Category Archives: Fatah

Hamas’s Haniya applauds, Israel denounces PLO unity moves

AFP reports: The Hamas premier of Gaza, Ismail Haniya, praised steps toward reconciliation taken by the Islamist group and its former rival Fatah, which were angrily denounced in Israel.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal took steps in Cairo on Thursday towards reforming the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organisation, such that Hamas could join.

“We want to pursue positive dialogue with Fatah from this point”, Haniya told journalists.

“Practical measures must however be taken, like the liberation of political prisoners from Hamas detained by Fatah,” he said, adding that Fatah must also stop its repeated questioning of Hamas supporters during investigations.

The reconciliation moves drew an angry response from Israel, with one minister saying the Jewish state must now annex more territory to ensure the safety of its citizens in case “terrorist” Hamas gains influence in the West Bank.

“This alarming rapprochement between Abu Mazen (Abbas) and Hamas is aimed at forming a government that one can only say is aimed at bringing about a genocide,” Transport Minister Israel Katz of the right-wing Likud party said.


Hamas edges closer to the mainstream: agreeing to nonviolence, opening the door to recognizing Israel

Time magazine reports: The leaders of the two biggest Palestinian parties met in Cairo on Thanksgiving, and just going by the headlines afterward, you’d have thought nothing had happened. “Palestinians talk unity, no sign of progress,” said Reuters. AP: “Palestinian rivals talk, but fail to resolve rifts.” But read the stories, and it becomes clear that a great deal is going on, with immense implications for the future of peace talks with Israel.

Israel’s government dismissed the meeting with a wave of the terrorist card. Hamas is regarded by the West and Israel as first and foremost a terrorist organization, and so Mark Regev, who speaks for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, framed the reconciliation as something that can only contaminate the pacifist credentials of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah party chief widely known as Abu Mazen:

“The closer Abu Mazen gets to Hamas,” Regev said, “the farther he moves away from peace.”

But what if Abbas is holding still, and Hamas is moving closer to Abbas? That’s what’s been happening, from nearly all appearances, for the last two or three years, and everything coming out of the Cairo meeting points in the same direction. The head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and Abbas spoke for two hours, Abbas in the big chair, Meshaal on the couch with two others. Afterwards both met the cameras smiling. “There are no differences between us now,” Abbas said. Mashaal went with: “We have opened a new page of partnership.” And on whose terms? Hamas stands for resistance, its formal name being the Islamic Resistance Movement. But in the Gaza Strip where it governs, Hamas has largely enforced a truce with Israel since January 2009. And in Cairo it signed a paper committing itself to “popular resistance” against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. That’s “popular” in contrast to “violent” or “military” resistance. We’re talking marches here. Chanting and signs, not booby traps or suicide bombs.


New winds in Mideast favor Hamas

The New York Times reports: For years, the imposing black gate that sealed the border between Egypt and Gaza symbolized the pain and isolation that decades of conflict have wrought on this tiny coastal strip, especially under Hamas in recent years.

But recently, the gate has come to represent a new turn for the increasingly confident Hamas leadership. The twin arches of the border crossing have swung open twice in recent weeks for V.I.P. arrivals, first to receive hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails as one captive Israeli soldier moved in the other direction, and a second time for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to visit Gaza for the first time in decades.

Both instances lifted the fortunes of the Islamists at a critical time ahead of negotiations scheduled to be held in Cairo this week with their main rival, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who leads the Fatah party.

Hamas’s leader, Khalid Meshal, arrives at those talks with a sense of regional winds at his back. Dictators have fallen, replaced by protest movements and governments that include the Islamist movements those dictators suppressed. Hamas has lost no opportunity to highlight this development as it basks in the growing regional importance of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most powerful Islamist movement in the world.

“This is a hot Arab winter that has not until now ripened into spring,” a Hamas official, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, proclaimed in Gaza last month as he claimed the Arab revolutions for Islamic revivalism. The campaigns to oust corrupted leaders have reached a “critical stage,” he said, before concluding, “With God’s help, next year we will see the flowering of Islam.”

Mr. Abbas, by contrast, arrives with mixed success for his plan to gain United Nations recognition of statehood for Palestine. He has gained huge domestic support — polls are 80 percent in his favor — but the bid has faltered and he has alienated a crucial ally in Washington.

Hamas, on the other hand, trumpets its success in trading one captive Israeli soldier, Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hoping that the Egyptian-brokered exchange will erase Palestinians’ memories of the increased isolation and blockades that Gaza suffered during Sergeant Shalit’s captivity.

Boaz Ganor, an Israeli security analyst and the founder of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism, believes that Hamas is now “much stronger” than it was before. The Shalit deal, he believes, was part of a “very detailed, sophisticated plan” by Hamas, which the United States and the European Union have labeled a terrorist organization, to break free from its Gaza enclave and secure greater legitimacy “at least in the international arena, if not in the eyes of Israel,” before Palestinian elections, scheduled for May.

“As long as they were holding an Israeli soldier against the Geneva Conventions and so forth, they would not be regarded as a legitimate candidate,” he said.

Both Hamas and Fatah leaders say that the Cairo talks will focus on setting up a unity transitional government of technocrats to take Palestinians through to elections, already long overdue.

Nabil Shaath, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said that the talks would focus on unity, nonviolence and finding a cabinet and a prime minister acceptable to both sides. He said there was now a “much better opportunity” for agreement. Hamas had enjoyed success with the prisoner swap, and Fatah gained domestic support for the statehood bid, he said, and “success reduces the need for competition.”


The problem with Palestinian political leadership

Ben White writes:

For a few months now, discussion of Palestine/Israel has focused on the looming UN vote on Palestinian statehood, but this is obscuring more fundamental problems in the Palestinian political arena – of which the forthcoming UN vote is a symptom.

In three critical areas, there are significant flaws hampering Palestinian political leadership.

The first is a legitimacy deficit. Both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas have, with the most generous interpretation, a minority mandate from the Palestinian people. The last elections of any sort took place in 2005-2006, and overdue local elections have been indefinitely postponed. And even if presidential or parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza were to take place tomorrow, they would still exclude Palestinian refugees. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) remains a potential vehicle for democratic decision-making, but serious reform is still not on the horizon.

The second critical problem is a lack of creativity and strategic thinking when it comes to tactics. This has a number of root causes which are beyond the scope of this article but the main point is a marked inability to adapt to circumstances with regard to the kind of smart resistance most appropriate for confronting Israeli colonisation. This is more than simply an issue of “violent” versus “nonviolent” (a discussion often plagued by patronising western double standards).

Fear of losing control over the course of events can be one factor inhibiting an openness to change – which brings us to the third problematic area: a focus on power for its own sake rather than for the achievement of a specific goal.

This criticism applies to both Fatah and Hamas, though the former has been guilty of it for a longer period of time and with more devastating consequences. Over the past five years or so, the conflict between these two factions has frequently resembled a fight for who can occupy the Bantustan palace, rather than who can serve most effectively the unfinished Palestinian revolution.

This fight for fake authority has resulted in a dangerous phenomenon: the harassment of youth activists (such as the 15 March movement) and dissidents in the West Bank and Gaza. The growing expressions of dissatisfaction, particularly from young Palestinians, have contributed to a hardening grip on power by two regimes that fear they stand to lose from an overhauled democratic system.


Eyes open in Gaza, June 2011

Helena Cobban writes:

The Gaza Strip is a heavily urbanized sliver of land, some 30 miles long, that nestles against the southeast corner of the Mediterranean and that for many reasons– including the fact that more than 75% of its 1.6 million are refugees from within what is now Israel– has always been a crucible for the Palestinian movement. In the 1950s, Yasser Arafat and his comrades founded the secular nationalist movement Fateh here. In the 1970s, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a local preacher, founded the network of Islamist organizations that later became Hamas, right here in Gaza. In 1987, Gaza was where the overwhelmingly nonviolent First Intifada was first ignited…

On a recent Wednesday morning, I sat in the neat, second-story office of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights with its deputy director, a grizzled veteran of the rights movement called Jaber Wishah. We were discussing the prospects for the reconciliation agreement that Fateh and Hamas concluded in Cairo on May 3. Wishah said he hoped that the agreement would result in the formation of a ‘national salvation government’ that could end and reverse the many kinds of assault that the Israeli government has sustained against the Palestinians of the occupied territories: primarily, the multi-year siege that suffocates the Gaza Strip’s 1.6 million residents and the continuing land expropriations and regime of deeply abusive control that Israel maintains over the 2.6 million Palestinians of the West Bank.

“We desperately need this salvation government, to halt the deterioration of our situation,” Wishah said.

Like all the politically connected Palestinians I talked with during my three-day visit to Gaza, Wishah stressed that the key factor that was now– however slowly– starting to ease the harsh, five-year rift between Hamas and Fateh was the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in neighboring Egypt.

Gaza’s longest land border is the one lined (by Israel) with high concrete walls, hi-tech sensors, and a series of watchtowers with machine-gun nests that can fire automatically if any Palestinian approaches any closer than 500 meters to the wall. Gaza’s shorter border is the one with Egypt that, since 2006, has been the only way that Gaza’s people– or rather, a carefully screened subset of them– can ever hope to travel outside the tiny Strip, whether for business, studies, or family reunions. So long as Mubarak and his widely loathed intel chief Omar Sulaiman were still in power in Cairo, they used their power over Egypt’s Rafah crossing point with Gaza to maintain tight control over the Strip and they worked with Israel, the United States, and their allies in Fateh to squeeze Gaza’ss Hamas rulers as hard as they could. Many Arab governments have long expressed support for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. But they (and the western powers) were always content to let Egypt take the lead in brokering all reconciliation efforts. To no-one’s surprise, so long as Mubarak and Sulaiman were in charge in Cairo, those efforts went nowhere. [Continue reading…]


Fayyad to stay on as Palestinian prime minister

DPA reports:

Salam Fayyad on Tuesday dismissed reports that he was thinking of stepping down as Palestinian prime minister after the Islamist Hamas movement rejected him as a candidate to run the new government.

The Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas had insisted on Fayyad staying as prime minister. Abbas told a Lebanese television station on Monday that since he would name the new government, his only choice would be Fayyad, regardless of Hamas’s position.

The move caused concern that the national reconciliation agreement that Fatah and Hamas concluded on May 4, and which was supposed to result in a government of consensus, may not work because of strong differences over Fayyad.


Hamas rejects Fatah nominee for PM

BBC News reports:

The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas has rejected its rival Fatah’s nomination of Salam Fayyad as prime minister in a transitional government.

The decision came hours after Fatah agreed to back Mr Fayyad, who currently heads the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank.

Delegates from the two factions are due to meet on Tuesday in Cairo to agree the make-up of the new government.

Fatah and Hamas signed a deal in May ending their four-year split.


Hamas considers hands-off approach

The Associated Press reports:

After four years of turbulent rule in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas is weighing a new strategy of not directly participating in future governments even if it wins elections — an approach aimed at avoiding isolation by the world community and allowing for continued economic aid.

Hamas officials told The Associated Press the idea has gained favor in recent closed meetings of the secretive movement’s leadership in the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt and Syria, and that it helped enable last month’s reconciliation agreement with the rival Fatah group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Talks on implementing that accord have dragged on, particularly over the makeup of a “unity government.” The agreement envisions a government of nonpolitical technocrats — in line with Hamas’ emerging thinking — but Abbas wants to retain current premier Salam Fayyad, a respected economist viewed by Hamas as a political figure.

The new approach reflects both the group’s rigidity and its pragmatism: On the one hand, Hamas refuses to meet widespread global demands that it accept Israel’s right to exist; on the other, its leaders grasp the price Palestinians would pay if the Islamic militants emerged fully in charge of a future government.


The untold story of the deal that shocked the Middle East

Robert Fisk reports:

Secret meetings between Palestinian intermediaries, Egyptian intelligence officials, the Turkish foreign minister, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal – the latter requiring a covert journey to Damascus with a detour round the rebellious city of Deraa – brought about the Palestinian unity which has so disturbed both Israelis and the American government. Fatah and Hamas ended four years of conflict in May with an agreement that is crucial to the Paslestinian demand for a state.

A series of detailed letters, accepted by all sides, of which The Independent has copies, show just how complex the negotiations were; Hamas also sought – and received – the support of Syrian President Bachar al-Assad, the country’s vice president Farouk al-Sharaa and its foreign minister, Walid Moallem. Among the results was an agreement by Meshaal to end Hamas rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza – since resistance would be the right only of the state – and agreement that a future Palestinian state be based on Israel’s 1967 borders.

“Without the goodwill of all sides, the help of the Egyptians and the acceptance of the Syrians – and the desire of the Palestinians to unite after the start of the Arab Spring, we could not have done this,” one of the principal intermediaries, 75-year old Munib Masri, told me. It was Masri who helped to set up a ‘Palestinian Forum’ of independents after the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas originally split after Hamas won an extraordinary election victory in 2006. “I thought the divisions that had opened up could be a catastrophe and we went for four years back and forth between the various parties,” Masri said. “Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) asked me several times to mediate. We opened meetings in the West Bank. We had people from Gaza. Everyone participated. We had a lot of capability.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports:

Arsonists torched a West Bank mosque early Tuesday and scrawled Hebrew graffiti on one of its walls.

The Palestinian mayor of el-Mughayer village said a tire was set ablaze inside the mosque in an apparent attempt to burn down the building.

No one claimed responsibility for the act, but suspicion fell upon Jewish settlers, both because they have carried out similar acts in the past and because the graffiti read, “Price tag, Aley Ayin.”

“Price tag” is a settler practice of attacking Palestinians in revenge for Israeli government operations against settlers. Aley Ayin is a small, unauthorized settler outpost that was evacuated by security forces last week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the act, calling it “a heinous act of provocation.”

Noting Netanyahu’s comment, U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry said in a statement, “The actions of Israeli extremists are highly provocative and threatening.” He called on Israel to “ensure the accountability of those responsible and protect the human rights of Palestinians and their property.”


A Palestinian revolt in the making?

Jesse Rosenfeld and Joseph Dana write:

At 10:30 on May 15, two battalions of Israeli combat soldiers opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets on hundreds of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators at the Qalandia checkpoint dividing Ramallah from Jerusalem, sending people scrambling into the adjacent refugee camp. These were the opening shots of Israel’s response to protests commemorating the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe, used to define Israel’s creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948. By nightfall Israeli soldiers had killed thirteen Palestinian refugees and wounded hundreds with live fire on its borders with Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and inside the West Bank.

The May 15 demonstrations reinvigorated the long-alienated Palestinian refugee community; although it is 70 percent of the Palestinian population, it has been largely shut out of the negotiations process with Israel. The emerging unity was on display at Qalandia, where youth trying to symbolically march from Ramallah to Jerusalem wore black T-shirts with the slogan “Direct Elections for the Palestine National Council, a Vote for Every Palestinian, Everywhere.” The PNC is the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation organization and is responsible for electing its executive committee. Traditionally, seat allocation in the PNC has been divided to represent the influence factions within the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member.

The Nakba protests have been the largest so far of a growing Palestinian youth revolt. The protests—launched with unity protests on March 15 in the Palestinian Authority–controlled West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza Strip—are the Palestinian response to the outbreak of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. While it is a new development, this manifestation of popular anger against Palestinian Authority concessions in the failed negotiations process—shockingly revealed with Al Jazeera’s January release of top-secret negotiation minutes, known as the Palestine Papers—and Israel’s practice of divide and rule has been simmering under the surface for the past three years.

“The unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas gave people hope to be here today and continue with this new phase of struggle,” said Fadi Quran, a founding organizer of the March 15 movement, amid the clashes with Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia checkpoint. “It showed us that something was possible and we must continue,” he added, coughing from tear gas.

Peter Beinart adds:

I watched Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress with a guy named Fadi Quran. He recently graduated from Stanford, where he double-majored in physics and international relations. He lives in Ramallah, where he’s starting an alternative energy company. And he just might rock our world.

Quran is helping to coordinate a raft of Palestinian youth organizations—located in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria—all united around one goal: to create a Palestinian Tahrir Square. They organized the unity march that helped pressure Fatah and Hamas to reconcile. Ten days ago, they organized the Nakba Day protests in which refugees marched on Israel’s borders.

What they’re doing isn’t exactly new. Palestinians in the West Bank have been conducting regular nonviolent protests for many years now, often against the separation barrier that stands between them and their fields. But Egypt and Tunisia made Quran and his colleagues realize that nonviolence was possible on a much larger scale. Not everyone in his movement believes in peaceful resistance as a matter of principle, he admitted sheepishly. But they all believe it represents the right strategy. They’ve been studying the civil rights movement and Gandhi’s struggle against the British and the movement that peacefully brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. No one wants a second intifada, he insisted. “It hurt us much more than the Israelis.”

When I asked Quran what his movement believes, I expected to hear about borders and refugees and Jerusalem. Instead, he began talking about John Rawls and John Locke, a social contract between the government and the governed. A Palestinian government that denies his rights, he insisted, is as offensive as an Israeli one. When I pressed him on whether his colleagues want two states—one Palestinian, one Jewish—or a secular binational one, he seemed strangely agnostic. He said that in an ideal world one democratic state would be better, before adding that of course such a state would have to guarantee the safety and cultural autonomy of Jews. (One of his inspirations, he said, was Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher who advocated a binational state in the 1920s and 1930s). When I said I didn’t consider a binational state very realistic, he conceded the point, before noting that in the age of Netanyahu and Lieberman, most Palestinians don’t consider a two-state solution very realistic either.


Egypt to open Rafah crossing permanently

The Associated Press reports:

Egypt’s decision Wednesday to end its blockade of Gaza by opening the only crossing to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory this weekend could ease the isolation of 1.4 million Palestinians there. It also puts the new Egyptian regime at odds with Israel, which insists on careful monitoring of people and goods entering Gaza for security reasons.

The Rafah crossing will be open permanently starting Saturday, Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency announced. That would provide Gaza Palestinians their first open border to the world in four years, since Egypt and Israel slammed their crossings shut after the Islamic militant Hamas overran the Gaza Strip in 2007.

During the closure, Egypt sometimes opened its border to allow Palestinians through for special reasons such as education or medical treatment. But with Israel severely restricting movement of Palestinians through its Erez crossing in northern Gaza, residents there were virtual prisoners.

Reuters reports on differences of opinion in Hamas’ leadership. Does this suggest a possible split in the group? Wrong question. Perhaps more significantly it suggests that the long-held assumptions about who is more radical and ideological and who is more pragmatic got the labels the wrong way round. Contrary to common opinion, the voice of moderate pragmatism tends to come out of Damascus more often than Gaza.

Divisions in Hamas have been brought to the surface by a reconciliation agreement with rival group Fatah, exposing splits in the Palestinian Islamist movement that could complicate implementation of the deal.

It is the first time differences between Hamas leaders in Gaza and the movement’s exiled politburo in Damascus have been aired so openly in public, supporting a view that the group is far from united.

The disagreements have embarrassed a movement that has always denied talk of internal divisions. But analysts do not believe they signal an imminent fracture: neither wing of the Hamas movement can survive without the other.

Signs of strain began to show in the Hamas response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, declared a holy warrior by the head of the Hamas-run Gaza government in remarks described by a member of the exiled leadership as “a slip of the tongue.” Khaled Meshaal, head of the movement in exile, then became the focus of criticism by Gaza-based leaders who said they were surprised by remarks suggesting a degree of support for peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Meshaal had said Hamas was willing to give “an additional chance” to the peace process always opposed by his group, which is deeply hostile to Israel and has routinely declared negotiations a waste of time.

Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a senior figure in the Gaza administration, said the comments had surprised the entire Hamas movement and contradicted its strategy based on armed conflict with Israel.


Welcome Hamas’s conciliation with Fatah

Musa Abumarzuq, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau in Damascus, writes:

The birth of the Cairo reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas was slow and painful. But Palestinians welcomed its arrival. The tragic division which occurred in our national movement constituted a chapter we hope will never happen again. It never occurred to us that a time would come when we would turn against fellow Palestinians.

Today, the reconciliation exposes the Israeli occupation as the real spoiler of peace. The Israelis have reneged on every agreement signed with the Palestinian Authority. Now we have forged this historic agreement and buried the hatchet, they are threatening our people with dire consequences.

While we were ensconced in Cairo trying to finalise the agreement, Israel embarked on a diplomatic offensive to persuade European governments to withdraw economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

As western governments have, individually and collectively, welcomed the democratic changes taking place in the Middle East, they should support a similar transformation in Palestine. Any attempt to short change my people would have no legitimacy. The events marking the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba have shown that no amount of victimisation, wars and blockade will deter us from the path of freedom. The world must remember the core issue of our cause is the right of every refugee to return to their home – a right enshrined in international law. As others were allowed to exercise this right, we demand the same for our people.


News roundup — May 12

Sunni monarchies close ranks

Reports that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is considering some form of membership for two non-Gulf states – Jordan and Morocco – confirm that the conservative Sunni monarchies of the Middle East are closing ranks against Iran, Shiite-led Iraq and the democratic wave sweeping the region.

GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani made the announcement Tuesday after a summit of the six-member group affirmed support for Saudi and United Arab Emirates military intervention against predominantly Shiite pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.

Zayani did not make clear whether Morocco and Jordan would be offered a second-tier membership in the GCC, which groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.

Foreign ministers from Jordan and Morocco will meet with GCC foreign ministers to “complete required procedures”, Zayani told reporters.

Founded in 1981 in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 revolution and in the midst of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the GCC encourages economic and especially military cooperation among its members, which all border the Persian Gulf. In territorial terms, it would make more sense to offer membership to Iraq or Yemen than to Jordan or faraway Morocco.

However, the wave of popular unrest that has swept the region since January – and toppled once durable pro-Western authoritarian non- monarchies in Tunisia and Egypt – has spread anxiety among conservative Sunni monarchies already unsettled by the Shiite replacement of a Sunni regime in Iraq and by Iran’s slow but steady nuclear advancement. (IPS)

Syria shells major city as crackdown spreads

The Syrian military intensified a methodical, ferocious march across the country’s most restive locales on Wednesday, shelling the country’s third-largest city from tanks, forcing hundreds to flee and detaining hundreds more in what has emerged as one of the most brutal waves of repression since the Arab Spring began.

Homs, in central Syria near the Lebanese border, has become the latest target of the crackdown, which has already besieged and silenced, for now, the cities of Dara’a, in the fertile but drought-stricken southern steppe, and Baniyas, on the Mediterranean coast. Dozens of tanks occupied Homs, as black-clad security forces, soldiers and militiamen in plain clothes filtered through the industrial city of 1.5 million people. At least 19 people were killed there Wednesday, human rights groups said.

The crackdown in some neighborhoods alternated with the relative calm in the center of a city that is home to a Sunni Muslim majority and a Christian minority.

“We see the smoke rising in the sky after we hear the shells explode,” said Abu Haydar, a resident reached by telephone. “The sky was pretty quickly covered in smoke.”

In public statements and interviews, the government has acknowledged the crackdown, describing the military’s targets as militant Islamists and saboteurs. It said nearly 100 soldiers and members of the security forces had been killed, and American officials say that some protesters have indeed taken up arms.

In Washington, two Obama administration officials said that the United States still did not see a clear or organized opposition or another leader in Syria who could serve to unite the foes of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. (New York Times)

What will a post-Assad Syria look like?

Joshua Landis writes: I am a pessimist about Syria’s future because the regime will dig in its heels and fight to the end. The Syrian opposition has successfully established a culture of resistance that is widespread in Syria and will not be eliminated. Even if demonstrations can be shut down for the time being, the opposition will not be defeated. Syria’s youth, long apolitical and appathetic, is now politicized, mobilized, and passionate. All the same, the opposition remains divided and leaderless, which presents great dangers for a post-Assad Syria.

It is hard to see any soft landing for the regime or the people. It is also hard to see how the regime will be brought down short of economic collapse and its inability to pay wages, which would lead to wider social defections and a possible splitting of the military, as happened in Lebanon and Libya. If the military splits, both sides would have ample firepower to do real damage. Large sections of Syria could fall out of state control. Regions not divided by sect could remain fairly quite and stable for a time if there is a unified political leadership to step into the vacuum. Otherwise competing parties will develop militias as happened in Iraq and Lebanon.

No foreign power will feel compelled to step in to protect the people or stop the fighting because no one will be responsible for “losing Syria.” Syria is a political orphan today.

The army has split in Syria once before. This happened in Feb 1954 at the end of Adib Shishakli’s rule. The army divided along geographic lines. The divisions in the North went with the opposition centered on the People’s Party based in Homs and Aleppo. The South stood by Shishakli. Fortunately, General Shishakli decided to leave the country and flew off to Saudi Arabia, helped by the US. He had a change of mind in mid air but the US prevented his return. Washington convinced Lebanon to refuse his jet landing rights. After a brief spell in Arabia, Shishakli migrated to Brazil, where a relative of a Druze man, for whose death Shishakli was responsible, assassinated him.

Syria’s great weakness is it lack of unity. This is why the Assad household has been able to rule for so long. Hafiz al-Assad was able to bring stability to Syria after 20 years of coups and political chaos by reverting to the use of traditional loyalties. He ended Syria’s period as a banana republic by placing his brother in charge of protecting the presidency and using tribal and sectarian loyalties to coup-proof the regime. Alawite faithful were carefully recruited to all the sensitive security positions in the Mukhabarat and military. The Sunni elite was grateful for the stability and was further brought in through the crafty use of graft and patronage. Rami Makhlouf is corrupt, but he is also the fixer for the Sunni merchant class. The way he brought the Sham Holding Company in to the circle of regime loyalists was a classic use of privilege and muscle to glue the elite families of Syria to the regime. They have made millions my accepting an offer that they could not refuse.

The Syrian opposition has always been divided between Arab nationalists, Islamist currents, liberals, and all those who disprove of the regime but are too conservative to take part in active opposition. Then there are the sectarian communities and the Kurds, class divisions, and the urban-rural split, not to mention the traditional rivalry between Damascus and Aleppo. The reason that the Assads have been so successful for so long is largely due to the inability of Syrians to unite around a common platform and national identity. The oppositions lack of unity does not augur well for a post Assad future, especially as the death toll mounts and the desire for revenge grows. (Syria Comment)

Yemeni forces kill 18 and wound hundreds as unrest escalates

Yemeni forces have opened fire on demonstrators in three major cities, killing at least 18 and wounding hundreds in one of the fiercest bouts of violence witnessed in nearly three months of popular unrest aimed at toppling President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The clashes between a defected faction of Yemen’s army and the republican guard, have raised fears that Yemen may be reaching a critical juncture as public fury continues to mount at the president’s refusal to step down.

Violence broke out in the capital when a throng of 2,000 protesters tore away from the main sit-in area at Sana’a University and surged en masse towards the cabinet building in downtown Sana’a with shouts of “God is great” and “Allah rid us of this tyrant”. (The Guardian)

Turkey’s Erdogan: Hamas is a political party, not a terrorist group

Hamas is not a terror organization, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview with U.S. television late Wednesday, saying he felt the recently penned Palestinian reconciliation agreement was an essential step toward Mideast peace.

Erdogan’s comments came one day after Hamas Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar said that while his organization would accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, it would never recognize Israel, as a result of the damage such a move would do to Palestinian refugees in the “diaspora.”

Senior Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have voiced opposition to Fatah’s new unity deal with Hamas, saying that a Palestinian government that included a terrorist group calling for Israel’s destruction could not be a partner for peace.

Speaking to Charlie Rose on Wednesday, however, the Turkish PM chimed in on the recently achieved unity agreement between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, indicating that he did not feel Hamas was an obstacle in achieving Mideast peace. (Haaretz)

Abbas determined to retain Fayyad as PM of Fatah-Hamas cabinet, report says

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has told Egyptian officials that incumbent Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is his only candidate to head the burgeoning Palestinian unity cabinet, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported on Thursday.

The report came after international donors were reportedly applying significant pressure on Abbas to retain Fayyad as prime minister, after earlier reports claimed the Palestinian prime minister would have to step down as a result of Fatah’s newly signed unity pact with former rivals Hamas. (Haaretz)

Nato air strikes hit Gaddafi compound in Tripoli again

Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli has been hit by Nato rockets again, a few hours after the veteran autocrat appeared in public for the first time in almost two weeks.

Gaddafi was shown on state television in a traditional brown robe addressing tribal leaders, whom he empowered to speak on behalf of a nation he has ruled with absolute power for almost 42 years.

The labyrinthine complex in the heart of the capital was struck at around 3am with five bombs and rockets that appeared to target military installations and bunkers.

A giant crater could be seen in the lawn in the middle of the complex, with one of the rockets having hit what appeared to be a bunker . Officials said six people were killed in the attack, including two Libyan reporters who had been interviewing supporters camped out at the scene.

“These locations were known to be command and control facilities engaged in co-ordinating attacks against civilian populations in Libya,” said a Nato official speaking from Brussels.

Libyan spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the underground facility was not a bunker, but a sewage network. But following the strike, chanting Gaddafi supporters guarded a stairwell leading to the ruined site, having been told to let no reporters near it. Heat rose from a second smaller crater, where shattered reinforced concrete exposed a cavernous hole beneath. (The Guardian)

Libyan opposition invited to White House Friday

The Obama administration is stepping up its engagement with forces fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, inviting opposition leaders to meet with U.S. officials at the White House Friday, while stopping short of recognizing their council as Libya’s legitimate government.

The White House said Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan Transitional National Council, would meet with senior administration officials, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, as well as members of Congress. But there were no plans for President Barack Obama to meet with Jibril and his delegation.

France and Italy are among the nations that recognize the Council as Libya’s legitimate government. But White House press secretary Jay Carney said today that while the U.S. would continue consulting and assisting the opposition, giving the Council political legitimacy would be “premature.”

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking with Marines, said the U.S. is keeping a “wary eye” on the opposition, and lacks clarity about exactly who the opposition is and what actions they may take long-term.

Still, the U.S. has been boosting its support for the opposition over the past month, including Obama’s authorization of $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the revolutionaries. The first shipment of that aid — 10,000 meals ready to eat from Pentagon stocks — arrived in the liberated city of Benghazi this week. The U.S. has also supplied some $53 million in humanitarian aid.

In addition, the administration has begun working with Congress to free up a portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Gaddafi regime assets in U.S. banks so it can be spent to help the Libyan people. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, who met with Jibril this week, said yesterday he was drafting legislation at the request of the White House that would allow that to happen.

The revolutionaries have said they need up to $3 billion in the coming months for military salaries, food, medicine and other supplies in order to keep fighting Gaddafi’s forces. They also say no country has sent the arms that they desperately need. (Libya TV)

Move to expand the war on terrorism

Less than two weeks after U.S. special operations commandos killed Osama bin Laden, a resolution viewed as an expansion of the legal basis for the global war on terror is moving through Congress.

The House Armed Services Committee added language to the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization bill on Wednesday that would define the current war on al Qaeda to include the Taliban and affiliated armed groups, affirming the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s interpretation of the 2001 war resolution.

The committee began marking up the bill on Wednesday. It sets out the guidance for the U.S. defense budget.

The provision, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, is key legislation used by lawyers for both President George W. Bush and President Obama as a legal basis for detaining terrorists without trial who are captured around the world. The legislation also was used to authorize U.S. drone strikes and special operations forces raids in countries where the United States is not formally at war.

Civil liberties groups have expressed worries that the new legislation, sponsored by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and committee chairman, significantly expands the scope of the global war on terror. (Washington Times)

Taliban join the Twitter revolution

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they eschewed most modern technology, including television and music players.

But in the latest sign of the hardline movement’s rapprochement with at least some areas of the modern world, the Taliban have embraced microblogging.

Their Twitter feed, @alemarahweb, pumps out several messages each day, keeping 224 followers up to date with often highly exaggerated reports of strikes against the “infidel forces” and the “Karzai puppet regime”.

Most messages by the increasingly media-savvy movement are in Pashtu, with links to news stories on the elaborate and multilingual website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban’s shadow government likes to style itself. (The Guardian)


News roundup — May 9

Bin Laden’s death doesn’t end his fear-mongering value

Glenn Greenwald writes: On Friday, government officials anonymously claimed that “a rushed examination” of the “trove” of documents and computer files taken from the bin Laden home prove — contrary to the widely held view that he “had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future Qaeda operations” — that in fact “the chief of Al Qaeda played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks.”  Specifically, the Government possesses “a handwritten notebook from February 2010 that discusses tampering with tracks to derail a train on a bridge,” and that led “the Obama administration officials on Thursday to issue a warning that Al Qaeda last year had considered attacks on American railroads.”  That, in turn, led to headlines around the country like this one, from The Chicago Sun-Times:


The reality, as The New York Times noted deep in its article, was that “the information was both dated and vague,” and the official called it merely “aspirational,” acknowledging that  “there was no evidence the discussion of rail attacks had moved beyond the conceptual stage“  In other words, these documents contain little more than a vague expression on the part of Al Qaeda to target railroads in major American cities (“focused on striking Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago,” said the Sun-Times):  hardly a surprise and — despite the scary headlines — hardly constituting any sort of substantial, tangible threat.

But no matter.  Even in death, bin Laden continues to serve the valuable role of justifying always-increasing curtailments of liberty and expansions of government power. (Salon)

Bin Laden killing in legal gray zone

David Axe writes: The early-morning raid that killed Osama bin Laden was, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, “the culmination of intense and tireless efforts on the part of many dedicated agency officers.” Panetta also thanked the “strike team, whose great skill and courage brought our nation this historic triumph.”

But it’s unclear who was on the strike team — the 25 people aboard two specially modified Army helicopters. Most of the “trigger-pullers” were, apparently, Navy commandos from the famed SEAL Team Six.

At the “pointy end” — a Beltway euphemism for combat — the operation targeting bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, looked overwhelmingly military. But the months-long process of gathering intelligence and planning had a CIA flavor.

Indeed, President Barack Obama described it as agency-led. The intelligence community pinpointed bin Laden’s location. Panetta monitored the raid in real time from Langley. The assault team may have included CIA operatives. Senior administration officials called it a “team effort.”

But did the CIA have people on the ground in Abbottabad? It’s not an academic question. Exactly who was on the strike force that killed bin Laden has major policy implications.

CIA presence places the operation on one side of an increasingly fuzzy legal boundary between two distinct U.S. legal codes: one exclusive to the military and another that defines the terms of open warfare for the whole U.S. government.

The extent of the CIA’s involvement also has serious implications with regard to a chain of presidential executive orders that prohibit Americans from participating in the assassination of foreign leaders. (Politico)

US spy in Pakistan outed as White House demands intelligence from bin Laden raid

White House has demanded that Pakistan hand over intelligence seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound as relations between the two allies hit a new crisis over the outing of America’s top spy in Islamabad.

Mark Carlton, the purported CIA station chief, was named by a Pakistani newspaper and a private television news network over the weekend, the second holder of that post in less than a year to have his cover blown by the media, presumed to have official consent.

The reports documented a meeting between Mr Carlton and the head of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter- Services Intelligence, suggesting that the information came from them.

Washington has refused to comment on the development, which comes amid worsening relations between the US and Pakistan over how bin Laden came to be sheltering in a fortified compound in a garrison town.

Anger is mounting in Pakistan over how the US was able to carry out the raid in Abbottabad without detection, with calls for the Government to resign. (The Times)

Leak of CIA officer’s name is sign of rift with Pakistan

The prime minister’s statements, along with the publication of the name of the C.I.A. station chief, signaled the depths of the recriminations and potential for retaliation on both sides as American officials demand greater transparency and cooperation from Pakistan, which has not been forthcoming.

The Pakistani spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, gave the name of the station chief to The Nation, a conservative daily newspaper, American and Pakistani officials said.

The name appeared spelled incorrectly but in a close approximation to a phonetic spelling in Saturday’s editions of The Nation, a paper with a small circulation that is supportive of the ISI. The ISI commonly plants stories in the Pakistani media and is known to keep some journalists on its payroll.

Last December, American officials said the cover of the station chief at the time was deliberately revealed by the ISI. As a result, he was forced to leave the country. (New York Times)

U.S. raises pressure on Pakistan in raid’s wake

President Obama’s national security adviser demanded Sunday that Pakistan let American investigators interview Osama bin Laden’s three widows, adding new pressure in a relationship now fraught over how Bin Laden could have been hiding near Islamabad for years before he was killed by commandos last week.

Both the adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and Mr. Obama, in separate taped interviews, were careful not to accuse the top leadership of Pakistan of knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts in Abbottabad, a military town 35 miles from the country’s capital. They argued that the United States still regards Pakistan, a fragile nuclear-weapons state, as an essential partner in the American-led war on Islamic terrorism.

But in repeatedly describing the trove of data that a Navy Seal team seized after killing Bin Laden as large enough to fill a small college library, Mr. Donilon seemed to be warning the Pakistanis that the United States might soon have documentary evidence that could illuminate who, inside or outside their government, might have helped harbor Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, who had been the world’s most wanted terrorist.

The United States government is demanding to know whether, and to what extent, Pakistani government, intelligence or military officials were complicit in hiding Bin Laden. His widows could be critical to that line of inquiry because they might have information about the comings and goings of people who were aiding him. (New York Times)

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The forgotten frontline in Libya’s civil war

It is the unknown frontline in Libya’s civil war, a rebel town besieged by Gaddafi’s forces but almost ignored by the outside world.

Rockets and Scud missiles pour down. Water is running short. Tens of thousands are desperately trying to flee.

But transfixed by the horrors of Misurata, the international community – and the Nato military alliance – have all but overlooked the closely parallel drama in the mountain towns of Zintan and Yafran, little more than an hour’s drive from the capital.

“We have been under fire for about an hour and a half now,” said one Zintan resident, Mustafa Haider, by telephone from the town on Friday afternoon.

“From the south, from the north, from the east, from everywhere. They fire with Grad missiles, Scud missiles, anything. They have tried to enter Zintan many times but they couldn’t.” Homes, schools, and the town’s main hospital had been hit, causing panic, he said. (Daily Telegraph)

Libya: end indiscriminate attacks in western mountain towns

Human Rights Watch says: Libyan government forces have launched what appear to be repeated indiscriminate attacks on mountain towns in western Libya, Human Rights Watch said today.

Accounts from refugees who fled the conflict say the attacks are killing and injuring civilians and damaging civilian objects, including homes, mosques, and a school. Human Rights Watch called on Libyan forces to cease their indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 refugees from Libya’s western Nafusa mountains in Tunisia from April 26 to May 1, 2011, as well as doctors and aid workers assisting those in need. The refugees gave consistent and credible accounts of indiscriminate shelling and possible rocket attacks in residential areas of the rebel-controlled towns of Nalut, Takut, and Zintan. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the refugees’ accounts due to government restrictions on travel in western Libya but, taken together, they describe a pattern of attacks that would violate the laws of war.

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Syria death toll rises as city is placed under siege

Amnesty International says: At least 48 people have been killed in Syria by the security forces in the last four days, local and international human rights activists have told Amnesty International, as the crackdown on the coastal city of Banias intensified.

More than 350 people – including 48 women and a 10-year-old child – are also said to have been arrested in the Banias area over the past three days with scores being detained at a local football pitch. Among those rounded up were at least three doctors and 11 injured people taken from a hospital.

“Killings of protesters are spiralling out of control in Syria – President Bashar al-Assad must order his security forces to stop the carnage immediately,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty International has compiled the names of 28 people who were apparently shot dead by security forces on Friday and those of 12 others killed over the last three days.

The organization now has the names of 580 protesters and others killed since mid-March, when protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began.

‘House-to-house raids’ in Syrian cities

The Syrian government is continuing its weeks-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrations, arresting opponents and deploying troops in protest hubs.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said security forces were carrying out house-to-house raids targeting demonstration organisers and participants.

He said Monday’s raids were focused in the central city of Homs, the coastal city of Baniyas, some suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and villages around the southern flashpoint city of Deraa.
Live Blog Syria

Another activist said gunfire was heard in the town of Moadamiya, just west of the capital, Damascus, as troops carried out arrests. (Al Jazeera)

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Money, power and law-twisting: The makings of the real Ezz empire

Ten years ago, as the main thrust of Egyptian society and the legal sphere was moving towards amending the constitution to make it more democratic and just, the collective brain of the regime’s inner circle was working in the opposite direction: twisting laws to fit the interests of the inner few — the oligarchs who had both wealth and political influence.

Steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, who is facing trial Today, Saturday, on charges of illegal profiteering and misuse of public funds, along with dozens of businessmen and officials considered to be close to the ousted regime, perfectly represents the marriage of wealth, party politics and undue power. Ezz became one of the first symbols that the Egyptian people decided to bring down after the January 25 Revolution.

On the night of 28 January, the headquarters of Ezz Steel in the Mohandeseen district was destroyed, along with other government headquarters and police stations, symbolising the downfall of the old regime.

“At the time he came to buy Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company (now Al-Ezz Al-Dekheila Steel Company) we had never heard of Ahmed Ezz,” said Ali Helmy, former chairman of the National Iron and Steel Company.

“The first time I met Ezz was in 1999 when Atef Ebeid, minister of the public enterprise sector at that time, invited managers of steel companies for a business dinner at a small factory in Sadat City producing galvanised iron,” recounted Helmy. “We were introduced to Ezz, a young engineer and owner of the factory.”

A few months later, continues Helmy, Ezz has already bought three million shares, accounting for LE456 million ($76.7 mln), of the Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company, and after a few months, he was appointed chairman of the company: first base for what would later become a great empire.

Ezz was born in 1959 to a family that was wealthy but not overly rich. After having graduated from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University in the mid-1980s, he worked as a percussionist in one of the most famous music bands at that time, Moudy and Hussein. At the time, Ezz had shown no interest in business until in 1995 his father, a steel trader, bought him a small plot of land in Sadat City and helped him build a steel factory.

His friendship with Gamal Hosni Mubarak, son of Egypt’s then president, helped to make his fortune, culminating in the buying of a huge amount of shares in Gamal’s 1998 Future Generation Foundation (FGF), a non-profit organisation that provided courses for young people to prepare them for entry to the workforce.

Several leading figures in Egypt‘s private sector, including Ahmed El-Maghrabi, former minister of tourism, and Rachid Mohamed Rachid, former minister of trade and industry were involved, and both now face trial.

From that point on, Ezz accompanied Gamal to all meetings and despite being a newcomer to politics, gradually became a familiar political face.

In 1999, the Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company faced a financial crisis due to dumped steel imports from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries coming into Egypt. Ezz quickly offered to buy shares in the troubled joint stock company. “For some reason, the biggest figures in the government helped Ezz finalise this deal,” said Helmy.

According to a 2007 report on Strategic Economic Trends by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, In 1999, Ezz bought some 540,000 shares in less than a month. Ezz had seized more than three million shares of the company, accounting for 27.9 per cent of total shares.

By the late 1990s, Ezz started his acquisition move in the steel market, through a strategy of taking loans from the biggest banks to buy shares in steel companies.

In 1999, Ezz was appointed chairman of the National Iron and Steel Company, despite the fact that he hadn’t paid back the loans he had taken from Egypt’s major banks, according to the same report.

“The National Bank of Egypt and Bank of Cairo (Egypt’s largest public banks) favoured Ezz because of his relationship with Gamal Mubarak and helped him get the loans, while denying credit to viable businesspeople who lacked the right political pedigree; they had for instance refused to issue loans for the same company bought by Ezz (Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company) a few months earlier to help it get out of its devastating financial crisis,” said Helmy.

“Ezz’s strategy from that time on was to take loans from Egyptians banks, buy shares and take a greater role in the steel market, but the thing is, he never gave a loan back. He would pay older loans by getting new loans,” elaborates Helmy. (Ahram Online)

Hollow ‘reconciliation’ in Palestine

Ali Abunimah writes: By deciding to join the US-backed Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas risks turning its back on its role as a resistance movement, without gaining any additional leverage that could help Palestinians free themselves from Israeli occupation and colonial rule.

Indeed, knowingly or not, Hamas may be embarking down the same well-trodden path as Abbas’ Fatah faction: committing itself to joining a US-controlled “peace process”, over which Palestinians have no say – and have no prospect of emerging with their rights intact. In exchange, Hamas may hope to earn a role alongside Abbas in ruling over the fraction of the Palestinians living under permanent Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Whether Hamas realises it or not, it has effectively entered into a coalition with Israel and Abbas to manage the Occupied Territories, in which Hamas will have much responsibility, but little power. (Al Jazeera)

Ahmadinejad fights to preserve his dwindling power

Saeed Kamali Dehghan writes: No Iranian president has ever dared to challenge the supremacy of Ali Khamenei’s two-decade-long leadership as publicly as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did recently in an extraordinary power struggle between him and the ayatollah.

The unprecedented confrontation at the top of the Iranian regime began only a month ago when Khamenei, the supreme leader, intervened in a cabinet appointment by reinstating a minister who had initially resigned “under pressure from Ahmadinejad”.

In reaction to the reinstatement of Heydar Moslehi, the intelligence minister at the centre of the row, Ahmadinejad apparently staged an 11-day walkout from the presidential palace and refused to chair cabinet meetings.

At first glance, Ahmadinejad’s feud with the ayatollah seemed like a conventional disagreement between two leaders of one country but in Iran, where Khamenei is described as “God’s representative on Earth”, Ahmadinejad’s opposition was extremely serious. (The Guardian)


Palestinian reconciliation

Daniel Levy writes:

The Palestinian factions have reached a power-sharing deal – albeit a fragile one. Regional developments helped, affecting the calculations of both Fatah and Hamas. The role of post-Mubarak Egypt and its emerging independent regional policy cannot be underestimated. Israel’s current government, though, is key to the glue binding Fatah and Hamas together. While the peace process has long been moribund, the Netanyahu government’s refusal to indulge in the make-believe of possible progress rendered obsolete even Fatah’s well-honed capacity to suspend disbelief.

Yet if the deal is to last, the Palestinian factions will eventually have to address substance: their national goals and the strategies to be pursued in attaining them. A real political dialogue will force both Fatah and Hamas out of their respective comfort zones. Fatah will have to elaborate a post-negotiation and (one imagines ) non-violent plan for freedom, and decide how such a plan co-exists or breaks with existing donor and international relations, including coordination with Israel. Hamas will have to confront the requirements of international law (including abandoning the use of violence against civilians ), and ultimately resolve its own verbal acrobatics regarding a Palestinian state alongside Israel – if a serious deal becomes available.

Not surprisingly, unity is also popular in Israel. Israeli unity that is. Palestinian unity has been met with almost blanket condemnation at the political level. But in reacting to Palestinian developments, we Israelis should first of all be asking what the problem is that we need to address. For the Netanyahu government that major problem, apparently, is Israel’s international image and the prospect of pressure being exerted on Israel to advance peace. In the community of nations, Israel’s standing has further plummeted under the tutelage of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The intra-Palestinian deal therefore offers a delightful opportunity for Israel to register some big points on the “Who’s to blame for no peace?” scorecard and to fend off any such pressure.

Israel’s challenge, though, goes way beyond public relations. Israel’s challenge is how to adapt, shape and secure its future in this region.

For that reason alone, we would benefit from our own national reconciliation dialogue, one focused on what Israel’s aspirations and strategies should look like.

As tectonic plates shift around us, Israel is clinging to an illusion, namely that when and if the Palestinians are ready, Israel will be able and willing to deliver a dignified two-state solution. The truth is less comforting. Currently there is no political path to an Israeli governing majority that could deliver a mutually acceptable two-state outcome. And there is no status quo: Israel’s predicament is deteriorating, not stable. It is time for Israel to engage in the exercise that Palestinians have begun, and to ask what it is that we really want for ourselves.


News roundup — May 1

Gaddafi’s son’s killing puts Nato in line of fire

The Libyan regime’s claims that Nato is attempting to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi have intensified following the apparent death of one of the leader’s sons and three of his grandchildren in an air strike on Tripoli.

Gaddafi was at the one-storey house in a residential area of Tripoli when the missile struck late on Saturday, according to the government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.

In a rare acknowledgement that security around Gaddafi may not be watertight, Ibrahim told reporters that intelligence about Gaddafi’s whereabouts or plans must have been leaked to Nato. (The Guardian)

Qaddafi’s claims that NATO strike killed three grandsons appears false, but son is dead

The claim that Muammar Qaddafi’s three grandchildren were killed in an airstrike conducted by NATO late Saturday is not true, an Al Arabiya source has revealed. A source close to the Qaddafi family has confirmed the death of Colonel Qaddafi’s youngest son, Saif al-Arab, in the airstrike but has denied the story that Mr. Qaddafi’s three grandsons were killed. (Al Arabiya)

Death of Saif Al-Arab Gaddafi may backfire for Nato

Shashank Joshi writes: The death of Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, if confirmed, is likely to have come as a consequence of Nato’s increasingly aggressive tactics, undertaken by the alliance to shake up a stalemate in the conflict.

But his killing in an air strike is a grievous strategic error – militarily insignificant but diplomatically disastrous.

Towards the end of April, Nato states made a number of operational innovations. Three member states – Britain, France, and Italy – injected military advisers into rebel-held eastern Libya. Another, the US, began continuous patrols of armed drones.

Third, and most important, air strikes began to target command, control, communications and intelligence networks (known, in military parlance, as C3I). The Bab al-Aziziya compound includes all three such networks, and it was presumed that their disruption would disorient regime soldiers on the front line, cut off field commanders from Tripoli, and sow confusion in the ranks.

But was the strike also an assassination attempt?

Assassination of a head of state is illegal under international law, and forbidden by various US presidential orders. On the other hand, the targeted killing of those woven into the enemy chain of command is shrouded in legal ambiguity. (BBC News)

Britain expels Libya ambassador

Britain has ordered the expulsion of the Libyan ambassador to London, Omar Jelban, in retaliation for an attack on the British embassy by a pro-Gaddafi crowd in Tripoli.

Jelban has been given 24 hours to leave the country.

“I condemn the attacks on the British embassy premises in Tripoli as well as the diplomatic missions of other countries,” said the foreign secretary, William Hague. “The Vienna convention requires the Gaddafi regime to protect diplomatic missions in Tripoli. By failing to do so that regime has once again breached its international responsibilities and obligations. I take the failure to protect such premises very seriously indeed.” (The Guardian)

Libya: ‘UN to quit Tripoli’ amid mob attacks

The UN is withdrawing all its international staff from the Libyan capital Tripoli following a mob attack on its offices, the BBC understands.

UN buildings and some foreign missions were targeted by angry crowds following a Nato air strike that reportedly killed a son of Col Gaddafi.

A UN official told the BBC its staff would withdraw from Libya and the decision would be reviewed next week. (BBC News)

Inside a city running on fear

Sometimes they reveal themselves in a gesture.

They sniff with contempt at a passing car filled with Moammar Kadafi’s supporters. They turn up the volume on Al Jazeera just when a report chronicling the government’s attacks on civilians in rebel-held Misurata comes on.

Or they make a cryptic remark, like the driver working with the government minders assigned to monitor foreign reporters.

“God willing, spring will come soon,” he said.

But spring began weeks ago.

“God willing, in two weeks,” he said with a smile.

“Two weeks” is the time in which Libyans have been assuring themselves that their nightmare will come to an end. (Los Angeles Times)

Pro-regime troops seen ‘wearing gas masks in Misurata’

Pro-Gaddaffi forces have been seen roaming the streets of Misurata wearing gas masks, contacts in Libya’s besieged city have reported to .

Sources at the hospital confirmed that pro regime troops were wearing gas masks. An independent source said there were reports that thousands of gas masks had been distributed to troops yesterday. (Times of Malta)

Libya disabled children school hit in NATO strike

Shattered glass litters the carpet at the Libyan Down’s Syndrome Society, and dust covers pictures of grinning children that adorn the hallway, thrown into darkness by a NATO strike early on Saturday.

It was unclear what the target of the strike was, though Libyan officials said it was Muammar Gaddafi himself, who was giving a live television address at the time.

“They maybe wanted to hit the television. This is a non-military, non-governmental building,” said Mohammed al-Mehdi, head of the civil societies council, which licenses and oversees civil groups in Libya. (Reuters)

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‘Tanks firing’ in Syria protest city of Deraa

Syrian soldiers and tanks have been firing in the city of Deraa, a centre of protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, residents say.

They say soldiers have made arrests and fired to keep people indoors.

Opposition websites are showing footage purportedly of a soldier who says he deserted after being ordered to fire on unarmed protesters in Damascus.

Activists say nearly 600 people have died in the crackdown on protests, which began in mid-March. (BBC News)

Who’s who in the Syrian opposition

David Kenner writes: Bashar al-Assad never saw it coming. In a Jan. 31 interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian autocrat boasted that his regime was immune from the revolutionary wave spreading across the Middle East because it “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”

Over the past month and a half, Syrians have made a liar out of their president. Small protests broke out in Damascus on March 15 and have slowly spread to towns and cities throughout the country. And as the movement has gained strength, Assad’s crackdown has increased in brutality. The Syrian regime has killed at least 450 people since the uprising began, according to human rights groups, and this week sent tanks into the mutinous southern town of Daraa to quell the protests.

So far, the regime’s attempts to quash the demonstrations have only caused them to increase in size. Tens of thousands of Syrians came out to the protests this Friday, with crowds demonstrating in more than 50 towns throughout the country. The protests’ growing strength has produced a reaction in Washington: Following days of escalating statements, President Barack Obama issued new sanctions today against three of the regime’s most notorious officials, including Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad. The U.N. Human Rights Council also denounced Assad’s use of violence against peaceful protesters on Friday, calling for a team to visit Syria in order to “ensur[e] full accountability” for those who perpetrated the attacks.

So who’s leading the charge against Assad? The president has accumulated no shortage of enemies over his decade-long rule, many of whom have little in common besides their enmity toward the Syrian president. If he continues his ruthless crackdown, however, it just may be enough to unite them. (Foreign Policy)

Syrian businessman becomes magnet for anger and dissent

When protests erupted in March in the forlorn Syrian border town of Dara’a, demonstrators burned the president’s portraits, then set ablaze an unlikely target: the local office of the country’s largest mobile phone company, Syriatel, whose owner sits at the nexus of anger and power in a restive country.

Syriatel is owned by Rami Makhlouf, first cousin and childhood friend of President Bashar al-Assad and the country’s most powerful businessman. In the past decade, he has emerged as a strength and a liability of a government that finds its bastions of support shrinking and a figure to watch as Mr. Assad’s inner circle tries to deal with protests shaking his family’s four decades of rule.

Leery of the limelight, he is alternatively described as the Assad family’s banker or Mr. Five Percent (or 10, or whatever share gets the deal done). His supporters praise him for his investment in Syria, but they are far outnumbered by detractors, who have derided him in protests as a thief or worse. Sometimes more than Mr. Assad himself, he has become the lightning rod of dissent.

“We’ll say it clearly,” went a chant in Dara’a. “Rami Makhlouf is robbing us.”

Egypt had Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate who favored tight Italian suits (and now faces trial in white prison garb). In Tunisia, it was Leila Traboulsi, the hairdresser who became the president’s wife, then a symbol of the extravagance of the ruling family. Mr. Makhlouf, 41, is Syria’s version, a man at the intersection of family privilege, clan loyalty, growing avarice and, perhaps most dangerously, the yawning disconnect between ruler and ruled that already reshaped authoritarian Syria even before the protests. (New York Times)

* * *

Gaza is a symbol of occupation, thanks to Israel

Zvi Bar’el writes: Israel’s Pavlovian response to Palestinian reconciliation, which included the usual threats of boycott, is the result of the ingrained anxiety of people who no longer control the process. For five years, Israel has done everything to change the outcome of Hamas’ watershed victory in the elections in the territories. It did not recognize the Hamas government or the unity government, and of course, it did not recognize the Hamas government that arose after that organization’s brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Gaza became a synonym for Hamas; that is, for terror, and the West Bank stood for the land of unlimited possibilities. Israel made an enormous contribution toward building up Hamas into an institution, not only an organization. The cruel closure of Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, turning Gaza into a battle zone and the saga of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, with Israel continuing to negotiate with Hamas while striking out against it – all this has transformed Gaza into a symbol of the occupation and a focus of international empathy.

Israel, in its diplomatic blindness, saw the product it helped manufacture as a huge diplomatic achievement. Its working assumption was that the split between Gaza and the West Bank would allow Israel to pursue the appearance of negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, while fighting another part of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Israel interpreted the political conflict between Abbas and Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and Khaled Meshal in Damascus as an unsolvable ideological conflict and a reality in which, in Israel’s thinking, Palestine is divided not only into two regions, but into two mutually hostile peoples. Israel tortures one side while celebrating with the other at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of a shopping center. (Haaretz)

Israel halts cash to Palestinians after Hamas deal

Israel has suspended tax transfers to the Palestinians, its finance minister said on Sunday, fearing the money will be used to fund Hamas after President Mahmoud Abbas struck a unity deal with the Islamists.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), led by U.S.-backed Abbas, asked foreign powers to stop Israel from blocking the transfers, which make up 70 percent of its revenues. A senior Palestinian official said Israel, by its action, had “started a war.”

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said he had suspended a routine handover of 300 million shekels ($88 million) in customs and other levies that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians under interim peace deals. (Reuters)

‘Differences’ emerge in top Iran leadership

Serious differences have emerged within Iran’s top leadership, media reports suggest, pitting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, against Aytollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

Ahmadinejad has boycotted cabinet meetings since Heider Moslehi, the intelligence minister, was reinstated after he was forced out of the government.

Moslehi was restored to the powerful post by Khamenei after Ahmadinejad had forced him to resign on April 17.

Ahmadinejad’s opponents, meanwhile, have seized the opportunity.

According to the Shargh newspaper, a group of 216 lawmakers, more than two-third of the 290 members in the Iranian parliament, have issued a letter to Ahmadinejad, urging him to call off his cabinet boycott for the good of the country.

“You are expected to follow the supreme leader,” the lawmakers wrote.

On Friday, a hardline cleric used his nationally broadcast sermon to indirectly warn Ahmadinejad that he would be moving into dangerous territory by escalating his challenges to Khamenei.

“Obedience to the supreme leader is a religious obligation as well as a legal obligation, without any doubt,” Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said. He did not mention Ahmadinejad by name, but it was clear he was referring to the president. (Al Jazeera)

Five myths about foreign aid

John Norris writes: In poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly say they believe that foreign aid makes up a larger portion of the federal budget than defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or spending on roads and other infrastructure. In a November World Public Opinion poll, the average American believed that a whopping 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average respondent also thought that the appropriate level of foreign aid would be about 10 percent of the budget — 10 times the current level.

Compared with our military and entitlement budgets, this is loose change. Since the 1970s, aid spending has hovered around 1 percent of the federal budget. International assistance programs were close to 5 percent of the budget under Lyndon B. Johnson during the war in Vietnam, but have dropped since. (Washington Post)


News roundup — April 30

Syrians escaping violence flee to Turkey

About 250 people raced across the Syrian border into Turkey, government officials said Saturday, a flight that reflects the fear and violence gripping the Arab nation.

The people hustled to the southern Turkish Yaylidagi district in Hatay province on Friday afternoon, according to local and federal government officials.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said the government is trying to determine more about the people and how and why they chose to leave Syria.

“They just came to the border post and want to go in without passports. They were let in,” Unal said. “We are trying to figure out whether this is an individual event or the tip of the iceberg.” (CNN)

Syrian army units ‘clash over crackdown’

Members of two Syrian army units have clashed with each other over carrying out orders to crack down on protesters in Deraa, the southern city at the heart of an anti-government uprising, according to a witness and human rights groups.

More than 500 people have been killed across Syria – about 100 in Deraa alone – since the popular revolt against the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March, according to human rights groups.

While the infighting in Deraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because the army has always been seen as a bastion of support for the regime. The Syrian military has denied that there have been any splits in the military. (Al Jazeera)

Syrians under siege

“L.A” writes: Syria is known for its complicated sectarian mix. The Assad government and ruling Baath party are run by Alawites, a Shia sect followed by around 12 percent of the population. The majority of Syrians are Sunnis, but there are also Christians of all denominations (10 percent), other Shia, Druze, and a tiny Jewish minority. In recent weeks, the government has cited the threat of Islamist extremism as a reason to crack down on protesters. However, despite the veils and niqabs I encountered, there was little evidence in Douma of either an Islamist or sectarian element to the political demands being made.

“We don’t have Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in Douma,” one man told us. “They’re just conservative around here.” Later, Alaa said the same thing, explaining that much of the local population belongs to the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, the most conservative of the four Sunni schools. But there were also Shia and more secular people in the crowd. One young man I met, “Imad,” was secular, university-educated, and worked for a large company. He had been demonstrating alongside laborers wearing dusty clothes and the red and white keffiyeh, and religious conservatives. The diversity was also apparent in the different colored ribbons worn as armbands by the mourners—green for the Shia, red for the Sunni.

In other protest cities, such as Latakia and Baniyas, the demonstrations have been even more mixed, with many Shia and Christians participating. Protests in different parts of the country have generally cut across both religious and ethnic divisions: Ismailis (a Shia sect) in Salamiya near Hama, Kurds in the north, Armenians in Latakia, and Druze in Suweida. (NYRB Blog)

Thousands protest in Damascus after Syrian crackdown

Syria’s loosely organized pro-democracy movement drew tens of thousands of people into the heart of Damascus and cities across the country Friday, a major victory against a government campaign of violence that has killed hundreds of peaceful protesters.

Activists said security forces, who have deployed tanks in some cities, killed 64 people Friday as they tried to crush the 6-week-old protest movement.

In Washington, the White House said President Obama had signed an executive order imposing sanctions on three Syrian officials the United States believes engaged in human rights abuses. (Los Angeles Times)

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Libyan rebel forces reject Muammar Gaddafi’s ceasefire offer

Libyan opposition forces have rejected a ceasefire offer by Muammar Gaddafi and dismissed his regime’s claims that loyalist forces had cut off access to the crucial seaport in the besieged city of Misrata.

In a rambling, defiant speech on state television on Saturday, in which he declared that he was “more sacred [to Libyans] than the emperor of Japan is to his people”, Gaddafi called for talks with Nato, which is conducting air strikes against his forces.

“The door to peace is open,” Gaddafi said. “You are the aggressors. We will negotiate with you. Come, France, Italy, UK, America, come, we will negotiate with you. Why are you attacking us?”

More than two months into the Libyan revolution, loyalist forces are becoming increasing stretched. In the east, they are preventing the rebel advance near the town of Ajdabiya; in the far west, they are trying to quell a more recent uprising near the border with Tunisia. And just 130 miles from Tripoli, the battle for the industrial city of Misrata continues, with at least six people killed before noon on Saturday. (The Guardian)

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In shift, Egypt warms to Iran and Hamas, Israel’s foes

Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking up the established order in the Middle East, planning to open the blockaded border with Gaza and normalizing relations with two of Israel and the West’s Islamist foes, Hamas and Iran.

Egyptian officials, emboldened by the revolution and with an eye on coming elections, say that they are moving toward policies that more accurately reflect public opinion. In the process they are seeking to reclaim the influence over the region that waned as their country became a predictable ally of Washington and the Israelis in the years since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The first major display of this new tack was the deal Egypt brokered Wednesday to reconcile the secular Palestinian party Fatah with its rival Hamas. “We are opening a new page,” said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. “Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated.”

Egypt’s shifts are likely to alter the balance of power in the region, allowing Iran new access to a previously implacable foe and creating distance between itself and Israel, which has been watching the changes with some alarm. “We are troubled by some of the recent actions coming out of Egypt,” said one senior Israeli official, citing a “rapprochement between Iran and Egypt” as well as “an upgrading of the relationship between Egypt and Hamas.” (New York Times)

Egypt warns Israel: Don’t interfere with opening of Gaza border crossing

Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Sami Anan warned Israel against interfering with Egypt’s plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis, saying it was not a matter of Israel’s concern, Army Radio reported on Saturday.

Egypt announced this week that it intended to permanently open the border crossing with Gaza within the next few days.

The announcement indicates a significant change in the policy on Gaza, which before Egypt’s uprising, was operated in conjunction with Israel. The opening of Rafah will allow the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission or supervision, which has not been the case up until now. (Haaretz)

Ending the rift between Hamas and Fatah

Adam Shatz writes: The agreement is arguably one of the first diplomatic fruits of the Egyptian revolution. But Barack Obama also deserves some of the credit. Abbas has been humiliated by Obama, and he is clearly angry. As he told Newsweek, ‘It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder, and he removed the ladder and said to me: “Jump.” Three times, he did it.’ The Obama administration also urged Abbas to oppose a draft UN Security Council resolution demanding that Israel ‘immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory’. ‘It’s better for you and for us and for our relations,’ Obama told Abbas by phone, before enumerating the sanctions Palestinians would suffer if the vote went ahead, and warning that Congress might not approve $475 million in aid. In fact, there was little the PA could do to advance Palestinian interests that wouldn’t have put US aid at risk: soon after the unity agreement was announced, Washington chimed in with Tel Aviv’s denunciations of Hamas as a ‘terrorist organisation’, and three members of Congress, led by the House foreign affairs chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, threatened to cut off aid.

But Obama may have done Abbas a favour: by revealing in the starkest terms the unconditional nature of US support for Israel – and how slender the rewards are for being America’s man in Ramallah – he has forced Abbas to do something that, for once, may win him some Palestinian goodwill. And he may just be able to sell the agreement – in other words, the inclusion of a party that has not renounced violence or recognised Israel – to the EU, which has become increasingly exasperated with Obama’s timidity on Palestine. The unity agreement may turn out to be a bluff, Abbas’s way of reminding his patrons that he has other options, and that they can’t simply ignore Palestinian interests. But perhaps Abbas and the old men in Fatah are at last rediscovering the virtues of self-reliance. (LRB Blog)


News roundup — April 29

Scores killed on Syria’s ‘day of rage’

Dozens of people have been shot dead by Syrian security forces, activists claim, as tens of thousands took part in anti-government rallies dubbed a “day of rage”.

Activists said at least 50 protesters were killed across the country on Friday, although Al Jazeera cannot independently verify the death toll.

At least 15 people were reported killed near Deraa where security forces fired on thousands of protesters trying to enter the besieged southern city, sources told Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin.

Deraa has been the scene of regular demonstrations since protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s rule began last month, but the city has also borne the brunt of weeks of government repression.

The government claims its forces are battling “extremist and terrorist groups in the town” and said two soldiers were killed on Friday.

“Deraa has been under siege since Monday morning. Residents from the surrounding villages were trying to break the siege as they tried to get supplies,” our correspondent said. (Al Jazeera)

Crunch-time for the Syrian regime

Peter Harling writes: Seen from Damascus, the crisis that is gripping Syria is fast approaching crunch-time. The regime appears to have stopped pretending it can offer a way out. More than ever, it portrays the confrontation as a war waged against a multifaceted foreign enemy which it blames for all casualties. This narrative, which informs the security services’ brutal response to protests, has cost the authorities the decisive battle for perceptions abroad, at home, and even in central Damascus — a rare bubble of relative calm that has now entered into a state of utter confusion.

The primary benefit of observing events from the Syrian capital is to measure just how unreliable all sources of information have become. Local media tell a tale of accusations and denials in which, incredibly, security services are the sole victims, persecuted by armed gangs. Where the regime initially acknowledged civilian martyrs and sought to differentiate between legitimate grievances and what it characterized as sedition, such efforts have come to an end.

For its part, the foreign media, denied access by the regime, relies virtually exclusively on material produced by on-the-ground protesters, the dependability of which has proven uneven. The novel phenomenon of “eye-witnesses” further blurs the picture. Outside observers have sought to counter the state-imposed blackout by recruiting correspondents, often haphazardly, flooding the country with satellite phones and modems. Several cases of false testimonies have cast doubts on such procedures but, for lack of an alternative, they largely continue to shape coverage of events. (Foreign Policy)

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