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.
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.
An Israeli army raid at a Palestinian refugee camp north of Jerusalem has left two Palestinians dead and a third critically wounded, according to witnesses and medical workers. Five Israeli soldiers were reported injured.
The raid occurred at 2:30 a.m. Monday at Qalandia refugee camp, four miles north of Jerusalem. Because it was the first night of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and it was a hot night, many residents of the camp were in the streets, still planning to eat before beginning their required daytime fast at dawn.
When the army unit arrived to arrest activists, clashes broke out, with Palestinians throwing stones and the Israeli army responding with live ammunition, according to witnesses, who said the soldiers fired indiscriminately.
According to witnesses and medical workers, Mu'tasem Awad, 22, was shot in the head and died immediately. Ali Khalifeh, 27, was shot in the stomach and died in a hospital in Ramallah. A third Palestinian was reported in critical but stable condition after being shot in the back.
The soldiers left the camp a few hours later, accompanied by a number of people they had arrested.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the killings as “an Israeli attempt to escalate the situation before September,” when the United Nations General Assembly is expected to consider recognition of a Palestinian state. Israel opposes the statehood campaign at the U.N.
Israeli media quoted an army spokesman as saying camp residents injured five of the soldiers, prompting them to open fire. The army was investigating the reports of two Palestinians dead.
Two weeks into Israel's housing protest, demonstrations are sweeping the country. More than 150,000 people took part in protests nationwide calling for socioeconomic change and demanding "social justice." And what started with the odd tent has become the summer of Israeli discontent.
Young Israelis feel they are victims of the country's strong economy and decades of security-heavy priorities. The Israeli economy boomed, but its young middle class has bombed, caving under price hikes, taxation and increasingly privatized public services such as health, education and child care. The leadership admits there are problems but say protesters' complaints are exaggerated.
The economic trend was no accident, protesters say, but a calculated economic ideology coupled with conservative politics. Decentralizing Israel's economy was necessary but privatization has run amok, critics say, with the government outsourcing its commitments to the majority of its citizens, who now demand government reaffirm its vows to the greater public.
"Re-vo-lu-tion!" cries bounced off walls in Tel-Aviv, Beersheva, Haifa and other towns Saturday night.
So here's a Revolution 101, an incomplete dictionary to the cousin of the Arab Spring: the Israeli Summer. Naturally, there are millions of possible definitions.
A is for Arabs. It took some time, but Arab citizens of Israel joined the protests. Chronic under-budgeting has left many in the lower rungs of the country's socioeconomic ladder with more than half below the poverty line and a shortage of 60,000 housing units in the sector comprising 20% of Israeli society. A rare opportunity to join a social cause striving to be inclusive, not exclusive.
B is for Babies. Baby products and child care are too expensive, keeping women from professional development and young families in constant debt. Thousands marched with strollers and baby carriages last week, demanding, among other things, work schedules that are better synchronized with child-care calendars so parents can actually work.
C is for Competition. There is none, protesters say, that's why prices are high. 80% of the nation's economy is controlled by a few dozen powerful family empires who prevent real competition.
So the peace process is in a sorry state, pushing the Palestinians to seek statehood recognition from the United Nations and Israel scurrying around the world to prevent the move or at least detract from its significance.
Meanwhile, efforts to renew negotiations are still on, and both sides say they are willing, so long as they agree on a few ground rules. The latest efforts made by the Mideast Quartet -- representing Russia, the United States, European Union and United Nations -- concentrated on reaching a formula that would incorporate the principles listed by President Obama in his Middle East speech in May.
Their attempt to jump-start the talks failed, according to media reports, due to disagreement over Israel's demand that Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state. This report quoted a Western diplomat, who said the goal was to give each side something it held important. "The Palestinians were supposed to get 1967 borders with land swaps and the Israelis wanted to receive in return the recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland," but there was no agreement on the matter, the diplomat said.
The dread digits 1-9-6-7 were in the eye of the storm in the days between the policy speeches delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama in the U.S. in May. Israel objects to this baseline for security reasons, arguing it is indefensible. However, "1967 borders with land swaps" also- maybe mostly-means settlements, as in which ones Israel removes and how much land it swaps in return for those it seeks to annex. And Israel's demand for recognition as the Jewish homeland has its logic in obviating the Palestinian demand of the Right of Return, while some see this relatively new demand as another monkey wrench in the peace process machinery.
But where some see obstacles, others see opportunity.
The latest episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has Larry David in the world's best chicken place, a Palestinian restaurant named Al-Abbas, coincidentally or not calling to mind the name of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Marveling over the best chicken they've ever eaten, David and his friend have a brainstorm. "You know what? They should send this chicken over to Israel. Yeah, for the peace process. They'd take down all those settlements in the morning," they say.
Surveying the "Freedom for Palestine" posters and figuring no Jew had or ever would set foot there, the two figure it's the perfect place for Jewish people to cheat on their spouses, as they'd never be caught in the Palestinian restaurant. Eyeing a Palestinian woman, a frequent patron, David puts the recognition-of-Israel conundrum plaguing the peace process to "good" argument. "You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right? Well, here you have someone who not only doesn't want you but doesn't even acknowledge your right to exist.... That's a turn-on," he says.
(OK, so most Palestinians do recognize Israel's right to exist; it's the Jewish homeland bit they have issue with. But it's still funny.)
The episode gets better -- or worse -- depending on one's politics and sense of humor.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.
Video: "'Curb Your Enthusiasm' -- Palestinian Chicken Place" Season 8, Episode 3. Via YouTube.
Abbas Wednesday summoned his Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, a 120-strong legislative body in exile, to ask its blessings for his plans.
He complained that he had tried every avenue possible to resume negotiations, stressing that negotiations was his first and foremost option for resolving the decades old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But when everything failed, he was left with no other choice but to go to the U.N.
“We tried, at U.S. persistence, to relaunch negotiations on Sept. 2 [in Washington] but we were not successful. Then we went to Sharm el-Sheik [in Egypt] and to West Jerusalem, but again we did not succeed. The reason was always because [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] did not want to discuss anything other than security,” Abbas said.
The war prompted the Israeli military to dust off routine drilling of forces and other things neglected due to budget cuts and the assumption that "those kinds of wars" were gone. It also showed that the civilian population was the new front line, after a third of the country was pinned down in bomb shelters for a month.
Hezbollah has turned a corner too, Israelis observe, improving its capabilities and replenishing its arsenal above and beyond what it had in 2006, which calls into question the effectiveness of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the war and was supposed to curb such armament.
Fifty tons of explosives could be dropped on Israel in the next war, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee recently, quickly adding that Israel could retaliate with 1,500 tons of its own extremely precise ammunition.
But at present, Israel and Lebanon are fighting a different kind of war -- over maritime borders and economic issues. If past maritime disputes were mostly about fishing rights, today's squabble concerns a far bigger matter -- billions of dollars worth of natural gas.
When the protest for affordable housing began, some dismissed the campaign as a "Woodstock" of college kids on vacation. By the time Saturday night rolled around, tens of thousands demonstrated in Tel-Aviv and what started as a students' summer protest became a nationwide push for change and a political headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A few months back, citizens' protests targeted the pricing of specific commodities like gasoline, water and cottage cheese. Now, protest is everywhere. Students are camping out in the streets in tents. Dairy farmers are blocking roads with cows. Doctors are striking, the head of Israel's medical association is on a hunger strike. The latest is a Facebook call not to show up for work on Aug. 1.
Israel's economy is strong, the public is constantly told; the country has money, the economy is growing.
Then why is everyone angry? First of all, because they can be. A quick look around the neighborhood has reminded people they have power and can use it to rework priorities and redistribute resources.
Beyond that, some numbers (from a story by Sever Plocker, a financial journalist): Over the last five years, the average income in Israel has increased by 17% and food prices by 25%. Water rates have gone up 40% and gasoline by 23%. The average apartment price has gone up 55% and rent by 27%.
That last item, housing, sparked the protest sweeping the country. But it's not only the last five years, Plocker writes. Real wages haven't increased since 2000, while companies traded on the stock exchange have grown by 300%. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is treading water and "this unusual prosperity has passed it by," Plocker noted.
A young woman turns up dead. Her husband is held for a few days, then released. Police have no other suspects. Murmurs of "family honor" are heard -- and the news races on, reluctant to deal with a painful issue: the killing of women in Arab society.
A few years ago, Duah Fares was within reach of a dream as a finalist in a local beauty pageant. Not everyone was proud of the groundbreaking model who changed her name to the less ethnically conspicuous "Angelina." As the swimsuit stage of the competition neared, displeasure over the break from tradition became heavy pressure and Fares withdrew from the competition when it became clear that her life was in danger.
Her younger sister, Jamila, was also an aspiring beauty pageant contestant; she too changed her name to the more cosmopolitan "Maya" before taking a safer path of marriage and a job in a shop. It wasn't safer. Maya, 21, is the last statistic in a grim tally.
Most of the 35 women murdered in Israel since the beginning of 2010 were killed by close relatives. Sixteen of them were Arab women, sadly over-represented given that their community makes up 20% of Israeli society.
Seeing a gorgeous dancer on stage with a heavy-metal band is nothing unusual.
But when the dancer is Lebanese and the singer Israeli and they hold the flags of their respective countries -- which remain in a state of war -- alongside each other, you have a recipe for potential trouble.
Amateur video footage purportedly showing the performance depicts a member of Orphaned Land singing in what appears to be Hebrew while Fakhry dances around him wearing traditional belly dancer's grab and holding a Lebanese flag.
She then approaches the singer and helps him hold a large Israeli flag before taking her own Lebanese flag and brandishing it alongside the Israeli before the audience.
As the peoples of the region wage protests over rights and distribution of resources and power, young adults in Israel have also been taking to the streets in recent days. And they're staying there, they say, until somebody does something about the cost of rental housing.
In Tel Aviv, the only thing more scarce than legal parking is affordable housing. Coveted by students and many other young Israelis, the seaside culture and business hub is overflowing with people looking for a place to live. Buying is out of the question, and the cost of renting is as high as the flats are small and scarce.
Last week, students took to the streets to protest the housing shortage and high prices, turning Tel Aviv into a huge campground as dozens of tents were set up, complete with makeshift facilities, kitchens and, of course, a lot of media attention.
Maybe it's that protest is in the regional air. Or maybe members of the usually blase public were emboldened by a recent campaign to boycott cottage cheese that succeeded in bringing powerful dairy companies to their knees and lowering prices. Either way, tent towns are sprouting up all over, along with demands for a housing solution.