UNSG BAN on Israeli-Palestinian peace: If not this, what? If not now, when?

UNSG BAN Ki-Moon said to the UN Security Council monthly debate on the Middle East, today, that “This (peace) process is too important to be allowed to lose momentum through inaction or indifference, or to be overwhelmed by violence”, according to a report by the Agence France Presse.

He added: “I believe all of us must ask ourselves, and the parties, two simple questions: If not this, what? If not now, when?”

The AFP repont on SG BAN’s remarks is posted here .

Here's an understatement – Blair says Gaza strategy not working

The Quartet’s special envoy Tony Blair told a European Parliament panel on Tuesday that “the present strategy in Gaza is not working”.

The AP reported from Brussels that “Blair says the international community must rethink its strategy toward the Gaza area ruled by the anti-Israel Hamas organization. Blair says action must be taken to get more goods and food into Gaza to ease the humanitarian crisis there …”

This AP news story was published in the Jerusalem Post here .

Male journalists drop pants to attend Cheney-Olmert briefing

Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy newspaper group’s bureau chief in Jerusalem has explained it in a post today on his Blog: Checkpoint Jerusalem.

In Dion’s account, he explains that he complied with an order to drop his pants for a security check before the Saturday night press conference in Jerusalem of Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Dion does not seem traumatized by the scandalous security procedure. He says he is only insulted that journalists were not allowed to ask questions, after dropping their pants.

If there were any travelling press corps with Cheney, they wouldn’t have had to do this.

And journalists in Israel go through a rigorous accreditation process — they are not total unknowns. So this should never have happened.

What would have happened if they all had refused?

Dion wrote: “Security in Israel — from the airport to the Israeli parliament — is exceptionally tight, and getting into Olmert’s official residence was especially intrusive. First came the normal procedure of being pulled out of the line and questioned: How long have you lived here? Where do you live? Do you live alone? Do you have family here? Do you speak any Hebrew? Why do you travel to Jordan and Egypt? Have you been to Syria and Lebanon? Do you have friends in those countries? Etc. etc. etc… This process seemed to drag on especially long and a photographer who has lived here nearly a quarter century, has two kids and is married to an Israeli, stormed off after being held at the entrance for more than an hour. Once you make it past the first check, (if you make it through the first check) there’s the routine metal detector and x-ray machine, followed by the side trip behind the curtains for a body search. Only, this time, I was asked to drop my pants. ‘Really?’ I asked the security officer, who seemed slightly embarrassed by it all, though, since he does it all the time, I suspect he wasn’t really… The security guard said he needed to check the zipper of my jeans, though security also made other international reporters in normal pants strip before getting into the press conference. Strippin’ for Cheney might have been worth it – had we been given the chance to ask a question or two of the vice president. Instead, at the last minute, apparently, Cheney decided not to take questions … Fine. Lesson learned. That’s the last time I drop my pants for the vice president”.

Dion’s revelations were posted on 24 March on his Blog: Checkpoint Jerusalem here .

[Interesting: Dion doesn’t explain what happened to female journalists (if any)… I was told that this was a pool event, not open to the entire corps of accredited journalists]

Report: food costs rising world-wide

“What’s rare is that the spikes are hitting all major foods in most countries at once”., the AP has reported today.

The story says that “In the long term, prices are expected to stabilize. Farmers will grow more grain for both fuel and food and eventually bring prices down. Already this is happening with wheat, with more crops to be planted in the U.S., Canada and Europe in the coming year. However, consumers still face at least 10 years of more expensive food, according to preliminary FAO projections. Among the driving forces are petroleum prices, which increase the cost of everything from fertilizers to transport to food processing. Rising demand for meat and dairy in rapidly developing countries such as China and India is sending up the cost of grain, used for cattle feed, as is the demand for raw materials to make biofuels”. This AP report can be read in full here .

A camera, a machine gun, and a button to fire

Israel’s YNet news reported today that “A new system deployed by the IDF in the Gaza-region enables soldiers stationed in the operations room to fire at Palestinian terrorists near the Gaza fence, Ynet has learned. The systems, which are equipped with a camera and a machine gun, enable soldiers to watch any activity that takes place near the fence and if necessary to fire at the push of a button. The new system will soon be officially declared ‘operational’. In recent months, the IDF Southern Command has integrated the system into its operational routine and instructed IDF field intelligence troops on using it. The system was developed by the Israel Armament Development Authority. At this time, one system has been deployed north of the Gaza Strip. Additional systems will be deployed along the fence in the near future. ‘The system is not supposed to replace soldiers on the ground, and it won’t replace the need to charge at terrorists when necessary’, an IDF official said. ‘We will be able to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians’, another military official said. ‘We won’t fire needlessly, yet at the same time we are responsible for protecting IDF soldiers’.” The full article can be read on the YNet website here .

Cheney visits the Palestinian President in Ramallah — by helicopter

According to Israel’s YNet, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said in remarks to the press after his brief meeting with the Palestinian President (Mahmoud Abbas) in the Muqata’a compound in Ramallah: “No one deserves to go through life in a climate of fear of deprivation … That should not be and must not be the direction of events in this region.” The full YNet report on Cheney’s visit to Ramallah is posted here.

But who was he talking about?

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney did not take the risk of travelling by road from Jerusalem to Ramallah today to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or the present Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. Instead, Cheney flew by helicopter to the Muqata’a Presidential Compound for the meetings.

An adviser to the Palestinian President said two days ago that there were no plans to show Cheney either The Wall or the many checkpoints and roadblocks in the near vicinity of the meeting.

The adviser said he doubted it would make any impact, anyway. “Colin Powell and George Tenet came here when the Israeli tanks were halfway in the badly-damaged compound, threatening Yasser Arafat, and Powell and Tenet said they did not see the situation as a threat to Arafat’s security”, he said.

“Cheney asked for a meeting with the President, and we gave him an appointment”, the adviser said, shrugging.

He indicated he saw it only as an act of polite courtesy, and that he did not expect anything substantive to come out of the meeting — which came as difficult talks between two antagonistic Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, were extended in Yemen. Just before the Cheney-Abbas meeting, it was announced that Hamas and Fatah would continue talks in about two weeks’ time — so the meeting did not end in total failure. It seemed designed, in part, as a message of rebuff to Cheney, who takes a very hard line on what he sees as Islamic radicalism.

Meanwhile, Egypt reportedly continues American-backed efforts to deal with Israel, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other “Palestinian factions” to ease a steadily worsening situation with extremely difficult humanitarian consequences in the Gaza Strip.

Cheney arrived Saturday night and met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who Cheney is expected to meet again on Monday morning, before departing for Turkey.

Cheney was to have participated in a Easter Sunday morning worship service, to mark one of the most spiritually important Christian holidays in Jerusalem — as Palestinians in the adjacent West Bank continue under security lockdown for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Such were his security concerns that Cheney attended Easter Sunday services in West Jerusalem, at the chapel of the Lazarus Monastery on Agron Street.

He apparently did not even enter East Jerusalem, where the nicest sunrise service is on the grounds of the Augusta Victoria Hospital, overlooking on its east side the Jordan valley to the Dead Sea and the hills of Jordan rising behind.

The Lazarus Monastery appears to be next to the U.S. Consulate in West Jerusalem, and the premises have even been rented by the U.S. Goverment to serve as a base to “the public diplomacy and management sections and the U.S. Security Coordinator team”, as the U.S. Consul-General in West Jerusalem said when the rental was announced in 2006.

A string of settlements across the northern West Bank and along the Jordan valley

Today, I drove from Qalandia — the major crossing between Jerusalem and Ramallah — past Beit El and beyond, on a remarkably good road (not West Bank standards at all), heading up in a northerly direction to Tappuah junction, and past a string of four or five settlements.  These places give the words “gated communities” a new meaning.  They are filled with red-tiled roofed homes arranged neatly in an orderly way, and there are telephone poles with lines interspersed with Orange balls in a way that reminds me of the ways used to make sure you don’t get lost that is mentioned in children’s fairy tales.

I turned toward the East at Tappuah, and headed toward the Jordan valley.  More settlements appeared, on a nearly Israeli-only road sealed with barbed-wire topped mesh fences to keep Palestinians in their fields, and off the road.   When I reached “Gandhi’s road”,  the main north-south route in the Jordan valley named after the assassinated Israeli Minister of Tourism who called for deportation of Palestinians, I turned south, going toward Jericho, and passing the road to the Allenby Bridge along the way.

At the intersection of the east-west road going between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, I almost chose the Dead Sea — until I saw the checkpoint.  Nope, I will not cross a checkpoint just to get to the Dead Sea.  So, I turned instead in the direction of Jerusalem.

What I saw was a situation beyond redemption.  There is a string of settlements going in every direction you look, all across and up and down the West Bank.

These guys are too much

Journalists from the Jerusalem Post actually expected Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain to know exactly where and in what areas East Jerusalem and the West Bank overlap (in the Palestinian view, which is shared by many UN member states).

At least McCain was honest enough to admit he did not know: “On some matters of detail – such as whether he distinguished between Israeli building in east Jerusalem and in the settlements – McCain paused, cast a ‘help me out here’ glance in (Senator Joe) Lieberman’s direction, and then – very straightforwardly – said he ‘really didn’t have a good response to that question’.”

israeli journalists also expected U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to be able to pronounce on the exact status of Gilo, or Har Homa.

She just got irritated and huffy, and impatiently brushed off the question.

They can’t believe that important figures, who are taking positions that would affect their destiny, would not know exactly everything about every single area in and around “Greater Jerusalem”.

Around the time of the Annapolis Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and some of his senior colleagues explained that — for them — anything that is part of the “Greater Jerusalem” that they unilaterally declared after their victory in the June 1967 war is not covered by the Roadmap obligations against settlement expansion.

BTW, McCain also said: “I also understand that there are some isolated settlements that will also be closed down. That’s a tough decision for the [Israeli] government. I’ve seen the film when they go in and remove people from settlements, and it is a democracy. My job is not to make a decision as to whether the settlements should be expanded or not, but rather my job, I think, is to try to create conditions that would lead to negotiations and a settlement grounded on the belief that it is not just [about] my commitment to the state of Israel. If Hamas/Hizbullah succeeds here, they are going to succeed everywhere, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere, and Israel is not the only enemy. They are dedicated to the extinction of everything that the US, Israel and the West believes and stands for. So America does have an interest in what happens here, far above and beyond our alliance with the state of Israel”…

Here is a fuller excerpt from the JPOST interview:

“Question: Do you see a distinction between Israel building in new neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and building in the settlements?

McCain [Long pause]: I really don’t have a good response to that question. I really think that we should understand that the US and Israel are partners. Israel is not a client of the United States of America, they don’t do our bidding, they have a freely elected government, and that government functions sometimes haltingly; so does ours, by the way. In case you haven’t noticed, we haven’t passed a budget yet, and the Iraqis have! Some people say, too often, ‘We should tell the Israelis what to do’. But we are partners. And if you are true partners, then you don’t dictate what you think the terms of the survival of a nation should be. Doesn’t saying something like that, which is very forthright and will be very welcome in Israel, complicate your potential of being accepted as an honest partner for the Palestinians? I hope not, because I would be more than happy to treat Fatah as a partner as well, if they were committed to a process that resulted in peace. We all agree there [needs to be] a two-state solution. If there were a two-state solution and peace – which has far-reaching effects not only in the Middle East, but in the entire world – then I would be eager to have the United States and a Palestinian state as partners. But a little straight talk: we do have a unique relationship [with Israel]. We have a unique relationship with the British; that doesn’t mean we can’t be partners with the French or anybody else. We have a unique relationship between the United States and Israel, but that doesn’t mean we would discriminate against a Palestinian state if it were created, and Israel and the US are committed long-term to a two-state solution”.

The full McCain interview in the JPost can be seen here .

Outlines of a Grand Deal – Israel Egypt Palestine – shaping up

An intriguing story in Haaretz today reports that Israeli and Egyptian representatives have “agreed in principle Wednesday to a deal that would have Egypt replace Israel as the Gaza Strip’s sole electricity provider”. The story also states that “Israeli security sources said the infrastructure minister and the Defense Ministry have been in talks with Egypt for a long time. The deal won the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is interested in severing ties with Gaza”.

There is nobody who wouldn’t be pleased by such a deal.

Contacted by this reporter, a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Infrastructure, said Thursday morning that he had tried to check the Haaretz report but so far “We don’t know anything about it” – though, he added, the Haaretz journalists who wrote the story are good reporters.

But, as the Israeli spokesperson confirmed, the deal is actually between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

This deal was reported in a story published by this reporter in December (see UN Truth on 8 December here ).

It is not clear what role, if any, Israel would have in the deal – though the Israeli government would clearly like to be kept informed.

Dr. Omar Kittaneh, head of the Palestinian Energy Authority in Ramallah, told this reporter in early December that Egypt has agreed to build new lines with a capacity to carry up to 300 MW of electricity. “We’re expecting the line to be in operation at the beginning of 2009?, he said.

This could theoretically be enough to supply all the electricity needs of the Gaza Strip — though, Dr. Kittaneh noted carefully, “there are no commitments yet about the amount of electricity that will be supplied, only about the line capacity”.

Dr. Kittaneh was in meetings in Cairo on Thursday.

The Haaretz story today says that “Under the deal, Egypt would set up a new power line from the Sinai Peninsula town of Arish to the nearby Gaza Strip. The 150-megawatt line would cost $35 million to set up, and would be operational within two years”.

If that is the case, Egypt will not be supplying all of Gaza’s electricity – for the present demand in the Gaza Strip is for some 240 MW of electricity per day.

But, because of the Israeli fuel sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip on 28 October, and electricity cuts that went into effect on 7 February, Gaza has been getting something like 20% percent less than that – or, not more than 200 MW on a good day.

However, it now appears the Israeli military-ordered electricity cuts, which were approved by the Israeli Supreme Court on 27 January, and went into effect on 7 February, were a bad idea. The electricity cuts appear to have been rescinded.

In fact, Israel now appears to be providing more electricity to Gaza than previously, rather than less.

Peter Lerner, the spokesperson for COGAT (Coordination of [Israeli] Government Affairs in the Territories), told this reporter Thursday that Israel is now supplying 124 MW of electricity per day to the Gaza Strip.

Before the cuts, Israel was supposedly providing 114 MW per day to Gaza, but technical problems and “local error” – not discovered until the Israeli Supreme Court had asked the military to provide clear information – had lowered that amount.

Gaza’s own power plant is providing about 55 MW of electricity per day. Egypt currently supplies 17 MW of electricity through one direct feed line from Rafah in the Sinai to the Rafah District in Gaza.

Egypt cannot offer an immediate solution to Gaza’s electricity problem – it cannot increase the amount of electricity it provides at the moment, as the line capacity is full.   And, it will take at least one year to build the new line to Gaza, once the contracts are approved.

Dr. Kittaneh indicated in December that tenders will be issued soon for the Egyptian line to Gaza. He said that the cost will be paid by a $32 million dollar grant from the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

These lines will not be simple feeder lines, which send electricity in only one direction, Dr. Kittaneh explained. They will be two-way lines capable of transmitting electricity in either direction over interconnected grids. “Interconnectivity is the modern policy choice being made by every country in the world now”, Dr. Kittaneh added.

An eventual connection from the West Bank to the Jordanian grid has also been approved, Dr. Kittaneh indicated.

These decisions were approved by all seven countries who are part of an interlinked grid of seven regional electric authorities (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon , Libya , Iraq and Turkey), at a meeting of Arab League Ministers of Electricity last March — soon after the formation of the “National Unity” Palestinian Authority Government following Saudi mediation between Fatah and Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority recently presented a five-year Master Plan for reviving the Palestinian infrastructure and economy to a post-Annapolis meeting of donors in Paris in December, and it included a request for some $200 million to develop the electricity sector, according to Dr. Kittaneh.

The Gaza power plant, still under Israeli military-applied Phase I fuel sanctions, is currently receiving only 2.2 million liters of industrial diesel fuel a week, enough to providing between 45-65 MW of electricity per day over seven days to Gaza City and Central Gaza.

The Gaza power plant, originally built to produce 140 MW per day, is now capable of generating 80 MW of electricity, if only it had enough fuel.

It was destroyed in a June 2006 IDF bombing after the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit from near Kerem Shalom. Corporal Shalit is still being held somewhere in Gaza.

Even if Gaza’s power plant were operating only at its present full capacity of 80 MW, it could, together with the reported future expected Egyptian supply of 150 MW (half of the proposed Egyptian line’s capacity), meet the total present electricity demand of the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.

But, so long as the Gaza power plant must operate with the Israeli-supplied industrial diesel fuel needed to operate, Gaza will remain dependent on Israel for a substantial portion of its electricity.

One option for Gaza to “disengage” from Israel would be to convert the Gaza power plant operation from diesel fuel to natural gas – and to buy gas from Egypt, pending development of Gaza’s own offshore gas discoveries. This option was included in a World Bank report on Palestinian energy that was published last May.

An Egypt-Gaza pipeline could be in place by 2009, the World Bank said.

(The construction of a pipeline returning from Ashkelon to Gaza – see scenario below –
could take about the same amount of time – but would depend on a drastically different political environment.)

Converting the Gaza Power Plant operation from diesel fuel to natural gas would save a lot of money – over $45 million dollars per year at its present reduced level of operation, and almost double that amount if it were to operate at full capacity.

Initially, it was planned that Gaza’s own offshore natural gas discoveries were supposed to help fuel the Power Plant – but negotiations concerning exploitation and marketing of this gas have been complicated, and they have recently been put on hold.

Even in a best-case scenario, that Palestinian offshore gas would now not be available before 2011 at the very earliest.

In the past month, liquid natural gas from Egypt began flowing to Israel in a 100-km (63-mile) undersea pipeline from El Arish to Ashkelon , as part of a long-term bilateral deal agreed in 2005 between Israel Electric Company and the Israeli-Egyptian consortium East Mediterranean Gas (composed of Egyptian General Petrol Corporation + Israeli businessman Yossi Meiman’s Merhav company).

The Egypt-Israel pipeline running from El-Arish, on the northern Sinai coast to the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, apparently runs undersea about 10 miles off shore – but though the area demarcated as the Palestinian maritime space.

The planned development of the Palestinian offshore gas would have included the building of a pipeline from the Gaza Marine field to Ashkelon, where the gas would have been processed, and the construction of a secondary pipeline to transport the processed gas from Ashkelon back to Gaza City, for delivery to Gaza’s power plant.

This plan was worked up by BG (British Gas), which has 25-year development rights to the Gaza offshore gas deposits granted by the PA and the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, with input from the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) and from the head of Palestinian Energy Authority, Dr. Kittaneh.

However, the plan was put on hold in December (for a second time) by BG, in exasperation with the difficulty of negotiations with the Israeli government who would have been the buyer of the Palestinian gas. The main sticking point concerned pricing matters – though Israeli concerns about ensuring that this revenue would not go to funding Hamas militancy also remained.

Nevertheless, Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure Benjamin (Fouad) Ben Eliezer, continues to express great interest in the option.

In any case, around the time the Egypt-Israel gas supply agreement shaped up in 2005, it was then reported that a part of the Egyptian gas going to Israel could be also piped to the Gaza Power Plant — presumably pending the development of Gaza’s own offshore gas fields.

This scenario can still be dusted off to offer one quick fix – and there are signs that the possibility is under discussion.

Intriguingly, the talks that Egypt is conducting at the request of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, with Israel and “Palestinian factions”, and apparent American approval, could be shaping up to a grand deal.

But this will depend on order being restored to the current chaotic situation in Gaza – and calm in Israeli-Gaza as well as in overall Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The construction of part of the infrastructure envisaged for the development of the Palestinian offshore gas – that is, an Ashkelon-Gaza City pipeline – could theoretically move into the realm of the possible, though only if firing of rockets and missiles and other projectiles from Gaza is stopped.

Additional Egyptian gas could be piped to Ashkelon, then back to Gaza City.

Once the Gaza Maritime wells are developed and in production, the Egyptian gas could be then be “repaid” – to either Egypt or Israel, depending on the deal – with Palestinian gas.

Saeb Erekat says: "We're different"

“Signing agreements doesn’t make peace … The only lasting agreements are the fair ones”, veteran Palestinian peace negotiator Sa’eb Erekat said at a press conference in East Jerusalem today.

He said he was under oath not to speak about or disclose the details of the current negotiations.

“What I said is that what needs to be done is to take decisions … What is needed are decisions, not negotiations”, Erekat said.

“U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is coming in two weeks, and American diplomats are on the phone every hour. But now it’s the moment of truth — It’s either settlements or peace”.

“President Bush has no right to discuss with Israel ceding some territory in Palestine. He can cede New Mexico, maybe, but not here”, Erekat said. “One day in 1995, Jordan decided to cede 29,000 square kilometers [to Israel, in the context of their peace treaty]. We’re different”.

“Without giving me the percentage of [territorial] swaps”, Erekat said, “there will be no agreement”.

But “with the percentage of agreed swaps, you’ll get an agreement in three months”, Erekat said. “The end game is defined and the rest is all technicalities, and if you settle them, you’ll get a treaty of 1,000 pages in three months”.

No further details were given.

For more, see Wednesday’s post on Palestine-Mandate here .