Palestinian unity government resigns


The Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah has resigned and the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister has been asked to form a new government.

Resignation letters were given to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, the French news agency AFP reported. The possible collapse of the 14-month-old-government was signaled on Tuesday, despite P.A. denials.

Abbas received the resignations from the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, then asked Hamdallah to form a new government, AFP reported, citing Nimr Hammad, a close aide to Abbas.

The Palestinian unity agreement was signed in April 2014.

Hammad reportedly said that Hamas would be included in consultations to form a new government. Hamas reportedly had been against the dissolution of the government and said it was not consulted by Fatah, Abbas’ party, before the resignation were submitted.

The announcement of the resignation comes amid reports of indirect talks between Hamas and Israel in order to reach a long-term truce in the wake of last summer’s Gaza conflict. Arab and European countries reportedly have mediated the talks.

Netanyahu slams Abbas over deadly rail attack in Jerusalem


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the light rail attack in Jerusalem that killed a 3-month-old girl.

The Prime Minister’s Office spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, on his official Twitter feed identified the driver of the car that crashed Wednesday into the Ammunition Hill station in northern Jerusalem as a Hamas member. Eight people also were injured in the suspected terror act as passengers were disembarking from the train.

Netanyahu in a statement referred to the fact that Abbas’ Fatah party recently formed a unity government with Hamas.

“This is how Abu Mazen’s partners in government act, the same Abu Mazen who — only a few days ago — incited toward a terrorist attack in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

The driver of the car attempted to flee the scene on foot and was shot by police, who confirmed that he was from the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and had previously served time in an Israeli prison.

After the attack, which was captured on security camera video, Palestinians and Israeli forces clashed in Silwan, which has been a recent source of Arab-Jewish tension. Israeli security forces also reportedly raided the home of the suspect in the attack, Abdelrahman al-Shaludi, who is the nephew of Mohiyedine Sharif, the former head of Hamas’ armed wing who was killed in 1988.

Netanyahu ordered tightened security in Jerusalem. The city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, called for the reinforcement of police forces in order to “restore peace and security.”

“As I have said for months, the situation in Jerusalem is intolerable and we must act unequivocally against all violence taking place in the city,” he said in a statement. “Today, more than ever, it is clear that we must send police forces into neighborhoods where there are disturbances, placing them strategically and widely in significant numbers.”

Abbas: Hamas unity pact is off if gov’t doesn’t allow unity gov’t to run Gaza


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would break his government’s unity agreement with Hamas if Hamas does not allow the unity government to operate in Gaza.

“We won’t accept a partnership with them if the situation continues like this in Gaza where there is a shadow government running the territory,” Abbas said late Saturday night in Cairo, where he was scheduled to address the Arab League, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

“If Hamas won’t accept a Palestinian state with one state and one law, then there won’t be any partnership between us. This is our condition, and we won’t back away from it.”

Abbas told reporters that the Palestinian leadership is making every effort to help the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, and is working to provide all forms of assistance.

He estimated that it will take $7 billion and at least 15 years to rebuild what was destroyed in Gaza during Israel’s seven-week Operation Protective Edge.

Some 461,643 people were displaced in Gaza, with at least 280,000 of them in United Nations shelters and schools, the P.A. leader said.

Abbas said some 18,000 homes were destroyed and another 41,000 were damaged, and that 75 schools were destroyed and another 145 suffered damage. Dozens of public buildings, including mosques, also were destroyed.

For Israelis in the western Negev, each day is ‘Russian Roulette’


When the tzeva adom, red alert, screams its siren as Yasmine Parda eats out in Ashkelon at her favorite restaurant, she waits and hopes for the best—no rocket shelters are reachable by foot within the siren’s reported 15-second warning interval.

“We sit in the restaurant and wait,” said the 27-year-old secretary as she stopped for a few moments along Yig’al Alon Street in Sderot on Aug. 14, the morning after a five-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced.

Paya Amirov, Parda’s friend, described her life as a game of “Russian Roulette”—she can’t know whether the next minute, hour, or day will be quiet or chaotic, with the ever-present possibility of needing to drop everything and run from scorching metal and shrapnel that falls from the sky shortly after being fired from the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Michal Tweeto, who lives on Moshav Tkuma, a community next to Gaza, with her husband and three children, brought two of her kids—Tova, 5, and Avraham, 3—to a massive indoor playground and community center in Sderot so they could enjoy some respite for the day. In recent weeks, the kids have barely been able to leave the house. And even during this ceasefire, there’s no guarantee of safety.

“My kids are afraid. That’s the biggest problem for me,” Tweeto said. “I’m more afraid from the trauma than from the rockets.”

At the $5 million, 21,000-square-foot facility, which was built by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 2009, recreation rooms and play areas double as bomb shelters, giving parents like Tweeto the peace of mind that they enjoyed before 2001, when rocket fire from neighboring Gaza became a regular occurrence.

Located in an old warehouse on the eastern edge of Sderot, the facility has basketball courts, a café, computers and a small movie theater. On a recent visit, the happy screams of children playing rang through the air as parents sat at tables and socialized with each other.

This $5 million, 21,000 square foot indoor rec center in Sderot was built by the Jewish National Fund in 2009 as a response to rocket fire.

Just one mile away from the indoor playground, another stark reminder of life here, particularly for children, is made apparent by a large structure on an outdoor playground on Ha-Rakefet Street. Artfully built into the playground, the structure looks like a large friendly snake with a hollowed out interior play area.

This snake-like structure on an outdoor playground doubles as a bomb shelter.

Approaching it, though, a sign on it reads in Hebrew: “When the tzeva adom sounds, you have to enter under my protection beyond the orange line.”

This sign at an outdoor Sderot playground tells children to enter the inside of what is a playful looking snake if they hear the “red alert” siren.

Moshe and Linor Barsheshet, Netivot residents who came for the day to the indoor JNF playground with their two children, Haddas and Yonatan, left home for Beit Shemesh during the war and returned during the first cease fire two weeks ago.

Government officials asked residents in the south to return home, expecting that the cease-fire would hold—Hamas broke it on the morning of Aug. 8, firing a volley of rockets over the border and further shattering the confidence of many locals.

“It’s impossible to leave the house,” Moshe said.

Arnold Rosenblum, who came to Israel five years ago from Russia, recently moved to Sderot to enroll at Sapir College. Walking in the downtown shopping area, Rosenblum, 23, sat down for a few minutes to speak with a reporter.

“What can I say?” Rosenblum said, asked how the rockets and sirens have impacted his life. “We are getting used to this. First time is very hard and you really think maybe you should leave Sderot.”

After that initial shock, though, he said, the regular interruptions just become normal. “I say like this: if I made a choice to live here, no Hamas, no someone else can make me change my choice.”

During parts July and August, when classes at Sapir were cancelled due to the war in Gaza, Rosenblum worked at a plastics factory in town. He said that, during work, if the siren rang, people would have 13 seconds to find the nearest bomb shelter—he said that by the time the red alert goes off, two seconds have already been shaved off from the 15.

When he is home during the siren, he said his two and three-year-old nephews and nieces panic amidst the rush to get to a shelter.

“Everyone is screaming. Everyone is crying,” Rosenblum said, adding glumly when asked about the current lull in fighting: “It’s very sad.”

Hesitant to offer his opinion on the war and on the government’s decision, for now, to halt its operation, Rosenblum instead offered some dark humor:

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin asks God, ‘What do you think? When is it going to be the end of terrorism in Chechnya?”

“Not in your [presidential] term,” God said.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu asks God,” said Rosenblum. “‘What do you think? When is it going to be quiet in Gaza?’”

“God said, ‘Not in my term.’”

What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire


In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”

Fired by Netanyahu in midst of Gaza campaign, rival aims to give voice to Likud’s hawks


Former Israeli deputy defense minister Danny Danon did not seem bothered by the fallout from his rift in mid-July with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a spat that ended with Netanyahu removing Danon as this country’s Deputy Minister of Defense.

In fact, he seemed more relaxed than he did during previous in-person and telephone interviews as he sat down at a Tel Aviv café Wednesday morning.

The ambitious young Knesset member and chairman of Likud’s powerful Central Committee has always seemed more than willing to promote his ideology to English-language media, whether to The Times of Israel, Al-Monitor or Glenn Beck.

And on Wednesday, Danon, 43, cited his public opposition to Netanyahu’s acceptance of a failed July cease-fire with Hamas as the most recent example of his willingness to call out Likud leaders when he believes their actions stray uncomfortably to the left.

But for someone who aims to represent Likud’s right-wing bloc in the future, perhaps as a cabinet member or even tPrime Minister, whether Danon can successfully balance his commitment to what he says are the party’s core values with the need for political gamesmanship and acuity is yet to be seen.

Asked whether he now regrets publicly opposing Netanyahu given the political fallout, Danon said he “absolutely” does not, adding that his opposition to the Prime Minister’s acceptance of a July 15 cease-fire with Hamas (which the group rejected) was validated when an Israeli ground invasion that began July 17 revealed over 30 underground cross-border tunnels that Hamas planned to use in terror attacks and kidnappings.

“I did the right thing by criticizing it, otherwise we would have woken up Rosh Hashanah with hundreds of Hams terrorists [inside Israel],” he said, alluding to reports that alleged Hamas was planning a massive September assault on Israeli towns and communities near the border. “Today, people say the highlight of the operation is that we dealt with the tunnels.”

A public opponent of the two-state solution and a proponent of annexing large portions of the West Bank and returning much of the Palestinian population to Jordanian rule, Danon had already butted heads with Netanyahu in March when he announced that he would resign his deputy minister post if 26 Palestinian prisoners were let go as part of a final stage of releases that were agreed upon as a prerequisite to embarking on the most recently failed peace negotiations.  

Netanyahu shelved the release in March, effectively allowing Danon to (temporarily) hold his minister post while at the same time holding firm in his opposition. In a Spring interview with Al-Monitor, asked whether he was worried about being fired by Netanyahu for his repeated antagonistic public remarks, Danon responded that no, he was not worried and that receiving the boot from Netanyahu “will only strengthen me.”

“I am fighting to bring the faction back to life,” Danon told Al-Monitor. Wednesday, too, Danon portrayed himself as the bearer of Likud’s flag and someone who “will make sure the Likud party stays in the right direction” amidst a Prime Minister who, he said, “is shifting” too far left.

“If for example Netanyahu will become a subcontractor of [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni or who like [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will decide to adopt a different ideology,” Danon said, “I will be there to block it.”

Unsurprisingly, Danon, like many Israelis and most Likud members, wishes Israel increased the intensity of its Gaza campaign and removed Hamas from Gaza. Somewhat surprisingly, though, given his opposition to negotiating with Hamas, he suggested that if Israel refused to provide economic relief to Hamas and Gaza until the group demilitarized, it may decide that doing so is in its best interest.

Asked why Hamas, given its historically violent resistance to Israel, would voluntarily disarm itself, Danon likened the situation to America’s threat to use force in Syria in Aug. 2013 amidst that government’s use of chemical weapons on its own civilians. The Assad regime eventually capitulated and agreed to part with a significant portion of its stockpile.

“People thought Syria would never give away their chemical weapons,” Danon said. “And it happened.”

On West Bank security concerns, Danon advocated for the construction of a settlement on the land where three murdered Jewish teens were discovered in June and called for the deportation of the murderers’ families to the Gaza Strip and for the destruction of their West Bank homes. As for the Palestinian Authority, Danon is skeptical that it will be the “heroes of the Palestinian people.”

While the outspoken Knesset member’s consistent and vocal opposition to the head of state is nothing new for Israeli politics, his rapid rise within Likud and his recurrent coverage in the media at such an early stage in his career—without having the benefit of either cabinet experience or a place in Israeli military lore—indicates that Danon has thought through how he intends to climb the political ladder. He cited his close relationship with Sharon (who was his oldest son's godfather) before the Gaza disengagement and said that the former Prime Minister told him that there's nothing wrong with seeking positions of greater political influence.

In Likud’s 2012 primary elections, Danon finished fifth, ahead of current President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. And today, he says much of Likud is alarmed at Netanyahu’s tilt away from the base on security issues.

Wednesday, though, Danon rejected any comparison of his role within Likud as similar to the Tea Party’s role within the Republican Party—a conservative faction seeking to keep the party in line.

“The Tea Party is mostly new people who joined the Republican Party,” Danon said. “The people that I represent are the people who grew up in the party.”

While Danon said he has “no fear” of running for higher office if Likud’s leaders stray “in terms of ideology and policy,” for the foreseeable future the price he paid for criticizing Netanyahu may result in lost political influence.

Asked whether he still has the Prime Minister’s ear after the flap one month ago, Danon responded:

“As of today, not—but things can change.”

Rallies at LA Israel consulate show strong feelings about renewed Israel-Gaza violence


Dueling rallies on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 7, outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles showed strong feelings about renewed Israel-Gaza violence.

On the south side of the street at  11766 Wilshire Blvd., protestors held Palestinian flags, which flapped in a reporter’s face as the people waving them chanted slogans, infusing strong emotion into a demonstration critical of Israel held outside the Israeli consulate’s office in West Los Angeles. 

Chants alternated between being anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

“Netanyahu you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” went one chant. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” went another during the rally, which, according to a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) official estimate, drew approximately 300 people.

The rally began at 4 p.m. and ended around 7 p.m.

The event turned the sidewalk on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, near Barrington Avenue, into a scene of controlled chaos. The sound of car horns filled the air. Pro-Palestinians sang their chants into microphones. Many of them students, the crowd pushed up against the curb, their bodies pressed up against large pro-Palestinian banners, as buses and other cars drove by.

Across the street, a somewhat more subdued gathering of supporters of Israel drew about 100 people, according to an LAPD estimate.

The rallies took place even as rockets flew between Israel and the Gaza Strip, an escalation of violence in the wake of the recent abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers – and the subsequent revenge killing by Israelis of a Palestinian teenager.

After two weeks of hope, a community mourns slain Israeli teens


Only 18 days after joining together in a hopeful prayer vigil for three Israeli teenage boys abducted at a bus stop outside their school, 1,500 members of the Los Angeles Jewish community grieved together in a memorial service for the teens—Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frenkel—whose bodies were found on June 30 in a field north of Hebron.

Teary-eyed audience members embraced one another in the dimly lit sanctuary at Beth Jacob Congregation, as Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad, eulogized her nephew and denounced his kidnappers, garnering multiple rounds of applause over the course of her ten-minute speech.

Standing on the bimah beside three yahrtzeit candles and in front of photographs of the three slain teens, Shaar said that she had been hoping to plan a major celebration for the day that her nephew would be rescued alive.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Shaar said about the death of her brother’s son. “For the last 18 days, never for a moment did I ever think that Gilad, my dear nephew, was anything but alive.”

Shaar, who recently moved to Los Angeles to receive medical treatment, shared with those in attendance the meaning behind the Hebrew name “Gilad,” or “happy forever.”

“I always thought he’d be ‘Gilad,’ happy forever, but the terrorists brought a sudden end to ‘forever,’” she said. “He was my wonderful, talented, bright and cool nephew.”

The audience applauded when Shaar said that Israelis should be able to live securely in the West Bank and towns like Alon Shvut, where the teenagers were kidnapped just down the road from the high school that two of them attended.

Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad Shaar.

“We, as proud Jews, have a right to stand in our land,” she said. “It’s not a crime.”

Holding back tears, she expressed gratitude for the Israeli military’s restless search for the boys and to the local Jewish community, which, since news broke of her nephew’s kidnapping, has embraced and supported her.

Throughout the hour-long service, the messages from six speakers conveyed a mixture of sadness and grief, with Israel’s local consul general, David Siegel, reflecting on the unity of Jews around the world since the kidnapping.

“We are one nation, from Beverly Hills to Jerusalem,” Siegel said. “We pray together, we hope together and tonight, unfortunately, we cry together.”

He added that Israel, in its hunt for the two Hamas suspects, “Will leave no stone unturned, literally, until justice is done.”

Rabbi Adir Posy, who led the service, read a communal blessing in Hebrew for the Israeli military, also asking those in attendance to stand respectfully for the “Mourners Kaddish,” a traditional synagogue prayer recited by Jewish mourners.

The evening concluded with a rendition of the Israeli national anthem, led by Cantor Arik Wollheim and local teenage members of the international religious Zionist youth group, B’nai Akiva, of which Gilad Shaar was also a member.

At 8 p.m., as the synagogue slowly emptied, a few community members lingered behind. Charles Hale, a member of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, related how “chilling” it was for him to hear, earlier in the day, the just-released audio of an emergency call placed by Gilad Shaar just after the kidnapping.

Multiple media outlets have reported that Israeli investigators believe the abductors shot the boys to death upon realizing an emergency call had been placed.

Shanee Michaelson, a Beth Jacob congregant, told the Journal it was difficult for her to focus at her office when it was announced Monday that the teens’ bodies were discovered.

“I really thought they were going to survive,” a somber Michaelson said.

With peace talks stalled, Israelis and Palestinians resort to old moves


Nine months of negotiations were supposed to propel Israelis and Palestinians into a future of peace. Instead, the collapse of talks is threatening to make the future look much like the past.

Israel’s decision last week to suspend negotiations — a day after the signing of a reconciliation between the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas — has prompted both sides to resort to their old ways.

For the Palestinians, that means focusing on internal unity and a redoubled effort to win international recognition for statehood, particularly at the United Nations. For Israel, it’s a return to shunning the Palestinian political leadership.

“If the Palestinian Authority persists with efforts to reunite with Hamas, that is not only a game changer,” Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, told JTA. “It is a game stopper.”

After weeks in which they teetered on the brink of failure, peace negotiations finally stalled April 23 when Fatah agreed to form a unified Palestinian government with Hamas, the ruling power in Gaza considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union.

The two groups split after violent clashes in 2007. Three previous reconciliation deals — in 2007, 2011 and 2012 — have gone unimplemented.

Israel responded to the reconciliation agreement as it had to earlier ones, declaring that it would not negotiate with Hamas and announcing economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. On April 24, Israel suspended the peace negotiations, five days before their initial nine-month term was set to expire.

“Instead of choosing peace, Abu Mazen formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.”

Israel and the United States have called on Hamas to recognize Israel, commit to nonviolence and abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements — three conditions that have guided negotiations for a decade. But on Sunday, Hamas officials vowed never to recognize Israel.

Palestinian officials nevertheless moved to downplay the significance of the unity accord on the peace process, noting that an interim government set to be formed in the coming weeks would be made up of technocrats, not political figures aligned with Fatah or Hamas. Munib al-Masri, a Palestinian industrialist who served as a Fatah delegate to the reconciliation talks, told JTA that Abbas would continue to manage negotiations should they go on.

“All parties will abide by President Abbas regarding the political agenda,” al-Masri said. “The most important thing is to have one voice for the Palestinians.”

Despite such hopes, Israel remains deeply wary of Hamas’ intentions. Naftali Bennett, chairman of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a Facebook post that the P.A. has now become “the biggest terror group in the world” and vowed not to negotiate with murderers. Prior to the unity deal, Bennett had compared peace talks with Abbas to buying a car from someone who owns only half of it.

With prospects for a peace accord receding, several Israeli politicians urged the government to respond by unilaterally settings its own borders. Bennett has encouraged Netanyahu to annex all areas of the West Bank that contain Jewish settlements. Oren argued that Israel should withdraw to a frontier it sets, creating a de facto Palestinian state.

“What are the borders that give us the maximum amount of security and embrace the maximum number of Israelis?” Oren told JTA. “There are people on all sides of the Israeli political spectrum that have considered the necessity of taking our destiny into our own hands.”

Al-Masri said that absent direct negotiations, Abbas will turn again to various U.N. bodies for recognition, as he did in 2012 when the General Assembly accepted Palestine as a non-member observer state. Israeli analysts said such diplomatic pressure will have little impact on the ground.

“Their position in the U.N. doesn’t mean anything,” said Avraham Diskin, an emeritus professor of political science at Hebrew University. “Life is one thing and declarations are another.”

Given the failure of previous attempts at Palestinian unity, experts are doubtful that the latest pact will succeed, not least because Hamas likely will not agree to hand over its weaponry and soldiers to Fatah control. 

“They’re talking about a technocracy so they won’t have to split the pie between them,” Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Islamist groups at Bar-Ilan University. “They can’t agree on anything.”

Netanyahu thus far has not responded to calls for unilateral action, but the collapse of negotiations means his governing coalition will hold for the moment. Jewish Home had threatened to leave had Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from much of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, analysts were not expecting another wave of violence. Palestinian security cooperation with Israel has helped curb Hamas’ influence in the West Bank, but it’s unclear whether such coordination will continue if Palestinian reconciliation becomes a reality.

Oren told JTA it was difficult to see how the Israel Defense Forces could continue to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority once the P.A. unites with Hamas.

“The cooperation is about fighting Hamas,” he said. “How can the IDF fight Hamas with Palestinian security forces who serve under a government that includes Hamas?”

Palestinian prisoner list released prior to renewed talks


A committee of Israeli government ministers released a list of Palestinian prisoners to be freed by Israel in advance of the first round of peace negotiations.

The list released at 1 a.m. Monday includes 14 prisoners who will be transferred this week to Gaza, several of whom are members of Hamas. Eight prisoners on the list were due to be released in the next three years and two in the next six months.

Following the publication of the list, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the release violated agreements with Israel, saying the prisoners were not supposed to be deported to Gaza or abroad.

Abbas and Erekat reportedly told senior U.S. officials that they would not agree to the deportation of any prisoner released, according to Haaretz.

Twenty-one of the prisoners on the list were convicted of killing Israelis or Palestinians accused of being collaborators, and most had served at least 20 years.

Some families of the prisoners’ victims at their request were notified of the release decision before the list was made public.

Under Israeli law, the names of the prisoners must be made public 48 hours before their release in order to allow Supreme Court challenges.

Eventually 104 prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords will be released in phases over the next eight months, pending progress in the talks.

Sunday’s committee meeting took place without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who underwent hernia surgery late Saturday night.

Abbas and Erekat also decried Sunday’s announcement by Israel of new construction approvals for hundreds of apartments in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

The peace talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday in Jerusalem following a three-year freeze, but the Palestinians have threatened to skip the meeting, according to reports.

Israeli minister sees possible Palestine peace talks next week


An Israeli cabinet minister said on Thursday that U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinians could begin next week.

The assessment was not immediately confirmed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who disagree on the terms for reviving direct diplomacy which stalled almost three years ago.

After months of intensive and discreet mediation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday that the groundwork had been laid for new talks and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were due in Washington soon.

Israel was ready to go, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom said at a regional cooperation conference in the West Bank.

“As I understand, today, I think that the Palestinians will decide to come next week,” Shalom told reporters in English.

“But of course it's not something that I can speak on behalf of the Palestinians,” he said. “If they will do so, as I said, the negotiations will start next Tuesday in Washington.”

Israel says new peacemaking would be without preconditions about the borders of a future Palestinian state in territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war. But the Palestinians say they want assurances about those borders first.

Netanyahu's office had no comment on Shalom's remarks. An Israeli source briefed on Kerry's brokering mission said Netanyahu awaited an official invitation from the United States to send his delegation.

The conservative prime minister plans to win over ministers from his rightist coalition government who are skeptical about the prospect of new peacemaking when they convene at Sunday's cabinet meeting, aides said.

AGENDAS

Abbas also had yet to receive a U.S. invitation, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said.

“The Palestinian delegation is ready,” he told Reuters. “We are committed to the meeting that was agreed to be held in Washington to discuss the issues.”

Abbas' administration sees the planned meeting as a chance to pursue his demand that any peace talks be predicated on a future Palestinian state having borders approximating the pre-1967 boundaries of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

That appeared to run counter to a U.S. descriptions of the meeting as the re-launch of peacemaking.

Hanan Ashrawi of Abbas' umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization said in a statement that Israel must stop its settlement of the West Bank and adjacent East Jerusalem.

Israel, which wants to keep swathes of settlements under any eventual peace accord, has refused to embrace the 1967 borders formula or halt construction ahead of the new negotiations.

In remarks the seemed close to Israel's position, a Western official briefed on Kerry's mission said on Sunday: “There are no terms of reference or any other agreements that the '67 lines will be the basis for negotiations.”

Meeting Israeli military conscripts near Tel Aviv on Thursday, Netanyahu placed the peace onus on the Palestinians.

“You need two to tango. In the Middle East, it seems, you need three to tango,” he said. “Let's hope that they (Palestinians) have the desire and demonstrate the aspiration, the goal-oriented drive, which is crucial in order to achieve an objective like a secure peace.”

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle

Hamas rejects Arab League’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan


Islamist Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip on Friday rejected a revised Middle East peace initiative put forward by the Arab League, saying outsiders could not decide the fate of the Palestinians.

In meetings this week in Washington, Arab states appeared to soften their 2002 peace plan, acknowledging that Israelis and Palestinians may have to swap land in any eventual peace deal.

The United States and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank praised the move. But speaking to hundreds of worshippers in a Gaza mosque, senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh said it was a concession that other Arabs were not authorized to make.

“The so-called new Arab initiative is rejected by our people, by our nation and no one can accept it,” said Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in the coastal enclave.

“The initiative contains numerous dangers to our people in the occupied land of 1967, 1948 and to our people in exile.”

He was referring to the partition of British-mandate Palestine in 1948 when the United Nations voted to divide the territory into a Jewish state and an Arab state, and to the 1967 war when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and claims all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river as rightfully Palestinian. It never accepted the Arab plan which was first presented in 2002.

RARE SPAT

The modified version was announced by Qatar's prime minister on Monday and Haniyeh's comments represented a rare public disagreement between Hamas and one of its main supporters.

The rich Gulf state has pledged over $400 million to fund housing projects in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas seized from the rival Palestinian Fatah faction in a brief civil war in 2007.

“To those who speak of land swaps we say: Palestine is not a property, it is not for sale, not for a swap and cannot be traded,” Haniyeh said.

Haniyeh said the rival Palestinian Authority, headed by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was to blame for inspiring the softer Arab position because it accepted the need for land swaps with Israel.

Israel rejected the Arab peace plan when it was proposed 11 years ago. Israeli officials gave a cautious welcome to the new suggestions, but the government still objects to key points, including the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and the creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to revive direct peace talks that broke down in 2010 over the issue of Jewish settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On Tuesday, he hailed the Arab League announcement as “a very big step forward.”

However, any peace moves will have to confront the fractured Palestinian political landscape with Abbas holding sway over parts of the West Bank and Hamas firmly entrenched in Gaza. Repeated attempts by the two sides to secure a political reunification of the two territories have failed.

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan

Ergogan disregards Kerry request to postpone Gaza visit


Turkey's prime minister will go ahead with a planned visit next month to Gaza, despite a request from US Secretary of State John Kerry to postpone.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly refused Kerry's request Sunday to postpone the visit, during a meeting between the two leaders in Istanbul. Erdogan had previously postponed his visit from this month until next, to take place after a scheduled meeting in Washington in mid-May.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also asked Erdogan to delay the visit during a meeting between the two men in Istanbul, saying it could harm relations between the West Bank and Gaza.

Erdogan reportedly plans to visit Gaza on or around May 31, the three-year anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli naval commandoes raided the ship attempting to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Israeli negotiators on Monday met in Ankara with Turkish officials to discuss paying compensation to the families of the victims of the 2010 raid.

The negotiations are part of the process of restoring diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey which were severed following the raid and which began the process of being repaired following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apology last month to Erdogan.

Kerry, Abbas discuss reviving peace talks but offer no details


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday discussed reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but neither side offered details on how, when and whether that might happen.

Kerry, who spoke one-on-one with Abbas for about an hour after a 20-minute group meeting, is on his third trip to the region in three weeks, having accompanied President Barack Obama on his March 20-22 visit and returned alone a day later.

A senior U.S. official described Sunday's talks, which took place after a week marked by clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli security forces in the West Bank, as a constructive meeting but said little about substance.

“During the one-on-one meeting, Secretary Kerry and President Abbas discussed the path to peace and they agreed to continue working together to determine the best path forward,” the U.S. official said in an emailed statement.

While focusing on economic issues, the wider talks included a discussion of “how to create a positive climate” for peace talks, said the senior U.S. official.

The last round of direct negotiations quickly collapsed in late 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building on land that Israel captured in a 1967 war and that the Palestinians want for a state.

The U.S. official said that Kerry had asked the Palestinian officials not to discuss the specifics of this discussion, a request they appear to have honoured.

“There will not be announcements (about the results of these interim meetings), but after two months of communications between the two sides and other parties, the leadership will be able to announce the results of all these communications, Nimr Hammad, an aide to Abbas, told Palestine TV after the meeting.

The past week saw violent clashes between youths and Israeli security forces in the West Bank, which raised fears that a new Palestinian uprising, or intifada, might be brewing.

In another sign of the tensions, rockets were fired out of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for three days running last week, while Israeli warplanes carried out their first strike on the territory since November.

A rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip after sundown on Sunday, as Israel began commemorating its national remembrance of the Nazi Holocaust, striking southern Israel but causing no damage or injuries, an Israeli police spokesman said.

After taking part in a wreath-laying to mark Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, Kerry is to hold separate talks on Monday with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose post is largely ceremonial.

On Tuesday he meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before flying to London for a Group of Eight (G8) foreign ministers' meeting and then on to Asia for talks in South Korea and China. He returns to Washington on April 15.

Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and by Ari Rabinowitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Stephen Powell

Netanyahu: Hamas could take over Palestinian Authority


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern that Hamas would take over the Palestinian Authority before or after a peace agreement.

“In Egypt, the regime has been replaced, in Syria the regime is being shaken and this could also happen in the Palestinian Authority areas in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “Everyone knows that Hamas could take over the Palestinian Authority. It could happen after an agreement, it could happen before an agreement, like it happened in Gaza.”

His comments appeared to be directed at Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told a group of Israeli diplomats that Israel must press hard and fast for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas is the person with whom Israel can make peace.

Netanyahu spoke during a Bible study at his official residence in Jerusalem in which the participants discussed the coming week's Torah portion, which states that “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

Israel's security must be achieved before he makes concessions to the Palestinians, the prime minister said.

“As opposed to the voices that I have heard recently urging me to run forward, make concessions [and] withdraw, I think that the diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste,” Netanyahu said. “Otherwise a third base for Iranian terrorism will arise here, in the heart of the country. Peace can be achieved only when security is assured.”

EU, Russia condemn Israeli settlement expansion plans


The European Union and Russia on Friday denounced Israel's plans to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and urged Israelis and Palestinians to take “bold and concrete steps towards peace.”

Israeli officials said this week they would press on with plans to build 6,000 homes for settlers on land claimed by Palestinians, defying criticism from Western powers who fear the move will damage already faint hopes for a peace accord.

“The European Union and the Russian Federation are deeply dismayed by and strongly oppose Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and in particular plans to develop the E1 area,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

E1 is a wedge of land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank where Israel had previously held off under U.S. pressure.

“The EU and the Russian Federation underline the urgency of renewed, structured and substantial peace efforts in 2013,” said the joint statement after an EU-Russia summit in Brussels.

Stung by de facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty by the U.N. General Assembly last month, Israel announced it would expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Many countries deem the settlements illegal and have been especially troubled by Israel's declared intent to build in E1.

The EU and Russia, which together with the United States and the United Nations make up the Quartet of Middle East mediators, said the settlements were illegal under international law and were an obstacle to peace.

“The EU and the Russian Federation will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties,” they said.

It was time to take “bold and concrete steps towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis”, they said, calling for “direct and substantial negotiations without preconditions”.

The EU and Russia called for the unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of goods and people to and from the Gaza Strip, and urged Israel to avoid any step that would undermine the financial situation of the Palestinian Authority.

They urged the Palestinian leadership to use Palestine's new U.N. status constructively and avoid steps that would deepen lack of trust and lead further away from a negotiated solution.

Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Palestinians outline Israel isolation strategy


The Palestinian Authority is considering a multi-pronged strategy to isolate Israel, including seeking redress in international courts and ceasing security cooperation.

The Associated Press reported on the strategy in a story published Thursday. Palestinian officials told the AP that they will first press for renewed talks after Israel's Jan. 22 elections but will insist on a settlement freeze as a precondition.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks set for reelection, has rejected another freeze, saying the Palestinians did not come to the table until nine months into the last partial freeze, in 2010, and then left because he would not extend it beyond the 10 months he had pledged.

Should Israel not agree to those terms, the officials say, they will seek war crimes charges against Israelis in international courts, will lobby for sanctions on Israel, organize mass protests and suspend the security cooperation in the West Bank that has helped maintain the peace there while the Gaza Strip, under Hamas control, has exploded into violence multiple times in recent years.

“There will be no security cooperation as long as there is no political horizon,” Mohammed Ishtayeh told the AP.

Palestinians warn Israel must be held accountable over settlements


The Palestinians accused Israel in a letter to the United Nations of planning to commit further “war crimes” by expanding Jewish settlements after the Palestinians won de facto U.N. recognition of statehood and warned that Jerusalem must be held accountable.

In the letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council, the Palestinians said Israel was behaving “in a rogue, hostile and arrogant manner, contravening all principles and rules of international law and reacting with contempt to the will of the international community.”

After the U.N. General Assembly upgraded the Palestinians' status at the world body on Thursday from “observer entity” to “non-member state,” Israel said on Friday it would build 3,000 more settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – areas Palestinians want for a future state, along with Gaza.

Approximately 500,000 Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“A clear message must be sent to Israel that all of its illegal policies must be ceased or that it will be held accountable and will have to bear the consequences if its violations and obstruction of peace efforts,” Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour wrote in the letter dated Monday.

After winning the U.N. status upgrade, the Palestinians can now access the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which prosecutes people for genocide, war crimes and other major human rights violations and where it could complain about Israel.

The Palestinians have said they will not rush to sign up to the International Criminal Court, but have warned that seeking action against Israel in the court would remain an option if Israel continued to build illegal settlements.

Prior to the U.N. vote, some Western nations unsuccessfully pushed for a Palestinian pledge not to pursue Israel in the ICC. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Bill Trott)

Israel to expand settlements after U.N.’s Palestine vote


Israel plans to build thousands of new homes for its settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, an Israeli official said on Friday, defying a U.N. vote that implicitly recognized Palestinian statehood there.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative government had authorised the construction of 3,000 housing units and ordered “prelimiliary zoning and planning work for thousands” more.

The official would not elaborate. But Israeli media said the government sought to hammer home its rejection of Thursday's upgrade, by the U.N. General Assembly, of the Palestinians to “non-member observer state” from “entity”.

Israel and the United States had opposed the resolution, which shored up the Palestinians' claim on all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, saying territorial sovereignty should be addressed in direct peace talks with the Jewish state.

Those negotiations have been stalled for two years, however, given Palestinian anger at continued Israeli settlement. The Israelis insist they would keep West Bank settlement blocs under any final accord as well as all of Jerusalem as their capital.

The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the world body to issue what he said was its long overdue “birth certificate.”

This article has been edited by JewishJournal.com.  Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Netanyahu: No Palestinian state until negotiations, despite U.N. vote


The Palestinians will not achieve a state without first recognizing Israel as a Jewish State and sitting down to direct negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The prime minister of Israel made his remarks on Thursday morning, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations approval of the Partition Plan for Palestine and the day of an expected vote on granting the Palestinians enhanced status at the international body.

“Israel is prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state, but for peace to endure, Israel’s security must be protected.  The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish State and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all.  None of these vital interests, these vital interests of peace, none of them appear in the resolution that will be put forward before the General Assembly today and that is why Israel cannot accept it,” Netanyahu said Thursday morning during a visit to the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. “The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly; through valid negotiations between themselves, and not through U.N. resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests.  And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.”

Netanyahu also directed a message to the delegates to the U.N. General Assembly, gathering in New York for Thursday's vote: “No decision by the UN can break the 4000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”

Meanwhile, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in letter published on the Daily Beast's Open Zion Blog that he does not oppose the Palestinian's U.N. bid, which is counter to official Israeli policy. The letter was printed in a post by Hebrew University professor Bernard Avishai.

Olmert wrote that: “I believe that the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it. Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues. It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians. Abu-Mazen and Salam Fayyad need our help. It's time to give it.”

Abu-Mazen is another name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Fayyad is the P.A. prime minister.

On Wednesday, Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi arrived in New York to support the Palestinians during the vote in the U.N. General Assembly. His trip elicited anger from right-wing Knesset members.

Strong European support for Palestinian statehood bid


A Palestinian bid for indirect U.N. recognition of statehood received vows of support from more than a dozen European nations as of Wednesday, and diplomats said this backing may deter Israel from harsh retaliation against the Palestinian Authority for seeking to upgrade its U.N. status.

A Palestinian resolution on Thursday that would change its U.N. observer status from an “entity” to a “non-member state,” implicitly recognizing the sovereign state of Palestine, is expected to pass easily in the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly. But Israel, the United States and a handful of other members of are expected to vote against it.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been leading the campaign to win support for the resolution, and some European governments have offered him their support after an eight-day conflict this month between Israel and Islamists in the Gaza Strip, who are pledged to Israel's destruction and oppose his efforts towards a negotiated peace.

The U.S. State Department said Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and U.S. Mideast peace envoy David Hale traveled to New York on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to get Abbas to reconsider.

“We've been clear, we've been consistent with the Palestinians, that we oppose observer state status in the General Assembly and this resolution,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

She repeated U.S. warnings that the move could hit U.S. economic support for the Palestinians. The Israelis have also warned that they might take deductions out of monthly transfers of duties that Israel collects on the Palestinians' behalf.

The United States and Israel say the only genuine route to statehood is at the negotiating table, through a peace accord hammered out in direct talks with Israel.

Granting Palestinians the title of “non-member observer state” falls short of full U.N. membership – something the Palestinians tried but failed to achieve last year. But it would allow them access to the International Criminal Court and some other international bodies, should they choose to join them. The Vatican numbers among the U.N.'s non-member states.

Hanan Ashrawi, a top Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official, told a news conference in Ramallah that “the Palestinians can't be blackmailed all the time with money.”

“Some rights aren't for sale,” Ashrawi said. “If Israel wants to destabilize the whole region, it can. We are talking to the Arab World about their support if Israel responds with financial measures, and the EU has indicated they will not stop their support to us.”

Israeli retaliation might be moderate

As there is little doubt about how the United States will vote when the Palestinian resolution to upgrade its U.N. status is put to a vote sometime after 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT) on Thursday, the Palestinian Authority has been concentrating its efforts on lobbying wealthy European states, diplomats say.

With strong support from the developing world that make up the majority of U.N. members, the Palestinian resolution is virtually assured of securing more than the requisite simple majority. But Abbas has been trying to amass as many European yes votes as possible.

“A strong showing in Europe will emphasize to Israel and the United States that the Palestinian Authority is widely seen legitimate,” a Western envoy said on condition of anonymity. “It may also give Israel second thoughts about trying to bankrupt the Palestinians for something that is really symbolic.”

One senior Western diplomat predicted that at least 120-130 countries would vote for the Palestinian resolution.

As of Wednesday afternoon Austria, Denmark, Norway, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland had all pledged to support the Palestinian resolution. Britain said it was prepared to vote yes, but only if the Palestinians fulfilled certain conditions.

Ashrawi said the positive responses from European states were encouraging and sent a message of hope to all Palestinians.

“This constitutes a historical turning point and opportunity for the world to rectify a grave historical injustice that the Palestinians have undergone since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948,” she said.

A strong backing from European nations could make it awkward for Israel to implement harsh retaliatory measures. Diplomats say that Israel seems hesitant to take strong action against Abbas as it would antagonize Western European countries.

But Israel's reaction might not be so measured if the Palestinians seek ICC action against Israel on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity or other crimes the court would have jurisdiction over.

It also seems wary of weakening the Western-backed Abbas, especially after the political boost rival Hamas received from recent solidarity visits to Gaza by top officials from Egypt, Qatar and Tunisia.

Hamas militants, who control Gaza and have had icy relations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, unexpectedly offered Abbas their support earlier this week.

Stalled Peace Talks

No European nations announced they would vote against the non-member state move, though several U.N. diplomats said privately that the Czech Republic and Netherlands might be among those that cast no votes. Neither has announced an official position.

Germany said it could not support the Palestinian move though it was not clear if it would abstain, like Estonia and Lithuania, or vote against it.

Europe's undecided countries included European Union members Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden. Several EU members said they were hoping the 27-nation EU would reach a common position on the Palestinian move, though U.N. diplomats said that EU unity was an impossibility.

Peace talks have been stalled for two years, mainly over the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In their draft resolution, the Palestinians have pledged to relaunch the peace process immediately following the U.N. vote.

Britain said it would be willing to support the Palestinian move on Thursday if two conditions were met.

“The first is that the Palestinian Authority should indicate a clear commitment to return immediately to negotiations without preconditions,” Foreign Seretary William Hague told parliament.

“The second assurance relates to membership of other specialized U.N. agencies and action in the International Criminal Court,” he added.

Rights groups said that stance contradicted Britain's stated commitment to accountability for serious crimes.

Israel and the United States have mooted withholding aid and tax revenue that the Palestinian government in the West Bank needs to survive. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has also viewed options that include bringing down Abbas.

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Gaza militants signal truce with Israel after rockets


Palestinian militants indicated they were ready for a truce with Israel on Monday to defuse a growing crisis after four days of rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip into the south of the Jewish state.

There was no immediate response from Israel which has warned it is ready to ramp up its air strikes and shelling if the rockets do not cease.

Leaders of Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, met with Islamic Jihad and other groups on Monday night and said they would respond according to the way Israel acted – a formulation used in previous flare-ups to offer a ceasefire.

“If (Israel) is interested in calm they should stop the aggression,” Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas told Reuters.

The Palestinian people were acting in self-defense, he said.

“The ball is in Israel's court. The resistance factions will observe Israel's behavior on the ground and will act accordingly,” said Khaled Al-Batsh of the Islamic Jihad group.

Throughout the day, Israel warned it was ready for stronger action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened foreign ambassadors in what an apparent move to pre-empt international censure should Israel, whose 2008-2009 Gaza offensive exacted a high civilian toll, again go in hard.

Netanyahu briefed the envoys in Ashkelon, a port city within range of some Palestinian rockets. “None of their governments would accept a situation like this,” he said.

He was due to convene his close forum of nine senior ministers on Tuesday to decide a course of action. Israel Radio said Defence Minister Ehud Barak and military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz had met with Netanyahu on Monday night to present possible attack scenarios.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, an influential member of Netanyahu's Likud party, said the briefing was meant to prepare world opinion for “what is about to happen”, adding there might be a major Israeli escalation within a few hours.

“Hamas bears responsibility. The heads of Hamas should pay the price and not sleep at night. I expect to see not just a return to targeted killings, but also to very wide activity by (the army),” he told Israel Radio.

Hamas took part in some missile launches at the weekend but it did not claim responsibility for attacks earlier on Monday, suggesting it was looking to step back from the brink.

The Israeli military said Palestinians had fired 12 rockets on Monday, and a total of 119 had been launched since Saturday.

Netanyahu said a million Israelis – around one-eighth of the population – were in danger. Israel has been deploying its Iron Dome rocket interceptor, air raid sirens and blast shelters, but eight people have been wounded by the rockets.

Six Palestinians, including four civilians, have been killed by Israeli shells fired on Gaza since Saturday, and at least 40 have been wounded.

EGYPT IN THE PICTURE

A Palestinian official who declined to be named said Egypt had been trying to broker a ceasefire and although no formal truce was in place, Hamas understood the need for calm.

Monday's launches were claimed by smaller groups, including a radical Salafi organization that rejects Hamas's authority.

Israel has shown little appetite for a new Gaza war, which could strain relations with the new Islamist-rooted government in neighboring Egypt. The countries made peace in 1979.

But Netanyahu may be reluctant to seem weak ahead of a January 22 election that opinion polls currently predict he will win.

Israel said the latest flare-up started on Thursday with a fierce border clash. On Saturday, a Palestinian missile strike wounded four Israeli troops patrolling the boundary, triggering army shelling of Gaza in which the four civilians died.

In turn, dozens of mortars and rockets were launched at Israel, which carried out a series of air strikes in Gaza.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Ori Lewis, Douglas Hamilton and Andrew Heavens

Nakba Day marked with rioting, rock throwing


Palestinians in Israel marked Nakba Day with riots and rock-throwing.

Palestinians on Tuesday rioted and threw rocks at Israeli troops near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, at the Kalandia checkpoint and at Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem. Several Palestinian rioters were arrested.

In Ramallah’s central Clock Square, thousands of Palestinians rallied at noon as a siren sounded to commemorate the Nakba, or catastrophe, referring to Israel’s foundation in 1948 as a state. A similar rally was scheduled to be held in Gaza.

On Tuesday morning a rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israel, but did not cause any injuries or damage.

The Palestinian Authority reportedly declared a general strike, and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee declared a strike in Israel’s Arab sector to mark the day. .

Nakba Day marches were also scheduled to be held in Jordan, and in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Commemorations of Nakba Day in Lebanon are being limited to the refugee camps, according to Lebanon’s The Daily Star. The orders come a year after more than 100 protesters stormed Lebanon’s border with Israel, leading to the death of at least 10 protesters.

Israel’s military has brought more troops to the country’s borders with Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Gaza in an attempt to prevent border breaches by protesters like those that occurred last year.

Palestinians escalate hunger-strike in Israel jails


Hundreds of Palestinians on hunger strike in Israeli jails said on Friday they would shun vitamin supplements and prison clinics in an escalation of their mass protest against detention conditions.

“We swear we will not retreat. We are potential martyrs. Either we live in dignity or die,” prisoner organizers said in a letter announcing the move and which was read out by Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Islamist Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, during a demonstration.

An estimated 1,600 inmates out of 4,800 launched the hunger strike on April 17 to demand improved conditions in Israeli custody, such as an end to solitary confinement and more family visits. They have also challenged Israel’s policy of indefinite detention without charge of suspected Palestinian militants.

The fate of the hunger strikers has touched a raw nerve among Palestinians, with daily support rallies in the West Bank and Gaza, and political leaders warning that Israel could face new violence should any prisoner die.

Dozens of Palestinians, including militants and politicians who had served terms in Israeli jails in the past, have gone on hunger strikes in tents put up in solidarity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which witnessed daily heavy attendance by residents and visitors from Arab and foreign countries.

The prisoners include Islamists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with the Jewish state, as well as members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular and Western-backed Fatah movement.

Israel says all prisoners receive adequate medical attention, including in civilian hospitals if required.

A Prisons Service spokeswoman said there was no immediate sign of the hunger strike being stepped up.

“As of now, I know that those who should be receiving extra care are receiving it,” the spokeswoman, Sivan Weizman, said.

Defending its so-called “administrative detention” policy, Israel says some cases cannot immediately be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources that have cooperated with Israeli security organs against militants.

Two inmates who helped launch the hunger strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 74th day of their fast on Friday.

Anat Litvin of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel quoted Halahleh’s doctor as saying his death could be imminent.

“What is very worrisome is the fact that he said that he doesn’t want to be saved if something happens to him and he loses consciousness,” Litvin said, adding that the Prisons Service’s medical facilities might prove inadequate.

“They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the expertise; constant follow-up that is very much needed is not available,” she told Reuters Television in Tel Aviv.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Abbas says he’s ready to engage with Israel


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday he was ready to engage with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a Middle East peace agreement if he proposes “anything promising or positive.”

Abbas, speaking to Reuters after Netanyahu announced a grand coalition that will strengthen the Israeli leader’s hand, said Netanyahu had to realize that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were destroying hopes of peace and must cease.

Abbas said it was still too early to comment directly on the new Israeli coalition, which saw Israel’s centrist opposition Kadima party join Netanyahu’s government.

While in opposition, Kadima had blamed Netanyahu for the failure of Palestinian peace talks. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz said resuming negotiations that have been stalled for 18 months was an “iron condition” of his decision to join the government.

Abbas sent a letter last month to Netanyahu that was widely viewed as an ultimatum, setting out parameters for the stalled talks to resume. Netanyahu is expected to reply this week.

Abbas said he had no intention of letting his people take up arms against the Israelis, but he would be ready to renew his unilateral push for international recognition of statehood at the United Nations if there was no breakthrough.

“If there is anything promising or positive of course we will engage,” he said, speaking in his headquarters in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

He predicted the United States might also try to bring fresh ideas to the table. U.S.-brokered talks broke down in 2010 in a dispute over continued Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank.

“If nothing happens, at that time we will go to the United Nations to get non-member status,” he said, referring to a possible vote in the U.N. General Assembly.

Palestinian efforts to get full recognition via the U.N. Security Council failed in 2011 in the face of U.S. opposition. The General Assembly cannot grant full U.N. membership, but a Palestinian initiative there cannot be vetoed by Washington and a successful vote would offer a symbolic victory.

Speaking in nearby Jerusalem earlier on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he wanted to use his enlarged coalition to “advance a responsible peace process”.

However, there was no indication he was ready to accept Palestinian calls for all settlement building to halt before negotiations could re-start. Netanyahu says halting settlement building would be a pre-condition and there should be no preconditions to talks.

Abbas reiterated the demand on Tuesday. “I will not return to the negotiations without freezing settlement activities,” he said, enunciating each word to give with added emphasis.

About 500,000 Israeli settlers and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 war. Palestinians want the territory for an independent state along with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The settlements are considered illegal by the International Court of Justice, the highest U.N. legal body for disputes.

“Settlements are destroying hope,” said Abbas, who has been involved in Palestinian politics since the 1950s and who replaced the late Yasser Arafat as president in 2005.

It is a gloomy time for Palestinian peace makers. In a separate interview earlier on Tuesday, Abbas’s Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Reuters Israel was succeeding in persuading the international community to ignore the Palestinian plight.

“I think we are losing the argument, if we have not already lost the argument. but that doesn’t make our position wrong,” said Fayyad. “The Israelis have managed to successfully trivialize our argument.”

Whereas Arafat was flamboyant and mercurial, striding the world stage in army fatigues, Abbas cuts a low-key figure, opting for suits and ties, and presenting a much more moderate face of Palestinian nationalism.

Calling in an aide to light his slender cigarettes, Abbas saw his main success as leader was in reining in violence.

“My legacy? I have one thing, security,” he said, adding that after two failed uprisings, known in Arabic as Intifadas, no one wanted to see further bloody confrontations with Israel.

“Ask anyone if we are going to the third Intifada. They will say no, they want peace. That has never happened before. People realized that through peaceful means we can achieve our goals.”

He rejected calls from some Palestinians that he should dissolve the PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, and oblige the Israelis to take control of all the territory, which would be costly and tie up huge manpower.

But he indicated that he had other options up his sleeve, without going into details. Some leading figures have suggested that he should end all security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank and Abbas said a future leader might be less amenable.

“Suppose I leave and suppose someone else comes and says ‘no, this policy is rubbish’,” he said, sitting beneath a large color photograph of the golden Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine within the walled old city of Jerusalem.

The 77-year-old recognized that the peace process was “jammed” and acknowledged that the situation was depressing. He added that although the Israelis appeared in no hurry to reach a peace deal, they could not afford to tarry.

“Now they are wasting time. Now is a good situation for them, but no one knows what will happen in the future. Peace is essential for the Israeli future,” he said.

Writing by Crispian Balmer

Palestinian Authority blames Gaza for deficit mess


Paying for the upkeep of the Gaza Strip while its political rival actively blocks revenues flowing back is taking its toll on the deficit-racked Palestinian Authority.

The Western-backed PA, many of whose top leaders belong to the mainstream Fatah movement, says it has poured around $7 billion into the Gaza Strip since its rival Hamas seized control in 2007, but complains that the Islamist group is stymieing its efforts to balance its books.

A barrage of mutual accusations in recent weeks has driven Hamas and Fatah ever further apart as stalled efforts at reconciliation and economic stagnation have jangled nerves on both sides.

Crippling power cuts in the small coastal enclave have only added to the acrimony and lifted the lid on often opaque Palestinian funding.

The PA says it spends $120 million a month, or more than 40 percent of its whole budget, on salaries and services in Gaza despite being driven out in a brief civil war with Hamas five years ago, anxious to show the world that despite the political divisions, the Palestinians remain one people with a single administrative core.

The PA, which continues to exercise limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has never recognized Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip and still pays wages to former PA personnel in the enclave.

Israel maintains a tight blockade on the Gaza Strip with the help of neighboring Egypt.

“In return Hamas does not pay for any of the needs of the people in Gaza. On the contrary, it sells the medicine that we send for free, and keeps the money,” said Ahmad Assaf, a Fatah spokesperson in the West Bank.

Hamas denies this and says the PA is just funneling foreign donations ear-marked for the Palestinian people.

“Vital sectors like education and health do not get support from them … except for bits and pieces that arrive as donations from some countries,” Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said.

The PA, which relies overwhelmingly on foreign donor aid, mostly from the European Union, the United States and Arab nations, is facing a projected $1.3 billion deficit in 2012.

Although most Western countries shun Hamas over its refusal both to renounce violence and recognize Israel, they let the PA use their aid cash to help the Palestinians in Gaza.

The EU says it contributed 837 million euros ($1.1 billion) to the PA since 2008, 34 percent of which went to the Gaza Strip to cover civil servants’ salaries and pensions.

“According to our information, the Hamas government only pays for the salaries of their employees and for their security apparatus,” said an EU official, who declined to be named.

“We are convinced that we must continue paying this money because we know that if we didn’t the Hamas government would do nothing,” Fatah’s Assaf said.

Hamas has tried to build up its own finances by attracting funds from its own foreign allies, such as Iran, while looking to impose a taxation code of its own on trade and business within Gaza.

But analysts say it too faces a budget crunch and is far from ready to take care of Gaza’s 1.7 million-strong population, some 70 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to U.N. statistics.

“Hamas wants to portray itself as being independent financially from the PA,” said Naser Abdelkarim, a professor of economics at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

“But that’s a myth. If the PA stops transferring money to the Strip, the reality in Gaza would deteriorate instantly.”

Hamas agrees it wouldn’t pay all the PA salaries, but says that’s because most of the people concerned don’t do any work after Fatah instructed its civil servants not to cooperate.

Another crucial issue for the PA is the taxes it should be collecting from Gaza. It says Hamas and Gazan traders systematically under-report the value of their imports to the Israeli authorities, which collect custom dues on behalf of the PA, costing the PA $400 million in “tax leakage” since 2007.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Gaza raised 2 percent of all Palestinian tax returns in 2011 against 28 percent in 2005.

Hamas’s economy minister, Ala al Rafati, admitted the group was withholding some $95 million in custom tax forms that the PA needs in order to collect revenues and would continue to do so until the PA agreed to wire the money straight back to Gaza.

“These invoices have not been sent to Ramallah since the split,” al Rafati told Reuters by telephone from Gaza.

Palestinians’ long-running hope of founding a state incorporating both the West Bank and Gaza, territories divided by Israel, has often papered over feuds between rival factions.

The arguments over finances have come out into the open partly because of a fuel crisis that has left much of the enclave without power for several hours each day since early February, sparked by Egypt’s decision to clamp down on the flow of fuel smuggled into Gaza via a network of tunnels.

Critics of Hamas say it is at fault for the emergency for relying so heavily on cheap, illicit fuel, rather than working with the PA to secure alternative supplies.

The PA says it pays more than $50 million a month to an Israeli energy company that feeds power into Gaza, but Hamas refuses to hand over money from electricity bills.

“We have repeatedly asked Hamas to transfer the money they collect so that we can continue to provide them with fuel. But nothing gets sent,” said Omar Kittaneh, the head of the PA Power Authority.

The PA admits that nothing is going to change fast. As with many of the issues that bedevil Palestinian politics, the two sides are stuck in a rut.

“Contributing a large part of the PA budget to the Gaza Strip has become the status quo and this will not change any time soon,” said PA spokesman Ghassan al Khatib.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Sonya Hepinstall

Palestinian rivals agree to form unity government


The leaders of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas signed a deal in Qatar on Monday to form a unity government of independent technocrats for the West Bank and Gaza, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The move, following the failure of exploratory Israeli-Palestinian talks aimed at reviving stalled peace negotiations, was condemned by Israel, which says the Islamist Hamas cannot be part of any peace efforts.

The accord signed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is supposed to pave the way for Palestinian presidential and parliamentary election possibly later this year, and to rebuild the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip following a 2008-2009 Israeli offensive against Hamas.

It was not known whether the deal would be implemented. No timetable was set. A reconciliation pact Fatah and Hamas struck in May 2011 has had little substantive result but both sides said they were serious about carrying out the new accord.

Abbas’ Palestinian Authority supports a negotiated peace with Israel that would give Palestinians an independent state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza, co-existing alongside the Jewish state.

Meshaal’s Hamas is officially sworn to the destruction of Israel but is open to an indefinite ceasefire.

Their conflicting positions have not been resolved despite the new deal, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasted no time in pointing out.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization which strives to destroy Israel and relies on support from Iran,” he said. “I have said many times in the past that the Palestinian Authority must choose between an alliance with Hamas and peace with Israel. Hamas and peace don’t go together.”

If Abbas implements the Doha pact, the Israeli leader added, then “he is choosing to abandon the path of peace and to choose Hamas … You cannot have it both ways.”

Palestinian political analyst Hani al Masri said: “They (Fatah and Hamas) are avoiding the main issue. They are waiting to see what the international community’s reaction will be. This leaves all the important issues unresolved.”

A diplomat in the region, who declined to named, said Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to have been surprised by the Doha announcement and were likely to raise questions with Meshaal, who has until recently lived in exile in Damascus.

“The agreement in Doha did not have a normal birth, I mean it did not come in complete coordination within Hamas. The whole thing came as a surprise in Gaza. We have to watch whether it will work,” the diplomat said.

Meshaal took Hamas by surprise in December by announcing he would not seek to extend his leadership when an internal election is held in March. Analysts said his “resignation” was more likely to be a back-me-or-sack-me ploy to reassert his control in order to soften Hamas policies in line with Abbas.

Fatah and Hamas have been bitter rivals since the Islamist movement seized control of Gaza in a brief war in 2007 and expelled Abbas’ Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

PM FAYYAD OUT, BUT WHEN?

Monday’s deal provided for a government of independent technocrats to oversee preparations for elections later this year. A vote had been mooted in May but the Palestinian election commission says more time will be needed.

Abbas and Meshaal, who signed the deal billed as the “Doha Declaration” in the presence of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, pledged to ensure quick implementation.

“We are serious, both Fatah and Hamas, in healing the wounds and ending the chapter of division and reinforcing and accomplishing reconciliation,” Meshaal said in comments televised live by Al Jazeera from Qatar.

He said Palestinians wanted to accomplish unity and move forward “to resist the enemy (Israel) and achieve our national goals.” Abbas, head of the secular Fatah movement, promised that “this effort will be implemented in the shortest time possible.”

There was no immediate comment from Israel, which has warned Abbas that turning to Hamas amounts to turning away from peace.

A senior Palestinian official said that under Monday’s agreement, Abbas would assume the role of prime minister, replacing Western-backed economist Salam Fayyad.

It was not immediately clear if Fayyad, whose dismissal was one of the main Hamas conditions for a deal, would be a member of the new government or when the cabinet would be formed.

Fayyad welcomed the accord, and was expected to remain in his post until the new government takes over.

“The prime minister saw this as a response to the aspirations of our people to restore unity to the homeland and its institutions,” said a statement issued by his office.

Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, also welcomed the deal and said he was ready to help implement it.

The last presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2006. Hamas won the parliamentary vote and briefly formed a government but it was shunned internationally and later dissolved by Abbas.

Separately, Fayyad met union leaders and employers on Monday to pursue agreement on the 2012 budget after a public outcry against austerity steps thwarted his first plan to tackle a debt crisis, prompted in part by a cut-off of U.S. aid.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem. Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Mark Heinrich

Ban Ki-moon calls on Israel to make gestures for peace


United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to make some positive moves toward the Palestinians in order to bring them back to the negotiating table.

Ban was in Jerusalem Wednesday for meetings with Israeli leaders. He was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah that evening.

“Unfortunately the two-state solution has not yet materialized, and the question is how to create the conditions that will propel the peace process further and spread democracy in the region,” Ban said during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres. “I hope that in this visit I will be able to make a contribution to these issues. It is my intention to convey the same message to Abbas tonight and to call both sides to resume negotiations.

“It is not possible to avoid direct negotiations. We must create a political vision between the two sides, alongside goodwill gestures by both sides on the ground, and steer clear of provocation.”

Ban also expressed his concern about Iran’s nuclear program, saying “It is very important that the international community engage in a dialogue with the Iranian authorities to resolve this issue peacefully. I urge the Iranians to engage in dialogue. There is no alternative to a peaceful resolution of this issue.” 

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday criticized an Israeli plan to subsidize housing in 557 rural communities considered national priority areas, since about 70 of them are West Bank settlements. Many of the settlements on the list are likely to be given up as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, the Associated Press reported.

“We find those [moves] unconstructive and unhelpful,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday in response to a reporter’s question. “We’re seeking clarity on what is actually being proposed here.

“You’ll have to ask the Israeli government what their intent is here. But this [direct peace negotiations] has to be something that the both sides want to pursue and to do so in a meaningful and committed fashion.”

Netanyahu pessimistic on Mideast peace prospects


Peace prospects with the Palestinians are looking poor, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday after exploratory talks aimed at relaunching negotiations ended in deadlock.

“As things stand now, according to what happened over the past few days – when the Palestinians refused even to discuss Israel’s security needs with us – the signs are not particularly good,” he told his cabinet in public remarks.

Palestinian officials said last week an Israeli negotiator’s verbal presentation on Wednesday of ideas for borders and security arrangements of a future Palestinian state was a non-starter, envisaging a fenced-off territory of cantons that would preserve most Jewish settlements.

Netanyahu said he still hoped the Palestinians would “come to their senses and continue the talks so that we can move on to real negotiations.”

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held five rounds of exploratory talks in Jordan, part of a push by international mediators to revive negotiations suspended in 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

A Palestinian source said no more meetings were scheduled. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he wants to consult Arab League states on the next move.

An Israeli official said Israel’s approach to territorial compromise in the West Bank includes the principle that “most Israelis will be under Israeli sovereignty and obviously most Palestinians will be under Palestinian sovereignty.”

The official said Netanyahu had acknowledged, in a speech to the U.S. Congress last May, that not all Jewish settlements “will be on our side of the border” with a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. They say Israeli settlements could deny them a viable and contiguous country.

Israel cites biblical and historical ties to the West Bank, an area it calls Judea and Samaria, and says any peace deal must include stringent security arrangements.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Tim Pearce