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The Arab street rises against dictatorship
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, January 29, 2011

EGYPT is in play. So is Lebanon. So is Tunisia, still. Jordan is also in play, although less obviously. Now thousands of people are taking to the streets in Yemen trying to force their dictator from power. And the moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is teetering. A busy week in the Middle East.

Political earthquakes seemed to be occurring everywhere: in Egypt unprecedented efforts to bring down strongman Hosni Mubarak; in Lebanon, Hezbollah forcing one prime minister from power and anointing another; and in the West Bank a body blow to the Palestinian Authority. The "Tunisia domino effect" even hit Yemen, the new hiding place for al-Qa'ida. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets demanding the end to their dictatorship.

Who would have thought a 26-year-old fruit seller in Tunisia, Muhammed al-Bouzaziai, who died after setting himself ablaze to highlight his lack of employment opportunities, would trigger events leading to dictators across the Middle East feeling anxious ' If there's a commonality to what's happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen it's this: people are feeling economically stressed and, to put it bluntly, have had a gutful of dictatorship.

While the unrest in Lebanon and Egypt was not altogether unexpected, the crisis for the Palestinian Authority was a surprise. A few weeks ago, one of Israel's most senior intelligence officials sat down with 12 foreign journalists in Tel Aviv to give the first such briefing for three years. He had plenty to say about Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran but what surprised some of us was he kept repeating one word: "humiliated". He was talking about Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority and the man trying to hold together the West Bank under Israeli military occupation while also trying to achieve a state. Using his Arabic name Abu Mazen, the official said: "I believe Abu Mazen is not going to resign in the next few months, as long as he is not humiliated." This week Abbas was humiliated — many times over. Hundreds of leaked documents showed all the concessions Abbas was prepared to make to Israel to achieve peace.

Abbas was prepared to make big compromises on issues regarded as untouchable by many Palestinians — including Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The Israeli intelligence official briefing journalists made it clear he did not want Abbas or his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, to leave. "Israel doesn't know how the security system would operate," he said. Nobody comes out of the "Palestine papers" well. One of Israel's favourite lines is that the Palestinians are "no partner for peace". The Israeli media made clear this week that this would be difficult for Israel to use again in light of the extraordinary concessions the Palestinians have been offering.

The other favourite Israeli line — used only three weeks ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". This will now also ring hollow.

In Egypt, if Mubarak does fall nobody has any idea who or what will replace him. The Muslim Brotherhood, no doubt, would seek to fill any vacuum. It was the Muslim Brotherhood who gave birth to Hamas, which now runs the Gaza Strip. In August, Hamas's military wing, the Qassam Brigades, boasted about killing four civilians in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank. They described it as "the heroic operation".

After this week's events, who can imagine the Middle East without the towering figure of Hosni Mubarak ' The US probably cannot — he has been their most steadfast Arab ally for 30 years. But years of "state of emergency" laws, brutal security forces, lack of freedom and, most importantly, growing poverty has come to haunt him. Half the population is below or near the poverty line. Women, in particular, have a poor lot in terms of education and employment. And it's no wonder the uprising is being led by young people — about 90 per cent of the unemployed are under 30.


Israel fears a future minus Mubarak
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, January 31, 2011

THE possible fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak confronts Israel with the possibility that its own geopolitical situation in the region could sharply deteriorate. Egypt under Mubarak has been the major force for stability in the region since the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement more than three decades ago in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Mubarak, who served as Egypt's air force commander in that war, made a point of honouring the deal and nurturing civil relations with Israel's leadership even though many of his countrymen, seculars as well as Islamists, object to relations with the Jewish state.

The peace treaty with Egypt provided legitimacy for Jordan to make peace with Israel as well and permitted other Arab countries to establish formal or informal contacts with it. Mubarak was personally active in trying to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israelis saw him as an honest broker.

Peace with Egypt, which has the largest army in the Arab world, permitted Israel to substantially reduce the burden on its own armed forces, from the budget to the number of years that reservists are required to serve. For more than 20 years, the Israeli army has not factored in possible war with Egypt in drawing up its annual budget. The large sums thus saved could be diverted to economic and social programs. Egyptian security forces co-operated with Israel, at least to some extent, in reducing the number of weapons smuggled from their territory into the Gaza Strip and the number of armed militants attempting to cross into Israel.

If Egypt turns once again to be a confrontational state, then Israel will have to make a major shift in its military planning and deployment to be able meet a threat from that quarter. Even without a direct confrontation with Israel, the rise of a radical regime in Egypt, or one unfriendly to Israel, is likely to encourage greater radicalisation in other countries in the region. Jordan, a peaceful and strategically important country on Israel's eastern border, could become a channel for anti-Israel militants from the east — Iraq or Iran — seeking to get at Israel. Hezbollah in Lebanon to the north could be emboldened if it felt that Israel were distracted by a threat from Egypt to the south. The same is true for Hamas in the Gaza Strip and for West Bank Palestinians, and even perhaps Israeli Arabs.

Despite the ominous scenarios taking shape in the minds of strategists, it is by no means certain that events will play out that way. WikiLeaks has revealed that, in their growing fear of Iran, many Arab countries view Israel as a silent ally. Stability is as important for Egypt and the other Arab countries as it is for Israel. The man appointed by Mubarak as his deputy and presumed successor, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, is well known and respected in Israel, where he has frequently visited. It is presumed that his policies towards Israel would be similar to Mubarak's.


The risks of free and fair elections
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, AP
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

THE choice facing Egypt's political establishment in the face of unprecedented riots is whether to bow to the demonstrators' demands to fix Egyptian society through democratic elections, or to fix the elections. To permit free elections, most observers agree, is to run the risk of an Islamic victory that Western analysts see as a strategic catastrophe. To fix elections, as the powerbrokers in Cairo have always done, is to provide stability. If the regime in Cairo can ride out the tumult, and if Washington doesn't breathe down its neck too heavily with its demands for "free and fair" elections, the choice is almost certain to be stability. However, it would need to be accompanied by concessions, perhaps far-reaching, aimed at appeasing the Egyptian people and the international community.

Still fresh in everyone's mind is the memory of the Palestinian parliamentary elections five years ago, in which Washington obliged an extremely reluctant Palestinian Authority and Israel to permit Hamas to participate. Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said the democratic elections would be "a key step in the process of building a peaceful, democratic, Palestinian state". Rice was soon lecturing a victorious Hamas that "those who win elections have an obligation to govern democratically". The Hamas victory split the Palestinians into two hostile camps, brought on a war with Israel in the Gaza Strip and made the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace more remote than ever.

The Obama administration, trying to get ahead of the curve of history, supported the Egyptian demonstrators almost as soon as they hit the streets and distanced itself from its long-time ally, President Hosni Mubarak. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for "free and fair" elections sat uncomfortably with her warning about the possible result of such elections. "We don't want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy, but to oppression."

Should Islamists win control of Egypt — the anchor of the Arab world — the results would be far more disastrous for US strategic interests than Hamas's victory. Egypt is the US's most important ally in the Arab world, assisting in its battle against terrorism and providing it with a major political platform in the Middle East. The peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel has created regional stability that has lasted more than three decades, with minor exceptions in Lebanon and Gaza. This stability would be endangered by a victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, or even of many of the secular opposition parties, which are opposed to normalised relations with Israel. Even Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular liberal presidential candidate, has expressed support for Palestinian violence against the Israeli occupation, saying that "the Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence".


Arab turmoil besets Jordan
The Australian
John Lyons and Brendan Nicholson
Additional reporting: Sallie Don, Mark Dodd
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

THE turmoil in Egypt spread to Jordan last night as King Abdullah sacked his government and appointed a new prime minister, Maruf Bakhit, with orders to carry out "true political reforms". The king's edict followed days of escalating protests on the streets as Jordanians echoed protests in Egypt for change. "Bakhit's mission is to take practical, quick and tangible steps to launch true political reforms, enhance Jordan's democratic drive and ensure safe and decent living for all Jordanians," a palace statement said last night.

Jordan's powerful Islamist opposition said it had started a dialogue with the state, saying that unlike the situation in Egypt, it did not seek regime change. Despite recent government measures to pump about $US500 million into the economy in a bid to help improve living conditions, protests have been held in Amman and other cities over the past three weeks to demand political and economic reform.

Tunisia's popular revolt, which ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, has inspired dissidents across the Arab world, with the eyes of the world on the extraordinary demonstrations in Egypt, where a "day of anger" was called last night. The thunderous roar of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians calling for democracy filled central Cairo early today as protesters set off on a "million-strong march" to bring down President Hosni Mubarak.As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that at least 300 people had died in the eight days of protests, the Australian government said it would send as many aircraft as it took to pull Australians out of strife-torn Egypt. A Qantas jumbo jet chartered by the government and capable of carrying 400 passengers was due in Cairo today and another was urgently put on last night for tomorrow . The government vowed to provide a "jumbo a day" until demand was met.

The hundreds of thousands who began massing after dawn yesterday in Cairo's Tahrir Square did so with the assurance that the military would not fire on them. The army's declaration yesterday that the protesters' claims were "legitimate" came after days of speculation about whether the army was prepared to put down the protests. "To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people," stress that they "will not use force against the Egyptian people," the military said in a statement. It appeared to be a major break with Mr Mubarak, who is commander-in-chief and has branded the protests illegal. A bloody confrontation could, however, occur if the protesters march on the presidential palace and attempt to take it over.

Fifty Egyptian human rights groups called on Mr Mubarak to step down to "avoid bloodshed" yesterday, while pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei gave the President a deadline of Friday to stand down and asked for a "safe exit" for him. While army helicopters circled overhead in Cairo early today, the roar from the protesters could be heard several kilometres away.

As the push to oust Mr Mubarak reached a crescendo, Australians seeking to flee Egypt were yesterday advised to reach assembly points in the city from where they could be taken by bus to a point near the airport to be flown to Germany. More DFAT staff would be waiting in Frankfurt to help the evacuees. As concerns grew that today's Qantas jumbo would not be able to take all the Australians seeking to flee Egypt out of the country, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Dennis Richardson said the government would organise as many flights as necessary. "If there are too many for this flight we will have one the next day," said Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Dennis Richardson. "We will put on a jumbo a day for as long as it's needed."

Yesterday, 31 Australians left Egypt on flights organised by Canadian authorities. While the Canadians had to pay for the flights, the Australian government will pay for the Australians on those aircraft. By last night well over 400 Australians had indicated that they wanted to fly out on the government charter, more than enough to fill the first Qantas jumbo. DFAT officials were working their way through a list of those who "expressed interest" in getting on the government charter flight to avoid duplications and to delete those who'd got out already on commercial flights.

Families and work colleagues trying to find out who was booked on the Qantas jumbo said it had been hard to get information from government officials. Andrea Connell, headmistress of Sydney Girls High School, said she could not get any information from DFAT about maths teacher Nader Maker who was visiting family in Cairo. In Cairo, Mr Maker said he had initially not been able to get help from DFAT. "I contacted the embassy (in Cairo) and they transferred me to Canberra and said we can't do anything," he said. "Canberra said get in contact with the airline, but I can't get in contact with the airline. What can I do ?" After trying the embassy in Cairo again, Mr Maker was able to register for the evacuation flight today. He has been staying in an area that has been heavily attacked by gangs who burnt down a police station. "I saw hell," he said. He was afraid to even carry his suitcase into the street. "If they see my bag they will take it — gangs control the area," he said.

Many Australian travellers in Egypt are caught up in a nightmare situation, with no way to get cash at Cairo airport while they are being charged as much as $30 for a bottle of water. Most credit cards do not work. Mr Richardson said he could understand the frustrations people were feeling.

Same Day
Israel OK to troops in Sinai
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

ISRAEL yesterday gave permission to Egypt to move troops deep into Sinai for the first time since the peace treaty between them was signed in 1979. Egypt wants to beef up security there following clashes in the past week between Bedouin and police. Emboldened by the demonstrations across in Egypt, Bedouin gangs have been attacking police stations. Egypt agreed in the treaty to the demilitarisation of that part of Sinai close to the Israeli border, leaving security in the area to police. Israel had occupied the Sinai peninsula, sovereign Egyptian territory, in the 1967 Six Day War and evacuated it after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Cairo is sending about 800 soldiers. Most will reportedly be posted around Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the peninsula, a tourism area and also the site of one of President Hosni Mubarak's homes. Israel has moved extra troops and police to its side of the Sinai border in anticipation that thousands of African asylum-seekers will try to cross into Israel amid the chaos prevailing in Egypt.


Trying to avoid being the next fall guys
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday, February 3, 2011

TRYING not to be hit by falling dominos, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders yesterday hurried to respond pre-emptively to democratic stirrings among their people before the fallout from the Tunis and Egyptian uprisings triggers similar explosions.

The Palestinian Authority announced that local council elections will be held on a date to be determined next week. The PA has not held elections since 2006, and yesterday's announcement came as a surprise. The orderly cycle of polls was disrupted by the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2007, which effectively split the Palestinian territory in two: the West Bank controlled by the PA and Gaza controlled by Hamas. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he would like to hold simultaneous elections in the West Bank and Gaza, but Hamas vetoed common elections until there is a reconciliation deal between the two groups. PA President Mahmoud Abbas's four-year term ended in 2009 but in the absence of elections he has continued to serve. The parliament's term ended last year but it also continues to function. The PA and Hamas this week sent security forces to disperse small rallies supporting the demonstrations in Egypt, presumably for fear the rallies could turn into demonstrations against them.

In Jordan, King Abdullah dismissed his government following street protests over rising prices for fuel and food and anger at stalled political reform. The king asked a former prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, to form a new government that "would undertake quick and tangible steps for real political reforms that would increase popular participation in decision-making". The outgoing prime minister, Samir Rifai, and his cabinet had been accused of corruption and of cutting subsidies. The king in Jordan is regarded as being above the political fray. Popular anger, when it expresses itself, is directed at the government appointed by the king, rather than at the monarch himself. By being attuned to Jordanian sentiment, the king has been able to take steps to appease public anger before it gets out of hand.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defence Forces has been left without a leader. The designated next chief of staff, Major General Yoav Galant, was ruled out by prosecutors yesterday 13 days before he was due to take over command, following allegations he illegally took 2.6ha of public land when he was having a home built in a village in central Israel. The scandal comes at a sensitive time for the Israeli military, when Egypt's possible shift in relations from civil to hostile will require a far-reaching restructuring of Israel's military priorities.


Palestinian polls set for July
The Australian
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority late last night set long-overdue local council elections for July 9 in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the rival Hamas government that rules Gaza promptly rejected the move. The push for Palestinian elections appears to reflect fears that two weeks of street protests demanding increased democracy in nearby Egypt could lead to similar calls in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority has not held elections since 2006, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and members of parliament in office after their elected terms ended.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said last night's cabinet decision called for elections in both of the bitterly divided Palestinian territories. If Hamas did not allow for vote preparations in Gaza, the balloting would be held only in the West Bank. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the West Bank government has "no right to call this election" and that Hamas would not take part in any vote, even in the West Bank, until the two governments were reconciled. They have been bitter rivals since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, leaving Mr Abbas governing only in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority has had a spotty record with democracy in recent years. Last year, Mr Abbas cancelled local elections in the West Bank when it appeared his Fatah movement would lose key seats to independents. Fatah has been burned twice before by heading into elections despite warnings of impending defeat. Hamas scored heavily in 2005 municipal elections and won a strong majority in the Palestinian parliament the next year. Elections have not been held in the territories since. Mr Abbas's four-year term expired in 2009, although it has been extended indefinitely. The parliament's term expired last year but the legislature remains in office.


Hosni Mubarak leaves Cairo
The Australian Online
Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 2:43AM (Friday, 5:43pm in Egypt)

EGYPTIAN President Hosni Mubarak has reportedly left the capital Cairo, state TV said last night. Vice-President Omar Suleiman is expected to make a statement in the coming hours, Fox News Channel reported, citing sources at the US Department of State.

Hundreds of thousands protested in central Cairo and around the country yesterday, the day after Mr Mubarak vowed to cling on to power in a shock TV announcement. Al Jazeera reported seeing two military helicopters taking off from the presidential palace in Cairo. Sky News reported Mr Mubarak left Cairo and headed to the resort of Sharm el Sheikh, where he has a residence, and his arrival there was later confirmed to AFP by an official from his National Democratic Party.

The 82-year-old, who has ruled with an iron fist for three decades, confounded expectations on Thursday when he vowed to cling on to power until September. The decision shocked protesters, who massed in their hundreds of thousands in Cairo on a day dubbed "Friday of martyrs".

In a statement just before Friday prayers called "Communique No. 2," the Supreme Military Council backed the regime's plan to slowly hand power from Mr Mubarak to Vice-President Omar Suleiman, a major disappointment to the democracy movement. With the square overflowing, many protesters headed to the state TV headquarters, the main propaganda arm of Mr Mubarak, Sky News reported. An anchor on state TV apologized to viewers for the lack of guests, saying no one was able to enter or exit the building, Al Jazeera reported.

The military, which met yesterday morning without Mr Mubarak, pledged to guarantee "free and fair" elections later this year. The military was "committed to safeguarding local demands of people and working towards these demands" until power was transferred peacefully, the statement said. It also repeated its calls for the protesters to stand down, saying it "confirms the need to resume orderly work in the government installations and a return to normal life [and] preserve the interests and property of our great people." Al Jazeera reported that the military planned to make a third announcement later Friday.

Protesters gathered outside the presidential palace reacted angrily to the second statement, and one grabbed an officer's microphone to denounce the move, AFP reported. "You have disappointed us — all our hopes rested in you," he shouted, as the crowd began to chant slogans calling for Mr Mubarak to be put on trial. "No, no, this is not a coup," the colonel protested, insisting that the army would not take power itself. The military so far largely sought neutral ground in the revolt, but its role is seen as crucial in determining what happens next in the country.

Protest organizers billed Friday's protest — dubbed the "Friday of martyrs" to honour the reported 300 killed since the start of the movement — as the biggest yet. In Tahrir Square, the epicentre of 18 days of protests, the imam leading Friday prayers fainted toward the end of his sermon but not before he called on the army to "act in a way that will be acceptable to God on judgment day."

As anger against the Mubarak regime continued to spread across the country, there were reports of security forces coming under attack in the city of Rafah, on the border between Egypt and Gaza. A huge crowd also gathered in Mediterranean port city Alexandria, while unrest was reported in cities across the country, Arab media reported.

Within hours of Mr Mubarak's statement, senior White House and State Department officials told Fox News Channel they were pushing Suleiman for a statement clarifying the extent of the powers that Mubarak transferred to him. Earlier, US President Barack Obama issued a statement that amounted to a thinly-veiled criticism of the Egyptian leader. "Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity," Obama said.

The German government said Mr Mubarak's concessions were insufficient, Reuters reported. "What Mubarak has announced is not enough these developments remain hopeful but also of course give us considerable worry whether the protests remain peaceful," government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei told an Austrian newspaper yesterday that Mr Mubarak's regime was in meltdown. "I think total chaos reigns within the regime. It is like the Titanic. The rats are leaving the sinking ship," the Nobel peace prize winner told Die Presse.

Egyptian protesters celebrate in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after President Hosni Mubarak announced he would step down. Source: AFP
Later on Saturday
Military strongmen take over as curtain falls on Mubarak era
AFP 2:24PM (5:24am in Egypt)

EGYPTIAN strongman Hosni Mubarak stepped down today after 30 years, handing power to the military after one million-plus people took to the streets at the culmination of an 18-day uprising. At 6 p.m. Friday (Egypt time) a grim-faced and ashen Vice-President Omar Suleiman announced the handover on state television after an extraordinary national outpouring of rage brought vast crowds into the streets across the country in the Arab world's most populous country. 'President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of President of the republic and has tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state's affairs, ' Mr Suleiman said. News of the regime's collapse spread rapidly across Cairo, sparking an eruption of joy and the throng chanted, 'We the people have overthrown the regime! ' In Washington, US President Barack Obama said the people of Egypt had spoken after history moved at a 'blinding pace '. 'By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian peoples' hunger for change, ' President Obama said. 'Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day. '

The Vice-President 's statement appeared to have brought a halt to constitutional rule in Egypt for now, and invested power in a group of generals representing a military that has long been the power behind the throne in the country. Earlier, 82-year-old Mubarak flew from Cairo to his Red Sea holiday retreat at Sharm el-Sheikh, his ruling party said. As news spread, cries of 'Allahu Akbar ' — God is greatest — and howls of victory rang out across the capital, firecrackers exploded, dancing broke out and women ululated their joy.

The new man in charge is Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the military council and a 75-year-old veteran who has always been considered a close Mubarak ally. Egypt's powerful Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, hailed Mr Mubarak's resignation and thanked the army. 'We salute the great people of Egypt in their battle, ' said Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and spokesman. 'We salute the army, which kept its promises. '

In Cairo 's Tahrir Square, several protesters fainted with the emotion of the moment following two weeks of protest. 'We broke down the wall of fear, ' said Mohammed Gamal, a 21-year-old Cairo University student, one of a new generation of web-savvy young people behind the revolt. 'We changed our people, ' he added. The plaza had become a focal point of the revolt since protesters occupied it in late January. Earlier today, it was thronged by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who prayed and chanted abuse at Mr Mubarak. Outside the main presidential palace in the Heliopolis neighbourhood, protesters hugged one another and danced. Some collapsed, overcome with emotion.

Field Marshall Tantawi later drove past the palace and saluted cheering crowds. 'My message to the Egyptian people is that you have gained your liberty, ' top opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television. 'Let's make the best use of it and God bless you. '

Arab League chief Amir Mussa, who last week joined the crowds in Tahrir Square, hailed his fellow Egyptians and the army for their 'historic achievement '. Elsewhere in Cairo, there were celebratory gunshots, fireworks and the rhythmic car horns usually reserved for weddings.

On Thursday night in Cairo, hundreds of thousands had crowded into Tahrir Square to hear Mr Mubarak announce he was stepping down as president. Instead, he delegated some of his powers to his ally and Egypt's former intelligence supremo, Field Marshall Suleiman, while vowing to stay in office until September. In the end however, it proved to be his last speech as president.

Israel, fearful the uprising might open the door to a hostile Islamist regime in Cairo, said it hoped the transition of power in Egypt would happen 'smoothly ', a government official told AFP. The official stressed the need to preserve the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed two years before Mr Mubarak came to power. The White House also called on the new authorities in Egypt to honour existing peace agreements with Israel.

Hamas hailed Mubarak's resignation as 'the start of the victory of the Egyptian revolution ' as thousands of Palestinians celebrated in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. Lebanon's Hezbollah congratulated Egyptians on their 'historic victory ', as gunfire and fireworks lit up the night skies over Beirut. And in Yemen, thousands of people took to the streets. Some chanted: 'Yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, and tomorrow Yemenis will break their chains. '


Egypt's junta promises democracy after Mubarak overthrow
The Australian Online
Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 9:03AM

EGYPT'S new military leadership has vowed to pave the way for democracy and abide by its peace treaty with Israel. As Egyptians basked in their victory a day after Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said the current government would remain in place for a peaceful transition to "an elected civil authority to build a free democratic state," although it set no timetable.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama welcomed the Egyptian military's pledge. Obama spoke with leaders in Britain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and "welcomed the historic change that has been made by the Egyptian people, and reaffirmed his admiration for their efforts," the White House said in a statement. "He also welcomed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' announcement today that it is committed to a democratic civilian transition, and will stand by Egypt's international obligations." The official MENA news agency said the government would today hold its first meeting since Mubarak's ouster.

The streets and squares of downtown Cairo remained in the hands of the mostly young demonstrators whose determined 18-day revolt overturned 30 years of autocratic rule and triggered an outpouring of national solidarity. But political power now rests with the military commanders who stepped into the vacuum left by Mubarak's departure, and many people are anxiously waiting to see if they will make good on their promise to respect the popular will.

In Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolt, many of the anti-regime protesters who have occupied the city's vast central plaza since January 28 launched a massive cleanup effort with hundreds of volunteers. "It's party time! We are born again," declared 40-year-old agricultural engineer Osama Saadallah. "We were behind other countries, now we are worth something in the eyes of others, of the Arab world." Many chose to celebrate the first day of a new era for their country by clearing the detritus of Friday night's mega-party in Tahrir, taking pride in showing the civic spirit in their nation reborn. But late yesterday, tens of thousands of people remained in the square, continuing to celebrate in a festive mood to the accompaniment of popular Arab music and patriotic songs from a live band.

In a sign that normal life was returning, state television announced that a curfew in effect since January 28 would be shortened by four hours and the stock exchange was expected to reopen on Wednesday. But insecurity lingered, as 600 prisoners escaped from a Cairo jail after riots broke out and gunmen fired at guards from outside the facility, security officials said. At least one prisoner was killed and 20 wounded on both sides, they said.

The country was still elated, however, with the Cairo press, including state-run titles that had initially dismissed the uprising or charged it was being fomented by foreigners, hailing the "revolution of the youth." Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Hosni Mubarak, broke its silence and welcomed the "peaceful transition of power" in Egypt. In the Suez canal city of Ismailiya, hundreds of members of the widely hated police force marched in solidarity with the uprising, insisting they had been ordered against their will to shoot at protesters.

Much will depend on the stance of the junta now in control of the Arab world's most populous nation. Headed by a longtime Mubarak loyalist, 75-year-old Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces clarified its plans with Communique Number 4, read by a spokesman on state TV. It said Egypt would "remain committed to all its regional and international treaties," implicitly confirming its landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel would remain intact, soothing fears in the Jewish state and Washington. Israel, which had expressed concern the unrest could lead to an Islamist takeover, welcomed the statement.

The army was widely praised for allowing the massive demonstrations to unfold peacefully, but the protesters have demanded civilian government and said they will return to the streets in the absence of a swift transition. Egypt's chief prosecutor slapped a travel ban on former premier Ahmed Nazif, whom Mubarak sacked along with the rest of his cabinet in a bid to placate demonstrators in the early days of the revolt. The prosecutor also froze the assets of Habib al-Adly, who as interior minister oversaw a secret police force widely accused of torture and extortion. And state television reported the departure of information minister Anas Ahmad Nabih, saying he resigned after Mubarak's overthrow.

Same day
Gamal Mubarak behind leader's surprise attempt to retain power
AP 10:27AM

HOSNI Mubarak was supposed to announce his resignation. The Egyptian military expected it. The new head of his ruling party pleaded to him face-to-face to do it. But despite more than two weeks of massive demonstrations by protesters unmoved by lesser concessions, the president still didn't get it.

Mubarak's top aides and family — including his son Gamal, widely viewed as his intended successor — told him he could still ride out the turmoil. So the televised resignation speech the rest of Egypt had expected became a stubborn — and ultimately humiliating — effort to cling to power. It only enraged protesters. Yesterday, the military moved decisively.

Insiders in Egypt have given The Associated Press an initial picture of what happened in the hours before Egypt's "unoustable" leader of nearly 30 years fell. Some of them spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. Their account portrayed Mubarak as unable, or unwilling, to grasp that nothing less than his immediate departure would save the country from the chaos generated by the protests that began January 25. A senior government official said Mubarak lacked the political machinery that could give him sound advice about what was happening in the country. "He did not look beyond what Gamal was telling him, so he was isolated politically," said the official. "Every incremental move (by Mubarak) was too little too late."

The military, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly impatient with the failure of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, his newly appointed vice president, to end the protests. The unrest spiraled out of control late last week, with demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins and even gunbattles engulfing almost the entire nation. Insiders spoke of fighting among Cabinet ministers over how great a threat the demonstrators posed, and of deliberate attempts by close aides, including Gamal Mubarak, to conceal from the president the full extent of what was happening on the streets.

The insiders who spoke to the AP include a senior Egyptian official, editors and journalists from state newspapers close to the regime who have spent years covering Mubarak's presidency, retired army generals in contact with top active duty officers, senior members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and analysts familiar with the machinations of Mubarak's inner circle. Their account of the events of the past three weeks shows that the military became concerned soon after the protests began. They said it was the military that persuaded Mubarak to appoint Suleiman as vice president — the first since Mubarak took office in 1981 — and place him in charge of negotiations with opposition groups on a way out of the standoff. Suleiman failed on that score — on Tuesday he was reduced to threatening that a coup would replace the negotiations if no progress was made. Leaders of the protests vowed not to negotiate until Mubarak was gone, even after he said he would not seek another term in September and promised reforms to reduce poverty, end repressive emergency laws and make Egypt more democratic.

By Thursday, nearly everyone had expected Mubarak to resign, including the military. Hossam Badrawi, a stalwart of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, met with Mubarak on Thursday and later told reporters that he expected the Egyptian leader to "meet people's demands" — read that stepping down — later the same day. After Mubarak did not, Badrawi, who had been named the party's secretary general a few days earlier, resigned in protest, according to two party insiders. Meanwhile, the military's highest executive body — The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — met without its chairman, commander-in-chief Mubarak, and issued a statement recognising the "legitimate" rights of the protesters. They called the statement Communique No. 1, language that in the Arab world suggests a coup was taking place.

Insiders said Mubarak's address Thursday night was meant to be his resignation announcement. Instead, he made one last desperate attempt to stay in office after being encouraged to do so by close aides and especially by his family, long the subject of rumours of corruption, abuse of power and extensive wealth. One insider said Gamal, his banker-turned-politician son, rewrote the speech several times before the recording. It was aired at 11pm, several hours after state TV said Mubarak was about to address the nation. It showed brief footage of him meeting with Suleiman and his Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq.

The address was clearly prepared in a rush. It had rough cuts, and Mubarak was caught at least once acting like he was between takes, fixing his tie and looking away from the camera. Information Minister Anas al-Fiqqi was there at the studio alongside Gamal Mubarak, according to two of the insiders. State TV quoted him in the hours before the broadcast saying that Mubarak would not resign. On Saturday, al-Fiqqi announced his own resignation. Mubarak said in the address that he was handing over most of his powers to Suleiman but again rejected calls for his resignation. He vowed to introduce genuine reforms, prosecute those behind the violence that left scores of protesters dead and offered his condolences to the victims' families. He said he was hurting over calls for his removal and, in his defence, recounted his record in public service. He was not going anywhere until his term ended in September, he said.

He had hoped that putting Suleiman in charge would end the protests and allow him to remain in office as a symbolic figure, a scenario that would have seen him make a dignified exit. The address betrayed what many Egyptians suspected for years — Mubarak was out of touch with the people.

Mubarak, said a senior Egyptian official, "tried to manage the crisis within the existing structures and norms. That was clearly too late. The incremental offers of reform also were clearly insufficient." The insiders differ on whether Mubarak's address that night was made with the consent of the military, whether it represented his last chance to take back control of the streets. Even if the military's patience wasn't exhausted by the speech, it ran out as the protests grew more intense.

The next day, the military allowed protesters to gather outside Mubarak's presidential palace in a Cairo suburb — but by that time Mubarak and his immediate family had already flown to another palace in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, 400km away. The soldiers also allowed protesters to besiege the TV and radio building in downtown Cairo. Two days earlier, the military stood by and watched as protesters laid siege to the prime minister's office and parliament. Shafiq, the prime minister, could not work in his office and had to work out of the Civil Aviation Ministry close to Cairo's airport.

By early afternoon, millions were out on the streets in Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and a string of other major cities. The crowd outside his palace was rapidly growing. Only a few metres and four army tanks separated the protesters from the gate. Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime confidant and a former intelligence chief, announced that Mubarak was stepping down. In a two-sentence statement to state television that took 49 seconds, Egypt's history changed forever.


Extract: Netanyahu taps into positive charge after generals pledge to stick with peace treaty
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, February 14, 2011

IN Israel's first positive reaction to the Egyptian revolution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday applauded a declaration from the military leadership in Cairo that it will honour Egypt's international treaties, including the peace treaty signed with Israel. Mr Netanyahu termed the 1979 agreement "a cornerstone of peace and stability for the Middle East".

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday telephoned his counterpart, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The contents of the talk have not been disclosed. The two men have met periodically over the years and reportedly have warm relations. Israel's outspoken Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, issued a moderate statement in the wake of the Egyptian announcement. "Israel will not get involved in Egypt's internal affairs," he said. "Our only concern is that regional stability is maintained and the peace treaty honoured." In the past, Mr Lieberman has warned that Israel could bomb the Aswan dam if Egypt moved forces into the Sinai Peninsula next to Israel.

Although anti-Israel sentiment is strong in Egypt, it is clearly in Cairo's interest to honour the treaty with Israel, if only for the $US2 billion in aid, mostly military, it receives annually from the US. That funding would almost certainly be cut if the peace treaty was severed. In view of Egypt's battered economy and political uncertainty, the generals have placed stability at the top of their agenda.

Meanwhile, the fall of Hosni Mubarak was greeted with jubilation by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and trepidation by the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Mr Mubarak had viewed Hamas as a dangerous offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and took far-reaching steps to contain the Palestinian Islamists within the narrow confines of Gaza. Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza hope a new regime in Cairo will open the border control point which Mr Mubarak had largely kept shut and permit free movement between Egypt and Gaza. The PA, on the other hand, viewed Mr Mubarak as a patron and is concerned about the fallout from his ouster. There is fear Hamas will feel empowered to activate its sleeper cadres on the West Bank and attempt to seize power as it did in Gaza four years ago.


Extract: Israel warns Iran is preparing to send warships through Suez Canal into the Mediterranean
The Australian Online
Thursday, February 17, 2011

ISRAEL has warned Iran and its ally Hezbollah not to test it, charging that Tehran was preparing to send warships into the Mediterranean as the Lebanese militia threatened to occupy northern Israel in the event of a new war. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel could not ignore the planned sailing of two Iranian naval vessels through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean en route for Syria and Defence Minister Ehud Barak labelled the act "hostile". "Tonight two Iranian warships are supposed to cross the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Syria," Lieberman told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. He said an Iranian naval presence in the area was something that had not occurred for many years and was a "provocation that proves the self-confidence and cheek of the Iranians is growing from day to day." "The international community has to understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations for eternity," Lieberman said.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment but Barak's office issued a terse statement saying that Israel was closely monitoring developments. "Israel is watching attentively the hostile Iranian movement and has updated friendly countries on the matter," it quoted him as saying. In Washington, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: "We'll be watching to see what they do," confirming that he was talking about the same vessels to which Lieberman was referring. Crowley, however, did not call them warships or identify them as Iranian, saying that he knew neither their intention nor destination. The Suez Canal Authority said it had not been informed of any request from the Iranians to send ships through the canal but added that it would have no objections if they asked. "The Suez Canal Authority allows all ships of any nationality to cross as long as the country is not in a state of war with Egypt," it said, noting "it would be the first time Iranian warships have used the Suez Canal since 1979."

In a speech on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned off Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, after the Shiite militia chief told his fighters to prepare to storm the Galilee hills of northern Israel in the event of a new conflict like that of 2006. "Nasrallah declared today that he will conquer the Galilee," Netanyahu told the American Jewish leaders. "I have news for him. He won't." He spoke after Nasrallah urged his fighters to be prepared to take the Galilee in any future conflict and warned that his followers were ready to kill Israeli leaders "anytime, anywhere." "Let there be no doubt, Israel has the ability to defend itself," Netanyahu said. "We have a strong army and a determined people. We seek peace but the army is ready to defend Israel against its enemies."

Nasrallah's calls were made in a televised speech to mark the 19th anniversary of the death of key Hezbollah militant Abbas Mussawi in an Israeli missile strike. "I say to the fighters of the Islamic Resistance: Be ready. If a new war is imposed on Lebanon we may ask you to take Galilee, to free Galilee," he said. "I hope the people of Israel have good bomb shelters."

Netanyahu responded with a jibe at Nasrallah's reclusive habits since Israel declared him its enemy number one and threatened to assassinate him. "He who hides in a bunker should stay in a bunker," the Israeli premier said.


Israel ready to charge Lieberman
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Saturday, February 19, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel's controversial Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, will be charged within two weeks with money-laundering and other offences, the Israeli media reported yesterday. Mr Lieberman has said he will step down if charged, but insists he has not broken any law and says he will return to politics once that is made clear in the courts.

Mr Lieberman's departure from the government, even temporarily, could lead to far-reaching changes in Israeli politics. Some analysts believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will see it as an opportunity to replace Mr Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party in the ruling coalition with the moderate Kadima Party, headed by Tzipi Livni. Kadima, with 28 of the 120 Knesset seats, is the largest parliamentary bloc.

Mr Netanyahu has often suggested his room for manoeuvre on peace negotiations is constrained by his right-wing coalition partners, although sceptics believe he is only shielding his own hardline views and unwillingness to make any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu has often been in confrontation with Mr Lieberman, who sees himself as the future leader of Israel's right wing and openly defies the Prime Minister on issues from the appointment of ambassadors to declarations about sensitive international matters.

The charges against Mr Lieberman date back to his early years as a Knesset member when he allegedly received large sums from foreign businessmen, particularly from the former Soviet Union. Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein was planning to charge Mr Lieberman with fraud, breach of trust, money-laundering and obstruction of justice, the reports said. However, Mr Weinstein has reportedly decided not to indict him on charges of bribery. The investigation into Mr Lieberman's affairs has been going on since 2006.


Tempers flare in West Bank after 'decision against the people'
The Australian
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK: Palestinians gathered in the West Bank yesterday to protest against the US veto that nixed a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, as the Fatah Prime Minister proposed forming a unity government with militant group Hamas. A crowd of thousands massed in Ramallah's Manara Square, a central roundabout in the West Bank city, waving banners and shouting slogans against the administration of Barack Obama.

"Obama, you despicable man, we want self-determination," shouted protesters, many of them members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party. Fatah committee member Mahmoud al-Alul told the crowd: "This decision is against the Palestinian people and its freedom, and it supports Israeli injustice, oppression and occupation. "We tell Obama that we are a people that doesn't bow to anyone," he said, before demonstrators cried "Get out Obama, get out you settler".

Fatah called for the protest after the US used the first veto of Mr Obama's administration to prevent a resolution drafted by the Palestinian leadership, in an attempt to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The resolution was supported by all the other 14 members of the Security Council.

In Jenin, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad accused the US of blackmail, amid Palestinian allegations that Washington had threatened to curtail aid if the settlements resolution was not withdrawn. "We didn't and will not accept blackmail and neither will our people," Mr Fayyad said. "We are not interested in aid from any party that threatens to cut it for political reasons. The US approach must change because these double standards cannot continue and this situation is unacceptable." Mr Fayyad offered to form a unity government with the rival Hamas militant group.

The US said its veto should not be interpreted as support for Israeli settlement construction, but that it did not believe the UN was the best place to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in Ramallah, the veto drew fury and disappointment. "No to negotiations with Israeli settlements and American arrogance," one banner held by demonstrators read.

Tawfiq Terawi, another Fatah central committee member, said the demonstration sent two important messages. "First, when all the Arab people are demonstrating against their leaders, the Palestinian people come today to support its brave leadership's decision," he said. Second, it exposed the US's "false claim that it is the country of freedom, as it officially announces its support for the occupation and settlements and the oppression and injustice against our people".

With peace talks stalled and calls for democracy rising throughout the Middle East, Mr Abbas said this month he would hold overdue general elections in September. But Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has said it would boycott the vote unless there was reconciliation first.

Mr Fayyad has proposed forming a unity government with Hamas in order to hold the election on time. He said Hamas could retain security control in Gaza as long as it preserved a ceasefire with Israel. Mr Fayyad would continue to govern from the West Bank, and would work with Hamas to place both territories under a single governing authority. "The split has been too long and should not continue, and it won't end by itself. We need to move to end the split," Mr Fayyad said. He refused to say who might lead the unity government. But he said that as long as Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, agreed to maintain calm, all other issues could be resolved.

In Gaza, Hamas officials were sceptical "We have not received anything from Fatah or heard anything from them," a Hamas spokesman said.


Iranian warships enter Suez
The Australian
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CAIRO: Two Iranian naval ships have entered the Suez Canal, a canal official said yesterday, en route to Syria on a purported training mission that Israel regards as a provocation. "The two ships entered the canal on Tuesday at around 5.45am (2.45pm AEDT)," the official said. A journey through the 163km waterway usually takes between 12 and 14 hours.

The patrol frigate Alvand and support ship Kharg were the first Iranian warships to go through the canal since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and will sail past Israel on their way to Syria. Egypt's official MENA news agency has reported that the request for the ships to transit the canal said they were not carrying weapons or nuclear and chemical materials.

The 1500-tonne Alvand is normally armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, while the larger 33,000-tonne Kharg has a crew of 250 and facilities for up to three helicopters, Iran's official Fars news agency has said. Their imminent arrival in the eastern Mediterranean comes as Israel worries over its security as popular uprisings shake the Arab world.


Netanyahu pledges to curb settlements
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

JERUSALEM: Acknowledging Israel's growing political isolation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says settlement building in the West Bank must be cut back. "We are currently in a very difficult international situation," he told his Likud party yesterday. Mr Netanyahu was speaking a week after the US vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the Israeli settlements. The resolution was supported by the 14 other council members, and the veto angered the Muslim world against Washington at a sensitive time in the Middle East. "The American veto took great effort to achieve," Mr Netanyahu said. "We cannot ignore it all and say there's no problem. Things are changing in the Middle East."

Referring to demands by settlement leaders for expanded building, the Prime Minister said: "They don't understand the reality they are living in." Mr Netanyahu's position is a sharp reversal for a right-wing politician who has made a career out of defying international pressure and pushing ahead with Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. His stance reflects the embarrassment Israel has caused Washington, and the growing revolt in the Arab world, which makes Israel's reliance on the US greater than ever.

Haaretz reported yesterday that Mr Netanyahu had decided to begin dismantling all illegal settlement outposts that have been built on privately owned Palestinian land — something he has been promising for years but never fully implememented. However, he said some building would continue in approved settlements, but warned this might be endangered if the settlers did not restrain their activities.

The newly declared policy began to be implemented earlier in the day when Israeli security forces were sent in to destroy three illegal structures at Havat Gilad, one of the most militant settlements on the West Bank. The settlers claim police and soldiers fired rubber bullets at them, but the army said only paintballs were used. Israeli security forces are now equipped with special paintball guns, which are more powerful than those used recreationally but designed not to break skin.

Eight settlers were arrested in the confrontation, and settlers claim 15 others were injured. In retaliation, hundreds of settlers blocked main roads in the West Bank and inside Israel, particularly Jerusalem. A total of 23 activists were arrested. Two Palestinian villages reported harassment by settlers, who set fire to tyres and threw petrol bombs. Posters distributed in the settlements called for a "day of rage" tomorrow to protest at the "pogrom" at Havat Gilad.


Israel talks of interim solution
Weekend Australian
Richard Boudreaux, Wall Street Journal
Saturday, March 5, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel is losing hope that it can settle the outlines of a final peace accord with the Palestinians in the coming months and instead is weighing plans that would offer them a provisional state with temporary borders, according to several officials.

The Palestinians have rejected such interim solutions in the past, and leaders in the West Bank said Thursday they would do so again. But Israeli officials said they felt pressed to make an offer to satisfy Western concerns that a prolonged stalemate in peace talks with the Palestinians would boost the appeal of Islamist forces vying for power across the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in coming weeks is expected to make a policy speech aimed at breaking the deadlock with the Palestinians, the longest in nearly two decades of US-brokered peace efforts. Mr Netanyahu and senior ministers were discussing various proposals among themselves and with the Obama administration and other international mediators, the officials said.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have held just one round of direct talks in the past 28 months. President Barack Obama launched the round last September, with the goal of a framework accord on all core issues of the conflict within a year. The talks broke off three weeks later, after Israel's 10-month partial moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements expired.

The Palestinians say they will not resume talks unless settlement building stops. Israeli officials say the wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East has emboldened the Jewish state's adversaries and stiffened Palestinian resolve.

Palestinian leaders in the West Bank say they may seek recognition of statehood at the UN General Assembly in September, a step that would increase Israel's isolation. Israeli officials say a new peace proposal could blunt that campaign. "We have to take the initiative, something that can be seen as the next step in a phased approach towards the goal of the international community — two states side by side," said a senior Israeli official.

Members of Mr Netanyahu's conservative-led government have advanced several proposals. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is working on a plan for a Palestinian state with temporary borders covering nearly half the West Bank. A similar proposal by Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister, would give the provisional state 60 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza. National Security Minister Dan Meridor has proposed that Israel unilaterally freeze settlement construction outside the large West Bank settler communities it expects to keep under a final accord.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on Thursday that the Palestinians would not sign any interim accord with Israel. Palestinian leaders have long argued that interim territorial concessions would weaken their power to close a deal on other key issues. "Our top priority is an end to the occupation of our lands … including East Jerusalem, and a just solution for the refugees," Mr Abed Rabbo said.


Extract: The new US plan - regime alteration
The Australian
Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, Washington, Wall Street Journal
Monday, March 7, 2011

AFTER weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world, the Obama administration is settling on a Middle East strategy: help keep in power longtime allies who are willing to reform, even if it means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait. Instead of pushing for immediate regime change — as the US did to varying degrees in Egypt and now Libya — Washington is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with their rulers toward what US officials and diplomats are now calling "regime alteration."

The approach has emerged amid furious lobbying of the administration by Arab governments, who were alarmed US President Barack Obama had abandoned Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and worried that if Washington did the same to the beleaguered king of Bahrain, a chain of revolts could sweep other autocrats from power, and further upset the region.

The strategy comes in the face of domestic US criticism that the Obama administration at first sent mixed messages on Egypt, tentatively backing Mr Mubarak before deciding to throw US support behind the protesters demanding his overthrow. Likewise, in Bahrain, the US decision to give a lifeline to the ruling family came after sharp criticism of its handling of the protests there. The kingdom's opposition held one of its largest rallies over the weekend, underlining the challenge the White House faces in selling the population a strategy of gradual change.

Administration officials say they have been consistent throughout, urging Arab rulers to avoid violence and make democratic reforms that address the demands of the people. But a senior administration official acknowledged the past month had been a learning process. "What we have said throughout is that there is a need for political, economic and social reform, but the particular approach will be country by country," the White House official said.

A pivotal moment came late last month, in the tense hours after Mr Obama publicly berated Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for cracking down violently on anti-government demonstrators in the capital. Envoys for the king and his Arab allies then shuttled from the Pentagon to the State Department and the White House with a carefully co-ordinated message. If the Obama administration did not reverse course and stand squarely behind the monarchy, they warned, Bahrain's rulers could fall, costing the US a vital ally and potentially moving the country towards Iran. Adding to the sense of urgency was a scenario being considered by US intelligence agencies: the possibility that Saudi Arabia might invade its tiny neighbour to silence the Shia-led protesters, threatening decades-old partnerships and creating vast political and economic upheaval.

"We need the full support of the United States," a top Bahraini diplomat beseeched the Americans, including the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, and other top US policy makers.

Arab diplomats believe their push worked. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emerged as leading voices inside the administration urging greater US support for Bahrain's king, coupled with a reform agenda that Washington insisted would have to be credible to the protesters. Instead of backing the calls for the king's removal, Mr Obama asked the protesters to negotiate with the royal family, which is promising changes.

Israel was also making its voice heard. As Mr Mubarak's grip on power slipped away in Egypt, Israeli officials lobbied Washington to reassure its Middle East allies they were not being abandoned. Israeli leaders have made it clear they fear extremist forces could try to exploit freedom and undercut Israel's security. "Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule," said a US official. "Everybody realized Bahrain was too important to fail."


Extract: Arab revolt stokes Hamas militancy
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

HAMAS political leader Khaled Meshaal yesterday praised the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and expressed the hope that they would pave the way for a more militant stance towards Israel. The Islamic organisation has hitherto taken a cautious position regarding the events unfolding in the Arab world, apparently because of uncertainty about how they would develop. "The people in Egypt and Tunisia have given us back our lives," Mr Meshaal said in Sudan where he is attending a conference. "Today we are witnessing Cairo returning to its natural state after it disappeared from that state for a long time."

Egypt's ousted president Hosni Mubarak had adopted a tough stance towards Hamas, fearing its links with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. The Damascus-based Hamas leader urged that his organisation and the secular Fatah Party unite on the basis of jihad towards Israel. "The first step (towards liberating Jerusalem) is refusal to negotiate with Israel and to establish a new, reconciled Palestinian position based on jihad."

Hamas officials hope the new Egyptian government will ease the blockade of Gaza imposed by Mr Mubarak and Israel. The Egyptian ambassador to the Palestinians, Yasser Othman, said yesterday that "there are calls" in Egypt to reopen the Egypt-Gaza crossing to allow a freer flow of people and goods. A decision will be made, he said, when the situation stabilises.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, and Israeli soldiers look toward Jordan
during a tour of the Jordan Valley on Tuesday. Source: Associated Press
Netanyahu shores up West Bank security
The Australian
Richard Boudreaux, Wall Street Journal
Thursday, March 10, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing opposition within his government to any new offer of territory to the Palestinians, has made a rare visit to the Israeli-occupied Jordan Valley and vowed to keep a military presence in that strategic strip of the West Bank. His tour of army facilities Tuesday was meant to underscore Israel's fears about popular revolts sweeping the Arab world — the possibility militants might infiltrate a destabilized Jordan, slip across the Jordan River into a Palestinian-governed West Bank and fire rockets at the Jewish state's major cities.

But the visit was also part of an effort by the Prime Minister to find consensus at home and support in Washington for a still-undefined peace initiative officials say he will soon offer the Palestinian Authority in an effort to break a long impasse in negotiations. "Our security border is here, on the Jordan River," Mr. Netanyahu said. "In any future situation, the Israeli Defence Force must stay here. If this was true before the major unrest shaking the Middle East, it is doubly true today."

His stance is not new, but the venue and timing of his remarks sent a message that his peace initiative wouldn't include territorial concessions to the Palestinians along the 100km border. Palestinian officials insisted again Tuesday that Israel must withdraw from all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of any accord. Israel captured those lands and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War and withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to come under increased rocket attacks from Gaza-based militants.

Mr Netanyahu's office leaked word of a peace initiative to the Israeli media last week. Some officials said he was weighing an offer of a provisional Palestinian state in as much as 60 per cent of the West Bank — a long-term deal that would serve until the two sides negotiate a full accord on final borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and rival claims to Jerusalem. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel should make a "daring" initiative, coupling an offer of provisional Palestinian statehood with "assurances about the final results." Otherwise, he said, Israel faces a "tsunami" of international condemnation.

Two other ministers in the conservative-led government, Silvan Shalom and Moshe Yaalon, said Israel should ignore pressure and not cede territory. They said the Palestinian Authority was too weak to protect its borders and Jordan's peace treaty with Israel may not survive the turmoil.


Extract: Libya No-fly zone
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Friday, March 11, 2011

Right now, consideration of a no-fly zone is taking place in five key power centres: the US, the European Union, NATO, the UN and among Arab leaders.

The US has been cautious so far. Defence Secretary Robert Gates made comments that were sceptical of a no fly-zone, although President Barack Obama has repeated that all options are on the table. One consideration the Americans are working through is the practicality of such a zone: how hard would it be to impose, what would it achieve and is there a danger it could become open-ended ' The Libyan air force is more capable than early estimates suggested, but Western powers could impose a no-fly zone fairly easily. Most of Muammar Gaddafi's air force is concentrated around Tripoli.

As to what the zone would achieve, this is debatable. It would stop large air bombardments by Gadaffi forces, but might not stop helicopter strikes. It might only secure a stalemate.

But much of the battle now is psychological. Obama has stressed that Gaddafi's inner circle could be subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The second and unstated purpose of a no-fly zone is to convince the forces backing Gaddafi he is no longer a long-term proposition and that they should switch sides while they can.

The Americans are wary of mission creep. They are inclined to say to the Europeans: Yes, we will back a no-fly zone, but we're doing a great deal of heavy lifting in Afghanistan and Iraq, so you Europeans, so much closer to Libya, enforce it yourselves.

Which brings us to Europe's calculations. The technicalities of a no-fly zone are now being worked out within NATO. Britain and France, not the US, have been drafting a resolution for the UN Security Council. The Europeans were shamed and stained by their performance in the Balkans 15 years ago. It would be in everyone's interests if they, not the US, took the lead on Libya. Forthcoming meetings of the EU, NATO and the Arab League will be critical.

The politics of the Arab world are essential here. The Libyan turmoil is really the first time that Arab regional organisations have taken a serious stand in favour of democracy and against human rights abuses. The ritual denunciations of Israel do not qualify.

The politics of the UN Security Council are fluid and unpredictable. Some non-permanent African members of the council are wary of taking sides in a civil war. Much more important is the attitude of Russia and China. Moscow in particular has so far opposed any intervention in Libya. The key political factor in changing the Russian view so that they, and the Chinese, who hate to be isolated at the UN, supported referring Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court was the attitude of the Arab League.

If the Arab League found Gaddafi impossible to stomach, the Russians could not really oppose the groundswell of international opinion. The Arab leaders universally hate Gaddafi. However, authorising the use of force, even the limited force of a no-fly zone, may be a bridge too far for the Russians.

The other key determinant will be Gaddafi's behaviour. So far, although the attacks by his forces have been deadly and numerous, he has not unleashed the full fury of his air force and other heavy weapons. To do so might tip the scales in the debate at the UN.

This question is far from resolved, but Australia's influence has been important. Rudd has spent the past two weeks criss-crossing the Middle East, and while he has a broad agenda, his advocacy of the no-fly zone has been steady.

Rudd's purpose has been evident in his rhetoric. He told CNN on Tuesday: "We don't come with some naive attitude to this. It is, however, very much the lesser of two evils in our judgment, and the greater evil is simply to stand back and allow the innocent people of Libya to be strafed and bombed by Gaddafi, who now operates completely outside the boundaries of international humanitarian law."

In the interview, Rudd cited humanitarian failures of the past: "We failed as an international community in Rwanda, we failed as an international community in Darfur, by and large we were too late in Srebrenica. Let us be mindful of the lessons of history here and not see it repeated in Libya."

Volunteers carry a body from the Jewish West Bank settlement home in which five people were murdered. Source: Getty Images
Murder of five members of Israeli family raises West Bank tensions
The Australian Online
Sunday, March 13, 2011

FIVE members of an Israeli family including a baby were murdered in their beds in a West Bank settlement in an attack blamed on Palestinians, sparking a huge manhunt and international condemnation. Media reports said a baby girl of three months, two children aged three and 11, and their parents Ehud and Ruth Vogel were all stabbed to death in the Friday night attack in Itamar near the Palestinian town of Nablus. Army radio said two other children had been spared and a third, a girl of 10, had arrived home late and alerted neighbours that something was wrong.

"It was one in the morning when their daughter Tamar came to ask me to go home with her," said Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, who found the bodies. "She was worried because there was no answer when she knocked on the door which was locked." Radio reports said the killer or killers had managed to get past an electric fence surrounding the settlement. A 2002 attack on the same settlement killed five people including a woman and three children.

In front of the Vogel home, settlers lit candles last night in memory of their slain neighbours. Rabbi Avichai Ronski, spokesman for the settlement which, is home to 800 Jews, was defiant after the attack. "Our response to this crime is not to seek revenge but to carry on with construction" of more Jewish homes. The army set up checkpoints in the Nablus area and deployed in force in the Palestinian village of Awarta near Itamar. Soldiers questioned residents during house-to-house searches, Palestinian security sources said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the authorities would do everything possible to protect Israelis and demanded Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas punish those responsible for the murders. The premier also urged Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) to "halt incitement in mosques and in the media under its control." He expected an "unambiguous denunciation of the murder of babies" from the international community and called on countries that "run to the UN to condemn planned Israeli building" to condemn the knife attack in the same way.

Mr Abbas condemned the attack, while reaffirming the need to reach a just and lasting settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I denounce all violence against civilians, whatever the motive," he said. In a telephone call, Mr Abbas expressed his regrets to Mr Netanyahu, the Israeli leader's office said. Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad also denounced the attacks. "We clearly and firmly condemn all forms of violence, and I condemn what happened last night in Itamar, just as I condemn the crimes against Palestinians."

Mr Netanyahu said the PA condemnation was "weak and ambiguous" but urged settlers to show restraint and not to take justice into their hands. Amid a chorus of condemnation from the international community, the White House said: "There is no possible justification for the killing of parents and children in their home."

A statement from the international Quartet on the Middle East, which comprises the United Nations, European Union, Russia and the United States, condemned the killings "in the strongest possible terms". "Attacks on any civilians are completely unacceptable in any circumstance," the statement said. "The Quartet calls on those responsible to be brought to justice and welcomes the strong condemnation of this attack by … the Palestinian leadership."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Brigades, the armed wing of the hardline Islamic Jihad, condoned the attack as an act of resistance against Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Tensions between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the Nablus area have been high this week. On Monday, Israeli soldiers fired live rounds at Palestinians after they fought with settlers.


Israel to expand settlements after murder of family
The Australian
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

JERUSALEM: An Israeli family of five, including a baby, stabbed to death in a weekend attack on a settlement, were buried yesterday as the government vowed to build hundreds more settler homes. As the hunt for the killers continued, at least 20,000 mourners packed into the Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem, the hillside graveyard echoing with sounds of grief and the angry diatribes of political and religious leaders.

"This was a barbaric act that only animals are capable of," said Rafi Ben-Basat, one mourner who knew the family, widely believed to have been murdered by Palestinian attackers. "You savage Arabs, lacking humanity, will not break us," said settler leader Gershon Masika. The attackers broke into the family home in Itamar settlement, near Nablus, on Friday night, local time, and in a frenzied stabbing attack killed five members of the Fogel family — three-month-old Hadas, four-year-old Elad, Yoav, 11, and parents Udi and Ruthie. Grisly pictures released by the settler leadership yesterday showed the victims lying on blood-spattered beds, each with multiple stab wounds.

Yesterday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the attack "despicable, immoral and inhuman". He told Israel Radio that the gory images of the victims would "cause anyone humane to ache and cry", and said he would not allow attacks to multiply. Israeli police went on high alert and the army said troops had been ordered "to be vigilant" for any attempted revenge attacks.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said ministers had approved construction of "several hundred housing units within the settlement blocs" of Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, Ariel and Kiryat Sefer. The Yesha settlers' council said it was a "small step in the right direction", but that it was "deeply troubling that it requires the murder of children in the arms of their parents to achieve such an objective."

The PA condemned the decision as "a mistake and unacceptable. It will destroy everything and will lead to big problems." Mr Netanyahu paid a condolence visit to the families of the victims, telling them that "they (the Palestinians) shoot and we build". "They say the land of Israel is built on suffering, but who could have thought the suffering would be so great ?" Mr Netanyahu said, according to his office.

The decision to build new settler homes was taken 24 hours after the bloodshed, which sparked a wave of revulsion from the White House to Ramallah. After the funeral, hundreds of settlers blocked road junctions in Israel and the West Bank in protest at the killings, police said. Feared revenge attacks did not materialise immediately, with Palestinian witnesses and security sources reporting only a series of minor confrontations.

Protesters in Beirut's Martyr's Square yesterday on the sixth anniversary of the uprising against Syrian occupation
call for Hezbollah to be disarmed. Source: Getty Images
Same Day
Beirut protesters rail against Hezbollah

BEIRUT: Tens of thousands of Lebanese opposition supporters have demanded Hezbollah be disarmed as they rallied on the sixth anniversary of a popular uprising against Syrian troops. "It is impossible that any of us here accept tutelage over Lebanon again, whether foreign domination or the domination of arms within Lebanon working for foreign interests," outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri said yesterday, referring to the arsenal of the Iranian-backed Shia militant group. "It is impossible to accept that these weapons … continue to be turned against the democratic will of the people," said Mr Hariri, son of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, whose 2005 assassination sparked the uprising that led to the Syrian departure. A massive crowd thronged Martyrs Square in central Beirut, focal point of the protests six years ago, waving the national flag and the banners of pro-Western political parties.

Hariri's assassination saw the rise of a US- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as March 14, named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests. Combined with international pressure, the protests in the weeks after the killing led to the pullout of Syrian troops in April 2005, ending 29 years of domination by Damascus. The rally this year comes as Hezbollah's military might is once again the focus of a deadlock between rival Lebanese camps. Several demonstrators carried banners reading "No to the dictatorship of arms" and "God has no arms", in reference to Hezbollah, Arabic for Party of God.

The anniversary comes amid a drawn-out political crisis that saw Hezbollah topple Saad Hariri's unity government in January, capping a long-running feud over a UN-backed tribunal tasked with investigating the Rafiq Hariri murder. It is is reportedly readying to implicate members of Hezbollah in the killing. Sunni Muslim billionaire Najib Mikati, appointed with Hezbollah's backing, has been tapped to succeed Saad Hariri and has since January 25 sought to form a government. The Hariri-led opposition has announced it will boycott Mr Mikati's government.

Also, same Day
Palestinian rallies to go unhindered

RAMALLAH: Mass rallies calling for unity are to go ahead tomorrow without interference from the Palestinian security forces. "There will be no intervention by the security people whatsoever, except to protect them," senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told reporters in Ramallah. Thousands of Palestinians have responded to a Facebook campaign calling for demonstrations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip on March 15, in a call for Hamas and Fatah — the bitterly divided Palestinian factions — to reconcile their differences.

Similar protests are expected to take place outside the offices of Palestinian delegations overseas, in a move inspired by the recent wave of uprisings in the Arab world, which brought down the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia. Ahead of the protest, seven youth activists began a hunger strike that would continue "until the division ends", one activist said. The strike began late Sunday afternoon, local time, in Ramallah's Manara Square.

Mr Shaath said the Palestinian leadership did not feel threatened by the planned rallies. "We have nothing to fear," he said. "On the contrary, I think what our people have learned from the Egyptian people is that numbers make a qualitative change. "I think that our people are moving more and more into non-armed struggle, but what I would like to see is numbers," Mr Shaath said, suggesting a non-violent protest in which "50,000 people occupy Qalandia" — the massive Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. He also pledged that the police would protect journalists covering the planned demonstrations.

In the past two months, Palestinian activists have staged demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, initially in support of the Arab uprisings but soon calling for national unity. At first, many of them were broken up by the security forces, but intervention in such protests in the West Bank has tailed off over the past month.

In the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, however, police are still clamping down on protesters, and last week detained at least 11 people on two separate occasions, including Ahmad Arar, one of the local organisers of the March 15 rallies. Gaza Strip police have also threatened journalists trying to cover the protests.


Abbas ready to take up Hamas invitation to Gaza
The Australian
Thursday, March 17, 2011

RAMALLAH: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas offered last night to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for the first time in four years in a bid to help reunite the rival Palestinian governments. As Hamas welcomed the offer, Mr Abbas also declared that he would not run for re-election in voting called for later this year. The rapprochement between the Palestinian factions came as Israeli aircraft fired rockets at a Hamas training ground in Gaza City, killing two militants from the Islamist group.

On Tuesday, Gaza's Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, had invited Mr Abbas to visit following parallel rallies in Gaza and the West Bank urging the rival Palestinian leaderships to reunite. The next day, the Palestinian Authority President announced he would be prepared to make the trip within the coming week. "I declare that I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow so as to end the split and form a new government," Mr Abbas said in a speech before senior members of his Fatah faction. He urged Mr Haniyeh to make arrangements so he could arrive within the next two to four days, "so we can end this dark and dishonourable chapter of division".

Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said his government was "considering the necessary arrangements for this visit". Mr Abbas has not been in Gaza since Hamas militants overran the territory during a five-day civil war in June 2007, leaving him in control of only the West Bank.

Same Day
Turks order Iran transport plane to land

ISTANBUL: An Iranian cargo plane en route to Syria was forced to land in Turkey last night amid fears it may be carrying military or nuclear material. The plane was being searched at Diyarbakir airport in southeastern Turkey a day after Israeli commandos operating deep in international waters boarded a ship carrying arms allegedly on their way from Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The plane, which took off yesterday from Tehran bound for the Syrian city of Aleppo, landed following an order from the Turkish foreign ministry. Two F-16 jet fighters were put on standby to intervene if the Iranian plane did not obey the orders to land, security sources said. Anti-nuclear, biological and chemical material units of civilian defence teams took part in the inspection of the plane, Anatolia news agency reported.

In the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, military specialists were checking 39 containers on the deck of the ship Victoria to ascertain the exact amount and type of arms and munitions that they contained. Sappers would first check for booby traps, they said.

The Liberian-flagged Victoria was intercepted late on Tuesday as it sailed about 200 nautical miles west of Israel's territorial waters. It arrived at Ashdod yesterday. Top defence officials said earlier that its cargo included Chinese-made C704 anti-ship missiles, which would be a threat to Israeli naval patrols off the Gaza coast. "(There are) two to four missiles, shore-to-sea missiles, of type C704, a missile with … a range of 35km," the deputy commander of the Israeli navy, Rear Admiral Rani Ben-Yehuda, said. "Anything within its range, of course, will find itself in danger."

Defence Minister Ehud Barak made an apparent reference to the same items. "We suspect, we think, that among the weapons there is also the beginnings of an advanced system which could affect our freedom of action along the Gaza shores," he said. During Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon's Hezbollah, guerillas hit an Israeli warship off Beirut with an Iranian-made missile based on Chinese technology, killing four crewmen.

Israel said the Victoria had sailed from the Turkish port of Mersin, headed for Alexandria in Egypt, but that the arms originated in Iran and were destined for Gaza. "On the boat, we discovered many weapons destined for terror groups in the heart of Gaza," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We had clear evidence that the vessel was carrying weapons intended to harm Israel. "The source of the weapons was Iran, which is trying to arm the strip," he said, adding that Tehran had sent the arms through a "relay station" — seemingly alluding to Syria.


Islamic Jihad hits Beersheba
The Australian
Thursday, March 24, 2011

JERUSALEM: A grad rocket fired from Gaza slammed into the centre of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba yesterday, slightly injuring one person. "A Grad rocket hit the centre of the city of Beersheba. One man was moderately injured by shrapnel," an Israeli army spokeswoman said. The rocket had hit a road and the shrapnel had flown into a nearby flat. Another Grad rocket fired by militants in the Gaza Strip hit the outskirts of Beersheba on February 23, but this was the first time since Operation Cast Lead, more than two years ago, that such a projectile hit the city centre, home to 186,000 people.

Beersheba is about 40km from Gaza, much further than the Israeli cities regularly targeted by Palestinian militants. Late on Tuesday, a Grad rocket was fired towards Ashdod but landed south of it without causing injuries or damage, the spokeswoman said. Militants in Gaza on Tuesday fired nine rockets and missiles into Israel, the army said.

The Islamic Jihad Palestinian militant group claimed responsibility yesterday for the rocket attacks on Beersheba and Ashdod. The group said the attacks were in reprisal for Israeli air strikes that killed eight Palestinians and injured others. "It's part of our answer to Zionist crimes against our people in the Gaza Strip," the group's al-Quds Brigade said.

Operation Cast Lead is the name for Israel's 22-day war on Gaza, which began at the end of 2008, to halt rocket fire on Israel. During the operation 1400 Palestinians died, more than half of them civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.

Israeli police inspect a bus damaged in a fatal militant bomb attack in central Jerusalem. Source: Getty Images
Terrorist bomb hits Jerusalem
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Friday, March 25, 2011

It is the city's first such attack for seven years.

AS Gaza and Israel exchanged rockets and air-raids, terrorism returned to Jerusalem yesterday when a bomb at a crowded bus station killed a 60-year-old woman and injured 39 others. In the first such attack in the capital in seven years, central Jerusalem was thrown into chaos when the bomb exploded at the beginning of peak hour. Just hours before, militants had vowed revenge for two deadly Israeli raids on Gaza. The bombing also came several hours after two Grad rockets fired by Gaza militants hit the southern city of Beersheva.

Israel launched further attacks on Gaza last night, as Israeli police set up roadblocks in Jerusalem in an attempt to track down the attacker. The bomber had left a suitcase next to a telephone box at the bus stop, which is in front of the main Jerusalem bus station and near the beginning of the highway to Tel Aviv. Rather than a suicide bombing, which had been common in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2004, this bomber had apparently either detonated the explosives by mobile phone as he walked away or had placed a timer on the explosives. The bomb smashed the windows of two buses and left wounded people lying around the bus shelters.

The bombing revived fears of a return to the days of the Second Intifada, in which hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks by Palestinian militants on Jerusalem buses, cafes and shopping centres. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived last night in Moscow for talks in which he was expected to ask Russia not to give any support to Israel's foes, Iran and Syria, amid continued concern about Russian ties with Tehran and its latest pledge to send advanced missiles to Syria. But an Israeli official in Moscow said Mr Netanyahu would make the bus bombing the focus of his meetings, with other topics suggested by Russia, such as the Middle East peace process, taking a secondary role. Russia called the bombing a "barbaric act of terror" that must not be allowed to destabilise the peace process.

The attack comes in a week of renewed violence between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza. On Tuesday, Israel bombed Gaza and killed eight people, including four civilians whose funerals were held in Gaza yesterday. The strikes were in retaliation for about 50 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel last Saturday, most landing in the Negev desert. Israel said four members of Hamas had been killed in the raids, and Mr Netanyahu "expressed regret" over the killing of the civilians. Hamas, in turn, issued a statement saying: "The escalation will not pass unanswered. Escalation will be met with escalation and calm will be met with calm."

Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority immediately condemned the bus station bombing. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he "strongly condemns the terror attack in Jerusalem regardless of the identity of the perpetrators" and said it would be "despicable" if any Palestinian was involved. Mr Netanyahu said Israel would act "vigorously and responsibly" to preserve security. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "We will not stand for strikes on Israeli citizens, either in the south or in Jerusalem."

Israeli military sources have told The Australian they believe the rockets were being fired by Islamic Jihad rather than Hamas. But Israel's view is that regardless of who is firing them, Hamas is responsible as it governs Gaza. Palestinian security forces yesterday arrested two senior leaders of the radical Islamic Jihad in Jenin, in the northern West Bank, witnesses and Hamas sources said last night. Palestinian security sources refused to confirm the arrests.

Afghan protesters in Kandahar condemn the burning of a copy of the Koran by a US pastor. Source: AP
Koran burning sparks new violence in Afghanistan
The Australian Online
Sunday, April 3, 2011

TEN people have died in Afghanistan in new protests against a Koran burning in the US, a day after seven UN staff were killed in the worst attack on the world body in the country since the 2001 invasion. The fresh protests began in the centre of the main southern city of Kandahar and spread as police clashed with crowds marching towards the UN offices and provincial administration headquarters, witnesses said. Police fired into the air to try to deter thousands of protesters heading towards the buildings. Smoke was rising from different parts of the city as protesters burned cars and tyres.

The provincial authorities said the protesters had damaged government and private buildings and torched vehicles. Daud Farhad, a senior doctor in the city's main hospital, said the death toll had risen to 10, with 83 injured. Kandahar is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban, who have fought an insurgency against President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul and its Western allies since they were ousted by the US-led invasion. 'Death to America ' and 'Death to Karzai ' chanted the demonstrators. 'They have insulted our Koran, ' shouted one.

Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial administration, said a bus and a girls' school had also been set ablaze, adding that all the dead and injured were protesters. Kandahar provincial governor Toryalai Wesa said in a press conference that 20 people had been arrested, among them 10 who were in possession of weapons and grenades, adding that police and civilians had been shot. 'When the demonstration started, some destructive elements had penetrated the protesters and caused civilian casualties, ' he said, stressing that the authorities were not notified and had not authorised the demonstration. 'In fact, it wasn't a demonstration, it was an attack which caused heavy damage to civilians and private property, ' he said. The protest ended in the early evening as the leaders of the demonstration went to meet with provincial authorities and the demonstrators left Kandahar's main square.

The protest came a day after seven UN foreign staff — three Europeans and and four Nepalese guards — were killed during similar demonstrations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in an attack claimed by the Taliban. Before Friday's violence Afghanistan had condemned the 'disrespectful and abhorrent ' burning of the Koran at the Dove World Outreach Center, an evangelical church in Gainesville, Florida, calling it an effort to incite tension between religions. Church head Pastor Terry Jones said 'we don't feel responsible ' for the attack, adding: 'The radical element of Islam takes (the burning) as an excuse to promote their violent activities. '

US President Barack Obama condemned the killings in Afghanistan while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was 'an outrageous and cowardly attack '. The UN leader told Mr Karzai in a telephone call 'he would continue to work with the Alliance of Civilisations to promote tolerance for all faiths, ' his spokesman said. The alliance, set up by Spain and Turkey in 2005, seeks to defuse tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. The UN's special envoy to Afghanistan said late yesterday that the attack 'should not deter the UN presence, activities, in this country in this delicate and particularly crucial period. '

The remaining 11 international UN staff in Mazar-i-Sharif had been temporarily redeployed to Kabul, Staffan de Mistura told reporters, after their office was 'destroyed ' in the violence. But he emphasised they would return. The UN did not announce the nationalities of the three civilian staff killed. But Sweden named one as 33-year-old Swede, Joakim Dungel. Norway said Lieutenant Colonel Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot, was killed. Diplomats said the third was a Romanian.

The attackers broke away from a large demonstration in the city against the burning of a Koran, Islam's holy book, at an evangelical church in Florida, and overwhelmed guards at the UN compound before setting it ablaze. De Mistura said between seven and 15 insurgents from outside Mazar-i-Sharif appeared to have infiltrated protesters and launched the attack — beginning by throwing stones at the UN premises, he said, but failing to rouse others in the crowd to join them. 'What I reconstructed is … those who actually killed my colleagues were the infiltrators, ' he said, adding that Afghan survivors had identified the attackers as not from the local area. Seven to eight people, including at least some of the suspected rebel fighters, were arrested, he said.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy earlier denied reports that two of the dead were beheaded but said one victim had his throat cut. Balkh provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor said five other people, thought to be protesters, were killed while at least 20 were wounded in the fighting.

Friday's attack was the worst suffered by the world body since a bomb blast at the UN compound in Algiers in 2007 in which 17 staff died.


Put war crimes report in the bin, says Israel, after judge admits mistakes
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, April 4, 2011

ISRAEL has called on the UN to consign its major report on the Gaza war to "the dustbin of history" after the author, judge Richard Goldstone, expressed regret about key aspects of the report. Israeli politicians, who had insisted the report was flawed, reacted angrily.

"If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone report would have been a different document," Judge Goldstone wrote in The Washington Post. He admitted that if he had access to all the facts, his report probably would not have accused Israel of war crimes. "The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion," he wrote. "While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognised in the UN committee's report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy."

He said Israel's lack of co-operation had meant the inquiry was not able to corroborate several aspects, including how many civilians were killed. "The Israeli military's numbers have turned out to be similar to those recently furnished by Hamas," he wrote.

The Goldstone report focused on the killing of 29 members of the al-Simouni family. Judge Goldstone now says: "The shelling of the home was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander's erroneous interpretation of a drone image, and an Israeli officer is under investigation for having ordered the attack. "While the length of this investigation is frustrating, it appears that an appropriate process is under way and I am confident that if the officer is found to have been negligent, Israel will respond accordingly." Judge Goldstone said the original mandate for his inquiry adopted by the UN Human Rights Council "was skewed against Israel" but that he had insisted on changing it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the statement to attack the report, saying: "The fact that Goldstone backtracked must lead to the shelving of this report once and for all." Reactions in the Israeli media were mixed. "As a Jew, he acted in the most non-Jewish of ways," Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv. "He betrayed all these principles, played it dumb, granted a rare international prize for evil and denounced anyone attempting to defend himself from him. Richard Goldstone should be forced to continue to confront his conscience, the image reflected in his mirror, until the day he dies."

But Alex Fishman in Yedioth Ahronoth described the judge as an exceptionally courageous man. "It is no small matter for a person of his stature to stand up and confess to all and sundry that he had made a mistake," he wrote. In Haaretz, Aluf Benn wrote: "Israel achieved a major public relations coup this weekend, comparable to the United Nations rescission of its notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism." But Benn said Israel had erred in refusing to co-operate with Judge Goldstone and that former minister Isaac Herzog had been correct when he advocated dialogue.

Judge Goldstone admitted he had been wrong in believing Hamas would investigate the behaviour of its forces. "It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigation," he wrote. "At minimum I hoped that in the face of a clear finding that its members were committing serious war crimes, Hamas would curtail its attacks. Sadly, that has not been the case."


Sorry, it's Israel's fault
The Australian
Global Opinion
Thursday, April 7, 2011

JUDGE Richard Goldstone's apology cuts no ice with Shmuley Boteach. "It took a famous judge two years to come to the conclusion that asking a terrorist organization to impartially report its own atrocities was not the brightest idea," scoffs the Jerusalem Post columnist. Goldstone 's repudiation of the contention that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians in Gaza, "offers a classic lesson in how not to apologize. It turns out that grave though the damage to Israel 's global reputation by Goldstone 's false report was, the slander was Israel 's fault: 'Israel 's lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants…our recommendations…did not include any evidence provided by the Israeli government.' But why should Israel have cooperated with the UN Human Rights Council, which commissioned his report, when Goldstone admits the body has a 'history of bias against Israel (that) cannot be doubted'. '

Same Day
Judge to stand by report on Gaza

WASHINGTON: South African jurist Richard Goldstone said yesterday that he did not plan to seek nullification of his highly critical UN report on Israel's 2008-09 offensive in the Gaza Strip, dismissing claims to the contrary by Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai. The move came as US President Barack Obama pushed to resume the Middle East peace process after talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli aircraft attacked two targets in the Gaza Strip, wounding four people, including a pregnant woman.

The 2009 Goldstone report initially concluded that Israel and Hamas had committed potential war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during three weeks of fighting. The findings that Israeli forces had intentionally fired at Palestinian civilians triggered outrage in Israel and a personal campaign against Judge Goldstone, who is Jewish. Judge Goldstone said yesterday that Mr Yishai had called him on Monday to thank him for an opinion piece published last Friday in The Washington Post in which the judge wrote that new information had come to light that made him rethink his central conclusions.

Judge Goldstone said, however, that he never discussed the report with Mr Yishai. Israeli leaders have called for the report to be retracted since it was issued in 2009. "There was absolutely no discussion about the Goldstone report on the call," Judge Goldstone said from Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California. Mr Yishai's spokesman, Roi Lachmanovitch, said yesterday that the minister "didn't speak with the required clarity".

Mr Obama said reaching peace in the Middle East was more urgent than ever as pro-democracy uprisings rocked the Arab world. Mr Obama said he and Mr Peres had an "extensive discussion" about events in the turbulent Middle East during their lunch and shared the belief this was a moment of "challenge and opportunity". Mr Peres said that given the fast-moving events in the Middle East, it was important for direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians to resume as quickly as possible. The US-brokered talks were halted last year when the Palestinians declined to continue after an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion expired.

On the eve of the talks, the Jerusalem City Council approved the construction of 942 new homes in Gilo, a settlement neighbourhood in the city's mostly Arab eastern sector, officials said. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said Washington was "deeply concerned about the announcement of the approval for these units".

Palestinian medics and witnesses said the Israeli aircraft had targeted a group of militants and a plastics factory, both east of Gaza City, in yesterday's attacks. Gaza medical official Adham Abu Selmiya said the expectant mother was one of two women hurt in the attacks, but described the injuries of all four as "moderate". An Israeli military spokeswoman said the aircraft had hit "two terror tunnels", a phrase the army uses to refer to tunnels being prepared by Gaza militants for cross-border raids.


School bus attack may spark Gaza war
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, April 9, 2011

THE possibility of another Gaza war heightened yesterday after Hamas used an anti-tank missile to hit a school bus in Israel and fired a further 50 rockets. Last night, tensions between Israel and Hamas reached a new high after Hamas claimed responsibility for hitting the bus and injuring the driver and a 16-year-old boy. Israel immediately responded with air attacks on Gaza which Palestinian media said killed five people and injured dozens.

The missile was a Russian-made laser-guided Kornet. Most missiles from Gaza are often made locally from scrap metal and are usually inaccurate. Hamas said last night it had convinced most of the armed factions in Gaza to agree to a ceasefire but Israel made it clear there would be further retaliation. The attack on the school bus appeared to have been intentional, given that the missile was laser-guided, and unleashed public outrage in Israel. Journalist Alex Fishman reflected the mood of the backlash when he wrote in the largest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: "Anyone who fires at a yellow bus with the intention of murdering children is a war criminal of the worst kind and not a partner to anything. Therefore, Israel took off the gloves in its response yesterday."

Hamas said the attack was "a first response to the crimes of the occupation and the assassination of three senior members of the organisation". Last Saturday, an Israeli air attack on Gaza killed three Hamas leaders. Israel said that attack was a pre-emptive strike based on intelligence of a Hamas plan to target Israelis in the Sinai in the coming Passover holidays.

Yesterday also marked the first time Israel's new anti-missile system — known as the "Iron Dome" — intercepted a missile that had been fired at Ashkelon. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "We hold Hamas responsible for everything that comes out of Gaza and expect that Hamas understands what is permitted and what is forbidden."

Support within Israel for another war is gaining cross-party support. Labor's Amir Peretz said if it was necessary to "clear" the area on the Gaza side of the border then Israel should do so. The Eshkol Regional Council's Haim Yellin said: "As soon as they fire on a children's bus we say loudly: our children are not cannon fodder and they are not the hostages of any terrorist or terror organisation."

Later that Day
Eleven killed in deadly day of Gaza violence
The Australian Online

ISRAELI warplanes and tanks hammered Gaza yesterday and early today, killing 11 people in the deadliest day of violence in the strip since the end of the Gaza war two years ago. A truce declared by Palestinian armed groups unravelled even before it could take hold as they fired dozens of mortar rounds and rockets into southern Israel.

The latest deaths came after 24 hours of deadly tit-for-tat violence that began on Thursday when Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, critically wounding a teenager and lightly injuring the driver. "The attack on a school bus yesterday crossed the line … Whoever tries to hurt and murder children, his blood will be on his own head," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Prague yesterday before heading home.

Since the bus attack, Israel has launched more than 20 raids on targets across the enclave. By early today, it had killed 16 Gazans — including a 10-year-old boy, five Hamas militants and one policeman. At least 57 Palestinians were wounded, 12 of them seriously, medics said. The toll of 11 dead made this the deadliest day in Gaza since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched in December 2008 that claimed the lives of some 1,400 Palestinians — more than half of them civilians — and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers.

Following the strikes, the self-declared truce called by Hamas appeared meaningless, with both Hamas and Islamic Jihad claiming mortar and rocket attacks on Israel on Friday. "Our holy warriors are ready to react to the Zionist aggression and respond to any foolish acts committed by the occupation with everything they have," said a statement from Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. A statement on the group's website also said the "resistance" had fired several Grad rockets at Ashkelon, and that smoke was rising from the Israeli city. However, the Israeli defence ministry said its Iron Dome anti-missile system had intercepted three of the rockets, while a fourth struck open ground without causing damage.

Two of yesterday's deadliest strikes took place around the southern city of Khan Yunis, with one killing two Hamas militants just east of the city. A second hit a group of civilians slightly farther north, killing a man in his 50s and a woman and her 21-year-old daughter, medics said. Four others were wounded in that raid, including an 18-year-old girl who was in serious condition.

The Israeli military said it had targeted "two terrorist squads at the launch sites," and expressed regret for harming civilian bystanders. However, a military statement blamed Hamas for choosing "to operate from within its civilian population, using it as a human shield."

Another missile strike killed one Hamas militant near the northern town of Beit Lahiya, while a second militant died later of his wounds, Hamas said. Witnesses had reported seeing several men trying to fire a rocket from the area. As dusk fell, a shell slammed into a cemetery in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City, killing two people, one of them a 10-year-old boy, and wounding 10 others, some of them also children, medics said. The military had no immediate comment.

Two Palestinians were killed and one was seriously wounded early Saturday in an Israeli air raid on Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medics said. The three unidentified Palestinians were travelling in a car that was targeted by Israeli aircraft, the medics and witnesses said. Three other Israeli raids hit a smuggling tunnel near Rafah, the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip and a car east of Gaza City, without claiming any victims, the sources said. In addition to the anti-tank missile, militants on Thursday lobbed more than 50 mortar rounds at Israel, one of which hit a house. More than 30 more were fired yesterday, police and media reports said.

The bus attack was the first time an anti-tank missile had hit a civilian target in Israel, and was seen by the Jewish state as a worrying escalation. Hamas said the attack was in revenge for the killing of three of its operatives in an April 2 air strike. The army said the strike targeted militants planning to kidnap Israelis from Sinai during the upcoming Passover holiday.

The bus attack drew strong condemnation from Washington, Europe and the United Nations. As the dust settled after a day of attacks and counter strikes, both sides were mulling their options, aware that the escalating violence could rapidly deteriorate into all-out war. In Cairo, up to 2000 protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy to protest the strikes. The mostly youthful crowd waved Palestinian and Egyptian flags and chanted: "The people demand the liberation of Palestine."


Hamas appeals in Hebrew on Israeli radio for ceasefire
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, April 11, 2011

A SENIOR Hamas official last night made a rare appeal to the Israeli public to halt escalating fighting, telling a radio station in Hebrew that the group was ready to stop its rocket fire if Israel ends its attacks on the Gaza Strip. With fighting continuing into yesterday, Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad delivered the message to state-run Israel Radio: "We are interested in calm but want the Israeli military to stop its operations." Other Hamas officials were in touch with mediators after at least 18 people in Gaza were killed in Israeli airstrikes at the weekend, with dozens wounded.

As 120 rockets and shells were fired from Gaza into Israel in the most violent exchange since Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip two years ago, Israeli leaders sent mixed messages last night. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said if militants in Gaza ceased their attacks so would Israel. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a more combative tack. "If the attacks on Israeli citizens and soldiers continue, the response will be far harsher" than it had been, he told his cabinet.

The attacks were touched off by the demolition of an Israeli school bus by an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza. Most of the children had just been dropped off, but the one student still aboard was critically wounded. A Hamas official later said "it was not known that the bus carried schoolchildren". Israeli officials said the bus, painted bright yellow, was on its daily rounds, clearly visible from Gaza.

Israel's newly deployed anti-rocket system, Iron Dome, was reported to have downed eight of the Katyusha rockets fired at the cities of Ashkelon and Beersheba — a success that reportedly surprised even military officials. The Israeli-developed system is the first in the world to successfully interdict short-range rockets mid-flight. Officials warned, however, that the system was still in a running-in period and that it could not provide hermetic protection. Mounting rocket attacks by Hamas in recent weeks have led to calls by residents of Israeli towns in the area for another massive ground attack on Gaza. However, if the Iron Dome system can provide a sense of security, a ground operation is unlikely.

Jerusalem would prefer not having the Arab world, presently in turmoil, seize on an Israeli incursion into Gaza to achieve unity by rallying against Israel. In particular, Israel does not want to endanger its still tentative relations with the new military regime in Egypt. Hamas has in recent months begun to use powerful, long-range anti-tank missiles acquired from Iran against Israeli military vehicles on the fringe of the Gaza Strip. Two months ago, Israel deployed tanks equipped with a newly developed anti-missile system capable of detonating incoming missiles before they hit. One Israeli official said the ensuing frustration might have led Hamas to target the school bus.

In an air attack on a car on Saturday night, a leader of Hamas's military wing, Tayser Abu Snima, 29, was killed. Israel says he had been involved in the capture five years ago of Gilad Shalit, who is still being held in Gaza. Israeli officials report a conflict within Hamas between its political wing in the Gaza Strip and Damascus, which wants to halt the cycle of violence, and the military wing in Gaza, which does not.


Arab bid for no-fly zone on Gaza
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

THE Arab League has decided to seek a no-fly zone over the Gaza Strip, setting the scene for a confrontation with the US, which would be certain to oppose it. As hostilities have escalated between Israel and Hamas, the elected government of Gaza, the Arab League move was designed to prevent Israeli airstrikes on the area. Nineteen Palestinians, including Hamas militants and civilians, have been killed in Israeli air raids on Gaza in recent days. This came after scores of rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza, with both sides claiming the attacks were in response to attacks by the other side.

Arab League spokesman Amr Moussa said yesterday: "The Arab bloc in the United Nations has been directed to ask for the convention of the Security Council to stop the Israeli aggression on Gaza, and impose a no-fly zone." The Arab League will ask the Security Council to adopt the no-fly zone, a move the US would be certain to veto.

Israel's latest airstrikes on Gaza follow a missile attack by Hamas on a school bus. The laser-guided missile injured the driver and a 16-year-old student. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday: "There is no state that would be willing to absorb the intentional firing of an anti-tank missile on a school bus, to say nothing of criminal attacks on civilians." The Israeli media yesterday reported that a ceasefire was being brokered with Hamas. Leading Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea wrote that in recent days, Mr Netanyahu had been warned of a worsening rift with the US. "President (Barack) Obama is determined to bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders," Barnea wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "The revolutionary wave in the Arab world has only strengthened his support for establishing such a state and fuelled his anger over Israeli policy." He said the Middle East quartet, which includes the US, was about to declare the Palestinian Authority ready for economic independence.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund recently reported that they believe the Palestinian Authority was capable of running a state. More than 100 countries have recognised a Palestinian state, and in September the UN General Assembly will be asked to recognise it. Russia recently reaffirmed its recognition and, as peace talks have stalled, momentum has increased with Brazil, Argentina and Chile joining the countries that have recognised a Palestinian state. Israeli diplomats are trying to convince other countries to oppose the motion.


Israel to lobby Canberra on vote
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

AUSTRALIA has been named as a key country to be lobbied by Israel in a major new push to head off the UN from declaring a Palestinian state.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper yesterday reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was attempting to find a strategy to head off a "diplomatic tsunami" confronting Israel later this year. The paper reported that one option was to withdraw Israeli soldiers from the West Bank to try to appease international pressure for Palestinian autonomy. It said this option would most likely keep the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Another option was to use diplomatic pressure on Western countries to convince them not to recognise a Palestinian state at the UN. It named the US, European Union, Canada and Australia as those that would have pressure applied.

Mr Netanyahu told EU ambassadors he expected more than 100 countries to recognise a Palestinian state when the issue comes before the UN in September. "Perhaps the Palestinians will have a majority in the UN, but what matters is not only the quantity but also the quality," he said. The ambassadors asked the Prime Minister about a recent comment that he was planning to make a major address on the stalled peace process. "I have not decided what to say and when to say it," he said.

Israel is under growing pressure to accommodate a Palestinian state. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have reported recently that they believe the Palestinian Authority is ready to run the economy of a sovereign state. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is working to a two-year plan — which finishes this September — under which the various bureaucracies, institutions and security organisations of the Palestinian Authority should be ready to form a state.

Apart from the international community, Mr Netanyahu is under growing pressure from inside his own country to find a way through the impasse. This week, a group of 53 leading business, defence and intelligence figures presented a peace plan under which a Palestinian state would be created along 1967 lines with certain agreed land swaps. One of the leaders of the group, former Israeli intelligence chief Yaakov Perry, said Israelis were starting to be seen as "the peace refuseniks". "Our continued presence in the territories is a threat to Zionism," he said. "With every passing minute further damage is done to the state of Israel."

Key political figures in Israel, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni, have also said that, if Israel does not agree to a Palestinian state, the very nature of a Jewish state will be threatened due to the rapid growth of the Palestinian population.

The country's largest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported Mr Netanyahu had been warned of a worsening rift between Israel and the US and that President Barack Obama remained determined to bring about a Palestinian state on 1967 borders. Haaretz yesterday quoted a source close to Mr Netanyahu saying: "Many near Netanyahu, especially some of the advisers in his bureau, are not helping him to take the right decisions."

Israel officials privately concede that Israel has "lost" many of the South American countries that have recognised a Palestinian state. Brazil, Argentina and Chile all did so recently. One official said diplomatic efforts before September would be directed towards European countries. An official said a recognition by the UN general assembly would have enormous implications for Israel in terms of exports, increased international isolation and having Israeli soldiers in a "country" recognised by the UN.

Same Day
Israel should bite the bullet on Palestine
Zvi Barel

Zvi Barel is the regional correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz

INSTEAD of fearing a declaration of Palestinian statehood, Israel could join the international community and accept it, ceasing to view it as an enemy and existential threat. The waiting and expectation are nerve-racking. Each day, another page is ripped from the year's calendar, and the political seismographs are already going wild. In contrast to the tsunami in Japan, the forecast regarding our own affairs is known in advance. "A political tsunami is anticipated" that would peak in September, declared Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister.

He, however, is merely a forecaster and not a planner. Like any forecaster, Barak simply issued a report and has no control over events. Neither he nor anyone else decides when September will come, it being the month that follows August and precedes October. Nor is Barak locking himself in his office to draft political lines of defence. A diplomatic or strategic plan ' A peace initiative ' Not with Barak — in another five months, he is bound to yell "I told you so", and he will be right. After all, he talked about a political tsunami.

Barak is not the only member of the Israeli government who is issuing warnings. The garrulous Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wave threatening fists and warn that "Israel will take unilateral steps should the Palestinians issue a statehood declaration". That such statements impress anyone is to be doubted. While these politicians articulate drivel, analysts at the UN say that 130 — or perhaps 150 — countries will recognise the Palestinian state, and even the US position cannot be anticipated in advance.

When the US cast a veto on a proposed resolution condemning the settlements, it made clear that this would be its last veto on the topic, but anything is possible. Will the US be the last brick in a collapsing wall of resistance or will it join the supporters of the statehood declaration ' US President Barack Obama does not seem to have an alternative plan, and has learned Israeli promises do not come with timetables for implementation.

Instead of waiting for a miracle — that is, a new Israeli or US initiative — it is prudent to accept as a working assumption that a Palestinian state will win recognition this September, and that in the immediate aftermath Ramallah will fill itself with official diplomatic installations of most countries of the world. Yet that will constitute just the symbolic side of recognition — it will represent a form of historic reckoning with Israeli leaderships that derisively dismissed the UN and its resolutions.

What will Israel do ' Boycott countries that send ambassadors to Palestine ' Not allow them to enter Palestine via Ben Gurion airport ' As a member of the UN, the state of Palestine will have a new legal and international status, one that allows it to make claims against Israel in international criminal courts or establish an airport without Israeli authorisation. And the status will allow Palestine to demand international action against Israel's occupation — not just paper denunciations but genuine sanctions, and perhaps even the deployment of UN troops to protect the security of Palestine's citizens.

The Palestinians will not even need to launch a new violent or non-violent intifada. International anger with Israel has reached the point whereby the internationalisation of the dispute will solve all the Palestinians' problems.

But there is another possibility. In this scenario, Israel could join the international community, recognise the Palestinian state, cease to view it as an enemy and existential threat and even take part in a meeting of donor states that the Palestinians are sure to organise after their state wins recognition.

September does not have to be a threat; it does not have to be a gladiator ring in which only one contestant remains alive. The dread of September can turn into a constructive launching pad if Israel announces now that the negotiations it is asked to carry out, to leave the territories, will be with an internationally recognised state and not with the Palestinian Authority. This will alter the agenda, but not necessarily to Israel's detriment.

Negotiations would not beget a Palestinian state; the opposite would happen. The iron rule that has always derailed negotiation processes — this being the idea that Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state would come at the end of the process — would turn into the starting point of talks.

The new Palestinian state would also have to compromise. It would not be able to issue threats of leaving the process or breaking the rules of the game. Once a state is established, there is no turning back, and its borders can be established only after the state itself is established.

This will also be an opportunity to build a new alliance, including Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, and provide real content to the Arab proposal for regional peace. Those who fear international recognition being afforded to the Palestinian rebellion via the recognition of statehood should be at ease — the Palestinian cause already has international legitimacy. So September should just start already.


Israel's foreign minister to face money-laundering allegations
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, April 15, 2011

ISRAELI politics has a new wildcard with the foreshadowing of an indictment against one of the most powerful people in the country, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. After years of investigation, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein announced he was giving Mr Lieberman the option of attending a hearing to argue his defence against allegations of money-laundering, fraud, breach of trust and witness harassment. Should Mr Lieberman refuse, he will automatically be indicted and face trial.

The prosecution is alleging that between 2001 and 2008, Mr Lieberman funnelled millions of dollars from businessmen into secret accounts in the Virgin Islands and Cyprus. The development has enormous implications — Mr Lieberman leads the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu, the largest party in the ruling coalition after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. Mr Lieberman is also engaged in a battle with Mr Netanyahu to be the leader of the right-wing of Israeli politics. In recent months, relations between the two have deteriorated as Mr Lieberman has openly advocated policies different from Mr Netanyahu's.

So strained has the relationship become that Israel could be the only country in the world where the Foreign Minister feels strong enough to publicly overturn a decision of the Prime Minister. In February, Mr Netanyahu decided to appoint his national security adviser Uzi Arad as Israel's ambassador to Britain. Soon after, Mr Lieberman announced at a news conference he was overturning the decision. "I'll consider his (Mr Netanyahu's) point of view but all the decisions on appointments will be made solely by the Foreign Minister."

Last night, Mr Lieberman said he welcomed the opportunity to prove his innocence. "I always acted according to the law and I have no reason to worry," he said. "After 15 years, I will finally have a chance to prove that I always acted according to the law and as you know with me, my word is my bond." Mr Netanyahu said: "Lieberman is a central member of the government and I hope he will continue to contribute his public service."

Israel's commentators warned that Mr Lieberman should not be written off as a political force. "Lieberman is a sophisticated and cool-headed politician," wrote Sima Kadmon in Yedioth Ahronoth. "Unlike Netanyahu, who decides according to the last person who spoke to him, Lieberman listens to everyone and decides on his own. One possibility is that Lieberman will demand a considerable number of months to study the material, and then, before or immediately after the hearing, he will topple the government and lead the country to new elections. He will not be indicted during the election campaign, the polls predict that he will receive a large number of seats, and so he will reach the trial as head of a large party (he hopes as prime minister)."

Herb Keinon in The Jerusalem Post wrote: "The party may go down but not necessarily Lieberman's message — a secular, strongly nationalistic, in-your-face message that while anathema to many, resonates loudly with a large segment of the country's population."

Ultra-orthodox Jewish men prepare the matzo bread for Passover in Bnei Brak, Israel. Source: Getty Images
Netanyahu to pitch peace plan on US visit
Weekend Australian
Saturday, April 16, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday he would use a rare speech to a joint session of the US congress next month to spell out his plan for forging a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu, in televised remarks to his Likud party, said he aimed for a durable end to the decades-old conflict, not just "peace on paper", and he had "set some conditions to ensure that we have such an agreement". "The two most important of them are, first of all, Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The second principle is real security arrangements on the ground," he said.

Mr Netanyahu's comments came after Republican US house Speaker John Boehner, an ardent defender of Israel, announced he was inviting the Prime Minister to address a rare joint session of the US congress. "America and Israel are the closest of friends and allies, and we look forward to hearing the Prime Minister's views on how we can continue working together for peace, freedom and stability," Mr Boehner said.

The move came as President Barack Obama struggled with ways to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a wave of Arab uprisings crowded the agenda in the past few months. Mr Netanyahu, who has had a difficult personal relationship with Mr Obama, said he relished "the opportunity to present the main points of our diplomatic and security policy during my visit to the United States". "I very much appreciate the invitation, which symbolises the bond the American people, the American congress and the American administration have with the state of Israel and people of Israel," he said.

In a speech on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged Washington's "active" leadership in ending the conflict as she cautioned that the status quo between the Israelis and Palestinians was "unsustainable". After Ms Clinton's remarks, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Washington to clarify its position on Palestinian statehood. "We are calling for a clear American position on Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital and a firm position on Israeli settlement," Nabil Abu Rudeina said. The Palestinian leadership has set itself a September deadline to be ready for sovereignty, in the hope of pressuring Israel and the international community to recognise a Palestinian state.


Egypt-Iran ties to change balance
The Australian
The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

CAIRO: Iran and Egypt's new government signalled Monday they were moving quickly to thaw decades of frosty relations, worrying the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia that the overtures could upset the Middle East's balance of power. Tehran has appointed an ambassador to Egypt for the first time since the two sides froze diplomatic relations more than three decades ago, Iran's Press TV reported late Monday. Also Monday, officials at Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that new Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby was considering a visit to the Gaza Strip — an area controlled by Hamas, a militant Palestinian Islamist group backed by Tehran and until now shunned by Cairo. The announcements follow a rare meeting earlier this month between a high-level Iranian diplomat and Mr el-Araby, after which the Foreign Minister told reporters that Egypt had "opened a new page" with Iran.

American officials said they were concerned that Egypt's apparent determination to re-establish relations with Iran was part of a broader reordering of its foreign policy. They worry that such a turn could empower Iran and its regional clients Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which are labelled terrorist groups by the US. Egypt's outreach has also extended to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Early last month, Egypt's new intelligence chief, Murad Muwafi, chose Syria for his first foreign trip. It remains unclear what was discussed at the meeting, previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Concerns over Iran's regional influence flared anew Monday. The Gulf Co-operation Council, a group that includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar, asked the UN Security Council to stop what it calls "flagrant Iranian interference" in Bahrain and other GCC countries. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have accused Shia Iran of aiding Bahrain's predominantly Shia anti-government protesters. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the criticism was surprising "while the military forces of some members of the council have cracked down on defenceless men and women."

Iran's post-revolutionary Islamist government cut diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1980 when Egypt became the first Arab country to grant diplomatic recognition to Israel.


Suspects in Italian's murder killed in raid
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday, April 21, 2011

TWO suspects in the murder of an Italian pro-Palestinian activist in Gaza were killed yesterday and a third captured when Hamas security men stormed a house in a Gaza refugee camp. One of the suspects, a Jordanian named Abdel Rahman al-Braizat, shot himself in the head after throwing a grenade at his two accomplices, killing one and wounding the other, Hamas said. The three are believed responsible for the murder last week of Vittorio Arrigoni, whom they had seized and offered to exchange for the group's leader, Hisham al-Saidini, who has been in Hamas custody since January. Security officials said they killed Arrigoni long before the deadline expired.

The three had barricaded themselves in a building in the Nuseirat refugee camp and refused to surrender. Saidini was brought to the scene in an attempt to persuade the men to give themselves up. Instead, they fired at the security men, wounding several. Hamas had previously arrested several other suspects in Arrigoni's killing and closed off Gaza's border crossings to prevent the killers from escaping. Photographs and names of the three wanted men were published on the website of Hamas's Interior Ministry and Hamas offered a reward to anyone offering information leading to their arrest.

The organisation to which the men belonged, Tawheed wah-Jihad, is one of several radical Salafi groups inspired by al-Qa'ida operating in Gaza and drawing recruits, sometimes from Hamas. In a raid on a Salafi-run mosque two years ago by Hamas forces, 24 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. That, however, succeeded only in suppressing the radical groups for a while. The Salafists wish to impose an extreme form of Islam in Gaza and do not accept a ceasefire with Israel, which Hamas endorses.

By continuing to fire rockets into Israel, they have drawn Israeli strikes, aimed mostly at Hamas since Israel holds it responsible as the ruling regime in Gaza. Hamas officials said the operation should serve as a warning to anyone trying to destabilise Gaza.

The clash with the Salafists points up tensions within Hamas itself between those who regard it primarily as an Islamic grouping and those who see it in nationalist terms. While the latter wish to mend the break with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and to find at least a temporary accommodation with Israel, the others are focused on establishing a state under sharia law.


US increases pressure on Assad with move to freeze Syrian assets
The Australian
Jay Solomon, Nour Malas and Adam Entous, The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

WASHINGTON: The US is preparing sanctions against senior officials in Syria who are overseeing a violent crackdown on protests, as Washington and Europe suggest the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly fragile. The Obama administration is drafting an executive order empowering the President to freeze the assets of these officials and ban them from any business dealings in the US, according to officials briefed on the deliberations.

The latest move toward sanctions appears similar to the tactic the US used against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. International opinion has turned against the Syrian regime, which has killed about 200 protesters since unrest began in the country about a month ago. Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed at least three towns yesterday and snipers fired from rooftops. At least five people were killed in the southern city of Daraa, witnesses and activists said. Security forces reportedly opened fire in the suburbs of Damascus and in coastal Jableh.

Unilateral sanctions by Washington on Syrian officials would not have much direct impact on Mr. Assad's inner circle, as most regime members have few holdings in the US. But countries in Europe, where the Assads are believed to have more substantial assets, will be pressured to follow Washington's lead, the officials involved in the discussions said. The legal order is expected to be completed by the US Treasury Department in the coming weeks, these officials said. The move indicates a hardening of the Obama administration's policy toward Mr Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. If Barack Obama imposes new sanctions on Syria, it will mark a break from his initial efforts of rapprochement with Mr Assad.

Over the past two years, the US has eased some of the financial penalties imposed on Damascus by the George W. Bush administration. In January, Mr Obama sent an ambassador to Syria for the first time in nearly six years. The US in 2004 imposed trade sanctions on Syria, barring virtually all trade between Washington and Damascus. Mr Bush also imposed financial penalties on Syrian officials for their alleged support of militants in Iraq and involvement in corruption. A new executive order would specifically target Syrian officials for human-rights abuses.

A number of the US's Middle-East allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, remain wary of destabilizing the Assad regime. Israel fears an even more radical government coming to power in Damascus, while Arab leaders worry it could foment more revolutions in the region. US officials say Washington's cautious approach towards Damascus has been fuelled, in part, by these concerns. Syria's opposition is a mix of secular-nationalists, former members of Mr Assad's Baath political party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Analysts say it's difficult to predict what type of regime could replace Mr. Assad's.

Human-rights groups are pressing the White House to name Mr Assad and members of his family who oversee Syria's security apparatus. Mr Assad's younger brother, Maher al-Assad, heads an army special forces unit alleged to be playing a central role in the crackdown. Mr Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, is deputy chief of the Syrian army.


Mid-East on edge as Hamas, Fatah kiss and make up
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, April 29, 2011

BITTER Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah yesterday announced they were joining forces, adding a new element of unpredictability to an already turbulent Middle East. After several years in which they have imprisoned, tortured and killed each other, they announced "all differences" had been resolved. The deal was brokered in secret by Egypt's interim military government and intelligence officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by Fatah, needed to decide whether it wanted to make peace with Israel or Hamas. "Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so explicitly," he said. "The idea of reconciliation with Hamas demonstrates the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and makes one wonder whether Hamas will seize control of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) the way it seized control of the Gaza Strip."

In turn, the Palestinian Authority said Mr Netanyahu needed to decide between "a just peace with the united Palestinian people and settlements". Analysts said the deal made any peace agreement with Israel less likely while others said the opposite as it gave Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas the ability to speak on behalf of all Palestinians. But fundamental differences remain — Hamas publicly supports violent "resistance" against Israel while Mr Abbas publicly opposes violence. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the agreement involved combining security forces but added: "Our program does not include negotiations with Israel or recognising it. It will not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel."

A former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, predicted the US congress would "pretty quickly" cut aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas maintained its policy that Israel had no right to exist. "Once the deal's outlines are clearer, if it is in fact the case that Hamas has not changed any of its long-standing positions, particularly towards Israel and towards negotiating peace with Israel, then I think you will see a pretty quick cut off of aid to the Palestinian Authority by the congress," Mr Indyk told the BBC. "Now there's a technical issue here, because I think the aid has already been appropriated and transferred for this year, so it might not have an effect until the beginning of next calendar year or perhaps next November. Nevertheless, I think congress, particularly under the control of the Republicans, will move quickly to cut assistance if Hamas is in fact brought into the government."

Part of the deal is that the two sides hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza within a year.


Egypt clears way to ease Gaza blockade
Weekend Australian
Saturday, April 30, 2011

EGYPT will permanently open the Rafah border crossing to ease the blockade on Gaza, Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said yesterday, sparking Israeli concerns over the implications for regional security. Mr Arabi told al-Jazeera his country would take "important steps to help ease the blockade on Gaza in the few days to come", according to the Arabic-language satellite channel. He said Egypt would no longer accept that the Rafah border — Gaza's only crossing bypassing Israel — should remain blocked, describing his country's decision to seal it as "shameful".

In Jerusalem, a senior Israeli official said the Jewish state was "very concerned". He said Hamas rulers had bolstered the group's military presence in northern Sinai, which could be strengthened by opening the border. "We are very concerned about the situation in northern Sinai where Hamas has succeeded in building a dangerous military machine, despite Egyptian efforts to prevent that," he said. "What power could they amass if Egypt was no longer acting to prevent that build-up ?"

The fact that the new regime in Cairo was seeking to upgrade its ties with Gaza's Hamas rulers was an issue with strategic implications for Israel's national security, the official said. "We are troubled by the developments in Egypt, by the voices calling to annul the peace treaty, by the rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, and by the upgrading of relations between Egypt and Hamas. "These developments potentially have strategic implications for Israel's national security."

Egypt has largely kept Rafah closed, opening it exceptionally for humanitarian cases. A 2005 agreement brokered by the US put the Palestinian Authority and Israel in charge of Rafah, with observation from the European Union. Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2006, further tightening it in 2007 when the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of the territory from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since 2007, Gaza's 1.5 million people have relied on a web of tunnels beneath the Rafah border for most of their needs.


Syrians promise week of protests
The Australian
Monday, May 2, 2011

DAMASCUS: Protesters in Syria last night planned a "week of breaking the siege" after troops killed six civilians in the city of Daraa.

As protesters yesterday buried scores of people killed in a "day of rage", activists vowed to keep up the pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, promising a new week of pro-democracy rallies. And 138 more members of Mr Assad's ruling Baath party resigned in protest at the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, according to collective resignation lists seen by the news agency Agence France Presse. The authorities said nine members of the security forces were shot dead by "terrorist groups".

Activists said countrywide protests from last night would begin the "week of breaking the siege" — a reference to Daraa and the Damascus suburb of Douma, which the army has controlled since last Monday. Demonstrations were planned for southern Daraa last night and around Damascus today. Rallies are planned tomorrow in the northern towns of Banias and Jableh, on Wednesday in Homs, Talbisseh and in Tall Kalakh on the border with Lebanon, with nationwide night vigils on Thursday.

Six more civilians were killed over the weekend when the army began pounding Daraa at dawn and snipers fired on anyone who ventured out, activists said. Water and power were cut in Daraa as the situation worsened after up to 5000 troops supported by tanks stormed the town six days ago. "The town is a military zone and the situation is tragic, but our morale is high," Daraa activist Abdullah Abazid said. Among the dead was Osama Ahmed Assayasni, 27, son of the imam of Daraa's Omari Mosque, who was shot for refusing to reveal where his father was hiding. Mr Abazid said a pregnant woman and her two children died when a rocket hit their house. A military spokesman said one soldier was killed and seven wounded in Daraa.

The Syrian Revolution 2011, a driving force behind the protests that erupted on March 15, said blood "will not have been spilled in vain". "The martyrs are eternal, but the criminals will end up in the dustbins of history after being judged and punished by the people," the group said on Facebook. "Freedom is inexorably coming." The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday that the death toll from Friday's violence rose to 66, most of them killed in Daraa.

At least 582 people had been killed by security forces firing live rounds and teargas since protests erupted, said the Committee of the Martyrs of the 15 March Revolution, which has been keeping a tally of the dead. About 50 women protested outside parliament in Damascus calling for an end to the sieges in Daraa and Douma, a rights activist said. Security forces rounded up at least 11 and forced them on a bus to an unknown destination. Nearly 100 people gathered outside the offices of the pan-Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera, accusing it of "lies" and "exaggeration" in its coverage of the Syrian protests.

Washington and the European Union turned the heat up on Damascus by slapping it with new sanctions. The US blocked the assets of Mr Assad's brother, Maher, who commands Syria's feared Fourth Armoured Division, and of several other top officials and Syria's intelligence services. EU ambassadors met over the weekend to prepare to impose an embargo on the sale of weapons and equipment that might be used for internal repression and decided to put the brakes on trade deals with Syria. The UN Human Rights Council endorsed a US call for an investigative mission on the bloodshed, as it voted in favour of a resolution condemning the crackdown.


Fugitive's hunters came out of the night
The Australian
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Click the image for a higher resolution


PLO, Hamas sign deal for elections next year
The Australian
Wednesday, May 4, 2011

CAIRO: Palestinian factions gathered in Cairo last night signed a reconciliation deal that will pave the way for elections within a year and seeks to end the divide between Gaza and the West Bank. Representatives of 13 factions, including Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and its rival Hamas, as well as independent political figures, inked the deal.

Taken aback by the developments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that President Abbas "completely cancel" the reconciliation deal. "I call on Abu Mazen (Abbas) to completely cancel the agreement with Hamas and to choose the path to peace with Israel," Mr Netanyahu said.

Speaking on Egyptian television, a politburo member of the leftist Palestine People's Party, Walid al-Awad, said "We signed the deal despite several reservations. But we insisted on working for the higher national interest. We have discussed all the reservations. Everyone has agreed to take these points into consideration." The deal envisages the formation of an interim government of independents that will pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.

Israel had heavily criticised the agreement, refusing to deal with any government that included Hamas, which it and the US blacklist as a terrorist organisation. But Palestinian officials said the new government's role would be to manage affairs in the Palestinian territories, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation, of which Hamas is not a member, will remain in charge of peace talks with Israel.

Last night's signing will be followed by an official ceremony today in Cairo, which will be attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi and Arab League chief Amr Mussa. After the ceremony, work would immediately begin on the formation of the new government, Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmad said.

Among the first tasks to be tackled is the establishment of a higher security council with the job of examining ways to integrate Hamas and Fatah's rival security forces and create a "professional" security service. Fatah and Hamas have been bitterly divided since June 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, routing Fatah loyalists in bloody confrontations that effectively split the Palestinian territories in two.


Palestinian deal angers Israel
The Australian
Thursday, May 5, 2011

CAIRO: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal buried the hatchet at a Cairo reconciliation ceremony last night, ending a feud that has lasted almost four years. But the truce has angered Israel. In London, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the first leg of a tour aimed at convincing European leaders that the deal between Abbas's secular Fatah faction and the Islamist Hamas, which the Jewish state boycotts as a terrorist organisation, would be disastrous for Middle East peace.

Palestinians gathered in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to celebrate the long-awaited agreement to put an end to rival administrations in the West Bank and Gaza, and restore the unity shattered by deadly fighting in June 2007. Mr Abbas said the Palestinians had decided to "turn the black page of division forever", as he joined Dr Meshaal and the leaders of other Palestinian factions in finalising the long-awaited agreement, signed on Tuesday. "We are certain of success so long as we're united…Reconciliation clears the way not only to putting the Palestinian house in order but also to a just peace," he added.

The Palestinian President said Mr Netanyahu must now "choose between (building) settlements and peace", and accused Israel of opposing the Palestinian reconciliation accord as "a pretext to avoid peace negotiations". He was countering Mr Netanyahu's insistence that his Palestinian Authority needed to choose between unity with Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, and peace with the Jewish state.

Mr Abbas has refused to resume peace talks with Israel until it restores a moratorium on all settlement construction on occupied territory, which the Palestinians want for their promised state. In a message to Israel, Mr Abbas added: "We reject blackmail and it is no longer possible for us to accept the occupation of Palestinian land." He said Israel could not continue to act as "a state above the law" and called for an end to the construction of new settlements on Palestinian land.

The reconciliation agreement provides for the formation of an interim government of independents to lay the groundwork for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. Negotiations on the new government line-up were due to start straight after last night's ceremony.

The surprise deal, which was announced last week, comes after 18 months of fruitless talks. In Gaza City, about 300 people waving Palestinian flags gathered in a festive atmosphere to celebrate the deal, dancing and letting off firecrackers. Many participants waved the green flag of Hamas, and a few also raised the yellow flag of the Fatah movement, which has been banned in Gaza ever since the Islamists ousted Abbas loyalists from the territory four years ago. "This is the day that we've all been waiting for," an announcer shouted to the crowd. Support rallies were planned in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Mr Abbas has his headquarters.

But Israel responded angrily, threatening to withhold the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues until it could be sure no money would go to Hamas. Ahead of his London talks, Mr Netanyahu told Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy for the major diplomatic players, that Mr Abbas must "completely cancel" the reconciliation deal, which he said had dealt a "hard blow to the peace process".

Israel's Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, told public radio yesterday that Mr Abbas had "made a mistake in agreeing this deal when Hamas is in a position of weakness, which explains why it made moves towards reconciliation." The minister said Mr Abbas should have insisted on a "clear declaration from Hamas on recognising Israel and condemning terrorism before signing".


Israel split over Hamas accord
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Friday, May 6, 2011

DIFFERENCES have emerged at the top of the Israeli government over the best response to the new "unity government" between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Those insisting that Israel should have no dialogue with the new entity are led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who responded to the deal yesterday by saying: "What happened today in Cairo is a fatal blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism."

But a document from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, leaked to Haaretz newspaper, portrayed a different view: "The Palestinian move is not only a security threat but also a strategic opportunity to create genuine change in the Palestinian context. Such change may serve the long-term interests of Israel." Britain has welcomed the unity agreement, brokered by Egypt, but Foreign Minister William Hague said "lots of details have to be worked out and we will have to judge everyone by their actions and intentions". In Israel, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the country may withhold taxes it collects from Palestinian businesses in the West Bank, while Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said this is not Israel's money to withhold.

At a function to mark the unity deal yesterday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said peace should be given another chance. "From Madrid until now, we have given peace a chance for 20 years and I say we are ready to agree among us Palestinians and with Arab support to give it an additional chance," he said. "We do not want to declare war — we're only asserting our rights." While sounding a conciliatory note, he also reflected the rhetoric for which Hamas is renowned — Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel. "Our real fight is with the Israeli occupier not Palestinian factions and sons of the one nation," he said. "Our aim is to establish a free and completely sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, whose capital is Jerusalem, without any settlers and without giving up an inch of land and without giving up on right of return." This week, another Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, whom he described as an "Arab holy warrior".

Yesterday, Fatah and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said: "The state of Palestine must be born this year." Mr Abbas is trying to convince the majority of the UN General Assembly to support a Palestinian state in September. Israel concedes that already more than 100 countries are expected to support the motion and Mr Netanyahu has begun an overseas trip to lobby against it.

This week, France suggested it may support the motion. President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of recognition of a Palestinian state."


Netanyahu believes in Sarkozy's support
Weekend Australian
Saturday, May 7, 2011

PARIS: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Paris wanted the new Palestinian government to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. "What I heard from President Sarkozy is that they must recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people," Mr Netanyahu said outside the Elysee Palace in Paris, after a meeting he described as "good, far-ranging and friendly". "I heard from President Sarkozy … that anyone who wants to make peace with Israel must state in the clearest manner that he is committed to peace with Israel … to peace and not to terror. I heard similar things yesterday in Britain and I think that in Paris and in London there's an understanding that whoever wants to make peace must commit to peace and not to the complete opposite."

Mr Sarkozy's office responded to Mr Netanyahu's declaration by saying: "France's position is known. It supports the solution of two nation states living side-by-side in peace and security, within safe and recognised borders."

Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Fatah faction struck an accord with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Wednesday, ending a four-year feud and laying the foundations of a new, unified Palestinian government. Israel is concerned that the new Palestinian Authority includes militants it considers terrorists and those who are dedicated to denying Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. "If (Palestinian) national unity is unity for peace, then we would be the first to support it," Mr Netanyahu said. "But if it's unity to move away from peace, pursue the battle for Israel's eradication, then obviously we oppose it and so should everyone else."

A senior French presidential source said Paris was waiting for the make-up and direction of an emerging caretaker Palestinian government to become clear. Some European leaders, including Mr Sarkozy, have warned they might recognise Palestinian statehood without waiting for a comprehensive peace deal, and would seek a UN resolution to confirm it. Mr Netanyahu acknowledged that such a resolution, if put to the world body's General Assembly when it convenes in September, would most likely be passed. His strategy is to try to enlist the support of Western leaders to oppose the resolution, to abstain, or at least modify it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a point to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during talks in Berlin yesterday.

The Paris meeting came as Mr Abbas was in Berlin to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said Germany will not recognise a Palestinian state before a peace deal. But speaking after talks with Mr Abbas, Ms Merkel denied a rift with France. "Germany and France both want quick progress," Ms Merkel said. "We want a two-state solution. We want to recognise a Palestinian state. Let us ensure that negotiations begin. It is urgent."


Obama urges new era with Muslims
The Australian
Jay Solomon, Carol E. Lee, The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, May 12, 2011

WASHINGTON: Barack Obama is preparing a fresh outreach to the Muslim world, senior US officials say, one that will ask those in the Middle East and beyond to reject Islamic militancy in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death and embrace a new era of relations with the US. The US President is preparing to deliver that message in a wide-ranging speech as early as next week. He intends to argue that bin Laden's death, paired with popular uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, signal the end of al Qa'ida's claim to speak for Muslim aspirations. "It's an interesting coincidence of timing — that he is killed at the same time that you have a model emerging in the region of change that is completely the opposite of bin Laden's model," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

Since January, popular uprisings have overthrown dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. And they have shaken rulers in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Jordan, marking the greatest wave of political change since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bin Laden's death gives Mr Obama a chance to underscore the belief among many administration officials that the terror leader's relevance had already begun to diminish during the so-called Arab Spring. Mr Obama, who has made outreach to the Muslim world a cornerstone of his presidency, plans to describe the Islamic world as at a crossroads, said US officials, making the case that bin Laden represented a failed approach of the past while the populist movements in the Middle East and North Africa represent the future.

Mr Rhodes said timing of the speech remains in flux but Mr Obama could deliver it before leaving on a five-day trip to Europe on May 23. The White House is already telegraphing the message of the coming speech to the Islamic world by placing US diplomats on Arab television and radio.

The White House is still debating whether Mr Obama should lay out a concrete plan for revitalizing the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process. Many Arab governments have been pressing him to publicly outline his own parameters for the creation of an independent Palestinian state as a way to exert more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits Washington next week. These diplomats said the Mid-East's democratic surge is raising expectations among their own populations for an end to the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas forged a unity government with the militant group Hamas, which the US and European Union designate a terrorist group. Israeli officials have already cited Hamas's role in the Palestinian Authority as the reason why Mr Netanyahu was unlikely to unveil any major new overtures to the Palestinians during his Washington trip.

Same Day
Washington talks tough as Assad sends in tanks

BEIRUT: Tanks and troops rolled into southern villages near the heart of Syria's anti-government uprising yesterday, while US officials say Washington is edging closer to calling for an end to the Assad family's long rule. The move came as Kuwait was slated to replace Syria as a candidate for a seat on the UN's top human rights body following outrage over the deaths of an estimated 750 people in the uprising. The Syrian military has been sealing off areas and conducting house-to-house raids in search of people whose names are on wanted lists, with many people fleeing for fear of detention by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, activists said yesterday.

Obama administration officials said the first step in a new American approach towards Syria would be to declare that Mr Assad has forfeited his legitimacy to rule, a policy shift that would amount to a call for regime change. The tougher US line almost certainly would echo demands for "democratic transition" that the administration used in Egypt and is now espousing in Libya, the officials said.

Intense military operations have taken place in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh, which has been sealed off for days, said human rights activist Mustafa Osso. He said communications were cut and checkpoints were preventing anyone entering or leaving the area. "Maadamiyeh is isolated from the rest of the world," Mr Osso said. The army was conducting operations in the coastal city of Banias, the central city of Homs and the northern city of Deir el-Zor, he said. "Any area where there are demonstrations, the government is sending the army," he said. Another activist said troops backed by tanks had entered southern villages near Daraa, the city where the uprising began in March. Heavy gunfire was heard when the troops entered Inkhil, Dael, Jassem, Sanamein and Nawa after midnight, but it was unclear if there were casualties.

An intense behind-the-scenes campaign has been waged to prevent Syria from being elected to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council following the government's attempts to crush the uprising. One Western diplomat said Kuwaiti officials had told diplomats in Kuwait City that Kuwait would replace Syria as a candidate in the May 20 secret-ballot election in the UN General Assembly. Kuwait had been slated to be a candidate in 2013. The diplomats said it was unclear whether Syria would take Kuwait's spot in 2013.


Deadly nakba (catastrophe) clashes hit Israel at three frontiers
The Australian
Monday, May 16, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israeli troops last night clashed with Arab protesters along three hostile borders, leaving as many as 12 people dead and dozens wounded in an unprecedented wave of violence marking the anniversary of the displacement of Palestinians at establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. In the most serious incident, thousands of protesters approached Syria's border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Hundreds of people burst through the border, and Israeli soldiers opened fire to stop them. Dozens were wounded and six were reported killed.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gathered his top advisers for an emergency meeting, officials accused Syria of fomenting the violence in an attempt to divert attention from the deadly crackdown on weeks of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. "The Syrian regime is … attempting to divert international attention away from the brutal crackdown of their own citizens to incite against Israel," said Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich.

Deadly clashes also took place along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, as well as in the Gaza Strip, near Israel's southern border with Egypt. In Gaza more than 1000 Palestinians marched on the Erez border crossing. Troops opened fire, wounding at least 61 people, most of them minors. Demonstrations were also held in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The unrest came as the Palestinians marked the nakba (catastrophe) — the uprooting they suffered at the time of Israel's founding on May 15, 1948. The right of return of the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians uprooted by the creation of Israel, now numbering several million, is a key issue in the Mideast conflict.

On Facebook and other websites, activists had urged Palestinians and their supporters in neighbouring countries to march on the border with Israel as part of nakba activities. Security officials tried to block such moves for fear of violence. In Egypt, the army set up at least 15 checkpoints — guarded by tanks and armoured vehicles — on the road between the town of El-Arish and the Gaza border city of Rafah, turning back all who were not residents of the area.

Israeli troops clashed last night with a large crowd of Lebanese demonstrators who approached the border. The military said it opened fire when protesters tried to damage the border fence. Lebanese security officials reported four dead. It was the most serious violence along the volatile border since Israel fought Lebanese Hezbollah guerillas during a month-long war five years ago. The shooting erupted at the tense border village of Maroun el-Rass, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in 2006. Thousands of Palestinian refugees had been sent to the village. Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers, UN peacekeepers and riot police deployed heavily in the area, taking up positions along the electric border fence and patrolling the area in military vehicles.

In other violence, Palestinian medics said two people were killed and 40 wounded in a demonstration in the Gaza Strip near the heavily fortified border with Israel. Inside Israel, police were on high alert for disturbances among the country's large Arab minority. In a reflection of the jitters, a deadly traffic incident involving an Arab truck driver in Tel Aviv set off fears that an attack had been carried out. The truck ploughed through a crowded street, crashing into a bus, several cars and pedestrians, killing one and injuring 16 others. Police said the 22-year-old driver claimed it was an accident, but they were still investigating.


Bloody end to Palestinian day of Nakba (catastrophe)
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, May 17, 2011

IT was just after 3pm on Sunday, after several hours of tension between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators, that the Israelis struck. It was clear the troops had been preparing something, but no one knew what. We were on the Ramallah side of the Kalandia checkpoint, the main Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank.

This was the day of Nakba — Arabic for catastrophe — when Palestinians commemorate the thousands of Arabs who fled or were forced from their homes by Israeli forces on the formation of Israel in 1948. Anyone observing the scene would have thought — mistakenly — the Israeli soldiers were cornered. The rock-throwing protesters became emboldened and approached to within 30m. The Israelis stopped firing teargas, as they had been for several hours. It soon became clear this was an Israeli trap, which the Palestinians fell right into.

Troops who had been standing back joined the "cornered" soldiers at the front. Three Israeli military jeeps took position about 40m behind us. Then soldiers who had taken over the top two balconies of a Palestinian building signalled to their colleagues below. It was on. At 3.03pm, waves of Israeli troops and armed police charged. It was frightening.

Firing teargas and rubber bullets as they ran, dozens of soldiers and armed police charged up the main road towards Ramallah. The three army jeeps roared past us. The protesters, who had been becoming braver, turned and ran, but several were too slow. Israel has special teams of police — usually Druze who speak Arabic and blend in with the Palestinians — who can run down anyone. Within 30 seconds of the charge, the police had outrun and pinned down at least three of the protest leaders. The noise of screaming and teargas being fired up the street was overwhelming.

While it appeared chaotic, the Israelis clearly had a plan. As the balaclava-clad police began running captured demonstrators back to the police vans, soldiers gave them cover, running up the road firing teargas. The jeeps took position up the road, effectively controlling it. It was at times a bizarre confrontation — on one side of the divided road, traffic continued as normal, while on the other the battle raged. A UPS delivery van drove on through the teargas. It would have made a good advertisement. A Volvo truck unlucky enough to drive into a barrage of teargas canisters had its front window smashed, then veered towards the footpath before regaining control.

When a taxi-van made it through a teargas cloud, the passengers were coughing and spitting out the windows, eyes filled with tears. Sometimes, as the wind changed, those on the Israeli side headed into a building site to avoid the gas. This was the oddest mix of people, all with eyes welling — Israeli soldiers, World Council of Churches' volunteers, a man who described himself as "a peace worker", journalists and protesting Palestinian youths. For one extraordinary moment, the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinians stood metres from each other, eyes streaming and holding cloths over their mouths and noses. But the tears were caused by chemicals, not emotions, and the all-out conflict on the streets quickly resumed.

Same Day Editorial
Syria playing dangerous game

Israel protects its borders as Assad creates deadly diversion

ONLY the naive believe the deadly clashes along Israel's borders on so-called Nakba Day (in the Palestinian lexicon Catastrophe Day, the day Israel was founded) are a signal that the spirit of defiance and confrontation that has challenged regimes across the Arab world is now inspiring Palestinians to greater militancy.

There is some of that, to be sure. Palestinians desperate to advance their cause could hardly remain untouched by the images of demonstrators boldly rising up to achieve change in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. But the choreography of what happened on Sunday suggests a more complex dimension to the clashes that occurred as Israeli soldiers opened fire on thousands of Palestinians marching from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

Central to that choreography is Syria and the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which is seriously under threat from demonstrators, together with its close ally Iran and Hezbollah, the catspaw they jointly created to control South Lebanon. For 37 years, the truce between Israel and Syria, where about 500,000 Palestinians live, has kept the border between the two countries remarkably quiet. The Syrian army has placed the border off limits to outsiders. Similarly, nothing in South Lebanon — where there are another 500,000 Palestinian refugees — moves without the permission of Hezbollah. That these two borders should suddenly be the scene of the co-ordinated demonstrations and violence witnessed on Sunday suggests Mr Assad, as he brutally seeks to survive, is now playing his long-anticipated Israeli card. He is cynically telling countries pressuring him to reform his odious regime that if they persist in trying to force change, he can cause serious problems for Israel.

The extent of his manipulation is shown by the fact there were no demonstrations across the border with Jordan, where two million Palestinians live. Jordanian authorities intervened to stop marches towards the border.

Mr Assad is playing a dangerous game. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understandably has made it clear he will do whatever it takes to protect the country's borders.

The Syrian dictator should be left in no doubt that his diversionary tactics will not work. There is no alternative for him but to negotiate with those seeking change in Syria. The sooner he realises that and stops his nefarious activities, the better.

Difference of opinion: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in the WHite House.
Picture: AFP Source: The Australian
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in rare public clash with Barack Obama
The Australian Online
Saturday, May 21, 2011

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly told President Barack Obama today that Israel would never go back to "indefensible" 1967 borders to make peace with the Palestinians. In a dramatic televised Oval Office appearance, after 90 minutes of one-on-one talks, Mr Netanyahu delivered a lecture to the US president on the history of the Jewish people and their struggle for statehood.

The exchange, which left hopes for new peace talks as remote as ever, came a day after Mr Obama called on Israel to accept a return to territorial lines in place before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, with mutual land swaps with Palestinians to frame a secure peace. But Mr Netanyahu seized on the notion that he was being asked to return solely to Israel's 1967 footprint, which he said was nine miles wide in places and narrower than the "Beltway" highway surrounding Washington. "While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible," Mr Netanyahu said, looking Mr Obama squarely in the eye.

Israelis argue that returning to the former border configuration would leave Israeli population centres vulnerable and mean uprooting hundreds of thousands of settlers from homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu did not however mention the second part of Mr Obama's stipulation — namely that land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, would change those 1967 lines to ensure two secure, contiguous states.

The White House insisted that it had never said that Israel should return to a narrow definition of its 1967 territorial lines. Asked whether Mr Netanyahu was wilfully misinterpreting Mr Obama's remarks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said such an observation was "interesting". In his first reaction to Mr Obama's comments on the border issue, in a major speech on the Middle East last night, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said that Mr Obama should press Mr Netanyahu to accept his position. "Netanyahu's position is an official rejection of Mr Obama's initiative, of international legitimacy and of international law," he said.

Mr Obama admitted that he and Mr Netanyahu had "differences" on language and formulations over the best approach to reviving peace talks stalled since last year, but saw a moment of opportunity amid the "Arab spring". "I think that it is possible for us to shape a deal that allows Israel to secure itself, not to be vulnerable, but also allows it to resolve what has obviously been a wrenching issue for both peoples for decades now. ' Mr Obama also noted that he shared Israel's concerns over Syria and Iran and backed the Israeli position on the tie up between the Palestinian Fatah movement and the Islamist group Hamas.

Mr Netanyahu said Mr Abbas had to pick between Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction and peace, or making peace with Israel. The Israeli leader then launched into a history lesson of the struggles of the Jewish people, which Mr Obama watched from a nearby chair, his hand over his mouth. "A peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality," Mr Netanyahu said. "We don't have a lot of margin for error … because, Mr President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance."

After the talks, a senior Israeli official accused Mr Obama of raising "unreasonable expectations" that could set the peace process back "dozens of years" by seeking a Middle East deal based on the 1967 borders. "We had to put our foot down," he added. Analysts said Mr Obama became the first president to specifically state that the 1967 borders should be the basis for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, shut down over a settlements row last year. US officials had, however, privately been pushing the position for a while and the principle was close to the shape of a failed deal advanced by former president Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000.

Next week, Mr Obama will address the powerful Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) before heading off on a week-long trip to Europe. Mr Netanyahu will also speak to AIPAC and will make a joint address to Congress next week, encouraged by Republican leaders who support his position.


Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu make up
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BARACK Obama has defused tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by declaring that his proposal for a Palestinian state should take account of "new demographic realities on the ground". Mr Netanyahu yesterday said he would work with the US President to restart the Middle East peace talks after Mr Obama clarified his proposal for a Palestinian state based on the borders before the 1967 war. "I am partner to the President's desire to foster peace and I value his efforts in the past and the present to achieve this goal," he said. "I am determined to work with President Obama to find ways to renew the peace negotiations."

Mr Netanyahu was responding after Mr Obama gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby group in Washington. His conciliatory comments contrasted with his position last week in flatly rejecting any deal suggested by Mr Obama based on the 1967 borders, saying this would leave Israel "indefensible".

Mr Obama stuck to his proposal in his AIPAC speech yesterday, saying his remarks advocating the 1967 borders as the basis for peace between Israel and the Palestinians had been "misrepresented" and any controversy was "not based on substance". The President said his reference to the 1967 lines before Israel captured land from Jordan, Syria and Egypt in the Six-Day War had made clear that any agreement would include "mutually agreed swaps" of territory. There was "nothing particularly original" in his proposal, he said, since this basic framework had long been the basis for talks among the parties, including previous US administrations.

"By definition, it means the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different to the one that existed on June 4, 1967," Mr Obama said. "It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. "It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the past 44 years, including the new demographics on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition and peace."

Mr Obama's comments took the heat out of the issue by making it clear the 1967 borders were a starting point and that negotiators would consider the Israeli settlements built on territory seized in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the war. He stressed his administration's "unwavering" support for Israel, and demanded that Hamas — which governs Gaza and recently made a unity pact with the West Bank's Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — should drop its refusal to recognise the Jewish state. "It is precisely because of our commitment to Israel's long-term security that we have worked to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians," he said.

Mr Obama said his position advocating peace based on the 1967 borders, made in a national address on the changes sweeping the Middle East, had long been acknowledged privately. He warned that the time for delay was over because the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River was growing rapidly and reshaping the demographic realities of Israel and the Palestinian territories. "This will make it harder and harder — without a peace deal — to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state," he said.

Peace talks broke down last year after Mr Netanyahu ended Israel's freeze on building Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Mr Abbas refused to return to the negotiations unless Israel stopped building the settlements. After the White House meeting last Friday, Mr Netanyahu sat uncomfortably with Mr Obama for photos and publicly lectured the President on how Israel's boundaries needed to take account of changes on the ground during the past 44 years. "Remember that before 1967 Israel was all of nine miles wide," Mr Netanyahu said on Friday. "It was half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace, these were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive. So we can't go back to those indefensible lines, and we're going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan."

But yesterday Mr Netanyahu made no reference to the 1967 borders, instead expressing his appreciation of Mr Obama's assurances to AIPAC. Mr Netanyahu will speak to AIPAC in Washington today and will address the US congress tomorrow.

Additional paragraph in The Australian Online: Mr Obama's stand last week provoked an angry reaction among his political opponents in the Republican Party, with White House contender Mitt Romney saying that Mr Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus". Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate and a possible contender for next year's race, criticised Mr Obama for not defending Israel and called him "a temporary leader". She said that based on history, the Old Testament and geography, Mr Obama should recognise Israel was surrounded by enemies. She urged the President to stand strong with Israel and say: "No, you shouldn't have to divide Jerusalem, you don't have to divide your capital city."

Mr Abbas reacted positively to Mr Obama's speech, signalling the Palestinians might be willing to drop the push for a vote of the UN General Assembly in September to have Palestine declared an independent state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets members of Congress following his address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
Source: AFP
Israeli PM sets bar too high for Abbas
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Thursday, May 26, 2011

A NEGOTIATED Middle East peace looks no closer after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded his US visit declaring he was prepared to make "painful compromises" while baulking at almost all the key demands of Palestinians seeking statehood. After publicly jousting with President Barack Obama over his proposal for peace, Mr Netanyahu scored the final word in an address to congress yesterday.

He said he had stood before his people and declared his willingness to accept a Palestinian state, and it was now time for Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas to tell his people: "I will accept a Jewish state." "Those six words will change history," Mr Netanyahu said. "With those six words, the Israeli people will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise. I will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise."

But the Israeli Prime Minister also set conditions unacceptable to Palestinians by insisting Israel would retain large areas of the West Bank with Jewish settlements, accept no division of Jerusalem and keep an Israeli presence along the Jordan River. "Jerusalem will never again be divided," he said. "Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel." Mr Netanyahu said Palestinian refugees forced to leave Israel would not be allowed back. And he said Israel would refuse to restart negotiations with Palestinians until Mr Abbas walked away from a unity agreement between his Fatah Party and Hamas, which controls Gaza and has refused to recognise Israel.

Mr Netanyahu received a rousing welcome in the joint sitting of the US congress from Republicans and Democrats at the end of his Washington visit, which started last week with tensions over Mr Obama's proposal during a speech on change in the Middle East that a lasting peace should be based on pre-war 1967 borders with "agreed land swaps". The Israeli Prime Minister immediately rejected the idea as unacceptable and lectured Mr Obama on how it would make his country "indefensible". Despite toning down his objections after Mr Obama stressed that "1967 borders" was a flexible concept involving land swaps, Mr Netanyahu stuck to a firm position on boundaries yesterday while Mr Obama was in Europe. "We'll be generous about the size of the future Palestinian state, but … Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967."

A spokesman for Mr Abbas yesterday said Mr Netanyahu's flat refusal to accept any Palestinian claims over parts of Jerusalem, no return of refugees and the retention of an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River could not bring a deal. Israel has also declined to give any guarantees on a partial freeze of further Jewish settlements on the West Bank territory in areas claimed by Palestinians. The impasse makes it almost impossible for peace talks to resume in the short term, and more likely that the Palestinian Authority will push for a vote by the UN General Assembly in September to declare Palestine an independent state. The vote, if it went ahead, would be most uncomfortable for Israel. Mr Obama has pledged he would not give his support in the UN, and that the US would use its veto power in the Security Council to block statehood without any Israeli agreement.

Mr Netanyahu received up to 25 standing ovations in congress yesterday with support on both sides of politics strong. But a poll in the Maariv newspaper found that the majority of Israelis believe Mr Netanyahu should have supported Mr Obama's outline. Ten per cent said he should have embraced the plan "with no reservations", another 46.8 per cent said he should have expressed support "but with reservations".


Egypt to Open Its Gaza Border
The Australian
Matt Bradley in Cairo and Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv, Wall Street Journal
Friday, May 27, 2011

EGYPT'S caretaker government says it will permanently open its border with the Gaza Strip tomorrow, the latest signal that post-revolutionary Egypt is breaking with the past regime's more co-operative policies toward Israel. Israel relied on the co-operation of Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak to back up its blockade of Gaza, which began in 2007 after Hamas militants took control of the Palestinian enclave from the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Mubarak's policy was extremely unpopular in Egypt. To the consternation of Israel, the military-led government that took over when protests ousted Mr. Mubarak three months ago has taken more populist positions.

Egypt upset Israel last month when it announced it had brokered a unity pact that brought together Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which is led by the more secular Fatah party. A day later, Cairo said it would open the Rafah border crossing, but the move was delayed in what many saw as an incentive for rival Palestinian factions to implement the reconciliation accord.

Egypt's decision to open the border highlighted the growing isolation of Israel, amid new friction between Israel and the US. Those tensions broke out last week when US President Barack Obama publicly pressed Israel to make concessions on its borders to facilitate a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly rejected that overture.

On Wednesday, Egyptian officials spoke of the plight of the Palestinian people, and the need for Israel to do more to end the conflict. "The Egyptian side is doing what they see fit for the sufferings of the people in Gaza. And the occupying power, they too have an obligation toward the people in the territory," said Menha Bakhoum, a spokeswoman for Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "This is the only thing we can tell the Israelis: They too have obligation towards (the Palestinians)." Hamas welcomed the move.

Israeli officials said the border opening could erode Israeli security by allowing militants and weapons into the territory. "Israel is concerned with the potential opening of the crossing without proper control monitoring what's going in and out. Even today the situation is not good enough," said an Israeli official. Analysts said Mr Netanyahu's hard-line stance had intensified popular pro-Palestinian pressure on Egypt's caretaker military government, which will hold power until elections in September and the presidential vote that follows.

Members of Egypt's supreme military council, "like all politicians in Egypt, need to demonstrate a lot of daylight between themselves and the policies of the Mubarak era," said Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the revolutionary fervor that felled the Mubarak regime in February has since turned against Israel. Several demonstrations have been held in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

In the years after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and before Hamas's takeover in 2007, Israeli security officials were able to veto passage of Gazans at the border under a US-brokered agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

The opening would allow the general public in Gaza to pass without Israeli monitoring.

Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Eli Shaked said Egypt was opening the border to reward Hamas for saying it would reconcile with Fatah. "This is a kind of reward for Hamas behaving according to Egyptian expectations," he said. "This is also a kind of leverage over Hamas — an attempt to tell them that they have a lot to lose if they misbehave."


Cheers for Bibi amid fears of fresh conflict
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, May 28, 2011

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from Washington this week to soaring approval ratings, but warnings from parts of the media about renewed conflict. After months of falling ratings, a poll found 47 per cent of Israelis believed the US trip was a success.

Columnist Isi Leibler reflected this mood, saying Netanyahu's speech to the US congress was "a tour de force" that "made most Israelis feel extremely proud". Leibler wrote in The Jerusalem Post: "It was also bizarre for Obama to refer constantly to democracy in a region where radical Islamic forces utterly opposed to the US and the West are slaughtering dissidents and religious minorities. Yet Israel, the only genuine democracy in the region, is treated as an obstacle to progress simply because we are not willing to lie down and accept a potentially existential threat."

On the same page, Larry Derfner said Netanyahu's "salute to Judea and Samaria" — the West Bank — had "just screwed American policy in the Middle East, turned Israel into an albatross around the neck of the President of the United States, made western Europe ashamed to be associated with us, waved a red flag at the Palestinians and the entire Muslim world". Referring to the looming battle in the UN in September, Derfner asked how Western countries were supposed to vote against a Palestinian state when the option was Netanyahu's "promise of eternal status quo which they all detest".

The battle now moves to the UN. More than 100 of the 192 countries in the General Assembly are set to support a Palestinian state. While such a vote would not be binding, it would, in the words of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, be a "diplomatic tsunami". He said without progress in the peace process Israel was being pushed into "a corner from which the old South Africa's deterioration began".

Some say Netanyahu saved Israel this week. Others argue by setting conditions he knew Palestinians could not meet he kept Israel on a road to ruin. Some in the Israeli media are predicting a third intifada or uprising — that if Israel does not implement any UN vote the Palestinians will begin a new round of violence. In September, we will find out.

Same Day
Fears at Saudi bid to curb Iran
By Matthew Rosenberg, Jay Solomon and Margaret Coker, Wall Street Journal

SAUDI Arabia is rallying Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran, in a move some US officials worry could draw other troubled nations into the sectarian tensions gripping the Arab world. Saudi officials have approached Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central Asian states to lend diplomatic support — and potentially military aid — to help stifle a majority Shi'ite revolt in Sunni-led Bahrain, a conflict that has become a symbol of Arab defiance against Iran. Saudi Arabia's efforts, though against a common enemy, signal increasing friction with the Obama administration. Its invitation to Pakistan in particular could complicate US security goals in South Asia. The push also complicates US efforts to guide uprisings in the Middle East toward a peaceful and democratic conclusion.

The chief of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, asked Pakistan's powerful generals in March to lend support for the operation in Bahrain, according to Pakistani, US and Saudi officials. A Saudi official said any potential Pakistani troops could be integrated into the 4,000-man force of mostly Saudi soldiers that deployed to Bahrain in March to defend the ruling Khalifa family against the popular domestic uprising. But Saudi officials said the current force was adequate, and no formal request for troops had been made.

The military intervention was invited by Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, which accused Iran of driving the protest movement. Tehran denied the charge, while volubly defending the rights of the protesters and demanding a withdrawal of the foreign troops. Security forces from other Gulf Co-operation Council members joined Saudi troops in stifling the revolt, in what Saudi Arabia said was a message to Iran not to meddle in other nations' affairs.

The US opposed the violent crackdown. US officials have objected to the use of force by Arab regimes against protesters, and say they fear violence could drive Bahrain's Shia protesters into the arms of Iran, a Shia theocracy that has long vied with the Saudis for influence in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East.

Bahraini officials said Thursday they wanted diplomatic support but did not need military help at this stage. A senior Pakistani military officer said Pakistan has no immediate plans to send soldiers for "operational purposes." He said a Pakistani battalion had been in Bahrain since before the unrest began to help train Bahraini forces, but had not taken part in the crackdown. Military ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia go back decades. Pakistan receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year in Saudi aid, much of it in the form of subsidized oil.

The Saudi overture in Pakistan is a sign of how diplomatic friction in two regions — the Middle East on one hand and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the other — could make it harder for the US to pursue its goals of ending the conflict in Afghanistan, stabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, limiting Iran's power and keeping a lid on violent turmoil in the Middle East. Pakistani and US relations were already souring before the US raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

But Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, relies heavily on the US. Saudi Arabia was opposed to the toppling of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who was a bulwark against Iran, and has been sceptical of the Obama administration's efforts to engage Iran diplomatically.


Israel slams border opening, warns of terror
The Australian
Wall Street Journal, AFP
Monday, May 30, 2011

RAFAH: Israeli ministers on Sunday condemned Egypt's decision to reopen the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, warning that terror groups would move weapons and people freely. Israel has warned that Saturday's reopening of the crossing, which Egypt closed to almost all traffic in 2007, would boost Hamas, the Islamist group elected to run the Gaza Strip, which is seen as a terror group by the West. "The free movement of people and cargo is simply going to be used in a more intensive manner to bring in ammunition and military equipment, and moreover the free movement of terrorists," said Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau.

Cairo announced last month it was to reopen the border after Hamas signed a deal with rival Palestinian movement Fatah, ending a four-year split that led to Egypt's closure of the Rafah crossing.

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Egypt's decision to reopen the crossing despite Israel's objections showed the Jewish state could not rely on others to protect its borders. "This is very strong proof of why it is so important for Israel to guard our borders by ourselves to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and weapons," he said.

An Egyptian security official at the border said 300 people had crossed into Egypt within three hours of the opening. Gomaa Ouda, 58, a Palestinian history teacher, was leaving Gaza to visit his sister in Egypt and seek treatment for an eye condition. "Before, the Egyptian policies used to take our breath away. But it's better now," said Mr Ouda, who was last able to leave Gaza in the 1980s. "I feel like someone who was in jail and I was set free."

But the border traffic was still a relative trickle, indicating the Palestinians' distrust of the Egyptian government and fear of an Israeli attack. Other Palestinians said the new border policy amounted to little more than a cosmetic change meant to appease the Egyptian public, outraged at the co-operation with Israel. Intimidating bureaucratic procedures and slow security checks remained, some said, and the new Egyptian policy made no effort to allow more commercial goods and humanitarian supplies into the blockaded area.

The policies of Egypt's ousted president Hosni Mubarak were deeply unpopular in Egypt, where the majority of the population sympathizes with the humanitarian plight of their Palestinian Arab neighbors. Since Mr. Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising in February, the military council that assumed power has distanced itself from Egypt's past policies of co-operation with Israel.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said the Egyptians were wary of opening Gaza during the Hamas-Fatah split for fear of creating more economic dependency, which could open a rift with the West Bank. They were concerned that such a link would enable Israel to cut economic ties with Gaza, he said. "They were cautious that Gaza would be thrown into the hands of the Egyptians. That's why they didn't open the Rafah crossing, because they don't want to become responsible to the Gaza Strip," he said. "They have a firm attitude: that Gaza is under Israeli occupation and that Israel is responsible for the Gaza Strip. After the reconciliation agreement they are not as worried."


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