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Israel Cries Foul at United Nations

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment
Israeli missile strike in Rafah, southern Gaza. The Guardian.

Israel announced today that it would block any effort by the U.N. to investigate its 2008 military “offensive” in the Gaza Stip or to try Israel soldiers before an international war crimes tribunal.

South African jurist Richard Goldstone, who heads the UN report, said that Israel used disproportionate force which resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians and caused widespread damage to the area. The report is largely grounded in the mass of human rights reports released in 2009.

The Associated Press reports, “But the U.N. report could carry much more weight, both because it was authored by a widely respected former war crimes prosecutor and because it could ultimately lead to charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court.”

Palestinians inspect damage in Gaza, Jan. 14. The Guardian

Pundits suspects that the United States, which is known for playing the veto card for Israel in the Security Council, would block the prosecution of Israeli officials in the ICC. Rather, political actors here are awaiting the result of the Palestinian Authority’s request to join the ICC. If its membership is approved, the prosecution will bypass the Security Council.

In Israel, the report produced an uproar, with President Shimon Peres calling it a “mockery of history,” and many officials eliciting barbs about Anti-Semitism.

The AP reports,

Goldstone is a former South African judge who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Goldstone, who is Jewish and has close ties to Israel, was well aware that his work would draw fire. As a condition for heading the inquiry, he insisted that the panel look at the actions of Palestinian militants.

… Israel launched the three-week war in late December to quash Palestinian militants in Gaza who had bombarded southern Israel for years with rocket and mortar fire.

Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, including hundreds of civilians, and thousands more were wounded. Thirteen Israelis also died, including four civilians.

Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping craft an interim 1993 peace agreement with the Palestinians, said the Goldstone report “makes a mockery of history.”

“It draws no distinction between the attacker and the attacked,” Peres said. “The report essentially grants legitimacy to acts of terrorism, shooting and killing, and ignores the right and duty of any country to self defense, as outlined in the U.N. charter.”

In his statement, however, Peres, founder of one of the first settlements in the West Bank, ignores the phrase “disproportionate use of force,” which grants legitimacy to the offensive.

At this time, both Hamas and Israel are citing self-defense for their actions December 2008 and onward.

The U.N. investigators recommended the Security Council require both sides to launch credible probes into the conflict within three months, and to follow that up with action in their courts.

If either side refuses, it said the U.N. should refer the evidence for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, a permanent war crimes tribunal, within six months.

Deputy Foreign Minister David Ayalon told the American Jewish Committee in New York, “The Goldstone Report should be treated like the UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism, thus we must mobilize and act with all force against the report in order to remove it.”

According to Haa’retz, Ayalon plans to meet with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN to discuss ways to minimize the report’s damage to Israel’s reputation.

Time Magazine writes,

What worries authorities in Jerusalem is that many European countries are signatories to a Geneva Convention that allows their courts to arrest and prosecute individuals accused of committing war crimes in other countries. Such legal options, Israel fears, may be used to bring politically motivated charges against its citizens. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported Wednesday that Israel’s Foreign and Justice ministries have begun drawing up lists of law firms in different European countries that could be enlisted to defend Israelis in any future cases.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10
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Light Flickers on Peace….

August 30, 2009 Leave a comment

In June it seemed that Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu had extinguished all hopes for even the pretense of peace. His acceptance of a two-state solution at Bar Ilan University mollified many in the West, but infuriated Palestinian leaders. Netanyahu advocated a state whose military and even political powers would be restrained relative to those of Israel. More than that, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal demanded a cessation to the settlements in the West Bank–a key issue on which Netanyahu remained silent.

Earlier this month, however, Netanyahu agreed to a partial halt of settlement activity. The move is not a formal moratorium however. According to the AP, Israel has not issued settlement permits in months, and will halt activity until peace talks can proceed.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who has been working to reconcile the Palestinian factions, is not moved by the temporary solution. During his first visit in 5 years to the Oval Office, Mubarak commented,

“This issue has been going on 60 years, and we cannot afford wasting more time because violence will increase,” the 81-year-old Mubarak said, speaking through an interpreter. “We need to move to the final status solution. … The Israelis said talk about a temporary solution. I told them, ‘No, forget about the temporary solution, forget about temporary borders.’ That’s why I came today to talk to President Obama to move forward on this issue.”

Worsening the situation is Israel’s ever more icy relationship with the Obama administration. Israeli-US relations in 2009 have been characterized by harsh words and, to some degree, paranoia. President Obama has taken the hardest-line stance with Israel than any other president to date. The Administration has veered from Israel’s positions on how to deal with the conflict and also on a nuclear Iran, and in doing so,  the Administration has lost favor among the Israeli right. Even his chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel is losing clout with Israeli political actors.

Politico reports,

An observant Jew with deep ties to Israel, Emanuel is viewed as something of a native son, his rise through the ranks of American politics celebrated by Israelis who reveled in details such as his childhood summers spent in Israel and his volunteer stint during the first Gulf War in an Israeli military program for civilians.

… But in a dramatic emotional shift, Israelis have become increasingly disenchanted with Emanuel, and the disappointment is especially intense on the Israeli right, which supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his opposition to Obama’s call for ceasing settlement activity.

As Obama’s most senior Jewish proxy, Emmanuel faces the impact of Israel’s “widespread unhappiness” with the Administration. Both Emmanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod have been called “self-hating Jews” by the Israeli Prime Minister, Haaretz reports. Although Netanyahu’s spokespeople have denied the allegation, the sentiment is widely publicized and shared  in Israel.

While the temporary halt on settlements buys time for all nations involved, a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference may further upset this nebulous state of affairs. President Obama hopes to convene a meeting of heads of state on September 24th to discuss nuclear terrorism and global disarmament, and Israel’s alleged nuclear power program may end up on trail or a target of suspicion and accusation.

Obama also has another summit planned for March 9 and 10, which will stir up animosity among nations. Arab states will undoubtedly use Israel’s alleged nuclear program to counter Obama’s plans for a nuclear-free Middle East, and the Jewish state will crop up national security issues as a reason to remain laconic and mulish on the issue.

Despite the laundry list of conflicts and entanglements, Obama is optimistic about the future of the peace talks and is not worried about lost ground.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

Israel Makes Little Progress with Palestine and Its Neighbors

In June, Hamas and Fatah wholly rejected Netanyahu’s stipulated version of a two-state solution, and violence has since escalated at the 500-mile “barrier” that separates the West Bank from Israel.

The Associated Press reports,

Palestinians have been staging weekly demonstrations at both sites to protest the barrier’s route, which crosses through the villages and cuts farmers off from hundreds of acres of agricultural fields.

Israel says the barrier–a mix of towering concrete walls and electronic fences–is needed to stop Palestinian militants from crossing into Israel to carry out attacks. Palestinians call it a land grab because parts of it jut deep into the West Bank, cutting them off from territory they claim for a future state.

Israel has classified the protest areas as closed military zones and troops have clashed frequently and increasingly violently with protesters, some of whom hurl rocks at the soldiers.

In May, Israel’s Justice Ministry opened a criminal investigation into the firing of tear gas shells at the demonstrations. Tear gas shells struck one of the two Palestinian demonstrators killed recently and injured the American.

The AP reported Saturday that Israeli Defense Forces sprayed a “putrid” substance on protesting Palestinians and sent plainclothed Palestinians across the border.

Confrontations over the barrier have become increasingly violent, with two Palestinian demonstrators killed in recent months and an American supporter seriously injured.

Video footage of one incident at the West Bank village of Naalin showed three masked undercover agents surrounding a shirtless Palestinian demonstrator, throwing him to the ground and then calling for backup by uniformed soldiers.

Several rocks hurled by protesters struck the ground near the troops and one of them pulled a pistol and fired in the air as Palestinians fled the scene. Two Palestinians were arrested, the military said.

In his June 4th address in Cairo, President Obama said the Palestinian experience has been defined by “the daily humiliations…that come with occupation,” and he has since pressured Israel to neogitate with Fatah and Hamas. Under these conditions, the failure of negotiations is lamentable and is fortified by ongoing violence on the ground and by Israel’s seizure of humanitarian aid groups, including the “Spirit of Humanity,” which carried US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

Prospects for peace have also been wrecked by Israel’s diplomatic relations with neighboring Arab states. In recent months, both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have sent an ambassador to Syria. The former after five years and the latter following a lengthier inter-country contention from the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiki Al-Hariri to disparate support from Hamas and Hizbollah.

According to the Obama administration, establishing diplomatic relations with Syria may weaken its support of Hizbollah and unabashed support of Iran. However, Israel has instead preferred to mobilize military against Iran and has refused to send an Israeli ambassador to Syria because of Syria’s singular demand for Israel to withdraw form the Golan Heights. According to the AP, Syria has refused peace talks with Israel since the latter annexed the area in 1981.

The Associated Press reports,

Syrian forces used the strategic plateau to shell nearby Israeli communities before 1967, and Israel fears those communities will once again become vulnerable should the Heights be ceded. Israeli officials also argue that holding the area gives Israel early warning of Syrian military moves and a buffer zone in case of attack.

The area is also home to crucial water sources, a profitable Israeli winery, and Israeli settlements with about 18,000 residents. About 17,000 Druse Arabs loyal to Syria also live there.

Senior adviser to the Middle East envoy George Mitchell and U.S. diplomat Frederick Hoff went to Israel this week, ostensibly, to shore up talks between Israel and Syria. Hoff will meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barack and other senior military advisers.

Ha’aretz writes, “The Americans believe the crisis in Iran has created an opportunity for the United States to draw Syria closer and resume Israel-Syria negotiations.”

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

Abbas Turns Down Netanyahu’s Overture

Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu invited Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss peace today, but was refused for his failure to halt the settlements under the 2003 U.S.-initiated “roadmap” to peace.

Abbas said last month and again on Sunday in a letter to President Obama that he will not discuss “key issues” unless Israel stops the growth of settlements in the West Bank.

Reuters reports,

[Palestinian chief of the PLO Saeb] Erekat was responding to reports that Israel and the United States were discussing a compromise that would allow some building in existing settlements under what Israel terms “natural growth” to accommodate expanding families.

A U.S. official denied on Wednesday a report in the Israeli daily Maariv that the Obama administration agreed work could continue on 2,500 housing units whose construction had begun, despite its call for a total freeze to spur peace efforts.

The report followed talks in London last week between George Mitchell, Obama’s special Middle East envoy, and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak aimed at healing a rift over continued settlement activity.

… 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war. Palestinians say Jewish settlements, deemed illegal by the World Court, would deny them a viable and contiguous state.

Western officials said the United States was moving in the direction of making allowances so Israel could finish off at least some existing projects which are close to completion or bound by private contracts that cannot be broken.

Israel estimates that 2,500 units are in the process of being built and cannot be stopped under Israeli law.

In an interview with Ha’aretz, Netanyahu’s national security adviser called the Palestinian government a stooge, or rather a “disorderly constellation of forces and factions.” Of Abbas he said, “But even with him I don’t see a real interest and desire to arrive at the end of the conflict with Israel. On the contrary, he is preserving eternal claims against us and inflaming them.”

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

US Activists Head to Gaza

On my way to a restaurant in Brooklyn, I ran into two New York activists who would be heading to Gaza Saturday morning to deliver medical supplies and other “humanitarian goods.” While I had no time to conduct an interview with college students Christopher Westing and Rishi Ghosh, it appears they arrived safely in Egypt today.

The Associated Press reports,

About 100 U.S. activists arrived in Egypt Sunday on their way to Gaza, hoping to deliver medical aid, trucks and support for lifting a 2-year old Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory.

The activists are part of a charity group called “Viva Palestina” that aims to send a convoy of at least 200 people _ all Americans _ to Gaza by July 13. If their convoy is allowed to proceed, it would mark one of the largest groups of U.S. activists to reach the strip since the Islamic militant group Hamas wrestled control of the territory from its rival Fatah in 2007.

Aid going through Egypt must first be cleared by the Egyptian government. It was unclear whether authorities would approve this convoy. Most convoys going over land have been allowed to pass but usually after delays and bureaucracy at the borders.

The activists that arrived in Cairo Sunday will wait in Cairo for the rest of their group and supplies to assemble before heading to the border. The group is organized by British lawmaker George Galloway, who led a convoy that entered Gaza in March.

At the Cairo airport Sunday, the eclectic group of volunteers from different states, including rabbis and Christian activists, congregated in their blue T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Viva Palestina.”

Organizer Mansour al-Barbari, from Boise, Idaho, said the group so far has raised more than $1 million to pay for the shipment of trucks, small vans and medical and other supplies. He said the trip was designed to open up Americans’ eyes to what is happening in Gaza.

The success of the mission is challenged as well by the interception of the Israeli navy, which intercepted a ship Tuesday carrying foreign peace activists who were trying to break the blockade.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10
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Encouraged by Obama, Arab Governments Move Forward for Peace

For some at home, President Obama’s June 4th address to the Islamic and Arab worlds registered as apologetic, pandering and idealistic. Liberals and conservatives alike criticized the President for his calculated omission of the region’s civil and human rights violations and of Iran’s barefaced support of terrorism.

Leaders in the region, however, were pleased by the address and invigorated by the President’s call to engage. A week after the speech, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal arrived in Cairo at the invitation of the General Intelligence Chief, who, the government said, was acting on Obama’s signal to engage the “Islamist resistance movement.”

Egyptian daily Al Ahram reports,

The visit of the influential Hamas leader is meant to set the stage for a new — and Egyptian sponsors hope conclusive — round of national dialogue talks for all Palestinian factions due to convene in Cairo 7 July. Egyptian officials close to the preparations of the next round say that both Egypt and Hamas are “encouraged” by Obama’s signal to “engage” Hamas. They add that Obama’s speech made it clear for all concerned that Palestinian national reconciliation should be reached sooner rather than later.

In the words of one informed diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, “the Americans — to judge not just by the Obama speech and talks in Cairo and Riyadh, but also by successive delegations to the region — seem serious about getting engaged in talks for peace. Now the Palestinians and Arabs in general have to work to make these talks possible.” He added that if Obama is determined to pursue Middle East peace, “irrespective of any artificial deadline or timetables”, then “we’d better strip the Israelis of the pretext that there is no ready Palestinian partner”.

According to this source there is no confirmation that the next round of national reconciliation talks will succeed, but there is determination on the side of the Egyptian sponsor to push things forward.

The Arab League has also been moved by Obama’s call for action. On June 24th, Arab foreign ministers will assemble to “‘formulate a new line of Arab diplomacy’ compatible with the spirit of engagement the US president proposed,” Secretary-General Amr Moussa told Al Ahram.

Moussa said the “new line” seeks to create a reciprocal relationship between the Arab states and Israel. This goal was no doubt propelled by Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech earlier this week, in which he–caveats aside– supported the possibility of a two-state solution and an end to the settlements.

In his talks with General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and Moussa, Meshaal insisted that a “viable Palestinian state” includes the 1967 borders outlined in the Palestinian national accord.

The fate of inter-Palestinian negotiations are similarly tenuous. Meshaal told Al Jazeera that Fatah security forces have been conducting raids against Hamas in the West Bank. Meshaal called the raids “the most difficult obstacle” to reconciliation.

The recent raids in the West Bank, which prompted deadly violence in the city of Qalqilya, have fuelled concerns of a wider conflagration between armed units of Fatah and Hamas.

Meshaal said Hamas and Egyptian officials had discussed how to resolve the crisis, examining options such as freeing Hamas political detainees and ending the security crackdown in the West Bank.

Despite the many hurdles to peace, Dina Ezzat of Al Ahram purports that Egypt is embracing its position as “engagement liason” to reconfigure and cement positive relations with the United States.

From the Egyptian perspective, the resumption of peace talks and positive US engagement in the Middle East is improving bilateral relations. “Egyptian-American relations are moving on a positive path because there is a will on the side of the [new US] administration to conduct dialogue rather than dictate policies as was the case with the previous administration.”

Egyptian and Arab officials say they are considering stepping up consultations with — and maybe also visits to — the US in order to keep the “positive” momentum going. “We want details beyond the speech” and the guidelines that were offered during the Obama talks in Riyadh and Cairo, commented one Egyptian diplomat. He said that future talks between Egyptian, as well as Arab, officials and their US counterparts should focus on these details.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

Exclusive Interview: Marda on the Middle East

June 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Marda Dunsky, the author of the recently published book Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,  by Columbia University Press recently gave two presentations on media reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the Muslim world in general. Following one of these presentations, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Mrs. Dunsky and discuss her thoughts.

It goes without saying that media shapes public opinion and policy. In her new book, Mrs. Dunsky criticizes American broadcast media for its failure to place events “in context” or to admit an administration’s defiance  of international laws or consensus.

Even in the most seemingly balanced story on Israeli settlement, there is no reference to what international law and consensus has to say about the issue, she said.

In another illustration, Dunsky quoted Senator Dick Durbin who said that when the mainstream media irresponsibly followed the Bush Administration’s assertion of WMDs, it created a climate of incredible pressure. Under such pressure, “the only safe vote was the vote for the war.” Otherwise senators would fall prey to their constituencies.

Dumskey also touched on President Obama.

Obama’s been in office for more than a month. What he’s done immediately is to recognize that this is a very pressing issue. On the second day he was in office, he had a big meeting at the state department where he introduced his two special envoys: Holbrook and Sen. George Mitchell as his envoys to the Middle East. Obama right out of the gate is telling the world, ‘We think this is really a pressing issue and we’re going to get back involved right away.’

Starting with his interview on Al-Arabiya (which can be found in an earlier post here), Obama showed that he is intent on improving relations in the region and showing that the issues in the area are a priority for America.

Dunsky cautioned, though, that it is still mostly rhetoric at this stage and that concrete policies are required.

On the campaign trail Obama visited Sderot in southern Israel and expressed his sympathies for living under constant rocket fire. This was where he said the famous phrase “if my daughters were sleeping and someone was shooting rockets at them, I would do anything I could to protect them.” So while he sympathized with Sderot and kept with the standard American policy of unflinching support for Israeli security, as Dunsky pointed out, Obama neglected to travel the two miles into Gaza and show that he empathized with the average Gazan who was living under siege with little access to food or medical supplies–which in itself does not mark a change in American policy.

I would like to encourage all to take heed Mrs. Dunsky’s advice and to scrutinize the mainstream media. By doing so, the viewer can be much more informed and gain a better understanding of the truth.

Marda Dunsky is a professor at DePaul University and a former journalist at the Jerusalem Post.

This interview took place March 2009.