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A file picture of Ahmed Jabari. Source: AFP
Israel kills Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari in Gaza strike
The Australian Online
Thursday, November 15, 2012

ISRAEL carried out a blistering offensive of more than 20 airstrikes in the Gaza Strip today, assassinating Hamas' military commander and targeting the armed group's training facilities and rocket launchers in Israel's most intense attack on the territory in nearly four years. Israel said the airstrikes, launched in response to days of rocket fire out of Hamas-ruled Gaza, were the beginning of a broader operation against the Islamic militants codenamed "Pillar of Defence." Israeli defence officials said a ground operation was a strong possibility in the coming days though they stressed no decisions had been made and much would depend on Hamas' reaction. There were no immediate signs of extraordinary troop deployments along the border.

The UN Security Council is meeting urgently in private about the attacks. The closed session came in reponse to a letter from Egyptian Ambassador Muutaz Khalil. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had talked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express concern about "an alarming escalation of indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and the targeted killing by Israel of a Hamas military operative in Gaza."

US President Barack Obama spoke to Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi today, seeking to de-escalate the Gaza conflict. Obama reiterated with both leaders that Israel had the right to self-defence following a volley of rocket attacks on its soil by Gaza-based militants and also called on Netanyahu to try to avoid civilian casualties in reprisal strikes.

Today's attack came at a time when Israel seemed to be under fire from all directions. Relations have been deteriorating with Egypt's new Islamist government, Egypt's lawless Sinai desert has become a staging ground for militant attacks on Israel, and the Syrian civil war has begun to spill over Israel's northern border. This week, Israel fired back at Syria — for the first time in nearly 40 years — after stray mortar fire landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

With at least 10 Palestinians dead, including two young children, today's offensive was certain to set off a new round of heavy fighting with Gaza militants, who have built up a formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles. It also threatened to upset Israel's relations with neighboring Egypt and shake up the campaign for Israeli elections in January. In a preliminary response, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel in protest.

In a nationwide address, Netanyahu said Israel could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns. Days of rocket fire have heavily disrupted life for some 1 million people in the region, cancelling school and forcing residents to remain indoors. "If there is a need, the military is prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do everything to protect our citizens," Netanyahu declared.

The Israeli military said it was ready, if necessary, to send ground troops into Gaza. The defence officials who said a ground operation was likely in the coming days spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military plans. "We are at the beginning of the event, and not the end," defence Minister Ehud Barak said, in a joint appearance with the prime minister. "In the long run I believe the operation will help strengthen the power of deterrence and to return quiet to the south." In a sign that the operation was expected to broaden, the military was cleared to call up reserve units.

Residents in both Israel and Gaza braced for prolonged violence. Gazans rushed to stock up on food and fuel. After nightfall, streets were empty as the sounds of Israeli warplanes and explosions of airstrikes could be heard in the distance. Israel declared a state of emergency in its south and cancelled school across the area for the day. Calling it a "special situation," Barak sought permission to call up special reserve units for the operations. Israeli police stepped up patrols around the country, fearing that Hamas could retaliate with bombing attacks far from the reaches of Gaza.

Hamas has in the past staged dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis and while its capabilities to do so today have been curtailed by Israeli and Palestinian crackdowns, it still has a network in the West Bank. More than 65 rockets landed in southern Israel late Wednesday. One projectile struck a shopping mall in the southern city of Beersheba, causing heavy damage but no casualties, police said. The Israeli military said 25 rockets were intercepted by the "Iron Dome" rocket-defence system. Israeli media said the rockets had been headed toward Beersheba. Israeli aircraft continued to pound Gaza into the night with some 50 airstrikes, with no reports of casualties.

The deadly attack on Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari marked the resumption of Israel's policy of "targeted killings," or assassinations of senior Hamas men. Israel has refrained from such attacks, which have drawn international condemnations, since a fierce three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009. The earlier Gaza offensive killed more than 1400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians. Israel has blamed Hamas for the heavy civilian casualties, accusing the group of using schools and residential neighborhoods as cover. Nonetheless, Israel was harshly criticized internationally for the heavy civilian death toll.

Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since that war. He had long topped Israel's most-wanted list, blamed for masterminding a string of deadly attacks that including a bold, cross-border kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006. He also was believed to be a key player in Hamas' takeover of Gaza in 2007 from a rival Palestinian faction, the Western-backed Fatah movement. "I would call him the No. 1 terrorist in the Gaza Strip, whose hands are stained with blood," said Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel's chief military spokesman.

Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal truce for the past four years. But in recent weeks, the calm has unravelled in a bout of rocket attacks out of Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel's perspective, Hamas escalated tit-for-tat fighting in recent days with a pair of attacks: an explosion in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a missile attack on an Israeli military jeep that seriously wounded four soldiers. Israeli defence officials warned this week that they were considering resuming the assassination policy.

Even so, the Jabari killing, carried out in broad daylight, was shocking. Hamas officials had brushed off the Israeli threats, illustrated by Jabari's decision to drive in public. Hamas leaders typically go into hiding at times of rising tensions. Over the past two days, the fighting had shown signs of petering out as Egyptian mediators tried to broker a truce. The Israeli military released a black-and-white video of the airstrike, showing a sedan moving slowly along a road before going up in flames in an explosion so powerful that a large chunk of the vehicle flew high into the air. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of the strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell. Plumes of black smoke wafted into Gaza City's skies following other airstrikes. Ambulance sirens blared as people ran in panic in the streets and militants fired angrily into the air.

The Israeli military also released footage of its strikes against weapons depots and rocket-launching grounds. Barak said these airstrikes hit "terror infrastructure" and launchers used to fire Iranian-made Fajr rockets. The rockets, capable of reaching Tel Aviv, are among Hamas' most powerful weapons. The military said it hit dozens of medium-range rocket launch sites, many of which are located in residential buildings, military officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation. The military also said the navy was striking Hamas targets located by the shore. Hamas denied that any of its weapons stores were hit.

Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza. It evacuated all its security buildings and deployed its troops away from their locations. Outside the hospital where Jabari's body was taken, thousands of Gazans chanted "Retaliation!" and "We want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight!"

"I was sitting on my bed with my grandson when suddenly the wall collapsed on both of our heads," said Mahmoud Bana, a 62-year-old man who was slightly wounded along with his 11-year-old grandson. "We don't know what happened but we know it is going to be a few hard days ahead." In a statement, Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, eulogised Jabari and vowed revenge. "We mourn our late leader who walked the path of jihad while he knew the end, either victory or martyrdom," Haniyeh said. "There is no fear among our people and our resistance, and we will face this vicious attack."

The airstrike bore many similarities to the start of Israel's previous offensive in December 2008. That operation also began with an air raid on Hamas buildings, and also took place in between American presidential elections and Israeli parliamentary elections. Hamas accused Netanyahu of launching Wednesday's operation to win votes in the Jan. 22 parliamentary election. But major Israeli parties, including the dovish opposition, all lined up behind Netanyahu.

Still, the region has changed greatly over the past four years. Most critically for Israel, Egypt is now governed by Hamas' ideological counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel and Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979. Relations, never warm, have deteriorated since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year. The assassination threatened to further damage those fraying ties.

On its official Facebook page, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, called Jabari's assassination a "crime that requires a quick Arab and international response to stem these massacres against the besieged Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip." It accused Israel of trying to "drag the region toward instability."

During a wave of suicide bombings against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership. During that period, Israeli aircraft assassinated the previous commander of Hamas' military wing, Salah Shehadeh, the movement's founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and dozens of other Hamas military commanders. The practice set off a wave of criticism from rights groups and foreign governments, particularly the strike that killed Shehadeh — a one-ton bomb that killed 14 other people, most of them children. Pro-Palestinian groups have attempted, unsuccessfully, to arrest Israeli officials involved in the Shehadeh killing on war crimes charges. While charges have never been filed, fears of arrest have forced a number of Israeli officials to cancel travel to Europe over the years.

The Iron Dome defence system fires in the port town of Ashdod to intercept incoming missiles from Gaza.
Source: AP
Israelis take cover in a large concrete pipe used as a bomb shelter in Kiryat Malachi, Israel,
after a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip. Source: Getty Images
Hamas rockets reach Tel Aviv
The Australian Online
Friday, November 16, 2012

GAZA militants have targeted Israel's second most populous city, Tel Aviv, with long-range rockets, prompting threats of military escalation from Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned he was ready to "significantly expand" the campaign against the territory. "In the past 24 hours, Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate rocket and missile attacks on its civilians. I hope that Hamas and the other terror organisations in Gaza got the message," he said, as Gaza medics reported 15 Palestinians killed in two days of air raids. If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people."

Soon after he spoke, a rocket hit the sea just south of Tel Aviv, the farthest that a rocket from Gaza had ever landed inside Israel. The attack sparked panic in Tel Aviv, with television images showing people lying on the ground outside the defence ministry, their hands over their heads as sirens wailed. In a televised news conference shortly after the sirens sounded, the military's official spokesman said no rocket had "hit the ground". Israeli news networks said it was the first time rockets had been fired at the city since the 1991 Gulf War, when it was hit by Iraqi Scud missiles.

The death toll in more than 24 hours of Israeli air strikes on Gaza rose to 19 late Thursday, as Palestinian militants fired more than 380 rockets at Israel, killing three people. Among 11 Palestinians killed on Thursday were five militants, two children and a teacher at a United Nations-run school, medics and a UN official said. Two brothers were among the other three dead but it was not immediately clear if they were militants or civilians. More than 160 Gazans have also been injured in the relentless Israeli campaign of air strikes, which continued into Thursday evening with a series of raids near midnight on Beit Hanun in the north of the Strip and in northern Gaza City.

Few in Gaza City came out following the call for dawn prayers, and the only vehicles were ambulances and media cars. Gaza schools were ordered closed until the operation ended, and most of the territory's 1.6 million people were expected to bunker down close to home, venturing out only to buy food, fuel and other basic supplies. Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza, evacuating all its security buildings and deploying its troops away from their locations.

Israel declared a state of emergency in the south, where more than one million Israelis live within rocket range. School was cancelled in communities within a 40km radius of Gaza. People living in areas along the frontier were ordered to stay home from work. Israel said it destroyed dozens of the militants' most potent rockets — the Iranian-made Fajr, capable of striking Tel Aviv — as well as shorter-range rockets. The military estimated Hamas had 10,000 rockets and mortars before the operation began.

Israel's offensive came after weeks of rockets from Gaza — this was one of the worst weeks, with 124 rockets fired across three days. Seven Israelis — four soldiers and three civilians — were wounded in those attacks. The IDF says about 800 rockets have been fired this year from Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak has announced the call-up of 30,000 reservists, in an indication the conflict may become a ground campaign. "We are in the process of expanding the campaign," Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai told Channel 2 television as the army said militants had fired more than 380 rockets across the border. "The defence minister approved a few minutes ago, based on the army's request, the recruitment of another 30,000 soldiers. We will determine how many of them will be called in," he said. "This means that all options are on the table," he said.

The military said 274 rockets had hit the Jewish state in the 28 hours since an Israeli strike killed a top Hamas commander, and that another 112 had been intercepted in mid-flight by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. "I can assume that tonight will be very not quiet in the Gaza Strip," Brigadier General Mordechai said.

Mr Barak said the rocket fire on the central Gush Dan (Tel Aviv) region was "an escalation" which would cost Gaza's militant groups dearly. "The firing towards Gush Dan and the extent of the general (rocket) fire toward Israel is an escalation, and this escalation will have a price that the other side will have to pay," he said in a statement.


Same Day
World takes sides in tit-for-tat attacks

ISRAEL was condemned by much of the Arab world while securing Western backing for pressing its biggest air assault on Gaza for years amid a wave of Palestinian short-range rocket fire. Iran and Egypt — its new Islamist leaders under pressure to build closer ties with the Palestinians at the cost of a 30-year peace deal with the Jewish state — led the angry protests against strikes that left at least 15 dead.

"The Israelis must understand that we do not accept this aggression, which can only lead to instability in the region," Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi said in televised remarks. Iran — accused by Israel of being the Gaza militants' main supplier of rocket power — branded the Israeli strikes as "organised terrorism" conducted by "criminal… Zionist (Israeli) military forces". Tehran called on the United Nations and the European Union to halt the "barbaric" offensive against the Gaza Strip. "Immediate and serious action by international (organisations) is needed to end the military campaign against the people of Gaza," Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.

The call was made in separate letters to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, IRNA reported. And the increasingly influential Arabian Peninsula state of Qatar warned starkly that the "vicious attack (on Gaza) must not pass unpunished" and demanded urgent action at the United Nations.

An emergency UN meeting concluded Wednesday without a decision and clear signals of concern over the first escalation of Middle East violence since the 2011 Arab Spring altered the political map of the historically volatile region. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians to avoid escalating the violence as Moscow worried about the fighting spreading to other regions of the volatile Arab world. "The president of Russia called on the parties to exercise restraint and avoid the path of escalating violence, whose victims include civilians, and to do everything to return the situation to its normal course," the Kremlin said following a telephone conversation between Mr Putin and Mr Netanyahu. But Moscow also criticised the "disproportionate strikes on Gaza" while calling for cooler heads.

Moscow's reaction openly clashed with the understanding approaches of Israel's position adopted by both Britain and the United States. Washington meanwhile rose to the Jewish state's defence despite earlier signs of strains in relations between US President Barack Obama and the conservative Mr Netanyahu. Expressing regret for the victims on both sides of the conflict, White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was "no justification" for the violence on the part of Hamas, saying it "does nothing to help the Palestinians." US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement: "We support Israel's right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties". The United States is also calling on Egypt to use its sway with the Palestinians to try to end the violence from Gaza, Mr Toner said.

Julia Gillard said the Australian government was gravely concerned by the escalating conflict and urged both Hamas and Israel to exercise restraint. The Prime Minister condemned the Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel, saying they did not serve the interests of the Palestinian people or their push for statehood. "Australia supports Israel's right to defend itself against these indiscriminate attacks," Ms Gillard said. "Such attacks on Israel's civilian population are utterly unacceptable."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Hamas "bears principal responsibility" for the surge in Gaza violence and accused the Shiite group of creating an "intolerable situation" in the south of Israel where its rockets were falling. Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair called on Hamas to stop firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, saying that as long as it continued the Jewish state would act to defend itself. "If the rocket fire carries on out of Gaza, targeted at Israeli towns and villages, then the retaliation will increase," the former British prime minister told Sky News television in London.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said it was "time to end this dangerous escalation", adding that Paris was involved in "intense diplomatic activity to lower tensions". "France will do everything to avert an escalation," he told journalists at the French embassy in Berlin where he was visiting.

The tit-for-tat attacks and prospects of a possible ground invasion of Gaza prompted Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to cut short a tour of Europe aimed at winning support for his attempts to upgrade his territory's UN status next month. But much of the diplomatic attention this week has focused instead on the response to the tensions by Egypt — a powerbroker in the conflict for decades whose peace deal with Israel has come under growing pressure in recent months. Mr Morsi has crafted a new vision for his country since assuming office in June that involves a mix of backing for traditional Arab causes and an effort to remain on cooperative terms with the West. The new Egyptian leader said that he told Mr Obama by telephone that he was not able to condone attacks that were killing innocent Palestinian civilians in one of the most densely-populated regions on earth.

Israel has also confirmed that Egypt was withdrawing its ambassador to the Jewish state in protest over the air raids. "Shortly before dawn, I called President Obama and we discussed the need to put an end to this aggression and to ensure it does not happen again," said Mr Morsi. "I explained Egypt's role, Egypt's position, that we have relations with the United States and the world, but at the same time we totally reject this aggression," the Egyptian leader stressed. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil will visit the Gaza Strip on Friday, the Gaza's Hamas government said.

Also Same Day
Israel and Hamas battle on social media as well

THE hostilities between Israel and Hamas have found a new battleground: social media. The Israeli Defence Forces and Hamas militants have exchanged fiery tweets throughout the fighting in a separate war to influence public opinion.

Shortly after it launched its campaign this week by killing Hamas' top military commander, Ahmed Jabari, the Israeli military's media office announced a "widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip" on its Twitter account. It then posted a 10-second black-and-white video of the airstrike on its official YouTube page /watch?v=P6U2ZQ0EhN4. Google, which owns YouTube, removed the video for a time early yesterday, but reconsidered and restored it. A tweet from @IDFSpokesperson said: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead."

Hamas, under its @AlqassamBrigade English-language account, which is largely considered to be the official Twitter account for its military wing, fired back: "Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)."

The Israeli military's media office Twitter account, which gained more than 50,000 followers in just 24 hours, is just one of various online platforms used to relay real-time information to the public, sometimes even before it is conveyed to reporters. The IDF news desk's email signature reads like a catalogue for new media platforms, including links to its YouTube channel, Facebook page and Flickr photo albums. The military also just opened a Tumblr account in English and plans to launch one in Spanish.

Following the assassination, the military tweeted a graphically designed photograph of Jabari, with a red backdrop and capitalised block letters reading "ELIMINATED", drawing both celebration and fierce criticism from a range of users. Throughout the operation, the military and its supporters have tweeted with the hashtag "IsraelUnderFire," while many Palestinians have tweeted with a separate hashtag "GazaUnderAttack". The operation, launched after days of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, marks the most intense round of violence since Israel and Hamas waged a three-week war four years ago. Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel yesterday, killing three people and striking the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Israeli strikes have killed 15 Palestinians.

Military spokeswoman lieutenant colonel Avital Leibovitch said that in the four years since Israel and Hamas last duelled, an "additional war zone" developed on the internet. "I'm sort of addicted to Twitter, you can say. It's a great tool to release information without the touch of editors' hands," she said. "Militaries are usually closed operations, but we're doing the opposite." Colonel Leibovitch is also the head of a two-month-old "Interactive Media" branch of the IDF, staffed with about 30 soldiers trained in writing and graphic-design skills. As an indicator of the significance of the department to the military, Colonel Leibovitch said she'd be leaving her current spokeswoman's post in February to focus solely on running the interactive branch.

The Hamas media wing has dramatically improved its outreach from the days when their loyalists used to scrawl graffiti on walls in the Gaza Strip. Hamas' militant wing keeps a frequently updated Facebook page and a multi-language website. They tend to update reporters of rocket fire through an SMS distribution list. Nader Elkhuzundar, a prolific 25-year-old Twitter user from Gaza, said the recent social media barrage reached "a new level of psychological war". "Twitter gives us a voice, but there's also a lot of misinformation at the same time. It's a tool you need to be careful using because there's a lot of noise out there," he said.

Although there were tweets directed at the IDF's Twitter account claiming that the Israeli government and military websites were hacked and taken down yesterday, the Israeli military denied it. "The IDF blog was down for a very short period, less than hour in the afternoon, only due to heavy traffic," according to Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman. Israel's ministry of public diplomacy also started a "Special Operations Centre", a virtual situation room of sorts, working with Israeli bloggers and volunteers to "get Israeli's message out to the world virtually, to Arabs as well, through social media and other web platforms", said spokesman Gal Ilan. Tamir Sheafer, chair of the political communication program at Hebrew University, said the embrace of social media by both sides indicated recognition that "you don't win conflicts like this one on the ground; you win it through public opinion".

But the use of social media for public diplomacy is also a double-edged sword, says Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "On the one hand, Israel has gotten better in conveying their messages to the public, but on the flip side, we're seeing flippant remarks. Twitter accounts can be used carelessly and there's a danger of overplaying things, which they might be doing," he said. "They also might be falling into the trap of thinking they have their public relations covered, but really, it's their policy and not their tweets that matters at the end of the day."

YouTube had removed the Hamas assassination video after concluding the clip violated its terms of service. The site's reviewers later reconsidered that decision and restored the video yesterday. "With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call," YouTube said in a statement. Mr Buchman, the Israeli military spokesman, said there was no official comment, except that "we're glad they reconsidered that decision".

Google tries to ensure that the clips on YouTube obey disparate laws around the world and adhere to standards of decorum while also protecting the principles of free speech. It's a mind-boggling task, given more than 100,000 hours of video is sent to YouTube every day. YouTube routinely blocks video in specific countries if it violates local laws. It also removes video deemed to violate standards primarily designed to weed out videos that infringe copyrights, show pornography or contain "hate speech".

Given that YouTube isn't regulated by the government, Google is within its legal rights to make its own decisions about video. Nevertheless, some people believe Google should always fall on the side of free expression because YouTube has become such an important forum for opinion, commentary and news. A video showing an assassination arguably falls in a grey area of whether it is a news event or a gratuitous act of violence. This isn't the only assassination that can be watched on YouTube. Numerous clips on YouTube replay the fatal shooting of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963, including his gruesome head wound. Google doesn't share details about how its video reviews are conducted, but it employs an unknown number of reviewers who regularly scan the site for violations of local laws and the company's guidelines.

Google discussed its approach to internet content in a November 2007 blog post that came about a year after buying YouTube for $US1.76 billion. "We have a bias in favour of people's right to free expression in everything we do," wrote Rachel Whetstone, Google's director of global communications and public affairs, "We are driven by a belief that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. But we also recognise that freedom of expression can't be — and shouldn't be — without some limits. The difficulty is in deciding where those boundaries are drawn."

Usually, the decisions are dictated by the law in the more than 100 different countries where Google's services are offered. The laws in some countries prohibit material that would seem tame in other countries. For instance, Brazil prohibits video ridiculing political candidates in the three months leading up to an election, while Germany outlaws content featuring Nazi paraphernalia.

In the first half of this year alone, Google said it received more than 1700 court orders and other requests from government agencies around the world to remove more than 17,700 different pieces of content from its services. The company rejects many of these demands. For instance, Google says it complied with less than half of the US court orders and government orders take down almost 4200 pieces of content from January through June.

Gaza rockets hit Jerusalem for first time as Israel calls up reserves
The Australian Online
Saturday, November 17, 2012

GAZA militants fired rockets at both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, aiming for Israel's political and commercial hearts and prompting the call-up of thousands more reservists in readiness for a potential ground war. The Israeli military said it had sealed off all the main roads around the Gaza border, declaring the area a closed military zone, in the latest sign that Israel's patience with the rocket fire was at an end and it was poised to launch its first ground offensive on the territory since 2008-9. An AFP correspondent reported seeing tanks massed along the frontier, and a steady stream of reservists arriving throughout the day. Israeli ministers approved the call-up of as many as 75,000 reservists as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held late evening talks at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv with his inner circle, Channel Two television reported.

The military wing of the Islamist Hamas movement which rules Gaza said it fired the rocket at Jerusalem, the first from the territory ever to strike the outskirts of the Holy City. It marked a major escalation by the territory's Hamas rulers in the face of a deadly pounding since Wednesday by Israeli aircraft that has killed 29 Gazans and sparked outrage across the Arab and Islamic world. A rocket attack has also killed three Israelis.

Neither rocket on Friday caused casualties or damage, police said, but they sowed panic in both of the Jewish state's main population centres, setting off warning sirens and sending people scurrying to shelters. One hit a Jewish settlement bloc in the occupied West Bank just south of Jerusalem which is home to many commuters. "A rocket fired from Gaza hit an open area outside of Jerusalem, causing no injuries or damage," an army spokesman told AFP. Police said it hit in the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements that stretches south of Jerusalem past Bethlehem from just five kilometres (three miles) beyond the city limits. A second rocket crashed into the sea off Tel Aviv "some 200 metres (yards)" from the beachfront US embassy, sending beachgoers fleeing, an eyewitness told AFP. The two rockets were the farthest Gaza militants have ever fired into Israel, exceeding even the 60 kilometres (36 miles) achieved by a rocket that hit the sea off Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, on Thursday.

Even before the latest rocket fire, senior cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel was poised for a ground offensive. "We are preparing all the military options, including the possibility that forces will be ready to enter Gaza in the event that the firing doesn't stop," he said. As ground troops massed, there was no let-up in Israeli air attacks. The Israeli army destroyed a military drone production workshop in the Gaza Strip belonging to Hamas, a military spokesman said. "Our intelligence services discovered the Hamas drone programme, and all these devices have been destroyed," he told AFP. Images from a video shot by Israeli aircraft showed a drone test flight and later its parts being dismantled into a large warehouse in Gaza City, situated between several residential buildings.

A child was among 11 dead reported by the territory's emergency services on Friday, two of whom were brought in to Gaza City's Shifa hospital as Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil toured the wards on an unprecedented solidarity visit. Israel denied its aircraft had killed the pair, but Qandil leant forward and kissed the dead body of four-year-old Mohammed Yasser, voicing outrage at his loss. "This tragedy cannot be tolerated, and the whole world bears the responsibility to stop the aggression," he said.

The overthrow early last year of veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak, a staunch supporter of Egypt's three-decade-old peace treaty with Israel, has cast a chill over the already lukewarm relationship between the two neighbours. Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who like Hamas has his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, has moved to establish closer relations with the Gaza authorities.

Washington appealed to Egyptian leaders as well as to allies such as Turkey to use their sway with the Palestinians in a flurry of telephone diplomacy aimed at containing the crisis. President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke twice with her Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Amr and also with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "In all of the conversations that she has had … we all agree on the need to de-escalate this conflict," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

UN and Palestinian officials said UN chief Ban Ki-moon would travel to the region in days to push for a truce. "Ban went to the region during the last Israeli offensive against Gaza in 2009 and worked hard to end that conflict. He is looking to produce a truce and ceasefire this time as well," one senior UN diplomat said.

Israel targets Hamas HQ as Arab states urge a review of peace policy
The Australian Online
Sunday, November 18, 2012

ISRAELI air strikes on Gaza killed 14 Palestinians overnight and destroyed the Hamas government headquarters, prompting Arab leaders to call for a review of their entire policy on the Middle East peace process. Medics said 44 Gazans have been killed and more than 390 wounded since Israel launched its aerial campaign on Wednesday afternoon, with at least eight militants among the 14 people late yesterday and overnight.

As the toll rose, sirens sounded in Tel Aviv for a third day, sending people scuttling for cover a day after a rocket hit the sea near the city centre. Israeli officials said one rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system while a second hit somewhere in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The attack was claimed by Hamas's armed wing. Nine people in Israel were injured by militant rocket fire. Warplanes carried out 180 air strikes on Gaza overnight, Israeli television reported, with attacks levelling the headquarters of the Hamas government.

In Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israel would be held to account for the children killed. "Everyone must know that sooner or later there will be a holding to account for the massacre of these innocent children killed inhumanely in Gaza," he said in a speech in Cairo. So far, six children have been killed, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said.

Both Turkey and Egypt have publicly shrugged off US bids to get them to exert pressure on the Islamist Hamas into ending rocket fire, instead blaming the Jewish state for the violence. Arab foreign ministers at an emergency meeting in Cairo roundly denounced Israel's Gaza campaign and demanded a review of what they called their futile diplomacy towards the Jewish state. Member states should "reconsider all past Arab initiatives on the peace process and review their stance on the process as a whole," said Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi. In 2002, Arab states offered Israel diplomatic recognition in return for its withdrawal from all occupied territory and an equitable settlement of the Palestinian refugee question, a cornerstone of Arab diplomacy ever since. Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal was also in Cairo to meet Egypt's intelligence chief, Erdogan and Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a senior Hamas official said.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said both President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree that de-escalation is preferable, provided that Hamas ceases firing on Israel. "We believe that the precipitating factor for the conflict was the rocket fire coming out of Gaza," Mr Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One. "We believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, and they'll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard." Since the start of Operation Pillar of Defence, the Israeli army says militants have fired more than 600 rockets over the border, of which 430 hit and 245 were intercepted by Iron Dome missiles. Over the same period, three Israelis have been killed and 18 injured, including 10 soldiers, with the army saying the air force had hit more than 950 targets in Gaza.

Later Same Day
Extract: Israeli bombardment takes out TV centre: witnesses
AFP 1:41pm

FRESH Israeli air strikes hit a Gaza City media centre and homes in northern Gaza as the death toll mounted, despite suggestions from Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi that there could be a "ceasefire soon". "At least six journalists were wounded, with minor and moderate injuries, when Israeli warplanes hit the al-Quds TV office in the Showa and Housari building in the Rimal neighbourhood of Gaza City," health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. Witnesses reported extensive damage to the building, used by Hamas for broadcasts, and said journalists had evacuated after an initial strike, which was followed by at least two more on the site. As well as being used by al-Quds TV, a Lebanon-based television channel, the building is also used by foreign news outlets including Germany's ARD, Kuwait TV and the Italian RAI and others.

In the northern strip, Israeli war planes carried out two separate raids on houses that killed two and injured 10 others, Qudra said. In Gaza City, as the Israeli air force attacked from above, Israeli naval forces opened fire, launching more than a dozen shells towards the shore. Israeli air strikes killed 16 Palestinians in Gaza yesterday and overnight, prompting the Arab League to announce a visit to the battered enclave and a review of its Middle East peace policy.

Mr Morsi told reporters in Cairo his government was in "vigorous" communication with both Israel and the Palestinians. "There are some indications that there could be a ceasefire soon," Mr Morsi told a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But there were still "no guarantees," he added. Amid diplomatic efforts to end the violence, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was due in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories later today, Paris's embassy in Jerusalem announced. Palestinian officials said Fabius would meet president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Leaders of new era seek Gaza solution
The Australian
Sam Dagher, Matt Bradley, Charles Levinson, The Wall Street Journal
Monday, November 19, 2012

GAZA and CAIRO: The Middle East's emerging political forces have mobilised in Cairo and in Gaza to press for an end to the escalating conflict between Hamas and Israel. In Gaza, hostilities continued last night, with Israeli airstrikes pounding the coastal strip for a fourth straight day and Palestinian militants firing dozens of rockets at Israel.

There were hints that the pace of combat operations could be slowing, perhaps as a result of the Cairo-led efforts to mediate a ceasefire. In Gaza, the ferocity and number of airstrikes seemed to dip. Hamas said government institutions in Gaza would resume regular work hours yesterday, a surprising decision given that Israel had targeted some government offices in the previous 24 hours.

It was unclear whether the lull was a sign that hostilities could be winding down, or merely a periodic operational pause. Israeli ground forces, including 16,000 reservists called up in the previous 48 hours, remained massed on Gaza's borders awaiting orders from Israel's political leadership. As regional leaders met to try to broker a ceasefire, a Palestinian official who would not be named said a truce could be swift. "There are serious talks to reach a truce, and it is possible that understandings will be reached today or tomorrow," he said.

Earlier, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said there were "intense efforts under way" in discussions with both sides. "So far there are some indications that there's a possibility for a ceasefire," he said during a joint press conference in Cairo with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Until now we do not have solid guarantees, but what I want to signal and affirm is that war and aggression in this manner and the blockade of Gaza, all of this cannot achieve peace and stability for the people of the region." Mr Morsi warned Israel against any ground offensive because it would inflame a region transformed by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that began nearly two years ago. "The people and the leaders of the region are different from before," Mr Morsi said.

Mr Erdogan said he had spoken by telephone with US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for "an urgent ceasefire in Gaza". Tunisia's Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem entered the Gaza Strip over the weekend, following a visit by Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.

Where the conflict goes from here seemed to hinge largely on the deliberations in Cairo, where the leaders of Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt huddled to end the most ferocious fighting between Israel and Palestinians in four years. Egyptian Intelligence Minister Rafat Shehata met with the head of Hamas's politburo in exile, Khaled Meshaal, and his deputy Moussa Abu Marzuk.

Egypt hopes to broker a ceasefire before Israel launches a ground invasion, which would raise the stakes for all involved — increasing the death toll for both Israelis and Palestinians, and ramping up popular pressure on the region's new Islamist democratic governments, particularly Egypt, to take a more defiant stance against Israel. The fighting, the first substantial Israeli-Palestinian flare-up since a wave of pro-democracy uprisings swept the region, is a test of how an emerging bloc of like-minded Islamist leaders, born of the Arab Spring, will tackle the region's most intractable conflict.

Turkey's Mr Erdogan arrived in Cairo on Saturday for a previously planned visit along with 10 of his ministers and a delegation of 350 Turkish businessmen and investors. After meeting with Mr Morsi, he hurried to Cairo's Four Seasons Hotel for a meeting with Qatari ruler Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The Qatari ruler also held talks with Mr Morsi. The talks aimed to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian factions, a spokesman for Mr Morsi said.

Back-to-back uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia last year ousted two US-allied dictators who had ruled with iron fists for decades. Democratic elections ushered Islamist parties into power. Those newly empowered parties look to Mr Erdogan's ruling Islamist party in Turkey as a model for how to mesh modern democracy with conservative Islam, and how to assert their interests on the international scene independent of their Western allies. Qatar's emir, meanwhile, has strengthened the city-state's regional heft by backing the region's emerging Islamist democratic governments.

Tackling the situation in Gaza is perhaps the most daunting test yet for this emerging alliance. "From a strategic standpoint, co-operation between these two big countries, Egypt and Turkey, is indispensable for Middle East revival and stability," Mr Erdogan told Egyptian daily Shorouk.

Israel's Foreign Minister says Israel will not negotiate a truce with Hamas rulers
until rocket fire ends. Source: SkyNews
Later Same Day
Gaza toll rises under air campaign
AFP 5:05pm

ISRAELI air strikes overnight killed 31 Palestinians in the bloodiest day so far of its massive air campaign on the Gaza Strip, as diplomatic efforts to broker a truce intensified. With Egypt at the centre of efforts to broker a ceasefire, Palestinian officials said it was possible a deal would be reached "today or tomorrow." But there was no letup in the bloodshed in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with medics saying women and children accounted for at least 14 of Sunday's 29 killed, among them five babies and toddlers, in Israeli strikes from the air.

In the day's most lethal raid, at least nine members of the same family — five of them children — were among 10 people killed when an Israeli missile destroyed a family home in Gaza City, the health ministry said. At the scene, medics and bystanders all pitched in to remove the rubble to dig out the bodies in the futile hope of finding survivors, as people watched in shock, some weeping openly. The latest violence hiked the Palestinian casualty toll to 77 dead and more than 700 injured in almost 100 hours of raids, while three Israelis have been killed and more than 50 injured by rocket fire since Wednesday.

In one of the latest strikes, a police headquarters in Gaza City was destroyed by bombing, rocking nearby buildings and leaving several people wounded.

With Israel warning it could further escalate its operations in Gaza, US President Barack Obama said it was "preferable" for the Gaza crisis to be resolved without a "ramping up" of Israeli military activity. In Cairo, senior Hamas officials said Egyptian-mediated talks with Israel to end the bloodshed were "positive" but now focused on the possible stumbling block of guaranteeing the terms of a truce.

An outcome acceptable to Hamas would involve assurances about the United States, Israel's main backer, being the "guaranteeing party," one official said on condition of anonymity. Security officials in Cairo said an Israeli envoy also arrived in the Egyptian capital on Sunday for the talks. Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, meanwhile, met with both Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and Islamic Jihad chief Abdullah Shalah to discuss "Egyptian efforts to end the aggression," his office said without giving details.

But Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted that "the first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza," and that all armed groups would have to commit to it. Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was ready to "significantly expand" its operation, ahead of talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on a whirlwind truce tour of the region.

"The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation," Mr Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, expressing appreciation for what he said was world leaders' "understanding of Israel's right to self-defence." Mr Fabius later said his country was willing to help broker a truce. "War is not an option, it is never an option … There are two key words: urgency and ceasefire," he told journalists in Tel Aviv.

Early on Sunday, Israeli aircraft hit two media centres in Gaza City, wounding at least eight journalists, one of whom lost a leg, health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP. The military defended the strike, saying it had targeted Hamas operational communications and sought to minimise civilian casualties.

Amid the truce efforts, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said "a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation." But senior Israeli cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon denied Israel was under any pressure from Western allies to agree to a ceasefire. "We don't feel like we're under pressure," he said.

On Sunday, at least 125 rockets hit Israel, while scores more were intercepted in mid-flight by the Iron Dome defence system, the army said. Throughout the day, two were fired at Tel Aviv, triggering air raid sirens in the commercial metropolis for the fourth day. Iron Dome intercepted both, police said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose remit is limited to the West Bank, on Sunday urged his people to stage peaceful demonstrations against Israel's military offensive on Gaza. And around 400 Egyptian activists headed to Gaza in a five-bus convoy in a show of solidarity with its people, organisers said.

Since the start of its Operation Pillar of Defence, launched after the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari in an air strike, the Israeli army says it has struck more than 1,100 targets in Gaza as militants have fired more than 800 rockets over the border.

Gaza death toll rises as Ban Ki-moon steps in
The Australian Online
AFP 12:16pm
Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ISRAELI strikes have killed 32 Palestinians today, taking the Gaza death toll to 109 as UN chief Ban Ki-moon joined efforts to end the worst violence in four years and Israel's inner circle of ministers mulled their next move. As the violence raged for a sixth day, an Israeli missile killed a senior Islamic Jihad militant in a Gaza City tower housing Palestinian and international media, the second time in as many days it has been targeted.

With Ban in Cairo pushing for a ceasefire, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said his movement was committed to efforts to secure a truce, but insisted that Israel must lift its six-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Terrified and desperate, many Gaza families have fled their homes, some seeking haven in the south which has seen fewer strikes. But they know nowhere is safe. Mourners flocked to the funeral of nine members of one family killed in a weekend strike on a Gaza City home, the tiny bodies of the five children carried through the streets wrapped in Palestinian flags.

As the overall death toll in Gaza hit 109, with another 32 people killed today making it the bloodiest day so far, the Israeli army said that 42 rockets had struck Israel and another 19 had been intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system. To date, the military has struck more than 1350 targets in Gaza, and 640 rockets have hit southern Israel while another 324 have been intercepted.

The violence, coming ahead of an Israeli general election on January 22, raised the spectre of a broader Israeli military campaign like its 22-day Operation Cast Lead, launched at the end of December 2008. Analysts say the Israeli leadership appears satisfied with the success of Operation Pillar of Defence and that it could be ready for a ceasefire. But the Jewish state has also signalled a readiness to expand the operation.

Ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner circle — the Forum of Nine — were reportedly in talks over whether to agree to a ceasefire or expand the air campaign into a wider ground operation. Israeli public radio said the meeting late today would touch on an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that emerged following a full day of indirect negotiations in Cairo between Israeli officials and Palestinian representatives. The report said Israel wanted to see a 24- to 48-hour truce take effect that could then be used to negotiate the finer details of a full ceasefire.

There was no immediate indication on whether a firm decision on Egypt's proposal would emerge from the meeting as it stretched past midnight and the three-hour mark. All the signs point to preparations for a ground operation, with the army sealing all roads around Gaza and some 40,000 reservists reportedly massed along the border, awaiting orders from the political echelon.

Dan Harel, former deputy chief of the Israeli military, said there was a maximum of 48 hours for Egyptian-led truce efforts to bear fruit or the troops would have to go in. "There are two basic alternatives," he said. "One is an agreement, cooked in Cairo, and the other is escalating the situation and moving forward into the Gaza Strip with a land effort, which is going to be bad for both sides," he said in English. "We are about 24 to 48 hours from this junction."

The latest negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, conducted behind closed doors in Cairo, ended without agreement. But all sides have expressed a willingness to engage in more talks. The UN chief flew to Egypt "to add his diplomatic weight to these efforts, which are considerable and extremely important," his spokesman Martin Nesirky said. As Russia accused the United States of seeking to "filibuster" a UN Security Council statement on Gaza amid prolonged talks by the 15-nation body, Ban was to meet Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, and President Mohamed Morsi and Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi on Tuesday, Nesirky said.


Same Day
Extract: Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas unite over Gaza crisis
AFP 9:11am

RIVAL Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas say they have agreed to end their infighting in a show of solidarity over the spiralling Gaza crisis.The elusive agreement between Hamas and Fatah — a less militant movement that runs the West Bank and is viewed by Israel as a possible negotiating partner — was announced following a meeting between senior representatives of both sides. "From here, we announce with other (factional) leaders, that we are ending the division," Fatah's Jibril Rajoub told a crowd of about 1000 who had gathered for a demonstration in the West Bank's political centre Ramallah. Among those present were top members of Hamas's leadership in the West Bank, as well as senior officials from its smaller rival Islamic Jihad.

Ramallah's Manara Square was a sea of Palestinian flags as the crowd chanted "Unity!" and "Hit, hit Tel Aviv" in an appeal to Hamas militants who have fired at least five rockets at the Israeli coastal city since Thursday. "Whoever speaks about the division after today is a criminal," top Hamas leader Mahmud al-Ramahi told the crowd.

Fatah and Hamas — its power limited to Gaza and its leadership refusing to recognise Israel — have been locked in a bitter dispute for years, and little has emerged from an interim truce the two sides struck in April last year. But the ongoing bloodshed appears to have prompted a rethink of traditional rivalries as the Palestinian death toll in Gaza reached 105 late yesterday.

Palestinian Prime Minister Minister Salam Fayyad, a Fatah member, said in a statement that there was "an urgent need to respond positively" to the idea of a meeting between all Palestinian groups in both Gaza and the West Bank. Violence had largely spared the West Bank in recent years despite protests over growing Jewish settlements and the continued presence of the Israeli army whose roadblocks and patrols make everyday life difficult for civilians.

But large demonstrations in support of Gaza broke out across the West Bank over the weekend and resulted in the death of one man whom associates identified as Ahmed al-Betawi. The associates said Betawi was a relative of jailed Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi — adopted by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience". Tamimi was sentenced to four months in prison on November 7 for his part in a flash mob demonstration against Jewish settlements last month.

The weekend West Bank unrest was followed by more violence yesterday near Ramallah and in the southern West Bank city of Hebron. Medics said two people were seriously injured in the Hebron area as protesters threw stones at Israeli security forces. Three more were lightly hurt near Ramallah. Sporadic incidents were also reported at a checkpoint near the northern town of Jenin. Palestinian medics said a 22-year-old man named Hamdi al-Salah was also shot dead on a road in Hebron. The circumstances of that incident remained unclear.

Gaza truce hinges on Israeli approval
The Australian
John Lyons, Gaza City
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, November 21, 2012

THE Middle East appeared to have pulled back from the brink last night after Egyptian media reported Israel and Hamas had agreed a ceasefire. The apparent breakthrough came as senior Israeli ministers were quoted as saying that Israel had decided to hold off from launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to give Egyptian-led truce efforts a chance to work. "A decision was taken that for the time being there is a temporary hold on the ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed," a senior official told Agence France-Presse. They discussed both the state of the diplomacy and the military operation."

Al-Arabiya news agency reported that a ceasefire would be implemented in two stages. The first stage would be the end of bombing and rocketing: Israel would agree to end its aerial and naval bombing of Gaza and Hamas would agree to end rocket fire into Israel. The second stage would involve addressing longer-term issues such as Israel allowing free movement through its crossing and lifting its blockade of the strip. In return, Egypt would not allow weapons into the Gaza Strip through its shared border. The Israeli cabinet met yesterday to discuss the proposal.

The meeting came as Hamas's top military commander, in a rare audio message, warned that Israel would "pay a heavy price" if it launched a ground operation in the Gaza Strip. "The enemy will pay a heavy price if it thinks of entering Gaza," Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said in the broadcast carried by Hamas television station Al-Aqsa. As of last night, 109 Palestinians and three Israelis had been killed since the confrontation began last Wednesday.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to meet Israeli President Shimon Peres last night, and US officials said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would break away from an Asia tour to visit Israel, Egypt and the West Bank. President Barack Obama made the decision to send Mrs Clinton after speaking to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. "Secretary Clinton will emphasise the US interest in a peaceful outcome that protects and enhances Israel's security and regional security," he said, but stopped short of calling Mrs Clinton's trip a mediating mission. Palestinian officials said she was expected to visit Ramallah today for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Ban, meanwhile, called on all sides to "halt fire immediately". He was speaking in Cairo yesterday after talks with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi. The UN chief described the meeting as "very constructive", but warned: "Further escalating the situation will put the entire region at risk." An Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, Mr Ban said, "would only result in further tragedy".

On Monday, Israel continued its aerial offensive, attacking about 100 targets, including the headquarters of the National Islamic Bank that Hamas set up when it took control of Gaza six years ago. A family of four in Gaza was reported to have been killed. Israel says it has hit 1450 targets since the conflict began.

Hamas yesterday fired more than 60 rockets into southern Israel, injuring three people, according to the Israeli Defence Force. "The endgame is clear," Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said. "We want to see a situation where the civilian population of southern Israel knows it no longer has to live in fear from incoming rocket fire." Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Israel had begun the war and it was up to it to stop it. "We are the people of a just cause, we are not the aggressors," he said. "This is Palestine, whoever attacks Palestine will be buried." Mr Meshaal said Hamas did not want to see an escalation, but it was not afraid of one. For his part, Mr Netanyahu has said he would consider a ceasefire if Hamas stopped firing rockets.

Meanwhile, an Israeli minister said the killing of 10 members of one family on Sunday had been a mistake. "Of course you have such mistakes that every army, unfortunately, makes in a time of war," Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau told the BBC. One of Gaza's militant groups, Islamic Jihad, announced one of its leaders had been killed in an attack on Monday on a media centre in Gaza City. It housed several Arabic-language TV stations as well as Hamas's al-Quds TV. Two days earlier, Israel bombed two towers containing several media offices, injuring six journalists. One lost his leg. Mr Meshaal told a news conference in Cairo that Hamas would fight a ground war if it was started, but claimed that Mr Netanyahu had reservations about launching an assault. "He can do it, but he knows that it will not be a picnic and that it could be his political death and cost him the (upcoming) elections," Mr Meshaal said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Tel Aviv, Israel, to urge parties to end the confrontation
in the Gaza Strip. Source: Getty Images

Same Day
Israel nudged towards ceasefire
AFP 12:41am

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to support Israeli security while calling for a quick de-escalation of Gaza fighting that raged on unabated amid signs of an emerging truce deal. The top US diplomat flew in for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as efforts continued across the region to refine an elusive accord to end a week of violence that has cost 136 Palestinian and five Israeli lives.

The Israeli army confirmed its first fatality from rocket attacks , and a defence ministry official was also killed, while another missile landed harmlessly just south of Jerusalem on a day of continued strikes from Gaza. The unrelenting violence also claimed the lives of 26 more Palestinians and witnessed an Israeli strike on a Gaza City building that houses foreign media organisations including AFP — the third such strike in three days.

Mrs Clinton told Mr Netanyahu — a right-winger who has had strained relations with US President Barack Obama's administration in the past year — that Washington's commitment to Israeli security was "rock solid and unwavering." But she also stressed that this "is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation" in the Palestinian territory. Mrs Clinton further indicated that any truce announcement may not emerge until after she completes visits to the West Bank capital of Ramallah and Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. "In these days ahead, the United States will work with our partners here in Israel and across the region for an outcome that bolsters security for the peace of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people of the region," said Mrs Clinton.

Optimistic negotiators had initially said a deal could be announced in Cairo later Tuesday following days of negotiations brokered by Egypt's new Islamist leadership. "There will be a joint press conference between Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian mediators tonight to announce the truce," an Islamic Jihad source told AFP in Gaza City. A Hamas source separately backed up the report. But Hamas later said in a statement that Israel had still not responded to the Palestinian proposal as of 10pm (9am AEDT). And an Egyptian official told AFP in Cairo that "the truce announcement is not expected tonight because we are still waiting for a response" from the Jewish state.

An Israeli diplomatic source told AFP that negotiations were ongoing. "We are working very hard using our diplomatic channels. We are working continuously. But I cannot give you an estimated time of arrival (of a truce)," the source said. The bloodshed meanwhile showed no signs of abating as the military pressed on with its bombardment of northern Gaza positions from which most of the militants' rockets have been launched.

Mr Netanyahu told Mrs Clinton he was ready to agree to a "long-term solution" as long as the rocket attacks from Gaza stopped. "If there's a possibility of achieving a long-term solution for this problem by diplomatic means, we prefer it. But if not, I'm sure you understand that Israel will have to take every action necessary to defend its people," he said.

A senior Hamas official told AFP in Cairo that a key sticking point was whether Israel would begin easing its six-year-old blockade of Gaza coinciding with the truce or at a later date. "A compromise solution is for there to be agreement on lifting the siege, and that it would be implemented later at a specified time," he said.

Mr Netanyahu and his key ministers decided in a closed-door meeting late Monday to place "a temporary hold on a ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed," a senior Israeli official told AFP. The move came as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Mr Netanyahu and again urged all parties to end fire "immediately". A delegation of more than 10 Arab foreign ministers and other senior representatives also visited Gaza in a symbolic show of solidarity with the Palestinians — the latest in a string of regional leaders' visits to the impoverished coastal enclave.

"The real problem is not a truce," Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi told reporters in Gaza City. "The real problem that the Arab and Islamic countries and all friendly countries in the world must focus on is ending the occupation," the organisation's secretary general said. Hamas is understood to be seeking guarantees that Israel will stop its targeted killings and end its blockade. Israel for its part is believed to be looking for a 24- to 48-hour truce as a buffer to work out a more permanent arrangement.

Moment of calm after week of horror as ceasefire operates in the Middle East
The Australian Online
AP 10:32am
Thursday, November 22, 2012

ISRAEL and the Hamas militant group agreed to a ceasefire to end eight days of the fiercest fighting in nearly four years, promising to halt air strikes and rocket attacks that have killed scores and to discuss easing an Israeli blockade constricting the Gaza Strip. Cheering Gazans emerged from their homes after a week, flooding the streets in wild celebration. Gunmen fired in the air, and chants of "God is Great" echoed from mosque loudspeakers. Residents hugged and kissed in celebration, while others distributed candy and waved Hamas flags. "I just hope they commit to peace," said Abdel-Nasser al-Tom, from northern Gaza.

However, a dozen rockets hit southern Israel until an hour after the ceasefire deadline, authorities said, and schools in the region planned to stay shut on Thursday as a precaution in case rockets continue to be launched.

The deal was brokered by the new Islamist government of Egypt, solidifying its role as a leader in the quickly shifting Middle East after two days of intense shuttle diplomacy that saw US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton race to the region. Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role in maintaining the peace. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said the deal included an agreement to open all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, including the important Rafah crossing with Egypt. A copy of the deal obtained by The Associated Press appeared to be somewhat vague about the details on the crossings. "The document provides for the opening of all crossings," he insisted.

Minutes before the deal took effect at 9 pm local time. (6am AEDT) there was a spasm of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, including one that killed a Gaza man minutes before the deadline. After 9 pm, the airstrikes ceased, but a dozen more rockets hit, police said. The stragglers did not seem to pose a threat to the truce deal. Israel had launched well over 1,500 airstrikes and other attacks on targets in Gaza since fighting started on November 14, while more than 1,500 rockets pounded Israel. In all, 161 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed, while five Israelis died.

Standing next to Mrs Clinton, Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, announced the truce breakthrough that capped days of intense efforts that drew the world's top diplomats into the fray. The agreement will "improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel," Mrs Clinton said at the news conference in Cairo.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed to the cease-fire after consulting with US President Barack Obama to allow Israeli civilians to get back to their lives. He said the two leaders also agreed to work together against weapon smuggling into Gaza, a statement confirmed by the White House. Mr Netanyahu also left the door open to a possible ground invasion of Gaza at a later date. "I know there are citizens that expected a wider military operation and it could be that it will be needed. But at this time, the right thing for the state of Israel is to take this opportunity to reach a lasting ceasefire," he said.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press, Israel and all Palestinian militant groups agreed to halt "all hostilities." For the Palestinians, that means an end to Israeli airstrikes and assassinations of wanted militants. For Israel, it brings a halt to rocket fire and attempts at cross-border incursions from Gaza. After a 24-hour cooling off period, it calls for "opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents' free movement." Hamas officials said details on the new border arrangements would have to be negotiated.

Israel imposed its blockade of Gaza after Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel's destruction, seized control of the territory five years ago. It has gradually eased the closure, but continues to restrict the movement of certain goods through Israeli-controlled crossings. Among the restrictions: a near-complete ban on exports, limited movement of people leaving the territory, and limits on construction materials that Israel says could be used for military use. The deal was vague on what limits Israel would lift, and whether Gaza's southern passenger terminal on the Egyptian border would be expanded to allow cargo to pass through as well. The deal was also unclear about a key Israeli demand for an end to arms smuggling into Gaza in tunnels underneath the border with Egypt.

Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role. It said "Egypt shall receive assurances from each party" that they are committed to the deal. "Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would break this understanding," it adds. "In case of any observations, Egypt — as the sponsor of this understanding — shall be informed to follow up." The deal marked a key victory for Egypt's new Islamist government, which is caught in a balancing act between its allegiance to Hamas and its need to maintain good relations with Israel and the US. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

The agreement came after Clinton shuttled across the region to help broker an end to the violence. She ended her meetings in Cairo, where Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi mediated between Israel and Hamas. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also flew across the region as part of the diplomatic cease-fire push. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the military had achieved its goals of strengthening Israel's deterrence capabilities and hammering militants in Gaza. "We expect the agreements to be fully honoured, but from past experience we are aware it might be short-lived," he said.

Hours before the deal was announced, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv near Israel's military headquarters that wounded 27 people and led to fears of a breakdown in the shuttle diplomacy Mrs Clinton and UN chief Ban Ki-moon were conducting in the region. The blast, which left the bus charred and its windows blown out, was the first bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006. It appeared aimed at sparking Israeli fears of a return to the violence of the Palestinian uprising last decade, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis in bombings and shooting attacks and left more than 5,000 Palestinians dead as well. The blast was from a device placed inside the bus by a man who then got off, said Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel's minister of internal security.

While Hamas did not take responsibility for the attack, it praised the bombing. "We consider it a natural response to the occupation crimes and the ongoing massacres against civilians in the Gaza Strip," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told The Associated Press. Bassem Ezbidi, a West Bank political analyst, said it was unlikely Hamas itself was behind the attack, since it would not want to risk losing any of the international support it gained in recent days. "If Hamas wants to target civilians it would do so by firing rockets, but not by buses because such attacks left a negative record in the minds of people. Hamas doesn't need this now," he said.

The bombing came as 10,000 Palestinians sought shelter in 12 UN-run schools, after Israel dropped leaflets urging residents to vacate their homes in some areas of Gaza to avoid being hit by airstrikes, said Adnan Abu Hassna, the UN Relief and Works Agency spokesman. The influx of displaced people came a day after the head of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, warned that the agency urgently needed $12 million to continue distributing food to the neediest Gazans. The agency runs schools, shelters and food programs for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Gaza.

Huge clouds of black smoke rose above the Gaza City skyline on Wednesday as airstrikes pounded a sports stadium, used as a launch site for rocket attacks on Israel in the past, and a high-rise office building housing Hamas-affiliated media offices, but also Agence France-Presse. AFP reporters said they evacuated their fourth-floor office Tuesday, after an initial strike targeted sixth-floor offices linked to Hamas and other smaller factions. A four-year-old boy was killed in the second attack on the high-rise on Wednesday, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. The boy, Abdel-Rahman Naim, was in his family apartment in the building when he was struck by shrapnel and died on the way to Gaza's Shifa Hospital, al-Kidra said. Washington blames Hamas rocket fire for the outbreak of violence and has backed Israel's right to defend itself, but has cautioned that an Israeli ground invasion could send casualties soaring.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi Source: AP
Islamist Morsi emerges as Israel's protector
The Australian
Friday, November 23, 2012

CAIRO: The Gaza ceasefire deal marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis or even say the country's name mediated for it and finally turned himself into the Jewish state's de facto protector. The accord, reached yesterday, inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops attacks against Hamas. Mr Morsi emerged as a major regional player, winning the trust of the US and Israel, which once worried over the Islamist's rise.

"I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a Cairo press conference announcing the deal.

After Israel launched its assault on Gaza last week, aimed at stopping militant rocket fire, Mr Morsi's palace in a Cairo suburb became the Middle East's diplomacy central. He held talks with Turkey's Prime Minister and the emir of Qatar, Germany's Foreign Minister and a host of top Arab officials to get them behind his mediation. An Israeli envoy flew secretly into Cairo for talks with Egyptian security officials, though Mr Morsi did not meet or speak directly with any Israelis.

Mr Morsi hails from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group and Hamas's parent organisation. Brotherhood leaders, including Mr Morsi, refuse to speak to Israeli officials. Mr Morsi has not even said the name of the country publicly since he was inaugurated in June, though he has referred to its people as "Israelis". In ideology, the Brotherhood supports the use of force against Israel to liberate "Muslim lands". The group opposes Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But since coming to power, the Brotherhood has had to yield to pragmatism. The group and Mr Morsi have promised to abide by the peace accord.

Mr Morsi also handled the Gaza conflict in a way starkly contrasting with his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. An ally of Israel and deeply opposed to Hamas, Mr Mubarak's regime helped Israel blockade Gaza after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. When Israel and Hamas last went to war in 2008, Mr Mubarak was accused of secretly supporting Israel's ground offensive. During that offensive, Mr Mubarak kept the sole border passenger crossing between Egypt and Gaza mostly shut, preventing some of the more seriously wounded Palestinians from receiving treatment in Egyptian hospitals. Mr Mubarak's regime was also wary of any deals that would legitimise Hamas's rule in Gaza. Mr Mubarak feared that a strong Hamas would embolden Islamists at home, particularly his nemesis, the Brotherhood.

First death tests Gaza ceasefire
The Australian Online
AFP 9:32am
Saturday, November 24, 2012

ISRAEL restricted Palestinian access to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound and kept a tight grip on security as a first death tested a hard-won truce ending fighting in and around Gaza. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party prepared for a primary on Sunday amid signs its popularity was slipping among Israelis who would have preferred a ground invasion of the Hamas-controlled strip.

Tensions on the streets of annexed Arab east Jerusalem remained high a day after angry demonstrators stormed an Israeli police station in a bid to secure the release of a Palestinian woman who tried to stab a border guard. The army reported arresting 28 suspected West Bank militants — including five members of Hamas — in the wake of a security sweep on Thursday in which 55 "terror operatives" were detained.

Israel decided on further precaution by barring Palestinians under the age of 40 from accessing the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem — Islam's third holiest site — which is also revered by Jews. The mosque compound has been the focus of past clashes, and Israel sought to prevent any repetition that could jeopardise the truce ending eight days of fighting in which 166 Palestinians and six Israelis died.

The ceasefire was holding firmly despite a dozen rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza in the first post-truce hours and a warning from Netanyahu that he would resume the offensive if need be. The Palestinians also reported their first post-conflict casualty at the hands of Israeli soldiers who reportedly opened fire on a group of farmers near the Gaza border on Friday. "This is the first Israeli violation of the truce," Sami Abu Zuhri of the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza told AFP. Hamas "will raise this violation with Egyptian mediators to make sure that it does not happen again," the spokesman added.

An Israeli army representative said the troops were forced to fire warning shots after hundreds of Palestinians attacked a border fence in an apparent attempt to take it down. The Palestinian emergency services identified the victim as 21-year-old Abdelhadi Qdeih Anwar. They added that 19 other Palestinians suffered gunshot wounds in the village of Khuzaa. No rockets were fired in reprisal by Hamas.

And another young Palestinian was announced dead on Friday after having "inhaled a poisonous gas" during repairs of a tunnel damaged in an Israeli air strike on the southern sector of Rafah, bordering Egypt, the Hamas health ministry said.

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his country and Iran saluted "the great victory of the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli aggression." According to Syrian state news agency SANA, Assad and visiting Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani welcomed the "failure" of Israel's offensive on Gaza.

Back in Israel, the first opinion polls assessing the government's handling of the Gaza conflict in the run-up to a snap general election called for January showed a general sense of disappointment that Netanyahu's government had accepted the ceasefire terms. A study commissioned by the Maariv newspaper found 49 percent of respondents saying Israel should have continued its operation of air strikes and just 31 percent agreeing with the truce. The same poll showed support for Netanyahu's Likud party slipping by six percentage points over the past month. But Likud was still leading the opposition Labour party by a 37-to-22 percent margin and on pace to form a new governing coalition with ultra-nationalist and Jewish Orthodox groups.

Maariv said many Israelis felt the truce spelled a "missed opportunity" for the Jewish state to eradicate Gaza's Hamas leaders. Sunday's Likud primary will decide who makes it onto the party list to be put to voters on January 22. Analysts are watching to see if the party tilts further to the right in response to public disaffection over the truce.

Flashpoint in Tahrir Square, again
The Australian Online
AFP 9:55am
Sunday, November 25, 2012

DEFIANT Egyptian judges have hit back at President Mohamed Morsi demanding he reverse a decree giving himself sweeping powers that put him beyond judicial oversight, after more clashes between police and protesters. Egypt's Judges Club held emergency talks in Cairo yesterday to mull their response to Mr Morsi's "ferocious attack on Egyptian justice," Club chief Ahmed al-Zind told the club's general assembly, as furious judges chanted "The people want the downfall of the regime." Protesters tried to storm the High Court where the judges were meeting but were dispersed when police fired tear gas. Earlier, anti-riot police fired tear gas to disperse anti-Morsi protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square as Western governments voiced growing concern over the political crisis.

The Supreme Judicial Council denounced Mr Morsi's constitutional declaration as "an unprecedented attack on the independence of the judiciary and its rulings", while the Judges Club of Alexandria announced "the suspension of work in all courts and prosecution administrations in the provinces of Alexandria and Beheira". And they "will accept nothing less than the cancellation of (Morsi's decree)," which violates the principle of separation of powers, club chief Mohammed Ezzat al-Agwa said.

The president already held both executive and legislative powers, and his Thursday decree puts him beyond judicial oversight until a new constitution has been ratified in a referendum. The measures are valid only until the new constitution now being drafted is adopted, and supporters argue they will hasten what has been a turbulent and seemingly endless transition to democracy. In Cairo, a statement by some 20 "independent judges" said that while some of the decisions taken by the president were a response to popular demands, they were issued "at the expense of freedom and democracy."

Mr Morsi has ordered the reopening of investigations into the deaths of some 850 protesters during the 2011 uprising, and hundreds more since. New prosecutor general Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah said new "revolutionary courts" would be set up and could see former president Hosni Mubarak, his sons and his top security chiefs retried "should there be new evidence". Mubarak and his interior minister were sentenced to life over the killing of protesters in last year's popular uprising against him, but six security chiefs were acquitted in the same case sparking nationwide outrage. In an address to supporters outside the presidential palace on Friday, Morsi had insisted Egypt remained on the path to "freedom and democracy", despite his move to undercut the judiciary. "Political stability, social stability and economic stability are what I want and that is what I am working for," he said.

A hard core of opposition activists spent the night in Tahrir Square — epicentre of the anti-Mubarak uprising — where they erected some 30 tents, an AFP correspondent reported. When others attempted to join them on Saturday, police fired volleys of tear gas and forced them to retreat into surrounding streets. The mainly secular liberals say they are determined to keep up the momentum of protests against Morsi's decree and have called a new mass protest in Tahrir for Tuesday. "Egypt is at the start of a new revolution because it was never our intention to replace one dictator with another," activist Mohammed al-Gamal told AFP, showing his broken spectacles and hand in a plaster cast than he said were the result of police action. The Muslim Brotherhood called on its own supporters to take to the streets in Abdeen Square, just streets away from Tahrir, to show their support for Mr Morsi.

Washington, which on Wednesday voiced fulsome praise for Mr Morsi's role in brokering a truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers to end eight days of deadly violence, led international criticism of the Islamist president's move. "The decisions and declarations announced on November 22 raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community," said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

We need arms to hold Israel at bay: Hamas leader
The Australian
Monday, November 26, 2012

CAIRO: Gaza's ruling Hamas will not stop arming itself because only a strong arsenal, not negotiations, can extract concessions from Israel, says the No 2 in the Islamic militant group. The comments over the weekend by Moussa Abu Marzouk, days after the worst bout of Israel-Hamas fighting in four years, signalled trouble ahead for Egyptian-brokered talks between the hostile neighbours on a new border deal.

Hamas demands that Israel and Egypt lift all restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of the Palestinian territory, which has been buckling under a border blockade since the Islamists seized the territory in 2007. The restrictions have been eased in recent years, but not enough to allow Gaza's battered economy to develop. An Israeli security official has indicated Israel would link a significant easing of the blockade to Hamas's willingness to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and producing them there.

Mr Abu Marzouk said in the interview that the group would not disarm, arguing that recent Palestinian history has shown that negotiations with Israel lead nowhere unless backed by force. "There is no way to relinquish weapons," Mr Abu Marzouk said in his office on the outskirts of Cairo. "These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them." Hamas's charter calls for Israel's destruction, but leaders of the group have also said they are ready for a long-term ceasefire.

The group is believed to have amassed an arsenal of thousands of rockets since Israel's last military offensive in Gaza four years ago. Hamas has been smuggling weapons through tunnels under the border with Egypt, but also claims to have begun manufacturing longer-range rockets in Gaza. During the latest round of fighting, Hamas fired Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that came close to Israel's heartland, including the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time.

Hamas used to be evasive about Iranian weapons support, but senior officials in the group recently have openly thanked Tehran. Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar said he was confident Iran would increase military and financial support to Hamas and the militant group Islamic Jihad. Iran and its regional rivals, the Sunni Muslim-led states in the Gulf, have been competing in recent months to lure Hamas into their respective camps. Mr Zahar said Hamas was not beholden to anyone, but defended the ties with Iran. "If they don't like it, let them compete with Iran in giving us weapons and money," he said in an apparent jab at the Gulf states.


Same Day
Extract: Iran's influence comes to light in Gaza missile bunkers
Hala Jaber, The Times

THE hut between two trees on a scrap of farmland in the Gaza Strip looks innocuous from the outside — a store for agricultural tools, perhaps. Inside, a trapdoor leads down four steps to a small basement equipped with food, water, telephone, television, internet … and the electronic gadgetry to point a set of rockets skywards from a launchpad concealed nearby, and to fire them at Israel. It is one of scores of bunkers across Gaza. Some have been dug out under the houses of Hamas sympathisers; others stretch 30m below open ground, linked to a network of supply tunnels.

They were the Palestinian militants' nerve centres in an eight-day battle with Israel that began with the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, the leader of Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades, and ended with a ceasefire on Thursday. More than 2000 rockets were fired at Israel, militants say — many from underground, despite countless airstrikes aimed at destroying them before they could be launched. They reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and killed six Israelis, compared with 166 Palestinian dead.

The technical skills needed to wage war from underground were learned during excursions to Lebanon to meet Hezbollah, which maintains much larger facilities, from catering outfits to operating theatres, beneath hillsides with dormitories where its fighters can sleep safely. But Hamas's weapons were supplied by Iran and stockpiled after the last Israeli attack in 2008-09. The full extent of Iran's backing for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group was confirmed in interviews with senior members.

Khaled al-Batsh, the leader of Islamic Jihad, said Iranian support for both organisations extended from cash and military training in unspecified countries to rockets, communications and even advice on media relations. Abu Ahmad, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad's military wing, Saraya al-Quds, said it had fired 620 rockets in all, of which 300 were Russian Grads, some modified by Iran. "Some of the weapons we carry in our stockpiles are 100 per cent Iranian-made, such as the Fajr 5 (long-range rockets) and Kornets (laser-guided anti-tank missiles)," he said.

Hamas's military wing said it had fired 1573 rockets into Israel, including four Fajr rockets targeting Tel Aviv. Musheer al-Masri, a leading Hamas official, rejected Israeli claims that much of its arsenal had been destroyed, saying the stockpiles were mostly intact.

Israelis had another unwelcome surprise when the personal details of hundreds of members of their armed forces were posted on a Palestinian website. Islamic Jihad published 1000 names, ages, addresses, home and mobile phone numbers, complete with employment background and identity numbers. It claimed to have hacked the details of 5000 in all and said it would release the others in stages. Text messages warning that "Gaza will turn into the graveyard of your soldiers and Tel Aviv will become a fireball" were sent to the phone numbers. The disclosure made little impact in Israel, where it was speculated that the information had come not from hacking but from personnel records thrown out with the rubbish at a military base.


Later Same Day
Israel claims success of David's Sling
AFP 7:45am

ISRAELI and US defence officials have successfully tested the David's Sling missile defence system, completing the first phase of the weapon's development. "The Israel Missile Defence Organisation and the US Missile Defense Agency completed the first phase of the development of the David's Sling Weapon System, by conducting a successful interception," a statement said. The system "is designed to provide an additional layer of defence against ballistic missiles by adding additional opportunities for interception to the joint US-Israel Arrow weapon system," it added. It said the test was conducted at a range in southern Israel but did not say when.

The announcement came four days after a truce end eight days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants. The military said 1,354 rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip , 421 of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome short-range defence system.

The Arrow, a cutting-edge system designed to counter strikes mainly from arch-foe Iran, has successfully intercepted missiles comparable to Iran's Shihab-3 in a variety of test conditions. David's Sling, which Israeli television said is designed to intercept missiles fired from a distance of 50 to 250 kilometres, is meant to bridge the gap between Arrow and Iron Dome.

Expected to be ready for deployment in 2014, according to Israeli media, it is being developed by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and US company Raytheon.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak resigns
The Australian
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak last night stunned the country with a surprise announcement he was leaving politics, a decision that comes after a decades-long career that saw him also serve as prime minister.

At a hastily announced press conference at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Mr Barak, 70, said he would step down as Defence Minister when the new government takes office after general elections on January 22. "I have decided to resign from political life and not participate in the upcoming Knesset elections," he said. "I will finish my duties as Defence Minister with the formation of the next government in three months," he said, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he respected Mr Barak's decision and thanked him for the role he had played in his ruling coalition government.

The shock announcement comes when the Jewish state has been pushing the international community to pressure Iran over its contested nuclear program. Alongside Mr Netanyahu, Mr Barak has warned Israel could take pre-emptive military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear, although last month he told a British newspaper that the moment of truth had been delayed for "eight to 10 months".

Before the press conference, observers had speculated the veteran politician and former head of Israel's Labour party would announce he was poised to join forces with former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to run on a centrist ticket in the January elections. But few believed Mr Barak would announce he was quitting political life altogether, in a decision which comes just days after the Israeli military ended a major assault on Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli media said Mr Barak was keen to conclude by signing up to an Egyptian-brokered truce. Mr Barak said he would not be contesting the elections in any form and dismissed questions about a possible comeback to the political field.

A liberal leader who once headed Labour, Mr Barak nonetheless agreed in March 2009 to lead his party into the hawkish right-wing government of Mr Netanyahu. Some in the government opposed that truce, and Mr Barak has come under increasing pressure from Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, much of which opposed him as Defence Minister.

It was the second major comeback for the former chief of staff, who withdrew from politics altogether after his 1999-2001 premiership, having tried and failed to make peace with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He had offered unpopular concessions on east Jerusalem, wanted by the Palestinians as the capital of a future state, only to see Arafat spurn the offer and Israeli voters punish him with a resounding endorsement of veteran right-wing challenger Ariel Sharon. As premier, Mr Barak oversaw Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 after a two-decade occupation.

His military career was legendary. In one episode he disguised himself as a woman on a commando raid in Lebanon to assassinate three senior Palestinian militants. He also took part in a commando assault in Tel Aviv in 1972 on a Belgian passenger plane hijacked by Palestinian guerillas. And he participated in the 1976 raid to free Israeli hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, that saw the death of Yonatan Netanyahu, a brother of Israel's Prime Minister.

Opposition spokeswoman Julie Bishop says changing
Palestine's UN status could hurt peace talks. Source: AAP

Later Same Day
Australia to abstain from Palestine vote
AAP 1:11pm

AUSTRALIA will abstain from a controversial vote to give Palestine an upgraded United Nations status. Sources have confirmed the federal government will not vote for or against the vote expected to take place on Thursday this week. Australia's stance is likely to anger Israel, which has previously made it clear it expected the federal government to join it and the US in voting against the Palestinian resolution.

The resolution — initiated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — seeks to lift Palestine's UN status from observer entity to non-member state. The bid comes a year after Abbas' failed push to achieve full UN membership and follows a month of fresh, deadly violence between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The bid is widely expected to succeed by attracting a majority of votes in the UN General Assembly.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wanted to vote against the resolution but told a Labor caucus meeting on Tuesday she would support the abstention. She said she took soundings from her ministers and backbenchers and found many had sharply held different views on the vote. She reiterated the government's support for a two-state solution.

Coalition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop earlier said it "would not be helpful" for peace negotiations if Palestine's bid was successful. "We believe the parties must return to the negotiating table and seek a two-state solution and that has always been our position. Our position hasn't changed," she said. Australian Greens leader Christine Milne earlier said she hoped Australia would vote in favour of Palestine.

Palestinian officials are pushing for the UN upgrade as a way of securing international recognition of Palestinian statehood, given the slow pace of peace talks with Israel. But Israel says the move breaks a 1993 agreement not to make a unilateral declaration of statehood.


Further Notes
Backbench revolt overturns PM on UN Palestine vote
Dennis Shanahan, Political Editor 1:29pm

JULIA Gillard's personal decision to have Australia vote against a United Nations motion to give Palestine observer status has been overturned by a backbench revolt.

On Monday night the Prime Minister told her Cabinet colleagues she had made the decision that Australia would vote against the motion and expected Cabinet support. Ms Gillard faced vigorous and determined opposition from most of her Cabinet colleagues when she announced her position with many arguing that it was not the right decision for Australia to make in light of its position on the UN Security Council and that to abstain or vote for Palestinian UN observer status was closer to ALP policy on the Middle East. Only one Cabinet minister, Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, is said to have supported the Prime Minister's position and all others who spoke were opposed to voting against the motion.

In the end the Prime Minister imposed her authority as leader and said she expected support. Senator Conroy and Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, backed her decision. But after Cabinet and before this morning's ALP Caucus meeting of all ministers and backbenchers the Prime Minister succumbed to pressure, dropped her insistence on a vote against Palestine and agreed to Australia abstaining from the vote. Many MPs, expecting Ms Gillard to maintain her staunch support for Israel and back a vote against the motion, were taken by surprise by the backflip. Cabinet sources told The Australian that ministers had argued forcefully on policy grounds for the Prime Minister to change her mind.

After Caucus discussed the issue today, it was resolved against Australia taking a position in the UN vote on Thursday. The decision to abstain from the vote means Australia will no longer be in lock step with Israel, which has steadfastly opposed the granting of observer status to Palestine. The United States is expected to side with Israel.

The Prime Minister told the caucus she did not believe the resolution would improve the prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine. But after consulting with Labor MPs, she announced Labor would abstain from the vote. Caucus member Andrew Leigh had proposed a motion in parliament supporting UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state observer. The motion, which had been supported by colleague Melissa Parke, has now been withdrawn.

Extract: Brotherhood cancels competing rally as Mohammed Morsi rejects judicial call
The Australian
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

EGYPT'S President Mohammed Morsi struck an uncompromising stand yesterday over his seizure of near-absolute powers, refusing in a meeting with top judicial authorities to rescind a package of constitutional amendments that placed his edicts above oversight by the courts. Mr Morsi's supporters, meanwhile, cancelled a massive rally planned overnight to compete with a demonstration by his opponents, citing the need to "defuse tension", according to a spokesman for the President's Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition rally was expected to go ahead at Cairo's Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime nearly two years ago.

Mr Morsi, according to a presidential statement, told the judges that while his constitutional declaration last week granted him immunity from any oversight, he intended to restrict that to "sovereignty issues". The vaguely worded statement did not define those issues, but they were widely interpreted to cover declaration of war, imposition of martial law, breaking diplomatic relations with a foreign nation or dismissing a cabinet.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr to "register American concerns about Egypt's political situation", said a spokeswoman. The US wanted to "see the constitutional process move forward in a way that does not overly concentrate power in one set of hands".

Splits emerge on Palestinian vote
The Australian Online
AFP 8:10am
Thursday, November 29, 2012

BRITAIN has threatened to abstain from a vote for enhanced Palestinian status at the United Nations unless the Palestinians commit to fresh talks with Israel, highlighting European divisions on the vote. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that in order to secure Britain's vote at the UN General Assembly in New York, the Palestinians would have to unconditionally agree to negotiations on a lasting two-state deal with Israel.

Australia had been scheduled to vote against the Palestinian motion, but a last-minute shift in caucus saw Prime Minister Julia Gillard forced into an abstention in Friday's vote. France has led several European countries in supporting the Palestinian bid for their UN status to be upgraded to that of a "non-member state", which would win them new global recognition. Germany also said it would not vote in favour of the bid.

Hague said to win Britain's vote, the Palestinians would also have to pledge not to sue Israel for war crimes through the International Criminal Court (ICC) and confirm that the UN resolution would not apply retroactively. "Up until the time of the vote itself, we will remain open to voting in favour of the resolution if we see public assurances by the Palestinians on these points," Mr Hague told parliament. "However, in the absence of these assurances the United Kingdom would abstain on the vote."

He said the guarantees sought by Britain would "not be difficult to make" and could be made either in the text of the Palestinian resolution, or in accompanying statements. But it looked likely that Britain would abstain after a Palestinian official said there would be no changes to the resolution before the vote. "I can assure you that the text has been tabled, it will not be modified," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Even without Britain's vote, the Palestinians are poised to win the backing of a majority of the General Assembly's 193 member states, although they face strong opposition from the United States and Israel. On the eve of the vote, the US pressed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas not to seek elevated UN status, but Mr Abbas remained on course to win a new show of international support. US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Middle East envoy David Hale met with Abbas at his hotel on Wednesday but failed to get the Palestinian leader to withdraw his resolution or make amendments, officials said.

Along with France, European supporters of the Palestinian upgrade include Spain, Norway, Denmark, Greece and Switzerland. Lithuania has said it will abstain on the vote, which would give the Palestinians the same diplomatic status at the UN as the Vatican. If the request is approved, it will give the Palestinians access to a range of UN agencies and also potentially to the ICC, where they could accuse Israel of war crimes.

Hague said it was essential that the Palestinians provide the guarantees sought by Britain in order to assure the international community that they are serious about returning to bilateral negotiations with the Jewish state. "For us to support a resolution at the UN it is important that the risks to the peace process are addressed," he told lawmakers. "There has been a dangerous impasse in the peace process over the last two years."

Hague called on the United States to do everything in its power to revive negotiations, which were frozen in September 2010 when Israel refused a Palestinian demand to extend a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied territories. He also called on Israel to be ready to re-enter talks, and urged its government to "avoid reacting in a way that damages the peace process" should the Palestinians win Thursday's vote.

The European Union has been striving for more than a year to adopt a united front on the Palestinians's UN status. With the 27 EU member states divided on Thursday's vote, diplomatic sources told AFP that the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was expected to issue "a fairly anodyne" EU statement just ahead of the vote. "It will call for a political solution, a return to negotiations," said an EU diplomat.


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his delegation celebrate after the UN General Assembly voted to
recognise Palestine as a non-member state. Source: AFP

Palestinians win UN recognition
The Australian Online
AFP 11:19am
Friday, November 30, 2012

THE UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to recognise Palestine as a non-member state, handing a major triumph to president Mahmud Abbas in the face of fierce US and Israeli opposition. Mr Abbas demanded the United Nations give a "birth certificate" to a Palestinian state and was rewarded with the backing of 138 countries. Only nine members heeded Israeli warnings that the move could lead to more violence and voted against.

Australia was among 41 countries which abstained, after opposition from Labor MPs forced Julia Gillard to abandon plans to vote against granting Palestine UN observer status. The UN vote lifts the status of the Palestinian Authority from an observer entity to a "non-member observer state" with the same status as the Vatican. Even though it is not a full member it can now join UN agencies and potentially join the International Criminal Court.

Israel immediately condemned Mr Abbas's speech to the General Assembly ahead of the vote as "defamatory and venomous." "The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the IDF (army) and the citizens of Israel," said a statement issued by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed the UN vote as "unfortunate and counterproductive", saying it "places further obstacles in the path to peace".

But in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians fired in the air, whistled and embraced each other in celebration after the vote. As the votes were cast, there was silence among the thousands gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which erupted with cheers of joy and chants of "God is greatest" when the 138-9 approval was announced. The Palestinian leadership says it wants to use the "historic" vote as a launchpad for talks with Israel which have been frozen for more than two years.

Mr Abbas, who embraced his foreign minister after the vote and was given repeated standing ovations, said the vote was "the last chance to save the two-state solution." In a 22-minute speech laced with references to Israel's assault this month against rockets fired from Gaza, Mr Abbas said Palestinians would accept "no less than the independence of the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital." He added: "We must repeat here once again our warning: the window of opportunity is narrowing and time is quickly running out. The rope of patience is shortening and hope is withering." Mr Abbas said UN members had to "issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine."

US ambassador Susan Rice condemned the vote as "an obstacle to peace" because it would not lead to a return to direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. "Today's grand pronouncements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little has changed," she told the assembly, in a grimly delivered statement. "This resolution does not establish that Palestine is a state." The United States blocked a Palestinian application for full membership of the United Nations that Mr Abbas made in September 2011. "The UN resolution will not confer statehood on the Palestinian Authority," Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor said. He added that making Palestine a non-member observer state at the UN "will place further obstacles and preconditions to negotiations and peace." He warned that it could lead to increased violence.

Major Muslim nations rallied behind Mr Abbas at the assembly. "No longer can the world turn a blind eye to the long sufferings of the Palestinian people," said Marty Natalegawa, foreign minister of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority state.

Mr Abbas was warned earlier by UN leader Ban Ki-moon that the Middle East peace process is on "life support" and Israel's Mr Netanyahu also said the UN General Assembly vote would not create a Palestinian state. Mr Ban urged both sides to return to talks which currently look a distant prospect, diplomats said. The Palestinian leader did not make any reference to the possibility of joining the International Criminal Court — a major worry for Israel. But Mr Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would consult with other countries about new steps after its diplomatic status is bolstered. "We will act responsibly and positively in our next steps, and we will work to strengthen cooperation with the countries and peoples of the world for the sake of a just peace," he said.

Talks between the two have been suspended since September 2010, with the Palestinians blaming Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The vote comes 10 days after a ceasefire ended a brief but bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that holds sway in the Gaza Strip and is a rival of Mr Abbas and his West Bank-based Fatah faction. The landmark General Assembly meeting was held on the 65th anniversary of a UN resolution on the division of the Palestinian territories into a two-state solution that Mr Ban said "remains tragically unfulfilled."

The Palestinians say 132 countries now recognize their state bilaterally and said the result was a boost. Several countries which do not recognise the Palestinian state, such as France, voted for the resolution. But several European countries, including some backing the bid, believe the Palestinians should have waited until after US President Barack Obama installed his new administration and Israel held elections, diplomats said. Success gives the Palestinians access to UN agencies and treaties but there are divided opinions over whether they will be able to automatically join the ICC. Palestinian envoys have said Mr Abbas will not rush to join the court but could use it if Israel does not change its policies on settlements and other matters.

The Palestinian Authority and UN agencies that accept Palestinian participation could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in financing because of the vote. US law prohibits funding for any international body recognizing a Palestinian state. Washington has warned Mr Abbas he risks losing around $200 million in aid, which is blocked in the US Congress. Israel is considering freezing the transfer of tax and customs funds it collects for the Palestinians, while one Israeli foreign ministry policy paper even suggested "toppling" the Palestinian Authority.

Israel responds to Palestine's UN recognition with new settlements
The Australian Online
AFP 1:50pm
Saturday, December 1, 2012

ISRAEL has revealed plans to build 3000 settler homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank in response to the Palestinians' historic success in being recognised as a non-member state at the United Nations. During the landmark Thursday vote in New York, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly backed a resolution recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders as a non-member observer state. It was a major diplomatic coup for the Palestinians but a stinging slap in the face for Israel, which had lobbied hard to prevent it, arguing that it would cripple peace hopes.

Reports of the decision to build the 3000 housing units in response to the UN vote emerged on Friday afternoon, with an official source confirming it to AFP. "It's true," he said, without specifying exactly where. Media reports said some of the construction would be in a highly contentious area of the West Bank known as E1, a corridor that runs between the easternmost edge of annexed Jerusalem and the Maaleh Adumim settlement. Palestinians bitterly oppose the E1 project, as it effectively cuts the occupied West Bank in two north to south and makes the creation of a viable Palestinian state highly problematic. The Palestinians want annexed east Jerusalem as capital of their promised, future state and vigorously oppose expansion plans for Maaleh Adumim, which lies five kilometres from the city's eastern edge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the UN vote as "a meaningless decision that will not change anything on the ground," and said peace could only be found in "direct negotiations… and not in one-sided UN decisions". But he also warned that by going to the UN, the Palestinians had "violated" previous agreements with Israel, such as the 1993 Oslo Accords, and that his country would "act accordingly."

A report on the Ynet news website said the decision to connect Maaleh Adumim with Jerusalem had been taken by Netanyahu's inner circle, the Forum of Nine, on Thursday. Earlier on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom had mooted the idea of building in E1 as a response to the UN move, which he said was a violation of agreements the Palestinians had signed with Israel, such as the Oslo Accords. "The violation of these agreements… means Israel can also take unilateral initiatives such as applying Israeli sovereignty in the territories or connecting Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem," he told public radio. Linking the settlement and the city is an idea long espoused by hardliners within Netanyahu's ruling rightwing Likud party but strongly opposed by Washington.

Israel has long feared that if the Palestinians won the rank of a UN non-member state, they could pursue the Jewish state for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague — particularly over its settlement building. Two days before the UN vote, Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour warned that if Israel continued "to illegally build settlements, which is a war crime from the point of view of the ICC and the Rome statute, then we will consult with all of our friends, including the Europeans, to (ask) them what should we do next to bring Israel into compliance" with UN resolutions.

With their newly acquired status, the Palestinians now have access to a range of UN agencies as well as to the ICC, but officials said they had no plans to immediately petition the tribunal. "If Israel refrains from settlement activities and so on… there's no immediate pressing reason to do that. If Israel persists in its violations, then certainly it will have to face accountability," Ashrawi said on Wednesday.

Friday's decision to build more settler homes was denounced by Peace Now, Israel's settlement watchdog. "Instead of punishing the Palestinians, this government is punishing Israel by making peace harder to achieve and showing that Israel does not want peace," said Hagit Ofran. "That is very dangerous." Arab east Jerusalem was captured by Israel with the rest of the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed in a move not recognised by the international community. Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its "eternal, indivisible" capital, and does not view construction in the eastern sector to be settlement activity.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised Israel's decision in a speech attended by top Israeli officials. "In light of today's announcement, let me reiterate that this administration — like previous administrations — has been very clear with Israel that these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace," Clinton said on Friday. Clinton was speaking at a forum in Washington hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were in the audience when she made her remarks.

In a wide-ranging speech also tackling the conflict in Syria and Iran's suspect nuclear program, Clinton highlighted the troubled Middle East peace process, calling on Israelis and Palestinians to get back to negotiations. "The most lasting solution to the stalemate in Gaza would be a comprehensive peace between Israel and all Palestinians, led by their legitimate representative, the Palestinian Authority," Clinton said. "This week's vote should give all of us pause. All sides need to consider carefully the path ahead. We all need to work together to find a path forward in negotiations that can deliver on the goal of a two-state solution. That remains our goal. "If and when the parties are ready to enter into direct negotiations to solve the conflict, President (Barack) Obama will be a full partner to them."

Israel launches strike on Palestine's finances in retaliation for UN coup
The Australian Online
Sheera Frenkel, The Times
Monday, December 3, 2012

ISRAEL is withholding millions of dollars in tax needed to pay civil servants in the West Bank in retaliation for the Palestinians' newly enhanced status at the UN. The decision not to hand over the money to the Palestinian Authority was taken hours before President Mahmoud Abbas returned to Ramallah to tell cheering crowds that "Palestine has accomplished a historic achievement at the UN … Yes, now we have a state".

The withholding of the funds — described by one Israeli official as a "just reprisal" for what it regards as a Palestinian violation of interim peace accords — comes after Israel's approval on Friday of a hugely contentious settlement building project in east Jerusalem that threatens further to isolate Israel internationally. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned last night that Israeli plans to build in east Jerusalem and the West Bank would deal an "almost fatal blow" to any prospects for peace with the Palestinians. But Israeli officials said that there could be more reprisals to come.

"The Palestinians were warned that there were measures that could be taken if they went forward with this unilateral step at the UN. We are now following through on that word," said one senior Israeli government official. "There are more measures that can be taken if the Palestinians continue to take unwise steps at the UN." Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said that the decision not to hand over the cash, ratified at a cabinet meeting yesterday morning, was taken because of the UN move and that about $US120 million ($115m) withheld this month would pay down debts the Palestinians owed for Israeli electricity.

The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority depends on the income from tariffs and customs Israel collects on its behalf to pay its workers, including its Western-trained police force. "Israel is trying to bring us to our knees," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian official. "They are trying to punish us for our success."

Despite international criticism of its plan to build in east Jerusalem, and the fact that just eight countries joined Israel in voting against the resolution at the UN to give the Palestinians non-member observer status, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "We are building and we will continue to build in Jerusalem and in all areas that are on the map of the strategic interests of the state of Israel."

The latest plan to expand settlement on contested land is especially sensitive as building in the area known as E1 would effectively slice the West Bank in two. One British diplomat called the plan to build "an absolute red line in diplomacy" and said that successive British and US governments had stressed the importance of not developing on this land. European governments, in particular, have grown increasingly impatient with the expansion of Israeli settlements. Spain and France voted for the Palestinian resolution at the UN last week, while Britain and Germany abstained. Britain and the US have criticised the building plans.

Israel has already laid the groundwork for possible construction. A police station and several roads jut out of a hill, waiting to be occupied. Benny Kashriel, the mayor of the nearby Ma'aleh Adumim settlement, said that he was hopeful that the Israeli government would begin immediate work on E1. "We are a thriving community and it only seems right that we should expand," said Hedva Miller, a 36-year-old resident of Ma'ale Adumim. "Let the Palestinians build somewhere else, or better yet let them move to Jordan."

In Ramallah, Mr Abbas said that his next priority was to work towards Palestinian unity with the Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip. "We will study over the course of the coming days the steps necessary to achieve reconciliation," he said. Hamas officials in Gaza said that they were receiving renewed diplomatic support from the Arab world in the wake of their ceasefire deal with Israel last month after a brief but bloody conflict. Tomorrow, Khaled Meshaal, the longtime leader of Hamas, who is exiled in Qatar, will visit Gaza for the first time.

Delegations from Bahrain and Qatar have already been to the long-isolated Gaza Strip, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his intention to visit. Many of the tunnels linking the Gaza Strip with Egypt, conduits for weapons and vital consumer goods, were destroyed during Israel's eight-day bombing campaign but are now being repaired and reopened.

Extract: Pressure mounts on Israel to reverse on settlements
The Australian Online
Tuesday, December 4, 2012

THE US and Europe have stepped up pressure on Israel to reverse course over new settlement plans that are seen as threatening the viability of a future Palestinian state. But Israel, whose settlements on occupied or annexed Palestinian land have long been a thorn in the side of peace efforts, remained defiant, insisted it would not back down and laid out revised plans for an additional 1600 homes.

Israeli settlement plans always raise hackles but Friday's proposals, seen as payback for the Palestinians winning non-member observer state status at the United Nations on Thursday, are considered particularly contentious. Israeli plans for construction in E1 have been on the cards since the early 1990s but have never been implemented due to heavy pressure, largely from the United States. The international outcry since Friday's move has been intense.

France summoned the Israeli ambassador to express its "grave concern" over the settlement plan, while Britain's Foreign Office called in Israel's envoy to "deplore" the decision and urge Israel to reconsider. Denmark, Spain and Sweden also summoned ambassadors to express deep concern, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued an unusually strong rebuke, calling the plans a "fatal blow" to the two-state solution.

The US State Department warned that the E1 area "is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution." President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney ramped up the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day, directly calling on him to change course. "We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these unilateral decisions and exercise restraint as these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations," Carney told reporters at the White House. Germany, Russia and Japan also criticized the Israeli plans.

But despite the clamor, Israel dug in and even went further by reviving a plan to construct 1600 new settler homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. "Israel continues to insist on its vital interests, even under international pressure. There will be no change in the decision that has been made," a source in Netanyahu's office said earlier. The Ramat Shlomo project caused a diplomatic rift between Israel and Washington when it was first announced in March 2010 but it has lain dormant since August 2011.

It was initially announced on March 9, 2010, as US Vice President Joe Biden met top Israeli officials in Jerusalem to boost Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Ramat Shlomo is a Jewish settlement in the mainly Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem which Israel seized in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognized by the international community. Hagit Ofran of Israel's settlement watchdog denounced the decision to advance the Ramat Shlomo plans. "The government is continuing to advance anything they can," she told AFP. "They're doing everything they can to avoid a two-state solution."

London and Paris rejected media reports that they were planning the unprecedented step of recalling their ambassadors to Israel over the plans, but both made their disquiet at developments known. "Construction in the E1 area would seriously undermine the two-state solution by isolating Jerusalem … from the West Bank and threatening the territorial contiguity and viability of a future Palestinian state," French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said. "We have told the Israeli government that if they go ahead with their decision, then there will be a strong reaction," Britain's Foreign Office said, without elaborating.

Editorial: Assad's chemical reaction
The Australian
Thursday, December 6, 2012

THE deployment of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would promote its obdurate leader Bashar al-Assad to a new grade of infamy. With reliable signs that he is contemplating the unthinkable, it is imperative the international community leaves him and his Russian patrons in no doubt about what the consequences will be of his actions.

Satellite surveillance shows four or five precursor chemicals used in producing sarin gas, normally stored at different sites across Syria, have been brought together at a single location — the prelude to weaponisation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned Assad he is about to cross a red line, a game-changer in the response to the Syrian uprising in which, according to the UN, 41,000 men, women and children have been slaughtered.

That Assad is now desperate enough to unleash these poisonous armaments is clear: rebels of the Free Syrian Army are close to central Damascus. The international airport had to be closed last week. Assad's forces are battling to secure it. NATO, in a move of major significance, is deploying Patriot interceptor missiles along Turkey's southern border to guard against possible attacks by Assad's Scud missiles (which can be equipped with chemical warheads). Importantly, the NATO missile batteries will be protected by 400 NATO troops. As well, the UN is withdrawing all non-essential staff from Syria, while Israel has been in touch with Jordan about bombing Syrian chemical weapons sites.

Not that anyone should be surprised if Assad does resort to chemical weapons: he boasts openly of his lethal chemical and biological arsenal, believed to be one of the world's largest. Last July, admitting existence of the arsenal, Assad said it would be deployed if Syria were ever attacked by foreign forces. He promised it would never be used against Syrians, but we have little confidence that he is a man of his word. So far he hasn't given a second thought to using every conceivable weapon against his own people, and there is no indication that he has reached the limits of his barbarism. Egged on by his close allies, Russia and Iran, he claims the Free Syrian Army forces to be "foreign", thereby in his crazed mind justifying the use of chemical weapons. Russia bears unique responsibility for ensuring Assad is stopped. And the rest of the international community, too, must ensure he is deterred.

A Jewish settler looks at the West bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem.
Source: AP
Later Same Day
Extract: Israel faces settlement backlash

THE Palestinians have reacted furiously to a controversial Israeli settlement plan passing a first hurdle, warning that the project would end all hopes for peace. Israel's plan for construction in a strip of West Bank land outside Jerusalem called E1 has sparked a major diplomatic backlash, with experts saying it could wipe out hopes for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Prague ahead of a trip to Berlin the diplomatic pressure intensified with the European Union summoning Israel's ambassador over the plan. Since Monday, Britain, France, Spain, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Egypt, Italy, Ireland and Finland have all taken similar steps in an unprecedented expression of concern over the E1 project, which experts say would isolate Arab east Jerusalem and cut the West Bank in two.

"If Israel decides to start building in E1 and approves all the settlements in it, we consider it to be an Israeli decision to end the peace process and the two-state solution, which ends any chance of talking about peace in the future," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the plan was "a red line that cannot be tolerated" and warned he would take all the legal means available to prevent such a "dangerous" decision. "We went to all international parties to prevent this settlement decision, and if it goes ahead we will resort to all legitimate and legal methods," he said.

With their newly-acquired UN status, the Palestinians now have access to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, sparking fears they could accuse Israel of crimes under the Geneva Convention over its settlement building.

But Mr Netanyahu, who is in the middle of an election campaign, has held firm on the project. "The root of the conflict is not the settlements; it is the very existence of the state of Israel and the desire to wipe it off the face of the earth," he said.

The settlement crisis looked set to play centre stage at Mr Netanyahu's talks in Berlin, which has urged him to withdraw the E1 plans. "Israel is undermining faith in its willingness to negotiate, and the geographic space for a future Palestinian state — which must be the basis for a two-state solution — is disappearing," the German government said. Tensions between the two allies had flared last week over the UN vote with Berlin abstaining despite Israeli hopes it would vote against the move.

The E1 settlement plan has been on hold since 2005 following heavy US pressure. Public radio said a defence committee had backed plans for 3,200 homes in E1 and in annexed east Jerusalem, which would now be made available for public objections for 60 days. An Israeli official told AFP the plan would have to pass another few stages before construction could begin in a process which could take up to a few years. "Final approval for the plan will have to come from the political level. There won't be any bulldozers going in any time soon. It will take at least several months, if not years," he told AFP.

US plots to arm Syrian rebels with Gaddafi leftovers
The Australian
Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times, AP
Monday, December 10, 2012

THE US is launching a covert operation to send weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time as it ramps up military efforts to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles will be sent through friendly Middle Eastern countries already supplying the rebels, according to well-placed diplomatic sources. The US has bought weapons from the stockpiles of Libya's former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They include SA-7 missiles, which can be used to shoot down aircraft.

The rebels are gaining ground after 20 months of civil war in which an estimated 40,000 Syrians have died. They have entered the suburbs of Damascus and have surrounded its airport. US State Department officials are in regular contact with rebel field commanders, talking to them on Skype for hours every day. The commanders have repeatedly pressed for more weapons. President Barack Obama authorised clandestine CIA support earlier this year and both the US and Britain have had special forces and intelligence officers on the ground for some time. They have helped with logistics and communications, but until now have refused to arm the Free Syrian Army, offering only "non- lethal assistance" such as humanitarian aid.

The US decision to supply weapons follows reports of movements at Syria's chemical weapons sites. The White House is increasingly keen to hasten the end of the regime and ensure its influence with any post-Assad government. Concerns that US-supplied weapons could fall into the hands of Islamists linked to al-Qa'ida have been partly eased by the formation of a National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which will co-ordinate up to 300 rebel groups.

The move towards greater unity on the armed front comes as the US and others try to strengthen the opposition's leadership while sidelining extremist factions that have become a vital part of the rebels' ground forces. The US will send in more advisers to help with tactics and manage weapons supplies. British advisers are also expected to be sent. The US and Britain are already training Jordanian and Turkish advisers to support the rebels. The US is also intensifying diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to attend a Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco on Wednesday, when the US is expected to recognise the opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Meanwhile, rebel commanders from around Syria have joined forces under a united command they hope will increase co-ordination between diverse fighting groups and streamline the pathway for arms essential to their struggle against the Assad regime. About 500 delegates elected the 30-member Supreme Military Council and a chief of staff at the weekend, and planned to meet representatives from the opposition's newly reorganised political leadership, participants said.

It remains unclear how the new military command will relate to the opposition coalition and whether foreign powers will back it. But two of Syria's most extreme rebel groups were not included: Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed deadly suicide bombings and is believed to be linked to al-Qa'ida, and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamic fundamentalist brigade that is home to many foreign jihadis. However, many of the participating groups have strong Islamist agendas, including the Tawheed Brigade, whose ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Falcons of Damascus, an ultra-conservative Islamist group.

Israel rejects EU outcry over new settlements
The Australian Online
Tuesday, December 11, 2012

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scoffed at international criticism of his plans to build settler housing on occupied land east of Jerusalem. Speaking to foreign journalists, he compared the E1 plan to build between largely Arab east Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumin, to the accepted goal of a Palestinian state embracing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"I don't understand how people say that a Palestinian state cannot exist if Maalah Adumim is connected to Jerusalem," he said. "These are the same people who say that you'll have a Palestinian state between Gaza and the West Bank, and they're divided by 60-70km. "That's fine, that doesn't preclude a Palestinian state in their minds but the fact that Maaleh Adumim can be connected to Jerusalem by a corridor of 2-3km, (they say) that somehow prevents a Palestinian state. That's not true. It's simply false."

The EU said yesterday it is "deeply dismayed" by latest settlement plans put forward by Mr Netanyahu after the Palestinians won an historic upgrade of their diplomatic status at the UN. "The European Union is deeply dismayed by and strongly opposes Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, including in east Jerusalem, and in particular plans to develop the E1 area," the 27 EU foreign ministers said in a statement. The E1 plan "if implemented, would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict" as it would question the viability of the two-state settlement central to the peace process.

An Israeli foreign ministry statement said that the EU position was "one-sided". "Facts and history both prove that Jewish settlement never constituted an obstacle to peace," it said. "The root cause of the absence of a peace accord is the Palestinian refusal to engage in direct negotiations and their unwillingness to recognise Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. "This one-sided position taken by the EU rewards rejectionism."

Direct peace talks which began in September 2010 collapsed quickly in a dispute over settlements, with the Palestinians calling for a construction freeze and Israel arguing for a return to talks without such preconditions. Before the start of talks in 2010, Israel observed a 10-month freeze on new West Bank construction but has refused repeated requests to renew it, dismissing them as an unacceptable "precondition" for talks.

EU inaction reminds Israel of Nazi camps, says Avigdor Lieberman
The Australian Online
Wednesday, December 12, 2012

ISRAEL'S Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has criticised Europe, saying its treatment of the Jewish state was comparable to policies during the Holocaust. Mr Lieberman said Europe had turned a blind eye to a speech by Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal this week, in which he said the Palestinians would not "cede an inch" of historic Palestine, which covers modern Israel. "Once again, Europe has ignored calls for Israel's destruction," Mr Lieberman told Israeli public radio. "We've already seen this at the end of the 1930s and at the beginning of the 1940s when Europe knew what was happening in the concentration camps and didn't act. Europe has slapped itself in the face."

"When Jews are sacrificed, you have to ask yourself who will be next. In Toulouse, the terrorist who killed Jewish children also killed French soldiers." Mr Lieberman was referring to Mohamed Merah, who killed three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in the French city of Toulouse in March, days after killing three French troops. "Terrorism attacks Jews but it targets all countries and Western values. Israel is just an hors d'oeuvre," he said.

Mr Lieberman also criticised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for failing to publicly criticise Mr Meshaal's speech and pursuing reconciliation with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which runs the Gaza Strip. "Hamas calls for Israel's destruction and refused to recognise Israel and Abu Mazen (Abbas) supports this position while Europe stays quiet," he said.

Later in the day, Mr Lieberman said Israel would withhold taxes and customs duties it collected for the Palestinians for four months to pay back debts. "We paid up to this point advances for salaries of Palestinian Authority employees of approximately 700 million shekels ($175m)," he told members of his Yisrael Beitenu party last night. Another 900 million we paid and absorbed, expenses Palestinians didn't pay for electricity and water. A total of 1.6 billion shekels in all. Therefore, what we are doing for four months now is we will take back our money, it's not their money. They can forget about receiving even one penny for four months. We will return our money, and then consider how to proceed."

Israel normally transfers 460 million shekels a month before deductions. Following the Palestinians' successful bid for upgraded UN status, Israel had halted December's transfer, with a finance ministry spokeswoman saying the decision applied only to that month. The finance ministry and Prime Minister's office, which ultimately decide on such punitive measures, were not immediately available for comment on Mr Lieberman's statement, which comes ahead of a January 22 general election.

Extract: Russia positions itself for fall of President Bashar Assad
The Australian Online
Friday, December 14, 2012

SYRIA's most powerful ally and protector, Russia, has begun positioning itself for the fall of President Bashar Assad, saying for the first time that rebels might overthrow him and preparing to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens from the country. The head of NATO echoed the Russian assessment, saying the Syrian government is near collapse following a nearly two-year conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people and threatened to ignite the Middle East. Assad appears to be running out of options, with insurgents at the gates of the capital and the country fracturing under the weight of a devastating civil war.

"An opposition victory can't be excluded, unfortunately, but it's necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Moscow's Middle East envoy, said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body. Still, Bogdanov gave no immediate signal that Russia would change its pro-Syria stance at the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has shielded Damascus from world sanctions.

The US commended Russia "for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime's days are numbered," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "We call on Russia to work with us … work with the various stakeholders in Syria to start moving towards a transitional structure, and we would like to have their help in doing that," she added.

Russia's acknowledgment that Assad could lose the fight is an embarrassing blow to the regime, which describes the rebels as terrorists sent from abroad with no popular support. But the rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks, seizing large swaths of territory in the north and expanding their control on the outskirts of the capital, pushing the fight closer to Assad's seat of power. The opposition still faces enormous obstacles, however, including the fact that some of its greatest battlefield successes are by extremist groups the West does not want to see running Syria — something that could hamper international support.

Yesterday, the US, Europe and their allies recognized the newly reorganized opposition leadership, giving it a stamp of credibility even though it remains to be seen if the new bloc holds much sway with the fighters on the ground. At the same time, the regime has come under fresh condemnation as Western officials raise concerns that Assad might use chemical weapons against rebels in an act of desperation. The US and NATO also say Assad's forces have fired Scud missiles at rebel areas. "We can't confirm details of the missiles, but some of the information indicates they were Scud-type missiles," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels. "In general, I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse. I think now it's only a question of time."

Syria denied the Scud allegations. The government also has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people. Syria is believed to have a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas, although the exact dimensions are not known.

At Thursday's hearings in Moscow, Bogdanov said the Foreign Ministry is preparing evacuation plans for thousands of its citizens, most of whom are Russian women, married to Syrian men, and their children. "We are dealing with issues related to the preparation for evacuation," Bogdanov said. "We have mobilization plans. We are finding out where our citizens are."

Russia's ties to Syria date back to Assad's father, Hafez, who ruled from 1971 until his death in June 2000. In the last four decades, Russia has sold Syria billions of dollars' worth of weapons. A change in power in Damascus could not only cost Russia lucrative trade deals, but also reduce Russia's political and strategic interests in the Arab world. Those interests include a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus — the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.

The Russians also strongly oppose a world order dominated by the United States, and they are keen to avoid a repeat of last year's NATO air campaign that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a former ally of Moscow. Bogdanov's remarks will likely be seen in Damascus as a betrayal of longstanding ties. There was no immediate reaction from the Syrian regime.

Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist based in a rebel-held neighborhood of Homs in central Syria, said he is encouraged by Bogdanov's comments because Russia is in a position to know about the strength of Assad's forces. "The Russians know his capabilities and his military force. Russia knows what warplanes and what weapons he has," Abu Bilal said via Skype. "The Free Syrian Army is on the verge of strangling Damascus, and this indicates that the regime is reaching an end," he added, referring to the main rebel fighting force.

The conflict began amid the Arab Spring in March 2011 as peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for four decades. But a ferocious crackdown on demonstrators led many to take up arms against the government, and the uprising soon transformed into a civil war. As the death toll mounted, Assad, a 47-year-old eye doctor by training, has become a global pariah.

Russia, China and Iran are among his last remaining allies. Mr Bogdanov warned that it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and said Syria would suffer heavy casualties. "The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people," he said. "If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do ' We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."

Extract: Israel approves 1500 settler homes
The Australian Online
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

ISRAEL has given the green light for developers to go ahead with controversial plans to build 1500 settler homes in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Interior ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach says a planning committee has told the applicants to trim their request to build 1600 new housing units at Ramat Shlomo to 1500 and resubmit it "for final approval".

The Palestinian leadership responded by saying it will seek a UN Security Council meeting on the Israeli plans to build the new settler homes. The leadership is about to take "important and necessary measures against Israel's settlement building, including recourse to the UN Security Council, to prevent implementation of these decisions", President Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said.

Ms Orbach said that at a meeting yesterday, the committee heard public objections and ordered changes. "It reduced the plan from 1600 to 1500 and now the plan has to be resubmitted and meet the conditions in order to get final approval," she said. "It could take months more, or years."

Same Day
United Nations arms troops fearing Syrian chemical weapons

THE United Nations is sending chemical weapons kits to UN troops in the Golan Heights because of growing fears over Syria's deadly non-conventional arsenal, officials say. UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous briefed the UN Security Council on efforts to bolster the safety of the UN force, which monitors a ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel, after five troops were injured in attacks.

"We have taken measures to enhance security," he told reporters after the meeting on Monday. "For those personnel who are not equipped on a national basis we are sending them some kits to protect them from chemical attack, if that were to happen." Extra armoured cars have also been sent from other missions to the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974.

There are about 1000 unarmed troops from Austria, Croatia, India, Japan and Philippines in UNDOF. The Indian troops, at least, are known not to have chemical weapon protection. Five Austrians were wounded, two seriously, when a convoy taking US troops from the Golan Heights to Damascus airport came under attack earlier this month. There have been a number of incidents in the ceasefire zone this year. "There have been increasing difficulties fulfilling its mandate," Mr Ladsous said. "The multiplication of incidents is really a concern."

The United States said earlier this month that it had intelligence showing Syria was considering using its chemical weapons. US President Barack Obama led international warnings to President Bashar al-Assad over the arsenal. Mr Ladsous also confirmed that the United Nations is drawing up contingency plans to send a possible international force to Syria if the government collapses, but the UN peacekeeping chief gave no details. "It is contingency planning based on a number of possible scenarios. But the work is going on," he said.

Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said, meanwhile, that Damascus is "genuinely worried" that some countries might equip extremist groups with chemical weapons and then claim they were used by the government. Jaafari also accused the United States of backing "terrorist" groups in Syria in a letter to UN leader Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council which was released on Monday. The letter reaffirmed the Assad government's denial that it would use chemical weapons. "It is defending its people from terrorists backed by well-known states, at the forefront of which is the United States of America," Mr Jaafari said.

US 'deeply disappointed' in Israeli settlement plans
The Australian Online
Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE US has slammed plans being mulled by Israel to build almost 5000 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, saying it would run "counter to the cause of peace". "We are deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in her strongest remarks in recent days on the settlement issue. "Israel's leaders continually say that they support a path towards a two-state solution, yet these actions only put that goal further at risk."

Jerusalem municipal and district committees will consider four projects this week in the Givat HaMatos and Gilo neighbourhoods, said non-governmental groups Peace Now and Terrestrial Jerusalem, which track settlement construction. The projects are being discussed after Israel on Monday gave the green light for the construction of 1500 homes in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo, in a move which has already drawn sharp US criticism. The other settlement plans being weighed this week are all in the southern sector of the city, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Ms Nuland said the criticism of Israel reflects the fact that "we're concerned about the actions that have happened in the last 24 hours and the continued acceleration". "We are not in a good cycle here. We need to break this cycle, end the provocative actions and get these parties back to the table," she said of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have been stalled for two years. It is not easy; it has not been easy for quite some time. We can't want this more than the parties themselves want it." Jerusalem is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as the capital of a future state, and is one of the core issues to be settled in the peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday reiterated Israel's right to increase Jewish presence in all parts of "united" Jerusalem, a euphemism for the city including its eastern sector. "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the State of Israel and we will continue to build in it," he said in remarks relayed by his office. Israel captured east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the world. The Palestinians have refused to return to the talks until Israel calls a freeze on all settlement building.

UN, Europe, Russia warn Israel over settlements
The Australian Online
Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE UN and all Security Council powers except the US have condemned Israel's heightened settler construction in the Palestinian territories as a threat to flagging peace efforts. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Israel was on a "dangerous path", while EU nations said Israel was "undermining faith" in its willingness to negotiate with Palestinian leaders. Russia's UN envoy called the Israeli construction "fraught" with risks and a threat to decades of efforts for a two-state end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. China also called on Israel to pull back from confrontation. The US, Israel's main ally, was starkly absent from repeated statements of condemnation made after a Security Council meeting dominated by the growing settlement showdown.

Israel has approved thousands of new homes in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem since the UN General Assembly voted on November 29 to recognise Palestine as a non-member state. Israel approved plans to build 2610 homes in east Jerusalem and tenders for 1048 units in the West Bank just before the UN meeting.

Mr Ban said the Israel-Palestinian peace process was in "deep freeze", worsened by the settlement approvals. "I call on Israel to refrain from continuing on this dangerous path, which will undermine the prospects for a resumption of dialogue and a peaceful future for Palestinians and Israelis alike," he said. "Let us get the peace process back on track before it is too late." The UN also called on Israel to end its freeze on transferring customs and tax payments that it collects for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.

UN ambassadors from Britain, France, Germany and Portugal highlighted European fears over the peace stalemate and stressed that their governments "strongly oppose" the Israeli construction. "Israel's announcements to accelerate the construction of settlements send a negative message and are undermining faith in its willingness to negotiate," they said in a statement read by British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant. "The viability of the two-state solution, that is key for Israel's long-term security, is threatened by the systematic expansion of settlements."

Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said: "The situation could be defused should Israel reconsider the settlement constructions plans." Mr Churkin called for an urgent ministerial meeting of the diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East — the US, EU, Russia and UN — in a bid to revive direct Israel-Palestinian talks suspended since September 2010. Non-aligned members of the Security Council — Azerbaijan, Colombia, India, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan, South Africa and Togo — read their own statement of condemnation. China also joined the protest, before all were rebuffed by Israel.

Israel's UN ambassador Ron Prosor said the new announcements were "planning and zoning" and that it could take years before the government allows the start of construction. Prosor questioned how a contiguous state between Gaza and the West Bank could be created without cutting Israel in two. He said settlements were "not the major hurdle to peace" and the Palestinians should return to talks without conditions.

Hamas aims for West Bank takeover
The Australian
Uzi Mahnaimi, The Times
Monday, December 24, 2012

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been warned by his intelligence services that the Islamist group Hamas could seize power in the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza five years ago. A report by Aman, the military intelligence service, said Hamas sleeper cells in the West Bank had been ordered by Khaled Meshaal, its political leader, who is based partly in Egypt, to prepare for a struggle to take control. The analysis is supported by the security service Shin Bet.

According to military intelligence, there are strong indications that Iran is encouraging Hamas to replace Fatah, the more moderate party led by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority. This would create a third proxy force, after Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, through which Iran could retaliate for any attack on its nuclear program from Israel.

After a long period as Hamas's main sponsor, Shi'ite Iran cooled towards the Sunni Palestinian movement when it supported the rebels attempting to oust Syria's Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Tehran. Hamas offices in Damascus were closed and its operatives moved to Qatar and Egypt. However, as Assad's position has weakened, the relationship between Iran and Hamas has been restored.

Iran regards Hamas as a strategic asset in the struggle against Israel. According to Israeli defence sources, Hamas militants are financed through Iran's Revolutionary Guards. "Iran is losing its strongest Middle East ally, Syria. It can't afford to lose its Palestinian outposts surrounding Israel," one defence source said. Last week Hamas put on a show of force when thousands of its supporters marched through the West Bank cities of Hebron and Nablus waving their green flags while Palestinian security forces stood by. Some observers said it seemed the Arab Spring was coming to the West Bank.

A close associate of Mr Netanyahu said: "Bibi (his nickname) understands the geopolitical changes in the Middle East. No way would (he) give up an inch of the West Bank — he is convinced that the intelligence assessment about a Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas) takeover is solid." Before last week's cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu said Hamas had called for the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem. "We have been here in Jerusalem for 3000 years. We have been in the land of Israel for close to 4000 years, and we'll remain here forever," he added.

Since the Palestinians won recognition as a non-member observer state at the UN last month, the Israeli government, which faces a general election in the new year, has approved the building of thousands of homes for settlers in the West Bank.

General Tawfiq Tirawi, a senior Fatah member and former head of Palestinian general intelligence, said: "We're on the verge of catastrophe. Hamas wants intifada (an uprising) and now only a spark is needed to light the inferno. Hamas will take over the West Bank." General Tirawi believes Israel is inadvertently helping to bring Hamas to power by not introducing any political solution. Munib al-Masri, a Palestinian businessman who has tried to mediate between Hamas and Fatah, believes reconciliation is now out of the question. "Iran is financing Hamas in the West Bank," he said.

A new survey by Khalil Shikaki, a Jerusalem-based pollster, found that 48 per cent of those in the West Bank support Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's Gaza leader, compared with 45 per cent for Mr Abbas. "Most of the people are with Hamas. They have the determination. They represent the resistance to Israel," Mr Masri said.

Benjamin Netanyahu launches his election campaign yesterday. Source: Getty Images

Israel fast-tracks plan to build settler units
The Australian
Thursday, December 27, 2012

ISRAEL has advanced the process of building 942 more settler homes in East Jerusalem under a new fast-track plan to tighten its grip on the territory, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.

The plan's announcement came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday launched his campaign for the January 22 general election with a pledge that halting Tehran's nuclear program would be his first priority as premier. "Who do (Israeli voters) think is the most suitable candidate to deal with the Iranian threat ' With the missile threat ' With the threat of terror ?" he asked supporters in Jerusalem. In his speech, Mr Netanyahu expanded at length for his domestic audience on what he termed his government's economic achievements and laid out his goals. He only briefly addressed the peace process. "Our hand will continue to be extended to our neighbours for true and mutual peace, while continuing to insist on the state of Israel's vital interests — I'm telling you — in the face of all the pressure," he said.

The green light for the fast-track development of 942 settlement units around Jerusalem brings the total number of new approvals to more than 5000 in just over a week — the largest wave of proposed expansion in recent memory. A government planning committee on Monday moved the project to the advanced stage of asking contractors to submit bids to build them, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday. Once a bid is awarded, construction can begin on the project in the Gilo area, although it can take months, if not longer, to reach that point.

An extra 300 units could be built after further planning, said attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem construction who sees the building as an obstacle to peacemaking. About 40,000 Israelis live in Gilo. "With God's help, we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which will remain united under Israeli sovereignty," Mr Netanyahu said at his campaign launch. "We will continue to strengthen the settlements."

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the new Israeli announcement was a "red line" that would block the chance for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which a Palestinian state would be established alongside Israel. "The Palestinian Authority will take all the possible means available to respond to this," said Abu Rdeneh. The statement was posted on the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

Polls predict Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, which is running on a joint list with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, will be by far the largest party in the next parliament.

Mr Lieberman, who this month resigned from Mr Netanyahu's cabinet after Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said he would charge him with breach of trust, used the opportunity to blame Mr Abbas for the freeze in peace talks. "I hear people reproaching us, that we need to speak with Abu Mazen and the Palestinians," he said using Mr Abbas's nom de guerre. "The enlightened Left … offered to return to the 1967 borders and divide Jerusalem and Abu Mazen said nyet," Moldovan-born Mr Lieberman said, using the Russian word for "no". After the event, Mr Lieberman was taken for further questioning by the police following Mr Weinstein's decision to reopen the investigation and possibly toughen the charges against the former minister. Mr Lieberman, despite resigning from cabinet, is still running for cabinet as Mr Netanyahu's No 2.

Pro-settler party puts Benjamin Netanyahu on notice
The Australian
Sheera Frenkel, The Times
Friday, January 4, 2013

THREE weeks before Israel holds elections, Benjamin Netanyahu's lead in the polls is slipping away as a pro-settler party is poised to make spectacular gains. According to the latest polls, the joint list led by the Israeli Prime Minister and Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-line former foreign minister, is projected to win 33 or 34 seats in the 120-seat Knesset — 10 fewer than predicted a month ago.

The Jewish Home Party, led by Naftali Bennett, a champion of settlements in the occupied territories, is likely to emerge as the third-largest force. One poll predicted it would win up to 17 seats.

Mr Bennett, a former aide to Mr Netanyahu, has said that as a reserve soldier in the Israeli army, he would refuse an order to evacuate a Jewish settlement. Analysts said his image as a "clean outsider" and "straight-talking politician" had won over many young voters. "There is a 'Bennett phenomenon' right now," an editorial in Israel's Maariv newspaper said.

Mr Netanyahu's Likud party has responded to the challenge from the Right by hardening its support for the settler movement. One cabinet minister yesterday called for a gradual annexation of the West Bank. His comments were followed by Moshe Feiglin, a popular Likud candidate, who said Israel should take money out of its defence budget and offer $500,000 to each Palestinian who moved to another country.

"These extreme statements are actually good for Netanyahu. They serve him in the battle for right-wing votes that have shifted from the Likud to the Jewish Home Party," a senior Likud figure told Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. It said Mr Netanyahu was loath to bring Mr Bennett into his coalition, but the latter's popularity could force him to reconsider.

Another Likud candidate said forming a joint list with Mr Lieberman was a mistake. Mr Lieberman is facing charges of fraud and breach of trust over his political appointments in the Foreign Ministry.

Israel evicts E-1 tent activists
The Australian
Monday, January 14, 2013

JERUSALEM: Palestinians who pitched tents at a strategic West Bank site to protest against plans to build a Jewish housing project were evicted yesterday. The activists erected tents in the area known as E-1 on Friday, saying they wanted to "establish facts on the ground" to stop Israeli construction in the West Bank. They were borrowing from a phrase and a tactic associated with Jewish settlers who believe that establishing communities means the territory will remain theirs once structures are built.

Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police evicted about 100 protesters after a court decision authorising their removal. Haaretz newspaper reported that the eviction was carried out despite a temporary High Court injunction preventing it. Mr Rosenfeld said no arrests were made during the half-hour operation and no injuries were sustained on either side. He said the tents were not dismantled and that a decision on that would be made later in the day.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered roads leading to the area to be closed early yesterday and had it declared a military zone. Mr Netanyahu's office said that the state was petitioning the Supreme Court to rescind an injunction blocking the evacuation. Israel announced it was moving forward with the E-1 settlement after the UN recognised a de facto state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in November.

Palestinians say E-1 would be a major blow to their statehood aspirations as it blocks East Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland. They are demanding these areas, along with Gaza, for their future state. The construction plans drew unusually sharp criticism from some of Israel's staunchest allies, including the US, which strongly opposes the E-1 project.

In a separate incident, the Israeli military said soldiers shot at a Palestinian who "tried to infiltrate Israel" from the West Bank. The military said soldiers had called on the man to stop, then fired warning shots in the air, and finally fired at his legs when he refused to stop. Palestinian police said he later died. It was the second shooting death on the borders with the Palestinian territories in two days. On Friday, Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip said a man was shot and killed near the coastal territory's border fence.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, visits the northern command. Getty Images

Israel 'to maintain control of E1 parcel'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, January 15, 2013

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has restated his determination to maintain control over a controversial parcel of land between Jerusalem and a major Jewish settlement. The determination comes in the face of standing international concern and a High Court order allowing protesters to remain in the area until the issue is determined. The High Court had given a six-day stay of execution on an evacuation order of the land while it considered legal arguments.

But Mr Netanyahu declared the land a "closed military zone" and his government argued the court order prevented the removal of the tents but not the protesters. He told cabinet yesterday that his government would ensure the area remained under Israeli control. "We will not allow anyone to harm the contiguity between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim," he said. An investigation by Israeli newspaper Haaretz concluded that the land in question known as the E1 is private Palestinian land. It is part of the West Bank, or Palestinian territories, which Israel occupies.

Immediately following the UN's upgrading of the status of "Palestine" late last year, Israel announced that it would begin building in E1 regarded as particularly sensitive because it would prevent access by Palestinians to East Jerusalem, which they want as their capital. That announcement was met with condemnation from many countries, including Australia. The Jewish settlements are regarded as illegal under international law. Israel insists they are legal.

Mr Netanyahu's comments yesterday came after he ordered the army to evacuate about 200 protesters — including Palestinians, Israelis and internationals — who had set up an "outpost" on the land. They were employing the tactic of many Jewish settlers who regularly establish tented communities in the West Bank, called outposts, and then expand them. While occasionally the Israeli government demolishes one of the outposts — which unlike settlements are illegal under Israeli law — Israel allows most to remain and often legalises them.

The issue comes as Israel prepares for national elections next Tuesday. Mr Netanyahu's Likud is being challenged by the Jewish Home party, which is being led by 40-year-old millionaire Naftali Bennett. Mr Bennett is a supporter of "Greater Israel" under which Israel would annex the majority of the West Bank, effectively preventing a Palestinian state. He recently said when it came to the conflict with Palestinians most Israelis "couldn't care less". He said in another interview that if he were given an order in his reserve army role to evict a Jewish person he would refuse. Opinion polls have shown his party taking votes from Likud.

The right-wing parties seem likely to win more votes than the Centre and Left parties — making a returned Netanyahu-led government the most likely result. Under Israel's system, if the result is close the country's president makes a judgment about which "bloc" is best placed to form a stable government. In the last election, in 2009, Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, gained more votes than Likud, led by Mr Netanyahu. However, President Shimon Peres judged that Mr Netanyahu was better placed to form a stable government.

Children killed in Syrian massacre
The Australian Online
Sheera Frenkel, Amman, The Times
Additional reporting: AFP
Friday, January 18, 2013

MORE than 100 civilians, including women and children, have been killed in a new massacre in the Syrian city of Homs, a watchdog said last night, as a multinational force on the border that is poised to seize and secure the nation's chemical weapons arsenal was moved to the highest state of alert. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths came when the army on Tuesday swept through farmland north of Homs, where about 1000 people had sought refuge from fighting ravaging the central city. "The Syrian regime carried out a new massacre on Tuesday claiming 106 victims, including women and children," said the Britain-based watchdog.

Diplomats and government officials in Jordan said the alert level for the multinational detachment on the border was raised after rebels made gains near the town of al-Safira, southeast of Aleppo, where there is a military base and a complex storing chemical weapons. The detachment includes a British reconnaissance team. The Americans, Chinese, Russians, Saudi Arabians, Qataris, Turks and Jordanians have all told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that action will be taken if the weapons fall out of his control or are used against civilians.

"All of the necessary preparation must be made now, because if they choose to use these weapons, or if the base is suddenly not secure, there will be no time to organise — there would need to be action immediately," said an Israeli officer involved in the effort.

If required, the detachment in Jordan has plans to secure chemical weapons before moving them out of Syria for destruction and disposal, although this could take weeks or months, according to diplomats. "It is widely seen as preferable that teams move in and secure the weapons, rather than try to launch airstrikes to destroy them," said a British diplomat. Airstrikes on chemical weapons risked airborne dispersal of the agents, and accidental civilian casualties, he said.

Washington had troops available to help, but the US was pushing Arab nations to take roles to avoid any portrayal of the action as a Western invasion, said the diplomat. Jordanian officials said the use of their special forces was under discussion. Israel has made separate contingency plans to destroy the weapons if they start to move into the hands of Islamist groups.

Meanwhile, rebels trying to break a months-long deadlock in their battle for Aleppo, Syria's second city, are cutting supply routes ahead of simultaneous assaults on regime bases. The rebels are fighting regime troops at a base defending Aleppo's international airport, a strategic facility in the southeast of the city. Earlier, each side blamed the other for two explosions on Tuesday at Aleppo University that killed at least 87 people.

Bob Carr has urged Barack Obama to kickstart the Middle-East peace process. Picture: Jane Dempster Source: The Australian

Bob Carr in joint plea to US on Mid-East
Weekend Australian
Cameron Stewart
Additional reporting: Milanda Rout
Saturday, January 19, 2013

AUSTRALIA and Britain have issued an urgent plea to US President Barack Obama to kickstart the Middle-East peace process, condemning the expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as "illegal" under international law. The strongly worded surprise declaration, released after the Australia-Britain ministerial talks in Perth yesterday, reflects a belief that time is running out for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians without dramatic intervention from the Obama administration.

"We believe this is not business as usual when it comes to the Middle-East peace process," Foreign Minister Bob Carr said. "The US is the only country with the authority and influence to lead a major effort to get negotiations which lead to an outcome."

The AUKMIN communique said there was now a "particularly urgent need" for progress in the stalled peace process and Washington must take the lead. "The UK and Australia call on the US to lead a major effort in 2013 for a negotiated two-state solution with a secure Israel alongside a Palestinian state. History has shown that only the US has the influence and capability to bring both sides together. Past progress has only been achieved through US leadership."

It said neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority should create obstacles to serious discussions. "We call on Israel to stop settlement activity. All settlements are illegal under international law and settlement activity undermines the prospects for peace. Australia and Britain expressed particular concern regarding the recent settlement announcements of the Israel government, including the proposed (E1) development."

Senator Carr said the description of Israeli settlements as illegal did not represent a toughening of Australia's stance but was a consistent position which "goes back to the Fraser government". He said it was based on the Geneva Convention, which bans occupying powers from settling people on conquered territory. "We say all settlements are illegal under international law," Senator Carr said. "It won't be lost that a Labor government in Australia and a conservative government in the UK are settling on this language: time is running out."

Israel announced last month an expansion of its settlements in the West Bank after the UN voted to upgrade Palestinian status. Britain and Australia abstained from the vote, angering Israel. Julia Gillard wanted to vote against the UN resolution but was rolled by cabinet colleagues, including Senator Carr. When asked whether the Prime Minister supported her Foreign Minister's stance on settlements, a spokesman for Ms Gillard said: "The government's position is reflected in the communique."

The statement yesterday was unusual in the context of an AUKMIN meeting and represents a clear plan by both countries to elevate the issue of the Middle-East peace process this year. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the US needed now to make the greatest effort since the Oslo peace accord in the 1990s to achieve a breakthrough. He said the imminent holding of Israeli elections and the passing of the US presidential election presented a rare window of opportunity. "The prospect of a two-state solution is steadily slipping away and we don't have much longer to bring it about," Mr Hague said.

Labor MP Michael Danby said Australian government policy — in contrast to the British Conservatives — was for all parties to resume face to face negotiations "without preconditions". "If Senator Carr has changed Australian government policy the rest of us don't know about it."

Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said he did not agree with the comments made about Israeli settlements but welcomed the call for Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. "Their claims of the illegality of settlements are dubious and have been disputed, not only by Israel but by some of the world's top lawyers," he said. "Senator Carr and Foreign Secretary Hague should take into account that Israeli policies since 2004 have prevented any new settlements or the expansion of the boundaries of existing settlements, which take up less than 2 per cent of the West Bank."

Zionist Federation of Australia president Philip Chester said the language of the communique was worrying.

Rabbi Hillel Horowitz called for return to Gaza
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday - Tuesday, January 21 - 22, 2013

ISRAEL's extremist pro-settler party, Jewish Home, is engulfed in a new controversy with the revelation that one of its candidates had called for Jewish settlers to return to the Gaza Strip. Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, from Hebron, said about a year ago the party would do "everything we can" to return settlers to evacuated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "We will take action to bring about Israel's annexation of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria," he said, using the biblical name of the West Bank. "It is simple: we will act with all our strength on behalf of the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the people of Israel."

The references came as it was revealed that another of the party's candidates had said it would be "incredible" if the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was "blown up". US-born rabbi Jeremy Gimpel made his comment while speaking to Christian Zionists in Florida in November 2011. Mr Gimpel told the audience: "Imagine today if the Golden Dome — I'm being recorded, so I can't say 'blown up' — but let's say it was blown up, right, and we laid the cornerstone of the Temple in Jerusalem. Can you imagine what would be ' None of you would be here. You would be going to Israel. It would be incredible."

The Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, is one of the most sensitive sites in the Islamic world. A new Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, deals with a plot by Jewish extremists in the 1990s to blow up the mosque. In the documentary, former security chief Carmi Gillon warns that had such a plot succeeded, it would have brought an uprising throughout the Islamic world, including Indonesia. Defending the speech, Mr Gimpel said the comments were part of "a few jokes". He told The Jerusalem Post: "This lecture was given to a Christian group (in Florida) as I was teaching about the book of Ezra, a story that happened over 2000 years ago. To make the lecture more lively I made a few jokes and you hear the audience laughing."

Israel's biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday carried a front-page analysis saying both the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list and the Jewish Home list carried extremists. "Netanyahu heads a list he doesn't control," wrote Narhum Barnea. "Half of the list is controlled by political camps that, in some cases, hail from the extreme fringes of the settler community. Naftali Bennett doesn't control his list either. The flawed agreement that he signed with a radical nationalist faction called Tekuma put a number of candidates from the eschatological fringes of the settler community on his list."

The Movement, a party led by former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, is trying to have Mr Gimpel disqualified on the grounds that he had incited racism. Mr Gimpel said he had been joking and the party stood by him; he attacked Ms Livni for her "lunatic" idea of a Palestinian state.

Polls say Jewish Home is set to win up to 15 seats in today's elections, making it a major player in any future government. The party is led by Naftali Bennett, the former commando who not only is opposed to a Palestinian state but also wants Israel to annex the majority of the Palestinian territories. This result would also see Mr Gimpel enter the Knesset — he is 14th on the party's list.

Yesterday, all parties scrambled for the estimated 15 per cent of voters still undecided, which means 18 of the Knesset's 120 seats are still up for grabs. Polls suggest Benjamin Netanyahu will be returned as Prime Minister but the key issue will be the make-up of his coalition government. He may turn to parties on the Right, such as Jewish Home, or he may form a more centrist government with Labour or the Movement.

Maariv newspaper yesterday predicted the next coalition would include Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Jewish Home, Shas and United Torah Judaism, making it the first coalition in Israel's history to have a majority of religious and ultra-orthodox members. The paper said this would be "a great victory for the settlers, who have become the leading ideological force in the country". Israel has a national proportional representation system and if the result is close as in 2009, President Shimon Peres will determine whether the right-wing bloc, led by Likud, or the centre-left bloc is more likely to form a stable government.

Meanwhile, Haaretz newspaper reported that Defence Minister Ehud Barak had decided to reroute Israel's separation fence in such as way as to prevent Palestinians reaching the controversial E1 parcel of land, proposed for a new Jewish settlement.

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