Uncertainty grips Middle Eastern markets

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The impact of the Middle East’s ongoing woes on the region’s tourism businesses has been well documented. The industry’s standing has been tarnished not just by continuing conflicts, but also by repeated terrorist attacks against foreign tourists in a number of countries in the region. What has been less discussed is the downturn in the Middle East’s industry, business, and inter-regional commerce.

Syria, the focal point for much of the violence in the region, was described by the World Bank as a “lower middle income country,” with agriculture and petroleum exports making up the bulk of its trade in 2010. Five years later, its economy has been characterized as anywhere between collapsed and as a ‘war economy’. But the country is hardly the only state whose financial position is hugely affected by the sectarian conflict raging in, and across, its borders.

In a research paper for the World Bank published last year, Elena Ianchovichina and Maros Ivanic described how the impact of the war has been felt chiefly by Syria and by Iraq. With stretches of its western provinces captured by the Islamic State, including areas of oil production, it is hardly surprising that Iraq has suffered large scale economic regression. Ianchovichina and Ivanic also discussed a second tier of affected countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — neighboring Syria and Iraq, who have taken in the bulk of the war’s refugees.

Despite the scale and the length of the conflict the economic repercussions onto global markets have not been large, Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics Research Company, told The Media Line. Syria’s economic output was far more relevant to its direct neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, than to global markets, Tuvey said.

As well as a loss of trade both countries have borne the brunt of Syria’s refugee exodus. Lebanon has taken in so many Syrians that refugees are now 25% of the population and in Jordan the Zaatari refugee camp is so crowded as to constitute the country’s fourth largest city, the economist explained.

Turkey too has taken in large numbers of refugees but is more financially stable than the two smaller host nations.

Whether or not Syria’s reduction in trade has adversely affected the broader Middle East the war is still hampering the region’s economy due to the uncertainty it produces, Colin Foreman, news editor at MEED Middle East Business Intelligence, told The Media Line. Similar to the early years of the Arab Spring – the pro-democracy protests that took place throughout the Middle East in 2011 – the Syrian war creates uncertainty in Middle Eastern markets, Foreman said.

The difference is that in 2011 petroleum prices were stable, so uncertainty actually benefited exporting nations, whereas now the cost of a barrel of oil is low and so the market is more adversely affected, the editor explained.

Conflict in Syria is not the only cause of this situation as political turmoil in Egypt and war in Yemen also add to the uncertainty, Foreman said.

Escalating the uncertainty yet further is the Islamic State (ISIS). “The situation in Syria has deteriorated particularly since mid-2014 with ISIS taking a foothold,” Foreman argued. This has led to the refugee crisis and to a significant downturn in the value of the Iraqi oil industry, the editor suggested.

Tuvey was not as sure that the impact of the Islamic State was felt strongly on Iraqi oil exports. “In Iraq most of its oil fields are in the south away from ISIS – Iraq has actually been increasing its oil production over the last year or so,” he explained.

He went onto suggest the current price of petroleum may be limiting the damage ISIS can cause to global markets.

“It has not had an enormous impact because we’re now in an era when we have a huge glut of oil – ten years ago it might have been more concerning,” he said.

Israeli minister urges West to give more arms to Kurds, Jordan

Western states should provide more weapons to Jordan, Egypt, Kurdish forces and certain opposition forces in Syria, Israel's Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on the sidelines of the Munich Security conference on Friday.

Israeli officials had previously stopped short of making such explicit calls, citing concern that such groups would face added hostility by being publicly associated with Israel.

Kurdish regional forces are battling Islamic State militants on Syrian and Iraqi territory where IS has submitted whole towns to strict Islamic rule. Egypt is trying to defeat jihadists operating in the Sinai Peninsula, bordering Israel.

When asked what the Western-led alliance conducting air strikes against IS strongholds could do better, Steinitz said:

“More support with weapons and also financial support to more moderate groups, Islamic forces, like for example the Kurds, like the Free Syrian Army and like moderate Arab states, like Jordan, like Egypt.”

The Free Syrian Army is an array of mainly Western-backed armed opposition groups that have little or no central coordination in fighting President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that began with peaceful anti-government protests in 2011.

Thousands rallied in Jordan on Friday three days after Islamic State released a video purporting to show a Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive in a cage as masked militants in camouflage uniforms looked on.

Many Jordanians have opposed their country's involvement in U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State, fearing retaliation. But the killing of the recently married pilot, who was from an influential Jordanian tribe, has increased support for the military push.

Yuval said he saw no immediate threat to Jordan's sovereignty from Islamic State: “If there will be such a threat, I believe the world and even if necessary Israel will interfere,” he said.

Jordan military jets pound Islamic State as king comforts pilot’s family

Jordanian fighter jets pounded Islamic State targets in Syria on Thursday, before roaring over the hometown of the pilot killed by the militants while King Abdullah consoled the victim's family.

A statement from the Jordanian armed forces said tens of jets were deployed in the attacks, which destroyed ammunition depots and training camps run by the Islamic State.

Witnesses overheard the monarch telling the pilot's father the planes were returning from the militant-held city of Raqqa. A security source told Reuters the strikes hit targets in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor as well as near Raqqa.

The show of force came two days after the ultra-hardline Islamic State released a video showing captured Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive in a cage as masked militants in camouflage uniforms looked on.

“It's actually the beginning of our retaliation over this horrific and brutal murder of our brave young pilot, but it's not the beginning of our fight against terrorism and extremism,” Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said in an interview with CNN later on Thursday.

State television aired footage of fighter jets taking off to carry out the raids. It later broadcast footage of the actual bombing before the jets returned safely to Jordan.

Several men and women were shown writing Koranic verses and anti-Islamic State slogans on what appeared to be the bombs used in the attacks.

“We're going after them with everything that we have,” Judeh said.

U.S. military aircraft joined the mission to provide intelligence, surveillance as well as reconnaissance and targeting support, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official also said the strikes focused on multiple targets around Raqqa.

Military commanders briefed King Abdullah after the missions about the details of the strikes, state television said. The monarch has vowed to avenge Kasaesbeh's killing and ordered commanders to prepare for a stepped-up military role in the U.S.-led coalition against the group.

But many Jordanians fear being dragged into a conflict that could trigger a backlash by hardline militants inside the kingdom.

Jordan is a major U.S. ally in the fight against militant Islamist groups, and hosted U.S. troops during operations that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The country is also home to hundreds of U.S. military trainers bolstering defences at the Syrian and Iraqi borders and is determined to keep the jihadists in Syria away from its frontiers.


State television showed a sombre King Abdullah sitting alongside the army chief and senior officials while visiting the Kasaesbeh tribal family in Aya, a village some 100 km (60 miles) south of the capital, Amman.

The king, wearing a traditional Arab headdress, was met by cheering crowds with cries of “Long live his majesty the king, long live the king,” in traditional Bedouin chanting.

Thousands of Jordanians flocked to pay their respects. The region's influential tribes form an important pillar of support for the Hashemite monarchy and supply the army and security forces with manpower.

“You are a wise monarch. These criminals violated the rules of war in Islam and they have no humanity. Even humanity disowns them,” Safi Kasaesbeh, father of the pilot, told the king.

The Jordanian monarch has vowed that the pilot's death, which has stirred nationalist fervour across the country, will bring severe retaliation against Islamic State.

Hours after the release of the video showing the pilot burning to death, the authorities executed two al Qaeda militants who had been imprisoned on death row, including a woman who had tried to blow herself up in a suicide bombing and whose release had been demanded by Islamic State.

Palestinian activist calls to reform UNRWA

Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, has launched a crusade against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), tasked with providing “assistance and protection” for five million Palestinian refugees around the world. In Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, UNRWA gives food, aid, and runs schools.

Eid said a recent study by well-known Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki shows that 70 percent of Palestinian refugees are seeking financial compensation rather than the “right of return” to their former homes in what is today Israel. He said that UNRWA has an interest in perpetuating the right of return, to justify its large budgets. It is part of Eid’s blistering attack on UNRWA, which operates with a $1.2 billion budget from donor countries including the United States.

“Palestinians in refugee camps are suffering while UNRWA is gaining power and money,” Eid, who grew up in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, told a small group of journalists. “In Gaza you hear more and more voices saying that UNRWA is responsible for delaying the reconstruction of Gaza (after the heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last summer).”

In an article in The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, Eid called for a five-point program to reform UNRWA including a call for an audit of all fund allocated to UNRWA and a demand that the organization dismiss employees affiliated with the Islamist Hamas, which controls Gaza.

“Hamas has never denied that the majority of UNRWA employees are affiliated with Hamas and coordinate with the organization,” Eid said.

During the past summer’s fighting in Gaza, Israel accused UNRWA of allowing Hamas to use its schools to fire rockets at southern Israel, a charge UNRWA denied. Over the summer, UNRWA twice found rockets in two empty schools and issued a strong condemnation.

“UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law,” the group wrote in a statement published on its website. “The Agency immediately informed the relevant parties and is pursuing all possible measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school. UNRWA will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.”

UNRWA officials declined to comment on the allegations. But a UN source provided The Media Line with a list of 16 “errors” in Bassem Eid’s original article to the Jerusalem Post. The rebuttals were brief. For example, in response to Eid’s charge that UNRWA staff in Gaza are affiliated with Hamas, the source said, “UNRWA staff are not affiliated with Hamas.” In response to Eid’s call for an audit of UNRWA, the source wrote that Eid “insinuates no audits take place – they do.”

UNRWA has long been a target of the right-wing in Israel, and they have happily embraced Eid. He told The Media Line that he is not paid by any of these groups and is currently seeking independent sources of funding.

“I have only started this project three weeks ago and I will be meeting with many people trying to get it funded,” he said.

Obama promises more aid, loan guarantees to Jordan

President Barack Obama said on Friday that the United States and its allies are making slow but steady progress in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and he pledged new aid to Jordan to grapple with Syrian refugees.

Obama and Jordan's King Abdullah made a show of solidarity against Islamic State, holding Oval Office talks that covered the gamut from Iran's nuclear program to tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We recognize that it's a long-term and extremely complex challenge, but it's one that we feel optimistic we'll be able to succeed at,” Obama said of the Islamic State battle, with Abdullah seated at his side.

Beyond the military challenge, the two leaders discussed some of Abdullah's ideas about organizing within Islam in a way to allow peaceful Muslims to over time “isolate and ultimately eradicate this strain” of the religion that has swept the region, Obama said.

Abdullah has absorbed into his country some 1.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war. To continue to deal with the challenge, Obama pledged $1 billion in aid and a new loan guarantee to help Jordan.

Abdullah, in an interview on CBS' “This Morning” that aired Friday, described the fight against Islamic State as akin to a third world war.

“We have to stand up and say, 'This is the line that is drawn in the sand,'” he said. “It's clearly a fight between good and evil.”

The White House talks also covered international efforts to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, which Tehran denies is aimed at developing an atomic weapon. A deal eluded negotiators late last month, but the effort continues.

Obama said it was unclear whether Tehran would seize its chance for a deal in nuclear talks with western powers.

“I briefed His Majesty about our negotiations with Iran, and indicated to him that we would prefer no deal to a bad deal, but that we continue to hold out the possibility that we can eliminate the risk of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama told reporters.

Islamic State’s appeal presents Jordan with new test

He had a good job and a loving family, but it wasn't enough for a 25-year old Jordanian who abandoned his life of privilege in Amman to join the Islamic State group that has seized swathes of neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Handsome, courteous and highly regarded in his profession as a radiologist, the man, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, disappeared in early August after the Muslim Eid holiday. He did not tell his family where he was going.

He later called his parents from an undisclosed location to say he had “forsaken his life for the glory of Islam”, said a relative. “His father is heartbroken, and his mother is in hospital from shock,” he said.

He is among the first known cases of Jordanians joining Islamic State since the group declared a “caliphate” in June after dramatic territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.

His story points to the widening support for Islamic State among Jordanian Islamist fundamentalists inspired by its recent advances in countries that border Jordan to the east and north. With that support come new risks for a U.S. ally mostly unscathed by the Middle Eastern turmoil of recent years.

Jordan's powerful intelligence services appear to be deploying their full range of tools to counter the threat. King Abdullah has said the country has never been better prepared to face the radical threat sweeping the region.

Islamic State's gains have sparked a fierce debate among Jordanian Islamists from the ultra-orthodox Salafist movement on whether to back the group, whose brutality has been criticized even within radical Islamist circles.

But buoyed by territorial gains, Islamic State’s sympathizers appear to be winning the argument.

“Many youths have changed their distorted view of the Islamic State after they saw their actions on the ground, their achievements, and how the West has ganged up against it,” a well-known Jordanian militant told Reuters under the assumed name Ghareeb al-Akhwan al-Urduni.


Since the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria in 2011, hundreds of Jordanians have joined a Sunni Islamist-led insurgency against President Bashar Assad. More than 2,000 men, ranging from underprivileged youths to doctors and – in one case – an air force captain, have abandoned Jordan for jihad in Syria, according to Islamists close to the subject.

At least 250 of them have been killed there.

But the Islamic State's recent accomplishments are helping to galvanize support like never before among radical Islamists who dream of erasing borders across the Muslim world to establish a pan-Islamic nation.

It raises the prospect of yet more Jordanians crossing the border to fight, but also the risk of Islamic State sympathizers striking in Jordan itself – a country that has suffered Islamist militancy before, notably bomb attacks on Amman hotels by al Qaeda-linked militants during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The appearance of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared “caliph”, calling for the support of Muslims in the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul last June acted like a magnet for young Jordanian Islamists.

“Their dream was setting up the caliphate, and now they see it being achieved. This made people consider very seriously joining, especially since the Islamic State had officially invited them,” said Bassam Nasser, a Jordanian Islamist scholar.

The roots of Islamic State can, in one sense, be traced to Jordan. It was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who founded the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda that would eventually mutate into Islamic State. Al Qaeda has now disavowed the group.

In the impoverished Jordanian town of Zarqa, Zarqawi's birthplace and a traditional stronghold of Islamist fundamentalists, support for Islamic State was on full display during Eid prayers that marked the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in late July.

Scores of men dressed in the kind of Afghan-style clothing often worn by radical Islamists waved Islamic State's black flag as they gathered in an open field to listen to Jordanian Islamist Sheikh Amer Khalalyeh praise the group.

“Oh Baghdadi, you who has spread terror in the hearts of our enemies, enlist me as a martyr,” chanted the sheikh over a microphone. The footage was captured in a video posted on YouTube.


In the assessment of one senior regional security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Jordan could be home to “hundreds if not thousands of potential sympathizers” who could turn into “potential sleeper cells and time bombs”.

The roots of radicalisation in Jordan mirror those commonly cited as its primary cause across the Middle East and include a lack of political liberty and economic opportunity.

King Abdullah, a steadfast U.S. ally who has safeguarded his country's peace treaty with Israel, is seeking to ease concerns in Jordan about the threat posed by Islamic State.

“I am satisfied with the preparations of the armed forces and security agencies. We had planned for surprises several months ago and we were ahead of others. I can assure you -politically, securitywise and militarily our position today is stronger than in the past,” he told politicians.

In an indirect reference to Islamic State, he warned Jordanians not to fall prey to outside parties seeking to exploit their grievances.

In recent weeks, the Jordanian intelligence services have tightened security around sensitive government areas, stepped up surveillance of Islamist fundamentalists and arrested activists seen as a threat, diplomats and officials say.

At least a dozen people have been arrested for expressing support for Islamic State on social media.

It is a new test for the Jordanian security services, which have been a major U.S. partner in fighting radical Islamists.

Jordan's approach to confronting the risk has set it apart from some other Arab states. Its dependence on sophisticated intelligence gathering rather than arbitrary arrests have been credited for sparing Jordan the kind of vendetta-fueled Islamist insurrections seen in states such as Egypt and Syria.

The authorities last month released a prominent Islamist scholar, an influential figure in militant circles, who is one of the leading Islamist opponents of Islamic State.

Sheikh Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi's release has added an influential voice to the debate, but also revealed divisions among Jordan's previously cohesive hardline Islamist community of ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslims.

Maqdisi has mocked Baghdadi's caliphate and expressed outrage at the brutality unleashed by Islamic State.

“It is giving our jihad a bloody texture that we cannot accept. These images of decapitations are painful. This is something we cannot accept, nor Allah (God). Mercy with the infidels dominated during the spread of Islam,” he said this month in an audio message.

That has triggered an avalanche of attacks by Islamic State supporters who have shown none of the deference usually reserved for senior scholars such as Maqdisi. They say he was released not because he had served out his five-year jail term, but with a specific remit to attack Islamic State.

The row has sparked verbal and physical conflict. Two radical Islamists who spoke out against Islamic State's decapitations and indiscriminate killings of Shi'ite Muslims were recently physically beaten by the group's supporters.

Islamic State's black flag was also raised in June by supporters in the historically volatile city of Maan, a tribal stronghold of over 50,000 people about 250 km (156 miles) south of the capital.

Here, crosscurrents of crime, smuggling and tribal disaffection are a combustible mix for the government, which is resented for neglecting the area's development. That has provided fertile ground for Islamist recruitment.

But Mohammad Shalabi, a militant Salafist from Maan who has encouraged Islamists to go to Syria to fight, said Jordan was not a target for Islamic State.

“The Islamic State … have no interest in targeting Jordan. When I have not consolidated my presence firmly enough in Iraq and Syria I cannot move to Jordan,” said Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf. He spent 10 years in prison for militancy including a plot to attack U.S. troops in Jordan.

Shalabi, a respected figure by locals in the city who mediates with tribal chiefs in disputes with the authorities, said his followers had no interest in destabilizing Jordan, unless the government provoked them. “If we felt, God forbid, that injustice is going to befall us or that the circle of injustice is expanding, we will not sit with our hands tied.”

Editing by Tom Perry and Will Waterman

Securing Syrian refugees’ future tied to Israel’s security

I have visited Israel many times in my life, but my most recent trip will remain seared into my memory forever. On a two-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, I saw many incredible sights. In Israel, the triumphs of the “startup nation” are miraculous and ever-present, while on the Palestinian side of the Green Line the new city of Rawabi is literally rising out of the desert hills.

But what shocked me most was the nightmare occurring just miles over the border. It was in Jordan, in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones and United Nations Refugee Agency/United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Andrew Harper, where we caught a glimpse into the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis. After that visit, I knew I had no choice but to cry out about the refugees’ plight and urge our community and government to act, if not out of concern for the refugees themselves, then at least because anything that destabilizes Jordan could have grave repercussions for Israel.

In Amman, we visited a UNHCR registration services site. The monumental task of registering the refugees and ensuring their safety and health falls largely to the UNHCR, working in coordination with the Jordanian government. The UNHCR ensures that refugees are properly registered, have access to protection, legal assistance, shelter, food, potable water, medical care, education and psychosocial support. Watching innocent children playing on a crowded climbing tower and swing set while their mothers were being interviewed and arranging for services was, simply put, heartbreaking.

As of June 8, 2014, there were more than 597,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. More than half are under the age of 17. And, new refugees are currently crossing the border from Syria into northeast Jordan at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per day. Imagine the United States suddenly absorbing 31 million people over a three-year period and you might begin to understand the scope of this crisis. And, there are dozens of challenges that extend beyond the need to provide food and shelter to the refugees.

Jordanian schools are struggling to integrate thousands of children despite vast cultural differences. Refugees living within and outside of refugee camps strain the Jordanian economy, inflating prices and depressing wages. As these problems grow, so does resentment of refugees among Jordanian citizens.

The list of global humanitarian tragedies is long, but the Syrian crisis ranks right up there at the top. And for those who care about Israel’s security, the situation in Jordan looks especially dire. Israel already has to worry about civil war and chemical weapons use by Syria, and political upheaval and uncertainty in Egypt. The last thing Israel needs is its one stable neighbor collapsing under the weight of this refugee crisis.  

Given that the civil war in Syria is not likely to end any time soon, we who love and support Israel owe it to ourselves to do something — and, fortunately, there are a number of steps we can take in our communities that can help make a difference. We can encourage philanthropists who support Israel to dig deeply into their pockets to offer direct assistance to UNHCR in Jordan. We can ask manufacturers here in the U.S. to donate playground equipment and small toys to the Syrians living in Jordan’s refugee camps. And, we can urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to strengthen aid and support to the Jordanian government.

We know from our tradition, in Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, “Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if you saved the whole world.”

This teaching was essentially the message we got from UNHCR’s Harper who said that even a small act like helping to provide families with toiletry kits containing soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste could make a significant difference to public health in the camps. Let’s empower him with the resources he needs to do his job and impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. That humanitarian aid could be crucial to ensuring Israel’s security, as well.

Janet Halbert is a Los Angeles-area CPA who specializes in providing practical problem-solving services to midsized companies and nonprofit organizations. A member of J Street’s national leadership circle, she participated in J Street’s congressional and leadership mission to the region in May.

The forgotten refugees of Ghouta, Syria

The most infamous attack over two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria – a silent sarin gassing in the city of Ghouta that killed more than 1,500 and sent allied countries to the brink of world war – came in the middle of the night.

When I woke up, I found that everyone in my neighborhood had died,” said Syrian refugee Alia Wahban, 18, as she tried to warm the hands of her wailing 8-month-old. “Everyone was on the ground, in the street. We brought water to put on their faces, but they didn’t wake up.”

Wahban knew she had to get out of Syria. So she made her way through the Syrian desert with the help of the Free Syrian Army, praying she wouldn’t be stopped at a military checkpoint, where she feared Hezbollah operatives might rape her – or, worse, kill her son.

A few months later, safe yet starving in a makeshift camp in Jordan, Wahban spoke of the hard new reality she faces as a refugee. A single light bulb – dangling from a cord in the center of her United Nations tent, sucking electricity from a nearby Jordanian home – gave dim shape to the two dozen people huddled alongside Wahban. They were perched along a ring of thin sleeping mats that lined the tent, drinking tiny cups of tea and batting at the flies that had taken refuge there, as well.

“We expect to die this winter,” said Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, a mother of four who fled Ghouta seven months ago, just missing the chemical-weapons attack. (Many of her friends and relatives back home, however, didn’t make it.)

Outside, as if on cue, thunder growled across the late November sky, announcing the second rainfall of winter. It was an ominous reminder of the icy storms to come, which meteorologists predict will be some of the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

[Related: Fifteen-year-old Amira al-Hamed, standing, and her little sister are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mafraq. “There are no clothes, no water, no blankets,” she said. “It's very cold at night. … Please send the message to the world to send winter stuff to us.” Photo by Simone Wilson

Rabeit Na’eam nearly doubled in size following the chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta: The camp’s total population now sits at about 300 families, or 1,500 people, according to al-Khaldi. “The main worry for me now is if these organizations stop giving me aid for the camp, [because then] I cannot give any aid to the refugees in the camp,” he said in his office, lined in ornate gold wallpaper and hung with portraits of the Jordanian royal family.

Back at camp, the refugees are becoming anxious. “When it rains, the tent leaks and floods,” said al-Hamdan, mother of four. Her teeth were yellowed, and some rhinestones had flaked off the geometric pattern running down her abaya. “The water also comes up from the ground.”

Al-Hamdan turned from the visiting journalist to the accompanying JRO volunteer, a Syrian refugee himself, and grilled him about when she would receive a caravan to replace her tent.

The JRO volunteer, a friendly twenty-something with a buzz cut and a puffy thermal vest, pulled up a photo on his smartphone of the typical refugee caravan — a small rectangle, five meters by three meters, with double-paneled walls for insulation. “Very nice,” he said.

“Everybody wants a caravan,” said a spokesperson for UNHCR who wished not to be identified by name. “It’s a way of having a roof — literally a roof — over your head. You can lock your door. You can stand up. It’s also raised a little bit from the ground. And it certainly provides, on a psychological level, a sense of more protection.”

JRO director Al-Khaldi said the Rabeit Na’eam camp is currently populated by 300 tents and 20 caravans; however, refugees at the camp told the Journal that none of them had yet received a caravan.

Al-Khaldi also claimed the UNHCR originally promised to help with the camp, but that “the promises ran out.” However, the UNHCR spokesperson said she had never heard of the Rabeit Na’eam camp, nor its parent organization. “There are hundreds of informal settlements, ranging from a few tents to larger numbers,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t help us when people are not in an official camp setting, as they don’t have access to water, to food and non-food items, kitchens, medical clinics, schools, and to other assistance the humanitarian community provides.

“We do make every effort to support all Syrians in need, however the needs are so enormous, that it can be incredibly challenging to identify everyone,” she said.

At the UNHCR’s massive Za’atari refugee camp, 20 minutes east — whose 80,000 residents come mainly from the Syrian city of Daraa — all but 4,000 families live in caravans, and public restrooms dot the city grid. Some enterprising refugees even steal scraps to build their own private stalls. (“Have they stolen it, or have they privatized it?” asked the UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in a YouTube documentary on the camp. “I think they privatized it.”)

Much has been written and observed about Za’atari, a 1.3-square-mile refugee haven equipped with schools, medical tents and marketplaces. Its internal issues are often less aid-related and more city-related: As the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, it sees theft, violence, contagious diseases, in-fighting between communities and other problems that would arise in any cluster of 80,000 people fenced into rows of caravans in the ruthlessly hot-and-cold desert.

“Although a camp situation is not the most desirable, at least we can support them,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

In Arabic, Rabeit Na’eam means a desert oasis — a green “paradise” where water springs from the ground, according to a young Jordanian entrepreneur who helped translate at the camp.

The irony of this did not escape him. Water is scarce at the Rabeit Na’eam refugee camp, and the terrain harsh. One small boy, around 4 years old, padded over the desert rocks in bare feet, his dark toes coated in a layer of white-orange dust.

To go to the bathroom, al-Hamdan explained, she and the other Ghouta escapees must dig holes in the wet ground — which is especially difficult, and humiliating, for the women.

“In Syria, I had a safe life. I was in school, in the sixth grade,” said Amira al-Hamed, a shy 15-year-old girl living at Rabeit Na’eam with her mother and little sister. “I was playing every day with my friends in my neighborhood. My parents owned a house.”

But after Syrian forces destroyed the family home, al-Hamed, her mother and her sister were forced to leave Ghouta and camp Bedouin-style near the Syrian-Jordanian border for a few months. (Her father stayed behind.) Then, in October, they crossed the border into Jordan, where Jordanian soldiers delivered them straight to Za’atari.

However, because members of their extended family were already living at Rabeit Na’eam, they requested to be transferred.

Now, daily life is bleak. “There is no work or school for me. I just sit in the tent and sleep,” the 15-year-old said.

Although al-Hamed said she wishes she had a caravan like the ones she saw at Za’atari, the bigger camp frightened her: “There are many problems there, and violence,” she said. “It’s a dangerous situation. Also, I have relatives here.”

The No. 1 priority for the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam is to live alongside familiar faces from their old neighborhood, according to JRO Director al-Khaldi. “You can see that everyone knows everyone, and the kids play with each other, and everything is OK,” he said. “All of them come from the same family, so no problems will happen.”

The UNHCR spokesperson said another reason for avoiding Za’atari is that refugees aren’t allowed to leave or find work. Despite the Jordanian government’s ban on hiring Syrian refugees, “we do often find that those outside the camp are working informally, on farms for example,” she said. (A hotel manager in nearby Irbid, Jordan, confirmed this, saying he regularly hired Syrian men to work on his house in the cover of night, before inspectors came around at dawn.)

But the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam pay a price for their freedom. “There are no bathrooms here, and no water,” said al-Hamdan. “There are not enough blankets and clothes for the winter. There are no heaters, and no wood to make a fire. There is nowhere to buy bread. There is no money.”

Like most refugees in Jordan, the Ghouta natives at Rabeit Na’eam receive a limited ration of food coupons from the World Food Programme (WFP). But their remote location makes it more difficult for them to use the credit.

Most days, the refugees said, they eat only rice.

Asked what he does for fun, a 12-year-old boy named Hamed said he plays football all day on the desert flats. “But in the winter,” he said, “I’ll just sleep.”

The shelters at Rabeit Na’eam, which sleep around 12 to a room, are made from a patchwork of UNHCR tents and other assorted tarps and canvases. Donated rugs line the inside. Photo by Simone Wilson

As the sun set at Rabeit Na’eam, leaving behind a chill that cut to the bone, the lights of a Syrian border town blinked in the distance, beyond the tents.

“When Obama made the decision to go to Syria, I was very happy,” said al-Hamdan. “But now I think Obama supports Bashar [al-Assad].” A 70-year-old woman with dark, leathery skin who appeared to be the tent’s communal grandmother chimed in. “I thought America would help the Syrian people, but they didn’t,” she said, raising her voice to a shout. “If Obama wanted, he could help us. He doesn’t want to help us.”

The Ghouta survivors stressed that August’s infamous chemical-weapons attack, which they all blamed on Assad, was only one of thousands of assaults that have devastated their homeland. “The helicopters shot my house and my house broke down,” said Mohammad al-Ahmed, 35, a second cousin of al-Hamdan whose red-and-white keffiyeh was secured to his head with a circle of black rope. He crunched a string of yellow beads compulsively in his hand as he described hearing the helicopters overhead, running out of his house and watching as it was bombed to nothing. The same blast killed 13 of his neighbors, including a two-day-old infant.

On his flip phone, Al-Ahmed looked through photos of two happy memories at Rabeit Na’eam: The first, when the camp was gifted an entire sheep to kill and eat at Ramadan, and the second, when Patch Adams came to visit, dancing around in a red clown nose and stuffing kids into his signature pair of giant underwear. Cracks of laughter broke the musty hush in the tent as the refugees told stories about Adams’ visit.

But they can never forget the biting realities unfolding in their hometown, and their new temporary home, for long. Al-Ahmed said his brother recently told him over the phone that the Syrian government is surrounding Ghouta, blocking civilians from leaving the city and barring any food from entering.

A young girl named Noor said her father and her brother, too, are still trapped in Ghouta. “She cries every day and asks when her dad will come,” al-Ahmed said, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. As he said it, tears welled up again in Noor’s eyes. A pickup truck full of whooping Jordanian teenagers roared by on a road that cuts through the camp.

“I hope my father will be able to come here soon,” Noor said, hugging herself from the cold.


To support the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam and help keep them warm through the winter, monetary donations can be made to the Jordan Relief Organization through the following bank account: Arab Islamic Bank, account number 1060-11065-505, swift code iibajoam200. The most-needed items are currently blankets ($18 each), heaters plus bottles of gas ($141 each) and caravans ($2,260).

Israelis helping Syrian refugees in Jordan: Balancing aid and diplomacy

Mafraq is a single-story city in the desert flats of northern Jordan, built in beige and white, spiked with mosques and dotted with chalky vacant lots that suffice as soccer courts. The pores and meridians of Mafraq’s streets are clogged with bits of trash — snack baggies, mini coffee cups, old shoes, soda bottles, all kinds of plastic — that cling together in odd, twisty shapes, little trash monsters soggy with winter’s first rain.

This city of around 60,000, among Jordan’s most impoverished, has doubled in size over the past year: Mafraq is now half Jordanian, half Syrian. As the closest city to the Nasib-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria, it has become a refuge for a tidal wave of people fleeing the civil war in Syria, the No. 1 absorber of refugees (per capita) in a nation that has absorbed almost a million — driving up the price of food and water and overcrowding the local housing market.

“All the people in the streets are Syrian,” said Ali Shdaifat, head of the Jordan National Red Crescent Society branch in Mafraq. He said he has seen as many as 40 refugees stuffed into a two-bedroom apartment. Rent for one such apartment has gone from about $150 to $300 per month due to refugee demand, said Mohammad al-Khaldi, another local aid organizer.

The refugees in and around Mafraq are also some of the neediest in Jordan. Unlike at Za’atari, the famous United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp taking root 20 minutes east — a sprawling caravan city with over 80,000 residents who at least have access to three schools and 12 medical tents — the urban refugees of Mafraq and those camping on its outskirts aren’t always sure where their next meal will come from or how they’ll keep warm through the freezing desert winter. “Most of our refugees, up to 80 percent, are outside of the camp. They’re living in shacks,” said Aoife McDonnell, a cheery Irish external relations officer for UNHCR. She pulled on a purple fleece as the wind whipped through the UNHCR office trailers at Za’atari. “For me, it’s upsetting. I visited people in warehouses, with washing lines hung across the middle, splitting the warehouse into three, with UNHCR blankets thrown over to create privacy. … They’re largely an invisible population.” 


Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

It probably would have been more efficient to purchase the aid items locally in Jordan, the Christian organizer said, where the economy is buckling under the refugee influx and could use the boost. But according to all involved, there was a personal touch to the Hand in Hand mission that went beyond prepackaged aid kits.

“All the items came from somewhere,” Melanie said. The refugees “could choose clothes and know that a different child wore it and gave it to them. Every time I packed something, I thought, ‘Oh, somebody’s going to love this.’ ”

To this day, the Jordanian NGO that helped distribute Hand in Hand’s careful load at its stone building in Mafraq denies it ever collaborated with Israelis. “The clothes weren’t from Israel, they were from America,” the organization’s head claimed.

Melanie launched Hand in Hand in 2012 when she started to see photos on the Internet of shivering, starving Syrian refugees who had fled their bombed-out cities for nearby nations. It made her sick to know such mass suffering existed so close to home.

“It looked to me absurd that all they need is blankets and coats — and as the next-closest country, it seemed very simple for me to do,” she said.

At that point, no Syrians had yet been smuggled across the Israel-Syria border to be treated by Israeli doctors, and Melanie couldn’t find any press coverage online showing other Israeli aid efforts. She thought no one in Israel was helping the Syrian refugees. “I was really ashamed for my country,” she said.

Then Melanie got a call from Gal Lusky, director of the NGO Israeli Flying Aid, which  had been quietly delivering aid to Syrians since early 2012. Its motto: “Nobody asks permission to kill; we don’t ask permission to save lives.”

Said Melanie: “I was so relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one.”

Gal: The Masked Hero

Aside from a September trip to Los Angeles, in the course of which Lusky talked about Israeli Flying Aid’s mission to Syria on “Good Day LA,” spoke at the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts under her real name and, beforehand, did an interview with Jewish Journal president and columnist David Suissa, she has shielded her organization from press. An extremely protective, understandably paranoid aid veteran who must maintain good relations with Syrian rebel commanders and the like to continue delivering aid, Lusky declined to speak again to the Journal unless her name, the name of her organization and the locations she has visited be omitted from the article.

“She is the most important player here, by far,” Boms said. 

Lusky prioritizes covert, often risky aid delivery in the region, including inside Syria — and to avoid detection, must take a back-roads approach.

Within Boms’ theory that there are two distinct types of Israeli aid delivery — humanitarian assistance and humanitarian diplomacy — Lusky has committed herself wholly to the former. “Nobody knows mostly where we come from, and that allows us to work safely,” she told “Good Day LA” host Steve Edwards. (However, she added that, sometimes, “Before we leave, when we feel safe enough, we allow the locals to know” that the aid came from Israel — to mixed reactions.)

“Why were you more scared of this [interview] than going into those areas?” host Edwards asked the visibly nervous Lusky. “Because I’m fully covered in those areas!” she answered, apparently in reference to the hijab she has been known to wear in the field.

As secretive as she is, Lusky has also taken some sporadic PR risks in her efforts to improve Israeli-Syrian relations. At last summer’s Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, she played an audio recording of a Syrian opposition leader sending his thanks to Israeli President Shimon Peres. “May God bless you and help you with the good deeds you are doing to achieve this new Middle East,” the message said.

There are two major NGOs in Israel that deliver aid to outside countries: IsraAID, run by Shachar Zahavi, and Israeli Flying Aid, run by Lusky. Both organizations have responded to myriad disasters around the world, including in Haiti, Japan and the Philippines — although Israeli Flying Aid chooses to focus on countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel.

IsraAID is far bolder when it comes to press. Its name and the names of its volunteers are not kept under wraps, and various reporters have accompanied the organization on missions to Jordan. Israeli newspapers have run uncensored photos of the smiling Syrians on the receiving end, hauling IsraAID’s signature purple or yellow aid bags back to their tents.

The same Christian organization that helped Hand in Hand has covered for IsraAID on all six of its trips to Jordan this year. The Christian aid leader said she was deeply moved by some refugees’ reactions to finding out the help comes from Israel: “One woman found out they were Jewish and said, ‘Oh, my goodness. You have come to help me, and my own government is trying to kill me.’ ”

In total, IsraAID has delivered $100,000 worth of aid to Syrian refugees in the form of 3,500 kits filled with food, sanitation items and blankets, according to staff. (Each kit serves seven to eight family members.) Currently in the planning stages is a psychosocial program to train Israeli and Jordanian psychiatrists to give trauma counseling to refugees.

Israeli Flying Aid, on the other hand — perhaps for its more discrete approach — has managed to deliver 20 tons of medications; 70 tons of sanitation items; 120 tons of bedding, building materials and water canteens; 670 tons of food; and 300,000 dry meals, according to its Web site. And the organization is reportedly already running a counseling program like the one IsraAID hopes to set up.

Sources familiar with both aid groups said that Zahavi and Lusky used to be part of the same organization but went their separate ways a few years ago, due to personal and ideological differences.

When Israeli Flying Aid started to work in Syria, it took down its Web site and created a nondescript alternative. The group’s new site reads: “Not only … do volunteers have to hide from the host country, but they also must be cautious of Iranian and Syrian intelligence personnel who have infiltrated the host countries and disguise themselves as refugees. They bring information back to the Syrian government, including numbers and names, and also actively try to frighten and hurt the refugees. There have even been reports of infiltrators poisoning the water sources of the refugees. As a result, the Israeli NGO works with cash only: in order to buy the humanitarian aid locally, to stay under the radar, and protect the lives of volunteers and local contacts.”

Aid organizations are normally hungry for press, because without it, they have trouble tracking down the donations they need to respond to sudden disasters. But Lusky’s reputation as a sort of trans-border superhero, dropping kindness bombs onto Israel’s sworn enemies, has built her all the connections she needs — including a key partnership with the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, a coalition run by the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The initiative was spearheaded in May by the IRC’s Bennett, the American queen of Jewish disaster relief. When the IRC, which she oversees, released a 2013 report on the plight of Syrian refugees, Bennett said she realized that “this was worst refugee crisis of our time — a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions.”

So far, of around $200,000 that the JDC has allocated toward helping Syrian refugees in Jordan, $50,000 has gone straight to Israeli Flying Aid for delivery of food and sanitation items. (Another $50,000, for example, went to the Jordanian Red Crescent to give first-aid training to Syrian refugees.)

Although Bennett declined to comment on the partnership with Israeli Flying Aid in particular, she said: “We make allocations only to organizations that the coalition has vetted.”

Amid a conflict as complex as the one unfolding in Syria, a stamp of approval from a major philanthropy group can mean everything.

“It’s not just the Jewish community” that is hesitant to donate to Syrian relief efforts, said Charlene Seidle, executive director of the Leichtag Foundation, a Southern California grant-maker that donated $75,000 to the JDC’s Syria fund. “In general, it’s a confusing situation — there are conflicting reports on the media, there’s a lot of nuance around it, and people are worried. They don’t want money to get in the wrong hands. For us, we take a lot of comfort in the fact that the JDC, in particular, was involved. We have a high degree of trust in the JDC’s ability to localize and allocate in the event of disaster.”

IsraAID has tapped into various other Jewish groups in North America for support, including the American Jewish Committee and the top Jewish federation in Toronto.

Boms said there is value in both Israeli aid groups’ approaches. But as a career advocate of diplomacy between nations, he noted that the more mainstream the narrative of Israelis helping Syrians in Jordan becomes, the more a future of Middle East collaboration can be digested by the general public.

Nir and Qutaibah: The Ambassadors

Nir Boms strolled into his coffee-shop interview in the posh German Colony of Jerusalem in a neat gray business suit, fresh off a lunch date with another high-up Jerusalemite — a culture-maker grappling with the challenge of trying to coax a prominent Syrian musician to play in Israel.

“Nir is also a prominent Syrian,” joked the friend.

There is a small circle of Israeli thinkers who make it their mission to shatter the notion that Israel is an island in the Middle East — and Boms just might be the ringleader. He is simultaneously the former academic liaison to the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., and a co-founder of cyberdissidents.org, a blog site committed to upholding the freedom-of-expression principles of the Arab Spring. Its staff includes advisers and contributors from Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Syria.

“For me, it was very important for us to try and be as visible as possible,” Boms said of the Hand in Hand mission he helped organize.

For Melanie, too. But she soon realized that her Israeli volunteers would have to hide behind a Christian aid organization. “At first, I was very sad about it — it was a decision that we needed to take, but I was sad,” she said. “But things had more impact than that. Because now there’s a Web site; there are pictures; there’s a Facebook page that represents us and everything that is happening from Israel [in response to] this crisis. And people all over the world see these pictures, and see the aid — mine, Gal’s, doctors from Israel, whatever, everything is posted in that Facebook page. And I get many replies from doctors in Syria and journalists from Syria that are thanking us, and saying that they never thought about the meaning of Israeli citizens. They don’t even have it in their vocabulary — only Zionist. And now they see things that they couldn’t have known otherwise.”

Boms said that diplomatic ties between clashing cultures in the region can often be more easily formed outside the immediate sphere of conflict — online, or between immigrant populations living in less-charged environments like the United States.

But he has also taken a bold approach to forming bonds smack in the hotbed of conflict: His diverse and intimate network in the Middle East includes members of the Syrian opposition, whom he just visited in Turkey last month.

Right after his interview with the Journal, Boms sent an e-mail containing one of his closest contacts in Jordan, with the note: “FYI, one of those you need to meet …” 

Qutaibah, 24, met Boms through an older Jordanian friend who had attended the same conference as the Israeli academic, and soon became an integral player in pulling off Melanie’s dream to haul 5,000 items of Israeli clothing across the border. (A feat that more experienced aid workers thought impossible, due to enduring suspicion between Israelis and Jordanians, despite their 1994 peace treaty.)

“I would be so worried if some Jordanian friends catch this newspaper and read my name,” said Qutaibah, dipping into a bowl of baba ganoush at the best hummus spot in Amman, Jordan’s capital city. “It will be like a sin if I deal with Israeli people or a Jewish Journal. … This will be crazy, because everyone here knows everyone.” 

Qutaibah explained that while Israel might have a treaty with the Jordanian government, the Israeli people haven’t necessarily earned the trust of the Jordanian people.

“If anyone hears I’m working with Israelis, they’ll think I’m a spy,” he said.

But a rare trusting hunch in the young Jordanian entrepreneur has driven him to learn more about, and work closely with the Jewish people. He traveled around Israel for one week last year, swimming off Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean shore and staying a few nights at Boms’ house in Jerusalem.  “I tried to know more about his personality,” Qutaibah said of his new Israeli friend. “And, every day, I asked him about everything — about Jewish people, how they live, what they’re interested in, everything. We went to the Old City with a Jewish guide, and the next day we went with an Arab guide … but Nir taught me more. He taught me about how we can improve our relations with the Israeli people.”

If there is a fresh face for this “new Middle East” the academics dream of, it is Qutaibah’s. The lanky 24-year-old, with long, swooping eyelashes and a Roberto Benigni hair flip, is almost comically optimistic and helpful without hesitation, showing up to this reporter’s hotel in downtown Irbid, Jordan, every morning with two cell phones full of contacts he could call for directions, transportation, government shortcuts, etc. If one fell through, he called another.

In collaboration with a Christian organization in Israel and an NGO in Jordan, IsraAID has made six trips to distribute aid to Syrian refugees. The missions have concentrated on urban refugees and those living in scattered settlements outside the Za’atari camp. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

One year back, Boms asked Qutaibah whether he might be able to help a group of Israelis deliver aid to Syrian refugees living in Jordan. “I told him, ‘We must find organizations in Jordan who will work like a partnership,’ ” Qutaibah said.

That task turned out, like everything involving Israelis, to be more thorny than he expected. “The main answer to everything is,” Qutaibah joked, “ ‘very complicated.’ ”

He eventually locked down a couple of partners, but as word has spread that Israelis are on the giving end, Jordanian aid organizations have become increasingly skittish. “Qutaibah always likes to make some propaganda,” the leader of one Jordanian NGO said. “I don’t like this way.”

Even the UNHCR, when asked if they’ve received Israeli or Jewish aid, stated only: “Any agency that we deal with has to be cleared by Government of Jordan, and registered in Jordan as an NGO.”

Boms described the walls he hits as an Israeli operating outside Israel: “They’ve called me a Mossad agent in many different places,” he said. “Everything we touch as Israelis, from delivering a towel to speaking with somebody, becomes a whole issue. It’s foxy. We are a foxy place because of the geopolitics of the Middle East.”

While many refugees have sent thanks for the Israeli aid trickling into Mafraq, one Syrian mother expressed frustration about all the hoopla surrounding the missions. “Israelis just send secondhand clothes. This is not enough,” said al-Araheem, the Syrian mother of six who lives in a small apartment in Mafraq but is two months behind on rent. “People who come from the Gulf, they pay a lot a lot of money. But when Israelis come, they bring used clothing. They collect a lot of money by Web site, and we have never seen anything.”

The Israeli and Jewish aid circulating among Syrian refugees is indeed dwarfed by the billions of dollars donated by Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Qatar. “I don’t think there’s any illusion that a funder giving $75,000 — or even $75 million — is going to solve this profound issue,” said Seidle of the Leichtag Foundation. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of lives. But it doesn’t mean that we can just stand idly by and do nothing, either.”

Still, it remains a common complaint among refugees: Journalists, need surveyors and government workers keep on traveling through, taking notes and snapping photos, with no immediate proof of benefit.

“They don’t just need our sympathy,” Boms said. “They need something tangible.”

But Qutaibah has made one particular Israeli friend who has caused him extra grief within his network in northern Jordan.

“He promised to come last week, but he didn’t come,” said al-Araheem, her light-green eyes open wide, defensive, and her arms folded tight across her chest.

Moti: The American Dreamer

Al-Araheem was referring to Washington, D.C.’s cover boy for Jewish-Syrian collaboration: Moti Kahana, a chatty rental-car mogul who was born Israeli but reps himself more as a New York Jew.

Kahana is one of the only parties involved in delivering aid to Syrians who was willing to use his full name for this story. In fact, he insisted — because, for him, high-profile Jewishness is integral to the cause.

“I told [Moti] from the very beginning, he has to make a choice: Does he want to be Israeli or does he want to help Syrians? He can’t do both,” said a friend of his working with the Syrian opposition.

But Kahana has chosen to embrace the shtick. A video interview with Israel’s Channel 10 in which Kahana advocated for the Syrian opposition — while wrapped in a Free Syrian Army flag — was re-aired by Hezbollah-affiliated news channel Al-Manar, painting Kahana as the crazy Zionist spy meddling in Syrian affairs.

At the height of the paranoia, in May, Assad himself posted a photo of Kahana on his official Facebook page, with the caption: “Jewish-Israeli businessman Moti Kahana holding the rebel flag in a Washington conference with rebel representatives.”

Last month, making the rounds at a conference in the nicest, most modernized part of Amman — where women wear gorgeous silk headscarves or no headscarves at all — Kahana told this story often, finding a way to drop, “Assad mentioned me on his Facebook page” into almost any conversation. 

Kahana said he has donated around $100,000 of his own cash to the Syrian cause — money that has gone toward refugee aid efforts, including those of Israeli Flying Aid, but also toward spreading the gospel of Assad’s opposition.

The New York businessman claims to have paid for the flights of opposition members, as well as some of the logistical expenses surrounding Sen. John McCain’s top-secret trip into Syria in May. Like Boms, Kahana said he has been making diplomacy trips to Turkey to speak with Syrian opposition leaders, and has made some headway in convincing them to open their minds to Israeli-Syrian collaboration.

For a while, Kahana was also toting a friend of his from the Syrian opposition around the United States, introducing him to synagogues full of Americans, trying to round up good-faith and financial support for Syria’s freedom fighters.

Bennett remembered meeting Kahana at the JDC’s kickoff dinner for its Syrian aid initiative: “I found him to be very committed to helping out.”

But Kahana’s current project is designed to out-wow the rest: He plans to distribute small-business loans to Syrian refugee women throughout the Middle East through his own U.S.-based micro-financing 501(c)(3). 

“After [President Barack] Obama decided not to attack, we realized [the war in Syria] was not going to end,” he said. “And my focus shifted to, ‘How can we help [refugees] sustain themselves?’ So I started the micro-financing project.”

That was over half a year ago. Now, with talks on the project drawn out for months, the Jordanian NGOs that agreed to collaborate and the Syrian women who filled out loan applications in Mafraq — including al-Araheem’s mother, hoping to sell homemade sweets — are beginning to doubt Kahana’s commitment.

“Where is the project? Where is the budget?” the leader of one such Jordanian NGO asked. “It costs a lot for Americans to come here, right? But how can they come without real things with them? That makes me crazy.”

For Kahanh, who is committed to an open, by-the-book approach, “It takes longer than everybody wants it to. I can’t break the law in any country — not Jordan, not Israel, not America. I have to go by the system, and sometimes the refugees, they’re kind of eager, like, ‘Get it done, get it done.’ I can’t. … My goal in Jordan is to have cooperation with the Jordanian authorities. I’m not doing something under the table.”

Lina Shalabi, a Palestinian-American in her early 30s who has been doing legwork for the project both in the United States and Jordan, lamented having to play the bad cop while visiting refugees’ barebones apartments.

“It’s hard. A lot of them told me such sad stories about themselves, personal stories — and I was assuming the role of a loan officer,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry, but it really has nothing to do with the loan application.’ … I didn’t want them to think that that could affect the loan.”

The ambitious endeavor brought Kahana and Shalabi to the extravagant Four Seasons Hotel in Amman in late November for a Women’s World Banking conference, centered on the topic of micro-financing for women in the Middle East and North Africa. At the two-day event, Kahana passed around quirky business cards with a photo of Rosie the Riveter and the name of his organization, Micro4Women, printed in wiggly font. He tried to track down the international partners he would need to set up his micro-financing project in refugee havens across the Middle East.

A friend of Kahana’s from Kiva, an innovative loan Web site that crowd-sources its funds, expressed interest in the project over a gourmet hot-lunch buffet. (The leftovers of which, one couldn’t help but notice, could have fed hundreds at the refugee camp an hour north.)

However, other high-level micro-financing folks at the conference looked a little skittish.

The head of the Lebanese Association for Development told Kahana point-blank that his ties to Israel and Jewish America would, unfortunately, prevent them from working together. Jewish money would raise a red flag for the organization’s partners and clients, he said.

Even for a journalist traveling around Jordan on behalf of an American-Jewish newspaper, interactions with government officials were tense. Qutaibah advised this reporter early on not to say the story was for a Jewish newspaper; after ignoring this advice at the Interior Ministry, a permission document for the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal to enter the Za’atari camp and speak to Syrian refugees was held up for days. (According to Ayman Arabeyat, director of the Jordanian press office, the word “Jewish” specifically caused the delay.) And when permission was finally issued, Jordanian police inside the camp suspected the documents had been forged. They sent an officer along to monitor questions posed to the Syrian refugees; Qutaibah, who heard them speaking together in Arabic, said police were suspicious that the Journal was actually Israeli, and intended to run a negative news report on Jordanian management of the camp.

“It’s a tricky thing with the Jordanians, because it takes a while to establish trust,” Boms said. “It’s not easy for them to work with us, and we need to be cognizant of that.” 

The IRC’s Bennett, who also heads the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, said these growing pains could also be seen as “a tremendous opportunity for people-to-people diplomacy. Most people in the surrounding countries have never met a Jew, and the only Israeli they’ve ever seen is on the other side of a gun. This is an opportunity for people to get to know each other on a human level.”

The subtext being, of course, that when the shrapnel finally settles in Syria, if the opposition has its way, Israel will be looking at an entirely new set of negotiating partners.

Jewish groups sending aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan

A coalition of Jewish groups is providing more than $100,000 in aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which is made up of 14 organizations and coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, convened Thursday in New York to allocate the money to several groups providing aid to Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Jordan, a JDC spokesman told JTA.

The money is going to the Jordanian Red Crescent, which is the kingdom’s version of the Red Cross; Israel Flying Aid, for food distribution; World Jewish Relief, which is working with the Save the Children program in one of the refugee camps; and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), for resettlement work.

Approximately 1 million refugees from Syria’s two-year-old civil war have fled in roughly equal numbers to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

The Six-Day War, still

The Six-Day War began at 7:10 a.m. on June 5, 1967. By 10 a.m., it was clear Israel had already won.

In the tense months before the war started, no one predicted such an astonishing victory.  Israel was a small nation surrounded by enemies who had twice the soldiers, twice the tanks, four times the fighter jets.

And yet, hours after taking to the skies in a daring surprise attack, Israeli warplanes obliterated the air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria on the ground.

National Security Adviser Walt Rostow sent a report to his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, hours after that now historic feat.

“Herewith the account, with a map, of the first day’s turkey shoot,” Rostow wrote.

The victory was lightning fast, but not sudden. Israel’s leaders had planned for the eventuality of a preemptive strike. Fighter jets flew practice runs over models of Egyptian airfields constructed in the Negev Desert, over and over again, for five years.

After the attack, the war progressed in bitter battles on different fronts: the Sinai, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights. In each case, Israel prevailed, and the world was a far different place by the end of a week of fighting. 

And so it remains. 

The idea of a preemptive war no doubt inspired the architects of the Iraq War — many of whom came of age as the world looked in awe at Israel’s victory. They got the preemption right — but not the planning or the purpose. So our children have come of age with wars that drag on without end, to indeterminate effect.

The war helped birth Islamic extremism, as Arabs turned for salvation from failed national leaders. It also cracked the façade of Arab despots — in that way, the Arab Spring is yet another battle of the 1967 war.

The war forged the strategic bond between the United States and Israel — the defining diplomatic alliance for America in this century. From 1949 to 1967, U.S. aid to Israel averaged about $63 million per year. Since 1967, it averages about $2.5 billion.

The Six-Day War also put the Palestinian cause on the center of the world stage. As Arabs saw their conventional armies go down in defeat, the Palestinians “innovated” modern terrorism.

And the war birthed a messianic, triumphalist faction of Zionism whose most concrete manifestation — the settlement movement — still preoccupies American policy makers 46 years to the day since the war.

Israeli tanks advancing on the Golan Heights on June 10, 1967. Photo by Assaf Kutin/© The State of Israel Government Press Office

This week, after visits in Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “time is not on Israel’s side” for reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians over the territories Israel conquered in June 1967.

Kerry was, in essence, reiterating a set of principles President Johnson outlined on June 19, 1967, after the war dust had settled: the right of every state in the region to exist, freedom of navigation, arms control, territorial integrity and the need for a solution to the refugee problem.

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a diminutive, quiet shtetl Jew, had by the war’s end forged an unlikely partnership with Johnson, the tall, gregarious Texan. He called Johnson’s formulation “masterful.” 

Indeed, in the intervening decades, there have been no further lessons to be learned that weren’t apparent to Johnson and Eshkol the moment the war ended.

I thought of that late last month when Dan Meridor stopped by our offices. Meridor, a scion of the right-wing Likud Party, maintained for years that Israel has the right to build settlements wherever it wants in the territories captured during the war.

Meridor, who served as minister of intelligence and atomic energy and deputy prime minister in the last government, spoke about how his thinking has evolved.

“In the long run, what we have now is very dangerous,” Meridor told me.  “Because one day the Palestinians on the West Bank will say, ‘We don’t want a state, we want a vote. After 45 years, we cannot live like that in Hebron: 1,000 Jews vote and 100,000 Arabs don’t vote. We want one man, one vote.’ Even without Gaza, that adds 2 million more Arabs, and you can’t have them without equal rights.” 

The relative lack of terror attacks compared to the years of Intifada, the chaos of the Arab Spring beyond Israel’s borders, the rise of Hamas and the weakness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have convinced most Israelis, said Meridor,  that negotiations now are unwise or unnecessary — despite Kerry’s entreaties.

Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin talking to soldiers in the field during the Six-Day War. GPO, 30/05/1967

Perhaps, Meridor said. But in the meantime, Israel must take steps to increase, rather than decrease, the chances for a negotiated settlement.

His message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

 “You say ‘Palestinian state,’ but you are building all over the place, so they don’t believe you,” Meridor said. “They think you are a liar.  You need to have coherence between your stated peace policy and your settlement policy.

“I speak all over the world, and there is only one topic I can’t explain, even to 90 percent of the congressmen in America, and that’s settlements,” Meridor continued. “Even if there’s no agreement, don’t create a situation where you cannot cut one.”

At the end of our conversation Meridor told me he was a tank commander in June 1967. “Did you ever think,” I asked him, “the Six-Day War would last this long?”


(Ed. Note: This Internet version was altered to correct the impression in my paraphrase of Meridor's statement that there are no ongoing  incidents of terror attacks against Israelis.]

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

U.N. peacekeepers held in Syria reach Israel, military spokeswoman says

U.N. peacekeepers held by rebels for three days in southern Syria and freed at the weekend crossed into Israel from neighboring Jordan on Monday, a military spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman would not comment, however, on a report by an Israeli newspaper that Israeli troops had later escorted the 21 Filipino peacekeepers back to their base along the Syrian frontier with the Golan Heights, which are occupied by Israel.

The peacekeepers, part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that has monitored the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria since 1974, were released on Saturday by rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and taken to Jordan.

The men had been held in the village of Jamla, some 6 miles from the Jordanian border with Syria. The United Nations said they had been captured by 30 rebel fighters.

“I can confirm that they came into Israel today, from Jordan,” the Israeli spokeswoman said of the freed peacekeepers.

It was not immediately clear why the peacekeepers would end up in Israel, but, logistically, it would be safe for them to return to their main command post via Israel.

The spokeswoman refused to comment on the report on the Maariv newspaper's website that Israeli soldiers had escorted the Filipinos by bus from the Jordan border region to their base in the Golan.

The paper said that Israel, already worried about Syria's two-year civil war spilling across its border, was also concerned that the incident with the peacekeepers might lead member countries to pull troops out of UNDOF.

The peacekeepers have helped monitor an enduring though often tense agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, under which Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of forces within 20 km of a disengagement line in the Golan.

Israel captured the strategic Golan plateau from Syria in a 1967 war and later annexed the territory.

There have been a number incidents in which shells from Syria's civil war have landed in Israel since November, the latest as recently as Saturday. None have caused any casualties.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alison Williams

Sixty-five found executed in Syria’s Aleppo, activists say

At least 65 people were found shot dead with their hands bound in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday in a “new massacre” in the near two-year revolt against President Bashar Assad, activists said.

Opposition campaigners blamed the government but it was impossible to confirm who was responsible. Assad's forces and rebels have been battling in Syria's commercial hub since July and both have been accused of carrying out summary executions.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday the fighting had forced more than 700,000 people to flee. World powers fear the conflict could increasingly envelop Syria's neighbors including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, further destabilizing an already explosive region.

Opposition activists posted a video of a man filming at least 51 muddied male bodies alongside what they said was the Queiq River in Aleppo's rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.

The bodies had bullet wounds in their heads and some of the victims appeared to be young, possibly teenagers, dressed in jeans, shirts and trainers.

Aleppo-based opposition activists who asked not to be named for security reasons blamed pro-Assad militia fighters.

They said the men had been executed and dumped in the river before floating downstream into the rebel area. State media did not mention the incident.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which says it provides objective information about casualties on both sides of Syria's war from a network of monitors, said the footage was evidence of a new massacre and the death toll could rise as high as 80.

“They were killed only because they are Muslims,” said a bearded man in another video said to have been filmed in central Bustan al-Qasr after the bodies were removed from the river. A pickup truck with a pile of corpses was parked behind him.


It is hard for Reuters to verify such reports from inside Syria because of restrictions on independent media.

Rebels are stuck in a stalemate with government forces in Aleppo – Syria's most populous city which is divided roughly in half between the two sides.

The revolt started as a peaceful protest movement against more than four decades of rule by Assad and his family, but turned into an armed rebellion after a government crackdown.

About 712,000 Syrian refugees have registered in other countries in the region or are awaiting processing as of Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency Said on Tuesday.

“We have seen an unrelenting flow of refugees across all borders. We are running double shifts to register people,” Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters in Geneva.

On Monday, the United Nations warned it would not be able to help millions of Syrians affected by the fighting without more money and appealed for donations at an aid conference this week in Kuwait to meet its $1.5 billion target.

Speaking ahead of that conference, Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah said on Tuesday there was concern Syria could turn into a failed state and put the entire region at risk.

Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said the bulk of the current aid was going to government-controlled areas and called on donors in Kuwait to make sure they were even-handed.


In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, insurgents including al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters captured a security agency after days of heavy fighting, according to an activist video issued on Tuesday.

Some of the fighters were shown carrying a black flag with the Islamic declaration of faith and the name of the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

The war has become heavily sectarian, with rebels who mostly come from the Sunni Muslim majority fighting an army whose top generals are mostly from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad has framed the revolt as a foreign-backed conspiracy and blames the West and Sunni Gulf states.

Fighting also took place in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, between rebels and Kurdish militants, the Observatory said.

In Turkey, a second pair of Patriot missile batteries being sent by NATO countries are now operational, a German security official said on Tuesday.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands each committed to sending two batteries and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked for help to bolster its air defenses against possible missile attack from Syria.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Kuwait, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens

AJC leaders meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah

Leaders of the American Jewish Committee in a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman discussed political and strategic developments in the Middle East.

The AJC Board of Governors delegation headed by AJC President Robert Elman met separately over the weekend with the king and three Jordanian Cabinet members. The 16-member group also met with Jordanian business leaders, policy analysts and diplomats, and the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to the country.

“Jordan is a valued strategic partner of the United States: uniquely positioned, uniquely vulnerable to instability across the region — particularly in neighboring Syria, and steadfast in its cooperation on mutual interests,” Elman said.

“For two decades, Jordan has also been a strong partner for peace with Israel. AJC recognizes the vital role King Abdullah has played — and continues to play — as a voice for peace, and as a pragmatic leader in a turbulent region.”

Following its meetings in Jordan, which concluded Sunday, the delegation moved on to Jerusalem for a three-day AJC Board of Governors Institute.

Western troops in place to protect Jordan from Syrian spillover

Ahmed Thiabat sits on his balcony in Jordan overlooking the Syrian town of Tal Shehab just over the Syrian border. This once tranquil farmland has become a battleground for troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and rebels fighting to unseat him.

Thiabat, a farmer and father of five, hears gunshots daily. He says he can’t sleep at night since several mortar shells fell in fields near his home.

“This area was a true paradise — green all year ‘round,” he told The Media Line. “Now, the sounds of birds are being replaced by gunshots and soldiers are becoming a permanent fixture of the scenery,” he said.

An estimated 210,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan since the fighting began and the number is expected to climb to 250,000 by year’s end. Jordanian officials say they plan to open a second refugee camp in order to accommodate the growing number fleeing Syria.

<div style=”float:right;padding-left:15px;padding-top:10px;padding-bottom:10px;”><div style=”border: 1px solid black;padding:7px;” ><a href=”http://www.themedialine.org” target=”_blank”><img src=”http://www.jewishjournal.com/images/themedialine-160-7-11.jpg” /></a></div></div>US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said this week that the United States has sent soldiers to Jordan to help with relief efforts for the refugees. He did not give a number, but last week the New York Times reported that there were 150 soldiers in Jordan, including communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff.

Diplomats and military sources tell The Media Line that the number is actually much higher. They say that troops, including intelligence officers, are coming from France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as from the US and the United Kingdom.

“Hundreds of French troops are doing their work in the northern city of Mafraq, let alone the assistance from the Gulf” said a western diplomat.

Jordanian sources close to the army confirmed to The Media Line that more than 1,500 American soldiers from elite units including the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC); the 75th Ranger Regiment (Airborne), also known as Rangers; and Navy Seals are present in the kingdom.

“The US troops have been moving across Jordan's northern border for several months now, making security assessments, helping screen refugees, and monitoring the border,” said the western diplomat.

He said the timing of the announcement now is partly connected to the US election campaign.

“The Syrian government knows about these troops, but the American public needed to know that (American president Barack) Obama has not abandoned his role in the region,” said the diplomat.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has charged that that the present US administration is losing interest in the vital Middle East region.

The international involvement in Jordan began in May, when some 1,200 Arab soldiers from the Gulf States held an exercise simulating a response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack on the refugees in Jordan.

An Arab diplomat said that Saudi Arabia deployed dozens of tanks while Qatar and Bahrain provided other military hardware.

“The Gulf countries decided to use Jordan as its first defense shield against any spillover of violence from Syria,” the diplomat told The Media Line.

After initially denying their existence in its territories, the Jordanian government admitted there were, indeed, American forces on its soil.

“The US troops in Jordan is part of the exchanging of visits between the Jordanian and US armies; part of increased cooperation; and to improve the capabilities of both sides to ensure regional stability,” government spokesman Sameeh Mayta was quoted by the official Jordanian news agency, Petra.

Jordan enjoys strong relations with Washington, particularly in the military and intelligence fields, and its army receives at least one-half billion dollars each year from the United States in military assistance.

Back on the border, Ahmed Thiabat says he has noticed dozens of “Western-looking troops” near his home. He says he is certain that Jordan, with the help of those soldiers, will be able to contain any spillover of violence from Syria.

“People talk about American or British forces giving assistance to our army. We are happy to see the world is trying to protect us.” he said.

Syrian refugees flood into Jordan, straining country’s resources

As the violence worsens in neighboring Syria, what began as a trickle of refugees into Jordan has turned into a flood.  The United Nations estimates there are now 150,000 refugees in Jordan, and the Jordanian government, struggling with an economic crisis, has been hard-pressed to help them.

Various international aid groups have stepped in to fill the void, but activists and refugees are accusing some of these international bodies of corruption and mismanagement. Accusations range from inflating the number of refugees to gain more international support, to overcharging for services provided including meals, housing, medical care and salaries.

Abu Ali, a Syrian who has been working in the Gulf, drives a white van which does not stop running between Amman and the western border town of Ramtha, just a few miles from the Syrian town of Daraa, helping refugees. He loaded his van with donations and traveled from the Gulf to Jordan, compelled to help his fellow Syrians who are seeking refuge in Jordan. He found his compatriots struggling in refugee centers, often lacking basic needs such as food, suitable shelters and health care.

Abu Ali said he spoke to many refugees as he traveled across Jordan, and was appalled by organizations trying to profit from helping those who escaped the violence in Syria.

“I prepare a full good meal for refugees at a cost of less than three dollars, while the aid group helping refugees in Zaatri is charging more than eleven dollars,” he told The Media Line.

Abu Ahmed said his efforts to help refugees are being met with objections from aid organizations, despite the fact that many families are left without food or accommodations. Several families in Ramtha who spoke to The Media Line said they are not supported by any organization, despite registering for help.

In the desolate town of Zaatari, Jordan erected its first camp for refugees. The tents came from UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees. The 3,300 residents here have to walk outside the camp every day to collect water from tanks. The day after the camp was erected, strong desert winds blew the tents over and the refugees were left dusty and angry.

“Where is the money that the world handed to Jordan to help us?” shouted an old woman. “They put us in tents in nowhere, without running water and electricity. She said she wanted to return to Syria despite the harsh crackdown by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“I want to go back and be buried under Bashar’s bombing – it would be better for me,” she said as her eyes swelled with tears.

The anger over the lack of services for the refugees dominates conversations here. Some activists are seeking to form alliances to combat corruption.

One activist, called Abu Saleem, said he is preparing a complaint against Ahel Al-Ketab Wa Al-Sunna, a branch of a well known Jordanian charity, charging corruption and financial mismanagement.

Officials from the organization denied the charges, saying they are monitored by the government’s audit bureau and have no commercial interests.

Aid-dependent Jordan has been complaining about the pressure of hosting refugees and has urged the international community to open their wallets to help pay for accommodating the refugees. Jordan says hosting a single refugee costs $20 a day. The government is already fighting a $2 billion dollar deficit.

Foreign minister Nasser Judeh indicated that his country does not intend to shut its doors to Syrian refugees, but stressed the need for help, as quickly as possible.

“We will continue providing a safe haven for Syrian refugees,” he said during a press conference held at the opening of the Zaatari camp. “At the same time, given the increasing numbers that we have seen in the last few months, we have sought the assistance of friends around the world—the international community, international organizations.”

Western diplomats say that while hosting refugees is putting economic pressure on Jordan, the government is also looking to benefit from the situation. They say the government is overestimating the number of refugees from Syria.

Sources at the UN told The Media Line that some groups that deal with refugees do increase their numbers in order to keep the aid flowing.

“At one point, they have no idea about number of refugees leaving Syria, but they have to come up with some figure, so it is exaggerated, always,” one told The Media Line.

Jordan has opened its borders to Syrians since the uprising against the Assad regime began 17 months ago. The government says nearly 150,000 Syrians have already crossed into its territories and UN officials say the flood of refugees is continuing every day.

Andrew Harper, the UNHCR representative to Jordan, said the organization anticipates the number of refugees will continue to grow in coming weeks, seeing an average of nearly 500 people crossing every night from the southern Syrian city of Deraa.

“Whenever we have tents, they are filled and new people are coming,” he told reporters this week during a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp by Arab diplomats.

Abu Ahmed, the refugee advocate, says he wants to open a large kitchen in Irbid to serve the refugees, but he the government is putting legal complications and mountains of paperwork in his way.

“This is an opportunity for people to get rich and they want to take advantage of that,” he said. “They are toying with the emotions and sympathies of other nations in order to make big bucks.”

Israelis helping Syrian refugees in Jordan

Israelis from humanitarian groups are in Jordan are assisting Syrian refugees fleeing that country’s uprising.

Ayoob Kara, Israel’s deputy minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, said Thursday that Israelis are assisting children and infants who have been injured in the Syrian military’s ongoing violent crackdown throughout Syria, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Kara said his bureau chief was working with representatives from Israeli humanitarian groups.

“They are in Jordan trying to help people who have been hurt in Syria,” he told The Jerusalem Post, confirming that the representatives he was referring to are Israeli citizens.

Kara told AFP that the Israeli government was wary of being seen to aid the opposition groups fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“If we are part of the conflict, it’s a danger for all the region, all the world,” he said.

He said Israeli volunteer groups had been working in Turkey and Jordan for the past two months, providing humanitarian aid.

Kara is a Druze member of the Likud Party.

Warren Christopher, overseer of Mideast talks, dies

Warren Christopher, the U.S. Secretary of State whose intensive shuttling shepherded talks with Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians in the mid-1990s, has died.

Christopher died March 18 at home in Los Angeles of complications from cancer. He was 85.

As secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Christopher traveled to the Middle East 18 times in an effort to bring peace to the region.

Christopher pressed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and oversaw the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in 1993.

Christopher also shepherded negotiations between Israel and Jordan, and attended the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries in 1994. He also worked to achieve peace between Israel and Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Christopher a “dear friend” in a statement released over the weekend.

“Warren was a diplomat’s diplomat—talented, dedicated and exceptionally wise,” she said. “As well as anyone in his generation, he understood the subtle interplay of national interests, fundamental values and personal dynamics that drive diplomacy. America is safer and the world is more peaceful because of his service.”

President Obama called Christopher a “resolute pursuer of peace,” as well as “a skillful diplomat, a steadfast public servant and a faithful American.”

Christopher “brought his strong intellect to bear on such pressing problems as the Iran hostage crisis, Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiations, the Bosnian war, and racial tensions in Los Angeles,” said U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

In the Mideast, Israel is the opium of the people

“Why aren’t you as an Arab lady writing about Gaza?”

“Where are your columns about Gaza?”

“Say the Israelis are wrong!”

The messages started to arrive soon after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to toe the party line: Hamas is good; Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you’re not Arab enough; you’re not Muslim enough; you’re not enough.

But what to say about a conflict that for more than 60 years now has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their respective demands to stop everything else we’re doing and pay attention to their fights, because what’s the slaughter of anyone else — be they in Darfur, Congo or anywhere else — compared to their often avoidable bloodletting?

Hasn’t it all been said before? Has nothing been learned?

And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap, and I had to write — not to take sides but to lament the moral bankruptcy that is born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East.

On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up in the middle of an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique legitimized and blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used against Arabs protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

That twisted and morbid full circle completed on the streets of Mosul can be captured only by paraphrasing Karl Marx — Israel is the opium of the people.

What else explains the collective amnesia on display last weekend in the Middle East?

Has Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni forgotten already that just last year she was close to ousting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his handling of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, which was launched under very similar circumstances to those that preceded the bombardment of Gaza? And yet there she was making the rounds of U.S. Sunday news shows to explain why Israel had to act against the Muslim militant Hamas movement in power in Gaza.

Does Israel want to make heroes of Hamas in the way it did Hezbollah? What has been achieved from the blockade of Gaza except for the suffering of civilians, whose leaders care for them as little as Israel does?

Talking about Hezbollah and unwise leaders, has Hassan Nasrallah forgotten that while he rails against Egypt for aiding the blockade of Gaza, he lives in a country — Lebanon — that keeps generations of Palestinian refugees in camps that serve as virtual jails?

And the demonstrators in Jordan and Lebanon? Who reminds them that in 1970, Jordan killed tens of thousands as it tried to control Palestinian groups based there, forcing the Palestine Liberation Army into Lebanon, where in 1982, the Phalangist Christian Lebanese militiamen slaughtered 3,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps?

Not a single Phalangist has been held accountable for that massacre. An Israeli state inquiry in 1983 found Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, indirectly responsible for the killings at the refugee camps during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But don’t hold your breath for an Arab inquiry. It is Israel that gives sense to our victimhood. The horrors we visit upon each other are irrelevant.

It is difficult to criticize Palestinians when so many have died this weekend, but the Hamas rulers of Gaza are just the latest of their leaders to fail them. For those of us who long to separate religion from politics, Hamas has given the truth to the fear that Islamists care more about facing down Israel than taking care of their people. The Palestinians of Gaza are victims equally of Hamas and Israel.

Where was the anger when two Palestinian schoolgirls were killed in Gaza when Hamas rockets meant for Israel misfired, just a day before Israel’s bombardment?

As for the country of my birth, Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, in power for more than 27 years, has presided over a disastrous policy that on the one hand maintains a 1979 peace treaty his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed with Israel and on the other unleashes state-owned media fury at Israel that has fanned a near-hysterical hatred for the country among ordinary Egyptians.

Yes, Israel’s occupation of Arab land angers Egyptians, but there is absolutely no space in Egyptian media, culture or intellectual circles for discussing Israel as anything but an enemy. And neither is there an attempt to forge it.

And now Mubarak, old, tired and out of new ideas, is reaping a policy that plays all sides against each other in an attempt to make his regime indispensable.

But my question to Egyptians and others across the region incensed at Israel is where is their anger at the human rights violations, torture and oppression in their respective countries? If such large crowds turned out onto Arab capitals every week, they could’ve toppled their dictators years ago.

It is the ultimate dishonor to the memory of Palestinians killed last weekend to call for more violence. It has failed to deliver for 60 years.

We honor the dead by smashing through the region’s amnesia until we break through to the taboos and continue to smash.

Talking to Hamas? Israel should do it if it will end the violence. Focusing on internal issues in each Arab country and ignoring the opium that is Israel? Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, et al, should do it before their respective states fail for the sake of Palestine.

Palestinians still have no state. What a shame it would be for one Arab state after the other to fail in the name of Palestine.

Mona Eltahawy is a columnist for Egypt’s Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar’s Al Arab. She is based in New York.

Save the Dead Sea by restoring the Jordan River, not a canal to the Red Sea

TEL AVIV (JTA)—Environmentalists in Israel and the Middle East have a clear vision on how to save the Dead Sea, which has been losing 850 million cubic meters per year thanks to water diversion upstream and mineral extraction at the sea.

This vision sees fresh water flowing again into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River, arresting the sea’s declining water levels. It envisions Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities that live along the Jordan River benefiting collectively from a revitalized economy based on shared water and sustainable tourism, including Christian pilgrimages to holy sites on the rehabilitated river.

This vision, however, could not be more different from that of the World Bank, Israeli President Shimon Peres or Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva.

Their solution is to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which they say also will counter water scarcity in the region and bolster peace ties. Along the route of the canal, in the Arava Valley, Peres and Tshuva have proposed building artificial lakes, casinos, Dubai-style skyscrapers and 200,000 hotel rooms.

Ignoring the environmental impact of their plan is a grave mistake.

The Red-to-Dead canal plan places the fragile coral reefs of the Jordanian city of Akaba and the Israeli city of Eilat at risk. Pumping 2 billion cubic meters of water out of the Red Sea could alter water temperatures in the Red Sea Gulf.

Transporting seawater in a pipeline or open canal through the Arava Valley, an area where earthquakes regularly occur, likely would lead to spills and the salinization of groundwater. And the development ideas Peres and Tshuva harbor for the route of the canal would transform the unique desert landscape of the rift valley in the Arava into a Las Vegas-type strip mall.

The canal plan jeopardizes the Dead Sea as well. Scientists are now vocal in their concerns that mixing sea water with the unique minerals of the Dead Sea could lead to the growth of algae and turn the Dead Sea’s waters from deep blue to reddish brown.

By contrast, rehabilitating the Jordan River would strengthen existing but all-but-forgotten Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley by bringing an influx of tourists and investment to the struggling region. New infrastructure would have to be built to accommodate the tourists, helping revitalize a region that is home to 350,000 people.

Rehabilitating the river would not require restoring its historical flow of 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. We can make do with just a quarter of that, 350 million.

To do so, however, we have to stop drawing so much water out of the Jordan’s tributaries, including Lake Kinneret.

How? Studies show that Israel could reduce domestic water consumption by 30 percent by promoting a combination of policy directives, from education for water conservation to pricing reforms. Rainwater harvesting, waterless toilets and low-water-use appliances need to be supported by legislation and grants. Domestic water measures would save some 200 million cubic meters of water per year.

The balance would have to come from reforms in the agriculture sector, which consumes about 500 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. Water authorities and environmentalists already agree that Israeli agriculture should be based solely on recycling treated sewage water. But while the water authorities want the savings to go toward satisfying increased urban demand for water, environmentalists want to see the saved water returned to nature, including the Jordan River.

The vision of Friends of the Earth Middle East is to decouple population and economic growth from increased freshwater demand. Our region, not Europe, should be the model for ingenuity in water conservation.

As for the Dead Sea, we believe the sea’s water level should be stabilized, not restored to its historical levels, last seen around 1930. Some 850 million cubic meters of water would be needed per year for stabilization.

If the aforementioned water reforms are applied in Israel and Jordan, a revived Jordan River could supply 500 million cubic meters of that, solving 60 percent of the problem. The 350 million balance must come from the mineral extraction companies at the Dead Sea, which are responsible for 40 percent of the water that leaves the Dead Sea every year.

It’s time that the Israeli and Jordanian publics demand that the enormous profits being earned by these companies—Dead Sea Works in Israel and the Arab Potash Company in Jordan—be invested in new technology to extract minerals without evaporating so much Dead Sea water.

The demise of the Dead Sea is man-made. Environmentalists should not be condemned for insisting on looking at the causes of the demise: upstream water diversion and mineral extraction.

Our vision is based on water sharing, water conservation technologies, sustainable agriculture and sustainable tourism. The Peres-Tshuva-World Bank vision may lead to ecological disaster.

Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, www.foeme.org, a regional environmental organization that brings Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work together in a common effort in search of peace and sustainability.

Red-Dead canal idea stirs controversy

HERZLIYA, Israel (JTA) – On aerial photographs, the shrinking Dead Sea juts into the surrounding desert landscape like a blue index finger.

As part of the effort to prevent this finger from becoming a mere smudge on the map by 2050, the World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of building a channel to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which is shrinking rapidly due to evaporation and upstream water diversion.

Proponents say the plan could rescue the Dead Sea while supplying desalinated water and hydroelectric power to the region.

“We will have to balance the technological, environmental and economic issues at the heart of this complex study,” Peter Darley, the team leader of the feasibility part of the World Bank study, said at a public hearing last week in Herzliya.

Similar public hearings were held earlier in the week in Amman, Jordan, and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, all of which stand to benefit from such a project, had asked the World Bank to fund and oversee the study on the implications of building a 112-mile long conveyance system—either a canal or pipeline—to bring the water to the Dead Sea.

The idea has come under intense fire from Israeli environmentalists and water experts, who argue that more time than the year currently allotted needs to be devoted to studying the possible scientific consequences of the project.

They cite the potential environmental damages the project could cause, whether it be to the fragile coral reefs of the Red Sea or the unique Dead Sea ecosystem. They say alternatives must be studied in tandem by independent-minded international consultants—not representatives of the three governments involved, as is currently proposed.

“It’s like asking a cat to guard a bowl of milk,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Bromberg and other critics of the canal plan charge that the Israeli, Jordanian and P.A. governments are interested in the canal solution because the international community might foot the bill for it as a massive desalinization or peace project.

Alex McPhail, the program manager at the World Bank who is overseeing the overall study of the project, says the bank is being methodical and scientific in its approach. He noted that the World Bank’s approach consists of three parts: a feasibility study, an environmental impact study and a report on alternative solutions.

“It’s an environmental question mark and that’s why we are doing these studies,” McPhail said. “It’s very important that we examine and understand all the potential environmental implications.”

Proponents of the canal project argue that the project could be a one-stop solution for replenishing the waters of the Dead Sea, generating energy, and providing drinking and agricultural water for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

The project also is being touted as a rare symbol of regional cooperation.

“There is an interest internationally in saving the Dead Sea and this could also help bring water to the region that badly needs it,” said Uri Schor, a spokesman for the Israeli Water Authority.

Addressing environmentalists’ concerns, he added, “That is why everything is being checked out first.”

“We need to check all the options. If the project is deemed unsuitable, then we won’t do it. But if there are no problems found, then why shouldn’t we pursue it?”

Some developers see the project dubbed the Red-Dead Canal as a potential boon.

Isaac Tshuva, the Israeli real estate magnate, has answered President Shimon Peres’ vision for a so-called Peace Valley to be built along the canal—a corridor of shimmering skyscrapers, casinos, man-made lakes and 200,000 hotel rooms. That’s more hotels rooms than currently exist in all of Israel. The vision is for a new tourist and industrial mecca that planners hope would draw as many as 3 million Israelis to live in the region.

The project, whose scale would be unprecedented in Israel, has been described as Las Vegas meets Dubai in the Arava Desert.

Its detractors roundly condemn it as an environmental nightmare.

In 2007, when Peres was Israel’s minister in charge of Negev and Galilee development, a government decision declared the Peace Valley project and the canal as national projects.

At the time, some environmentalists warned that political and business interests were being mixed too closely at the potential expense of the environment.

Baruch Spiegel, Peres’ adviser for regional affairs, rejects any such notions.

The government made its decision to prioritize the project because of Israel’s water crisis and the shrinking of the Dead Sea, he told JTA. The Dead Sea’s water levels are dropping by about 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year.

“This is a major vision of the president of Israel—to use water and energy as a catalyst for peace and stability,” Spiegel said, emphasizing that environmental concerns will come first and any development that follows will have to adhere to strict guidelines.

“All options are being examined very carefully,” he said. “But without a project, things will get worse.”

Some Israeli and Arab environmentalists say the Jordan River, historically the main source for the Dead Sea’s water, should be rehabilitated rather than undertaking such a complex and expensive project as the canal. They also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea, which are blamed for contributing to the Dead Sea’s dwindling water levels.

Among the environmentalists’ main concerns is that mixing Dead Sea and Red Sea water could damage the Dead Sea’s unique ecosystem, leading to growth of algae that could change the color and buoyancy of the water. That would also damage the tourism industry that has sprung up around the Dead Sea in both Israel and Jordan.

Others note that if the salty marine water from a canal or pipeline were to leak, it could seep into the ground water and contaminate local aquifers. There are also concerns that the coral reefs of the Red Sea could be harmed by the pumping out of so much of its water.

“I’m worried,” Yehoshua Shkedi, chief scientist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said at last week’s hearing in Herzliya. “I have a feeling not enough money or time is being given to research to answer major questions. Good studies have to be done.”

For Gundi Shahal, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which sits near the banks of the Dead Sea, the questions about the canal plan are not just academic.

“Who will take responsibility for the impact on our lives, livelihoods and what we call home?” she asked at last week’s hearing.

The Dead Sea is dying and it’s a ‘man-made disaster’

EIN GEDI, Israel (JTA)—The beach at the Ein Gedi Spa at the Dead Sea would seem like an ideal place for a little R&R amid the frenzy of modern Israel.

Set in the quiet of the desert, it has stunning views of Jordan’s mountains and its therapeutic waters reputedly do wonders for the complexion.

There’s only one problem at this beach: The sea is gone.

In its place are empty lifeguard towers and abandoned beach umbrellas lodged in the parched earth that make a mockery of the Dead Sea’s quiet retreat.

The sea actually still exists, but it’s smaller, shallower and much more distant than it once was—some 160 feet from the original beach built at Ein Gedi. The Dead Sea is shrinking because nearly every source of water that feeds into this iconic tourist destination has been cut off, diverted or polluted over the last half century.

“This is a completely man-made disaster,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an international environmental group. “There is nothing natural about this.”

A tram now shuttles visitors from the abandoned beach at Ein Gedi to the new beach, which sits at more than 1,300 feet below sea level. Thirty years ago this beach was submerged under water. In 10 years it likely will be dry, too, and the visitors’ ramp again will have to be extended to reach the sea.

By 2025, the sea is expected to be at 1,440 feet below sea level.

The shrinking of the Dead Sea has become an issue of grave concern for environmentalists, industries that produce Dead Sea-related products and Israel’s tourism sector, which worries that the visitors who come here from all over the world will disappear along with the sea.

To environmentalists, the shrinking of the sea is an environmental disaster that left unchecked could devastate the region in the coming decades.

The sea’s retreat already has spawned thousands of dangerous sinkholes. Created by retreating groundwater washing away salt deposits that had supported a surface layer of sand, the sinkholes have decimated beaches, nature reserves and agricultural fields in the area.

Future development along the northern rim of the sea has been suspended indefinitely, and the sinkholes have taken a toll on the area’s roads. Route 90, the Israeli highway that runs north-south along the Dead Sea’s western shore, has had to be rebuilt several times because of sinkholes opening up in its path.

In the meantime, the shifting groundwater has wreaked havoc with the natural oases and springs near the sea. Some natural habitats have been destroyed, and with them the feeding grounds of indigenous wildlife. Ornithologists say the annual migration of birds to this area—the third-largest migration in the world—has begun to taper off.

Perhaps most significantly for the people who live in the region, the economic consequences of the sea’s retreat have been staggering for agriculture and tourism.

“This has cost us more than $25 million since 1995, when the sinkholes started opening up,” Merav Ayalon, a spokeswoman for Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the largest Israeli town at the Dead Sea, said.

The kibbutz has had to close its resort village—though it still operates guest houses—abandon its groves of date palms and forego any expansion plans because it is virtually locked in now by mountains or unsafe, shifting ground.

Farther south, at the cluster of hotels on the Israeli side of the sea, hotels built decades ago along the Dead Sea’s shores have preserved their beaches only thanks to an artificial pool of sea water. The pool, which is connected to the Dead Sea, is maintained by Dead Sea Works, the massive mineral extraction plant whose operations have accelerated the sea’s disappearance through wholesale evaporation of water.

If not for the artificial pool, the hotels would be in the desert, since the southern portion of the Dead Sea no longer exists. Though visitors cannot tell that the hotels’ beaches are artificially maintained, hoteliers say they fear potential tourists are deterred from coming to the region because they think the sea’s retreat has left the hotels high and dry.

“Tourists from abroad don’t know exactly where the sea is located and where the sinkholes are, so they don’t come as much anymore,” said Avi Levy, who used to be the general manager of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea but now works at the franchise’s hotel in Tel Aviv. “Also, I think, there is antagonism that we are allowing such a valuable site as the Dead Sea to be destroyed.”

Agricultural industries in Israel, Jordan and Syria siphon water from the rivers that used to feed into the Dead Sea, diverting the water flow for agricultural use. This, along with the dumping of sewage by these countries and the Palestinian Authority, has turned the Jordan River, the sea’s main tributary, from the voluminous flow described in the Bible to a muddy, polluted dribble that doesn’t even reach the Dead Sea anymore during the summer months.

In addition, companies like Dead Sea Works are removing water from the sea at a rate of about 150 million cubic meters per year to get at the lucrative minerals beneath the water. The minerals are used to produce chemical products for export such as potash and magnesium chloride.

Potash can be used to make glass, soap and fertilizer, and magnesium chloride can be used in the manufacture of foodstuffs and roadway deicing products.

The work of these companies has turned what once was the southern portion of the sea into a massive industrial site.

At the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, about 1.4 billion cubic meters of water per year flowed into the Dead Sea. That total has shrunk to 100 million cubic meters, much of it polluted. Today the only fresh water the sea gets is from underground springs and rainwater. With inadequate fresh water, the sea has become more salty and oleaginous.

Scientists estimate that the Dead Sea needs at least 650 million cubic meters of water per year in order to stabilize over the next two decades.

Short of a major change in water-use policy, which environmentalists say is imperative, the Dead Sea will continue to shrink at its current rate of 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year until it reaches an equilibrium in 100 to 200 years at some 1,800 feet below sea level, experts say.

There are two main ideas for stabilizing the Dead Sea.

Environmentalists want to restore flow to the sea from the Jordan River. But that would require a sharp reduction in the use of Jordan River water for agricultural and domestic consumption, as well as cooperation between the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians. At this point, neither seems likely.

The other idea is to construct a canal to bring salt water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, some 125 miles to the south. Championed by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli real estate magnate Isaac Tshuva, among others, this plan envisions the construction of up to 200,000 new hotel rooms and the transformation of the desert along the channel’s route into an Israeli-Jordanian “peace valley.”

Notwithstanding the enormous financial costs of such an enterprise—$3 billion to $5 billion—scientists say bringing salt water to a sea that heretofore has been fed only by fresh water has unknown risks.

“A decision like this cannot be made without checking the ecological impact on the environment,” said Noam Goldstein, project manager at Dead Sea Works, which has made a fortune extracting minerals like potash, table salt and bromide from the Dead Sea. “It’s possible that with a canal the sea will turn brown or red. It’s possible it will stink because of the introduction of new chemical and biological substances into the water.”

The World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of the channel, dubbed the Red-to-Dead Canal.

For the time being, no solution to the problem of the Dead Sea has moved beyond the review stage. Meanwhile, with the Holy Land facing its worst drought in 80 years, the sea continues to disappear.

Good Morning America visited the Dead Sea in 2006


Why ‘peace camps’ do not make peace

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, and Israeli society took a hard look at this pivotal turning point in its history.

Silver-haired generals, retired politicians, journalists and analysts were the week’s favorites on Israeli TV programs, as they struggled with the country’s most painful questions:

Could the war have been avoided? Could things have turned out better had the war not been launched on June 6, 1967? Has Israel missed any opportunity to turn victory into peace?

While almost everyone is in agreement that the occupation has taken a terrible material and moral toll on Israel society, many noted that the 1967 conquest also led to the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and it still offers Israel an indispensable bargaining chip in its current plea for peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

Thus, The Economist’s characterization of the 1967 war as “Israel’s wasted victory” is by general consent misconceived and ill informed. Audiences were further reminded that the 1967 war gave a death blow to Pan-Arabism, an ideology that could have posed as serious a threat to Israel’s existence as radical Islam does today.

While this soul-searching exercise was going on on Israeli TV, the June 6 anniversary also provided a platform for some of the most vicious attacks on Israel’s existence. Our friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has decided again that Israel’s days are numbered, and his intellectual allies in Europe and the United States did not sit idle.

My UCLA colleague, Sari Makdisi, for example, has raised the pitch of his racist rhetoric to conclude on the pages of The Nation that “Zionism has run its course, and in doing so has killed any possibility of a two-state solution.”

As usual, those who claim to be victims of “Orientalism” – that is, depicting Arabs from a Western perspective – have no qualms redefining other people’s identities.

Whenever I read any of the harsh anti-occupation articles, many by well-meaning Jews, I can’t help but wonder whether these authors truly believe that Israel oppresses Palestinians out of pleasure or greed, and I ask myself what makes them blind to the collective agony that Israeli society goes through on account of the occupation, as well as to the nation’s genuine struggle to extricate itself from it, if that were at all possible. I also wonder whether any of these erudite authors spend as much time researching the ramifications of an immediate Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders as they currently spend on bashing Israel’s attempts to reach a peace settlement first.

The most revealing information that emerged from last week’s developments came not from the “Israel-bashing” pack but from the pro-coexistence camps. If anyone wonders why the peace process is in no better shape today than it was in 1967 or in 1993 or 2000, a reading through the publications of the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps should provide the answer.

Both sides are stubbornly refraining from addressing the one issue that they know is necessary and sufficient for peace: Palestinian acceptance of the idea of a permanent Jewish state in the 1967 borders, including the resettlement of the refugees outside those borders. Each side pretends that this acceptance is already an established fact, and neither side, perhaps out of fear of offending the other or spoiling the dialogue, dares examine the evidence.

The Israeli peace camp speaks as if it believes that the majority of Palestinians desire permanent coexistence and that the problem is merely that of convincing or controlling a temporarily violent minority.

The Palestinian peace camp, on the other hand, speaks as though it believes that the majority of Israelis will agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders once terror is reigned in and that there is, therefore, no need to discuss Israel’s historic legitimacy or compromises on the Palestinians “right of return.”

These positions do not reflect prevailing beliefs in either community. Israelis do not believe the majority of Palestinians desire permanent coexistence, and the Palestinians know that Israelis are united against withdrawal from the territories as long as, and only as long as, this disbelief persists.
This week, for the first time, these facts received hard evidential confirmation.

New public opinion research conducted by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information has shown that fear of the Palestinians, lack of trust in both their aspirations and their ability to be partners for peace are the greatest obstacles to Israeli willingness to move ahead toward a peace process and toward making concessions. (Source: Gershon Baskin, Jerusalem Post, June 4, 2007.) The report states:

Sixty-two percent of Israelis believe that Palestinians want to establish their state on all the territory from the Jordan to the sea. Fifty-six percent believe that Palestinians want such a state without Jews. Nearly four times as many Israelis (30 percent) believe that almost no Palestinians are prepared to make concessions for peace as those who believe that most of them will (8 percent).

More revealing, the research also shows that Israelis are open to changing their attitudes toward Palestinians:

“When presented with a scenario where the Palestinian Ministry of Education removes all textbooks from the curriculum that incite against Israel and replaces them with textbooks educating for acceptance of the State of Israel and the importance of living with it in peace, nearly 70 percent of Israelis said it would increase their trust that the Palestinians want to make concessions for peace.

“When presented with the following: A number of influential Palestinian religious leaders, including Hamas, declare on Palestinian television in Arabic that according to Islam, Jews have the right to live in their historic homeland and Palestinian Muslims must accept this, almost 60 percent of Israelis said it would increase their trust in that the Palestinians want to make concessions for peace.”

Are Israelis’ perceptions of Palestinians’ aspirations overly paranoid? I doubt it. That Palestinians are far from accepting Israel’s legitimacy, or even a mild version of it, is clear not merely from their textbooks, TV programs, mosque sermons and Hamas’ victory in the last election but primarily from the activities of their spokespersons in the Palestinian diaspora.

Jordanian-Israeli Relations

At the height of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was rushing all available combat troops to the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, an Israeli official was asked who was defending the eastern border. “King Hussein,” he replied, “as usual.”

The ailing monarch has not always been the truest of Israel’s friends. Jordanian troops destroyed the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1950s. They allowed Palestinian terrorists to infiltrate from the West Bank when it was under their rule. The king sent his army into battle in the 1967 Six-Day War (and even dispatched a token force to the Golan in 1973). But, for nearly three decades, he has provided a stability that enabled the Jewish state to prosper and to start coming to terms with its less compliant Arab neighbors.

Hussein’s latest medical crisis — and his abrupt replacement last month of Prince Hassan with his eldest son, 37-year-old Prince Abdullah, as heir to the Hashemite throne — worry Israelis more than they like to admit. The smooth transition predicted for Hassan, the king’s brother and crown prince for 34 years, can no longer be taken for granted. It is threatened by hostile forces, from within the country and abroad.

“Abdullah is an unknown quantity,” Professor Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Amman, told me. “We don’t know him, nor do the Jordanians. There is reason to be concerned. The Jordanian system has been wounded. The royal house’s prestige has been weakened by the way Hassan was dismissed.”

The worst thing for Jordan would be a succession struggle, pitting the able and understandably disappointed uncle against his untested nephew. Syria, Iraq, the Palestinians and the Islamist opposition might all be tempted to seize the opportunity and overthrow the pro-Western dynasty that has ruled there since Britain created the emirate of Transjordan for Hussein’s grandfather in 1921.

The Syrians have never been reconciled to Jordan’s separate existence within what they claim as “Greater Syria.” They sent tanks across the border in 1970, when Hussein was crushing Yasser Arafat’s “Black September” revolt. Only American and Israeli intervention deterred them from driving on to Amman.

Over the years, Syrian intelligence has infiltrated arms and agents into Jordan to foster dissident movements. Damascus-based Palestinian opposition groups have plotted more than once to attack Israeli tourists visiting Petra. The Jordanians blame their northern neighbor for two attempts on Hussein’s life since 1996 alone, a car bomb and a missile fired at the king’s plane.

Jordanians also fear that Iraq might seek revenge for the Hashemites’ acquiescence in last year’s Desert Fox bombardment of Baghdad by the United States and Britain — and Jordan’s tolerance of American-sponsored Iraqi opposition elements now operating from its soil. Although the king sided with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, Jordan detected the hand of Iraqi intelligence behind bread riots among the king’s normally loyal Bedouin subjects in 1996.

If the Hashemites run true to form, they will rally around Prince Abdullah, but no one can be certain at this stage. Inspired reports, accusing the ambitious Hassan of scheming behind his brother’s back, are sowing bad blood. The charges range from the serious to the trivial, from an order to prepare the army for the king’s death to rumors that Hassan’s Pakistani-born wife, Princess Sarvath, was changing the wallpaper in the royal palace.

Ambassador Shamir expected the new regime to find a way to use Hassan’s experience. “We can hope that he will be allowed an input,” said Shamir, a Tel Aviv University Middle East historian. “I think he will want to contribute. He is not the kind to organize a faction or palace intrigues. The royal family will want to control the damage.”

Danny Rubinstein, a writer on Palestinian affairs, argued that Abdullah would win a breathing space among the 60-plus percent of Jordanians who are of Palestinian origin because his wife, Princess Rania, is the daughter of a West Bank refugee family. Both King Hussein and Prince Hassan are tainted in Palestinian eyes by memories of 1970, when Jordanian troops killed and wounded up to 30,000 rebel Palestinians.

“Abdullah was born in 1962,” Rubinstein wrote from Amman in Ha’aretz. “He was only 8 years old during the events of Black September. The new crown prince has no Palestinian blood on his hands. As far as Jordan’s Palestinians are concerned, that is his biggest advantage.”

Shimon Shamir added a word of caution. “What will determine Palestinian loyalty,” he said, “is Abdullah’s policy. If he continues Hussein’s policy of supporting the Palestinian Authority in its quest for a state, they will back him. The fact that he has a Palestinian wife will add a symbolic dimension.”

Ha’aretz’s defense commentator, Ze’ev Schiff, suggested that if Israel wanted to help, the best way would be to negotiate a viable Palestinian state — and to keep Israeli promises of joint economic ventures, such as the new airport designed to serve the twin Red Sea resorts of Aqaba and Eilat.