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Babylon & Beyond

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

Category: Edmund Sanders

WEST BANK: Israel ramps up housing construction in Ariel

Israeli officials gave the green light Monday to another large housing project on land seized during the 1967 Mideast War, clearing the way for 277 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

It marked the third announcement this month of controversial new construction projects on land that Palestinians hope to one day make part of their independent state.

Earlier this month Israeli officials approved construction of 900 homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, a Jewish development that critics say is cutting off access between Palestinian-dominated parts of East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Last week, the Interior Ministry approved 1,600 units in a Jewish housing project known as Ramat Shlomo, also in East Jerusalem.  That project, first unveiled during a visit to Israel last year by Vice President Joe Biden, drew strong criticism from the U.S.

Palestinians say the recent approvals demonstrate that Israel is not serious about reaching a peace deal that would result in a two-state solution.

Palestinians have boycotted peace talks until Israel agrees to halt all settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem. Next month they plan to seek formal statehood recognition from the U.N.

Israeli officials have refused to stop construction, rejecting criticism from the U.S., U.N. and European Union, who have called the projects counter-productive to negotiations.

Ariel, which is located deep inside the West Bank, is a particularly divisive settlement. City officials there have complained that new housing construction has been effectively frozen for several years due to the political sensitivities.

Approval of the 277 units is one of the largest expansions in a single West Bank settlement in recent years.

-- Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: Approval of 900 new homes in East Jerusalem draws ire

Israel's Interior Ministry gave the final green light Thursday to the construction of more than 900 new homes in a Jewish development built on land seized during the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinians and anti-settlement groups said the Har Homa expansion, which has been working its way through Israeli regulatory agencies since last year, will occupy one of the last remaining undeveloped hillsides in the area and effectively cut off direct access between Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Palestinians hope to one day include both areas in a contiguous, independent state.

"This is very alarming because it will create a very big obstacle to the two-state solution," said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli group that tracks settlements.

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ISRAEL: Supreme Court orders demolition of West Bank settlement

For the first time, Israel's Supreme Court has formally ordered the dismantling of an illegal West Bank settlement, brushing aside requests from the government for more time in order to organize the evacuation and construct alternative housing.

The government had already conceded that the Migron outpost, just north of Jerusalem and home to about 250 settlers, was illegally built in 1999 on top of private Palestinian land.

But since 2006, when the advocacy group Peace Now first filed a lawsuit against the settlement, the government has sought delays and broken deadlines to evacuate the settlers.

In frustration, the justices decided Tuesday that the settlement should be demolished by March 2012. If it happens, it would be the first evacuation of an entire settlement since 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip.

But other court orders, including one to evacuate an illegally built, Jewish-occupied apartment building in an Arab-dominated Jerusalem neighborhood, have not been enforced.

The decision is likely to turn up the heat on Israel's Supreme Court, which is frequently put in the position of enforcing controversial or unpopular policies that Israel's lawmakers and officials prefer to avoid.


Israel struggles with free-speech rights

Two Palestinians reported killed in army raid on camp

-- Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem

Photo: A general view of the outpost of Migron near the West Bank city of Ramallah as seen August 12, 2008. Credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters.

ISRAEL: Rachel Corrie's parents say Israel withholding evidence in wrongful-death suit


At the conclusion of a 16-month-long trial concerning the 2003 death of their daughter, the parents of American activist Rachel Corrie accused Israel's military of failing to turn over key surveillance video taken at the Gaza Strip field where Corrie was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer.

At a news conference Monday in Jerusalem, the Corrie family -- which is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Israel -- said the military has only provided the court with one black-and-white video, depicting events before and after Corrie was killed.

But the family says other video exists, including color images that were released by an Israel Defense Forces official and used in an Israeli television documentary. The family also obtained a third video.

"There's more video out there that needs to be turned over," said Sarah Corrie Simpson, Rachel's sister.

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WEST BANK: More document leaks show U.S. pressure, Palestinian frustrations

Al Jazeera's latest leak of hundreds of secret Palestinian negotiating papers is providing the kind of fly-on-the-wall insights to Mideast peace talks that usually only emerge many years later in the autobiographies of politicians and diplomats.

Though some of the initial coverage and spin by Al Jazeera and other organizations has been inaccurate or out of context, the documents themselves offer a treasure trove of detailed information about Palestinians' internal strategy and tactics. Most of the documents were produced by the Palestinian Authority's own attorneys, advisors and negotiators and include transcripts of private strategy sessions and internal talking points. It's a bonanza for Israel, which can get a peek into the Palestinian thought process as recently as last year.

One December 2009 document discusses "Palestinian Messaging and Implementation." Another lays out the legal risks of a premature declaration of statehood. An internal summary of where peace talks last broke down reveals that Palestinians were prepared in 2008 to limit the number of returning refugees to 15,000 a year for 10 years, or 150,000.

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WEST BANK: Leaks from peace talks don't show Palestinians making shocking concessions

If there’s a lesson from Sunday's leak of alleged meeting minutes from 2008 Mideast peace talks involving Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. officials and from the previous WikiLeaks dump of U.S. diplomatic cables, perhaps it's this: Governments needn't be so afraid of having their private business aired in public.

After the initial U.S. embarrassment from the WikiLeaks disclosures, many came to believe that the cables actually showed U.S. diplomats to be rather astute and well-informed. In the same way, Palestinians so far don't really seem to have anything to be ashamed of in the leaks from the 2008 talks. Despite the spin by Al-Jazeera and critics of the Palestinian Authority, the documents released don't show Palestinian negotiators giving away the store.

To the contrary, they're depicted as taking a surprisingly hard-line stance against giving up massive West Bank settlements such as Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Har Homa and Ariel, which most experts have long presumed would be retained by Israel with little fuss or cost.

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UNITED NATIONS: Israel's absence during Obama speech draws attention

President Obama's call Thursday in an address before the U.N. General Assembly for Israel to extend its West Bank construction moratorium got little reaction from the Israeli delegation. That's because they weren't there.

As Obama spoke about the importance of supporting U.S.-brokered peace talks, television cameras panned to empty chairs at Israel's U.N. desk.

Speculation immediately spread across Internet sites and among arm-chair analysts about whether Israel was snubbing Obama and boycotting his speech. Israel has been resisting mounting international pressure to extend the partial moratorium, which is set to expire Sunday. Palestinians have threatened to quit peace talks if construction resumes, though they've also hinted in recent days that they are open to a compromise.

Israeli officials have denied their absence was an intentional slight, saying they were observing the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and had informed the U.S. in advance that they would not be present.

Nevertheless, American officials expressed some disappointment that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to skip the U.N. meeting, sending other Israeli leaders to represent the country. Obama had hoped to use the forum to continue efforts to prevent peace talks from collapsing.

And some of Netanyahu's right-wing colleagues condemned Obama's speech, accusing the U.S. president of "inappropriate interference."

-- Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: Class dismissed on democracy to make room for Bible studies


Can Israel be a democratic and Jewish state at the same time? It's a divisive, long-running debate that has now found its way into the classroom -- or rather, it's about to get kicked out of school.

Israeli Education Ministry officials have moved to slash funding for high-school civics classes, where students learn about democracy, equal rights and government, and shift the money to religious teachings about the Bible, the Talmud and Zionism.

"We have nothing against Jewish studies,'' one teacher told Haaretz newspaper,"but bolstering them should not come at the expense of civics." 

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ISRAEL: Arab man convicted of rape after posing as Jew to seduce woman

In a ruling that could strike fear in the hearts of cads everywhere, a Jerusalem court has ruled that lying to a woman to get her into bed is a form of rape.

Sabbar Kashur, 30, an Arab resident of Jerusalem, pretended to be a Jewish bachelor looking for a relationship. He met a Jewish woman and they went to a nearby building to have consensual sex, according the account in the Haaretz newspaper. He split before she'd finished putting her clothes back on.

She filed a criminal complaint for rape and indecent assault, which authorities took seriously.

Sure, it wasn't "classic rape by force," reasoned Jerusalem District Court Judge Tzvi Segal, but if the woman "hadn't thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor ... she would not have cooperated."

The court rejected a plea bargain to serve community service and sentenced Kashur to 18 months in prison.

-- Los Angeles Times

ISRAEL: Don't restart negotiations from scratch, former peace-table adversaries agree

Two years ago Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei had a standing rendezvous at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, at least twice a week, to hash over hotly disputed issues such as borders, refugees and the future of Jerusalem.

Back then meetings between the then-Israeli foreign minister and the former Palestinian Authority prime minister hardly drew notice. No reporters, no cameras and no fanfare.

But their return engagement on the same stage Sunday caused a mini stir since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since 2008 and they hadn't seen each other since.

Then, as now, the pair found much to argue about, especially when discussing how to divvy up the land both claim rightfully belongs to their people. But they shared one point of agreement: substantial progress had been made on major issues when the talks broke down and future discussions, if they resume, should pick up where they left off.

"The Annapolis process didn't fail,'' Livni told a forum sponsored by the German political foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. "It didn't end. It was stopped.... It needs to continue."

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ISRAEL: iPhone's two-city solution disturbs the Mideast peace

Right-leaning Israeli politicians like to refer to Jerusalem as their "undivided capital." But iPhone users here and around the world found recently that the storied, disputed city had been split in two.

In the smart phone's weather application, the listing for "Jerusalem" disappeared earlier this month and was replaced by "West Jerusalem" and "East Jerusalem."

Both Israelis, who dominate the west part of the city, and Palestinians, the majority in the east, claim Jerusalem as their capital. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War, though Palestinians (and most of the international community) never accepted it.

The debate over how, or whether, to divide Jerusalem is still one of the thorniest issues in Mideast peace talks.

Perhaps frustrated with the lack of progress in the peace process, iPhone engineers apparently decided to impose their own mini-version of a two-state solution by partitioning the city and, in essence, forcing users to pick sides.

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GAZA: Israel opens border for snack foods, but Gazans aren't biting

Let them eat cake -- and cookies, and potato chips and jam.

That’s how many here viewed Israel’s relaxation of border restrictions to permit a variety of new items into the Gaza Strip. The list, announced Wednesday, includes soda, juice, jam, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies, candy and a variety of spices, including coriander.

Israel’s move impressed almost no one in this impoverished seaside territory and even left some embittered, accusing Israel of tossing them a few scraps to score points with the outside world. “We don’t need jam and chips,’’ said Khitam Abdel Hadi, 30, who lives in a refugee camp near Gaza City. “We need jobs. We need houses. We need the freedom to move around. This is nothing.”

At a small grocery store near the Rafah Crossing to Egypt, a shopkeeper pointed to the boxes of cookies, chips and candy, and the cooler of fruit juices. “We have all these things already,’’ he said, noting that food items banned by Israel are routinely brought to Gaza through the network of smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

“Israel is just trying to fix its relationship with the international community after what happened on the flotilla," said Gaza car-parts vendor Samar Attala, 30.

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