Tony Blair: ‘We were wrong to boycott Hamas after its election win’

The Observer reports: Tony Blair has said for the first time that he and other world leaders were wrong to yield to Israeli pressure to impose an immediate boycott of Hamas after the Islamic faction won Palestinian elections in 2006.

As prime minister at the time, Blair offered strong support for the decision – driven by the George W Bush White House – to halt aid to, and cut off relations with, the newly elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority unless it agreed to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements between its Fatah predecessors and Israel. The ultimatum was rejected by Hamas. The elections were judged free and fair by international monitors.

Blair, who became envoy of the Middle East quartet – composed of the US, EU, UN and Russia – after leaving Downing Street, now says the international community should have tried to “pull Hamas into a dialogue”. The boycott and Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, which began the following year, are still in force today. A UN report two years ago said the combined effects of the blockade and the three military offensives conducted in Gaza by Israel since 2009 could make the territory “uninhabitable” by 2020. Humanitarian conditions have worsened markedly since the report was written.

Interviewed for a new book Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, out later this month, Blair said: “In retrospect I think we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into a dialogue and shifted their positions. I think that’s where I would be in retrospect.

“But obviously it was very difficult, the Israelis were very opposed to it. But you know we could have probably worked out a way whereby we did – which in fact we ended up doing anyway, informally.”

Blair did not elaborate on subsequent “informal” dealings with Hamas but he appears to be referring to clandestine contacts between MI6 and Hamas representatives during and possibly after the kidnap of BBC journalist Alan Johnston by an extreme fundamentalist group in 2007. The kidnappers eventually released Johnston after heavy pressure from the Hamas de facto government. [Continue reading…]

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Landmark talks between Palestinian Authority and Hamas stall

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Palestinian Authority on Tuesday convened its first cabinet meeting in the Gaza Strip in three years, but talks between the internationally recognized Palestinian governing body and Hamas hit a stumbling block over the latter’s refusal to disarm.

Landmark talks to end a decadelong rift between the two Palestinian factions and return control of the Hamas-ruled enclave to the authority hinge partly on the political and militant group agreeing to completely disarm. The authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, has warned he won’t allow Hamas to maintain its armed wing as part of a unity government.

“For sure Hamas will never accept this…dismantling al-Qassam,” said Hazem Qassem, spokesman for Hamas, referencing the armed wing known as the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades.

The cabinet meeting was convened by the authority’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, before authority ministers then visited the Gaza outposts of their respective departments. The cabinet last convened in Gaza in 2014, during the last round of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the authority.

The question of al-Qassam’s fate overshadowed the two-day visit to Gaza, which began Monday, by a delegation of high-ranking authority officials, including Mr. Hamdallah. Negotiations over the issue are likely to continue next week in Cairo. Egyptian intelligence officials also helped broker the talks in Gaza.

Mr. Abbas said late Monday he wouldn’t allow a situation in the Palestinian territories such as that in Lebanon, where the militant and political group Hezbollah maintains a de facto army alongside Lebanese national forces.

“I will not accept or copy or reproduce the Hezbollah example in Lebanon,” he said, according to comments carried by official Palestinian Authority media. “Everything must be in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.”

Hamas and the authority, which is dominated by Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party, are working to dispel years of mutual distrust and create a united national movement that can negotiate peace with Israel.

The U.S. and United Nations support the talks between the two parties, while Israel is watching them warily for a gauge on the future policy of the Palestinian national movement. [Continue reading…]

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How blood money, diplomacy and desperation are reuniting Palestine

Reuters reports: A decade on, Rawda al-Zaanoun is at last willing to forgive the gunmen who killed her son during the civil war that split Palestine. It has been painful, but she says it is time.

“He was hit with a bullet in the back. He was a martyr,” the 54-year-old said at an event in Gaza city to mark the public reconciliation of families of people killed in the war. “The decision was not easy because the blood of our son is precious. But we have given amnesty.”

Her son Ala, a married father of two and an officer in the Palestinian Authority security forces, was killed in June 2007 after he rushed out of his house in Gaza City, having heard that his uncle was injured in clashes between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah.

Since that war a decade ago, Fatah, led by the secular heirs of Yassir Arafat, has run the West Bank, headed the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority and been responsible for all negotiations with Israel.

Its rivals, the Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, drove Fatah out of Gaza and has run the tiny coastal strip that is home to 2 million people, nearly half of the population of the Palestinian territories.

The schism is set to end on Monday, when Hamas hands over control of Gaza to a unity government. Although it agreed to the arrangement three years ago, the decision to implement it now marks a striking reversal for Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and most of the most powerful Arab countries.

“Hamas has made big concessions, and every coming concession will be stunning and surprisingly bigger than the one that passed, so that we can conclude reconciliation and this division must end,” the chief of Hamas in Gaza, Yehya Al-Sinwar, said during a meeting this week with social media activists.

If Hamas has swallowed a bitter pill by ending the feud, perhaps bitterest of all is the role played by exiled former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, once Hamas’s fiercest foe who is now a leading player in regional efforts to pull Gaza back into the Palestinian mainstream.

Officials on both sides of the Palestinian divide and in other Arab countries say Dahlan, based since 2011 in the United Arab Emirates, is behind an influx of cash to prop up Gaza, and a detente between Hamas and Arab states including Egypt. [Continue reading…]

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Hamas accepts Fatah demands but reconciliation remains doubtful

The National reports: Hamas said on Sunday it had dissolved its de facto government in the Gaza Strip and met other demands of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to pave the way for a reconciliation with his Fatah movement which runs West Bank self-rule enclaves.

Such a rapprochement would heal a decade-old divide in Palestinian politics that has greatly set back statehood aspirations. But analysts cautioned that many complex issues would still have to be resolved and recalled that earlier reconciliation efforts had foundered, with each side unwilling to give up the monopoly of power in its territory.

In a statement issued overnight after eight days of meetings with Egyptian mediators, Hamas said it had dismantled the administrative committee it formed six months ago to rule Gaza, a move that triggered punishing sanctions by Mr Abbas aimed at toppling the Islamist movement. The sanctions included cutting off funding for Gaza’s electricity, cutting salary payments and even refusing medical referrals from the Strip.

Hamas also invited Mr Abbas’s government to return to Gaza, 10 years after Fatah security forces were routed in a brief civil war. And the movement said it was ready to hold new presidential and parliamentary elections, which are about a decade overdue because of the rift.

“This puts Abu Mazen and Fatah to the real test,” Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum wrote on the movement’s website, in what amounted to a call to lift the sanctions. “Our people is looking for a practical and actual response in order to achieve its ambitions of national unity and real partnership.”

Fatah central committee member Mahmoud Al Aloul welcomed the Hamas announcement but was also cautious. “We want to see that happening on the ground before we move to the next step,” he said.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al Azhar University, said: “This is a very significant moment that Hamas agreed to dissolve the administrative committee and allowed the Egyptians to get more involved.”

But, “the devil is in the details and there are tons of details that need to be worked out”.

He said these include determining the future of Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al Qassam brigades, and of armed resistance against Israel – things that were not mentioned in the Hamas statement. A key question that needs to be answered is who will be in charge of security? [Continue reading…]

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Has Netanyahu defeated the Palestinians?

Daniel Levy writes: The long-running police investigations into the affairs of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to cross a Rubicon earlier this month. Netanyahu is under suspicion in a number of cases involving alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust, among other things. A deal has now been reached by the State Prosecutor’s Office for Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, to turn state’s witness—an arrangement rarely agreed to unless a strong case is being built against a more senior and serious criminal actor.

With the likelihood of his being indicted and speculation as to his longevity in office reaching unprecedented levels, Netanyahu struck back. In a support rally convened by his Likud Party, Netanyahu accused “the thought police in the media,” together with the left, and supported by the Palestinians, of conducting an “unprecedented, obsessive witch-hunt campaign” against him and his family. Their goal, he claimed, was to stage “a government overthrow” to topple “the national camp.” Both the style and substance of Netanyahu’s fiery rhetoric should have sounded very familiar to anyone in America not asleep for the past seven months.

That part of his speech was an appeal to his base. But Netanyahu’s lengthy term in office, multiple electoral successes, and ability to hold together a governing coalition in Israel’s rambunctious political system is also predicated on him having a message that resonates with a broader public. It is a sales pitch that Netanyahu repeated at that rally, that he had “brought the state of Israel to the best situation in its history, a rising global force . . . the state of Israel is diplomatically flourishing.” Netanyahu had beaten back what he had called the “fake-news claim” that without a deal with the Palestinians “Israel will be isolated, weakened and abandoned” facing a “diplomatic tsunami.”

Difficult though it is for his political detractors to acknowledge, Netanyahu’s claim resonates with the public because it reflects something that is real, and that has shifted the center of gravity of Israeli politics further and further to the right. It is a claim that if correct and replicable over time will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond Netanyahu’s premiership and any indictment he might face.

Netanyahu’s assertion is that he is not merely buying time in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians to improve the terms of an eventual and inevitable compromise. Netanyahu is laying claim to something different—the possibility of ultimate victory, the permanent and definitive defeat of the Palestinians, their national and collective goals. [Continue reading…]

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Palestine: Dangerous escalation in attacks on freedom of expression

Amnesty International reports: The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and their rivals, the de-facto Hamas administration in Gaza, have both tightened the noose on freedom of expression in recent months, launching a repressive clampdown on dissent that has seen journalists from opposition media outlets interrogated and detained in a bid to exert pressure on their political opponents, said Amnesty International.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian authorities have arrested six journalists in August so far, shut down 29 websites and introduced a controversial Electronic Crimes Law imposing tight controls on media freedom and banning online expression and dissent. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas security forces have arrested at least two journalists since June and hampered others from freely carrying out their work. At least 12 Palestinians, including activists, were also detained by Hamas for critical comments posted on Facebook.

“The last few months have seen a sharp escalation in attacks by the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, on journalists and the media in a bid to silence dissent. This is a chilling setback for freedom of expression in Palestine,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“By rounding up journalists and shutting down opposition websites the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip appear to be using police state tactics to silence critical media and arbitrarily block people’s access to information.” [Continue reading…]

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The next war in Gaza is brewing. Here’s how to stop it

Nathan Thrall and Robert Blecher write: When violence erupts in Jerusalem and the West Bank, it is usually not long before the Gaza Strip follows. At Gaza’s border with Israel on Friday, a Palestinian teenager was killed while protesting in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem. Several days earlier, two rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, and the next day Israeli tanks destroyed a Hamas position.

It’s an all-too-familiar echo of the events that preceded the Gaza conflict of 2014: widespread Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, Israelis murdered in the occupied territories, a sharp rise in Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, mass arrests of Hamas officials in the West Bank, and a steadily tightening noose around Gaza.

In February, Israel’s state comptroller released a report that strongly criticized the government’s failure to prevent the 2014 conflict. The report highlighted a statement made by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon days after the war began: “If Hamas’s distress had been addressed a few months ago, Hamas might have avoided the current escalation.”

The population of Gaza is now suffering far more than it was before the 2014 eruption. Once again, the three parties responsible for the blockade causing that distress — Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority — are bringing the next war closer. [Continue reading…]

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Palestine envoy to UN: Al-Aqsa crisis at tipping point

Al Jazeera reports: The Palestinian envoy to the UN has told the Security Council that al-Aqsa Mosque compound crisis in East Jerusalem is at a tipping point, urging the council members to help protect Palestinians and their holy sites from Israel’s “reckless and destructive agenda”.

Riyad Mansour warned in his speech to the Council on Tuesday that “the stoking of a religious conflict is rapidly unfolding as Israel persists its illegal actions in occupied East Jerusalem”.

He accused Israel of “aggressive behaviour and provocative violation” of the historic status quo at the Muslim-administered al-Aqsa Mosque compound, referring to a brief closure of the holy site after a deadly shooting there that was followed by installation of CCTV cameras and metal detectors.

“We are clearly at the tipping point,” he said. “We must therefore again warn against the dangers of such provocations and incitement, and fuelling of yet another cycle of violence which will surely have far-reaching consequences.” [Continue reading…]

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Life in Gaza has gone from unbearable and insufferable to its absolute worst

Muhammad Shehada writes: I talked to my family in Gaza earlier this week and asked them: “How do you sleep at night when you don’t have electricity?” The temperature at night there doesn’t go below 74 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity is high. My 12-year-old sister answered: “We don’t.”

She explained that even if they try to sleep, open all the windows, drink a lot of water – still, they can’t breathe. If they lie down, they spend hours sweating profusely while listening to the Israeli drones’ intimidating noise outside, with nowhere to go. They prefer to stay awake at night until they can’t resist their eyes closing. Even then, they’re troubled by insomnia, and nightmares. They wake up to find themselves drowned in sweat.

By the morning, the flaming sun limits their options. One option is to spend the day in the Capital Mall, the only mall in Gaza equipped with internet, air conditioners, private electrical generators and a place to sit down. Or they could go and visit a relative who has a big enough battery to operate a small fan while they speak. They can no longer go and sit by the sea, when the risk of catching diseases from the contaminated water is so high, though others have stopped really caring about getting sick or not. As a friend of mine told me: “The sea is 99% polluted, we swim in the 1% that’s left.”

Their electricity, however, suddenly comes back on for two to three random hours at most each day, and that’s the only time you can turn on the pumps to store a little bit of undrinkable water in the tanks that will run out as soon as you take a shower. It becomes a kind of rush hour, when everyone is desperately running around, trying to cool some purchased mineral water in the freezer, recharge cellphone batteries and radios and flashlights, and sit behind a computer screen to read the news, whose headlines are repetitive and hollow. As soon as the electricity goes out, the people are back to the streets, sitting in the shade on the pavements.

For most of my friends in Gaza, all the days of the week are routinely identical, and most of the young people are depressingly “unemployable” due to the blockade that has killed the economy, so there’s no actual difference between  weekdays and the weekend. What’s different is the incremental accrual of age that accumulates more rage inside you and reminds you that you haven’t had much in life, and probably won’t have much more in the future. And with each year, another cohort of graduates is exposed to the dead job market, with no prospects for making a livelihood. [Continue reading…]

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Revitalizing Palestinian nationalism: Options versus realities

Perry Cammack, Nathan Brown, and Marwan Muasher write: A half century after Israel’s astonishing 1967 victory established control over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, the Palestinian national project still faces considerable barriers to statehood. The Palestinian Authority (PA)—created in 1994 as a way station to full sovereignty—has been split in two since Hamas’ 2007 takeover of Gaza.1 The pace of Israeli construction in the West Bank has increased more during the PA’s twenty-three-year lifespan than in the first twenty-seven years of Israeli occupation, with the number of West Bank settlers rising from 116,300 in 1993 to 382,900 in 2015.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accord, most Palestinian institutions have evolved upon the premise that a sovereign state is achievable through a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But since 2000, successive efforts to negotiate a final status agreement have failed. With the pathways to statehood increasingly in doubt, the end goal no longer seems to guide political calculations. As a result, Palestinian political legitimacy continues to erode, and Palestinians increasingly view their national leadership as incapable of articulating a coherent strategic vision.

Hence, Palestinian nationalism seems to be at a critical juncture, with no clear way forward. The current trajectory likely leads to continued occupation, settlement expansion, social division, and institutional decay. And while grassroots discussions of new approaches have begun to percolate, no consensus has emerged. These approaches, which mostly involve increased confrontation with Israel, would likely bring socioeconomic turbulence and the possible unraveling of some of the organizational, moral, and diplomatic achievements of Palestinian nationalism to date—and with no certainty of success. Based in part on an informal survey of fifty-eight Palestinian leaders in various fields and featuring a collection of commentaries on subjects including civil society engagement, youth political participation, reconciliation, and international law and Palestinian rights, this report attempts to explore the prospects for national renewal. [Continue reading…]

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Gazans being held hostage by Israeli, PA gamesmanship

Orly Noy writes: Who says there is no coordination between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority? On Sunday evening, Israel gladly accepted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas request to cut the already-dilapidated electricity supply to Gaza, in order to make life for its residents that much more difficult. Think about the significance of cutting electricity by 40 percent in the middle of a blazing summer. The government and the IDF are both well aware of the current humanitarian crisis in the Strip. They are also well aware of the potential for an escalation should Israel continue to intensify the crisis. But the decision is to accede to Abbas’ request in his war against Hamas — all on the backs of the people who live there. Why? Because it serves Mahmoud Abbas’ political interests.

Palestinians in Gaza are afforded between four and eight hours of electricity on an average day, and this is without even taking into account problems that arise in Gaza’s power plant or in power lines from Egypt or Gaza. Most of the supply comes from Israel, a smaller portion from Egypt, and in the past around 25 percent from the local power plant. Israel supplies 120 megawatts in 10 high voltage lines — an amount that hasn’t changed for the past 10 years, despite the fact that Gaza’s population, and its needs, have grown dramatically in this time. Overall, the electricity that reaches Gaza on a daily basis covers just over half of what is needed. And this is when things are “normal.”

Since mid-April, Gaza’s sole power station has been out of commission, after a deal by Turkey and Qatar to supply the it with fuel came to an end. The situation has created an energy crisis in the Strip — and the consequences are dire. Hospitals, for example, have ceased providing necessary treatments and are relying exclusively on ramshackle generators. This means that water purification systems aren’t functioning, while untreated sewage finds its way to the sea in enormous quantities. Water filters cannot be used, and it is nearly impossible to rely on pumps to clear the sewage from the neighborhoods. All these create real life-threatening situations. The humanitarian disaster we keep hearing about has already taken its toll on Gaza. Even the Israeli army understands this. [Continue reading…]

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At the Palestinian Authority’s request, Israel cuts electricity to Gaza

Times of Israel reports: Israel has reportedly decided to heed a Palestinian Authority request to cut electricity supply to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip after the PA announced it would not continue to pay the bill as it stepped up pressure on its main rival.

An Israeli official told the daily Haaretz newspaper on Sunday that the security cabinet earlier in the day had accepted the recommendation of the Israeli military to cut the supply at the request of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas whose confrontation with Hamas has escalated in recent months.

The PA has been paying 40 million shekels ($11.3 million) a month for 125 megawatts, but recently said it was now only prepared to pay for 20-25 million shekels ($7 million) a month for electricity to Gaza.

The hours of electricity supply in Gaza will now likely be reduced from six hours per day to between two and four hours a day.

Israel has been concerned that further cutting electricity would further destabilize Gaza. [Continue reading…]

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As Trump toured the Holy Land, Palestine went on strike

Jesse Rosenfeld reports: The rocks started flying at Israeli checkpoints across the occupied West Bank soon after President Donald Trump touched down at Israel’s David Ben Gurion Airport on Monday. Shops, restaurants and cafés were shuttered, schools were closed, and government offices were empty as Palestinians responded to a call from over 1,200 hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails to greet the President with a general strike.

Although the leaders of both Saudi Arabia and Israel lavished Trump with pomp and circumstance, Palestinians turned their back on the president as he toured Israel and crosssed the Great Wall into Bethlehem, defying even their own leadership.

Business ground to a halt in Ramallah, the administrative center of the Palestinian Authority and seat of governance for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although Abbas had traveled alongside Trump all the way from the Islamic summit in Riyadh to Ben Gurion airport, Palestinians were unimpressed. They responded by turning their communities into ghost towns. On the eerily calm streets of Ramallah, only the pharmacies stayed open while young men, teenagers, and boys made their way out of town to the Qalandia checkpoint to clash with the soldiers that symbolize 50 years occupation to them. One of them died there, shot by an Israeli soldier after allegedly trying to stab him. [Continue reading…]

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Palestinians for Trump: ‘He might be the one’

Politico reports: The Qalandia checkpoint, the main border crossing separating this Palestinian city from East Jerusalem, is not a great place for anyone in a hurry.

On a recent hot afternoon, all passage was halted without explanation as hundreds of Palestinians with permits to work, study or seek medical treatment in Israel—or who actually live there—were packed into a maze of thick iron cages surrounded by barbed wire and monitored by guard towers waiting to be searched, interrogated and, for many, once again humiliated.

After a lengthy delay, small groups were permitted through the turnstiles into the screening areas—some only after being among the unlucky temporarily locked between the heavy revolving bars by an unseen Israeli soldier in an armored guard station with tiny blast-resistant windows.

Though as an accredited American journalist I could have used a speedier route for my return to Jerusalem, I opted to pass through the checkpoint to experience it for myself. Countless Palestinians use the border crossing each day—a procedure Israeli officials say is necessary, like the physical barrier that cuts off much of the West Bank, to prevent terrorism. (The next day, a Palestinian woman stabbed an Israeli soldier at the same checkpoint, one in a recent spate of lone-wolf attacks.)

The daily routine at Qalandia is also a metaphor for the fits and starts of the long struggle to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which, measured by Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza, will reach the milestone next month of half a century on the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War.

But there is new glimmer of hope here that things can get moving: Donald Trump.

Trump will welcome Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the White House on Wednesday ahead of his own planned official visit to the region later this month. In my conversations here with Palestinian officials, I found them surprisingly upbeat about an American president who came to office vowing to crack down on Muslim immigration and who has backed away from longtime U.S. support for a two-state solution.

“The hints are very positive,” General Jibril Rajoub, a member of the central committee of Fatah, the moderate wing of the Palestinian leadership, told me over lunch in late April in a trendy restaurant, Caspar and Gambini’s, on Ramallah’s Al Jihad Street.

A senior Palestinian official, in one of a series of interviews with Politico Magazine, put it this way: “He might be the one to bring the political settlement.”

It is a sense of optimism that virtually no one here anticipated—and one that feels genuine, if also calculated to get into the good graces of the new American leader. Trump’s personal chemistry with hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the pro-settler views of his new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, were both seen as early omens that the new American president would have little, if any, interest in the Palestinian issue and might even encourage more Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

But Rajoub, an urbane diplomat who runs the Palestinian Football Federation and was a longtime adviser to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the quiet but seemingly earnest visits to Ramallah in recent months of CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Jason Greenblatt, the New York lawyer serving as a Trump envoy, were surprisingly positive. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s new world disorder

Max Fisher writes: The Trump administration is preparing executive orders that would clear the way to drastically reduce the United States’ role in the United Nations and other international organizations, as well as begin a process to review and potentially abrogate certain forms of multilateral treaties, officials said.

The first of the two draft orders, titled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations” and obtained by The New York Times, calls for terminating funding for any United Nations agency or other international body that meets any one of several criteria.

Those criteria include organizations that give full membership to the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization, or support programs that fund abortion or any activity that circumvents sanctions against Iran or North Korea. The draft order also calls for terminating funding for any organization that “is controlled or substantially influenced by any state that sponsors terrorism” or is blamed for the persecution of marginalized groups or any other systematic violation of human rights.

The order calls for then enacting “at least a 40 percent overall decrease” in remaining United States funding toward international organizations.

The order establishes a committee to recommend where those funding cuts should be made. It asks the committee to look specifically at United States funding for peacekeeping operations; the International Criminal Court; development aid to countries that “oppose important United States policies”; and the United Nations Population Fund, which oversees maternal and reproductive health programs. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration released $221M to Palestinians in final hours

The Associated Press reports: Officials say the Obama administration in its waning hours defied Republican opposition and quietly released $221 million to the Palestinian Authority that GOP members of Congress had been blocking.

A State Department official and several congressional aides said the outgoing administration formally notified Congress it would spend the money Friday morning. The official said former Secretary of State John Kerry had informed some lawmakers of the move shortly before he left the State Department for the last time Thursday. The aides said written notification dated Jan. 20 was sent to Congress just hours before Donald Trump took the oath of office.

In addition to the $221 million for the Palestinians, the Obama administration also told Congress on Friday it was going ahead with the release of another $6 million in foreign affairs spending, including $4 million for climate change programs and $1.25 million for U.N. organizations, the congressional aides said. The aides and the State Department official weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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Russia says Palestinian, Israeli leaders agree to meet

Al Jazeera reports: Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed “in principle” to meet in Moscow in what Russia hopes will relaunch Middle East peace talks after more than two years’ break, according to the Russian foreign ministry.

While it is not clear when the meeting will take place, Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Thursday Moscow had heard from the offices of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two agreed to meet in the Russian capital.

“The leaders of Palestine and Israel have given their general consent to meet in Russia,” Zakharova told reporters.

“The most important thing is to pick the right timing,” she added. “Intensive contacts on this are ongoing.”

Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Jamjoom, reporting from Moscow, said the Russian statement “hardly sounded like a sure thing at this point”, highlighting a comment by a Kremlin spokesperson on Wednesday saying that a meeting between the two sides was “not on the schedule and not on the agenda”.

Earlier this week, Abbas said a scheduled meeting in Moscow had been postponed at Israel’s request.

Abbas has said that he would only meet Netanyahu if Israel freezes settlement construction on occupied lands and carries out a previously agreed-on release of Palestinian prisoners. [Continue reading…]

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