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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Batsheva Sobelman

ISRAEL, WEST BANK: Controversial fence section rerouted near Bilin

After a five-year Palestinian campaign,the highly controversial section of the Israeli separation barrier at Bilin is being rerouted. Biliin

The barrier -- mostly fence, part wall -- was erected by Israel at the height of the second intifada to keep suicide bombers out. The track roughly corresponds with the Green Line -- the pre- 1967 borders -- but runs through the West Bank in certain places, blocking Palestinian access to their lands and other villages. Such contested sections have been challenged in Israeli courts, which have on occasion been dissatisfied with the state's security reasoning and ruled the track causes disproportionate harm to Palestinians.

One such section, near the village of Bilin, has long been an icon of the fence controversy, popular protests and bureaucracy. Sporadic in most other places, protests and sometimes fatal scuffles with Israeli soldiers persevere in Bilin, having taken place every Friday for the last five years.

The Bilin protest has become a draw for political activists from the Palestinian territories, Israel and abroad and a local model for popular protest. It's also become a pretty big headache for the Israeli army, and sometimes a diplomatic headache too, as authorities grapple with different ways of keeping away foreign activists.

In recent days, Israel has begun dismantling the controversial section of fence. The fence had dipped too generously into the West Bank, including privately owned lands, more for the sake of the nearby Jewish settlement of Modiin Ilit than for security reasons, and had to be rerouted "in a reasonable period of time," the Supreme Court ruled. That was in September 2007.

Now 2 miles of fence is being dismantled and replaced with 1.7 miles of wall that wraps around Modiin Ilit and hangs tighter around the settlement than the village. The barrier has moved about 1,800 feet  away from Bilin, allowing access to farming areas without having to coordinate with the army.

The project cost $7.5 million, and another $1.5 million was spent on relocating olive and other orchard trees, according to Israel Defense Forces Col. Saar Tzur, commander of the Binyamin regional brigade.  The work is to be finished in coming days, after which Israeli watchtowers will be repositioned and forces moved to the new route, he said.

The new route will present a bit of a challenge to the army, which will have a shorter response time in case of an infiltration of the settlement. For the most part, past troubles have targeted the barrier itself rather than the next-door neighbors.

Will the Friday protests stop now? Very unlikely, according to Tzur. The main reason is money, he said. The Bilin cause has become a well-financed "riot industry."

What took Israel so long to implement its own court ruling from September 2007? The army's short answer is "Ask the Defense Ministry." The military says it doesn't decide policy, only implements it. Another answer may have to do with another September, the one coming up, when the Palestinians will go to the United Nations for recognition of their sovereignty. Between the Friday protests and other regional unrest, Israel needs more holes in its fences like a hole in the head.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jeruslem


Photo: This wall will replace the fence along the road behind it in Bilin, in the West Bank. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times

ISRAEL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on YouTube


Like U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the hot seat on YouTube's World View, and questions from around the world.

In a special broadcast paired with Israel's Channel 2 news, Netanyahu answered questions from Israelis before switching to English to answer questions from 90 countries around the world, including many throughout the Middle East.

Israelis were concerned about a host of local issues, including recent allegations that he accepted private funding for public travel (which Netanyahu dismissed as a slander campaign), and the decline in stature and caliber of Israel's political leaders, once modest -- frugal, even -- and far flashier today.  Citizens asked about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip for five years, about Israel's response to recent rocket attacks on its south and how approving settlement construction after the murders in Itamar would help matters.

Israel's policies, the peace process and regional upheaval were on everyone's mind. Will you negotiate returning the Golan Heights to Syria? Whose side do you take in the recent eruptions throughout the Middle East? Is Israel a strategic asset or liability to the U.S.? And why is Avigdor Lieberman the foreign minister?

Check out the video ( or view it at this link) for more questions and Netanyahu's answers.


-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.



ISRAEL: Israel admits to holding missing Gaza engineer

Derar Abu Sisi, an engineer and deputy manager of the Gaza power plant, was reported missing last month in Ukraine after he boarded a train to Kiev but never made it. 

First, bloggers reported it. Then came the mainstream foreign press, and finally, the story made it into the Israeli press via the revolving-door practice of censorship-approved quoting of foreign reports and maybe a few "I know but can't tell you" hints too. Israeli readers are accustomed to reading between the lines. A Palestinian human rights group has also now published Abu Sisi's account of his abduction.

A petition filed by an Israeli rights non-governmental organization wrested from the court permission for Israeli media to report with authority the basic information already out there, that the Palestinian engineer from Gaza is being held in Israel. Abu Sisi is in Shikma prison in southern Israel while being investigated. The gag order was only partially lifted and the full Israeli version of the circumstances of how he went missing in Ukraine and turned up in Israel won't be cleared for publication in Israel for another 30 days.

According to foreign reports, Abu Sisi arrived in Ukraine — where he had studied for a decade and earned his doctorate in electrical engineering — in late January. A few weeks later he boarded a late-night train to Kiev, where he was to meet a friend before going to the airport to meet his brother Yousef,  who was coming in from Holland and whom he hadn't seen in years.

A few hours after the train arrived with no Abu Sisi, his brother reported the engineer missing. Veronika, the engineer's Ukrainian wife, accused Israel's  Mossad intelligence agency of abducting her husband with the purpose of gaining information to sabotage the Gaza power plant. She told the press she didn't know what to tell their six children about their father, who had "disappeared off a train in a democratic country."

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ISRAEL: As turmoil in Libya is expected to raise gasoline prices, officials urge breaking the oil addiction

As troubled regimes continue to go down, oil prices are moving up everywhere. The violent turbulence in Libya is expected to raise gasoline prices in Israel within the coming days.

The regional upheavals and energy issues barged into an open door in Israel, as gasoline prices have been a matter of public concern in recent weeks. A taxation tweak resulted in a series of price hikes that brought the price of gasoline to new highs in recent weeks and sent Israelis into a rage, with Facebook campaigns as well as less advanced modes of protest, such as a horse-and-carriage in the streets of one city.

It also put politicians on guard. After warnings that this could ultimately bring down the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a perk-package to the public to offset rising prices and stave off the threat of a general strike. Now it looks like gasoline prices will go back up and Israelis will have to blame another leader for it.

The recent unrest throughout the region has made energy the topic du jour. The pipeline supplying Israel with natural gas from Egypt was shut down after it was sabotaged. To compensate for Egyptian gas -- 40% of Israel's consumption -- the country has doubled pumping from its one operational natural gas field, approaching depletion. If Egypt doesn't renew the gas supply, Israel will have to switch to other sources for energy, which will raise the price of electricity.

Between Egypt's gas-out and the Libya effect on oil, Israelis may soon be feeling the pinch as the price of instability makes its way up the food chain to transportation prices, commodities, airfares and the tourism industry.

The government has already been giving energy diversity much thought, with a national plan to develop alternative sources to wean transportation from its dependence on oil. Unlike electricity, largely produced oil-free, transportation in Israel relies nearly exclusively on oil.

In addition, Israel has its sights on producing 10% of the country's energy from renewable sources by the end of the decade. Next stop is solar energy, a logical move for a country with more than 300 sunny days a year.

The Renewable Energy Conference held this week couldn't have been a more timely opportunity to tie it all together.

Every time we stop for gas and pull out our wallets, part of our money goes to terror organizations, said Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau at the conference Wednesday. "The money goes to Al Qaeda, Hamas and Iran," said Landau, equating buying fuel with fueling the enemy. But if part of the Arab world is hooked on the money, others must kick the habit. Oil is a powerful weapon in the struggle for the democratic world's future, and the way to win this battle is to become energy-independent.

Other officials have made a similar connection between turmoil and oil in recent days. This week, Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom said the real battle being waged is over hegemony in the Middle East and who gets to be the "landlord." The world needs to unite to prevent Iran from turning the Middle East into a hostile region and "taking over the world's oil reserves for the next 150 years," he said on radio.


"We all want to see freedom and democracy flourish in the Arab world," said Netanyahu this week. "We do not want to see tyranny that will trample human rights, block democratic reforms and threaten peace. Nothing would make us happier than advancing democracy in our area; this is good for peace, prosperity and security," he said. Supporters of democracy everywhere needed to be strengthened, including in Iran, which -- the prime minister warned -- might exploit the earthquake shaking the entire region to destroy any chance of democratic reforms "and turn out the lights."


-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.




ISRAEL: NGOs must disclose foreign governmental funding, new bill says

A new bill passed Monday in parliament obliges Israeli non-governmental organizations to report funds received from foreign governments. The NGOs will have to provide updated information on a quarterly basis, post the information on their websites and state such funding in any public campaign.

The logic behind the new law, which enjoyed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support, is the need for transparency, according to lawmaker Zeev Elkin, coalition chairman and co-sponsor of the bill. Elkin told Israel Radio it is the right of a democratic country and its public to know when foreign governmental elements pour money into groups with the intention of influencing policy and internal politics. It is also the right of the other countries' citizens to know whether their own tax money is going too, he said. According to NGO Monitor, governmental bodies such as the European Union pour millions into various Israeli groups. The money doesn't always go where it should and groups often overstep their stated missions.

As an example, Elkin said nearly all the Israeli bodies that provided "the false materials" for the Goldstone report received money from foreign governments, which were then quick to adopt the report they in fact funded. The Goldstone report resulted from South African jurist Judge Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. His report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, found strong evidence that Israel had committed war crimes in the Gaza strip. The report was fiercely rejected and bitterly denounced in Israel.

However, the Israeli Defense Force itself has recognized on occasion the contribution of rights organizations to investigating misconduct

The law doesn't oblige NGOs to expose their private foreign funding, allowing private donors to remain private. Most hospitals, universities and charities rely on generous support. This comes from well-known philanthropists but also from people who do not want the publicity -- perhaps in keeping with the Jewish principle of matan baseter, or giving discreetly. But many wealthy individuals make considerable donations to other organizations that also seek influence on Israeli policy, and these will not be revealed.

Elkin said the bill is not political and the law will apply equally to NGOs from the right and left in Israeli politics. But critics balk at he apolitical claim, noting that most NGOs receiving funding from foreign governmental sources are liberal and left-leaning, while many bodies enjoying funding from private donors overseas are conservative or right-wing.

Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, said this new transparency will only apply to left-wing organizations, some of which are supported by foreign governments, but not to right-wing organizations like the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella group. "The logic behind the new bill is simple, to de-legitimize the left-wing organizations and portray them as foreign agents. But no one will ever know who's pulling the strings of foundations receiving far bigger support from evangelical organizations in the U.S. or tycoons like Irwin Moskowitz," Oppenheimer said in a radio interview. This is an attempt to use the right-wing domination of the Knesset "to silence political public debate," Oppenheimer said.

The controversial law obviates an even more controversial proposal. A few weeks ago, lawmakers pushed for a parliamentary investigation committee to look into the funding of Israeli rights organizations. The proposal, in mid-approval, was tabled by legislators from Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Israel's hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and drew sharp criticism from both inside Israel and out. The opposition decried the move as a witch hunt against left-wing organizations and warned of deepening McCarthyism, but government elements sounded alarm bells too. Senior Likud ministers such as Benny Begin denounced the move. "It's dark here," said Begin, a vanishing breed combining a political hawk with a liberal democrat. Lieberman dismissed him and other Likud seniors ministers such as Dan Meridor as "feinschmeckers", a term he borrowed from Yiddish and meaning (in this case) finicky, high-browed fusspots.

But as more feinschmeckers presented themselves, the vote on the parliamentary investigation was postponed until it was side-swiped by Monday's vote on a bill that had been long in the pipeline. Earlier this week, Netanyahu reportedly told Likud faction members the parliamentary investigation bill would cause Israel more harm than good. Political commentators note that Netanyahu's support of the new law also plays into an ongoing political power struggle between him and Lieberman, as the two are increasingly locking horns on different issues. Many of the more controversial legislative initiatives in parliament this year -- on sensitive issues such as conversion, citizenship and loyalty -- have come from Lieberman's party, causing Israel no small amount of embarrassment.

According to media reports, the attorney general may decided in coming days to indict Lieberman -- subject to a hearing -- in a corruption investigation that has been dragging on for years. To this, a columnist in Yisrael Hayom, a free daily Hebrew newspaper, recently noted that a decision by the attorney general in Lieberman's case would have a calming effect on the legislative hyperactivity.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: A controversial shale project and energy security

The suspension of Egyptian gas supply to Israel has lighted a fire under the feet of Israeli officials, businessmen and shareholders trying to assess how events in Egypt will affect Israel's energy economy.

Initial assessments that it is in Egypt's interests to keep the lucrative gas deals with Israel may prove right when the dust settles. But the shake-up in Egypt is a wake-up call for Israel, too.

Minister of National Infrastructures Uzi Landau urged hastened development of the Tamar gas field Sunday. Meanwhile, Israel can increase quantities from its southern reserve and may have to compensate for the loss of Egyptian gas by using more coal and oil-based fuels to produce electricity.

Israel was hoping to move away from such dirtier energy sources for various reasons, including a pledge to reduce greenhouse emissions. Recently the government approved a national plan to develop technologies to reduce global use of oil in transportation. Global dependence on oil and the countries that produce it is bad for both the environment and economic stability, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

But industries and economies still rely on fossil fuels. Increasing costs and depleting reserves are driving new technologies that, well, scrape the bottom of the barrel to produce energy.

And surprise (OK, maybe not to geologists) -- Israel is sitting on a potential fortune.

Continue reading »

ISRAEL: Egypt gas pipeline explosion raises energy concerns

Israel's quest for cleaner energy sources just got muddied, with the explosion in a pipeline supplying natural gas from Egypt. The explosion occured at a measuring station in Arish and damaged the line supplying Jordan. The line supplying Israel was shut down at first as a precaution. This proved wise as it turned out that the fire overheated the pipe and compromised the entire supply line. It will take several days to cool and for the supply to resume.

The Merhav group, the Israeli partner in the EMG consortium that exports Egyptian gas to Israel, said Saturday it could take up to a week. According to news reports, Israel buys about $10 million worth of gas a week from Egypt in many long-term deals. Meanwhile, it's been reported that Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem, who owns 28% of EMG, has fled to Dubai- with $500 million.

Israel produces about 45% of its electricity from natural gas that comes from two main sources: 60% domestically from a reserve off Israel's southern shore, and from 40% from Egypt. Israel was hoping to get about 70% of its electricity from gas by the end of the decade, for environmental reasons as well as economic. Its southern field has reserves thought to be enough to last until the end of 2013 but could be depleted a year sooner if Egyptian supply isn't resumed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations Saturday morning with the ministries of national infrastructures and defense.  Israel is prepared for such a situation, Netanyahu said, and has the immediate possibility to switch to alternative energy and gas sources. National infrastructures minister Uzi Landau said that in coming days, the electric company could use gas, coal and even diesel if necessary to run its power plants. In the long run, extra costs could make their way down to the citizens, warn observers.

The Knesset's economics committee, the parliamentary body that oversees the issue, is scheduled to address related concerns Sunday. Committee chair Carmel Shama Hacohen told media Israel must take these scenarios into consideration, as well as possible terrorist threats to gas fields, exploration and energy facilities too. Security measures have been stepped up around all relevant facilities, now more clearly than ever a matter of strategic importance.

 Israel has large gas sources of its own — potentially, at least.

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ISRAEL: Researchers see Tunisia as a textbook revolution

Revolutions seem to take place all of a sudden, but usually they don't really come out of the blue. Whether religious, political or economic reasons are behind upheaval, it often reflects a long process that reached a tipping point and a window of opportunity. 

The time must be right but the ground must be ripe, too. In this context, an Israeli research group suggests Tunisia's was a textbook revolution. Not in the sense that it was a perfect storm or that it followed a certain formula -- no two revolutions are the same -- but in the sense that it may actually have begun in school textbooks.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) is a group that conducts in-depth studies of school curriculum throughout the Middle East, checking hundreds of books per country and they way they teach about tolerance and peace.

A comprehensive study of the Tunisian curriculum, completed in 2009 and presented before the European parliament, found that education in Tunisia cultivates equality and is much more progressive in teaching tolerance than any other Arab country.

But it wasn't always so, says Yohanan Manor, a retired Jewish Agency official and political scientist who established the research group a decade ago. According to Manor, Tunisia began instituting educational reform in the mid-1990s, when Zine el Abidine ben Ali (who was overthrown last month) appointed a political opponent as minister of education. Mohamed Charfi, who died a few years ago, was a lawyer and longtime human rights leader in Tunisia and a fierce critic of Ben Ali, in particular concerning human rights issues.

The now-deposed president had placed Charfi in charge of the education ministry, maybe so that  he could keep an eye on him but also because Ben Ali  was interested in letting the rights leader implement his agenda, which was separating religion and state, Manor said, noting that the issue is a longstanding one in Tunisian history.

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ISRAEL: Egypt backlash, the view from next door

Leaders, media, academics and arm-chair politicians (basically most Israelis) continue to monitor the upheaval rocking its big neighbor, just one door down. If there's a theme de jour, it seems to be "careful what you wish for."

Monday, during a news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that while the main cause of unrest doesn't stem from radical Islam, such forces could take over a country in turmoil. The next day he said -- in a closed-door diplomatic-security consultation -- that Israel supports advancing free and democratic values in the Middle East, but warned that neither would be achieved if radical forces are allowed to exploit the processes and take power.

President Shimon Peres also spoke in this vein, advising the world to study the results of the pressure for free elections that brought Hamas rule to Gaza but not a single day of democracy to Gazans since. "Democracy is not just elections because if you elect the wrong people, you bring an end to democracy." True democracy, he said, starts the day after elections, in ensuring the people's human rights and welfare.

These messages are intended for the West, whose pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been successful, whether by design or miscalculation, to the point where results could be out of the comfort zone for Israel and others.

The question is, who needs to do what about it.

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ISRAEL, EGYPT: Security around Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv considered

Tel Aviv police Cmdr. Shahar Ayalon met with Yasser Rada, Egypt's ambassador to Israel,  to discuss security arrangements around the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv in the event that protesters  against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turn up, media reported Tuesday.


So far, things are quiet and coordination is probably just to be on the safe side. A few days ago, a group of activists held a demonstration outside the embassy, waving Palestinian, Egyptian and Tunisian flags in solidarity with Egyptian protesters, and called for Mubarak's resignation.  The protesters, young and earnest, hardly seemed a security threat, but officials apparently were being careful.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Above: Solidarity with Egypt in Tel Aviv, via Youtube.

EGYPT AND ISRAEL: Israel approves first Egyptian military deployment in Sinai since 1979

Responding to a request from Egypt, Israel has approved the deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai amid civil unrest in Egypt.

According to news reports, two battalions -- about 800 soldiers -- are headed for the resort of Sharm el Sheik. This is a first since the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, which limits the security presence in Sinai to police forces.

Overseeing the security provisions of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is the Multinational Force and Observers, which issued a statement Monday saying it "continues to conduct its mission of peace in the current extraordinary circumstances in Egypt" but said nothing about the reported military deployment.

Reuven Rivlin, speaker of Israel's parliament, or Knesset, has urgently asked the Knesset's legal advisor whether allowing the Egyptian army into Sinai requires a vote in parliament.

Hebrew media reported Monday that Rivlin thinks the legislature may have to approve any break from the treaty, which defines the peninsula as a demilitarized zone. This was the case in 2005, when Israel handed over the so-called Philadelphi corridor between Gaza and Egypt to about 750 Egyptian border guards after Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Then too it had been Rivlin's initiative, supported by the parliament's legal advisor.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: Is the U.S. attitude to Egypt a message?

The U.S. position on Egypt has taken Israel by surprise and left people wondering what the Americans are doing and what this means for other allies in the region, including Israel.

When the administration first urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to address demonstrators' legitimate demands, commentators in Israel were puzzled, almost appalled.  OK, Mubarak's s not perfect, but why would America think his replacement would be any more democratic or pro-Western? Once again, the Americans are looking at the region through Western eyes and clearly, they don't know what they're doing, was the tone of many Israeli analysts. Politicians are not talking much about the crisis.

As the protests continued, some began thinking maybe Obama does know what he's doing — but they're not sure they like it.

"A knife in the back," was how Dan Margalit of the Yisrael Hayom free-sheet described the American treatment of Mubarak. "Obama threw Mubarak to the dogs," wrote Eitan Haber in Yediot Aharonot. Others were more subtle but most share the opinion that the Obama administration is sending its partners in the Middle East a message through Egypt.

Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad and a highly respected former diplomat, said he's having a hard time understanding some of the American moves, reminding that Egypt was a key strategic partner to them too. But, Halevy notes, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that all strategic alliances are conditional, as in both "temporary" and with actual "conditions." American conditions, at least in principle, are democracy and rights.

But only Mubarak is getting read the riot act, which suggests to Halevy that this isn't a principled move but a practical one, with a specific purpose. The question is, what does Obama think he will get in return.  "Obama is not naive; this is a gamble," Halevy said.

Uzi Rabi, head of Middle East and Africa studies at Tel-Aviv University, notes that this sends a "very negative message." Shaking off Mubarak in rather a cruel way should raise questions in other Arab countries who dwell "under the American umbrella," Rabi said, adding that this might cause leaders to calculate their moves differently as part of the geopolitical change the region is undergoing.

Does this include Israel?

There are many lessons to be had from the events in Egypt events — and Israel needs to learn some of them yesterday, according to Eitan Haber, former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Unlike his predecessors, the current U.S. president has no sentiments for Israel, he writes. Watching him sell Mubarak down the river "in return for popularity with the masses", Israel's lesson should be "that the man in the White House could sell us from one day to the next." The thought that the U.S. might not be there for Israel on D-day is "chilling," he wrote.

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