Gunmen in Bethlehem church offered trial or permanent exile

15 April 2002

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, yesterday offered scores of Palestinian gunmen trapped in an armed standoff in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity the choice of surrendering and being tried in an Israeli military court, or going into exile “forever”. As negotiations continued behind the scenes between the gunmen in the church and Israeli military negotiators, Ra’anan Gissin, Mr Sharon’s spokesman, said Israel had given the proposal to the US secretary of state, Colin Powell. The Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Mohammed al-Madani, who is among about 100 Palestinians, including gunmen, inside the church, rejected the Israeli proposal.

Blocking humanitarian aid

11 April 2002

Israel’s Palestinian citizens, enraged by the military assault on their ethnic kin in the occupied territories, risked the first mass confrontations last week with Israeli security forces since the police killed 13 of them at the start of the Intifada, in October 2000. The clashes occurred at several locations as the Arab minority tried to bring food and medical aid to the “closed military zones” declared around besieged West Bank cities by the Israeli army. Arab towns and villages in Israel have amassed huge stockpiles of supplies over the last few weeks but have struggled to secure permission to get the aid through.

Nazareth eyes on Ramallah

4 April 2002

Protests and general strikes have been staged by Palestinians on 30 March each year since 1976, when Israeli security forces killed six demonstrators in the Galilee town of Sakhnin as they protested against the government’s theft of huge swaths of Arab land. In the subsequent 26 years, Land Day, or Yawm Al-Ard as it is known in Arabic, has grown into a regional event commemorated by Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. But Sakhnin, the scene of the first land strike, has remained the traditional focus of Land Day activities, often attracting crowds of more than 60,000.

Police outnumber pilgrims

30 March 2002

TRADITIONAL Easter celebrations in Jerusalem were eclipsed yesterday by the sight of Israeli police launching baton charges, firing stun grenades and chasing Muslim worshippers through the streets of the Old City after Friday prayers. The thousands of Christians who normally gather for Easter services in the Old City, which contains all the stations of the Cross and the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected, were absent. The few pilgrims who did venture out were outnumbered by heavily armed Israeli police.

Political mercenaries

21 March 2002

The man who commands Israel’s powerful military machine, Chief-of-Staff Shaul Mofaz, has never shied away from the cameras. So it came as no surprise when, the weekend after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to withdraw from Ramallah, Mofaz accepted an invitation to appear on Channel Two’s “Meet the Press” television show. His public duties on this occasion, it might be assumed, would include defending the prime minister’s decision against the condemnation being heaped upon him by the international community for the 13 Palestinians killed and more than 100 injured in the three-day invasion of the Palestinian Authority’s temporary capital.

Email from Baqa

18 March 2002

The Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiya (Western Baqa) sits uncomfortably on the Israeli side of the green line, the border separating Israel and the West Bank until the Six Day war of 1967. The muddy road running through Baqa’s chaotic open-air market ends abruptly at a barbed-wire fence guarded by soldiers. On the other side is the town’s Palestinian mirror image: Baqa al-Sharkiya (Eastern Baqa). The twin towns, located in northern Israel, are separated only in a formal sense. The army checkpoint is in fact 75 metres inside the Palestinian Authority, an implicit admission by Israel that it would be impossible to cut the market in two. Elsewhere, movement between the towns is blocked by earth mounds. They do not deter children from riding over them on bicycles – or Palestinian adults slipping past them to shop and work in the market, or possibly commit armed attacks.

Letters of Warning: The Or Commission in Israel

18 March 2002

After 12 long months of hearings and the appearance of 349 witnesses, a panel of Israeli judges has offered the first insight into its conclusions about the deaths of 13 Palestinian citizens at the hands of the country’s police force in October 2000. Justice Theodor Or, head of the commission tasked with investigating the deaths, surprised most legal observers by issuing letters of warning to former prime minister Ehud Barak and his internal security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who was also foreign minister at the time. Barak, Ben Ami and 12 others, who were urged to hire a lawyer and prepare for a second round of investigations, can expect to be judged harshly in the commission of inquiry’s final report. In effect, each is being warned now to prepare his defense against the accusations made in the letter.

Ordeal ends for trapped Briton

16 March 2002

An elderly British woman held for three days by Israeli soldiers who occupied her apartment building in Ramallah told yesterday of the gunbattles raging from flats on the floors above. Patricia Rantisi, 69, was held prisoner in her home in the West Bank city’s Tireh district with 22 other residents after soldiers took over their building on Tuesday night. The group included 10 children, one only 18 months old. The troops left early yesterday morning in the Army’s general withdrawal from the city. Mrs Rantisi said there had been constant gunfights and tanks patrolling the streets.

Called to account

7 March 2002

Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, were warned last week by a panel of judges that they are suspected of having acted illegally during its investigations into events at the start of the Intifada. The Or Commission sent both men letters of warning, advising them to obtain legal counsel and prepare for further investigation. Nine of the country’s top police officers and three Israeli-Arab politicians also received letters. The inquiry has the power to recommend criminal prosecutions against anyone it warns.
The high number of warnings — a total of 14 — surprised most legal experts.

Ramallah Briton held at gunpoint

3 March 2002

IsraeliI soldiers were holding a 69-year-old British woman at gunpoint in her home in Ramallah last night.

An attempt yesterday by the British consulate to reach her to check on her condition failed when its armoured vehicle was forced to turn back because the area had been sealed off. Patricia Rantisi has been a prisoner in her apartment building in the Tireh district of the West Bank city since late on Tuesday night.

Troops have forced the building’s 23 occupants, including 10 children, into one room and stationed snipers on the roof. The consulate relocated three British nationals from Ramallah yesterday, moving them to Jerusalem.

Citizens but not neighbours

28 February 2002

Adel Kaadan, a 44-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, made headlines around the world two years ago when he won a lengthy court battle with his government. After five years of legal argument, the judges ordered that he be allowed to buy a plot of land in one of the hundreds of Israeli communities open only to Jews. His victory was seen by the French news agency, Agence France Presse, as meaning that Arabs could now “live anywhere they choose in the Jewish state.” Human rights groups hailed the Supreme Court ruling as the end of apartheid in Israel.

An ominous prelude

28 February 2002

Crowds of several hundred supporters of prominent Palestinian member of the Israeli Kenesset, Azmi Bishara, converged on the square outside the court building where he is being tried in Nazareth yesterday, waving Palestinian flags. Some wore stickers bearing Bishara’s face and the legend “J’accuse” — a reference to the Dreyfus affair, the trial of a Jewish army officer in 19th century France often cited as an archetypal example of anti-semitism. Bishara, a combative and outspoken figure among the handful of Palestinian Members of Knesset (MKs), is being prosecuted for two speeches — made a year apart — in which he praised resistance to the occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. If found guilty, he faces up to three years in jail.

Judge puts Barak under suspicion

28 February 2002

Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and his security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, were warned last night by a panel of judges that they are under suspicion of acting illegally during its investigations into events at the start of the intifada. The commission, headed by Justice Theodor Or, sent both men letters advising them to prepare for more investigation. It has powers to recommend prosecutions for those it warns. Mr Barak’s government fell in February last year after his negotiations with the Palestinian leadership failed to reach a peace agreement. His challenger, Ariel Sharon, defeated him by a large margin.

Tourism redefined

14 February 2002

Israeli Tourism Minister Benni Elon has been warned by the Shin Bet security service of a Palestinian plot to murder him, according to a report on Israeli radio last week. The Shin Bet has urged Elon, who has been in the job since November, to move out of his West Bank settlement home. He inherited the portfolio from Rahavam Zeevi, who was killed by gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in October in retaliation for the assassination of the group’s leader, Abu Ali Mustafa. The elevation of two successive tourism ministers to the top of the Palestinian militants’ hit list has nothing to do with the ministry’s influence on the course of the Intifada — which is marginal, at best.

Not beyond the Green Line

7 February 2002

Fifty-two reservists in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) signed a letter in the press last week saying they would refuse to implement government policies in the occupied territories — or, as they phrased it, “take part in the war for the peace of the settlements.” “We will not continue to fight beyond the Green Line [Israel's 1967 border with the West Bank] in order to rule, expel, destroy, blockade, assassinate, starve and humiliate an entire people,” they said. The soldiers, emphasising their commitment to Zionism, said they were still prepared to take part in missions to defend Israel. The reservists’ letter has prompted the first national debate about the legitimacy of the occupation — and the methods being used by the army against Palestinians — since the start of the Intifada 16 months ago.

Top up your tan in Gaza, Israel urges tourists

4 February 2002

For the holidaymaker in search of a sun-soaked Mediterranean beach away from the crowds, Gush Katif sounds ideal. Or so thinks Israel’s hardline tourism minister, Binyamin Elon.

Last week, as figures revealed a huge drop in the number of visitors to Israel over the past 12 months, Mr Elon was giving his blessing to a new tourism drive at Gush Katif. The local mayor, Avner Shimoni, eagerly anticipating financial support for a planned visitor centre and seafront promenade, said: “I expect we’ll get several hundred thousand shekels.”

There is only one drawback: Gush Katif is an illegal settlement in occupied Palestinian territory and protected by barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, military watchtowers and checkpoints.

Human wrongs

31 January 2002

Like thousands of other Palestinians, Abed Al-Rahman Al-Ahmar tasted the bitter fruits of Israeli occupation during the first Intifada when he was jailed without trial for throwing stones at soldiers. But in the years of the Oslo peace process and now during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the 34-year-old human rights worker from Bethlehem has been learning an even harsher lesson about Israel’s policy on human rights for Palestinians. Arrested in May last year in Jerusalem, Al-Ahmar has been held in “administrative detention,” Israel’s term for imprisonment without trial or charges, for nine months. The only information his lawyer, Allegra Pacheco, can get from the Shin Bet security service is that he is considered a danger to the Israeli public.

Press freedom — Israeli style

24 January 2002

The principle of press freedom was reformulated by Israel last week when it announced to international news organisations that the Palestinian journalists they employ are to be refused both press accreditation and entry into Israel. The tough line was officially admitted only after media groups, including news agencies Reuters and the Associated Press and leading European and American television companies such as the BBC and CNN, protested to the authorities that their Palestinian staff were being denied press cards. The row erupted shortly before the Israeli army’s attempt to silence Voice of Palestine radio by bombing its five-storey building in Ramallah. The station was back on the air a few hours later, transmitting from a secret location.

Nazareth’s woes

17 January 2002

At the site where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is believed to have received the Archangel Gabriel’s revelation of her miraculous conception, stands the biggest church in the Middle East. Until the Intifada began 16 months ago, the Basilica of the Annunciation attracted queues of thousands of pilgrims from around the globe each day. But for the past three months, the peace inside the church has been shattered by pneumatic drills and bulldozers digging in the neighbouring car park, as well as the five-times-a-day call to prayer by the local sheikh using a loudspeaker mounted on a makeshift pulpit of palm leaves.

Unwanted citizens

10 January 2002

When the Arab village of Al-Naim got its first junior school two years ago — a caravan — the teacher spent the first day explaining to her 35 new charges what a toilet was. It was the first one they had ever seen. Al-Naim, a huddle of 100 rusting and battered corrugated tin huts and ragged tents fashioned from Colombian coffee sacks, could be located in Afghanistan or the remoter parts of Ethiopia or Yemen. But its 700 inhabitants are all Israeli citizens living a few miles from Haifa, one of the country’s most modern and vibrant cities. The village has existed here, in the blue hills of central Galilee, for more than 150 years — a fact the Israeli authorities have done their best to conceal. You cannot find the village marked on any map, nor will you find a road sign to direct you there.