Tuesday, June 26, 2007
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Marines to train at new Israeli combat center
By Barbara Opall-Rome - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Jun 25, 2007 16:21:25 EDT
BALADIA CITY, Israel — In a new, elaborate training center in the Negev desert, Israeli troops — and someday, U.S. Marines and soldiers — are preparing for the wide range of urban scenarios they may confront.
Here, at Israel’s new National Urban Training Center, the Israeli Defense Force’s Ground Forces Command is preparing forces to fight in four theaters: Gaza, Lebanon, the West Bank and Syria.
Built by the Army Corps of Engineers and funded largely from U.S. military aid, the 7.4- square-mile generic city — balad, in Arabic, means village — consists of 1,100 basic modules that can be reconfigured by mission planners to represent specific towns.
It’s a much smaller, IDF-tailored version of the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center, the sprawling 100,000-acre simulated microcosm of the Middle East used to train infantry brigade task forces deployed in the region. And while Baladia City won’t feature all the pyrotechnic bells and whistles of the Fort Polk, La., facility, it will offer the same high-fidelity simulated battlefield technologies, force identification and location systems, and debriefing capabilities, officers here said.
“Combat units from platoon up to brigade level will train in an environment that simulates the real urban battle,” said Brig. Gen. Uzi Moskovich, commander of the NUTC and its adjacent National Ground Training Center, Israel’s downsized version of the Army’s force-on-force training facility at Fort Irwin, Calif. “Enemy forces will fight according to their respective combat doctrines, and the civilian population will behave in ways typical of their particular community, religion and culture.”
Moskovich said Baladia City would eventually host Army and Marine Corps units for training before they head to Iraq.
“This is something developed by us in cooperation with the U.S. Army; we intend for it to become a valuable center of knowledge that will also benefit our American allies and other friends,” he said.
An Israeli budget official said total Baladia City program costs came in at less than $45 million, a small fraction of Washington’s investment in the JRTC. As a frame of reference, he estimated each weeklong brigade-size exercise at a few thousand dollars, while major drills at JRTC could run into the millions.
“In terms of cost versus effectiveness, this is the best investment we’ve made in the army in the past 10 years,” said Moskovich, who also commands the IDF’s Gaza division. “This facility will be unique in the world, even with regard to the U.S. Army. It’s not the size, but the added value of the different terrains, the fine-tuning of the cultural environments and the debriefing capabilities.”
Lessons from Lebanon
Located at the Tze’elim training base less than nine miles east of Rafah, a terrorist-ridden smugglers’ haven that straddles the Gaza-Egyptian border, Baladia naturally resembles the sandy, arid terrain of the Palestinian coastal strip. At the moment, however, Lebanon and Syria are the highest-priority threat theaters, and creative engineering is required to transform the area into what IDF officers here call “Hezbollahland.”
“We have the capabilities to create a realistic representation of where we’re most likely to fight,” Moskovich said. “Give me 70 or 80 tractors for a month, and I’ll re-create the hills and topography of a Lebanese village. It won’t be identical, but it will be enough to provide the type of realistic training our forces require. It might not be politically correct, but we’re not pretending here. What looks like a mosque is a mosque. And our people will impersonate Arabs, not the Swiss. We need them to act the way our enemies are likely to fight on their own home turf.”
During a late-May visit, IDF planners were busy transforming large portions of Baladia City into Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold from which extremist Shiite forces extracted a heavy price on IDF ground troops in last summer’s Lebanon War.
The area now features a city center, complete with shops, a grand mosque, hospital and an old casbah quarter built with 5-foot-thick walls. It even has a cemetery that doubles as a soccer field, depending on operational scenario.
Hundreds of soldiers, most of them 19- and 20-year-old women, graduates of Arabic language and cultural programs, are play-acting civilians and enemy fighters. Others serve as representatives of the Red Cross, other humanitarian aid organizations and the international media.
Designed according to lessons from the recent Lebanon War, side streets and main passageways will bristle with improvised explosive devices, while snipers will man the rooftops of multistory apartment buildings positioned throughout the town. Of course, IDF soldiers will have to contend with underground bunkers and the so-called nature reserves, those foliage-camouflaged, often remotely activated Katyusha rocket launching sites that confounded Israeli airpower and ground forces up until the last day of the war.
“The threat can come from anywhere,” said the director of the tactical training center’s urban warfare branch, a lieutenant colonel, who asked that his name not be used. “We learned from Lebanon that anti-tank missiles and rockets can be launched from windows of residential buildings or from public places, like schools and community centers.”
Known by its Hebrew acronym MALI, the Baladia City NUTC features 472 structures, 1,200 doorways, 2,500 windows, multiple elevator shafts, and four miles of paved streets and semi- paved roads. For added realism, charred automobiles and burned tires litter the roadways. In the near future, planners will add donkeys, sheep, dogs and other live animals that often provide early warning of approaching Israeli troops.
Besides conquering and controlling a city, infantry will practice rescue operations, logistics crews will train in weapon storage, and entire battalions and brigades will drill combined air- land precision operations with the Israeli air force.
“In urban warfare, the first lesson is that things take time,” the lieutenant colonel said. “If the troops need half a day to advance five to 10 meters, so be it. The key is to conquer the city in a methodically selective and surgical manner so that harm to uninvolved civilians is kept to a minimum.”
Aside from meticulous mission planning, troops and especially commanders must maintain a continuously high level of situational awareness. To this end, significant attention will focus on selecting homes on the outskirts of town best suited to serve as forward command posts.
Ideally, the urban warfare director said, such homes should be located on an elevation that is clear of vegetation and not completely isolated, but with very few neighbors. Moreover, family members must not play any type of prominent role in the local community.
“Determining a forward command location ... can often make or break the entire battle,” the officer said. “The battalion commander must always be in the front; he has to have the benefit of being close to the fight. As for brigade commanders, it’s a matter of judgment. At times, he may need to remain further in the rear. But here, we urge them to be as forward deployed as possible. Remember, what you see here during the day doesn’t even resemble what it looks like at night.”
In the coming months, Baladia City will be integrated into the army’s Tzayad, or Hunter, secure digital network. The facility also will be enveloped by cameras, illuminator locators, a public address system, controlled street lights and an elaborate audio system that simulates helicopters, mortar rounds, muezzin prayer calls and 20 other distinct sounds.
Maj. Miki Winkler, director of the tactical training center that manages all Baladia City communications and debriefings, said commanders will view all activity in hyper-speed, where one minute of battle translates into one second of after-action review: “Everything is recorded. Every person is a stand-alone sensor and every floor of every building is an illuminator.”
Principal contractors include Israel’s state-owned Rafael and San Diego-based Cubic Defense Applications, provider of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, a lightweight, wireless vest that contains laser detectors to track and record soldier performance. Cubic also will provide, under a Pentagon Foreign Military Sales contract, PC- based range instrumentation and an infrared system for indoor/outdoor tracking, said Jan Stevens, the company’s corporate communications manager.
Moskovich hopes to declare Baladia City initially operational by the end of July or early August, with full capability scheduled for Jan. 1 — not bad, he said, for a complex, bilateral program that began with “out-of-the-box” thinking by a midlevel officer just five years ago.
“We broke ground in March 2005, but it all started with one of our battalion commanders, who made us realize we had to provide a better answer to the unique challenges of urban warfare,” Moskovich said.
IDF officers credit Amir Baram, then a lieutenant colonel commanding the 890 Battalion, with changing the nature of the nation’s ground force tactical training program. At the time, in March 2002, Baram was assigned a key role in taking over Nablus, a hotbed of Palestinian terrorism behind a string of suicide bombings that triggered Defensive Shield, Israel’s largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War.
With nowhere to train his forces in the type of house-to-house warfare needed for the mission, Baram turned to a prominent Israeli real estate developer, who allowed the battalion to drill at night at an unfinished residential complex.
“They drilled on real structures, with entryways, windows and elevator shafts,” said Uri Dori, a retired IDF brigade commander. “It must have helped, because the battle in Nablus is now considered practically a textbook example of successful urban warfare.”
Two combat battalions and one supporting battalion took part in that 17-day siege, first controlling the city’s Balata refugee camp and then systematically pushing the terrorists into the casbah, where they were simultaneously attacked from multiple directions.
Fighting in the casbah took an entire weekend, with troops circumventing explosives-rigged alleyways and “breaking the geometry by literally bursting through walls, penetrating in zigzag, wormlike fashion,” noted Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Nablus division commander at the time.
The result, Kochavi said, was 74 armed terrorists killed, 155 civilians injured and 480 taken prisoner, as opposed to two Israelis killed and 19 injured. Palestinian officials and humanitarian organizations dispute these statistics, maintaining that several hundred civilians were injured or killed in the Nablus siege.
Since last summer, Baladia City has hosted 85 drills using what Moskovich calls “stupid buildings.” But after everything comes online in January, the commander says he’ll fix his sights on two new growth areas: developing a home-based Red Team and developing the city’s environs for ingressive training.
“Most of the casualties we suffered in Lebanon were at the contours of built-up areas,” he said. “When our units entered villages, most of them knew what to do. But what we learned is that urban warfare actually begins two to three kilometers from the outskirts of the city itself.”
As for Baladia City’s dedicated opposing force, Moskovich said the role-playing force already constitutes the beginnings of a home-based Red Team.
“There’s almost a weekly struggle to provide the opposing forces,” he said. “Right now, we have two blue sides, which puts the training conductor in a bind, since he’s obligated to both sides and has to satisfy their respective drill requirements.”
Moskovich estimates it would cost $100,000 a year to maintain a professional opposing force, with its own uniforms, vehicles, weapons and pyrotechnics: “I’m not talking about a brigade or even a battalion. I’ll be more than happy with a reinforced company.”
Recent developments in Syria may make it necessary to give Moskovich more than that. Syria is developing specialized infantry battalions trained in the type of guerrilla warfare waged so successfully by Hezbollah in last summer’s war, a military intelligence source said.
And with the “reasonable likelihood” of another war on Israel’s northern front — perhaps by summer’s end, according to some intelligence estimates here — that Red Team force may not come soon enough.
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Wednesday, June 20, 2007
June 18, 2007
New Lyrics for Israel
By ADAM LeBOR
AS Israel prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday next year, it’s time to update its national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”). Only a single phrase needs to be changed: “nefesh Yehudi,” which means a Jewish soul, should be replaced with “nefesh Israeli,” an Israeli soul. Why tamper with a beautiful, stirring hymn? To solve what we might call the “Hatikvah” contradiction.
Israel strives to be both a Jewish state and a democracy, yet about a fifth of its population of 7.1 million people are not Jewish, but Arab Muslims, Christians and Druse. Among the emerging middle class, many Arabs are thriving. There are diplomats and judges, beauty queens and army officers, television anchors and members of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently appointed Raleb Majadele as Israel’s first Muslim Arab cabinet minister, in charge of science, culture and sports. But the disconnect between the Jewish state and its Arab minority endures. Mr. Majadele caused outrage among the political right in March when he told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that he stands up for “Hatikvah,” but will not sing it.
Yet why should he? He is Israeli, but he is not Jewish. And he is not alone. A growing number of Israelis of all faiths are calling for an inclusive national anthem.
They argue that “Hatikvah” symbolizes a wider inequality. Despite the Arab success stories, deep disparities between the Jewish and Arab sectors remain in employment, health, welfare and education. A report published last year by Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, compared 10 similar Arab and Jewish municipalities. The total 2004 welfare budget for the Jewish municipalities was 220.8 million shekels (about $50 million), but only half that, 107.4 million, for their Arab counterparts.
Such problems demand strategic solutions; altering one word in “Hatikvah” would not make them magically disappear. And even with the inclusion of “nefesh Israeli,” Israel’s Arabs might still object to other verses about the longing for Zion.
But both history and current events show that we should never underestimate the totemic power of state pageantry. Even knowing the horrors of Communism, the Red Army choir singing the “Internationale” still can bring on goose bumps and visions of Soviet troops charging Nazi tanks. And South Africa’s new national anthem has set an excellent example in inclusive nation-building. Thirteen years ago, “Die Stem van Suid- Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa”), the apartheid-era hymn, was merged with “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika” (God Bless Africa), the anthem of the African National Congress. A powerful symbol of the new multiracial country, the anthem is now sung in three African languages — Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho — as well as English and Afrikaans.
Such a gesture of inclusion is needed in Israel, a recognition that to be an Israeli in 2008 is something very different from what it was in 1948. Updating “Hatikvah” could be the start of a psychic shift among the country’s Arab and Jewish citizens about what it means to be Israeli. It could lead to the evolution of a modern Hebrew (and Arabic) Israeli identity, predicated not on religion but on the more usual criteria of citizenship — shared cultural, linguistic and economic ties and simply living together on the most contested sliver of land in the world.
Remember also that Israel is home to several hundred thousand non-Jewish Russians and guest workers from Africa, Asia and the Balkans. They, too, deserve to be included in the national community.
Let’s not over-venerate “Hatikvah.” However stirring its chords and words, it is not an ancient Hebrew song. Its lyrics were written in 1886 by Naftali Herz Imber, a Central European poet. The melody, by Samuel Cohen, was inspired by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s work “The Moldau,” itself based on a folk song. It is as much an expression of 19th-century nationalism as of spiritual yearning for the Holy Land.
What Israel needs in the 21st century is an anthem that can be sung by all its citizens, of whatever faith. At a time of rising Islamic radicalism it is absolutely in Israel’s long- term interest to bind its Arab minority to the state. At the same time, if Israel is prepared to evolve and adapt, it must demand full civic loyalty from its Arab population. It would no longer be enough for many to regard themselves as semi-disconnected citizens.
Three years ago in Jaffa, I met a Jewish community activist named Sami Albo. Mr. Albo told me of his dismay that, on Holocaust Memorial Day, when the memorial siren sounded, the muezzin of a nearby mosque recited the Koran, rather than observe the moment in silence, because a Muslim religious leader had died.
Updating “Hatikvah” to take account of Israel’s religious diversity would rightly demand a reciprocal gesture from its Arab minority to also respectfully commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.
Many will claim that at a time when Israel faces such existential threats as a potential Iranian nuclear bomb, a resurgent Hezbollah, last week’s triumph of a recalcitrant Hamas and daily rocket barrages from Gaza, altering “Hatikvah” would be a sign of weakness.
I would argue precisely the opposite. Changing that one word from “Jewish” to “Israeli” soul would show both strength and confidence, because it would send a clear message: here we are, Israelis — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, African, Russian and more — in the heart of the Middle East. And we are here to stay.
Adam LeBor is the author of “City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa.”
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Monday, June 18, 2007
June 18, 2007
Hamas' Shock and Awe
by Sam Bahour
The recent overrunning of Gaza by Hamas militants was the equivalent to the United States’ Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq. Both campaigns were conducted outside the realm of international law and were violent and brutal, albeit each relative to their respective resources and internal contexts; both claimed to be ‘preemptive’ in nature; and both events placed the Palestinian people and struggle for national liberation in even a more precarious position.
Shock and Awe is a US invention in the same way that the US flavor of “shrink wrapped” democracy is a US creation. As the Bush Administration failed to export its understanding of democracy to Iraq via the US military, the US’s second regional blunder was trying to impose US democracy in occupied Palestine by using a proxy governing body called the Palestinian Authority. The US’s weapon of choice for Palestine was to dangle millions of dollars as bait, there for the taking if the Palestinian leadership showed total obedience. While US and other donor countries channeled billions of dollars to ‘promote’ democracy and ‘build’ Palestinian security forces, Hamas was busy learning the intricacies of the US game of military shock and awe and imposed democracy. During the last 17 months, Hamas attempted both, successfully: they won democratically held elections, as confirmed by election observer President Jimmy Carter, and then went on to overrun Gaza by brute force.
One thing Hamas did not do during this short time was govern. Correctly blaming their inability to govern on the Israeli and US-led economic blockade and the blatantly illegal Israeli policy of arresting Hamas-affiliated ministers and lawmakers, Hamas was given a free ride -- permitted to sit in the seat of authority without having to assume the full responsibility of governance. Instead of respecting the outcome of elections that one if its own past presidents monitored, the US allowed the Palestinian people to remain unable to define Hamas either as a legitimate governing body or as a failed experience. US meddling in other peoples internal affairs is the norm in the Middle East, but in Palestine, that norm was violently challenged last week in Gaza.
While Palestinian President Yasir Arafat was still alive, the US initiated the process of restructuring the Palestinian political system. The US forced Arafat to accept the creation of the position of prime minister, then they proceeded to demand that the bulk of the Palestinian President’s authority be transferred from President Arafat to the newly appointed Prime Minister. Then the US created a series of political hoops that Arafat would have to jump through to remain in the political game, of which the most relevant given today’s crisis was the restructuring of the Palestinian security forces. Millions of dollars and tons of equipment were dumped on the multitude of Palestinian security agencies and a high-profile US security ‘expert,’ U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, set up shop in Israel to make sure the Palestinian security forces were developing strategically, those same security agencies that were overrun in Gaza in a matter of hours. Then, Palestinians, under extreme pressure from the US, held legislative and municipal elections and when the results were not to the US’s liking, the Bush Administration mobilized the world to boycott the Palestinians -- people and government alike.
While all of this was going on, Israel maintained its hypocritical posture of the past 10 years -- talking peace while at the same time destroying any chances for a peaceful settlement. In the hopeful days of the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel accelerated its illegal Jewish-only settlement-building in the West Bank like never before. When a Jewish extremist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Oslo framework was, for all intents and purposes, buried with him. To make sure the central Oslo principle of ‘land for peace’ would never be resurrected, Israel violently increased its attempts to bring about the collapse of Palestinian society via ‘targeted’ assassinations, home demolitions, uprooting of olive groves, over 500 military checkpoints, withholding $800 million in Palestinian tax revenues, nightly arrests, building of an internationally-proclaimed illegal separation wall on Palestinian lands, and on and on. This is the true context leading to the violence in Gaza. All of this -- and the international community watched, while continuing to fund the status quo and, all the while, referencing Israeli obligations in the already buried Oslo Peace Accords.
Thus, today’s events did not drop out of the sky unexpectedly. A 4-part mixture of 40 years of Israeli occupation, a US-led coup to collapse a democratically elected Palestinian government, a shift in internal Palestinian power-sharing after over 40 years of a single-party monopoly on authority, and most importantly, the international community’s failure to uphold its obligations under International Humanitarian Law – the Fourth Geneva Convention to be specific: All contributed to bringing us to where we are today.
The international community has a clear decision to make, and the decision must be made now. Will the community of nations bring about an abrupt end to the four-decade-old Israeli occupation that has caused so much death and destruction to both Palestinians and Israelis? To end the occupation today would mean to do the near impossible task of salvaging a sovereign Palestinian state on all of the land that was acquired by force by Israel in 1967. Barring this, the international community will likely continue to appease the Israeli occupiers, thereby forcing the Palestinians to revert back to calling for possibly the only remaining viable solution, the formal creation of one state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River for all its citizens.
Given the Israeli refusal, even today, to classify the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as “occupied lands” and the refusal to mark the Green Line (1949 Armistice Line) in most of the textbooks in their schools, all indications are that the Israelis have already decided that there is no room, on the ground, for another state between Israel and Jordan, although in cheap verbal discourse one may be led to believe that such a state already exists and that its citizens are squabbling over ministerial positions.
The US and Israel, drunk on power and addicted to war, have enlisted many in the region to do their dirty work. As the US and Israel try to distance themselves from their many colossal failures -- from Iraq to Palestine -- by engineering the creation of banana republics to serve their narrow self-interests, millions of common folk fall deeper into poverty and extremism.
Palestinians may be at a low point in their history and corrective action is undoubtedly on the horizon. The Palestinian people have a collective memory like that of an elephant, and as such the rampage and killings in Gaza by fellow Palestinians will not be legitimized or swept under the rug. Most likely, Hamas’ brutal actions in Gaza will mark the beginning of the end of Hamas as we know it today. With Hamas in the picture, or otherwise, the Palestinians will maintain a pluralistic society and political system that will continue to resist, as has been the case since the outset of this struggle, all foreign intervention in its internal affairs, be it Western, Iranian or Arab.
The present is volatile and the future is bleak, but one thing remains constant: When all the dust settles, there will still be an occupied and dispersed people -- the Palestinians -- and a colonial, military occupier -- Israel. No Shock and Awe campaign, from Hamas or Israel, and no imposed democracy, from Fatah or the US, will change this equation. Until Palestinians are free -- all Palestinians -- the world would be well advised, for all our sakes, not to turn its back on our just struggle.
- The writer is a Palestinian-American living in El-Bireh/Ramallah and may be reached at email@example.com .
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Thursday, June 14, 2007
UN was pummelled into submission, says outgoing Middle East special envoy
· Negotiators 'lost impartiality' says report
· Palestinians also criticised over violence
Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem and Ian Williams in New York
Wednesday June 13, 2007
American support for Israel has hindered international efforts to broker a peace deal in the Middle East, according to a hard-hitting confidential report from the outgoing UN Middle East envoy.
Alvaro de Soto, who stepped down last month after 25 years at the UN, has exposed the American pressure that he argues has damaged the impartiality of the UN's peace making efforts.
In Mr de Soto's "End of Mission Report", which the Guardian has obtained, he delivers a devastating criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the international community.
The Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the UN, the US, the EU and Russia - has often failed to hold Israel to its obligations under the Road Map, the current framework for peace talks, he argues.
Over the past two years, the Quartet has gradually lost its impartiality. "The fact is that even-handedness has been pummelled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007," he writes.
He blames overwhelming influence exerted by the US and an "ensuing tendency toward self-censorship" within the UN when it comes to criticism of Israel.
"At almost every juncture a premium is put on good relations with the US and improving the UN's relationship with Israel. I have no problem with either goal but I do have a problem with self-delusion," he writes. "Forgetting our ability to influence the Palestinian scene in the hope that it keeps open doors to Israel is to trade our Ace for a Joker."
Mr de Soto reveals that after Hamas won elections last year it wanted to form a broad coalition government with its more moderate rivals, including Fatah, run by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But the US discouraged other Palestinian politicians from joining. "We were told that the US was against any 'blurring' of the line dividing Hamas from those Palestinian political forces committed to the two-state solution," Mr de Soto writes. It was a year before a coalition government was finally formed.
The US also supported the Israeli decision to freeze Palestinian tax revenues. "The Quartet has been prevented from pronouncing on this because the US, as its representatives have intimated to us, does not wish Israel to transfer these funds to the PA [Palestinian Authority]," he writes. "There is a seeming reflex, in any given situation where the UN is to take a position, to ask first how Israel or Washington will react rather than what is the right position to take."
Mr de Soto opposed the international boycott placed on the Palestinian government after Hamas won elections last year. He argued that it was wrong to use pressure and isolation alone, and proposed retaining dialogue with Hamas. He wanted tougher criticism of Israel as well, but came up against a "heavy barrage" from US officials.
The effect of the boycott was to seriously damage the Palestinian economy and promote radicalism. It also lifted pressure from Israel. "With all focus on the failings of Hamas, the Israeli settlement enterprise and barrier construction has continued unabated," he writes.
The US, he argues, was clearly pushing for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas but Washington misjudged Mr Abbas, who he argues had wanted to co-opt rather than defeat Hamas. Fighting between Fatah and Hamas has intensified in recent months. He quotes an unnamed US official as saying earlier this year: "I like this violence ... It means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas." Since December at least 600 Palestinians have been killed in factional battles.
The report criticises the Palestinians for their violence, and Israel for extending its settlements and barrier in the West Bank. But he also argues that Israeli policies have encouraged continued Palestinian militancy. "I wonder if the Israeli authorities realise that, season after season, they are reaping what they sow, and are systematically pushing along the violence/repression cycle to the point where it is self-propelling," he writes.
Mr de Soto speaks of his frustration in the job, not least that he was refused permission to meet the Hamas and Syrian governments in Damascus. "At best I have been the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process in name only, and since the election of Hamas, I have been the secretary-general's personal representative to the Palestinian Authority for about 10 minutes in two phone calls and one handshake," he writes.
He stepped down in May at the end of his two-year contract and left the UN. The "tipping- point" for his departure came after the new UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said future meetings with a Palestinian prime minister would depend on the actions of his government.
Michele Montas, spokesperson for Mr Ban, said: "It is deeply regrettable that this report has been leaked. The whole point of an end-of-mission report is for our envoys and special representatives to be as candid as possible ... the views in the report should not be considered official UN policy."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
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American Jew finances anti-demolition campaign
Tovah Lazaroff, THE JERUSALEM POST
Jun. 12, 2007
An Orthodox American Jew has donated $1.5 million to fund a campaign against the demolition of Palestinian and Beduin homes throughout Israel and the territories, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions announced on Monday.
The committee plans to use those funds to rebuild as many as 300 Palestinians homes it expects to be demolished this year either by the Interior Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality or the Civil Administration.
Israel officials argue that Palestinian homes are only destroyed for security reasons or because they were illegally constructed, but ICAHD disputes both those arguments. Director-General Jeff Halper said that the government discriminates against Palestinians and therefore it is very difficult for them to obtain building permits.
Nor does he believe the security argument. "These are not people that have done anything or have been charged with anything. There is no security issues at all in terms of these homes," he said.
"This is really part of a continuing policy of displacement and dispossession" of Palestinians, he added.
He would not give the name of the US donor but said it was someone who did not want to be complicit with the policy of destroying Palestinian homes.
In the last 10 years, ICAHD has rebuilt some 35 destroyed Palestinians homes, but this is the first time that it has embarked on an anti-demolition campaign of this magnitude, in which it plans to rebuild each destroyed Palestinian home. It has already rebuilt five homes in the Jerusalem area and started on another eight, including four in Hebron.
To mark both the start of its campaign and the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, the group held a press event in the Old City in one of the few homes that remains from the Mughrabi Quarter which once stood at the site of the plaza that stretches out from the Wailing Wall.
While there have been few home demolitions in the Old City itself in the last 40 years, Halper said that the first act of the "occupation" in 1967 at the end of the war was to destroy part of the Mughrabi Quarter, including two mosques, to make space for worshipers at the wall.
Bulldozers came at night and 135 families were forced to leave their homes, Halper said. "We are coming back to the place where the occupation began," he said.
Speaking with him was the mukhtar of the Mughrabi Quarter, Mahmoud Masloukhi, whose family had lived there for 120 years. He himself was born in 1933 and grew up in the quarter. In 1967, he had recently remarried.
When he and his family understood that the quarter was being destroyed, they fled with only the clothes on their backs, he recalled. Now all he has left of his ancestral home is a few black and white photographs which he brought with him.
He recalled how at one time, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together in the Old City. Jews were forced to leave the Old City after the War of Independence in 1948, when Jordan had control of the area. It also destroyed most of the Old City's Jewish Quarter.
After the Six Day War, it was Masloukhi and his family who had to leave. He and his sister are among the few who have returned to the Old City.
As Masloukhi stood with reporters and showed them the photos of his former home, a number of Jewish children in a school located above the courtyard threw large spitballs and water at him and the other people standing below.
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Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Bonded in Resistance to the Barrier
Palestinian Villagers, Jewish Neighbors Warily Join Forces
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 8, 2007; A01
WADI FUKIN, West Bank -- The Palestinians of this village have long looked toward Tzur Hadassah, a neighboring Israeli town, for jobs building homes on land that decades ago belonged to them.
Now some Palestinians are looking to their Jewish neighbors for a different kind of help. Israel's separation barrier is slated to rise between the antique village and the modern suburb, replacing a stand of pines that marks the porous boundary here between the West Bank and Israel.
Over almonds, hummus and tea in a comfortable Tzur Hadassah living room, several Palestinian farmers gathered on an April evening to ask their hosts to help preserve the bonds they have maintained for years.
"God told us two peoples should live in this land," Mohammed Awad Sukkar, 52, told the group. "And so we should."
As it physically divides hundreds of Arab and Jewish communities along its 456-mile route, Israel's separation barrier is ending countless personal relationships that have developed between the two peoples. Lawsuits and protests by Israeli and Palestinian activists have failed to slow construction of the cement and chain-link barrier, and a number of communities have turned instead to each other to prevent their impending division.
The intimate experiment in cross-cultural cooperation taking place in this narrow valley tells a larger story of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the increasingly strained relations between individual Arabs and Jews. Mutual suspicion, opposition within the participants' own communities, and the unequal status of Arabs and Jews have made it far more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to work together, even those with a history of doing so.
"To change the reality on a major scale seems almost impossible," said Dudy Tzfati, a genetics researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who hosted the rare gathering with his wife, Dana. "At least we can try to do something in our own neighborhood."
A mostly secular suburb of Jerusalem, Tzur Hadassah spills over a ridgeline above Wadi Fukin, a village of 1,200 people whose hidden valley is a popular hiking destination for Israelis.
Natural springs water the patchwork of vegetable plots and olive groves that have sustained the village for centuries, even during the period when its people vanished.
Jordan seized the West Bank in the 1948-49 war that accompanied Israel's creation and evacuated the village because of its proximity to the armistice line. That boundary left more than half the village's land inside Israel, farmers here say, ground on which Tzur Hadassah neighborhoods would rise years later.
Most families ended up in the Deheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem -- now behind an inner layer of Israel's separation wall six miles to the east -- but the men continued commuting to their fields. Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, and the military allowed the villagers to return in 1972.
Now Wadi Fukin is at the center of a tightening circle of Israeli development, its growth circumscribed by the planned barrier, a new road joining southern Jewish settlements to Jerusalem, and the expanding settlement of Betar Ilit rising over the next ridgeline.
If the development proceeds as planned, the entire area, which includes four other Palestinian villages with a total of nearly 20,000 residents, would become an enclave between two arms of the barrier.
"How can we develop a relationship between two peoples and live in peace and security?" Sukkar, a stout, grave man who also teaches elementary school English, asked to start the recent meeting. "How do we maintain a relationship?"
A psychologist, two science professors, a peace activist and a music therapist from Tzur Hadassah listened. A boy in pajamas, Tzfati's son, wandered among the guests. Several of the Israelis spoke Arabic. The Palestinians filled the gaps with Hebrew.
Sukkar and his two colleagues complained about armed Jewish settlers swimming naked in their irrigation ponds, sewage spills from Betar Ilit and the expected loss of land to the fence and road projects. Then they asked for help.
Could the Israelis meet with Jewish settler leaders? With army officers to stop night patrols? With the Defense Ministry to learn the status of a legal challenge to the barrier's route? The Israelis pledged to try and offered a few ideas of their own, from signs prohibiting nude swimming to filing suit over the sewage spills.
The 30 or so village residents who work as day laborers in the gardens and construction sites of Tzur Hadassah will not be able to reach jobs there once the 10-foot-high fence goes up. The men warned that the loss would badly damage the village's tiny economy.
"Israel's policy here is like those of Nazi Germany under Hitler," Sukkar said.
"There are many problems we face," Tzfati, 45, responded after a few awkward moments. "If we put everything on the table, we will be confused."
Chipping Away at Doubts
Mistrust grew between the village and the suburb during the Palestinian uprising that began in the fall of 2000. There were no attacks against Tzur Hadassah from Wadi Fukin, but many residents of the suburb had arrived from Jerusalem, where bus and cafe bombings were common.
Like many Israelis, they feared Palestinian attacks, which the Israeli government says the barrier is designed to prevent. Like many Palestinians, the residents of Wadi Fukin believe the Israelis have designs on their land, which the barrier has already annexed by the thousands of acres along its route.
"Two villages, two separate worlds," said Itai Haviv, 35, an Israeli geologist who moved into a Tzur Hadassah apartment at the start of the uprising and hired Wadi Fukin workers to renovate it. "There was this mental barrier standing between the two villages."
Haviv, who had once been jailed for refusing to perform his army reserve duty in the West Bank, helped circulate a petition in June 2005 opposing construction of the barrier where plans call for it to sweep within view of his living room window.
About 300 people from Tzur Hadassah signed the petition, which Israel's military administration in the West Bank is weighing.
But the elected town council declined to endorse the effort, reflecting perhaps the majority opinion among the upper-middle-class population of 5,000. The suburb is now ringed by its own security fence.
"I don't believe in peaceful coexistence at this point -- maybe in the future," said Ernest Dulberg, 68, a retired engineer whose gardener lives in Wadi Fukin. "I'm more in favor of my own security than in his interests."
Cranes loom on the far ridge above Wadi Fukin, and the valley wall has been carved away to accommodate more neighborhoods in Betar Ilit. The ultra-Orthodox settlement of 35,000 people is growing at a rate of between 8 and 12 percent a year.
Israeli environmental activists, who have filed a legal challenge to the barrier's route, contend that two of Wadi Fukin's 11 springs have already run dry as a result of development in the area.
Last year, Haviv and others from Tzur Hadassah helped stop the dumping of more than 1 million cubic feet of excavated earth from Betar Ilit's construction sites into the Wadi Fukin valley. One Tzur Hadassah resident faced down a bulldozer.
"Why is there this wall? Why is there this trouble?" asked Tzfati, who moved to Tzur Hadassah three years ago. "Because people do not see Wadi Fukin."
Haviv said that "small success" built some trust with residents of Wadi Fukin, where many view those who work with the Israelis as collaborators, often the targets of the armed groups in the Palestinian territories. The villagers say it did, too.
Tzfati's wife, Dana, began taking a weekly walk down the hill last summer to buy fresh vegetables for about 30 Tzur Hadassah families, defying Israeli customs law.
Haviv's wife, Noya, would not go for the first few months, fearing the reception at a time of war in Lebanon and unrest in the territories.
"It was hard to differentiate between what was safe and what might not be," said Haviv, who acknowledged that there was some resistance in Wadi Fukin to Israelis visiting for the vegetable market, which has become a less regular event. "This is still the main obstacle."
'How Do We Trust?'
At the top of the valley, along the unmarked road into the village, sits the Obaidallah family home, where 45 people spanning three generations live among plots of cucumbers, tomatoes and squash, the rooftops of Tzur Hadassah visible over the ridgeline above.
"The people there say it is better to have Arab neighbors than to have Betar Ilit as a neighbor," said Hamed Obaidallah, the 70-year-old patriarch, over large dishes of lamb and rice. "But I cannot say that all the people in Tzur Hadassah are like this, only a few who want peace."
Some of the men gathered in the sunny rooftop parlor told stories of working in Tzur Hadassah and the kindnesses they had received over the years.
One Friday, recalled Jamal Obaidallah, Hamed's 47-year-old son, a doctor there asked him if he planned to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque on the Muslim Sabbath.
"I told him I had no permits to go to Jerusalem," said Jamal, who owns a small grocery store. "He stopped what he was doing and said, 'Get in the car.' And he drove me right past the soldiers, and I prayed."
But Jamal's brother, Sami Obaidallah, 42, who works for a U.N. agency in Bethlehem, asked, "Do we really know them?"
"I mean, you know there are Israelis up there -- you can see them," he continued. "But it's like switching on a TV, as if they are in Britain or France, because our lives are so different. I can make a friendship with someone in Tzur Hadassah, but will that make any difference?"
Tzur Hadassah's master plan calls for the suburb to grow fivefold in the coming years, including down a slope toward Wadi Fukin. Ghaleb Bader, Wadi Fukin's mayor, said the construction above the village has left many residents suspicious.
"They think the opposition from Tzur Hadassah to the fence is because they want to expand onto our land," Bader said.
On a hot April morning, over a rise in the road leading to the springs, a group of young Jewish settlers appeared in wet boxer shorts, their leader carrying an M-16 rifle. They had come from a swim.
"We're celebrating these beautiful places," said Eitam Arzoni, 27, tapping the rifle on his shoulder. "We never have any problems here, but we need a weapon."
His charges attend a yeshiva in a nearby settlement, and they oppose the barrier because it will mark a distinction between Israel and Palestinian territory they say is part of Israel.
"It will divide our country," said Roi Shashar, 16. "It's strangling the land."
Over tea in an eggplant field a few days later, Sukkar and Mohammed Rashad Manassrah, 65, snapped at each other with the easy bluntness that comes from years of practice.
"Not all the residents of Tzur Hadassah are working with us, only about four of them," Sukkar shouted at his friend, whom he has known since their childhood in the Deheisha camp. "Is there a threat from Tzur Hadassah? I say yes. How do we trust?"
In the stiffening breeze, Manassrah, who usually smiles broadly beneath his bushy mustache, listened placidly.
"I know there are those here who say this is like blowing into an empty goatskin -- that there is nothing in there," Manassrah said. "And I know there is another group who says this is against our collective interest, against our religion -- and our homeland."
"But to anyone who stands with us to protect our land, I extend my hand, regardless of who they are."
© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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