Israel-Palestinian tensions return to boiling point

Jeremy Bowen writes: In the week or so I have been back in Jerusalem, a few people have asked me what it is I am here to cover. I thought it should be obvious.

The violence. Repeated attacks on Israelis by Palestinians, and the response by Israeli security forces.

But I have had quite a few bemused shrugs from journalist colleagues. Why now, when it has been going on since last October?

I was in Jerusalem last autumn reporting on it. What has changed? The longer something goes on the more it tends to slip down the news agenda.

But the point is that violence that becomes part of the scenery is just as dangerous as when first it grabs headlines.

It makes the deadly atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians even more toxic. The attacks have become almost routine. Except for those who are caught up in them. [Continue reading…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]

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Alleged bomber of Jerusalem bus came from a well-to-do Palestinian family

The Washington Post reports: The young man accused of being the first suicide bomber in Jerusalem in a decade doesn’t fit the profile of a desperate Hamas operative — and that worries the Israelis.

His uncles are prosperous merchants. He did not grow up in a refugee camp. He went on shopping trips to Jordan.

But the cover photo on his Facebook page includes the image of Yahya Ayyash, a.k.a. “The Engineer,” the chief bombmaker for Hamas, who likely was killed by an exploding mobile phone planted by Israeli agents in 1996.

On Monday afternoon, 19-year-old Abdel Hamid Abu Srour boarded the Egged No. 12 bus and placed a package between his legs. His uncles think that it might have been his first visit to Jerusalem.

His seat was above the vehicle’s gas tanks, according to Israeli news media. His relatives scoffed at the idea that Abu Srour would know how to make a bomb himself.

His high school grades were poor enough that he wanted to retake subjects and redo his exams.

Who gave him the bomb and how it was detonated is the object of a fast-moving investigation.

Hamas claimed that Abu Srour was a member of the Islamist militant movement, although the Gaza-based terrorist group did not assert direct responsibility for the bombing.

Israeli police announced Thursday that they had arrested several members of a Hamas cell in Bethlehem tied to the case. [Continue reading…]

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Hamas linked to Jerusalem bus bombing

The Times of Israel reports: One mystery is solved. The identity of a man severely wounded in Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Jerusalem — suspected of having planted the bomb that exploded on the Number 12 bus — was discovered last night, shortly after the hospital announced he had succumbed to his wounds.

But the Hamas announcement that Abdel al-Hamid Abu Srour, 19, from the al-Ayda refugee camp in the Bethlehem area, was “one of ours” fell short of a full claim of responsibility for the attack, which injured 20 other people.

The Gaza-based terror group released a photo of Abu Srour wearing a Hamas scarf, and another photo that was decorated with emblems of the Second Intifada. But the announcement on the organization’s official website opened with a quote from a “Zionist” Facebook page providing the initial information that it was Abu Srour who had carried out the attack. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s November surprise?

Philip Weiss writes: The organized liberal Jewish community has a new vision: that President Obama will use the lame duck period of his presidency to make a major initiative on the Israel/Palestine conflict and introduce resolutions at the United Nations Security Council to condemn settlements and/or set out the parameters of a two-state solution.

Thus Obama will establish a more assertive U.S. policy in favor of Palestinian human rights and self-determination that the next president will live by.

Hillary Clinton won’t let him go forward with such a resolution now because it would capsize her campaign. But when he does it in November or December– after she is elected president, according to the scenario– then she will say, There is only one US president at a time, and Obama’s policy is my inherited policy.

The dream was alive at J Street’s gala dinner the other night. Both Joe Biden and John Kerry were coming! That was a huge score for the liberal Zionist organization. President Obama invited members of J Street’s youth chapter into the White House last Friday! Mort Halperin the chairman of the J Street board (and the father of political talking head Mark Halperin) said the organization is counting on the Obama administration to set out the parameters of a final deal between Israel and Palestine.

Then Biden and Kerry spoke, and the wealthy elderly legion at J Street derived hope from the following statements. Biden:

Despite our overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, we have an obligation to push them as hard as we can… at the same time being a guarantor, an absolute guarantor of their security.

Kerry:

I can tell you that for these next nine months we will not stop working to find a way…

[N]o matter how many times we hear people tell us the goal is unattainable, they can’t do it, they’re not ready, I remember the words of Mandela: “Nothing is impossible until it is done.”

The J Street people think that Obama still has a trick up his sleeve and he owes it to them because they helped him get the Iran deal. The theme of the evening was: Obama wouldn’t have gotten the Iran deal if we had not taken on AIPAC inside the official Jewish community. But J Street took on AIPAC and cracked the monolith and signaled to politicians around the country, they could support the deal and still get Jewish backing. J Street is justly proud of this. And by the way, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council and Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares were in the hall that night; they also delivered the Iran deal. As did Jewish Voice for Peace, Code Pink and a lot of grassroots groups.

Do I actually believe that Obama will come up with a November surprise? Yes, I think he will do something. But will it mean anything or have any effect; that is the real question. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. feels ‘overwhelming frustration’ with Israeli government, says Biden

Reuters reports: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Monday acknowledged “overwhelming frustration” with the Israeli government and said the systemic expansion of Jewish settlements was moving Israel toward a dangerous “one-state reality” and in the wrong direction.

Addressing the J Street lobby group in Washington, Biden said despite disagreements with Israel over settlements or the Iran nuclear deal, the United States had an obligation to push Israel toward a two-state solution to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We have an overwhelming obligation, notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution, a two-state solution, while at the same time be an absolute guarantor of their security,” Biden said. [Continue reading…]

The Times of Israel reports: The United States on Monday objected to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that the Golan Heights will forever remain under Israeli control, reiterating that it does not recognize the Jewish state’s claims to the strategic plateau.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the Obama administration does not consider the Golan Heights to be part of Israel.

“The US position on the issue is unchanged,” Kirby said at a daily media briefing at the State Department in Washington. “This position was maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations.” [Continue reading…]

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One Palestinian village’s death by a thousand cuts

Joseph Dana writes: My first visit to the village of Al Walaja in 2009 was little more than an afterthought. Having spent most of the day in Bethlehem monitoring Israeli settlement encroachment around the hilltop city, a friend suggested we stop by Al Walaja on our way back to Jerusalem. A non-violent protest movement was taking shape in the village.

Al Walaja sits above a neatly terraced hillside, close to Jerusalem’s southern edge. From the verandas of village homes, you can see Malha Mall and Teddy football stadium, home to the ultranationalist Beitar Jerusalem team. Over the past decade, the Israeli military has aggressively pushed for the creation of its separation barrier on Al Walaja’s border as part of a larger plan to remove Palestinian villages from the Jerusalem municipality.

The pattern is simple: put the village on the West Bank side of the wall, declare a new city boundary, and get rid of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites.

Al Walaja is unique given its proximity to both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The plans for the barrier, which have been partially carried out, effectively turn Al Walaja into an open-air prison by encircling the village with an eight-metre high concrete wall and a series of fences. Last week, Israeli bulldozers, accompanied by soldiers, entered the village under the cover of darkness and destroyed three homes for “lacking building permits”. [Continue reading…]

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Criticizing Israel, Bernie Sanders highlights split among Jewish Democrats

The New York Times reports: It was the sort of question — Does Israel have a right to defend itself as it sees fit? — that had often caused candidates, especially those with designs on winning a primary in New York, to produce paeans to the strength of the Israeli-American relationship and a stream of pro-Israel orthodoxy.

But Senator Bernie Sanders dug in.

“There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” Mr. Sanders said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, amid cheers from the crowd at Thursday’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn. He added: “All that I am saying is we cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue.”

Jewish Democrats, like the rest of the party, have been struggling for years over the appropriate level of criticism when it comes to Israel’s policies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But that debate burst onto a big national stage this week thanks to Mr. Sanders, the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in history.

Mr. Sanders’s comments, in the de facto capital of Jewish American politics, buoyed the liberal and increasingly vocal Democrats who believe that a frank discussion within the party has been muzzled by an older, more conservative Jewish leadership that is suspicious of criticism of Israel. [Continue reading…]

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Why did Bernie Sanders suspend a staffer for speaking the truth about Israel-Palestine when he has done the same?

Ali Gharib writes: During Thursday night’s heated Democratic debate in Brooklyn, Senator Bernie Sanders came out firing on Israel. A candidate who initially sought, seemingly at all costs, to avoid foreign policy altogether finally spoke out on the most politically charged issue of global affairs in Washington — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and he took it by the horns.

That’s why it was so disappointing that, only a few hours earlier, the Sanders campaign suspended one of its young staffers, Simone Zimmerman, who served only briefly as its Jewish outreach coordinator. (Disclosure: I edited Zimmerman at a blog where I worked in 2013, and we have remained friends.) Zimmerman’s sin was to call the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “asshole,” adding “Fuck you, Bibi,” using his nickname, for good measure, in a Facebook post last winter, when she was all of 24 years old.

At the time, Netanyahu was coming to Washington to marshal support against the Iran nuclear deal, claiming to speak on the behalf of all “Jewish People” everywhere, not just Israelis. Zimmerman, who has been deeply involved for years in Jewish and liberal pro-Israel activism — often critical, though it may be — took umbrage at the notion, resulting in her expletive-laden post on social media. Within half a day, Zimmerman edited the Facebook post to remove the curses — mentioning in a comment that she did so to “reflect the seriousness with which I take this issue” — but not soon enough. Someone had screen-captured the original text, and lay in waiting for more than a year to leak it to the McCarthyite smear artists at the right-wing Washington Free Beacon (one only needs to scan the post, where liberal Zionist groups are derided as anti-Israel, to see what ideologues this lot are).

Then the pressure came. [Continue reading…]

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Sanders campaign’s new Jewish outreach director is outspoken Israel critic

The Times of Israel reports: Simone Zimmerman, the Bernie Sanders campaign’s newly hired national Jewish outreach coordinator, is quite familiar with the American Jewish establishment.

She is used to fighting against it.

During the 2014 Gaza war, Zimmerman was one of the leaders of a group of young Jews that held regular protest vigils outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reading the names of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the conflict.

She opposes Israel’s occupation, wants Hillel to allow participation by groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, is against Jewish federation funding for Israeli projects in the West Bank and wrote favorably of the efforts of Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS group, to get “international corporations to stop profiting off human rights abuses.” (The Anti-Defamation League has called JVP one of America’s top 10 anti-Israel groups.) [Continue reading…]

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Sanders: ‘You can’t just be concerned about Israel’s needs. You have to be concerned about the needs of all of the people of the region.’

Think Progress reports: Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke out on Sunday against Israel’s military response during the 2014 war with Gaza, calling the country’s actions “disproportionate.”

Sanders, who is the first Jewish candidate in U.S. history to win a major presidential primary, discussed the seven-week armed conflict between Israeli and Gazan forces during a taped interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“Was Israel’s response disproportionate? I think it was,” Sanders said. The 2014 conflict, which was sparked after Hamas forces in Gaza launched rockets into southern Israel, resulted in the deaths of more than 2,130 Palestinians — 70 percent of whom were civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel, which lost 65 soldiers and 3 civilians in the fighting, claims only 50 percent of Palestinians killed were civilians. [Continue reading…]

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With demolitions, Israel tightens squeeze on West Bank Palestinians

Reuters reports: In the past three months, the Israeli military has more than tripled its demolitions of Palestinian structures in the occupied West Bank, United Nations’ figures show, raising alarm among diplomats and human rights groups over what they regard as a sustained violation of international law.

Figures collated by the U.N.’s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), which operates in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, show that from an average of 50 demolitions a month in 2012-2015, the average has risen to 165 a month since January, with 235 demolitions in February alone.

The Israeli military, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war, says it carries out the demolitions because the structures are illegal: they were either built without a permit, in a closed military area or firing zone, or violate other planning and zoning restrictions.

The U.N. and rights groups point out that permits are almost impossible for Palestinians to acquire, that firing zones are often declared but seldom used, and that many planning restrictions date from the British Mandate in the 1930s.

“It is a very marked and worrying increase,” said Catherine Cook, an OCHA official based in Jerusalem who closely monitors the demolitions, describing the situation as the worst since the U.N. body started collecting figures in 2009.

“The hardest hit are Bedouin and Palestinian farming communities who are at risk of forcible transfer, which is a clear violation of international law.” [Continue reading…]

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Companies are leaving the West Bank as international boycott campaign gains ground

Vice News reports: For the past 28 years, the Israeli cosmetics giant Ahava has manufactured its line of Dead Sea mud-based skincare products in a settlement located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But this month, the company announced it would build a new facility 10 miles to the south, just across the internationally recognized border separating Israel proper from the Palestinian territory.

Though the company did not link the move to political pressure, instead citing “expanding production needs due the success in marketing Ahava products around the world,” it has long been targeted by activists who protest Israeli companies operating in the West Bank, which much of the international community regards as illegally occupied.

Ahava is not alone — a number of companies have chosen to abandon their operations in the West Bank, according to a new report by the Israeli anti-occupation group Gush Shalom that was compiled from publicly available information and published as a wiki-entry.

Twenty years ago, Gush Shalom drew up a list of Israeli companies doing business across the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank that has been a sticking point in negotiations over a future Palestinian state. As of March, between 20 and 30 percent of those companies are no longer operating there. [Continue reading…]

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Soldier’s shooting of Palestinian sets off uproar in Israel

The Associated Press reports: Amateur video appearing to show an Israeli soldier killing an already wounded Palestinian attacker sparked uproar in Israel on Sunday, reflecting the deep divisions in the country following six months of violence.

As the Israeli military pressed on with an investigation, nationalistic politicians accused the army of abandoning the soldier, while political doves bemoaned the erosion of the nation’s morals. Palestinians, meanwhile, said the shooting proved their claims that Israel is guilty of using excessive force and carrying out extrajudicial killings.

The shooting took place last Thursday in Hebron, the volatile West Bank city that has been a focal point of the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The military said two Palestinians stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier before troops shot and killed the pair. [Continue reading…]

Human Rights Watch reports: The B’Tselem volunteer who filmed the video, Imad Abu Shamsiyyeh, told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview that Israeli forces had threatened him both at the scene and later, when he went to give a statement to the military. A few minutes after he filmed the shooting from the roof of a nearby building, he said, “more journalists gathered on the roof, and the Israeli soldiers noticed us. They pointed their guns at us and screamed at us to get down. Soldiers came into the building and told the [owner] not to allow people there or the family would pay the price.”

Abu Shamsiyyeh said that after B’Tselem shared the video with military investigators, the military asked him to give a statement. During questioning at a military office in Hebron, Abu Shamsiyyeh said he felt the interrogator was trying to intimidate him to make him say that he had not filmed the video:

He told me, ‘How will you benefit from this video? It got a lot of publicity. Your name is known to everyone. Who is going to protect you and your family from right-wing Israelis? Remember you live in [Tel Rumeida], surrounded by Israeli settlers, who will be able to protect you there?’ I felt that I was being threatened. They took the original footage from me.

Abu Shamsiyyeh said he had received two phone calls on March 24 from a Hebrew-speaker, calling from a private number, but did not understand what was said. “I feel in danger and my children are afraid,” Abu Shamsiyyeh told Human Rights Watch. “I’m not letting them out of the house. I’m afraid of walking in the street.” [Continue reading…]

Anshel Pfeffer writes: It was a moment made for television. Abed Fatah al-Sharif could be seen lying on the ground in Hebron, after he and a friend had been shot while trying to stab Israeli soldiers. Still moving, 21­-year-old Sharif lay there without receiving medical attention for several minutes, until a helmeted Israeli soldier, in the presence of his officers, walked up and shot him in the head.

Just like that – what looks like a summary execution in the middle of the day, on camera.

You would have expected the killing of Sharif to be headline news around the world, not only an internal debate over the battlefield morals of the Israel Defense Forces, as it has in the last four days. The IDF Spokesman Unit was prepared for a media onslaught, notified in advance through operational channels of the incident.

By the time the footage, taken by a field worker of human rights NGO B’Tselem, landed in the journalists’ inboxes, a statement had already been prepared announcing that the soldier had been arrested and his actions, which were contrary to “the IDF’s values,” were under criminal investigation. It took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few hours but eventually he came out with a similar statement, distancing the IDF and its values from what was seen on the screen.

But as far as the foreign media was concerned, they need not have bothered. The foreign correspondents stationed in Israel dutifully filed their reports, but in a week in which Europe was still in shock from the devastating Brussels attacks their story barely had a chance. Add to the continent’s news agenda that day the conviction in The Hague of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for charges of genocide and the American media’s preoccupation with Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency as well as with their current president, Barack Obama, watching baseball in Cuba and doing the tango in Argentina, while trying to get as far as possible from the Middle East.

When the officials in charge of Israel’s global PR saw on Friday the daily summaries of the previous 24 hours in the world media, they heaved a sigh of relief. With the exception of Al Jazeera, the Hebron killing didn’t feature prominently on any of the main news channels, in the news bulletins of major networks or on the front pages of influential newspapers. It was relegated deep in to the inside pages and low down on the websites’ home pages.

“My report got quite a lot of clicks” said one reporter for a top news-site. ”But it didn’t make it into our top-ten news stories. There was just way too much happening elsewhere.” And if the media isn’t interested, then foreign politicians and diplomats won’t be making much of a fuss either. Perhaps even if it hadn’t taken place on a such a heavy news day we may have been surprised at the relatively low level of international media interest. After all, the global audience has become inured in the last three years to much more distressing images of ISIS beheadings, immolations and explosions of prisoners.

The improved professionalism in recent years of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit’s foreign media branch also played a role. They didn’t try to duck the issue or stonewall the reporters. Any hint of a cover up would probably have generated a few more headlines. But then after all, the world has also grown sick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hardly expects better of us anymore.

Some Israelis are certainly happy that the world has more burning issues to deal with and may even be experiencing a feeling of schadenfreude that this time the Europeans have too many dead bodies of their own to be interested in those here. Not only is such an attitude ugly and callous, but Israelis may find that living in one of the areas where the world media has lost interest in its cruelties is not such a great a thing, even if the coverage is sometimes biased and disproportional.

A world which is no longer shocked by Israeli cruelty towards Palestinians probably won’t be that excited when the cruelty goes the other way either. [Continue reading…]

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