Annapolis process did not work, says UN Special Middle East Coordinator

The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, told the UN Security Council today that “the inconclusive results of last year’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and unmet Road Map obligations, especially regarding settlements” are realities that must be faced — and “squarely addressed”.

Of course, the Serry statement was balanced. Carefully balanced.

But there were several particularly sharp messages.
Continue reading “Annapolis process did not work, says UN Special Middle East Coordinator”

Israel says it will start to rachet up Gaza sanctions on 2 December

Despite talking peace at Annapolis, the Israeli Government — more particularly, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — are planning to tighten the squeeze on Gaza, by ratchetting up sanctions on 2 December.

Meanwhile, intrepid “foreign” journalists are risking all to schlep into Gaza and report to all of us how bad the situation there is already. [Israeli journalists are not allowed to enter the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, apparently because it might cost a lot of money — and perhaps also lives — if the Israeli Defense Forces had to go in and rescue them].

That means, of course, going from Israel — a modern, Western-style country — into, well, a very different world, where 1.5 million people have been cut off from the outside, from the rest of the world.

How does a “foreign” journalist manage to go to a place where people don’t have … well, many consumer items? He/she will carry some in, of course.

The McClatchy newspaper group’s Jerusalem correspondent, Dion Nissenbaum, has recently reported on his sanctions-busting activity:

“It began innocuously enough for me in 2005 with requests from friends to bring booze into Gaza. Hamas hard-liners had long ago torched the major bars that served alcohol to customers and driven the stores selling booze out of business. Wenever I made the trek from Jerusalem to Gaza, I always asked my colleagues trapped in Gaza if they needed anything. More often than not, what they wanted was booze. Absolut. Rum. Red wine. Whatever. Just something to take the edge off in a place filled with an abundance of edges. It wa easy. Even after hard-liners bombed the UN club nearly two years ago and effectively shuttered the last known spot openly selling booze in Gaza City, I felt no risk in smuggling booze for my friends. Things took another turn in June after Hamas seized control of Gaza.

“Within weeks, the Israeli-led economic blockade had starved Gaza of its regular supply of nicotine. A black market quickly evolved, one that was based largely on cigarettes being smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. The price for a pack of smokes tripled. Soon, friends in Gaza weren’t asking for booze as much as they were asking for cigarettes. The price for a pack of smokes skyrocketed from about two-and-a-half bucks a pack to seven or eight bucks a pack. Soon, the space in my backpack once reserved for vodka and rum was competing for space with cartons of Lucky Strikes and L&M cigarettes.

“This weekend, on my latest trip to Gaza, I asked my colleague if he needed more cigarettes. No, thank you very much, he said, I am fine. I thought it odd, but it wasn’t long before I learned that he had persuaded one of my colleagues to be his nicotine mule and transport nine cartons of L&M cigarettes into Gaza for him. He didn’t need smokes from me. Instead, he wanted something else that had disappeared from the store shelves: Coke. “If you can bring me a two liter bottle of Coca-Cola I would be very grateful,” said my colleague. It had come to this. first it was booze. Then nicotine. Now: Coke. My smuggling career had advanced to sugary, All-American drinks. One of the main casualties of the economic siege of Gaza has been Coke. Israel isn’t allowing soda into Gaza. Carbon dioxide to make the drinks fizzy is also barred. So the store shelves are stocked with sickly sweet sodas and a bad production line of Mecca Cola that no one wants to drink. When I pulled the three bottles of Coke out of my backpack, my friend’s face lit up like I’d never seen before. He was sitting in the front seat with cartons of cigarettes in his lap and he yelped with joy at the site of the soda. This is more important than the cigarettes, he said with a smile”… The blog posting by McClatchy’s Jerusalem bureau chief Dion Nissenbaum can be read here.

[n.b. Are you listening, Condoleeza Rice? American competitivity is at risk. And, with the dollar dropping like a lead weight, the Gazan purchasing power is that much greater. Think of the Coke sales being lost by these sanctions]

The NYTimes’ Steven Erlanger has also recently reported on the shrinking life of people in Gaza. He reports that the sanctions, initially imposed because of Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, affect everyone in Gaza, and not just Hamas supporters: “Raji Sourani, director of Gaza’s Palestinian Center for Human Rights, is himself stuck in Gaza. No friend to Hamas, he has a new metaphor. ‘At least in prison, and I’ve been in prison, there are rules’, he said. ‘But now we live in a kind of animal farm. We live in a pen, and they dump in food and medicine’.”

Erlanger adds that “Israel says that it will ensure that no one starves in Gaza, and that the essentials of life will be provided. But Israel also wants to see that Hamas suffers, by making Gazans suffer, to impress on them that the best path lies in accommodation and negotiation with Israel for a Palestinian state. Fatah backs that strategy … In the last year, life in Gaza has been plagued by criminal gangs as well as fighting among Palestinian groups. Some rocket barrages aimed at Israel fall on Gaza itself, and Israeli retaliation for the rest ranges from military strikes to economic quarantine. Months of battling between the main political factions, Fatah and Hamas, culminated in a Gazan civil war in June, with 160 people killed and 800 wounded, many of them civilians. Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union, was the winner. The struggle is hardly finished, with Fatah trying to consolidate in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Just last week, a large Fatah demonstration on the third anniversary of Yasir Arafat’s death ended in violence when Hamas police fired into a rock-throwing crowd and killed six people, while beating others. Hamas is under siege, and with it, the people of Gaza. It’s not just that Hamas is shunned by the West and Israel, which has declared Gaza ‘a hostile entity’ and is moving to restrict supplies of gasoline, diesel fuel and electricity. Gaza is also shunned by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who is a ready accomplice in the effort to punish and pressure Hamas“. Steven Erlanger’s report from Gaza for the NYTimes is
here.

Rice has left Jerusalem

It was Rice’s eighth visit to Jerusalem-Ramallah, and her third in six weeks, or her second in two weeks, depending on perspective. There are reports of still one more visit to come, by mid-November.

Kol Israel, citing Reuters, reports this morning that “A senior US official says the Annapolis peace summit is likely to take place in the last week of November. Reuters quotes the official as saying that participating countries will be represented [in Annapolis] at the ministerial level”.

Yesterday, in Ramallah, it was a small treat to watch Rice’s convoy pass. The first clue was the unusual deployment of olive-uniformed Palestinian security (the police wear blue). They refused to allow cars to park on the street in front of the Wataniya building, where the Palestinian Peace Coalition [the Palestinian team working on the Geneva Initiative] used to be housed, until their funding dried up. The building houses the Swiss, Japanese, and Irish consulates, and Royal Jordanian Airlines offices – clearly a dangerous lot. The security forces were quite suspicious, but not really nervous. At the last minute, it was possible to emerge into the sunlight just in time to see the action — like watching the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in NYC.

Rice, at about 11:30 am, was apparently coming from the office of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and going to the Muqata’a to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

Traffic was cut off a few minutes before the convoy approached. Then, a white pickup truck approached at high speed from the opposite direction, and made a U-turn, waiting in position to lead the convoy on. A smaller bright mid-blue vehicle (the color of some police cars was next, then, after a pause, a police motorcyclist with a rotating light on a pole perched at the back of his vehicle signalled the arrival of the convoy itself: Another blue police van. Closed vehicles loaded with Palestinian olive-uniformed security personnel. Then about 8 black vans, with tinted windows (closed). In the second row of seats, suited security personnel, one man fully facing each side of the street, anxious faces scanning the facades of the buildings on both sides. What would they do if they actually saw something dangerous — a rifle sticking out of an upper floor window, like at the Texas Book Repository? It might be too late by then … In the back of these black vans, at least two rows of seats, facing each other, forming a conversational grouping. Calm reigned.

The convoy moved at a clip, but didn’t break the sound barrier.

At the back, another group of six to eight white vehicles. These seemed to be more security, probably including Israeli security. These white vehicles, in fact, might be all Israeli, at least Israeli-provided. At the end, two white vehicles with a printed sign in the window: Press. The windows in these vans were clear, allowing a perfectly clear view of the well-dressed and clearly well-mannered travelling press corps, and perhaps other local journalists being assisted to attend the event. Sitting ducks.

At the end of their meeting, sometime around 1:30 or 2:00 pm, Rice and Abbas gave what was latter called an “upbeat” joint press conference at the Muqata’a, where local (Palestinian) journalists had been asked to be in place from 10:00 — for security reasons.

Abbas and Rice were pleased, apparently, from comments made at a gala meeting of the “prestigious” Saban Forum on Sunday evening by Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — two of the most important of which were (1) “We will not bargain about the right of the Palestinian people to their own state”, and (2) “It should be remembered that the Roadmap sets out a series of steps for the State of Israel. These steps, like the obligations of the Palestinians, have yet to be implemented. We will not concede to the Palestinians on any of the obligations outlined in the Roadmap, and we will not avoid fulfilling our own obligations to the letter”.

For a fuller account of Olmert’s hailed remarks, see the post “The Day after Annapolis?“, on Palestine-Mandate.com, here.

For an informal poll of Palestinian man-on-the-street reactions to the present process, see the post on Palestine-Mandate.com, “There will be an Annapolis meeting, it seems“, here.

Rice did not visit the nearly-completed Yasser Arafat memorial, that is nearly completed, in lovely light-pink stone, around his gravesite in a corner of the Muqata’a — the building where his health declined after two years of being quite literally under seige, facing regular public Israeli threats to finish him off. Arafat was evacuated by helicopter and taken via Jordan to a hospital in France, where he soon died. Arafat’s body was returned from France via Egypt, and then helicopter to the Muqata’a, where it was unable to land for a very long time due to the press of mourners on the ground.

Historical footnote: at least three Western journalists, all women, were recalled by their news organizations as a result of Israeli protests at their emotional [i.e. “unobjective”] reporting of Arafat’s final days, including his helicopter evacuation — a much weakened-man in an overcoat and woolen cap, over his pyjamas — from the Muqata’a.

Rice has arrived back in Jerusalem

Condoleeza Rice has arrived back in Jerusalem on Sunday and will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair, according to Kol Israel Radio.

Rice, Olmert, and Blair are due to address the Saban Forum (a production of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, financed by Los Angeles-based philanthropist Haim Saban; the Saban Forum meets annually to strengthen U.S-Israeli relations) in Jerusalem on Monday evening, after which there will be a gala dinner.

Rice aides Stephen Hadley and David Welch have been conducting meetings with Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in the days since Rice’s last visit here.

Speaking with journalists on board her plane travelling from Turkey to Israel yesterday, Rice said, according to a U.S. State Department transcript of her remarks, that “They’re still working. And like with anything of this kind, you know, they’re going through some knotty discussions. And I think those knotty discussions are going to continue for a while, but I will go out and see if there is anything that I can do to help move this along”.

Rice met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, Haaretz reports. Rice’s team, if not Rice herself, are due to travel to Amman during the day on Sunday to brief or to consult with King Abdallah II on the Arab peace intitiative (according to the Saban Center’s press release). The Jerusalem Post says that Rice will join Olmert for a working lunch on Sunday, and will see Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the day.

Rice is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Monday,

UNSG BAN not direct actor in proposed Annapolis peace talks

The UN spokesperson was asked on Monday about UNSG BAN’s role in the still-planned Middle East peace conference (or “meeting”) that the U.S. is planning to convene by the end of the year in Annapolis:

“Question: Michèle, on this Middle East talk, I mean process, that Washington has called, is the Secretary-General going to be an active partner when the talks do happen in Washington or is he going to be on the sidelines?

Spokesperson: At this point, no. He’s not going to be a direct actor.”
The UN spokesperson’s remarks on UNSG BAN’s role in Annapolis talks is posted here.