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Babylon & Beyond

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

Category: Maher Abukhater

WEST BANK: Abbas says he is ready to meet Hamas in Gaza to end division

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday declared a new initiative to end the division in the Palestinian ranks. He announced at a meeting in Ramallah of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council that he is ready to travel “tomorrow” to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to end the split.

"I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow to end the division," Abbas said, "and form a government of independent nationalist figures to prepare for presidential and legislative elections, as well as elections for the Palestinian National Council [the PLO’s parliament-in-exile], within six months or as soon as possible.”

Abbas called on Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who heads the government in Gaza and is a former prime minister whom Abbas had fired in 2007, to make the necessary arrangements with other factions  in Gaza to meet him at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. Abbas said he hopes the arrangements will be ready in the next few days.

Hamas, which has been referring to Abbas as the president whose term has expired, was quick to respond, and it welcomed Abbas’ initiative.  Hamas officials said that Abbas’ initiative came in response to an invitation Haniyeh had made to Abbas on Tuesday to meet him in Gaza or anywhere else to discuss reconciliation.

But Abbas made it very clear that he is not going to Gaza to discuss reconciliation or to hold dialogue with Hamas. Rather, he is willing to go for only one reason: to set up a new government of independents to prepare for national elections. He said he was ready to postpone forming a new government in the West Bank under current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose government resigned last month, if an agreement is reached on forming the proposed government.

Fayyad had actually proposed to Hamas last month to form a unity government to run the country and prepare for national elections; he said he was willing to travel to Gaza to discuss the matter with Hamas leaders. But they were quick to reject his initiative, accusing the Western-educated prime minister of being a U.S. puppet.

Abbas, meanwhile, reiterated that he is not interested in running for a second term.

Abbas was elected in March 2005, promising his constituency to bring them comprehensive peace through a negotiated settlement with Israel.  When that failed after Israel had refused to stop settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Abbas decided not to run again.

In January 2006, less than a year after Abbas was elected, legislative elections brought his rival, the Islamist Hamas movement, to power. Elections for president should have been held in March 2009 and for the legislative council in January 2010. But because of the June 2007 split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, when Hamas forces ousted Abbas’ army from the Gaza Strip, elections were suspended, and so was the parliament.

Since the split, Abbas and his Fatah group have been in a tug of war with Hamas. After waiting almost four years for the two sides to reunite, though, Palestinians have taken to the streets in a popular upheaval to force them to reconcile.

On Tuesday, thousands of Palestinians protested in the West Bank cities and Gaza Strip against the division. In Gaza, Hamas forces cracked down hard on the protesters, accusing them of being Fatah agents trying to destabilize its rule. The Palestinian Authority did the same n the West Bank, but to a lesser extent.

But apparently public pressure has made its mark on the leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, and the two sides are now talking about meeting to discuss reconciliation.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

WEST BANK: Old-guard prime minister asks assistance from new guard

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has decided to play the political game right, before it is too late.

Learning from what is going on around him in the Arab world, Fayyad has decided to use tactics employed by the younger generation to get them to participate in the decision-making process.

Fayyad Wednesday used his page on the social network Facebook to invite young Palestinians to get involved in deciding their political future.

“We understand and always stress the importance of a role for the youth in political life and the decision-making process,” said Fayyad on his Facebook page. “So what do the youth want that should be considered for the program of our next government?” he asked.

Fayyad’s almost 4-year-old government resigned on Feb. 14, opening the way to introduce new faces to his new government, which he was immediately asked to form.

He has been holding intensive, almost daily, meetings with all sectors of the Palestinian society to consult with them regarding the new government and to share with them his views regarding all issues vital to the future of the Palestinian people, foremost of which is ending the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Within three hours of the posted invitation on Facebook, more than 260 people made comments mainly praising Fayyad’s step and responding to his question. Some said national unity should have priority interest; many others said he should focus on finding jobs for the thousands of unemployed university graduates.

One wrote: “First we should thank God, and second thank the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and now in Libya, which made those who call themselves our leaders to listen to us. Maybe they are afraid they will be next.” Then the same person wrote: “The young people want lower education costs.”

Fayyad also asked the young people to suggest names and ideas for the new government.

Over 800 people have commented on this within five hours of the post, many commending Fayyad for having this page to keep in touch with what the people want. They suggested keeping the page open even after he forms his new government so that he can “listen to us,” as one respondent wrote.

Many took the page seriously and suggested names of known officials, some from the current government and others from previous ones, while others suggested new names for people they thought were qualified for a cabinet post. Some thought the posts were not important but that what is important is the program and implementation.

The general reactions on Fayyad’s Facebook page were relatively positive and responsive, which may give Fayyad an opportunity to use the new media to stay in touch with what the people want.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

WEST BANK: Obama calls Mahmoud Abbas, who calls for urgent leadership meeting

On the eve of a planned United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, President Obama called his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, on Thursday to discuss the measure.

Palestinian sources said Obama tried to dissuade Abbas from proceeding with the resolution, which the U.S. strongly opposes on grounds that it will obstruct efforts to resume Palestinian-Israeli negotiations suspended since September.

Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, confirmed that the conversation took place and said it went on for over 50 minutes. He said the two leaders discussed the situation in the Middle East, particularly developments in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the anti-settlement resolution.

Palestinian officials said the resolution was submitted to the Security Council on Wednesday for discussion and a vote by Friday. The resolution condemns Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and calls for a total halt to settlement construction in the region, including East Jerusalem.

Earlier Thursday, Abbas said he decided to go to the Security Council after the Middle East quartet, which is made up of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N., had failed in its last meeting in Munich, Germany, to condemn Israeli settlements and recognize the 1967 lines as the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Abu Rudeineh said Abbas has summoned the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and his Fatah party’s Central Committee for an urgent meeting on Friday to discuss the Obama conversation.

"President Abbas, and after a long telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, has called members of the Palestinian leadership to a quick and urgent meeting to discuss the latest developments that were the subject of discussion with President Obama," he said.

Sources said Abbas wants to discuss with the Palestinian leaders Obama's ideas regarding the resolution, which Palestinian officials have already said does not rise to the level of their expectations.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Malki said the U.S. has tried to convince the Palestinians to withdraw their Security Council proposal, but without success. He said the proposed U.S. alternative to the Palestinian resolution would not make them change their minds.

The U.S. apparently tried to persuade the Palestinians to accept a nonbinding statement by the Security Council condemning Israeli settlements and calling for resumption of negotiations based on the June 1967 borders, but not a state based on those borders.

Malki said a U.S. veto of the proposed Security Council resolution would seriously hurt Washington's already shaky credibility in the region, particularly because the declared U.S. position is that the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace and that Israel should stop them.

If Abbas, on the other hand, accepts a watered-down U.S. proposal on settlements, he might hurt his standing at home, particularly as the Arab street is up in arms against the traditional leadership.

In Ramallah, over 1,000 Palestinians demonstrated in the city center on Thursday under the slogan "the people want an end to division." This movement, if it grows, may become a serious concern for the Palestinian Authority as its demands may go beyond just a call for unity.

As a way to cool down rising uneasiness in the street, Abbas has called for presidential and legislative elections in the Palestinian territories before September. Analysts say he's hoping that this move would shift the pressure to his arch rival, the Islamist Hamas movement, which ousted his forces from the Gaza Strip and took control of it in June 2007. Hamas opposes elections, including local elections scheduled for July 9.

But before people were able to swallow the idea of national elections, Abbas said Thursday that elections would not be held without the Gaza Strip, knowing very well that Hamas would not allow them to be held in its territory.

For the Palestinian people, this means no elections, indefinitely.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

WEST BANK: Palestinian negotiations department may be latest victim of stalled peace process

The Palestinian Authority’s Negotiations Affairs Department, which has been negotiating with Israel since the start of the Oslo talks, may be the latest victim of the stalled peace process.

Palestinian officials said Monday that President Mahmoud Abbas, after accepting on Saturday the resignation of his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, is considering dissolving the negotiations department, which Abbas  himself had headed since the start of the Oslo process in 1993 until he was elected president in 2005.

The discussion of the future of the negotiations department came as a result of leaks to Al Jazeera television of more than 1,600 documents about years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The documents, known as the Palestine Papers, showed Palestinian negotiators ready to make major compromises on the future of East Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.

Erekat resigned after an internal investigation found out that the leaks came from his own staff. He  had said that he would bear full responsibility and resign if the investigation found that the leaks came from his office.

Palestinian officials disagreed over the status of the Negotiations Affairs Department.

Bassam Salhi, who heads the Palestinian People’s Party, called for disbanding the department on grounds that there are no negotiations at this time and will not be anytime soon.

“There are currently no negotiations that call for the continuation of this department,” he said.

The on-and-off Palestinian-Israeli negotiations officially came to a halt in September after Israel  refused to extend a settlement freeze.

Another Palestinian official denied that Abbas is going to dissolve the negotiations department.

Saleh Ra’afat, head of Fida party, said that Abbas has decided only to restructure the negotiations department, including the possibility of setting up a committee to run negotiations -- if they ever resume -- instead of having only one person running it.

What apparently is definite is that Erekat, who served as chief negotiator for 16 years, will not return to the negotiating table with Israel.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

WEST BANK: Palestinians not allowed to show solidarity with Egyptians

For the mainstream Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and its archrival the Islamist Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, the turmoil in Egypt is a source of concern.

In the West Bank, the pro-West Palestinian Authority refused to give permission for Palestinians wishing to hold protests in support of the Egyptian uprising.

In Gaza, Hamas authorities broke up with force a sit-in by few people attempting to show solidarity with Egyptians calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down. The journalists who attempted to cover the sit-in were also beaten by armed Hamas forces.

Both regimes see in Mubarak and Egypt in general an important ally.

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WEST BANK: Palestinian Authority versus Al Jazeera: Damage control seems to be working

The Palestinian Authority has mobilized its forces, hidden and otherwise, to head off serious fallout from the publication of secret negotiation documents leaked to Qatar's Al Jazeera. The satellite TV station has been broadcasting rigorous coverage and analysis of the leaked documents.

The intensity of the coverage by the widely watched Al Jazeera and claims that the documents show the Palestinian Authority made serious concessions to Israel -- on issues including Jerusalem and refugees --  and had collaborated with Israel to get rid of Palestinian fighters even by killing them have seriously alarmed Palestinian officials as high up as the president.

The Palestinian Authority was caught off-guard by the Al Jazeera revelations but quickly rebounded from the initial shock and went on the offensive, accusing Al Jazeera -- as well as the emir of Qatar -- of plotting to undermine the Palestinian struggle for independence.

For the Arab world, working against the Palestinian struggle is taboo, and targeting the movement's leaders at what is considered a critical time in the fight for independence is also taboo.

The Palestinian public in general is divided over what Al Jazeera has revealed. Although the majority of Palestinians respect the TV station and its coverage of their cause, many say it has exaggerated its coverage of the documents, known as the Palestine Papers.

Discussions back and forth on the social networks show Palestinians divided between supporters of Al Jazeera and supporters of the Palestinian Authority.

“This is not the time to have internal fighting,” said Ahmad Saleem, a university student majoring in business who came to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah on Tuesday, along with thousands of other people, to show support for Abbas following the Al Jazeera reports.

“Our leadership made mistakes," he said, "but we can see it did not compromise on anything; otherwise, why isn’t there an agreement signed with Israel yet?”

Saleem believes Al Jazeera did not report on the documents in an objective way.

He said he did not see of himself as a strong supporter of Abbas but that Al Jazeera had made it a personal issue with Abbas and Palestinians in general. Therefore, he said, he decided to join the thousands who had come to show support for the Palestinian leader.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

WEST BANK: Russian president’s visit boosts Palestinian morale

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Palestinians received a badly needed morale boost on Tuesday from the leader of a superpower, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

At a time when Palestinian morale was very low with the stalemate in the peace process and a feeling of abandonment from the Obama administration, Medvedev came to the rescue.

First, Medvedev made a special visit to the Palestinian territories, coming this time from Jordan, not Israel. Previously, visitors coming to Israel spend two or three days in the county meeting all kinds of officials and visiting all kinds of places. And while they are in Israel, visiting officials usually pay a complimentary and very short visit to the Palestinian areas meeting only with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his office for two or three hours.

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WEST BANK: Political upheaval in Tunisia spurs Palestinian leaders to issue reassurances on own economy

The factors that led to the popular upheaval in Tunisia set off alarm bells throughout the Arab world, and the Palestinian Authority was no different.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad spent more than two hours on Sunday talking to 40 Palestinian journalists at his Ramallah office about the economic situation and living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The message he wanted to send to 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was that economic conditions were good in spite of reports on the rise in consumer prices and relatively high unemployment and poverty figures.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said in a recent report that the consumer price index for 2010 increased by 3.75% compared with the previous year.

The economic situation and the standard of living in the Palestinian areas are a constant concern of the Palestinian Authority, Fayyad said.

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WEST BANK: Fall of Jerusalem hotel brings down hopes for revival of peace process

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As the Israeli bulldozers began to demolish Shepherd Hotel in the Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on Sunday in order to build a new Jewish settlement in its place, Palestinians warned that not only the hotel has fallen, but also the entire peace process and U.S. efforts to revive it.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, strongly reacted to the hotel demolition. Its fall, he said, “has brought down with it all U.S. efforts (to revive the peace process) and ended any possibility to return to negotiations.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat added, “East Jerusalem and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in particular have been targeted by Israel in a campaign to forcibly remove Palestinians and supplant them with Jewish settlers. Such actions are unlawful and undermine the two-state solution and the negotiations process.”

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WEST BANK: Palestine National Orchestra has its debut

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Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state.

With these words, Suhail Khoury, director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, introduced the Palestine National Orchestra in its debut Friday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

More than 40 Palestinian and foreign musicians came together to make the dream of a national orchestra a reality. The task was not easy, particularly because most of the musicians also play with renowned orchestras around the world. But for most of them, putting together a Palestinian national orchestra is seen as a stepping stone toward building an independent state of Palestine.

“Today we are witnessing the birth of the Palestine National Orchestra at a time when the Palestinian struggle for independence is passing through one of its most critical and difficult moments,” Khoury said.

“The task of bringing Palestinian musicians together to add a new cornerstone in the building of an independent Palestinian state was a very difficult endeavor,” he said.

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WEST BANK: Onetime Fatah strongman Dahlan struggling to get out of a quagmire

West-bank-dahlan-afpFormer Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, once a confidant and close ally of Palestinian President and Fatah chairman Mahmoud Abbas, recently found himself in deep trouble when he apparently had decided to test Abbas’ muscle. In the end, he found himself ostracized and then kicked out of a movement in which it was believed he was the strongest man, after its founder, the late Yasser Arafat.

The Fatah Central Committee on Tuesday suspended Dahlan’s membership in the highest ruling body of the mainstream movement and stripped him of his duties as its spokesman pending the findings of an internal investigating commission.

Dahlan, who has kept away from Abbas and the West Bank after his dismissal from the movement, decided Wednesday to return to the West Bank city of Ramallah from his new home in Cairo to face the  inquiry into allegations that he went too far in bad-mouthing Abbas and of even plotting to overthrow him.

“I will appear in front of the commission and answer all its questions in spite of my reservations from the nature and course of this made-up crisis,” Dahlan, 49, said in statements from Cairo.

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WEST BANK: Bethlehem glows on Christmas Eve

Christmas eve in Bethlehem 2010 011

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, thousands of Palestinians and visitors from all over the world gathered at Manger Square on Christmas Eve to watch Jerusalem's Catholic patriarch, Fouad Twal, lead a procession of priests to the Church of the Nativity and to listen to his midnight Mass sermon. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who regularly attends the midnight Mass, was among them.

The procession started at midday from the Catholic church in the Old City of Jerusalem. A convoy of about 50 cars, led by the patriarch, drove the six-mile road south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. When the convoy arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem, a metal gate in the 20-foot-high concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem opened to let the cars through.

Bethlehem had suffered a great deal in the last 10 years. Its highest moment of glory was the turn of the millennium, when tens of thousands of people gathered there to celebrate that very special time that comes only once every 1,000 years. However, when the peace process that was supposed to emancipate the Palestinian people from the long Israeli occupation broke down, trouble engulfed the entire West Bank, and Bethlehem's share was not lesser that any of its sister cities.

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