PA gets another chance to practice “democracy”

Coat of arms of Palestine -- standard pan-Arab "Eagle of Saladin" with shield of the flag, and holding a scroll with the word filastin فلسطين (Palestine).(Wikimedia Commons)

Marian Houk, 1 Sept, 2010

Palestinian groups — mainly left-wing “factions” — are holding a demonstration now in the center of Ramallah, at Manara Square, to protest the Palestinian leadership’s decision to accept a U.S. invitation to resume direct talks with Israel today and tomorrow in Washington.

Direct talks under the U.S.-brokered Annapolis process ended when Israel launched its massive three-week military operation, Cast Lead, in Gaza at the end of December 2008 — about the time that the Annapolis process was supposed to have ended anyway, but with the successful installation of a Palestinian State…

Today’s rally gives the Palestinian Authority a second chance to show it knows how to practice “democracy”, after a demonstration a week ago ended in chaos and violence with accusations of deliberate prior security force incitement.

Sponsored by the same Palestinian groups, today’s event has attracted the attention of all the Western media based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, ensuring it will surely go off perfectly, without the slightest anti-democratic misstep.

Amira Hass has an excellent report, published in Haaretz on 30 August, about last week’s fiasco in Ramallah, entitled “Who’s suppressing opposition rallies in Ramallah?”.

It, she wrote that “The organizers could sense something was wrong about half an hour before the conference began last Wednesday morning. About 60 people had been invited to what was termed a ‘national conference’ (as opposed to a ‘popular’ one, open to all ). But the hall in the Protestant Club in downtown Ramallah began to fill with hundreds of young men of similar appearance – well-developed muscles, civilian clothes and stern facial expressions. Some held what appeared to be rolled-up posters … Just to make sure, one conference organizer called another who had not yet arrived and asked, ‘What time did we call the conference for? The hall is packed’. Another PLO veteran said to a friend, ‘They have come to cause trouble’ … After some deliberations, the organizers decided to hold a press conference in the offices of the local television station, Watan, and used the walk there as an impromptu protest march against the conference’s disruption. But once they were outside, thugs grabbed cameras, beat the Watan photographer and prevented people from being interviewed (for example, by pushing photos of Abbas between the interviewee’s and the camera ). The police intervened, voices got louder and a fistfight nearly began. Eventually, everyone dispersed, but the event has been the talk of Ramallah ever since. An important figure among the conference organizers ran to Abbas’ office. ‘Have you gone mad?’ he asked. Later, spokesmen for the security services and the president’s office insisted that they had no idea who the 400 were or who sent them, that they had no connection to the disruptive demonstrators and that they respect freedom of speech. They also charged that an illegal demonstration had taken place outside the hall, that internal divisions had erupted among the conference participants and that this is what caused the uproar … But conference participants are convinced that those who took over the hall belonged to the Palestinian General Intelligence Service (the Mukhabarat ), along with a few people from the Preventive Security Service. Some recognized faces and recalled names, others had studied with some of the intruders, and some even recognized the commanders. One person identified the group as the newest class of Mukhabarat recruits, who had just finished training. ‘I was against the action, but these were the orders I received’, one of them whispered to an acquaintance. It was clear they had been instructed not to beat the conference participants. The conference organizers have no doubts that the order to disrupt the event came from Abbas’ office. But Abbas insisted that he has no idea who gave the order. ‘I don’t know which is worse’, said one participant, ‘that he gave the order or that it was given behind his back, by one of his purported well-wishers’.” This Amira Hass report can be read in full here.

Our earlier report on this is posted here.

An investigative committee has been formed, no results have been announced, but Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has expressed regret over what happened at last week’s rally.

Incitement

Car pushed down hill by Yitzhar’s settlers outside Nablus.

Marian Houk, 30 August 2010

The fact that he is old is no excuse.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said, in a sermon at a synagogue in Jerusalem this weekend, a few days before last-ditch efforts to hold Israeli-Palestinian direct talks in Washington, that “Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this world … God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians”. His remarks were reported on Israeli Army Radio [the most popular radio station in Israel] overnight.

As media reports indicate, this is not the first time that Yosef has said some truly shocking things.

It goes to show, among other things, that the brazen ugliness of hate-filled incitement is not a one-sided phenomena in this conflict.

But, supporters of Israel are by far the most vociferous in denouncing any instances of Palestinian bad behavior they can find.
They also make periodic demands that all errors be corrected before any engagement in any peace process.

Today, the Palestinian chief negotiator did the same, as his office informed journalists by email this afternoon. Saeb Erakat “called on the Israeli government to denounce and take appropriate action against the constant Israeli incitement and racism against Palestinians. Dr. Erakat’s call came after comments made by Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, during his weekly sermon. Yosef ‘s party, Shas, is one of the main coalition members in Netanyahu’s government. [n.b. – Shas Minister Eli Yishi now heads the Israeli Ministry of Interior…] In his sermon, Yosef declared that President Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian people must ‘perish’ from this world … ‘The spiritual leader of Shas is literally calling for a genocide against Palestinians and there seems to be no response from the Israeli government’, Erekat said, adding that Yosef ‘is particularly calling for the assassination of President Abbas who within a few days will be sitting face to face with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is this how the Israeli Government prepares its public for a peace agreement?’ … [Erekat also said that] ‘This type of incitement is part of Israel’s larger policy against a Palestinian state, which also includes its illegal settlements activities, forced removals and evictions, home demolitions, water theft and separating occupied Jerusalem of its Palestinian residents. They all have the same destructive goal. We call on the international community to condemn incitement to genocide by public figures in Israel’.”

Incitement – cont’d

Now, at last, at long last, the U.S. government has spoken out, and called incitement, “incitement”.

And it was on a Sunday, too, a day on which Washington is normally quiet.

The U.S. went further, and said that the remarks made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a sermon in a Jerusalem synagogue over the weekend (and reported after Shabbat, overnight on Sunday, by Israel Army Radio), were also “inflammatory” [a word used in Israel to describe the comments] , and “deeply offensive”.

In a statement from Washington — apparently issued because there was a clear and urgent need, in advance of meetings the U.S. has convened for 1 + 2 September to relaunch direct Israeli-Palestinian talks — U.S Assistant Secretary of State, spokesperson for Hillary Rodham Clinton, said: “We regret and condemn the inflammatory statements by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. We note the Israeli statement that the Rabbi’s comments do not reflect the views of the Prime Minister. These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace. As we move forward to relaunch peace negotiations, it is important that actions by people on all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it”.

Hours earlier, the Jerusalem Post reported that “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday distanced himself from inflammatory comments made by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef over the weekend in which he wished a plague on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian people. [Yosef apparently wished that Abbas would “disappear from the earth”, or die; see our previous post here.] A statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office said that Yosef’s comments ‘don’t represent the views of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or the Israeli government. Israel entered into negotiations out of a desire to progress with the Palestinians toward an agreement that will end the conflict and ensure peace, security and good neighborly relations between the two nations’.” This Israeli reaction — correcting an earlier position, in which Netanyahu didn’t have much to say about Yosef’s comments, was posted here.

Yosef, who was born in 1920 in Basra, Iraq, was former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. He is referred to now as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, one of the major haredi (ultra-orthodox and more) religious parties seated in the Israeli following February 2009 Israeli national elections.

Shas leader, Eli Yishai, who now heads the powerful Israeli Interior Ministry in what has been called Israel’s most right-wing government ever, put together by Netanyahu after the last elections, said earlier Sunday that the party stood by Yosef’s remarks.

One of Yosef’s sons is reportedly about to be elected as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem, in a complicated religio-political trade-off [in which, one of those who have been described as “Zionist” Rabbis will be simultaneously elected as the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in Jerusalem, and this deal has been described as an effort “to lessen haredi influence” in rabbinical and religious issues]. See here for this report.

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site. She is a Member of the Online News Association, Member of the Foreign Correspondents Association (in Israel) and Marian Houk is a past President (1986) of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY

Palestinians tell U.S. that East Jerusalem must be included in continued Israeli settlement freeze

Jerusalem Entrance (Photo: Nick Marouf)

Marian Houk, 26 August 2010

Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz overnight that the Palestinian negotiating team (meaning Sa’eb Erekat and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) have “delivered to the Americans an opinion prepared by Israeli jurists. The Palestinians say this paper proves that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that the government has no authority to freeze construction on private land are unfounded”.

According to Eldar’s report, the Palestinians “expect that even after the September 26 deadline, when the 10-month moratorium ends, the United States will support their demand to continue the ban on all construction outside the Green Line, including in the settlement blocs” — including in East Jerusalem.

Israeli officials, however, have said many times that the settlement freeze — which has been very loosely enforced — does not apply in East Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem was part of the West Bank from the time of the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948, when Jordanian troops moved across the Jordan River and took positions in that area from which British forces evacuated, until the June 1967 war, when Israeli forces expelled the Jordanians back across the Jordan River.

Shortly after their June 1967 conquest, Israel extended its administration and laws (effectively, annexing) to a unilaterally- expanded Jerusalem that includes not only the 6 square kilometers of the Old City (where many sites important to Judaism as well as to Christianity and Islam are located), but also nearly 65 additional kilometers of West Bank territory in an crescent surrounding Jerusalem along the east, running from from Qalandia, Qafr Aqab, and Semiramis in the north, to Bethlehem in the south. Israel called this new agglomeration “Greater Municipal Jerusalem”.

[Though Israel has effectively lopped off parts of this crescent by the construction of The Wall to exclude areas of dense Palestinian population, it has not yet given administrative effect to this new reality on the ground. But, as a practical result, many residents of East Jerusalem now live on the “other side” of The Wall, and have to pass through tense and chaotic military checkpoints to get to work, to school, to their doctors, to see their friends and families, and more.]

After the start of U.S.-brokerered direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in November 2007 under the Annapolis process launched by former U.S. President George W. Bush, Israeli spokesmen (including, notably, the then-Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mark Regev), said over and over again that the Israeli government under then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not freeze any settlements in “Jerusalem”, which, it was explained could not be considered part of the West Bank because Israel has decided it is not [though the large Israeli settlement of Har Homa, just north of Bethlehem, and many other Israeli settlements north and west of Jerusalem are on the West Bank side of the “green line” which used to separate Israeli and Jordanian forces.

Much of the rest of the world, and particularly the European Union, issues periodic statements indicating they have not totally accepted this Israeli view.

[In a somewhat surprising article in the Jerusalem Post, also published overnight, Herb Keinon has reported that the hard-line right-wing and pro-settlement Israeli Foreign Minister Alexander Lieberman has just “hinted” that settlement construction in East Jerusalem might have been frozen, after all, during the past nine months, despite previous adamant denials — though Lieberman reportedly added that this should not be extended when the present “freeze” expires on 26 September. However, the same JPost article added that “A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office denied that there had been a freeze in Jerusalem, saying that when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared the moratorium 10-months ago he made clear that it did not include any part of the capital. ‘I know there have been tenders issued since that time’, the official said”. This JPost article — which says that the issue of whether or not to renew the settlement freeze later this month is “splitting the cabinet” — can be read in full here.

Eldar added, in his Haaretz piece published overnight, that “A source familiar with the exchanges with the United States said last night that for now the Americans have not changed their attitude regarding the building freeze [n.b. – whatever that actually means]. The source says the Americans are not inclined to adopt the compromise proposed by Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor that would see construction continue in large blocs but not in isolated settlements”. This report is posted here.

Also overnight, there has been another serious clash between Israeli settlers (backed up by Israeli Border Police) and Palestinian residents of Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that is threatened by massive house demolitions to accomodate expansion of an archeologically-oriented tourist site run by a large Israeli settler organization, just outside the Old City walls just below the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. [Haaretz is reporting that the clash began when settlers tried to break open a lock closing a local mosque gate through which the settlers wished to pass to go to a swimming pool.]

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the controversial (at least, among Palestinians) restart of direct talks — apparently just as happened during the visit of former U.S. President George Bush to Ramallah in January 2008, when a Palestinian demonstration against his visit and his Middle East policy were brutally supressed by baton-wielding Palestinian security forces — a group of Palestinians heading towards a conference organized at a hall in Ramallah on Wednesday to protest Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ acceptance of an American invitation to Washington D.C. on September 1 + 2 to restart direct talks with Israel were also attacked an beaten by Palestinian policemen who said they were only acting against an “illegal demonstration” and had no intention to interfere in the conference itself, which nonetheless could not be held.

Two Palestinian cameramen covering the event were also beaten by Palestinian police, and their equipment was confiscated. The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh has reported today that Al-Watan TV station, for whom the two journalists were working, then “issued a statement condemned the assault on its cameramen and called on Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to launch an inquiry against the assailants. The statement pointed out that attacks by PA security forces on Palestinian journalists had escalated, constituting a flagrant violation of freedom of expression and democracy … Following the incident, PA President Mahmoud Abbas decided to establish a special commission of inquiry to look into charges that PA security forces had used excessive force … A statement issued by Abbas’s office said that he showed ‘instant interest in the chaos that prevailed during the meeting at the Protestant Club [in Ramallah]‘.”

According to Abu Toameh’s report in the JPost, “Wednesday’s press conference was organized by the National Conference Against Direct Talks, a coalition consisting of hundreds of political factions, organizations, institutions and figures from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The event was supposed to be held simultaneously in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through video conference”.

The JPost report also said that Khalida Jarrar, a Palestinian politician supporting the conference, has accused non-uniformed Palestinian security agents of inciting a spontaneous march through the streets en route to the conference — but the JPost noted that a Palestinian police spokesman responded by stating that the suppression had nothing to do with the marchers’ political views, explaining that “Even if they [the demonstrators in the street in Ramallah, who were encouraged by plainclothes security agents, according to one Palestinian politician supporting the conference] supported the direct talks, they would still need a license to demonstrate … The era of chaos is gone and forever”. This JPost article can be viewed in full here.

Ma’an News Agency has reported from Bethlehem that “Speaking with Ma’an by phone from Ramallah, Jarrar said she held the PA ‘completely responsible’ for the events of the day. ‘We aimed to voice our dissent, and the PA decided to enter the conference hall and drag participants out to an unplanned rally’ in order to quash it”. This report is posted here.

Just night before, Ma’an reported separately (based on a story published by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA), Palestinian President Abbas “toured Ramallah’s city center on Tuesday evening to discuss the state of trading during the Muslim month of Ramadan with shopkeepers … Abbas talked to shop owners about the state of the Palestinian economy and its development in light of increased safety and security in the West Bank, the news agency wrote. The president was welcomed by Ramallah residents as he walked through Rukab Street, WAFA added”.

This item — reminiscent of stories about a legendary Caliph (Haroun ar-Rashid) who walked the streets of historic Baghdad (in disguise) to learn about the true feelings and problems facing his subjects — is accompanied by a photo of President Abbas being offered an ice cream cone, and can be viewed in full here.

Did the President accept, and taste, the pre-talks ice cream?

This is almost unimaginable, given the state of alert of Palestinian Presidential security, who are prepared to eliminate any imminent threat they believe they face from potential assassins who are mainly imagined to be Islamic fundamentalists. Abbas normally travels around Ramallah in a multi-car convoy travelling at high speed with lots of flashing lights and a special communications-disrupting van bristling with a crown of black antennas. These convoys are preceeded by sweep of a security-escorted specially-trained explosives-sniffing dog, and are attended by armed Presidential security forces stationed at regular intervals in the streets (including alternate routes as a decoy) that the President may choose to travel, mainly on the routes between his house and the Presidential presidential headquarters in the Muqata’a.

As we have previously reported, normal civilian circulation is always disrupted during the Presidential passage –though apparent effort is being made in recent months to reduce civilian immobilization time, and the pointing of guns directly at residents houses along the planned routes, as well as accompanying security noise.

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site. She is a Member of the Online News Association, Member of the Foreign Correspondents Association (in Israel) and Marian Houk is a past President (1986) of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY

The summit of cynicism

Palestinians attach flags to the apartheid fence (Palestine Monitor)

Marian Houk, 23 August 2010

Have we reached the summit of cynicism, yet?

[Can we get any more cynical?]

Haaretz correspondent Avi Issacharov wrote on his Haaretz blog Sunday that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to resume direct negotiations with Israel on September 2 in Washington without any of his preconditions being met. Israel has not promised to end construction in the settlements, and the Quartet’s statement does not even mention this issue. Contrary to the demand that the Quartet’s announcement would constitute the framework for the talks, U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell was quick to make it clear this is not the way things will be. One of the leading analysts in the Palestinian media described how Abbas was forced to climb down from uncompromising stance with a term normally reserved to describe the defeat of the Arab armies during the Six-Day War. Abbas succumbed to Arab-American dictate, the analyst said, despite never having missed a chance to reiterate during the year that ‘there will be no direct negotiations without complete freeze of settlements’ … The Palestinian Authority depends on foreign economic aid and the willingness of the U.S. to pressure countries to keep the money flowing. Abbas was concerned that the Americans would, at some point, stop economic aid. In spite of opposition at home, Abbas knows that the bottom line is he could survive different opinions but not an end to economic aid. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said on Saturday that if Israel resumes settlement construction, the direct talks will stop. This will probably be the case, but at this stage, it would probably be wiser for senior PLO officials to cease climbing tall trees from which they are not sure how to climb down”. This can be read in full here.

Does this reporter believe that the U.S. will cut off aid to the Palestinians, but not to Israel? That could, of course, hypothetically happen — but it is unlikely.

YNet reporters have written today that “The PA does not believe the talks will have any concrete results, but hopes the process may bring it closer to the international community and perhaps lead the UN Security Council to recognize it as an independent state. ‘We will try to avoid any confrontations so that by August of next year we will be able to put a Palestinian state, with its established institutions, on the UN Security Council and the world powers’ agenda, so that for the first time in history they will accept their responsibility for the Palestinians’, one official said”. This is posted here

Do PA officials believe that the entire Palestinian population is ready to be fooled by this approach, yet again?

Ma’an News Agency wrote over the weekend that “Fatah has accused Hamas of stalling a potential [reconciliation] deal to avoid elections, which the Palestinian Authority postponed in January and June, citing unity before elections. The PA has enlisted a group of independent politicians to mediate between the two rival governments, while Hamas has called for direct dialogue with Fatah”… This can be viewed here.

Does Fatah (or Ma’an, for that matter) believe that Hamas will bear the brunt of the blame for stalling or scuttling a reconciliation deal? Or that it is Hamas which doesn’t want elections?

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said before the regular weekly meeting of his cabinet on Sunday that “we need a serious partner … If we have a serious partner, we can achieve an historic agreement”.

Was Netanyahu referring, here, to the Palestinian (who were not even mentioned by name) — or to the Americans?

Aluf Benn wrote in Haaretz the same day that “Expectations for the renewed negotiations are negligible. The small number of people actually interested in the peace process think Netanyahu is bluffing”. Though Aluf Benn seems to think that this means that Netanyahu can negotiate without having his hands tied too tightly, Benn adds that “The Prime Minister is entering negotiations with two primary demands: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the ’state of the Jewish people’; and the stationing of the Israeli Army in the Jordan Valley [n.b. where it is already in total control], along the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, as a buffer against the smuggling of rockets and heavy weapons. He also wants Jewish settlements in the Etzion Bloc to remain in Israel, as well as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel, and he is committed to the unity of Jerusalem. These principles are no different from what Barak and Olmert proposed to the Palestinians at Camp David and Annapolis, respectively”… etc. This is published here.

And, in an article which discretely favors a one-state solution — as if the Palestinians really had the luxury of such a choice — John Whitbeck wrote that “Almost 17 years after the ‘Oslo’ Declaration of Principles, with its five-year deadline for reaching a permanent status agreement, was euphorically signed on the White House lawn, why should anyone take this new ‘deadline’ seriously or see any reason for hope in it? Throughout the long years of the perpetual ‘peace process’, deadlines have been consistently and predictably missed. Such failures have been facilitated by the practical reality that, for Israel, ‘failure’ has had no consequences other than a continuation of the status quo, which, for all Israeli governments, has been not only tolerable but preferable to any realistically realizable alternative. For Israel, ‘failure’ has always constituted ’success’, permitting it to continue confiscating Palestinian land, expanding its West Bank colonies, building Jews-only bypass roads and generally making the occupation even more permanent and irreversible. In everyone’s interests, this must change. For there to be any chance of success in the new round of negotiations, failure must have clear and compelling consequences which Israelis would find unappealing – indeed, at least initially, nightmarish” [i.e. – a one-state solution]. This article is posted here , and I thank Sam Bahour for the link.

However, as a cynical friend said recently in Ramallah, “The Palestinians are like the man on death row, waiting for his execution, who tells the jailkeepers that he insists on filet of beef, and not jumbo shrimp, for his final meal — ‘don’t even think about bringing me the shrimp’,” he tells them, ” ‘and the beef should be rare, not well-done, and not even medium — it has to be really, really red’ “…

Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site. She is a Member of the Online News Association, Member of the Foreign Correspondents Association (in Israel) and Marian Houk is a past President (1986) of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY

Happy smiling faces?

smiley5

Marian Houk, 20 August 2010

A new crop of billboards has gone up at strategic locations around Ramallah — that is, at the entrances to the city, where diplomats from donor countries is most likely to see them.

The second target seems to be the cadres of the Palestinian Authority’s various Ramallah-based ministries.

The billboards, sponsored by USAID, show headshots of various young people. Next to their faces are [in Arabic] the words:
“I’m very happy…about my new school…”etc.

This promotional campaign must have cost many, many tens if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars.

The new schools (seven of them, constructed by USAID and handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2009) are great.

These USAID ads — are stupid and embarassing.

A few hours after these billboards were visible, the U.S. announced that invitations were being sent to Israel and to the current Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to come to Washington D.C. on 2 September for a [re]-launch of direct talks.

As the inevitable became apparent, Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour wrote on The Hill blog that “Palestine’s investment community remains in a wait-and-see mode. More peace talks will not spark the significant investments required to build an economy that can serve an emerging state. Serious state-building economic development requires land, water, access, movement, ports, and spectrum, which Israel remains in full control of today. My clients, and many like them, refuse to be misled, yet again, by another round of empty talk from politicians as settlements go up in East Jerusalem … Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to enter direct negotiations (yet again) in Washington on September 2 … The lead-up to these talks saw both Palestinian and Israeli leaders touting economic growth as a prelude to moving the political process forward. The growth they cite is hard to comprehend … the economy is micro-managed by a foreign military. Yet leaders, foreign and domestic, laud the temporary West Bank economic growth that results from a brief respite in a harsh crackdown. Very few in the U.S. Congress have done their homework to gauge if US policy is helping or actively impeding the prospects for peace. One brave congressman who has gone the extra mile is Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA). Rep. Baird sets a prime example of a legislator willing to challenge the current unhelpful US path. At a recent speaking engagement organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Baird advocated that his colleagues visit the West Bank and Gaza and see firsthand the results of the current policy. He noted that ‘they’re certainly ignorant about what’s happening on the ground in Gaza because they’ve never been’ and they’re nearly as ‘ignorant about what’s happening in the West Bank because they haven’t been to a checkpoint…” Sam Bahour’s analysis is posted here.

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site. She is a Member of the Online News Association, Member of the Foreign Correspondents Association (in Israel) and Marian Houk is a past President (1986) of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY

Qalandia on the first Friday of Ramadan (2010)

Qalandia checkpoint (Photo: Nick Marouf)
Qalandia checkpoint (Photo: Nick Marouf)

Qalandia checkpoint (Photo: Nick Marouf)

Marian Houk, 15 August 2010

Since The Wall became a massive presence in the Palestinian West Bank a few years ago, and since Qalandia Checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah (and the rest of the central and northern West Bank) grew to large proportions, it has become a major center of human activity on Fridays during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast for more than half of each day (from two hours before dawn until after sunset, when it is no longer possible to distinguish between a white and a black thread).

Each year, the arrangements have been different. There has been some effort at “improvement” from the Israeli side — and the results illustrate how difficult it is to improve anything through military regulation of human behavior.

For, how can you “improve” measures designed to restrict Palestinians from going to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the esplanade known as Haram ash-Sharif in the Old City of East Jerusalem?

During Ramadan, Palestinian Muslims long to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. They just long to be there, for reasons linked to their belief about the significance and sacredness of the site and the increased value of any prayer they may perform there.

And, one 40-year-old Palestinian woman trying — unsuccessfully — to get through the checkpoint told me, it is now the only time of the year when the Israelis do give permits to get to Jerusalem for the prayers. Because, it is not enough just to fulfill the age requirements set, for “security reasons”: 50 years old, and married, for the men, and 35 years old, and married, for the women –they also have to have permits issued by the Israeli military, which has come to pieces of paper. It can take two days or more to get a permit to go to pray in Jerusalem on the Fridays in Ramadan. She had been in Jordan, and had not had time to go apply for a permit.

Qalandia Checkpoint during the Fridays in Ramadan is the epitome of the occupation.

Four years ago, when The Wall and the Checkpoint were new, and shocking, there were scenes of mass confusion and brutality: Israeli Border Police were on horseback facing a crush of tens of thousands of confused and angry Palestinians trying to get through the new obstacles. There had been no prior information on restrictions, nor any clear and consistent instructions on “permissions”.

Israeli soldiers lobbed tear gas on thousands of Palestinians who decided, spontaneously, to perform their prayers in front of the barriers at the Checkpoint, when the appointed time for the Friday noon prayer arrived, and they were still blocked on the Ramallah side by massed Israeli forces — who also apparently didn’t quite know what to expect, or what was going on.

Each year since then, there have been new rules.

Three years ago, the rules were changed overnight, even though previously-decided rules had been well-publicized. Palestinians who travelled from before dawn from all across the West Bank — many of whom had to cross multiple other Israeli military checkpoints before reaching Qalandia, were bitterly disappointed to discover that the Israeli military leadership had suddenly changed their mind, because a main Jewish religious holiday fell on the same date, and stricter admission to Jerusalem for Palestinians would mean privileged access for Jewish visitors coming from other places in Israel.

Two years ago, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs sat at length with the Israeli Army’s District Coordination and Liaison officers to try to work out improvements. It was the first year that separate entrances — to the Checkpoint — were made for men and for women, a practice that continued again this year, which sometimes means that husbands and wives are separated, and sometimes one is admitted to the Checkpoint, and has a chance of going into Jerusalem, while the other does not. They keep in touch on their mobile phones.

It took until this year to make a third passage-way, for those who are sick and infirm. This year, the women were directed as pedestrians through one of the car lanes, which Israeli ladies from the Machsom Watch [Checkpoint Watch] organization said did improve the speed of the passage of the Palestinian women, who were lightly checked. The men were thoroughly checked.

Crowds at Qalandia were very light, which has been the case on the first Friday in Ramadan for each of the three previous years — but this year was even lighter than before.

Knowing how hard, and frustrating, and humiliating, it is, why do you still come, I asked the Palestinian woman who was still trying, without luck, to get through without a permit. “It is very important”, she said, dabbing the perspiration off her face with a handkerchief as we stood in the full heat of the noon-time sun. She did note that the prayer she would miss this week in Al-Aqsa could be made up next week — that is, if she can get a permit. “But as hard as it is, that is how much we love to be there for the prayer”, during Ramadan, she explained.

Israeli Border Police and soldiers were reinforced with black-uniformed members of the Israeli National Police’s Special Forces this year — and there seemed to be even more Arabic-speaking Israeli troops present this year. There was no tear gas used, no rubber bullets shot, and no stun grenades fired.

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site. She is a Member of the Online News Association, Member of the Foreign Correspondents Association (in Israel) and Marian Houk is a past President (1986) of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY

Tracking the Libyan-chartered boat

Amalthea (Photo: AMIOS GEORGIOS)

Marian Houk, 13 July 2010

Go to this Live Ships map on the AIS Vessel Tracking and Position site, here.

According to the chart, at about 1:30 in the afternoon in Jerusalem, the ship seems to have slowed its speed recently, and is now about 16 hours away from the Egyptian port of El-Arish, its declared destination…

Amalthea Ship Info

UPDATE: A message which just arrived via SMS at about 2:30 pm Jerusalem time quotes Foreign Press as saying that the Israeli Navy has made contact with the Amalthea, and asked it to move towards El-Arish. This has also just been reported on Israel [Army?] Radio…

The Jerusalem Post has just reported that “One of the owners of the … Almathea headed towards Gaza said on Tuesday that if Israel will only allow the ship to dock in Ashdod instead of reaching Gaza, the crew will instead unload the humanitarian goods in the Egyptian port of El-Arish … ‘If this is the only option put forward by the Israeli authorities, we will choose to sail to the port of El-Arish and transfer the assistance by ground to Gaza’, Greek businessman Aleksei Angeolopoulos said in an interview with the Arabic newspaper Ashraq al-Awsat. Angeolopoulos continued, ‘I say to the Israeli authorities that the ship is carrying humanitarian aid and food and there are no weapons or prohibited materials, as claimed by Israel … If Israel wants, the Israeli navy is invited to board the ship and to search it so that they can see with their own eyes that it is only carrying food and allow it to continue to the port of Gaza’.” This is published here

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site. She is a Member of the Online News Association, Member of the Foreign Correspondents Association (in Israel) and Marian Houk is a past President (1986) of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) at UNHQ/NY

The Gaza Lists – Lists of Controlled Entry Items

Gaza: Lists of Controlled Entry Items

Marian Houk, 5 July 2010

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, as reported earlier, did release “the lists” — of items specifically prohibited by Israel from entering Gaza, otherwise known as “Lists of Controlled Entry Items”.

This is being described as a “significant easing” of the system that has been in place around Gaza.

The lists are published here, and they are:
List no. 1: Items Subject to Specific Permission – (a) arms and munitions, or (b) dual-use items (those “liable to be used, side by side with their civilian purposes, for the development, production, installation or enhancement of military capabilities and terrorist capacities” – in this list of dual-use items, Israel is incorporating a list developed by countries who have voluntarily joined something called the Wassenaar Arrangements [see here for more information], plus the Control of Exports Security Order (Controlled Dual Use Equipment Transferred to the PA Areas) 5768-2008, and an additional number of items banned by specific Israeli military orders issued by the Israeli Defense Forces Central Command headquarters).
List No. 2: Construction Items and Materials – to be Allowed Entry into Gaza only for (a) PA-authorized Projects that are (b) implemented and monitored by the International Community.

[There are some items that are not allowed into the West Bank, either — but the control system is not – yet – what it is in Gaza.]

Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights organization GISHA, who has worked with a group of other Israeli and Palestinian groups in the Israeli Supreme Court to repeal what she calls the collective punishment of 1.5 million civilians in Gaza, and then more recently filed a Freedom of Information petition asking what, exactly, was allowed into Gaza [and what criteria were used to decide] told journalists in Jerusalem today that “cement is not on that [Wassenaar] list — there is nothing dangerous about cement”.

Cement is prohibited by the Israeli internal legislation mentioned [above] by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs — except for projects “implemented and monitored” by the UN. That is not enough, Bashi said, either for private consumers or businesses — though, she noted, Hamas right now is able to get cement through the tunnels dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt at Rafah.

The new regulations do not yet permit any exports from Gaza, she noted.

And, “at this point, no raw materials are being allowed in” either, she said — certainly not in bulk.

And, she expressed concern about the shutting down of most other crossings that have been used in the past for transfer of goods to Gaza — leaving only one crossing still functioning, Kerem Shalom, the southernmost one, at the point where the borders of Gaza, Egypt, and Sinai meet. This, she said, “limits the connection between the West Bank and Gaza”, and it poses a risk that if that one crossing is closed down for any reason, “then Gaza is completely cut off”.

Bashi also said that “in the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, Israeli agreed to redundancy of crossings, but since 2007 this has been reversed, and Israel has been progressively closing crossings”.

“What we need is, indeed, a security-based regime”, Bashi noted, “international law allows the occupying power to control what goes into an area — subject only to concrete security checks”.

When the Freedom Flotilla sailed [and then was subject to an Israeli Navy assault at sea], Bashi noted” “Israel said ‘we need to be secure, so we must stop and check the ships’. That was accepted by the international community, and it’s fine under international law, but that’s not where we’re headed. So we are asking the international community to insist on consistency — it should ask that the policy be based only on security criteria”.

Bashi said the Government plan, “if they are to be believed, would allow only 70 percent of what Gaza received in 2005 — that would be 250 truckloads a day through Kerem Shalom, and 120 truckloads of materials would cross on a conveyor belt at the otherwise-closed Karni crossing. That would be a maximum of 7,700 truckloads a month”, whereas in 2005 some 10,400 truckloads entered Gaza per month.

An information sheet just published by GISHA states that “restrictions continue to apply to items that could be used for industry and manufacturing and on goods with no apparent security correlation. In that sense, despite the promise of facilitating economic activity in Gaza, there does not yet appear to be a change in the policy of inflicting ‘economic warfare’ on Gaza by preventing entry of goods necessary for production”.

The information sheet also said that “it is not clear how the current operational capacity of the crossings, as Israel is allowing them to operate, can meet demand”.

And, the GISHA paper said, “movement of people remains limited to ‘humanitarian’ cases and employees of international organizations [n.b. – and non-Israeli journalists accredited by the Israeli Government Press Office] all indications point to continued and severe movement restrictions between Gaza and the West Bank”.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Coordinator of [Israeli] Government Activities in the [Palestinian] territories, or COGAT, has put out a document, entitled “The Civilian Policy Towards the Gaza Strip – implementation of the Cabinet Decision (June 2010)”. It says that “The adjustment of the civilian aspects of Israel’s policy regarding the Gaza Strip began in early 2010″, and it says that what is going on now is “liberalizing the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza.

The COGAT document states that “In accordance with the Security Cabinet’s decision (20th June 2010), the civilian aspects of Israel’s policy regarding the Gaza Strip were adjusted, in order to provide relief to the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, while preventing the entry of weapons and other materials that can be used by the Hamas terror regime to harm the citizens of the State of Israel”. It can be viewed in full here.

Israeli media reports suggested that how to get these items into Gaza was the subject of discussion when Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who rules the occupied Palestinian territory — and Palestinian appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad met this afternoon at the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem.

(The Palestinians tried to put a different spin on the meeting, saying that Fayyad demanded the cessation of all “unilateral actions in Jerusalem” and cancellation of Israeli “deportation” orders for four Palestinian politicians from East Jerusalem who were elected in January 2006 to the Palestinian Legislative Council, or PLC, on the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform Party ticket.)

Netanyahu: Ramallah + Jerusalem are only “ten minutes apart”

Qalandia checkpoint (Photo: Nick Marouf)

Marian Houk, 4 July 2010

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the regular weekly meeting of his Cabinet today (Sunday, 4 July 10) that he hopes direct talks with Palestinian officials will be one of the outcomes of his forthcoming trip to Washington.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday.

“Ramallah almost touches Jerusalem”, Netanhayu told his cabinet. “I have been ready to meet with Abu Mazen since this Government’s first day in office”.

Netanyahu noted that “The main goal of the talks with President Obama will be to advance direct talks in the peace process between us and the Palestinians … On the issue of direct talks, there is no substitute for entering into such negotiations. There is no substitute. One cannot raise ideas in either the media or by other means, and avoid that direct contact, that is the only possible way to bring about a solution to the conflict between us and the Palestinians. We are ten minutes apart”.

This is a slight exaggeration, since Netanyahu has probably not been to Ramallah in a long time, and perhaps never. Traffic is absolutely terrible. And the Qalandia checkpoint will probably have to be completely closed down if Netanyahu were ever to come to visit… as he proposed in public remarks in front of journalists when he was meeting U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell last week [See our previous post on this, here.]

Netanyahu added: “Whoever desires peace will hold direct peace talks. I hope that this will be one of the results of my trip to Washington”.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv is reporting today that after the trip to Washington, Netanyahu will make a visit to Cairo to meet Egyptian President Husni Mubarak. Didi Remez has posted a translation of this report into English (from the original Hebrew) on his website here.

Ma’an News Agency is reporting today that “The Arab League will turn to the UN Security Council to declare a Palestinian state if proximity talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials fail to achieve progress by September, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit said Saturday. According to Egyptian news site Al-Masry Al-Youm, Abul Gheit said Arab countries should act while taking into consideration UNSC Resolution 1515, calling for the creation of a Palestinian state in coexistence with Israel, which the Arab League decision is based on”…

UNSC Resolution 1515 was adopted — unanimously — on 19 November 2003, and it endorses the Roadmap presented on 30 April 2003.

Resolution 1515 reaffirms “its vision of a region where two States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders”. In its operative paragraphs, this resolution “Endorses the Quartet Performance-based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and “Calls on the parties to their obligations under the Roadmap in cooperation with the Quartet and to achlieve the vision of two States living side by side in peace and security”. This resolution is published by the United Nations, and can be viewed by clicking on the link for Security Council Resolution at this web page here.

The Ma’an report added that “The Arab League endorsed the second round of US-brokered indirect talks with Israel in May, after they were initially derailed in March following Israel’s announcement that an illegal East Jerusalem settlement would be enlarged during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the region. The body gave the talks a four-month deadline and has repeatedly called on Israel to abidoste by its various commitments with regard to occupied Palestinian and Syrian land, threatening to rethink the Arab Peace Initiative on several occasions. Last week, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said an emergency summit will be held in October”… This Ma’an story is posted here .

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site.

Netanyahu offers to come to … Ramallah

DSC00777

Marian Houk, 1 July 2010

In public remarks after his meeting with U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell this evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu offered to come to Ramallah if the Palestinian side were ready for direct negotiations.

It would be a first.

Netanyahu told Mitchell, in front of the cameras: “I call on President Abu Mazen to come to Jerusalem. I’m prepared to go to Ramallah. I think that this is the only way that we’ll solve the intricate problems that we’re discussing between us”… This statement was sent around by email from the Israeli Government Press Office, part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Mitchell is currently conducting a fourth or fifth round indirect, or “proximity” talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But Ramallah is Area A (a category dating from the Oslo Accords, designating where Palestinian Authority security forces have nominal control) — and Israelis are barred from entering Area A…

There are big red signs around the West Bank [ sometimes in the wrong places, actually, such as just after passing through Qalandia Checkpoint, on the way to Ramallah, where there are areas that are still legally Jerusalem by Israeli definition, such as Qafr Aqab and Semiramis, and that still must pay Jerusalem taxes, though they get virtually no services], warning Israelis — who can otherwise roam freely, say, to visit friends in the settlements — that they are approaching an Area A [usually a “built-up” Palestinian city — though even they can have parts which are classified Areas B or C — such as Abu Mazen’s house above Balloua…]

No Israeli can enter Area A without facing fines (5000 shekels, for endangering him/herself and the rescue services that would have to be called up if he/she calls for help or, G-d forbid, gets in trouble. There have been stories about people heading to weddings in the settlements who ended up in the middle of Qalandiya refugee camp while relying on their car’s Israeli GPS systems, which do not acknowledge either political reality or even the actual geography of the West Bank — in many areas of which the Israeli GPS simply goes blank…

Perhaps Netanyahu has been inspired by all the recent almost-irresistable media stories about cafes + malls + more in the “Tel Aviv” of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, there are still regular IDF and Border Police incursions in the West Bank — mainly at night, which is believed to be more protective to the Israeli forces on the prowl, but also during the day.

After midnight, but before dawn this morning, for example, the IDF arrested 8 “wanted” Palestinians overnight in the West Bank. The way the IDF spokespersons unit just described this on Twitter is: “Overnight, IDF forces arrested 8 wanted Palestinians suspected for terrorist activity in J + S [Judea + Samaria, meaning the West Bank] region”

These incursions happen at least several times a week, sometimes almost every night. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have complained about this, publicly and reportedly privately as well, for months and more.

The atmosphere is … almost indescribable, especially to people used to feeling secure in their homes and in their beds, who will not really understand the tension and terror this sows.

Netanyahu offers to go to … Ramallah.  Why not?  Everybody is: two Haaretz journalists [not Amira Hass, who has lived in Ramallah for more than a decade, since 1997 as it happens] bylined a story published today, datelined Ramallah. Actually it was part of the outreach program of the new Palestinian Presidential media advisory team at the Muqata’a — six Israeli journalists were specially invited, given lunch, allowed to see the man close-up, and ask whatever questions they wanted for three hours.

One can only imagine the security arrangements [well beyond the usual IDF waiver form they would have been required to sign]…  But, then again, the IDF and Israeli security services have reportedly long been involved in coordination of all movements — and even escorting — of President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad around the West Bank. There is, after all, the great threat of the bitter enemy, “Islamic fundamentalism”…

Actually, some Israeli journalists, but more often some well-connected Israeli analysts, have been coming to Ramallah without any fanfare [for security reasons too, let’s not forget]. And not just from the Israeli “left”, which means not Marxists but those opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but also from the right. One of the more active analysts from former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold’s Jerusalem Center for Policy Affairs told me in 2009 that he had been coming on a weekly basis for a while, and if I remember correctly he was being briefed in the Palestinian Civil Affairs office run by Fatah’s Hussein ash-Sheikh (in the same building, just a bit more than a stone’s throw from the Israeli “Civil Administration” and Military Court at Beit El, where Fatah’s Mohammed Dahlan now has the entire top floor for his own media outreach operation).

The Haaretz story, co-authored by Aluf Benn and Akiva Eldar, that is one of the products of this Palestinian media outreach invitation is published here.

In it, we learn, for example, that Abu Mazen noted, with mild reproach, that the head of Palestinian Television [who is also the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO], Yasser Abed Rabbo, invited Netanyahu for a PALestinian TV interview but got no response.

Perhaps Netanyahu is now ready to respond?

The Jerusalem Post’s report, which called this an “apparent charm offensive aimed at the Israeli public” is here, authored by Herb Keinon.

The JPost reported that Abbas “is willing to enter direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government, as soon as he hears from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu regarding Israel’s position on borders and security issues. Abbas, in the briefing with Israeli journalists Tuesday in Ramallah, said that originally he wanted to hear from Netanyahu whether he was willing to accept the understandings agreed upon by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert …

The JPost notes that “Abbas, who has come under pressure from the US to speak directly to the Israeli public, last spoke with the Israeli media when he gave an interview to Channel 2 at the end of April … When no answer from Netanyahu was forthcoming regarding the Olmert offer, Abbas said at Tuesday’s briefing, he sent a message through US envoy George Mitchell saying that he would suffice with an answer on only two of the issues: borders and security. ‘Answers like these are necessary to see if we are speaking the same language, and then it will be possible to continue. It is preferable that direct talks will not explode after 10 minutes, and then who knows when we will be able to renew negotiations again’, Abbas said.  Abbas said he would be willing to engage in direct negotiations with Netanyahu as soon as he received an answer”.

This apparently American-inspired Palestinian “charm offensive”, sullen though it may be at times, has been going on since the indirect or “proximity” talks presided by Mitchell have gotten well underway.

We may — or may not — be at a Sadat moment.

Abbas’ deputy as chief negotiator, Sa’eb Erekat, spoke to the INSS [Institute for National Security Studies] in Tel Aviv several weeks ago, and debated Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor in Washington more recently. In the same line, Abbas himself recently met with members of the American Jewish community in the U.S.

On all occasions, it is safe to say, the two Palestinians had considerably more rosy assessments of the encounters than did their more-distrustful Israeli counterparts.

On top of that, Abbas’ Prime Minister Fayyad is about to meet the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is the effective rule of the West Bank in the Israeli government and practice — supposedly to discuss “security” [even though there was an uproar when his er formEconomic Minister, Basim Khoury, caused a storm of criticism when he spoke to Silvan Shalom at a meeting in Tel Aviv — but that was before indirect talks began].

Fayyad is a legal permanent resident of [East] Jerusalem, of course — like the four elected Hamas-affiliated Palestinian parliamentarians who residency is about to be revoked [and they will be “deported”, unless a court intervenes].   But Fayyad is not affiliated with Hamas.  So, he could easily meet Barak in either East or West Jerusalem, or anywhere in Israel.  Alternatively, Barak could easily make arrangements to show up somewhere in Ramallah [though no doubt with a huge and very obtrusive security escort], and take in all the supposedly glittery sights…

  • Marian Houk is the Editor of UN-Truth news site.