Mughrabi Gate ramp redesign plan approval expected imminently

Tensions may be heating up again about Israeli reconstruction plans for a damaged ramp leading from the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem, where Jewish worshippers pray at Judaism’s most sacred and revered site, up to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade, the third holiest site of Islam.

A revised Israeli design to rebuild the ramp is expected to receive Israeli government approval imminently.

Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

Depending on what is finally approved – by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior’s Regional Planning Commission – there still may be one or two problems, but the revised plan as viewed a few weeks ago by Israeli attorney Danny Seidemann, appears to be a big improvement over an earlier Israeli plan which, he said, reflected “ulterior motives”.

Continue reading Mughrabi Gate ramp redesign plan approval expected imminently

What is wrong with this photo?

The caption reads: “An Israeli soldier delivers blindfolded Palestinian prisoners to a military base near the northern Gaza Strip”.

FIrst of all, we need to know where these Palestinians were taken prisoner:  Was it in Gaza?  Was it in the West Bank? Or, was it in Israel itself?

Then, we need to know where is the military base?

To detain Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory and take them outside of that territory — as in this case, to Israel — would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Israeli soldiers deliver Palestinian prisoners to military base near the northern Gaza Strip - AFP photo - David Buimovitch

The caption also says: “An Israeli negotiator was due to travel to Egypt on Thursday in a bid to speed up indirect negotiations with the Hamas movement for the release of a soldier the Islamists have held for two years”

Apparently, either the photographer and/or the caption writer were aware of the irony of Israel continuing to “detain” Palestinians while the Israelis themselves are utterly preoccupied with the return of one IDF soldier (Gilad Shalit) who was captured at Kerem Shalom and held captive for the past two years inside Gaza, and with the issue of the return of two soldiers (or their bodies) who were captured by Hizballah in a disputed area along Israel’s northern border just after Shalit was seized near Gaza.

The Hizballah action, which triggered a massive Israeli military response — now known as the Second Lebanon War — was aimed at taking the pressure off Gaza and increasing the pressure on Israel, both to change its policies, and to negotiate for the release of its captured men.

This photo taken apparently today for AFP by David Buimovitch

What's new?

From Ma’an News Agency on Friday 20 June: …”Israeli forces used a new kind of weapon capable of firing 30 tear gas bombs at once, and dozens of demonstrators suffered from gas inhalation … Tear gas bombs fired by the Israeli soldiers also set a grove of olive trees on fire, burning about ten trees. Israeli soldiers also used another weapon known as ‘the scream’, which they had used three years ago in Bil’in. This weapon makes a terrible sound that affects the middle ear, causing people who hear it to lose balance and fall to the ground. Bil’in residents have held non-violent protests against the Israeli separation wall each week for over three years. In 2007, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in favor of the villagers and ordered the Israeli army to dismantle a segment of the wall so that villagers would regain access to some of their lands. The Israeli army has yet to re-route the wall in the village, refusing to comply with the Court’s order for ‘security reasons’.” The full news report can be read here .

The Hamas-Israel truce.

According to the Associated Press here :

• The truce takes effect at 6 a.m. Thursday (11 p.m. EDT Wednesday).

• All Gaza-Israel violence stops. After three days, Israel eases its blockade on Gaza, allowing more vital supplies in.

• A week later, Israel further eases restrictions at cargo crossings.

• In the final stage, talks are conducted about opening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and a prisoner exchange to free Corporal. Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas-affiliated groups for two years.

It's like listening to Marxist student politics…

Gideon Litchfield, the correspondent of The Economist magazine in Jerusalem, posted this on his blog, Fugitive Peace, on 17 June 2008:
“Home after a long day in Ramallah interviewing Fatah people about whether their party can ever get it together. It’s like listening to Marxist student politics (which, after all, is what Fatah started out as). Long rants about local committees, district committees, regional committees, ad hoc committees, sub-committees; the central committee, the higher committee, the revolutionary council; protocols, rules and constitutions; agendas both hidden and explicit; struggle, unity, fawda (chaos) and fitna (strife); the cadres, the party, the movement, and the national interest, which someone is always either pursuing or undermining, and often both at once.” …

The blog can be found here .

Rice pointedly singles out Israel for the first time for failing to meet one of its Road Map obligations — on settlements

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata’a Presidential Compound in Ramallah at noon on Sunday.

The main message Rice heard from Palestinian officials was a demand, yet again, to put pressure on Israel to stop its settlement activities on occupied Palestinian land.

But this is one argument that seems to have been won in advance – though how much pressure will be put, and how effectively, remains in question.

In her opening statement at the press conference, Rice said, “It’s important to have an atmosphere of trust and confidence…Actions and announcements are having a negative effect.” She did not specify which actions, or which announcements, but from the apparently satisfied reactions of President Abbas and members of his team, it seems she was referring to something Israel had done or said.

No party should be taking steps to pre-judge the outcome of the negotiations, Rice said sternly. She added that the US will not consider such actions or announcements as influencing the final status negotiations between the parties, and that the solution will be achieved on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

However, in response to a question from a journalist, Rice indicated that the US would not support a draft resolution being discussed in the UN Security Council about the recent announcements of expansion in Ramat Shlomo and other settlements around Jerusalem. “My strong view,” Rice stated, “is that this is not an issue which will benefit from Security Council action.” She did say that she was concerned, in particular, about those outposts “which are illegal under Israeli law.”

As to what pressure she might put on Israeli officials to stop settlement activities, Rice explained that “the Israeli government is a sovereign government and taking its own decisions, but it is Israel that has a strong interest in building an atmosphere of confidence…and so it is in Israel’s interest to do everything it can to build confidence.”

While en route to the region, Rice was asked in an exchange with journalists on board her flight to Tel Aviv on Saturday evening: “Are you not annoyed that every time you go there, there is a new announcement of settlements, either just before you come or just after you leave?”

Rice replied: “Unfortunately, there have been a few whether I’m coming or not.. Look, it’s a problem. And I think it’s a problem that I’m going to address with the Israelis. And … as the President said today …it gives us every reason that we really ought to be determining the boundaries of the state, because what’s in Israel will be in Israel at that point, and what’s in Palestine will be in Palestine. And that’s the best way to resolve this, but you know, I repeat, we’ve talked a great deal about the importance of Roadmap obligations, and this one isn’t being met”.

Rice also said that she will be talking with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — “so I’ll also have an opportunity to talk about what is another track of Annapolis. The negotiations are one track, but the – improving the lives of the Palestinians and building the institutions of the Palestinian state is another track, and that’s the one in which I’m most involved with Prime Minister Fayyad”.

It appears that Rice will be having one “trilateral meeting” — apparently today, Sunday — with Rice meeting the heads of the two negotiating teams — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi LIvni, and Palestinian former Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Alaa).

Rice will have dinner on Sunday evening with embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

A second “trilateral meeting” will be held on Monday, nvolving Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who, as Prime MInister Olmert has said, is in charge of the West Bank (and, from a distance, of Gaza).

This meeting with Barak and Fayyad will focus on “improvement of the lives of Palestinians” through greater ease in “movement and access”: On this point, however, Rice refused to be drawn into a pointed criticism of Israel for failing to meet another Road Map obligation. Instead, she said politely, more could be done in this regard.

“I do think that there are improvements in Jenin on all of the elements, improvements on security with the Palestinians having responsibilities there, improvements in terms of movement and access, and the beginnings of improvements in terms of the economic side. I am told that there are other areas where there have been some improvements in movement and access as well; for instance, you know rather than — more random stopping of vehicles rather than every vehicle, that kind of thing. But it’s not enough, and there certainly and clearly needs to be more. And I understand the security considerations as well as anyone, but the obligation was undertaken to improve the lives of Palestinians and we’re going to have to work very hard if we’re going to make that true in a broader sense”

But both problem areas — continued Israeli settlement building, and humiliating hindrances in movement — are equally pressing, and have an equally awful impact on the present and on the future in the occupied Palestinian territory.

In a situation in which there is a media black-out on the negotiations themselves, Rice nonetheless offered a glimpse into the current approach, in which she denied reports that she has suggested the two parties focus first on defining the borders: “Part of the difficulty in negotiations like this is that the issues are intertwined. You know, borders and security, issues concerning Jerusalem, and issues concerning borders, and issues concerning refugees — they’re all part — and by the way, not only the big four of final status, but also issues of state-to-state relations, issues of economic relations. They’re all very intertwined. And I believe the parties have adopted the right strategy here, which is that they work on all of them, recognizing that some may move more quickly than others, but also recognizing that nothing can be agreed till everything is agreed. And it’s just very difficult to imagine a circumstance under which you could separate somehow the border issue from these other important issues. That doesn’t mean that you can’t work on the border issue separate from the others, but it’s hard to imagine that you could really resolve it without dealing with the companion issues … I’ve encouraged the parties not to hesitate to push ahead if something is moving, but the idea that you could have a separate agreement, I think that just doesn’t make sense”.

Gaza was hardly mentioned in Rice’s discussion on Saturday with journalists en route to the region, except to say that “Everybody knows that the situation in Gaza is extremely difficult”, and “We all know what needs to happen in Gaza”.. Hamas, in Rice’s view, is ultimately responsible for all the problemsi n Gaza, and, she noted, Egypt is working hard to find a solution.

The solution, according to Rice is that: “The rocket fire needs to stop. There needs to be a more sustainable circumstance for the people of Gaza, meaning that there will need to be sustained openings of the crossings, enough at least to permit humanitarian conditions to – humanitarian needs to be met. And ultimately, I would hope that they can get back to something that looks more like the Movement and Access Agreement of November 2005, which everybody’s focused on as an endpoint”.

Gaza was also hardly mentioned in the Rice-Abbas press conference on Sunday. Abbas said something about hoping to reach an agreement “that will put an end to the suffering in the Gaza Strip”, and about re-gaining national unity “based on the Yemeni initiative that was adopted by the Arab summit in Damascus. If we succeed, it is quite important we regain national unity on the basis we have described”, he added.

Mustafa Barghouti: Getting the Palestinian Legislative Council out of the freezer

Here is the full text of an interview I did yesterday in the Ramallah offices of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the Mubadara – Independent Palestine list, and who was Palestinian Authority Minister of Information under the short-lived National Unity Government that was disbanded just about a year ago after Hamas routed Fatah security forces in Gaza.

In this interview, Dr. Barghouti answers questions about the revival — at least in a limited role, at first — of the Palestine Legislative Council, and possible moves towards healing of the split between the West Bank and Gaza by national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas:

Question: Dr. Barghouti, I wanted to ask you first of all about the Palestinian Legislative Council. It reportedly met for the first time in a long time on the 5th of June, last Thursday and welcomed the initiative of President Abbas…

Answer (interrupting the question): Not exactly, no. We did not have a meeting of the Legislative Council. And that was not the purpose of the meeting. The meeting took place as a follow-up of a previous meeting which we had had between heads of different groups in the parliament, because we are very worried about the fact that there is a concentration of all the powers in Palestine in the hands of the government – whether in Gaza or in the West Bank, and both governments practically have eliminated the role of the Legislative Council. And what we are seeing is the government practicing legislative authority in addition to executive authority, although its status, legally, is questionable. We gathered to find a way, in a situation where one-third of the members of parliament are in Israeli jails, obstructing the possibility of reconvening the Council, and with the situation of division between the West Bank and Gaza, where both people cannot reach each other. In the situation of this paralysis caused by these factors, we have to find a way to bring back the role of the Legislative Council. And what we decided was to act although informally but effectively: we had a meeting with the participation of a good number of people from different factions, and we decided to create a committee that represents all the groups, including Fatah, Hamas, Mubadara, DFLP, all the people who are in the Council, to regain the supervisory as well as legislative role of the Council.

What we are doing is that, according to the law, each member of the Legislative Council is entitled to practice his duties, even if the Council is not meeting. So what we are doing is, collectively, translating this individual right into action – which means, we will have three major committees and they will start acting next week.

Continue reading Mustafa Barghouti: Getting the Palestinian Legislative Council out of the freezer

Saeb Erekat: Americans should "judge" negotiations process

On the day that Palestinians were marking 41 years of occupation, Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat told journalists in his office in Ramallah on Thursday, “we are a nation that is interrupted – economically, socially, politically, and in every sense. Yet in 2008, there are those who do not understand, even external forces”.

At that moment, there was a cut in electrical power for the second time in a few minutes.
As everyone laughed, Erekat joked: “Even the electricity is interrupted”

“It should have been different”, Erekat continued, “today should have been different…but Palestinians are still Palestinians…So, what are you going to do with us?”

Erekat agreed that the current impasse in negotiations with Israel “cannot stand”.

He was speaking as some Palestinians openly speculated that the end to the negotiations with Israel are near – and saying that this is what prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make an unusual call for renewed national dialogue, as if he might have dropped his preconditions, starting with the return of Gaza to Ramallah’s control, nearly one year after Hamas fighters routed Fatah forces.

But, Erekat said in response to one journalist’s question, “Abu Mazen did deliver an initiative yesterday, but it was according to the Yemeni initiative that was launched in the Damascus summit last year. Everybody knows it begins with Hamas rescinding its coup. Everyone knows, also, that Hamas won the last elections – but they have since failed – big time…When was the last time you read the Yemeni initiative? Abbas said [Wednesday evening] that he wants to see the Yemeni initiative implemented. He was very clear”.

In any case, Erekat added, anticipating other unspoken questions, any eventual outcome of negotiations with the Israelis “will be put to a referendum. If Palestinians say ‘yes’, we will implement it from our side. If the Palestinians say ‘no’, then Abu Mazen will say goodbye”.

Erekat said that the negotiations with an Israeli team led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are “serious … and, .for the first time, we have opened all files, and we are now at the prisoners’ file…We are trying to revive hope, but the choice is Israel’s … We have defined the end game, which is to end the 1967 Israeli occupation according to the Road Map. We have serious negotiations for the first time in seven years, and we are taking a needs-oriented approach”.

What is that, one journalist asked? “You know, my needs, their needs. What do you want to know? I’m not going to show you the map”, Erekat replied.

Erekat pointed out that “in Annapolis, we chose a trilateral arrangement, in which there would be a ‘judge’, an American ‘judge’ (on behalf of the Quartet) … The question here is for the Americans and the other members of the Quartet: Isn’t it time for the ‘judge’ to speak out? There is no such thing as a secret ‘judge’…Since Annapolis there have been more settlements, more incursions, more faits accomplis. Now, at a time we are trying to revive hopes for peace, this American ‘judge’ should come out in the open and say who’s complying and who’s not – giving just the truth, just the facts. Otherwise, is it a cover-up for Israeli activities? This cannot stand any more”.

“I really urge the Americans to introduce their comments”, Erekat continued. Decisions on Jerusalem, security, borders, refugees and so on are required from both Israelis and Palestinians. You as journalists should be able to call up and ask the ‘judge’ who is complying on this matter or that. This current situation cannot continue”.

A journalist then asked: “You are saying the Israelis are not serious, so what are you waiting for?” Erekat replied “There is nothing wrong with negotiations, since Adam and Eve. Negotiations are not the end, they are the means. I don’t want to stop negotiations, I want to stop Israeli settlements, I want to stop Israeli incursions. And I want the international community to help us make Israel comply with its obligations under the Road Map”.

Erekat clearly put more hope in the evaluation being made by Lt. General William Fraser – appointed as Mr. Road Map Implementation by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice just before President Bush’s visit to the region in January – than in comments made by leading contenders for the Democratic Party nomination to be the next U.S. President.

On Barak Obama: “I thought he was a man of change…but when he says that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel, I say to him, ‘Sir, you are closing all doors to peace’. I don’t care if he’s pro-Israeli or not. My concern is about those who are pro-peace or not. U.S. Policy hasn’t changed since the ‘70’s. The U.S. Embassy is still in Tel Aviv, and the U.S. policy still says that Jerusalem is occupied”.

To Hilary Clinton: “If someone loses his home, his schools, his livelihood, his parents in New York, what do you call it? We call it a catastrophe – and we have here a catastrophe that has lasted 60 years”.

Akiva Eldar on Olmert and the current Situation

Akiva Ekdar has just written this reflection in Haaretz on the pickle that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is presently in and the options:
“Kadima [Olmert’s party, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] has not managed to create its own political culture. In effect, to this day, it has not succeeded in leaving a mark on any sphere in which a ruling party is involved. Olmert’s most important contribution, and what distinguishes him from Netanyahu (and also from Ehud Barak), is the replacement of the unilateral solution with the principle of consent. Sharon translated Barak’s “no-partner” doctrine into a strategy of crushing the Palestinian Authority, eliminating the political option and the unilateral approach. Olmert brought the term “permanent arrangement” back into public discourse, and transformed Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) into a regular sight on Israelis’ televisions. Too bad the peace with Syria appeared again on the agenda in the shadow of Talansky’s harsh testimony. Thanks to these processes, Olmert deserves a place in the history books, not only as the person responsible for the debacle in Lebanon and as a cigar-loving political hack.

“It seems that Olmert will have to drop the plan to go to elections with a ‘shelf’ agreement that would present the principles of a permanent arrangement, and with a draft of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Even the Palestinians have learned that when the Israelis start talking about elections, they are not willing to hear about the division of Jerusalem and the refugee problem. But if he really does believe that in the absence of a two-state solution, ‘the Jewish state is finished’, Olmert must see to it that the next government, whatever its composition, finds Palestinian partners for that very solution.

“The fate of these partners is now in Olmert’s hands. If he continues toying with the Egyptian outline for a cease-fire (tahadiyeh) in Gaza, one more missile striking an apartment building in Ashkelon will be enough for the government to drag the Israel Defense Forces into a blood-soaked campaign deep inside the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, a siege of 1.5 million citizens cannot last forever, and eventually will explode. In both cases, the Fatah leadership led by Abu Mazen, which is perceived as a collaborator with Israel, will emerge by the skin of its teeth. This is why Hamas’ sworn enemies are supporting, if not almost begging, for Olmert to sign the tahadiyeh agreement, and to open the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The Egyptians are hinting that they are saving the opening of the Rafah crossing for the next stage of the deal, which will include the return of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.

“In addition to keeping the situation in the Gaza Strip quiet, Olmert has an additional series of means at his disposal that can enhance the status of the Palestinian partners, until the political situation in Israel is clarified. All he has to do is pull out of the drawer the list of promises he made to Abu Mazen (and to the Americans) and instruct the defense establishment to uphold them in spirit and in practice. The prime minister, after all, claims that he is continuing to carry out his duties in the best possible way even during the very difficult times he is experiencing”.

The full Akiva Eldar article can be read here .

Meron Benvenisti: Cease-fire between Israel and Gaza will make Gaza the Palestinian State

From an article written by Meron Benvenisti and published in Haaretz:

“[P]paradoxically the right, which strives to destroy Hamas, needs to support the cease-fire and the establishment of Hamas control in Gaza. And the left, which supports a single state led by Fatah, needs to object to the establishment of a separate government in Gaza.

“The cease-fire accompanied by an agreement on the crossings, and in particular the opening of the Rafah crossing, will help Hamas to cement its control over Gaza. They will establish their own organization, which will grow and spread and become permanent – and distance themselves from the government in the West Bank. It seems that the cease-fire, even if it is fragile, will mark a point of no return in the splitting off of the Gaza Palestinians into a separate authority.

“It is possible to pretend that the main battle is against Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel. It is also possible to blame Israel, whose consistent policies led to the detachment of Gaza and the Hamas takeover. It is also possible to claim that the split between the West Bank and Gaza is structural and the Palestinians of the West Bank always feared being flooded by Gazans, and that is why they never protested too loudly against the nonimplementation of the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

“Whether we give Israel credit for a sophisticated strategy that produced results, or whether we call the result a coincidence, it is clear that the additional split in the Palestinian people serves long-term Israeli interests.

“The isolation of a million and a half Gazans allows indirect, outside control. This could be replaced – after a long period of violence and blockade – by a policy of nonintervention, and even indirect aid for economic development, as a way to divert human resources from violence to constructive channels.

“The accessibility to the outside world, by land and sea, and an efficient and uncorrupt government are likely to turn that piece of land into the Palestinian state.

“The other Palestinian canton, whose area is getting smaller and smaller due to the spread of the settlements, now has 2 million people and is considered the heartland of the Palestinian people. But it is quickly turning into an adjunct of Israel for all practical purposes, and it is experiencing political processes similar to those experienced by Israeli Arabs since 1948.

“These processes will be exposed when the Palestinian Authority falls apart on its own, once the Gaza cease-fire gives it a fatal blow.

“This is the system of divide and conquer that will enable Israeli control over the long term. Its cornerstone is the isolation of Gaza…”

Benvenisti’s full analysis can be read in Haaretz here .