Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on March 27. Photo by Yves Herman/Reuters

White House denies report it postponed Abbas visit


A White House official denied a Palestinian media report that the Trump administration postponed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ upcoming visit to Washington.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

The claim, reported Thursday by the Ramallah-based publication Raya Al-Alamiya, cited unnamed Arab diplomatic sources and offered no explanation for the alleged delay.

A White House official, who requested anonymity, told Jewish Insider that the report was “not true.”

In March, Trump phoned Abbas where he informed the Palestinian leader his “personal belief that peace is possible and that the time has come to make a deal,” according to an official White House statement. During the call, Trump also invited Abbas to an official White House visit “in the near future.” The meeting was reportedly expected to take place in mid-April.

The President left the White House on Thursday to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida for Easter weekend.

Israeli security forces and emergency personnel inspect the scene of a Palestinian car ramming attack near the Jewish settlement of Ofra near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 6. Photo by Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Israeli soldier, 20, killed in suspected West Bank car-ramming attack


An Israeli soldier was killed and a second injured in a suspected car-ramming attack in the central West Bank.

Sgt. Elhai Teharlev, 20, from the West Bank settlement of Talmon, was killed in the attack Wednesday morning at a bus stop near the West Bank settlement of Ofra, located northeast of Ramallah. He served in the elite Golani Brigade.

The Palestinian driver of the vehicle, a silver Audi, was apprehended by other soldiers on the scene and detained. He was identified by the Palestinian Maan news agency as Malek Ahmad Moussa Hamed, 23, from the village of Silwad near Ramallah.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin mourned the soldier’s death.

“We have lost today a dear son, Elhai Teharlev, in the State of Israel’s ongoing struggle to ensure its security, and safeguard its citizens,” Rivlin said in a statement. “We will never allow terror to weaken us. Israeli society is strong, and we must stand firm in defense of our state and our land.”

Hamas praised the attack, calling it “a response to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people and a direct continuation of its heroism in the al-Quds Intifada,” the wave of violence, mostly stabbing and car-ramming attacks, that started in October 2015.

Rick Jacobs speaking at the 2013 URJ Reform Biennial, Dec. 12, 2013. Photo courtesy of URJ.

Reform movement leaders meet with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah


Leaders of the U.S. Reform movement met with Palestinian Authority President President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

The delegation of around 30 leaders from the Union for Reform Judaism, led by its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, met with Abbas and other Palestinian officials Thursday afternoon.

Discussions during the meeting, which represented the first time a URJ delegation led by Jacobs met with Palestinian leadership, included the two-state-solution, Israeli settlements and the Trump administration.

“I was impressed with the president’s clear and unequivocal commitment to the two-state solution,” Jacobs said in a statement. “He clearly is frustrated with the lack of progress, or even the existence of ongoing negotiations. I share that frustration.”

Jacobs also said he learned from Palestinian officials that they had spoken with the Trump administration, which had confirmed that U.S. policy continues to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a joint news conference last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump had said he “can live” with either a one- or two-state solution, a statement Palestinians slammed for breaking with decades of American policy.

One unnamed Palestinian official told Israel Radio that the president’s words were “the biggest disaster it was possible to hear from the American president.” Liberal and centrists Jewish groups also criticized Trump’s statement.

During Thursday’s meeting, the delegation also spoke with Abbas “about the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility to stem anti-Israeli incitement.”

“He acknowledged it was a real challenge, just as it is in Israel, and called for reviving the anti-incitement trilateral committee led by the U.S.,” Jacobs said.

Daryl Messinger, chair of the URJ North American Board, acknowledged that the two sides disagreed about some issues.

“We clearly did not agree on everything, nor did we expect to. We were warmly received, and I found our conversation to be positive,” Messinger said.

The URJ delegation, which arrived in Israel on Monday, also met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Jewish Agency President Natan Sharansky as well as members of the Knesset. The group is scheduled to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel in a narrow vote. David Friedman’s nomination will now go before the full Senate for approval.

Friedman’s critics cited his past skepticism of the two-state solution and his deep philanthropic investment in the settlement movement as well as his past insults of Jews with whom he doesn’t agree. Friedman had called J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, “worse than kapos,” the Jewish Nazi collaborators.

Mike Pompeo waits to be sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Jan. 23. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

New CIA head meets with Abbas in West Bank ahead of Trump-Netanyahu meeting


CIA director Mike Pompeo reportedly met secretly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the P.A. headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The meeting was held Tuesday, The Associated Press reported, citing two unnamed senior officials. The White House and the CIA declined to comment to the AP.

The talks came a day before the scheduled meeting in Washington, D.C., between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas reportedly briefed Pompeo on Palestinian positions ahead of the Trump-Netanyahu meeting. He also reportedly expressed concern about a statement made Tuesday night to reporters by a senior White House official that a two-state solution was not a necessary outcome of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Airbnb


The first decision an adventurous traveler faces when seeking an Airbnb property in the West Bank is what to type in the search box: “West Bank”? “Judea and Samaria”? “Israel”? “Palestine”? The blinking cursor symbolizes the confusion and controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

On Airbnb’s website, when you zoom in on the map of Israel, you’ll find more than a dozen properties on these contentious lands: in the Jewish settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Kfar Adumim, Mitzpe Yericho and Ariel, and also in the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho. By this algorithm, Airbnb would seem to subscribe to the “one-state solution.” Then again, “Palestine” also appears in a search — in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Alex and Olga Slobodov rent out a room in their home in Kfar Adumim, a mixed religious-secular settlement east of Jerusalem whose prominent residents include Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel and former MK Aryeh Eldad. Through Airbnb, I arranged to stay with them for one night. 

During my stay, I learned that the couple had no idea that Airbnb efforts like theirs, in Jewish settlements, were making international headlines. But if it were up to some organizations, Israeli properties located beyond the Green Line wouldn’t appear at all on Airbnb. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is leading a coalition to petition Airbnb to ban properties like the Slobodovs’, accusing settlements of being built on illegal, stolen land. (Its petition has garnered about 140,000 signatories.)

“In my view,” Alex said in Hebrew at his spacious kitchen table over a dinner of Russian chicken patties, “we’re in Israel. I’m not something outside. I’m in the borders of Israel. I feel no difference. Actually, there is no difference except that Palestinians also drive these roads.” 

The widow and widower started a new life together five years ago and sought a practical solution for the bedroom that once housed Alex’s now-deceased in-laws. Alex is a Russian Israeli who recently retired as an auditor for the Department of Housing, and Olga is a non-Jewish Ukrainian Israeli who works as a housekeeper. They are only a few months into their Airbnb operation and have already hosted a handful of people from the United States, Belgium, Australia and Argentina.

For $34 (U.S.) per night, the Slobodovs offer what they describe as a “cozy” room, accessed via a private entrance, equipped with a bed, sofa and a newly refurbished bathroom. Their multilevel country home overlooking the Jordan Valley is similar to those seen in many Jewish settlements and rural towns. A drive with Alex to observation points overlooking Wadi Qelt and the Dead Sea on a clear day reveals why the settlement is an appealing option for travelers and Israeli residents alike: the Judean desert air, expansive views and village vibe. 

A 10-minute drive away is Mitzpe Yericho (loosely translated as Jericho Point), a religious settlement where Judith (last name withheld upon request), an olah (a female who makes aliyah) who emigrated from Germany 28 years ago, decided to try her hand at Airbnb after her children left home. Since June 2015, she’s accommodated about two dozen reservations, largely of German speakers. She, too, was unaware that organizations were lobbying against her mini-business. The only guest who was upset about her location was someone she believes should have known better. 

“One came specifically from Tel Aviv, a new olah from the U.S., in Israel for three to four years, and she told me after that it’s too bad that I don’t write that it’s in West Bank,” Judith said in a phone interview.

Judith was dismayed when a group of European tourists recently canceled its reservation, alleging that the group’s car rental company, TUI Cars, didn’t cover travel into the Palestinian territories. She argued that her village falls within Area C, which is under full Israeli control, but to no avail. She said that once in a while, per request, she’ll discuss Israeli politics, but she doesn’t consider herself “right wing.” She chose Mitzpe Yericho decades ago for its quality of life.

Alex Slobodov

In +972, an online magazine that generally hews to the political views of JVP, a reporter going by “John Brown” posed as “Haled,” an American of Palestinian descent, to determine how his requests would be received by Airbnb hosts in Jewish settlements. He was met with mixed reactions. Hosts in Tekoa in the Gush Etzion Bloc accepted his booking, provided he was willing to go through the procedural security check; others declined because of the tense political situation. 

I decided to see how requests to book a room in Ramallah — as an American Jew living in Tel Aviv — would be received. I also inquired of potential hosts whether they believed I would be safe. One person I contacted declined my request, citing unavailability. A potential host in Bethlehem wrote: “It’s safe as long as you don’t say where you’re from.”

But a different potential host in Ramallah was, eventually, more direct: 

“I doubt there will be any security issues, but unfortunately I can’t host you in my house if you are an Israeli citizen.” I revealed my Israeli citizenship and reasoned, naively perhaps, that the issue was legal. “Is the problem from the Israeli or PA side?” I asked, since Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens from entering Palestinian Area A (although during my past forays into Ramallah and Nablus, no one checked my ID).

“Well, you won’t have any problem from any side,” this person replied. “It’s actually a personal issue. I don’t know if anyone else will host you; as for me, I can’t.” 

When asked for JVP’s opinion on Palestinian Airbnb hosts rejecting Jewish or Israeli guests, JVP Deputy Director Stefanie Fox wrote: “Palestinians living under occupation have the right to use nonviolent tools, such as boycott and non-cooperation, to resist the policies and practices that threaten their lives and their rights.” 

But then I found a host from Bethlehem who immediately accepted my request to book as an “American currently living in Tel Aviv.”

When I told the Slobodovs about my interest in visiting Bethlehem via Airbnb, Olga shook her head, fearing for my safety. She also said she would be wary of hosting an Arab-Muslim Israeli, given the threat in Israel — and elsewhere around the world — of Islamic terror. 

Judith told me that an Arab Israeli from Jerusalem once requested to book her Mitzpe Yericho room for four guests under a reservation for one. 

“I thought: What’s wrong with him?” Judith said, figuring they’d feel more comfortable in Jericho proper. She, too, declined out of safety concerns, but told the potential guest that the room was “unavailable.”

In response to questions from me, Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas sent the company’s standard reply: “We believe in the transformative power of allowing people to share experiences that can come from sharing a home. … We follow laws on where we can do business and we investigate specific concerns raised about listings and/or discrimination.” 

So, when people browse the listings of Airbnb properties, such as “Cozy room in Jordan Valley” or “Guest house in Bethlehem,” they can imagine either conflict or how life could be: a mosaic of coexistence. Ironically, it’s the people who live closest to one another and are most in need of sitting down for a living-room chat — Israelis and Palestinians — who it appears can’t take advantage of Airbnb’s “transformative power” in Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, or … whatever you choose to call these lands.

PA rejects Israeli offer to keep IDF out of Ramallah, Jericho


In recent secret Israeli-Palestinian talks first reported in Haaretz, the Palestinian Authority turned down an Israeli offer to stop military operations in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Jericho, saying the proposal did not go far enough.

According to the Times of Israel, Israeli negotiators in late February offered to do a trial pullout from the two West Bank cities, but the P.A. said it wanted the Israel Defense Forces to cease activities in all of Area A — the section of the West Bank that under the 1993 Oslo Accords is officially under P.A. control.

Citing unidentified senior Israeli officials, Haaretz reported that talks are “currently stuck but not dead and could resume.”

Citing unnamed Palestinian security sources, the Times of Israel said P.A. officials had demanded that Israel present concrete steps detailing when it would stop all military activities in the area.

Although Area A is supposed to be under exclusive Palestinian control, Israeli forces since 2002 have frequently entered the area to arrest terror suspects and conduct other operations. According to Haaretz, the IDF operates in the area “without restrictions almost daily.”

Although there have been no peace talks since a United States-brokered effort collapsed in April 2014, Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials have continued to coordinate on security. The coordination has been endangered, according to Palestinian officials cited anonymously by the Times of Israel, by the Israeli army’s continued incursions into Area A, something that damages the P.A.’s reputation among Palestinians living in the area.

According to the Times of Israel, the sources said Israeli negotiators were focused only on improving the security situation, whereas the Palestinians wanted to advance to a final-status agreement.

Haaretz reported that another reason Palestinians objected to the proposal was that they believed it would require the P.A. to publicly acknowledge its approval of the IDF entering parts of Area A, which it has not done.

Palestinian sources told the Times of Israel the P.A. is seriously considering ending all security cooperation if its demands are not met. Another threat to the security cooperation are chances that the P.A. is on the verge of collapse; Israeli officials and others have warned of the likelihood.

Palestinian teen killed during alleged attack on Israeli soldiers reportedly was US citizen


The Palestinian teen shot dead as he allegedly attempted to stab Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint reportedly had dual American citizenship.

Mahmoud Muhammad Ali Shaalan, 17, of Ramallah was killed Friday near the West Bank settlement of Beit El.

An unnamed Palestinian official said he had American citizenship, according to Reuters. Shaalan’s American citizenship has not yet been confirmed by U.S. officials.

Three Israeli soldiers wounded in West Bank shooting by Palestinian police officer


A Palestinian Authority police officer opened fire on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, wounding three, before being shot dead by a soldier.

One soldier was in serious condition following the attack Sunday near Beit El, another was in moderate to serious condition and another was lightly injured, according to reports. The Israeli military confirmed all the injured men are soldiers.

The assailant, 34, was identified as a police officer from Nablus, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, he drove up to the checkpoint near Ramallah, left his car and opened fire on soldiers manning the area. He was shot dead during the attack.

Also Sunday, the driver of a car that attempted to ram soldiers on Highway 443, a main road to Jerusalem, was shot by soldiers and seriously injured. No soldiers were injured in the attempted attack, which took place near the West Bank settlement of Beit Horon, where Shlomit Krigman, 23, was stabbed and killed by a Palestinian assailant in the community’s supermarket.

Israel imposes partial closure on Ramallah


Israel’s military has imposed a partial closure on Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the seat of government for the Palestinian Authority.

The closure, which was imposed late Sunday night, is the first for a Palestinian city since the start of the current wave of Palestinian terror against Jewish-Israelis in October. It came hours after a Palestinian Authority police officer from Ramallah shot and wounded three Israeli soldiers at a security checkpoint near the city.

Under the edict, non-residents are banned from entering the city and residents are restricted from leaving.

The closure also was imposed due to security warnings for the area, Haaretz reported, citing an unnamed Israel Defense Forces official.

Knife-wielding Palestinians strike in West Bank, Jerusalem; two dead


Knife-wielding Palestinians attacked Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank on Friday and police said they had shot dead two assailants, in a further wave of violence spurred partly by tensions over a Jerusalem holy site. 

Four people, including another Palestinian assailant, were wounded in the incidents at an Israeli paramilitary police checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Nablus and at a tram station in East Jerusalem, ambulance officials said.

There were also violent confrontations on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah and in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians massed at the border and lobbed rocks at Israeli forces on the other side.

Around 40 demonstrators were wounded by Israeli fire, at least one critically, medics said. 

This month's welter of violence, the worst since the 2014 Gaza war, arose in part from religious and political tensions over the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

A growing number of visits by religious Jews to the al-Aqsa plaza – Islam's holiest site outside Saudi Arabia and revered in Judaism as the location of two destroyed biblical temples – have stirred Palestinian allegations that Israel is violating a “status quo” under which non-Muslim prayer there is banned.

Israel says such allegations are false and that their voicing by Palestinian officials and circulation in Arab social media has been inciting the violence.

Since the latest unrest began on Oct. 1, at least 64 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israelis. Of those, 37 were assailants armed mainly with knives, Israel said, while others were shot during violent anti-Israel protests. Many were teens.

Eleven Israelis have been killed in stabbings and shootings. 

On Friday, two Palestinians used a motorcycle to reach an Israeli paramilitary police checkpoint at a junction near a Jewish settlement outside Nablus, dismounted and rushed at the troopers with knives drawn, a police spokeswoman said.

They lightly wounded one policeman before being shot by a policewoman, the spokeswoman said. One of the Palestinians was killed and the other critically wounded.

FRUSTRATION

In the second incident, police shot dead a Palestinian after he carried out a knife attack at a tram station near Jerusalem's Old City, medical officials and police said. 

They said two people, believed to be Israelis, were wounded in the incident. One was stabbed and another was hit by gunfire directed at the assailant.

Palestinians are also frustrated by the failure of numerous rounds of peace talks to secure them an independent state in territories, including the West Bank, that Israel captured in a 1967 war. The last phase of negotiations collapsed in 2014. The deadlock has bolstered the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza and advocates Israel's destruction. 

Jerusalem had in recent days been spared violence as it shifted to West Bank areas like the city of Hebron, site of the Cave of the Patriarchs, another shrine holy to Muslims and Jews.

Palestinians said Israel had announced it would declare the area around the cave compound off-limits to them after Friday's weekly Muslim prayers.

In a statement, the Israeli military said only that “several precautionary measures were taken in order to contain potential attacks in the future and maintain the safety and well being of Israelis” in Hebron, where there is a small Jewish settlement.

Abbas reportedly building $13M presidential compound


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly having a $13-million luxurious presidential palace built near Ramallah despite his government facing a $2-billion deficit.

According to the Times of Israel and several other Israeli news outlets, the project, which includes two helipads, is listed on the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction website devoted to “Ongoing and Future Projects.” The site, which includes a computer rendering of the completed palace, describes the complex as being funded by the Palestinian Authority’s treasury.

However, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an said PA officials are denying that the compound is a presidential residence or that it is being paid for with public funds, according to Haaretz.

PA officials said the complex will serve as a leadership headquarters and residence to receive world leaders and is being funded by international donations and private Palestinian corporations, Haaretz reported.

Most projects listed on the site are funded by international donors, including the Canadian and French governments.

West Bank Bedouin tent burned down in suspected arson attack


A tent in a West Bank Bedouin village was set on fire in a suspected arson attack.

The tent in the village of Kafr Malik, located north of Ramallah, was burned completely early Thursday morning, according to reports. It had been used for storage and unoccupied at the time of the fire.

Graffiti spray-painted on a rock near the burned-down tent included a Star of David and the words “administrative revenge,” which could refer to the recent administrative detention orders for three suspected Jewish extremists. Under administrative detention, prisoners can remain in custody for up to six months without a hearing or charges, renewable indefinitely. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners remain in administrative detention in Israeli prisons.

The suspected extremists were arrested after the July 31 arson attack on a West Bank Palestinian home that left a baby and his father dead. The West Bank village of Duma, where the attack occurred, is located about three miles from the Bedouin village where Thursday’s attack took place.

Later Thursday, three Jewish youths reportedly were arrested in the area in connection with the attack. The youths’ car also was seized and they were prohibited from meeting with an attorney.

France’s Fabius heads to Mideast to sell peace initiative


France's foreign minister heads to the Middle East this weekend with an initiative aimed at bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to peace talks under an international framework amid growing regional instability.

U.S.-led efforts to broker peace for a two-state solution collapsed in April 2014 and leaders on both sides have since been weakened politically. But with the region's crises worsening and Washington reassessing its options on U.S.-Israel relations, France sees a narrow window to resume negotiations.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will explore the prospects for talks with key Arab League ministers, including Saudi Arabia, in Cairo on Saturday and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday.

“Everything points to inertia, but we believe that this inertia is deadly,” said a senior French diplomat. “We can no longer isolate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the regional context.”

If the conflict remains unresolved, the diplomat added, radical groups such as Islamic State will make the Palestinian cause their own.

U.N. RESOLUTION

Paris hopes to persuade Arab states, the European Union and U.N. Security Council members to pressure both sides to make compromises neither wants to make alone.

“The method to reach a definitive solution has been for both sides to meet face to face with the Americans as an honest broker, but this method has failed,” the diplomat said. “It needs international support.”

France has so far focused with Arab states on a possible U.N. Security Council resolution that would set negotiating parameters and establish a time period, possibly 18 months, to complete talks.

The trip comes before a final round of nuclear talks between major powers and Iran in late June. Washington has made clear it will not discuss the Middle East process until the Iran situation is clear, which could delay French moves beyond September.

In December, the U.S voted against a Palestinian-drafted resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state by late 2017.

“If we are in a period without negotiations, and without the possibility of negotiations, we will have to look at all options,” U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro told Israel's Army Radio.

Netanyahu has highlighted his opposition to French moves and Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzipy Hotovely dismissed it on Friday.

“The French initiative is counter-productive because it gives the illusion to the Palestinians that they will get something from the international community without having to make concessions,” she told French daily Le Figaro.

She added that only direct dialogue between the two sides could resolve the conflict

The Palestinians say they are ready to work with the French, but say any resolution must include a time frame for ending the “occupation” and sets a clear frame of reference in terms of 1967 borders and East Jerusalem being the capital of a Palestinian state.

Rings bearing Islamic State logo discovered en route to West Bank


A package of rings bearing the Islamic State logo and messages in Arabic that was confiscated at Ben Gurion International airport will be destroyed.

The interception of the suspicious package from Turkey, containing about 120 silver rings, was announced Tuesday by the Customs Authority, the NRG Hebrew-language news website reported.

The package was ordered by an importer in the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah. There were hundreds of other pieces of jewelry in the package as well.

“A large number of rings mean that there are buyers. It’s scary and shocking to know that in the lands of the Palestinian Authority there are those who support that murderous organization. And who knows? Maybe with our help they’ll discover a cell or ideological organization of ISIS,” a customs security official told Ynet.

The Shin Bet security service and other security officials were notified of the discovery.

Lauryn Hill cancels Israel performance three days before concert


American R&B singer Lauryn Hill canceled a performance in Israel three days ahead of the scheduled concert.

Hill, who was scheduled to perform in Rishon LeZion on Thursday, said in a statement posted late Monday on her Facebook page that she canceled because she was unable to schedule a concert on the trip in Palestinian-controlled Ramallah in the West Bank.

“Setting up a performance in the Palestinian Territory, at the same time as our show in Israel, proved to be a challenge,” Hill wrote. “I’ve wanted very much to bring our live performance to this part of the world, but also to be a presence supporting justice and peace. It is very important to me that my presence or message not be misconstrued, or a source of alienation to either my Israeli or my Palestinian fans. For this reason, we have decided to cancel the upcoming performance in Israel, and seek a different strategy to bring my music to ALL of my fans in the region.”

The post had nearly 16,000 likes some 14 hours after it was posted.

Hill had come under fire in recent days from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement calling on her to cancel her Israel concert.

British rock star Robbie Williams performed in Israel just days ago despite pressure from BDS and former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, a BDS activist.

Doing downward dog in Ramallah


Inhale your arms up into warrior one. Exhale and extend your arms into warrior two.

I followed the instructor’s soft but firm voice as she led me and five other women through the yoga poses, and the deep breathing helped to calm my nerves. The large tiled room was gently lit through white curtains that masked the busy city life outside Farashe Yoga.

Farashe is Arabic for butterfly, and the busy city outside the studio’s walls is Ramallah.

Exhale into your reverse warrior, the instructor guided us. I complied, letting out a long-held breath.

Ramallah is just six miles north of Jerusalem. But to get there from Jerusalem requires passing through the Kalandia checkpoint, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. A red sign outside the checkpoint reads “This Road leads To Area ‘A’ Under The Palestinian Authority/ The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.”

Area A is under Palestinian jurisdiction. Cars like the one I was in, rented in Israel, are not insured there. But my American passport pacified the Israeli soldier manning the checkpoint and we were waved through without delay.

Farashe is near the center of Ramallah, through a lively marketplace, where fruit and vegetable vendors shout out the prices of persimmons, dates and the largest cabbages I have ever seen. Past the famous stone lions of the Al Manara Square and across the street from the Stars & Bucks Cafe (its motto, according to a server, is “Let Starbucks come to Ramallah and sue us”) sits the stone building that is home to the studio. Behind a green door, up a stairway littered with cigarette butts and fast food wrappers, is the yoga studio. The class cost 20 shekels, or about $5.

When I initially reached out to Farashe, I was told by a man named Ibrahim that I would be “more than welcome to attend.” But when I told them I was a journalist from a Jewish publication, Ibrahim responded, “Farashe has a very strict policy about which media channels to talk (sic), as we are an organization that abides by BDS regulations,” referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which attempts to place political pressure on and economically isolate Israel.

My request for an interview, he told me, had been denied.

Knowing I was not welcome, I kept a low profile as I inexpertly made my way through the Vinyasa yoga practice.

But the atmosphere inside put me at ease. The instructor was accommodating and generous, and she and my fellow yogis — a mixed-age group dressed in linen or yoga pants, hair uncovered — were oblivious to my failed negotiations with the studio’s media representative. The instructor asked my name and if it was my first time at Farashe.

“Batya,” I told her, and yes, it was.

Farashe opened in November 2010. Everything — the space, the mats and the five instructors’ time — had been donated by volunteers and benefactors “within Palestine and from abroad,” according to the studio’s website.

Yoga has long been trendy in Israel among urban sophisticates and religious Jews. And the practice has been found to improve mood and enhance productivity among Israeli schoolchildren impacted by war. There are dozens of yoga studios and yoga practices in and around Tel Aviv, including classes offering vocal yoga,which involves singing, and Acroyoga, which incorporates acrobatics.

And now yoga is increasingly popular among Palestinians, too. In Gaza, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society offers yoga classes to help with stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are also some private yoga enthusiasts, like a woman from Gaza City whose Twitter feed @WhateverInGaza has 13,000 followers. But there are no known designated studios in the Hamas-led strip.

Yoga can provide great benefits for war-torn areas. Robin Carnes is co-founder and executive director of Warriors at Ease, an organization that brings yoga and meditation to military communities. Carnes in a phone interview explained the effects of traumatic stress on the brain — how it can impair judgment and internal monitoring of emotions.

“With a good trauma-sensitive teacher, you can slowly begin to re-enter, re-inhabit your body in a way that isn’t overwhelming and feels safe again,” Carnes said.

To meet the growing demand for yoga in the Palestinian territories, Anahata Grace International, a nonprofit based in Washington, partnered with Farashe to organize a training session in 2013 for 20 women in Ramallah. The same year, a Canadian organization, the Olive Tree Yoga Foundation, offered two 200-hour teacher-training sessions in the Ayda refugee camp in Bethlehem.

“We see it as a form of empowerment and a way to create space in your own life for possibilities,” said Paul van Wijk, the president of Olive Tree, which has trained instructors who now teach classes to Palestinians in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron.

Olive Tree has separately trained Israeli instructors.

Most recently, two Palestinian women are in the process of opening a yoga studio in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, called Beit Ashams, or House of Sun. The studio has already started offering classes — some gender segregated (including prenatal yoga), some coed and some geared to children.

Eilda Zaghmout, one of the founders, was trained by Olive Tree.

Her family fled Beit Jala for Amman, Jordan, in 1967 following the Six-Day War with Israel. Her father always dreamed of returning home. But when they finally came back in 1999, they were faced with what Zaghmout called the “ugliness” of the deadly Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Like other Palestinians, the family faced restrictions on movement, curfews and long lines when they were permitted to leave their homes.

Zaghmout, who comes from a “Christian background,” sees yoga as particularly beneficial in a land marred by a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Indeed, she had long intended to begin practicing yoga. But with two young children at home, life kept getting in the way. But, she said, “there’s a point in your life when you’re like, ‘hallas,’ that’s it, I’m going to ask for help.” Her husband was supportive, and within a year she had her yoga teacher’s license.

Eager to share her newfound practice with her community, Zaghmout was faced with a common “misperception” in her community — that anything associated with the Far East was shunned for being atheist or Buddhist. Zaghmout had to find the right language to introduce yoga to Bethlehem. She invited members of her community to come and experience yoga for themselves, and she spoke about yoga as a tool for releasing stress.

She believes that the reason yoga is taking off now has to do with increased awareness about the awareness of self-care.

“People are getting more aware of stress, high blood pressure, breast cancer,” Zaghmout said, noting that especially women and activists struggle with finding time and allowance to take care of themselves. Doing so “challenges perceptions about women in my community, where women are supposed to sacrifice,” she said.

She added: “This land has suffered heavy blood. It’s time we start realizing peace inside of us so we can realize it outside.”

Meanwhile, back inside at Farashe, the class ended with the instructor calling for Shavasana, or the “corpse pose,” which has practitioners lying flat on their backs, arms to the sides, palms up. As I lay there, I found myself wishing for fewer corpses in this troubled land, and for warriors on both sides of the checkpoint to reverse direction and find a new practice.

Palestinian analyst: ‘Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood one in the same’


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Despite the formation of a national consensus government, Hamas has not only failed to reconcile with Fatah, but the Islamist group is also beset by an internal rift between a majority who follow the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood and those who seek independence from the group.

“The Palestinian cause is being held hostage by Hamas. Hamas is a catastrophe for us,” Palestinian analyst Abdelmajeed Sweilem told The Media Line. Arguing that Hamas is setting the agenda of the Palestinian issue, he charged that Hamas is echoing the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not wish to see statehood established for West Bank and Gaza residents. “Power is their [only] objective; not seeing a Palestinian state,” he said.

Sweilem believes Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – the party of ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi — are one in the same. Through its actions, he says, Hamas is serving the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood while waiting for regional differences to benefit them.

“This is a catastrophe for Abu Mazen (nickname for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) because the [Muslim] Brotherhood wants to end the Palestinian cause. My opinion is that the Muslim Brotherhood has no problem with Palestinians being like North and South Koreans,” said Sweilem, suggesting that the Palestinian president is currently engaged in two fights: the first against Israel and the second versus Hamas.

Hamas spokesmen declined to speak to The Media Line for this article.

Offering an example of the Hamas internal rift, a source in Ramallah close to the Abbas government who spoke anonymously because he is not cleared to speak with media explained that “If one Hamas official in Gaza says something and a Hamas official in Qatar disagrees with it, he will accept it even though it’s wrong to sustain the illusion that there is unity among Hamas.”

Sweilem believes only a minority of Hamas members support reconciliation and peace while the “dominant side is the Muslim Brotherhood,” supporting division and violence.

In an exclusive interview with The Media Line, senior Fatah official Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the Fatah bloc and Political Committee, confirmed the existence of a split within Hamas.

“Logically speaking — although without proven evidence — there is no doubt that that many members of Hamas were shocked over the 15 explosions,” he said referring to the recent incident in the Gaza Strip where bombs exploded near the homes of prominent Fatah members. A spokesman for Hamas told The Media Line at the time that the group was not involved and that it would launch an investigation. The blasts came as Palestinians in Gaza were gearing up to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Yassir Arafat, but as a result of the incident, the festivities in Gaza were cancelled.

“[Holding commemorations] would have showed how many people are against Hamas,” Sweilem said, suggesting that the explosions were a Hamas tactic: talking in media about ending the Hamas/Fatah division but holding out the explosions to signify the “end of reconciliation” — proof that the Fatah officials there have no good will toward uniting the Palestinians.

In April, after seven years of disunity, the Palestinians were purportedly united, which led to the formation of a national consensus government comprised of technocrats.  But the short window of hope was to last only seven months.  

Sweilem says Hamas is “sending a clear message that you must deal with Hamas as the rulers [of Gaza] and forget about any elections, unification of the Palestinian institutions and the PLO constitution,” he added.

According to Abdullah, there are two lines of thinking within Hamas: “ideologues who don’t want to end the division [between Fatah and Hamas] as principle; and a second group, which is negatively affected materially and financially from reconciliation because “tunnel trade would end, and along with it, bribery on the crossings.” He gives the example of Gaza residents being forced to pay bribes to Hamas in order to be allowed to leave the enclave.

“Disunity and the lack of a consolidated internal front will no doubt cost the Palestinians,” he said.

Sweilem says anyone who thinks the Palestinians will ever be united is living a lie. “It’s irrational to ever think there will be Palestinian reconciliation. It’s a lie,” he said.

This comes at a time following the donor conference in Cairo which saw contributing nations pledge more than $5 billion to reconstruct Gaza in the aftermath of last summer’s 50-day war between Hamas and Israel that left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead along with vast destruction. Sweilem says that Palestinian Presidential Guards will never replace Hamas forces; and the Palestinian Authority will never have sovereignty over a single inch of Gaza because Hamas’s leadership wants any reconstruction efforts to be channeled through them. 

Analysts believe that under the present conditions, there will be no consensus government and no restoration of Palestinian unity because Hamas is absolutely unwilling to accept the authority of the PA under Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

As proof that Hamas will not let the reconstruction process happen, Sweilem says, “If they wanted that to happen, they could have used money received after the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2012, but instead they built homes for its members.” He expects the current round of Gaza reconstruction to take place “trickle by trickle.”

 Many agree that the elements of the Fatah-Hamas stalemate will also hinder any efforts undertaken on the Palestinian-Israeli peace track.

Referring to rumors reported in local media, a senior source in the Abbas camp adamantly denies that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas held any secret meetings when both were in Amman to see King Abdullah II and US Secretary of State John Kerry. But it is acknowledged that “Kerry tried (to bring the two together), but Abbas refused because he doesn’t want to.”

Kerry also promised Abbas that he would get negotiations back on track. According to the source, the Palestinian did not respond himself, but someone from his delegation said to Kerry, “Only if Israel honors its commitments not to negotiate for the sake of negotiating, but to negotiate to yield peace results.”

The Palestinian leadership believes that the SecState “is afraid to lose and wants to end his career with any success.” Therefore, they believe Kerry convinced Netanyahu to have given the order to ease restrictions on Muslims allowed to pray at Al Haram Al Sharif (what Israelis call the Temple Mount) even before the Amman meeting with Kerry and the king in order to calm the situation down following a month of elevated tensions at the holy site and rioting in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

 “Netanyahu is looking for an Arab ally at this particular time and that’s Jordan,” the source said. He also says the King of Jordan was very direct with the Israeli Prime Minister, reminding him of the borders between the two, the long peace agreement between Israel and Jordan and the alliance. “We will not accept any actions in Jerusalem,” King Abdullah reportedly told Netanyahu.

Sweilem believes the Americans exerted significant pressure on Netanyahu for the first time. “What this proves is that if the Americans are willing to pressure Israel in to making peace, they can and Israel can’t say no,” he said.

Meanwhile, sources in Ramallah believe that Abbas does not want a third Intifada (Palestinian uprising.)

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah says the Palestinian president is committed to not letting Gaza down. And when asked why Abbas insists on not giving up on unity with Hamas, he says the Palestinian leader is “polite” and wants to “keep the window open” because Hamas is a part of the Palestinians; and Gaza and the West Bank will never be separated. “President Abbas has said to Israel not to give Hamas an excuse to make violence and instead give them hope; and when that happens, it will convince extremists to end their violence because there is a solution.”

Abbas: Israel operation in Gaza is ‘genocide’


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Israel’s expanded operation in Gaza a “genocide.”

“It’s genocide — the killing of entire families is genocide by Israel against our Palestinian people,” he told a meeting of the Palestinian leadership at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the French news agency AFP reported.

“What’s happening now is a war against the Palestinian people as a whole and not against” terrorist groups, Abbas said at the meeting held to discuss responses to Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, according to AFP. “We know that Israel is not defending itself, it is defending settlements, its main project.”

Abbas said the Palestinians had approached Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to convince Israel to halt its operation.

The Palestinian Maan news agency reported early Wednesday evening that the death toll from Israel’s Gaza strikes had climbed to 39. Maan reported that a rocket killed a woman and her two young children in their home and that two other children are missing.

A statement read Wednesday on behalf of Ban at a special meeting of the U.N.’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People called on Israel and the Palestinians to “abide by their obligations under international law and to refrain from any actions that could further escalate this highly tense situation.”

“It is critical that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, with the support of the international community, do their utmost to find their way back to meaningful negotiations. Any action to prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations must be avoided,” he said.

Ban also reiterated his condemnation of the murders of three Israeli teens and the alleged revenge killing of a Palestinian teen.

The meeting was convened to recognize the 10th anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s opinion that said the security fence built in the West Bank is contrary to international law.

In a statement issued Wednesday after security consultations at the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command headquarters in Beersheba, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a decision had been made “to further increase the assault on Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Gaza.”

“Our military is strong, the home front is steadfast and our people are united,” Netanyahu said. “This is our response to the terrorist organizations that attack us.”

Gun battle flares as Israeli soldiers seek missing teens


Israeli forces traded gunfire with Palestinians on Thursday, the military said, in the fiercest street battles in the West Bank since a search began for three Israeli teenagers missing for a week.

Hospital officials said three Palestinians suffered bullet wounds in the overnight clashes in Jenin, a militant stronghold and the scene of deadly fighting during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. There were no reported Israeli casualties.

In a statement, the military said about 300 Palestinians, including some who “hurled explosives and opened fire”, confronted soldiers who entered Jenin looking for the three seminary students.

Israel says the Hamas Islamist group abducted them last Thursday as they were hitchhiking near a Jewish settlement.

“The soldiers responded with live fire, identifying hits,” the statement said. It said 30 “terror suspects” were detained in the West Bank, bringing to 280 the number of Palestinians taken into custody over the past week.

Reuters photographers in Jenin heard heavy gunfire during the night but were kept away from the scene of the clashes by the Israeli army.

Israel has said its West Bank operation is two-fold: to find Gil-Ad Shaer and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19; and to deal a substantial blow to Hamas, a group dedicated to its destruction.

A statement issued by the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of using the teenagers' disappearance as “a pretext to impose tough punishment against our people and besiege them” in violation of international humanitarian law.

Israeli raids have spread from house-to-house searches in Hebron, a flashpoint town in the area where the three went missing, to raids across the West Bank of institutions believed to provide funding and other support for Hamas.

“The policy of collective punishment conducted by the occupation government against our people and our land requires condemnation by the whole world,” the Palestinian presidential statement said.

As part of the crackdown, Israel said on Thursday it was banning a British-based charity from operating in the West Bank, accusing Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) of being a source of funding for the Palestinian Hamas Islamist movement.

No comment was immediately available from the IRW in Britain. Officials in an affiliate office, International Relief in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip said they had no information about the Israeli decision.

WIDESPREAD SEARCH

At Bir Zeit University, near the Palestinian town of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers on Thursday seized Hamas posters and flags from a student group affiliated with Hamas.

The military said that so far, soldiers have searched about 900 locations. There has been no word from the missing teenagers nor any public claim of responsibility or ransom demands – including by Hamas. Hamas, however, has not issued any denial of involvement.

In the Gaza Strip, a source in Hamas said five members of its armed wing were killed while on a “Jihadist mission”, a term the group uses to describe a non-combat incident such as an accidental explosion.

Abbas roundly condemned the kidnappers on Wednesday and promised to hold to account those responsible. His words in turn were denounced by Hamas and other factions, who accused him of betraying the national cause.

On Tuesday, Hamas and 10 other Palestinian factions issued a joint communique warning Israel that they would not “stay handcuffed” in the face of its West Bank dragnet – a threat of armed resistance.

Security experts expect the frustration of ordinary Palestinians at Israeli restrictions in the West Bank to mount as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is due to begin on June 28-29.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem

U.S. will work with Fatah-Hamas unity government


The United States plans to work with the new Palestinian unity government and will continue to disburse aid to the Palestinian Authority, the State Department said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the U.S. “will be watching closely to ensure that [the Hamas-Fatah government] upholds principles that President [Mahmoud] Abbas reiterated today,” according to Haaretz.

The principles include recognizing Israel, rejecting terror and honoring agreements.

The new government was sworn in Monday in Ramallah. Earlier that day, Israel’s Security Cabinet said it will not negotiate with the new government and will oppose Hamas participation in the Palestinian elections if and when they take place. The Security Cabinet also said it will hold the new government responsible for any rockets fired at Israel from Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would not allow the new unity government to hold any elections in eastern Jerusalem, the Times of Israel reported.

Abbas criticized Israel’s refusal to recognize the new government and said Palestinians would continue efforts to declare statehood, something that was put on hold during peace talks with Israel.

“We won’t stand with our hands folded in the face of punitive measures, and we will use every legal and diplomatic tool at our disposal in the international community,” he said, according to Haaretz.

Netanyahu: Obama’s deal on Syria ‘ray of light in dark region’


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria and said his government had no partner in Ramallah.

Netanyahu’s endorsement of Obama’s policy on Syria came in an interview he gave last week to the Bloomberg news agency which was published Friday, in which Netanyahu called the Obama administration’s deal with Russia and Syria for the removal of chemical weapons “the only ray of light in a very dark region.”

Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the United States and has faced criticism for not acting more forcefully to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against rebels. The United States has reached a Russian-brokered deal earlier this year for the gradual removal of Syria’s chemical weapons reserves.

“It’s not complete yet,” Netanyahu said of the removal. “We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90 percent. We appreciate the effort that has been made and the results that have been achieved.”

On the comatose peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said that “six prime ministers since Oslo failed in their pursuit of a negotiated settlement,” adding that: “We don’t have a Palestinian leadership that is willing to do that.”

Netanyahu added that “the minimal set of conditions that any Israeli government would need cannot be met by the Palestinians. No matter what the spin is about blaming Israel, do we actually expect [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, who seems to be embracing Hamas, to give a negotiated deal? In all likelihood, no. I hope he does, but I’m not sure he’s going to.”

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed last month after Israel declined to hand over some prisoners whose release Israel said had not been agreed upon but that the Palestinians were demanding. Abbas then submitted applications to 15 international treaties and signed a deal that facilitated a power-sharing agreement with Hamas, moves that Israeli officials said precluded reaching a negotiated settlement.

Asked why he would not freeze construction is West Bank settlements beyond the 1967 borders to facilitate the resumption of talks, Netanyahu said: “Having tried once, I saw that it doesn’t work.”

On Iran, Netanyahu reiterated his objection to the terms of a deal being negotiated among six world powers including the United States and Iran on that country’s nuclear program. Netanyahu has opposed any deal that leaves Iran in possession of infrastructure that may be used for the production of a nuclear bomb. The terms of the deal proposed by the six powers include relief of sanctions in exchange for Iran’s commitment to limit its enrichment of uranium, but leaves it in possession of centrifuges.

“I think this is a setup for the same mistake that was done with North Korea,” Netanyahu said.

Kerry cancels meeting with Abbas in Ramallah


Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday called off a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah for last-minute talks on extending peace talks with Israel, a senior State Department official said.

“We are no longer travelling tomorrow. We are in close touch with the team on the ground,” the official said.

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; editing by Andrew Roche

Kerry heading to Middle East next week for peace talks


Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for peace talks next week, a senior U.S. government official said on Saturday, days after Israel is due to free another group of Palestinian prisoners.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah late next week for more talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, resuming his intensive shuttle diplomacy after a Christmas break.

The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a “two-state solution” in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state.

Kerry wants the sides to agree to a framework for an interim accord ahead of a deal in April, which would launch another year of talks aimed at a full-blown peace treaty. A framework would demonstrate that progress is being made in talks that began in July, according to U.S. officials.

A framework would touch on all the main issues, including security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.

A major step in that process is the release of about two dozen Palestinian prisoners on Dec. 30, the third group to be freed since talks resumed in July. The release is seen by the United States as a vital confidence-building measure.

But the plan for the release was overshadowed by an announcement by Israel on Friday that it intends to build 1,400 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a move Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the would “destroy the peace process” and could be met with retaliation.

The Palestinians see the Jewish settlements as an obstacle to achieving a viable state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries consider Israel's settlements there illegal.

During his last visit to the region on Dec. 13, Kerry said both sides remained committed to peace talks and were on course to wrap up an interim deal in April.

A previous round of negotiations in 2010 broke down in a dispute over settlement construction, and since their revival this year, peace talks have shown little sign of progress.

Editing by Will Duham

Kerry back to region to pursue faltering Mideast peace talks


Secretary of State John Kerry headed back to the Middle East on Thursday, a week after his previous visit ended with Palestinian dissatisfaction over U.S. security ideas for an elusive land-for-peace deal with Israel.

Kerry, who has quipped that his frequent trips to the region have become a commute, planned separate meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It will be the top U.S. diplomat's ninth visit to Israel since becoming secretary of state in February. Israel and the Palestinians resumed U.S.-brokered peace talks in July after a three-year break, aiming to reach a deal in nine months.

Amid little public sign of progress in the negotiations, Kerry said he had presented Israel and the Palestinians last week with “some thoughts” on security arrangements in any future accord, but gave no details.

A Palestinian source said that a U.S. security proposal last week outlined an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, which is in the West Bank, for 10 years.

Israel has long said it wants to keep a military presence in the Jordan Valley between the West Bank and Jordan, in what would constitute the eastern border of a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians reject that Israeli stipulation, and on Monday a senior Palestinian official accused Washington of bowing to Israel's security demands to silence its criticism of world power diplomacy over Iran's nuclear programme.

Israeli and U.S. officials have signalled that Washington is trying to achieve a framework agreement on all major issues of the decades-old conflict that would be fulfilled in phases, in a nod to Israeli security concerns.

Netanyahu has voiced worries that without an Israeli troop presence, Islamist militants could use the West Bank as a launching point for rocket attacks on Israel, much as they have in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel pulled out in 2005.

“Israel's security and the security of its citizens cannot be placed in the hands of foreign forces or in the hands of electronic means alone,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Israel Radio.

“Our security must be in our own hands,” he said. “I know it is hard for (the Palestinians) to swallow but they will have to accept … that Israel has security interests it cannot forgo, and if they want peace, they must make significant compromises.”

In Washington on Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the Palestinians had to recognise there would be a transition period “where the Israeli people cannot expect a replica of Gaza in the West Bank”.

“They (the Palestinians) don't get everything that they want on Day One. And that creates some political problems for President Abbas, as well,” Obama said.

The Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, have long rejected any interim agreement.

But Western-backed Abbas, who has held sway only in the West Bank since his Hamas Islamist rivals seized the Gaza Strip in 2007, has hinted he would agree to a gradual implementation of a final accord. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said talks on security arrangements would continue during Kerry's visit but other issues would be discussed as well.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alistair Lyon

Kerry heading back to Israel for more talks


U.S.  Secretary of State John Kerry will return this week to Jerusalem and Ramallah, his second visit in two weeks.

Kerry will discuss Iran and the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during a meeting Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday. He will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the same day.

Following his visit to the region, Kerry will travel to five cities in Asia.

Speaking Monday in Washington at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s 100th anniversary celebration, Kerry said the United States is “deeply committed to the security of Israel and of the well-being of the Jewish people by virtue of that.”

He added, “We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon – not now, not ever. And I promise you that.”

Kerry asserted that the interim deal with Iran is setting back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program while a permanent agreement is negotiated.

Addressing the peace talks, Kerry said, “I believe, as President Obama does, that Israel will be far more secure if we can also put to test the possibilities of the two-state solution. And so we will continue to attempt to do that despite the skepticism, despite the cynicism in some quarters.”

The secretary of state said he speaks two to three times a week with Netanyahu.

Kerry also praised the “bond” between the State Department and the JDC.

Kerry pledges to protect Israel’s security in meeting with Netanyahu


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said progress is being made in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

At a news conference in Jerusalem Thursday following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry also pledged that the Obama administration would consult Israel on a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program. He reiterated that the United States was committed to Israel’s security.

Netanyahu said Israel is ready to complete a peace deal with the Palestinians and asserted that Israel must be able to protect itself. He called on Palestinian leaders to stop “grandstanding and finger pointing.”

Kerry was scheduled to meet in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas later Thursday and again with Netanyahu Thursday evening and Friday morning before returning to Washington.

Kerry reportedly was going to bring to the meeting proposals for security arrangements in the West Bank to be included in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Kerry announces visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Kerry will visit Brussels, Chisinau, Jerusalem and Ramallah from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

In Jerusalem, Kerry will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and they will discuss several issues, including the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, according to the State Department.

Kerry will meet with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where they will discuss the peace negotiations, and other issues, the State Department said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Kerry postponed a scheduled trip to Israel which would have occurred before last weekend’s Geneva talks.  The postponement raised speculation that there was a rift between Washington and Jerusalem.

Palestinian investigators: Israel only suspect in Arafat ‘killing’


Palestinian investigators named Israel the “only suspect” in the death of Yasser Arafat after laboratory tests suggested the Palestinian leader died of poisoning.

“We say that Israel is the prime and only suspect in the case of Yasser Arafat’s assassination, and we will continue to carry out a thorough investigation to find out and confirm all the details and all elements of the case,” Tawfiq Tirawi told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the French news agency AFP reported Friday.

Tirawi, who is leading the Palestinian inquiry, said the investigation had studied the findings of Swiss scientists, released on Wednesday, which “moderately” supported the notion that Arafat had been poisoned with polonium, a radioactive substance.

Palestinian officials on Thursday demanded an international inquiry into Arafat’s “killing.”

Wasel Abu Yusef, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, said polonium ”is owned by states, not people, meaning that the crime was committed by a state.”

Speaking to reporters in Lausanne Thursday, the Swiss team said the test results neither confirmed nor counted out that polonium was the actual cause of death, although they provided “moderate” backing for the idea Arafat was poisoned.

The team said the quantity of the deadly substance found on Arafat’s remains pointed to the involvement of a third party.

“We can’t say that polonium was the source of his death … nor can we rule it out,” said Professor Francois Bochud of the Lausanne Institute of Applied Radiophysics.

Arafat died in France on Nov. 11, 2004 at the age of 75 after falling sick a month earlier. Doctors were unable to specify the cause of death. His remains were exhumed last year.

Evidence supports Arafat poisoning theory, wider probe needed


The remains of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat showed test results consistent with polonium poisoning and should lead to a judicial investigation even if they were not absolute proof that he died that way, Swiss experts said on Thursday.

The two forensic experts were part of an international team that opened Arafat's grave in the West Bank city of Ramallah last November and took samples from his body to see if there was evidence he was poisoned with the radioactive element. Their report was released on Wednesday.

“Our observations are coherent with a hypothesis of poisoning, in any case more consistent than with the opposite hypothesis (of no poisoning),” Patrice Mangin, director of Lausanne University Hospital's center of legal medicine, told a news conference.

Doubts remained, although they had exhausted all forensic investigations into existing specimens, he said. Biological samples taken from Arafat's body at the time of his death in a hospital in France in November 2004 have been destroyed.

“The doubt is enough to induce more investigation, but at a judicial level, to open an inquiry to look at other kinds of evidence, not measurements, but contacts between Palestinians and other people,” Mangin told Reuters in an interview.

“From my point of view, the evidence is more in the country where President Arafat was living,” he added.

Francois Bochud, director of the university's Institute of Radiation Physics, said the evidence was not conclusive.

“Can we say with certitude that polonium was the cause of death of President Arafat? Unfortunately for those of you who want a clearly-defined answer, the answer is no. That is to say, our study did not permit us to demonstrate categorically the hypothesis of poisoning by polonium.”

Bochud told Reuters: “We cannot tell how much polonium actually was ingested, only that our observations are compatible with the poisoning hypothesis.”

Arafat died in a French hospital in Nov 2004, four weeks after falling ill after a meal with vomiting and stomach pains.

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.

His widow Suha initiated Swiss testing on his personal effects in 2012 to probe whether he had been poisoned and the results lead to analyses on samples taken from his corpse, including bones, hair and his shroud.

GATES OF HELL

The technical report of 108 pages was handed over on Tuesday at a secret meeting in a Geneva hotel to representatives of Suha and the Palestinian Authority, who commissioned the report and split the costs equally.

It opened “the gates of hell”, one insider told Reuters.

The report was posted in full on the website of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera's television news channel. http://link.reuters.com/zuk54v

There are few known cases of polonium poisoning, the most famous recent example being that of defecting Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who drank a poisoned cup of tea in a London hotel in 2006. From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder.

Bochud said a few micrograms of polonium would be enough to kill somebody.

“For example, it could be put in a drink, or food would be a possibility, 5 micrograms is almost nothing at all,” he said.

“What we know about the timelag between ingestion of radioactive poisoning and death is that usually it lasts around one month. This is commonly observed in radiation poisoning and this is actually also the case that we observed with Mr. Arafat,” Bochud said.

Arafat's widow Suha told Reuters in Paris on Wednesday: “We are revealing a real crime, a political assassination.”

“It is scientifically proved that he didn't die a natural death and we have scientific proof that this man was killed.”

She told Reuters the polonium must have been administered by someone “in his close circle” because experts had told her the poison would have been put in his coffee, tea or water.

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. Israel denied any involvement in his death.

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.

No autopsy was carried out on Arafat, whose official cause of death was a stroke. The Swiss report said that blood, urine, faecal and cerebrospinal samples taken during his hospitalization in France were “subsequently destroyed”.

“Certainly if we had access to biological samples taken from Mr. Arafat in Paris (at the time of his death), if they had been preserved, we might have been more categorical,” Bochud said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Ralph Boulton

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