In the weeks since the Israeli government learned of the kidnappings of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, its military and intelligence sources have worked tirelessly to piece together the puzzle of what happened, where it happened and precisely how it happened.
One piece of the puzzle, though — who did it — appears to have been clear since the beginning, according to Israeli government officials. They have named two Hamas operatives — Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha — as the kidnappers and murderers of the three teenage boys, and say the two were acting — explicitly or implicitly — on orders from Hamas’ leadership. The whereabouts of both men are currently unknown.
Coming just weeks after the formation of a Hamas-Palestinian Authority (PA) unity government, Israel’s accusation that Hamas orchestrated the triple murder reinforces its position that Western nations must pressure PA President Mahmoud Abbas to break all ties with Hamas if he wants peace with Israel.
On June 13, shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Hamas was behind the kidnapping, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said in an interview with the Journal that Hamas’ involvement ought to prompt the Obama administration to cut its annual aid allocation of $400 million to the PA until it breaks with Hamas.
On the same day, David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, also said there was “no doubt” the kidnappings was a Hamas operation, but would not elaborate on the evidence for his statement. And in an interview on June 30, just hours after the boys’ bodies were found under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron, Siegel stressed again that the murders were not the work of lone Hamas operatives.
“I can tell you that there’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Hamas is squarely behind this — as an organization,” Siegel said. Again, though, he said he could not disclose how the Israeli government knows that Qawasmeh and Aisha were acting with the approval of, or under the direction of, Hamas’ top brass.
Danon, who posted on his Facebook page on June 30 that the murders should mean “the end of Hamas,” took a less definitive stance than Siegel on whether Hamas, as a group, ordered the abduction, but said on July 1 that, from Israel’s perspective, it doesn’t matter.
“They were Hamas activists for years,” Danon said of the suspects. “They were arrested for being involved in terrorist activities in the past — all the [people] around them are Hamas activists. So it doesn’t matter whether they got the direct order a week ago [or] a year ago. But the fact that they belong to the Hamas organization speaks for itself,” Danon said.
Danon said he hopes the murders will “make it very clear” to Americans that their government is allowing “the taxpayer money of U.S. citizens to be used to support terrorist activities against Israelis.”
An outspoken opponent of recent lopsided trades of Palestinian prisoners for abducted Israelis or as a precondition to negotiations, Danon called upon Netanyahu to respond to these murders in a manner similar to how former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to the Passover bombings at Netanya’s Park Hotel in 2002, in which a Hamas suicide bomber — disguised as a woman — blew himself up, murdering 30 Israeli civilians and wounding 140, most of them elderly.
On the day following that attack, Israeli forces launched Operation Defensive Shield, a five-week operation in the West Bank that targeted key members of Hamas and the PA (known then as Fatah) and severely restricted the ability of terrorist cells to operate.
“I think it’s now the time to declare a war against Hamas,” the deputy defense minister said, adding that he wants the Israeli military to immediately expand operations in the West Bank. “We should crack down on the Hamas infrastructure, including the civilian infrastructure in Judea and Samaria.”
In a phone call from Israel at 4 a.m., Jonathan Schachter, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said that whether or not Qawasmeh and Aisha were taking orders or working on their own accord is a “distinction without a difference,” adding in a follow-up email that Hamas bears the responsibility for the actions of terrorists with whom it is affiliated.
“You have this pact that President Abbas signed with Hamas, and from there you get expanded Hamas activity in the West Bank, so there’s nothing surprising about this attack,” Schachter said. “Hamas is behind this attack, is responsible for this attack, and as the prime minister said earlier this evening, Hamas will pay.”
The night after the teenagers’ bodies were found, the Israeli Air Force bombed 34 sites in Gaza. Those operations, according to the military, were a response to a recent uptick in Hamas rocket attacks against Israel.
A Palestinian man inspects what police said was a chicken coop damaged in a nearby Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip on June 29. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Matthew Levitt, a Middle East expert for the Washington Institute, is not surprised that Israel’s government has been more or less mum regarding who among Hamas’ leadership had knowledge of the kidnappings.
“Hamas lays out these larger operational guidelines,” Levitt said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “Even if there was no Hamas individual who told these people, ‘Go kidnap these three people in Gush Etzion right now’ — this is something that was very much tied to Hamas leadership. There’s really no question about that.”
He added that certain “operational considerations” could preclude Israeli officials from going public with its full slate of evidence — which may include, he said, indications that Saleh al-Arouri, a Hamas operative now living openly in Turkey, had direct connections to the kidnappers.
A fire worker inspects the family home of an alleged abductor after a blast on the top floor in Hebron on July 1. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters
Some analysts have suggested Hamas’ willingness to partner with the PA, its rival organization within Palestinian society, had indicated that it was desperate for legitimacy and money following the closure of tunnels into Gaza and the fall of the pro-Hamas Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.
Levitt said the kidnappings may have been an attempt by Hamas to improve its reputation among Palestinians. “Hamas is trying very hard to resurrect its status as a ‘resistance’ organization, and kidnapping is seen among many Palestinians as something legitimate — it’s not like a suicide bombing,” Levitt said. He argued Hamas’ failure to admit responsibility is only further evidence of its vulnerability, and any claim to that effect would only put them “even more in the crosshairs” of Israel’s military.
“There’s absolutely no benefit to Hamas claiming credit,” he said. “There are no kidnapped people to trade; there are no bodies of dead kidnapped people to trade.”
In an email to the Journal, Schachter said Israel’s “ongoing operation” will “strike at the Hamas infrastructure — which helped make the kidnapping possible — in the West Bank and Gaza.”
“The hunt for the boys’ killers is ongoing,” Schachter wrote. “Once they and their accomplices have been brought to justice, Israeli authorities will be able to publicly release additional evidence.”
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Turkey’s prime minister set to visit Gaza
This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
Political observers in Turkey expect Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reaffirm his support for Palestinians with a visit this month to Gaza, marking the third anniversary of a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the disputed territory
Israeli forces stormed the vessel, the 'Mavi Marmara,' killing nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American in 2010. Dozens of others were injured. The ship was attempting to breach a naval blockade of Gaza.
In March, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a long-awaited apology for the raid to his Turkish counterpart in March. Following the apology, Turkey's relations with Israel began to normalize. Israel has agreed to pay compensation to Turkey and the two sides have worked out a draft agreement.
Despite mending its relationship with Israel, Turkey has also focused new attention on its friendship with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Turkey continues efforts to build a hospital in Gaza and manage infrastructure and trade deals vital to the PA.
Even as Turkey's relations with Israel soured, trade between Turkey and the PA increased following a free trade agreement between the two signed in 2004.
In 2011 trade between Turkey and the PA increased 21 percent to $49 million, according to the most recent available data from the Turkish Ministry of Economy. Almost all of the trade was exports to the PA, mostly industrial and cooking supplies, according to the Palestine Trade Center, a Ramallah-based trade group.
The PA has sought to position itself as an emerging market for investors in Turkey and other countries, and Turkey is firmly positioned as the PA's second-largest trading partner after Israel.
Yet data on which Turkish corporations are investing or beginning business operations in the PA are limited. Turkey's largest trade group, the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, declined to comment on the role of any of the country's 1.7 million companies in the PA.
“I don't think any reasonable corporation or person would want to put a dime into Gaza” because of the risks, Dr. Hossein Askari, a professor and Middle East economic expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told The Media Line.
However, some corporations have found a footing in the PA, despite the risks there.
The Istanbul-based Eurasia operations of Coca-Cola have long had a presence there with a locally-owned franchisee overseeing three bottling plants and four sales and distribution centers, corporate spokesman Dana Bolden said in an e-mailed statement.
Foreign leaders including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have praised Coke's efforts in the disputed territories as promoting economic development and furthering peace.
“Improved economic conditions are a necessary part of achieving a sustainable PA and The Coca-Cola Company is committed to investing in sustainable communities wherever we do business,” Bolden said.
But analysts say Turkey's state-funded trade and investment in Gaza and the West Bank and its corporate encouragement could be more than just good will.
“I have long felt that Turkey's drive, in my view, is looking increasingly towards the East instead of to the West,” said Askari. “By looking eastward and establishing its hegemony in that whole region there will be much more bargaining power with Europe.”
Turkey has recently renewed talks to join the European Union, and is one of Europe's fastest growing economies. Turkey hopes by investing in the PA it will earn a larger stake in the Middle East as well, as the collapse of Syria threatens regional stability, Askari said.
But Turkey's move towards Gaza has angered some foreign governments.
Gaza is controlled by Hamas, recognized as a foreign terrorist group by the US.
Kerry had urged Erdoğan to postpone his trip to Gaza while Turkey's relationship with Israel is repaired.
“The prime minister obviously has a right to make decisions about what he does and where he goes, but it was our feeling in a constructive way that we thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process that we’re trying to get off the ground,” Kerry said during an April visit to Istanbul.
Instead, Turkish authorities announced they would continue preparations for the visit to take place after Erdoğan visits US President Barack Obama in Washington later this month.
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World Bank: Palestinian economy in decline
During President Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) next week, he will visit the West Bank towns of Ramallah, where he will meet PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Bethlehem, to see the Church of the Nativity. A new report by the World Bank says he will see an economy that is in steady decline and losing its competetiveness.
The World Bank published its report ahead of a forum of donors to the Palestinian Authority in Brussels next week. It said the deterioration of the Palestinian economy “will have lasting and costly implications for economic competitiveness and social cohesion.”
The report blames Israel for its economic restrictions, lack of freedom of movement, and prolonged closures. Israel says its restrictions are solely for security. The report says the PA
“Continued financial support by the donor community, and increased reform efforts by the PA to manage the current fiscal challenges must remain a high priority,” Mariam Sherman, World Bank Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza told The Media Line. “However, such bolder efforts to create the basis for a viable economy need to be made to prevent the continued deterioration that will have lasting and costly implications for economic competitiveness and social cohesion.”
The economy could lose its ability to compete in the global market. The productivity of the agricultural sector has been cut in half since the late 1990’s, and the manufacturing sector has stagnated. In Gaza, the quality of infrastructure in sectors like water and transportation is declining.
Unemployment among university graduates is close to 30 percent and Palestinian society is facing a growing brain drain.
“What is their option but to look for job opportunities abroad?” Naser Abdelkarim, a professor of economics at Birzeit University told The Media Line. “They simply leave the West bank and Gaza. If you want to let young people stay you must offer them hope for a better future.”
Part of the problem has to do with the world recession and the slowing of economic activity in Israel. The report also says that donor countries have not paid their pledges to the PA, leaving them unable to pay the salaries of civil servants.
Israel has also contributed to the problem by holding some $100 million it collects in customs and tax revenues on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The PA also has large debts to banks and suppliers.
Economic growth is also down, from 11 percent in 2010 and 2011 to 6.1 percent in 2012. While those numbers are positive, especially in comparison to growth rates in Europe, most of it is fueled by donors which is not sustainable in the long – term.
The future of the Palestinian economy is expected to be on the agenda when President Obama sits down with President Abbas. Palestinians say the political issue and the economic reality are intertwined.
“It must come up in the meetings because you cannot talk about a political settlement of the conflict without talking first about living conditions of the Palestinians,” Professor Abdelkarim said. “I expect that the Israeli restrictions of our economy will come up too. Unemployment is also linked to the political issue.’
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EU condemns Israeli settlements, seizure of PA funds
The European Union (EU) called on Israel to cancel planned construction in West Bank settlements and “avoid any step undermining the financial situation of the Palestinian Authority” (PA).
The EU made the appeal in a document published Dec. 11 titled “Council Conclusions on the Middle East Peace Process,” which came out of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels the previous day.
Last week, Israel said it would withhold approximately $100 million in tax revenues that it had collected for the PA.
“Such action by Israel would undermine existing cooperation mechanisms” and “negatively affect the prospects of negotiations,” the document read.
The money freeze came after the United Nations General Assembly voted on Nov. 29 to upgrade the Palestinian U.N. status to nonmember state observer, against Israel’s wishes and those of the United States. In the EU, only the Czech Republic voted against the upgrade. The EU document called on the PA to “use constructively” the new status.
“Israel regrets the one-sided wording of the EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions,” a statement on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Web site read. “The root cause of the absence of a peace accord is the Palestinian refusal to engage in direct negotiations.”
The statement went on to say, “This one-sided position taken by the E.U. rewards rejectionism and does not contribute to promoting a permanent peace agreement.”
The EU text also said the EU was “deeply dismayed by and strongly opposes” recently announced plans by the Israeli government to construct 3,000 housing units in the West Bank. Some of the homes are to be built in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim.
“The E1 plan, if implemented, would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict by jeopardizing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states,” the document said.
The document also called on both parties to start direct talks with no preconditions on a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.
The document came a day after the EU was named the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for “what the European Union means for peace in Europe,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
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Abbas seeks talks if Israel halts West Bank construction
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly said he wanted to negotiate with Israel it if freezes construction for six months in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Abbas made the statement on Sunday in Qatar during a meeting of Arab League nations in Doha, The Jerusalem Post reported. He was responding to statements by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasem al-Thani calling on Arab nations to reconsider their 2002 peace initiative.
Arab nations should be “keeping the  Arab Peace Initiative on the table,” Abbas said, adding, “We want to discuss with you a mechanism that would lead to an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian and Arab territories, including Jerusalem, the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and halting settlement construction.”
“If this happens, there could be feasible negotiations. Also, we could return to the point where we stopped during the era of Ehud Olmert’s government, when we put all the final-status issues on the table. We reached many understandings on over these issues.”
Abbas said the two sides had reached understandings on the borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.
The PA leader also urged Arab nations to provide financial assistance to cover a new monthly $100 million budgetary shortfall after the United Nations General Assembly voted to enhance the Palestinians' statehood status — the result of a punitive Israeli measure.
‘‘We are in a collapsing state now. We can’t pay our salaries. So you have to offer this safety net,” Abbas told the Arab League delegates. “Do you agree, are you committed and how much will you pledge? We have to know your position soon.’’
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Rabbi Mordecai Finley: Peace and protection
I have tried to figure out why Rabbi Sharon Brous’ thoughts left me empty when I read them. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis has written, there is nothing objectionable in them. In fact, as I read her e-mail word-for-word many times, I found that I agreed with her completely regarding empathy for Palestinians. I have uttered nearly those precise words, word-for-word.
I think what disturbed me was what she left out, her exhortation on what to feel, and her timing.
Here is a small example of the first: “I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives.”
This seems to be a nuanced expression of two sides of an issue — on one hand, on the other — but what exactly is the issue, at least in passing? There is no ethical statement here. I know that my friends on the left are not reticent to offer ethical critique when it is due, but why not here? These words make it sound as if two groups of people have suffered from a natural disaster, unnamed.
What is left out is the ultimate source of Israeli and Palestinian suffering. Many of us believe that while various Israeli governments have made mistakes, some of them wretched, the ultimate source of Palestinian suffering, since the attempt to eradicate the Jewish state in 1948, has been implacable hatred.
Another example of what is left out: The idea “that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas — which poses a genuine threat to Israel — is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority” is a strategy that is at least questionable.
This seems to imply that success of the negotiations, which would supposedly diminish the potency of Hamas, is entirely up to Israel. What if the Palestinian Authority (PA) refuses to negotiate earnestly? And what if the PA does sincerely give up the right to return, does agree to border adjustments, etc., and this does not diminish the potency of Hamas, but rather strengthens Hamas (as it likely will, in my opinion)? Those who call for the eradication of the Zionist Entity enjoy a great popularity. What if Hamas wins the next round of elections in the West Bank?
I would agree that a long-term strategy is to engage in earnest and immediate peace negotiations, realizing that the PA must also negotiate earnestly (why is the condition that PA must negotiate in earnest left out?). And we must realize that even earnest bilateral negotiations with the PA might not bring around Hamas, and its supporters — the Muslim Brotherhood and the theocratic thugs in Tehran, to name a couple.
My second problem with the words of Rabbi Brous is her exhortation on what to feel. We are told that it is critical to witness with empathy and grace. By implication, we are told to escape our “deeply entrenched narrative” and not diminish the losses on the other side, and not to gloat.
This is not moral advice on what to do; this is advice on how to feel, on what attitude to have. We asked to be balanced in our feelings, to see things from a universalist approach, as Rabbi Gordis has described it. To paraphrase a recent post by Rabbi Michele Sullum in support of Rabbi Brous, the universalist approach is the perspective required of the angels. When the Egyptians are drowning at the Sea of Reeds, God rebukes the rejoicing angels, saying that the Egyptians are God’s children, too.
I don’t have children in Tsahal, as does Rabbi Gordis, but our daughter lives on a moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement — about seven miles from the border of Gaza, in the hard-hit Eshkol region (she will be inducted into the Israeli army soon). She was on the moshav until the last day of shelling, when she took the bus up to Tel Aviv to military headquarters for further classification. The bus blown up by Hamas was only about 10 blocks from her.
When they are trying to kill my daughter (really, and as a symbol for all Israelis), I wish for our leaders to acknowledge our dread, the crushing fear in the core of our being that one of those mortar shells will land on one of our children. When they are shooting at the children of Israel, I need a Miriam, a Moses to address my emotions, not God’s recommendation to the angels. Remember: God does not rebuke Miriam and Moses for rejoicing that God has destroyed the Egyptian army. God did it for them. That rejoicing is enshrined in our daily liturgy. Universalism has its honored place in our tradition. So does attachment and concern for one’s people. There is a time for each.
There is no joy or gloating in Zion, no dancing in the streets, or in any part of the Jewish world that I can see, at the death of Palestinians. There is the simple relief that many of those who have been trying to kill Israelis have been killed themselves.
There is a resolute will to fight terror and not tolerate Israeli citizens living under the threat of terror. Here is how I feel: I am enormously grateful to and proud of the bravery, skill and conscience of the Israeli military forces, air, sea and ground, who have dealt a heavy blow to Hamas in defense of our people, all the while trying as much as is humanly possible to minimize civilian casualties
Third: The timing of the exhortation on how to feel, for empathy and grace, made me cringe. I will tell you what is obvious: There were people trying, God forbid, to kill our daughter. It felt horrible. Our nephew is in Tsahal; he was on the border. They were trying to kill him, too. And Tsahal was trying to kill those who were trying to kill our daughter. Those who were trying to kill our daughter often place their rocket launchers among civilians. I feel sorry, very sorry, for those civilians.
My sadness for them is not greater than the dread that they would kill our daughter. Those innocent Palestinians should blame Hamas, not Israel, for placing their rocket launchers in civilian areas and shooting them at my daughter (my daughter here symbolizing all my people in Israel. They are my family). I wanted to kill those firing mortars at our daughter with my bare hands. I was ripped with dread and anger. During the bombings, I was nowhere near able to witness with empathy and grace. Was I really supposed to?
Now that there is a cease-fire, I feel deep empathy for the suffering of innocent Palestinians (though the celebrating and gloating sicken me). They are victims of Hamas, too. But while the rockets were being fired, that instruction for empathy left me empty.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.
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Americans for Peace Now backs Palestinian U.N. bid
Americans for Peace Now called on President Obama to support the Palestinians’ bid to upgrade their status in the United Nations to non-member observer state.
The stance by the left-wing group issued in a statement Tuesday places it at odds with others in the pro-Israel community. The statement by the group's president and CEO, Debra DeLee, was issued two days ahead of the anticipated vote in the U.N. General Assembly on the Palestinians' application for enhanced status.
“In the wake of the latest Gaza War, we believe the international community, led by the Obama administration, must take urgent action to restore faith in a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” DeLee wrote.
A number of major Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith International, oppose the bid and are lobbying against it among U.N. member nations.
Some leading lawmakers in Congress have threatened to cut assistance to the Palestinian Authority should its affiliated Palestine Liberation Organization press ahead with the bid.
J Street, also a left-wing pro-Israel group, released a position paper that did not take a position on the bid but pledged to oppose any effort to penalize the Palestinians for making it.
DeLee called on “all nations, including the United States and Israel,” to endorse the Palestinians’ request and “should likewise refrain from and reject punitive measures against the Palestinians in the wake of this initiative, including efforts by Israel or any other party to exploit this initiative as a pretext for actions that further erode the possibility of peace.”
APN's Israeli sister group, Peace Now, expressed similar support for the bid in a letter to Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman.
The PLO was rebuffed last year in its bid to have the U.N. Security Council recognize Palestine as a state; the United States successfully lobbied against the move, threatening to use its veto.
There is no such veto in the General Assembly, where the Palestinians have an assured majority. Observer state status does not carry with it the privileges of full membership; observers must still apply to become members of U.N. constituent groups. The PLO is currently a non-member observer entity.
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Israel-Gaza conflict: Low expectations
No one knows for sure why the Gaza hostilities began.
We know that there had been weeks of intensifying rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, rockets fired by various Palestinian groups that were tolerated, even encouraged by the governing Hamas. And we know that the Israeli government had reached its limit of tolerance for such attacks, possibly, though not primarily, because elections are coming up, and the Israeli public wanted something done. We also know that what ignited the final escalation of this cycle of violence was Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ military chief on Nov. 14. We know that, following every such action, a barrage of rockets can be expected. We know, as well, that such a barrage is invitation for even more retaliation, and so on and so forth.
Israelis got a glimpse last week of the damage Hamas can inflict on Israel; they discovered that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are, indeed, within the reach of rockets from Gaza. That Hamas’ threats are no joke. But Israelis still don’t know why it all began. What was the calculus behind Hamas’ decision to allow and abet this growing harassment of Israeli civilians? What was the logic behind it, assuming there is some such logic? What was Hamas trying to achieve?
Not knowing Hamas’ goals is a problem for all those trying to assess Hamas’ ability to actually meet those goals. As this article was being written, attempts at negotiations were taking place to reach an agreement that would put an end to the fighting. Israelis will be happy if such agreement can end the barrage of rockets on its territory. Israeli leaders believe the country demonstrated last week that its citizens are willing to temporarily increase their own suffering in hope of getting a better long-term deal. And they also demonstrated the ability of Israel’s defensive tool — the Iron Dome — to dramatically decrease damage to Israel’s citizens in case of war. And that is an important message not just for Hamas, but also for all other potential attackers, such as Hezbollah and Iran.
Of course, it is possible that Hamas had just miscalculated its way into this week of skirmishes; it is possible that its leaders did not quite understand that Israel had reached the boiling point. Back in 2006, when Ehud Olmert abruptly launched the second Lebanon war, it was widely assumed — even publicly admitted — by Hezbollah leaders that the other side didn’t see it coming. That Hassan Nasrallah believed he could kidnap Israeli soldiers and get away with it. So it’s possible that the leaders of Hamas are guilty of a similar misperception; it’s possible they didn’t expect the harsh response they got.
However, other possibilities must also be considered. Maybe Hamas needed the fight. Maybe it needed to reassert its presence as a player that can make things complicated for all parties just as the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Mahmoud Abbas, was going to the United Nations to get the coveted seat of an almost official member. Maybe Hamas was trying to send a message to a disappointing Egyptian government that had not yet proven itself to be the ally Hamas expected it to be.
The raging events around Gaza are a distraction from more urgent matters engulfing the Middle East and threatening to turn 2013 into a year much more challenging and dramatic than the year that is about to end. Lost behind the Gaza headlines is the recent report that the Iranians have completed yet another step in building their nuclear program. Pushed aside from attention are the much more bloody — but repetitious — events in Syria.
The nature of small wars such as the one involving Gaza is that the context is always overwhelmed by the details. Another siren, another rocket, another Israeli attack from the air, more reservists join the troops, more injured, and dead; the hours pass, the days pass, but after a while, it all becomes blurred and seems cyclical. Each rocket fired matters only the moment it hits, or, in most cases, misses. Each siren matters only for the couple of minutes until the danger is over. Most of the occurrences of the past week — which I write abut with the caveat of a Nov. 19 press time — were quickly forgotten, negligible in their impact on the larger scheme of things.
The final outcome of the battle is what matters, and, strangely, while no one can quite explain why the war started, everyone has known from the outset how it is supposed to end: a cease fire, the return to the status quo. No more rockets fired at Israel; no attacks from the Israeli side. Until the next round. The Gaza pressure cooker had to let some steam off before returning to normal (which is hardly what people in most other countries would call “normal”).
There have been many complaints as the operation continued, related to the lack of “strategy” on the part of Israel (for some reason — maybe lack of expectations? — fewer such complaints were aimed at Hamas). These complaints have come mostly in two forms: 1.) that Israel should not fight a war against Hamas without coupling its effort with a parallel effort at advancing the peace process with the PA; and 2.) that it is time for Israel to abandon its policy of non-negotiation with Hamas and acknowledge reality — Hamas is here to stay.
These two alternative policies are both worthy of discussion, as long as one realizes that they contradict one another. If Israel negotiates with Hamas, it undermines the PA, the only partner Israel might have for a peace process. If Israel advances peace negotiations with the PA, it is likely to draw even more opposition from Hamas. Nevertheless, some serious people believe that at least one of the two options should be vigorously pursued by Israel, and some even believe that Israel can attempt to try both in parallel. At the bottom of these alternative policy paths, though, lie two assumptions that Israel doesn’t seem to accept, and hence doesn’t seem inclined to follow: 1.) that there’s no problem without solution, and 2.) that action is always preferable to inaction.
If one accepts these two assumptions, it is reasonable to be puzzled, even dismayed by Israel’s lack of “strategy.” It is clear, and not just in regard to the 2012 Gaza operation, that Israel operates under the supposition that no solution is currently available for the problem of Gaza and Hamas, and that inaction — in the larger sense — is indeed preferable to action. Israel believes that Hamas is an enemy with whom no negotiation can lead to resolution, and that this is a component of the larger problem of a Palestinian society that isn’t yet ready for peace. When Palestinians are ready — when they are ready not just to negotiate with Israel, but also to confront the radical factions within their own society — that will be the right time for an attempt at a resolution that demands action. But until then, Israel defies both above-mentioned assumptions: It believes that there’s no present agreement that will put an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and that the lack of a possible agreement makes a tense but quiet status quo the only thing it can hope to achieve.
Hence, an operation with no “strategy.” A war of low intensity, but also of low expectations. An operation aimed at restoring a status quo that is far from satisfying to both Palestinians and Israelis. An operation that outsiders perceive with a measure of dismay: All this violence just to go back to what we had two months ago? All this violence, and no attempt to leverage it to achieve larger goals?
The answer, sadly, is a resounding yes. The dead, the injured, the terrified, the heart-wrenching scenes, the scared innocents, the crying children, the wasted days, the sleepless nights, the constant worry, the shattered windows, the wasted resources, the sad realization that there’s no end — all this with no purpose other than to restore the status quo. That is what Israel wants for now. And as for Hamas: As I warned at the outset of this article, we have a problem with Hamas, beginning with the fact that we don’t quite understand what they want.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.
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Israel’s Foreign Ministry: Oslo Accords could be canceled over Palestinians’ U.N. bid
A document being circulated by Israel's Foreign Ministry instructs its envoys to warn their host governments that the Oslo Accords could be canceled over the Palestinian Authority's attempt to upgrade its status at the United Nations.
The document, which says the possible upgrade to non-member state “would be considered a crossing of a red line,” reportedly also calls for “toppling” the regime of PA President Mahmoud Abbas if the proposal is approved, the French news agency AFP reported.
Abbas has said he will go to the U.N. General Assembly this month to ask that the Palestinians be upgraded to non-member state status.
The document also recommends offering the Palestinians immediate recognition of statehood along provisional borders for a transition period, according to Haaretz.
“In the event that the Palestinians give up going to the UN, Israel must reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority for a Palestinian state along provisional borders, during a transition period — until the stabilization of the Arab world, new elections in the Palestinian Authority, and a clarification of the relations between the West Bank and Gaza,” the document obtained by Haaretz reads.
The Palestinians currently are considered an observer “entity” at the United Nations. Acceptance of the Palestinians as a non-member state, similar to the Vatican's U.N. status, could grant the Palestinians access to bodies such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they could file complaints against Israel.
The status upgrade seems certain to win approval in any vote in the General Assembly, which is composed mostly of post-colonial states historically sympathetic to the Palestinians. Palestinian diplomats also are courting European countries to further burnish their case.
The Palestinian Authority last year sought full U.N. membership. The bid failed because of U.S. opposition in the U.N. Security Council.
“Observer status” does not need approval of the Security Council, where the United States wields a veto.
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The Palestinian great escape?
Abdullah Ashee, a 45-year old investor, is wanted in the West Bank for alleged fraud. But two years ago, while his case was being considered in a court in the West Bank city of Ramallah, he fled to neighboring Jordan. He says he entered Jordan legally and that he fled his home because he does not trust the Palestinian Authority’s legal system.
“The people who filed the charges against me are related to influential people from the Palestinian Authority – I was a victim,” Ashee told The Media Line. “I was facing prison and losing more money, so I decided to flee.”
It is hard to know how many Palestinians have fled to Jordan in recent years, but according to figures published on the website of the Palestinian Authority, its police have apprehended nearly 2,000 people who were trying to escape prosecution in the Palestinian territories by fleeing to Jordan. Legal scholars in Jordan say despite efforts by the PA, dozens have succeeded.
Jordanian officials acknowledge that many Palestinians leave the West Bank while their cases are being heard in Palestinian courts.
The situation is complicated by the close ties between the West Bank and Jordan. Jordan ruled the area from 1948 to 1967, when it came under Israeli control. An estimated 800,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank, out of a total population of 2.6 million, hold Jordanian citizenship, the impact of which is strengthened where there are close family ties.
Jordanian law prohibits the extradition of Jordanian citizens except in exceptional cases, so the kingdom’s government is unlikely to extradite Palestinians to the West Bank once they have entered Jordan.
The Palestinian justice system is still in its infancy and according to legal experts, Palestinian lawyers have made some mistakes. For example, says Mahmoud Naghawee, a member of the Jordanian Bas Association who has been involved in several cases of extradition requests for Palestinians from Jordan, Palestinian officials do not always send the correct documents to Jordan.
“Jordan’s legal system is very strict. For example, deportation would not take place without the original deportation request, but the Palestinians send a certified copy,” he told The Media Line. “By the time proper documents are sent, the wanted individual will have already left Jordan to a third country, which further complicates efforts to bring him to justice,” Naghawee explained.
Meanwhile, Palestinian diplomats said their attempts to pursue wanted individuals once they have left Jordan for a third country become even more complicated due to the fact that that the Palestinian territories is not a full- fledged state.
Many countries in Europe and Asia do not cooperate with the Palestinian Authority due to the absence of a legal frame work that allows the extradition of wanted people, despite the existence of the Interpol, which operates between states.
Officials from Jordan's Ministry of Justice said Jordan does deport Palestinians to the West Bank, depending on the gravity of the case. They declined, however, to give figures on the number of individuals who have been deported. Sources in the ministry said that no more than five people have been deported in the past four years.
Palestinian Ambassador to Jordan Attallah Khairi said the problem of extradition exists, but he played down its significance.
“Jordan did not shirk its responsibility to the Palestinian Authority on this issue, but cooperation on issues of financial corruption could be improved,” he told The Media Line.
Khiri said the Palestinian Authority and Jordan cooperate under the Riyadh Agreement between members of the Arab League, which allows the extradition of individuals sentenced to prison for more than one year.
Diplomats from the Palestinian embassy in Amman said the fact that many Palestinians hold dual nationality, Jordanian and Palestinian, makes deportation very difficult.
Palestinian diplomats, who spoke to The Media Line on the condition of anonymity, said the Palestinian Authority asked Jordan to freeze the financial assets of former senior Palestinian official Mohammed Dahlan, who is wanted on charges of alleged corruption.
“Jordan did not cooperate in the Dahlan issue. It continues to drag its feet on the matter, demanding more papers every time we meet their demands,” said the diplomat.
Dahlan, who carries dual Jordanian and Palestinian citizenship, is believed to have fled to Jordan after a fallout with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He is currently wanted in the PA-controlled West Bank on charges of financial fraud.
Meanwhile, a Jordanian official from the justice ministry said Jordan has extradited a few individuals from its territories in cases related to money laundering.
Speaking to The Media Line on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, he said the case of Dahlah is purely political, and therefore Jordan cannot extradite him. “The issue of Dahlan is an internal Palestinian issue that Jordan does not want to be dragged into,” he said.
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Palestinian street begins to sound like Spring
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring almost two years ago, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been remarkably quiet. There have been no large demonstrations against what Palestinians call the ongoing Israeli occupation; or against President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
That may now be changing. But unlike the Arab Spring protests which many hoped would stimulate political reforms and democracy, the current protests in the West Bank center clearly on the economy. Last month, Palestinian officials increased the Value Added Tax, or VAT, which is paid on most goods and services, from 14.5 percent to 15.5 percent. The move came as Israel increased its own VAT from 16 to 17 percent.
Thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets all over the West Bank. In Hebron, demonstrators attacked the police station and the municipality. In several refugee camps, they closed roads. Palestinian taxi and truck drivers held a one-day strike earlier this month, effectively shutting down the West Bank, to protest the increase in fuel prices.
Like the professional drivers, the demonstrators, too, were protesting increases in the price of gasoline, which has increased in Israel to approximately $8 per gallon. The Palestinian economy is dependent upon the much larger Israeli economy for imports of raw materials. The minimum wage in Israel is just over $1,000 per month, while the Palestinian minimum wage is about $400 per month.
Following the demonstrations, Prime Minister Fayyad decided to reduce the VAT increase, leaving the tax at just 15 percent, to try to stem the public protests. The American-educated Fayyad is very popular in the West, but at home in the West Bank as an independent not associated with the ruling Fatah party, he is far less popular. Abbas, too, is being seen as ineffectual and his popularity has sharply declined.
A recent study by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip found that 76 percent of Palestinians expect the current wave of protests to continue and even to escalate. Almost half of the public believe that the current economic crisis facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) is “manufactured” and 37 percent believe the PA will not be able to pay the salaries of teachers, policemen and other civil servants over the next year.
The World Bank has concluded that the Palestinian economy is facing an unprecedented crisis and has called on the international community to increase donations to the PA.
“It is clear that the wave of price hikes and the decisions taken by the Fayyad government, in raising prices of fuel, are responsible for this sudden shift in public attitudes and evaluations,” concluded the PSR study.
“PM Salam Fayyad was the most affected according to the results of the recent poll,” Dr. Khalil Shikaki the head of the PSR told The Media Line.
“People feel Fayyad’s government made a lot of promises that it failed to fulfill.”
He said Fayyad could bounce back, unless he continues to increase prices.
“If the price increases continue, Fayyad’s popularity will significantly decrease,” Shikaki opined. “This is a dilemma for the PA, because the protests and the street anger are directed against the PA’s economic behavior and policy.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s popularity has also sharply declined since last September when he tried to achieve recognition of Palestine as an independent state at the United Nations. “Now, after a year, there is a feeling that he failed, as he looks hesitant,” Shikaki said.
Abbas is now trying to get the UN to recognize Palestine as a “non-member observer state,” a status held only by the Vatican. He has said he hopes the UN General Assembly will debate and approve the move in November.
Other Palestinian analysts say the fates of Fayyad and Abbas are linked.
“The protests erupted against Fayyad but quickly turned against Abbas,” analyst Hani Al-Masri told The Media Line.
Fatah Central Council Member Nabil Amr says Fayyad and Abbas must try to solve the financial crisis. He says the protests are a warning to the PA.
Palestinians are scheduled to hold municipal elections later this month, and analysts believe the anger directed toward Fayyad and Abbas could negatively affect candidates who are seen as being allied with either of the two men.
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World Bank: Urgent action needed to avoid PA fiscal crisis
The World Bank called on donors to act “urgently” to prevent a “deepening fiscal crisis” in the Palestinian territories.
Israel also needs to remove barriers to developing the West Bank economy, the World Bank said.
In a statement about its report published this week on the PA’s economy, the World Bank called for “immediate donor action coupled with freeing of untapped West Bank resources.”
Yet, “even with this financial support, sustainable economic growth cannot be achieved without a removal of the barriers preventing private sector development,” Mariam Sherman, World Bank Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza.said in the statement.
She added this applied “especially” to Area C – a non-contiguous area which makes up 60% of the West Bank and is under full Israeli control. Approximately 5.8% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank lives in Area C.
Entitled “Fiscal Crisis, Economic Prospects: The Imperative for Economic Cohesion in the Palestinian Territories”, the report highlights the untapped resources of the West Bank as a potential source of private sector growth.
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PA opposes moment of silence for slain Israelis
The Palestinian Authority opposed a moment of silence at the London Olympics for the 40th anniversary of the Palestinian “Black September” terrorist group’s killing of 11 Israeli team members in Munich, Palestinian Media Watch reported.
On July 25, the PA’s daily publication said in a headline that sports “are meant for peace, not for racism.” Jibril Rajoub, President of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, wrote International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge thanking him for not granting Israel’s request of a moment of silence at the opening ceremony.
“Sports are a bridge to love, interconnection, and spreading of peace among nations; it must not be a cause of division and spreading of racism between them [nations],” Rajoub, wrote in the letter, which appeared in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida.
The PA publication does not refer to the Munich murders as terrorism, simply calling the events of 1972 “the Munich Operation.”
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House Middle East subcommittee considers PA corruption
The House Middle East subcommittee considered reports of Palestinian corruption and how the reports should affect U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee who convened the hearing on Tuesday, said assistance should take into account whether the recipients are corrupt.
“Our objective cannot and must not be to strengthen whoever recites the same prescribed lines about negotiations,” he said. “Rather, our policy must aim to empower those leaders who genuinely seek to establish the transparent and accountable institutions of government that will be necessary for any future Palestinian state to be viable and able to live side by side with Israel in peace, security and prosperity.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said that while consideration of corruption is important, equally as important were how such considerations might constrain advancing U.S. policy, including a two-state solution outcome.
“How do we move forward toward a peace that enables Israel to remain secure as both a democratic and Jewish state, and for the Palestinians to have a national homeland of their own that poses no threat to others?” he said. “That’s the central question and the point from which our assessments about the seriousness of corruption must begin.”
Ackerman also noted how allegations of Israeli corruption have hindered advancing the peace process, citing the allegations that drove Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from office just as he seemed to be nearing a deal with the Palestinians.
Witnesses, including Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, reported on the reluctance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to investigate corruption except when it is useful as a tool to undermine his rivals. They also said that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was trustworthy but also hamstrung in part by restrictions imposed by Abbas.
The witnesses also stopped short of recommending a total cutoff of assistance to the Palestinian Authority; Schanzer, for instance, noted that such a vacuum would soon be filled by Iran.
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PA minister: Abbas rejected Netanyahu’s offer to release prisoners for peace talks
A Palestinian minister said on Monday evening that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected an offer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release security prisoners in exchange for the renewal of peace talks.
Palestinian Authority Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe confirmed a Haaretz report that Netanyahu made an offer to release initially 25 Palestinian security prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis and the subsequent release of another 100 prisoners over four stages by the end of 2012.
Qaraqe said that Abbas rejected Netanyahu’s offer, demanding instead that the prisoners be released at once and not over various stages.
Read more at Haaretz.com.
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PA says it’s facing ‘worst financial crisis’
The Palestinian Authority is facing its “worst financial crisis” yet, according to a PA official, because of a foreign aid shortfall and the rejection of a $100 million loan by the International Monetary Fund.
Unless the PA finds a way to close its budget gap, PA Labor Minister Ahmed Majdalani said, the delay in aid from Arab donor nations will render the PA unable to pay its employees’ July salaries and its debts to private businesses, according to the French news agency AFP.
In an attempt to help ease the PA’s budget problems, Israel recently asked the IMF for a bridge loan of $100 million on the PA’s behalf. The IMF denied the request, saying it did not want to set a precedent of one state receiving a loan on behalf of a non-state body, Haaretz reported.
PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, both former IMF officials, had decided that Israel would ask for the bridge loan because the Palestinian Authority is not a member state and cannot receive financial support from the fund.
Al-Arabiya reported that a delay in salary payments would be particularly sensitive now with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan beginning in mid-July.
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