Texas teen arrested over clock is moving to Qatar with his family


The Texas boy arrested for bringing to school a homemade clock that was mistaken for a bomb is moving to Qatar, his family said on Tuesday, a few hours after he was at the White House for an astronomy night hosted by President Barack Obama.

Ahmed Mohamed, 14, a bespectacled ninth-grader who became an Internet sensation for an arrest that supporters said was influenced by bias against his Muslim religion, has accepted an offer from the Qatar Foundation to study at its Young Innovators Program.

“This means, that we, as a family, will relocate to Qatar where Ahmed will receive a full scholarship for secondary and undergraduate education,” his family said in a statement.

The teenager, who dabbles in robotics and had attended a Dallas-area high school, has basked in celebrity status since his arrest in September. The family has been traveling the globe to meet dignitaries.

Sudanese state radio reported that his father took him to meet Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese leader is accused by the International Criminal Court of masterminding genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes during Sudan's Darfur conflict.

After Mohamed was seen in a NASA T-shirt in handcuffs, the Twitter hashtag #IStandWithAhmed trended globally and was cited in praise from Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, who said: “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest.”

No charges were filed and police in the Dallas suburb of Irving said in September they were reviewing their actions in the case..

At the White House on Monday night, Obama briefly met Mohamed as he shook hands with students at the event, giving the student a hug.

At the time of the arrest, Obama's Twitter feed had a message of support for Mohammed, which read: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great.”

“It was amazing, and a honor meeting President Obama,” Mohamed said on Twitter after meeting Obama.

Iran troops to join Syria war, Russia bombs group trained by CIA


Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government, Lebanese sources said on Thursday, a sign the civil war is turning still more regional and global in scope.

Russian warplanes, in a second day of strikes, bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, the group's commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War.

Speaking by video link for an hour, U.S. and Russian military officials discussed ways to ensure their warplanes do not come into conflict as they carry out separate air campaigns over Syria, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. He said it was the first in a series of conversations.

Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive. They would also be backed by Assad's Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shi'ite militia fighters from Iraq, while Russia would provide air support.

“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said.

So far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has also mobilised Shi'ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck near the cities of Hama and Homs are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by U.S. allies including Arab states and Turkey.

Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group which is part of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters one of the targets was his group's base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate raids. His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, part of a programme Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.

“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots.

The group is one of at least three foreign-backed FSA rebel factions to say they had been hit by the Russians in the last two days.

At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference Moscow was targeting Islamic State. He did not specifically deny that Russian planes had attacked Free Syrian Army facilities but said Russia did not view it as a terrorist group and viewed it as part of a political solution in Syria.

The aim is to help the Syrian armed forces “in their weak spots”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Thursday's military talks as “cordial and professional” and said a U.S. official raised concerns that areas targeted by Russian aircraft in Syria were not Islamic State strongholds.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the United Nations on Thursday: “Instead of lone decisions by Russia to take direct military action in Syria we need Russia to take political action advocating transition in Syria.”

SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT FRIENDS

Russia's decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world's military powers.

With the United States leading an alliance waging its own air war against Islamic State, the Cold War superpower foes, Washington and Moscow, are now engaged in combat over the same country for the first time since World War Two.

They say they have the same enemies – the Islamic State group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

But they also have different friends, and sharply opposing views of how to resolve the 4-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes.

Washington and its allies oppose both Islamic State and Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement.

Washington says a central part of its strategy is building “moderate” insurgents to fight Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training.

Moscow supports the Syrian president and believes his government should be the centrepiece of international efforts to fight the extremist groups.

It appears to be using the common campaign against Islamic State as a pretext to strike against groups supported by Washington and its allies, as a way of defending a Damascus government with which Moscow has been allied since the Cold War.

The Russian strikes represent a bold move by President Vladimir Putin to assert influence beyond his own neighbourhood: it is the first time Moscow has ordered its forces into combat outside the frontiers of the former Soviet Union since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s.

The Russian and Iranian intervention in support of Assad comes at a time when momentum in the conflict had swung against his government and seem aimed at reversing insurgent gains.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of neighbouring Iraq, where Washington is also leading an air war against Islamic State while Iran aids government forces on the ground, said he would be open to Russian strikes as well.

A Syrian military source said on Thursday that Russian military support would bring a “big change” in the course of the conflict, particularly through advanced surveillance capabilities that could pinpoint insurgent targets.

Putin's gamble of going to war in Syria comes a year after he defied the West to annex Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, drawing U.S. and EU economic sanctions while igniting a wave of popular nationalist support at home.

He appears to be betting that decisive action to aid Assad will improve Russia's position at future talks on a political settlement, safeguard its control of the naval base and limit the influence of regional rivals like NATO member Turkey. It could also help his image at home as a strong leader willing to challenge global rivals, first and foremost the United States.

Germany’s moral courage


Around 7 a.m. last Sunday, The New York Times landed on my balcony with a thud, like it always does. It woke me up and startled my cats, like it usually does, until we all realized it’s the same old, same old, and lay our heads down again.

But when I finally emerged about an hour later, dressed, cats fed, coffee in hand, I pulled The Times out of its sea-blue plastic wrapping, scanned the front-page headlines and had to do a double take: There was nothing ‘same-old’ about the day’s big news.

Beneath a picture of an ecstatic-looking crowd of men and women of various ages, all with huge smiles on their faces and arms raised in celebratory cheer, was the astonishing headline:

Germany Welcomes Thousands of Weary Migrants.

Wait a minute, my brain cautioned. You mean, that Germany?

I read a little more…

MUNICH – Germans waving welcome signs in German, English and Arabic came to the train station here Saturday to greet the first group of what is expected to be about 8,000 migrants to arrive in Germany by early Sunday… Germans applauded and volunteers offered hot tea, food and toys as about 450 migrants arrived… Germany, which had held out an open hand…

Germany. Which held out an open hand.

Oh, sweet irony of history!

But indeed it was so: While the rest of Europe fretted over what to do about a crisis that is being called “the largest wave of emigration since World War II,” Germany, led by its courageous and moral Chancellor Angela Merkel, signaled its willingness to heed the call of millions of desperate refugees, many of whom have been rendered stateless by the war in Syria and other Middle East crises.

While the United States has sat idly by, draped in its aggrandizing values of justice and liberty for all, its political passivity partly responsible for the refugee crisis to begin with, Germany steps forward with leadership and humanity.

While the Gulf States of Qatar, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates defend themselves against charges of apathy and indifference, Germany opens its arms. “You can’t welcome people who come from a different atmosphere, from a different place, who suffer from psychological problems, from trauma, and enter them into societies,” Kuwaiti commentator Fahad Al-Shelaimi, chairman of the Gulf Forum for Peace and Security, said last March during a televised address on France24’s Arabic channel.

The Gulf States – and the United States – have a few things in common: Both have opened their checkbooks (Saudi Arabia: $18.4 million; Kuwait: $304 million; U.S.: $1.1 billion), while refusing to open their borders. Instead Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, whose per capita incomes are but a fraction of those in the Gulf States, have absorbed the largest number of refugees (Turkey: 2 million; Lebanon: 1.2 million; Jordan: 630,000). The U.S. has agreed to a paltry 1,500.

So far, only Germany, and her neighboring Austria, have risked their own stability and security to absorb these fleeing refugees, with Germany expecting to receive 800,000 this year alone.

The country’s compassion moved the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to praise Germany, Austria and “civil society” itself for their “remarkable” response to the crisis. “This is political leadership based on humanitarian values,” said a UNHCR statement issued on Sept. 5. Newsweek declared Germany’s Chancellor Merkel “Europe’s Conscience.”

Yes, that Germany. The Germany that between 1939 and 1945 provoked a frantic emigration of its own – that is, for the lucky few who could actually escape its death grip as the country’s maniacal leader and his obedient minions sent millions of Jews and other unfortunate minorities to death pits, concentration camps, gas chambers and burning ovens. That Germany saw itself as superior; as a burgeoning empire that had to cleanse itself of the other –the stranger, the refugee, the Jew – who did not belong, as the Kuwaiti official would have us believe, in a civilized society. That Germany destroyed a generation, murdering 11 million human beings as easily as it obliterated entire states. But history, it turns out, does not repeat itself in Germany.

Who could have predicted that one of the 20th century’s leading countries in moral depravity would become the 21st century’s world leader in moral courage?

  

While Lady Liberty rusts in the heat of an increasingly simmering sun, Hitler’s onetime puppet country beckons the tired and poor, the huddled Middle Eastern masses yearning to breathe free – of violence, and poverty, and terror. “I just want my sons to study and get jobs,” 35-year-old Syrian refugee and mother of three, Rania al-Hamawi told The Times.

What a lucky twist of fate, then, that the country with the biggest heart also boasts one of the world’s most robust economies. God could hardly have planned this any better.

Seventy years ago, who could have imagined that the country that nearly annihilated God’s Chosen would one day be chosen as a light among nations? Who could have foreseen that the place that almost destroyed the Jewish tradition would come to embody some of its most essential, enduring tenets: Teshuvah, change is possible. The future need not look like the past. Redemption is yours, waiting to be claimed. The world can indeed be re-created: Hayom Harat Olam, Rosh Hashanah tells us. This is the day the world was created – and it is created again and again, every year.

Germany is living these values. We should, too.

Shana Tovah.

Lights on! Planned Palestinian city welcomes first ‘Rawabians’


Hanadi Abu Zahra turns on the tap in her kitchen and is elated to see the water flowing – something most new residents would take for granted even if they had not just moved into a brand new state-of-the-art apartment in a luxury building located in a development that has been the recipient of massive world-wide attention. But whether or not water would be there when the tap was turned on became symbolic of the challenges that had to be overcome in order for Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city, to transform from one man’s vision to the fulfillment of 40,000 aspirations.

In August, Abu Zahra became one of the first Rawabians – residents of the long and anxiously awaited city located about 5.6 miles north of Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative capital, and 15 miles north of Jerusalem.

On a grand entry road you are met by the swaying of the Rawabi, Palestinian and Qatari flags saluting a bold new city of neatly chiseled gold, grey and white stones of varying sizes emerging before your eyes. They are laid meticulously by hundreds of workers who hail from all over — Nablus, Qalqilya, Jenin.  Some workers are hanging from scaffolding placing final touches on the third and fourth neighborhoods being readied to receive their occupants, or preparing phase one of the town center or Abraham’s Mosque, named after the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Rawabi is a project of Bayti Investments which was developed through Massar International and Qatar Diyar.

Bashar Al-Masri, president of Massar International, a chemical engineer-turned- builder/real estate mogul, is the man behind the vision. Asked by The Media Line whether the city now receiving its first residents compares favorably with the dream, he answers that, “It’s surprisingly very close. I would say by mid-next year we will be right on because some components of the project lag behind for different reasons, but they’re on track.”

Bashar Al-Masri, President of Massar International and creator of Rawabi. Photo by Felice Friedson/The Media Line

The “track” will, in about six years’ time, run into a formidable city which continues the Rawabi commitment to clean living where rooftop eyesores such as water tanks and satellite dishes are absent and cables, including fiber optics and Internet, are buried beneath the ground. The Middle East’s largest amphitheater (15,000 seats) will be the venue for world-renowned artists while visitors to a business hub will stay in a five-star hotel adjoining a mall adorned with the world’s leading logos. Green, clean and dynamic, Rawabi holds out the promise of a lifestyle Palestinians are familiar with only through Western cinema.

A business center due to open in mid-2016 will include a business incubator established so that Palestinian businesses can create permanent sustainable jobs of which 1,500 are needed to launch the center. Masri is hoping both local and international companies will step in to create those jobs.

The “different reasons” Masri says are causing some components to lag behind are in most cases manifestations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the endless struggle to obtain Israel’s permission to build a road sufficient to support the volume of traffic associated with a city of 6,000 housing units; and the allocation of a water supply appropriate to a city of that size – threatened to scuttle the entire project.

So given the track record of success in resolving issues between Israel and the Palestinians, who then would be willing to chance a commitment to a potentially dry home with no adequate entrance or egress?

According to Masri, as many as 65% of the incoming Rawabians will be moving only a short distance from their current West Bank homes. Typically young professionals with two working spouses, there is also a significant number of Arab Israelis coming from Israel to live in Rawabi – a fact Masri says surprised him.

Rawabi, which means “hills,” sits on 6.3 million square meter municipal boundary, 1 million square meters of which is being built up in the first phase: 639 units ready for immediate occupancy and 500 more ready for move-in early next year. Apartment prices began at about $65,000 — although those are sold out – and peak at about $180,000. The most sought-after units go for between $90,000 and $125,000.

Special insulation material keep homes warm in winter and cool in summer with 30 percent energy savings to each family. Rain water is collected through a harvesting technique, cleaning it for re-usage. Rawabi also claims its own waste water treatment plant which will service the city and adjacent towns.

Bahee, 8, and Layan, 10, bicycle in front of new apartment in Rawabi. Photo by Eloise Bollack/The Media Line

The neighborhoods names are given Canaanite names.  Six thousand housing units across twenty three neighborhoods will be built in all, the first two which are the largest and are completed and ready and servicing about 300 units each. The buildings of the third and fourth neighborhoods are built, but remain just skeletons. The fifth neighborhood, currently an empty excavated lot, will take six months to a year to complete.

Nihad Kamal, an investment manager for Siraj, a private fund, moved his family into the sixth floor of the sixth building – one of the first to take up residency. Asked why, he told The Media Line that, “First of all, it’s a brand new city. There’s a big difference between a new car and used car. This makes a big difference in the future and in infrastructure. There will be no water tanks or satellite dishes on rooftops. Most important to me is being away from city life. We are like a village. A few families have moved in already and I know later on life in Rawabi will be busy.”

The Kamal family had been living in Al-Masyoun, an upscale neighborhood close to the prime minister’s residence. But Kamal beams when he explains that, “My eight-year old daughter now plays with a neighboring ten-year old on their bicycles:  something I would not allow in Ramallah where it was too dangerous to do so.”

Asked if he’s a pioneer, Kamal replied that, “I wish so. I took a calculated risk to come earlier with my family so I’d say I am,” but added, “high risks yield high returns. People coming now and buying at the second phase are paying higher prices. This was one of my calculations.”

Hanadi Abu Zahra, a chemistry teacher; her husband, Bassem, a physician; and their three children Baraa, Bahaa and Beesan ranging in age from 4 to 10, are also moving into the first building. The Abu Zahras learned of Rawabi through social media and bought a 195-square meter apartment. They are excited about this modern and comfortable city, but are still concerned that infrastructure needs to be in place and that the school will be up and running when they take up full-time occupancy in time for the following school year. Construction of Rawabi’s three schools was delayed when the economic situation became critical. At the present time, the city runs buses between Rawabi and schools in Ramallah – almost one hour of daily travel time that Masri says is “not needed.” While the schools are being built, school operators are being vetted so that the educational system is in full gear by next year. Amir Dajani, Deputy Managing director of Rawabi, told The Media Line that plans are underway to use linkages with Harvard, Cornell and Tufts Universities to develop partnership programs and utilize their classrooms in the evening for continuing education and for courses for working mothers via satellite.

Manal Zariq is not only a mother of three who will be moving in next month, she is also Massar International’s general manager and a member of Rawabi’s Municipal Council. Zariq told The Media Line that it’s important for her to “try the systems to make sure that what we’re planning for is working well.” She want to show her fellow Rawabians that “when we build it, it’s even at the standards for the builder to live there.”

By the time the 6,000 units are occupied, the project’s cost will have topped $1.2 billion – a considerable increase above the original projected cost of $875 million when the project began, as much as $200 million of which resulted from what Masri calls “political costs.” Because a small portion of Rawabi protrudes into what was designated “Area C” by the 1993 Oslo Accords (meaning full Israeli administrative and security control), Israel had to sign-off on the issues of building a road and allocating water. Efforts to get those permissions were so intense that the redirection of corporate strength was to the exclusion of other important projects including construction of schools, a medical center…and Masri’s own penthouse.

Currently there are no shops, no small grocers, but a doctor and clinic are available since there have been hundreds of workers on site involved in building Rawabi since the project began in 2008, Dijani, told The Media Line.

Masri is equally proud of what he sees as Rawbi’s payback to the Palestinian society, citing many examples of jobs and businesses that have been spawned by his massive project. He told The Media Line that, the construction industry was “enhanced tremendously.”

Hana and her daughter Tuqa in new apartment. Photo by Eloise Bollack/The Media Line

 “Since we started Rawabi, a minimum of five neighborhood projects, the largest neighborhood project much smaller than Rawabi, but still large, were launched, so this already encourages others to launch big projects.  We know there are others planning a city now and they are waiting and looking at Rawabi to see the success.”

When the project started, 95% of the necessary goods had to be imported. “Today, we probably import 50% of the goods. We worked with the manufacturers.  We worked with the welders to create the steel work.  We worked with the carpenters to do the kitchens.  We were importing all the kitchens.  Now we’re doing all the kitchens locally.  We were importing the doors.  Now we’re doing them locally.  And so on and so forth it is definitely helping the economy much more than Rawabi,” said Masri.

Rawabi has been a study in unintended consequences since the project began. Early on, when it was clear that the small existing road could not support the necessary flow of construction vehicles, Masri answered the challenge by creating a full-scale quarry and stone-making factory on-site. As well, the special mortgage packages the banks created for Rawabi buyers in conjunction with Massar introduced Palestinians to a new option for financing homes.

“We were the first to incorporate female industrial engineers to a construction site in Palestine. One third of our engineers are women,” said Dajani. Illustrating his point, Nour Sadi’s green hard hat sits atop her hijab (Islamic head cover) and her large toothy smile shines through as she talks of the many women engineers involved in the electricity, building and architecture of the new city. Nour is a resident of Jenin and studied in Al Najah University.  

And perhaps least expected was the support that welled-up within Israeli society for the success of the project.  The struggle to get the necessary permissions is legend but strangely helped in no small degree by Israelis themselves.

As the project proceeded, Israelis from the nation’s elite to the rank-and-file became transfixed with Rawabi to the point where popular support from its citizens is credited by Masri with helping to ultimately turn the tide. Some go so far as to point to Rawabi as a microcosm for coexistence, an idea Masri appreciates. But at the end of the day, the city’s founder says, “This is not about the international community. This is about Palestine and the Palestinian people.”

Yet, Masri is candid about nearly losing the project altogether when funding ran out and doesn’t regret that the project will not make money. He tells of the company’s leadership scrambling to raise $100 million from personal and business sources to save Rawabi. Above all, he explained to The Media Line, was the drive to “set a precedent for the other projects. We want others to be encouraged to do Rawabi 2 and Rawabi 3 and Rawabi 4 and Rawabi 5. And guess what? The country needs a minimum of five projects like Rawabi.”

Sitting together on the living room couch in their flat, the Kamal family reflected on their new life in Rawabi. Twenty-year old Tuqa, a student at nearby Birzeit University, appreciates the closeness of the campus to her new home so that her friends and classmates can come visit. Eight-year old Huda says she loves laying down in the garden.

“When you have a busy city that’s organized, it’s much nicer than being in a busy city that’s unorganized,” said Nihad reflecting on the excitement of the move and the inevitable growth of the city. 

Meanwhile, sounds of jack hammers abound and sandy dust looms everywhere; but the water is flowing and the lights are on in Rawabi.

Qatar lends Palestinians $100 million to pay salaries


The Palestinian Authority said on Wednesday it had received a $100 million loan from Qatar to help pay civil servants salaries and alleviate an economic crisis triggered by a row with Israel over taxes.

President Mahmoud Abbas, who is visiting the Gulf state, issued a statement thanking Qatar for the loan. There was no immediate confirmation or comment from Qatari officials.

Israel collects taxes on behalf of Abbas's Palestinian Authority but suspended payments of some $130 million a month in January to protest at moves by the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Palestinian membership of the ICC started on April 1, opening the way for possible law suits against Israel for alleged war crimes tied to settlements on land the Palestinians want for an independent state.

Following widespread criticism by Western allies, Israel earlier this month released some of the frozen tax revenue, but withheld a portion of the cash, saying it was money Palestinians owed for utilities and health care supplied by Israel.

Abbas said the deductions amounted to a third of the total sum that Israel owed and refused to accept any of the money, threatening to go to the ICC over the issue.

An official at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office confirmed that Israel had deducted money to cover the Palestinians' electricity, water and health bills and was “willing to transfer back to the Palestinian Authority the sum that was returned whenever it wishes”.

Report: Qatar deports Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal


Qatar reportedly has deported Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal to Turkey.

The move was first reported over the weekend in a Turkish newspaper. It comes as Qatar is working to strengthen ties with Egypt and several Gulf States that object to the Hamas presence.

Mashaal visited Turkey in a surprise appearance about two weeks ago, where he called for Turkish help to “liberate” Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, Hamas leaders denied that Mashaal was deported.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry in a statement issued Tuesday praised Qatar for deporting Mashaal, saying the ministry had worked openly and through private channels to Qatar and other countries in order to effect Mashaal’s deportation.

“We expect the Turkish government to now follow suit,” the statement said.

Mashaal spent 13 years in Damascus before leaving in January 2012 due to Syria’s continuing civil war.

 

State Dept.: Qatar pledges not to fund Hamas


The Obama administration says it has received assurances from the Arab nation Qatar that its assistance to the Palestinians will not reach Hamas.

“Qatar has pledged financial support that would be directed to the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Julia Frifield, the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote in a Nov. 21 letter to Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.) first revealed this week by the Free Beacon news website. “Qatar assured us that its assistance would not go to Hamas.”

In July, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Roskam had written to the U.S. secretaries of State and the Treasury expressing “grave concerns” about the State Department’s cooperation with Qatar in its bid to end the fighting, noting the emirate’s past support for Hamas.

In her letter, Frifield noted the continuing U.S. policy of not dealing with Hamas, but added that Qatar was valuable in part because of its influence with the group.

“We need countries that have leverage over the leaders of Hamas to help put a cease-fire in place,” she said.

Part of Hamas’ leadership is headquartered in Qatar. Frifield also said that the United States is cooperating with Qatar to clamp down on terrorist financing in the country, noting that disruption of such financing remains “inconsistent.”

Qatar has pledged $150 million to the Palestinian Authority in debt relief and additional funds to help the people of the Gaza Strip.

Why does Qatar support Hamas?


It was the first Persian Gulf state to establish ties with Israel, the first to welcome Israeli students and the only one to allow direct dialing to Israel. Israeli athletes shine on its courts.

Now Qatar is on the outs with Israel because of its embrace of another regional pariah: Hamas.

Calls are circulating in the U.S. Congress to isolate Qatar — a state that has polished its pro-Western image in recent years, welcoming in foreign universities, backing the global news channel Al Jazeera and prepping to host the 2022 World Cup — for its championing of Hamas.

Since Hamas assumed control in Gaza in 2007, Qatar has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the territory and backed Hamas diplomatically, sheltering its exiled leader Khaled Meshal.

A pro-Israel source, speaking anonymously in order not to preempt lawmakers, said Qatar is under increasing scrutiny from Congress in the wake of this summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict. And with reports proliferating that financing for Islamist insurgents including the Islamic State, or ISIS, throughout the region originates in the oil-rich emirate, it is facing increasing isolation from its neighbors as well.

Qatar’s reasoning in identifying so closely with Israel’s mortal enemies is, paradoxically, grounded in the same strategies that led it to establish open ties with Israel in the 1990s, said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that specializes in Gulf states.

“Qatar’s basic approach to its own security is to maintain cordial relations with a very wide range of political actors and states,” Boghardt said in an interview. “And this accounts for its relationship with Israel on the one hand and its relationship with the most extreme terrorist groups [such as ISIS] on the other hand. This is simply the behavior of a very small state sandwiched between two large and sometimes unfriendly neighbors, Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the east.”

Punching above its weight is what led Qatar to establish trade ties with Israel in 1996, along with Oman, the first Gulf states to do so. Israeli businessmen travel to the emirate and Israeli students are welcome at the emirate’s Georgetown University campus. Shahar Peer, the Israeli tennis pro, excelled in the Qatar Open in 2008.

Israel returned the favor, with its government and the pro-Israel community here advocating on the emirate’s behalf in Washington. In 2005, Israel backed Qatar’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, helping to boost its diplomatic profile and influence.

Qatar’s attempts to manifest an outsize voice on regional issues is behind its backing for Al Jazeera. It seeks to maintain and polish its reputation as friendly to Western values.

The tiny emirate pitches itself as a vacation destination and funds a number of influential Washington think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, to where a senior official, Martin Indyk, just returned after a year trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Tensions between Israel and Qatar emerged in 2007 when Qatar was one of the only countries to back Hamas after the group booted the more moderate Palestinian Authority out of the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup. In 2012, its then-emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first head of state to visit Gaza under Hamas rule, pledging to raise $400 million toward reconstruction.

Qatar’s rationale — shared by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader — was that Islamist groups were proliferating and inevitably would play a role in the region, and therefore it was important for allies of Western nations to maintain ties.

That thinking seemed to be vindicated by the Arab Spring in 2011 when Islamists were reaping most of the gains in the pro-democratization protests throughout the Arab world. Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian progenitor of Hamas, in Egypt and Sunni insurgents seeking to topple the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

By this summer and the Gaza war, Israel was labeling Qatar a terrorist haven in part because it is harboring Meshal, a leader of Hamas. Qatar’s fingerprints alone prompted Israel to reject a cease-fire proposal advanced by John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, although trade ties are still in place and Israeli businessmen still travel to Qatar.

Backing Islamists in the long run was a losing bet, said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He noted the ouster last year of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the turning tide against insurgents in Syria, as well as with international disgust at the actions of Islamist extremists in Iraq.

“They’re like the drunk guy at the casino putting down bad bet after bad bet,” he said in an interview, referring to Qatar.

Schanzer, testifying before Congress last week, counseled pressuring Qatar through sanctions that target individuals and entities. The United States has three bases in Qatar, one of which houses the forward base of the U.S. Central Command — a status that is more important to the militarily weak emirate than it is to the U.S., according to Schanzer.

“It’s hard to justify a base several miles from where the Taliban had an embassy, from Khaled Meshal’s headquarters and from where Al Jazeera is hammering the United States,” he told JTA.

Steven Sotloff sounded the unanswered alarm about ISIS


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

“As the international media is fixated on the struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, few reporters are focusing on Syria. But a spate of kidnappings of foreign journalists in Syria has made the country a mini-Iraq that few want to venture into. 'It's dangerous and getting worse by the day,' says a correspondent for a major Western publication. If no one is asking for articles, why should we risk it?” – One of Steven Sotloff's final reports for The Media Line news agency, July 30, 2013. Sotloff was kidnapped in Syria about a week later.

If Steven Sotloff could express his frustrations, no doubt atop the list would be that the world that, post-mortem, is hanging on every word he wrote, failed to read his stories and heed his warnings several years before.

[Related: Steven Sotloff was a hero – and my friend]

As a freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff was in the Middle East by choice rather than by assignment. Driven there by his fascination with the region and affection for its people, Sotloff, who was fluent in Arabic, quickly developed an uncanny sense not only of what was, but what was going to follow as well. He traced the evolution of the jihadi takeover of Syria and Iraq; the spawning by Al-Qa'ida of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State; all while chronicling the early steps toward the carving-out of the ISIS caliphate and the dangers it presented to the Western world. When the media world was focused on Libya, Steve was there, writing about Darna, calling it “the Jihadi capital,” and already admonishing that “the Libyan dilemma will impact the Syrian crisis.” He warned in a personal email that “voices of support for intervention will be drowned out.”

Sotloff first came to The Media Line – an American news agency covering the Middle East – in 2009. His pitch for full-time employment didn't work out because I felt his need to travel throughout the region and not be assigned to a single beat.  But in 2012, Sotloff reached-out again after he had spent time living in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Qatar and Yemen; and became a freelancer for The Media Line, reporting from Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria; filing insightful stories that eerily predict today's headlines. 

Sotloff was fearless to the point where he appeared to believe he would not be harmed because potential foes would somehow sense his attachment to the Arab world and its people. In January 2013, in answer to a query regarding women's involvement, Sotloff wrote from Aleppo, “Movement in general is becoming more difficult.   Three Spanish journalists were kidnapped out of the media center. The situation is now hostile to Westerners since our governments are not involving themselves. We are now restricting movement only with fighters we trust. They certainly won't be taking us to any weddings and women's gatherings. Just having an Aleppo byline these days is a luxury. Open to suggestions, though. Imams are do-able.”

In true journalistic fashion, Sotloff eschewed the desk for the street. Syrians returning from Turkey were reporting that the US was prepared to fund anti-Assad rebels, but Sotloff was quoting Syrians who were asserting that, “We don't need food; we need weapons. Where are our weapons?”

In May 2013, Sotloff wrote that, “Syria's peaceful revolution has become a military inferno.” Two months before he went missing, he wrote a story about Syrian activists and their Friday demonstrations. “With the rebel-led Free Syrian Army locked in a stalemate with regime forces, Al-Qa'ida jihadists pouring in from neighboring countries, and lootings and kidnappings prevalent, Syrians are trying to figure out what went wrong with their pristine revolution.” He quoted 28-year old Mazin Al-Masri lamenting, “We had so much hope when we began protesting, but today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists.”

In one of Sotloff's final stories written for The Media Line, he wrote about a four-day Syrian-American medical conference in Gaziantep, Turkey, where American physicians conducted a workshop for Syrian doctors training them in the use of computerized equipment in trauma cases and cases of limb-loss. He struggled successfully to obtain video, and had difficulty transmitting quality film due to intermittent Internet.

On August 2, Sotloff communicated with me for the last time from the Turkish border-town of Kilis, discussing the dangers of going into Syria. I warned him not to trust his “fixer” (the local making the introductions and guiding his way), but Sotloff insisted that he did. Sotloff said a few journalists were still going in and that it was his hope to return and write a book about his experiences.

Shortly thereafter, Sotloff dropped off the radar. Threatening to go public to whomever might be receiving Steven's emails, I finally heard from an anonymous organization seeking his release who told us of the abduction and that a gag order (of unexplained jurisdiction) was in place. Subsequent conversations with parents Arthur and Shirley Sotloff and others close to the family confirmed the worst of fears even though it is still not known what group originally pulled-off the kidnapping. What is certain is that Sotloff eventually wound up in the hands of ISIS, perfectly-time to be used in its ghastly anti-American demonstration.

For more than one year, our utmost concern beyond Steven's ultimate safety was that it not be discovered that he held dual US-Israeli citizenship. The consequences, all concerned agreed, would be a windfall for his captors that would prove irresistible.

Sotloff grew up in south Florida and after attending University of Central Florida, moved Israel in 2008 where he enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.

Many months were to pass before Art Sotloff confirmed that Steven was still alive. But only two weeks ago, when the world witnessed the horrific spectacle of James Foley's beheading and saw Sotloff displayed as the “next victim” did concern that his Israeli connections become known skyrocket.

Steven Sotloff was a courageous journalist whose insights were clearly “on-the-mark.” His readings of events-at-hand and events-in-the-making constitute a sounding of the alarm that no one answered. Perhaps the mass outpouring over his barbaric slaying will prompt the sort of action that would be worthy of Steven Sotloff's contribution to civil society.


 

Below, please see Steven Sotloff's last article written for The Media Line. Copyright 2014 The Media Line Ltd. Contact felice_friedson@yahoo.com for permission to reprint or quote from above.

Syria’s Rebels Fighting Assad Losing-Out to Jihadists Islamists outmuscle FSA to “seize the revolution”

by Steven Sotloff/The Media Line

August 6, 2013 [Reyhanli, Turkey] — As the bureaucratic red tape in Washington has delayed arming Syrian rebels fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jihadists have slowly taken charge of a revolution that has sunk into chaos.  They now control large swaths of Syria and are gradually marginalizing FSA units who are becoming increasingly demoralized.Analysts note an increasing triangulation that pits opposition forces against each other in addition to fighting regime forces.

Conversations with several FSA brigade leaders reveal a rudderless revolution that is barely managing to stay afloat as foreign Jihadists inundate Syria.  They complain that if the West does not act soon, all that will be left to salvage is the sunken hopes of a people who desperately wanted an end to five decades of oppression at the hands of the Assad family.

Abu Munthir, a bulky man with a Rottweiler glare, is not eager to tell his story.  He hesitates before opening up about his experiences.  “At first we worked with the Jihadists,” says the 28-year old speaking in the Turkish town of Reyhanli.  “They had skills we needed and were good fighters.  But soon they began pushing us out and we were too weak to stop them.”

Abu Munthir relates that the Jihadists group Jabhat Al-Nusra had an arching plan to hijack his revolution.  Created by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra was initially tasked with ingratiating itself with the Syrian rebels.  The organization first offered FSA units its bomb making expertise and combat skills.  Once the brigades were won over, joint operations came next.

“It was all a ruse,” Abu Munthir complained.  “They wanted our trust to gain our understanding of the terrain and to pluck off some of our fighters.”  As Jabhat Al-Nusra gained strength, they no longer needed their Syrian allies and began skirmishing with the FSA to protect its turf.

In some places such as Aleppo, the FSA can still hold its ground.  But in eastern cities such as Raqqa, the Jihadists have completely taken over.  “We can’t do anything there anymore,” laments 31-year old FSA leader Abu Hamza in the Turkish town of Killis.  “They are too strong.”

Raqqa is controlled by Al-Qa’ida affiliate ISI.  After Jabhat Al-Nusra’s leader pledged allegiance to Al-Qa’ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ISI moved its own cadres into Syria.  It feared a direct link between Al-Qa’ida and Jabhat Al-Nusra would marginalize it.  The ISI however is much more ruthless than its offspring and rarely cooperates with the FSA.  Instead, it views the organization as an adversary to be battled like the Syrian regime. 
“They won’t let us move through their checkpoints and if we do, they might shoot at us,” explains Abu Hamza.  We have fighting with them sometimes.”

In the coastal province of Latakia which constitutes the regime’s stronghold, tensions exploded in July after the ISI killed senior FSA leader Kamal Hamami, known to his fighters as Abu Basir Al-Ladkani.  “They set up a trap for Abu Basir and ambushed him,” explained 28-year old FSA fighter Khalid Bustani in a Skype call from the province.  The FSA declared an all-out war against the ISI, but in its weakened state could not do much more than engage in verbal saber rattling.  “We are too weak to fight them,” Bustani says. We don’t even have ammunition.”

In June, Washington pledged to supply the FSA with bullets and the weapons to shoot them.  But political infighting between the White House and Congress has held up delivery of the arms. Congressmen are wary of providing weapons that could fall into the hands of Jihadists from Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISI.  Radicals have benefited from previous weapons deliveries from Qatar and there is little reason to believe they will be shut out of any future bonanza.

Washington’s turf wars are of little concern to Abu Munthir though.  He just wants to be able to push the Jihadists out of Syria.  “Give me the weapons and I will fight them every day until they are gone,” he says.  But until the United States does, there is little he can do but curse the Jihadists who have seized his revolution.

Facing Islamist threats, Arab nations tilt toward Israel


Between the war in Gaza and gains by Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria and Libya, there’s plenty of cause these days for pessimism about the Middle East.

But amid all the fighting, there’s also some good news for Israel.

If it wasn’t obvious before, the conflagrations have driven home just how much the old paradigms of the Middle East have faded in an era when the threat of Islamic extremists has become the overarching concern in the Arab world. In this fight against Islamic militancy, many Arab governments find themselves on the same side as Israel.

A generation ago, much of the Middle East was viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, during the Iraq War era of the 2000s, the focus shifted to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the sectarian fighting it spurred. By early 2011, the Arab Spring movement had become the template for the region, generating excitement that repressive autocratic governments might be replaced with fledgling democracies.

Instead, the Arab Spring ushered in bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya, providing openings for violent Islamists. Egypt’s experiment in democracy resulted in an Islamist-led government, prompting a backlash and coup a year ago and the restoration of the old guard.

After witnessing the outcomes of the Arab Spring, the old Arab order appears more determined than ever to keep its grip on power and beat back any challenges, particularly by potent Islamist adversaries.

The confluence of events over the summer demonstrates just how menacingly Arab regimes view militant Islam. A newly declared radical Islamic State, known by the acronym ISIS, made rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, brutally executing opponents and capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. In Libya, Islamic militants overran the Tripoli airport while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against them.

Concerning Gaza, Arab governments (with one notable exception) have been loath to offer support for the Islamists who lead Hamas.

Let’s consider the players.

Egypt

Having briefly experienced a form of Islamist rule with the election and yearlong reign of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pendulum has swung back the other way in Egypt.

The Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who seized power from Morsi, is far more hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood than Hosni Mubarak’s was before the coup that toppled him from the presidency in 2011. Sisi’s Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and sentenced hundreds of Brotherhood members to death.

The Brotherhood’s pain has been Israel’s gain. During the Morsi era, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula became a staging ground for attacks against Israel and a conduit for funneling arms to Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate. But after Sisi took charge, he all but shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, clamped down on lawlessness in the Sinai, and ended the discord that had taken hold between Cairo and Jerusalem.

When Hamas and Israel went to war this summer, there was no question about where Cairo stood. For weeks, Egyptian mediators refused to countenance Hamas’ cease-fire demands, presenting only Israel’s proposals. On Egyptian TV, commentators lambasted and mocked Hamas leaders.

With its clandestine airstrikes in Libya over the last few days, Egypt has shown that it is willing to go beyond its borders to fight Islamic militants.

Saudi Arabia

It may be many years before Israel reaches a formal peace agreement with the Arab monarchy that is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, but in practice the interests of the Saudis and Israelis have aligned for years – particularly when it comes to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi and Israeli leaders are equally concerned about Iran — both are pressing the U.S. administration to take a harder line against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. With Iran’s Shiite leaders the natural rivals of Saudi’s Sunni rulers, the kingdom is concerned that the growing power of Iran threatens Saudi Arabia’s political, economic and religious clout in the region.

Saudi antipathy toward Iran and Shiite hegemony accounts for the kingdom’s hostility toward Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group that serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. After Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack that sparked a war with Israel in 2006, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal blamed Hezbollah for the conflict.

Hezbollah’s actions are “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible,” Saud said at the time. “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them.”

More surprising, perhaps, was Saudi criticism this summer of Hamas, a fellow Sunni group. While former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al Faisal condemned Israel’s “barbaric assault on innocent civilians,” he also blamed Hamas for the conflict overall.

“Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip following its bad decisions in the past, and the haughtiness it shows by firing useless rockets at Israel, which contribute nothing to the Palestinian interest,” Saud told the London-based pan-Arab newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Saudi rulers oppose Hamas because they view it as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they believe wants to topple Arab governments. Likewise, when ISIS declared earlier this summer that it had established an Islamic caliphate, al-Faisal called ISIS “a danger to the whole area and, I think, to the rest of the world.”

The Wahabbis who rule Saudi Arabia may be religiously conservative, but they’re not so extreme as to promote overtly the violent export of their fundamentalist brand of Islam through war, jihad and terrorism.

Of course, just because their interests are aligned doesn’t mean the Saudis love Israel. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Nawaf Al-Saud, wrote during the Gaza war that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will answer for his crimes before a higher authority than here on earth.”

But common foes increasingly are bringing Saudi and Israeli interests together.

Qatar

At first glance, Qatar may seem like a benign, oil-rich emirate of 2 million people living in relative peace, spending heavily on its media network, Al Jazeera, and planning to wow the world with construction for the 2022 World Cup.

But Qatar is also a major sponsor of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The country funnels money and weapons to Hamas, to Islamic militants in Libya and, according to Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, to groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida.

In an Op-Ed column in Monday’s New York Times, Prosor disparaged Qatar, which is home to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and serves as a base for Taliban leaders, as a “Club Med for Terrorists.”

“Qatar has spared no cost to dress up its country as a liberal, progressive society, yet at its core, the micro monarchy is aggressively financing radical Islamist movements,” Prosor wrote. “Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.”

Syria

When the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began, champions of democracy cheered the revolution as yet another positive sign of the Arab Spring. It took a while, but the Obama administration eventually joined the chorus calling for the end of the Assad regime.

In Israel, officials were more circumspect, fretting about what might come next in a country that despite its hostility had kept its border with Israel quiet for nearly four decades.

Three years on, the conflict in Syria is no longer seen as one of freedom fighters vs. a ruthless tyrant. Assad’s opponents include an array of groups, the most powerful among them Islamic militants who have carved out pieces of Syrian territory to create their Islamic State.

Now the Obama administration is considering airstrikes to limit the Islamists’ gains — and trying to figure out if there’s a way to do so without strengthening Assad’s hand.

For Israel, which has stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, the prospect of a weakened but still breathing Assad regime seems a better alternative than a failed state with ISIS on the march.

Iran

Where is the Islamic Republic in all this? Compared to the newest bad boy on the block, this one-time member of the “axis of evil” looks downright moderate.

Iran is negotiating with the United States over its nuclear program, and both view ISIS as a foe and threat to the Iraqi government (which Iran backs as a Shiite ally).

Last week, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf indicated that the United States may be open to cooperation with Iran in the fight against ISIS, which is also known by the acronym ISIL.

“If they are interested in playing a constructive role in helping to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, then I’m sure we can have that conversation then,” Harf said.

Whether working with Iran is good or bad for Israel depends on one’s view of the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

If you think the talks have a realistic chance of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran diplomatically, the convergence of U.S.-Iran interests may ultimately serve the goal of addressing this existential threat to Israel. If you think Iran is merely using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to exploit eased sanctions while it continues to build its nuclear project, then Iran-U.S. detente may distract from the larger issue.

Where all this turmoil will leave the region is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, as made clear by the U.S. decision to intervene against ISIS: Ignoring what’s happening in the Middle East is not an option.

Israeli concerns about Turkey and Qatar fuel dispute with Kerry


Behind the feud between John Kerry and Israel over the secretary of state’s efforts to broker a Gaza cease-fire is a larger tension concerning the role of Turkey and Qatar in Palestinian affairs.

Israeli officials rejected the proposal for a cease-fire advanced by Kerry in part because of what they see as the outsize influence on his diplomatic efforts of these two regional powers with agendas increasingly seen as inimical to Israeli interests. While both countries are traditional U.S. allies, they are also supportive of Hamas.

“Qatar, financially and politically, diplomatically and through Al Jazeera, is supporting a terrorist group,” an Israeli official told JTA. “Instead of contributing to the development of the area, they are contributing to terror in the region.”

Israeli officials point to the anti-Israel rhetoric of Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has reached new heights during the current conflict, with his suggestion that Israel is worse than the Nazis.

Israel prefers to have Egypt as the main interlocutor because the country’s current military-backed government has a deep antipathy toward the Islamist Hamas movement.

Israel had previously embraced an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that was rejected by Hamas, which saw its terms as decidedly unfriendly.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in Obama’s first term, said that Turkey and Qatar are necessary interlocutors because Hamas needs credible representatives of its interests in the negotiating process and because the two countries are not tempted to sabotage cease-fire efforts.

“I understand why Israel and Egypt are uncomfortable seeing regional actors friendly to Hamas involved in these talks. If they are not involved, they could spoil a cease-fire,” said Wittes, who is now the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “You have to get them engaged so they have reason not to act in an unconstructive manner.”

Tensions between Israel and the Obama administration over Kerry’s cease-fire efforts escalated over the weekend.

In comments to the Israeli press by unnamed Israeli officials, Kerry was depicted as a hapless bumbler who, however unwittingly, seemed to be negotiating on behalf of Hamas.

U.S. officials have told Israeli and U.S. media that they are offended by the Israeli backlash.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called on Israeli leaders to tone down the attacks on Kerry, saying such broadsides undermined Israel’s ability to face down its true enemy, Hamas.

“I understand there are disagreements between the United States and Israel, and maybe the secretary of state and Israel,” he said. “But those disagreements do not justify the ugly name calling. It undermines the relationship of the only true ally Israel has. In times of disagreement, one needs to embrace our friends.”

The exact nature of Kerry’s cease-fire proposal and how it came to be rejected by Israel’s Security Cabinet is not clear. But it is clear that the Security Cabinet’s eight ministers believed that it was tilted toward Hamas.

In a briefing for Israeli reporters, a senior American official is said to have argued that the document the Cabinet reviewed was simply one including the latest ideas for consideration and not a final draft.

Israeli officials, speaking anonymously to the Israeli media, have said they understood it as a final draft and that, in any case, even being asked to consider such a document was deeply unsettling.

Israelis say they were offended by the document’s detailed emphasis on what would be seen as wins for Hamas: Talks on opening borders and transfer of emergency funds to pay the salaries of employees in Gaza who had worked for the Hamas-led government and now are supposed to be incorporated into the Palestinian Authority under the recent Palestinian unity agreement.

Israel’s concerns, including the removal of rockets and missiles from Gaza and the destruction of a tunnel network that reaches inside Israel, were confined in the document to three words: “address security issues.”

There were also concerns, shared by Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Western European countries, that the proposal would strengthen Hamas at the expense of the P.A.

On Sunday night, President Obama called for an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire” in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a White House readout describing the phone call.

The readout nodded to Israeli concerns by reaffirming U.S. support for Egypt’s cease-fire efforts, while also stressing that Obama’s cease-fire call was building on Kerry’s efforts.

The readout also emphasized the importance of addressing Gaza’s economic plight, something that Hamas has made into a key precondition for a cease-fire.

“The President underscored the enduring importance of ensuring Israel’s security, protecting civilians, alleviating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, and enacting a sustainable ceasefire that both allows Palestinians in Gaza to lead normal lives and addresses Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs, while strengthening the Palestinian Authority,” the readout said. “The President stressed the U.S. view that, ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”

 

Arab rifts may complicate search for Gaza truce


The push for a Gaza ceasefire risks becoming mired in a regional tussle for influence between conservative Arab states and Islamist-friendly governments, with rival powers competing to take credit for a truce, analysts and some officials say.

The main protagonists are Arab heavyweight Egypt and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, on opposite sides of a regional standoff over Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and its ideological patron the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both camps suggest the other is motivated as much by a desire to polish diplomatic prestige and crush political adversaries as by the humanitarian goal of protecting Palestinian lives from the Israeli military.

“Gaza has turned very suddenly into the theater in which this new alignment within the Arab world is being expressed,” said UK-based analyst Ghanem Nusseibeh.

“Gaza is the first test for these new alliances, and this has affected the possibility of reaching a ceasefire there.”

He was referring to Qatar, Turkey, Sudan and non-Arab Iran, the main members of a loose grouping of states which believe Islamists represent the future of Middle East politics.

That camp stands in increasingly overt competition with a conservative, pro-Western group led by Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, most of whom are intent on crushing the Brotherhood and see it as a threat.

That cleavage is now apparent in the diplomacy over Gaza.

CEASEFIRE PLAN

Qatar bankrolled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who was overthrown by the military a year ago. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since poured in money to support strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the takeover and has since been elected president after outlawing and suppressing the Brotherhood.

Under his rule, Egypt has tightened its stranglehold on the southern end of the Gaza Strip, closing tunnels to try to block supplies of weapons and prevent militants crossing.

Egyptian officials suspect Qatar encouraged Hamas to reject a ceasefire plan Cairo put forward last week to try to end an Israeli assault that has now killed more than 500 Palestinians as well as 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians.

Palestinian officials said the proposal contained little more than Israeli and U.S. terms for a truce. Hamas has its own demands for stopping rocket fire into Israel, including the release of prisoners and the lifting of an economic blockade.

With Egypt's initiative sidelined, all eyes turned to Doha, where visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in the Qatari capital, a senior Qatari source told Reuters.

An official in Cairo said the Gaza battle “is part of a regional conflict between Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

“Hamas … ran to Qatar, which Egypt hates most, to ask it for intervention, and at the end we are sure Hamas will eventually settle with an agreement that is so similar to a proposal that Egypt had offered, but with Doha's signature.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, due in Cairo late on Monday, is likely to have to mediate between Egypt and Qatar in a bid to end the fighting in Gaza.

“The dilemma is now to get Egypt and Qatar to agree. It is obvious that Hamas had delegated Qatar to be its spokesman in the talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat. “Kerry is here to try to mediate between Qatar and Egypt to agree on a deal that Hamas would approve.”

Another foreign ministry source said: “Egypt will be asked by Kerry to add in Hamas' conditions and then Kerry will go to Qatar and ask it to ask Hamas to approve the amended deal.”

For reasons of history and geography, Egypt has always seen itself as the most effective mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in neighboring Gaza.

But critics say Egypt's strongly anti-Islamist government is trying to pressure Hamas into accepting a truce offering few concessions for the group. Its aim, they say, is to weaken the movement and allied Islamist forces in Egypt.

Hamas leaders said they were not consulted on the Egyptian move, and it did not address their demands.

With peace efforts delicately poised, Gaza now appears to be a test of strength in a regional struggle for power.

INTERFERENCE

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Gaza mediation had seen “a lot of political interference”.

“Qatar was unhappy with the Egyptian ceasefire (plan). They are very uncomfortable that it came from Egypt. The Qataris are trying to undermine Egypt politically, and the victim is the ceasefire that Egypt has proposed.

“The terms of the problem is — who will present the ceasefire? Who will win the first political match between those two new camps within the Arab world?” Abdulla said.

At the root of the rift are opposing attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011 only to be ousted itself last year.

Its ideology challenges the principle of conservative dynastic rule long dominant in the Gulf: Some of its leading members are based in Qatar and broadcast their views via the country's media, angering other Gulf Arab states

Qatar is accused of using its alliance with Hamas to elbow its way into efforts to mediate between the movement and Israel.

Critics suspect Qatar wants to repair an international image clouded by months of allegations of poor labor rights, alleged corruption over the 2022 World Cup and political tensions with its Gulf Arab neighbors.

But Western governments see Qatar, maverick though it be, as a potentially significant regional mediator because of its links to Islamist movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

Qatar denies any ulterior motive and notes that Washington has openly asked it to talk to Hamas. Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said on Sunday Qatar’s role was just to facilitate communication.

“BLOODSHED NEEDS TO STOP”

A source familiar with the matter said Qatar will not press Hamas to change or reduce its demands.

In Saudi Arabia, where suspicion of Hamas is particularly strong, as an ally of the Brotherhood and of Iran, Riyadh's main regional adversaries, newspapers have abandoned a tradition of blaming Israel alone to also attack the Palestinian group.

“The Hamas leadership, from Egyptian blood to Palestinian blood,” was the headline of an opinion article by Fadi Ibrahim al-Dhahabi in the daily al-Jazeera newspaper on Sunday.

He argued that Hamas was stoking the war in Gaza not for the sake of Palestinian liberation, but as part of a wider Muslim Brotherhood campaign against Egypt's government and to win favour with Iran.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, part of a recently formed national unity government intended to overcome rivalry between Hamas and the more secular Fatah nationalist movement, told Reuters he had seen no tug-of-war among Arab states.

“This is not the case. There is no competition between Arab countries, they all want to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

“All Arab countries want to bring an end to this fountain of blood in Gaza, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt are all in agreement. And the leaders of these country's have put their differences aside and all agree that the bloodshed needs to stop”.

Local rabbis participate in Qatar interfaith dialogue


Two local rabbis were among the approximately 12 Jewish leaders from around the world who took part in last month’s 11th Doha Interfaith Conference in Qatar.

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam who teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) campus in Los Angeles, has attended the event for the past seven years.

He was joined by Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of the nonprofit NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, which is focused on dialogue between the two faiths. Bassin was recently hired to be the new assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

The Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs funds the annual conference, which is organized by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue and drew more than 200 Muslims, Christians and Jews this year, according to Firestone. Muslims, typically, make up the majority of attendees.

The event provides an opportunity for academics, faith leaders and others to deliver presentations on their respective programs devoted to creating dialogue. They also talk about Scripture and more. Every panel features a Jewish, Muslim and Christian speaker.

This year’s conference, which took place March 25-27, focused on the “Role of Youth in Enhancing the Value of Dialogue.” Firestone participated in a panel in which he discussed “Religious Perspectives on Youth and Dialogue From Jewish Scriptures.” He cited biblical passages instructing parents to prepare their children to become moral adults. Bassin was part of a panel about developing high-school students into interfaith advocates.

Another member of the Southern California contingent that made it to the capital city of Doha was Imam Jihad Turk, president of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic-focused graduate program at Claremont Lincoln University.

Firestone, who said he served as an informal liaison between the Qatari government and the Jewish contingent at this conference, was pleased with the amount of Jewish participation this year.

“I think it’s a pretty good representation, frankly,” he said in a phone interview.

The conference, which took place at the Doha Marriott Hotel, is not a place for news-making political negotiations, Firestone said. Instead, it provides an opportunity for “track-two diplomacy” between the three major religious groups. It “gets people to see where they have commonalities and where they have issues and interests of common importance, and people can get to know one another, and then they begin to create a culture of acceptance and understanding [that] makes it easier for government to make a larger step.”

Bridge-builders from all around the world turn up at the conference every year, which is always held in a hotel in the Qatari coastal city of Doha. One country that did not participate this year, however, was Israel. While the Qatari government does not have an official policy barring Israelis from participating, few Israelis attend, Firestone said.

“They don’t always come, but some are invited,” Firestone said.

 The Qatari government pays for the attendees’ expenses, spending millions of dollars every year putting together the conference, according to the HUC-JIR professor.

Although participants are asked to speak on specific topics, they are given the freedom to say what they want, Firestone said. 

Prior to the event, the organizers put out what is known as a “call for papers,” in which they ask those who have been invited to submit papers on a list of subtopics. This year’s submissions included “Religious Perspectives on Youth,” “Opportunities and Challenges Facing the Youth Today,” “Interfaith Dialogue for Youth” and “Youth Contribution in Interfaith Dialogue.” Conference organizers consider which papers will be presented during the event itself.

Palestinian leader Arafat was murdered with polonium, widow says


Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned to death in 2004 with radioactive polonium, his widow Suha said on Wednesday after receiving the results of Swiss forensic tests on her husband's corpse.

“We are revealing a real crime, a political assassination,” she told Reuters in Paris.

A team of experts, including from Lausanne University Hospital's Institute of Radiation Physics, opened Arafat's grave in the West Bank city of Ramallah last November, and took samples from his body to seek evidence of alleged poisoning.

“This has confirmed all our doubts,” said Suha Arafat after the Swiss forensic team handed over its report to her lawyers and Palestinian officials in Geneva on Tuesday. “It is scientifically proved that he didn't die a natural death and we have scientific proof that this man was killed.”

She did not accuse any country or person, and acknowledged that the historic leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization had many enemies, although she noted that Israel had branded him an obstacle to peace.

Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel and led a subsequent uprising after the failure of talks in 2000 on a comprehensive agreement.

Allegations of foul play surfaced immediately. Arafat had foes among his own people, but many Palestinians pointed the finger at Israel, which had besieged him in his Ramallah headquarters for the final two and a half years of his life.

“President Arafat passed away as a victim of an organized terrorist assassination perpetrated by a state, that is Israel, which was looking to get rid of him,” Wasel Abu Yousef, member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The publishing of the results by the Swiss institute confirms his poisoning by polonium and this means that Israel carried it out.”

The Israeli government has denied any role in his death, noting that he was 75 years old and had an unhealthy lifestyle. It made no comment on the new findings.

An investigation by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television news channel first reported last year that traces of polonium-210 were found on personal effects of Arafat given to his widow by the French military hospital where he died.

That led French prosecutors to open an investigation for suspected murder in August 2012 at the request of Suha Arafat. Forensic experts from Switzerland, Russia and France all took samples from his corpse for testing after the Palestinian Authority agreed to open his mausoleum.

“SMOKING GUN”

The head of the Russian forensics institute, Vladimir Uiba, was quoted by the Interfax news agency last month as saying no trace of polonium had been found on the body specimens examined in Moscow, but his Federal Medico-Biological Agency later denied he had made any official comment on its findings.

The French pathologists have not reported their conclusions publicly or shared any findings with Suha Arafat's legal team. A spokeswoman for the French prosecutor's office said the investigating magistrates had received no expert reports so far.

One of her lawyers said the Swiss institute's report would be translated from English into French and handed over to the three magistrates who are investigating the case.

Professor David Barclay, a British forensic scientist retained by Al Jazeera to interpret the results of the Swiss tests, said the findings from Arafat's body confirmed last year's results from traces of bodily fluids on his underwear, toothbrush and clothing.

“In my opinion, it is absolutely certain that the cause of his illness was polonium poisoning,” Barclay told Reuters. “The levels present in him are sufficient to have caused death.

“What we have got is the smoking gun – the thing that caused his illness and was given to him with malice.”

The Swiss scientists' report, posted in full on Al Jazeera's website, was more cautious. It concluded: “Taking into account the analytical limitations aforementioned, mostly time lapse since death and the nature and quality of the specimens, the results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210.”

Al Jazeera said the levels of polonium found in Arafat's ribs, pelvis and in soil that absorbed his remains were at least 18 times higher than normal.

The same radioactive substance was slipped into a cup of tea in a London hotel to kill defecting Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder.

The British government refused to hold a public inquiry into his death after ministers withheld some material which could have shed light on Russia's suspected involvement.

Barclay said the type of polonium discovered in Arafat's body must have been manufactured in a nuclear reactor.

While many countries could have been the source, someone in Arafat's immediate entourage must have slipped a miniscule dose of the deadly isotope probably as a powder into his drink, food, eye drops or toothpaste, he said.

BRIEF RECOVERY

Arafat fell ill in October 2004, displaying symptoms of acute gastroenteritis with diarrhea and vomiting. At first Palestinian officials said he was suffering from influenza.

He was flown to Paris in a French government plane but fell into a coma shortly after his arrival at the Percy military hospital in the suburb of Clamart, where he died on November 11.

The official cause of death was a massive stroke but French doctors said at the time they were unable to determine the origin of his illness. No autopsy was carried out.

Barclay said no one would have thought to look for polonium as a possible poison until the Litvinenko case, which occurred two years after Arafat's death.

Some experts have questioned whether Arafat could have died of polonium poisoning, pointing to a brief recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent with radioactive exposure. They also noted he did not lose all his hair. But Barclay said neither fact was inconsistent with the findings.

Since polonium loses 50 percent of its radioactivity every four months, the traces in Arafat's corpse would have faded so far as to have become untraceable if the tests had been conducted a couple of years later, the scientist said.

“A tiny amount of polonium the size of a flake of dandruff would be enough to kill 50 people if it was dissolved in water and they drank it,” he added.

The Al Jazeera investigation was spearheaded by investigative journalist Clayton Swisher, a former U.S. Secret Service bodyguard who became friendly with Arafat and was suspicious of the manner of his death.

Suha Arafat called for an investigation inside the Muqata Palestinian government headquarters and said she and her student daughter, Zahwa Arafat, would pursue the case through the courts in France and elsewhere until the perpetrators were brought to justice.

Hani al-Hassan, a former aide, said in 2003 that he had witnessed 13 assassination attempts on Arafat's life, dating back to his years on the run as PLO leader. Arafat claimed to have survived 40 attempts on his life.

Arafat narrowly escaped an Israeli air strike on his headquarters in Tunisia in 1985. He had just gone out jogging when the bombers attacked, killing 73 people.

He escaped another attempt on his life when Israeli warplanes came close to killing him during the 182 invasion of Beirut when they hit one of the buildings they suspected he was using as his headquarters but he was not there. In December 2001, Arafat was rushed to safety just before Israeli helicopters bombarded his compound in Ramallah with rockets.

Additional reporting by Gerard Bon in Paris and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Crispian Balmer and Ralph Boulton

Lane of shame: Doha erases Israeli flag in international meet


The international sportswriters’ association, which goes by the acronym AIPS, held its two-day executive committee meeting this week in Doha, Qatar. The meeting’s guest of honor was Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the secretary general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, who is keenly sophisticated and moves fluidly between Arab and western cultures.

The Qataris bid — unsuccessfully — for the Summer Games of 2016 and 2020, cut early on in each round by the International Olympic Committee. Of course, soccer’s World Cup is set for Qatar in 2022.

His Excellency told the ladies and gentlemen of the press that sport is fundamentally one of the pillars of Qatar’s development plan. This year, the Qataris will organize 40 major sports events. By 2020, he said, the goal is to stage a big event every week of the year.

And, of course, he said, to bid again for the Olympics. Maybe for 2024. Possibly 2028.

If you have been to Doha, actually been on the ground, you know that there is serious commitment there. The new president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has long had extensive ties to the Middle East, so one would imagine the climate — so to speak — for a Gulf bid would be as good as it could ever get.

There’s only one thing that could stop a Doha bid dead in its tracks, and it’s not the heat. Nor is it the capacity, infrastructure or even the impact on television schedules.

It’s this:

The start of the women’s 100-meter individual medley at the Doha World Cup event // photo courtesy Universal Sports Network

This photo offers irrefutable evidence of everything the Olympic values — friendship, excellence, respect — are not.

This sort of intolerance, indeed discrimination, has to stop. Now. And forever more.

This screenshot shows the start of the women’s 100-meter individual medley at swimming’s World Cup stop in Doha — happening more or less about the same stretch of time His Excellency and some of the world’s leading writers were meeting to talk about all the exciting things happening in the Qatari capital.

In Lane 5 is Amit Ivry of Israel.

The Israeli flag that should be depicted in the graphic display in the host broadcast feed has instead been washed out.

This incident marked just one of several episodes directed against Israeli swimmers at the World Cup stops in both Dubai (Oct. 17-18) and Doha (Oct. 20-21).

On Day 1 in Dubai, Israeli swimmers were not properly identified, either by announcers on the scoreboard. That way, their name and national flag wouldn’t have to be shown, a veteran national-team swimmer, Gal Nevo, told a leading Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz.

Things in Dubai were apparently back to normal by Day 2. Nevo, for instance, announced as from the country “I-S-R” on Day 1, was announced as from “Israel” on Day 2.

He said, “Suddenly, you arrive in a country that has refused to recognize you until now, and know that the next time we’ll be here they won’t play those games with us. I don’t know how many television viewers we’re talking about but the people in the emirate saw the Israeli flag over and over again, and were exposed to the country’s sporting aspect.”

That this sort of thing happened in Dubai can not have come entirely as a huge shock.

After all, this was where in 2009 the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was refused a visa for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships; tour officials fined organizers $300,000 and said all qualified players had to be able to play or the tournament’s sanctioning would be at risk. Peer has since played in Dubai.

That said, recent years have seen a veritable catalogue of incidents in which politics and sport have mixed in all the wrong ways, consistently with the Israelis as the target.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, for instance, Iran’s judo world champion, Arash Miresmaeli, refused to take to the mat for a first-round match against Israel’s Ehud Vaks in the under-66 kg class. Iranian officials later awarded Miresmaeli the same $120,000 given its gold-medal winners at those 2004 Games for what was called a “great act of self-sacrifice.”

At the 2008 Beijing Games, Iran’s Mohammed Alirezaei refused to compete alongside Israeli swimmer Tom Be’eri in the heats of the 100 backstroke.

At the 2010 Olympic Youth Games in Singapore, in the final of the boys under-48 kg class in taekwondo, Gili Haimovitz of Israel won when Mohammed Soleimani of Iran proved a no-show, officially claiming he had aggravated an old injury to his left leg. Soleimani skipped the medals ceremony as well — missing the Israeli flag and anthem.

In 2012, Algerian kayaker Nasreddine Baghdadi withdrew from a World Cup event in which Israeli Roei Yellin was entered, and the president of the Algerian Olympic Committee, Rachid Hanifi, said all its athletes might refuse to compete against Israelis at the London Games: “There is an obligation to ask our government if we have to meet Israel in sport.”

That prompted the then-IOC president, Jacques Rogge, to declare that only serious injury would be accepted as an excuse for not competing at the London Games, that suspicious withdrawals would be checked by an “independent medical board” and that bogus withdrawals would lead to unspecified sanctions.

Just two weeks ago, Tunisia’s tennis federation ordered its top player, Malek Jaziri, ranked 169th in the world, not to play Israel’s Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of a lower-tier ATP event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

International Tennis Federation spokesman Nick Imison told Associated Press he believed the case was a first-of-its-kind in tennis.

The constitution of swimming’s international federation, which goes by the acronym FINA, is absolutely clear that discrimination on the grounds of “race, sex, religion or political affiliations” is out of bounds.

True, FINA officials absolutely had been put on notice by events in Dubai. But Doha? This was where a 20-year-old Shahar Peer in 2008 — the year before the episode in Dubai — had reached the round–of-16. Moreover, her first night in the city, the tourney director had even taken her and her entourage out to dinner at a Moroccan restaurant in the traditional Souk district marketplace.

And yet — Doha.

According to a report in the Times of Israel, it’s not just that the Israeli flag was not displayed in the computer graphics of the races. Some races in which Israelis swam were not broadcast. The Israeli flag was removed from outside the venue; a tweet was posted Sunday complaining about the flag’s presence before it was taken down from outside the swim complex, according to the Doha News.

How this all happened remains entirely unclear. Who precisely was responsible — also uncertain.

FINA on Wednesday issued a statement saying that it reacted to events in both Dubai and Doha as soon as it knew. In Doha, for instance, FINA officials say they were told the full scope of what had happened only 15 minutes before the end of Day 2.

The statement says FINA “guarantees” that “all steps will be taken in the future for such acts not to occur again.”

This is particularly key because the world short-course championships are due to be held in Doha Dec. 3-7, 2014. Dubai and Doha are also scheduled to host further World Cup events ahead of the worlds.

FINA’s executive director, Cornel Marculescu, told Associated Press the two organizing committees apologized for what he called these “stupid things.” He also said, “Next year we have the world championships and these things will not happen anymore.”

Marculescu is absolutely right to label the incidents so forthrightly and to  say enough is enough.

Now: Doha has a huge incentive to bid for the Olympics.

There are all kinds of bold steps that could be taken. For instance, there are apologies of all sorts. Some are private. Some are meant to be much more public.

Or: there are ways of reaching out, gestures of goodwill — say, swim clinics in which regional stars teach local kids. Could it hurt to invite Amit Ivry, winner of the silver medal in the 100 medley at the Doha 2013 World Cup?

At the least — all the Israelis all ought to be taken out to dinner next December at the worlds, everyone ought to shake hands and pose for some tourist-like pictures in the Souk and then all hands can get on with the business of swimming.

The Israelis — just like they were anybody else. That’s what they, and everybody, deserve.

After all, that’s the fundamental promise inherent in Olympic sport — that everyone can get along and that everyone deserves a chance to do their best, however good-enough that best might be. If the Qataris want to invite the world in 2024 or 2028 and be taken dead seriously about it — an Olympics is way different than the World Cup — that is the deal. Anything less is a non-starter.

Arab League ministers to blame Syria’s Assad for chemical attack


Arab League ministers will pass a resolution blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for last week's chemical weapons attack in Damascus when they meet in Cairo next week, League officials said on Wednesday.

The states' permanent representatives at the League had already explicitly blamed Assad on Tuesday for the attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, in a step that provided regional political cover for a possible U.S.-led military strike on Syria.

A senior U.S. official said planning was under way for possibly several days of attacks by several countries, likely to include its NATO allies France and Britain, to punish Assad.

The higher-level endorsement by the Arab foreign ministers at their meeting on September 2-3 is being pushed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which both back anti-Assad rebels in Syria's civil war, as well as Qatar, a non-Gulf official at the League said.

Syria's neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, along with Algeria, are likely to oppose or abstain from condemning Syria, as they have on similar resolutions in the past. Syria itself is suspended from the League.

“The Arab foreign ministers will affirm the full responsibility of the Syrian regime for the chemical weapons' attack that took place in Eastern Ghouta (on the outskirts of Damascus),” a representative of a Gulf state in the League told Reuters.

“We will also ask for those responsible for the attack to be taken to the International Criminal Court,” he added.

The non-Gulf Arab League source confirmed the Gulf official's remarks.

“The world must see the Arab states seriously condemning Assad's use of chemicals and calling for his punishment,” he said.

He also called on the U.N. Security Council to adopt tougher sanctions on Syria and urged Russia and China, Assad's backers in the council, not to block any council resolution proposing action against Assad.

Syria's civil war has split the region broadly along sectarian lines.

Shi'ite Muslim Iran, and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq, support Assad. The Sunni-led Gulf Arab states, led by oil giant Saudi Arabia and influential Qatar, have backed the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, many of whom are Islamist militants.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Evans

Egyptian army threatens to shoot violent protesters


Egypt's army threatened on Thursday to shoot those who use violence in a stark warning before what both sides expect will be a bloody street showdown between Islamists and opponents of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

An army official said the military had set Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood an ultimatum, giving it until Saturday to sign up to a plan for political reconciliation which it has so far spurned.

The army has summoned Egyptians into the streets on Friday in an intended turning point in its confrontation with followers of Morsi, the elected leader the generals removed on July 3.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has maintained a street vigil for a month with thousands of supporters demanding Morsi's reinstatement, has called its own crowds out for counter-demonstrations across Egypt in a “day to remove the coup.”

Both sides have dramatically escalated rhetoric before Friday's demonstrations. The Brotherhood accused the army of pushing the nation towards civil war and committing a crime worse than destroying Islam's holiest site.

In a Facebook post, the army said it will not “turn its guns against its people, but it will turn them against black violence and terrorism which has no religion or nation”.

A military official said the army had given the Brotherhood 48 hours from Thursday afternoon to join the political process. He did not say what would happen if it refuses.

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called on Egyptians to take to the streets and give him a “mandate” to act against the violence that has convulsed Egypt since he shunted its first freely elected president from power.

The Brotherhood, which has won repeated elections since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, accuses the authorities of stirring up the violence to justify their crackdown.

Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, issued a religious edict broadcast on Al Jazeera television urging soldiers to disobey orders to kill.

“I call on officers and soldiers in the Egyptian army not to listen to what al-Sisi says, or anyone else. Do not kill anyone. Do not kill your brothers. It is forbidden,” Qaradawi declared.

The main anti-Morsi youth protest group, which has backed the army, said it would go to the streets to “cleanse Egypt”.

The West is increasingly alarmed at the course taken by Egypt, a strategic hinge between the Middle East and North Africa, since protests in 2011 brought down Mubarak and ended decades of autocratic rule in the most populous Arab state.

Signaling its displeasure, Washington has delayed delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Cairo. On Thursday, the White House urged the army to exercise “maximum restraint and caution”.

The United States has yet to decide whether to call the military's takeover a “coup”, language that would require it to halt $1.5 billion it sends in annual aid, mostly for the army.

“CLEANSE EGYPT”

For weeks, the authorities have rounded up some Brotherhood officials but tolerated the movement's presence on the streets, with thousands of people attending its pro-Morsi vigil and tens of thousands appearing at its demonstrations.

That patience seems to have run out. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, head of the interim cabinet installed by the army, said there was growing violence by increasingly well-armed protesters, citing a bomb attack on a police station.

“The presence of weapons, intimidation, fear – this causes concern, especially when there are calls for many to come out tomorrow from different sides,” he told a news conference.

After a month nearly 200 people have died in political violence, many fear the protests will lead to more bloodshed.

Past incidents of violence have tended to run through the night and into the following day. Another security official forecast clashes beginning Friday night and stretching into Saturday, the period covered by the army's ultimatum. He also indicated that the two-day period was expected to be decisive.

“The history of Egypt will be written on those days,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Reiterating his group's commitment to peaceful protest, senior Brotherhood politician Farid Ismail accused the security services of readying militias to attack Morsi supporters, adding that Sisi aimed to drag Egypt into civil war.

“His definition of terrorism is anyone who disagrees with him,” Ismail told Reuters. “We are moving forward in complete peacefulness, going forward to confront this coup.”

Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie accused Sisi of committing a crime worse than destroying the Kaaba – the site in Mecca to which all Muslims face when they pray – “brick by brick”.

But many Egyptians are no less passionately backing the army, determined to see the Brotherhood reined in.

“There are men carrying guns on the street … We will not let extremists ruin our revolution,” said Mohammed Abdul Aziz, a spokesman for Tamarud, an anti-Morsi petition campaign that mobilized protests against his rule.

“Tomorrow we will cleanse Egypt,” he told Reuters.

UNCOMPROMISING

Sisi's speech on Wednesday pointed to the deepening confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military establishment, which has reasserted its role at the heart of government even as it says it aims to steer clear of politics.

Saying it moved against Morsi in response to the biggest popular protests in Egypt's history, the army installed an interim cabinet that plans to hold parliamentary elections in about six months, to be followed by a presidential vote.

The Brotherhood says it wants nothing to do with the transition plan. With Morsi still in military detention at an undisclosed location, there is slim hope for compromise.

Egypt remains deeply split over what happened on July 3. The Brotherhood accuses the army of ejecting a democratically elected leader in a long-planned coup, while its opponents say the army responded to the will of the people.

Sisi announced the nationwide rallies after the bombing of a police station in Mansoura, a city north of Cairo, in which a policeman was killed. The government called it a terrorist attack. The Brotherhood also condemned the bombing, accusing the establishment of seeking to frame it.

Since Morsi was deposed, hardline Islamist groups have intensified a violent campaign against the state in the lawless Sinai Peninsula, with near-daily attacks on the police and army.

Two more soldiers were killed on Thursday in an attack on a checkpoint, security and medical sources said.

At the Brotherhood protest camp near a Cairo mosque, Morsi supporters said they expected the army to provoke violence to justify its crackdown. “The army itself will strike. They will use thugs and the police,” said medical student Sarah Ahmad, 24.

Essam wl-Erian, another senior Brotherhood politician, accused “the putschists” of trying to recreate a police state, telling a televised news conference: “This state will never return, and Egypt will not go backwards.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Maggie Fick, Noah Browning, Tom Finn, Shadia Nasralla, Asma Alsharif and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Tom Perry and Matt Robinson; Editing by Peter Graff and Alistair Lyon

Egypt’s army chief calls for mass demonstrations


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Egypt’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi today called for mass rallies on Friday to give him a mandate to confront violence. Coming three weeks after the army deposed Mohamed Morsi, the call puts pressure on Islamists, who vow they will continue to fight for Morsi to be reinstated.

Morsi supporters said they would also go out into the streets on Friday, which could lead to possible violence. Since Morsi’s overthrow some 100 Egyptians have been killed in fighting between the two groups. In the most recent clashes, at least nine Morsi supporters were killed when police opened fire on some 1000 people at a sit-in near Cairo University.

Al-Sisi said that Morsi was being held in a secure location for his own safety. In a press conference this week, Morsi’s son Osama said the family has not heard from Mohamed Morsi since he was overthrown. He also said he will sue Al-Sisi in the International Criminal Court.

Egypt has been rocked by huge protests in the past month. On June 30 some 17 million people took to the streets to demand Morsi resign. Many say he has failed to lead Egypt to real democracy and has pushed through a draft constitution that favors Islamists.

Al-Sisi was a member of the military council that ruled Egypt for 16 months after long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. At that time, he was the chief of military intelligence. Morsi named him defense minister and military chief almost a year ago. He also repeated his promise that parliamentary elections will be held next year.

Morsi supporters say they will continue to use peaceful means to have their leader reinstated.

“I will not fight to regain my vote that was taken away,” Bahaa Mohammed, an Egyptian soldier told The Media Line. “I hear the rumors that we are aggressive, and terrorists, but really we’re just patient people. They [referring to anti-Morsi activists] are brain washed by the opposition media which is run by the sons and relatives of the corrupt Mubarak regime.”

In violence this week, at least 11 people were killed at Cairo University. Violence has also increased in the Sinai Peninsula, with frequent attacks on police there. The army says it has launched a crackdown to restore its control over Sinai.

Last week, four women – all supporters of Morsi — were killed in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura.

“The thugs were military and police dressed in civilian cloth or real thugs who are paid and drugged to commit such terrible actions.” Said Sonia the spokeswoman of the Committee to Protect Women told The Media Line.

The ongoing violence has divided Egyptians over the future of their country. Egypt was seen as a model of peaceful transition when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. A military coalition took over and paved the way for democratic elections.

But in the last few weeks, fears have grown that violence could spread among Egypt’s 85 million people, many of whom live in poverty. A growing economic crisis is exacerbating tensions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has postponed finalizing a $4 billion loan to Egypt because of the tensions although Qatar has given money to keep the country afloat,.

While some welcome the military’s intervention into Egypt’s politics, others, even non-Morsi supporters, worried that the military presence could become permanent.

“I am with Morsi now more than before even though I didn’t vote for him, Said Mohamed Taher, a taxi driver told The Media Line. “I feel that legitimacy and democracy were stolen by the military.”

Morsi supporters also say that soldiers are defecting from the army and joining their ranks.

“The people who are killed in the protests have relatives in the army and police, and when one man dies, the whole family [tribe] comes out and tries to seek revenge,” Mohamed al-Amir, a pro-Morsi activist. “Now the soldiers do not want to attack protestors. I have information that when soldiers go visit their families, they are not coming back to the service.”

Oil-rich Qatar pushing to make its name as a Mideast peace broker


When it comes to the latest Arab peace initiative, two questions are circulating in Washington: Why Qatar? And why now?

The three answers: Because Qatar is rich; it is scared; and why not?

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, in recent weeks has driven the revivification of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, moderating it slightly to hew closer to the outlines touted by the Obama administration since 2011.

The updated version, outlined by Hamad in remarks to reporters following his meeting April 29 with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, pulls back from the 2002 demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders in exchange for comprehensive peace.

Instead, Hamid proposed “comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land” — a formulation that opens the door to Israel's retention of several major settlement blocs. Hamad also did not mention the Palestinian “right of return” and the division of Jerusalem, elements of the original Arab initiative that had led to its rejection by the Israeli government.

Qatar, the fabulously wealthy Persian Gulf state that is host to the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, hasn't been known until recently for grabbing onto thorny diplomatic challenges. So what does Hamad hope to gain?

The Qatari Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but experts and officials say that Qatar is wealthy enough to do what it likes and, as an autocracy concerned for its survival in a region roiling with revolution, is driven to make friends and demonstrate its usefulness.

“For a small country, they’re throwing money around, organizing diplomatic events, trying to shape a range of issues, much of it related to the Middle East uprising,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank considered close to the Obama administration. “It's rich, it's small, it lacks the inner turmoil of other countries. It’s one of the [Middle Eastern] countries … that are more internally stable and have more resources.”

Just prior to unveiling the revised peace plan, Hamad, a distant cousin of the Qatari emir, was honored by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, an organization that received $2.5 million to $5 million from the government of Qatar in 2012, according to Politico.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, the Saban Center’s director, said Qatar for years had accrued influence through such uses of “soft power” — the generous dispensation of money and assistance — coupled with its ownership of Al Jazeera, the region’s most influential news outlet. When uprisings swept the Middle East at the beginning of 2011, Qatar was able to step into a vacuum left by the toppled dictators, she said.

“It vaulted Qatar into a much more prominent role in regional politics because of the loss of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak,” Wittes told JTA. “Its regional assistance and Al Jazeera have allowed it to play a larger role in how the awakening is viewed.”

Backing winners, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the forces that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, also lends credibility — and insurance — to a regime that is itself autocratic, Katulis said.

“If they win as many as friends as possible, get in early on the ground floor, they'll be all the more influential,” he said.

A State Department official played down Qatar's role in reviving the Arab peace bid, noting that the new plan formally emerged from the Arab League. And yet he emphasized that the Obama administration is focused mainly on returning the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and hopes the peace initiative can help them get there.

“It's a sign that the Arab League is a constructive member in the process,” the official said. “The regional partners have a role, but our major focus is getting the Palestinians and Israelis back to the table for direct talks.”

So far, that doesn't seem to be happening. Israel is less than thrilled about the new initiative. An Israeli official confirmed that Netanyahu remains as unenthusiastic about the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations as he was in 2011, when President Obama’s proposal based on those lines precipitated a small crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.

Israelis are also skeptical of Qatar because of its support for Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip. The country’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first foreign leader to visit the strip last October.

“On the diplomatic front, Qatar publicly claims to support Israeli-Palestinian peace while making certain to undermine it in every possible way,” Seth Mandel wrote last week in Commentary, the neoconservative journal.

But Wittes said Qatar’s relationship with Hamas could be seen as a benefit. Hamas is a mainstay of Palestinian politics, and Qatar could help influence the group to moderate.

“If obstruction of peace was Hamas’s role as spoiler,” she said, “you have to look at the potential for Qatar as a positive influence.”

Fearful Syrian voters will keep Assad in power, Hezbollah deputy leader says


Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to run for re-election next year and win, with Syria remaining in military and political deadlock until then, said the deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, who predicted a year ago that Assad would not be dislodged from power, said the Syrian leader would win a vote because his supporters understood that their communities' very existence depended on him.

“I believe that in a year's time he will stand for the presidency. It will be the people's choice, and I believe the people will choose him,” said the bearded, turban-wearing Shi'ite cleric, speaking carefully and deliberately.

“The crisis in Syria is prolonged, and the West and the international community have been surprised by the degree of steadfastness and popularity of the regime.”

Citing rifts among Assad's foes inside and outside Syria, as well as disagreements among world powers over Assad's future, Qassem said any talk of political solutions was futile for now.

“It will take at least three or four months” for any such solution, he said in a meeting with Reuters editors. “Maybe things will continue until 2014 and the presidential election.”

The two-year-old revolt against Assad is the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings. At least 70,000 people have been killed and the violence has stoked tensions across the Middle East between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah have supported Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam. The mainly Sunni rebels are backed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Some Western leaders have long predicted Assad's imminent demise, but Qassem said he was likely to be re-elected in 2014.

BLACKED-OUT WINDOWS

Wearing brown robes and a white turban, he spoke in a windowless office in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold.

Journalists were driven to the undisclosed venue in a car with blacked-out windows, a security precaution in violence-prone Lebanon. Three Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated in the past two decades; the group blames Israel for the killings.

Hezbollah, the most accomplished military force in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and, with its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies, now holds a majority of cabinet seats in Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.

Mikati has tried to insulate his country from the fighting in Syria but Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have both been drawn into the fighting. Hezbollah denies accusations that it has sent its forces into Syria to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Despite significant and sustained rebel gains, Qassem said the Syrian authorities had scored a string of military successes since insurgents launched attacks in Damascus a few months ago.

“The regime has started winning clearly, point by point,” he said. “And the tensions among the countries supporting the armed (rebel) groups have become clearer.”

Assad's forces still control central Damascus and large parts of the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo to the north. But they have lost swathes of territory in the rural north and most of the eastern towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

In such areas, the Syrian military relies heavily on missiles, artillery and air strikes to pin back rebel advances.

RISK OF DISINTEGRATION

Qassem said Syria only had one viable option: “Either they reach a political solution, in agreement with President Assad … or there can be no alternative regime in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syria might fall apart, he replied: “Everything is possible.”

Syria's population includes Christians, Shi'ites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as majority Sunnis who include mystical Sufis and secularists as well as pious conservatives.

Qassem portrayed authorities as fighting to protect that diversity in the face of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels. “The regime is defending itself in a battle which it sees as an existential fight, not a struggle for power,” he said.

Assad also faced international opposition from countries trying to break the “resistance project,” a reference to the anti-Israel alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, he added.

Israel, which diplomats and regional security sources said bombed a convoy in Syria two months ago carrying weapons which may have been destined for Hezbollah, has warned that military action may be needed to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran is seeking atomic weapons, a charge it denies. Israel says a “clear and credible military threat” against Iran is needed to halt Tehran's work.

But Qassem said the United States was reluctant to get dragged into a “costly” conflict with Tehran.

“It would not halt Iran's peaceful nuclear programme but would just delay it for a few years,” he said. “In return America's interests in the region and those of its allies and Israel would be in great and unpredictable danger.”

Washington's caution over Iran had echoes in what he said was its equivocal position towards Syria.

Although the United States says it provides only non-lethal aid to the rebels, Qassem said the presence of U.S.-made weapons in Syria proved it had at very least given approval for third countries to ship arms to Assad's opponents.

But the prolonged fighting had put Washington in a dilemma about whether to “follow the political path” instead, he said.

“America has lost its way over the steps it wants to take in Syria. On the one hand it wants the regime overthrown, and on the other it fears losing control after the regime falls.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Kerry: Obama would prefer to ‘avoid considering’ Iran strike


Secretary of State John Kerry said President Obama would prefer to avoid considering military action against Iran, but Iran's failure to seriously negotiate makes “confrontation more possible.”

Kerry, interviewed by ABC News in Doha, Qatar, during his first overseas trip in his new job, refused to discuss differences between the United States and Israel over “red lines” that could trigger a military strike.

“I’m not going to get into red lines and timing publicly except to reiterate what the president has said again and again, which is he prefers to have a diplomatic solution,” Kerry said.

“He would like to see the P5+1 process, the negotiation process, be able to work, and avoid any consideration of any military action,” Kerry said, referring to the major powers negotiating with Iran.

Kerry said he expected a serious proposal from the Iranians when they meet with representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain in Istanbul later this month.

“If they keep pushing the limits and not coming with a serious set of proposals or are prepared to actually resolve this, obviously, the risks get higher and confrontation becomes more possible,” he said.

In a separate interview with NPR, Kerry said Egypt's role in brokering last November's cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and keeping the peace on its border with Israel informed his decision to release $190 million in assistance funds to the Egyptians. That decision was made over the objections of some in Congress who are concerned about the course that Egypt's Islamist government is taking.

“Egypt has been — was critical in helping to bring out peace in the Gaza Strip,” Kerry said. “President [Mohamed] Morsi personally intervened. President Morsi has personally helped to make sure that that peace has held, and he is cooperating with Israel on the security in the Sinai and cooperating with Israel in terms of extremism and intelligence.”

“So for the American people, the amount of money that we’re investing in Egypt compared to its importance to us in the region for stability, for peace, for the future possibilities, is minuscule,” he said.

Is there life after Bashar Assad?


“It might take two weeks or it might take a year, but either way President Bashar Assad is on his way out,” Moshe Maoz, Israel’s pre-eminent expert on Syria told The Media Line. “It’s certainly closer than it was a few months ago.”

His comments came as Qatar, the small oil-rich Gulf state, called for international support of the Syrian rebels at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco.

“This meeting has exceptional significance. It is taking place at a time when the Syrian people are about to complete their victory and achieve their legitimate aspirations,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said. “The opposition forces are expanding their control and the authority of the regime is eroding,”

The rebel fighters have been buoyed by growing international recognition — including from the United States. At the same meeting, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al- Feisal said his country was donating $100 million in humanitarian aid to the Assad’s opponents.

After 20 months of a civil war that has left more than 42,000 people dead; and with at least half a million Syrians having fled the country, the world is beginning to envision a Syria without Assad. For some countries, especially Israel, that is a mixed blessing.

“Many Israelis, especially in the intelligence, believe that Bashar Assad is pragmatic and corrupt, but we can work with him,” Maoz said. “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if Assad is overthrown, his large stocks of chemical weapons could end up in the hands of Hizbullah, Iran’s Shiite proxy based in Lebanon. Israel and Hizbullah fought a war in 2006 that ended in a draw. Since then, Hizbullah has rearmed and threatens new attacks on Israel.

Assad has also kept the Israeli-Syrian border quiet since 1973, despite the lack of a peace treaty between the two countries.

One scenario for Syria is that the country could divide into areas controlled by Syria’s different ethnic groups.

“You could have the Alawites around the area of Latakiya; the Kurds, who are more or less autonomous anyway; the Druze and the Sunnis, each taking one area,” Maoz says. “But most of the Sunnis — who represent more than 60 percent of the country — want Syria to stay united.”

It is also not clear whether the rebel groups are prepared to govern Syria. The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella for opposition groups that was formed last month in Qatar, hopes to be able to form a government. The former imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, Moaz al-Khatib, was elected president of the coalition. But not all rebel groups are part of the Coalition and analysts fear internal power struggles.

There are also fears that some of the rebel groups are affiliated with Al-Qa’ida. The Obama Administration recently designated the Islamist Jabhat Al-Nusra a terrorist organization, a decision the leader of the National Coalition has asked Washington to re-think.

Middle East analysts also say that events in other countries in the region offer a cautionary warning to those looking at post-Assad Syria.

“When (Iraqi dictator) Saddam Hussein fell (in 2003), Iraq fell apart,” Nadim Shehadi, an expert on Syria at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “Some are concerned that the fall of Assad could mean the same thing for Syria.”

But Shehadi says the Arab world is a very different place today than it was then.

“The whole region then was against the American invasion of Iraq and nobody wanted Iraq to succeed,” he said. “All of those countries contributed to the mess in Iraq.”

Syria, he says, could be a different situation. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are cautiously seen as moving toward democracy. The Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, want stability in the region. And Israel, preoccupied by Iran’s continued attempts to develop a nuclear bomb, wants a stable regime in Syria.

“The lesson from Iraq doesn’t apply,” Shehadi says. “The longer you keep Assad in power, the more of a mess it will be after he falls.”

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 [2002] 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.’’

Israel says 80 rockets fired at it from Gaza


Palestinians fired dozens of rockets into Israel from Gaza on Wednesday and an Israeli air strike killed a militant, a day after the Emir of Qatar made a rare visit to the enclave's Hamas leadership.

Hamas claimed responsibility for some of the rocket and mortar bomb attacks, prompting some Israelis to wonder whether it had been emboldened by the Qatari visit on Tuesday that broke the Islamist group's diplomatic isolation.

In recent months, Hamas has largely held its fire when other militant factions have launched cross-border rocket attacks, but the sudden upsurge in violence stoked fears that the hostilities could escalate further.

Hamas accused Israel of stepping up air strikes in the Gaza Strip, a move it said was meant to convey Israeli anger over Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's visit, and pledged to “continue to hold a gun … until Palestine is liberated”.

Israel said it was “astounding” that Qatar, a U.S.-allied Gulf state, would take sides in the Palestinian dispute and endorse Hamas, branded by the West as a terrorist group. Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from fighters loyal to the Fatah faction of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Some analysts saw the Qatari ruler's trip, the first by any national leader to Gaza since Hamas took over, as an attempt to build bridges between the group and the West and coax it into the peace camp amid Arab turmoil across the Middle East.

A Palestinian official said Egypt was trying to mediate a truce.

“The contacts Cairo made resulted in a verbal promise by Hamas to calm the situation down and Israel said it was monitoring calm on the ground and would refrain from attacks unless it was subject to rocket fire from Gaza,” said the official, who is close to the talks.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment. Previous rounds of cross-border attacks have usually fizzled out in days, with both Israel and Hamas seemingly aware of the risks of ramping up the low-intensity conflict.

Israel's three-week-long invasion of the Gaza Strip, launched in 2008 with the declared aim of curbing rocket launches, drew international criticism over a heavy Palestinian casualty toll.

Though hostile to Israel, Hamas has mostly sought to avoid direct clashes as it shores up its rule in the face of more radical challengers and seeks potential allies abroad.

NETANYAHU VISITS ANTI-MISSILE SITE

In a second day of violence, a Hamas militant was killed on Wednesday in an air strike, which Israel said was intended to stop rocket launches. On Tuesday, Israel killed three Hamas men, saying they had either launched attacks or were about to do so.

In southern Israel, three agricultural workers were wounded when a Palestinian rocket exploded near them.

An Israeli military spokeswoman, said 79 projectiles had been fired at Israel and that the Iron Dome system had intercepted eight of them. She said several homes had been damaged by Palestinian rockets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking a renewed mandate in Israel's January 22 election, visited an Iron Dome anti-missile battery near the southern city of Ashkelon on Wednesday and threatened stronger Israeli military action in Gaza.

“We did not choose this escalation, nor did we initiate it, but if it continues, we are prepared for a much wider and deeper operation,” he said, pledging to press on with “targeted attacks” against militants preparing to fire rockets.

Israel kept schools shut in communities near the fenced Gaza boundary and residents were urged to remain indoors.

Hamas has refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel's right to exist, and is ostracized by the Quartet of Middle East mediators comprising the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

However, Hamas has said it would accept a truce with Israel in return for a state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Osborn

Emir of Qatar makes landmark visit to Gaza


The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over in 2007.

Al-Thani was greeted by a Palestinian honor guard as he entered Gaza on Tuesday from Egypt. He is heading a humanitarian mission to launch reconstruction projects totaling $250 million, according to Reuters, and pledged another $150 million in projects during the visit.

The emir was scheduled to speak at the Gaza City stadium. Thousands of security guards secured his visit.

Is Hamas trying to change its stripes?


Is Hamas trying to change its stripes?

Terrorist attacks against Israelis appear to be on pause, and rocket fire from Gaza is down significantly. The Hamas leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, is trying to distance himself from the Assad regime and align Hamas with the forces of the Arab Spring. Hamas’ parent organization in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has entered mainstream politics in Cairo, and U.S. officials have met with Brotherhood leaders.

And this week in Doha, Qatar, Meshaal and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced plans for a new unity government that will include both Hamas and Fatah, Abbas’ faction.

Hamas is clearly undergoing a “reorientation” as a result of geopolitical changes in the region, said Shlomo Brom, director of the program on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Hamas is moving away from Syria and Iran, and to a certain degree from Hezbollah, and is repositioning itself in line with the popular movements behind the Arab Spring and the democratization process, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia,” Brom said. “A renewed push for reconciliation with Fatah should be seen as part of this reorientation.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s isn’t biting. In a statement released in response to the announcement in Doha, Netanyahu suggested that the planned Palestinian unity government is more about Abbas joining the extremists than Hamas joining the moderates in the Palestinian Authority.

“If Abbas moves to implement what was signed today in Doha, he will abandon the path of peace and join forces with the enemies of peace,” Netanyahu said in the statement. “President Abbas, you can’t have it both ways. It’s either a pact with Hamas or peace with Israel. It’s one or the other.”

An Israeli official who insisted on anonymity said the international community must make clear to Abbas that joining forces with Hamas—which the United States, Israel and many European countries consider a terrorist organization—is a step away from Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Our recommendation to the international community is that if they want peace, they won’t achieve it by normalizing relations with Hamas,” the official said. “That just pushes peace farther away.”

Hamas has offered no sign that it will accept the three minimal requirements for recognition demanded by the Quartet grouping of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, foreswearing terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

But some Israeli officials worry that in the wake of the Arab Spring, pressure might build in the West to deal with Hamas. Last month, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, met with Muslim Brotherhood Chairman Mohamed Badie and other senior leaders in the Islamic movement.

“The region is definitely changing, and for some in the international community this means being more amenable to relations with Hamas,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official who insisted on anonymity. “However, our position—and the official position of the international community as articulated by the Quartet—is that as long as Hamas continues to advocate terrorism and sticks with its anti-Semitic, genocidal agenda for the destruction of the Jewish people, there must be no political relations with it.”

It’s too early to say whether Hamas is undergoing a real change in its positions. At the end of December, during a meeting in Cairo with Fatah and Islamic Jihad, which is also considered a terrorist group, Meshaal declared his willingness to adopt a strategy of popular resistance used in the Arab Spring, as opposed to terrorism. Meshaal also expressed openness to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip along the pre-Six-Day War lines with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

In other interviews, however, Meshaal has spoken in favor of the Palestinians’ right to fight Israel through armed struggle because “armed resistance is the strategic choice for liberating Palestinian land from the sea to the river”—that is, all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

“Hamas’ reorientation and the implementation of its reconciliation agreement with Fatah may be interpreted by some as a de facto fulfillment of the Quartet’s conditions for engagement,” Brom said.

Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian commentator and journalist for The Jerusalem Post, said Hamas is increasingly seen as a legitimate player.

“For the first time, we are seeing Hamas representatives meeting publicly with the top leaders of Arab nations,” Abu Toameh said.

Last week, Meshaal met with Jordanian King Abdullah in Amman, and this week Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Haniyeh also has met with high-level officials in Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt as part of a tour of the region meant to cement ties between the Hamas administration in Gaza and popular Islamic movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

It was Haniyeh’s first international tour since June 2007, when Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in a violent coup.

“When the world sees the U.S. ambassador to Egypt meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood, people will rightly begin to ask what’s the difference between the Brotherhood and Hamas?” Abu Toameh said.

Brom said Israel should at least try to engage with Hamas now that it appears to be reconciling with Fatah.

“We have an opportunity right now,” he told JTA. “If it fails, we can at least say we tried. People say it is dangerous to recognize Hamas. But there is danger in this government’s position as well.”

Palestinian rivals agree to form unity government


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PM FAYYAD OUT, BUT WHEN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napolitano visiting Israel to check security projects


United States Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is in Israel to check on joint security projects between the two countries.

Napolitano visited Israel Monday and Tuesday as part of a multi-country tour that has included stops in Ireland, Afghanistan and Qatar. She will head to Belgium to meet with European Union and World Customs Organization officials, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“The United States and Israel have a strong and enduring partnership, and the reason for my visit is to make sure that all the things that we’re doing in partnership with Israel—aviation security to cyber-security, to science and technology, research that we are undertaking together focused on security—that all of those activities are being done in a productive and robust fashion,” Napolitano said Monday during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Also Monday, Napolitano visited the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, where she participated in a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who is the minister of Intelligence and atomic energy, and Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz to discuss threats from terrorism and the ongoing security partnership between the United States and Israel, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

During the meetings, Napolitano reiterated her commitment to promoting enhanced international aviation security and sharing information and best practices with Israeli aviation authorities in order to counter threats of terrorism, according to the DHS.

Napolitano was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visit the Ben Gurion International Airport to meet with airport officials.

Clash of Ideas Should Be Addressed


The age of terror, it seems, has sprouted an era of dialogue. A host of conferences designed to bring together East and West are cropping up everywhere.

Never before, perhaps, have so many talked so optimistically about so serious a problem. But behind all the words is one unspoken disagreement that may imperil any chance for progress.

My direct encounter with this optimism took place at a high-profile get-together, the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, in mid-April. Organized by the Qatar government and the Brookings Institution, the conference was packed with more than 150 scholars and leaders from all sides who diligently discussed both the needs and the means for achieving democracy, reforms and renaissance in the Muslim world. Strikingly, there was hardly a Muslim speaker who did not tie the implementation of such reforms to progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahla to Rami Khouri, editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon, almost every speaker ended his or her speech with a reminder that American credibility hinges critically on progress toward resolving the Palestinian problem.

This critical connection also livened up discussions at the World Economic Forum in Jordan in mid-May. According to The Economist, Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, “barked: Palestine!” every time Liz Cheney, an assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, mentioned the vision of an “Arab democratic spring.”

“There will be no spring or autumn or winter or summer without solving the problem,” he thundered.

But the distinctive and refreshing feature of the Doha conference was the civility with which this issue was discussed. The word “occupation” was hardly mentioned, and the usual accusatory terms “brutal,” “colonial,” “racist,” “apartheid,” etc., were pleasantly absent from the main discourse; all claims and grievances were neatly encapsulated into a modest call for “progress toward a solution.”

This stood in sharp contrast to another East-West conference earlier in April in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in which the Malaysian prime minister reportedly stated that Israel should cease to be “an exclusively Jewish racist state,” and where the overwhelming majority of participants, representing 34 countries, demanded that Israel be dismantled.

Enticed by the aura of civility in Doha, and as a representative of an organization committed to East-West dialogue, I was curious to find out what speakers had in mind when they pressed for “progress on the Palestine issue” — progress toward what?

Deep in my heart, I had hoped that the elite delegates in Doha would be more accommodating than those in Putrajaya, and that, safe in the protection of private discussions, I would find progressive Muslims who are genuinely behind the so called “two-state solution” and the “road map” leading to it. If this were not the case, I thought, then we are in big trouble again — Muslims might be nourishing a utopian dream that the West cannot accept, and sooner or later, the whole dialogue process, and all the good will and reforms that depend on it, would blow up in the same conflagration that consumed the Oslo process.

I was not the only American concerned with such gloomy scenarios. Richard Holbrook, America’s former ambassador to the United Nations, urged the Arab world to contribute its fair share toward meaningful movement of the peace process. He reminded the audience that by now, two and a half generations of Arabs have been brought up on textbooks that do not show Israel on any map, and that such continued denial, on a grass-roots level, is a major hindrance to any peaceful settlement.

I had a friendly conversation on this issue with one of Dahlan’s aides, who confessed that “we, Palestinians, do not believe in a two-state solution, for we do not agree to the notion of ‘Jewish state.’ Judaism is a religion,” he added “and religions should not have states.”

When I pointed out that Israeli society is 70 percent secular, bonded by history, not religion, and that by “Jewish state,” Israelis mean “national Jewish state,” he replied: “Still, the area of Palestine is too small for two states.”

This I found somewhat disappointing, given the official Palestinian Authority endorsement of the road map plan.

“Road map to what?” I thought, “to a Middle East without Israel?” Arafat’s death has presumably put an end to such fantasies.

I discussed my disappointment with an Egyptian scholar renowned as “a champion of liberalism.” His answer was even more blunt:

“The Jews should build themselves a Vatican, a spiritual center somewhere near Jerusalem. But there is no place for a Jewish state in Palestine, not even a national Jewish state. The Jews were driven out of Palestine 2,000 years ago, and that should be final, similar to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain 500 years ago.”

These views brought to mind my friends in the Israeli peace camp who place all their hopes on the two-state dream, and for whom the terms “one-state solution” and “Jewish Vatican” are synonymous to genocidal death threats. My puzzled thoughts also went to all the Europeans and Americans who believe to have found an inkling of flexibility on Israel’s legitimacy in the progressive Muslim camp.

But if my experience in Doha was merely a glimpse at how Muslim elites conceptualize the Middle East “solution,” it was soon topped by a May visit to the University of California at Irvine, where the Muslim Student Union organized a meeting titled, “A World Without Israel” — cut and dry.

And if that was not enough, there came a colorful radio confession by the editor of the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Arabi (May 29, 2005), Abd Al-Halim Qandil:

“Those who signed the Camp David agreement … can simply piss on it and drink their own urine, because the Egyptian people will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli entity.”

Putting aside troubling reports about Arab textbooks, television programs and mosque sermons, Qandil’s bold statement drove home a very sobering realization: In 2005, I still cannot name a single Muslim leader (or journalist or intellectual) who has publicly acknowledged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between two legitimate national movements.

One side dreams of a world without Israel; the other sees Israel as a major player in the democratization and economic development of the region — will this clash of expectations burst into another round of bloodshed?”

But, looking ahead at the plentiful attempts to build bridges to the Muslim world, one wonders whether this outpouring of energy and good will should not first be channeled toward hammering out basic common goals, followed by educational programs and media campaigns that promote them, rather than glossing over a fundamental disagreement of such importance. Failure to address uncomfortable differences has a terrible way of extracting higher costs later on.

Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding, named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter brutally murdered in Pakistan in 2002.