Bush: peace agreement should define a Palestinian state by end 2008

Here’s what U.S. President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union Speech on 28 January 2008 — the goal is now to have a peace agreement that will define — merely define — a Palestinian state by the end of this year:

“We’re also standing against the forces of extremism in the Holy Land, where we have new cause for hope. Palestinians have elected a president [actually, the Palestinian presidential election was in January 2005, and the next one should be at the beginning of 2009e…] who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel.  Israelis have leaders who recognize that a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state will be a source of lasting security.  This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem, I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year. The time has come for a Holy Land where a democratic Israel
and a democratic Palestine live side by side in peace”. (Applause.)

Israeli FM Livni meets the third U.S. General

The Israeli foreign ministry reported that “Vice Prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni met this morning (Monday, 28 January 2008) with General William M. Fraser III, the US envoy appointed by President Bush to monitor the implementation of the Road Map peace plan.  FM Livni presented the central principal that guides the political process to General Fraser, stating that ‘Implementation of the Road Map is critical to the success of the process, and is a basic, accepted condition for the implementation the understandings the two sides will reach during negotiations, as the pathway to the creation of a Palestinian state must ensure a secure Israel’.  FM Livni briefed the General on the current security situation and emphasized that the implementation of the Road Map must be applied on the Gaza Strip as well.  ‘We are sincere in our wish to reach an agreement, and there are security parameters upon which we cannot compromise. The world cannot permit another terror state, and complete implementation of the Road Map is the main element that will prevent its establishment’.”

"It's only going to be temporary and things are likely to get worse again"

Here is a probably correct comment from a rueful Palestinian interviewed by The Guardian in Al-Arish, the northern Sinai: ” ‘We were hoping that opening the borders with Egypt would bring us relief’, he said. ‘But it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s only going to be temporary and things are likely to get worse again’.” Comment from an article in The Guardian here.

UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion

At the end of a week’s visit to the oPt (0ccupied Palestinian territory) the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Asma Jahangir, made a statement, from which here are extended excerpts:

“The visit has been both fascinating and disturbing for me. This is a land blessed with a rich diversity and important holy sites of many religions. Yet, this very diversity, which should have been a blessing, tragically has polarized people on the lines of religion. Indeed, the conflict has an adverse impact on the right of individuals and communities to worship freely and to attend religious services at their respective holy places. I have noticed that people of all religions have the will and aspiration to live side by side in peace. There are outstanding examples where despite conflict and religious polarization people have been able to extend respect and tolerance to each other’s religions and beliefs. There have been encouraging instances of inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue on various levels. At the same time I have also met individuals who bear resentments against other religions and their adherents.

“A major issue of concern for my mandate is the restricted access to holy places. Muslims and Christians are impeded from worshipping at some of their most holy places in the world due to an elaborate system of permits, visas, checkpoints and the Barrier. While the Israeli Government informed me that these restrictions are necessary for security reasons, I would like to emphasize that any measure taken to combat terrorism must comply with the States’ obligations under international law, including freedom of religion or belief. These intrusive restrictions strike me as disproportionate to their aim as well as discriminatory and arbitrary in their implementation. My concern also extends to problems of access to holy places revered by Jews.
In addition, I was more than surprised to learn about the subtle differences with regard to indicating religious affiliation on official ID cards. While Israeli citizens’ ID cards no longer state the holder’s ethnicity, those of Palestinians residents of the oPt do disclose their religion. In my opinion, to indicate the religious affiliation on official ID cards carries a serious risk of abuse, which has to be weighed against the possible reasons for disclosing the holder’s religion.

“During my talks with members of religious minorities in Israel, my interlocutors have by and large acknowledged that there is no religious persecution by the State. Within the Israeli democracy, I would like to emphasize the important role that the Supreme Court has played in the past and can play for safeguarding freedom of religion or belief.   However, strands within the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have experienced different forms of discrimination. There are concerns that the State gives preferential treatment to the Orthodox Jewish majority in Israel to the detriment not only of other religious or belief communities but also of other strands of Judaism. For example, conversion to Judaism within Israel is only recognised if performed by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Another concern is the urgent need to preserve and protect Christian and Muslim holy sites; many of those have been made inaccessible or neglected since decades, while Jewish places have appropriately been designated as holy sites and hence protected. Further concerns have been raised with regard to unfair allocation of subsidies at the expense of religious minorities and strands. I have also received reports that the religious rights of detainees are not fully respected. I will be dealing with these issues in more depth in my report to the Human Rights Council.

“Personal status questions in both Israel and the oPt show the delicate relationship between State and religion. Even though the various religious courts for historical reasons have the jurisdiction for issues such as marriage and divorce this does not absolve the authorities from their responsibility to ensure equal treatment and the implementation of human rights for all individuals. I find it difficult to understand that under domestic law persons can be deemed to be ‘unmarriagable’; in this regard I was informed that more than 200.000 Israeli citizens and residents with no official religious designation are barred from marrying in Israel. I wish to emphasize that freedom of religion or belief also includes the right not to believe.

“This brings me to the contentious question of conversion, which socially speaking is considered a taboo and is restricted by religious laws. In Israel, offering or receiving inducements for conversion is also prohibited by the domestic law. Hence, some small communities in Israel have refrained from proselytising. In the oPt, the few conversions which have taken place, particularly when involving interfaith relationships, have been followed by serious tensions and in some cases violence.

“Women seem to be in a particularly vulnerable situation and bear the brunt of religious zeal. I was informed about cases of honour killings carried out with impunity in the oPt in the name of religion. Reportedly some women in Gaza have recently felt coerced to cover their heads not out of religious conviction but out of fear.

“Further apprehensions concerning the situation in the oPt have been expressed by minority communities, including some small Christian groups, who fear a rising level of religious intolerance. In October 2007, a Christian librarian in Gaza city was threatened and subsequently kidnapped and killed. The question whether he was engaging in missionary activities or not is entirely irrelevant. This was a hideous crime and also a violation of his right to manifest his religion or belief. I welcome that the representatives of the Palestinian Authority who I met expressed concern and had taken note of these incidents … In my report I will recommend that all parties to a possible peace agreement bind themselves legally to protect the rights of religious minorities. Particular attention should be paid to include guarantees for equality and non-discrimination based on religion as well as for the preservation and peaceful access to holy sites.

“A major challenge, which needs to be addressed immediately, if we are to avoid deterioration, is to effectively prohibit and sanction incitement to religious hatred. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law. However, impunity for incitement is a concern. Any violence committed in the name of religion, whether violent acts by zealous settlers or even worse in the form of suicide bombings by militant Islamists, should be denounced, investigated and sanctioned. Furthermore, it is particularly worrying when children are being incited to express hatred toward those with a different religious affiliation.

“Today is a sobering day. We solemnly mark the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. I join the United Nations Secretary-General in saying: ‘We remember those whose rights were brutally desecrated at Auschwitz and elsewhere, and in genocides and atrocities since. We vow to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to our lives and to those of succeeding generations’.”

Israel believes Palestinians require supervision

Headlines and reports in the Israeli press over the last few days repeat the same mantra: Palestinians require supervision:

“Defense establishment follows events at Egypt-Gaza crossing with concern: ‘The free passage of Palestinians into Egypt and back, without any supervision, significantly increases the threat coming from the Strip'”


Headlines from the Hebrew Press – 24 January 2008
Haaretz: Contacts on new arrangement – Egypt and Hamas holding contacts in effort to rebuild crossing. They will not refuse European supervision of crossing.


From Haaretz tonight:
“The head of the security-political task force at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, demanded over the weekend that Egypt restore order in Rafah, where thousands of Palestinians have been crossing into Egypt from the Gaza border town through a ruptured barrier since Wednesday. At the request of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Gilad spoke to Egyptian officials and demanded that the Egyptian authorities take action to prevent the unsupervised crossing of Gazans back and forth between the two territories.

Abbas says "No Way!"

There will be no three-way talks with Egypt (Hamas, Ramallah and Egypt) about the situation at the Gazan-Egyptian border, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Ramallah on Saturday.

Hamas must reverse its “military coup” of mid-June, in which it trounced Fatah security forces in Gaza, and hand Gaza back to Ramallah first, Abbas said.

Abbas is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday — and though the meeting is part of the post-Annapolis process of “final status” negotiations on “core issues”, the situation in Gaza and at the Gazan-Egyptian border has been added to the agenda.

Haaretz reported Saturday that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to end a blockade in Gaza and accept his offer to control Gaza’s border crossings, Palestinian officials said on Saturday. The two leaders are expected to meet on Sunday to discuss how to push forward with peace talks after Hamas breached Gaza’s border with Egypt in defiance of an Israeli blockade … Abbas will also ask Olmert to lift immediately travel restrictions in the occupied West Bank, officials said. Israel has so far balked at removing its hundred of checkpoints that crisscross the West Bank. ‘The number one issue on the agenda of Sunday’s talks between President Abbas and Olmert will be ending the siege imposed on Gaza, and the need to end the siege in the West Bank as well, as there are hundreds of checkpoints there’, senior Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters”. This Haaretz report is published here.

Meanwhile, the Gazan-Egyptian border was still at least partially open on Saturday, despite Egyptian deadlines to close it on Friday.

The AP reported that “The traffic flowed in both directions. Many Egyptian cars were seen in Gaza, including a truck carrying $65,000 worth of cheese, candy bars and cleaning supplies for a Gaza City supermarket. [There were also delegations of Egyptians visiting Hamas officials in Gaza, according to other reports.] However, by midmorning, Egyptian riot police and armored vehicles deployed to stop the flow of cars. Egyptian security forces also asked shopkeepers in El Arish to close, apparently to discourage Gazans from driving there. Pedestrians were still able to cross the border…” This AP report is published here.

Egypt reportedly invites Ramallah leaders and Hamas to discuss border

According to CNN, “Arab media was reporting early Saturday local time that Egypt’s government has invited the leaders of Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah group to Egypt to discuss the situation. ‘I and all of my brothers in the Hamas leadership welcome participating in this meeting and will seek to make the dialogue a success’, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told CNN in a telephone interview from Damascus early Saturday. Meshaal said, however, that he has received no official invitation from Egypt and was responding to the reports of the planned invitation. He said he does not know how Fatah will respond. Hamas and Fatah have been involved in a power struggle over creating a unity government that has resulted in violence in Gaza and the West Bank … Hamas leaders have denied participating in bringing down the wall, but voiced support for the action. Palestinians in Gaza have faced difficulty obtaining supplies since Israel sealed its border with Gaza one week ago in an effort to quell rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. That was on top of shortages of such items as cigarettes, cement, chocolate and soda since Israel began restricting the flow of non-humanitarian goods into Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in June”. [n.b., There was also a layer of earlier financial and import restrictions imposed by Israel since Hamas won a majority of seats in elections for the legislative council and then formed a PA government in the spring of 2006]

CNN also reported that “It was not immediately clear whether Egypt intends to seal the border or merely regulate the flow“.

This CNN report is here.

Hamas acting boldly – shooting Egyptian police dogs unleased on Gazans, and patrolling Egyptian side of the border

The AP has just updated its story on the situation at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which Egypt did not close today, despite a deadline passing: “Militants in black clothing, some of them masked, stood atop a bulldozer as it knocked down concrete slabs under the watchful eyes of Hamas security officials, who turned a blind eye and were later seen patrolling on the Egyptian side of the border.
Thousands of Palestinians flooded into Egypt, pushing through several openings as Egyptian troops retreated to their bases on the other side of the border. Palestinians positioned cranes next to the border and lifted crates of supplies into Gaza, including camels and cows … Earlier Friday, Hamas gunmen fanned out along the Gaza side of the border, attempting to create order. For the first time since the border wall was torn down in a series of blasts on Wednesday, Gaza’s Hamas rulers deployed their most elite forces to contain the rowdy crowd. Hamas is clearly seeking to flex its muscles ahead of a potential new border agreement with Egypt that the militants hope will help end a 2-year-old blockade imposed by Israel and the West. The group called for a three-way meeting among Hamas, Egypt and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas to try to come up with a new border arrangement for Gaza. ‘If the leadership in Ramallah refuses this call, we will not stand idle until the siege overruns life in Gaza’, Hamas said in a statement … Egyptian forces shot in the air, fired water cannons and — in a particularly forceful display — deployed dogs to hinder the flow of Gazans into Egypt. Dogs are considered impure by observant Muslims. As bulldozers ripped down the wall and Gazans jumped over, soldiers ran with their dogs to chase the infiltrators. Hamas militants then opened fire on the dogs, killing three of them. An Egyptian soldier was slightly wounded in the leg, likely from gunshots fired by Hamas militants on the Gazan side, an Egyptian officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media. Five policemen were also injured by stones hurled by Gazans. Egyptian ambulances rushed into a patch of land separating Egypt from Gaza to pick up the injured, with Hamas militants clearing the area of people so they could arrive and do their job. Egypt has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory — a hot issue in light of comments this week by Israeli officials who said the border breach could relieve the Jewish state of its burdens in Gaza. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the territory in 2005, but it still controls access into and out of Gaza, in addition to its airspace and harbors. Israel also provides the fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power plant — the withholding of which is currently causing severe power outages. In an interview published Friday, President Hosni Mubarak decried the situation in Gaza as ‘unacceptable’ and called on Israel to ‘lift its siege’ and ‘solve the problem’. ‘They should get things back to normal according to previous agreements and understandings’, Mubarak told the weekly Al-Osboa. He also invited rival Palestinian factions to Cairo for talks, but did not mention a date. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Palestinians had to keep the barrier open ‘until the crossings are reopened’. ‘The gaps shouldn’t be closed because they provide urgent assistance to the Palestinians’, he said. Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area by force last June”. This AP report is posted here.

Reflections on the Gaza break-out – a $130 million dollar shopping spree

Breaking out is preferable to breaking down, which is what was happening before Hamas toppled the iron wall that Israel erected to separate the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

It’s fascinating that work to weaken the structure with blow-torches was going on for weeks before the bulldozers moved in this week…

What’s going to happen next is anybody’s guess — and there are a lot of guesses, mostly focussing on a narrow range of options.

I’m not going to go there, as Barak said in Davos to a journalist who asked him if he were one of those who is pleased that the break-out happened, as it will make it easy for Israel to get rid of Gaza now by handing it over to Egypt.

The break-out itself is very interesting. Some organized Gaza businessmen were on the phone by 7 am, after the wall went down at 6:30, ordering supplies from Cairo that were later delivered to Rafah. This was a good idea, as Rafah and El-Arish were soon out of stock.

Here are some more interesting tidbits:

Haaretz reported today that “Cranes were positioned next to the border, lifting crates of supplies over into Gaza”. This comment was in this Haaretz article here.

Another Haaretz story said that “Egyptian merchants arrived at Rafah with a particularly large and varied supply of items Palestinians were keen to buy. Since the breach in the wall, the Egyptian security forces have been busy trying to contain the traffic, mainly by setting up roadblocks preventing Gaza Palestinians and journalists from traveling westward. They have also been trying to identify those responsible for bringing down the wall, and interviewed some of their contacts in the Palestinians’ Popular Resistance Committees, a source affiliated with the local Gaza-based militias told Haaretz. Hundreds of Palestinian students who are registered in universities abroad tried to persuade the Egyptian authorities to allow them to continue to Cairo so they could travel further afield. Despite a meeting with the governor of El Arish, any travel to the Egyptian capital was denied them. Heading into the Gaza Strip, some 600 Palestinians who had been stuck on the Egyptian side for nearly eight months crossed through the breach during the past two days … Palestinians said the police did not prevent them from traveling to El Arish, some 50 kilometers from Rafah on the Gaza-Sinai border. Many had made their way there at great expense, assisted by locals eager to make a profit“. This Haaretz article is here.

Locals eager to make a profit must have been very pleased indeed: The AP reported from Rafah that “When militants blew down the wall along the seven-mile border early Wednesday, tens of thousands — some say hundreds of thousands — streamed into Egypt to replenish supplies and briefly escape the cloistered atmosphere … Rami Abdou, an economic analyst, estimated that Gazans spent $130 million in less than two days, a princely sum for the poverty-stricken territory. ‘Gazans are withdrawing their savings and are borrowing from each other’ to spend in Egypt, he said. Most of the cash flowed into Egypt, but resourceful Gazans found ways to tap into the frenzy. One hot item on the Gaza side of the border was an Egyptian telephone card, better for placing orders with merchants and talking to relatives than relying on the overloaded Gaza phone network”. This AP report is posted here.

Helena Cobban got this interesting information from Mahmoud Zahar in an interview in Gaza in March 2006: “If we push ahead with regard to opening our border with Egypt, we can certainly make it work to the benefit of both sides. You know, in September, right after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza,when our border with Egypt was unsecured– we learned that our people spent $8 million in El-Arish in just ten days, because the prices of everything in Egypt are so much lower than the prices the Israelis impose on us here“. Helena gives a link to her interview with Zahar in today’s post on her blog here.

And, the Economist correspondent in Israel posted these interesting reflctions on his blog: “A few weeks ago left-wing protestors went around Tel Aviv putting up these mock leaflets from the Israeli electric company, which announce power stoppages ‘because the headquarters of an army that harms citizens in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and carries out war crimes is operating in your city’, and inform the residents that ‘for humanitarian reasons the stoppages will not be total, leaving you the decision on whether to distribute the allocated supplies to hospitals, heating systems, sewage or private homes’. It hit home a little harder this week, when large parts of Gaza were plunged into darkness after Israel suspended fuel supplies for the power station. And as I lay in bed this morning summoning up the strength to dash across the frozen floor and switch on the heating, I reflected on the story I wrote yesterday about the outages and realised how extraordinarily little electricity Gaza actually uses. Assuming 1.4m people live in Gaza (some say 1.5m), and that its peak wintertime electricity consumption — ie, when Israel isn’t cutting off the fuel — is 250MW (UN figures, though 240MW has also been reported), then that’s 180W per person, or a couple of light bulbs. If they used all their electricity on standard 2kW electric heaters, there would be one heater per 11 people. Israel’s peak demand, which it has been hitting (Hebrew) thanks to the cold snap in recent days, is around 10,000MW, or 1.5kW per person, over eight times as much as Gaza’s. Remarkably, that’s a higher rate than Britain, which uses something over 62,000MW in winter, or only a little over 1kW per capita (maybe the Brits use more natural gas). In the US, needless to say, the peak rate is well over 2kW per capita”. This post is on the Fugitive Peace blog here.

A funny little secret — there already is some kind of Palestinian Authority coordination at Erez

For the last week or so, as Israeli sanctions tightened to the point that Gaza’s only electricity-generating power plant had to shut down for lack of fuel, various politicians have suggested that re-establishing some kind of Palestinian Authority presence at the border crossings between Israel and Gaza might bring a workable solution.

Since the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces last June in Gaza in mid-June, there has been no PA coordination, and going in an out of Gaza has been like entering a Star Wars movie set — a menacing part of it.

Foreign journalists with an Israeli Government Press Office card (not Israelis with Jewish nationality, and sometimes not even Israeli residents, however) have been allowed to pass through the airport-like but now largely empty Erez Crossing.

On my last trip through Erez on 9 January, with a group of Israeli Arab doctors and an activist from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, I noticed that there was some kind of Palestinian coordination that had just been set up — at least a half a kilometer from the terminal, and possibly further. The IDF has pushed everything back, away from the terminal, and deeper inside Gaza. Only a plowed road and rolls of barbed wire are between the terminal and this new coordination office, set up in a little trailer that actually looks like an unauthorized Israeli outpost-settlement.

The person working inside is Palestinian. He had a mobile phone on which he communicated with the Israeli military through its radio option. He would not give out the number. He said he reports to the PA Civil Administration in Ramallah.

At the end of the day, at the official closing time, this same Palestinian was seen coming out of Israel’s terminal, heading back to his office — though it’s not clear if he was also heading back inside Gaza.

It seems likely that Israel set up this arrangement, and is controlling it… on behalf of and with the assent of the PA government in Ramallah.   However, it seemed that Hamas was also involved in the deal — Hamas police did not go beyond a big square bolder painted in blue with the word POLICE, some yards away from the new coordination office.

It’s strange that this development hasn’t been reported or announced….

Haaretz reported from Davos, Switzerland (where the powerful of this world meet every January), that “Israel could allow Gaza crossings to be opened under the security control of the Palestinian Authority, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said here Thursday. ‘If the PA’s security could be as effective as that of Jordan, Egypt, or even Syria, we would consider alleviating the situation [in the Gaza Strip] significantly’, he said [that’s a rather big if, actually]”

Barak added, according to Haaretz, “We’re not promising anything”.

Haaretz also reported that “Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said this statement was a source of hope. ‘We must seriously consider Israel’s security concerns. We are committed to non-violence and to solving the conflict by peaceful means’, he said”. The Haaretz report is posted here.