You know it's Ramadan when …

Well, you know it’s Ramadan when religious authorities confirm that they’ve spotted the new moon that marks the beginning of the holy month of fasting and intensified spirituality, right?

Another way you know is when you receive the traditional notice from the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) about the control measures they have decided to implement during this holy month.

Last year, they were rather harsh. This year, there seems to be a softening in tone. Here is their notice, sent out overnight:

August 31st, 2008

“Easing of Restrictions on the Palestinian population during the ‘Ramadan’ Period and Eid ul-Fitr

“The IDF and the Civil Administration are preparing for the upcoming ‘Ramadan’ period which starts tomorrow, 1/9/2008, and is followed by the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr, to be observed by Palestinian Muslims in the Judea and Samaria region.

“According to the decision of the Minister of Defense, during the month of Ramadan, Palestinians who meet the following criteria will be permitted to attend Friday prayers on the Temple Mount [n.b., this term signifies the place where the first and second Jewish temples are believed to have been situated.  The second temple was destroyed on Roman orders in 70 a.d.  Since the s:

* Married men between the ages 45-50 and married women between the ages of 30-45 who have received permission from the Civil Administration.
* Men over the age of 50 and women over the age of 45 will be allowed to enter freely.

The following steps were decided upon in order improve the daily life of the Palestinian population in the Judea and Samaria region during this period. The decision to take these steps was made following security assessments by the IDF Central Command and the Civil Administration. During the Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr period:

* The opening hours of different checkpoints will be extended.
* Israeli Arabs will be allowed to enter area A.
* The transfer of gifts to Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons will be authorized.

In addition, officers from the Civil Administration held meetings with senior Palestinian religious representatives (from the Muslim Waqf) and were updated on the prayer times and religious events expected to take place during this period.

Furthermore, representatives of the Civil Administration briefed the forces operating in the region and distributed leaflets explaining the times, dates and customs relating to the Holiday . Soldiers were directed to show consideration for the population and were instructed to avoid eating, drinking and smoking in populated areas, with an emphasis on the crossings points.

The ‘Ramadan”‘period, which this year takes place between the dates 1/09/08-30/09/08, marks the month, in which according to Muslim tradition, Prophet Muhammad received the Koran”.

Free Gaza ships returned to Cyprus late Friday

Amazingly, the Free Gaza expedition managed to leave Gaza’s port late Thursday afternoon and sail unmolested — though not unnoticed — back to Cyprus on Friday evening.

Seven Palestinians who managed to get out of Gaza on the two converted fishing boats in the Free Gaza expedition — a ten year old boy whose leg had to be amputated after being injured by IDF fire and his father, and five members of a family who have relatives in Cyprus.

Their visas had been arranged weeks beforehand, just in case the opportunity arose for these people to travel …

The Gaza students who had won, then lost, Fulbright scholarships were not on board, apparently because there was absolutely no indication that the U.S. would issue them visas — despite U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s personal involvement in this fiasco at one point (her interest waned abruptly when one of the Gazan Fulbright scholars actually managed to get out of Gaza and all the way to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. — and was then forced to turn around after U.S. officials said they had been given unspecified new information on the security risk involved, which they would have to investigate further…

Jeff Halper, who had been on board the trip to Gaza, and who was arrested when entering Israel through the Erez land crossing from the Gaza Strip, told journalists at a press conference at the American Colony Hotel on Thursday afternoon that “the first and only mission of the expedition was to break the siege of Gaza”.

Israel, he said, had confused the world into believing that there was no siege of Gaza, and that “there’s no occupation, therefore there’s no responsibility — though Israel has maintained ‘control’.”

“If Israel is an occupying power, it can stop us from going in — but this means responsibility”, Halper said. “But if Israel is not an occupying power, there’s no reason the Palestinians can’t come and go at will…We broke the confusion about this situation (where Israel claimed to have control but no responsibility) … It’s a real dilemma, and both options are actually unacceptable to Israel … This mission created clarity about Israeli actions in policy terms, and this cloud of ambiguity that Israel has used all these years is gone, in my view”, Halper added.

He said that in Gaza, “everybody wanted to talk to me in Hebrew — they were thirsty to speak Hebrew, and kept dragging me for coffees. THere were two messages: (1) everyone, from Hamas to the extreme left, told me “we want peace’. They were talking not on the basis of ideology or a political program, but a more fundamental desire to live in peace in this country….People want peace. One guy said: ‘Where are we going with all this…Why can’t we all go to the beach together? Why can’t we pray in Al-Aqsa?”

Halper reported that a number of human rights organizations in Gaza are preparing a letter from the people of Gaza to the people of Sderot. The wording is still under negotiation, Halper said, but he hoped to be able to bring it to Sderot, and to bring a reply back to Gaza.

Halper has been barred from entering Gaza for 30 days, under the terms of his release from Shikma prison in Ashkelon — where he said he spent a “harrowing night” being threatened by Israeli Jews for his actions in favor of Gaza. There, he said, he was much more afraid than he ever was prior to or during the Free Gaza expedition. Halper said the guards came once, to remove him from the cell he was first placed in — but they then merely moved him to the cell next door, whose inmates were all aware of the threats against him. “Then the guards turned off the lights and went away, while in the dark a bunch of people were making threats … If there was any fear or any danger to my life, it was in Shikma Prison”.

He called the situation in Gaza “a crime against humanity”.

Halper also reported that “the Palestinian government has given me Palestinian citizenship, and I have a Palestinian passport — though very few Palestinians have one. I’m (now) a Palestinian in the complete sense”, he said. “On Monday, I got my citizenship citizenship; on Tuesday, I’m in an Israeli jail.” Halper said.

In response to a journalist’s question about Egypt’s role in all this, Halper said that “Egypt is not an occupying power — Egypt is an accomplice. This siege isn’t only an Israeli siege — all our countries played a role. [the former UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Palestine] John Dugard worte that this is the first time in history that an oppressed people have been [so] sanctioned”.

Putting down asphalt at the gap in The Wall at Dahiet al-Bariid – no information available to the residents of this area or to the tens of thousands who transit here daily

There is still NO INFORMATION at all about what is happening at the gap in The Wall (between what will be the West Bank and northern Jerusalem) at Dahiet al-Bariid. There are only rumors.

Maybe it will be closed before Ramadan (which will start on 1 September). Maybe it will be closed at some point during Ramadan. Maybe it will be closed by the end of 2008 (just about the time that the peace negotiations launched at Annapolis in November 2007 are supposed to be coming to a conclusion with the establishment of a Palestinian state…)

In any case, this morning, I went out to go to some meetings in Ramallah, and noticed that there were armed men standing on the corner. There was also a border police jeep, with more armed persons, but they drove off.

When I passed through, nobody said anything, or gave me any informational pamphlet, or anything like that. Nor were there any signs posted …

When I came back, I found the road blocked with two huge pieces of formed cement just in front of the driveway to my building. And more armed men blocking the gap in The Wall.

Putting down asphalt at the gap in The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

“Drive around”, they said blithely — as if it didn’t matter at all.

Armed men in the street - at the gap in The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

That would mean going either through Qalandia — a supposed “border crossing” which is always a nightmare of congestion and humiliation under the point of some very big and very advanced automatic weapons.

Or, it would mean going around 11 miles or so on a winding road with some very aggressive drivers as road companions, through the “Judean Desert”, and passing through two more checkpoints — the one being upgraded beside Jabaa village, and the one called “Hizma” …

Armed men in the neighborhood

Putting down asphalt under armed guard

Then they said, “wait five minutes”. And they used a “traktor” (bulldozer) to pick up the huge boulders, and eventually the mad crazy traffic through the area started up again.

Pulling back the boulders and putting them on the West Bank side of The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

Putting down asphalt all along the Jerusalem side of The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

But, if I had listened to them at first, and not protested, I would have had to drive nearly one hour out of the way, through horrible dusty roads with world-class potholes, and at the same time as some very crazy and crazed drivers, on a very, very hot day …

And nobody knows what will happen or what the situation will be tomorrow.

NOTE OF REMINDER: This, my neighborhood, on the Jerusalem side of The Wall, where I and my neighbors simply live, is part of the Twilight Zone here. Yes, here, the little area where we live between The (still-open) Wall and a miserable and frustrating checkpoint (which it took over 20 minutes to transit today in the burning sun and boiling heat), has been designated a “Military Zone” [not a closed Military Zone or an operational Military Zone, but just a Military Zone], where anyone entering (or damaging “the fence”) subjects him-or-her-self to MORTAL DANGER — and ENDANGERS HIS LIFE!

Military Zone - anyone entering or damaging the fence endangers his life

Overheard in the Muqata'a

U.S. officials who had been present in the just-concluded meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud today in the Muqata’a presidential palace in Ramallah, but who were waiting for the two principles to appear for a press conference, were joking around — with one or another of the five journalists who composed the U.S. traveling Press pool.

David Welch (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs), Rice’s aide, jokingly revealed to one of the traveling press corps traveling with Rice a small glimpse of a healthy-looking Cuban Cohiba cigar in his suit jacket pocket. Ohhhhhh, one of the journalists exclaimed … Cuban cigars are, I believe, still banned in the USA.

Then Walsh said (in a manner that clearly indicated that the punch line was meant as a joke): “I get one of these for every checkpoint”…

Free Gaza expedition off U.S. State Department's press corp's radar screen

The Free Gaza media team reported today that “The SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty will leave Gaza for Cyprus on Thursday morning at 9:00 am. Several Palestinian students who have been denied exit visas by Israel will travel to Cyprus on the boats”.

The Free Gaza expedition also reported, separately, that Jeff Halper — the only Israeli (American-born) on board, was “detained” in the Sderot police station after he was readmitted to Israel through the Erez crossing. Haaretz reported that “Police on Tuesday detained an Israeli activist who had sailed to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to challenge Israel ‘s blockade of the coastal region. They accused Jeff Halper, who also holds United States citizenship, of violating a ban on Israelis entering Gaza”.

The full Haaretz report can be viewed in full here .

In the Muqata’a today, where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met today, and then held a press conference, there was no mention of the Free Gaza expedition.

The five journalists who composed the U.S. “travelling press corps” who accompanied Rice on her 25-hour visit to the region felt it was more important to ask about North Korea and Georgia. They also wanted details about the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, despite the fact that the parties (Israel, in particular) have said repeatedly that they have agreed on strict silence.

When asked if it might not be interesting to ask also about the Free Gaza expedition, one news agency reporter travelling with Rice asked, “What’s that?”. Even when it was explained that the Free Gaza group has announced plans to return to Cyprus by boat, taking with them the Palestinian Fulbright scholars who cannot get out of the Gaza Strip to pursue their studies, the American journalist said, “Hmm, she (Rice) was very upset about that (at first)”.

But two of the senior men in the group ruled it out, saying that Russia+Georgia, North Korea, etc. are more important.

Abbas, however, with Rice at his side, did tell journalists after their meeting in the Palestinian presidential compound in the Muqata’a that they had discussed “Gaza and the urgent need to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians, and to open doors for people and goods so life can continue”.

Abbas added that “the situation in the Gaza Strip is unbearable”.

More on the Free Gaza expedition, the day after the day after …

The Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday that Jeff Halper “hoped to cross back into Israel via Erez Crossing on Tuesday, while his colleagues, a group of activists who arrived in Gaza’s port on Saturday, would began a ‘revolving ferry from Cyprus to Gaza … Some people need to go home, so one boat is going to return’, Halper said. ‘Others are going to stay here for a month, but overall, we’re trying to create an ongoing ferry service that brings in people and supplies from Cyprus to Gaza This is not a one-time attempt … They are going to take 10 Palestinian students with them,” he said. “The idea is to get them out of Gaza, to Cyprus, and then off to universities elsewhere’.

The JPost reported that Halper also said that ‘This trip wasn’t humanitarian. It was political. The point was to break the siege and change Israeli policy in Gaza. It wasn’t a one-time thing. We are going to continue bringing boats into Gaza, and those will have humanitarian assistance on board’. Halper said that the first two boats brought small quantities of humanitarian supplies, including hearing aids to be distributed at a Gaza hospital, as to not arrive empty-handed. But the boats, he said, would have to keep coming in. ‘They let these two boats in, so I don’t see why they wouldn’t let a third one in’, Halper said”.

The story added that “Halper also said that while he saw entering Gaza by boat during the ongoing Israeli blockade as a positive development, the true test would come with the group’s exit”.

But defense officials said Sunday that despite the decision to permit the two boats into Gaza there was no change in Israeli policy and that the sea blockade imposed on the Palestinian territory would remain in effect … The officials said that if additional boats tried to reach Gaza – carrying supplies or international activists – they would likely be turned away although each case would be examined individually. Officials said that the activists – who have yet to officially request permission to leave Gaza – would be questioned upon their departure whether by sea or via the Erez Crossing. ‘We have no intention of opening up Gaza’s port’, one official said. ‘There is no change in Israeli policy and there is no need for the port since the Palestinians are getting everything they need via the land-based crossings’. The decision to permit the boats into Gaza was made following a series of security consultations over the weekend. According to defense officials, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi was against allowing the boats into Gaza on the grounds that such a move would set a dangerous precedent. However, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office decided to allow the boats into Gaza since they were concerned that if the Navy tried to block them, the event would receive international media attention and could ruin the upcoming visits of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Egypt and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Israel”.

This JPost story can be read in full here .

UN Human Rights Rapporteur says Free Gaza expedition is important symbolic victory

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued this statement today from Geneva:

“The landing of two wooden boats carrying 46 human rights activists in Gaza this past weekend is an important symbolic victory said Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories.

“This non-violent initiative of the Free Gaza Movement focused attention around the world on the stark reality that the 1.5 million residents of Gaza have endured a punitive siege for more than a year. This siege is a form of collective punishment that constitutes a massive violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The siege, the coastal blockade, and the overflights by Israeli aircraft all bear witness to the fact that despite Israel’s claimed ‘disengagement’ in 2005, these realities on the ground establish that Gaza remains under Israeli occupation, and as a result Israel remains legally responsible for protecting the human rights of its civilian population.

“By severely restricting the entry of food, fuel, and medicine the economic and social rights of the people of Gaza have been systematically violated.

There is widespread deafness among the people of Gaza that is blamed on the frequent sonic booms produced by overflying Israeli military aircraft. For this reason the peace boats brought 200 hearing aids to Gaza added Falk.

“I strongly urge the international community to take action to uphold human rights in the Gaza Strip. As with other humanitarian catastrophes in the world, here is a situation where the ‘responsibility to protect’ norm endorsed by the Security Council seems applicable, but has been ignored despite the overwhelming evidence of deteriorating mental and physical health in Gaza that has reached crisis proportions. With a cease-fire in effect since June 19, perhaps the willingness of Israel to allow these boats to land without interference signals a subtle change of approach by Tel Aviv that includes a show of greater respect for international humanitarian law and for the standards of international human rights”.

“Falk also called on the government of Israel to grant exit permits to several Palestinian winners of a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States who might be taken back to Cyprus on the return voyage of the peace boats. If they are permitted by Israel to reach their destination without interference this will be a further sign of progress. Above all, what is being tested is whether the
imaginative engagement of dedicated private citizens can influence the struggle of a beleaguered people for basic human rights, and whether their courage and commitment can awaken the conscience of humanity to an unfolding tragedy”.

Israel says it allowed Free Gaza expedition into Gaza to avoid bad publicity

We will probably soon learn that top Israeli officials decided to let the two ships in the Free Gaza expedition land unmolested in Gaza because stopping them would make the Palestinian Authority look bad, for multiple reasons, including the terms of the 1994 and 1995 Oslo Accords which give Israel total security control over Gaza’s territorial waters in the Mediterranean Sea.

We will probably also come to realize that Israel’s interest in concluding a deal to purchase Gaza Gas from one or more wells located within Gaza’s territorial waters would be jeopardized — by focussing attention on quietly-made security arrangements by which the Palestinians re-agreed (in the years 1999-2001) to Israeli security control around those undersea gas wells.

We may or may not become more aware of Israeli unilaterally-imposed conditions on its unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which also involved more Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s total security control in Gaza’s territorial waters, and which Israeli sources reported Egypt also signed on to at the time. These terms were, I was told after the “disengagement”, dictated to Mohammed Dahlan, who was put in charge of coodination with Israel, but who became dissatisfied with how he was being treated and stopped cooperating, going off to Germany for medical treatment instead. One Palestinian official told me that “We were informed, and we had no choice”.

And, we will probably also hear that Egypt also made strong pleas to Israel to let the ships pass — and that those on-board may well exit through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Ynet reported, in a strange article on Saturday that said “local residents were disappointed by the small quantities of food brought in by two boats carrying international leftist activists”, that a Palestinian source in Gaza “slammed Egypt for being ‘an inseparable part of the siege’.” This strange article can be read in full on YNet’s website here .

Haaretz reported late Saturday that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also lauded the activists, who docked at Gaza City’s tiny port Saturday evening, receiving a warm welcome from thousands of jubilant Palestinians after a two-day journey marred by communications troubles and rough seas”. This tidbit can be found in this article on the Haaretz website here .

In a separate article of analysis published in Haaretz on Sunday, it was reported that “Despite an Israel Defense Forces plan to halt boats bearing left-wing activists on their way to Gaza, the government decided to permit the boats to reach Gaza shores in order to avoid a public relations disaster. Senior political sources in Jerusalem said that the fact that Israel allowed the boats to reach Gaza ‘took the wind out of the sails of the left-wing activists who were seeking to create a provocation’. Several discussions were held last week on this matter. At the time, the IDF raised the idea of forcibly preventing the boats from reaching Gaza. The army officers suggested stopping the boats at sea and towing them to the Ashdod port for inspection, where the activists on board would be detained for interrogation. However, after further consultation, it was decided on Friday to avoid a confrontation and to allow the boats to reach the Gaza Strip. In the wake of that decision, urgent directives were sent to Israel’s embassies around the world regarding the st’ance they should take concerning this event. These are professional provocateurs and we did not want to cooperate with that on the open seas’, a senior political source in Jerusalem said. ‘Instead of letting the entire international press obsess about this for a week, the boats received almost no coverage, simply because there was no confrontation’ … Discussions will be held in the next few days on whether to stop the boats for inspection once they leave Gaza. Israeli officials are worried they might be used to smuggle wanted Palestinians out of the coastal strip. ‘They’ve got a reputation for protecting terrorists and acting as human shields’, the political source said”. This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

And, Ynet on Sunday published remarks from the only Israeli on board the Free Gaza expedition, American-born Jeff Halper, of “Matrix of Control” fame (describing a physical carving up of the West Bank) and head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions: “In a phone interview with Ynet, Halper spoke about the reasons which motivated him and other left-wing activists to try and break the siege on the Strip: ‘There are people here yearning to live in peace with us, yearning for freedom. All these restrictions, they’re not just for security reasons, they’re symptomatic to something much, much deeper’. After years in the hub of anti-occupation and pro-peace activities, Halper decided to enlist the aid of some of his international peace activists’ associates and try and put the sail together. The idea, he explained, was motivated by the notion that world governments in general and the Israeli government in particular, are not doing enough to lift the siege. His boat – an old Greek liner which was renovated and sailed to Cyprus – ended up hosting 43 peace activists from around the world … The sail itself took about 36 hours. ‘We were pretty cut off (from the world) while we were on the boat. We were under the impression that it’s going to make headlines around the world. I felt a great since of responsibility and empowerment. A lot of people feel bitter in their everyday lives and here we felt we were doing something beautiful, acting against injustice. We felt we were on a mission… and by the response – we hit a nerve’.” Halper also said he wanted to convey to the world what a shambles once-beautiful Gaza had become. This can be read in full on YNet here .

Amazingly, they did it — Free Gaza ships arrived in Gaza

Several hours ago, the two Free Gaza ships entered Gaza.

According to Haaretz, the decision was made by the Israeli Security Cabinet (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) on FRIDAY evening. They reportedly decided, in effect, that they were refusing to be provoked by what they had earlier called an intolerable provocation.

So, if the decision was made on FRIDAY, why wasn’t it conveyed to the Free Gaza expedition, and to the world, earlier? Why all the bellicose and belligerent statements?

Israel’s YNet website reported Saturday evening that “Foreign Ministry official Aryeh Mekel said Israel allowed the boats to enter Gaza in order to ‘prevent a media-covered provocation at sea’. ‘We know who’s on these boats and what they contain, and therefore we’ll allow them to reach shore’, he said … The Foreign Ministry slammed the leftists and said that they did not deserve to be referred to as ‘peace activists’, branding them as a ‘handful of provocateurs seeking a public relations stunt who initiated a political protest aimed at boosting Hamas’ regime of horrors in Gaza’. ‘How does such delusional journey promote peace?’ the Foreign Ministry added. ‘What kind of contribution does this journey make to the promotion of ideas of reconciliation and compromise? None’.” This YNet report can be read in full here .

The Jerusalem Post reported that “Israel’s decision to allow two boats carrying international activists into Gaza’s port on Saturday was a ‘one-time’ event and did not constitute a decision by the government to allow sea access to the blockaded Palestinian territory…Israeli defense officials said a consultation was held late last week between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak during which it was decided to allow the boats into Gaza and not to use the navy to prevent their arrival. ‘It was clear from the beginning that this whole operation was a provocation aimed at making Israel look bad’, a senior defense official said on Saturday. ‘We decided to let them through in order not to play into their hands’. The official stressed that despite the opening of the Gaza port for international boats on Saturday, Israel did not plan to lift its sea blockade of Gaza and would not allow additional ships into the Strip out of fear that they will try to transport weaponry and explosives to Hamas … Now that the group is in Gaza, the expectation in Jerusalem is that they will at some point ask Israel to let them into the country so they can fly back home, since it is unlikely they will want to sail back the way they came. No decision, however, has yet been made on whether they will be allowed into Israel”. This report can be read in full here .

At least one of those on board has been refused admission into Israel in the past … but it’s not clear why the JPost believes these people are so eager to return home via Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport.

The Free Gaza website reported that “The boats were crewed by a determined group of international human rights workers from the Free Gaza Movement. They had spent two years organizing the effort, raising money by giving small presentations at churches, mosques, synagogues, and in the homes of family, friends, and supporters. They left Cyprus on Thursday morning, sailing over 350 kilometers through choppy seas. They made the journey despite threats that the Israeli government would use force to stop them. They continued sailing although they lost almost all communications and navigation systems due to outside jamming by some unknown party. They arrived in Gaza to the cheers and joyful tears of hundreds of Palestinians who came out to the beaches to welcome them. Two small boats, 42 determined human rights workers, one simple message: ‘The world has not forgotten the people of this land. Today, we are all from Gaza’. Tonight, the cheering will be heard as far away as Tel Aviv and Washington D.C.”

Journalist with Free Gaza expedition reports that ships have now entered Gaza's territorial waters

Here is an excerpt from the message signed by a journalist on board one of the two boats in the Free Gaza expedition heading to Gaza: “We’ve entered Gazan waters. We’re flying the Palestinian flag, and we now believe that we’re going to reach the shores of Gaza very soon” …

The message is signed by Yvonne Ridley, abord the SS Liberty, bound for Gaza, 23 Aug. 2008, and can be viewed in its entirety on the Free Gaza website here .