Israel cuts contact with U.N. rights body over probe


Israel said on Monday it has severed contact with the U.N. Human Rights Council after its launch last week of an international investigation into Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The decision, announced by a Foreign Ministry spokesman, meant that the fact-finding team the council planned to send to the West Bank will not be allowed to enter the territory or Israel, said the spokesman, Yigal Palmor.

“We are not working with them any more,” Palmor said about the Geneva-based forum. “We had been participating in meetings, discussions, arranging visits to Israel. All that is over.”

The international investigation was launched on Thursday, with the United States isolated in voting against the initiative brought by the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli leaders swiftly condemned the U.N. body, saying it was hypocritical and biased toward Israel.

“They systematically and serially make all kinds of decisions and condemnations against Israel without even symbolically considering our positions,” Palmor said.

He said Israel would continue to cooperate with other U.N. bodies.

The president of the U.N. Human Rights Council Laura Dupuy Lasserre said she had seen media reports of Israel’s reaction and, if confirmed, it would be “most regrettable”.

“I have no doubt that it is in the interest of Israel to cooperate with the Human Rights Council on this investigative mission, not least so that it can explain its own policies and actions to the independent commissioners once they are appointed,” she said in a statement.

Asked by Reuters to comment further, she said recent history showed Israel would not stop the fact-finding mission from gathering information by deciding not to cooperate with it, even if it could not physically gain access to the West Bank or Israel.

“The most recent example of refusal to cooperate is Syria, which did not permit either the Human Rights Council mandated Fact-finding Mission or the Commission of Inquiry to enter the country.

“On the other hand, in the case of the other two Commissions of Inquiry that took place in 2011, both Libya and Cote d’Ivoire did cooperate, and allowed the Commissioners to visit.”

As in the Syrian mission, the investigation would have to resort to other sources of information if denied access.

“Unfortunately, the image of Israel would be damaged in a moment of high expectations in the peace negotiations,” she said. “I can’t emphasise strongly enough that it is my hope and wish we won’t come to that path.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council condemned Israel’s planned construction of new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying they undermined the peace process and posed a threat to the two-state solution and the creation of a contiguous and independent Palestinian state.

About 500,000 Israeli settlers and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war. Palestinians want the territory for an independent state along with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Palestinians say settlements, considered illegal by the International Court of Justice, the highest U.N. legal body for disputes, would deny them a viable state.

Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and says the status of settlements should be decided in peace negotiations.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; additional reporting by Tom Miles in GENEVA; Editing by Toby Chopra

Jordanians protest at Israeli embassy in Amman


Several hundred Jordanian protesters on Thursday called on their government to close the Israeli embassy in Amman and scrap an unpopular peace treaty with the Jewish state.

Dozens of demonstrators chanting: “No Zionist embassy on Arab land” gathered near a mosque in the Rabia district of the Jordanian capital close to the Israeli embassy.

Scores of police blocked roads to the embassy complex to prevent protesters from marching to the heavily protected mission.

The protesters, a mix of leftist, liberal and Islamist opposition activists, chanted slogans urging the authorities to sever diplomatic ties with neighbouring Israel.

“The people want to bring down the Wadi Araba peace treaty,” said a protester, referring to the country’s peace accord with Israel signed in 1994, the second that was concluded by an Arab country with Israel after Egypt’s own deal in 1979.

Jordan has long maintained close security cooperation with Israel but has been critical of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians and fears a spillover of violence if Israel does not broker peace with the Palestinians.

The call for large scale protests organised on Facebook this week prompted Israel to temporarily withdraw its ambassador to Jordan. Israeli diplomatic sources said Ambassador Daniel Nevo and his senior staff, who routinely spend weekends in Israel, were brought back early .

In Egypt, the Israeli embassy was stormed by demonstrators on Saturday, forcing its evacuation. The countries are in talks on reactivating the Cairo mission.

Most of Jordan’s seven million citizens are of Palestinian origin and have close family ties with their kin on the other side of the Jordan River.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Editing by Rosalind Russell

Israel social protesters arrested in first violence


Israeli police arrested some 40 demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, police said, after the first violence seen during weeks of social protests that have called for lower living and housing costs.

Protesters held up traffic on a main street and broke into city hall after municipal workers dismantled some makeshift huts and tents and removed furniture from two locations where tent protests had been set up.

The grassroots movement has swollen since July from a cluster of student tent-squatters into a countrywide mobilisation of Israel’s middle class. Until Wednesday’s clash, none of the protests had been violent.

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands marched for lower living costs in the largest such rally in Israel’s history, bolstering a social change movement and mounting pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take on economic reform.

Social media also played a role in the Israeli protests, inspired partly by the impact of Arab Spring demonstrations and it has posed the greatest challenge yet to Netanyahu halfway into his term.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition faces no immediate threat, but the protests have underscored the potential electoral impact of a middle class rallying under a banner of social justice.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Turkey expels Israeli diplomats after U.N. report


Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and suspended military accords Friday, a day after publication of a U.N. report saying that Israel had used unreasonable force in a raid on a Gaza-bound ship that killed nine Turks.

Stung by Israel’s refusal to meet demands for a formal apology, pay compensation to families of the dead, and end the blockade of two million Palestinians living in the Gaza enclave, Turkey announced it was downgrading ties with the Jewish state further.

“Turkey-Israel diplomatic relations have been reduced to a second secretary level. All personnel above the second secretary level will be sent home by Wednesday at the latest,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara.

Israel’s ambassador Gabby Levy was currently in Israel and canceled plans to return to Turkey Thursday.

Israel Friday said it accepted the findings of the U.N. report, and that it hoped to mend ties with Turkey, but reiterated that it would not apologize for the deaths.

Immediately after the attack on the aid convoy last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel, suspended joint military exercises, and barred Israeli military aircraft from Turkish airspace.

Friday, Turkey went a step further by putting military pacts with its erstwhile ally on ice.

“All military agreements have been suspended,” Davutoglu added.

Turkey’s reaction to the long-awaited report, which also declared that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal, deepened a rift that broke wide open in 2009 after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan lambasted the then Israeli president Shimon Peres in Davos over an Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Faced with radical changes wrought by the Arab Spring, both Turkey and Israel are desperately trying to adjust to the new political landscape in the region.

But enduring ill-feeling resulting from the flotilla incident has ruined chances of the regional military heavyweights working together, despite the United States’ efforts to encourage a rapprochement between two valued allies.

And Erdogan’s stand on the Palestinian issue has held Turkey in good stead among Arabs agitating for greater democracy, notably in Egypt and more recently Syria.

But Turkey has carefully avoided a complete breakdown in relations with Israel.

Both have benefited from military intelligence and cooperation in the past, and Turkey has its own security concerns over a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast.

An Israeli official said ongoing defense deals include the upgrade by Israel of Turkish tanks and F-16 jets, as well as the sale of military drone aircraft.

“We are studying the implications of the Turkish announcement,” the official said without elaborating on the value or prospects for those deals.

By stepping up diplomatic pressure in a calibrated fashion, Ankara has left open chances for a change of heart either by the current Israeli coalition, or a future government.

“The Israeli government is responsible for the point we have reached today. For as long as the Israeli government does not take the necessary steps, there is no question of returning from this point,” Davutoglu said.

LEGAL CHALLENGES

Davutoglu said some of the report’s findings were questionable and that Turkey did not recognize the legitimacy of the blockade of Gaza.

“Turkey will take all measures which it sees as necessary for freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean,” the minister said.

“Turkey does not recognize Israel’s blockade of Gaza. It will secure the study of this blockade at the International Court of Justice,” he added.

Israel calls its Gaza blockade a precaution against arms reaching Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas by sea. Palestinians and their supporters say the blockade is illegal collective punishment, a view some U.N. officials have echoed.

The militant Hamas movement controlling Gaza issued a statement supporting Turkey’s stand.

“Hamas movement welcomes the Turkish step and the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador in Turkey and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli crime committed against the Freedom flotilla and the occupation’s insistence to continue its blockade on Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Davutoglu also said support would be given to Turkish and foreign victims of the Israeli raid to seek justice from courts. One of the nine Turks killed was a U.S. citizen.

The report, prepared by a panel headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, is expected to be formally handed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Friday and officially released then.

The New York Times posted on its website Thursday a copy it had obtained.

Davutoglu said Palmer and the deputy of the panel exceeded their authority in including views which were more political than legal.

“Turkey does not accept this… We are determined to bring the matter to international legal forums,” he said.

SUPPORT FOR PALESTINIANS

The report said Israeli commandos faced “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers” in the incident last year. It also said two Israeli marines suffered gun shot wounds, but stopped short of saying whether pro-Palestinian activists used firearms.

But in criticism of Israel, it said the amount of force used by the Israelis on board the Mavi Marmara, the largest in a flotilla of six ships that the crew said were delivering aid to Palestinians in Gaza, was “excessive and unreasonable.”

Davutoglu said the report cited evidence that most of those who killed were shot several times from close range.

There has been speculation that Turkey could pursue Israel through the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Turkey has already said it would support any move by the Palestinians to obtain recognition of statehood through the United Nations.

With the Palmer report still pending, Erdogan had canceled a trip to Egypt a few weeks ago due to the political flux in Cairo.

There was talk that Erdogan would go to the crossing between Egypt and Gaza during that trip, a symbolic visit that would have starkly demonstrated Israel’s growing isolation in the region since the fall of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak early this year.

(Reporting By Tulay Karadeniz and Daren Butler,; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

Hamas denies responsibility for Israel attack


A senior Israeli official said the gunmen, unable to cross into Israel through the heavily patrolled border with the Gaza Strip, had gone into the Sinai and then infiltrated from there into southern Israel.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, condemned the attack, telling Israel Radio: “We support Israel’s right to self-defence and hope those responsible for these attacks get what they deserve.”

Hamas in Gaza denied responsibility and said it would fight back if it came under Israeli attack. “We will not stand handcuffed and we will spearhead resistance to the occupation,” said senior official Salah Al-Bardaweel.

Israeli officials have voiced concern that militant groups in the Sinai have been making use of a security vacuum left by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The Israeli shekel fell against the dollar and stocks dipped on Thursday. The violence appeared to take some domestic political pressure off Netanyahu: leaders of escalating protests against high living costs called off weekend demonstrations after news of the Israeli casualties broke.

Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, recently stepped up security activity in the Sinai.

On Tuesday, Egyptian security sources said an army crackdown on armed groups in the northern Sinai had netted four Islamist militants as they prepared to blow up a gas pipeline.

Israel is building a fence along its 180-km-long frontier with Egypt, but very few sections have been completed.

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Egypt; Editing by Maria Golovnina

Message of Hope


Prospects are favorable that some of the prison senten-ces imposed on 10 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel will be reduced and that others will be set free, according to the Jewish community’s official representative in the Iranian parliament.

Maurice Motamed predicted that appeals of the initial verdicts, which imposed prison sentences of up to 13 years, will be generally successful. Reuters reported that the jury panel hearing the appeals of the ‘Shiraz 10’ were to announce their decisions on Wednesday or Thursday.

Motamed addressed some 400 Iranian Americans at the Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda during Saturday morning services. In careful words, he weighed the disabilities imposed on Jews in Iran against hope for a better future and painted a generally sympathetic picture of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

Speaking in Farsi, Motamed, a tall, elegant man of 55 years, described the spy trial as a catastrophe that had shattered the dignity and respect of the 25,000-strong Jewish community in Iran.

“In our presence of 2,700 years in Iran, Jews have never betrayed Iran, and our roots are so deep that they cannot be cut off,” he said.

Jewish emigration from Iran has been accelerated by the spy trial, as well as by the government’s refusal to employ Jews and other religious minorities, Motamed said.

Motamed himself continues to work for the government as a civil engineer and urban planner, “but not everyone is as lucky as I am,” he said.

A second emotional case revolves around 11 Jewish teenage boys, who were arrested six years ago while trying to cross the border into Pakistan.

Quiet efforts are underway to determine their fate, but Motamed said that he had asked Jewish officials in New York not to agitate on this case until the appeals to the spy charge verdicts are resolved.

After meeting with Khatami, the Jewish community in Iran has been successful in regaining controls over Jewish schools, Motamed said, and there are hopes that property confiscated from the Jewish community and individuals eventually will be restored.

Motamed also said he was trying to facilitate travel to Iran for Iranian Jews now living abroad, but the suggestion was received coolly by Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Council of Iranian-American Jewish Organizations, which sponsored Motamed’s appearance at the Saturday service.

“I do not think we should encourage travel as long as Iran opposes Israel and the Middle East peace process,” he said.

After services, various congregants commented that they found Motamed personable and even “cool,” while acknowledging that he represented the Iranian Jewish community effectively, they doubted that he was able to express himself freely about conditions in Iran.

During his 10-day visit, Motamed was reunited with his mother and four sisters, who live in Los Angeles, and also met with leaders of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.

From private conversations between Motamed and various sources, it appeared clear that a major objective of his visit was to find ways to persuade the American government to lift the remaining economic sanctions against Iran, particularly in the development of the country’s oil resources.

The lifting of such sanctions would benefit Iran and by exten-sion the Jewish community, Motamed indicated.

Tehran’s reasoning goes that if the Iranian Jewish community could be persuaded to lobby for the lifting of sanctions, it would persuade the general American Jewish community to do likewise, which in turn would persuade the White House and Congress.

While the scenario may appear simplistic and unrealis-tic, the Iranian government’s belief that Jews have unlimited clout in Washington may prove helpful to the Jewish community in Iran, one source commented.Lending some credence to Tehran’s perceptions is the report that Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is to visit Los Angeles and was expected to meet privately on Thursday with local Jewish leaders in the Iranian-American community.

One such leader said that he hoped to raise issues beyond the imprisonment of the 10 Jews to general concerns, such as Iran’s support of terrorism and its opposition to the Middle East peace process.Motamed declined requests for press interviews during his Los Angeles visit, indicating that he did not want to say anything that might adversely affect the current appeals of the 10 imprisoned Jews.