Gaza journalist forcibly undergoes stripping and full body cavity search by Israelis at Allenby Bridge

My friend and colleague Robert J. Parsons, a journalist in Geneva, sent me the news item below– a report from the Inter Press Service (IPS) about what happened to one of its correspondents.

Angry Arab also has a link to the Gaza Today blog here which picked up the same story as it was reported by the Palestinian news agency Ramattan (but I can’t find the story on Ramattan because their archives appear to be unsearchable…)

And, Reuters has picked up the story and added some more sickening details in a report that has been published by Haaretz, as follows:

“Mohammed Omer, who writes for the pro-Palestinian Washington Report, said he was strip-searched and detained for nearly four hours at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge when he crossed from Jordan into the West Bank, en route to the Gaza Strip, on June 26.

‘They wanted to humiliate me. I collapsed in tears … I had to throw up twice and I fainted twice’, Omer said. ‘They asked silly questions about everything I had done during my trip to London and Europe and they made fun of me’.

An Israeli government spokesman declined immediate comment and said he would look into the incident.

Omer said that at the Allenby Bridge, he was forced to strip to his underwear by an Israeli officer who then ‘snatched it down off me’.

He said two officers dragged him by his legs, his head sweeping the floor, in front of other passengers.

After he vomited and fainted, Israeli security personnel summoned a Palestinian ambulance to take him to hospital.

At a hospital in nearby Jericho, he contacted Dutch diplomats who had facilitated his trip to Europe, and they drove him to an Israeli border crossing with the Gaza Strip.

Back in the Hamas-controlled territory, he was admitted to hospital where doctors said he had suffered a nervous breakdown and that several of his ribs had been broken”…

The full Haaretz report can be read here .

Photo of Mohammed Omer - IPS

Here are excerpts from the earlier IPS story:
“Mohammed Omer, the Gaza correspondent of IPS, and joint winner of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, was strip-searched at gunpoint, assaulted and abused by Israeli security officials at the Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank on Thursday as he tried to return home to Gaza.

Omer’s trip was sponsored by The Washington Report, and the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv was responsible for coordinating Omer’s travel plans and his security permit to leave Gaza with Israeli officials.

While waiting in Amman on his way back, Omer eventually received the requisite coordination and security clearance from the Israelis to return to Gaza after this had initially been delayed by several days, he told IPS.

Accompanied by Dutch diplomats, Omer passed through the Jordanian side of the border without incident. However, after arrival on the Israeli side, trouble began. He informed a female soldier that he was returning home to Gaza. He was repeatedly asked where Gaza was, and told that he had neither a permit nor any coordination to cross.

Omer explained that he did indeed have permission and coordination but was nevertheless taken to a room by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency the Shin Bet, where he was isolated for an hour and a half without explanation.

‘Eventually I was asked whether I had a knife or gun on me even though I had already passed through the x-ray machine, had my luggage searched, and was in the company of Dutch diplomats’, Omer said.

His luggage was again searched, and security then proceeded to go through every document and paper he had on him, taking down the names and numbers of the European parliamentary officials he had met.

The Shin Bet officials then started to make fun of the European parliamentarians, and mocked Omer for being ‘the prize-winning journalist’.

The Gazan journalist was repeatedly asked why he was returning to ‘the hell of Gaza after we allowed you to leave’. To this he responded that he wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. He was told he was a ‘trouble-maker’.

The security men also demanded he show all the money he had on him, and particular attention was paid to the British pounds he was carrying. His Gellhorn prize money had been awarded in British pounds but he was not carrying the entire sum on him bodily, something the investigators refused to believe.

After being unable to produce the prize money, he was ordered to strip naked.

‘At first I refused but then I had an M16 (gun) pointed in my face and my clothes were forcibly removed, even my underwear’, Omer said.

At this point Omer broke down and pleaded for an end to such treatment. He said he was told, ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’. Every cavity of his body was searched as one of the investigators pinned him

When he came round his eyelids were being forcibly opened and his eardrums probed by an Israeli military doctor, who was also armed. He was then dragged along the floor by his feet by the Shin Bet officials, with his head repeatedly banging on the floor, to a Palestinian ambulance which had been called.

‘I eventually woke up in a Palestinian hospital with the doctors trying to reassure me’, Omer told IPS”

This report was published by IPS online here .

Israeli revised plan for rebuilding Mughrabi Gate ramp may be approved soon

Green door of Mughrabi Gate to Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

“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…”

Ramp under repair leading from Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem up to Mughrabi Gate entrance to Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

Read the full post here .

A sensitive State Department official — notes North Korean sadness

An unusually-sensitive U.S. State Department official has noticed North Korean sadness.


The North Koreans were sad at having to blow up a cooling tower to show that it was sincere about “disabling” its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Destruction of Yongbyon cooling tower- 27 June 2008 - AP Photo compiled from APTN footage

That’s what you get for testing nuclear weapons after withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The Associated Press reported today that “There hasn’t yet been any official North Korean reaction to the destruction of the most visible symbol of its nuclear program, but a U.S. diplomat who witnessed it said Saturday that the big blast saddened government officials there … the State Department’s top Koreas expert said he believed the event was an emotional loss for the Stalinist state. ‘I detected … a sense of sadness when the tower came down’, said Sung Kim, who traveled to Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of the capital of Pyongyang to watch the demolition of the 60-foot-tall cylindrical structure. ‘There is a significant degree of emotional attachment to the Yongbyon facilities’, he told reporters in the South Korean capital after briefing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials about the destruction of the tower on Friday. The reclusive nation, one of the most isolated in the world, has yet to inform its citizens of the development, which came amid a flurry of activity in the international effort to get North Korea to give up atomic arms, and it is not clear if or when it will. Kim said the sadness was most apparent on the face of Ri Yong Ho, the director of safeguards at North Korea’s Academy of Atomic Energy Research who was the most senior Pyongyang official present, but was shared by other North Koreans who were there. ‘(You could tell) just looking at the expression of the Yongbyon engineers who were on the site when this happened’, said Kim, who shook hands with Ri after the smoke cleared and the cooling tower had vanished from the landscape. ‘He said he just hoped that this would contribute to peace and stability’, Kim said, adding that he understood the North Koreans had spent up to two weeks preparing the tower for demolition…”

The full AP report can be read here

Some background on the Shebaa Farms

Some interesting details on the Shebaa Farms issue from Nicholas Blanford in The National, an English-language paper published in Abu Dhabi :

“Securing the liberation of the Shebaa Farms has been a cornerstone of Fouad Siniora’s diplomacy since 2005 when he headed his first government. Mr Siniora said he believes that an Israeli withdrawal from the rugged mountainside would end Israel’s occupation of Lebanese territory, thus undermining Hizbollah’s rationale for retaining its weapons for resistance. Although Mr Siniora energetically marketed his scheme to US officials, Washington adopted an ambivalent view, preferring to side with Israel’s refusal to hand back the farms without any guarantees that Hizbollah would disarm.
However, the new US interest in promoting an Israeli withdrawal from the farms apparently stems from a willingness by Israel to yield the territory in the context of continuing indirect negotiations with Syria and the hope that the peace talks can be extended to Lebanon. ‘From the onset of this government, which calls for the freedom of the Shebaa Farms … this topic has been a priority’, Mr Siniora said last week. ‘Israel must withdraw without any direct or indirect negotiations and without any contact between Lebanon and Israel’. He said the fate of Hizbollah’s weapons would be discussed once the new government is formed.

“The Shebaa Farms were occupied by Israel after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which the Golan Heights were seized and later annexed. In May 2000, the United Nations ruled that the Shebaa Farms was Syrian – not Lebanese – territory occupied by Israel and its fate was subject to future Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Lebanon rejected the finding and in Oct 2000 Hizbollah launched a resistance campaign of sporadic hit-and-run raids against Israeli troops in the farms. After the end of the 2006 Hizbollah-Israel war, the United Nations agreed to re-examine Lebanon’s case for claiming the Shebaa Farms as a means of further cementing the cessation of hostilities. It is now widely accepted that Lebanon’s case is valid, particularly as Syria has backed Lebanon’s claim, strengthening the proposal for the farms to be placed temporarily under UN jurisdiction until Lebanon and Syria demarcate their joint border.

“Although the occupation of the Shebaa Farms is seen as the main justification for Hizbollah’s continued armed status, there are several other outstanding disputes that the Shiite party occasionally raises – releasing all Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons as well as receiving maps of old Israeli minefields in south Lebanon and the co-ordinates of cluster bomb strikes in the 2006 war. These two grievances could be resolved in the coming days or weeks, especially with speculation that a prisoner swap between Hizbollah and Israel is imminent.

“More arcane disputes include the return of the so-called ‘Seven Villages’ and Lebanon’s objection to three points along the Blue Line, the UN-delineated boundary corresponding to the international border between Lebanon and Israel that was drawn up in 2000 and behind which Israel was obliged to withdraw to fulfil UN resolutions. The three anomalies along the Blue Line where Israel gained some Lebanese territory is not regarded as a genuine excuse for Hizbollah to keep its arms because the line is not the border, just a temporary and technical measure by which to gauge Israel’s troop withdrawal. Any differences over the delineation of the 1922 border would be discussed at peace talks between Lebanon and Israel”…

The full report by Nicholas Blanford can be read here /a>.

Israel keeps Gaza border crossings sealed again Thursday

There is something very awful about this.

The “tahdiya” or cease-fire or truce that Egypt negotiated between Israel (which refuses to talk to Hamas because of conditions that Israel said the UN has imposed) and Hamas was supposed to lead — after a halt in violence from both sides which started last Thursday — to a reopening of Gaza’s borders last Sunday to shipment of humanitarian goods, and an increase in the flow of such goods by next Sunday.

Eventually, there were to be discussions about the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was seized near the Kerem Shalom crossing two years ago and is still being held captive somewhere in Gaza, and about the reopening of the Rafah crossing.

Analyists were wondering what would happen if there were to be a low-level violation of the terms?

Now, we are finding out.

Late on Monday or early Tuesday, Israeli forces operating in the West Bank City of Nablus killed two Palestinian young men in housing of Al-Najah University. One of them was the member of one of the Palestinian factions. His colleagues in Gaza then responded by firing several rockets in the direction of IIsrael’s Western Negev, and damaged a home in Sderot.

The Israeli response was not military. No.

But the Israeli military slammed all the border crossings into Gaza shut on Wednesday.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the borders were not reopened on Thursday. This will cause severe problems inside Gaza.

This Israeli decision also appears to be an attempt to draw the international community — which has denounced Israel’s closure of the borders and limiting entry of vital supplies — into complicity with the closing of the crossings.

Israel has always maintained there is a linkage between the firing of “projectiles” from Gaza into Israel and its overall policy of closures. But, it never before completely closed the crossings due to firing from Gaza — unless, that is, the crossings themselves were attacked, and a safety and security argument could be made.

Today’s closure is not linked to renewed firing — but to statements from Hamas officials about if and how an end to the firing could be enforced from Gaza.

So, this is very new, and a very severe coercive policy with very harsh repercussions.

The Associated Press had the most interesting report late last night from Jerusalem. It said that “Israel will keep Gaza border crossings closed another day in response to Palestinian rocket fire that had violated a new cease-fire, the Defense Ministry said late Wednesday. The decision came after Gaza’s Hamas rulers said they would not police other militant groups that break the truce that went into effect last Thursday”.

In other words, because Hamas would not take responsibility for enforcing the truce, Israel will punish again all 1.5 million souls in Gaza. This is a real policy innovation.

AP continues, in its report: “The Israeli decision not to open the crossings Thursday was made in a high-level meeting, according to defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. The officials said the tenor of discussions was to start the supply flow over every time the crossings have to be closed: waiting three days before increasing supplies, and another week before the next step, which might include more fuel shipments. That would be a major setback for Hamas, with Israel holding out the threat that every time a Gaza militant fires a rocket or mortar, Israel would turn back the clock on supply flow … But Hamas sent mixed signals. Its officials were meeting with heads of smaller militant groups to persuade them to honor the truce, but in public statements, the group remained defiant. Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya said, ‘Hamas is not going to be a police securing the border of the occupation (Israel)’.”

The full AP report can be read here .

The Agence France Press has this interesting explanation today from the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokeman: ” ‘Any fire from the Gaza Strip is a gross violation of the understanding reached with Egypt’, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev told AFP, adding that Hamas bore responsibility for any attack from Gaza. He said the attacks violated ‘two cardinal points of the understandings reached through Egypt, namely that the truce applies only to the Gaza Strip and not to the West Bank and that it concerns all armed groups’.”

This AFP story added that “Egypt told Israel it will keep its Rafah crossing with Gaza closed until the fate of Shalit is resolved, a senior Israeli official said, but Mubarak has said it is unrealistic to link Shalit’s release to the truce”.

The full AFP report can be read here .

Ma’an News Agency in Bethlehem reports today that “[deposed] Palestinian Foreign Minister Sa’id Siyam of the Hamas-run de-facto government in the Gaza Strip announced Wednesday the decision to form a crisis unit made up of several factions in order to monitor the truce, and record Israeli breaches. Siyam’s speech came after a meeting with the leftist parties: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestine Peoples’ Party (PPP). A Hamas delegation was present to consulate on the suggested role of the crisis unit. Parties agreed on the need to commit to the truce that was negotiated in Cairo. This is a chance, Siyam added, to preserve Israel’s commitment, to give a chance for the truce and foremost, to preserve the Palestinians’ interests and end the blockade”.

Of course, it was also useful for Siyam to explain that, in addition to the need for Hamas and for Gaza to preserve the truce with Israel, there is also a Palestinian interest in such a coordinated dialog, Ma’an reported: “The very fact of the dialogue between parties, Siyam pointed out, can be seen as laying grounds for a national dialogue. He hopes that such cooperation might lead to a release of Palestinian detainees in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The dialogue, however, needs to be managed. Although it was a joint Palestinian initiative, Siyam adds that there were others who declined the invitation to join”.

This Ma’an News Agency report can be read in full here .

And, Reuters reported that “Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of breaching the ceasefire that began a week ago. ‘If this closure continues it will render the deal for calm meaningless’, Abu Zuhri said. ‘Securing the continuation of the Palestinian factions’ commitment to the deal hinges on the Occupation’s lifting of the siege and the opening of all the crossings in the first 10 days’, he said, referring to Israel”.

The full Reuters report can be read here .

Women's undergarments are highest demand items for Gaza smugglers

An article reported from Gaza by the Christian Science Monitor on 16 June informs us that:

“…Severe fuel shortage has forced motorists to buy soybean oil to replace the diesel fuel and gasoline that Israel now provides to Gaza at a severely diminished quantity. Cooking oil sells for around $8 per gallon while gasoline on the black market costs $50 per gallon. Obtaining gasoline and diesel legally requires weeks of waiting for fuel rationed by Hamas to between 10 and 50 liters per car. Even more than fuel, smugglers in the southern city of Rafah say the highest product in demand these days is women’s underwear. Cigarettes are also a popular item and are perhaps the only good in Gaza that is cheaper now than before since they are sold without a tobacco tax.

Mornings at the Sufa crossing i– Even from the first truck in line, the drivers lined up here facing the Israeli border can only see a swirl of dust and some faint movement within. But their lives, and the lives of nearly every one of the 1.4 million people who live in Gaza, depend on those distant forms that cannot be approached without significant risk to life and limb from the Israeli soldiers guarding them. Six days per week, from around 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., around 60 Israeli trucks under heavy guard dump basic supplies at Sufa – wheat, rice, produce, dairy products, and medicines – that just barely sustain Gaza. Numerous attacks by Hamas and other militant factions have made the Israelis edgy, so the Palestinian truck drivers must wait to collect the goods, all of which but the dairy products sit baking for hours under the hot Mediterranean sun, until all the Israelis have safely returned to their side of the border. Without those supplies, what meager existence the people of Gaza manage to eke out at the moment would vanish”.

The full text of this CSM story from Gaza ten days ago can be read here .

The Spin in Sharm

Despite the spin from both sides, it is not entirely clear what happened in a one-hour summit meeting on Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

An Israeli official told journalists who were waiting at the summit site as the meeting was underway that he expected the two leaders would discuss four subjects: (1) the “calm” or “tahdiy’a”; (2) the two-year detention of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit; (3) negotiations with the Palestinians; and (3) negotiations with Syria. “There’s enough on the plate”, he said, “and we always try to do this at least twice a year”:

But, the timing appeared to be anything but routine. The Olmert trip to Egypt was announced only a few days earlier — on Thursday 19 June – the day after confirmation of an anxiously-awaited Egyptian-brokered agreement between Israel and Hamas to a truce, or “tahdiya”, in Gaza.

There are still important clarifications needed on the issues of (1) the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of Shalit, and (2) on the opening of border crossings between Gaza and Israel – and, possibly even more important, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Suleiman Awwad, chief spokesman for Egypt’s President Mubarak, briefs journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday after Olmert-Mubarak summit meeting

Suleiman Awwad by Marian Houk

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, briefs journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday after Olmert-Mubarak discussions.

Mark Regev by Marian Houk

Journalists coming from Israel – including the locally-powerful Israeli media, as well as the more distantly significant members of the Foreign Press Association working in Israel – were originally invited to join the trip, flying on Olmert’s plane.

At the last minute, the journalists were separated from the Prime Minister and his team of officials, as a second special flight was added.

For those used to the now near-total Israel-imposed physical and psychological separation and isolation of the Palestinian territory from Israel, it was surprising to hear the captain’s periodic announcements from the cockpit: “We’re overflying northern Jerusalem now, and on the left side is the city of Ramallah”. Then, “We’re now flying down along the Dead Sea. On the right, behind us, is Jerusalem, Kirya Arba and Hebron”. As if Ramallah and Hebron were just another part of the body politic, as normal and as comfortably familiar as Jerusalem and Kirya Arba, a major Jewish settlement in the southern West Bank overlooking Hebron (where Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the February 1994 massacre of Palestinians at dawn prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, lived and is buried).

Arriving in the Sharm as-Sheikh terminal, however, there was a quick return to reality. Greeting one journalist from Tel Aviv, who couldn’t seem to quite recall where we had met, this journalist said the meeting had been in the Muqata’a Presidential headquarters in Ramallah (for the most recent Condoleeza Rice press conference). Those who overheard showed reactions of momentary shock. Heads turned suddenly, and body positions were changed.

Israelis – including journalists — are not allowed under penalty of the law and a 5000 shekel fine to enter the West Bank’s “Area A” zones – described as zones of mortal danger. Under the Oslo Accords, “Area A” was supposed to be under the total control of the Palestinian Authority. In fact, “Area A” comprises only the major cities of the West Bank — including Ramallah, for example, as well as Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, and so on.

But, the concept of Palestinian “total control” is highly abstract – and has been since the Israeli Defense Forces re-entered, in 2002 at the height of the second Intifada, all areas from which it had previously withdrawn.

And, it has still not withdrawn, despite calls from the international community.

The Israel Defense Forces conducts nightly raids and even sometimes daily raids anyway. And, in these raids, Palestinians are often “detained” (and taken back to Israel to be jailed, in blatant and unchallenged violation of the Geneva Conventions), or sometimes killed, right under the eyes of their families and neighbors – or any passersby, including the generally oblivious tourists (who go mainly, as French President Nicholas Sarkozy did on Tuesday, to Bethlehem).

That Tel Aviv-based journalist, who was at the Palestinian Presidential Compound in the Muqata’a, however, is the bearer American passport – and, more significantly, did not arrive in Ramallah under his own power, or in a taxi, but rather was allowed to join up with the U.S. State Department’s convoy of “traveling press” who accompanied the U.S. Secretary of State on her plane from Washington. So, he actually arrived in “Area A” — in Ramallah, and into the Muqata’a itself — in a heavily-defended convoy protected by all levels of American (and more remotely by Israeli) security.

Many West Bank Palestinians are also holders of American passports, but this does them very little good at any of the internal checkpoints, or even at most ofI the West Bank “border crossings”.

In any case, logistical preparations made by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office for Tuesday’s trip to Sharm as-Sheikh, were relatively brisk and efficient.

But, the information component – at least on the Israeli side – was strangely absent.

It was not entirely clear whether this was just business as usual, or a last-minute political calculation – as if the intention had originally been for a high-profile announcement of progress of some importance, which had suddenly become impossible.

In other words, the lack of information could have been simply due to the very usual sort of tough labor-union-type of Israeli protectionism, in which only the home team (the Israeli media) is favored — despite some very secondary concern about maintaining favorable outside public, at least to the extent possible.

Or, it could have been due to some last-minute second thoughts about the wisdom of allowing the media (particularly the aggressive and locally-powerful Israeli press) too close access to the beleagured Israeli Prime Minister, who was suddenly facing a renewed ultimatum from Defense Minister Ehud Barak that could have resulted in a potential vote of no-confidence in the Knesset, and a fall of Olmert’s government, on Wednesday.

In fact, the Israeli media reported in the main headlines on Wednesday morning, all-night negotiations did achieve a compromise between Barak’s Labor Party and Olmert’s Kadima colleagues to avert action in the Knesset in exchange for Kadima moves to hold party primaries by late September (in other words, well after cross-examination – which Olmert says will exonerate him — of Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky, a witness whose testimony about Olmert’s periodic requests for periodic large sums of cash had badly damaged the image of the sitting Prime Minister).

A columnist in Haaretz wrote, in an apparently factual (no, not satirical) story published Wednesday morning, that Olmert had personally sent notes “in his own neat handwriting” to Labor Party ministers telling them that “Your fundamental mistake, and first and foremost that of [Ehud] Barak is in assuming, where Barak has always failed, that he could control everything that may happen [emphasis added here]. That is idiocy. The minute the Knesset decides to move up the elections, it is a path of no return. The High Court of Justice will intervene, the Knesset will be in turmoil, and I will be painted as someone who is fighting to save his ass at the expense of the country”…

The new compromise between Barak and Olmert may also have another aspect, which was reported in a separate Haaretz story on Wednesday morning: Barak – who Olmert has pointedly said is in control of the West Bank, and clearly also Gaza as well – ordered all the border crossings into Gaza sealed as a result of the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza on Tuesday – one of which damaged a home in Sderot. That “projectile” firing from Gaza was reportedly in response to the IDF killing, earlier Tuesday, of two Palestinians during a raid in Nablus.

Barak’s order to re-seal the border crossings will very likely cause immediate grave problems – including the shut-down, again, for lack of fuel, of Gaza’s only power plant –
as the Israeli Defense Ministry’s stated policy has been to keep Gaza on the very edge of the cliff without actually allowing it to fall over.

The Defense Minister’s decision came despite – in fact, in clear defiance of — a statement issued by the Quartet meeting in Berlin on Tuesday, in which the Quartet members (the U.S., European Union, Russian Federation and the United Nations) expressed “continuing support for Egyptian efforts to restore calm to Gaza and southern Israel and welcomed the period of calm that began on June 19. The Quartet urged that the calm be respected in full and expressed the hope that it would endure, and lead to improved security for Palestinians and Israelis alike, and a return to normal civilian life in Gaza. In this respect, the Quartet looked forward to increased humanitarian and commercial flows through the Gaza crossings under the management of the Palestinian Authority, consistent with the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, and welcomed the European Union’s offer to resume its monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing point. The Quartet expressed its strong support for the steady and sufficient supplies of fuel to Gaza and for the immediate resumption of stalled UN and other donor projects there. It further tasked the Quartet Representative to develop and promote implementation of measures, in coordination with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to improve conditions in Gaza, as a matter of urgency”.

Olmert – upon his return from Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday afternoon – immediately called the Palestinian fire a “blatant violation of the cease-fire on the part of Palestinian groups in the Strip”.

Hamas had originally tried to position itself as the chief defender of Palestinians by demanding that the cease-fire be applicable also to the West Bank. But this was refused,
and the agreement does not apply to the West Bank. A concession was made by Hamas to get the deal. It was, however, immediately described by all sides as “fragile”.

Hamas officials also said they would not be responsible for any violations by other Palestinian groups of the cease-fire or “tahdiya”.

The Israeli Government, however, has the position that Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip, so Hamas bears the ultimate responsibility for any attacks on Israel, even those attacks carried out by other groups.

Nor was there any major increase, starting on Sunday, despite initial predictions when the truce deal was first announced, of the amount of traffic at the border crossings through which the Israeli military controls the entry of all goods and people into the Gaza.
This apparently may have been mainly due to the court case instituted on Saturday after the end of the Sabbath (Shabbat) by the parents of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier being held in Gaza. The Shalits had asked the Court for clarifications about the negotiations, and also asking the Court to instruct the government not to lessen pressure for their son’s release. They said their aim was to save their son’s life.

Israel’s YNet website reported on Sunday, however, that Barak said, as the Israeli cabinet held its weekly meeting, that “Anyone who lives in the Middle East and thinks that the ceasefire itself or the opening of border crossings will provide enough leverage to result in the immediate return of Gilad Shalit would do well to come back down to Earth … We’re not deluding ourselves, opening or closing gates won’t make it possible to retrieve Shalit”. However, YNet added, Barak said that “the ceasefire provides us with an opportunity for intense negotiations over Shalit, and we will have to make some tough decisions.”

And another YNet article reported, that Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Security-Diplomatic Bureau – who has been the main liaison with Egypt on the Gaza truce talks – met with Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad (the young Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza), on Sunday night at the direction of the Israeli Supreme Court.

YNet reported that an apparently very well-informed “Defense Ministry official stressed that were it not for the Gaza truce, a path that could lead to Schalit’s release would not even exist. ‘At this present moment, the truce is the best option which can be be used as a framework to kick start a process of dialogue, which, with Egyptian mediation, we hope will bring about Gilad’s return’, he said. ‘I explained in great detail the advantage of this process as opposed to other options through which it is doubtful that Gilad will be released. [By contrast, or on the other hand] We could never have ensured that Gilad would be freed as soon as the cease-fire went into effect’, this Defense Ministry official told YNet. The YNet article continued: “Gilad stressed that that Rafah border crossing ‘is closed and will remain closed’, emphasizing that in any case, Schalit’s captors had no interest in transferring him from Gaza to Egypt”.

Then, on Monday afternoon, the Israeli Supreme Court declined to intervene in the Israeli Government’s decision to pursue the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas.

Interestingly, among the concessions that former American President Jimmy Carter said he had obtained from his various meetings with Hamas officials in the West Bank, in Cairo, and in Damascus, was that Hamas would allow Shalit to send a rare letter to his parents (this was delivered through the Carter Center office in Ramallah last week), and then allow Shalit to be transferred from Gaza to Egypt in an intermediary phase, pending the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations for his release.

There was no mention of this at all in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday.

It would have been difficult, however, for Egypt to agree to continue, in any way, the continuation of Shalit’s captivity, even for humanitarian reasons, and even if it would improve the conditions in which Shalit is being held.

But why the more nuanced Israeli position explained on Sunday was reversed so sharply by Olmert in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday is unclear.

On Tuesday afternoon, after the Olmert-Mubarak summit consultations, an Israeli official traveling with the Israeli Prime Minister told an Israeli reporter that Egypt had given Israel strong assurances that Rafah would not be opened again until Shalit is released.

An earlier estimation in the Israeli press, published over the weekend, was that Egypt has actually allowed Rafah to open at least 50 times – to Israel’s great and expressed displeasure — since the European Union withdrew its monitors there under instructions following the Hamas rout of Fatah Security forces in mid-June 2007. This included when Palestinian pilgrims from Gaza were unable to leave for the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, which Israeli officials protested strenuously, and then again after the Gaza pilgrim endured great hardships in returning from Mecca, and several died in the difficult conditions when some refused Israeli orders to re-enter only through the Israeli-controlled high-tech Kerem Shalom crossing (near which Shalit was captured in June 2006). Another of the reported 50 times Egypt allowed Rafah to stay open was immediatly after the January 23 planned breach from Gaza of the sealed Rafah crossing, following one of the shut-downs of the Gaza power plant for lack of fuel.

According to the Ynet report, Barak said on Sunday [apparently in the regular weekly Israeli cabinet meeting] that “regarding the Rafah crossing, the issue has not yet been resolved. The Egyptians know we have tied Rafah to other issues on the agenda.”

Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev told journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh Tuesday afternoon, after the Olmert-Mubarak meeting, that for the Israeli government and the Israeli public, “the issue of Shalit is central”.

He stated firmly that Israel “cannot talk about anything close to a normal opening of the border crossings [with Gaza] without Shalit’s release”. According to Regev,“the deterioration of relations between Israel and Gaza started with the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit”.

Regev pointedly added, Tuesday, that “We heard some statements from Gaza over the weekend that were not factual, and we were disturbed”.

The journalists who traveled from Israel to cover the Olmert-Mubarak meeting were given a totally uninformed choice, upon arrival in Sharm as-Sheikh, of going to the Royal Golf Hotel where the meeting was actually held – where, the journalists were told, they would be held in a room for the duration, without even water to drink, and with no access to the internet.

Otherwise, the Israeli organizers said to the traveling press, they could go to the Movenpick Hotel, where there would be wireless internet availability, and all sorts of other creature comforts.

This journalist was one of a few who chose to be as close as possible to the meeting – and discovered that the room where the journalists were told they would be (and were) confined, was also, happily, where the official Egyptian press was waiting.

Israeli and Egyptian television cameramen happily traded film shots after they returned from their permitted exit – alone –from the confinement room for an initial “photo op”.

And a few Israeli officials worked the room, and one in particular was received very well, who earnestly and with sincerely explained Israel’s position at length in excellent fluent Egyptian-accented Arabic. She appeared to be just another journalist, but she turned out to be the very open and effective Director of the Arabic Press and Public Affairs Department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Amira Oron.

Mubarak’s main spokesperson, Suleiman Awad, then came when the summit meeting was over to brief the waiting journalists that the discussions had been “very constructive” — an “open, transparent consultation on the current situation in the Middle East” that focused mainly on (1) “the package of understandings relating to the cessation of hostilities in Gaza”, and (2) “the negotiations between the Palestine National Authority and the Israeli authorities on final status sticky issues”.

Asked about a proposed prisoner swap involving some of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails and Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held for the past two years by Palestinian fighters in Gaza, Awad told journalists to “wait and see” until Mubarak addresses the issue in an interview with Israeli Channel 1 TV to be aired on Tuesday evening.

After the interview was aired, however, the Israeli press and public seemed largely unimpressed with the anticipated “revelations”.

On Wednesday morning, the main headline in the Jerusalem Post was that Mubarak said “Use of force against Iran will be a mistake …Whether this force is used by the US or Israel it will lead to tragedy.” On Shalit, Mubarak reportedly commented: “Why mix the issues? Is it better to fire at each other even if Schalit is not released?” Mubarak added that it was “only a matter of time” before Shalit is freed, the Jerusalem Post reported, and he urged patience and “careful consideration”.

The report said that Mubarak scoffed at the notion that Shalit could be smuggled out of Gaza if the border crossing at Rafah were reopened: There is no way this can be done secretly… everyone will know about it.” This, interestingly, was the concern famously expressed in late June 2006 by Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev, when he was working earlier for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and explained that Israel’s air raid that destroyed Gaza’s only (civilian) power plant just after Shalit’s capture was justified because, without electricity for lights, it would be much more difficult for Shalit’s kidnappers to move him around “in the dark”.

A European diplomat with long experience in the region said that he had been learned, at the time, that Shalit was originally captured by the same Dagmush family in Gaza that had also seized BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Hamas, the diplomat said, successfully issued an ultimatum at the time to the Dagmush clan to hand over Shalit – if not, Hamas threatened, according to the diplomat, to destroy the whole quarter where the family lived and everyone in it, including Shalit, they didn’t care. The strength and severity of the ultimatum had the desired effect, the diplomat said.

(It was many long months before Hamas issued the same sort of ultimatum to get the apparently much more expendible and less high-value Johnston released.)

Awad, in his briefing to journalists on Tuesday, said that President Mubarak expressed hopes in the meeting with Olmert that both Israel and the Palestinians will “stick to their commitments, entrench the current calm, and refrain from any acts that would recreate the vicious cycle of violence”. This, he said, would enable the Palestinian people to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Egypt, Awad said, has “exerted a great deal of effort in arduous negotiations to conclude the current talks about Gaza” – and it has been doing so for months and months. But, he said, “I do not want to go into the details”.

He added that Egypt is willing and even determined to continue its efforts, Awad added, but this requires compromise and flexibility “from both parties – Israel and the Palestinians”.

In his briefing to the journalists after the summit meeting, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev said diplomatically that Israel “applauds Egypt’s role” in bringing about the calm and the release – “but as to the details, they are discrete, and between the two governments”.

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert left Sharm as-Sheikh in time to join Israel’s President Shimon Peres for the formal farewell ceremony for French President Sarkozy at Ben Gurion Airport.

Officials in Olmert’s office offered to facilitate the transfer and access for any of the traveling journalists who also wanted to cover the airport ceremony – but, at the passport control re-entry, where the Israeli journalists had quick and easy passage, the officials from the Prime Minister’s staff simply abandoned two American journalists (including this one) who were delayed by the procedures. This was not surprising, the other American journalist said. These officials simply aim to help their friends in the Israeli media, and that’s it.

Before being obliged to go through passport control, the group of journalists who wanted to attend the farewell ceremony had been bussed around the area where the French plane was waiting, and a double row of Israel and French flags (all in crisp tones of white and blue with a touch of red in the case of the French) were flapping in the hot breeze. All was calm, and there was no sign of anything unusual.

It must have been just at the same time that an Israeli Border Policeman who was guarding the ceremony – but at least 100 meters away from the Prime Minister and the two Presidents, and on a roof – was shot. It was immediately declared most likely a suicide – a conclusion that was reinforced following a short investigation.

The Jerusalem Post added, in a report in Wednesday’s paper, that “No one on the tarmac heard the shot that ended a border policeman’s life a few hundred meters away from the leaders of Israel and France at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday, but security agents, fearing an assassination attempt, scrambled into action after news of the unexpected development reached them via their radio earpieces”.

Journalists at work – covering the Olmert-Mubarak summit in Sharm as-Sheikh

Here are glimpses of the press at work — covering the summit meeting today in Sharm as-Sheikh between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak:

Amira Oron of Israeli Foreign Ministry - photo by Marian Houk

Amira Oron being interviewed for tv - photo by Marian Houk

Mark Regev photo by Marian Houk

Ahmad Fayed photo by Marian Houk

Live shot - Egyptian TV - photo by Marian Houk

Egyptian President Mubarak arrives in Sharm as-Sheikh to meet Israeli PM Olmert

Here are shots taken from our airport bus as we were waiting to go into the terminal at Sharm as-Sheikh.  We were trying to cover the summit meeting between Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, who is shown arriving in his Egypt Air jet taxing around the runway to a concrete reinforced protocol bunker.

Egypt Air jet carring Mubarak taxis after landing at Sharm as-Sheikh airport

Egypt Air jet carring President Mubarak taxis around israeli military transport plane

Convoy of cars which greeted Egypt Air jet bringing President Mubarak to Sharm as-Sheikn

The Egyptian flag flys at concrete-reinforced protocol bunker after President Mubarak enters

Sarkozy visits Jerusalem — meets with Palestinians

A view from the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem over to the nearby French Consulate, where both French and European flags flew as French President Sarkozy meet a delegation of Palestinians, including Hanan Ashrawi from Ramallah, and a group of businesspersons from Jerusalem — who all said they felt “reassured” after the meeting on Monday.

On Tuesday, Sarkozy heads to the Presidential “Palace” in Bethlehem — a city under the iron fist of the Israeli occupation — for a meeting with Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem.