Israel and the Syria Track

Israel’s Prime Minister has sent about 20 messages to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the last year, feeling out the possibility of resuming peace talks between the two countries, according to a report by correspondent Barak Ravid published on Sunday in Haaretz newspaper. 

The source for the story was an unnamed “senior Israeli minister”, who told Haaretz that Olmert’s purpose was “to better assess Syria‘s intentions”. 

However, the “senior Israeli Minister” told Haaretz that the Syrian responses “did not meet Israeli expectations”, and were not satisfactory, and so as a result “Olmert believes that at this time it is not possible to initiate negotiations with Syria”.

During the time of these newly-revealed messages, Israel also apparently made a military strike in early September against a target in eastern Syria which may or may not have had something to do with a nuclear program, a missile program, or weapons being funneled from Iran, according to various speculative reports in the media. 

At least one of the messages Olmert sent to Syria in the past year was just before that reported strike, saying that Israel had no hostile intentions.

Indeed, after months of growing tension and speculation that there might be a re-play of Israel’s 2006 “Second Lebanon War”, Israel signaled that it decided that war with Syria was unlikely, in part apparently because Syria’s military had reduced its war readiness  — and Israel rotated forces out of the contested Golan Heights, just before the strike.

Syrian leaders reportedly complained bitterly that Olmert’s message was a diversion meant to get Syria to drop its guard before the strike – though they say that the strike caused no significant damage.

The “senior Israeli minister” who told Haaretz about Olmert’s messages to Syria said that most of these efforts were made through via Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although others were also involved, “including U.S. congressmen and various European officials”.

The messages concerned the possible agenda for the talks between the two countries — including “whether Assad was willing to include in the talks his country’s ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant organizations”.

The latest flurry of speculation about Israel-Syria talks started with remarks made by Olmert last Wednesday evening to a press conference with the international press corps

accredited in Israel.   One journalist from Bloomberg News asked Olmert: “Mr. Prime Minister, you said that you’re willing to sit down and talk to the Syrians.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he is willing to talk to you.  What exactly is keeping you guys from sitting down and starting to talk?” 

Olmert replied: “I said indeed that I am prepared to make peace with Syria.  I hope that the Syrians are prepared to make peace with Israel and I hope that circumstances will allow us to sit together.  That doesn’t mean that when we sit together you have to see us”. 

Last spring, news was leaked of semi-official contacts with a Syrian-American go-between, Dr. Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, described as “a Syrian Allawite who has been living in the U.S. for many years” who had been talking to Dr. Alon Liel in Israel.  Suleiman “accepted the invitation of Meretz-Yahad faction chairwoman Zahava Gal-On in April to present Syria‘s point of view on relations with Israel to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee”, but saw no officials in the Israeli government, according to an article published last October by Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar.

According to Eldar, Suleiman’s contact in Damascus was General Mohammed Nassif, who communicated the details from Suleiman to President Assad. 

At least one of the European go-betweens was a ranking Ambassador in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Nicholas Lang, who also tried a little shuttle diplomacy on behalf of Swiss Foreign Minister (and Swiss President in 2007) Micheline Calmy-Ray.  Suleiman was, according to Haaretz’s Eldar, apparently also “a secret and partially official envoy of Syria to the Swiss channel”.

Eldar wrote in Haaretz in October that the Syrian leadership had an ambivalent attitude toward these contacts with Israel: “On the one hand, in one of his recent speeches, Assad bragged about the indirect contacts Syria has made with Israel through Syrian expatriates living in the West in an attempt to reach a diplomatic arrangement…On the other hand, since his visit to Jerusalem, Suleiman has become a persona non grata in Damascus. His Swiss colleagues are also not very welcome there. At the end of May, Suleiman visited Berne and met with the president and foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey. The two decided that the time was ripe to visit Damascus together to congratulate Assad on his election for a second term. At the same time, they tried to convince the Syrian president to reopen the channel that was closed last summer after the special Swiss envoy [n.b. Nicholas Lang, now serving as Ambassador in a post in Africa], who was in charge of the talks, left empty-handed following his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s adviser, Yoram Turbowicz.   As Suleiman reported to American friends, he called the bureau of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem from Berne and told the head of the bureau, an official by the name of Samir, that the Swiss president wished to visit Damascus in two weeks’ time in his company.  According to Suleiman, Samir immediately responded that ‘this is not the time’.”

But, Israeli sources complained at the time these efforts were revealed, the U.S. had put pressure on Israel to drop any flirtation with Syria in order to concentrate on the negotiations with the Palestinians. 

A sort of rivalry has existed – and been manipulated – for years between the Syrian negotiaion track with Israel, and the “Palestinian” track.

So, the not-too-subtle, even rather provocative, hint contained in that last phrase of Olmert’s answer, suggesting more recent secret contacts, sent reporters rushing out to check with sources.

It is interesting that Olmert declined to seize an opportunity, in last week’s press conference, to pile on complaints about Syria.  Instead, when Olmert was asked about the Arab peace initiative – and especially about what it says concerning Syria – he replied: “I much prefer to speak about the whole thing and you know, I don’t see any particular reason now to separate the different parts of the Arab Peace Initiative.  The Arab Peace Initiative is relevant”. 

Other Israeli ministers then added their views.

Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer (who was born in Iraq) said on Israel Radio Friday morning that “Israel is making every effort to restore Syria to the negotiating table. The efforts are constant and are being done through common friends…We know exactly what the price would be”. 

Haaretz reported that on Friday evening, in a briefing for foreign diplomats at the Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel’s Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak said that “in the end, Israel will meet Syria either in the field of battle or in the negotiating table … Syria is a weak country with many problems, but under certain conditions Israel will be willing to open the door to it … Israel considers negotiations with Syria and removing Syria from the circle of extremists as central to its policy.” 

Barak also said, according to Haaretz, that “It would not be a good idea for someone to try something against us at this time … We are following what is going on in the North, the growing strength of Hezbollah with Syrian backing and the developments over the border in Syria. Israel is the most powerful country in the region and this is what enables it to stand on guard but also try to seek [peace] agreements.”

Haaretz reported in a second article on Sunday that “A week earlier, [during the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel] Olmert told a joint meeting of the Israeli and German Cabinets that he was ready to restart negotiations with Syria if Damascus would end its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militant groups”.


During Ehud Barak’s tenure as Israeli Prime Minister, attempts by U.S. President Bill Clinton to restart Israeli-Syria negotiations at talks with Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva failed in May 2000 — over the issue of the extent of Israel’s proposed withdrawal from the Golan Heights which Israel captured in 1967 and then annexed de facto in 1981 by proclaiming that Israeli law applied to the Golan.  This is generally regarded as null and void by most United Nations member states on the basis of international law.  Most of the remaining Arab inhabitants of the Golan are Druse who continue to define themselves as Syrian citizens.  Tens of thousands of other Syrians fled the Golan Heights during the 1967 war. 

Israel says it then came under surprise attack from Syria on the Golan in the 1973 war.  The Israeli army was successful there at that time, IDF Brigadier-General (Reserve) Tzvika Foghel told journalists during a recent tour of the Golan in late 2007, because the Syrians “had a day-mission habit.  That is, they only had orders for the day, and the mission of the day was to stop at a certain point.  We used the time they were resting to push them back”.

In any case, Syria has consistently demanded the return of the entire Golan Heights, which overlooks a large part of Syria, and also part of Lebanon, all the way down to the waters of Lake Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee or Lake Kinneret).

Israel has signaled it will not give up a strip of land along the shore of the lake from which it draws some 35% of Israel’s water supply.

Israeli officials argue that Syria never had “its feet in the water” of the Sea of Galilee, at least according to the maps of the League of Nations mandatory period.  But, in 1948, Syrian soldiers apparently did manage to secure positions on the shore. 

Then, as part of the UN-negotiated armistice agreement between Israel and Syria, signed 20 July 1949, Israel demanded that Syria withdraw from some positions on the Golan, including on the shores of Lake Tiberias.  Syria agreed — as long as these positions were to be demilitarized. 

A letter from UN mediator Ralph Bunch to Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett which is appended to the armistice agreement says that “in the Israeli-Transjordan Armistice Agreement…the armistice demarcation lines agreed upon involved changes in the then existing truce lines, and that this was done in both cases without any question being raised as to the sovereignty over or the final disposition of the territory involved. It was taken for granted by all concerned that this was a matter for final peace settlement. The same applies to the provision for the al-‘Auja zone in the Egyptian-Israeli Agreement. From the beginning of these negotiations our greatest difficulty has been to meet Israel‘s unqualified demand that the Syrian forces be withdrawn from Palestine. We have now, with very great effort, persuaded the Syrians to agree to this. I trust that this will not be undone by legalistic demands about broad principles of sovereignty and administration which in any case would be worked out in the practical operation of the scheme”.

Israelis moved into many of the demilitarized zones in subsequent years, and then captured them militarily in the 1967 war.

Syria wants the whole lot back.

Israel says it will remove 50 dirt barriers in West Bank — there are more than 500 checkpoints

In fact, there seem to be 580 checkpoints in the West Bank.

But, an announcment by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he had already previously decided to remove 50 dirt barriers in the West Bank is one of the concrete outcomes of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s energetic efforts in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Rice was asked about it by a journalist during a joint press conference on Sunday morning with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni:

“Question: Madame Secretary, are you satisfied with the gesture that the Minister of Defense is willing to take in order to ease the Palestinian life, if it’s enough to remove some roadblocks?

Secretary Rice: Yes, first of all, I would not characterize, though, what we need or what I expect to hear as gestures. I really do think that what we need to do is to have meaningful progress toward a better life for the Palestinian people, for the economic viability for Palestinians, even as we move toward the establishment of a state. And that’s why, as the Foreign Minister said, we’ve tried to do this in a simultaneous fashion. And there’s a shared responsibility here for an atmosphere and a reality that can lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and economic viability for Palestinians. And so that is what I’m looking to see if we can do. I understand the security considerations, and so I would hope and I expect that we’re going to be able to do some things, or that Israel and the Palestinians together will be able to do some things that are meaningful both for security and for economic viability. And it really does have to be shared responsibility for them”.

Rice was asked this question before she had even met with Israel’s Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak — because it had all been leaked beforehand.

When they actually did get to meet, a bit later, this is what happened, as communicated by the Israeli Government Press Office:

“Defense Minister Ehud Barak today (Sunday), 30.3.08, met with US Secretary of state Dr. Condoleeza Rice, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The two first met privately; later, they were joined by their delegations. Following the meeting, Defense Minister Barak held a three-way meeting with Secy. of State Rice and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, at which the three discussed various regional, diplomatic and security issues.

Defense Minister also presented a package regarding the easing of various restrictions on the Palestinians, which he approved last week. The package is as follows:

Easing of Security Restrictions (fabric of life, law and order)

1. Approximately 50 dirt roadblocks will be removed thus enabling vehicular traffic between Jenin, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Ramallah.

2. The opening of the permanent checkpoint in the Rimonim area.

3. Approval for the establishment of Palestinian police stations in B and B+ areas in order to promote law and order, after a comprehensive picture of deployments in Judea and Samaria will have been presented.

4. The deployment of 700 police personnel in the Jenin area (following their return from training in Jordan). Ultimate security responsibility will remain in Israel’s hands.

5. Mechanisms for issuing action permits for Palestinian forces for movement to B areas and for movement across brigade areas, in order to better deal with law and order, will be improved.

6. An inquiry into lifting additional roadblocks and checkpoints in Judea and Samaria will be carried out in the coming weeks, with the intention of completion by mid-May. [emphasis added]

7. The delivery of 25 APC’s – out of 50 – was approved.

8. The delivery of 125 vehicles and pieces of logistical equipment for the Palestinian security forces has been approved.

9. Approval of non-lethal equipment for the Presidential Guard is under consideration.

10. Various restrictions on the movement of public figures have been eased.
Easing of Restrictions on Businessmen

11. Various restrictions on the movement of businessmen have been eased.

12. Maximum assistance will be rendered vis-à-vis the 21-23.5.08 business conference in Bethlehem.

13. A senior Coordinator of Activities in the Territories officer has been appointed to deal with all issues involving the conference.

Increase of Employment in Israel

14. An additional 5,000 permits will be issued for construction work in Israel (the current quota is approximately 18,500).

Easing of Restrictions at Crossings (fabric of life)

15. Opening of the Sha’ar Ephraim Crossing for commercial activity on Fridays (immediate implementation).

16. Easing of pressure at the Kalandia and Rachel crossings by diverting prisoners’ visits to the Beituniya Crossing.

17. Upgrading biometric procedures.

18. Upgrading the humanitarian infrastructure at crossings.

21-23.5.08 Bethlehem Economic Conference for Investors

A. To allow the passage of businessmen from Arab countries, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Israel on a VIP footing (without checks) at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the Allenby Bridge, the internal crossings (especially in the Jerusalem area), as per the lists and pre-screening.

B. Israeli businessmen will be allowed to enter Bethlehem for the conference.

C. Approval has been given for the organized movement of businessmen in Judea and Samaria cities and into Israel (including Jerusalem and Nazareth).

D. Hours at the Allenby Crossing will be extended to 24:00 on 20.5.08 and 24.5.08.

Advancing the Establishment of Industrial Zones in Jericho, Hebron and Mukibla

A. The Tarkumiya Industrial Zone in the Hebron District – the goal is to move the “Ankara idea” from the Erez Industrial Zone to Judea and Samaria. The zone will received Turkish financing.

B. An industrial zone will be established for the processing and marketing abroad of Palestinian agricultural produce. The Japanese industrial zone in Jericho will be established close to the city. Japan, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and Jordan will be involved.

The U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack then issued the following press statement on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Trilateral Meeting With Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

“The process launched at Annapolis includes several components—including the realization of President Bush’s vision of two states living side by side in peace and security, and implementation of Phase I obligations of the Road Map to improve the quality of life and the security of ordinary people on both sides.  Today Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed on concrete steps to implement the Roadmap. This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure.  Lieutenant General William Fraser and others will continue their involvement in this effort to help the two sides implement their obligations. Secretary Rice was pleased to be able to join in those efforts today.

Prime Minister Fayyad and Defense Minister Barak agreed on points of special, immediate emphasis and work:

*     Israel has pledged to reduce the impediments to access and movement in the West Bank. This will begin with the removal of about 50 roadblocks and immediate steps to upgrade checkpoints to reduce waiting time without sacrificing security.

*     Both sides also agreed that the Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank should assume greater responsibility. Prime Minister Fayyad and Defense Minister Barak agreed to begin by bringing new life and hope to Jenin.

o           For its part, the Palestinian Authority will deploy security forces to provide law and order, and work to prevent terror.

o           For its part, Israel will take steps to ease access and movement to the city and its surrounding environs.

o           The United States and others in the international community will fund projects and in an integrated governance and development effort help the Palestinian Authority develop institutions for governance and rule of law.

*     The two sides will improve security coordination, so that Palestinian Authority security personnel can perform their vital duties and are equipped properly.

*     Prime Minister Fayyad and Minister Barak also agreed on steps to promote economic development, especially projects, in the West Bank more generally.

o           Both sides are committed to success of the Bethlehem investment conference and special arrangements will be made so that international visitors may attend.

o           Both sides have agreed to create a major new industrial park in Tarqumiya sponsored by Turkey.

o           The parties have completed connection of 27 Palestinian villages in the West Bank to the Israeli power grid and, in an unprecedented action, have connected Jericho to the Jordan power grid.

o           The two sides approved in concept the development of new housing in the West Bank for Palestinians.

o           Master Plans for 25 Palestinian villages in Area C have been approved.

o           Israel offered to expand significantly opportunities for Palestinian workers and businessmen to travel to Israel from the West Bank.

All of these steps can provide meaningful improvements in the lives of ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens, if they are successfully implemented. As implementation is a key to success, Lieutenant General Fraser will be following closely each side’s efforts to implement the agreed upon steps. Secretary Rice is confident that both Prime Minister Fayyad and Defense Minister Barak are committed to implementing these steps. They have also agreed to continue their meetings”.

S0 — it wasn't Syria

In advance of the Arab League Summit Meeting — which is being attended by very few heads of state or government — that opened Saturday in Damascus, the UN rushed through several steps in its preparation for the formation of the tribunal to judge those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Lebanon boycotted the Damascus summit entirely. Tensions around Syria’s role and possible responsibility in the Hariri killing have greatly complicated the atmosphere.

The UN said Friday that “Evidence shows that a criminal network was responsible for the massive car bombing that killed the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others in Beirut in February 2005, the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) says in a new report to the Security Council”. The UN Spokesperson, Michele Montas, said that UNSG BAN had just submitted the latest report of the IIIC, which is headed by Daniel Bellemare, to the 15 UN Security Council members. The UN News Centre [The UN uses British English spelling] story is posted here .

Bellemare, a Canadian who replaced Serge Brammertz as head of the investigation commission, will also be the chief prosecutor of the Hariri Tribunal once it begins to function.

The UN spokesperson Michele Montas told journalists at UNHQ/NY on Friday that “The Secretary-General, in a letter to the Security Council, said that the Commission reports that it has evidence that a network of individuals acted in concert to carry out Hariri’s assassination and that this criminal network, or parts of it, are linked to some of the other cases within the Commission’s mandate”. The transcript of the UN’s regular noon briefing for journalists is posted here .

As far as I can tell, this latest IIIC report has not been made public. However, the Associated Press seems to have obtained a copy, and has reported that “In his first report to the UN Security Council, Daniel Bellemare said the first priority of the investigating commission he heads is to gather more evidence about the ‘Hariri Network’, its scope, the identity of all its participants, their role in other attacks and links with people outside the network. Bellemare said the commission would not disclose any names to preserve confidentiality. ‘Names of individuals will only appear in future indictments filed by the prosecutor, “when there is sufficient evidence to do so’, he said. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have been under arrest for almost two years for alleged involvement in the murder. Syria denies any involvement in Hariri’s assassination, but the furor over the attack forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon after a 29-year presence. Bellemare said Syria’s cooperation with the commission ‘continues to be generally satisfactory’. The former Canadian prosecutor said evidence indicates the network existed before his assassination, that it conducted surveillance of the former premier, and that at least part of the network continued to operate after he was killed along with 22 others in a bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005. ‘The commission can now confirm, on the basis of available evidence, that a network of individuals acted in concert to carry out the assassination of Rafik Hariri and that this criminal network – the “Hariri Network” – or parts thereof are linked to some of the other cases within the commission’s mandate’, Bellemare said. The commission has been providing technical assistance to Lebanese authorities in 20 other ‘terrorist attacks’ that have killed 61 people and injured at least 494 others, he said. Eleven attacks have targeted politicians, journalists and security officials and nine involve bombings in public places. In coming months, Bellemare said, the commission will also focus on identifying links between the Hariri network and the other attacks it is assisting in investigating, and ‘where these links are found to exist – the nature and scope of these links’ … ‘The commission faces additional challenges including the magnitude of the attacks, their continuing nature, and the fact that the investigations are conducted in an environment dominated by ongoing security concerns’, he said. Bellemare stressed the difficulties of operating in the ‘deteriorating security situation’ in the last four months when Lebanon has been paralyzed by the failure to elect a new president. He also noted that six new cases had been given to the commission since November 2006 without any additional resources to meet the increased workload. ‘The number of investigators and analysts continues to be far lower than in comparable investigations’, he said”. This AP report was published in the Jerusalem Post here .

The day before the Bellemare report was presented to the Security Council, the Council welcomed (on 27 March) the latest report of the UN SG (S/2008/173 – 12 March 2008) on setting up the international tribunal to identify and bring to justice those responsible for the massive 14 February 2005 car bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others in downtown Beirut.

The UN legal counsel, Nicholas Michel (of Switzerland) told journalists in a separate briefing that the tribunal had been requested by the President of Lebanon.

In the briefing, Michel said that “Member States had provided $60.3 million, including $34.4 million in funds already sent and $25.9 million in pledges, to cover the costs of setting up the Tribunal in The Hague and its first year of operation, he said, adding: ‘The Tribunal should not be expected to start operating with all of its organs overnight. The Secretary-General’s report, in paragraph 38, clearly indicates that the Tribunal will start functioning in phases’. The time frame would depend on the availability of funds, the outcome of consultations with the Lebanese Government and progress in the Commission’s work … In February, the Secretary-General and the Lebanese Government had formally created a Tribunal Management Committee, he continued, listing its members as Lebanon, France, Germany, Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States. They had each contributed $1 million or more and the Netherlands was providing rent-free space to house the Tribunal in The Hague during its first three years of operation. He declined to disclose the other contributors, saying it was up to the Management Committee to decide if and when to release that information. Furthermore, the judges’ names would not be made public until their first meeting, during which they would draft the rules of procedure and evidence and elect the presidents of the Tribunal’s Trial and Appeals Chambers. The Appeals Chamber President would also serve as President of the Tribunal. During the ensuing question-and-answer period, the Legal Counsel said the Tribunal only had jurisdiction over the Hariri case at present, but it had the power to extend its jurisdiction to cases that occurred between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005. The United Nations and the Lebanese Government could also agree, with the Council’s approval, to extend the Commission’s jurisdiction to more recent cases deemed to be connected to the Hariri assassination. The Tribunal’s three-year mandate would be extended if its judicial process was not completed in that time frame, he added”. This UN press release summarizing Michel’s briefing to journalists is posted here.

The AP reported, after the Michel briefing, that “Many Lebanese have blamed neighboring Syria for the assassination, and four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have been under arrest for almost two years for alleged involvement. Syria denies any involvement, but the furor over the attack forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon after a 29-year presence …The United States has been one of the biggest contributors, pledging $14 million”. This AP report is posted here .

The 12 March report of the UN SG, which was welcomed by the UN SC on 27 March, contained this information:

“…negotiations between the United Nations and the authorities of the Netherlands had been successfully concluded. The agreement provides, inter alia, that the host State has no obligation to let persons convicted by the Special Tribunal serve their sentence of imprisonment in a prison facility on its territory. It also stipulates that the Registrar shall take all necessary measures to arrange the immediate relocation to third States of witnesses who for security reasons cannot return to their home countries after testifying before the Tribunal …

“…on 10 July 2007, the Government of Lebanon had forwarded to me, in a sealed envelope, a list of 12 candidates proposed for judicial appointments by the Lebanese Supreme Council of the Judiciary, as set forth in article 2, paragraph 5 (a), of the annex to resolution 1757 (2007). I also informed you that, with a view to my appointing Lebanese and international judges at the same time, on 1 August 2007 the Legal Counsel sent a letter to all Member States, on my behalf, inviting them to consider submitting
candidates for appointment as judges of the Tribunal no later than 24 September 2007. The names of 37 international candidates were submitted … On 4 December 2007, having interviewed the short-listed candidates, the selection panel made its recommendations to me, which I subsequently accepted. Mindful of security considerations, I will proceed with the formal appointments of the judges and announce their names at an appropriate time in the future …

“…On 8 November 2007, the selection panel recommended to me that Daniel Bellemare (Canada) be appointed as the Prosecutor. I subsequently accepted the recommendation. On 14 November 2007, I appointed Mr. Bellemare as the Prosecutor of the
Special Tribunal pursuant to my authority under article 3 of the annex. He will, however, commence his official duties as the Prosecutor at a later date in keeping with the provisions of the annex. On the same day, after the Security Council took note of my intention, I also appointed Mr. Bellemare to succeed Serge Brammertz as Commissioner of the Investigation Commission. I am of the view that, as called for in article 17, paragraph (a), of the annex, this approach will ensure a coordinated transition from the activities of the Investigation Commission to those of the Office of the Prosecutor of the Special Tribunal …

“…With respect to the Deputy Prosecutor, as I noted in paragraph 13 of my last report, the Government of Lebanon forwarded to me, in a sealed envelope, a list of candidates for the position. In December 2007, pursuant to consultations held between the Government of Lebanon, the Prosecutor-designate of the Special Tribunal and myself, a Deputy Prosecutor was identified. The appointment of the Deputy Prosecutor falls within the authority of the Government of Lebanon …

“… On the basis of the recommendation of the selection panel that I established, on 10 March 2008, I appointed Mr. Robin Vincent as Registrar of the Special Tribunal for a period of three years to commence at a later date, to be determined in the light of the progress achieved in establishing the Tribunal…

“…As the premises of the Tribunal have now been identified, estimated costs in those areas may be integrated into overall financial requirements. The annual rental cost for the building will amount to approximately $5 million and will be paid for the first years by the host State, whose generosity in this regard I applaud. Operating costs for the building are estimated at $1 million
per year. Refurbishment packages are currently under review. The packages provide for basic or advanced adaptations of the building in respect of security, holding cells, courtroom and offices”
… S/2008/173 – 12 March 2008

On blogging and audiences

Minimedia guy writes: “Tsk, tsk on Paid Content today for taking a snarky potshot at Yahoo’s Hot Zone, the series in which ( dangerously handsome) roving reporter Kevin Sites serves up pathos from world hotspots. Paid Content says this magical misery tour attracted only 1.38 [million, it turns out — see below] visitors in March, versus more than 27 million forYahoo proper and adds: “Nor have advertisers fully embraced the Hot Zone as a place to sell their wares.” Now consider this MediaPost report on the launch by Scripps Network of its second channel on bath design — the first being kitchen design — and the character of new media comes into focus … Of course advertisers won’t ‘buy’ the Hot Zone. What would they sell? Kevlar vests ? In contrast Scripps Network can mine a rich advertising territory in its kitchen and bath design channels. On a brief visit there this morning I noticed that portable, inflatable spas for just under $800. Wouldn’t Kevin Sites love to luxuriate in one of those after schlepping across the Sudan. Maybe we can do something groovy and user-participatory and take up an online collection to send him one … I wonder whether my notion of journalism — once defined as ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable’ — can survive in an era in which algorithms reward content that better enables us to feather our nests? Personally I am astonished and impressed that 1.38 million unique visitors took time out of their days to let Sites expose them to conditions so alien to our comparative everday luxury. And I hope Yahoo News general Manager Neil Budde is adamant about maintaining and supporting the less lucrative but entirely laudable Hot Zone” … This and other interesting posts can be found on here .

Reporting like Kevin Sites’ used to make money. Then, it was supported by the editors and other parts of whatever publication or publishing empire it belonged to, as a kind of a public service. Now, reporting from other places and conflict zones costs so much money that it uses up the budgets of most of the other sections of the publication — so you have contraction, bureaus closing,and the wire services left as the only reporters in the field…

What does it mean to live under military occupation? – Part II

This account, by a Norwegian woman living and working at the moment in Nablus, was published today on Electronic Intifada:

“Recalling the first time I passed through Huwwara checkpoint, I remember that my physical and psychological reaction revealed fear. As I and two colleagues moved slowly forward in the line of other women, children and elderly, the unbalanced and disturbing power relationship between us in the line and the soldiers was mercilessly perceptible. The young men and women, dressed in olive green uniforms, wearing helmets and carrying weapons, have the authority to deny anyone to pass. The people who live here in the West Bank have green permit cards that are checked by the soldiers. remember that my heartbeat increased and I felt that I had done something wrong that was about to be exposed. One minute I felt cold, the next warm. I felt like shouting to the soldiers, ‘Can’t you see what you are doing here?’ but instead took some deep breaths while trying not to look at the people around me. I pretended that I could not feel the little boy squeezed between me and the elderly lady next to me. I smiled at the grimace my colleague made as she struggled not to be pushed off-balance by the woman. This was just a normal day. We were just going for a weekend trip to Ramallah, a trip which should take only about 40 minutes if there were no checkpoints. The sun was shining, everyone seemed to know what to do. I remember thinking, ‘what am I afraid of?’ Now as I go though checkpoints, the initial fear I felt the first time has been transformed into a sense of injustice and frustration …
It is the constant reminder that every aspect of people’s lives here is affected by the occupation. My Palestinian friends who have lived their whole lives in this context tell me that one of the worst things of existing under such conditions is that after a while it becomes normal. One comes to expect everything. One has to endure everything. One has to remain hopeful that life will become easier one day. But when I ask how they understand the situation, they tell me that it is just getting worse; although they want to remain hopeful for future improvements, reality has shown them too many times that hope can be deceiving. Imagine yourself living in conditions of constant oppression, discrimination and insecurity I tell my friends back home, and I know they cannot. I cannot even imagine it myself. My little red passport, always kept in my pocket, feels somehow like a protective shield”.

This account can be read in full on the Electronic Intifada website here

Israeli human rights group wants criminial investigation into Bethlehem deaths

Haaretz reported today that “The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has requested a criminal investigation into the deaths of four wanted Palestinian militants in Bethlehem on March 12, saying that the deaths during the Israel Defense Forces raid appeared to have been an execution. In a letter to the attorney general and the IDF Military Advocate General, the group says that its own investigation raised serious suspicions that the wanted men had not been killed during an exchange of fire or while trying to escape, as intimated by the IDF. B’Tselem said that if the men were in fact executed, the IDF is guilty of severely violating a High Court ruling stating that the state is prohibited from intentionally killing Palestinians if less harmful means of maintaining security are available, meaning arrest and due process … B’Tselem also maintained that their probe revealed that not only were the four victims needlessly executed, the troops also continued to shoot to ensure that they were dead. The rights group’s letter stated that once three of the men who were sitting in a parked vehicle had been shot to death, an IDF man approached the car and shot each of them again at close range. This man also shot the driver, who was lying wounded and unarmed outside the car, the letter said”.
The full text can be read here .

On the same subject, a YNet report had this sub-headline: “Human rights group asks attorney general, chief military advocate general to investigate killing of Muhammad Shahade, three other terror suspects in Bethlehem earlier March, claiming they were killed without resisting arrest, should have been brought to trial”. The text of the report says that “The men in question are Muhammad Shahade, Ahmad Balbul, Imad al-Kamal and Issa Marzouk Zawahara. According to the IDF, the four, who were killed in a raid on March 12, have been involved in planning and perpetrating terror attacks against Israel. B’Tselem claims that the IDF acted in violation of a High Court ruling, which states that suspects must not be killed when it is possible to arrest them and bring them to trial. The group requested that Mazuz and Mandelblit also examine the involvement of the chief of staff, the Central Command chief and commander of the Judea and Samaria Division in planning and authorizing the operation. An inquiry conducted by the group revealed that during the raid in Bethlehem, soldiers used automatic fire against the suspects, although the latter did not attempt to escape or respond with fire. The inquiry further indicated that after three of the suspects had already been shot, a soldier approached the vehicle in which they were sitting and shot each one of them at point-blank range. The driver, al-Kamal, had reportedly been shot while lying wounded and unarmed near the car. In its letter to Mazuz and Mandelblit, B’Tselem also brings the testimonies of Shahade’s wife and children, who claim that several days prior to his death, security forces demolished his house, an act the group says ‘raises heavy suspicion of retaliatory action and severe abuse of the family members’. B’Tselem asked that these claims would be looked into as well. The IDF has yet to respond to the allegations”. The YNet story is posted here .

On blogging at the New York Times

“Blogs are treated somewhat differently from news stories because they are somewhat different. They must adhere to the same standards, in that a blogger can’t make unsupported allegations and needs to have done some reporting, but they have a different tone and purpose from news articles. And because blogs are by nature reactive, blog postings should be made as quickly as possible. Nearly all of our blog postings go through at least one editor, whether a backfield editor or a copy editor, immediately before or after posting. (We are working to be sure all the blogs are covered, but we have more than 50 already, and they multiply, so it’s sometimes hard to keep on top of them all.) Even the best reporter makes mistakes, and if those mistakes distract the reader, the reporter’s information can get lost. The magic of the Internet is that someone can swoop in and fix any mistake as soon as it’s discovered. And our readers discover as many as we discover on our own”… The full text can be read on the NYTimes website
here .

Israeli Prime Minister ready to talk to Mahmoud Abbas — it's up to the Palestinians, Olmert says

At a news conference with foreign journalists in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked when he will be meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert replied: “I am ready. I hope to resume meetings with President Abbas as soon as possible – it’s entirely up to the Palestinians”.

He indicated that he was not sure such a meeting could be held before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice arrives again in the region on 28 March – one reason, Olmert said, is that President Abbas is traveling.

Olmert said: “We want to try to reach an understanding with the Palestinians, and I believe Mahmoud Abbas wants to reach an agreement with us. Palestinians will have to implement all the conditions for the Road Map, and I’m fully aware of what we have to do (as well), and I don’t deny it. In the meantime, we have to talk”.

He added: “While we still fight with the Palestinians, we talk with them in a way we never did in the past”.

The Israeli Prime Minister told the press that “What we are trying to reach this year is a very accurate outline and definition of all basic issues”.

Yes, he said, he wanted to see an agreement this year. “If we do not reach agreement this year, it will take time for any new (American) administration to get into all the complexities, so the sooner the better”.

Olmert maintained that “Any agreement is subject to implementation of the Road Map”. Yet, he said, dealing with the settlements “will be the outcome of negotiations. It’s very obvious that the negotiations will define in a very accurate way all our borders”.

But, Olmert cited the 14 April 2004 letter from U.S. President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as providing the basis for developing “existing population centers” in the West Bank as well as in East Jerusalem.

Israel will not build any more settlements, Olmert said, nor will it expropriate any more land. And, illegal outposts will be dealt with, he indicated. But, he stressed, “in population centers there were be more additional building”, and “the reality on the ground will continue to change”.

He said that this had been made very clear at the outset of the present Annapolis process.

Recent Israeli announcements of a number of new housing tenders for Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and one in the West Bank (Givat Ze’ev), were made immediately after the recent attack by an East Jerusalem Palestinian on the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, which killed eight students there (four of whom were children under the age of 18).

On Givat Zeev, Olmert brushed off any criticism. “Most of the apartments approved are already built, and paid for, for many years”, he said.

In an opinion piece published in Haaretz today, a former Palestinian Authority Minister of State Kadura Fares, one of the young Fatah leaders who also was a signatory to the Geneva Initiative, wrote that “Housing Minister Ze’ev Boim explained away the construction of 750 new housing units in the settlement of Givat Ze’ev by saying that the permits had been issued in 1999, but that construction had stopped due to, as he put it, the ‘outbreak of violence’. That is, the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising. According to Boim, the contractors went to court, and as a result of their petition, the government ordered the construction’s approval. Boim was talking, it seems to me, to Israelis and overseas leaders critical of the renewed construction. He did not notice that Palestinians were also listening to him. I am one of those who listened, and I understood from his statements that Boim is inviting us – the Palestinians – to start another intifada. Boim’s statements reminded me how, at the end of the last decade, at the height of the peace talks, when we were closer to the finish line than ever before, the Israelis continued unremittingly to build settlements. That is the case today: After Annapolis, the Paris conference, and the renewal of talks on the highest level, Israel is once more expanding its settlement construction. The conclusion: Only when we launch an uprising does construction in the settlements cease; under the umbrella of negotiations, the settlement enterprise is revived. This, despite the fact that every Palestinian and every Israeli knows that the settlements are the main obstacle to a peace treaty”…

Haaretz added: “The writer is a senior member of the Fatah movement, and a member of the Palestinian peace coalition”. The full opinion piece by Kadura Fares can be read here .

Israeli Defense Minister Barak refuses to budge on checkpoints

Israel’s Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak said on Monday and Tuesday (after the recent visit of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney that he would not remove the West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks that all the members of the Quartet have called on Israel to remove.

Reuters reported that “Israel is under increasing U.S. pressure to take steps to ease restrictions on Palestinian travel and trade. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday that while Israel would try to ease some travel restrictions within the West Bank, it was not ready to commit to removing checkpoints”. This Reuters report is posted here .

The Associated Press reported that Barak indicated “The government would ‘look into’ certain changes to in a limited test area, he said, but offered no details. ‘It’s still too early to give an answer’, Barak said. Israeli officials have said that without the Israeli military presence, the West Bank could fall to the Islamic militants of Hamas, just as the Gaza Strip did last June”. The AP report is posted here .

What does it mean to live under military occupation?

From a report on the BBC from Nablus in the northern West Bank:

” ‘They come any time they want, in the morning, or in the middle of the night. It scares us’. says Mr Nasif. ‘Sometimes they stay for a night, sometimes for weeks. They use anything they want. They have used my bed, my children’s beds, the bathrooms, the gas, electricity – everything’.

On one occasion, the soldiers took photographs of themselves camped in Mr Nasif’s living room and sent the pictures to an Israeli magazine. When they next raided Nablus, they gave Mr Nasif a copy of the magazine. In total, 22 members of Mr Nasif’s family live in the house. They include his five children and 73-year-old mother. ‘I don’t know what to do, or who to speak to, or where to take my family. Me and my brothers spent all our money building this house, but we are not safe’

‘When I ask the soldiers to leave us alone, they say I should tell people to stop planning bombings in Israel, but I say it’s nothing to do with me. I have done nothing wrong to the state of Israel. We don’t deserve this’, he says.

Mr Nasif says he has written letters of complaint to the offices of Israeli politicians, but never had a reply.

He said he also sent a letter to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat asking him to help and complaining to him of the damage the soldiers had caused to his house. Mr Arafat sent him a cheque for $150 (£75) to make repairs.

As to its use of Mr Nasif’s house in incursions, the Israeli army says it cannot comment on its operations”.

This BBC report is posted here .