2008

Of the three politicians who announced the military assault on Gaza to the world on Saturday, perhaps only the outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert has little to lose – or gain – from its outcome. Flanking the Israeli prime minister were two of the main contenders for his job: Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and the new leader of Mr Olmert’s centrist party, Kadima, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister and leader of the left-wing Labor Party. The attack on Gaza may make or break this pair’s political fortunes.

The population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank is not only growing at three times the rate of the Jewish population in Israel, but they are happier, healthier and wealthier than other Israelis, according to a new survey. The poll reveals that, far from being as embattled as media reports suggest, the half million settlers are in fact enjoying a boom time in the occupied territory.

Jewish peace groups have accused the Israeli police of fuelling racism by cancelling a “Jewish Pride” march by a far-right group that was to have taken place through one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. The police postponed the march, which was due to take place on Monday, claiming they had evidence extremist residents of Umm al Fahm in northern Israel would open fire on the marchers and police. “There was a real danger that lives could be lost,” said a police spokesman, adding that the decision to ban the march would be reassessed in two weeks.

Tzipi Livni, the woman leading the ruling Kadima party into Israel’s forthcoming elections, stoked anger in the region last week when she warned that a peace deal would put the future of the country’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens inside Israel in doubt. Speaking to a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, she said: “When the Palestinian state is created, I will be able to go to Palestinian citizens, who we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them – you are residents with equal rights, but your national solution is in another place.”

The Human Rights Association with its 20-year record of exposing Israeli policies that discriminate against the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens is facing imminent closure as major funders withdraw money in what some observers believe may be a co-ordinated policy to silence Israel’s harshest “critics from within”. The association, one of the most prominent of several leading Arab rights organisations, is attracting the opposition of international charitable foundations concerned with promoting democracy in Israel, according to the HRA’s director.

Extremist settler groups currently involved in violent confrontations with Palestinians in the center of Hebron have chosen their next battleground, this time outside the West Bank. A far-right group know as the Jewish National Front, closely associated with the Hebron settlers, is preparing to march through one of the main Arab towns in northern Israel. The march, approved by the Supreme Court back in October, is scheduled to take place on December 15, the group announced this week.

A broad coalition of Jewish lobby groups has made a series of breakthroughs this year in its campaign to link the question of justice for millions of Palestinian refugees with justice for Jews who left Arab states in the wake of Israel’s establishment 60 years ago. Referring to these Jews as the “forgotten refugees” and claiming that their plight is worse than that of exiled Palestinians, the campaign has scored political successes in recent months in Washington, London and Brussels.

Almost unnoticed, Israel and the White House signed a deal over the summer to station an early-warning missile radar system, staffed with US military personnel, in Israel’s Negev desert. The media here described the Joint Tactical Ground Station, which brings Israel under the US protective umbrella against missile attack, as a “parting gift” from President Bush as he prepared to leave office. The siting of what is likely to become America’s first permanent base on Israeli soil was apparently not easily agreed by local defense officials.

The middle-of-the-night eviction last week of an elderly Palestinian couple from their home in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers is a demonstration of Israeli intent towards a future peace deal with the Palestinians. Mohammed and Fawziya Khurd are now on the street, living in a tent. The couple have been living in the same property in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood since the mid-1950s. The United Nations allotted them the land after they were expelled from their homes in territory that was seized by Israel during the 1948 war.

The latest tightening of Israel’s chokehold on Gaza – ending all supplies into the Strip for more than a week – has produced immediate and shocking consequences for Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants. The refusal to allow in fuel has forced the shutting down of Gaza’s only power station, creating a blackout that pushed Palestinians bearing candles on to the streets in protest last week. A water and sanitation crisis are expected to follow. And on Thursday, the United Nations announced it had run out of the food essentials it supplies to 750,000 desperately needy Gazans.

The sun is sinking fast behind the trees of an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Nilin. After a day of confrontations between the Israeli army and the Palestinian villagers over Israel’s building of its separation wall on Nilin’s land, the soldiers appear finally to have gone. Overlooked by the homes of the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Hashmonaim, a handful of Nilin’s braver teenagers finally come out to work. Jamal and Abed are sweating from their efforts to beat both nightfall and the return of the army.

Israel seems to have little time for the irony that a modern Jewish shrine to “coexistence and tolerance” is being built on the graves of the city’s Muslim forefathers. The Israeli Supreme Court’s approval last week of the building of a Jewish Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is the latest in a series of legal and physical assaults on Islamic holy places since Israel’s founding in 1948.

Among the images of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations to be found on the internet is a photograph of CNN reporter Ben Wedeman being kicked firmly on the behind as he tries to run from the boot of an armed policeman. All around him, as other photographs reveal, journalists are fleeing for safety, families are being charged by mounted police, and parents can be seen grabbing toddlers as clouds of tear gas engulf them. The stragglers are shown with bloodied faces after a beating with police batons.

In a conflict that has produced more than its share of suffering and tragedy, the name of Kafr Qassem lives on in infamy more than half a century after Israeli police gunned down 47 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the village. This week Kafr Qassem’s inhabitants commemorated the anniversary of the deaths 52 years ago by marching to the cemetery where the victims were laid to rest. They did so as the local media published testimonies from two former senior police officers who recalled that day’s events.

Salwa Salam Qupty clutches a fading sepia photograph of a young Palestinian man wearing a traditional white headscarf. It is the sole memento that survives of her father, killed by a Jewish militia during the 1948 war that established Israel. Six decades on from his death, she has never been allowed to visit his grave in Galilee and lay a wreath for the father she never met. This month, after more than 10 years of requests to the Israeli authorities, she learnt that officials are unlikely ever to grant such a visit, even though Mrs Qupty is an Israeli citizen and lives only a few miles from the cemetery.

Israel has been suffering its worst bout of inter-communal violence since the start of the second intifada, with a week of what has been widely presented as “rioting” by Jewish and Arab residents of the northern port city of Acre. The trigger for the outbursts occurred on the night of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. According to reports, an Arab resident, Tawfik Jamal, outraged a group of Jews by disturbing the day’s sanctity and driving to relatives in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. He and his teenage son were pelted with stones.

The small village of Taybeh, nestling in the mountains of the West Bank, has established several Palestinian firsts, but it hopes its latest will make it a household name in the Arab world. As well as being the only entirely Christian village in the Palestinian territories and running the only Palestinian brewery, it now hopes to export what it is calling a “non-alcoholic beverage”, modelled on its popular Golden Taybeh beer, to Muslims across the Middle East.

In the Middle East battle over who owns the copyright to the small balls of ground chickpea known as felafel, tempers are almost as hot as the oil in which the patties are deep-fried. This week the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association announced that it was preparing a litigation to be presented to the international courts accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon’s trademark foods, including felafel, hummus and tabbouleh.

Like many British journalists, my ambition was to reach the national media. I had been working for several years at the Echo, learning my craft, proving I was a professional, slowly moving up the hierarchy in terms of promotion but not much in terms of responsibility. I seemed to have a hit a glass ceiling, and I had a vague sense of why. A damning criticism I have often heard in newsrooms was that someone is not a “team player”. Nobody said this to my face at the Echo but I had no doubt that it was a suspicion held by the senior staff. I thought of them as cowardly, failing in their role as watchdogs of power. Maybe my contempt showed a little.

No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest academic work has spent 19 weeks on Israel’s bestseller list – and that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging Israel’s biggest taboo. Dr Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation – whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding of the state of Israel – is a myth invented little more than a century ago. An expert on European history at Tel Aviv University, Dr Sand drew on extensive historical and archaeological research to support not only this claim but several more – all equally controversial.

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