Killer of Israeli settler family is sentenced to five life terms


REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK –- An Israeli military court on Monday sentenced Amjad Awad, 19, to five consecutive life terms for the murders last March of the Fogel family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar.

The three-judge panel at the Salem military court in the north of the West Bank, which in November found Awad guilty of killing the Udi and Ruth Fogels and their three children in their apartment, had considered imposing a death sentence after the judges decided he was the main culprit in the killings.

His accomplice, Hakim Awad, 18, a distant cousin, was sentenced in September to five consecutive life terms as well, one for each of the victims, who included an infant.

The act horrified many people, including the Awads’ families, who still have doubts about the responsibility of the young men for the March 11 murders despite their confessions, guilty pleas and evidence found at the scene linking them to the crime.

The two were arrested a month after the killings and after the Israeli army took DNA samples from most of the males in Awarta, their village near Itamar.


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Photo: The body of one of five members of the Vogel family killed in the West Bank settlement of Itamar is carried from the family's apartment in March 2011. Credit: Ariel Schalit / Associated Press

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem: A hub of activity

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem
REPORTING FROM BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK -- Thousands of people flocked to Manger Square on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Jesus in this West Bank city, the cradle of the Christian faith where Christ was born more than 2,000 years ago.

This special day in Bethlehem is marked by two events: The arrival of the motorcade of the head of the  Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, to the Church of the  Nativity, built on the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born, and midnight Mass, led byTwal and  attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The patriarch's motorcade started at noon from Jerusalem’s Old City. It drove through Jerusalem streets, led by Israeli police, until it reached a 50-foot-high concrete wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

An Israeli-army controlled metal door opened in the wall to allow the motorcade into Bethlehem, which looks like a city under siege with the wall and army watch towers surrounding it. Inside the wall, the motorcade stopped and was greeted by Palestinian officials, who accompanied it to Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity , where thousands of people were  waiting.

During the midnight Mass, the patriarch spoke about the message of peace in an area beset by war, upheaval and conflict.

“Our region is undergoing radical changes that affect our present and our future,” Twal said. “We cannot stand by as mere spectators. We, the spiritual leaders and those who hold in their hands the destiny of peoples, must do everything in our power to protect our people, to work for their survival, and to realize their aspirations.

"We are at one with our people, for their suffering and their hopes are our own,” he continued. “History teaches us that the will of the people, with their aspirations to peace and freedom, is stronger than the power of injustice. ... We hope that with the grace of God and with the support of people of goodwill, the physical and psychological walls that men build around themselves may disappear. God wants bridges that unite rather than walls that separate that which God has united.”

 Twal concluded with a his hopes for the region.

“We ask for peace for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people,” Twal said. “We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East.

 “We pray for the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa.”



Photo: Patriarch Fouad Twal, center, takes part in traditional  Christmas Eve ceremony outside the Church of the  Nativity in Bethlehem. Credit: Abed al Hashlamoun / European Pressphoto Agency  

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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Poll: Palestinians have doubts about outcome of reconciliation talks

Photo: Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are seen together during their meeting in Cairo in November. Credit: AP Photo/Office of Khaled Meshaal

REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -– As new reconciliation talks between Palestinian factions get underway in Cairo, including a meeting set for Wednesday between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, a poll suggests there are serious doubts among the Palestinian people about whether the negotiations will succeed.

A public opinion poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research published Monday found that, regarding the reconciliation efforts, Palestinians are equally divided between believers and skeptics.

Furthermore, only 21% of those who believe the talks may succeed also think a reconciliation government of technocrats will be formed soon, while 27% said it would never be formed. Most of the others said it would take a long time to form an effective government.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas remain miles apart on who would run a new government.

Although earlier reports said Abbas, during a meeting last month with Meshaal, had abandoned a demand that his Western-backed prime minister, Salam Fayyad, should run a combined government, the Palestinian Authority president seems once again to be sticking with Fayyad. Hamas remains strongly opposed to Fayyad. This question alone may be sufficient to derail the talks.

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Israel releases prisoners, approves new housing in disputed area


REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israel’s release of 550 prisoners on Sunday concluded a controversial two-stage swap that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians.

Separately, the government announced plans to build more than 1,000 new housing units on disputed land it seized during the 1967 Mideast War.

Shalit, who had held captive in the Gaza Strip for five years, was released in October after Israel reached an agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and freed 477 prisoners, including many who were serving life sentences for terrorist attacks against Israelis.

As part of the deal, Israel was allowed to select those who would be released in the second phase. As a result, none freed Sunday belonged to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, officials said. Most were petty criminals and those who had nearly completed their prison terms.

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Palestinian families await release of prisoners

REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK –- Families and friends gathered in Ramallah on Sunday to await the release of 550 Palestinians from jail, concluding a two-stage deal that saw Israeli soldier soldier Gilad Shalit freed in October after five years in captivity.

Palestinians drove around the West Bank city honking their horns, flashing pictures of the prisoners and playing nationalist music over loudspeakers.

At Beitunia checkpoint near the Ofer military camp, where many of the prisoners were being held, young Palestinians gathered to wait for Red Cross buses to emerge from the facility with the prisoners.

Clashes erupted with Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fence. Palestinian hurled stones at the soldiers, who fired back with tear gas and stun grenades, forcing the hundreds waiting for the prisoners to flee the area.

Other families waited at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah.

The first phase of the prisoner deal reached by Israel and the militant Hamas movement included the release in October of 477 Palestinians, most of them serving multiple life sentences and many accused of murdering Israelis.

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Gingrich comments provoke strong Palestinian reaction

REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK –- Palestinians reacted angrily Saturday to comments by Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich that the Palestinians were "an invented" people.

In the comments, aired Friday on the Jewish Channel cable network, Gingrich said, "I think we have had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs."

He also put Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant Islamic group Hamas in the same boat, saying they "both represent an enormous desire to destroy Israel." Gingrich also described the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as "delusional."

Describing Gingrich as ignorant of the region’s history, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad suggested that Gingrich should review history, "because all he seems to know about history is the Ottoman period."

Gingrich’s statements are a "denial of history, which is not acceptable," he said.

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Israeli officials expel Hamas lawmaker from Jerusalem

Ahmad Attoun at Qalandia checkpoint
REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK – Israeli police following military court orders Tuesday expelled a Hamas lawmaker from Jerusalem and sent him to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Ahmad Attoun, who was elected to the Palestinian Authority parliament in 2006, was brought before an Israeli military court near Ramallah on Tuesday morning, which ruled to expel him. He was later taken to the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he was ordered to cross into the West Bank with clear instructions not to enter Jerusalem again.

At the Kalandia checkpoint, Attoun said the expulsion was inappropriate and would separate him from his family.

“The expulsion is unfair and violates international law that bans an occupying power from displacing people under occupation from their homes,” he said.

Attoun was among several officials with Hamas, a militant Islamic group that Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization, who saw their Jerusalem residency permits revoked by the Israeli Ministry of Interior shortly after the parliamentary election.

Attoun and others were arrested in a general Israeli sweep of Hamas officials in the West Bank, served time in jail, and later took refuge at the Red Cross office in Jerusalem to keep from being expelled pending a decision on their status by the Israeli Supreme Court.

In late September, undercover Israeli agents tricked Attoun into stepping outside the Red Cross office and took him into custody.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem following its occupation in 1967, considers it part of Israel proper and applies Israeli law to its Palestinian residents.

The Israeli Supreme Court last month gave the Ministry of Interior three months to explain why it wants Attoun and the other lawmakers expelled from Jerusalem.

Dozens of Palestinian activists from East Jerusalem are worried that if the court upholds the expulsion decision they might be next in line.


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Photo: Ahmad Attoun speaks to the media at the Kalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 6, 2011. Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters


Israel approves release of tax funds to Palestinian Authority

Tzipi Livni and Mahmoud Abbas
REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -– A cash-strapped Palestinian Authority and more than 150,000 public employees got a reprieve Wednesday as Israel approved the release of about $200 million in taxes collected during October and November.

The Israeli forum of eight ministers approved the transfer of the funds to the Palestinian Authority. A statement issued by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the approval came as a result of “the halt in unilateral steps by the Palestinian Authority.”

Israel froze the funds after the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization  voted  on Oct. 31 to admit Palestine as full member, which Israel said was a unilateral move, and after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and  Hamas started steps to reconcile their differences.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had warned that without release of these funds he would not be able to pay the November salaries of public employees or meet other important financial obligations, which he said could harm the Palestinian Authority.

Israel was under international pressure to release the funds.

Tony Blair, representative of the so-called Mideast quartet consisting of the United States, European Union, U.N. and Russia, said Netanyahu and other ministers have been urged "to transfer these funds without delay.”

He said in a statement that “this is Palestinian money which is critical to sustaining the Palestinian Authority and should be transferred on a regular and predictable basis,” emphasizing that “withholding these funds only benefits those who oppose peace and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.”

Abbas on Wednesday met with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni in the Jordanian capital Amman to discuss the future of the peace process.

Abbas reiterated to Livni his insistence that without an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion, there will not be a peace process, according to Palestinian officials present in the meeting.

Livni  raised the issue of Abbas' reconciliation with Hamas, saying that it would not be helpful to efforts to revive the peace process.

Abbas told Livni that the reconciliation is an important pillar of the peace process and is in the interest of the Palestinian people. He also rejected her claims that seeking United Nations membership was a unilateral move, saying that the move was important for the two-state solution and the peace process in general.

The Palestinians suspended plans to seek membership in U.N. agencies after their successful UNESCO bid, and have said they are considering options such as pursuing full membership in the U.N.


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-- Maher Abukhater

Photo: Israeli Kadima party Chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet on Nov. 30, 2011, in Amman, Jordan. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Palestinian Authority’s Abbas, Hamas’ Meshaal talk reunification

Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshaal

REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and his rival, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, met in Cairo on Thursday to discuss ways to implement a reconciliation agreement they signed more than six months ago.

The leaders revealed very little in public after the two-hour meeting, saying only that it was positive and held in a good atmosphere. Aides said there was agreement on little things, but not on the major issues.

“The atmosphere was positive and there weren’t any disagreements when we discussed the various issues,” said Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank. “We want to work as partners and we have a joint responsibility toward our people and cause.”

Meshaal, whose Hamas organization has controlled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, also gave a positive impression about the meeting, stressing that the two leader had “opened a new page” in their relationship.

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