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At least 229 die as Israel hammers Gaza
The Australian Online
Article from: Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 28, 2008

ISRAEL hammered Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight, killing at least 229 people in retaliation for rocket fire, in one of the bloodiest days of the decades-long Middle East conflict. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said "Operation Cast Lead'' against the Islamist movement, which has also left some 700 wounded, will continue "as long as necessary. The battle will be long and difficult, but the time has come to act and to fight,'' he said. Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called in Damascus for a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel and promised new suicide attacks.

Following mid-morning bombings, in which some 60 warplanes struck more than 50 targets in just a few minutes, Hamas fired more than 70 rockets and mortars into Israel killing one person and injuring four, according to a new Israeli army toll. Israeli air strikes continued sporadically throughout the day and into the night. Two Hamas members were killed in an Israeli helicopter raid in eastern Gaza City while they were preparing to fire more rockets into Israel, a medical source said. Two other Palestinians were wounded in that late attack, as Israeli helicopters also targeted four metals factories in the city where rockets are believed to be stored or built.

"We will not stand down and we will not cave in even if (the Israelis) should eradicate the Gaza Strip or kill thousands of us,'' Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas government, said in a defiant radio address. Meshaal called for a "military intifada against the enemy'' and said "resistance will continue through suicide missions.'' Hamas has not carried out a suicide attack in Israel since January 2005. He said that for there to be any talks with the people of Gaza, "the blockade must be lifted and the crossings (from Israel) opened... notably that in Rafah,'' which leads to Egypt. Israel imposed a blockade after Hamas seized power in Gaza last year, but let in dozens of truckloads of humanitarian aid on Friday.

The White House said only Hamas could end the cycle of violence by putting a stop to the rocket fire on Israel. "These people are nothing but thugs, and so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas,'' spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at George W. Bush's Texas ranch, where the president is preparing to spend the new year. "If Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, then Israel would not have a need for strikes in Gaza,'' Johndroe said. "What we've got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel. The United States holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire; we want the ceasefire restored. We're concerned about the humanitarian situation and want all parties concerned to work to make sure the people of Gaza get the humanitarian assistance they need,'' said Johndroe. He was referring to a six-month truce mediated by Egypt, which ended on December 19, with Hamas refusing to renew it.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged Israel will do its utmost to avert a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. "The people in Gaza do not deserve to suffer because of the killers and murderers of the terrorist organisation,'' he said, referring to Hamas. He insisted that Israel had only hit Hamas targets, including command structures and rocket-manufacturing installations.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, as did the European Union, Russia, Britain and France, while several Middle Eastern states and the Arab League slammed Israel. The Arab League will hold an extraordinary summit in Doha on January 2 to discuss the crisis, diplomats in Cairo said.

In Gaza, thick clouds of smoke billowed into the sky. Mangled, bloodied and often charred corpses littered the pavement around Hamas security compounds, and frantic relatives flooded hospitals. Medics said civilians had been hit, but the majority of the victims appeared to be members of Hamas, branded a terror group by Israel and the West. Hamas said the strikes destroyed its security structures across Gaza and killed three senior officials - the Gaza police chief, the police commander for central Gaza and the head of the group's bodyguard unit. Dr Moawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services, put the toll at 225 dead and 700 injured, 140 of them seriously. Later, a medical source added three more to the toll with witnesses saying that two of them died in the east of Gaza City while they were preparing to fire rockets towards Israel. The bombing came after days of spiralling violence, with militants firing rockets and Israel vowing a fiery response.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who brokered the six-month truce, slammed the "Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip'' and blamed "Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded.'' The bombardment set off angry demonstrations in Israel's Arab towns and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as protests in countries around the region.

It came less than two months ahead of Israeli elections on February 10. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of the governing Kadima party and one of the front-runners for the premier's chair, said that "today there is no other option than a military operation.'' Violence in and around Gaza has flared since the truce ended, and it escalated dramatically on Wednesday.


Israeli ploys lulled Gaza leaders
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich,Jerusalem
Monday, December 29, 2008

A SEEMINGLY offhand report on Israel Radio that the cabinet would meet yesterday (Sunday) to plan a military operation in the Gaza Strip was a feint, which set up Hamas for Israel's surprise strike. The radio report, on Friday, was a final move in six months of planning and deception leading up to the strikes. Suggestions in the report that Israel had yet to finish attack plans persuaded the Hamas leadership it had at least until yesterday before taking precautions against an air raid that it had every reason to believe was coming.

After a five-hour cabinet meeting on Friday, Hamas had mocked the government "that holds meetings to discuss decisions to take to stop the rockets" while militants "bombard with dozens of mortars and rockets". A large group of Hamas security staff completing an officers' training course were outdoors at their base just before noon on Saturday, standing in formation at a graduation ceremony, when the planes struck, killing and wounding many of them. Scores of targets across Gaza were hit simultaneously by the first Israeli wave, catching Hamas staff in facilities that were supposed to be have been evacuated before the fighting started.

Adding to the deception was a surprise announcement by Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday that, despite the tension and war-edge atmosphere, trucks carrying humanitarian supplies would be permitted to enter the Strip. The supplies crossed into Gaza on Friday, encouraging the notion that a military strike was not imminent. Finally, Israel's Southern Command was sent on leave on Friday and, further adding to the element of surprise, the operation was launched on the Jewish Sabbath. "Hamas was watching and listening," said Haaretz newspaper, adding that the rulers of Gaza tracked the army's movements and took the bait. "Hamas evacuated all its headquarters personnel after the cabinet meeting on Wednesday," one defence official said. "But the organisation sent its people back in when they heard that everything was put on hold until Sunday."

Israel thus achieved tactical surprise, despite having let it be known for more than a week that the cabinet had decided to launch a military attack to stop rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel. The deception and attacks were part of the Israel Defence Force's Operation Cast Lead, Haaretz reported. The newspaper said the disinformation effort had increased the death toll. It quoted sources as saying Mr Barak had ordered the military to start planning while Israel was starting negotiations with Hamas for a ceasefire. The plot involved mapping out Hamas's security infrastructure such as bases, weapon silos, training camps and the homes of senior officials. The blueprint for the attack was handed to the Defence Minister for final approval on November 19 after dozens of rockets and mortar rounds exploded in Israel.

On December 18, Mr Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to approve the operation. They decided to put the attacks on hold to see whether Hamas would hold its fire after the ceasefire expired. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had been informed about planning for attack. The cabinet voted last Wednesday in favour of the strike, allowing Mr Olmert, Mr Barak and Ms Livni to decide the exact timing. Ms Livni went to Cairo to inform Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of the attacks.

Same Day
First test for Obama and Clinton
The Australian
The Sunday Times, Tony Allen-Mills, New York

AFTER a comparative lull in the Middle East conflict, the Israeli offensive over the weekend has effectively ended months of painstaking diplomatic efforts to revive a long-stalled negotiating process. It has also presented US president-elect Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his incoming secretary of state, with their first serious foreign policy test. The collapse this month of a Gaza ceasefire treaty brokered by Egypt last June gives Mr Obama an early glimpse of the numbing stalemate that has defied the best negotiating efforts of half a dozen of his predecessors.

Although Mr Obama and his new national security team will not take office until January 20, governments across the Middle East will be scrutinising his every response for indications of his approach to the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Obama was asleep in a rented beachfront mansion in Hawaii when Israel launched its attack. On Friday afternoon he had slipped away from the press corps monitoring his Christmas holiday and taken his two young daughters to see a sea lion show at a local park. He awoke yesterday to the grim reality that awaits him as president. A family holiday was suddenly transformed into a Middle East policy discussion as Mr Obama received telephoned security briefings and discussed his response with senior aides.

For Mr Obama and Senator Clinton the attacks will force an urgent appraisal of the Middle East question after months of verbal sparring earlier in the year over which of the two Democrats was best equipped to handle a Middle East crisis. On several occasions during the primaries, Senator Clinton questioned Mr Obama's foreign policy experience; one campaign advertisement suggested that she was better equipped to respond to "the 3am call". Mr Obama's decision to appoint his former rival as secretary of state sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East, as Israelis and Palestinians tried to decipher the candidates' often conflicting policy statements for clues as to how the new administration intended to proceed.

Although Mr Obama has been portrayed as anti-war and pro-diplomacy and is seen by most Arab governments as a vast improvement on President George W. Bush, he made clear as a candidate that he was committed to Israel's defence. During a visit during the northern summer to the Israeli outpost of Sderot, which the Palestinians inside Gaza routinely pepper with rocket fire, Mr Obama sympathised with the Israeli authorities attempting to control the attacks. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," he said at the time. "And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." Mr Obama's vice-president-elect, Joe Biden, has long been a prominent supporter of Israel, and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is a leading Jewish congressman.

Yet Senator Clinton's emergence as the successor to Condoleezza Rice has injected uncertainty. Senator Clinton is widely viewed in the region as likely to pursue the unfinished peacemaking business of her husband. After eight years of painful and highly personal diplomacy, Bill Clinton was betrayed in 2000 by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who at the last minute refused to sign an arduously negotiated peace deal.

Israel faces elections in February, with no obvious outcome. A weak coalition Government dependent on extremist votes for survival will be in no position to make serious concessions. For now, Mr Obama is reduced, like much of the rest of the world, to watching images of Palestinian destruction play out on his television screen.

Also, Same Day
Israel may follow up on strikes with ground war
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

ISRAEL was early today massing troops at its border with the Gaza Strip after warning that its heaviest attack on the Hamas-ruled territory, which killed at least 280 Palestinians, was part of a rolling operation that could last weeks and include ground forces. As the Israeli army began concentrating troops near the Strip and reservists were called up, a missile hit near Ashdod, Israel's largest southern city, the deepest hit inside Israel yet. Dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers were early today massing at different locations along the Gaza-Israel border in apparent preparation for a ground assault into the Hamas-ruled territory.

The prospect of a ground offensive in Gaza presents US president-elect Barack Obama and incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton with their first serious foreign policy test when they take office on January 20. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday the operation was intended to put an end to seven years of "insufferable" rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and "indiscriminate terror".

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Operation Cast Lead -- which has wounded more than 600 in two days -- would continue for as long as necessary. "The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) will expand and deepen its operations in Gaza as much as necessary," he said. "We are ready for anything. If it's necessary to deploy ground forces to defend our citizens, we will do so."

Acting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard blamed Hamas for starting the violence with an "act of aggression", after failing to renew its much-violated six-month ceasefire, which expired on December 19. While urging both sides to cease any further action, Ms Gillard stopped short of criticising the heavy Israeli response to the opening round of rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas fighters. "We are saying in relation to this, Hamas had engaged in an act of aggression; Israel has responded," she said.

The Palestinians' moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, a fierce rival of Hamas, urged the Islamic militant group to renew a truce with Israel that collapsed two weeks ago. Many of Israel's Western allies urged restraint on both sides, though the US blamed Hamas for the fighting. In New York, the UN Security Council expressed serious concern about the escalating situation in Gaza and called on Israel and the Palestinians to immediately halt all violence and military activities. The UN's most powerful body called for a new ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and for opening border crossings into Gaza to enable humanitarian supplies to reach the territory. Mr Barak allowed limited supplies of fuel and medicine into Gaza last night.

Thousands of rockets and mortar shells have been fired into Israeli towns bordering Gaza in recent years. Israel, which has launched limited retaliatory strikes in the past, warned that restraint would give way to massive retaliation if the attacks did not stop. Palestinian militants responded on Saturday by firing scores of rockets at towns in southern Israel, killing one man and wounding three. Israeli officials said thousands of rockets remained in Hamas's arsenal, and cautioned those living within range of the Strip to stay close to sheltered space this week.

Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus, called on Palestinians in the West Bank to launch a third intifada against Israel to relieve pressure on Gaza. The first intifada was launched in 1987 and petered out after the Oslo peace agreements six years later. The second broke out in out in 2000 and was suppressed after years of suicide bombings. Hearing the call, several dozen Palestinians last night were throwing stones at Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron. Israeli troops responded with teargas. Across the West Bank, Palestinians observed a commercial strike.

The faces of Hamas leaders on television reflected shock at the ferocity of the Israeli attack. Meshaal's deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, acknowledged Hamas had been taken by surprise. However, Hamas spokesmen said the organisation would not raise the white flag.

Israeli officials said accurate intelligence and precision strikes meant fewer than 15 of the dead were civilians, despite many targets being in built-up parts of the densely populated strip. A first wave of 60 planes struck without warning about 11.30am on Saturday (8.30pm AEDT), hitting 50 targets in less than four minutes. Among the fatalities was Gaza police chief Tawfiq Jaber. A second wave soon afterwards included attack helicopters. They hit Hamas offices, training camps, arms depots and rocket workshops. Follow-up raids mostly targeted rocket teams attempting to fire into Israel. More than 170 attacks were carried out on Saturday. A further 20 targets were hit yesterday, including a mosque that Israel said was a terrorist base. A senior government official said that Israel had mobilised 6500 reservists. "The cabinet has approved the drafting of thousands of reserve soldiers," he said. "These include combat units and home-front units."


World leaders clamour for urgent halt to Gaza hostilities
The Australian
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NEW YORK: The international community piled pressure on Israel to halt its offensive in the Gaza Strip yesterday as raids on Hamas entered their third day.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his voice to the 15-member Security Council's call for an immediate end to the hostilities that have left more than 310 dead and approaching 1000 wounded, and urged Israel to allow humanitarian aid into the poverty-stricken territory. "He deplores that violence is continuing today, and he strongly urges once again an immediate stop to all acts of violence," his spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said. The Security Council earlier issued a non-binding statement calling for "an immediate halt to all violence" and urged the parties "to stop immediately all military activities".

As Israeli air strikes continued, and with tanks massed on the border for a possible land offensive, China called for a halt to the operation. "The Chinese side is shocked and seriously concerned about the current military operations in Gaza that have caused a large number of deaths and injuries," Vice-Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement. He called on Israel and Hamas to work towards peace, saying both sides "need to resolve differences through dialogue".

There were demonstrations in cities around the world on Sunday protesting at the violence. The largest, with about 8000 people, was in the southern Egyptian city of Assiut, while rallies in the capital, Cairo, and the port city of Alexandria drew about 4000 each, a security official said. Thousands protested in major cities across Turkey, Syria and Jordan, which is the only Arab country besides Egypt to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah urged Egyptians to take to the streets in their "millions" to force their Government to open the country's border with Gaza and help save Palestinians.

In Europe, British police made 10 arrests as a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in London turned violent. Danish police arrested a man on the fringes of a march in Copenhagen after he threw a petrol bomb at officers. Protest rallies were also held in Paris and Madrid. Earlier on Sunday, British time, Foreign Secretary David Miliband called for an "urgent ceasefire and immediate halt to all violence". A call to "urgently halt" the military action also came from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni. Japan, a leading donor to the Middle East peace process, expressed its deep concern, Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone urging both sides to immediately stop the use of force to avoid a further escalation.

The top diplomats in Italy and Spain, Franco Frattini and Miguel Angel Moratinos, also spoke by telephone with Ms Livni, who said Israel would try "to limit the suffering of the people of Gaza," the Italian foreign ministry said. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the European Union presidency, expressed his grave concerns to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by telephone. The Pope urged everyone involved in the "tragic situation in the Middle East" to strive for humanity and wisdom.

Canada also appealed for a halt to violence, while mostly Muslim Malaysia accused Israel of using "disproportionate" force and Pakistan condemned the air attacks as "counterproductive". A top aide to Barack Obama said the US president-elect was committed to achieving peace in the Middle East. David Axelrod told CBS Mr Obama would work closely with the Israelis and Palestinians to "promote the cause of peace", recognising the special relationship between the US and Israel. By contrast, the outgoing Bush administration blamed Hamas "thugs" for provoking the offensive by firing rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Same Day
Hamas threatens to kill Israeli leaders
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

HAMAS last night threatened to assassinate Israeli leaders as the bombing of the Gaza Strip entered a third day and armoured forces were deployed along the borders of the Palestinian territory. As Israel mobilised 6700 reservists in preparation for the next stage of combat, senior Hamas official Fatah Hamad warned that the militant group would assassinate Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other leaders if the attacks continued. Mr Barak countered that Israeli was in "all-out war against Hamas", as the army declared the border area a closed military zone - a move that in the past has often been followed by ground operations in Gaza. At least 51 civilians were among the victims so far, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said last night. Palestinian medics said several children had been killed in the latest air raids, with the death toll in Gaza rising to 312. An Israeli Arab was killed and eight others were wounded yesterday when a missile fired from Gaza landed near a construction site in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. Earlier, Hamas unleashed the longest-range rockets yet fired into Israel, striking near the port city of Ashdod, 40km inside the Jewish state.

Mr Hamad also threatened senior officials of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and "those in the Arab world who have conspired against us", an apparent reference to Egyptian leaders. Hamas has called for suicide bombers to attack inside Israel. Planes used bunker buster bombs to destroy 40 tunnels through which supplies were smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Israeli officials said. Most of the targets hit were in Gaza City, including homes of Hamas leaders and the office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. A house next to Mr Haniya's home was destroyed but the Prime Minister had gone into hiding, as had other Hamas leaders. Planes hit a security compound that included a Hamas prison, allowing dozens of prisoners to flee through the shattered walls. Also hit were two laboratory buildings at the Islamic University said by Israel to have been used to prepare explosives and fuel for rockets. Gaza's nine hospitals were reported to be overwhelmed as the number of wounded approached 1000.

Israel announced that it would permit the entry into Gaza of 100 trucks carrying medicines, food and other supplies contributed by Turkey, Jordan and international organisations. Hundreds of Gaza residents breached the border fence with Egypt to escape from the Strip. Yuval Diskin, the head of domestic spy agency Shin Bet, told the Israeli cabinet early yesterday that Hamas was still in shock from the scale of the onslaught but was preparing attacks it hoped would change the picture. The cabinet approval for the mobilisation of 6700 reservists suggested any initial ground thrusts would be limited in scope. Ms Livni said Israel had no intention of reoccupying the Gaza Strip, from which it pulled out three years ago. Officials said the Foreign Ministry was already working on an exit strategy that would not involve stationing an international force in Gaza similar to that deployed in southern Lebanon after the war against Hezbollah.


Extract - Israelis consider ground offensive in Gaza
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RUNNING out of Hamas targets to hit from the air after hundreds of sorties in four days of bombing, the Israeli leadership met last night to consider a ground offensive, reduced airstrikes and even a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed participants to refrain from publicly raising the possibility of a ceasefire and to focus their remarks on Operation Cast Lead, reports indicated the subject had been raised in both camps.

"As long as the (rocket) fire continues, the Israeli operation will be expanded," Mr Olmert said as the Palestinian death toll reached 360, the army said it was ready to enter Gaza and the navy joined the offensive for the first time. However, according to an Arabic-language paper published in London, al-Khayat, Egypt has drawn up a ceasefire proposal that Turkey has agreed to put forward in an attempt to mediate, as aircraft continued to hit Hamas targets, including the homes of military commanders. The Israel Defence Forces and Foreign Ministry had drawn up exit strategies but these were not necessarily options for the near term, the reports said.

The army was ready to launch a ground operation in Gaza if ordered to do so, spokeswoman Avital Liebovitz said last night. "The ground forces are ready. Everyone is in place on the ground," Major Liebovitz said. "The option (of a ground operation) exists. It is possible that we will apply it, but for the moment we are only hitting from the air and the sea."

An Israeli woman was killed by a rocket in the seaside city of Ashkelon and a regular soldier was killed by a mortar shell that hit an army base close to the Gaza Strip yesterday. An Israeli Arab workman was killed at a building site in Ashkelon on Monday. The fatalities brought to four the number of Israelis killed since the fighting started on Saturday. More than 1000 Palestinians and a score of Israelis have been wounded.

Among more than 30 targets hit by Israeli planes yesterday was a tunnel, packed with explosives, being dug under the border fence into Israel. Three Palestinians were killed inside the tunnel. A senior Islamic Jihad operative, Ziad Abu Tir, was killed outside his home, indicating that Israeli attacks were not confined to Hamas targets. Two scientists, presumably from the Islamic University, who had led in the development of rockets, were killed in the raids. A truck carrying long-range Katyusha rockets was hit, setting off secondary explosions.


Arabs turn against 'megalomaniac' Hamas
The Australian
ANALYSIS: Abraham Rabinovich
Thursday January 01, 2009

THE bitter Israel-Hamas conflict has touched off Arab-Arab conflicts almost as bitter. Responsibility for the war in Gaza, and for the Palestinian fatalities there, was placed squarely on Hamas by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "We called the leaders of Hamas and told them, 'Please, do not end the truce'," he said. Hamas ended a six-month truce with Israel two weeks before the Israeli attack.

An Abbas aide, Nimr Hammad, termed the rocket fire into Israel reckless. "The one responsible for the massacre is Hamas," he said. "Hamas should not have given the Israelis a pretext." Bassam Abu-Sumayyah, a columnist for the daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, accused Hamas of megalomania and said it had acted without even a little bit of political and security sense. It had behaved like a superpower. "They thought they have a number of missiles and can therefore prevail in a war of such size," he wrote. A columnist for the PA daily Al-Ayyam, Abdallah Awwad, said that Hamas had made a major mistake in trying to be both a government operating in the open and a resistance organisation that operated underground. "We are paying the price of stupidity and the maniacal love of being rulers," he said.

Beyond intra-Palestinian disputes, the eruption in Gaza has widened the rift between Egypt, supported by other moderate Arab states, and the Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alignment. Cairo has long feared the radical influence of Hamas on its own Islamist parties. It regards Hamas as a proxy for Iran, which it sees attempting to wrest Muslim leadership in the Middle East from Egypt, even though Iran is not an Arab country. However, Egypt attempted to broker a reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority that would permit a leadership acceptable to all Palestinians to emerge in new elections. Hamas derailed the proposal, to Egypt's fury. Egypt, in turn, refused to open the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to Gaza residents, even during the Israeli attack when many Gazans were clamouring to get out. This infuriated Hamas and caused anti-Egyptian protests in much of the Arab world.

For Egypt, the most annoying criticism came from Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the formidable leader of the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Addressing Egyptian citizens, particularly army officers, Nasrallah called on them to protest at Cairo's lack of response to the Israeli attack. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said of Nasrallah's speech: "(He) practically declared war on us." As for Nasrallah's appeal to Egyptian officers, Mr Gheit said of Egypt's army: "They will also protect Egypt against people like you."


A Palestinian man in Gaza City looks over the site of a destroyed Hamas compound.
Picture: AP
Hamas appeals for ceasefire in Gaza
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem, Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, January 02, 2009

HAMAS Prime Minister Ismail Haniya called for a ceasefire yesterday after Israel refused to halt the fighting and reiterated its determination to send ground forces into the Gaza Strip. Israel's Channel Two said the army had been ordered to prepare to move today as rain, which had turned the terrain to mud, began to clear. Israel's vow came as Hamas yesterday lost one of its most senior leaders, Nizar Rayan, who was killed in an Israeli air strike, medics said last night.

Mr Haniya, who has been in hiding with the rest of the Hamas leadership in Gaza since the Israeli air attack began on Saturday, said in a taped television address that Hamas was prepared "to talk about all issues and seriously" if Israel halted its attacks and lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip. His sober tone was a sharp departure from the taunts voiced by previous Hamas spokesmen, who warned Israeli troops that "the children of Gaza will be collecting their body parts" if they entered the Strip. "What is happening in Gaza is not normal aggression," said Mr Haniya. "It is a real war, a war without morals, with neither principles nor laws. It is a war of elimination against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. We tell the Palestinian people that you will win, inevitably."

Earlier, the Israeli security cabinet rejected a French proposal for a 48-hour "humanitarian" ceasefire that would be used to mediate a long-term ceasefire. "We didn't initiate the Gaza operation to end it while Israeli towns are still under fire, as they were before the operation," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. He added that the proposal would be reconsidered when the time was right and only if international monitors took responsibility for enforcing it. As for humanitarian considerations, he said Israel was permitting an unlimited amount of humanitarian supplies to be trucked into the Gaza Strip daily.

Israel is believed to be planning a brief incursion aimed at weakening Hamas's incentive to resort to violence in the future. Mr Olmert said last night Israel was not interested in a long war in Gaza. Israeli analysts believe that the destruction of vehicles of Hamas authority is aimed at undermining Hamas's legitimacy, even though its overthrow is not one of Israel's stated goals in the operation.

The number of Palestinian fatalities hovered about 400, one quarter of them civilian, as Israel's air attacks entered their sixth day, with close to 2000 wounded. Warplanes hit 25 targets yesterday, including a large mosque in Gaza City said by Israel to have been a Hamas command post and a storage centre for long-range missiles. Also attacked were weapons depots, rocket launching sites and government offices previously hit. A tunnel used to pipe in fuel from Egypt was hit, setting off a huge explosion.

The head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin, said that senior Hamas officials had taken shelter in Gaza's hospitals where they had "disguised themselves as doctors and (male) nurses". Other officials, he said, were sheltering in mosques, which had become weapons storehouses and command centres. He said Hamas was trying to repair destroyed tunnels to evacuate the leadership across the Egyptian border. Israeli planes carried out about 500 sorties in the first five days of fighting.With the initial target bank exhausted, aircraft had entered "hunter's mode", officials said, hitting targets as intelligence became available.

Despite these attacks, the Hamas leadership was intact and so too, apparently, was much of the fighting arm of Hamas, consisting of 15,000 men. Hamas fired about 70 rockets into Israel over the past 36 hours, one of which caused extensive damage to an empty high school in Beersheba. Two rockets fell without causing damage or injuries near the desert city of Beersheba some 40km from the border -- the deepest that militant rockets have reached inside Israel. Schools within range of Gaza have been closed since the clashes began. Hamas has fired more than 400 rockets since Saturday, killing four people.


Israeli tanks roll into Gaza
Headlines, The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday January 05, 2009

ISRAEL vowed to further escalate the military campaign against the militant group Hamas after launching a ground invasion in Gaza yesterday. Israel would intensify its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip "as much as necessary", Defence Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday. "This operation won't be easy and won't be simple," he said. "The operation will be expanded and intensified as much as necessary. War is not a picnic." Hamas vowed that Gaza would become "a welcome cemetery" for Israeli troops and pledged "a black destiny" as retribution.

Five civilians had been killed since Israeli troops, tanks and special forces soldiers launched the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip through four points. Troops were reported to be operating last night just 3km south of Gaza City, the hub of the densely populated enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt. Israeli troops had control of the major roads leading into Gaza's main population centre as they pushed deeper into the Hamas stronghold. Israeli infantry kitted with night-vision goggles trotted alongside tank columns into the Hamas stronghold before battles raged in open areas east and north of Jabaliya and east of Gaza City. Dozens of Palestinian families fled as infantry took control of the roads. Cars and trucks filled with women and children headed south from the area of the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim, about 3km south of Gaza City.

At the same time, Israel ordered troops in the north of the country, along the border with Lebanon, to be on alert against Hezbollah in case the Iranian-backed militant group launched attacks. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah urged Hamas to inflict huge losses on Israel. Mr Barak, who is running Israel's military operation, referred to Hezbollah's presence to the north of Israel during a televised address. "While we are fighting in Gaza we keep an open eye on the sensitive situation to the north," he said. "We are ready and alert to face any unwanted developments in that area."

The ground invasion was an escalation of Israel's eight-day aerial bombing of Gaza. Israel said it was targeting facilities and infrastructure that support Hamas's firing of rockets up to 40km into Israel. The UN estimates that 421 Palestinians have been killed in the bombing. Four Israelis have been killed in the past two weeks by Hamas rockets. At least 30 Israeli soldiers and an unknown number of Hamas fighters have been wounded. An Israeli officer and a soldier "were severely wounded", the army said. "Twenty-eight other soldiers were injured." Medics said five Hamas fighters and at least 20 Palestinian civilians had been killed since the ground invasion began.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the escalation would have "grave consequences" for the Middle East. The UN Security Council held an emergency session yesterday but was unable to agree on a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire after the US argued a return to the situation that existed before the ground invasion was unacceptable. Shortly before the invasion, Israel hit a mosque during evening prayers in northern Gaza, killing up to 16 people and injuring scores of others. Hamas showed that despite eight days of bombardment it still had weapons, firing a rocket into the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon.

Demonstrations against the attacks took place around the world but Israel insisted the attacks were in self-defence after two weeks of rocket attacks by Hamas. Israeli officials said the aim of the operation was to destroy facilities that enabled Hamas to launch the rockets that in recent weeks had hit towns and cities such as Ashkelon, Sderot, Ashdod and Beersheba. Israeli military spokesman Major Avital Leibovich said that up to a million Israelis were living in fear of rockets from Gaza. Palestinian presidential adviser Sabri Saidam said Israel's invasion would only serve to intensify hatred in the region. French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Jerusalem today to broker a ceasefire.

Another battle raged across the airwaves, with Israel breaking into Hamas television and radio broadcasts. "Hamas leadership, your time is finished," said one message posted on al-Aqsa television. The movement's radio output was interrupted by a man's voice speaking in Hebrew-accented Arabic: "Hamas leaders are hiding in the tunnels and are leaving you on the front line of Israel's defence forces," he said. "Hamas leaders are lying to you and they are hiding in hospitals. Launching rockets puts civilians in danger."


Israel ready to slice through heart of Gaza
Headlines, The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent. Additional reporting AFP
Tuesday January 06, 2009

ISRAELI infantry units yesterday were encircling Gaza City in preparation for moving into the city, where they are likely to confront hundreds of Hamas fighters positioned in the Palestinian enclave's capital. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israeli troops had partially surrounded Gaza City, following reports that the army was operating north, south and east of the city. "We have hit Hamas hard, but we have not yet reached all the goals that we have set for ourselves, and the operation continues," he said.

Tens of thousands of reservists, called up under emergency orders, were deployed to the Lebanese border to fend off any attack by Hezbollah militants and others prepared to mobilise in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As soldiers massed on the edges of Gaza City, Israel was suspected of screening its assault with white phosphorus - a substance that causes terrible burns but is not illegal when used as a smokescreen. Israel used white phosphorus in Lebanon in 2006, and British and US troops have used it in Iraq.

As Israeli troops reached the deepest penetration of Gaza since the Jewish state's withdrawal in 2005, Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar appeared to break from hiding last night to urge his fighters to "crush" Israeli troops and hinted at greater efforts to attack Israeli civilians. Speaking on Hamas's al-Aqsa television, the orchestrator of the group's brutal explusion of Fatah from Gaza in 2007 said Israelis "legitimised the killing of their people all over the world when they killed our people". It was not clear whether the speech was taped. Hamas leaders have been in hiding since Israel's assault on Gaza began on December 27.

As many as 74 Palestinians are believed to have been killed in Israel's three-day ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, taking the campaign's toll to 517, 87 of them children. Five children were killed yesterday in two Israeli strikes around Gaza City. Three children were killed by a tank shell in Zeitun and two were killed in Shati by a naval strike. Up to 2000 Palestinians are believed to have been wounded and a 22-year-old Israeli soldier was killed. The UN refugee agency branded the situation as "a catastrophe". Palestinian medical groups released the figures as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the ground offensive posed more risk to Israeli soldiers than had the nine-day air campaign.

About 100 Israeli tanks entered Gaza on Saturday night, local time, with the stated aim of targeting launch facilities being used by Hamas to fire rockets into southern Israel. Hamas continued to fire rockets yesterday, with as many as 40 landing in Israel. Israel's military strategy appeared to be to seal off sections of Gaza to prevent weapons being moved from south to north to be used against Israeli soldiers. Palestinian sources said Israeli artillery and gunboats had shelled the two main north-south roads at points in the centre and the south of the enclave.

Turkey, one of Israel's few Muslim allies, yesterday condemned the Jewish state's air and ground offensive as "unacceptable" and accused it of using disproportionate force. "Unfortunately, Israel has created a humanitarian crisis by using disproportionate force," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised remarks. In Washington, US Vice-President Dick Cheney said Israel's enemy was not the Palestinians, but Hamas. "You've got a UN member state being attacked by a terrorist organisation," Mr Cheney said. "And to go after that terrorist organisation, I think, they probably decided that an air campaign wasn't enough, that they had to go in on the ground if they were going to take down the sites from which the rockets have been launched against Israel."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to arrive in Cairo today to try to broker a 48-hour ceasefire to enable urgent humanitarian aid. Hamas also said it would send a delegation. But Israeli President Shimon Peres strongly rejected calls for a ceasefire, blaming Hamas rockets for the operation. "No country on earth would take 80, 90 missiles a day," he said. Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa said: "We can't understand how such an offensive can be considered defensive." Responding to international condemnation of the civilian death toll, army spokesman Avi Benayahu said: "Our target is the terrorists of Hamas, not the citizens of Gaza." But he said any civilians who gave Hamas fighters refuge would be treated as the Islamic militants themselves.


Hamas terror: every Jewish child now a target
Headlines, The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent. Additional reporting AFP
Wednesday January 07, 2009

HAMAS leader Mahmoud Zahar has warned that Jewish children are now legitimate targets, in a bloodcurdling precursor to tanks rolling into the Islamic militant stronghold of Khan Younis yesterday. "They have legitimised the murder of their own children by killing the children of Palestine," said Zahar, in a video recorded from his hiding place in Syria and broadcast on Hamas's al-Aqsa television. "They have legitimised the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people." The warning, delivered late on Monday, suggested a new round of suicide bombings inside and even outside Israel to avenge the deaths of at least 159 Palestinian children, killed since the campaign to take out Hamas rocket teams began with airstrikes on December 27. Zahar's threat of retaliation, in his first comments since the Israeli campaign began 11 days ago, came before tanks, firing cannons and machineguns and supported by helicopter gunships, moved into the city in the southern Gaza Strip.

The pre-dawn operation to open a third front came a day after troops and Hamas militants fought pitched battles in Gaza City, in the north - where four Israelis were killed by tankfire in two friendly-fire cases, and on the edges of the Deir al-Balah and Bureij refugee camps in the centre. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said last night that the strip had been cut in half and that Gaza City had been surrounded. The death toll on both sides rose as diplomatic initiatives failed to make progress on halting the fighting in the enclave of 1.5million people.

The incursion into Khan Younis's eastern district of Abassan al-Kabira was the first time Israeli ground forces had entered the city since they poured into the territory on Saturday night. The armoured force was met in Khan Younis by return fire from Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters. Artillery and airstrikes hit two UN schools in Khan Younis and Gaza City, one crowded with refugees, killing at least five people - bringing the Palestinian death toll since the campaign began to more than 580, of which the UN says a quarter are civilians. In other pre-dawn clashes yesterday, fighting raged in the north around Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya, near Gaza City. In the eastern Gaza City district of Zeitun, a three-storey house belonging to a Hamas member with 30 people inside was destroyed by an airstrike. At least 12 people - seven of them children - were killed. They were all related.

Despite the relentless air, ground and naval assault on their stronghold launched to stop rockets, a defiant Hamas continued to fire into Israel. One projectile travelled 45km, the deepest yet inside the Jewish state, lightly wounding a baby. Three others landed elsewhere without causing injuries.

Israel yesterday rejected separate ceasefire initiatives from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the European Union, saying the 11-day offensive in Gaza was an act of self-defence that would end only when Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel. Before a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr Sarkozy said: "We in Europe want a ceasefire as quickly as possible, and that everyone understands that time is running against peace. The guns must fall silent." Mr Olmert told Mr Sarkozy: "The results of the operation must be ... that Hamas must not only stop firing but must no longer be able to fire. We cannot accept a compromise that will allow Hamas to fire in two months against Israeli towns." President Shimon Peres was more blunt to the EU delegation. "Europe must open its eyes," he said. "We are not in the business of public relations or improving our image. We are fighting against terror and we have every right to defend our citizens."

The heaviest fighting so far occurred as Israeli troops clashed with Hamas fighters in the Shejaiya district of Gaza City. Palestinian medical officials say at least 110 people have died since the ground assault began, while Israel says it has killed 130 Hamas fighters. The Israeli army said three soldiers from the elite Golani Brigade were killed and 24 wounded in northern Gaza when their position was accidentally hit by Israeli tank fire. The brigade commander, Colonel Avi Peled, was lightly injured. The army said a paratroop officer was killed in northern Gaza, indicating he may have been killed by friendly fire. "The details of the event are still being investigated; however, it is suspected that a tank shell was mistakenly fired at the force," it said in a statement. The death brought to five the number of Israeli soldiers killed since the army poured ground troops into the Hamas stronghold on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said people were dying because ambulances could not reach them amid the fighting. A foreign doctor at a Gaza hospital, Mads Gilbert, challenged Israel's claim that Hamas fighters were being targeted, saying that by his count 801 children had been injured or killed. Dr Gilbert told the BBC last night: "The numbers are contradictory to everything Israel says. This is the worst man-made disaster for the time I can think (of)."

Mr Sarkozy had a blunt message for both sides: Israel could not allow the humanitarian situation to go on and Hamas's firing of rockets on civilians in southern Israel was "unforgiveable".


Israel opens up corridor for relief
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday January 08, 2009

ISRAEL last night opened a humanitarian corridor into the Gaza Strip - a key point of an Egyptian plan to end the 12-day-old campaign that has killed at least 680 Palestinians. Israel also started a three-hour daily pause of its bombardment to allow the passage of food, fuel and medical supplies to the Palestinian enclave of 1.5 million people.

"In order to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to adopt a proposal by the security establishment to open a humanitarian corridor into the Gaza Strip to assist the population," said a statement from the Prime Minister's office. "This involves opening up geographical areas for limited periods of time during which the population will be able to receive the aid and stock up." Hamas said in response it would suspend firing rockets into Israel while the Jewish state suspended its bombardment. "I do not expect that any rockets will be launched during the three-hour period," said the Damascus-based Mussa Abu Marzuk, a member of Hamas's politburo.

The concession came as Israel's security cabinet last night considered the ceasefire plan proposed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Israel has come under increasing pressure to halt its ground war, particularly after the worst attack yet of its campaign -- the shelling late on Tuesday of a UN-run school in Jabaliya refugee camp in which 43 people were killed. Mr Mubarak said yesterday his plan would guarantee Israel security on its border with Gaza and guarantee Gazans an end to Israel's 18-month blockade.

However the cabinet meeting was also considering a plan from Defence Minister Ehud Barak to expand Operation Cast Lead. According to a senior defence official, cabinet was to consider whether to expand the operation's ground offensive, launched on Saturday night, deeper into Palestinian towns. "Barak has instructed the army to prepare for the third stage of the operation," the official told Agence France-Presse. "We can't see the operation stopping in the coming days. We still have to study the details of the Egyptian proposal." An official from Mr Sarkozy's office said under the Egyptian plan, Israeli troops could leave Gaza within eight days. "There could be an agreement on sealing the borders within four or five days (and) that could lead to a withdrawal within eight days," said the official. Mr Olmert had said earlier that Israel would consider the proposal. But during a visit to Sderot, one of the Israeli cities under fire from Hamas rockets, he said: "Let the terrorist acts stop, halt the arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza, and the Israeli combat will stop."

Mr Sarkozy, who spent 48 hours travelling across the Middle East to broker a ceasefire, said he had spoken to Mr Olmert about the proposal: "I have good hope that the reaction of Israeli authorities will allow us to imagine an end to the operation ... that is not only a ceasefire but a withdrawal." Announcing the bombing pause, which began at 1pm (10pm AEDT), army spokeswoman Avital Liebovich warned that the military would respond if fired on and if rockets were launched from Gaza. Another military spokesman, Peter Lerner, said there would be a recess in land operations during the day around Gaza City to allow in supplies and fuel.

If the temporary and limited ceasefire enacted last night can be seen as stage one of the Egyptian plan, stage two involves talks aimed at securing the borders. Israel has insisted this is a pre-condition to prevent Hamas using a vast tunnel system on the Gaza border with Egypt to bring in weapons. In return, border crossings would be opened and Israel would be required to lift its blockade. The most difficult element of the plan from the Palestinian side would be to allow police from the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, to control Gaza border crossings with Israel and Egypt.


Extract: Year of living dangerously
The Australian
Inquirer: John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday January 10, 2009

While for people around the world the war is an international news story, for people living in Israel - Jewish and Palestinian - it is a raw reality. One Australian who has been living in Israel for many years tells Inquirer: "Everyone knows if we bungle this war we're in deep trouble. If we can't knock off an organisation of 12,000 to 15,000 fighters (Hamas) there will be a lot of others in this neighbourhood who smell blood. This is meant to resurrect our military reputation."

A Palestinian mother from my son's school - which is a mixture of Palestinian, Israeli and foreign students - gave a very different perspective. She had been very polite and mild-mannered as we waited for school to finish until I asked her about the war in Gaza. You could see the passion in her face: Israel was engaging in a "massacre, there's no other word for it". Her response to whether Palestinians would respond with violence inside Israel met with a similar answer to that of many Israelis: that unlike previous years, Israel was now much better at managing threats to its own security. The wall between Israel and the West Bank - or fence, as Israelis prefer to call it - allows Israel to seal off Palestinian towns on the West Bank during times of crisis.

Certainly, at least for now, Israel itself seems safer than in previous years. In 2002, for example, there were 62 suicide bombings in Israel, resulting in 260 deaths. That's not to say Israelis are not nervous. The Australian man who said Israel's neighbours might "smell blood" has told his adult sons who often hitchhike around Israel to stop for the time being. He has also told friends visiting from Australia not to visit Bethlehem, on the West Bank, normally a relatively safe tourist site.

Part of the complex layers that make up Israel is that even as Israelis and Palestinians are at war in Gaza they go about their daily lives in harmony in Jerusalem. On Thursday, as I walked in the Old City, I saw two Israeli policemen, heavily armed, laughing in conversation with a young Palestinian woman. Earlier in the week I watched an elderly Palestinian couple walk through a crowd of ultra-orthodox Jews to go into Bikur Holim hospital. In the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Tor, I watched Palestinian and Jewish children playing in the same street: not together, but in the same street. But despite this co-existence, when it comes to Israeli soldiers engaging in a conflict it seems to seep through the soul of the populace.

Early in the week, as Israeli troops and tanks spread out through Gaza, a group of Israeli women gathered in a hairdressing salon at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. As they sat having their hair done, some of them pulled out psalm books and began reciting prayers for the soldiers. Again, the contradiction of Israel: one of these women scoffed as she watched news reports on TV of civilian casualties from Gaza. Yet that same woman pays for a taxi for her Palestinian cleaners to get home to the West Bank twice a week when many Israelis are happy to let their workers go by bus.

Israel will never win a popularity contest in this neighbourhood. But the war in Gaza has highlighted the growing gap between moderates in the Middle East - such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan who have decided to co-exist and do deals with Israel - and those committed to its destruction. The leader of the latter camp is Iran, with Hezbollah and Hamas enthusiastic supporters. Others, such as Syria, are in an intriguing position: while their rhetoric is anti-Israel, they are acting differently in private. Until the hostilities between Israel and Gaza broke out two weeks ago, Syria was quietly negotiating a possible diplomatic recognition of Israel in Ankara, Turkey. Some in Israel believe the country's very existence is at stake. They believe this year is one of the most important in Israel's history; while the year starts with a war against Hamas it may end, they believe, with a war of sorts (air strikes) against Iran as they try to prevent Iran developing nuclear capacity.

This is Israel's year of living dangerously. After a relative two-year calm since the end of the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel is beginning a year that could determine its future. When I told an Israeli official a few months ago that I was coming to Israel to work, he quipped: "Are you going to get there before the war starts ?" He meant war with Iran, not Hamas. It was before Obama was elected US president, and he went on to say: "Israelis are watching every word Obama says about Israel. Have you noticed all the European leaders going to Israel at the moment ' They don't want Israel to feel isolated. An isolated Israel is a dangerous Israel." The official's argument was that if Israelis sensed Obama would not support, or at least turn a blind eye to, an air strike by Israel against Iran's nuclear research facilities then they would act alone. Obama quelled some concerns inside Israel by appointing Rahm Emanuel, a strong supporter of Israel, as his chief of staff.

Israelis may be watching every word Obama utters about the Middle East, but the world was not watching everything that occurred this week in Gaza because Israel banned foreign journalists from entering. This made it the "war without witnesses", the media unable to verify claims and counter-claims. Israel appears to have made this decision - again - following the Lebanon debacle of 2006. In that war, foreign media reported words and pictures of the bombing of Beirut, including countless images of civilians being killed. This time it's an odd mix - pictures of injured children being carried by their parents - along with words defending their actions by Israeli defence officials.

One of those officials is Sydneysider Benjamin Rutland, "head of the European and Pacific Desk, IDF Spokesperson". Rutland explains to Inquirer that the IDF has a list of Hamas targets inside Gaza and "'we are taking them out one by one". The UN school that was hit, killing up to 40 people, is not one of those, he says. He says the soldiers in the field spotted mortar fire coming at them and returned fire, not knowing exactly what they were firing at. He says of the 40 or so killed, some were Hamas fighters. "Unfortunately there were civilians hit as well," he says. Inquirer asks Rutland how, given that Israel has banned foreign media from entering Gaza, can people be sure the army is telling the truth ' "We do tell the truth when we put things out," he says.

Clearly, the hostilities between Israel and Hamas are so deep that alone they cannot resolve their longer-term problems. This week it took Egypt and France to provide some hope of a short-term solution. After January 20, that mantle moves to Obama to find that which has eluded so many of his predecessors: peace in the Middle East.


Extract - Israel pushes on as cabinet meets
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Monday January 12, 2009

As the Palestinian death toll reached 850, the Israeli cabinet met to consider implementing the offensive's final stage, which would involve deploying thousands of Israeli reservists and an assault on Gaza City, which is likely to lead to even heavier civilian casualties. The cabinet was meeting for the third time on the issue after the first two meetings failed to reach a decision. It is understood Defence Minister Ehud Barak is opposed to an escalation of the offensive, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are in favour.

Speaking at the start of last night's meeting, Mr Olmert said Israel was nearing achievement of the goals it had set, but would continue the offensive against Hamas for the time being. "This is a time to translate our achievements into the goals we have set," he said. "Israel is approaching these goals, but more patience and determination are required in order to reach these goals in a manner that will change the security reality in the south in a way that will allow our citizens to live in security and stability over a long period of time. We must not let what has been achieved through unprecedented national effort slip through our fingers."

Hamas fired about 13 rockets into Israel yesterday, injuring several people in Ashkelon, and Israel made about 60 air strikes. After Israel and Hamas both rejected on Friday a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, Israeli spokesman Ygal Palmer said yesterday an intensification of the offensive against Gaza was "definitely an option". Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's leader in exile, said on Saturday the Islamic group would not negotiate a ceasefire while Gaza was still under attack. "I can say with full confidence that on the military level the enemy has totally failed -- it has not achieved anything. Has it stopped the rockets ?" Meshaal said on a video broadcast from Damascus.

Demonstrations against the Israeli attacks were held around the world at the weekend, including in Washington, London, Paris and Canberra. And for the first time a demonstration was held in Israel as anti-war protesters marched in Tel Aviv holding up pictures of dead children that they said had not been shown in the Jewish state. Medical sources said that of the 854 Palestinians killed, 270 were children, 93 women and 12 paramedics. On the Israeli side, 13 people have died since the offensive began on December 27 -- 10 soldiers and three civilians.

On the diplomatic front, talks continued in Egypt as Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas met Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Hamas officials and Israeli officials separately met Egyptian officials to discuss a ceasefire. UN aid resumed yesterday after it was suspended three days ago when a UN driver was killed in an Israeli attack.

Same Day

Impasse at talks in Cairo on peace

CAIRO: Talks in Cairo to end the fighting in the Gaza Strip showed little promise over the weekend as the parties to the conflict continued to disagree on most aspects of a ceasefire, particularly the role of international monitors or forces. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for international troops to supervise a ceasefire in Gaza and "protect the Palestinians", a move rejected by the militant Hamas group that controls the strip. Israel also wants international monitors to ensure compliance with any deal, but Egypt has refused to base them on its soil.

Even as Hamas negotiators arrived in Cairo, their Damascus-based leader, Khaled Mashaal, said Israel's attacks had ended any hope for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. He did, however, leave the door open for negotiations to end the current incursion, which Israel launched to end Hamas rocket attacks. In the past 15 days, more than 800 Palestinians have died. While Mr Abbas and Hamas representatives were in Cairo at the same time, there were no plans for the bitter rivals to meet, highlighting the complications that lay ahead. Meanwhile, Mr Abbas urged Israel and Hamas to accept an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, which he said would end hostilities. "If any party does not accept it (the truce), regrettably it will be the one bearing the responsibility," he said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit appeared to back Mr Abbas's position on troops but made it clear that any forces involved in monitoring the agreement would have to be on Palestinian soil, rather than Egyptian territory. He said Egypt was ready to accept only technical and training assistance, something the US had already provided and the Germans had offered. "I assure you there will not be any kind of international troops in Egyptian Sinai," Mr Aboul Gheit said. International troops would, in all likelihood, be more comfortable monitoring the border and any ceasefire from Egyptian territory rather than from inside Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas and other Syrian-based Palestinian militant groups rejected on Saturday any deployment of international observers or troops in Gaza on the grounds that they would infringe on their sovereignty and interfere with the resistance to Israel. "Any international force will be considered an occupying force," said Mr Mashaal, who nonetheless pronounced himself as "open" to any new peace proposals.

The status of Gaza's borders with Egypt and Israel has been a sticking point in the ceasefire discussions. Hamas has said it will not accept any deal that does not include the full opening of Gaza's border crossings and a role for Hamas in monitoring the borders. Israel and Egypt have kept the borders sealed since Hamas militants forcibly seized control of the territory 18 months ago. Egypt said it would accept only Mr Abbas, along with the European monitors, being in control of the borders.

Meanwhile, the Egyptians said they were urging Israel to accept an immediate ceasefire proposal, followed by a longer-term ceasefire and negotiations on the underlying problems. "We can't say to anybody, cease the fire, and the fire will cease," said Mr Aboul Gheit, listing the many unresolved factors, including Israel's attacks and Hamas's rockets. "These are matters that need discussions."


Troops mass as Gaza endgame looms
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday January 13, 2009

ISRAELI soldiers fought fierce battles with Palestinian militants on the outskirts of Gaza City last night as the Jewish state deployed thousands of reservist soldiers into the war zone and declared it was near its "endgame". Reservist troops reinforced Israel's standing army in an intensification that appeared to mark the third and final stage of the offensive - a full-scale assault on what they said were Hamas strongholds in Gaza City. A third stage of the conflict would see Israeli forces fight Hamas and its allies in sustained urban combat. Israeli troops in tanks took positions on the outskirts of Gaza City, a densely populated centre with 400,000 people, where street fighting is expected to take a heavy toll on both sides.

The Israeli Government did not use the term "stage three" - possibly because some in its war cabinet have been opposed to stage three, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have been the strongest advocates of a stage-three push, to destroy Hamas infrastructure and stop rockets aimed at Israel. Tens of thousands of reservists were mobilised at the beginning of the conflict and have been undergoing intensive training. Israeli military commanders are now pressing political leaders to send them into Gaza.

Major General Yoav Galant, commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, argued that the Israeli military had a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to end the threat from Hamas. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said: "We are approaching the endgame." He said that after the offensive Hamas would "think twice, three times, before firing rockets at civilians". But Hamas yesterday continued rocket fire into Israel, on the weekend hitting an empty children's playground in Ashdod and injuring several people when another rocket hit Beersheba.

Israeli troops, backed by helicopter gunships, yesterday engaged in some of the fiercest fighting yet as they pushed to the outskirts of Gaza City and were confronted by Hamas fighters with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Israel said its forces attacked a mosque used by Hamas to store weapons and shelter militants. Thick smoke could be seen rising from neighbourhoods in the south and east of the city as terrified inhabitants huddled inside their homes. Israeli army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said soldiers were "advancing more into urban areas" in Gaza City. A Hamas leader, Ismail Radwan, said Hamas would not consider any ceasefire until Israel withdrew from Gaza.

US president-elect Barack Obama broke his silence on the Gaza issue at the weekend, saying it was heartbreaking to see civilians on both sides killed or injured. He said that on taking office on January 20 he would form a Middle East team.

At day 17 of Israel's offensive, the toll on the Palestinian side was estimated at 879 deaths and about 3000 injured. Palestinian medics estimate about 250 of the dead are children. On the Israeli side, 13 have died, including 10 soldiers, and several civilians have been injured by Hamas rockets. Mr Olmert said yesterday: "We must not, at the last moment, throw away what has been achieved by an unprecedented national effort. "Israel is nearing the goals it set for itself."

Also, Same Day
Hamas leadership at odds over Gaza truce
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

THE battered Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip is seeking an immediate ceasefire with Israel and is demanding that the organisation's political leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, make the necessary concessions, according to Israeli television reports. The Arab affairs analyst on Channel Two, Ehud Ya'ari, said last night the dispute amounted to a virtual split between the two Hamas centres of power. Sharp differences emerged at a meeting in Cairo yesterday between two Hamas representatives from Gaza and a delegation from Mr Meshaal in Damascus.

They had come to hear an Egyptian ceasefire proposal outlined by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Mr Suleiman said the agreement included the creation of a mechanism to prevent further smuggling of rockets and other armaments to the Gaza Strip in tunnels from Egypt, and a demand that Hamas hold political talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which it has been refusing to do. "The Gazans not only accepted it," said Ya'ari, of the ceasefire proposal, "they demanded it." However, the delegation from Damascus reiterated Mr Meshaal's rejection of the conditions set out in the Egyptian plan.

The Gazans travelled from Cairo to Damascus immediately after Monday's meeting to present their case to Mr Meshaal, and were to return to Cairo last night with his reply. Mr Suleiman was to meet afterwards with a senior Israeli negotiator, retired general Amos Gilad, to pass Mr Meshaal's reply on to him. A negative answer, presumably, would mean a continuation of the Israeli attack on Gaza. In a speech on Saturday night, Mr Meshaal called the Israeli attack "a holocaust" and said it had put an end to any chance of compromise. He said there would be no end to rocket attacks until Israel pulled out of Gaza.

"The Gazans will tell Meshaal to knock off his rhetoric and agree to an immediate ceasefire," said Ya'ari, whose sources in Israel and the Arab world have made him one of Israel's most credible commentators. A similar report was given on Israeli television's Channel One by the station's Arab affairs reporter, Oded Granot. Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin said earlier in the day that Hamas's resilience in Gaza was beginning to give way after the shock of the fierce Israeli attack and the lack of support for Gaza from the rest of the world, including Arab leaders. But he said Hamas was still capable of putting up a fight and would not "raise a white flag".

Ya'ari, on the other hand, said Hamas in Gaza was eager to raise a white flag as quickly as possible by agreeing to accept the Egyptian ceasefire offer - without conditions, if necessary. However, he said the Gaza delegates did ask Egypt if it would grant it two requests so Hamas could say it had won concessions. One was for Egypt to temporarily open its crossing point to Gaza at Rafah until a permanent arrangement could be made. Egypt is insisting the crossing be manned not by Hamas but by the Palestinian Authority. The second request, Ya'ari said, was that the ceasefire agreement be limited to six months. The Egyptian interlocutor replied that he would discuss the requests with Israel's General Gilad - perhaps the ultimate put-down for the Hamas delegation.

At a meeting of the Israeli cabinet yesterday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the army in Gaza was getting close to the objectives Israel had set. "But we require further patience, determination and effort," Mr Olmert said. Referring to Israel's decision not to abide by the UN Security Council's call last week for a ceasefire, he said: "We have never agreed that anyone decide for us if we are allowed to strike at those who send missiles into our kindergartens and schools, and we never will."

Also, Same Day
Exiled militant leader aloof from Strip's realities
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

KHALED Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas whose decision on a mooted ceasefire is being eagerly awaited in the Gaza Strip, has been living in exile from his native Palestine his entire adult life. Many Hamas followers in the war-battered Gaza Strip fear that his opposition to an unconditional ceasefire that would relieve them from the incessant pounding of the Israeli army reflects his detachment from realities on the ground. Born in 1956 near Ramallah on the West Bank, he moved with his family to Kuwait after the 1967 Six Day War. At Kuwait University, where he received a degree in physics, Meshaal was a student activist. In 1980, he established the Islamic League for Palestinian Students while working as a teacher. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, Meshaal moved to Jordan, where he was one of the founders of the Hamas movement.

He first became known publicly in 1997 when agents of Israel's Mossad attempted to assassinate him by spraying a poison into his ear on an Amman street. King Hussein - who had signed a peace treaty with Israel three years earlier - demanded that Israel provide an antidote. A doctor was sent from Israel and the antidote she administered saved his life. Meshaal was linked by Israel to funding of suicide attacks.

Since 1999, he has been living in Damascus with other members of Hamas's political bureau. With the assassination in the Gaza Strip of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004 in an Israeli airstrike, and the subsequent killing of Yassin's successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, Meshaal became the senior figure in Hamas while remaining in Damascus. Apart from his presence on Mossad's hit list, Meshaal chose to stay in Damascus because it permitted him to travel freely in the Arab world.

Hamas decision-making is believed to be formed from a consensus among leaders in Gaza and Damascus and it is not clear whether Meshaal's views outweigh those of Gaza. Meshaal's publicly stated views range from statesmanlike to rabid. When he met former US president Jimmy Carter last year, he said Hamas would accept the creation of a Palestinian state confined to the West Bank and Gaza. Elsewhere, he said: "It is true that in reality there will be an entity or state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land but I won't deal with it in terms of recognising it." He told the BBC that a long-term truce with Israel was possible. However, he has also said: "Before Israel dies, it must be humiliated and degraded. Allah willing, before they die they will experience humiliation and degradation every day."


Extract - Israel divided over its next move
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday January 14, 2009

The war that has killed more than 900 Palestinians entered its 18th day. Fighting was heavy yesterday, including in Gaza City, with Israel reported to have hit as many as 60 targets in Gaza. Hamas fired 10 rockets into Israel.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon issued a blunt "Just stop now" before he began a Middle East visit. "The fighting must stop and to both sides I say, 'Just stop now'," he said. "Too many people have died." Former British prime minister Tony Blair, in Egypt as part of ceasefire talks in his role as a Middle East envoy, said the only plan that would work was one that was "credible and durable". Referring to divisions between the Fatah Palestinian faction, which runs the West Bank, and the Hamas faction, which runs Gaza, he said: "We need a truly unified Palestinian position."

Although Israel has intensified its campaign in recent days, it has still not moved to the third phase, which would involve intense urban warfare as thousands of reservists would pour into Gaza to join Israeli combat troops. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Hamas fighters were taking "serious punishment" and Israel was "advancing towards the endgame". A senior defence official said that Israel was laying the groundwork for a big increase in its offensive.

But the Israeli media reported splits in the Israeli leadership. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were reported to be more reluctant than Mr Olmert to approve an expansion that could result in many Israeli casualties. Ms Livni and Mr Barak face a general election next month while Mr Olmert is standing down. Ms Livni said the offensive had "restored Israel's deterrence".

Also, Same Day
Two sides beset by internal divisions
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

HAMAS and Israel appear to be internally divided about accepting an immediate end to fighting.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, in a recorded message from Gaza , said yesterday that Hamas "will view positively any political initiative to stop the aggression against our people". Looking worn out after 17 days in hiding, presumably underground, he avoided provocative remarks about Israel beyond saying God would take revenge on it. Arab affairs commentator Ehud Ya'ari, summing up Mr Haniya's remarks on Israel's Channel Two, said: "He's saying: let's get this over with and leave revenge to Allah."

Hamas's political leadership in Damascus takes a harder line, setting conditions for accepting a ceasefire proposal put forward by Egypt. Mr Ya'ari said there was a split within the Damascus leadership too, with Khaled Meshaal, head of the political bureau, being challenged by his deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, and others who take a more moderate line than Meshaal's "Kuwaiti group".

Differences have also emerged within the troika setting Israel's policy. Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni are believed to be ready to halt fighting, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants pressure on Hamas kept up until it modifies its position. "This is the moment when realities are created that we will have to live with in the coming years," he said in Ashkelon, which has been hit by rockets fired from Gaza. "We are doing hard things in Gaza ... because there is no alternative."

A Hamas delegation was scheduled to return from Damascus to Cairo yesterday to present the official Hamas view regarding Egypt's ceasefire offer. A senior Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, said in Beirut that the offer did not meet Hamas's demands. Mr Hamdan said Hamas objected to the clause calling for cessation of arms flowing into Gaza and that it would not agree to an international force on Gaza's border to prevent weapons smuggling.

Egypt is calling for a ceasefire "in place", with Israeli forces remaining in Gaza until a deal is reached for a long-term ceasefire and the opening of the crossings into Gaza from Israel and Egypt. Cairo also demands that Hamas agree to renewal of talks with the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas aimed at achieving Palestinian unity and the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.

Mr Haniya softened Hamas's insistence that the crossings be re-opened as part of any ceasefire agreement. Israel has sharply curtailed the inflow of goods into Gaza through its crossings since Hamas's takeover in June 2007, bringing the Gazan economy almost to a halt, while Egypt has kept its crossing into Gaza closed. Mr Haniya called for a ceasefire that would "prepare the way" for a reopening of the crossings, a step back from the previous demand for immediate opening. He said, however, that Hamas would not give up the armed struggle against Israel.

Mr Olmert said Israel was prepared to shift its offensive into "stage three" - a major incursion into Gaza City - if it is not satisfied that a mechanism will be put in place to prevent smuggling of rockets into Gaza. Otherwise, he said, Israel's deterrence would be compromised throughout the region. If Hamas remains defiant, he said, it would "meet Israel's iron fist". Observers in Jerusalem believe both sides are engaged in endgame manoeuvres and that a ceasefire is likely within a few days and almost certainly before Barack Obama is inaugurated as US president next Wednesday.

Hamas proposes truce with Israel
The Australian Online
Article from: Agence France-Presse
Friday January 16, 2009

HAMAS has proposed a year-long truce with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from Gaza and an end to the blockade of the embattled enclave, a senior Hamas official says. Mussa Abu Marzuk, the Damascus-based deputy head of the group's powerful politburo, said the offer was made by a Hamas delegation to Egyptian authorities during talks in Cairo and that the Islamist movement was waiting for Israel's response. Asked about reports Hamas had proposed a one-year-long renewable truce with Israel, Abu Marzuk said: 'Those were the movement's remarks on the Egyptian initiative, this is what we proposed. '

A Hamas official had said on Wednesday after meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman that the movement had accepted the 'broad outlines ' of an Egyptian truce plan without approving it outright. A Western diplomat familiar with the truce talks brokered by Egypt, confirmed to AFP that Hamas had proposed a year-long renewable truce with Israel but said that the Jewish state expressed reservations.

Senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad had met Suleiman on Thursday to be briefed on Hamas's position before returning to Israel to make his report to the government. Gilad was due to return to Cairo on Friday for more talks with the Egyptian authorities, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement.

'We are waiting for an Egyptian response after they speak with Gilad, ' Abu Marzuk said. 'The Egyptian side has not responded in regards to Israel's reaction. '

The Western diplomat also said that Hamas had refused to allow representatives of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Egypt has refused to permanently open the crossing - a key Hamas demand - citing a 2005 agreement that required EU monitors and Palestinian Authority representatives at the crossing. Abu Marzuk said Hamas had agreed to allow EU monitors at the crossing. But he warned that 'there will be no ceasefire if the siege continues to be enforced '.


Stage-three attack aimed at the psyche
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday January 17, 2009

ISRAEL's endgame in Gaza is proving as surprising and remorseless as the stunning air attack that opened the war. The boldness of the ground and air attack on Thursday, local time, described by some Palestinians as the worst day since the fighting commenced three weeks ago, reflects a nuanced but significant shift from the war goals previously announced.

The three principal objectives Israeli officials had cited are the cessation of rocket attacks, restoration of Israel's deterrence and blocking the smuggling of weaponry into Gaza. However, the unexpected armoured plunge towards the heart of Gaza City, and air attacks on two of Hamas's top three political figures, seem to have had a psychological dimension, undermining Hamas's morale and avoiding any ambiguity about the outcome of the war. Israel was making sure the organisation understood that Hamas had been soundly defeated. With Israeli tanks reaching within 4km of the centre of Gaza City and encountering only sporadic fire, it will be difficult for Hamas to claim heroic resistance. Such a narrative was already being woven by Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashal in Damascus earlier in the day when he said "Israel has not achieved a thing" in Gaza and that it had lost more men in battle than Hamas had.

Hamas has not given a figure for its battle dead but Israel puts it in the hundreds and its own fatalities at 10. No less stunning for Hamas than the advance into Gaza City was the assassination of Interior Minister Said Siam. Number three in the political hierarchy in Gaza, he was one of the more extreme of Hamas's leaders. According to Israeli television, he was killed in a Gaza City apartment his brother, Ayad, had rented two weeks ago to serve as a hideout. An Israeli guided bomb hit just after the brothers entered the apartment, suggesting the area was under observation.

Palestinian sources said the head of Hamas's security apparatus, Salah Abu Shreh, and its military commander in Gaza City, Mahmoud Watfah, were killed in the attack, as well as other members of the Siam family. Intelligence for Israeli forces operating in Gaza is supplied by the army and Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service. Shin Bet is believed responsible for targeting Siam. Another air attack was carried out against the home of the No2 man in the Hamas hierarchy, Mahmoud Zahar. Five bodyguards were killed but there was no indication Zahar was inside. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya is believed to be in hiding in a shelter beneath Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest.

Hamas is not, in Israel's eyes, just another militant Palestinian faction such as those it has battled over the decades, but an outpost of militant Islam. Israeli officials refer to it as "an Iranian division on our southern border". The air force has destroyed almost every building in Gaza connected with the Hamas Government. Yesterday's attacks indicated that Israel was trying to destroy the political leadership as well.

On Wednesday night, local time, as Hamas was signalling readiness for a ceasefire, it was assumed that Israeli forces would more or less remain in place to avoid unnecessary casualties. Officials gave no indication of readiness to launch the operation's stage three, the planned entry into built-up areas. The ferocity of yesterday's attack came as a surprise. Thousands of Palestinians tried to find shelter in UN facilities as tanks moved through the streets, firing at any sign of opposition. Shells struck high-rise buildings, a press centre, a hospital and the main UN aid compound. Israeli army spokesmen said the troops were returning fire from those locations.

It was revealed yesterday that naval commandos had landed at several points along the Gaza coast at night and were fighting militants. Yesterday's drive in Gaza City was seen by some as an attempt to step up pressure on Hamas after it raised reservations about Egypt's ceasefire proposal. But the vigour with which the attack was pushed home suggests that it was also, and perhaps primarily, intended to impress on Hamas that challenging Israel bears a price.

Also, Same Day
Weekend Inquirer Extract - Two sides in need of a leader
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

AS with many others involved in the war between Israel and Gaza, Saeb Erekat's future after the war is in doubt. His title, to begin with, has become a contradiction in terms - chief negotiator for the Palestinians in the peace process. Which Palestinians ' What peace process ' How can anyone now have a title that implies Palestinians have a single position, even if there was a peace process going on ' As with all wars, the one between Israel and Gaza will come to an end, but what then '

After the war the landscape is likely to look different and there are likely to be recriminations on both sides. The militant Palestinian party Hamas and Israel are almost certain to claim victory, whatever the outcome. In the bluntest way to judge a war - the number killed - the Palestinians have been slaughtered. About 1000 Palestinians, many of them children, have been killed and more than 4000 injured. Much of the infrastructure of the already-poor Gaza Strip has been destroyed. Israel's toll on the battlefield is 13, but it would argue that it has been taking a toll for the past eight years from rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel where about one million Israelis have had to live with the prospect that when the siren sounds they have 15 seconds to find a bomb shelter.

Leadership on the Palestinian side is now in tatters. So deep are the animosities between the two key Palestinian factions - Hamas, which runs Gaza, and Fatah, which runs the West Bank - that they have not even been able to bring themselves to sit together in Cairo to discuss a common position on how to stop their people being killed. Any hope for the peace process that had been going on, slowly, awkwardly, but going on, behind the scenes for the past few years has collapsed under the weight of the war. As Erekat said, despairingly, in an interview this week on BBC TV: "I'm the most disadvantaged negotiator in history." He lamented the divisions in the Palestinian leadership. "The internal Palestinian problem is really harming us." Erekat sounded a warning for what it had done for moderates among Palestinians. "They (Hamas) are weakening the moderates," he said. "As moderates, I think we are the hardest hit."

The Israeli cabinet, meantime, is divided. On one side is Olmert, PM for the next four weeks, and on the other Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Olmert believes Israel should prosecute the war until Hamas is on its knees. Barak and Livni believe there should immediately be a week-long ceasefire to address the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.

Among the leading hawks inside the strange coalition that makes up the Israeli cabinet are Haim Ramon, from the senior partner, the Kadima party, and Eli Yishai, from the ultra-orthodox Shas party. Ramon is close to Olmert. He is a leader of the group inside Israel that doesn't just want to stop Hamas's rockets being fired into Israel but wants to see Hamas so damaged it ceases to be any presence in Gaza. Coalitions underpin politics in Israel. One of Ramon's allies on the Hamas issue in cabinet is Yishai, leader of the religious Right that finds its home in Shas.

One of Israel's leading political journalists, Ehud Yaari, says it's too early to know the impact of the war on the country's politics. "Whatever you see in the polls now is about to tilt one way or the other - or both - after people get a sense of what the endgame is," Yaari says. Israel was never going to destroy Hamas. That would be like in the worst days of the Northern Ireland dispute saying the British army were going to destroy the Irish Republican Army. While many Irish rejected what the IRA stood for, and certainly their violence, enough Irish supported their fight to give them enough support.

It is difficult to know exactly what the war will mean for Hamas. Will it be blamed for having brought almost 1000 deaths upon Palestinians or will it be seen as the only force in the Palestinian territories that can take on the Israeli army ' Says Palestinian journalist Toameh: "If Hamas is under attack by Israel, then sympathies go to Hamas. The Israelis were hoping that Palestinians would rise up against Hamas."

One of the other big questions is whether Israel has done more damage to itself than it anticipated. Part of the debate inside Israel is whether it unnecessarily alienated whatever friends it might have had in the region. In an article headlined "Where have our friends gone ?" Israeli commentator Zvi Ba'rel wrote in Haaretz that Israel had alienated almost all its neighbours. Turkey, he wrote, had gone from something of a friend and mediator in talks with Syria to its Foreign Minister recently branding Israel "the biggest provoker of terror in the world"; Jordan now wants to re-evaluate ties with Israel for the first time since the two countries made peace; Palestinian President Abbas has cut his ties with Israel; and Qatar has been pushed closer to Iran.

Ba'rel wrote: "Israel is again in a familiar situation; a threatened state, not speaking to any of its neighbours and not willing for anyone to waste its time with talks. Short-term tactics, that's all Israel is capable of." He went on to ask who had gained so far from the war. "So far it is Hamas, which can claim to have undermined greatly Israel's ties with Turkey, Jordan and Qatar. And it has only just begun."

The big picture framing the Middle East is the power struggle between Iran on one side and Israel and the US on the other. Yaari says: "I think Iran is not going for a bomb, I think they are going for an arsenal." "We're a one-nuclear-bomb country," an Israeli government official tells Inquirer. (The official is talking about Israeli vulnerability to a nuclear bomb, not its nuclear capability.)

The hope is that someone will emerge on the Palestinian stage who is able to straddle Fatah and Hamas while at the same time be able to deal with Israel. "There is a very serious lack of leadership," Toameh says. "I can't find one person who is looking like a future leader." Despite the bitter divisions highlighted by the war, Toameh has found one area of agreement: "Hamas and Fatah have a common interest against the emergence of a new leadership. For a while we are going to be stuck with these two forces." Erekat thinks he has the hardest job in the world. Bringing Palestinians together and helping them find their way out of one of their darkest chapters is probably even tougher.


Hamas agrees to 7-day truce
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: The Times, AFP, AP
Monday January 19, 2009

HAMAS last night agreed to a week-long ceasefire only 12 hours after Israel unilaterally stopped its 22-day aerial, sea and land offensive on the Gaza Strip. The agreement came at a meeting in Damascus of Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and followed the breaking of the Israeli ceasefire by militants who fired a volley of rockets into southern Israel. A senior official said Israel had a week to withdraw from Gaza. "Palestinian groups met in Damascus and will soon announce a one-week ceasefire in order to open border crossings and allow in humanitarian aid," said Islamic Jihad official Dawud Shihab. "During this period, the resistance is ready to respond to all efforts by the Egyptians, Turks, Syrians and Arabs that will allow for a total withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and the total opening of border crossings."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the Jewish state does "not negotiate with Hamas. Hamas is not a partner. "Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire of offensive activities against Hamas. If Hamas does not attack Israel and does not provoke Israel, we will honour the ceasefire." Mr Regev declined to say when or if Israel planned to open Gaza border crossings, which it has largely kept closed ever since Hamas seized power in the enclave in June 2007.

Following the rocket strike, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the ceasefire was fragile and was being reassessed minute by minute. No one was injured in the Hamas attack, in which five rockets were fired into Israel. But shortly after, the Israeli military carried out an airstrike against a rocket-launching squad in the northern Gaza Strip. "The Government's decision allows Israel to respond and renew the fire if our enemy in the Gaza Strip continues its strikes," Mr Olmert said. "This morning they again proved that the ceasefire is fragile and it has to be reassessed on a minute-by-minute basis," he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "We hope that the fire ends. If it continues, the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) will respond. It is prepared and deployed to do so."

In another incident after the truce took hold, militants fired small arms at an infantry patrol, which returned fire, according to the Israeli military. "Israel will only act in response to attacks by Hamas, either rockets into Israel or firing upon our forces," Mr Regev said. "If Hamas does deliberately torpedo this ceasefire, they are exposing themselves before the entire international community as a group of cynical extremists that have absolutely no interest in the well-being of the people of Gaza." He would not say what level of violence would provoke Israel to call off the truce.

The Israeli ceasefire went into effect at 2am local time (11am AEST) after three weeks of devastating war that killed more than 1200 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. At least 13 Israelis also died. In announcing the truce, Mr Olmert said Israel would withhold fire after achieving its goals and more. If Hamas holds its fire, the military "will weigh pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us," Mr Olmert said. If not, Israel "will continue to act to defend our residents". Israel said its troops would remain in Gaza for an indefinite period. Mr Olmert said Hamas had been "badly beaten". "Leaders are in hiding, many of its members have been killed, its rocket factories have been destroyed, its smuggling routes through the tunnels have been blown up, its ability to move weapons in the Gaza Strip has been reduced and the launching sites where most of the rockets are fired are under Israeli military control," he said.

Fatah chief negotiator Saeb Erekat described the ceasefire as "fragile". "We had hoped that the Israeli announcement would be matched by total cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. I am afraid that the presence of the Israeli forces in Gaza means that the ceasefire will not stand." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "relieved" Israel had ceased firing, but said it was only the first step towards a full withdrawal of Israeli troops.

Mr Olmert said if Hamas ended its rocket firing, Israel would consider a full withdrawal of troops at "a timetable reasonable to us". "If our enemies decide the blows they've been dealt have not been sufficient and they are interested in continuing the fight, Israel will be prepared for such and feel free to continue to react with force," he said. In a direct message to Gazans, Mr Olmert added: "We do not hate you ... Israel is not your enemy. Hamas is your real enemy. Hamas is our enemy." Mr Olmert told the news conference where he announced the ceasefire that he hoped a two-state solution -- an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel -- would "soon come around". But the offensive had shown Israel was powerful and would assert "the right of Israel's self-defence against terrorist activities", he said. "Israel has shown that we are powerful."

Several European leaders are due in Cairo to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Mr Ban and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the ceasefire and a long-term solution to the problem. Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Jordan will be represented at the meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian government official said. In Paris, the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would co-chair the summit with Mr Mubarak. In London, Downing Street declined to confirm that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be among the participants in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Also, Same Day
Extract - Assault an attack on Iran by default
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

PREDICTIONS Israel would attack Iran before US President George W. Bush leaves office have proven correct, in a manner of speaking. The attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip is seen by analysts as an attack on the western arm of Iran's would-be Middle East dominion. The blow to Hamas has been discreetly welcomed by moderate Arab leaders who fear Tehran's attempt to achieve hegemony in the Middle East and infuse the region with its brand of radical Islam. Iranian influence over Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two dynamic movements that Tehran arms and funds, is particularly galling to Arab leaders because Iran is not an Arab state but Persian. In addition, it is Shia while most of the Arab states are Sunni.

When Israel fought Hezbollah in 2006, Egypt and Saudi Arabia condemned Hezbollah for starting the war by staging a cross-border raid into Israel. Egypt likewise warned Hamas in recent months that its rocketing of Israel would bring strong retaliation. Egypt, no less than Israel, has made clear its discomfort with an Iranian proxy on its border. Furthermore, it sees Tehran threatening Cairo's traditional leadership of the Arab world.

The strain between Egypt and Iran has been exacerbated by the Gaza war. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Egypt last week to clarify whether it was Israel's "partner" in its effort to crush Hamas, and anti-Egyptian demonstrations have been staged in Tehran. When Egypt announced its ceasefire initiative, senior Iranian officials met Hamas political leaders in Damascus to warn against accepting it. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah attacked Egypt for refusing to open its border crossing to the Gaza Strip and permit access from the outside world. He called on the Egyptian masses, particularly members of the armed forces, to force the opening of the crossing. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit responded that the Egyptian armed forces existed to defend Egypt "and if need be, they will also protect Egypt from people like you".

The seismic split in the Muslim world between hardliners and moderates was again evidenced by the boycott on Friday by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other moderate countries of an emergency conference called by Qatar to discuss the Gaza situation. The meeting was attended by Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal.

Israel's decision to unilaterally declare a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip was paved by agreements in Washington and Cairo to block the flow of armaments to the area. If the blockade is successful, Hamas's strategic leverage will be seriously diminished by its inability to threaten Israel's hinterland with rockets. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed an agreement in Washington over the weekend under which the US committed to combating the international transport of arms to Hamas.


Israel begins withdrawal after truce
Both sides claim victory following 22 days of death and destruction
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Tuesday January 20, 2009

ISRAELI troops began withdrawing from the Gaza Strip yesterday as both sides agreed to a ceasefire and both sides claimed victory in the 22-day conflict. No air strikes, rockets or major clashes were reported in the territory, giving Gazans their first night of complete peace since the start of Israel's massive assault on Hamas in their stronghold on December 27. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel wanted to leave "as fast as possible", while Hamas claimed it had defeated Israel in "a heavenly victory".

Humanitarian aid was being rushed into Gaza following the heavy toll of the past three weeks -- an estimated 1300 Palestinians were killed and 5000 injured while 13 Israelis were killed since the conflict began. European leaders travelled to Cairo and Jerusalem yesterday to try to ensure that the ceasefire -- considered fragile -- lasts beyond the week that Hamas has declared it for.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on Israel to state "immediately and clearly" that if rocket fire from Hamas into southern Israel stopped, the Israeli army would leave Gaza. "There is no other solution to achieve peace," he said. Mr Olmert said in response: "We didn't set out to conquer Gaza, we didn't set out to control Gaza, we don't want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible."

The leaders of France, Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic met Mr Olmert after a summit in Cairo chaired by Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and attended by moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas was not invited.

Mr Sarkozy addressed one of Israel's major concerns -- the smuggling of weapons through the border area between Gaza and Egypt, known as the Philadelphi corridor, which Israel says are then used to attack it. Mr Sarkozy said: "We must put an end to the arms traffic." He said European leaders had agreed to make available to Egypt and Israel "technical, diplomatic and military" means to put an end to the arms smuggling.

Israel and Egypt have sealed Gaza off from all but vital humanitarian aid since Hamas, an Islamist group pledged to Israel's destruction, seized power there in June 2007 by routing forces loyal to President Abbas. Israel claims that Iran is the driving force behind the weapons being smuggled into Gaza as part of a campaign to destabilise the Jewish state. Mr Olmert told the leaders in Jerusalem that he regretted that civilians were killed during the offensive, saying Hamas was responsible as they had taken cover among civilian populations. "We did not want to hurt them or their children," he said.

In a sign that the Gaza conflict and what to do about it will be a major issue at Israel's national election on February 10, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who as candidate for the conservative Likud party is front-runner in most opinion polls, said: "The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) has dealt Hamas a severe blow, but the job has not been completed." The issue of how to "complete the job" will dominate much campaigning -- the debate will be whether greater emphasis should be on military or diplomatic means.

Hamas leaders, meanwhile, claimed Hamas had won the war. Leader Ismail Haniyeh said it had been "a heavenly victory". "The enemy has failed to achieve its goals," he said. Another Hamas leader, Ghazi Hamad, responding to Israeli claims of victory, said: "This is not a victory (for Israel)."

Also, Same Day
Debacles of Lebanon put to rest
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

FOR two years after its botched war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israel Defence Forces trained intensively in anticipation of a second round. When it came last month it was not with Hezbollah, but with Hamas in Gaza. In three weeks of fighting, just ended, the IDF demonstrated to itself, and the Arab world, that it had rehabilitated itself as the strongest fighting force in the Middle East.

This time, Israel did not go to war 12 hours after being attacked, as it had in 2006, without having a battle plan beyond an air attack. Preparing for the Gaza incursion, the army and air force commands drew up detailed plans over several months for destroying Hamas's command and control network and then annihilating Hamas resistance on the ground in stages.

This time, intelligence was not ignorant of enemy deployment, as it had been unaware in 2006 of underground Hezbollah bunkers and staging areas. Military Intelligence this time worked closely with agents of the civilian Shin Bet security agency in identifying thousands of potential targets for the air and ground forces, including not only arms caches and strongpoints, but also the apartments of military commanders and political leaders. It even had the telephone numbers of thousands of Gaza residents who would be warned during the fighting to vacate homes at risk of being hit.

This time, the Israeli command did not think it could rely on the air force to bring the enemy to heel. Ground forces were brought into play after a week of aerial bombardment and manoeuvred according to a precise plan, throwing out massive fire as they advanced. Hamas fighters melted away before this show of force, but many civilians were killed. In Lebanon, many of the units, including tank units, had not had combat training in years, the high command having used the troops for securing the West Bank during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising. In the two years since the Hezbollah war, all units, including reserve units, have had intensive battle training, including house-to-house fighting in a mock Palestinian town.

The most important difference was in the high command. The chief of staff in 2006 was, for the first time in Israel's history, not a ground officer but an air force pilot, chosen in the belief that Israel's next challenge would probably be an air attack on Iran. The appointment proved a grave mistake when ground war unexpectedly broke out. Hesitation and clashing opinions in the high command percolated down through the ranks, creating rampant confusion on the battlefield, as missions were constantly changed.

This time, the chief of staff was an infantry officer, General Gabi Ashkenazi, a taciturn professional soldier who rarely speaks in public. He set about rebuilding the army after his appointment two years ago. The Gaza operation was on a far smaller scale than the war in Lebanon. Instead of four Israeli divisions, this time only one was involved. In numbers, the Israelis were more than matched by the 20,000 or more fighters that Hamas was said to have in its ranks.

But Hamas did not have tanks, warplanes or artillery. Hamas's military leaders hoped to offset this disadvantage by luring the Israelis into built-up areas that were heavily booby-trapped and riddled with tunnels from which fighters and suicide bombers, men and women, were to foray to engage the Israelis at close quarters. The Hamas fighters, however, dispersed before the Israeli firepower.

The clearest evidence of weak Hamas resistance is the Israeli casualty list -- 10 soldiers killed in two weeks of ground combat, half of them by "friendly fire" from other Israeli units. Instead of risking casualties in booby-trapped buildings, the army blew many of them up, which accounts for some of the devastation. Israel estimates that more than 500 Hamas fighters were killed in the air and ground attacks. Hamas claimed only 48 of its fighters were killed, but the veracity of that figure is undermined by the militants' claim to have killed at least 80 soldiers.

Disproportionate as was the confrontation between the IDF and Hamas, the war has clearly done much to restore Israel's deterrent image. The image left by Israel's unseemly pullback from Lebanon in 2000 - army units hastily making for the border fence, with Hezbollah fighters not far behind - and the hash the army made of the Hezbollah war six years later, dangerously diminished Israel's previous image of virtual invincibility.

In Gaza, the IDF showed that it was once again a formidable war machine.


Israelis pull back as Obama moves in
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday January 22, 2009

ISRAEL withdrew the last of its troops from the Gaza Strip last night, reflecting its hopes to defuse the crisis in Gaza before US President Barack Obama enters the White House. The Israeli military said troops remained massed on its side of the border, prepared to take action in the event of renewed fire by militants in Gaza. Israeli navy ships fired machineguns at the beaches of northern Gaza.

The withdrawal came as the US Senate yesterday swiftly approved six members of Mr Obama's cabinet, but put off for a day the vote on his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Democratic hopes to confirm Senator Clinton were sidetracked when one senator, Republican John Cornyn, objected to the unanimous vote. Senator Cornyn said he had concerns about foreign donations to the foundation headed by Senator Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton.

The delay in confirming Senator Clinton was also expected to delay the naming of former Democrat senator George J. Mitchell as Mr Obama's Middle East envoy. Both appointments were expected in coming days. Senate leaders agreed to have a roll-call vote on Senator Clinton last night after three hours of debate yesterday. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, predicted "she will receive overwhelming bipartisan support at that time".

The appointments of Senator Clinton and Mr Mitchell were meant to send a signal that the Obama administration intended to move quickly to engage warring Israelis and Palestinians in efforts to secure peace. Israel sent thousands of ground troops into the Palestinian territory earlier this month as part of a bruising offensive meant to permanently halt years of militant rocket fire on growing numbers of Israelis, and to halt the smuggling of arms into Gaza.

Almost without exception, countries across the Middle East are hoping Mr Obama will find solutions for some of the region's problems, which seem intractable. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni could not contain her delight upon Mr Obama's election, and yesterday Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef said that during the US election campaign "our hearts and minds" were with him. Mr Yousef went on to say he hoped Mr Obama would make a real difference on issues such as the conflict in Gaza, "the mother of all troubles". Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also released a note of congratulations at the time of Mr Obama's victory, saying he hoped it would bring change from the policies of the Bush administration.

Mr Obama made clear yesterday he would seek a different approach to the Middle East, saying in his inauguration speech: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Reaction across Israel to the inauguration was generally good. Yediot newspaper said many of those around Mr Obama were close friends of Israel, while Haaretz said Mr Obama would do well to "personally, and quickly renew the effort to achieve a stable peace that reconciles Israel with Syria and the Palestinians".

Gerald Steinberg, chair of the department of political sciences at Israel's Bar Ilan University, said solutions in the Middle East could not be built on "a castle of air". Nobody could resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "until Palestinians accept the legitimacy of Israel and Israel sees a Palestinian political structure that is stable and can provide the type of relationship Israel needs to see." Dr Steinberg warned that should Mr Obama expect an instant solution to the conflict, rather than one that looked at long-term societal issues, it would "boomerang". One of Mr Obama's early appointments, Dennis Ross, should ensure quick-fix solutions were not chased, he said. One of the problems of the latter parts of the Bush administration, he said, was a failure to seek serious solutions in favour of "photo ops".


President on Mid-East peace quest
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Friday January 23, 2009

THE Middle East immediately emerged as a top priority for Barack Obama after he called key leaders in the region on his first day as President and moved to appoint his Middle East envoy. Pledging an "active engagement" to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr Obama - who was criticised this month for failing to take action during the war between Israel and Hamas - contacted the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan to bolster the fragile peace in the Gaza Strip.

The White House said in a statement: "He used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term and to express his hope for their continued co-operation and leadership." The White House said Mr Obama had emphasised his determination to consolidate the Gaza ceasefire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming. The phone calls came on the same day that his former presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, was confirmed as Secretary of State and former senator George Mitchell was flagged as Mr Obama's Middle East envoy. Mr Mitchell was a key player in negotiations to end the Northern Ireland conflict.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for his organisation to be given legitimacy following the war with Israel, which he described as an "unequivocal victory", despite the death of more than 1300 Palestinians. In a video from Damascus, where he is in exile, Mr Meshaal said: "Three years of trying to eliminate Hamas is enough. It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle. "This battle (the Gaza war) has proved that force alone will not provide security for the Zionist entity (Israel) and that peace will not be at the expense of Palestinian rights."

Mr Meshaal said the war would pave the way for "the liberation of Jerusalem". He said: "This is the first real war which the Palestinian people wage and win over the Palestinian soil."

Mr Obama yesterday telephoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he told Mr Obama yesterday that Israel had committed to invest in efforts to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population in Gaza, and would work to improve the economic situation in the West Bank.

Israel is under pressure to investigate two key aspects of the war: the deaths of 40 people in an attack on the UN compound where about 700 civilians were taking refuge, and the alleged use of white phosphorous. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has demanded that whoever was responsible for the attack on the UN compound be held to account. On a tour of Gaza this week, Mr Ban described as "outrageous" an attack by Israel on three UN buildings in the compound, which Israel has claimed was used by Hamas as cover for firing rockets. UN officials in the compound have denied the claim and called on Israel to provide evidence.

The cost of rebuilding Gaza was estimated yesterday at about $US2billion ($3billion). Palestinian leaders were reported as saying after the phone call from Mr Obama to Mr Abbas that peace talks with Israel would resume if Israel agreed to freeze all expansion of Jewish settlements, and to give up land captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Gaza children face the threat of unexploded munitions, the international Red Cross warned, after two children were killed in explosions near Jabaliya.


Israeli politicians resume hostility
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Monday January 26, 2009

THE political ceasefire that was observed during Israel's 22-day offensive against Gaza has been abandoned by two key figures, with Defence Minister Ehud Barak branding Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as "dangerous". With the Gaza campaign and Israel's future policy towards Hamas a dominant issue, Mr Barak, the leader of the Labor Party, targeted Ms Livni, leader of the Kadima party, and frontrunner Benjamin Netanyahu as he resumed campaigning for the February 10 election over the weekend. Mr Barak told supporters: "Kadima and Tzipi Livni - what exactly is their policy ' Does anybody know ' One day it's Left, the next day it's Right, this way, that way. That kind of decision-making is dangerous in the moment of truth, and I say to both (Ms Livni and Mr Netanyahu) now is the moment of truth."

Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, remains the frontrunner. Latest polls suggest his Likud party will win 29 seats in the Knesset, or parliament, and Kadima 25, Labor 19 and Yisrael Beiteinu 14. Observers in Israel believe that on these numbers Likud would be likely to do a deal with Labor, making Mr Netanhayu PM and Mr Barak, with whom he has a good relationship, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Likud and Labor have made it clear they would prefer to make a deal with each other rather than put Kadima in the position to form a coalition government led by Ms Livni. Likud would almost certainly win the support of the conservative party, Yisrael Beiteinu, running fourth in the polls, and the religious party Shas, which polls suggest could win up to 10 seats.

The projected result suggests the Israeli Government will maintain a hard line against Hamas, with Mr Netanyahu saying Israel has not "completed the job" against Hamas. Mr Netanyahu is also opposed to a two-state solution, which would put him at odds with US President Barack Obama. A two-state solution would involve an independent, internationally recognised Palestine.

Mr Obama's envoy, former US senator George Mitchell, arrives in the Middle East this week to ensure the fragile ceasefire in Gaza holds. He will meet the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in Israel, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu, Mr Barak and Ms Livni. EU foreign ministers were expected to meet their counterparts from the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey overnight to study ways to get Arab nations behind new Middle East peace moves. At talks in Brussels, the ministers were expected to assess the state of the ceasefire in Gaza, where more than 1300 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since last month, and look at ways to improve the flow of aid.

But beyond the immediate help needed by Gaza residents, the EU wants to try to use Israel's war on Hamas to kick-start long-stalled efforts to bring peace to the region, and foster an agreement between the feuding Palestinians. "We want to talk to the four of them about how do we get the region behind a meaningful peace process. We need the broader support of the Arab world," an EU diplomat said ahead of the talks. "Some of those countries are bridges to other countries in the Arab world or the Muslim world, like Syria or Iran," the latter accused of supplying arms to Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, he said.

Mr Barak is due to travel to Washington this week to discuss the implementation of a bilateral agreement to halt arms smuggling into Gaza, a senior official said. He will be the first top Israeli official to travel to Washington since the end of Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip. Mr Barak was to meet Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. The two would also discuss US arms sales to Israel, an official said, refusing to elaborate. Mr Barak is expected to face the growing pressure for Israel to explain whether it illegally used white phosphorous shells in the Gaza Strip. Doctors and injured Palestinians continue to say that some of the burns sustained by people are consistent with such shells. In Gaza, about 200,000 children returned to school yesterday for the first time since the offensive began on December 27.


Cairo bars Iran ship with arms for Gaza
The Australian
Correspondents in Jerusalem
Wednesday January 28, 2009

AN Iranian freighter carrying weaponry for Hamas has been blocked by Egypt from entering the Suez Canal, amid concerns that Tehran is trying to supply the Palestinian militant group with missiles capable of striking Tel Aviv. Reports yesterday said Israel was closely tracking the ship, which is docked in the Red Sea outside the Suez Canal after Cairo refused to permit it to cross the waterway to the Mediterranean.

Egypt's move came as Palestinian militants last night detonated a bomb next to an Israeli army patrol near the Gaza Strip, killing one Israeli soldier and wounding three others. The bombing marked the first serious attack since a ceasefire began more than a week ago.

The Red Sea stand-off comes after a report to the Israeli Defence Ministry from the Pentagon said the US Navy had boarded another Iranian vessel and said it was carrying artillery shells and other weapons. "This is a big test for the Egyptians," a senior Israeli defence official told The Jerusalem Post. "So far the Egyptians have prevented the ship from crossing the Suez and we hope it will stay that way." Israeli defence officials told the paper Iran was trying to supply Hamas with new Grad-model Katyusha rockets and to replace high-grade explosives that were exhausted or destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force during this month's war in Gaza. The IDF is concerned Iran will supply Hamas with long-range Fajr missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

A US Navy task force fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden has been instructed to track Iranian arms shipments to Gaza. Reports last week said troops from the USS San Antonio boarded a former Russian cargo vessel that was flying a Cypriot flag and was reportedly carrying weaponry destined for Hamas. The French have also dispatched a frigate to the Mediterranean to participate in the clampdown on the Gaza Strip and to prevent weapons shipments from reaching Hamas, the Post said. Israeli defence officials told the paper that since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, large quantities of explosives, machine guns and other weaponry had arrived in the Sinai peninsula, but the Egyptians were taking measures to prevent them from being smuggled into Gaza.

The reports came as US President Barack Obama yesterday sent envoy George Mitchell to the Middle East with a brief to "engage vigorously" to achieve real progress. Mr Mitchell is due to visit Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Arab states. During his trip, which lasts until Tuesday, Mr Mitchell will also travel to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Europe. In the short run, the trip is aimed at bolstering a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip following the three-week Israeli military offensive, and tackling the humanitarian crisis there. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Mr Mitchell, who will report to Mr Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would "not have contact with Hamas", which has been labelled a terrorist group since George W. Bush was in office.

Mr Mitchell, a Maronite Catholic whose mother was Lebanese, managed to bring together the leaders of Northern Ireland's religious communities with a mixture of compromise and talks to sign the historic Good Friday agreement in 1998. But his efforts to help end the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted in 2000, after the collapse of the peace process brokered by former president Bill Clinton, proved fruitless.

He set off for the region as reports yesterday said Hamas had launched an internal probe into the failures of its military wing during the Gaza offensive. Citing an unnamed top Hamas military commander, Jane's Defence Weekly magazine said a full report by the militant organisation would be critical of almost every decision taken by Hamas battlefield commanders during the 22-day assault, which ended last week.


Israel seeks new response strategy
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday January 29, 2009

A FATAL attack on an Israeli patrol on the Gaza border has prompted Israel to search for a new response strategy - to increase punishment without triggering war. Instead of a tit-for-tat response to attacks from Gaza, Israel has said it would react "disproportionally" to make clear that its tolerance level had changed after eight years of rocketing from Gaza. "We need to change the rules of the game," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said. "The equation has changed."

The Israeli armed forces took a series of steps within hours of Tuesday night's attack, including using a helicopter gunship to wound a man riding a motorbike. The man was said by Israel to have helped plan the attack, in which a powerful bomb was detonated as an army jeep passed. Israeli troops and tanks crossed the border briefly and uncovered four similar bombs along the border fence. A Palestinian farmer was reportedly killed in gunfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. Shortly afterwards, an Israeli jet flew low over Gaza, causing a sonic boom intended as a warning.

Israeli officials said yesterday the full response to Tuesday's attack was yet to come. The military affairs correspondent on Israel's Channel Two, a former army officer with normally reliable sources in the military, said the response would be "big, very big". Israeli warplanes struck arms smuggling tunnels beneath Gaza's border with Egypt yesterday. During the three-week war in Gaza this month, Israel is believed to have destroyed 80-90 per cent of the tunnels but the Palestinians have begun restoring them. The tunnel attack is not believed to be Israel's final response to the border incident, as tunnels are relatively easy to rebuild.

In deciding what the new "equation" will be, Israel has to take into consideration that Hamas was not directly responsible for the border attack, which Israel's Shin Bet security service attributes to Global Jihad, a small group affiliated with al-Qa'ida. Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for any attack from Gaza, since the organisation claims control of the area. Hamas can prevent smaller militant groups from attacking, Israel claims. Had Hamas been identified as directly responsible, Israel might have targeted one of its senior leaders for assassination.

Another factor is the arrival in Israel yesterday of US special envoy George Mitchell to revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel might feel restrained by his presence but its main objective is to reinforce the deterrence it believes it achieved this month. A strong response might bring a strong Hamas counter-response - the firing of missiles into Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert summoned his security cabinet into special session yesterday to discuss the response.

The Israeli elections in two weeks, in which Ms Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are running for prime minister, might also be a factor favouring a strong reaction. Both claim a share in the deterrence presumably won in this month's war and would not want to see that deterrence visibly eroded.


Extract - US envoy's hand of peace for Abbas

Mitchell with Abbas
Goodwill: Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, left, shakes hands with Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah yesterday
Picture: Reuters
The Australian
AP, Correspondents in Jerusalem
Friday January 30, 2009

US President Barack Obama's new Middle East envoy met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank last night, seeking to prop up the Gaza ceasefire and restart broader peace talks after rockets thudded into southern Israel and Israeli warplanes attacked new targets in Gaza. George Mitchell arrived in the occupied West Bank's political capital of Ramallah after holding talks earlier with senior Israeli leaders in Jerusalem to determine the next steps the Obama administration would take towards reviving peace negotiations following Israel's blistering military offensive against Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers.

But a flare-up of the Gaza violence underscored the more immediate priority - shoring up the 10-day-old ceasefire. Palestinians fired a rocket into Israel early yesterday, and Palestinian residents of the south Gaza town of Khan Younis said an Israeli air raid there wounded a man riding a motorcycle and five passers-by, among them children walking home from school. The Israeli military said it targeted the motorcyclist because he was involved in a bomb attack this week on the Gaza-Israel border that killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three others. Israeli warplanes struck Gaza's smuggling tunnels and a weapons factory on Wednesday. There were no reports of casualties.

After talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr Mitchell said consolidating the ceasefire was "of critical importance". He said a longer-term truce should be based on "an end to smuggling and reopening of the crossings" into Gaza. Mr Mitchell said that after finishing his consultations in the region and holding talks with European leaders, he would report his recommendations to Mr Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mr Mitchell was silent on the details of his meetings, and he has no news conferences planned during his seven-day tour. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Mr Mitchell only a peace agreement that guaranteed Israeli security would win the approval of the Israeli public. "In order for the peace negotiations to succeed, Israel must continue its war against terror wherever it exists and is directed against us," her office quoted Ms Livni as saying.

Mr Mitchell was scheduled to also meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank early today. He is not meeting Hamas, which the US, Israel and the European Union have blacklisted as a terrorist group. Mr Mitchell said the Gaza crossings should be opened on the basis of the 2005 agreement brokered by the US that put the main crossing - the passage between Egypt and Gaza - under the management of Mr Abbas's Palestinian Authority, with European monitors deployed to prevent smuggling.


Extract - Fury erupts at Gaza conflict

Erdogan with Peres
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos. Picture: AFP
The Australian
AP, The Wall Street Journal, Correspondents in Davos
Saturday January 31, 2009

HIGH-LEVEL tensions over the assault on Gaza spilled into the public spotlight when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan erupted at Israel's most revered statesmen and stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum after being cut short during a passionate exchange over the conflict. The dispute came at the end of a panel discussion on the Gaza conflict, in which Mr Peres gave a long and emotional defence of Israel's offensive. The packed audience, which included US President Barack Obama's adviser Valerie Jarrett, appeared stunned as Mr Erdogan and Mr Peres raised their voices and exchanged accusations.

On the Davos panel, Mr Peres blamed the violence on Hamas, saying it had fired rockets into Israel. He argued that any country would have acted in the same way and said Israel had tried to avoid civilian casualties. Earlier, the Turkish leader had accused Israel of turning Gaza into a prison camp and killing 1300 Palestinians in its offensive, in which 13 Israelis died. While he spoke, Mr Peres looked repeatedly at Mr Erdogan, and denied Israel had blockaded Gaza. "Why did they fire rockets ' There was no siege against Gaza," he said. "Why did they fight us, what did they want ' There was never a day of starvation in Gaza." Both men raised their voices, and Mr Erdogan wanted to respond. "I find it very sad that people applaud what you said," he said. "You killed people, and I think that it is very wrong." But Mr Ignatius cut Mr Erdogan off, saying the session was over time, and people needed to get to dinner. "We can't reopen the debate," he said,

Mr Erdogan walked out. At a hastily called news conference afterwards, Mr Erdogan said he had been upset by both the handling of the debate and by Mr Peres's manner. "President Peres was speaking to the Prime Minister of Turkey — I am not just some leader of some group or tribe, so he should have addressed me accordingly," Mr Erdogan said. "I did not target at all in any way the Israeli people, President Peres or the Jewish people," he said. "I am a prime minister, a leader who has specifically expressly stated that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity."

Mr Peres later called Mr Erdogan to apologise, according to the Anatolia news agency of Turkey. A spokesman for the World Economic Forum said a phone call took place between the two men and "they consider the matter closed". A spokeswoman for Mr Peres said last night the President had called Mr Erdogan and the two had a "friendly conversation". "During this conversation, the Turkish Prime Minister stressed his move was not against Peres but the president of the session", Mr Peres's spokeswoman said.

The spike in emotions surprised even some long-time observers of the peace process. "I have known Shimon Peres for many years and I also know Erdogan," former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik said. "I have never seen Shimon Peres so passionate as he was today. I think he felt Israel was being attacked by so many in the international community. He felt isolated."

The heated exchange was significant because of the key role that Turkey, a moderate Muslim nation with a secular government, has played as a mediator between Israel and Syria on Middle East peace. And Turkey has been a bridge to militant Muslim groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Davos dispute was partly about protocol: moderator David Ignatius of The Washington Post said he cut off Mr Erdogan to let the audience go to dinner. But the high emotions reflect the tensions over the Gaza conflict. Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries in the region that has normal trade and political relations with Israel. But Turkey has in recent years come to feel less dependent on its traditional relationships with the West, says the Turkey representative for the International Crisis Group, Hugh Pope. "Erdogan in particular feels personally passionate about what happens in Gaza," said Mr Pope, noting that the Turkish Prime Minister was vocal over the bloody fighting in Gaza in 2004 and Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

So far, however, these concerns have not affected Turkey's pragmatic relationship with Israel. Turkey was the second nation to recognise Israel after the state was formed in 1948. The two countries have a deep military relationship, including a training agreement under which Israeli pilots train in Turkey, and about $US 2 billion ($3 billion) of arms deals under way. But during the Gaza conflict, Mr Erdogan declined to take a phone call from Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The Turkish leader was warmly greeted on arriving back home, with 5000 supporters waving Turkish and Palestinian flags flooding into Istanbul's airport when his plane touched down before dawn. Mr Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, will be in Turkey for talks tomorrow. Earlier yesterday, Israeli election frontrunner Benjamin Netanyahu told another session in Davos that keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands was more important than the economic crisis, because the financial meltdown was reversible.


Olmert threatens 'harsh' response
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday February 03, 2009

A NEW warning by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that any firing of rockets by Hamas into southern Israel will be met by "a harsh and disproportionate" response has triggered fears that hostilities between Israel and Hamas may reignite.

Israel launched fresh airstrikes into Gaza last night, hitting targets near Khan Yunis and Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli strikes were believed to have targeted the network of tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border, which Israeli officials believe are still in use despite heavy bombing. The strikes were in response to eight rockets fired by Hamas into southern Israel that reportedly injured two soldiers and a civilian. Israel retaliated immediately with an airstrike against what it said were Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

The new clashes effectively ended the 12-day ceasefire, despite efforts brokered by Egyptian officials in Cairo to find a truce that would hold. Mr Olmert said Israel would be acting according to "new rules" that he suggested would involve such a strong response that Hamas would cease any rocket fire. Speaking after a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, he said: "The Government's position was from the outset that if there is shooting at the residents of the south, there will be a harsh Israeli response that will be disproportionate. We will act according to new rules which will ensure that we will not be drawn into a war of incessant shooting on the southern border, which would deprive the residents of the south of a normal life."

Hamas yesterday fired four rockets and four mortar shells into the south of Israel, one of which reportedly landed near a kindergarten. Following news of those rocket attacks, Mr Olmert said: "I have asked the Defence Minister (Ehud Barak) to instruct the IDF to prepare for the Israeli response that is required under these circumstances. The response will be given at the time, place and avenue that we choose."

Hamas rejected Mr Olmert's statements, saying they were "a false excuse" to escalate the Gaza offensive, which has been on hold due to the ceasefire. Spokesman Taher Nunu told Sky News: "This is an attempt to find a false excuse to escalate the aggression against the Palestinians, to destroy the Egyptian efforts to improve the calm and to use pressure against the Palestinian people to accept Israeli conditions in those talks. We condemn the statements by Olmert and others today threatening the Gaza Strip."

As Israel prepares for its national elections next Tuesday, leading candidates are making security the primary issue. Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu said he would "finish the job" against Hamas. Kadima's Tzipi Livni said Israel's response to the latest rockets should be "strong and immediate". Labor's Mr Barak has criticised Ms Livni, saying she is indecisive on security.

The issue of what approach Israel should take if Iran continues with its ambition to achieve nuclear capability remains a major issue. A third potential conflict - against Hezbollah in Lebanon - is also a key issue.


Israelis step up hardline rhetoric
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday February 05, 2009

EHUD Barak, leader of the Israeli Labour party in next week's elections, has vowed to "smash" and "topple" Hamas, while urging the US to set a clear timetable for talks with Iran. "We will destroy Hamas and all our enemies. We will not accept the recent firing of rockets," the Defence Minister said yesterday at the Herzliya Conference, a gathering of military and foreign policy experts at the International Disciplinary Centre in the city of Herzliya. He spoke a day after Kadima's candidate for prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, gave a speech on military issues, and the day before the frontrunner in next Tuesday's election, Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was due to address the conference.

Mr Barak toughened his rhetoric to match that of Mr Netanyahu, who this week warned of a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Mr Barak acknowledged the push by US President Barack Obama to talk to Iran about its nuclear program, but said Israel could not allow the process to go on indefinitely. "We must reach an understanding with the US over timetables for (talks on) the nuclear program," he said. Describing Hamas as "bloodthirsty", he said if it was necessary for Israel to take a more forceful response to the group "we know how to do that. We will destroy, we will smash, we will topple Hamas, we will destroy all our enemies," said one of the architects of last month's assault on Gaza, which killed at least 1300 Palestinians.

To become prime minister again, Mr Barak needs to take support from Likud on the Right and Kadima on the Left. While Ms Livni's vision outlined the day before was that she would "integrate military force with a political initiative", Mr Barak had a more hardline position. "Military deterrence without compromise with all the other options," he said. "There is no doubt as to what the Israeli Defence Forces are capable of doing," he said. "Hamas was dealt a terrible blow, and we know the IDF will be able to do it once again if necessary."

Mr Barak said Hamas had used civilians in the Gaza as human shields, but the IDF was "the most moral and ethical army in the world" -- they had dropped thousands of leaflets and made telephone calls to houses in Gaza warning people to leave before the attacks. As prime minister, he said, he would refuse to negotiate with Hamas, claiming the group was run from Iran. Israel should engage with moderate Arab countries in the search for a solution to the Palestinian conflict, he said.

Labour's struggles in the polls have left the controversial Avigdor Lieberman poised to oust Mr Barak as defence minister in the post-election negotiations for forming a coalition. The Russian immigrant's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party is poised to become parliament's third largest, nudging out centre-left Labour, which ruled Israel for more than half of its 60 years, opinion polls show. "The winning gimmick of the elections" and "the new trend" is how the press has described the pudgy and bearded former nightclub bouncer, whose vitriolic harangues against Israeli Arabs have previously earned him the monickers of "fascist", "racist" and "embarrassment to democracy". The jump in support has come as Mr Lieberman's hardline campaign messages found fertile ground among Israelis disappointed that the Gaza war ended without Hamas toppled, disenchanted with career politicians, and exhausted by the region's never-ending violence.


Lift for Israeli who wants Arabs out
The Australian
Charles Levinson, Jerusalem
The Wall Street Journal, Additional reporting: AP
Saturday February 07, 2009

A RIGHT-WING politician who is calling for the expulsion of Israel's Arab citizens looks set to score big gains in national elections on Tuesday. Avigdor Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), is running a close third in polls, which could make the Moldovan immigrant and former nightclub bouncer the kingmaker of Israeli politics when it comes time to negotiate a coalition government after the vote.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party and favourite to be Israel's next prime minister, has promised that Mr Lieberman would be an "important minister" in his government. That could dampen already dim hopes for a Middle East peace breakthrough any time soon. Mr Lieberman has vowed to stop all peace negotiations, including those with the US-backed Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Lieberman rejects the principle of "land for peace" -- which calls for Israel to give Palestinians certain territories in exchange for a peace agreement -- that has anchored US peace efforts in the Middle East for the past 30 years. He proposes to redraw Israel's borders to transfer most of the country's 1.2 million Arab citizens to Palestinian control, in exchange for land in the West Bank occupied by Jewish settlers. He wants to make it mandatory for Israeli citizens to take a loyalty oath to get citizenship, the right to vote, and social services. "Israel is under a dual terrorist attack, from within and from without," Mr Lieberman, 50, said this week at an annual conference on national security. Speaking Hebrew with a Russian accent, he took aim at the country's Arab citizens, warning "the threat from within is more dangerous than the threat from outside".

Polls indicate Mr Lieberman's party would get up to 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, up from its current 11 and just shy of the 26 forecast for Likud. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's ruling centrist Kadima party, which holds 29 seats, is polling a close second to Likud. Defence Minister Ehud Barak's traditionally pro-peace Labour Party, with 18 seats now, could win as few as 13 seats.

"For many years we said to ourselves that we don't hate, that hatred is something the others do," Israeli historian and author Tom Segev said. "This has changed now. It has become legitimate to hate the Arabs. It is an indication of just how far to the Right Israel has moved." Israeli voters have been shifting to the Right since the collapse of Mid-East peace talks at Camp David in the US in 2000 and a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that followed.

Israel's Arab minority has full citizenship rights, and has traditionally been held up as evidence of Israel's democratic roots. Recently, however, Arab politicians in Israel have made provocative statements in support of Hamas and attacks against Israel. Mr Lieberman emigrated from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978, aged 20, and joined Likud as a student. He broke from Likud in 1999 and established Yisrael Beiteinu.

Same Day
Iraq lights path for Middle East
The war is over and a previously torn country has become a model for what the rest of the region should become, writes Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal

IMAGINE yourself as Barack Obama, gazing at a map of the greater Middle East and wondering how, and where, the United States can best make a fresh start in the region.

Your gaze wanders rightward to Pakistan, where preventing war with India, economic collapse or the Talibanisation of half the country would be achievement enough. Next door is Afghanistan, where you are committing more troops, all so you can prop up a government that is by turns hapless and corrupt. Next there is Iran, drawing ever closer to its bomb. You're mulling the shape of a grand bargain, but Israel is talking pre-emption. Speaking of Israel, you're girding for a contentious relationship with the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, the all but certain next prime minister.

What about Israel's neighbours ' The Palestinian territories are riven between feckless moderates and pitiless fanatics. Lebanon and Hezbollah are nearly synonyms. You'd love to nudge Syria out of Iran's orbit, but Bashar al-Assad isn't inclined. In Egypt, a succession crisis looms the moment its octogenarian President retires to his grave.

And then there is Iraq, the country in the middle that you would have just as soon banished from sight. How's it doing ' Perplexingly well. The final tallies for last Saturday's provincial elections aren't in yet, but preliminary results yesterday show a few conclusions are warranted. This time, the election seems to have been mostly free of fraud; four years ago, it was beset by fraud. This time, there was almost no violence; four years ago, there were 299 terrorist attacks. This time, 40 per cent of voters in the overwhelmingly Sunni province of Anbar went to the polls; four years ago, turnout was 2 per cent.

In 2005, Iraqis voted their sectarian preferences. Now sectarian parties are out of fashion. "Those candidates who campaigned under the banner of religion should be rejected," Abdul Kareem told al-Jazeera. "They corrupted the name of religion because they are notorious for being thieves. Religion is not politics." Mr Kareem is a Shia cleric.

Also out of fashion: Iran, previously thought to be the jolly inheritor of America's Iraq misadventure. In 2005, Tehran's political minions in the Iranian-funded Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- itself the funder of the dreaded Badr brigade -- swept the field. Candidates loyal to anti-American fire-breather Moqtada al-Sadr also did well. This time, Sadr didn't even dare to field his own slate, and early reports are that the Supreme Council was trounced.

What is in fashion, electorally speaking, are secular parties, as well as the moderately religious Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This wasn't supposed to happen. The Palestinian parliamentary election of 2006 that put Hamas in power was taken in the West as proof that Arab democracy was destined to yield illiberal results. Saturday's election suggests otherwise, assuming there is a structure that guarantees that Islamists must stand for election more than once.

What about security ' A month ago, US General Ray Odierno predicted that "al-Qa'ida will try to exploit the elections because they don't want them to happen. So I think they will attempt to create some violence and uncertainty in the population." But al-Qa'ida was a no-show on Saturday. Meanwhile, more US soldiers died in accidents (12) than in combat (4) for the month of January. The war is over.

So what are you going to do about the one bright spot on your map -- an Arab country that is genuinely democratic, increasingly secular and secure, anti-Iranian and, all in all, on your side ' So far, your only idea seems to bid to it good luck and bring most of the troops home in time for Super Bowl Sunday, 2010.

That's a campaign promise, but it isn't a foreign policy. Foreign policy begins with the recognition that Iraq has now moved from the liability side of the US ledger to the asset side. As an Arab democracy, it is a model for what we would like the rest of the Arab world to become. As a Shia democracy, it is a reproach to Iranian theocracy. As the country at the heart of the Middle East, it is ideally located to be a bulwark against Tehran's encroachments.

There was a time when American strategists understood the role countries could play as "pillars" of a regional strategy. Israel has been a pillar since at least 1967; Iran was one until 1979. Turkey, too, is a pillar, but it is fast slipping away, as is Egypt. Within the Arab world, Iraq is the only country that can now fulfil that role. For that it will need military and economic aid, and lots of it. Better it than futile causes like Palestine, or missions impossible like winning over the mullahs. With Saturday's poll, Iraq has earned a powerful claim to our friendship. Yes, you would rather look elsewhere on the map for a Middle East legacy. But Iraq is where you'll find it. Let's hope you don't miss the chance.

Same Day
Extract - An angry nation no longer in the mood to give peace a chance
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

ISRAEL is an angry country about to vote. It goes into its general election next Tuesday as a country that feels isolated, under threat and having been abandoned by the bulk of the international community. That national mood comes in the wake of the recent Gaza war. In military terms, Israel won it comprehensively. But in terms of image around the world, Israel has taken a pounding, accused of a needless slaughter of hundreds of civilians among the 1300 Palestinians killed during the 22-day war.

That anger was reflected recently by the head of the Government Press Office -- part of the Prime Minister's department -- Danny Seamen, who branded foreign journalists covering Gaza as "a fig leaf for Hamas". The anger is feeding into a siege mentality apparent this week at Israel's top annual security and defence conference in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. The editor of The Jerusalem Post, David Horovitz, told conference delegates he saw a "rising tide of delegitimacy" against Israel following the Gaza war. While Horovitz said Israel had contributed to this with decisions such as banning foreign media from covering the war, which meant much of the information was being reported by Palestinian "stringers" — and when foreign media were allowed in they did the stories they would have done weeks earlier anyway — he also blamed foreign media for refusing to acknowledge "the death cult imperative" of Islamic extremism to kill or be killed. He told the conference: "In the absence of more informed and sophisticated reporting, more and more people in this region and beyond are more hostile to Israel today than they were a few weeks ago, more disgusted by us, more convinced of our guilt." He received a rousing applause. Speaker after speaker said they believed there was a new campaign around the world to question Israel's legitimacy as a state.


Netanyahu set for return to power in Israel

Netanyahu set for return
Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at an election rally in Jerusalem at the weekend Picture: AFP
The Australian
John Lyons. Middle East correspondent
Monday February 09, 2009

FORMER Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to defy a late swing and return to power in tomorrow's election, riding a shift to the Right in a campaign dominated by security fears. However, the Kadima party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Russian-born Avigdor Lieberman, closed the gap in the latest polls.

In one of his final appearances, Mr Netanyahu warned supporters that his party, despite leading throughout the campaign, could still lose. "Most of the people in the national camp want to see me as prime minister and want the Likud's policies," he said. "But they all think I'm going to get elected anyway, so they think they can vote for other parties in the national camp. If they do that, the gap between Likud and Kadima narrows. And if that happens, there could be a very unfortunate result." Meanwhile, Ms Livni predicted: "I'm going to win against all odds."

Final polls show a strong swing to the Right after Israel's 22-day war in the Gaza Strip. But no party appeared set to have enough votes in its own right and it was unclear what form any coalition government would take. In Israel, the convention is that the president asks the party with the most votes to form a government. The leader of that party then has three weeks to form government, which usually leads to frantic horse-trading.

A poll by The Jerusalem Post found that parties to the Right would win about 65 of the 120 seats available in the Knesset. Such a result would be predicated on Likud winning 26 seats and Yisrael Beiteinu winning 17 or 18. But this victory for the Right assumed that Mr Netanyahu would make a coalition with Mr Lieberman, his former Likud colleague and adviser. Political analysts say that Mr Netanyahu realises that a deal with Mr Lieberman - which would make the former nightclub bouncer deputy prime minister - would strain relations with the US.

Mr Lieberman has gained support by positioning himself to the Right of Mr Netanyahu. His campaign has been heavily critical of Arabs living inside Israel and has proposed redrawing Israel's borders so that some towns with majorities of Arabs could become part of Palestinian territories in exchange for towns of Jewish settlers being included in redrawn Israeli boundaries. While Mr Netanyahu is believed to favour a deal with Labour, led by his friend Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the risk for him would be that Ms Livni could strike a surprise deal with Mr Lieberman, and take government. Mr Netanyahu may need to form a coalition with Labour and Ms Livni, which could result in Mr Barak remaining as Defence Minister and Ms Livni remaining as Foreign Minister.

Mr Barak at the weekend refused to rule out joining a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu, although it is unlikely Labour will be in the position to decide who is in the coalition. Labour looks set to record its lowest vote since being formed in 1948, possibly slipping to fourth spot, below Yisrael Beiteinu. The rise of Yisrael Beiteinu has led to an extraordinary attack on the party by one of the country's leading religious leaders. Spiritual leader of the rival Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said in his sermon: "Whoever votes for Lieberman gives strength to Satan."

The Post poll gave the Left about 55 seats. The major contributors to such a Left coalition would be Kadima, with 23, and Labour, with 14. But a wild card in the election is the high number of undecided ballots - up to 20 per cent of potential voters still had yet to make up their minds at the weekend. Voting in Israel is voluntary.

The election comes as Israel faces several external threats - Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran's developing nuclear program - and as Palestinian politics is bitterly divided. This division was shown at the weekend when the Palestinian Authority, run by Fatah, accused rival faction Hamas, which runs Gaza, of using hospitals in the Strip for "torture and detention" during the conflict with Israel. A statement released by the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Health in Ramallah said: "Hamas unfortunately used several facilities, mainly a large number of hospitals, as stations for summons, interrogation, torture and detention."

Attempts by Israel to bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit before the ballot continued, but Hamas said heightened speculation about such a release appeared election-driven. Corporal Shalit was captured by Hamas in 2006 and Israel is believed to have been considering swapping hundreds of captured Hamas fighters for his release. The issue is one at the forefront of Israelis' minds, but while any release before the election would probably assist Ms Livni and Mr Barak, who have been involved in negotiations, in the longer term the Israeli public could resent the release of large numbers of Hamas fighters.


Both Livni and Netanyahu claim victory in Israel election
The Australian Online
Agence France-Presse
UPDATE Wednesday February 11, 2009

FOREIGN Minister Tzipi Livni and ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both declared victory in a nail-biting Israeli election, setting the stage for a protracted power struggle. Livni's Kadima party won a razor-thin victory, gaining one more seat than right-wing rival Likud, according to a final ballot count. Israel's central election commission said Kadima won 28 seats in the 120-member parliament, followed by Netanyahu's Likud party with 27. Avigdor Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party came in third with 15 seats - its best-ever showing - and the centre-left Labour party fell to 13, its worst performance in any Israeli election. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party came in fifth with 11 seats. In Israel's unusual political system the party with the most seats does not necessarily lead the next government, and Netanyahu stands a good chance of becoming prime minister on the back of overall gains by right-wing parties.

'Today the people have chosen Kadima, ' Livni, 50, told party supporters in Tel Aviv as she vowed to become Israel's second female prime minister and urged Netanyahu to join a national unity government under her leadership. 'Israel does not belong to the Right in the same way that peace does not belong to the Left. '

Security was a major theme of last night's vote in the wake of Israel's war on Gaza and its Hamas rulers and the outcome will be crucial in determining the future of Middle East peacemaking. Although jubilant Kadima supporters jumped with joy after exit polls showed it ahead, it is not certain Livni will be chosen to form the next government, and the tight race means Israel is facing weeks of political uncertainty. Netanyahu, 59, also said he was confident he would head the next government. 'The national camp led by the Likud has won an unambiguous majority, ' Netanyahu told supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv. 'I am certain that I will be able to form the next government. I can unite all forces of this nation and lead Israel. '

Under Israel's political system, the party with the most seats is not necessarily tasked with forming a government and most analysts said before the vote that Netanyahu was the best placed to corral the required 61 MPs. The Palestinian Authority has been careful not to voice publicly a preference for any candidate, but is hoping US President Barack Obama will help ensure that the next prime minister does not bury already stalled peace talks. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat expressed dismay that right-wing parties had performed so well. 'It's obvious the Israelis have voted to paralyse the peace process, ' he said. Hamas - which endured a devastating three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed more than 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis - had originally expressed little interest in the vote, saying all Israeli leaders were equally bad. But after the exit polls, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Israelis had voted for 'the most bellicose candidates, those who are the most extremist in their rhetoric '.

Despite fears foul weather would keep voters indoors, 65.2 per cent of the almost 5.3 million eligible voters turned out, slightly higher than in the 2006 election. For weeks, opinion polls have given the lead to Netanyahu, a smooth-talking tactician who become Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996 and again presented himself as a security hardliner. But in recent days, Livni had clawed back some of the ground lost by Kadima, which is still reeling from a series of corruption scandals that forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign last year. The biggest surprise in the election has been the meteoric rise of Lieberman, a tough-talking Moldovan-born former bouncer who has taken a hard line against Israel's Arab minority and been derided as a racist by his critics.


No truce until sergeant free: Israel
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday February 16, 2009

IN a shift in Israel's position, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared there will be no truce in the Gaza Strip until Hamas releases Israeli sergeant Gilad Shalit from captivity. It was the first time Israel has linked a truce agreement to Sergeant Shalit's freedom so unequivocally.

Hamas has been insisting that the release of Sergeant Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel is a separate deal unconnected to the truce talks, a position that Israel has accepted until now. However, Egyptian sources apparently confirm the new Israeli position, according to an Arabic-language newspaper in London, al-Khayat. "The deal to release Gilad Shalit will be completed before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leaves office and before a new government is formed in Israel," said the sources in Cairo cited by the newspaper. The new government is expected to be formed within a few weeks.

Sergeant Shalit, who was captured 32 months ago by Palestinian militants, was reported by a Hamas source to be held in a room at the bottom of a 15m shaft lined with explosives, according to Israeli television. Hamas has rejected requests by the Red Cross to visit him. Going by past experience, it is regarded as unlikely that Sergeant Shalit would survive any attempt to rescue him and there has been no report of any such effort, even during Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip last month.

Israeli chief of staff General Gabi Ashkenazi said several months ago that Sergeant Shalit's whereabouts were known to Israel. Hamas is demanding the release of more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sergeant Shalit, including several hundred who had been high on Israel's terrorist list before their capture, some of them labelled mass murderers. Israel has reportedly reconciled itself to a large-scale release.

Mr Olmert has made it a personal priority before he leaves office to oversee Sergeant Shalit's return. "The Prime Minister's position is that Israel will not reach an agreement on a truce before the release of Gilad Shalit," said a statement issued by his office yesterday. Mr Olmert's office said the Prime Minister would consult Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to succeed him after last week's elections, before any final decision is made on a prisoner exchange.

Earlier reports said that Israel would agree to an interim truce stage in which 80 per cent of goods destined for Gaza would be permitted to enter the strip through crossings from Israel. Crossings would be opened fully only after Sergeant Shalit's release. Hamas, for its part, has maintained that negotiations for Sergeant Shalit's release will begin only after the crossings are open. Israel's closure of the crossings to almost anything besides food and other humanitarian aid since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip almost two years ago has brought the economy of Gaza to a virtual standstill.

Israel and Hamas have been negotiating indirectly via Egyptian officials. Hamas officials said last week that an agreement on an 18-month-long truce would be announced today. But Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal said on Saturday that "there has been a setback and (the ceasefire) will not start as was expected". He did not clarify the nature of the setback, but it could be connected to Israel's demand for the release of Sergeant Shalit. Egyptian officials have been urging Hamas to come to an agreement on a truce and prisoner exchange before a tough, right-wing government is formed in Israel, probably next month.


Likud in final bid for Israeli coalition with Kadima
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday February 18, 2009

LIKUD leader Benjamin Netanyahu made a final attempt yesterday to build a stable coalition government in Israel, apealing to the leader of the Kadima party, Tzipi Livni, that she should join him in a government broader than just the "nationalist camp". He made the comments the day before President Shimon Peres was due to receive the official results from last week's election. After receiving those results, Mr Peres is expected to announce this Friday to whom he will give the opportunity to form a government. That leader, expected to be Mr Netanyahu, will then have 42 days to return to him with a coalition government.

Both major parties - Likud and Kadima - yesterday continued bargaining with smaller parties to see whether they could present to Mr Peres a coalition with more than 60 of the Knesset's 120 seats. Kadima said yesterday it had accepted Yisrael Beiteinu's major demands for any coalition support, although it appeared likely that Likud would be able to present a stronger case for a coalition. Although Kadima has agreed to Yisrael Beiteinu's demand to support civil marriages, Likud would still be likely to match that demand if necessary.

The negotiations came as Mr Netanyahu outlined plans for trying to support the moderate Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, after Israel's 22-day war in Gaza against the PA's rivals, Hamas. "A combination of political talk and rapid economic development is the best way to create a new reality in the PA," he said. "We need to strengthen the Palestinian moderates and weaken the radicals by pursuing rapid economic growth and bolstering the apparatus of the Palestinian security authority. If the Palestinian Authority is willing to work with us, together with the US administration and perhaps other governments, we can move rapidly to change reality on the ground, which is worth a thousand peace conferences." The comments came as reports emerged that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah had been forced to take out bank loans to pay its employees.

The Obama administration has made it clear that its strategy to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be to support the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and try to isolate Hamas. The first telephone call Mr Obama made to any world leader as new President was to Mr Abbas. Critics have said any government led by Mr Netanyahu would be on a collision course with the Obama administration.

Yesterday's comments, however, suggest he is prepared to support the same policy of trying to find a solution by supporting the economy of the West Bank and trying to weaken Hamas's support. Mr Netanyahu told a conference of visiting American Jewish leaders yesterday that the Palestinian Authority was showing signs of success with the re-establishment of law and order and security that had come from its own police forces and security forces trained by the US. Ms Livni told the same conference that Israel needed to be prepared to negotiate land to achieve longer-term peace. "I believe that the vast majority of Israelis believe that to keep Israel as a Jewish state, as a democratic state, is by dividing land," she said.

And in a sign that Israeli leaders want the issue of Iran's nuclear program to be prominent, Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned that Iran was the greatest threat to Israel's security. "It will be difficult to stop the trickling of nuclear capabilities, even if primitive, in terrorist organisations," Mr Barak said.


Netanyahu given chance to rule
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday February 21, 2009

ISRAEL'S President Shimon Peres asked Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu last night to form a new Israeli government. The announcement came after Mr Peres met separately with Mr Netanyahu and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, hoping to convince them to form a broad government alliance. "The President has made a decision regarding the formation of the government and the presidency will summon deputy Benjamin Netanyahu at 2.15pm local time (11.15 AEDT) to entrust him with this task," Mr Peres's office said last night.

Mr Netanyahu now has six weeks to put together a ruling coalition, but the odds of a broad alliance lengthened after Ms Livni said any government led by Mr Netanyahu would be dysfunctional and extremist. She would rather move to the opposition than join a coalition government under Mr Netanyahu. Ms Livni, the Foreign Minister and leader of the party with the most seats, emerged from the talks saying: "I will not be a pawn in a government that would be against our ideals. Things are clear. What is being created is a government without political vision, a government with no values," she said. "We need a government based on a two-state solution."

Her comments came after Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the third-largest party, Yisrael Beiteinu, had endorsed Mr Netanyahu as leader, effectively confirming him as the next prime minister. Mr Lieberman, although leader of an ultra-nationalist party, also said yesterday he wanted Kadima to be part of the government so that it was a broad coalition. Kadima won the most number of seats of any party in last week's election - 28 compared to Likud's 27 - but the Right bloc of parties, led by Likud, won more seats than the Centre-Left bloc, led by Kadima. This left Mr Peres with the job of choosing which leader was most likely to form a stable coalition government.

But all leaders - including Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman - have publicly said they want a broad coalition that includes Kadima. The two men have sufficient experience in Israeli politics to know that unless a coalition government is broad-based, it tends to be short-lived. Ms Livni's political strategy appears to be to position herself in opposition to be ready to try to increase her support in any future election rather than be subject to the fortunes of a government dominated by Mr Netanyahu and influenced by Mr Lieberman.

Ms Livni and Mr Netanyahu have strongly different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms Livni is more aligned to the position of the Obama administration, which wants to seek a two-state solution, while Mr Netanyahu is publicly very sceptical of any such solution.

Yesterday, Mr Peres met faction leaders from 10 parties that won seats last week. But given that two of the Centre-Left's largest parties - Kadima and Labour - have opted to go into opposition, it was inevitable Mr Netanyahu would be given the task. Mr Lieberman yesterday met Mr Peres and told him he recommended Mr Netanyahu as leader. But he added: "We recommend Benjamin Netanyahu only in the framework of a broad government. We want a government of the three biggest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu."

Outgoing Defence Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the Labour Party, added to the general sense of uncertainty when he told a meeting of Labour members of the Knesset: "The picture is complicated and disturbing when Yisrael Beiteinu is the one to recommend who Israel's next prime minister will be. We are left with only one option, and that is to decide not to recommend anyone for the premiership."

Meanwhile, US senator John Kerry, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became the first senior US politician to visit Gaza since the 22-day war with Israel. He joined two other US congressmen, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Brian Baird of Washington. During talks with relief officials at the main UN compound in Gaza City, Senator Kerry was handed a letter from Hamas, addressed to President Barack Obama. Senator Kerry did not meet any Hamas representatives and stressed that his trip to the impoverished territory, which no US official had visited for years, did not indicate a shift of policy towards Hamas, which is listed by the US as a terrorist organisation.

Also, Same Day
Extract - Iran uranium haul enough to make a bomb
AFP Correspondents in Vienna and Washington

IRAN has for the first time amassed enough enriched uranium to make an atom bomb, the UN's nuclear watchdog declared yesterday. The International Atomic Energy Agency also said Iran recently understated by a third how much uranium it had enriched. In a report issued in Vienna, it said it had discovered an extra 209kg of low-enriched uranium. Media reports said yesterday the agency had made the find during its annual physical inventory of nuclear materials at Iran's desert enrichment plant at Natanz, 210km south of Tehran.

Independent nuclear weapons experts expressed surprise at the disclosure and criticised the atomic inspectors for making independent checks on Iran's progress only once a year. "It's worse than we thought," Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, told The New York Times. "It's alarming that the actual production was underreported by a third."

Enriched uranium is used to make nuclear fuel and the fissile material for an atom bomb. The report noted Iran had produced 1010kg of low-enriched uranium. The disclosure of the unaccounted third came to light when the report noted the new total came from the addition of 171kg of new production to 839kg of old production. But the agency had previously reported the old production as 630kg. So the Iranians had made 209kg more uranium than disclosed. Analysts say between 1000kg and 1700kg would be needed to convert into high-enriched uranium suitable for one bomb.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei complained earlier this week that Tehran was not co-operating. "Iran right now is not providing any access, any clarification with regards to the whole area of the possible military dimension," he said at a conference in Paris. "They are not following what the Security Council asked us to do, that is: 'Please clarify this issue'," Mr ElBaradei said. The IAEA conceded that, despite six years of intensive investigation, it was no closer to determining whether Iran's disputed nuclear drive was entirely peaceful, as Tehran has claimed. Iran, a leading OPEC oil producer, denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and says it aims to provide energy for its growing population when its reserves of fossil fuels run out.


Rockets just one of Bibi's problems
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday February 23, 2009

ISRAEL'S northern border with Lebanon came under attack at the weekend, highlighting one of the challenges facing Benjamin Netanyahu as he remains poised to become the country's next prime minister. Three Israelis were wounded when a Katyusha rocket landed near Nahariya, prompting immediate return artillery fire by the Israel Defence Forces. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah denied firing the rockets, and the attacks were condemned by Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, who criticised Israel's return fire as "an inexcusable violation of Lebanese sovereignty". The attack was believed to have been carried out by a Palestinian militant group inside Lebanon, the same group thought responsible for similar attacks during Israel's war with Gaza last month. It was the third rocket attack on northern Israel from southern Lebanon in the past month.

The attack came only 24 hours after Israeli President Shimon Peres said he would give Likud leader Mr Netanyahu 42 days to assemble a coalition government. Accepting the task, Mr Netanyahu made yet another call for Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, and Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, to join him in a unity government. "For decades we have not withstood so many challenges at the same time," he said. "To face these challenges we need to join hands and unite all the forces within the people." Under Ms Livni's leadership, Kadima won 28 seats in the new Knesset - one more than Likud. Kadima won more seats than any other single party. However, the right-wing block of parties, led by Likud, has won as many as 65 of the 120 Knesset seats, leading to Mr Peres's view that they are most likely to be able to form a stable coalition government.

Ms Livni is unlikely to accept Mr Netanyahu's invitation to join any government. Only last week she described the government he was about to form as extremist. and said she did not intend to be "a figleaf for a government that has no path and is dysfunctional". Likewise, Mr Barak has said he believes the correct approach for Labor is to go into opposition. In the February 10 election, Labor recorded its worst result, winning only 14 seats. This meant it had fallen to become the fourth biggest party, behind Kadima, Likud and the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu under Avigdor Lieberman. Mr Barak said: "We are left with only one option and that is to decide not to recommend anyone for the premiership."

However, the political problem for Mr Netanyahu is that without support from the block of Kadima and Labour - 42 seats - he is largely at the mercy of the smaller special-interest groups in the Knesset. While Mr Lieberman has endorsed Mr Netanyahu, he has said he would do so on the basis that Mr Netanyahu formed "a broad coalition" government that included Kadima. He did not specify what he would do with Yisrael Beiteinu's 15 seats if Mr Netanyahu was not able to convince Kadima to join.

Mr Netanyahu is set to return to the prime ministership at a time when Israel is facing problems on many fronts. Inside Israel, there are calls for the country to seek to make a peace deal with Syria, thereby removing one strategic problem. For the past year, Turkey has been brokering peace talks between Israel and Syria in Ankara, but Syria withdrew from those talks when Israel began the war in Gaza on December 27.


Extract - Livni warms to coalition with Likud
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday February 24, 2009

THE leader of Israel's Kadima party has for the first time left open the possibility of joining a coalition government led by her rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni yesterday dropped her outright rejection of such a prospect, which she had expressed only days ago. Ms Livni yesterday met Mr Netanyahu for the first time since they both claimed victory in the February 10 election, and said after that meeting there was no reason they could not meet again for further talks. Mr Netanyahu said after the meeting: "I think unity is reachable, through dialogue." But the issue of how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained the central obstacle to any agreement.

The meeting came as Mr Netanyahu attempted to allay concerns he was at odds with US President Barack Obama, who has committed himself to pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I intend and expect to co-operate with the Obama administration and to try to advance the common goals of peace, security and prosperity for us and our neighbours," Mr Netanyahu said. On his search to form a stable government, he said forming a broad coalition with Ms Livni was "our foremost goal".

Mr Netanyahu is believed to have told her that she may retain her current position as Israel's Foreign Minister in return for Kadima being part of a national unity government. Ms Livni's position on the weekend appeared to soften, leaving the way open for joining a Netanyahu coalition. Two days before, she had described the government about to be formed by Mr Netanyahu as "extremist" and "dysfunctional". But it is believed there is much debate inside Kadima about whether the party should join the government, with some telling Ms Livni they believe it would be better for the party to have an influence on national government with so many vital issues facing Israel rather than to risk becoming irrelevant in opposition.

Mr Netanyahu has said he is not opposed to a two-state solution as long as there are sufficient safeguards for Israel's security. But he has expressed doubts about whether this can be achieved while a group such as the militant Hamas, which runs the Gaza strip, has influence in Palestinian politics. Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu also met US Senator Joe Lieberman, who rejected suggestions Mr Netanyahu would not be able to deal with with the Obama administration.


Netanyahu in switch to the Right
The Australian
Correspondents in Tel Aviv, AFP
Saturday February 28, 2009

LAST-DITCH efforts to form a broad-based Israeli coalition failed last night, paving the way for a rightist government and fuelling concerns about prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Speaking after a 90-minute meeting with Tzipi Livni, Foreign Minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party, hawkish prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu said he had failed to persuade her to join a coalition. "I have done everything possible to achieve unity ... but to my great regret, I faced categorical rejection from Mrs Livni," the leader of the right-wing Likud party said.

Minutes earlier, Ms Livni had said the the meeting "concluded without agreement on key issues". "We will be a responsible opposition," she said after the meeting in Tel Aviv, the second such talks since the February 10 elections. However, Ms Livni did not shut the door on any possibility of an agreement, and Mr Netanyahu still has five weeks to cobble together a government. "This meeting has ended without agreements on issues that I see as substantial," she said. "There could be a government that advances these issues. At the moment, based on the discussion I held in the adjacent room, that government won't be Netanyahu's." Ms Livni has argued that Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, would block any chance of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

"Netanyahu does not believe in the peace process and is prisoner of the right-wing's traditional vision," she said in an interview with the Maariv newspaper. "Under these circumstances the best option is to serve the people from the opposition benches," she said. But Mr Netanyahu reportedly told visiting US Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Thursday that he intends to advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians and would respect commitments made by previous governments. Maariv said before the talks that Ms Livni would tell Mr Netanyahu: "I want you to commit yourself publicly, before the people and (US President Barack) Obama, to the principle of two states for two peoples." The Likud leader "will shrink into his seat," the daily said. "He understands that if he comes out with such a declaration at this time, his natural partners on the Right will grumble, mutter something about betrayal and leave."

The Ynet News site quoted a Netanyahu aide as saying Likud would not accept the "two states for two people" formula. Mr Netanyahu formed a right-wing government when he became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996. It fell apart three years later when small far-right parties quit in protest over deals he struck with the Palestinians under US pressure. This time around, he clearly favoured a broad-based coalition, which would be more stable and have more credibility with the international community. "Before and after the elections, I promised to act for a unity government and I was willing to make important concessions," he said, adding he was prepared to give Kadima the foreign affairs, defence and finance portfolios.

With 27 of parliament's 120 seats, Likud actually won one seat less than Kadima, but Mr Netanyahu was asked to form the next cabinet as he stands a better chance of cobbling together a coalition by an early April deadline. Mr Netanyahu can form a hardline government that will give him a 65-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament. But that narrow margin means virtually any of his partners could bring down the government in any dispute. The failure of his talks with Ms Livni is bound to fuel concern among Palestinians and the international community. With a right-wing coalition now looking to be a probability, there are fears it would torpedo a Middle East peace process that is already in virtual limbo. While he was prime minister, Mr Netanyahu agreed to hand over control of parts of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinians, but he also put the brakes on the peace process, in part by authorising an expansion of Jewish settlements in the territory.

Also, Same Day
Fatah, Hamas to set up unity government

CAIRO: Rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas agreed yesterday to work together to set up a unity government, after Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks aimed at ending long-running factional feuding. "It is indeed a historic day," former Palestinian premier Ahmed Qureia said at a press conference announcing the creation of five joint committees, including one whose task is to form a national unity government. Mr Qureia, a member of the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the committees - which will also cover issues such as security, national reconciliation, elections and reform of the umbrella group the Palestine Liberation Organisation - would complete their work by the end of next month. "We have started a new chapter of reconciliation and unity," he said.

The feuding between Fatah and Hamas came to a head in June 2007 when the Islamists seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Mr Abbas after days of deadly street battles. The takeover, branded a coup by Mr Abbas, split the Palestinian territories into two entities and dealt a major blow to international peace efforts.

Earlier, officials from two smaller Palestinian factions said the groups involved in talks had agreed to form a unity government by the end of March. However, Mr Qureia did not confirm this deadline. "Some of the results of the committees will be immediately implemented, such as the government committee ... it will be immediately formed and take full charge in Gaza and the West Bank," Hamas delegation leader Mussa Abu Marzuk told the press conference. The factions had also agreed to release prisoners held by Hamas and Fatah and to end a war of words being played out in the media, Mr Qureia said.

The international community has been pushing the Palestinians to try to form a government it would find acceptable, as Hamas is boycotted as a terrorist group by Israel and the West. The agreement comes before an aid meeting for Gaza, to be held on Monday, local time, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the Palestinians are seeking billions of dollars from international donors. The reconciliation process was relaunched by Egypt after Israel's 22-day war on Gaza that ended last month.


Gaza aid not for Hamas: Clinton
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday March 03, 2009

HILLARY Clinton flew into the Middle East yesterday on her first visit as US Secretary of State as representatives from about 70 countries gathered to discuss reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after the recent war with Israel. As Ms Clinton flew into Egypt to attend an international donors conference on Gaza, she also flew into a row about who should have control of money pledged for the rebuilding of Gaza.

Her visit came the day after former British prime minister Tony Blair visited both Gaza and Sderot, in southern Israel, and warned that a political solution, rather than just money, was required to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Blair, Middle East broker for the Quartet of the US, UN, European Union and Russia, said during his Gaza visit: "There will be money, that will be coming, and there will be money, probably a significant amount of it, pledged at the conference, but this money will not have a lasting impact unless there is a political solution." He refused to meet any officials of Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza. "I wanted to come to hear for myself first-hand from people in Gaza, whose lives have been so badly impacted by the recent conflict," Mr Blair said. "These are people who need to be the focus of all our efforts for peace and progress from now on." He said he hoped that any durable ceasefire would lead to Israel lifting its blockade on Gaza, and to the opening of crossings to allow aid and reconstruction materials to enter. Israel has said it will not reopen crossings for general access until it can be certain that such openings will not lead to weapons and explosives being brought into Gaza to be used against Israel.

Neither Hamas nor Israel will be represented at the donors conference. But as the "Conference in support of the Palestinian economy for the reconstruction of Gaza" began in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Israel sounded warnings that it would respond again to rockets that continued to be fired at the weekend into southern Israel from Gaza. At least five rockets were fired into Israel at the weekend. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have repeatedly said they will respond whenever rockets are fired at Israel from the Strip.

Ms Clinton was expected to announce $US900 million ($1.4 billion) of aid for Gaza, but with a strict condition that any such funding should not be handled by Hamas but rather by international aid groups. Ms Clinton said before she arrived in Egypt: "I will be announcing a commitment to a significant aid package, but it will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted." The EU was expected to pledge $US500 million and Saudi Arabia almost $US1 billion. Up to $US2.5 billion was expected to be pledged in total.

After Egypt, Ms Clinton was expected to fly to Israel for talks with prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. Ms Clinton and US President Barack Obama have publicly committed the US to trying to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Netanyahu, while supporting such a solution in principle, has expressed serious reservations about such a path. His main reservation has been that a Palestinian state would allow control over military affairs which, given Hamas's influence in Palestinian politics, would pose a serious threat to Israel. He reinforced this on the weekend in an interview with The Washington Post, saying: "Substantively, there is broad agreement inside Israel and outside that the Palestinians should have the ability to govern their lives but not to threaten ours."

The Egyptian conference was almost certain to lead to disputes between donors as to the role that Hamas should play in future in Gaza. It comes as the two rival Palestinian factions -- Hamas and Fatah, which through the Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank -- have publicly committed themselves to joining together. In recent years the two factions have been bitterly divided, with clashes between supporters of the two in Gaza only three years ago. During the recent war between Israel and Hamas, officials of Hamas and Fatah refused to sit down together with Egyptian mediators to discuss a possible ceasefire. On Friday, they appeared publicly in Egypt to say they would begin working together to provide a united position on key issues. However, many of the key details as to how they would join forces have still to be worked out.

The Obama administration has pledged itself to working with the Palestinian Authority Government of Mahmoud Abbas. Mr Abbas was the first world leader Mr Obama telephoned on becoming President -- seen as a sign of his desire to support the Palestinian Authority. The US and other donors were expected to insist that, apart from international agencies, the Palestinian Authority be involved in distributing money for reconstruction. But it remained to be seen whether Hamas would allow this. In the past three years, Hamas has refused to allow Fatah any role in Gaza.


US puts deal to Russia on curbing Iran
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday March 4, 2009

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived last night in Israel, where her talks were expected to be dominated by Iran's nuclear program, as it was revealed that President Barack Obama had sought to enlist Russia's help to prevent Iran developing a long-range weapons system. The White House last night confirmed that Mr Obama had sent a secret letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev last month, suggesting that the US would back off deploying a missile defence system in Eastern Europe if Moscow helped stop Iran from developing long-range weapons. The reports said Russian Foreign Minister Sergev Lavrov was expected to respond to Ms Clinton when they meet in Geneva on Friday, with a further discussion when Mr Obama meets Mr Medvedev on April 2.

Moscow has been angry for years over former president George W. Bush's plans to place missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, saying the move was directly aimed against Russia. Bush officials said it was intended to counter missile threats from states such as Iran. Iran has rejected repeated calls by the UN Security Council -- of which Russia is a permanent member -- for a halt to uranium enrichment, despite three sets of sanctions being imposed for its defiance. Iran recently began testing its Bushehr nuclear plant, which was built by Russians. Mr Medvedev said at the weekend that Russia was awaiting new US proposals to resolve the missile defence dispute.

Ms Clinton was to outline to Israel's prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu her administration's plan to begin discussions with Iran about its nuclear program. As Ms Clinton arrived in Jerusalem, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel's leadership had prepared a document containing a series of "red lines" it wanted Washington to incorporate into its planned dialogue with Iran about its nuclear program. It said outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak had prepared a document that said talks should be accompanied by harsher sanctions against Tehran. The Israelis said the US, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain should agree that if talks failed there would be "extremely harsh international sanctions" imposed and that a time limit must be set to prevent Iran from "merely buying time to complete its nuclear program". "The red lines were jointly formulated by the Foreign Ministry and the defence establishment and the prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has been briefed on them," the report said.

"The document recommends that Israel adopt a positive attitude toward the planned US-Iranian dialogue but proposes ways of minimising what Israeli officials see as the risks inherent in such talks." While the Bush administration had refused dialogue with Iran, which it branded part of an "Axis of Evil", Mr Obama had said he would enter discussions with Iran in an attempt to convince it to allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear program. Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's sole nuclear armed state, considers Iran and its nuclear program to be its top concern after repeated statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.

Ms Clinton's visit to Israel came after she committed the US to provide $US900 million ($1.4 billion) at a donors' conference in Egypt -- $US300 million for the reconstruction of Gaza, after the 22-day war between Israel and Hamas, and $US600 million to support the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank. About $US5 billion was pledged by many of the 70 countries who attended the conference -- including $US1 billion by Saudi Arabia and $US500 million by the European Union. The US money was committed on the condition that Hamas, which runs Gaza, was not in charge of its distribution.

Asked in Egypt about whether discussions should be held with Hamas, Ms Clinton said "Hamas is not a country" and that it needed to do three things -- recognise Israel, renounce violence and recognise previous agreements made by the former PLO, which has become the Palestinian Authority. She said the US would be engaging in "aggressive diplomacy" in its search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that "this is something in my heart, not just in my portfolio". Mr Netanyahu is expected to give a cool reception to Ms Clinton's plans for "aggressive diplomacy" in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace.

On her arrival in Jerusalem last night, Ms Clinton said a lasting Gaza truce is the first step towards Middle East peace but cannot happen unless Hamas halts rocket attacks. "The first step right now, not waiting for a new government, is a durable ceasefire. But that can only be achieved if Hamas ceases the rocket attacks," Ms Clinton said at a press conference with Ms Livni. "These attacks must stop and so must the smuggling of weapons into Gaza." Ms Clinton went on to affirm Washington's commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that regardless of the make-up of Israel's next government, working towards such a solution was "inescapable".


Jordan could be part of two-state deal
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem
Thursday March 5, 2009

AS US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins her push for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, some leading Israeli strategic thinkers are suggesting that one of those two states need not be Palestine. "I don't dismiss the two-state idea," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister, "but the idea is near its end. Instead, I see a Jewish state and a Jordanian state." A similar idea was expressed this week by Major General (retired) Giora Eiland, the former head of the Israeli National Security Council. "The (Israel-Palestine) formula is not the only solution. In fact, it's a bad solution and unlikely ever to be implemented." Both men could be described as centre-left pragmatists.

Mr Eiland proposes the creation of a Palestinian political entity on the West Bank that would be the junior partner in a confederation with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. If an independent Palestinian state were to rise on the West Bank, he said, it would inevitably be taken over by Hamas, which was not only dedicated to Israel's destruction but would be an existential threat to Jordan. "A Hamas state on Jordan's border would be the beginning of the end of the Hashemite Kingdom", whose large Islamic sector, mostly of Palestinian origin, would be easily subverted by Hamas agents, said Mr Eiland. As for the mostly secular Palestinian population on the West Bank, many would prefer Jordanian rule to Hamas, Mr Eiland wrote in the newspaper Yediot Achronot. West Bankers would also see that a Jordanian confederation would be likely to receive Israel's support, and thus the quickest way to end the Israeli occupation.

As for the Gaza Strip, Mr Eiland had a far-reaching proposal that would see the strip tripled in size by a land swap in which Egypt gave up a large tract of land in northeast Sinai in order to create a viable territorial enclave for Gaza's fast-growing population. Israel, in turn, would compensate Egypt with a land corridor to Jordan through Israeli territory north of Eilat, and Israel would keep for itself West Bank territory that had already been taken for settlements. This part of Mr Eiland's plan was rejected by Egypt when voiced last year, but the confederation idea may well find resonance among the relevant players. The Palestinians were more interested in seeing Israel disappear than in having an independent state of their own, Mr Eiland said. "The Palestinian ethos is based on values like justice, recognition of their victimisation and, above all, the right of the refugees to return. If Israel disappeared, the territory would be divided between Syria, Jordan and Egypt."

Professor Ben-Ami, who served as foreign minister when then-prime minister Ehud Barak attempted to reach a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000, saw bilateral talks as a futile exercise. "The differences between Israel and the Palestinians are not solvable by direct negotiations," he said in an interview last month on Israel Radio. "If there is a chance it is only through outside intervention led by the US but including Arab countries and other parties as well," he said. "You need such outside intervention to help sides who don't have the political strength to reach an historic settlement." He was dubious about the chances of such a process succeeding. If it didn't, he said, "we would need a new and daring solution". This, he said, would be to return the West Bank to Jordan, which ruled it before the Six Day War. Although the late Jordanian monarch King Hussein relinquished his claim to the West Bank in 1988 in favour of the PLO, it was done only because of pressure from Arab states. "Our problem is that the Palestinian national movement is a dangerous volcano," Professor Ben-Ami said. It was better, he said, to have a neighbour on the other side of the border that could ensure order.


Clinton calls for Israeli restraint
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday March 6, 2009

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Washington will seek to discuss the controversial issue of expansion of Jewish settlements with Israel's new government as she described Israeli plans to demolish about 80 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem as "unhelpful". Speaking yesterday during a visit to the largest of the Palestinian territories, the West Bank, Ms Clinton said the issue of settlements would be discussed once a new Israeli government was officially formed. "We will be looking for a way to put it on the table along with all the other issues that need to be discussed and resolved," she said. "I think at this time we should wait until we have a new Israeli government. That will be soon and then we will look at whatever tools are available." In reference to Israeli plans to demolish the Palestinian homes, Ms Clinton said: "Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the road map. It is an issue we intend to raise with the Government of Israel and the government at municipal level in Jerusalem."

Israel has issued demolition orders to the residents of the houses, saying the homes were illegally built, while Palestinians say that Israeli authorities make it almost impossible for them to gain building permits. The issue of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank is a key one for Palestinian negotiators who say any peace agreement with Israel will be difficult with the continuing expansions. They say it would mean that by the time any peace deal was reached tens of thousands of Jewish settlers would be living in what would become Palestine.

Ms Clinton used the visit to publicly declare Washington's support for the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah faction which runs the West Bank. At a conference in Egypt earlier in the week, Ms Clinton committed the US to provide $US900 million ($1.4 billion) for Palestinians -- $US300 million for the reconstruction of Gaza and $US600 million to support the Palestinian Authority. The money was committed on the condition that Hamas had no role in its distribution but that it was managed by the Palestinian Authority, run by President Mahmoud Abbas. The US administration is doing everything it can to support the Palestinian Authority while continuing the policy of the previous Bush administration to have no contact with Hamas which runs the Gaza Strip. In the last week Fatah and Hamas have publicly said they are involved in negotiations to try to form a unity government so there would be one voice for the Palestinian people. But the details of any such agreement are sketchy. A major obstacle could be that Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

Speaking after a meeting with Ms Clinton, Mr Abbas criticised Iran which he accused of trying to cause divisions in the Palestinian community. "Iran needs to take care of its own issues and stay away from intervening in Palestinian affairs," he said. The comments came as Iran publicly stated its missiles could reach Israeli nuclear sites and that Iran would respond to any attack. Reuters reported yesterday that the commander in chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Mohammed Ali Jafari, had said: "Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran has missiles with the range of 200km and, based on that, all Israeli land, including that regime's nuclear facilities are within the range of our missile capabilities."


Abbas's PM quits 'to boost PA unity'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, March 9, 2009

THE landscape of Middle East politics changed again yesterday when the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, suddenly tendered his resignation, saying his decision to step down would clear the way for a Palestinian "unity government". Mr Fayyad, who is resented by the militant Hamas faction and praised by Western governments, visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to announce his resignation, which he said would take effect from the end of this month.

The timing took into account when Hamas and Fatah negotiators in Cairo were expected to release the first of their reports on how a unity government for both the West Bank, run by Fatah, and Gaza, run by Hamas, would work. Mr Fayyad, a US-educated former economist with the World Bank, said in a statement: "This step comes in the efforts to form a national conciliation government." Mr Abbas echoed that sentiment, saying: "The Prime Minister has handed in his notice today in order to consolidate inter-Palestinian dialogue." Tomorrow, the Hamas and Fatah negotiators will meet in Cairo to try to work out the terms on which they can form a joint government.

But such talks are likely to be difficult, given the gulf between Hamas and Fatah. The key differences are that Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist and refuses to renounce violence against Israel.

The Prime Minister's resignation surprised many observers, as Mr Fayyad played a prominent role at last week's Gaza donors' conference in Egypt, where he was the face of the Palestinian Authority. And he featured prominently in the recent visit to the West Bank by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ms Clinton used a meeting with Mr Fayyad only five days ago to reinforce the Obama administration's commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She told Mr Fayyad at that meeting: "We are very committed to your efforts in this leadership of President Abbas."

The resignation was seen by some as an acknowledgement by Mr Fayyad that senior people in both Hamas and Fatah wanted him gone before they began their talks. But political analyst Jonathan Spyer told The Australian yesterday it would be wrong to assume this was the end of Mr Fayyad, saying that while he was unpopular in Fatah due to his anti-corruption drive and because for many he was an unknown quantity, some regarded his resignation at this stage as "tactical". "The important thing I'm hearing from a lot of different sources is that a lot of people are saying this resignation may not be permanent," said Dr Spyer, a senior research fellow with the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, near Tel-Aviv. "It may be a tactical move by which he will announce his resignation and will make unity talks go more smoothly, and when the unity government is formed, Fayyad may be able to step back in."

Dr Spyer said yesterday that Mr Fayyad "really is the favourite of both the Americans and the Europeans". "They take him more seriously than any other Palestinian politician, including Abbas. In recent months there has been a strong feeling that Western backers would like to see Fayyad take over from Abbas." But he added: "Fayyad is not popular with the Fatah apparatus because of the (anti) corruption and because he's an unknown quantity with them -- World Bank economist, he's lived for many years in the US, he has no background in the armed struggle."

Mr Fayyad was seen as giving the Palestinian Authority some much-needed financial focus -- it emerged last month that the authority would be forced to take out bank loans to pay its staff. Ms Clinton last week pledged $US900 million ($1.4 billion) to the Palestinian cause on the condition that Hamas was not involved in its distribution -- $US300 million towards the reconstruction of Gaza and $600 million to support the Palestinian Authority. Mr Fayyad's departure heightens the possible dilemma for the US and other Western countries about whether they will deal with a new Palestinian unity government if it involves key figures from Hamas.

Same Day
Obama renews the agenda on Middle East and Russia
Geoff Elliott, Washington correspondent

BARACK Obama has embarked on a radical reversal of Washington's approach to the Middle East in a series of developments over the weekend that add to the ambitious reach of policy changes for the US President. Following Washington's new stance in Iraq and the decision to withdraw forces from the country by the end of August next year, Mr Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in the space of 48 hours a series of diplomatic shifts to unwind years of the Bush administration's policies towards the region:

The regional diplomatic effort, which will involve Mr Obama travelling to Turkey early next month -- Ankara has offered some qualified support for Iran's nuclear program -- makes good on his campaign promises. But it worries Arab and Israeli leaders, who already question whether Mr Obama is making too many concessions to Iran, while eastern Europeans feel the same about the dramatic reversal in tone of the relations between Washington and Moscow.

"We are being extremely vigorous in our outreach because we are testing the waters, we are determining what is possible, we're turning new pages and resetting buttons, and we are doing all kinds of efforts to try to create more partners and fewer adversaries," Ms Clinton said of her talks and travels through the region last week.

Mr Obama told The New York Times yesterday he was open to a reconciliation process in which the US military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, in a similar way to the engagement of US forces with the Sunni militias in Iraq. Declaring that the US was not winning in Afghanistan, and noting Washington's successful strategy in Iraq to win the support of insurgents there, Mr Obama said: "There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region." He acknowledged the approach might not yield the same success. "The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex," he said. "You have a less-governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross-purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge."

Iran yesterday responded positively to Ms Clinton's plans to invite Tehran to a likely March 31 meeting on Afghanistan -- the first overture of this kind to Iran from the US in years. "The US and global powers have realised that the issues in Afghanistan cannot be solved without the presence of the Islamic republic," said Gholam Hossein Elham, a spokesman for the Iranian Government.

Ms Clinton made much at the weekend of hitting the "reset" button with Moscow during meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two discussed a new arms treaty and how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. While Tehran says this is for civilian purposes, Washington and its allies believe the program is a front for nuclear weapons technology. It remains a foreign policy problem for the Obama administration, as it was for George W.Bush.

Signs of renewed diplomacy were also seen in Damascus yesterday at the first high-level talks between US and Syrian officials in more than four years. Senior State Department official Jeffrey Feltman and White House national security official Dan Shapiro met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. Mr Feltman said the US wanted to see "forward momentum" on peace talks between Syria and Israel, and said Syria could help Middle East stability. "We found a lot of common ground," Mr Feltman said.


Israel confirms Iran nuke threat
The Australian
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

JERUSALEM: Iran is now able to produce atomic weapons, Israel's cabinet has been warned by a top military intelligence officer. Cabinet members said the chief of military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, did not say Iran already had the bomb, rather Iran had "crossed the threshold", and now had the expertise and materials needed to make one. The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because the cabinet meeting had been closed. They said General Yadlin told them Iran continued to accumulate uranium for enrichment and hoped to exploit the Obama administration's intention to open a dialogue as a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

Israeli officials have long identified a nuclear Iran as the most serious threat to the Jewish state. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel, and Iran has tested missiles that could strike the country. Israel's long-held policy is that the world must co-operate to defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. While not directly threatening to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel has refused to take the military option off the table.

Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who is putting together the next Israeli government, has said for years that Iran represents an existential threat to the Jewish state. He is seen as more likely than other Israeli leaders to order an attack. However, most experts believe wiping out the Iranian nuclear program is beyond the ability of Israel's military. In 1982 the Israeli air force destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in a lightning strike, but Iran's facilities are scattered around the country, some of them underground.

Iran has said its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. Israel has been watching carefully how Washington develops its policy toward Iran. Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, President Barack Obama has called for diplomatic contacts with Iran as a way of persuading its rulers to drop their nuclear ambitions. In talks last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli officials raised concerns about Iran's intentions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not object in principle to the idea of US-Iran talks, but he warned that Iran could use the contacts as a stalling device while it readies its nuclear arsenal. Mr Olmert said that would be unacceptable.

Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher said General Yadlin's warning must be taken seriously. "It clearly renders the entire issue of how to deal with Iran both for the Obama administration and for Israel more urgent," he said. "It affects possible diplomatic initiatives, sanctions and military options." General Yadlin's comments follow a similar assessment by the US military chief, Admiral Mike Mullen, who said a week ago Iran had enough fissile material to build a bomb. Experts believe Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons. Israel neither confirms nor denies these claims.


Mixed signals for Israel as old foes take different tack
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Monday, March 16, 2009

ISRAEL'S northern neighbour, Hezbollah, vowed at the weekend that it would never recognise Israel "even until the end of time", while its southern neighbour, Hamas, had a dramatic change of position and said it would "act against" anyone who fired rockets into Israel.

In a weekend of dramatic public posturing as Palestinian unity talks gathered momentum in Cairo, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah gave a firebrand speech denouncing Israel as "a rapacious entity". "We are strong and we are capable," he said in a recorded video address to the Lebanese public. "If we will stand on our feet, we can destroy this entity. "Today the US comes and says to us: you are terrorists and we are willing to forgive you for what has been, under the condition that you recognise Israel."

Nasrallah's speech came as Britain signalled it would begin a dialogue with Hezbollah, which has a strong chance of winning the June parliamentary elections in Lebanon. Since its fighters took to the streets last May in four days of fighting that left 81 people dead, Hezbollah has had a power of veto on all major decisions taken by the Lebanese Government - a concession given in return for it taking its fighters off the streets. Last week, British Foreign Ministry officials said they had begun "exploring establishing contacts" with the political wing of Hezbollah with whom there has been no official contact for four years. The US and Australia have no contact with Hezbollah, which they describe as a terrorist organisation.

Reflecting a growing confidence inside Hezbollah that it will officially take power in Lebanon's parliament in June, Nasrallah made a reference to the possibility that the US might want to engage it in talks. He said in the video: "The US is ready now to talk with any party, not out of a sense of morality, but because it failed in its attempts to implement its plans in the region. It failed in its plan to conduct regime change in Syria and it failed in stopping Iran. The American plan to liquidate the resistance will fail in the same way. Generally speaking, before the US lists its conditions for negotiations we must ask ourselves if we want to hold contacts with it." Hezbollah is the major party in the "March 8" alliance, which is running in the June 7 elections against the "March 14" alliance, led by the ruling conservative parties and Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former leader Rafik Hariri.

Meanwhile Hamas made an extraordinary change of public position at the weekend, issuing a statement warning that it would act against whoever was firing rockets into southern Israel. It said "the resistance movements" had nothing to do with the rockets that had been fired into Israel in recent days. "These firings come at a bad time," it said.

The statement came as Hamas sought to make an agreement with its moderate Palestinian rival Fatah about the make-up of a future Palestinian unity government. Both Hamas and Fatah have teams in Cairo where Egyptian officials are attempting to find a way for the two groups to jointly govern Gaza and the West Bank. Last week, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, tendered his resignation to try to make such an agreement more achievable. Hamas and old-guard elements of Fatah are strongly opposed to his involvement in any future unity government. Two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip on Saturday into the Negev desert in Israel. There were no casualties. The Hamas statement suggested such rockets were being fired by Palestinian militants not associated with Hamas. The change in Hamas's position came as former Republican US National Security adviser Brent Scowcroft was quoted as saying he saw no reason why the US should not talk to Hamas.


Hawk set for role as Israeli foreign minister
The Australian
Correspondents in Jerusalem, The Times, Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ISRAEL'S next foreign minister looks set to be Avigdor Lieberman, the Soviet immigrant whose controversial policies have been condemned widely by the country's regional neighbours. Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, which placed third in last month's parliamentary election, advocated a more hawkish approach to the Palestinians and won over hard-line voters with a platform calling for Israeli citizens to take a loyalty oath in exchange for basic rights. Although it stressed that the oath would apply to all Israelis, the campaign ads singled out Israeli Arab citizens. Mr Lieberman has also advocated redrawing Israel's borders in order to transfer Israeli Arabs to Palestinian control. His 14-page agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party makes no mention of peace talks with the Palestinians. In the agreement, the government vows to topple Hamas and not to negotiate with terror groups.

But Mr Lieberman also has the reputation of a pragmatist who embodies many of the contradictions in Israeli politics. Those who know him say the hawkish image he crafted for himself during the campaign was only part of the story; they say his platform was an accurate reflection of the country's political mood. In the coalition of conservative and religious parties that Mr Netanyahu is cobbling together, Mr Lieberman could turn out to be one of the most flexible members on the peace process. He has previously backed a two-state solution, although opponents say that stance is a gambit to push Israeli Arabs out of Israel and into a new Palestinian state. Mr Lieberman has also promised to deal harshly with Israel's enemies, in particular Iran. He even threatened to bomb Egypt, with whom Israel has a peace treaty.

Egypt was the first country yesterday to warn that the appointment could cause more setbacks for the peace process. "We are standing before a negative factor that is likely to damage the peace process," Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Ghait said. Under the agreement, Yisrael Beitenu would receive five ministerial posts, including the Foreign Ministry, which its leader is set to take.

Mr Lieberman has proven a divisive figure in Israeli politics, storming to power on the back of his anti-Arab rhetoric. He has called for the bombing of Palestinian commercial centres in revenge for terror attacks inside Israel and has suggested that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs should forfeit their citizenship in a land swap, trading West Bank Jewish settlements for Arab areas inside the Jewish state. Mr Netanyahu, the Likud leader and prime minister-designate, was nervous about handing the key portfolio to a man he sees as his main rival to the loyalty of the Israeli Right, and is still hoping for a deal with the centre-right party Kadima, whose leader Tzipi Livni is the current Foreign Minister.

A US State Department representative declined to comment on the potential composition of the Israeli government. Robert Wood, acting spokesman for the department, said he would not speculate on the new government's likely actions, but added: "We have made the point over and over again, to the Israeli government ... that we, the US, support a two-state solution." Many observers expect Mr Lieberman to tone down his rhetoric once in office.


Barak leads Labour towards Netanyahu
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, March 20, 2009

LABOUR is set to join the new Israeli Government of Benjamin Netanyahu after a dramatic about-face yesterday by party leader Ehud Barak, who said only weeks ago that Labour needed a period in opposition to rebuild itself after its poor showing in last month's election.

The change in position means Mr Barak is almost certain to retain his position as Defence Minister, one of the most powerful portfolios in Israel. Mr Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier, and given his military experience, emerged as one of the major political decision-makers in the recent war in Gaza, and as a senior hands-on military strategist. In the outgoing Government, Mr Barak was part of the decision-making troika, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

The imminent decision of Labour to join the new government means the new troika in Israeli politics will again include Mr Barak, along with incoming prime minister Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. Mr Lieberman is leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. His expected role as foreign minister has raised concerns, given his poor relations with Israel's Arab population and the country's neighbours. The appointment of Mr Barak to the ruling troika would be seen by many to address those concerns. While a hard military man, Mr Barak is leader of the centre-left Labour Party and is respected, rather than liked, by Israel's Arab neighbours. Under the agreement between Labour and Likud, Labour would be able to choose not just the defence ministry but four other key portfolios.

Announcing the crucial change in Labour's stance yesterday, Mr Barak said: "We are all emissaries of the party, and no one is above it. Most of the country's citizens and most Labour voters want to see the party be a partner to the country's leadership." The Ministry of Defence issued a more comprehensive statement on Mr Barak's behalf. "The good of the country, in light of all the challenges facing us -- diplomatic, economic and social issues -- requires Labour to seriously consider joining the Government, and a decision will be made in the party's institutions," it said.

If Mr Barak joins a Netanyahu government it would be a major disappointment for Ms Livni, who as leader of Kadima had tried to convince Mr Barak to join her in a coalition after last month's election.


Extract - Israel looks at accounts of Gaza killings
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, March 21, 2009

THE Israeli military is to hold an inquiry into claims by its soldiers of a culture that led to Palestinian civilians being killed under "permissive rules of engagement" in the recent Gaza war. The leaders of the Israeli Defence Forces have ordered military police to investigate claims made by soldiers who took part in the Gaza war. The soldiers, reportedly including combat pilots and infantry troops, made the comments in a discussion at the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at the Oranim Academic College in Tivon. The issue became public after the transcripts were published in the college's newsletter this week and then picked up by Haaretz newspaper.

The squad leader said he argued with his commander about permissive rules of engagement that allowed troops to clear out houses by shooting without first warning the residents. The squad leader said the main impression he came away with was "how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics". The testimonies challenge the description by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak during the war of the IDF as "the most moral army in the world". One Israeli military source told The Weekend Australian the IDF did not know of the instances referred to by the soldiers, and said the claims were being taken very seriously because they were being made by serving soldiers.

The publication of the material came as tensions between Israel and Hamas heightened with the arrest by Israel of 10 Hamas leaders in the West Bank. The swoop followed the collapse of negotiations over the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Meanwhile, talks between Hamas and Fatah aimed at forming a Palestinian unity government appeared to have collapsed in Cairo yesterday.

Same Day
Netanyahu gets more time

JERUSALEM: Israel's prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu was last night granted an extra two weeks to allow him to form a government he hopes will be as broad as possible. The Likud leader wants to avoid giving too much clout to far-right and religious parties and will use the extra time to try to convince the left-of-centre Labour Party of outgoing Defence Minister Ehud Barak to join his coalition.

President Shimon Peres granted Mr Netanyahu's request, giving him until April 3. Mr Peres cited the Likud leader as saying he needed the extension to try to form a national unity government. "The creation of such a government is all the more important in view of ... the grave threats and economic crisis," the President's office quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying.

Mr Netanyahu was asked on February 20 to form a government after the February 10 elections. He had a 28-day deadline but is entitled to a two-week extension. He has gained support from far-right and religious parties but has failed to get the backing he needs to form the broad-based coalition he says is vital to maintain political stability.

Mr Barak has asked his Labour Party to consider joining a Likud-led coalition. And Mr Netanyahu has not given up hope of convincing the centrist Kadima party, which leads the outgoing coalition government, to join him.


US must change first: Iran
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, March 23, 2009

IRAN has responded negatively to overtures by US President Barack Obama for improved relations, but has stopped short of an all-out rejection of ending three decades of hostility. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a rally in the northeast of the country on the weekend that while the US used "the slogan of change", in reality nothing really changed. While he criticised the US and its history with Iran, he also left open the possibility of improved relations. He told the crowd that his message to Washington was: "We will watch and we will judge - you change, our behaviour will change."

Relations between Iran and the US have been bad since the Islamic revolution of 1979 brought to power in Tehran a council of ayatollahs, which runs the country according to strict Islamic law. Those relations possibly reached their lowest point under the last US administration when George W. Bush branded Iran part of the "axis of evil", and called it a terrorist nation seeking to gain nuclear weapons.

In a dramatic change of tone, Mr Obama said in a video address on Friday that the US wanted Iran to take "its rightful place in the community of nations", but said there were conditions for this to happen. In the address to Iranians and their leadership, he said: "I would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We seek the promise of a new beginning." He continued: "You have the right - but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation. "The measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."

The New York Times reported that among other measures being weighed by the US are a direct communication between Mr Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei, and an end to a prohibition on direct contacts between junior American diplomats and their Iranian counterparts. It appeared significant that Mr Obama had directed his comments not just to the Iranian people but to Iran's leaders, and that he referred to Iran as "the Islamic Republic", suggesting a willingness to deal with the clerical Government.

Ayatollah Khamenei apparently took offence at Mr Obama's reference to "terror". He told the crowd in the northern city of Mashhad: "In the same congratulatory message, they accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear arms and such things - what has changed ' You give the slogan of negotiation and pressure again - our nation cannot be talked to like this. "They give the slogan of change but in practice no change is seen - we haven't seen any change."

Iran has an election in June. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under threat from more moderate forces, but the real power in Iran resides with the ayatollahs. Analysts believe that if the US is to make any real progress regarding Iran's nuclear program, the engagement has to be with the Supreme Leader rather than Mr Ahmadinejad. The latter is famous for his firebrand rhetoric - such as wanting to "wipe Israel off the map".

While Mr Obama has signalled a willingness to begin dialogue with Iran, Israel's incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he believes a strict deadline needs to be set on any talks to prevent Iran from buying time to further pursue their nuclear program. Israel wants a clear deadline for Iran to abandon its nuclear program, after which existing economic sanctions against Iran will be toughened. Mr Netanyahu and most other leading Israeli politicians have made it clear that Israel will consider the option of military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities if they believe Iran is close to gaining weapons. In 1981, Israeli jets flew over the outskirts of Baghdad and attacked the major site of the French-built nuclear plant then being refined by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

The new US administration is using its first months to sound out various regimes with which it has not in recent years had good relations, including Syria.


Ehud Barak guarantees Benjamin Netanyahu to be PM
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, March 26, 2009

ISRAELI Labour leader Ehud Barak yesterday guaranteed his political rival Benjamin Netanyahu will become the next prime minister of Israel, delivering him enough parliamentary seats to form a coalition government. Pushing ahead despite anger from within his own centre-left party, Mr Barak, a former prime minister, pushed a deal through his party's convention, ensuring he will remain Defence Minister, one of Israel's most powerful positions, and that Labour will hold another four ministries in the new government. This is despite winning only 13 seats at the February 10 election - Labour's worst performance.

At a fiery meeting of Labour Party delegates in Tel Aviv, 680 voted in favour of joining the government led by the right-wing Mr Netanyahu while 507 voted against. The issue pitted Mr Barak against the leader of his own party machine, secretary-general Eitan Cabel, who launched an extraordinary public attack on Mr Barak before the vote. "Our main disadvantage is that we are playing against someone who doesn't abide by the rules and doesn't keep promises," he said.

Confirmation that Mr Netanyahu will have more than the required 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset came only hours after a nasty clash between Israeli Arabs and right-wing Jewish activists in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel. About 2500 riot and other police used water cannon and teargas as Arabs from the town threw rocks and clashed with about 100 Jewish marchers who carried Israeli flags through Israel's largest Arab town. The local Arabs claimed the march was provocative while the marchers said the town was part of Israel and they were exercising their right to carry the Israeli flag.

Before the march, the mayor of the town, Sheik Khaled Hamadan, warned that the streets were "boiling". A general strike to protest against the march was declared for the day in the town with schools, businesses and government offices closed. The march had been planned for last year's 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel, but police concerns about likely violence and legal challenges had held up the granting of any permits. It proceeded after Israel's High Court ruled that the people had the right to march. About 25 people were injured in the clashes, which went on for several hours.

The town of Umm al-Fahm has been at the centre of a policy argued by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman that Israel's borders should be redrawn to take into account towns with large Arab populations. Mr Lieberman, the incoming foreign minister in the Netanyahu government, has argued that a town such as Umm al-Fahm should be drawn as part of the Palestinian territories in exchange for Jewish settlements on the West Bank being incorporated into Israel's boundaries. Rising tensions between Israel's Arabs and Jews will be one of the first problems confronting the new government of Mr Netanyahu.

Labour's formalisation yesterday of Mr Barak's desire to join the coalition gave Mr Netanyahu 66 seats in the Knesset - led by his own party, Likud, along with Yisrael Beiteinu, Labour, the ultra-orthodox Shas party and other minor parties. Shas has insisted on holding the important education portfolio as their primary concern is that education in their schools in Israel remains religious and does not become secular.

Mr Barak spoke before some angry Labour Party delegates yesterday who claimed he had sold out and that Labour was legitimising a government with which it fundamentally disagreed and which was opposed to the peace process. Mr Barak argued that he would not be "a fig leaf" for Mr Netanyahu and that he had extracted an agreement from him that the peace process would continue under the new government. His deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, who supported joining the coalition, said it was better to be part of the government to help "shift them from the Right to the Centre".


Support two-state solution, Bibi told
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent, Agencies
Monday, March 30, 2009

BENJAMIN Netanyahu is facing growing pressure to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even before he takes office as Israel's new prime minister this week. The European Union said at the weekend that relations with Israel would become "very difficult indeed" if the incoming government did not accept the principle of an independent Palestinian state.

And the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erakat, said that without a freeze on Jewish settlements "there will be no two-state solution left to speak of". Mr Erakat claimed that instead of a viable Palestinian state, Mr Netanyahu's plan "extends no further than a series of disconnected cantons with limited self-rule." And Mr Erakat said many of the incoming government's members "exemplify some of the worst traditions in Israeli politics".

Israel's Army Radio reported last week that Mr Netanyahu, known as "Bibi", had made a secret deal to secure the support of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party for his new coalition government in return for agreeing to an additional 3000 Jewish housing units being built in the West Bank between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The plan for the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumin was particularly sensitive because it would create contiguity between the settlement and Jerusalem, which in turn would prevent Palestinian construction between East Jerusalem and Ramallah, the report said.

The increased public rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian issue comes as Mr Netanyahu is set to be sworn in as Israel's new prime minister tomorrow. US President Barack Obama has committed himself to "actively" pursue a two-state solution to the conflict.

And EU foreign ministers said at the weekend the new Israeli government needed to give the search for the two-state solution a priority. Referring to the possibility of increased trade ties between the EU and Israel, Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn said: "We must tell the Israelis that it is not allowed to walk away from the peace process. "The upgrading process (for trade) was always to be viewed from the perspective of the peace process having been completed," he said. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said there would be "consequences" if the new Israeli government did not accept the principle of a Palestinian state. "Relations would become very difficult indeed," he said.

While Mr Netanyahu's rhetoric during the recent Israeli election campaign was sceptical of a two-state solution - his basic argument is that since the Oslo peace accords Israel has given land for peace but has not received peace in return - he said last week the Palestinians would find his new government to be "a partner for peace." The change in rhetoric followed a deal with Labour Party leader Ehud Barak for Labour to join his coalition government - giving him the required numbers to form a government. Defending his decision to join the coalition to angry members of his own party, Mr Barak said one of the commitments he had extracted from Mr Netanyahu was that there would be a resumption of the peace process.


Netanyahu puts Palestinian settlement on the table
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, April 02, 2009

BENJAMIN Netanyahu used yesterday's speech to introduce the new Government of Israel to raise the prospect of a "permanent settlement" for Palestinians, saying that Israel would not allow itself to be destroyed by "extreme Islam which has taken root in our region". In a reference to the Holocaust, Mr Netanyahu told Israel's parliament, the Knesset, that Israel would not take lightly "megalomaniac leaders" who threatened to destroy it. "The Jewish people has learned its lesson; it cannot take lightly megalomaniac leaders who threaten to destroy it, and in contrast with the terrible trauma we experienced last century when we were helpless and stateless, today we are not defenceless."

Speaking before his new coalition became Israel's 32nd government since it was formed in 1948, Mr Netanyahu said he was prepared to engage with Palestinians in giving them authority but avoided the term "two-state solution" being pushed by the US and European Union. "We do not wish to rule another people," he said. "We do not want to rule the Palestinians ... I say to the Palestinian leadership that if you really want peace, we can achieve peace. Under a permanent settlement, the Palestinians will have all the necessary authority to rule themselves, except for those that would threaten Israel's existence and security."

Mr Netanyahu was heckled several times by some members of the Knesset. He made several references to Iran, which Israel believes is rapidly developing nuclear weapons that could be used against it. "I will not let anyone undermine our right to exist," he said. "The Iranian leader's plan to erase Israel falls on deaf ears around the world."

He praised Islamic culture as "great and rich" and said "many branches in our people's history have known periods which flourished for Arabs and Jews who lived together and created together". But he said "extreme Islam" posed a threat not just to Israel but also to Arab countries in the Middle East. "The security crisis ahead of us goes back to extreme Islam, which has taken root in our region," he said. "Israel has always, and today more than ever, strives to reach full peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world and today that yearning is supported by a joint interest of Israel and the Arab states against the fanatical obstacle that threatens us all."

The speech came before he presented his cabinet before the Knesset: 30 ministers and seven deputy ministers. Several hours after his speech, the Knesset approved his Government. In his speech, Mr Netanyahu said he would maintain the Jewish character of Israel and respect the religions and traditions of the country's ethnic communities. As expected, the foreign affairs portfolio went to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, defence remained with Labour leader Ehud Barak and finance went to Yuval Steinitz. Likud powerbroker Silvan Shalom, who had wanted either foreign affairs or finance, was given regional co-operation, the Negev and Galilee.


Peace deal 'has no validity': Avigdor Lieberman at a ceremony in Jerusalem before officially taking office as Israel's new Foreign Minister. Picture: AP
Lieberman dumps peace deal
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, April 03, 2009

ISRAEL'S new Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, yesterday unilaterally scrapped a key plank of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process brokered by the US two years ago without telling Washington, the Palestinian Authority or, it appears, his own Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The dramatic change to Israeli policy less than a day into the new Government came during what was expected to be a routine meet-and-greet session by Mr Lieberman with his new Foreign Ministry staff in Jerusalem.

Before drinking a toast with outgoing foreign minister Tzipi Livni, Mr Lieberman surprised the audience by announcing that Israel was not bound by the Annapolis agreement that then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert signed with former US president George W. Bush and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas at Mr Bush's country residence in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2007. "It has no validity," Mr Lieberman told the staff. The centrepiece of the agreement was that the US would help Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to move towards a two-state solution: Israel alongside a newly formed independent Palestine. "The Israeli government never ratified Annapolis, nor did the Knesset," Mr Lieberman said, referring to Israel's parliament. Key leaders from the Middle East attended the conference in Annapolis, which ended in an agreement between US, Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they would seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Lieberman said yesterday Israel would abide by the agreements made in 2003 on the road map for peace, but added: "And I voted against it". "There is one document (the 2003 road map) that obligates us, and it is not the Annapolis document - it has no validity," he said. While the road map set out a list of requirements by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides before there was any move towards "final status talks", that is, what would be the boundaries of a future Palestine and what would be the status of Jerusalem, the most sensitive issue of all, the Annapolis agreement fast-forwarded through many of these requirements and instead called on all parties to move straight to the final status talks.

"We will never agree to jump over all the clauses and go to the last one, which is negotiation over a final status agreement," he told the Foreign Ministry officials. Mr Lieberman's concern about the Annapolis agreement appeared to be that it did not require the renunciation of violence against Israel. After his comments, which were delivered as Ms Livni watched, she remarked: "You've convinced me I was right not to join the Government."

The US was caught by surprise by Mr Lieberman's comments. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Washington stood by what was achieved at Annapolis and would continue to work for a two-state solution. Asked specifically about Mr Lieberman's comments, Mr Duguid said: "We haven't heard their proposals yet. We haven't sat down with them." A spokesman for the US National Security Council, Mike Hammer, said: "The President has said many times that we are committed to the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security. We look forward to working with the new Israeli Government and understand we will have frank discussions, and that these discussions will be based on an underlying shared commitment to Israel and its security."

The night before Mr Lieberman made his comments, Mr Netanyahu said in a speech to the Knesset before presenting his new Government that he would work towards a "permanent settlement" with the Palestinians. "I say to the Palestinian leadership that if you really want peace we can achieve peace," the Prime Minister said.

Palestinian leader Mr Abbas reacted badly to Mr Lieberman's comments, saying he was "an obstacle to peace". And former British prime minister Tony Blair said he believed the peace process was in "grave jeopardy".


Next Day - Police probe rocks new Israeli coalition
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, April 04, 2009

ISRAEL'S new Government faces its first major crisis after detectives from the organised crime and fraud squads spent more than seven hours interviewing the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, over allegations of money laundering, fraud and bribery. The police called Mr Lieberman into the headquarters of the fraud squad and questioned him under oath about what they believe could be a money laundering operation through a bank account in Cyprus.

It meant Mr Lieberman's second day in office was even more dramatic than his first, when he unilaterally announced Israel was no longer bound by the Annapolis peace agreement brokered by the US and agreed to by Israel and the Palestinian Authority two years ago. He had done so without informing the US, the Palestinian Authority or his own Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Lieberman looks destined to be a controversial figure in the new Government - Egypt, Israel's most important ally in the Arab world, said yesterday it would boycott dealing with him until he apologised for saying Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell".

While matters involved in the police investigation date back to business dealings 13 years ago, before Mr Lieberman was a member of the Knesset, the probe has been under way for a year. Police said yesterday the timing of the interview had been planned some time ago, before Mr Lieberman was appointed Foreign Minister. The investigation centres on a consultancy business run by his daughter, Michal, and is focusing on a bank account in Cyprus. Police are examining payments made into the account from overseas. Mr Lieberman worked for the company for two years then received a large series of payments when he left, which he had said were standard payments in line with his contract.

Mr Lieberman denies any wrongdoing, saying the probe is a "smear campaign". He created a stir this week when he attended the swearing-in of the new Public Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharanovitch, the man responsible for whether any charges will be laid against him. It also meant Mr Lieberman was in the same room as police officials in charge of the division handling the investigation. He said he attended because Mr Aharanovitch was a senior member of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu. The police said it was inappropriate for him to turn up in the middle of a probe and "his arrival was a message aimed against the police".

In January, Michal Lieberman and six others were detained in a police raid related to the investigation. They were later released. The probe is a problem for Mr Netanyahu, who has only just put together a complicated coalition Government including Yisrael Beiteinu from the Right and Labour from the Centre Left. At best, it is a distraction at a time when Israel faces many difficult problems, while at worst Mr Netanyahu may have to find another foreign minister.

The Jerusalem Post reported this week that officials from Mr Netanyahu's Likud party and Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu had discussed what would happen to the foreign affairs portfolio if Mr Lieberman were charged - Mr Netanyahu was reportedly keen that it go to Likud while Yisrael Beiteinu threatened if they lost the portfolio they would walk out of the coalition. The latter course would be enough to bring down the Government and force another election. This would suit former foreign minister Tzipi Livni who heads Kadima, the party that won the most number of votes at the February 10 election. Ms Livni repeatedly refused Mr Netanyahu's request to join a national unity government - her strategy appears to be to wait on the sidelines in opposition and to run on a platform of stability should the Government fall.

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