Nabil ElAraby [Arab League Secretary-General] visits Ramallah Muqata'a — but seems not to have brought suitcases full of cash

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil ElAraby has arrived in Ramallah [from Amman] to meet with Mahmoud Abbas at 12:20 today.

It was reported earlier in the week that [apparently according to Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki] there would be a delegation of 8 to 10 Arab Foreign Ministers travelling with ElAraby.  But most of the others did not come.

Al-Malki had also said that the Arab League delegation would arrive by air, apparently to avoid encountering Israeli passport controls at the Jordanian border…  And that’s what happened with ElAraby today — he was accompanied only by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamil, and the two arrived by Jordanian military helicopter.

Egyptian diplomats are notoriously discrete.  It seems, however, that ElAraby did not show up carrying suitcases full of dollar bills.

Reuters reported here that ElAraby said during his press conference in Ramallah that “Arab countries agreed at their Baghdad summit (in March) for an Arab safety net of $100 million dollars each month, but unfortunately none of this has been achieved yet”.

    UPDATE: Ma’an News Agency reported Sunday 30 December here that “Arab League members had agreed a $100 million monthly payment to the Palestinian Authority, but the League chief Nabil al-Arabi said on a visit to the West Bank on Saturday that none had been delivered … Deputy Secretary General of the PFLP Abdul Raheem Mallouh said that there are American pressures on the Arab states to financially blockade the PA. Secretary General of the Popular Struggle Front Ahmed Majdalani said the failure to transfer funds was ‘clearly a political decision… (and) collective punishment against the Palestinian people because of the agenda of seeking an independent Palestinian state’. Meanwhile Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf said it was up to Arab states to explain the impasse”.

Some Palestinians in the West Bank believe that only the Emir of Qatar can and will save them — he announced grants of some $450 million for Gaza’s rehabilitation after all, and the West Bank is bigger… But, his possible visit has been postponed for at least a month.

Nabil El-Araby has his own separate status, however, based on years of representing Egypt at the UN in New York and Geneva and elsewhere — and above all based on respect for El-Araby’s breathtakingly strong and direct separate opinion, when he sat as a Judge on the International Court of Justice, in the ICJ’s 2004 ICJ Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

The Associated Press reported that ElAraby said in his remarks to the press in the Muqata’a that “We will return to the U.N. Security Council … Palestine will be cooperating with Arab and EU countries to change the equation (in the peace process) that prevailed over the past 20 years, which was a waste of time”.

Haaretz reported that while in Ramallah, the two senior Egyptian diplomats “will also discuss a decision by an Arab League ministerial committee to hold talks with the UN Security Council, the United States, Russia, China and the European Union on a mechanism to relaunch Palestinian-Israeli peace talks”. This is posted here.

Not many people in the West Bank expected much from the Arab League, of course — despite the fact that Mahmoud Abbas formally defers all major decisions until approval by Arab League leaders.

But, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly said that it was a letter from Nabil ElAraby, confirming an Arab League decision to provide a $100-million-dollar “safety-net” fund [to counteract Israeli financial reprisals after the recent UN upgrade] that enabled the Palestinian Authority to borrow from Palestinian banks [despite the PA’s maxed-out credit limit] in order to transfer partial salary payments to its employees on 24 December.

Meanwhile, PA government employees were bitterly disappointed earlier this week when the banks which paid their partial salaries [as 1st installment of November salary] after taking full reimbursement of loan payments due from PA government employees.  The Palestinian banks, in effect, advanced the salaries in order to get the loan payments due.   Following the banks’ actions, many PA government employees were left with little or no money in their accounts — for the second time since the beginning of November [when October salaries were belatedly paid].

Two months without money has put PA employees in an extremely difficult position — and they find it individually humiliating.  This inhibits them from speaking much about it publicly, or even with each other.

The loans are a policy pushed after the June 2007 split between Gaza and the West Bank, and strongly advocated by Tony Blair [on the basis of the Portland Trust’s policy recommendation] and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

These loans created a deceptive illusion of indebted prosperity that bewildered many Palestinians in the West Bank as journalists enthused over an illusory “Ramallah bubble”.

Agence France Presse [AFP] reported that “Every month, Israel transfers about 460 million shekels ($120 million) in customs duties on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports, and which constitute a large percentage of the Palestinian budget.  The transfers are governed by the 1994 Paris Protocols [part of the Oslo Accords] with the Palestinians”.  This is posted here.

Day 3 of IDF Operation Pillar of Clouds [a/k/a Defense Pillar] against Gaza

Today is Day 3 of the IDF’s Operation “Pillar of Clouds”, also known as Operation Defense Pillar against Gaza.

Last night, two Fajr rockets fired from Gaza reached the Tel Aviv area. [Qassam Brigades were calling them Qassam M-75s.]  Earlier in the day, three Israelis were killed by shrapnel after a direct rocket hit on the top floor of an apartment building in Kiryat Malachi.

Overnight, the IDF carried out at least 150 strikes on the Gaza Strip, including on on the Civil Affairs office in the Ministry of Interior in Gaza.

UNRWA photographer Shareef Sarhan took this picture showing the damage to the Civil Affairs office. here.  Other pictures are viewable on the Activestills Flikr page photostream, here.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights [PCHR] sums it up: The “most significant targets was the building of the Civil Department of the Ministry of Interior in Tal al-Hawa neighborhood in the south of the City. The building was totally destroyed and a number of nearby buildings and houses were heavily damaged. Israeli fighter jets bombarded also the building of the Collection and Inspection Center of Gaza Municipality near Abu Mazen Square. The building was completely destroyed and a number of nearby houses and buildings were heavily damaged. Israeli fighter jets further bombarded a plot belonging to an ecclesiastic center near the Roots Restaurant in the southwest of Gaza City. Additionally, Israeli gunboats bombarded an electricity transmitter near the house of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in the Beach camp. A number of houses and a civilian car were heavily damaged”.

PCHR has called for an urgent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to examine the situation. As to the UN Security Council, well, it met on Wednesday night after a request from Egypt, but took no decision. The only outcome was a decision that UN Secretary-General BAN Ki Moon would travel to the region on Tuesday — but he does not intend to go to Gaza. UNSG BAN Ki-Moon will apparently have talks in Israel on Wednesday. Mahmoud Abbas announced to the PLO Executive Committee this evening that UNSG BAN would be coming to Ramallah on Thursday.

The Arab League will meet on Saturday afternoon in Cairo, after a delegation led by the Tunisian Foreign Minister, possibly accompanied by the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi and maybe some other officials from other Arab countries, hopes to enter Gaza via Egypt on Saturday morning…

On Friday morning, a delegation of Egyptian officials led by Prime Minister Qandil and accompanied by Egyptian Special Forces entered Gaza on Friday morning to assess the situation, and were received by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh.  As they entered Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, a small child who had just died from an Israeli strike was brought in, and the two men cradled the body.

The photo was posted on Twitter by Hazem Balousha [@iHaZeMi].  Pool photo by Mahmud Hams.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel would serve a 3-hour cease-fire for the visit of the Egyptian delegation on condition that no projectiles were fired from Gaza onto Israel — but there was very little let-up.  Several journalists in Gaza reported outgoing projectiles. Journalists also reported incoming [though IDF spokespeople said there were no attacks during the Egyptian PM’s visit.

A little later, there was an execution of a collaborator in Gaza, which the NYTimes reported on, here.

By the end of the day [Friday] the Palestinian death toll in Gaza rose to 30, with some 250 injured — and climbing. There were no Israeli deaths from Gaza firing reported on Friday.

Continue reading “Day 3 of IDF Operation Pillar of Clouds [a/k/a Defense Pillar] against Gaza”

Ex UNSG Kofi Annan quits Syrian envoy effort, sprinkling blame liberally all around

Five months ago, former UN Secretary-General Annan [who is retired, after two terms in office and living in Geneva] accepted the job of joint UN and Arab League envoy to end to bloodshed in Syria.

Today, Annan told journalists at a news conference in the Palais des Nations in Geneva that he was giving up — but he’s apparently not walking out and leaving right away, he said….

He’ll be leaving at the end of the month, on 31 August.

Coincidentally, France — which is the most gung-ho in wanting intervention in Syria — has assumed the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council for the month, and will preside over all deliberations durin the entire of August.

Does that suggest that Annan might be persuaded, if circumstances change, to change his mind?

It seems not. Here is what he replied when asked by a journalist, “Is this a resignation?”: “Yes, I am not going to continue”, Annan said.

But, there’s something about this that gives the impression that Annan didn’t jump on his own, and that he was pushed.

Just look at the expressions on these two faces — both of these men, including spokesperson Ahmad Fawzi on the left, show unease, if not chagrin — not regret or firm determination. They look perturbed.

UN Photo by Yann Castanier
This photo is posted by the UN here.

Ian Black wrote in The Guardian here that Annan made “a sometimes bitter and frustrated statement” in the Geneva press conference. Black also wrote that “Sluggish and ineffective diplomacy has been outpaced by a fast-moving and increasingly dangerous situation” on the ground in Syria, particularly in Aleppo.

It may be that Annan was perturbed by a reference, reportedly since eliminated, that he should better focus his efforts — a reference contained in a Saudi-backed draft text on Syria due to be presented to the UN General Assembly on Friday.

But, it is interesting that UNSG BAN Ki-Moon so readily accepted Annan’s resignation [ok, BAN did say “with deep regret”, but that’s the least he could do]. And, instead of diplomatic reflection, or saying that the entire business is under re-evaluation, there was an immediate flurry of speculation about who might be Annan’s successor…

Continue reading “Ex UNSG Kofi Annan quits Syrian envoy effort, sprinkling blame liberally all around”

Kofi Annan to propose a 250-observer force with helicopters for Syria

Former UNSG Kofi Annan, who is now the joint envoy of the UN and the Arab League with a mandate to end the violence in Syria, is readying a recommendation that will be delivered to the UN Security Council in New York later today to establish a 250-observer force that will also have its own helicopter support.

The Syrian Government was involved in Annan’s planning discussions, and apparently agrees with this proposal. It has already been presented to the Arab League, before it goes to the UNSC today.

Reuters is reporting that “A six-day-old truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week. But in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa the army continues to attack and battle rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back. After negotiations led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan acting as envoy of the United Nations and Arab League, Assad’s government has agreed to allow a small U.N. force to monitor the ceasefire. But the planned 250-strong mission is a fraction of the size of U.N. peacekeeping forces sent to other conflicts, raising doubt among Assad’s opponents about whether it can be effective or will serve as a figleaf substitute for more robust action”. This is reported here .

Meanwhile, Syrians are still singing and dancing in the streets in a display of popular mobilization that appears to be extraordinarily energizing. A video shot this week in Douma has been posted here:

    UPDATE: Later, the number went up from 250 to 300 observers, Reuters reported on Thursday 19 April: “In a letter to the Security Council on Wednesday, [UNSG] Ban said Syria had not fully complied with Annan’s six-point peace plan but still outlined plans to deploy up to 300 observers for three months to supervise a fragile truce between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and opposition fighters seeking to oust him. Ban said the observers would be deployed incrementally over a period of weeks, in approximately ten locations throughout Syria. He said an earlier UN proposal for 250 observers was insufficient. Ban also said that the freedom of access of the advance monitoring team was imperfect. It was allowed to visit Deraa but not the battle-scarred town of Homs”.

Continue reading “Kofi Annan to propose a 250-observer force with helicopters for Syria”

Ramallah analysts say if Abu Mazen caves in to U.S. pressure on direct talks, he will further undermine his credibility – by Ben Lynfield

From Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem — Left in the lurch by his Arab League brethren, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is under enormous Amercan pressure to unconditionally renew direct peace negotiations with Israel.

Analysts and politicians in Ramallah believe he will cave in, thus undermining his credibility for tough concessions that will be needed further down the line.

Mr Abbas had hoped the Arab League, which met in Cairo on Thursday, would back up his refusal of direct bilateral talks unless Israel first commits to borders for a viable Palestinian state and halts its expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

But the League, which is dominated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, calculated that it is more important to please Barack Obama than Abbas. It backed a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though it said the timing and conditions should be up to the Palestinians.

Continue reading “Ramallah analysts say if Abu Mazen caves in to U.S. pressure on direct talks, he will further undermine his credibility – by Ben Lynfield”

A Point of No Return?

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (former Foreign Minister of Egypt, and before that Ambassador to the UN in New York) said at the opening of an Arab Summit meeting in Sirte, Libya, today that “We must prepare for the possibility that the peace process will be a complete failure … This is the time to stand up to Israel. We must find alternative options, because the situation appears to have reached a turning point”.  This was reported both in Haaretz here, and in the Jerusalem Post here.

Earlier, Akiva Eldar also wrote, in Haaretz, that this is a point of no return: “The strife between Israel and the United States concerns something far bigger than the proximity talks with the Palestinians.  As far as President Barack Obama and his senior advisers are concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to blame for nothing less than damaging the standing of the U.S.in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Just as Netanyahu received his standing ovation at the AIPAC conference, Obama and his advisers were ruminating over an altogether different convention – the Arab League begins a meeting Tripoli on Saturday. For the Americans, Netanyahu’s Likudnik speech and the Shepherd Hotel project [20 apartments approved last Thursday — 100 were originally planned — in this strategic location on a lovely hillside between Sheikh Jarrah and the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on  Mount Scopus…] matched in embarrassment the scandalous announcement of construction in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit here…”

On the Shepherd Hotel project, Sima Kadmon wrote in YNet that “For two weeks now, the government has been preoccupied with efforts to mitigate the conflict that erupted in wake of the announcement of Ramat Shlomo construction during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in Israel. Netanyahu made an effort to convince the Americans that he didn’t know. He begged for a meeting with the president and paid with major diplomatic currency.  What is the probability that under such circumstances, a similar event will take place? Logically speaking, you would think that there would be a zero chance for a repeat. Yet reality is stronger than fiction and logic … For months now, the US Administration has shown great sensitivity to the Shepherd Hotel compound in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The hotel was built on the home of Mufti Sheikh Amin al-Husseini and was purchased by far right billionaire Irving Moskowitz more than 25 years ago. Moskowitz planned to build a Jewish neighborhood at the site, yet for many long years the Jerusalem City Hall and Israeli government did everything in their power in order to delay construction.  Several months ago, the US and British governments exerted their influence in order to prevent construction at the site. The Americans even summoned Israel’s ambassador in Washington and demanded explanations. Moskowitz, who planned to redesign the compound and build about 100 housing units realized it won’t be possible and decided to make do with 20 units. If you enter the Jerusalem City Hall website these days and look into the status of Moskowitz’s construction requests for the compound, you will discover that the obstacles for construction that persisted for dozens of years had been lifted.  When did it happen? That’s right, on Thursday of last week, in the midst of Bibi’s great efforts to appease the US Administration, when a meeting with President Obama was still a craving. Precisely at that time, someone in the Jerusalem City Hall decided to remove the last obstacle to the problematic construction project at the disputed site.” Sima Kadmon’s article can be read in full on YNet here.

A comment by Jason in Haifa, posted below her article, states, however, that “This project started under [the previous Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert in 2007 and it was completed and the only obstacle left was to be paid for and the computer once paid for allows it to go ahead. Also it was the week before and Peace Now leaked it”.

Here is a video — with adequate English subtitles — made by Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Director Hagit Ofran with long-time settlement and land expert Meir Margalit, an opposition member of the Jerusalem City Council.  It is sometimes confusing (Margalit seems to jump between Sheikh Jarrah just north-west of the Old City, and the City of David project which is squeezing Silwan on the south-eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem) — and does really seem to require some knowledge of the terrain, but is nonetheless very interesting and useful.

The video appears to be directed at an Israeli audience. It says, cautiously, that the City of David is a national park — not that it is a new national park implanted in a crowded Palestinian neighborhood.  However, it does a good job of explaining that a core of settlers are here, surrounded by a new “national park” and protected by a large number of private as well as public security and Israeli government forces.  Still, this video could really benefit from 1.) having a version in English, and 2.) more graphics, especially maps.   And, it gives a good idea of the reach of Jewish expansion at the expense of Palestinian areas in an arc around the eastern side of the Old City.

How can it be, for example, that a private settler organization (Elad) is allowed to conduct its own excavations from its City of David back up the hill, and under the walls of the Old City — as well as under the esplanade that Israelis call the Temple Mount [where the Second Jewish Temple and possibly/probably also the first were located before their destruction, the last time in 70 A.D.] ?  For Palestinians, this same site is known as the Haram as-Sharif, where the extremely important Al-Aqsa Mosque (one of the earliest and most sacred in Islam) and Dome of the Rock (built between 685 and 691 A.D) have been situated and in continuous use for prayer and worship for over 1,400 years (almost all of this time for Muslim prayer, though for about 80 years during the Crusades the Dome of the Rock was used as a Church, and Al-Aqsa was twice destroyed by earthquakes before being rebuilt).

Akiva Eldar’s analysis in Haaretz today also maintains that: “This year’s Arab League summit will be the scene of struggle between the allies of Iran and the allies of America, and the violation of the status quo in Al Quds – Jerusalem – has direct implications for the balance of power between the sides.  Over the last few weeks, Americans have been giving life support to the Arab Peace Initiative, born at the League’s summit in Beirut 2002 and set to be on the agenda this week … Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decisively supported General David Petraeus, the first American military man in years to describe Israel as a strategic burden on the U.S.   Gates said America’s rivals in the Middle East are abusing the standstill of the political process between Israel and the Arabs.  He stressed that he had no doubt a lack of peace in the region was influencing American interests there.  Netanyahu had been hoping to buy time until November’s Congressional elections, which coincide with the deadline he set for the settlement freeze.  But with America’s strategic interest on the line, Bibi’s favorite political game (playing the Jewish community and Congress against the White House and the State Department) isn’t working anymore. Obama decided his moderate Middle East coalition is more important than Netanyahu’s extremist one. This is a point of no return”.   Akiva Eldar’s analysis can be read in full here.

Uri Avnery wrote in his weekly article that this is “not just a ‘crisis’ anymore. It is something really momentous: a basic change in the policy of the US”.

Another report in Haaretz says that the Israeli government has issued a clarification following surprising statements made in Israel on Friday claiming that the American administration might have switched course and decided to stop objecting to settlement expansion in East Jerusalem. Now, the Israeli government has clarified that “any understanding with the U.S. did not mean American backing for Israeli construction in east Jerusalem”. As this story reported, “Netanyahu’s seven-member inner cabinet, which he consults on major policy decisions, met on Friday to discuss ‘understandings’ with the U.S. reached during the prime minister’s trip to Washington” — but a “senior official at the prime minister’s bureau said Thursday that it was unlikely the forum would reach a decision in its first meeting on the issue. ‘It will probably take two or three meetings before any kind of consensus is reached between the seven over the American demands’, the official said”. Meanwhile, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: “Obviously, in the region we are approaching kind of a holiday period … We’ll continue our contacts informally with the parties. But we’ll probably go through a period now of a week to 10 days where everyone’s assessing where we are and still trying to construct the most effective path forward”. This Haaretz report is posted here.

But, the U.S. may not be sitting still, in the meantime. McClatchy Newspaper Group is reporting that “After 14 months of frustration over the moribund Mideast peace process and nearly three weeks of open confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama shows no sign of backing down — and may be about to double his bets. The administration is said to be preparing a major peace initiative that would be Obama’s most direct involvement in the conflict to date, and would go far beyond the tentative, indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks that were torpedoed earlier in the month. ‘It is crystallizing that we have to do something now. That this can’t go on this way’, said one of the officials who, like the others, wouldn’t speak for the record because of the issue’s sensitivity … Because of the U.S. political calendar, Obama has limited time to press Israel before it becomes a major domestic political issue during midterm elections … Now, trust between the two sides seems to be at a very low ebb. ‘There’s not a great deal of trust that he believes deeply in the two-state solution’, a former senior U.S. official in touch with the White House said of Netanyahu. ‘There’s a belief that he’s a reluctant peacemaker here’. The Obama administration is said to believe that Netanyahu has more control over Jewish settlements than he admits, and political flexibility to dump his right-wing partners and form a government with the moderate Kadima party if he chose … Netanyahu turned aside a U.S. demand last year for a comprehensive settlement freeze, offering a 10-month moratorium that excluded East Jerusalem … Senior U.S. officials are said to debate whether the unveiling of the 1,600 new apartments at Ramat Shlomo was a deliberate attempt by Netanyahu to avoid peace negotiations, or merely symptomatic of his tenuous control over his own government … Either conclusion bodes poorly for Obama’s attempts at diplomacy. At the White House, however, distrust of Netanyahu ran deep. Maps were prepared, showing how Israel had all but encircled Jerusalem’s Old City with Jewish settlements and even religious theme parks — ‘facts on the ground’ that would preclude a peace deal … By all accounts, the White House meetings went badly, both in substance and tone, as the Obama team pressed Netanyahu to make concessions on Jewish settlements and other issues. Netanyahu balked at some of the requests, which the administration hasn’t made public.
Now, the ball is in his court”. This report from Washington can be read in full here.

A point of no return? A turning point?

Arab politics

1.) Why is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas planning to arrive “late” for the Arab Summit in Libya?

2.) The Jerusalem Post reported, citing an AFP story, that “Israeli-Palestinian tensions are affecting US national security interests in the region, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday. ‘The lack of progress toward Middle East peace is clearly an issue that’s exploited by our adversaries in the region’ and does affect US national security interests in the region’, Gates was cited by AFP as saying”. This JPost story can be viewed here.

4.) Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post says that “Late Friday evening, Israel Radio reported that Netanyahu holds to the view that Israel must not change its policy in Jerusalem, despite the fact that this was the main point of contentions between Israel and the United States … Earlier, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office threw a complete blackout on the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, and also gave very sketchy information about the commitments that the US is demanding of Israel as a precursor to starting the proximity talks with the Palestinians. According to officials, the US wants these commitments by Saturday so it can take them to the Arab League meeting in Libya and receive that organization’s backing for starting proximity talks …
However the circle of seven top ministers, known collectively as the ‘Septet’, did not come to any conclusions following the five-hour discussion and will probably only announce the government’s position after the Passover Seder which occurs Monday evening [and lasts … until April 5]. This post is published here.

6.) An LA Times blog reports that “Arab foreign ministers gathered in the Libyan city of Surt [Sirte] in preparation for Saturday’s Arab League summit announced their plan to more than triple aid to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem from $150 million to $500 million in response to the construction of new Israeli settlements, Secretary General Amr Moussa told reporters Friday. The request for more aid was made by the Palestinian Authority, which would presumably be responsible for distributing the money. Other proposals included urging the United Nations to condemn Jerusalem settlement construction, a travel ban on Israeli politicians, stronger protections for the Al Aqsa Mosque and other holy sites and official documentation of Palestinian land confiscated by Israel, Al Jazeera reported. Some delegates even suggested taking the ‘land for peace’ proposal endorsed by Arab states in 2002 off the table. here.

Palestinians: "It's only four months…"

Palestinian officials are saying that they were under too much pressure from the Europeans and the Arabs to resist any longer accepting an American proposal to undertake “indirect” or “proximity” talks with Israel after more than a year of no negotiations. “It’s only for four months”, Palestinian officials say, apologetically, with a shrug of the shoulders. “Then we’ll know whether Israel is serious or not…”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) took the proposal to a meeting of Arab League Foreign Ministers last week, which on Wednesday gave him the go-ahead, the green light, the fig leaf he felt he needed.

Reports vary: the Arab League Foreign Ministers reportedly said the UN Security Council would be engaged straight away if there are no concrete results after four months. There are other reports that the U.S. has made, or will be asked to make, a pledge that it will not exercise its veto power in the UN Security Council to protect Israel from the consequences of a failure in the negotiations. There are reports that a definition of borders will — or will not be — the first item of business.

But, the Palestinian leadership’s previous position that it will not engage in talks as long as Israel does not halt its settlement activities throughout the West Bank (including East Jerusalem).

Despite the Arab League Foreign Ministers endorsement of Abbas’ proposition to participate in renewed negotiations, Ma’an News Agency reported, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit — who was “present” during the Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting in Cairo on Wednesday — said a day later that “he believed Palestinians should not enter into direct talks with Israel in light of the current controversy over heritage sites. Speaking from Cairo after a meeting of the Follow-up Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative, Abul Gheit said delegates shared his sentiments, a stark contrast to the announcement of the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting, which gave its blessing for talks to continue. ‘The committee will not remain silent over all what is going on … The Arab Follow up Committee will not make any concessions and will not support direct negotiations unless Israel changes its positions’, he said.” It is difficult to reconcile these statements. The Ma’an report is posted here.

Many Palestinians — individually and as members of political movements ranging from Hamas to Fatah, as well as the various smaller “factions” of the Palestinian left — are scornful of the decision to re-engage in talks.

Yet, the resumption of talks appears almost inevitable — unless something extremely dramatic happens. There are very persistent rumors — it is a daily topic of conversation — about an impending “third intifada”. Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass, who lives in Ramallah, wrote Friday that “Judging from articles written by both Israelis and Palestinians, the next intifada is already in the air. They are predicting it is on the way and the most punctilious know it will be ‘popular’. Bil’in and Na’alin [n.b. where there have been regular Friday demonstrations against The Wall which are almost always dispersed with bursts of tear gas] are perceived as its models. Some Palestinians are guessing it will first erupt in Jerusalem”.

Hass also wrote that “the supreme challenge facing the initiators of the next uprising – if it indeed erupts – is to prevent its descent into a so-called armed struggle, which inevitably will expropriate the street and the struggle from the public. The militarization of the second intifada led to grave disasters – personal, collective and geo-political. Off the record, many admit this but a number of factors are still preventing frank, public debate. For years the theory of armed struggle, until liberation and independence are achieved, has been held sacred. Many people feel ill at ease to criticize the militarization publicly, as though they would thereby dishonor the dead, the wounded, the prisoners and their families … The truth is that the suicide attacks on civilians gave Israel a golden opportunity to implement plans, which had always existed, to confiscate more and more Palestinian lands, using the excuse of ‘security’. The use of weapons did not stop the colonialist expansion of the Jewish settlements. On the contrary. And the use of weapons only accelerated a process Israel began in 1991: disconnecting the Gaza Strip from the West Bank … many of the young men played with weapons in order to obtain social and economic status in the movement and the PA. When Fatah people dare today to renounce the sanctity of the armed struggle, their collective reputation as corrupt automatically detracts from peoples’ faith in their arguments, even if those arguments are logical. Another challenge facing the initiators of the popular uprising, if it indeed erupts in the near future, is actually a challenge that Israeli society must face. Will it once again adopt the deceptive narrative of the IDF and the politicians (‘the Palestinians attacked us’, ‘terror’) and allow them, as in the two previous intifadas, to suppress the uprising using disproportionate and deadly means? These are the deadly means that, in the Palestinians’ eyes, make Israeli rule look like a series of bloody acts from 1948 to this day”. Amira Hass’ article can be read in full here.

Meanwhile — and unless the much-discussed third intifada, or something equally dramatic, happens — one Palestinian woman in the news business commented that there is now an attitude of “do what you have to do”; on the other hand, she said, “people don’t give a damn any more”.

The Fatah Central Committee (all wearing grey business suits with dress shirts + ties) met in the Muqata’a Presidential Headquarters in Ramallah on Saturday to discuss the impending U.S.-mediated talks . After the meeting, road traffic was held up for nearly ten minutes by Presidential security guards wearing olive green camouflague jumpsuits and burgundy red berets — holding big black automatic weapons with their fingers on the triggers — before an 11-car convoy (including two black vans each bristling with a crown of antennas that Palestinians say can temporarily disrupt local communications) escorting a black sedan carrying President Abbas careened around the corner as he travelled from the Muqata’a to his heavily-guarded home in small villa in northern Ramallah on Saturday afternoon.

The Executive Committee of the overall Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O. — which groups Fatah and the Palestinian “factions” other than Hamas) will meet to discuss the proposal on Sunday.

U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell arrived back in the region on Saturday night, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is due to arrive on Sunday.

Haaretz’s veteran correspondent Akiva Eldar reported on Friday that “The United States government has committed to playing a role in indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and promised that if the talks were to fail, the U.S. will assign blame and take action, according to a document sent by the U.S. to the Palestinian Authority, which Haaretz obtained on Friday. The U.S. government sent the document to the Palestinians responding to their inquires regarding the U.S. initiative to launch indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. ‘We expect both parties to act seriously and in good faith. If one side, in our judgment, is not living up to our expectations, we will make our concerns clear and we will act accordingly to overcome that obstacle’, it was written. This commitment by the U.S. was a determining factor in the Palestinians’ and the Arab League’s decision to agree to the U.S. proposal on indirect talks. The document also reveals that U.S. involvement will include ‘sharing messages between the parties and offering our own ideas and bridging proposals’. The U.S. also emphasized that their main concern is establishing a Palestinian state. ‘Our core remains a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian State with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967’, the document read. Regarding the settlements, the U.S. noted its continued commitment to the road map, which dictates that Israel must freeze all construction in the settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001″. This Akiva Eldar report can be view in full here.

But, the Jerusalem Post reported that “The indirect ‘proximity talks’ between Israel and the Palestinians likely to begin next week will not pick up where the discussions between then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broke off in late 2008, The Jerusalem Post has learned. This issue has been a key sticking point for months, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejecting the Palestinian demand that the talks begin from the point where they ended with Olmert. Olmert offered the Palestinians nearly 94 percent of the West Bank, a land swap to compensate for most of the rest, an arrangement on Jerusalem, and the return of a small number of refugees into Israel as a ‘humanitarian gesture’ … The Post has also learned that the proximity talks will not immediately focus primarily on borders, another Palestinian demand, with Israel saying there can be no credible discussion of borders without first knowing what security arrangements will be in place”. This JPost report is published here.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian family of six from the West Bank village of Silwad was killed when their car crashed into an Israeli military Hummer on Friday near Bir Zeit, north of Ramallah, and their funerals took place on Saturday. The Jerusalem Post reported here, that “Apparently, the Palestinian car had a flat tire, causing it to divert from its course”. It is not clear what interaction there had been between the forces in the Hummer and the Palestinian family car, but the Jerusalem Post said Israeli police were investigating. But, very upset local Palestinian witnesses said on the Palestinian Television nightly news Friday saying that it was clear that Israel did not want peace.

Also on Friday, a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy remained in critical condition after being shot in the head by Israeli Defense Forces using rubber bullets at a demonstration in Nabi Salah area near Ramallah.

Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram ash-Sharif mosque esplanade [which Israelis call the Temple Mount, because it is believed that the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temple were situated somewhere on that site] in the Old City of East Jerusalem ended very badly after a sermon critical of the Israeli government decision a week earlier to name the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as “heritage” sites. Israeli Border Police stormed the mosque esplanade after, they said, Muslim worshippers began throwing rocks that hit Jewish worshippers standing at the Western Wall Plaza just below Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli forces used tear gas and stun grenades were used on the mosque esplanade and in various nearby areas of East Jerusalem as disturbances spread. Though the Israeli police have denied that rubber bullets were used, the Jerusalem Post reported that “Ron Krumer, a spokesman for Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, confirmed an Arab woman was wounded in the head by a rubber bullet [n.b. – it is not clear where in East Jerusalem this woman was when injured] and hospitalized in serious condition”. The Jerusalem Post also reported that “Having restored calm by use of stun grenades, and following helpful intervention by other Muslim worshipers to defuse the clash, police eventually withdrew in coordination with the Waqf to allow older worshipers to leave the Temple Mount. Eight of the injured policemen were hospitalized in light condition. Five suspects were arrested during the riots”. The Qalandia “border crossing”/checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah was tense, but open, late on Friday afternoon. There were no Palestinian traffic police visible as Israeli soldiers were sitting in khaki-colored hummers surrounded by a number of large rocks that had clearly been thrown at them not long earlier. Two soldiers were outside the vehicles, escorting a young teenager they were bringing back under detention. Between 50 to 100 meters further inside, a group of at least 60 even younger boys were on both sides of the street, watching intently to see what the Israeli forces were doing. Some of these younger boys were sitting on a low concrete divider in the middle of the road, and there were large rocks placed on the divider next to them. Adults were going about their business as if nothing special was going on.

Earlier in the week, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barakat announced a radical new proposal to develop municipal planning — for the first time time since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in June 1967 — for various neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that would mean some Palestinian (and some Israeli) housing would be legalized, while other Palestinian housing would be demolished. The new proposal was presented as an attempt to offer some nominal equality between the two communities, but there was a great lack of clarity about how it would work out in actual practice. Immediately after the proposal was announced, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the Jerusalem mayor to carry out further consultations with the local communities before proceeding.

Twenty-four hours later, renewed disturbances were reported in northern East Jerusalem areas of Shuafat refugee camp and Al-Isawiya, and reports linked these clashes to the post-Friday prayer events.

The UN Security Council on Friday “called for restraint by all sides and an early return to the negotiating table, while voicing their concern at the current ‘tense’ situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem”, according to a report by the UN News Centre [the UN uses British English spelling]. The report added that the current UNSC President for the month of March, Ambassador Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet of Gabon, told journalists after closed-door Council deliberations that the 15 members ‘urged all sides to show restraint and avoid provocative acts’, and ‘stressed that peaceful dialogue was the only way forward and looked forward to an early resumption of negotiations’.” And, the report added, “The situation in the Middle East was also among the issues discussed yesterday during a meeting between Mr. Issoze-Ngondet, in his capacity as Council President, and General Assembly President Ali Treki [of Libya]”. This UN News Centre story is posted here.

Haaretz later reported that “The permanent Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, welcomed the council statement, adding that the U.S. decision not to block it ‘is a signal that the United States wants this effort to succeed’ and Israel to restrain itself. A U.S. official, however, told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the American delegation had not agreed with the statement and said it was adopted due to what the official described as ‘procedural confusion’.”  This Haaretz report is posted here.

In a regular monthly briefing to the UN Security Council on 18 February, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe (of the U.S.) said: “We call for the resumption of talks on final status issues, implementation of Road Map commitments, continued efforts to improve economic and security conditions, and a different and more positive approach to Gaza.” Pascoe was speaking on behalf of UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon — and his statements usually represent an important organizational statement that is pre-negotiated with major powers, and certainly, in this case, with the Quartet of Middle East negotiators who include the UN, the U.S., Russia, and the European Union. According to a UN summary of his statement, Pascoe told the UNSC that “Israel had indicated its readiness to accept indirect talks proposed by George Mitchell, Special Envoy of the United States to the Middle East, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been engaged in intensive consultations and had sought clarifications. ‘The Secretary-General hopes that President Abbas will move forward on the basis of that practical proposal so that serious talks can begin … He notes Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s stated commitment to a two-State solution, although confusion as to the Government’s intentions arises from statements by various Government officials’.” The UN statement said that Pascoe had urged “Israel to extend its current 10?month freeze on the building of settlements in the West Bank to a comprehensive freeze there and in East Jerusalem”. Pascoe stated that “The status of Jerusalem is to be determined through negotiations, and we believe that a way must be found through negotiations for Jerusalem to emerge as the capital of two States”. He noted, however, “that, since his last briefing on 27 January, the Israeli authorities had identified violations of restraint orders in at least 29 settlements, while the Defence Ministry had stated that it was issuing demolition and stop-work orders against violators”. On the other hand, Pascoe said, “The fact that Israel had not evicted Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem or demolished those homes was a ‘positive development which we hope will continue’, and he called for “the reopening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, in accordance with Road Map obligations”. This is a point that European Union leaders have recently emphasized.

Pascoe also told the UNSC that Israel’s ongoing closure of crossing points into Gaza is “counterproductive”, and “causing unacceptable hardship for the civilian population, more than half of whom are children”.  A UN press release describing his statement is posted here.

There has been recent high-level mention (by American as well as French officials) about the possibility of finally taking up a long-standing Russian proposal to hold a conference to push for progress in Israeli-Palestinian and/or Israeli-Arab negotiations — and news reports have suggested that such a conference may be convened in Moscow on or around March 19th.

That is, if nothing dramatic happens in the meantime…

Israel says it will press offensive in Gaza until all goals reached

Pressure — from some quarters, at least — is rising to halt the IDF offensive in Gaza, but the Israeli Cabinet decided to day to press on with its attacks on targets in Gaza until all goals are reached.

This is despite — or because of — the dramatically-expanded range, over the past few days, of rocket and missile attacks coming from Gaza onto Israel, which have now reached Ashdod, a major port on Israel’s coast 23 miles north of Gaza, and Beersheva, 28 miles east in the Negev desert. Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility is not far from Beersheva.

Israeli warplanes and naval ships continued attacks, but the military allowed some 22 Gazans wounded in those attacks to enter Israel through the otherwise-closed Erez border crossing for medical treatment in Israel. Israel also made arrangements to allow some humanitarian goods to enter Gaza.

On the other hand, the Israeli government is not interested in a cease-fire, at least not yet. And the cabinet authorized the call-up of 2,500 more army reservists, in addition to the 6,500 already summoned, in preparation for a possible ground invasion. That now makes 9,000 reservists who have been told to report to a garrison on the Gaza border — and military experts in Israel have said that 10,000 reservists would be needed, if a decision is made to go in by land.

Haaretz is reporting that Prime Minister Olmert told his cabinet that “We did not begin the Gaza operation in order to finish it with rocket fire continuing like it did before” Olmert said.

The Jerusalem Post reported that 65 percent of its readers polled want a ground operation to go in and “clean up” Gaza.

Last night, the EU called for a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire, and the Quartet (the US, Russian Federation, European Union,and the United Nations) called for an immediate halt to all hostilities.

But the U.S. is still taking a publicly more aloof position — saying that Hamas must be the first to stop its fire.

President George W. Bush called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the phone on Wednesday to talk about ways to “end the violence” in the Mideast, according to presidential spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who “would not say directly whether Bush had discussed with Olmert the idea of a cease-fire”, according to one news report. Jendroe also said that “Hamas hopefully realizes that they’re in a situation that is not helpful to their own people .. [and] That situation will not lead to a viable Palestinian state.”

This kind of activity shows that the major player, Israel, is playing for time.

If the intention is to completely oust Hamas — and re-install the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority that cut off relations with Hamas in June 2007 after a rout of Fatah security forces — then the planners are most probably aiming to get this done before 9 January, when Hamas, and many other Palestinians, believe the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will legally be over.

AP reported that “Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said the Gaza government was functioning and had met over the past few days. ‘What our people want is clear: an immediate stop to all kinds of aggression, the end of the siege by all means, the opening of all border crossings, and international guarantees that the occupation will not renew this terrorist war again’, Nunu said in a statement”. This report can be read in full here .

Meanwhile, Foreign Ministers of the Arab League met in Cairo on Wednesday, and AP reported from the scene that “Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Wednesday blamed Palestinian divisions for Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, a reflection of U.S.-allied Arab governments’ anger at the Hamas militant group. Saud al-Faisal made the comments at the opening of an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Egyptian capital, convened to try to put together a joint response by the deeply divided Arab nations to the Israeli offensive, which has killed more than 370 Palestinians and sparked outrage across the Middle East … ‘This terrible massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people were united behind one leadership speaking in one voice … We are telling our Palestinian brothers that your Arab nation cannot extend a real helping hand if you don’t extend your own hands to each other with love,” he said.

AP said it was clear that his words were directed at Hamas, but it’s not so clear — though Saudi Arabia is closely consulting with Palestinian President Abbas.

AP added, in the same news report, that “Egypt this week turned to Turkey — a regional rival of Iran with close ties to Israel — to put together an initiative to end the Gaza fighting. The Arab League foreign ministers Wednesday were reviewing the plan. The initiative calls for an immediate, unconditional halt to the Israeli assault, followed by a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, and international monitors to guarantee the truce and the opening of border crossings into Gaza, which Israel has kept largely sealed since 2007”. This report can be read in full
here
.

There doesn’t seem to be very much of anything in this plan for either Israel or Hamas.

It’s not even clear if Hamas were to put its last card on the table — captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — that would be enough, at this point, to stop the Israeli military machine.

Meanwhile, the human suffering in Gaza is simply almost unimaginable –and may be about to get worse. Hospitals are dealing with an unprecedented number of casualties — without enough medical supplies, without much electricity, and without rest for medical staff who have worked around the clock since “Operation Cast Lead” (or “Operation Solid Lead”) began at mid-day on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — which normally works on the basis of confidentiality with states parties to the Geneva Conventions, and for whom the issuance of a public statement is a major criticism — said today that “We are concerned over the mounting number of civilians wounded or killed as a result of the hostilities”, according to Pierre Wettach, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Israel and the occupied territories. “Parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and fighters and between civilian objects and military objectives. Whether launching an attack or positioning military personnel and material, all those involved in the hostilities must take every possible precaution to minimize the potential harm to civilians and civilian objects. International Humanitarian Law also requires that medical staff and facilities be protected from attack and that the sick and wounded be evacuated and treated, no matter who they are”.

Wettach added that “We have raised these issues with the Israeli authorities and are continuing to do so. We have also drawn their attention to the importance of ensuring full respect for the principle of proportionality. In our contacts with Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, we have repeatedly pointed out their responsibilities under international humanitarian law” — the ICRC is also concerned about the civilian deaths and injuries in Israel resulting from repeated rocket attacks launched from inside the Gaza Strip.

Amnesty International issued a statement today saying that “Israeli forces must bear in mind that there are no ‘safe’ places in Gaza for civilians to seek shelter. They know how densely populated the Jabalia Refugee Camp is and that the homes are mostly light structures with flimsy asbestos roofs and not able to withstand the effect of strikes”.

Amnesty also said that “risk to civilians is increased by artillery attacks on Gaza launched from Israeli gunboats off the coast. In the past, such artillery fire into densely populated areas has been
inaccurate, causing Israel to desist from such firing after attacks caused high numbers of civilian casualties”.

And the international human rights organization said that “Humanitarian workers, journalists and human rights monitors are urgently needed to assess needs, report violations and publicise the reality of the
situation on the ground.”

A panel of three judges on Israel’s Supreme Court today did not issue an expected ruling on the main plea by the Foreign Press Association (FPA) to lift the ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza to report on the situation there. Instead, the judges gave the Israeli Government until 10 a.m. on Thursday to answer if they would permit limited “pools” of journalists to enter to make reports on behalf of all other members of the FPA.

The FPA report to its members on the developments in court today says: “The Supreme Court has given the government until 10 a.m. tomorrow to allow limited access to the Gaza Strip for the international media. The Supreme Court is asking the government to allow in pools of up to 12 journalists each time the crossing (EREZ only) is open for humanitarian reasons. he Supreme Court ruling does not apply to any situation other than the current fighitng and our petition for free access under ordinary circumstances remains pending. Although we do not support the concept of pool coverage in Gaza, the Court left us no other choice, ruling that it could be pools or nothing. We have instructed the lawers to proceed in a manner that would avoid turning this pool arrangement into a precedent. Court Background from Board member Enderliln who was present in Court: ‘We are winning a principle. The judges reminded the State’s lawyer of a previous judgement the FPA won about the necessity of allowing a pool entering the “dangerous” area. At the time, the IDF gave in and opened up to all journalists. The State’s lawyers said they do not know this judgment… The judges told them they should have done their homework.”

On Thursday morning, however, wintry rainy weather is expected to clear up, and the cloud cover to lift — providing better conditions for the long-feared ground invasion.

There are reports just coming in from Palestinian sources who say they have encountered Israeli soldiers on the ground in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. But Israel television’s Channel Two reported tonight that a ground invasion will not happen before Friday morning — but this could be disinformation of the sort that preceeded the beginning of the Israeli attacks, by air, last Saturday.