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'Choking reality' haunts holy city
The Australian
Catherine Philp, Bethlehem, The Times
Thursday, December 26, 2013

FROM a barren hill, the settlers look down on snowy Bethlehem. "Just look at all this nature," rhapsodises Yehuda Nesha as he turns from the fabled biblical town towards the Judean hills. Should the settlers get their way, though, nature will soon be banished from this hill, replaced by the red roofs and golden stone walls of hundreds of new homes, the latest links in a chain of Jewish settlements encircling the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

As US-backed negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians lumber on, a growing international chorus has warned of the threat that continued settlement building poses to a peace deal. Nowhere has the impact of Israeli settlements and their growth been as keenly felt by so many Palestinians as in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus Christ finds itself hemmed in on all sides by 22 Israeli settlements, the bypass roads that feed them and the 8m-high "separation barrier" that snakes around its northern and western sides, cutting off its twin holy city of Jerusalem.

"Our little town has become even smaller due to the continued expansion of Israeli settlements," Vera Baboun, Bethlehem's Mayor, said in a Christmas message appealing to the world to heed their plight. Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza, despite a steady exodus of wealthier residents, mostly Christians, anxious to escape what the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called "a choking reality".

Givat Eitam, the hilltop where two settlers from the nearby sprawling settlement of Efrat recently struck camp, was one of the last green spaces left into which Bethlehem could expand. An Israeli court declared the hill the property of the state after rejecting eight appeals from Palestinians claiming it as private land. Plans for 2500 new Jewish homes have been drawn up, but not yet approved, though permission has been given for the settlers to farm here.

In the meantime, Mr Nesha and his friend Oded have set up camp here, erecting a greenhouse tent where they intend to grow lillies and await the building of Efrat's next neighbourhood. "It's a natural thing to want to expand," says Oded, who refuses to give his surname. It is an option his Palestinian neighbours do not have.

In Beit Sahour, the site where, according to Christian tradition, angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in a field, residents glimpsed a rare chance to expand when the Israeli army abandoned a military post on a hill known in Arabic as the Crow's Nest. They wanted the site to build a hospital, but when hardline settlers got wind of the plans they claimed it and demanded that the army return. Two soldiers stand on permanent guard at the watchtower overlooking Bethlehem while hardliners from the neighbouring settlement have raised Israeli flags, planted trees and refurbished old military buildings to hold regular meetings to plot their takeover of the West Bank.

"Eretz Israel is the exclusive possession of the people of Israel," says the website of the Women in Green, the group leading the fight for the building of a new settlement on the hill they call Shdema. Down in Beit Sahour, which is mostly Christian, residents of one housing development have been living under the threat of demolition for more than a decade since an Israeli court ruled its building illegal.

The order was frozen but never lifted, leaving families in limbo, wondering if or when the bulldozers will arrive and where they will go if they do. "This is the only place left for us," says William Sahouri, whose family has lived in the area for more than 300 years. "There are no lands to expand." He is one of seven brothers, but only three remain in Bethlehem. The other four have gone abroad, part of a migration that has seen Bethlehem's Christian population fall by two thirds.

In this year's Christmas message, Mr Abbas highlighted the Christian exodus, lamenting "the sad fact that more Bethlehemites will be lighting their candles in Santiago de Chile, Chicago, San Pedro de Sula, Melbourne and Toronto than in Bethlehem".

At Cremisan monastery in Beit Jala, on Bethlehem's western edge, Salesian monks and nuns are preparing for maybe their last Christmas spent in joint worship. Any day now, an Israeli court is expected to rule on their final appeal against a planned stretch of the separation barrier that will divide the monastery from the convent, separate 58 Palestinian families from their land, encircle the convent school teaching 400 local children and deny Bethlehem another of its very last green spaces. Having lost every ruling to date, hopes of a breakthrough are low, despite international support.

On Friday, Beit Jala's parish priest, Father Ibrahim Shomali, led prayers in a snowy olive grove to pray for a miracle to re-route the wall. If not, he fears a new migration of those severed from their agricultural livelihoods on the other side of the wall, turning the city into a museum piece. "Let us pray for the living Bethlehem," he said, as the crowd bowed their heads and whispered "Amen".


Same Day
Tot killed in Israeli Gaza raid

GAZA CITY: A three-year-old Palestinian girl was killed in an Israeli raid on the Gaza Strip after the fatal shooting of an Israeli near the Gaza border, in the latest uptick in violence. Cross-border exchanges between Israel and Gaza have increased in recent days, and Israel said yesterday that it held Islamist movement Hamas responsible, as rulers of the Palestinian enclave, for any fire directed from there at the Jewish state.

Palestinian medics named the dead girl as Hala Abu Sabikha from a refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. They said at least six other people had been wounded in tank and air strikes throughout Gaza, including on militant positions.

The Israeli army said its aircraft, tanks and infantry "targeted terror sites in the Gaza Strip". "The sites included a weapons-manufacturing facility and a terror infrastructure in the southern Gaza Strip, a terror site and another terror infrastructure in the central Gaza Strip and a concealed rocket launcher in the northern Gaza Strip." The army said the attacks were in retaliation for the shooting of an Israeli man engaged in maintenance work on the northern Israel-Gaza border fence by a Palestinian sniper. He was named as Saleh Abu Latif, 22, a Bedouin from the southern town of Rahat.

Israelis in Tel Aviv yesterday protest against the release of Palestinian prisoners. Source: AFP
Israel to free prisoners amid settlement plans
Weekend Australian online
Saturday, December 28, 2013

JERUSALEM: Israel will announce plans for new settlement construction next week, coinciding with the release of a third batch of Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks. Palestinians have warned repeatedly that settlement building destroys the fragile US-brokered peace talks process that resumed in July after a three-year hiatus.

"The Israeli government will announce tenders for new construction in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, which will coincide with the release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners," an Israeli official said. The comments come days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to push ahead with settlement construction despite calls for restraint by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU. "We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing … the settlement enterprise," Mr Netanyahu told members of his right-wing Likud party last week.

Mr Kerry, who has been fighting to keep the peace talks going, urged Mr Netanyahu earlier this month "to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction", the Haaretz daily has reported.

Israel had been expected to release another 26 Palestinian prisoners this weekend, in line with commitments to the US-backed peace process, which also called on both sides to negotiate for nine months. The release is now not expected until Wednesday.

Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners during the peace talks and has already released 52 in two batches. After the third group is released, the remaining inmates are due to walk free in March.

Israeli daily Maariv cited an unidentified top official as saying Mr Netanyahu initially agreed to US and EU appeals to delay an announcement of new construction, but changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners.

Two rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel and Israel retaliated yesterday, targeting "terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip", the army said. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would not accept the "trickle of terror" from the Gaza Strip. "If there is no quiet in Israel, there won't be quiet in Gaza," he said.


Same Day
Russia: Arafat’s death not caused by radiation
Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press

MOSCOW: A Russian probe into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has found no trace of radioactive poisoning, the chief of the government agency that conducted the study said Thursday. Vladimir Uiba, the head of the Federal Medical and Biological Agency, said the agency had no plans to conduct further tests. "It was a natural death; there was no impact of radiation,” Uiba said, according to Russian news agencies.

Teams of scientists from France, Switzerland and Russia were asked to determine whether polonium, a rare and extremely lethal substance, played a role in Arafat’s death in a French military hospital in 2004. Palestinians have long suspected Israel of poisoning him, which Israel denies. Russia, meanwhile, has had close ties with Palestinian authorities since Soviet times when Moscow supported their struggle.

After a 2012 report which said traces of radioactive polonium were found on Arafat’s clothing, his widow Suha Arafat filed a legal complaint in France seeking an investigation into whether he was murdered. As part of that probe, French investigators had Arafat’s remains exhumed and ordered a series of tests on them.

Suha Arafat, who was notified of the findings earlier this month along with her lawyers, said that the French experts found traces of polonium but came to different conclusions than the Swiss about where they came from, finding that it was "of natural environmental origin.”

Dr. Abdullah Bashir, the head of the Palestinian medical committee investigating Arafat’s death, said they were studying the Russian and Swiss reports. "When we finish we are going to announce the results,” Bashir said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan. He wouldn’t say when that might be.

Polonium occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the Earth’s crust and also is produced artificially in nuclear reactors. Swiss scientists, meanwhile, said they found elevated traces of polonium-210 and lead, and that the timeframe of Arafat’s illness and death was consistent with poisoning from ingesting polonium.

Palestinian Ambassador to Russia, Fayed Mustafa, was quoted by state RIA Novosti news agency as saying Thursday that the Palestinian authorities respect the Russian experts’ conclusions but consider it necessary to continue research into Arafat’s death. Uiba said, however, that his agency hasn’t received any Palestinian request for additional studies.

Kerry to Present Mideast Peace Framework
Wall Street Journal online
Joshua Mitnick
Mohammed Najib in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this article
December 31, 2013

TEL AVIV: Secretary of State John Kerry will present Israeli and Palestinian negotiators with a US proposal for a broad peace framework when he arrives in the region Thursday, deepening the Obama administration's involvement in the talks, the State Department said on Monday.

Mr Kerry is bringing with him a "proposed framework" aimed at bridging gaps on the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements and security, as well as serving as a guideline for a comprehensive, permanent peace agreement, said Marie Harf, the State Department's deputy spokeswoman. "It makes sense to put some guidelines around the discussions of each of the final-status issues to drive the process forward," said Ms Harf. "Hopefully, we'll continue narrowing the gaps and get a framework soon."

The focus on the US proposal marks a new phase, in which the US is expected to more actively press for politically tough concessions from both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. While many observers have suggested that the sides are too far apart to reach common ground on a peace deal, Mr Kerry's new push on bridging gaps suggests the sides may be closer than previously thought.

The announcement about the US proposal came as Israel released another 26 Palestinian prisoners early Tuesday as part of peace talks, amid bickering over an Israeli proposal to annex parts of the West Bank and plans for new Jewish settlements there clouded peace prospects. The release of the prisoners, most of whom were convicted of murder before the 1993 Oslo Accords, is part of a confidence-building measure to keep the negotiations going through the nine-month period that started in July.

Crowds gathered in Ramallah at the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority to welcome the anticipated return of the prisoners. "Unfortunately, while Israel has freed 78 pre-Oslo prisoners during the past three months, it has arrested 650 other prisoners from the West Bank," said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian legislature. "But on the other hand, every prisoner who gets free is an important achievement."

In Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu has faced street protesters who have shouted, "Bibi, shame on you," and a court appeal by families of victims to nullify the release. Speaking to members of his parliament faction on Monday, Mr Netanyahu said his government made a commitment to negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians. "Leaders are tested on their ability to implement decisions, as difficult as they may be. We were not elected to take easy decisions."

The planned release would be the third of four moves to free a total of 104 Palestinians, which Israel promised when negotiations began. In return, Palestinians pledged not to stir up diplomatic pressure throughout the talks.

An Israeli ministerial committee voted on Sunday to sponsor legislation to annex the Jordan Valley, a region many Israelis believe must never be relinquished to avoid border infiltration by militants. That prompted Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to say that the move effectively destroys prospects for peace and that the Palestinian Authority should seek statehood recognition from the international community. Mr Abbas, however, has said he will remain in the talks through the April deadline in order to secure the release of all 104 prisoners.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a lead negotiator for Israel and dovish cabinet member, also criticized hard-line coalition members for the move and appealed for a full cabinet vote on the law. An official in the prime minister's office said the bill is frozen until Mr Netanyahu decides to bring it before the cabinet.

Israeli officials have also said they plan to announce new building tenders in the West Bank, to ease criticism from hard-liners about the prisoner release, sparking more Palestinian complaints. Israeli officials counter that the real obstacle to a deal is a refusal by the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

After Marathon Meeting With Netanyahu, John Kerry Leaves Jerusalem Frustrated by Lack of Progress in Peace Talks
The Algemeiner
Gidon Ben-zvi
January 3, 2014

A marathon five-hour meeting in Jerusalem between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry ended with little progress being made regarding the US proposed framework peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli daily Walla reported on Thursday.

Much of the conversation was dedicated to America’s proposal for future security arrangements in the Jordan Valley. The source of the US frustration is that its idea of a limited American military presence near the proposed future border between Israel and a Palestinian state for a period of ten years has been effectively rejected — both by Jerusalem and Ramallah, Walla said.

On the Israeli side, senior government officials, led by Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon raised several objections to the American initiative. Israel’s official position regarding Jordan Valley security arrangements supports a longer Israeli presence than Kerry’s version. Israel’s also seeks a longer American commitment in the area and over a greater geographical radius than the US proposal. Finally, Netanyahu’s vision for the Jordan Valley puts no specific time frame for the IDF’s ultimate withdrawal from the area.

In contrast, the Palestinian Authority continues to assert that the United States is being overly deferential to Israeli demands. Specifically, the PA is furious that, at least according to sources in Arab media outlets, Kerry has offered Israel a right to veto any agreed upon date for the IDF’s retreat from the Jordan Valley, Walla said.

Despite these differences, John Kerry remains convinced that Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas understand the heavy cost of not accepting the American-backed framework plan, according to Walla.

Going forward, Walla said that John Kerry shouldn’t expect much relief anytime soon. Even if he manages to smooth over the disagreements surrounding the Jordan Valley, several other potential deal breakers lay ahead. First and foremost, the divisive issue of Jerusalem’s final status is a topic that if not addressed skillfully will lead to political turmoil, in Jerusalem or Ramallah — or both.

Jihad philosophy 'justifies' slaughter
Weekend Australian
The Times
January 11, 2014

THE accusation of "apostate" undoubtedly accompanied the pull of each trigger as dozens of prisoners were murdered by their ISIS captors in Aleppo. Opposition activists said as many as 50 prisoners of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham had been slaughtered at the group's hospital headquarters before the militants fled for the northeastern province of Raqqa.

The slaughter should come as little surprise, given that ISIS is derived from an organisation that authorises the killing of innocents and apostates in the greater service of jihad.

Ibn Tamiyyah, a 13th-century Islamic scholar, is one of the primary references for al-Qa'ida's murderous philosophy. He first entrenched the sense of justification of violent action against whoever was deemed to have fallen foul of Islamic law. His medieval fatwas have been repeatedly echoed by al-Qa'ida commanders since the body's foundation in 1988.

Al-Qa'ida members are takfiris, an Arabic word for Muslims who accuse others of apostasy. A crime punishable by death under Islamic law, apostasy has become a catch-all accusation for al-Qa'ida to use against anyone not sharing its radical interpretation of Islam.

On the brink of capitulating, surrounded in its Aleppo headquarters by Syrian rebel groups, ISIS had two options concerning its prisoners' fate. It could have released them unharmed, but instead bound their hands and shot them.

Brave warrior gave his all for the state of Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
January 13, 2014

ARIEL Sharon, a man who fought in or shaped almost every one of Israel's wars since the state was established in 1948, has died aged 85. A controversial individual who inspired passion in both admirers and detractors, Mr Sharon was a military and political figure who influenced key decisions for more than 50 years.

US President Barack Obama described him as "a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel". Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "he was first and foremost a brave warrior and a great general".

While tributes were paid by politicians across the spectrum in Israel and internationally, many Palestinians retained their hatred of Mr Sharon. Celebrations broke out in Hamas-controlled Gaza, while a leader of the more moderate Fatah, Jibril Rajub, told AFP: "Sharon was a criminal responsible for the assassination of (Yasser) Arafat and we would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal."

Mr Sharon suffered a massive stroke while prime minister in 2006 and had been in a coma since. A state funeral will be held today after which Mr Sharon will be buried next to his second wife, Lily, on the family farm in southern Israel.

Palestinian hostility towards Mr Sharon dates to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Mr Sharon, then defence minister, was held responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. An Israeli inquiry found Mr Sharon responsible for "ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge" when he approved the entry of Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia into the camps and for "not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed". Mr Sharon was forced to resign as defence minister but remained in cabinet and rebuilt his career.

In politics he was embraced by the Right but stunned his own base — and Palestinians — with the 2005 unilateral withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from Gaza. This confounded many Israelis as he was known as "the Father of Settlements". In his many ministerial roles — agriculture, housing, defence and then prime minister — he actively worked to establish Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The withdrawal from Gaza came under pressure from then US president George W. Bush and was accompanied by a continued push of settlements into the West Bank.

Ultimately, Mr Sharon was a warrior. "As one who fought in all of Israel's wars, I learned from personal experience that without proper force we do not have a chance of surviving in this region," he said in 2004. "I have also learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land."

Israeli historian Ilan Rachum told The Australian he "became a Napoleonic kind of figure". "His legacy is first of all be careful with the Arabs and don't concede them anything, despite the Gaza evacuation. And then, secondly, to retain the West Bank."

Mr Sharon had the military in his blood from childhood. He joined the pre-state Jewish underground, the Haganah, at 14, and even when he left the army, he was still shaping it. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he went behind enemy lines and helped surround Egyptian soldiers, allowing the Israelis to cross the Suez Canal.

As opposition leader, Mr Sharon famously visited one of the most sensitive sites in Jerusalem — the al-Aqsa Mosque, which led to riots and marked the beginning of the second intifada. A year later, he was elected prime minister, a position he held for five years.

While publicly he exuded self-confidence, privately he dealt with much tragedy. His first wife, Margalit, died in an accident. He then married her younger sister, Lily, who died from cancer. His 11-year-old son died in his arms after playing with an old gun at home.

Mr Sharon's philosophy was reflected in his autobiography, Warrior. "So when I consider how hard it (Israel's future) looks now, I think back to when I was a child, working with my father on that arid slope of land, walking behind him to plant the seeds in the earth he had turned with his hoe," he wrote. "When I felt too exhausted to go on, he would stop for a moment to look backwards, to see how much we had already done. And that would always give me heart for what remained."

Attacks rock Iraq as militia makes gains
The Australian
January 17, 2014

A WAVE of attacks in Iraq, including car-bombs in Baghdad, killed 73 people as militants took more territory from security forces in crisis-hit Anbar province yesterday. The twin setbacks for authorities, grappling with Iraq's worst period of unrest since the country emerged from a sectarian war that killed tens of thousands, come just months before a parliamentary election.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and other diplomats have urged Iraq's leaders to seek political reconciliation to resolve nationwide violence and the standoff in Anbar. But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ruled out dialogue with militants as his forces have launched security operations. The operations, which authorities say have led to the death or capture of several militants affiliated with the al-Qa'ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have not stopped the bloodshed.

Nine car-bombs hit civilian targets in majority-Shia or mixed neighbourhoods of the capital, killing 37 people. One of them struck a packed market in the Shaab neighbourhood, while another detonated outside a restaurant on Sanaa Street, killing five people. The windows of nearby shops were shattered, the restaurant's ceiling partially caved in and blood and mangled vehicle parts were scattered across the street. The Baghdad carnage could have been much worse, with police saying they managed to arrest four would-be suicide bombers, all allegedly Arabs of foreign nationalities, with explosives-rigged vehicles that were eventually disabled by security forces and military engineers.

A suicide bombing at a funeral in Buhruz, in religiously mixed Diyala province north of Baghdad, killed 16 people and wounded 20, officials said. In the northern city of Mosul, 13 people were killed, nine of them soldiers, while seven workers at a brick factory were shot dead in Muqdadiyah, 80km north of Baghdad.

Mr Maliki appealed for international action against al-Qa'ida and its affiliates. "To keep silent means there would be sub-states creating problems for the security of the region and the world." He called for "a strong position against countries who give support" to militants and urged world powers to "drain the resources of terrorists."

The security forces lost more ground in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, as Sunni gunmen, including some linked to al-Qa'ida, overran two areas when police abandoned their posts. The crisis marks the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency after the US-led invasion of 2003. "They have very heavy arms, which are much stronger than what we have," one policeman from the town of Saqlawiyah, who did not want to be identified, said. "Our police station was not very well protected, and they surrounded us. Even when we called for support, nobody came."

Iran invited to Syria peace conference, Ban Ki-moon says
The Australian online
January 20, 2014 11:33AM

IRAN will attend this week's Syria peace conference after it pledged to play a "positive and constructive role" in efforts to end the three-year-old war, UN leader Ban Ki-moon has said. Mr Ban said he made a late invitation to Iran after intensive talks with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who agreed to attend. Iran's involvement means that all the key countries linked to the worsening war will now be at the opening of the peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland on Wednesday.

Talks between President Bashar al-Assad's government and the opposition are due to start in Geneva on Friday. 'I will not go', says defiant Assad

"Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers," Mr Ban said. "It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux," the UN secretary-general added.

The United States and other Western powers had opposed Iran's attendance at the meeting as long as it refused to accept a communique adopted by the major powers in Geneva on June 30, 2012 calling for a transition government in Syria. "I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis," Mr Ban said.

Mr Ban said that as convener of the peace conference he has also invited Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, South Korea and the Vatican. He said the extra countries would be "an important and useful show of solidarity in advance of the hard work that the Syrian government and opposition delegations will begin."

For Iran and Israel, Some Near Misses in Davos
The Wall Street Journal
Matthew Karnitschnig, Rebecca Blumenstein
January 23, 2014

Simultaneous Presence of Mideast Foes Adds Diplomatic Complexity to Davos Gathering

DAVOS, Switzerland: Israel and Iran have spent decades exchanging rhetorical blows. On Thursday, the leaders of the two countries had the rare chance to do it in the same room. Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani all traveled to Switzerland to deliver speeches Thursday, just hours apart, to the annual World Economic Forum.

The simultaneous presence of the trio and their respective delegations in this Alpine hamlet added extra diplomatic complexity to an event already packed with a roster of dignitaries. Organizers scheduled Mr Rouhani's comments for the morning, several hours before Mr Netanyahu appeared. The timing was largely an attempt to keep the two leaders apart and prevent them from running into each other, according to people familiar with the situation.

Within minutes of Mr Rouhani's speech, Mr Peres called a hastily scheduled news conference at a nearby hotel to respond to his remarks. That allowed Israeli officials to have an immediate response, particularly since some interpreted Mr Rouhani's remarks as conciliatory, even to Israel. Mr Peres noted that Mr Rouhani concluded "with smiles" as he clarified that Iran wants to improve relations with "all countries we have officially recognized." Iran doesn't recognize Israel.

"As far as Israel is concerned, we are ready to make peace with the Iranian people, " Mr Peres said. "Today was a great occasion that was unfortunately missed," he added. Mr Netanyahu focused his remarks on Israel's economy, but didn't leave the podium without taking a swipe at the Iranians.

The Israeli leader dismissed Mr Rouhani's overtures to the West, saying the rhetoric was not consistent with Tehran's actions. Mr Netanyahu said the Iranian president's speech "just doesn't have any connection to what is going on on the ground."

Mr Netanyahu accused the Iranian president of lying to the international community about Iran's nuclear program and about the situation in Syria.

Despite their proximity, the two delegations managed to stay safely away from one another.

A right wing Israeli man blows a trumpet as he participates in a prayer at the Western Wall. Source: AP
Peace bid threatens Israel's coalition
Weekend Australian
Catherine Philp, Jerusalem, The Times
Saturday, February 1, 2014

HUNDREDS of right-wing Israeli demonstrators gathered at Jerusalem's Western Wall yesterday for a prayer rally against negotiations with the Palestinians as the next step towards a peace deal threatened to destroy the country's governing coalition. The demonstration at Judaism's holiest site was led by Jewish Home, the religious nationalist party whose leader, Naftali Bennett, sparked the current crisis with his harsh criticism of recent statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Bennett has threatened to quit the coalition if key concessions are made in pursuit of a peace deal leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state, based on pre-1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Were he to go, he could take with him not only his party's 12 MPs, but also right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu's Likud party who are opposed to a two-state solution to the conflict.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to return to the region next month with a framework agreement containing just such concessions for the Israelis and Palestinians to sign up to as the basis for extending talks beyond their expiry date in April. Mr Kerry is expected to include a demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people — a key stumbling block on their side of the negotiating table.

The crisis flared a week ago when the Prime Minister's office suggested that Mr Netanyahu was in favour of leaving recalcitrant Israelis in far-flung Jewish settlements to live under Palestinian rule in a future peace deal. While the suggestion was roundly criticised across the political spectrum, Mr Bennett responded with an attack on Mr Netanyahu, accusing him of having "lost his moral compass". He said "our ancestors and our descendants will never forgive an Israeli leader who gives away our land and divides our capital".

Mr Netanyahu's office demanded an apology, saying Mr Bennett would be thrown out of government if he refused. Mr Bennett issued a guarded apology that was quickly accepted, only to insist, hours later, that his statement was not an apology. Mr Netanyahu's office chose to ignore that clarification and the letter of dismissal was binned.

Report on minors treats Israel unfairly
The Australian
Colin Rubenstein
February 14, 2014

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.

THE ABC Four Corners program on Monday alleging the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian children, created with The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons, was laced with sensationalism, inadequate scepticism and fact-checking. It recycled uncorroborated allegations by arrested Palestinian minors and then wove a conspiracy theory based on them.

The story claimed that Unicef "found” the allegations to be true. Actually, the UN agency merely "found” that these concerning allegations exist.

If these stories are true, they involve clear breaches of Israeli law and those responsible deserve punishment. But, in the heat of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, horror stories of the sort alleged here — electric shocks, being strapped to a giant cross, threats of rape — are often untrue or grossly exaggerated, and require corroborating evidence.

Indefensibly, the story was repeatedly promoted as providing evidence that Israel has a "new policy” of "targeting Palestinian children”. No evidence was provided for this apart from an unsubstantiated claim by radical Israeli activist and lawyer Gaby Lasky. In fact, data on the website of Gerard Horton — a critic featured in the story — show that Israel’s arrest rate against juvenile Palestinians has been steady or declining and is comparatively low.

Israel reportedly arrests 700 juvenile Palestinians annually from a population of 2.5 million. Victoria, with a population of 5.4 million, had 29,198 juveniles arrested over 2012-2013 for violent crimes — a rate roughly 19 times higher per capita. Furthermore, Israel has recently taken meaningful steps to improve conditions for arrested Palestinian juveniles, something that Four Corners almost completely avoided mentioning. Unicef, a major source used for the story, noted in its October 2013 progress report that Israel was co-operating closely with it and had implemented a number of its key recommendations.

The report concentrated only on young "children” accused of "stone throwing”, giving the impression these cases are typical of Palestinian juveniles arrested by Israel. Actually, Israel does not imprison or try children under 12, and the vast majority of juveniles arrested are 16 or 17. Last year, Israel detained no more than 12 Palestinians under 14.

Many of the juveniles arrested are involved in genuine terrorism, including shootings, bomb plots and murder, but stone-throwing at cars is actually a serious offence. In NSW, it carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Palestinian stone-throwing has killed at least 12 Israelis over recent decades and injured dozens if not hundreds.

A core complaint in the story was that Israeli and Palestinian minors are not treated the same, but it was never explained that this is because of Israeli compliance with the international law of occupation. Were Israel to apply Israeli law to the West Bank, rather than the law in place there in 1967, this would be legally tantamount to annexing it. Further, the story obscured the fact that Israel has to confront a wicked problem of trying to respect human rights and protect the lives of its citizens against numerous networks operating among a civilian population full of Palestinian minors bombarded with messages inciting them to violence.

As has been widely reported, including in this newspaper, Palestinian children are constantly exposed to messages in the media and at school lionising terrorists, and urging violent "resistance” against Israel. Four Corners ignored this reality. Thus the late night arrests of some juveniles is designed to save lives, not intimidate Palestinians. When Israeli forces make daylight arrests in Palestinian towns, they are attacked by local gangs and terror groups, leading to bloodshed. In December, two people were killed and eight injured from such arrest efforts.

Likewise, Israeli attempts to gain intelligence from those arrested was presented as part of a conspiracy, when this is exactly what law-enforcement authorities anywhere would do after arresting a minor involved in violence associated with a larger group or organisation.

Finally, the story featured quotes irrelevant to Israeli treatment of Palestinian juveniles from an extremist settler, Daniella Weiss. It was never mentioned that there have been three offers of Palestinian statehood made by successive Israeli governments. Hopefully, a Palestinian leadership willing and able to agree to a lasting peace will soon accept these offers.

Israel may not be getting its response right in some respects, but it is improving its treatment of arrested minors, as Unicef attests. This issue deserved a more temperate, professional and balanced treatment.

UN dismayed after Syria talks break down
The Australian Online
February 16, 2014

THE UN’s Syria envoy said yesterday he was "very, very sorry" after Geneva peace talks broke off without result, throwing the future of the negotiations to end the bloody conflict into doubt. Just weeks after the warring parties sat down for the first time to seek a political settlement to the three-year conflict, a second round ended in acrimony last night.

"I’m very, very sorry," UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Geneva without being able to set a date for a third round. "I think it is better that every side goes back and reflects, and takes their responsibility: do they want this process to continue or not ?"

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague decried the situation as "a serious setback in the search for peace in Syria". With no guarantee the parties will return to the negotiating table, the death toll continued to mount in Syria where more than 140,000 have died and millions have been driven from their homes.

A monitoring group said last week more than 5000 people had been killed since the talks began on January 22. And the UN raised the alarm over Syrian air raids in the Qalamun mountains near the Lebanese border, as thousands fled the opposition-held town of Yabrud amid fears of a ground assault.

In Geneva, the rivals seemed to agree on only one thing: the negotiations were going nowhere. "The regime is not serious … there is nothing positive we can take from this," opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after the talks. The head of the regime’s negotiating team, Bashar Jaafari, described the other side as "amateurs", blaming the opposition’s backer the US as "trying its best to undermine the whole process". Mr Brahimi noted that the two sides had at least finally agreed on an agenda for possible future talks. “I very much hope there will be a third round," Mr Brahimi said.

The opposition says the focus must be on creating a transitional government, without President Bashar al-Assad. The regime representatives have insisted Mr Assad’s position is non-negotiable and refused to discuss anything beyond the “terrorism" it blames on its opponents and their foreign backers. Mr Brahimi said if the sides returned, they would discuss violence and terrorism first, then the transitional governing body (TGB), followed by national institutions and finally national reconciliation and national debate.

Abbas gives ground on refugees’ right to return
The Australian
Joshua Mitnick, Ramallah, The Wall Street Journal
February 18, 2014

MAHMOUD Abbas says he has no desire to flood Israel with refugees, signalling a possible compromise on a long-standing Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to lands left during the 1948 war of Israeli independence. Addressing 300 young Israeli political activists visiting the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah yesterday (Sunday), Mr Abbas described the position on refugees as one of several concessions he had already committed to in peace negotiations.

Click here for another report, from the students perspective, in The Times of Israel.

The address, part of the Palestinian President’s efforts to sway Israeli public opinion about his commitment to peace, comes as the US is formulating a series of compromises as a basis for extending talks beyond an April target date for a preliminary accord. The remarks were the most explicit from a Palestinian leader on a demand that has proved a major stumbling block in negotiations. As such, it exposes Mr Abbas to domestic criticism.

For Palestinians, the right of return symbolises recognition of and compensation for alleged historic injustices to Palestinian refugees. But Israelis consider it a negation of their existence as a Jewish homeland. “The propaganda says (Mr Abbas) wants to repatriate five million refugees. I never said that,” he said. “We are not seeking to drown Israel with millions of refugees to change its structure. The hope is to put this problem on the table and to find a creative solution.”

Such a position is likely to force many Palestinians with ties to homes inside of Israel to give up claims to return once and for all. Previous rounds of talks discussed offering Palestinians to return to the West Bank and the Gaza or monetary compensation if they chose to remain in their countries. Negotiators also discussed allowing a limited number of Palestinians to return to Israel.

In a 2012 interview, Mr Abbas, a refugee himself from the Israeli town of Safed, said he would not seek the right to return for himself but did not elaborate.

He has made several recent appeals to the Israeli public to counter attacks by Israeli hard-liners on his credibility as a negotiating partner — including an Israeli television interview and a video address to an Israeli security conference. Outside the presidential compound yesterday, a group of about two dozen Palestinians chanted “shame”, referring to his move to host the young Israelis. Mr Abbas’s remarks to the group also drew criticism, including from the Palestinians Students Democratic Assembly, which called his remarks dangerous and argued he lacked the authority to proffer such compromises.

Mr Abbas told the audience he wanted to appeal to Israel’s youth and that he hoped they would convey a message of peace on his behalf. The guests were given Hebrew-language booklets detailing the Palestinian negotiating positions.

He added a peace deal would mean normalisation with the Arab world and an end to Israel’s isolation in the Middle East. Still, Mr Abbas did sound notes of frustration. He complained that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had forced negotiations back to “square one”, ignoring the progress under previous administrations. He also branded Israeli settlers in the West Bank as “killers” responsible for stealing Palestinian land and destroying property. As to whether he would recognises Jews as a people, he demurred, saying that he had already recognised the state of Israel. “Who the inhabitants are is none of my business,” Mr Abbas said.

Islam Dar Ayyoub and his brother Karim, who have both been arrested by Israeli troops — Islam when he
was 14 and Karim when he was nine — in their village of Nabi Saleh on the West Bank. Sylvie Le Clezio
Israel to end night arrest of kids
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE Israeli army has announced a comprehensive review of its policy of dealing with Palestinian children, including an immediate pilot program to end night-time arrests. The review is to be detailed shortly to a committee of the Israeli parliament.

It comes shortly after a joint investigation by The Australian and the ABC’s Four Corners program into Israel’s military justice system. That investigation showed that Israel enforces two legal systems in the occupied West Bank — one for Jews and one for Palestinians.

Israel’s chief military prosecutor for the West Bank, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hirsch, told The Jerusalem Post that the army had decided to make “a general re-evaluation” of the situation. He said the pilot program was “one of many decisions in a general re-evaluation of the situation, not only improving treatment of the rights of Palestinian minors, but also taking into account the potential operational benefits.”

The Jerusalem Post said that since a UNICEF report on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children and following the Four Corners program there had been indications of upcoming change, but that Colonel Hirsch’s revelation was the first official confirmation.

Last year, UNICEF found that the ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appeared to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalised.” It found: “Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member.”

After that Israel committed to begin a pilot program under which children would be issued with summonses rather than subjected to night-time arrests, but has not proceeded with that pilot program.

Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Australian that the abuses alleged by UNICEF were “intolerable”. Mr Palmor said one problem was that soldiers, rather than policemen, were making arrests. “So we need to train soldiers to behave as policemen and that is something that’s not so easy,” he said.

The Post said the re-evaluation was being made in the context of a growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Europe. “But the more serious and probably more dangerous threat from an Israeli perspective — one that has been only slightly out of the news for some time — is the International Criminal Court,” it said. It added the terminology that some of Israel’s accusers had used was directly from the Rome Statute, which related to “crimes against humanity.”

Colonel Hirsch said that “much of the criticism of torture and abuse against Israel” — which Israel disputed — was alleged to have occurred during night-time arrests. The hope was that the pilot program could “neutralise those complaints.” He said if the program worked there would be “tremendous gains in saving people from operational dangers and minimising future claims of abuse” and if it failed “we will have shown conclusively that summonses do not work” and there was no alternative to night arrests.

He added: “We have no intention of reducing the intensity of the fight against Palestinian terrorism, stone throwing and offences committed by minors.”

World Commentary: Palestinians guilty of turning kids into killers
The Australian
Shmuel Ben-Shmuel
February 21, 2014

Shmuel Ben-Shmuel is Israel’s ambassador to Australia.

STONES are hurled on to the highway, causing a major car accident. A woman and her three young children are injured, one of them critically. Sitting by her daughter’s bed at Rabin Medical Centre in Israel, Adva Biton laments that three-year-old Adele, who is now confined to a wheelchair since the attack, “doesn’t laugh, doesn’t eat, doesn’t do anything on her own”.

Several minutes before the crash, rocks were also hurled at another Israeli vehicle, shattering the windshield. The driver, a resident of Eli, and his one-year-old son were lightly wounded.

On a daily basis incidents of rock throwing by minors take place. These projectiles are launched with alarming regularity. These events contribute a part of the grim everyday reality of life in the West Bank.

Over recent days, Australian media reports have painted an extremely misleading view of the situation on the West Bank regarding the treatment of Palestinian children and Israel’s co-operation with UNICEF.

Israel’s security establishment has been, according to a UNICEF paper from October 1, 2013, “engaging closely with UNICEF and has been reviewing the recommendations of the UNICEF paper”. The paper goes on to note that “this engagement is facilitating a deeper analysis and understanding of the process of military arrest, detention and prosecution in the West Bank”.

We, like the overwhelming majority of Israelis and fair-minded people everywhere, feel great pain and a sense of sorrow when we see children tragically involved in acts of politically motivated violence. While the issue of incarceration and treatment of minors is being dealt with, we are not seeing a similar level of thought or effort put into investigations concerning the origin of such behaviours. Children are not inherently violent or hateful. This is a learned behaviour.

To comprehensively investigate the health and wellbeing of the children involved in such violent acts, we must acknowledge that these children were, at some point, indoctrinated into this vicious mentality by terrorists and their affiliates.

We must recognise the role of adults in teaching their children to throw rocks as the core reason for these acts. Including, of course, strategic targets and timing in training. Misused by adults and terror organisations in a way contravening international law, utilising children for incitement purposes is criminal. This is the reality and it must stop.

When a minor is coerced into participating in deadly violence, it primarily indicates a lack of discipline, education and a breakdown of the primary support system, his or her family. Unfortunately, the Palestinian society and Authority have embraced and institutionalised a system of hate and violence directed at Israelis.

This system encourages individual acts of violence, whether rock throwing, fire-bomb hurling, drive-by shooting or, in extreme cases, the utilisation of explosives and suicide attacks. This environment is met by, and insulated by, an educational system that does its utmost to erase Israel from the history books.

Despite the news reports, it is important to note that Israel is actively working towards a better solution for the future. Unlike other countries, Israel has been working with UNICEF and other international organisations in order to improve the situation while uncovering the truth without any fear. These incidents have only come to light through the transparency and self-reporting that has characterised UNICEF-Israel investigators.

UNICEF’s latest paper clearly highlights the vast improvements made by Israel through various government ministries and the IDF. Israel’s support for UNICEF’s investigation and reforms it has made to procedures surrounding minors are illustrative of the genuine effort Israel makes to safeguard the judicial process and make substantive and effective changes where the need arises.

As stated in the UNICEF paper: “These efforts will build on the work of Palestinian, Israeli and International civil society groups who have been working with the Palestinian population for a number of years to raise awareness with children, families and communities to ensure they are informed of their specific rights when they are detained by the Israeli military.”

Israel stands at a crossroads, a place where no other country has stood before. We represent a patch in the complex tapestry of Middle-Eastern geography.

To simplify and sensationalise our situation, and that of the Middle East, is unhelpful and undermines peace efforts in both a regional and global context. It is such a shame that we cannot see a more three-dimensional view of the Middle East, instead of the same story regurgitated over many days.

Abbas, Bibi battle it out over rocket attacks
The Australian
March 14, 2014

GAZA BORDER: Gaza militants resumed their rocket fire on southern Israel yesterday after warplanes blitzed the coastal enclave, prompting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to demand Israel end its “escalation”. A military spokeswoman said militants had fired five rockets but only one struck Israeli territory, causing no harm or damage.

She said the total number of rockets that had struck southern Israel since the escalation began on Wednesday night local time was “over 60”, with five hitting populated areas.

Overnight, Israeli warplanes carried out raids on 29 targets in Gaza, hitting bases used by militants from Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement and from Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, the al-Quds Brigade, which has claimed all of the rocket fire. The strikes prompted a sharp rebuke from Mr Abbas, who demanded that Israel “put an end to its military escalation in the besieged Gaza Strip”, spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said yesterday.

By Wednesday evening, Islamic Jihad claimed it had fired at least 90 rockets at Israel in response to an airstrike on Tuesday that killed three of its militants in southern Gaza, which took place after they had fired a mortar at Israeli troops in the area. The rocket salvos, which sent tens of thousands of Israelis running for shelter, marked the biggest wave of attacks since a major eight-day confrontation between Israel and Hamas in November 2012.

There were no reports of casualties on either side.

The earlier Quds barrage, which Israel said came from several sites, prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn of a tough response. And Washington called for “these terrorists attacks to cease immediately”, adding that it condemned the rockets from Gaza “in the strongest terms”.

The escalation came just hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived on his first official visit to the region since taking office in 2010. Police raised the level of alert in the south, saying the rockets struck along the length of Israel’s border with Gaza.

The attack began shortly after Mr Netanyahu and Mr Cameron addressed parliament, and prompted a stern warning from the Israeli leader, who pledged to act “with great force” against those seeking to harm Israel. Later, Mr Netanyahu warned those in Gaza again.

“If there won’t be quiet in the south (of Israel), there will be noise in Gaza, and this is an understatement,” he said, in remarks relayed by his office. It said that he held a telephone conference with defence and security chiefs and instructed them to act “in any way” to restore calm.

Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Source: AP
Last-ditch Mid-East peace talks stalling
The Australian
Tuesday, April 8, 2014

JERUSALEM: Last-ditch talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on salvaging a teetering, US-brokered peace process ended without a breakthrough, sources said yesterday. “The crisis continues. During the whole meeting, the Israelis threatened the Palestinians and no solution to the crisis was found,” a Palestinian official said.

Warning the peace process was on the edge of collapse, an Israeli official close to the talks said even US Secretary of State John Kerry, its tireless sponsor, was cooling off. “The way it’s looking now, the talks as they were several weeks ago are no longer relevant,” the source told Israeli news website Ynet. “Israel is preparing to return to routine dealings with the Palestinians as they were before the negotiations started nine months ago. We are noticing a real coolness in the way the Americans are treating (the peace process), and it’s obvious that today’s Kerry is not the same Kerry from a few weeks ago,” the official added.

A second official, however, said another chance needed to be given to the efforts of Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni. “We have to wait a few more days … A lot of effort are being done to salvage the situation.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, threatened to retaliate if the Palestinians proceed with applications to adhere to 15 international treaties. “These will only make a peace agreement more distant,” he said of the applications the Palestinians made last week. “Any unilateral moves they take will be answered by unilateral moves at our end.” Those remarks, made at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, came hours before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met US envoy Martin Indyk.

Mr Kerry warned on Friday there were “limits” to the time and energy Washington could devote to the talks process, as his appeals to both sides to step back from the brink fell on deaf ears. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas rejected Mr Kerry’s plea to withdraw the treaty applications, and Mr Netanyahu ignored US appeals to refrain from tit-for-tat moves, asking for a range of retaliatory options.

Israel says Mr Abbas’s move was a clear breach of the commitments the Palestinians gave when the talks were relaunched in July to pursue no other avenues for recognition of their promised state. The Palestinians say Israel had reneged on its own undertakings by failing to release a fourth and final batch of prisoners a week ago, and the treaty move was their response. “The Palestinians have much to lose from a unilateral move. They will get a state only through direct negotiations," Mr Netanyahu said.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, blamed the crisis on Israel, which “wants to extend the negotiations for ever” as it creates “more facts on the ground.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo.
Source: AP
UN nod a blow for Mid-East peace bid
Weekend Australian
Catherine Philp, The Times, AFP
Saturday, April 12, 2014

JERUSALEM: The state of Pales­tine will be formally admitted next month to 10 international conventions overseen by the UN, a move that could spell the end of the faltering US-backed peace process. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signed off on the applications submitted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week in an effort to advance the case for Palestinian statehood outside negotiations with the Israelis.

The Palestinians, who had promised not to pursue their case while talks were taking place, said they were released from that commitment when Israel reneged on a promise to release four batches of prisoners at each stage of the talks. Mr Ban sent letters to all countries that are signatories to the conventions, telling them the state of Palestine, recognised as a non-member state by the UN General Assembly two years ago, would formally join the conventions on May 2.

The announcement came a day after Israel imposed sanctions against the Palestinian Authority as punishment for its moves to join the conventions, which include treaties against torture, corruption, racism and civil rights. Israel, which collects about $118 million in taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority — two-thirds of its revenues — has decided to freeze the transfer of that money, an official said.

Israel was also suspending its participation with the Palestinians in developing a gas field off the Gaza Strip and putting a cap on Palestinian deposits in its banks. However, the official said “discussions under the aegis of the US to overcome the talks ­crisis will continue”.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat lashed out at the move, calling it an act of “Israeli hijacking and the theft of Palestinian people’s money”. The decision is a “violation of international law and norms by Israel” in revenge for the Palestinians’ move to join a raft of international treaties as a state, Mr Erakat said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed his ministers and senior officials to end meetings with their Palestinian counterparts, a move that could delay bilateral projects. Israel has frozen plans for a Palestinian mobile phone company to enter Gaza, and delayed plans to advance housing and agricultural projects in the 60 per cent of the West Bank under full Israeli control.

The UN announcement is expected to be followed by one from Switzerland, the sponsor of the Fourth Geneva Convention, accepting the Palestinian application to the treaty governing the protection of civilians in war. It is not yet clear whether The Netherlands, the sponsor of the Hague Convention on the laws of war, will also announce Palestinian accession. Palestinian officials said their ultimate goal was to pursue Israel for war crimes.

The Palestinian Authority put all applications on hold last July after reaching an agreement brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to hold off for a nine-month period of negotiations with the Israelis scheduled to end on April 29.

Extract - UN clash as Ukraine threatens anti-terror operation against uprising
The Australian online
Monday, April 14, 2014

RUSSIA and the West have locked horns over the escalating crisis in Ukraine at UN Security Council emergency talks, as deadly clashes flared between Ukrainian forces and pro-Kremlin militias. Russia blamed the rising tensions on the pro-Western interim government in Kiev, which took power in February, while Britain, France and the United States pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

The emergency session was the 10th round of UN Security Council talks on the crisis and comes after Kiev threatened to launch a military operation unless pro-Russian forces stand down. The General Assembly last month passed a resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea but analysts say the UN talks will achieve little more than posturing on all sides.

Russia, which called the meeting, said it was 'the West who will determine the opportunity to stop the civil war in Ukraine'. “There has already been bloodshed and a further escalation must be swiftly stopped," ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the council. “The international community must ask Kiev to stop and implement all its commitments. Kiev should stop the use of force against eastern Ukrainian people and start a genuine dialogue," Mr Churkin said.

US ambassador Samantha Power accused Russia of waging propaganda and bombarding Ukraine with incitement and violence. “This is the saddest kind of instability. It is completely man made. It was written and choreographed in and by Russia," Ms Power told the 15-member council. Ms Power urged Russia to explain why 40,000 of its forces are massed on the Ukrainian border and find constructive ideas to stop armed attacks on government buildings in eastern Ukraine.

British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant described the last 48 hours in eastern Ukraine as a 'dangerous escalation of an already dangerous situation'. “Russia is seeking to impose its will on the people of Ukraine using misinformation, intimidation and aggression," he said, branding Moscow’s behaviour 'completely unacceptable'. He urged Russia to redeploy its troops away from the border and 'cease all activity designed to heighten tensions and sow discord'.

Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov declared the launch of a 'full-scale anti-terrorist operation' a day after masked gunmen stormed police and security service buildings. But the Russian foreign ministry accused Ukraine’s leaders of 'waging war against their own people' and demanded that the UN Security Council immediately address Kiev’s use of force.

Accusing Moscow of fomenting the unrest, Mr Turchynov said the “anti-terrorist operation” would ensure Russia did not 'repeat the Crimean scenario in Ukraine’s east'. Mr Turchynov pledged to offer amnesty to anyone surrendering their weapons by this morning.

Those leading the storming of government buildings say Russian-speakers rights can only be assured with full autonomy for eastern regions — a move they insist should be endorsed by referendums. A similar vote in Crimea last month resulted in the peninsula splitting off from Ukraine and being annexed by Russia. In Luhansk — a town of 420,000 across the border from Russia — heavily armed men still control the security services building. In Donetsk, 128km to the west, an occupied regional government building is now serving as the headquarters of a self-declared autonomous region billing itself the Donetsk Republic.

West Bank plan angers Clinton
The Australian
Nico Hines, The Times
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

WASHINGTON: Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has attacked Israel for announcing a “counter-productive” and apparently “provocative” settlement expansion in the midst of a highly sensitive UN showdown on the Middle East. The Obama administration was infuriated by Israel’s decision to approve the building of 1100 Jewish homes in the West Bank as US diplomats lobbied furiously to halt the Palestinian request for statehood that was formally submitted to the UN last week.

The US backed a proposal for renewed peace talks with firm deadlines that would have postponed a UN vote on the Palestinians' request to be recognised as an independent state. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli settlement announcement amounted to “1100 noes to the resumption of peace talks”.

Mrs Clinton did little to conceal her frustration at the timing of the announcement that new homes would be built in Gilo, a Jewish enclave in Jerusalem. “This morning’s announcement by the government of Israel — is counter-productive to our efforts to resume negotiations between the parties. We have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including and perhaps most particularly in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” she said.

Visiting the beach front in Tel Aviv during the last vacation day of the Passover holiday.
Source: AP
Netanyahu faces party walkout
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Thursday, April 24, 2014

ONE of Israel’s largest political parties has threatened to withdraw from the coalition government if the current round of peace talks collapse. The threat was made by Yesh Atid — led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid — which represents a significant section of secular Israelis and is a key partner in the Netanyahu government.

Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Mr Lapid remained committed to an earlier promise to withdraw from the government if there was no peace or diplomatic process.

The threat from Yesh Atid came at the same time as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would continue peace talks if Israel froze the growth of its settlements for three months. The developments came ahead of the official end of the peace talks, brokered by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, next Tuesday.

This means Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces threats to his coalition from both the Left — Yesh Atid — and the Right — Jewish Home. At last year’s election, Yesh Atid won 19 seats and Jewish Home won 12 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

The leader of Jewish Home, Minister for the Economy Naftali Bennett, threatened recently to quit the coalition if the government released a final group of 26 Palestinian prisoners. Israel had made the promise as a condition for the current round of peace talks to begin but reneged on the promise. In response, the Palestinian Authority has applied to 15 international organisations and treaties. Palestinian negotiators have threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority and “hand the keys” to Israel if peace talks end.

Mr Bennett yesterday escalated his word of words with Mr Abbas over the threat. “If you’re going to shoot then shoot, don’t talk,” Mr Bennett said, adding that Israel was stronger than Mr Abbas’s threats.

Apart from handing responsibility for the West Bank to Israel, a dissolution of the PA would mean the end of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Over recent years PA security forces, sometimes working with Israel, have detained members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas who they believed were a threat to PA or Israeli targets.

The US has made it clear it does not want to see the end of the Palestinian Authority, which would lead to chaos on the West Bank. The US seeks to ensure the PA does not seek membership of the International Criminal Court. The US and Israel fear such membership could be used to bring legal suits against Israeli officials.

Yesterday, Mr Abbas sounded a more conciliatory note — in a meeting with Israeli journalists he said Palestinians wanted to “turn over a new leaf.” “We are a partner and if there are ministers on your side, whom I will not name, who say we are not a partner, that’s their business. We want to reach a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders. Imagine what the situation will be between Israel and the entire Arab world when all the states, from Mauritania to Indonesia, establish relations with you.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli army announced it would send enlistment papers to Christian Arabs in Israel. The move angered Arab MPs, who accused the government of seeking to divide Christians from Muslims — but the army stressed such enlistment would be voluntary.

Palestinians in Gaza City march outside the home of Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister,
in support of the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah. Source: AFP
Fatah, Hamas unity hurts
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Friday, April 25, 2014

RIVAL Palestinian factions have announced plans for a unity government in a move that casts new doubts over struggling Middle East peace talks. After a bitter seven-year split, Fatah, which governs the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, announced yesterday that they had agreed on reunification.

The US expressed “disappointment” and Israel reacted angrily, immediately cancelling a round of peace talks with the Palestinians.

However, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said there was no contradiction between Palestinian reconciliation and continued negotiations. The peace talks were already close to collapse after Israel reneged three weeks ago on an agreement to release 26 Palestinian prisoners. In response, Mr Abbas has approached 15 international organisations seeking membership — something Israel has insisted he not do while negotiations were under way.

From the Palestinian side, the unity agreement was seen as an acknowledgment by its leadership that the nine-month effort by US Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue a two-state solution had failed. From the Israeli side, it was seen as a way of the Palestinians avoiding any peace deal.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas) needs to choose between peace with Israel and an agreement with Hamas, a murderous terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and which both the US and the European Union define as a terrorist organisation.” The Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, replied: “No, Mr Netanyahu, it is not a case of either peace with Hamas or with Israel. It is either your continuation of settlement activity, colonisation and apartheid, or two sovereign and democratic states living side by side, in peace and security on the 1967 border.”

Senior Palestinian Authority official Jibril Rajoub told Israelis the unity government would ­recognise Israel and accept the conditions of the international community. Speaking on Army Radio, he said: “The government of national consensus that will be established, headed by Abu Mazen, will declare clearly and unequivocally it accepts (Middle East) Quartet’s conditions.”

However, the move appeared to catch Washington by surprise — the official period for Mr Kerry’s peace talks finishes next Tuesday and the US is unsure whether talks will continue beyond then. “It is hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not recognise its right to exist,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “The Palestinian recognition deal raises concerns and could complicate the efforts to extend peace talks. The ball is in the Palestinian court to answer questions about how the government announcement affects peace talks.”

Mr Abbas said: “There is no incompatibility between reconciliation and the talks, especially since we are committed to a just peace on the basis of a two-state solution in accordance with the resolutions of international law. This move, supported by the Arab world and internationally, will strengthen the ability of the Palestinian negotiators to realise the two-state solution”.

Under the deal, Mr Abbas has five weeks to announce a “unity government” then elections should be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within six months. A joint statement said Hamas and Fatah reaffirmed their commitment to the reconciliation principles agreed upon in 2011 in the Cairo Agreement.

At the time of that agreement, the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, acknowledged for the first time that any Palestinian state would be alongside Israel, based on the borders that existed before 1967. He said: “We need to achieve the common goal: a Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital, no settlers, and we will not give up the right of return.”

Following that agreement, which was never implemented, Mr Abbas made clear any unity government would not include any minister who had had a previous affiliation with Hamas. Instead, he said he would seek a cabinet of “technocrats” — a clear attempt to ensure that Washington’s aid to the Palestinian Authority was not cut off.

Since 1997, Hamas has been listed by the US as a terrorist ­organisation and therefore it is ­illegal for any US funding to be given to Hamas or any organisation with which it is affiliated. Hamas and Fatah had a violent split in 2007, after Hamas defeated Fatah in an election in Gaza. Fighting broke out between the two, and Hamas forced Fatah from Gaza. Since, Fatah, through the Palestinian Authority, has detained hundreds of Hamas figures.

Periodically, Hamas fires rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. However, more often than not the rockets are fired by Islamic Jihad or one of the five Salafist groups who do not acknowledge Hamas’s right to rule Gaza. Israel’s policy is to respond to any rockets from Gaza, regardless of who fires them.

Within hours of the latest announcement, Israeli jets launched an air strike on Gaza. Israel said this was in response to rockets fired from Gaza.

Israel scorns Abbas vow to reject terror
The Australian
Monday, April 28, 2014

RAMALLAH: As Israel prepared to mark Holocaust remembrance day, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expressed sympathy for the families of the six million Jews murdered and called it “the most heinous crime” against humanity of the modern era — his strongest remarks yet on the Nazi genocide. A day earlier he had said the new unity government he will head with the backing of Hamas would reject violence and recognise Israel and existing pacts.

But Israel slammed that speech to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council as a “coup de grace” to the peace process. The PLO body had convened to chart a course of action after Israel suspended US-brokered peace talks in response to the reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas. The agreement between the rival Palestinian factions came as the US and Israel had hoped to extend the faltering peace talks beyond tomorrow’s deadline. Israel said it would not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, the armed Islamist movement ruling the Gaza Strip, which is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state.

“The upcoming government will obey my policy,” Mr Abbas told the PLO council. “I recognise Israel and reject violence and terrorism, and recognise international commitments.” He stressed that the new government itself would not take part in negotiations, but rather the PLO, which “represents the entire Palestinian people”. Efforts to extend talks hit a wall last month as Israel refused to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners.

Mr Abbas in his PLO speech insisted Israel freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem, free the prisoners and begin discussing the borders of a promised Palestinian state. Israel had already dismissed these same conditions. Israel and Western nations view Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mr Abbas must choose between reconciling with Hamas or negotiating peace.

A senior Hamas official in Gaza praised Mr Abbas’s “mostly positive” speech, and confirmed that the new government would not be involved in peace talks. “It is not the government’s mission to take care of political issues,” said Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas’s Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

The PLO is the internationally recognised representative of the Palestinians in peace talks. The Palestinian Authority was created as part of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s to administer the occupied territories. Mr Abbas heads both, as well as the secular Fatah party.

US fears apartheid in Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

JERUSALEM: The US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state if it does not reach a peace deal with Palestinians. His comments came as the push in Israel to annex the West Bank escalated following the collapse of negotiations to reach a two-state solution.

In a private briefing to a group of international officials, Mr Kerry warned of the danger of Israel becoming “an apartheid state with second-class citizens”, according to The Daily Beast website, which obtained a recording of the comments. “A unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” he said. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak also warned yesterday that without a two-state solution it would be impossible for Israel to remain Jewish and democratic.

But two Israeli ministers yesterday supported annexation of the West Bank or Palestinian territories. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said several ministers suggested “gradually applying Israeli law on parts of Area C or all of Area C”. Area C accounts for 60 per cent of the West Bank, and it is where Israel is building settlements widely considered illegal under international law. Following a recent surge in settlements, 350,000 Jewish settlers are in Area C, compared to 120,000 Palestinians. Many Palestinians have moved to other areas due to lack of water and building permits. Most of the Palestinian houses being demolished are in Area C.

Mr Bennett made his comments to foreign journalists in Jerusalem. Asked by The Australian whether Israel was considering annexation, he said this was not yet “mainstream government” but added: “Should we push for it ' I think we should for a simple reason: the Palestinians have gone unilateral, we can go unilateral, we should go unilateral.” Mr Bennett advocated Israeli law being applied to Area C and Palestinians there being offered Israeli citizenship. Israel should allow Areas A and B to have “autonomy on steroids”.

His “unilateral” comment was a reference to the Palestinians’ approach to 15 international organisations. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas made the move after Israel reneged on a promise to release 26 prisoners. Israeli Communications Minister Gilad Erdan also said Israel should “start preparing” for annexation. Following the collapse of talks, Mr Abbas said he would form a unity government with Hamas, prompting Israel to announce sanctions against the Palestinians.

Kerry denies Israel comment
The Australian
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

JERUSALEM: Washington's deadline for reaching a Middle East peace deal arrived yesterday with no breakthrough and with US Secretary of State John Kerry mired in a row over allegations he said Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state”. After more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy by Mr Kerry, with the initial aim of brokering a deal by April 29, Washington’s patience appeared to be growing thin as Israel and the Palestinians moved to distance themselves from the crisis-hit talks.

He vehemently denied calling Israel an apartheid state, as a furore grew in Israel over comments he reportedly made during a private meeting. “I do not believe, not have I ever stated, publicly or privately that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one,” Mr Kerry said after calls for him to resign or at least apologise for the alleged comments, which appeared on US online news site The Daily Beast.

Mr Kerry, who has seen his dogged efforts to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians collapse, did suggest he had used a poor choice of words during his speech on Friday to political experts at the Trilateral Commission. He insisted that although the peace process was at a point of “confrontation and hiatus”, it was not dead — yet. The Palestinians and the Israelis appear to have drawn their own conclusions.

Last week, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip announced a surprise unity deal aimed at ending years of occasionally violent rivalry. Israel denounced the deal as a death blow to peace hopes and said it would not negotiate with any government backed by Hamas, the Islamist movement whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Washington called the deal “unhelpful”.

Under the agreement, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas will work to establish a new unity government of political independents headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party dominates the PLO. Mr Abbas has said the new government would recognise Israel, as well as renouncing violence and abiding by existing agreements, in line with key principles set out by the Middle East peacemaking Quartet. Mr Netanyahu has ruled out negotiation with the new government unless Hamas gives up its vision of destroying Israel.

Mr Kerry reportedly said if Israel failed to seize the opportunity to make peace soon, it risked becoming an “apartheid state”. The Daily Beast said it had a recording of the Kerry speech.

Palestinians call on world to help block settlements
The Australian
Catherine Philp
The Times, AFP
Saturday, June 7, 2014

JERUSALEM: Palestinians appealed to the outside world to intervene on their behalf yesterday after Israel announced plans to build more than 3000 settlement homes in retaliation for the formation of a government backed by Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would end a freeze on plans for 1800 settler homes suspended in the past three months, hours after the government announced tenders for 1500 new Jewish homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Housing Minister Uri Ariel called the plans “a fitting Zionist response to the establishment of the Palestinian government of terror”, adding: “I believe these tenders are just the beginning".

Palestinian officials called on Washington to punish Israel for its move and pledged to seek censure at the UN and other international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, against continued settlement building on occupied Arab land.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the announcement was “a clear sign that Israel is moving towards a major escalation” against the Palestinians. “It is time to hold Israel accountable in front of international organisations,” he said. “Those who fear the international courts should stop their war crimes against the Palestinian people, first and foremost of which is settlement activity.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the Palestinians would seek resolutions condemning the settlement building in the UN General Assembly and Security Council, despite the strong likelihood of a US veto. Ms Ashrawi said: The executive committee of the PLO views this latest escalation with the utmost seriousness and will counter it by addressing both the UN Security Council and the General Assembly as the proper way of curbing this grave violation and ensuring accountability."

UN chief Ban Ki-moon was “deeply concerned” by the reports. “The secretary-general calls on Israel to heed the calls of the international community to freeze settlement activity and abide by its commitments under international law and the roadmap,” Mr Ban’s spokesman said. The EU said it was “deeply disappointed” by Israeli plans and called for the decision to be overturned. “We call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this decision and to direct all their efforts towards an early resumption of the peace talks,” the EU said in a statement.

Israel, however, rejected the criticism, and an unnamed official said in a statement it was “strange" there were members of the international community who said a Palestinian unity government, backed by the militant Hamas movement, could promote peace. “At the same time, there are those in the international community who say that construction in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, and other sites even the Palestinians know will stay under Israeli sovereignty in any future agreement, are moves that should be taken back," the statement read.

A Palestinian official said the Palestinians were also poised to pursue their case at the ICC. Palestine is eligible to seek membership of the court, but put off doing so while US sponsored negotiations with Israel, which ended in April, were under way.

The moves came with a growing dispute between Israel and the outside world over the formation of the new Palestinian government, which was sworn in on Monday after a reconciliation deal between the PLO in the West Bank and Hamas, the Islamist militant group, in control of Gaza. Israel had urged its allies not to recognise the new government because it is backed by Hamas, proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US and most of the Western world. Its entreaties were largely ignored.

Andrew Robb says anger over East Jerusalem language an ‘overreaction’
The Australian Online
David Crowe, Rosie Lewis
Sunday, June 15, 2014

CANBERRA: Trade Minister Andrew Robb says growing anger over the government’s shift in language on the status of East Jerusalem has been an “overreaction”, as Tony Abbott declared there had been “no change in policy”. Mr Robb said the government had written to their respective counterparts in some Arab nations to clarify its position, in a bid to limit a potential trade row over its decision to reverse a 47-year-old practice of describing land seized by Israel in 1967 as “occupied”.

“I think there was a misunderstanding or an overreaction in lots of ways about what was being said. Our position on Israel has not changed one iota,” he said on Sky News. “There are lots of different settlements but the ones particularly in East Jerusalem, they have been a matter of clear dispute for a long, long time. That is the description that seems most fitting for those.”

The Prime Minister said his government continued to support a two-state solution to settle conflict between Israel and Palestinians, and repeated Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s statement that the government’s position had not changed. “There has been no change in policy, absolutely no change in policy,” Mr Abbott told reporters overnight. “There’s been a terminological clarification.” “We absolutely refuse to refer to occupied East Jerusalem, that was what the argument in the Senate between Senator Brandis and the Greens was all about.”

United Nations resolutions on the conflict between Israel and Palestine call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas “occupied” by the Israeli armed forces and Australian governments have used the term in the past. Attorney-General George Brandis changed the government’s language on the highly sensitive issue earlier this month by telling a Senate committee hearing, during a debate with the Greens, that it was not “appropriate nor useful” to use the term “occupied” for East Jerusalem.

Mr Robb said he had not spoken to Senator Brandis about the reversal but defended the action. “I think George was looking to clarify the situation,” he said. “He must have found himself and others in the course of government business using different terms to describe that part of Jerusalem and George sought to get some clarity on it.” “I think there was a misinterpretation. Once it’s clarified that our positions on Israel has not changed one iota, then hopefully this issue will pass.”

The shift triggered protests from some Arab nations and warnings about damage to Australian sheep and cattle exports to the Middle East. In a sign of the concern, Ms Bishop is to meet within days with ambassadors from Arab nations.

Mr Abbott had supported Senator Brandis on the change in language two days ago, during a visit to the US where the issue came up in talks with congressional leaders. In an interview with The Australian on Friday, Mr Abbott said the government’s position “came up in passing” in his talks in Washington, including a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, but there was “no concern about what we’ve done”. Secretary Kerry thinks that there are quite bright prospects for some kind of a breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians and it really came up tangentially in a discussion about what was happening there,” Mr Abbott said.

Today, after arriving in Houston for meetings with business leaders, Mr Abbott sought to play down the importance of the change in language. “We strongly support a two-state solution, we continue to support resolutions 242 and 338. We’re giving, I think, $56 million in aid this year to Palestine. (There’s been) no change in policy,” he said. The two UN resolutions date back decades and are fundamental to the goal of a two-state solution. Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories.

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