President Donald Trump touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Hopeful rhetoric, vague vision for peace after Trump’s Middle East visit


President Donald Trump has come and gone from his trip to the Middle East, his first foreign excursion since taking office earlier this year. He arrived — first in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, then Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Israel — with strong words about Iran as the neighborhood bully and, like so many American presidents before him, buoyant words for the Israeli and Palestinian people.

Optimistic words. Hopeful words. They all conveyed a vision and new possibility for peace in the region, a prospect “I’ve heard,” he said, that is “one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling we will get there eventually, I hope.”

Good for Trump. A new American president. A new chance for a solution. A new team to get it done.

But where were the new ideas Israeli leaders are so certain he has? What is the new approach? How does he propose to untangle the thorny issues on the ground — boundaries, settlers, Jerusalem, etc. — that have left so many presidents before him bloody with failure?

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians was a topic of much discussion when Trump visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was front and center, but not necessarily the first item on the agenda. In his speech to the Arab world in Riyadh days before, in his unscripted photo-op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his later remarks in the prime minister’s house, Trump was more focused on Iran as the source of menace in the region. He and Netanyahu suggested that there are new opportunities in the region. Countries must unite against a common threat — Iran. That’s an opening that can be explored.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chat as White House senior advisor Jared Kushner is seen in between them. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Courtesy of Government Press Office

Michael Oren, historian, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and currently Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, said he believes that this new reality is a conduit of a “tremendous” shift. If once it was assumed that a peace with the Palestinians could lead to reconciliation of Israel with the rest of the Arab world — the situations is now reversed: A peace with the Arab world could lead to a deal with the Palestinians. If the Saudis come on board, if other Gulf states come on board, if the Arab world realizes that fighting against Israel makes no sense in this era of radicalism, the Palestinians might realize that the train of peace is leaving the station and that they’d better hurry so they don’t miss it.

Maybe this is what Israeli leaders mean when they constantly talk about “new ideas.” Trump is a devotee of “new” ideas, “bold” ideas, “different” ideas. For Israel, to resist his push for a deal would be a mistake. But it might be able to convince him that his predecessors failed because of their conventional thinking — and that he, a man bold enough, ought to reformulate the meaning of the ultimate deal. The “two-state solution” is old, tired — and it is so Clinton and Obama. Trump could make his mark by thinking outside of the box, that is, by dropping old ideas and replacing them with new ideas.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sang the praises of new ideas after his meeting with Trump: “Our destiny — Palestinians and Jews — is to live together in this land,” he said. “In order to achieve this, we need new ideas, new energy that will help us move forward, together.”

But move where? Rivlin has his new ideas; he supports one state, or a confederation of Israelis and Palestinians. Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party and the leader most forthright in attempting to directly tell Trump what needs to be done (“We expect you to be the first president to recognize a united Jerusalem,” he said, to which Trump responded, “That’s an idea!”), has different new ideas. He supports an autonomy for Palestinians and annexation of the rest. Other leaders also have new ideas, including the oldest “new” idea of sticking to an improved status quo.

Does Trump have new ideas? If he does, we were still waiting to hear what they are as he departed for Europe. It was worth noting that Trump refrained from using the term “two-state solution” during his visit. It is possible that he is more open than his predecessors to considering alternative ideas, assuming he has them. In Saudi Arabia, in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, he kept hinting that his deal is partially built on the goodwill of the conservative Arab regimes of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Former President Bill Clinton failed to get them on board at Camp David. He was disappointed by their refusal to help him push the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, toward accepting the deal that was offered to him. Trump and some of his top advisers believe circumstances have changed in a way that could make such a push more realistic today.

His brief trip was barely a beginning of a long process of exploration of these assumptions and ideas. Although it sent a symbolic message of involvement and new energy, it did little to advance a detailed vision of a peace process. And of course, involvement is crucial, as both Arab and Israeli leaders made clear in their remarks, taking a swipe at the Barack Obama administration.

“We are happy to see that America is back,” said Rivlin, usually not the type to bash the former president. Netanyahu, not surprisingly, was more direct: “I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”

President Donald Trump with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The new American president ought to know that there is no correlation between the number of visits to the Middle East and the level of success in handling Middle East affairs. Yes, Trump made “history” — a word used much too often to describe routine events — in going to Israel and Saudi Arabia earlier in his term than any other president. He made “history” again by being the first sitting American president to visit the Western Wall. So what? Nixon made history by being the first president to travel to Israel. Shortly afterward, he was forced out of office. Clinton made history by coming to Israel more than all other presidents, four times. It did not guarantee his success.

The only presidential visit that really made a change was Jimmy Carter’s in 1979. That was a dramatic visit, with ups, downs and crises. It was a make-or-break visit: Carter traveled to Egypt, then to Israel, and forced the hand of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to accept the peace deal that was proposed to him. A few years ago, Israel’s state archives released documents from that visit, including a cable that was sent from Zvi Rafiah, Israel’s then-liaison to the U.S. Congress. Carter briefed congressional leaders when he was back in Washington, D.C., and Rafiah reported to his superiors in Jerusalem that during this meeting, Carter described his meeting with the Israeli cabinet as “terrible.”

“Terrible” and “horrible” are two of Trump’s favorite words. So maybe he will also describe parts of his visit as terrible. Maybe he did not appreciate the food, or the heat, or the forced selfie with Knesset Member Oren Hazan. But as far as we know, by the end of his visit on May 23, nothing truly “terrible” happened. Everybody was nice to him. Everybody agreed with him. Everybody encouraged him to keep doing what he is doing, whatever that is.

A time for confrontation might still come, when a more detailed plan emerges, and a real price is demanded of the parties. Already, Israel and the Palestinians got a taste of the future. Israel watched reluctantly, yet silently, as the Saudis bought weapons in quantities that might put Israel’s military edge at risk. The Palestinians witnessed an American president visiting the Kotel. They heard an American president, not for the first time, raise the issue of terrorism as an obstacle they need to overcome to achieve their objectives. They heard him say “peace” but not “a Palestinian state.”

And so. There was a visit and it went smoothly. For Trump, that is certainly an achievement. Everybody was trying to convince everybody that the visit was successful and that Trump is exactly what they expected him to be.

But there was reason for caution. On the evening of May 22, about an hour before Trump and Netanyahu made their joint statement in Jerusalem, I was sitting in a radio studio in the city of Modi’in. The interviewee on the line was Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi, an Arab legislator, an articulate critic of Israel’s policies, and a frequent visitor at the offices of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

He was cautious. Very cautious. Wisely cautious. Tibi has hopes, but he isn’t letting them get too high. He knows Trump changes his mind, he said. He knows it is not yet clear what Trump wants, beyond the generalities of having a “deal” and brokering “peace.” He knows Trump won’t always have the patience necessary to see a bumpy peace process through. And so Tibi’s message was simple: I’ll believe him about his Israeli-Palestinian peace effort when I see it.

When I asked Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s communications minister, about Trump reportedly walking back on his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, Hanegbi didn’t even blink before explaining that a visit to the Western Wall is much more important than moving the embassy. And when Tibi was asked if he was annoyed by Trump’s visit to the Kotel, Tibi didn’t even blink before explaining that it was an insignificant event that reinforced the fact that the U.S. does not recognize the site as Israeli.

Despite what did and didn’t happen, give Trump credit for this: He was polite, almost gaffe free and vague enough to keep the valuable posture of a Rorschach test: for now, all interpretation of his actions and intentions are still in the eye of the beholder.

Make food, not war


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

[Bethlehem]  Set aside regional discord for a moment and think instead of regional dining.

Or, better yet, think of regional weekending and foraging.

That’s what Fadi Kattan has been thinking. A month and a half ago, just in time for Christmas, Kattan, 38, a native Bethlehemite who studied cookery and hotel management in France, opened Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse, a refurbished gem tucked into a courtyard not far from Manger Square.

Already, it is much more than a hostel: Hosh Al-Syrian, a graceful, ancient building whose renovation was funded by four Tuscan municipalities as part of a municipal scheme to recondition and restore abandoned buildings, some of which have fallen into ruin, hopes to endow Bethlehem with a contemporary cultural hub apt both for locals and for tourists, through which the Palestinian ethos can be experienced without reference to conflict or strife.

To this aim, Kattan has just opened a gourmet locavore restaurant that competes with the best of them, in which, for instance, you can enjoy his loosely reinvented, exuberant iteration of a classic French mille-feuille, that delectable pastry of a thousand crispy layers encasing two fat strata of pastry cream.

Brace yourself, because Kattan’s version is not even sweet; it’s decidedly salty, with mysterious hints of a mellow sweetness, about which more later. And it is not remotely dessert. In fact, it opens your meal.

Kattan’s Palestinian iteration of a mille-feuille goes like this: (recipe below.) Instead of crackly sheets of pastry you have unctuous, neon-red layers of red peppers softened by the roasting flame.

Instead of pastry cream, you have a sturdy but texturally soft sheep cheese. Instead of a glacé topping you have the sheen of olive oil. And in the place of the chef’s prerogative, a little detail that personalizes the pastry such as a crunchy accompaniment of butter crackle or the swirl of a coulis, here you find strewn about famous local star ingredients such as pine nuts and fresh hyssop (zaatar) leaves. And that mysterious pop of dark sweetness? Some diners have suspected Kattan of sneaking tiny dates in between the layers but no. The plump, delicate globes that spike the creation and give it surprising depth are native Hebron Hills grapes with a skin as delicate as a bubble of soap.

As part of his new tourism initiative, Kattan offers visitors not only accommodation in his twelve sharply appointed rooms but a tour of Bethlehem’s Old City Farmer’s market. “Not everybody is here on a religious quest,” he observed to The Media Line, “or even that politically engaged. Or maybe they are, but even they should find a different way to experience the real land of Palestine.”

It is difficult to imagine a more immediate way to experience the land than through the earthy, inspired dishes created by Kattan, in which, for example, a classic Daube (a beef stew) is adorned and flavored with local black olives and a Galette de Rois, an elaborate pie created to celebrate the Epiphany, ubiquitous in France, in which two layers of golden butter pastry encase a thick slab of frangipane, is perfumed with orange blossom water and bejeweled by green pistachios, still in their crisp pink skins.

Bethlehem, a natural magnet for tourists from around the globe, has paid a heavy price for the drop in visitors since the latest eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians started in October.

Ali Qleibo, the Jerusalem artist and social anthropologist, is enthused about what he called the “wonderful project.”

Speaking with The Media Line, he said that apart from Kattan finding an “original and excellent way to express his own identity, ” the entire project, spearheaded by a former student of Qleibo, Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboon, who attended Hosh Al-Syrian’s opening, “shows that Bethlehem is taking care of its own heritage, which is itself praiseworthy, and deeply connected to preserving Palestinian heritage and developing the Palestinian economy.

It had already paid a steep price for the security wall and check point built by Israel to prevent the infiltration of terrorists, that alarmed tourists, dissuading many from visiting altogether and provoking others to visit the pretty West Bank town merely for day trips, while remaining in their Jerusalem lodgings only a twenty minute drive away.

Pope Francis made a point of stopping his motorcade and getting out of his car to pray at the separation wall during his May 2014 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Known for his conviviality and hearty appetite, it is easy to imagine this pope feasting on Kattan’s sophisticated yet earthy fare.

Mille-feuille de poivrons et fromage de brebis (Red pepper and sheep cheese mille-feuille)

(Serves 4)

Ingredients:

For the roasted peppers

12 medium-sized red bell peppers
2 garlic cloves
1 cup virgin olive oil
4 rosemary sprigs

For the mille-feuille

1 kilo of fresh unpasteurised white cheese
1⁄2 cup of large dried raisins
1⁄2 cup of pine nuts

For the dressing

1 bouquet of fresh zaatar
3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
100 ml of olive oil
50 ml of lemon juice
1⁄2 cup of pine nuts seeds

Preparation:

1. Place peppers in oven pan, season with virgin olive oil and salt. Place the rosemary sprigs and garlic cloves alongside them. Roast until the pepper skins are charred at 180 degrees C. Remove from the oven, peel the peppers removing their stalks and cut into halves. Drain the pepper juices through a sieve into a bowl.

2. Coat the inside of an ovenproof ramekin with a dash of olive oil. Place the red pepper pieces in the ramekin so that the peeled side is downwards. Then add a layer of the white cheese and sprinkle with pine nuts and raisins. Add another layer of red pepper pieces and one of the white cheese. Finish with a last layer of red pepper pieces.

3. Place the four ramekins in a bain marie in the oven at 80 degrees C for one hour.

4. Remove ramekins from the oven, allow to cool and cover with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator overnight.

Plating:

1. Prepare a vinaigrette with the Dijon mustard, olive oil and lemon juice.

2. Toss the fresh zaatar leaves into the vinaigrette.

3. Run a knife around the edge of the millefeuille in the ramekin to make sure it will not stick. Turn over millefeuille onto plate and decorate with the zaatar salad and pine nuts seeds.

Two Palestinian teens killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers


Two Palestinian teens were killed during clashes with the Israeli military.

Abdel Rahman Abdullah, 13, was killed Monday afternoon during a clash between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, by a bullet to his chest.

The Israel Defense Forces said on Tuesday that the teen was shot in error as soldiers attempted to quell a riot. The Hebrew-language news website Ynet cited an unnamed senior IDF officer as saying the soldier had aimed his gun at another teen standing nearby who was leading the riot and that the bullet had hit the ground and ricocheted into the boy’s chest.

A Palestinian teen, 18, was killed early Monday morning during a riot in Tulkarem in the West Bank.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been injured during riots and in clashes with Israeli security services, according to Palestinian reports.

From murals to tchotchkes, Banksy’s shop attracts crowds


He may not know it yet, but the fiercely anonymous and anti-corporate British street artist known as Banksy has his very own gift shop in the walled-off West Bank.

On a recent Sunday, while Pope Francis was passing through Bethlehem on a peace-building mission, Hamud “Moodi” Abdalla, part of a tight-knit pack of Palestinian friends and family that runs Banksy’s Shop, hopped out to greet a couple of drifting tourists.

“You know Banksy?” Abdalla called to the tourists. “Welcome! This is the store of Banksy.”

Banksy’s Shop is tucked in the shadow of Israel’s separation wall in Bethlehem, right around the corner from the spot where the pope famously stopped and prayed on his trip. Despite its discrete location, it has grown into what could be the West Bank’s most-trafficked souvenir shop: After opening in 2011, its quarters had become so cramped by 2013 that the owners had to knock down a wall and expand into the space next door.

“Everyone knows about it,” Abdalla said, flipping through photos on his phone of various tour groups and journalists stopping by the shop.

Inside, visitors can buy magnets, mugs, candles, T-shirts, baseball caps, tote bags, posters, stickers, pins — all printed with photos or re-creations of Banksy’s nine pieces around Bethlehem. 

In a 2005 trip that secured his spot as the world’s most talked-about street artist, Banksy descended upon the small biblical town of Bethlehem and coated its surfaces in visual statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A Banksy documentary ironically titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — a reference to the commercialization and gallerization of street art — shows him from behind, stenciling a bunch of balloons onto the separation barrier. Hanging from the balloon strings is an image of a small Palestinian girl hoping to float over the wall. 

“WEST BANKSY,” a Daily Mirror headline blasted at the time. A Spanish-language newspaper declared: “Banksy wants to change the Gaza wall into the largest gallery in the world.”

Asked if Banksy is aware of his namesake tourist shop in Bethlehem, Abdalla said, “He doesn’t care. He has a lot of money, so why would he care?” And anyway, he added, “Where is Banksy? London? I don’t know. No one knows where Banksy is.”

According to Abdalla’s cousin The’er Abulabid, who works the cash register, the No. 1 seller in Banksy’s Shop is a small photo of a stenciled Palestinian resistance fighter hurling a flower bouquet as if it was a stone — perhaps the artist’s most iconic piece in Bethlehem. (Also popular, though not Banksy-related, is a wooden carving of a classic nativity scene with a twist. Thanks to a separation wall splitting the scene, the three wise men are blocked from reaching baby Jesus.)

Large-scale Bethlehem tours such as those run by the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem make regular stops at Banksy’s Shop. Tourists can even use the store’s stock of spray paint to create their own art on the separation barrier; after they’re gone, the Banksy’s Shop team re-covers the area with white paint to prepare for the next tour bus.

Abdalla and his best friend, Yamen Elabed, whose father is the shop’s official owner, also run their own special Banksy tours as an offshoot enterprise. In a recent news short for the German public television station Das Erste called “How Palestinians Benefit From the Wall,” Elabed could be seen driving a pair of European tourists around Bethlehem in his six-door Mercedes “limo.” He describes to them the devastating effects of the wall on Palestinian society, but also its unexpected benefits for the local tourism industry.

In the past few years, Abdalla and Elabed have become the go-to interviewees for international news crews passing through Bethlehem — propelling Banksy’s Shop to even greater fame.

On the day of the pope’s visit, TV journalists from California and Spain ducked into the shop to get some quick commentary on the conflict from Abdalla, a rowdy personality sporting a muscle T-shirt and Ray-Bans.

That same day, the Banksy aficionado volunteered to zip this reporter across town to a bus stop, just in time to catch the pope’s impending arrival in Jerusalem. On the way, he revealed that he also oversees his own “secret team” that puts up most of the non-Banksy art on the separation barrier.

Abdalla produced a smartphone photo of his team working on one of the wall’s largest and most recognizable murals: a looming abstraction of a man apparently hunched over a trumpet, located several hundred feet from the shop. In Abdalla’s photo, an Israeli soldier sticks his head out of a window atop the wall’s built-in watchtower, smiling at the guerrilla artists below. 

Abdalla remembered of the soldier: “He said, ‘Can I join you?’ … I didn’t say anything, I was just so laughing.” 

Palestinian women will again play decisive role in election


This story originally ran on themedialine.org.

Hala Kanaan recalls her disappointment at being one year too young to cast a ballot in the 2006 Palestinian election. A school girl at the time, Hala remembers arguing with her mother and older sister, both of whom failed to exercise their right to vote despite her exhortations that, “women represent more than 50% of the population.”

In the end, Kanaan had it right even if she was unable to convince the other women in her family that the election was not “just a play” that is “decided before the election” as they argued, as the Bethlehem resident told The Media Line.

Today, Kanaan, who works as a project coordinator for the Diabetes Friends Society, is looking toward the next election – now in sight since the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal – and encouraging women that “elections are not exclusive to the men.”

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, two elections have taken place. In 2006, the Islamic movement Hamas won control of the parliament and the government, but this did not last for long.  In 2007, Hamas forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians became bifurcated: the West Bank controlled by Fatah and Hamas-ruled Gaza. That remained the situation until last month, when after seven years of division and two un-implemented reconciliation agreements, the two largest Palestinian parties struck a unity deal which calls for the formation of a technocrat government within days followed by presidential and parliamentary elections as early as December of this year.

Palestinian activist Shireen Mohammad Abu Helal says that while women are becoming more politically aware, they are not yet at the stage where they wish to be. She argues that by default, Palestinian women face a number of challenges, including, “suppression from the Israeli occupation; and suppression from the society that we live in.” Abu Helal told The Media Line that, “Those women who overcame these obstacles only did so because they took on the society,” asserting that Palestinians are very “emotional people.”

She explained that, “When it comes to the woman, she does not know who she wants to vote for. The husband is the one to tell her who to vote for. We faced this in 2006 with the legislative elections and we faced this in the 2012 local council elections, too.” Abu Helal believes that not all Palestinian women have reached full independence in their own lives.

Referring to the 2006 elections, she said, “I know women whose husbands threatened to divorce them if they didn’t vote for whom they wanted,” She says it was irrelevant that the woman might have had another opinion, blaming Arab society’s cultural and traditional norms.

In order to ensure a minimum participation by women in the parliament, Palestinian law requires that every party list must have at least one female among the first three candidates. Yet, Abu Helal says that, “with all that is happening today with women, I’m not optimistic that the [situation for women] will change.”      

Twenty Palestinian women that have been killed this year alone, victims of honor killings, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to announce plans to improve the enforcement of women’s rights.

For example, the present situation mirrors that of Jordan where the law demands that leniency be shown to defendants charged with committing crimes defined as “honor killings.” Whether Abbas changes the policy remains to be seen.

It’s this reason women such as Abu Helal believe that female participation in the electoral process is so crucial. Yet, others agree that it’s important for women’s voices to be heard, but are more optimistic in their reading of how far women have come. Amneh Qurei, a member of Fatah, argues that more awareness exists today among women. “Freedom of personality exists for the women, the knowledge among the women is more, and she knows who to vote for,” Qurei told The Media Line.

 It is this belief, Kanaan says, that is the reason society is seeing more women in high places. “They have a very powerful influence in the present and in the future,” Kanaan said, adding that she thinks this time around her mother and sister will vote in this year’s elections.

Gaza runner barred by Israel from Bethlehem marathon


Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a decision by the IDF to bar a Palestinian runner from Gaza from participating in a marathon in Bethlehem.

In the case of Nader Masri, a 2008 Olympian, the court ruled April 8 that it could not overrule a military decision. But the court also recommended that Israel consider allowing Masri to leave Gaza to participate in the April 11 race.

“It is hoped, of course, that in the future the security situation will improve that will allow an easing of such restrictions,” Judge Daphne Barak-Erez wrote in her decision.

Masri, 34, was rejected in his petition to Israel’s military seeking permission to travel to the West Bank for the second Bethlehem marathon. He turned to Israel’s high court through the Israeli human rights group Gisha — Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

Masri represented Palestine in the Beijing Olympics and has represented the Palestinian Authority in several international competitions. 

Calendar March 1-7


SUN | MAR 2

“GIRLS KEEP HAVING FUN”

Like Cyndi said, it’s all we really want. But throwing in a brunch and four impressive authors wouldn’t hurt either. Start your mid-morning right with Daniel Bergner (“What Do Women Want?”), Yael Kohn (“We Killed : The Rise of Women in American Comedy”), Susan Orlins (“Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers, and Others”) and Lynn Povich (“The Good Girls Revolt — How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace”). Subjects range from female lust, to Jewish mothers, to punch-lines and civil rights. The morning will be nuanced, like every woman you know. Sun. 11 a.m. $20. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel-Air.(310) 476-9777. TUE | MAR 4

“IMAGINING THE UNIMAGINABLE: THE HOLOCAUST AND ITS LEGACY IN ISRAELI VISUAL CULTURE”

Join art historian Anat Gilboa to explore how Israeli identity has been defined by the Holocaust, and how that identity struggles with self-representation in art. While Israel stands as a state of survivors, the burden of the memory of the Holocaust touches every generation of citizens there. What is the artist’s obligation here? How does art reconcile moving on with not forgetting, and what does that look like? Gilboa, who specializes in early-modern European art and Jewish and Israeli visual culture, will have some answers. Tue. Noon. Free. RSVP requested. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. ” target=”_blank”>centertheatregroup.org.


WED | MAR 5

UC-LADINO JUDEO-SPANISH SYMPOSIUM

The third annucal ucLADINO Symposium will focus on Judeo-Spanish revitalization and preservation efforts in all spheres. Featuring two days of graduate-student presentations, keynote speakers from Israel and Turkey, a concert by Sarah Aroeste and more. Come enjoy the rich language with an even richer culture. Aroeste is one of the few artists today writing music in Ladino, blending rock, funk and blues with Judeo-Spanish folk songs. With Greek and Spanish roots, she is Sephardic rock personified. Wed and Thu. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. both days. Free. First come, first served. Fowler Museum, North Campus of UCLA, Los Angeles. (310) 825-4361. THU | MAR 6

“HOLLYWOOD IN SPRING: A NIGHT WITH WRITING MASTERS”

Hollywood, here you come! Have an itch for writing? Let this event scratch it. Learn survival tips from writing successes Ken LaZebnik (playwright and screenwriter), Peter Mehlman (“Seinfeld,” The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times) and Richard Kramer (“My So-Called Life”). Comedian and writer Alyson Weaver will moderate this evening of drinks, food and laughs. And if you learn something, so be it. Thu. 7 p.m. $5-$8. The Hesby Writer’s Room, 5031 Fair Ave., North Hollywood. For tickets, search “Hollywood in Spring” on ” target=”_blank”>wester@ushmm.org for more information.


FRI | MAR 7

“BETHLEHEM”

Israeli Secret Service officer Razi recruited 15-year-old Palestinian informant Sanfur, the younger brother of a wanted Palestinian militant, only to learn his loyalties don’t lie in just one place. Winner of six Israeli Oscars, the film was Israel’s official submission for the Academy Awards. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (seniors, ages 11 and under, bargain matinee). Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd, Encino. (310) 478-3836. ” target=”_blank”>barnesandnoble.com.

Will ‘Omar’ win Oscar gold?


For cinema fans interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is a banner year, with Oscar submissions from both sides focused on the Israeli occupation.

Israel’s “Bethlehem,” which pits Shin Bet agents against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state, was eliminated early on by the Academy Awards selection committee.

By contrast, the Palestinian entry, “Omar,” is among this year’s five finalists in the foreign language film competition, and although it is considered a long shot to walk off with the golden statuette, judges in this category are notoriously unpredictable.

At the film’s opening, Omar (Adam Bakri), a handsome young baker, and the beautiful Nadia (Leem Lubany) pine for each other on opposite sides of the Separation Barrier, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall, in the Palestinian dictionary.

One night, Omar clambers over the wall, knocks on his beloved’s door and pursues his chaste courtship.

But events take a more serious turn when Omar and two buddies sneak up to an Israeli military post and shoot and kill one of the soldiers.

Omar is tracked down by Israeli undercover agents, who hang him naked by the hands from a prison wall, beat him and burn him with cigarettes.

In between, Omar is interrogated by a “good cop” and a “bad cop,” who seek to turn him into a collaborator and lead them to Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), the leader of the Palestinian gang and Nadia’s brother.

Omar is temporarily released from prison by his interrogators to find Tarek, but the word soon spreads among the Palestinians that Omar has sold out and is a traitor.

Distrusted by the Israelis and rejected by his own people, including Nadia, Omar is driven to one last act of desperation.

Hany Abu-Assad, the film’s director, is the product of diverse influences. He is 52, was born and lives in Nazareth, calls himself a Palestinian or Dutch-Palestinian and carries an Israeli passport.

He lived and worked for 25 years in Holland, first as an aeronautical engineer, then switched to producing and directing movies.

Adam Bakri and EyadHourani in ‘Omar.’

Abu-Assad came to wider public attention in 2005 with “Paradise Now,” a movie about two young West Bank Palestinians dispatched on a suicide mission to Tel Aviv.

The film was the first Palestinian entry to be nominated for an Oscar and triggered a lengthy controversy over whether its national origin should be listed as the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories or Palestine.

Since then, all sides seem to have tired of this particular controversy, and the origin for “Omar” is now simply listed as Palestine.

Although in 2005 the local Israeli consulate and some Jewish defense organizations criticized the movie’s message, this reporter was struck by a different aspect.

As was the case in Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists in “Paradise Now” do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis; nevertheless, the latter are portrayed as recognizable human beings, not merely sadistic oppressors.

In fact, there have been instances when Israelis depicted in Palestinian films have been more likable than the Israelis in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Leem Lubany and Adam Bakri in “Omar.”

However, in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.

In a phone interview with the director, the Journal asked the director whether anything had happened to him between “Paradise Now” and “Omar” to shift his attitude.

Abu-Assad rejected the question’s premise. “I am not a propaganda maker for any country,” he said. “I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. If I have a bias, it is that I want my people, and all other people, to be free and equal.”

The director draws convincing performances from his four main actors, for all of whom this is their first feature film. One of the few experienced hands is Palestinian-American Waleed Zuaiter, a Los Angeles resident, who portrays the key Israeli interrogator.

The Oscars will be awarded on March 2.

“Omar” opens Feb. 21 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino. The same theaters will screen Israel’s “Bethlehem” starting March 7.

Israel overlooked in foreign-film Oscar noms


Israel is out and Palestine is in the Oscar race, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Dec. 20 its nine semi-finalists in the best foreign-language film category.

Both Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” and the Palestinian “Omar” reflect the intensity of the continuing conflict. Director Hany Abu-Assad of “Omar” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding,” in which the Palestinian protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israel but the Israeli foes were nevertheless portrayed as recognizable human beings, rather than soulless sadists.

Abu-Assad largely forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for each other on opposite sides of the separation wall, in Israeli terminology, or the isolation wall, in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator.

Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.

By contrast, in “Bethlehem,” director Yuval Adler and co-writer Palestinian journalist Ali Wakad, draws no moral judgments in the struggle between Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, against Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhendler, put it, “There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”

This year, a record 76 countries, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, entered their best films. As usual, the choice of nominees by the unpredictable selection committee stunned many professional prognosticators.

Most surprising was the omission of top favorite “The Past” by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Academy Award two years ago with “A Separation.” Similarly slighted was the heavily promoted “Wadja,” the first-ever submission by Saudi Arabia.

Historically, Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” ignited a fierce debate on how to label the sponsoring entity, with the Academy vacillating between Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories and, finally, Palestine. With tempers somewhat cooled, all sides seems to have accepted the last designation.

Israeli filmmakers have had their ups and downs over the decades, but their record of 10 nominations places Israel among the 10 most nominated countries.

 “Sallah” (aka “Sallah Shabati”), Israel’s very first entry in 1964, won a surprise nomination and launched Chaim Topol’s career in the role of an elderly Sephardic immigrant from North Africa.

Since then, Israel’s record has oscillated between clumps of nominations in the early 1970s and again between 2007 and 2011, alternating with long dry spells, notably one lasting 23 years, from 1984 to 2007.

Despite fervent prayers, the Israeli film industry has yet to bring home its first Academy Award.

The shortlist of five finalists in the foreign-language and other categories will be announced on Jan. 16. The final winners will hoist their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood. 

Jewish, Israeli-themed films vie for foreign-language Oscar


Producers and directors in 76 countries will be biting their nails when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film this week.

Along with providing a view of cinematic skills in countries from Afghanistan to Venezuela, the entries also serve as a rough indicator of themes of interest to international filmmakers and, presumably, to the audiences in their countries.

By that measure, despite regular predictions to the contrary, films on Jewish themes, including the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, are not passé, as shown by challenging submissions from four countries.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian entries this year reflect the intensity of their continuing conflict, although preoccupation with this theme is not a given. Israel’s previous two choices, for instance, were “Footnote,” about academic rivalries, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” about life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel’s current hopes rest with “Bethlehem,” which pits the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, such a plotline would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, as the film’s producer Talia Kleinhendler notes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed, all are vulnerable. There is no black-and-white in the film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes the film sound namby-pamby, full of on-the-one-hand, but-on-the-other-hand agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Wakad, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores of dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the connection between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory, ultimately developing into a wary father-son relationship.

While the movie’s Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevi as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Wakad, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, acknowledged in an interview at a Hollywood hotel that his film debut as director and co-writer is a major hit in its home country, and it won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.


Adam Bakri in “Omar.”

Hany Abu-Assad, director of the Palestinian entry “Omar,” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding.” In those, the protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israelis, but still, the latter were portrayed as recognizable human beings, not Nazi-like monsters.

Actually, there have been instances when Israelis in Palestinian films were often more likeable than in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Abu-Assad forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for one another on opposite sides of the Separation Wall, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator. Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.


“The German Doctor”

Argentina’s Oscar hope, “The German Doctor,” is set in the post-World War II decades, when the South American nation became a haven for Nazi war criminals, sheltered by the Argentinian military government and the long-established German colonies.

The German doctor of the title is Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” whose cold-blooded medical experiments put him high on the Allied and Israeli list of fugitive war criminals.

Feeling safe in the southern Argentinian city of Bariloche, Mengele resumes his experiments to “improve” the species, initially on livestock. After a local family befriends him, he transfers his ministrations to spur the growth of their undersized daughter, and then resumes his earlier “research” on newborn twins.

Almost as unsettling are the open Nazi sympathies of the local German community, whose school starts the day’s classes with the lusty singing of the German national anthem, as well as an openly advertised annual fiesta celebrating the Fuhrer’s birthday.

When the news breaks that Mossad agents have captured Adolf Eichmann to bring him to trial in Jerusalem, the German underground spirits Mengele to Paraguay.

Alex Brendemühl as the poker-faced Mengele heads a generally capable, though not particularly brilliant cast, directed by Lucia Puenzo.


The most surprising of the cited four Oscar contenders is the Philippines’ “Transit,” which probes the precarious existence of some of the 40,000 Filipinos working in Israel, mainly as caretakers of the elderly.

Initially given relative freedom to work and raise their children in Israel, the Filipino migrants were hit hard by a 2010 residency law, triggered by the government’s determination to preserve the Jewish character and demography of Israel.

The primary target of the law was the growing number of Africans entering the country legally and illegally, but the Filipinos were the collateral victim of a measure under which non-Jewish children who had spent less than five years in Israel could be deported to their parents’ home country.

That meant that kids born in Israel, who spoke only Hebrew among themselves and felt themselves Israelis, suddenly faced the prospect of separation from their parents and exile to a strange land. Eventually, the Israeli Supreme Court invalidated some of the harshest aspects of the law.

“Transit,” directed and co-written by Filipina filmmaker Hannah Espia, is told from the individual perspectives of two families living together — single mother Janet and rebellious teenage daughter Yael, and the mother’s brother Moises, a caretaker and single father of 4-year-old Joshua.

The dilemma facing these four people, and to a greater extent some 10 million Filipinos working outside their home country, is handled with sensitivity and without Israel bashing.

Israelis, especially the elderly employers of the migrant workers, are generally shown as sympathetic to the plight of the Filipinos. Police and government officials enforcing the anti-immigrant laws do so without humiliating the migrants, but neither do they question the government orders.

Hollywood’s annual game of predicting likely Oscar nominees and winners is now in full swing, though doing so for foreign-language movies is particularly hazardous.

In past years, the selection committee’s choices have been loudly criticized as highly erratic, and labyrinthine regulations have led to the disqualification of highly regarded submissions, a fate that this year befell France’s much-discussed “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Current prognostications favor Iran’s “The Past,” by director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Oscar two years ago with “A Separation.”

Also winning early plaudits are Denmark’s “The Hunt” and Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster,” while there is some sentimental support for “Wadja,” the first-ever Saudi Arabian submission, with the added boost that it was directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour.

Israel’s “Bethlehem” is frequently listed in the second tier of contenders and in a good position to make it into the top ranks, while the Philippines’ “Transit” has drawn favorable mentions.

By one of the quirks of the Academy calendar, a shortlist of nine foreign-language nominees will be announced on Dec. 20, after press time for this edition, and a winnowed-down list of five nominees on Jan. 16, 2014. The final winners will raise their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood. 

‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities


Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.


“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

Grappling with troubled peace process, Kerry urges Israeli settlement limits


Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel on Wednesday to limit settlement building in the West Bank to help push peace talks with the Palestinians back on track.

Faced with grim Israeli and Palestinian assessments of progress in the talks, Kerry also appeared to slap down Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warmly endorsed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's commitment to seeking a two-state solution.

Friction over the talks has risen this past week on the back of Israeli plans, announced in tandem with its release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, for some 3,500 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“Let me emphasize at this point the position of the United States of America on the settlements is that we consider them… to be illegitimate,” Kerry, reaffirming long-standing U.S. policy, said after discussions with Abbas.

Speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Kerry said it would be better if settlement building was “limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively”.

Palestinians have warned of a brewing crisis if Israel continues to assert that they had effectively agreed to turn a blind eye to the settlement campaign, in exchange for the progressive release of 104 long-serving inmates.

Kerry dismissed Israeli suggestions there had been an understanding with the Palestinians about settlement expansion and stated “unequivocally” his belief that Abbas was “100 percent committed” to peace talks.

“I want to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree as a matter of going back to the talks, that they somehow condone or accept the settlements,” he said.

In Jerusalem earlier, Netanyahu had said the U.S.-brokered negotiations had failed to make any real progress.

Speaking to reporters with a stone-faced Kerry at his side, Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of creating “artificial crises” and of trying to “run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace”.

Hours later, Kerry said Abbas “wants to try peace and he understands it requires compromise by all the parties”.

The chief U.S. diplomat, citing “difficulties” in the peace process, had said earlier in Jerusalem that the United States was convinced that Netanyahu was also determined to pursue an end to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“As in any negotiation there will be moments of up and moments of down, and it goes back and forth,” Kerry said.

Kerry, whose shuttle diplomacy helped to revive the talks last July after a three-year break, has set a nine-month schedule for an agreement, despite widespread skepticism.

PALESTINIAN FRUSTRATION

Few details have emerged from the negotiations, held at unannounced times and at secret locations in line with pledges to keep a lid on leaks.

But Palestinian officials have been airing frustration over a lack of movement on core issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, security arrangements, the future of Israeli settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Abbas, in a speech on Monday, said that despite all the meetings nothing had changed on the ground.

Netanyahu said he hoped Kerry's visit would “help steer (the negotiations) back to a place where we could achieve the historical peace that we seek”.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians seek for a state along with the Hamas Islamist-run Gaza Strip, are considered illegal by most countries.

Israel cites historical and biblical links to the land, where more than 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.

In another development, Netanyahu said former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would return to the cabinet after his acquittal in a corruption trial on Wednesday.

The right-wing powerbroker is a hardliner on Palestinian peace talks, which he has said have no chance of succeeding.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said any deal reached by Abbas, a rival of the Islamist group, “would not be binding on our people”.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Palestinian journalist gets jail term for Abbas insult


A Palestinian Authority court sentenced a local journalist to a year in jail on Thursday over a picture posted on Facebook that was deemed insulting to Mahmoud Abbas.

The ruling against Mamdouh Hamamreh, who works for the al-Quds TV channel in Bethlehem, is the second this year in which Palestinians have been given jail terms over caricatures of the president.

Journalists and media watchdogs, saying Hamamreh was only “tagged” in the photo and did not create it, criticized the ruling and curbs on media freedom by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

The offending image juxtaposed Abbas beside a similar-looking man who plays the part of a collaborator with French colonial forces in an old Syrian television drama.

“They resemble each other in everything,” a caption read.

Many Palestinians perceive Abbas as too conciliatory to Israel and resent coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces overseen by Abbas.

Palestinian rights groups were critical of the ruling.

“(Hamamreh) didn't even publish the picture. When images online are criminalised, it's a very serious violation of basic rights of expression,” criminalizedaid Riham Abu Aita of the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms.

“We don't have a king, we have a president,” she said.

“This issue is between the prosecutor and the court, and the president has nothing to do with its proceedings,” Hassan al-Ouri, legal adviser to Abbas, told Reuters of the Hamamreh case.

A court in the northern West Bank city of Nablus in February sentenced a local man to a year in prison for creating a picture of Abbas to make him look like a football player, and entitled it “the new striker for Real Madrid”.

Anas Awad, 26, denied he had intended any offence and the president promptly pardoned him.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Michael Roddy

Palestinians vandalize Obama billboard


Palestinians in Bethlehem vandalized a billboard bearing the image of President Obama.

The activists tore down the banner, drew swastikas on it and threw shoes at it, The Associated Press reported.

The billboard had been placed in Manger Square to garner Obama's attention to the inequities in 3G telecommunication technology between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, according to the Palestinian Ma'an news agency.

The activists, who Ma'an reported represented a cross-section of Palestinian society, unveiled their own banner during Monday's protest, which read, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment.”

Obama is scheduled to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Friday as part of a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian Authority said it would allow anti-Obama protests if permission is requested in advance, Ma'an reported.

One activist, Munthir Amira, chairman of a youth center in the Aida refugee camp, told Ma'an, “In light of the anti-Palestinian U.S. position, Obama is a persona non grata in Bethlehem.”

World Bank: Palestinian economy in decline


During President Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA)  next week, he will visit the West Bank towns of Ramallah, where he will meet PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Bethlehem, to see the Church of the Nativity. A new report by the World Bank says he will see an economy that is in steady decline and losing its competetiveness.

The World Bank published its report ahead of a forum of donors to the Palestinian Authority in Brussels next week. It said the deterioration of the Palestinian economy “will have lasting and costly implications for economic competitiveness and social cohesion.”

The report blames Israel for its economic restrictions, lack of freedom of movement, and prolonged closures. Israel says its restrictions are solely for security. The report says the PA

“Continued financial support by the donor community, and increased reform efforts by the PA to manage the current fiscal challenges must remain a high priority,” Mariam Sherman, World Bank Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza told The Media Line. “However, such bolder efforts to create the basis for a viable economy need to be made to prevent the continued deterioration that will have lasting and costly implications for economic competitiveness and social cohesion.”

The economy could lose its ability to compete in the global market. The productivity of the agricultural sector has been cut in half since the late 1990’s, and the manufacturing sector has stagnated. In Gaza, the quality of infrastructure in sectors like water and transportation is declining.

Unemployment among university graduates is close to 30 percent and Palestinian society is facing a growing brain drain.

“What is their option but to look for job opportunities abroad?” Naser Abdelkarim, a professor of economics at Birzeit University told The Media Line. “They simply leave the West bank and Gaza. If you want to let young people stay you must offer them hope for a better future.”

Part of the problem has to do with the world recession and the slowing of economic activity in Israel. The report also says that donor countries have not paid their pledges to the PA, leaving them unable to pay the salaries of civil servants.

Israel has also contributed to the problem by holding some $100 million it collects in customs and tax revenues on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The PA also has large debts to banks and suppliers.

Economic growth is also down, from 11 percent in 2010 and 2011 to 6.1 percent in 2012. While those numbers are positive, especially in comparison to growth rates in Europe, most of it is fueled by donors which is not sustainable in the long – term.

The future of the Palestinian economy is expected to be on the agenda when President Obama sits down with President Abbas. Palestinians say the political issue and the economic reality are intertwined.

“It must come up in the meetings because you cannot talk about a political settlement of the conflict without talking first about living conditions of the Palestinians,” Professor Abdelkarim said. “I expect that the Israeli restrictions of our economy will come up too. Unemployment is also linked to the political issue.’

Living next to E1, Maale Adumim residents reflect Israeli consensus on settlements


From the terrace of the mall in Maale Adumim, a West Bank settlement eight miles from Jerusalem that serves as a bedroom community for Israel’s capital city, customers get a panoramic view of the Judean Desert to the east.

Arab and Jewish towns dot the hilltops, roads snaking between them. A bright sun shines through the clouds, offering some warmth to offset the December breeze.

The northwest side of the settlement also offers a beautiful view: a sprawling landscape of rolling hills, shrubs and rocks framed by Jerusalem in the background.

It is this tranquil space that represents the newest controversy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The area, known as E1, acts as a dual corridor, connecting Maale Adumim to Jerusalem on the east-west axis and Ramallah to Bethlehem on the north-south axis. The cities are two of the largest in the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a diplomatic stir last week when he announced Israel’s intention to build there – a controversial plan that has been started and aborted since it was first announced in 1994.

The Palestinians charge that if Israel develops E1 it will bisect any future Palestinian state, rendering a two-state solution impossible. Netanyahu’s government claims that E1’s development is necessary to connect Maale Adumim to the Israeli capital.

For now, E1 sits empty. Its only building, an Israeli police station, sits on a plateau like a fortress, surrounded by fences and towers. Nearby, a bright red-and-white sign welcomes the rare visitor to Mevasseret Adumim, the name of the planned development. But there’s no neighborhood there. Instead, a road winds through empty hills to the police station. Traffic circles punctuate the road every so often, but they open in only one direction. There’s nowhere else to go.

Maale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel says Mevasseret Adumim is necessary for the burgeoning growth of his city, home to some 40,000 people. He doesn’t think Israel will ever cede the land to the Palestinians.

“We will be an Israeli city, and our land has to be in Israeli territory,” he said. “We need it for residential expansion. It’s important strategically because it’s on the hills.”

Some of the mayor’s constituents are more blase about what happens.

“It won’t bother me if they build or not,” said Maayan, 21, adding that she was not really following the controversy.

Many Israelis refer to Maale Adumim, along with two other large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, as “consensus” settlements — areas of the disputed territory that will remain part of Israel in a two-state solution. And the residents of Maale Adumim reflect Israel’s consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: They want a peace deal but are skeptical that the conflict will be resolved anytime soon.

“I believe we can and should live in peace,” said Batsheva, who has lived in Mitzpe Jericho, near Maale Adumim, for 30 years. “No one wants to be at war. Everyone wants to accept each other’s rights. If I knew the other side would accept our right to exist, that would be ideal.”

It’s hard to find anyone in Maale Adumim who opposes developing the E1 area; most said its development is necessary for practical reasons. Maale Adumim is too big to give up and evacuate in the event of a peace settlement, they say, so why not connect it to Jerusalem and provide extra living space?

“It’s very important to connect to Jerusalem,” said Chaim Pe’er, 35. “There’s no option to evacuate Maale Adumim. When you’re not going to be evacuated, you’re going to be calmer.”

Several Maale Adumim residents interviewed by JTA drew a distinction between themselves and settlers deeper in the West Bank, who are more ideological about holding on to the territory they call by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

“I’m not happy about having two or three homes in a hole that we need to protect, just big cities,” Ahuva Nachmani said, derisively referring to far-flung Jewish settlements.

Maayan, like many residents of Maale Adumim, moved to the city not because of its West Bank location but because it is cheap, quiet and near Jerusalem.

Maale Adumim resident Itzik Naim sees his role as more ideological. Along with E1, Israelis should try to populate as much of the West Bank as possible, he said.

“If we had a prime minister who was a real Jew and who believed in God, we wouldn’t need excuses to build,” Naim said.

Reform movement raps Israeli settlement plans, Palestinian U.N. upgrade


The Union for Reform Judaism criticized Israel for its decision to build new settlement housing and the Palestinians for unilaterally seeking upgraded status at the United Nations.

The newly adopted policy statement was adopted overwhelmingly on Sunday following a debate at the group's board of trustees meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. More than 200 board members of URJ's Central Conference of American Rabbis and its Zionist wing ARZA attended the meeting.

The resolution condemned the Palestinian Authority “for the unilateral decision to seek upgraded status at the United Nation as counterproductive to the cause of peace ” and expressed “deep concern to those countries that supported the upgraded status, and to those who abstained.” The U.N. General Assembly voted last week to give the Palestinians non-member state observer status.

On Israel's plan to build in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and the major Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, the resolution said it “would split the Ramallah region off from Bethlehem, effectively cutting the West Bank in two and making a contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible.” It further said, “Building there makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel's stated commitment to a two-state solution.”

The resolution also calls on the Palestinians “to return to the negotiating table immediately without preconditions, as Israel has committed to doing,” and supports “appropriate measures if the Palestinians use their new status at the U.N. to initiate formal action against Israel via the International Criminal Court or other agency.”

It also opposes actions taken as a result of the U.N. vote “that would undercut the prospects for renewing the peace process leading to a two-state solution,” such as reducing financial support to the United Nations or the Palestinian Authority or reducing the currently recognized Palestinian diplomatic presence.

Economic costs of Gaza fighting


Last Friday, Moshe Ahituv (not his real name) received another call-up from the Israeli army. A captain in the home front command, he had already completed 43 days of army reserve service this year.

Moshe, 40, is an English teacher and the father of two toddlers. His wife is a physical therapist and they are about to purchase their first apartment in Jerusalem. He says the emotional cost of the fighting in the Gaza Strip has already taken a toll.

“The kids aren’t sleeping well, and my three-year-old daughter is behaving badly at nursery school,” he told The Media Line. “It’s also frustrating for me. I spend a lot of time on buses getting from home to my base. I could be home with the kids then or working to bring home money to my family.”

There is also an economic toll. While the government will pay for his missed days at work, he will not receive compensation for the private tutoring hours he has been forced to cancel, which amounts to $400 per week.

Israelis and Palestinians are paying a heavy economic price for the cross-border fighting in Gaza. From orange trees in Gaza damaged during an Israeli airstrike to small restaurants in southern Israel who have no customers, to tourists cancelling trips to Israel and Bethlehem, to destroyed buildings in Gaza, the economic costs on both sides is astronomical.

The business information company IDI estimates the fighting in Gaza will cost the Israeli economy $75 million dollars per day in lost productivity. Many small businesses in southern Israel, in particular, are suffering.

“Usually on the weekends we are full, but this past weekend we had just two tables – both of journalists,” Elad Zaritsky, 35, the owner of Linda, a bistro restaurant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashqelon, told The Media Line. “We’ve already lost thousands of dollars and we simply can’t continue like this. If the fighting continues much longer, we may have to close.”

Zaritsky says small businesses like his operate with only a narrow profit margin. He says the restaurant has been open for five years. Four years ago, during Cast Lead, Israel’s last major ground operation in Gaza, his business also suffered. The government did give him compensation, but he says it did not nearly cover his losses.

Tourism in Israel is also beginning to suffer, although this is the low season for tourism, between the Jewish holidays of the fall; and Chanuka and Christmas in a few weeks.

“Incoming groups for the near future are down 10 percent and individual bookings are down 15 percent,” Ami Etgar, the general director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association told The Media Line. “But groups that are already here have not left.”

Across the border, inside Gaza, life has virtually come to a standstill. While most residents keep a stock of food supplies including flour, oil, sugar and tea in their homes, most shops and businesses remain closed.

“Banks are closed and ATM machines are running out of cash,” Azzam Shawwa, the general manager of the Quds Bank told The Media Line. “But who wants to risk going out when there are airstrikes?”

Shawwa said there is also concern about the electricity supply to Gaza. While Israel has continued to provide power to the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, the electricity must go through transformers to change the voltage. Some of those transformers have been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, and the spare ones are already being used, he said.

“Even before this, some places only had electricity for 12 hours a day,” Omar Shaaban, an economist at Palthink, a Gaza-based think tank told The Media Line. “Now some places only have electricity for six hours a day. Some of us have generators, but there is a shortage of fuel for the generators. I just turned my generator on to answer some emails, but I’m going to have to turn it off soon.”

Shaaban says it’s too early to assess the economic damage caused by the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed at least 95 Palestinians and wounded hundreds. Dozens of buildings in Gaza have been completely destroyed.

“Our economy is losing at least $2 million dollars per day,” Shaaban said. “And that’s in addition to the agricultural sector which has already lost $25 million dollars. The economy has been completely suspended. Agricultural products were supposed to be exported this week from Gaza, but now that didn’t happen.”

Back across the border in Israel, more people seem to be staying home, even in areas that have been relatively free of missile strikes.

“There are many fewer passengers going from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Raof Basila, an Arab citizen of Israel who drives a shared-taxi between the two cities. His colleague, Fadi Abu Katish, agrees. He told The Media Line that while fifty drivers normally transport more than 1,500 passengers each day, the drivers are now alone in their vehicles.

Basila added a pensive note. “People are afraid to go out,” he said. “It is not good for either side. Both sides need peace.”

UNESCO gives Heritage status to Nativity Church, lists it under ‘Palestine’


UNESCO has agreed to name the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site, and list it as in Palestine.

The secret vote, which came during the United Nations body’s World Heritage Convention in St. Petersburg, Russia, was 13-6, with two abstentions.

Israel and the United States had opposed the move, seeing it as advancing the Palestinians’ political agenda rather than as an effort to protect the site.

Three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter on Thursday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to oppose the resolution.

Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Shelley Berkley (D-N.V.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) wrote that “the Palestinians clearly are not motivated by technical concerns related to historical preservation, but rather are attempting to hijack the World Heritage process to further their own political objectives.”

“We do not believe UNESCO in general or the World Heritage Committee in particular is the appropriate forum for debating such contentious issues that have little to do with historic preservation,” the lawmakers wrote.

While the Palestinians police the Bethlehem’s streets, Israel still has authority to determine what enters and leaves the area.

UNESCO recognized Palestine last year as a member state by a overwhelming majority of 107-14 with objections from the U.S. and Israel.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell celebrates birthday in Bethlehem


Supermodel Naomi Campbell visited Bethlehem in honor of her birthday.

Campbell lit candles in the Church of the Nativity Tuesday, the day she turned 42, according to reports. She ate lamb and rice at a nearby restaurant accompanied by friends, Palestinian guards and her own security guards.

“I’m happy to be here. Weapons and war, greed and oil … I hope it all stops,” she told the Palestinian Authority’s official television station, The Associated Press reported. “I care about health, about good vibrations, not destruction.”

Other reporters in Bethlehem were not allowed to interview or photograph Campbell, the Palestinian Maan news service reported.

She reportedly also visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Raheb will get German prize despite growing opposition, organizers say


Jewish groups are ramping up pressure to have a prestigious German prize withdrawn from a Palestinian pastor who is accused of making anti-Semitic statements.

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem is one of four recipients of the German Media Prize to be presented Friday. He has said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, has no rightful claim to a Jewish heritage.

“It is outrageous to consider Raheb a partner for peace as long as he engages in anti-Israel invective,” Deidre Berger, head of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, told JTA.

A German Media Prize spokesperson told JTA on Tuesday that the event will take place as planned. Former German President Roman Herzog will make the presentations.

Jewish groups including the AJC, the German-Israel Society and B’nai B’rith International have called for the prize to be withdrawn. At the very least Herzog should make his criticism clear, Berger said in a letter to the ex-president.

Raheb is “known for his radical theology that has both racist and to some extent anti-Semitic traits,” Berger wrote. “By contesting Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state he negates one of the most important pillars of German foreign policy.”

In a speech to the 2010 Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem, Raheb discounted Jewish roots in Israel and said that Palestinian Arabs share DNA with King David and Jesus, but that Netanyahu does not. The speech was removed Tuesday from the conference’s website.

In late January, B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Daniel Mariaschin wrote to Media Control, the firm based in Baden-Baden that sponsors the prize, underscoring that Raheb “is distinguished by an extensive record of highly offensive statements that, any positive work notwithstanding, make him ill-suited to receive the endorsement implied by a prestigious German honor that has been bestowed on the likes of Helmut Kohl, Hillary Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, Angela Merkel and the Dalai Lama.”

Other recipients of this year’s prize are Sakena Yacoobi of Afghanistan, Stanislaw Petrow of Moscow and Denis Mukwege of Congo.

Op/Ed: UNESCO is right, Israel is wrong


The word is that UNESCO is on an anti-Semitic tear, trying to “de-Judaize” and “Islamicize” two of the most holy Jewish sites in this country – the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.

“Talk about distortions,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told thousands of American Jews in New Orleans this week. “Can you imagine that UNESCO tried to deny the Jewish connection to Rachel’s Tomb next to Jerusalem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron? The absurdity to try to erase our past…”

For all good, belligerent Jews, UNESCO is the outrage of the month. But they’re just blowing smoke again, trying to get off the defensive about the occupation by accusing the occupation’s critics of anti-Semitism. (Or, rather, “delegitimization,” which is the new, approved euphemism now that “anti-Semitism” has begun to sound like “wolf.”)

Read UNESCO’s declaration of October 21. It spells out in black and white that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb are holy to Muslims, Christians ITAL and Jews. ITAL

The declaration is titled “The two Palestinian sites of al-Haram al-Ibrahim/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.”

It describes the sites as follows: “Located in the old town of Hebron in the southern part of the West Bank, the Haram al-Ibrahimi is venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews as the burial place for the Biblical figures Abraham (Ibrahim) and Sarah, Isaac (Ishaq) and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah. Located in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, Rachel’s Tomb is considered the traditional gravesite of the Biblical Matriarch Rachel and is home to the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque. … These cultural treasures are special to all of humanity in addition to the religious significance ascribed to them by people of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions.”

So UNESCO is ITAL recognizing ITAL the Jewish connection to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb. What it’s denouncing is Israel’s claim to sovereignty over these sites, which happen to lie in occupied Palestinian territory. UNESCO is denouncing Netanyahu’s loudly-stated intention to turn these holy places into “national heritage sites,” which would politicize and exploit them as a means to entrench Israel’s hold on the West Bank.

And UNESCO, guided in this dispute by the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states, is right. It’s Israel that’s wrong, which is nothing new; whenever Israel does anything to strengthen its rule over the Palestinians and the land where they live, Israel is wrong.

This latest controversy started in February after Netanyahu, reportedly under pressure from Shas, added the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb to a list of about 150 historic Jewish and Zionist sites to be developed for the public.

The Palestinians didn’t complain about the sites in “Israel proper,” only the two new ones in the West Bank. And they weren’t alone; Meretz also protested. “This is another attempt to blur the lines between the State of Israel and the occupied territories. Just a little pressure from the right and Netanyahu immediately toes the line,” said Meretz chairman MK Haim Oron at the time. (Anyone who thinks Meretz is anti-Semitic, too, is beyond reasoning with.)

Israel’s champions in this affair are focusing on the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque at Rachel’s Tomb, saying it didn’t exist until the 1990s, their point being that Rachel’s Tomb belongs to Jews and Jews alone.

My point is this: Who cares when the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque was built? If UNESCO is saying Rachel’s Tomb is holy to three religions, why do we have to insist that’s it’s only holy to one, to our religion?

And even if it is true that the Palestinians only put up a mosque at Rachel’s Tomb to compete with the Jewish claim on the site, we Jews have been doing the same thing to them all over this country. Muslims destroyed synagogues and Jewish cemeteries? Israel destroyed mosques and Muslim cemeteries.

“[T]he history of the struggle on the holy sites is not about the war of the Jewish sons of light against the Palestinian sons of darkness, but the story of a war in which both sides have committed barbaric acts to the other’s holy sites,” wrote Meron Benvenisti, a historian and former Jerusalem deputy mayor, in Ha’aretz in 2005.

After the War of Independence, Israel destroyed some 100 of the 140 mosques that had stood in the emptied-out Arab villages, he wrote. The 40 mosques left standing were put to use by Israeli Jews. “The mosque of an abandoned village in the Iron Valley serves [as] a kibbutz carpentry. A mosque in an artists’ community in the Carmel serves partly as a restaurant and bar. Other mosques serve as museums and galleries,” Benvenisti wrote. He added: “And we haven’t even mentioned yet the tombs of sheikhs that have become graves of holy Jewish figures…”

But we’re not supposed to think about that kind of stuff – we’re only supposed to go on hollering “delegitimization!” at UNESCO. And at the next anti-Semite of the month. Remember: When anybody accuses Israel of lording it over the Arabs, the best defense is a good offense.

Is There a Hole in the Fence Plan?


The burnt-out hulk of an Israeli bus destroyed by a Palestinian suicide bomber had just arrived at The Hague on Sunday, when a second bus was blown up at a busy intersection in Jerusalem.

The first bus — the remains of a Palestinian bomber’s work in Jerusalem on Jan. 29 — was meant to protest this week’s International Court of Justice hearings on the legality of the security barrier Israel is building to stop the bombers.

The images of the two mangled buses made Israel’s case against terrorism better than words ever could. However, they also raised serious issues for Israel.

The two bombings, which killed 19 Israelis and injured more than 100, occurred in densely populated residential sections of the city within three weeks of each other.

Their proximity raised two key questions: How effective is Israel’s barrier likely to be against would-be Palestinian bombers, and if it is effective everywhere else, will Jerusalem — with its patchwork of Arab and Jewish neighborhoods — become the soft underbelly of the system and the main target of Palestinian terrorism?

The barrier, for most of its planned 450 mile-route, is a sophisticated network of wire-mesh fences built with electronic sensors, patrol roads, ditches, cameras and watchtowers. In some short spans, the barrier is a concrete wall.

In both bombing cases, the attackers came from the Bethlehem area. According to Israel’s Shin Bet security services, the bombers infiltrated Jerusalem though gaps in the fence south of the city. Work on the fence there has been held up for weeks in Israeli courts.

Had that southern portion of the barrier been complete, Israeli advocates of the fence system said, the bombings probably would have been prevented. They said the fact that the bombings occurred is a strong argument for speedy completion of the barrier separating Israelis from Palestinians — in Jerusalem and everywhere else.

The problem with that argument is that the fence in Jerusalem is unlike the fence anywhere else.

Between Israel proper and the West Bank, the fence separates Israelis from Palestinians and serves as a security barrier between would-be suicide bombers and their targets in Israel, even if it does not offer protection for Jewish settlers on the Palestinian side of the fence.

In Jerusalem, however, the fence runs along the city’s outer perimeter, separating it from the West Bank but leaving on the Israeli side most of the city’s 200,000 Palestinians. There is no barrier between them and the city’s buses. They could provide a huge fount of Arab terror against Israel.

Danny Seidemann, a U.S.-born lawyer who has studied the Jerusalem fence and knows virtually every inch of its convoluted route, is convinced that that is precisely what will happen.

Seidemann argues that besides leaving nearly 200,000 Palestinians in the capital city, the fence cuts arbitrarily through Palestinian suburbs, cuts off Palestinians from their natural hinterland in the West Bank and cuts off others from Jerusalem itself. Given the mixture of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, he maintains that a rational division of Jews and Arabs simply is not possible.

"In Jerusalem," Seidemann said, "Israelis should defend themselves against terror by other, more sophisticated means."

Seidemann contended that the fence in Jerusalem is counterproductive. He argued that the main reason Jerusalem Arabs have not taken any significant part in terrorist activities until now is because of their relatively high standard of living.

Per capita income for Jerusalem Arabs, Seidemann said, is about $3,500 a year, more than four times as much as in the rest of the West Bank. Until now, Jerusalem Arabs have been unwilling to risk their standard of living by provoking Israeli reprisals and defensive measures that could strangle economic life, Seidemann said.

However, the fence threatens to put an end to all that. Cut off from the West Bank, prices in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem will rise and standards of living will decrease. The humanitarian and economic problems created by the fence, Seidemann said, will increase terror, not reduce it.

Moreover, Palestinians in Jerusalem who decide to turn to terrorism will not be impeded by a barrier, because the fence runs mainly outside the city, not inside it.

Jerusalem could become the prime focus of the terrorists, because of its symbolic resonance in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and because of the relative ease with which its targets can be reached. That would create a new security problem for Israel’s armed forces and its police, possibly entailing a stronger presence in the eastern part of the city.

Already, there have been 25 suicide bombings in Jerusalem during the three years of the intifada, nearly all by bombers from outside the city. These attacks have claimed more than 180 lives, nearly 20 percent of all Israeli casualties of the intifada.

Jerusalem Arabs joining the ranks of the terrorists could have horrific consequences for both sides, Seidemann said.

Blowing up the second bus in Jerusalem seemed to play into Israel’s hands in the public relations campaign against the proceedings at The Hague, which Israel officially is boycotting on the grounds that the court lacks jurisdiction in the matter.

On the day the proceedings began this week, Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot led its front-page preview of the court’s hearings with a letter to the 15-judge panel from a woman who was widowed by Sunday’s bombing.

"You are sitting in judgment," wrote Fanny Haim, "and I am burying my husband."

Though the Palestinian Authority condemned the latest bombing, Palestinian spokesmen seemed more concerned about the bad timing of the attack than the bombing itself. A branch of the Al-Aqsa Brigade, affiliated with P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the attack. Some Israeli analysts saw this as evidence of chaos on the Palestinian side, because the bombing does not seem to serve the Palestinian Authority’s interests.

Meanwhile, P.A. leaders reportedly have sent messages to terrorist commanders urging them to exercise restraint for the time being. But whether controlled from above or the result of grass-roots efforts, the attacks against Israeli civilians show few signs of abating soon.

If the judges at The Hague rule against Israel’s fence — ignoring the terrorism that prompted its construction — their ruling could encourage terrorists further.

The bottom line is that whatever happens at The Hague, Israel will go on building its security fence. In Jerusalem, however, that may not be enough.

World Briefs


Thousands March for Israel in New
York

Tens of thousands gathered in New York to salute Israel. Marchers and onlookers filled Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on Sunday for the annual Israel Day Parade.

Palestinians Fake Jenin Funerals

Palestinians reportedly have been holding phony funerals in the Jenin refugee camp, apparently to make the death toll there appear worse than it is. An Israel Defense Force drone filmed a funeral procession on April 28, during which stretcher-bearers dropped the purported corpse. The “dead” man hopped back onto the stretcher, but the next time he was dropped, he walked away in a huff.

House May Seek More Funds for Israel

Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives are considering adding $200 million in aid to Israel. Congressional sources say the additional money, which has not been earmarked by the White House as part of its annual supplemental aid package, is expected to be debated Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee and could go before the full House next week. Lawmakers passed a resolution last week expressing solidarity with Israel and seeking additional funds for the Jewish state.

Italy Balks at Bethlehem Deal

Italy stood by its refusal to take in 13 Palestinian terrorists holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Despite U.S. pressure and appeals from the Vatican, Italian officials said Wednesday that the European Union as a whole should deal with the issue of who takes in the 13 men. “I am opposed to it,” the Italian daily La Stampa quoted Deputy Premier Gianfranco Fini as saying. “If we took in the 13 Palestinians, we would be exposing our country to a series of grave risks.” Jordan, Egypt and other Arab nations also have refused to take in the 13.

On Tuesday, Italy complained that it was not sufficiently briefed on the details of a deal for ending the standoff at the church, where more than 100 Palestinians have been surrounded by Israeli troops for more than a month. Under the terms of the deal, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that 13 of the militants wanted by Israel would be exiled to Italy. In addition, some 26 gunmen would be sent to the Gaza Strip, where they would be imprisoned under the watch of American and British jailers, Palestinian sources said. The remaining Palestinians not wanted by Israel would be freed.

Pro-Israeli Dutch Politician Slain

A Dutch politician who often spoke out on behalf of Israel was shot and killed. Right-wing Pim Fortuyn, who often spoke out against Islam and immigration, was shot at close range Monday night, nine days before national elections. Four people who were with Fortuyn at the time of the attack chased the gunmen, and police are now holding a suspect, according to reports. There are no details about the gunman’s identity or motive.

‘Suspicious’ Fire at Oakland
Synagogue

Officials are investigating what they’re calling a “suspicious” fire at a California synagogue. No one was hurt and there was little damage after the fire burned the outside of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. On Sunday morning, firefighters extinguished three small fires at the site and found what appeared to be gasoline around the building. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Anti-Defamation League are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. The Orthodox shul has ben vandalized before when three security cameras were stolen. — Mike Levy, Staff Writer

Florida JCC Scammed?

Top employees at a Florida Jewish Community Center (JCC) may have bilked the institution of hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to the Palm Beach Post, the State Attorney’s Office is investigating a suspected credit card scam at the Jeanne Levy JCC in West Palm Beach, allegedly involving the top executive and several others. The alleged embezzlement was first discovered by the local Jewish federation, which was suspicious after the JCC overspent its $7 million budget.

U.N. Condems Israel

The U.N. General Assembly approved an Arab-sponsored resolution condemning Israel just hours after a Palestinian terror attack on a Tel Aviv suburb. The 189-member world body condemned Israel’s recent military operation in the West Bank and its rejection of a U.N. fact-finding mission to Jenin. The resolution was approved 74-4, with 54 countries abstaining. The United States voted against the resolution

Swiss Fund Wraps Up

A Swiss fund set up to help needy Holocaust survivors wrapped up its work. Created five years ago, the fund paid out some $180 million to nearly 310,000 people around the world, according to officials. The fund was established after Swiss banks were accused of having close financial ties to the Nazis and of hoarding the contents of long-dormant bank accounts opened by Holocaust victims.

All briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Invasion Pros and Cons


Israel this week is weighing the interim results of the largest military operation it has mounted during the past 13 months of violence. The balance is complex, informed observers say, with both pros and cons. Israel Defense Force (IDF) troops and tanks pulled back from Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem, overnight Sunday, after a day in which Palestinians desisted from shooting at the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

IDF generals reached a detailed agreement with the commander of the Palestinian Authority preventive security service, Jibril Rajoub, that his men would take over the policing of the "front line" and ensure that it remained quiet. By midweek, that local accord appeared to be holding.

The three members of the inner security cabinet — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer — presumably hoped that withdrawing from the Christian holy city of Bethlehem would alleviate some of the criticism that Israel’s armored incursions into the seven Palestinian cities was stirring abroad.

TV footage of the damage and destruction the IDF had wrought in the two towns and adjacent refugee camps, shown Monday in many Western countries, did little to relieve Israel’s image problem.

And its continued defiance of American demands that it pull out of all the Palestinian cities — the others are Ramallah, Kalkilya, Jenin, Nabulus and Tulkarm, all in the West Bank north of Jerusalem — plainly grated on the Bush administration.

But some observers here suggested that the feud was not as bad as portrayed. For one thing, after the initial heated reaction, the language used in American statements was relatively restrained. For another, the spat was confined to words, with no hint of punitive action. And for a third, these observers say, Israel was demonstrating to the Palestinians, and to the wider region, that it has the strength and guts to stand up to Washington when its vital interests are at stake.

In addition, the unrest may have stirred the beginnings of real diplomatic activity. The longer the troops stay inside Palestinian-ruled areas, the more pressure grows inside the Labor Party to leave the government. Reflecting these pressures — or perhaps heading them off — Peres let it be known midweek that he is drafting a new peace plan to get the diplomatic process moving again.

According to a report in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, the plan calls on Israel to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip, dismantling settlements where about 7,000 Israelis live amid a hostile Palestinian population. Peres also envisions a Palestinian state that would be "political, not military," and the deferment of the status of Jerusalem for a period of years.

Even Sharon had spoken positively of a Palestinian state just days before Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi was killed. The assassination effectively ending a string of minor, but positive, steps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, plunging the region back into violence.

According to The Associated Press, Peres’ spokesman, Yoram Dori, confirmed that the foreign minister was "preparing a peace plan" to be released in coming days. "Whether Sharon agrees or not, he will have to say," Dori said.

Indeed, some pundits speculated that, if it contains elements Sharon opposes, the Peres plan might hasten the downfall of the unity government. Until Peres releases his plan, however, Israelis were left debating whether the IDF operation really had served vital national interests.

Official spokesmen explained last week that the incursions aimed to arrest or kill terrorists and to prevent or preempt planned attacks.

Military sources say at least 40 terrorists and suspected terrorists have been arrested, and some 20 were killed in encounters with elite units. IDF officials initially claimed that Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian involved in the Oct. 17 assassination of Ze’evi were apprehended, though later claims contradicted that. The two men believed to have actually carried out the murder remain at large.

But two drive-by terror shootings on Sunday undercut the assertion that IDF occupation of Palestinian cities is effective in blocking assaults. The killers in the two attacks came from Tulkarm and Jenin. The first killing was claimed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, the second by Islamic Jihad.

The claims reflected widespread resistance to Arafat’s public orders to the various Palestinian military and paramilitary groupings, and to the opposition factions, that it was in the Palestinians’ national interest to observe a cease-fire. Although in another major address, to trade unionists in Gaza, Arafat gave precisely the opposite message, calling on the Palestinians "to continue fighting — fighting, determinedly and forcefully."

Arafat repeatedly has spurned Israel’s demand to hand over Ze’evi’s killers. Israel has received no real backing from the United States or the rest of the international community for the demand, which many see as an unrealistic stumbling block to the diplomatic process.

At best, Israel may make do with a proposed international monitoring mechanism — details of which are still vague — designed to ensure that terrorists arrested by the Palestinian Authority do not shortly walk out the other side of a "revolving door."

Politically, at least, the operation in the West Bank seems to have benefited Sharon. Its scope seems to have assuaged Ze’evi’s National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction, which has indefinitely deferred an earlier decision to quit the government.

On Tuesday, Knesset member Benny Elon took over as Ze’evi’s replacement. For Sharon, who, is fighting to hold his coalition together and ward off incessant criticism from his Likud Party rival Benjamin Netanyahu, this is a gratifying development.