February 2010

Australia’s prime minister yesterday issued the stiffest diplomatic rebuke so far to Israel over the misuse of five countries’ passports in the assassination last month of a Hamas leader in Dubai, as new indications emerged implicating the Israeli spy agency, Mossad. Kevin Rudd said he was “not satisfied” with the Israeli ambassador’s responses during a meeting with the Australian foreign minister and that the government would be taking an “absolutely hard line” in defending its passports’ integrity.

A recent assignment of mine covering Israel’s presumed links to the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh provoked some more thoughts about the New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner. He is the Jerusalem bureau chief who has been at the centre of a controversy since it was revealed last month that his son is serving in the Israeli army. Despite mounting pressure to replace Bronner, the NYT’s editors have so far refused to consider that he might be facing a conflict of interest or that it would be wiser to post him elsewhere.

The Israeli government and its right-wing supporters have been waging a “McCarthyite” campaign against human-rights groups by blaming them for the barrage of international criticism that followed Israel’s attack on Gaza a year ago, critics say. In a sign of the growing backlash against the human-rights community, the cabinet backed a bill last week that, if passed, will jail senior officials from the country’s peace-related organisations should they fail to meet tough new registration conditions.

Israeli ministers were reported to have emerged from their weekly Cabinet meeting last month smugly satisfied at the news that the Hamas official Mahmoud al Mabhouh had been killed in a Dubai hotel room. Those smiles have turned sour during the past two days. Yesterday, the finger of suspicion pointed with increasing confidence at Israel, as Dubai police said they were “99 per cent” certain that Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, had been involved.

The assassination of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh last month in a Dubai hotel room had all the hallmarks of an operation by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Israeli experts agreed yesterday. But, as the names of seven of the 11 members of the hit squad were rapidly identified as belonging to Israeli citizens, all of whom claimed their identities had been stolen, commentators were divided on whether Mossad would have risked implicating Israeli nationals.

Over the past few days graffiti scrawled on walls around the mixed Jewish and Arab town of Jaffa in central Israel exclaims: “Settlers, keep out” and “Jaffa is not Hebron”. Although Jaffa is only a stone’s throw from the bustling coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, Arab residents say their neighbourhood has become the unlikely battleground for an attempted takeover by extremist Jews more familiar from West Bank settlements.

The Israeli courts ordered the release this week of two foreign women arrested by the army in the West Bank in what human-rights lawyers warn has become a wide-ranging clampdown by Israel on non-violent protest from international, Israeli and Palestinian activists. The arrest of the two women during a nighttime raid on the Palestinian city of Ramallah has highlighted a new tactic by Israeli officials: using immigration police to try to deport foreign supporters of the Palestinian cause.

What needs emphasising is that Palestinians working for the Western media do not have anywhere near the same standing, or influence, as reporters like the New York Times’ Ethan Bronner or his Jewish-Israeli colleague in Jerusalem, Isabel Kershner. Palestinian reporters have no meaningful control over the news agenda of the media outlet that employs them. That agenda is set either by the imported star reporter or by the editors far away in the head offices.

Jerusalem’s mayor threatened last week to demolish 200 homes in Palestinian neighbourhoods of the city in an act even he conceded would probably bring long-simmering tensions over housing in East Jerusalem to a boil. His uncompromising stance is the latest stage in a protracted legal battle over a single building, Beit Yehonatan, towering above the jumble of modest homes of Silwan, a deprived and overcrowded Palestinian community lying just outside the Old City walls.

Over the past four decades Israel has defrauded Palestinians working inside Israel of more than $2 billion by deducting from their salaries contributions for welfare benefits to which they were never entitled, Israeli economists revealed this week. A new report, “State Robbery”, says the “theft” continued even after the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 and part of the money was supposed to be transferred to a special fund on behalf of the workers.

Leaders of the Arab minority in Israel warned this week that they were facing an unprecedented campaign of persecution, backed by the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, designed to stop their political activities. The warning came after Said Nafaa, a Druze member of the Israeli parliament was stripped of his immunity last week, clearing the way for him to be tried for a visit to Syria three years ago.