Matthew Kalman

Syrian opposition activists have called for the removal of the head of the Arab League monitoring team, just two days after the monitors started their mission to gauge if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was complying with a peace plan which it signed.

Syrian forces opened fire again yesterday, killing more than 30 people, despite the presence of the 60 monitors who spread out between several of the flashpoint cities in the nine-month uprising against the al-Assad government.

As monitors arrived in the Damascus suburb of Douma, troops opened fire, killing 13 people, according to the Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition group. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said people were killed when soldiers shot at protesters gathering near the Grand Mosque in Douma as the observers were arriving at city hall. More deaths were reported in Hama, Homs and Idlib, despite the presence of the observers in all those cities.

Opponents of the Syrian regime say the arrival of the Arab League team led by General Mustafa al-Dabi of Sudan has done nothing to quell the violence. General Dabi was head of military intelligence and then external security in the regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, now under an international arrest warrant on charges of committing genocide in Darfur. His appointment has also been criticised by independent human rights observers.

Omar Idilbi, an activist with the Local Co-ordination Committees, said Dabi was a "senior officer with an oppressive regime that is known to repress opposition". Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident, also urged the Arab League to replace General al-Dabi or reduce his authority.

Monday 26 December 2011

Israel hints that Turkey was guilty of its own 'holocaust'

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Matthew Kalman

In a step that will further inflame already fraught relations between Israel and Turkey, parliamentarians in Jerusalem have publicly debated for the first time whether to recognise Turkish responsibility for the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.

The Knesset session yesterday followed a French vote last week outlawing denial of the massacres, a step that angered the Turkish government.

"Denying a holocaust is something that history cannot agree with," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said during a discussion in the Knesset's Education, Culture and Sports Committee, breaking a decades-long taboo on public debate by the Knesset on the issue – and a longtime avoidance of the use of the word "holocaust", which most Israelis prefer to apply only to the Nazi massacre of six million Jews. "We believe that as humans, as Jews and as citizens of the State of Israel – along with members of Knesset that are not Jewish – we must put the subject on the national agenda," Mr Rivlin said.

In the past, successive Israeli governments had suppressed discussion of the issue for fear of offending Turkey, a rare Muslim ally of the Jewish state. Academic symposiums have been held at Israeli universities and the former Education Minister Yossi Sarid attended two Armenian government conferences marking the 85th and 90th anniversaries of the massacre.

Following the breakdown of relations over the killing of nine passengers aboard a Turkish ship trying to enter Gaza in 2010, pressure grew for Israel's parliament to acknowledge the historical suffering of Armenians.

"Acknowledging the horrors that took place in the past should not affect future relations with Turkey," Zahava Gal-On, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, said during the debate. "The moral duty to recognise the Armenian genocide is not a partisan issue.

"As a daughter to the Jewish people, who underwent a holocaust that has no precedent in human memory, we have the moral duty to show sensitivity to the calamity of other nations.

"A million and a half people were butchered. I know this is a sensitive topic and that throughout the years it has been used as a foreign policy tool in the hands of Israel's governments, but we have a moral duty. It is inconceivable that our school curriculums are silent on the Armenian genocide."

Foreign Ministry officials told the committee yesterday that Israel's view should be discussed "by historians, not politicians". Yaakov Amidror, security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urged postponement of the discussion because of the sensitivity of government efforts to repair relations with Turkey.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Egyptian blogger freed from military detention


Matthew Kalman
Monday, 26 December 2011

A prominent Egyptian blogger and democracy activist was released from military detention yesterday, nearly two months after his arrest on suspicion of inciting violence sparked outcry at home and abroad.

One of the first faces Alaa Abdel-Fattah saw when he emerged from his incarceration was his new son Khaled, born during his time at the Tora jail south of Cairo and named after a blogger killed during the turmoil in Egypt this year.

Mr Fattah was summoned by a military prosecutor in October after an article he wrote for Al-Shorouk newspaper blaming the military for the death of an activist during bloody clashes with Coptic Christians that month. Mr Fattah has always denied the charges and refused to recognise the right of the military court to arrest and interrogate civilians. He is among an estimated 12,000 Egyptians who have been brought before military courts since the army assumed interim power last February.

"I was imprisoned by the military prosecutor as a punishment for insisting on appearing before a civil judge," he wrote in a recent message smuggled from his cell.

An investigative judge ordered his release Sunday without charge. No further details were given.

Crying and spat on, plight of girl, 7, mobilises Israelis against extremists

Monday 26 December 2011

Matthew Kalman

Thousands of Israelis are expected to march through the city of Bet Shemesh later this week to protest against the treatment of women by ultra-orthodox Jewish extremists, with tensions high after a seven-year-old girl said she had been spat on in the street.

Simmering public outrage over the segregation of women in ultra-orthodox, or haredi, areas erupted into anger after a Channel Two television broadcast on Friday night showed Naama Margolese, a seven-year-old haredi girl from Bet Shemesh, crying after being abused and spat on as she walked home from school.

Hours before the broadcast, women from across the political and religious spectrum met in Tel Aviv to discuss rising intolerance, which has seen them being asked to sit at the back of busses, the removal of women's faces from advertising in Jerusalem, and some streets closed to female pedestrians.

In the film, Naama is seen crying as she holds her mother's hand on the walk to her school. They are both orthodox, dressed in what most people would consider a modest fashion, but her mother wears a skirt that is only knee-length, and sports calf-length boots. Looking closely, you might catch a glimpse of her mother's knees, clad in thick tights.

"Do you want to walk just a little bit?" asks her mother, trying to persuade her to cross the road. "No, no!" screams the little girl.

"Lots of the time they scare me, that I'll get hurt or something like that," Naama told Channel Two. What is it like living in Bet Shemesh, she is asked. "Frightening". Later, the reporter stops an ultra-orthodox man identified as Moshe and asks him if he agrees with spitting at girls in the street.

"Yes, because they don't go modestly," he replies. "It bothers me. I'm a healthy man. It's right to spit on a girl who doesn't behave according to the law of the Torah. A seven-year-old, yes. What's the problem? The rabbis tell us how a woman should behave when she walks in the street and that's how it should be."

A Facebook group launched by the Israeli actor Tsviki Levin minutes after Friday's broadcast had gained more than 8,000 members by yesterday morning.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, weighed in on Saturday, and said law enforcement officials must "act aggressively against violence against women in the public sphere.

"Extremist groups cannot be allowed to infringe on the rights of women in the public sphere, which must remain open and safe for everyone," Mr Netanyahu said.

Israeli police said they had arrested one man interviewed in the Channel Two programme who admitted to spitting at women he felt were not dressed in a modest manner.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Palestinian rapprochement leaves Israel unimpressed

As Fatah and Hamas bury some of their differences, Tel Aviv says the move is a step back towards terror

Saturday 24 December 2011

Matthew Kalman


A breakthrough agreement between Fatah, Hamas and other radical groups that could unify all Palestinian factions under a single political umbrella was yesterday greeted with scorn by Israeli officials, who said it marked a step away from peace and back towards terror.

Following talks in Cairo with the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, and the Islamic Jihad leader, Ramadan Shallah, the Palestinian President and leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Mahmoud Abbas, announced that a joint committee with representatives of all the groups would meet in Amman on 12 January to prepare for elections to the Palestine National Council, the ruling plenary body of the PLO.

It may take years to convene the PNC, but presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority have tentatively been set for May.

The agreement formally ends a 20-year stand-off in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad refused to join the Fatah-dominated PLO or participate in any peace talks that recognised Israel's right to exist. After boycotting elections to the Palestinian Authority because of its opposition to the Oslo peace accords, Hamas created a political party called Change and Reform that won the 2006 election. In 2007, Hamas evicted Fatah from the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup, setting up its own regime and ushering in a period of total division between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

Since then, peace talks have been effectively stymied by the fact that Mr Abbas could not claim to represent the Palestinian people as a whole. As a result, Israel has taken advantage of the internal Palestinian stalemate,

Fatah and Hamas have held several rounds of unity talks and even reached a draft agreement in 2009, but Hamas pulled out at the last minute. The Arab Spring, however, has driven both sides to move towards resolving their differences.

Hamas has been weakened by events in Syria which threaten to topple its patron, President Bashar Assad. Fatah, meanwhile, is under pressure from the public to finally unite the Palestinian territories, produce a peace deal with Israel and mend bridges with Hamas.

Israeli officials were far from enthusiastic about the rapprochement between the various Palestinian factions.

"Hamas is not a political movement that resorts to terrorism but a group whose whole vocation is terrorism," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The closer President Abbas moves to Hamas, the further he moves away from peace," he said. "This is a movement that is terrorist to the core."

Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian commentator, said the agreement by Hamas to join the PLO did not necessarily mean they had finally accepted the idea of peace with Israel. He said the Islamic resistance group had outsmarted Fatah before.

"Joining the PLO does not mean Hamas will necessarily change its strategy or give up on armed struggle, and its leaders have made contradictory statements on those issues while these talks have been going on," Abu Toameh said. "They ran in the 2006 election held under the Oslo peace accords but still refused to recognise the accords."

"They are effectively coming into the PLO without making any concessions. They have beaten Fatah before and they could do it again, replacing Fatah as the largest faction. Then the whole PLO will have to change and everything will be up for grabs."

Friday 23 December 2011

Syrian 'bloodbath' on eve of Arab League's mission

Friday 23 December 2011

Turkey warned the violence was in stark contrast to the spirit of the deal that Syria signed up to

Matthew Kalman

A team from the Arab League arrived in Syria yesterday amid an international outcry over a "bloodbath" that saw more than 200 people killed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime in just two days.

Activists have accused government forces of a major escalation in violence ahead of arrival of foreign observers. The advance delegation is tasked with arranging for the arrival of 20 foreign monitors at the weekend and eventually increasing the numbers to 500.

"They are trying to buy time, one hour after another, hoping to gain the upper hand on the ground," said an activist from the village of Kfar Owaid, the scene of one of the most brutal acts in the uprising so far with more than 100 people slaughtered in the village on Tuesday. Eyewitnesses said troops surrounded residents and activists in a valley and unleashed a barrage of rockets, tank shells, bombs and gunfire in an assault that one witness described as an "organised massacre".

At least another 19 people were killed yesterday as government troops in the city of Homs, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Up to 70 deserting soldiers were reportedly gunned down on Monday as they tried to flee their positions. Since the protests erupted in March, more than 5,000 people have been killed, according to the UN.

Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council yesterday called on the UN to "urgently intervene". Turkey, once a close ally of Damascus, warned the violence was in stark contrast to the spirit of the Arab League deal Syria signed up to and is raising doubts about the regime's "true intentions".

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said yesterday: "We strongly condemn the Syrian leadership's policies of oppression against its own people, which are turning the country into a bloodbath." The US toughened its rhetoric after the attack on Kfar Owaid, accusing Syria of trying to "mow down" its own people. In the Syrian city of Aleppo, activists tweeted yesterday videos and photographs of thousands of government troops storming the campus firing tear gas on the fourth day of a student sit-down protest.

Elsewhere, independent news channels posted videos of Syrian soldiers who they said had defected to the anti-government side, suggesting Assad is fast losing his grip on his security forces who are transferring their weapons and expertise to the opposition.