World's slum children in desperate need, UNICEF says [Video]

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG -- You see them, night and day, in nearly every African city. They are ragged children dodging between the cars: beggars, shoeshine boys, teenage prostitutes, petty traders and porters carrying loads on their heads with thin, pinched faces and anxious eyes.

They tap on car windows, begging, and wait by the highway desperate to sell their goods.

Around half the people in the world live in cities and towns, a billion of them children, as the urban population spirals. Millions of children live in slums and shantytowns and they're dying of the same illnesses that kill the rural poor, according to UNICEF: hunger, diarrhea and disease caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding.

Many of the urban poor don't go to school, according to a UNICEF's report on the state of the world's children. Instead they work, often in dangerous or exploitative jobs. Some 115 million of the world's children work in hazardous jobs, the report said.

Like the rural poor, slum children often lack access to water, electricity and health facilities.

According to the report, the plight of the the urban poor has been overlooked, their poverty concealed in statistics that indicate that, on average, children in urban settings are better off.

"The hardships endured by children in poor urban communities are often concealed, and thus perpetuated, by the statistical averages on which development programs and decisions about resouce allocation are based. Because averages lump everyone in together, the poverty of some is obscured by the wealth of others," the report said.

Some 60% of urbanized Africans live in slums, and by 2020 the global slum population will reach 1.4 billion, mainly in Africa and Asia. In Nigeria, 50% of the population lives in cities and in South Africa, 62% have fled rural areas hoping to find jobs in cities and towns.

But they often meet not just unemployment, poverty and hunger, but precarious housing, forced to live in flimsy shacks or squalid rooms with no tenant rights.

Lack of food contributes to a third of the deaths of children under 5 years old annually, according to the report. A 2004 study of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that more than 40% of urban populations were undernourished and in several countries the figure was higher than 70%.

In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, two-thirds of the population lives in sprawling slums where the under-5 mortality rate is "alarming" the report said, at 151 per thousand live births.

"Poor water supply and sanitation, the use of hazardous cooking fuels in badly ventilated spaces, overcrowding and the need to pay for health services, which effectively puts them out of reach of the poor, are among the major underlying causes of under-5 deaths," the report said.

People in urban slums are often forced to pay street vendors for potable water, so the cost of water can be 50 times higher than for wealthy people in the same city. A study of Kenyan urban slum dwellers in 2009 showed that, with public health facilities almost nonexistent, people used unlicensed and ramshackle private clinics offering substandard treatment.

"When we think of poverty, the image that traditionally comes to mind is that of a child in a rural village,” said UNICEF Director Anthony Lake in a statement released with the report. “But today, an increasing number of children living in slums and shantytowns are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world, deprived of the most basic services and denied the right to thrive.

“Urbanization is a fact of life and we must invest more in cities, focusing greater attention on providing services to the children in greatest need,” Lake said.


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-- Robyn Dixon


U.N. chief tells Palestinians their state is long overdue

U.N. chief Ban-ki-moon, left

REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday said an independent Palestinian state is long overdue.

Ban arrived in Ramallah from Israel, where he met Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to keep the latest peace talks between the two sides going.

At a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the U.N. chief urged the Palestinians and Israelis to return to direct negotiations, stressing that “the two-state solution can be achieved only through negotiations.”

Abbas agreed. “We fully believe that the way to reach peace with Israel is through negotiations,” he said.

However, Abbas argued that Israel did not present anything at the exploratory talks held in the Jordanian capital of Amman last month that would encourage resumption of negotiations. The talks are on hold until after Palestinian negotiators consult with the Arab countries.

Ban said the talks should continue, stressing the importance of having a political goal to sustain what has been achieved so far. He urged both parties to refrain from provocative actions that would undermine efforts to restart negotiations.

Israel, he said, should stop settlement construction in the areas the Palestinians want to have as their future state because “settlements are contrary to international law and prejudice final status talks.”

Israeli officials have argued that the question of settlements should be left to the final peace talks and agreements.


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— Maher Abukhater

Photo: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, listens to Bashar Masri, head of the Bayti Real Estate Investment Co., after visiting a new investment project just north of the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / Associated Press

Obama to recommend extending loan guarantees for Israel

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The Obama administration will recommend that Congress extend American loan guarantees currently provided to Israel, according to an Israeli report Wednesday.

According to the Haaretz daily, two American officials informed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon of the decision during a meeting in Israel earlier this week.

Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and Deputy Treasury Secretary Neil Wolin reportedly told Ayalon they believed there would be broad bipartisan support for the move in Congress, which has to approve a measure extending the guarantees until September 2015.

The current loan guarantees arrangement was reached by the two countries in 2003, when current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's finance minister, and essentially provides a U.S. guarantee to vouch for loans Israel takes abroad. The U.S. only pays out on the guarantees if Israel fails to repay its debts.

The guarantees are separate from U.S. foreign aid to Israel, most of which is in the form of military assistance.

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Settlers reject Israeli government offer for compromise on outpost

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Jewish settlers in the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Migron have rejected the latest attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a compromise that would save their community while still complying with a Supreme Court ruling that it be dismantled.

The government of Israel has promised repeatedly to tear down Migron, the flagship of West Bank outposts, after conceding it was built at least in part on privately owned Palestinian land, rendering it illegal even by Israeli standards.

Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled Migron must be evacuated by the end of March.

Concerned about an ugly, high-profile eviction scene pitching Israel's law-enforcement troops against the country's own civilians, the government proposed the residents vacate the unauthorized site voluntarily in return for a new, permanent settlement to be built about a mile down the road on state-owned lands and with full government blessing. Building the new houses would take time.

A similar agreement was reached last month to relocate and legalize Ramat Gilad, a smaller outpost.

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Israeli, Palestinian envoys meet in Jordan, agree to more talks

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Despite low expectations for a breakthrough in the deadlocked peace process, the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in more than a year resulted in modest progress: an agreement to resume talks about the negotiations. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's envoy to the talks, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met with delegates representing the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators in Jordan and later held a meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Judeh hosted Tuesday's talks at the initiative of Jordan's King Abdullah, who has a keen interest in the process. He said the meetings were positive and that he found both sides committed to a two-state solution.

"We do not wish to raise the bar of expectations but nor should we underplay the importance of today's meetings," the minister said in a news conference in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Tuesday's meeting will be followed by a series of talks, Judeh said.

Some of the talks are expected to be secret. This will enable both sides to present their positions without having to face internal political criticism, said Oded Granot, a commentator on Israeli TV's Channel 1. "This new format of secret talks in Jordan does not guarantee success, but it preserves the thread of the process, which all three sides need," Granot said, describing Jordan's king as "the big winner" of the day.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are challenged by internal politics. Netanyahu's conservative, pro-settlement coalition is unlikely to enable a move requiring another settlement freeze. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas faces criticism from all sides, with Hamas assailing the meeting and jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti recently describing the peace process as "dead".

The development won't renew the negotiations just quite yet but will allow the sides to respond to the initiative of the quartet, the Middle East mediators from the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. After the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership in September, the quartet proposed an outline for renewing negotiations and concluding them by the end of 2012.

The first phase of the outline called on the sides to present proposals on security and territory issues by the end of January. A month ago, the Palestinians submitted to the quartet a detailed proposal including maps accepting a 1.9% land swap. Israel has maintained it will submit proposals only in actual negotiations but reportedly received the Palestinian document Tuesday and said it would be studied.

Despite careful optimism about continuing contacts, the main points of contention are yet to be bridged. The hours before the meeting reflected just this, as Abbas warned of "hard measures" if Tuesday's talks did not lead to renewed negotiations, and Israel's housing ministry issued more tenders for planned construction in East Jerusalem.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was "very much encouraged" about the direct talks and urged both sides to "tackle core issues so that a lasting peace can be achieved in the Middle East."

There was no immediate comment from Israeli or Palestinian officials.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

Israeli, Palestinian negotiators to meet this week in Jordan

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet this week in Jordan with international mediators, Jordanian officials announced Sunday, bringing the two rivals together for their first direct talks in more than a year.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on Tuesday will host a meeting between the two sides’ negotiators and mediators from the so-called quartet — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — Jordan’s Petra news agency reported, citing a Foreign Ministry spokesman. That session will be followed by another meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While not labeled formal negotiations, the talks are seen as a small step forward in a peace effort that has long been stymied.

Israel has repeatedly said it is willing to resume direct negotiations so long as the Palestinians make no preconditions. The Palestinians in turn have repeatedly said that talks cannot resume unless Israel halts settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and agrees to use the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war as a baseline for negotiations.

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Israel to legalize West Bank outpost, mulling more construction

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- After weeks of negotiating, Israeli authorities and settler leaders have reached an agreement to relocate and grant legal approval to a Jewish outpost in the West Bank.

The government made a commitment to the Supreme Court to dismantle Ramat Gilad, a small outpost built largely on privately owned Palestinian land, by the end of the year. But officials negotiated with the settler leadership for a voluntary evacuation rather than a forced eviction, which many feared would turn into a high-profile scuffle.

According to Israeli media, the agreement will allow the removal of five residential trailers and a few additional structures, relocating them a few dozen yards to land classified as state-owned. The move will legalize the outpost as an approved neighborhood of nearby Karnei Shomron, a settlement built in the mid-1970s with the government's blessing. 

A couple of trailers will remain at the current site of Ramat Gilad while the status of the land where they sit is decided.

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Palestinian Authority gives Mideast peacemakers an ultimatum

REPORTING FROM BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK -– The Palestinian Authority on Thursday gave the so-called quartet of Middle East peace negotiators an ultimatum: It will resume its campaign for statehood recognition if there is no movement in the peace process in the next month.

"If nothing happens by Jan. 26, we are going back to our international campaign for recognition," said Nabil Shaath, a senior official in the administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The quartet -– the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -– had given the Palestinians and Israel until Jan. 26 to submit proposals for borders and security.

The Palestinian Authority has submitted its proposal, but Israel has said it will submit its proposal only at the negotiating table. The Palestinians insist that there will be no negotiations before Israel stops all settlement activities, a move that does not appear imminent.

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Israeli leadership outraged at Jewish extremists' raid on army site

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Throwing rocks, burning tires and carrying out other assaults on the Israeli military are not unheard of in the West Bank. But the incident Monday night registered loudly with Israeli authorities: The attackers were Jewish extremists.

Dozens of right-wing militants who support the settlement movement infiltrated an army regional division headquarters in the West Bank, set tires on fire, vandalized vehicles and scattered nails on the road. Senior officers also were attacked with rocks.

The incident caused public outrage and provoked tough talk across Israel's political board. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack and ordered security forces to act aggressively against those assaulting the army. "No one may raise a hand to strike a soldier or policeman. This is the basis of democracy and of the law," he said, warning such lawlessness will not be tolerated.

Netanyahu called an emergency meeting with security and legal officials. The defense authorities have vowed to capture and try those involved in the "nefarious actions."

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Second Palestinian teenager found guilty in murder of settler family

REPORTING FROM SALEM, ISRAEL — An Israeli military court on Monday convicted a second Palestinian teenager of murder in the March deaths of five Jewish settlers, including three children, as they slept in their home.

Conservative Israeli lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari repeatedly interrupted Monday's hearing, cursing the defendant, Amjad Awad, 19, and urging the judges to impose the death penalty.

Prosecutors are recommending five life sentences. In September, Awad's cousin and co-defendant, Hakim Awad, 18, was given five terms in the slayings.

The pair confessed to sneaking into the Itamar settlement from their nearby Arab village and killing five members of the Fogel family with knives and a gun. Among those stabbed to death were the three children, including an infant.

Neither defendant has expressed regret. At his sentencing, Hakim Awad said the pair committed the attack to strike against Israel's occupation of the West Bank.


Iranian lawmakers vote to expel British ambassador

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Long suspensions, heavy fines for Iran soccer players' fanny pat

— Edmund Sanders

Photo: Relatives shown in March mourning the stabbing deaths of a Jewish couple and three of their children in their home in a West Bank settlement. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press


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