March 18, 2010

Obama: ‘No crisis’ in U.S. ties with Israel: Haaretz

United States President Barack Obama said Thursday that there was ‘no crisis’ in ties with Israel, despite a high-profile diplomatic feud between the allies over the Netanyahu administration’s plans to build Jewish homes in east Jerusalem.

“Israel’s one of our closest allies, and we and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away,” Obama said in an interview on Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier.
“But friends are going to disagree sometimes,” Obama said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday called the timing of the decision to build 1,600 Jewish homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood Ramat Shlomo, announced during a visit last week to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, “bureaucratic mishap”.

“This neighborhood is located five minutes from the prime minister’s office,” Netanyahu told Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in Jerusalem as part of her first official trip to the Middle East.
According to Netanyahu, because it is considered a Jewish neighborhood, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee which approved the project did not consider it a controversial subject.

Netanyahu met with seven senior ministers late Wednesday to discuss possible Israeli responses to U.S. demands regarding the contentious East Jerusalem building project.
A government source said Wednesday that it was possible that the forum of seven would not complete its deliberations tonight, and may continue on Thursday.
During the meeting, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke by telephone with George Mitchell, the United States peace envoy to the Middle East, Haaretz learned.

Mitchell had on Tuesday canceled a planned visit to Israel but told Barak that he was now considering arriving in the country on Sunday.
Earlier in the week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Netanyahu that the U.S. demanded the cancellation of the Ramat Shlomo construction project.
On Wednesday, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley said that the U.S. was “still looking forward to a response; there has been no call; we’re in the same place as we were yesterday.”
Earlier Wednesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the demands made by the U.S. and other world powers regarding the cessation of Israel’s building projects in East Jerusalem were unreasonable, adding that he felt preventing Jews from buying lands anywhere in the capital is a form of discrimination.

Lieberman, speaking at a joint press conference with Catherine Ashton in Jerusalem, said that the demand represented, “to a large extent, an opportunity to attack Israel and pressure Israel into doing unreasonable things.”

“The demand to forbid Jews to buy or build in East Jerusalem is unreasonable. Let’s consider what would happen if we would ban the Arab residents of the city to buy in west Jerusalem,” Lieberman asked, adding that he had asked “all of the leaders who I have spoken with recently that question.”
“Some said that we would then be an apartheid state, but that’s an unacceptable asymmetry,” the foreign minister said. Lieberman told Ashton that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and must be accessible to members of all faiths,” adding that “anyone may buy and build wherever he likes.”

“There are thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs who live in the Jewish neighborhood in the west and that will continue,” Lieberman said.

The foreign minister reiterated that the timing of the approval’s announcement during Biden’s visit was off, and that Israel had “no reason to confront the United States or the European Union.”
“We are trying to clarify our stance through the proper channels, to explain what’s happening and I hope we will reach and understanding,” the FM said, adding that he suggested against turning recent tensions to “an overall confrontation that would contribute nothing positive to the diplomatic process, won’t bring the sides together or make it easier on them.”
The FM said during the press conference that she had arrived in Israel to make sure that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were getting started and that direct talks were initiated geared at ending the conflict.

“I’m here to support bilateral relations with Israel,” Ashton said.

Lieberman also commented on talks with the Palestinians, asserting that “all of Israel wants peace. The only discussion is on what’s the best way to achieve that peace.”
Earlier Wednesday, President Shimon Peres called the United States “a true friend” and said that both Israel and the U.S. want to ease the recent tensions between the two nations.
“We have deep respect for [U.S.] parliamentary and executive institutions, led by President Obama,” Peres told a group of high school students in Holon. “We want these relations and are interested in returning them to their regular, positive state.”

Speaking about indirect talks with the Palestinians, Peres said such talks, while not ideal, are better than nothing.

“In my opinion, proximity talks can open the path to renewing the peace negotiations,” he said. “I can say, on this stage, to our Palestinian neighbors and to whoever is listening – Israel has already made a historic decision to establish two states for two peoples. An Arabic state named Palestine and a Jewish state named Israel. I do not believe or think it possible that there is any other solution.”

Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke on the phone Tuesday night in a bid to reduce recent friction between the U.S.
The New York Times also said that the American administration had confirmed the conversation. The Prime Minister’s Bureau did not elaborate on the details of the conversation, which lasted until 2 A.M. Netanyahu’s advisers Yitzhak Molcho and Ron Dermer, along with Israeli envoy to the U.S. Michael Oren, were also present.

Netanyahu’s brother-in-law calls Obama ‘anti-Semitic’: BBC

Mr Ben-Artzi said his brother-in-law should learn from previous PMs
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has distanced himself from his brother-in-law’s description of US President Barack Obama as anti-Semitic.
He said he “strenuously” objected to Hagai Ben-Artzi’s comment and expressed his “deep appreciation” for Mr Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security.
Mr Ben-Artzi was responding to US criticism of Israeli approval of plans for 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem.
Later, Mr Obama said the decision had not been helpful to the peace process.
But despite the disagreement, he told Fox News that there was no crisis in US-Israeli relations and that the two countries had a special bond that was not going to go away.
“Friends are going to disagree sometimes,” he added.
On Sunday, a top aide to Mr Obama called Israel’s announcement “calculated”, “destructive” to peace efforts and an “insult” to the US.
Both sides had just agreed to hold indirect “proximity talks” to revive the peace process, which has been stalled for more than a year.
‘Difficult situation’
In an interview with Israel Army Radio, Mr Ben-Artzi said his brother-in-law should learn from previous Israeli prime ministers.
“Once the Americans tried to intervene in anything related to Jerusalem we told them one simple word: ‘No’,” he explained.

As a politician running for presidency he had to hide it, but it comes out every time and I think we just have to say it plainly – there is an anti-Semitic president in America
Hagai Ben-Artzi

Mr Obama, he added, not only disliked Mr Netanyahu personally, but “dislikes the people of Israel”.
“For 20 years, Obama sat with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who is anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, and anti-Jewish.”
He said it was clear Mr Obama agreed with Rev Wright because he had remained a member of his congregation.
“Think about it. If you had heard of someone who for 20 years sat in church and heard anti-Semitic sermons and didn’t get up to leave after two weeks, wouldn’t you think he identifies with it?” he asked.
“As a politician running for presidency he had to hide it, but it comes out every time and I think we just have to say it plainly – there is an anti-Semitic president in America,” he said.
“Unfortunately this creates a difficult situation for Israel, but we will never give up our deepest interests – Jerusalem and our ties with it.”

Mr Obama broke with Rev Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in 2008
Mr Obama broke with the Trinity United Church of Christ in 2008 after some of Rev Wright’s controversial sermons emerged on the internet. In one, he said the 9/11 attacks were an example of “America’s chickens coming home to roost”.
“I have a deep appreciation for President Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security, which he has expressed many times,” Mr Netanyahu said in a statement afterwards.
But despite the rebuke from his sister’s husband, Mr Ben-Artzi repeated his criticism of Mr Obama in a later interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television.
The Palestinian Authority has refused to resume direct talks with Israel because of its refusal to put a stop to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In November, Israel announced a 10-month suspension of new building in the West Bank, under heavy US pressure. But it considers areas within the Jerusalem municipality as its territory and thus not subject to the restrictions.
Close to 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Report: Petraeus Warns Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mullen that Israel Is Jeopardizing US Security Interests: www.democracynow

Veteran military and foreign affairs analyst and author Mark Perry reports that CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus dispatched a team of senior military officers in January to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perry reports that the briefers told Mullen that “Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing US standing in the region.”
ANJALI KAMAT: The United States has affirmed its, quote, “unshakeable” and “unbreakable” bond with Israel just days after Israel’s ambassador in Washington said ties between the allies were at their lowest point in thirty-five years. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs softened their tone toward Israel.
ROBERT GIBBS: The Vice President was in Israel to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security of Israel and its people. As I said earlier, mature, bilateral relationships can have disagreements. And this is one of those disagreements. It does not—it does not break the unbreakable bond that we have with the Israeli government and with the Israeli people on their security.
ANJALI KAMAT: In an interview on Meet the Press this Sunday, Clinton had been sharply critical of Israel’s announcement that it would build 1,600 new homes in the Jewish settlement of Ramat Shlomo, coming as it did during Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to the country.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: It was not just an unfortunate incident of timing, but the substance was something that is not needed as we are attempting to move toward the resumption of negotiations. It was insulting. And it was insulting not just to the Vice President, who certainly didn’t deserve that. He was there with a very clear message of commitment to the peace process, solidarity with the Israeli people, but it was an insult to the United States.
ANJALI KAMAT: Despite the strong words from high-level American officials, Israel’s response has been to apologize over the unfortunate timing of the announcement, but refused to back down on settlement construction. Earlier this week, Netanyahu reiterated that, quote, “Building everywhere in Jerusalem will continue as it has over the past forty-two years.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the pro-Israeli lobby has criticized the Obama administration for toughening its stance on Israel. But there’s another powerful lobby that seems to have a different opinion: the US military. Veteran military and foreign affairs analyst and author, Mark Perry, reports at foreignpolicy.com that CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus is concerned America’s policy on Israel might be jeopardizing US security interests in the region. Perry’s piece is called “The Petraeus Briefing: Biden’s Embarrassment Is Not the Whole Story.” He’s also author of the new book Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies. Mark Perry joins us now from Washington, DC.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mark Perry. Start off by explaining what exactly General Petraeus sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What is his stand?
MARK PERRY: General Petraeus sent a briefing team to talk to Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to give Admiral Mullen a briefing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the facts of the conflict. But it was also clear from the briefing that this was a central concern among David Petraeus’s area of responsibility, the twenty-two Arab nations of the Central Command, and that in his travels throughout the region the leaders of these countries had made it clear to General Petraeus, the greater the Israeli intransigence on resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, the greater the erosion in American security. It was quite a—quite a blunt briefing.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you know that this briefing took place?
MARK PERRY: Because I talked to the people in the Pentagon who know about the briefing. And in fact, General Petraeus yesterday didn’t take issue with it. When he made his comments in public on the Senate Armed Services Committee, his first action item in his prepared remarks was the effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on his area of responsibility. And he made it very clear that without progress on this issue, it was going to remain a problem in his area of responsibilities. He made that very clear in his testimony.
ANJALI KAMAT: Yes, Mark Perry, at the Senate panel hearing yesterday, General Petraeus brought up Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and he said, quote, I believe, “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism [for] Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples.”
But I wanted to play a clip from that hearing. In response to a question from Senator John McCain, he also denied having made a request to include Israel and the Palestinian territories under his command at CENTCOM.
GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: Neither Israel nor the Palestinian territories are in the Central Command area of responsibility.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: But yours is all of this—
GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: Having said that, we keep a very close eye on what goes on there, because of the impact that it has, obviously, on that part of CENTCOM that is the Arab world, if you will. And, in fact, we’ve urged at various times that this is a critical component. It’s one reason, again, we invite Senator Mitchell to brief all of the different conferences that we host and seek to support him in any way that we can when he’s in the Central Command part of the region, just as we support Lieutenant General Dayton, who is supporting the training of the Palestinian security forces from a location that is in the CENTCOM AOR, as well. And, in fact, although some staff members have, various times—and I have discussed in—you know, asking for the Palestinian territories, or something like that, to be added to—we have never—I have never made that a formal recommendation for the Unified Command Plan. And that was not in what I submitted this year, nor have I sent a memo to the White House on any of this.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mark Perry, what’s your response?
MARK PERRY: Well, General Petraeus is exactly right. After I published my piece, I received a call from a senior officer in the Pentagon, who said General Petraeus has never given the request that you mentioned to the White House, but he did give it to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I went back into my piece and changed it, despite the fact that three senior officers in CENTCOM had said it was true. I’m not arguing with General Petraeus. He’s made the claim. He’s not a man who lies. I made the correction. He’s absolutely right.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Mark, I have a question in terms of the broader picture of what’s going on right now. Is this a big rift in US policy toward Israel? You talk about the Petraeus briefing. There’s been the flap created with Vice President Biden’s visit, strong words from Secretary of State Clinton. There seems to be a slight toning down of the rhetoric right now. What’s happening right now? Is this just rhetoric, or is there going to be a real change?
MARK PERRY: Well, you’re absolutely right. There has been a toning down in rhetoric. However, watching the Secretary of State on Sunday, in particular, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so angry about something. And, you know, this is more than a hiccup. Is it a crisis? No, it’s not a crisis. But the United States has made it very clear to the Israeli government what needs to be done here, that this building project in East Jerusalem needs to stop, that there have to be confidence-building measures, and that the Israelis have to go to the peace table in good faith. And I think that’s the expectation. Those requirements have not changed. And we’re waiting for Israel’s answer. This is not a crisis. We’re not going to end our relationship with Israel. But this is certainly more than a hiccup in our relationship. This is an important break.
AMY GOODMAN: And this issue, going back to General Petraeus talking about the US relationship with Israel actually jeopardizing US lives, take that a little further.
MARK PERRY: Well, Israel is not our only ally in the region. We have very close and strong ties with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, with all of these Arab countries. And we have troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if you go on the ground in these countries and you talk to the people in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I mean, it’s really—it’s hard for us to believe, but if you spend any time in the region—I spent twenty years there—this is number one on everyone’s agenda. Not the war on terror, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So it’s true. If we can solve this problem, if we can push both sides to the table, if we can come up with some kind of a solution, this helps us immensely on the war on terror. If it doesn’t, it’s another excuse for the terrorists, the Jacobins, the hardliners, the let’s-burn-it-down-and-start-over crowd to really go up against us. This is an arrow in their quiver, and we should be able to take it away.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mark Perry, your book is Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies. What’s your assessment of the prospect for a peace process that does not include Hamas?
MARK PERRY: I think it will fail. Hamas won the January 2000 elections in the Palestinian Authority, the most transparent, honest, fair, open elections in the history of the Middle East. They didn’t win by a little bit. They won by a lot. They retain enormous credibility inside the Palestinian territories. And they can disrupt a peace process that only includes one group of Palestinians. They’re not—this isn’t a group of graduates from a charm school. These are tough-minded political people. But they’re committed to their people, they are committed to their cause, they’re committed to democracy. We should bring them into the peace process. We should induce them to sit down honestly. They’re willing to do that. They’ve expressed it many times. I don’t think, without them, that there’s much prospect for success.
AMY GOODMAN: You were once an adviser to Yasser Arafat. How have things changed or not changed since then?
MARK PERRY: That’s a good question. It’s interesting. You know, Yasser Arafat had enormous prestige and stature among his own people. He’s the one man who could have brought a peace process home, with a willing partner, like Yitzhak Rabin. If Rabin had lived and if Rabin had remained prime minister, with Arafat, I think that this would have been done by now. I know we had a problem at Camp David, but that was with Ehud Barak. With Yitzhak Rabin and with Yasser Arafat, this problem wouldn’t be there. I just—I have that confidence. He had—he could make compromises that no other Palestinian leader could, and he was willing to do it if he got his minimal requirements met. At Camp David, he didn’t. It’s a tragedy that we were so close and weren’t able to really bring this thing home. And it’s going to be more difficult now, and it’ll be more difficult as time goes on, if we don’t press both parties right now.
ANJALI KAMAT: But both parties in Israel, including under Rabin’s government, continue to build settlements. As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, building—every government since 1967 has built settlements around Jerusalem and in the West Bank.
MARK PERRY: Yes, but Rabin had some principles that Arafat and the American administration agreed to. And that was no surprises. When the Vice President of the United States lands in Israel for a visit of friendship, don’t surprise him with 1,600 units. Make a phone call. That’s all Arafat and the administration here in Washington at the time required: no surprises. You know, when you have a person of Vice President Biden’s prestige and stature from an ally, your strongest and best friend in the world, and you insult him and humiliate him like this, it causes enormous problems. We have enemies in the world who don’t like us who don’t do this. This is supposed to be an ally of ours. I think that this is—there’s a sense that the tenor has changed here, that Israel believes it can push back on us, that we’re an ally of theirs, not the other way around. And that fundamental formula has to change. This was really a shocking thing that happened, and I think it has to be rolled back.
ANJALI KAMAT: Finally, how hard do you think the US can push? Just a few months ago, the Obama administration basically agreed that the Palestinians should agree to continued expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem as a precondition for talks.
AMY GOODMAN: Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave that question, Anjali, for the next time we speak with Mark Perry, because we’ve just lost the satellite feed. But we’re going to go to a break, and we’re going to wrap up in a very different place, in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. But our guest was Mark Perry, veteran foreign affairs analyst and author, his latest book, Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies.

Gaza Rocket Attack Into Israel Kills a Thai Worker: NY Times

An Israeli police officer at the site where a rocket, fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, hit the southern Israeli agricultural community of Netiv Haasara on Thursday, killing a Thai farm worker.
GAZA — A foreign worker in Israel was killed Thursday by a rocket fired from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory of Gaza, according to the Israeli military, soon after the European Union’s top foreign policy official arrived here on a rare visit by such a high-ranking official.

The foreign agricultural worker, who the Israeli military said was from Thailand, was the first fatality from Gaza rocket fire since the end of a three-week Israeli military offensive into Gaza in January 2009. Israel said the primary purpose of its military campaign was to halt years of rocket fire from Gaza against southern Israel.

The rocket on Thursday struck an Israeli cooperative farm called Nativ Haasara, near the Gaza border.
Jund Ansar al-Sunna, a small, fiercely anti-Western jihadist group that challenges Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack. The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton, is the most senior European official to visit Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas took power there in 2007.
Gaza, a Palestinian coastal enclave, has remained largely isolated since it came under the control of Hamas, which has refused to accept the conditions set by the so-called quartet of Middle East peace makers — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The conditions include renouncing violence, recognizing Israel’s right to exist and accepting previous signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict economic embargo on the area, allowing in only basic supplies.
The European Union, like the United States and Israel, classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Ms. Ashton was not planning to meet with Hamas representatives in Gaza. She visited a United Nations-run school and met with United Nations officials to learn about humanitarian efforts for the Palestinian population. She was also scheduled to meet with local business and civil society leaders.

Ms. Ashton met earlier with Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders in the West Bank ahead of a meeting of quartet representatives that she was expected to attend on Friday in Moscow.
In Gaza, Ms. Ashton told reporters that the aim of her visit to the region was to “talk with people and politicians about the need to find a picture of peace and security.”
When asked about the deadly rocket attack, she said that she condemns “all forms of violence.”

Ms. Ashton’s convoy drove without stopping through areas of northern Gaza that were devastated during the three-week war. Unlike other Western officials who have visited Gaza, she did not call for a lifting of the economic blockade that affects the population of 1.5 million, saying only that she was “trying to support the aid that needs to find its way through to Gaza.”
Filippo Grandi, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance for Palestinian refugees, said, “We told Baroness Ashton that we count on her to be the messenger for the suffering of Gazans under blockade.”

Hamas has made some efforts to prevent rocket fire by smaller militant groups. Both Israel and Hamas declared unilateral cease-fires, ending the three-week Gaza war.
The Israeli military said the rocket that killed the foreign worker was the third to land in southern Israel in 24 hours, and the 30th to have landed since the beginning of 2010.
Soon after the attack, loud booms were heard in Gaza as Hamas evacuated its security facilities, fearing retaliation by the Israeli military.

EU foreign chief Baroness Ashton in Gaza Strip: BBC

The EU’s new foreign policy chief has been in Gaza on one of the highest level visits there by a Western official since Hamas took power.
Baroness Ashton’s trip comes amid a new push by the EU and US to revive stalled Middle East peace talks.
The international quartet of Middle East mediators – the EU, US, UN and Russia – is to meet in Moscow later.
As Lady Ashton arrived, militants in Gaza fired a rocket into Israel, killing a man, Israeli officials said.
The rocket struck the Netiv Ha’assera kibbutz in southern Israel killing a foreign agricultural worker, according to reports.

Baroness Ashton’s convoy of armoured cars blazed an isolated trail as it swept through the Erez Crossing into Gaza. Once she got here though, she soon had company: a huge media scrum at the United Nations Food distribution centre reflecting the rarity of such a visit by a senior Western political figure. Dwarfed by burly security guards, she was jostled past the sacks of food aid.
Even as she spoke to the press, there was a reminder that things often don’t go to plan in the Middle East. In southern Israel, a Thai farm worker was killed by a rocket fired by militants in Gaza – a reminder of why Israel says the blockade is necessary and a distraction from the baroness’s main focus, which is the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Baroness Ashton was only in Gaza for a few hours. From here, she will head to a Middle East quartet meeting in Russia. Few Gazans will expect her visit to really change anything, but she will at least be able to say she has first-hand experience of a place at the heart of the Middle East conflict.
Although militants in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, this is the first fatality since the end of Israel’s offensive there in January 2009.
Baroness Ashton said after the attack: “I condemn any kind of violence. We have got to find a peaceful solution to the issues and problems… we need to move forward.”
Baroness Ashton will later join US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has already arrived in the Russian capital for the talks.
The Moscow meeting will “demonstrate international support” for indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley.
Baroness Ashton swept into Gaza City from Israel in a convoy of armoured cars and was taken to a UN food distribution centre.
The BBC’s Jon Donnison in Gaza says she is not expected to meet Hamas leaders during her brief visit.
The EU is the largest contributor of aid to the Palestinians, delivering 1bn euros ($1.4bn; £890m) a year.
‘Need for aid’
Baroness Ashton told the BBC there was “a need to get aid through” to Gaza.

Only two European foreign ministers have come to Gaza in the past year, our correspondent notes.
Foreign officials are often refused entry by Israel, or their governments choose not to come because they do not recognise Hamas.
The visit has been welcomed by the United Nations, which says the blockade of Gaza has left hundreds of thousands in Gaza living in poverty.
The head of the UN’s refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip, John Ging, said the people of Gaza were hoping for a single outcome from Baroness Ashton’s visit – a lifting of the Israeli siege.
“We have to have action. A thousand days and a thousand nights of a medieval siege is far too much. It’s a shame – it’s a disgrace,” he said.
Baroness Ashton has been criticised as too inexperienced for the new job of EU High Representative, a post created by the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
Violence
Her visit comes as the US and Israel try to bridge divisions over Israeli plans for new building in occupied East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have pulled out of indirect talks because of the plan.
Israel’s building announcement has provoked fresh violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Mrs Clinton has described the announcement – made while US Vice-President Joe Biden was in Israel last week – as “insulting”.
She has made a series of demands of Mr Netanyahu – on the housing project and on showing his commitment to peace talks.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, when the Islamist movement Hamas took power.
In 2008 Israel launched a three-week offensive against Gaza which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and caused widespread damage to its infrastructure.

Poll: Nearly half of U.S. voters support total settlement freeze: Haaretz

Almost half of all U.S. voters believe that Israel should be made to cease all settlement construction as part of a future peace deal with the Palestinians, a Rasmussen Reports poll said on Wednesday.

The American institute claimed that a recent poll showed 49% of voters approved of forcing Israel to stop settlement construction, with only 22% of voters disagreeing, saying Israel should not be required to stop building those settlements. Another 29% were not sure.
U.S.-Israel ties have been strained of late, as a result of Israel’s approval of 1,600 new East Jerusalem housing units during an official visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, denied Thursday the existence of a crisis in the ties between Washington and Jerusalem.

The Rasmussen Reports poll also showed that 75% of U.S. voters said that the Palestinians should be required to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as part of such an agreement, with only 6% disagreeing.
Seventy-three percent of voters, according to the poll, said they thought it was unlikely that there will be lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis within the next decade, including 19% who say it is not at all likely.

According to the Rasmussen Reports website, last June, when Obama challenged Israel?s settlement policy last June, 48% of voters said the president?s Middle Eastern policy was about right, with 35% say he was not supportive enough of Israel.
In this week’s poll, however, 58% of voters responded that Israel was an ally of the United States, with 2% viewing Israel as an enemy. For 32%.
On Wednesday, Obama told Fox News that there was no crisis in ties with Israel, despite a high-profile diplomatic feud over the Netanyahu administration’s plans to build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem.
“Israel is one of our closest allies, and we and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away,” Obama said.
“But friends are going to disagree sometimes,” Obama said.

Barack Obama does not hate Israel, says Binyamin Netanyahu: The Guardian

• Brother-in-law’s remarks cause embarrassment
• King of Jordan criticises home-building proposals

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, issued a statement after his brother-in-law accused Barack Obama of antisemitism. Photograph: Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, yesterday distanced himself from his brother-in-law’s accusation that Barack Obama is an antisemite who hates Israel.
The family back-and-forth came as King Abdullah of Jordan added to pressure on Israel over its settlements policy, demanding the international community take firm action over what he called the “red line” of Jerusalem.

Hagai Ben-Artzi, the brother of the Israeli premier’s wife, said on Israeli Army Radio that the US president dislikes Netanyahu and the Israeli people because he had spent years in the church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who he said is “antisemitic, anti-Israeli, and anti-Jewish.” Obama once declared the fiery liberal Chicago preacher was his spiritual mentor but disavowed him during the campaign.
“As a politician running for [the] presidency he had to hide it,” Ben-Artzi said, “but it comes out every time and I think we just have to say it plainly: there is an antisemitic president in America.”
Ben-Artzi then reiterated that “Jerusalem is the Israeli people’s capital and the capital of the state of Israel, and it is whole and united.”

“Once the Americans tried to intervene in anything related to Jerusalem we told them one simple word: ‘No’,” he said.
Netanyahu distanced himself from the remarks, with a spokesman saying it was not the first time the two had disagreed.
“I have a deep appreciation for President Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security, which he has expressed many times,” Netanyahu said.
In an interview, Obama said the construction plans were not helpful for the Middle East peace process but downplayed suggestion of a rift.
“Israel’s one of our closest allies, and we and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away,” he said on Fox News. “But friends are going to disagree sometimes.”

Meanwhile, Abdullah, a close ally of the US and Britain, demanded “firm, swift, direct and effective action to stop Israel’s provocative measures in Jerusalem that seek to change its identity and threaten holy sites”.
“Jerusalem is a red line and the world should not be silent about Israel’s attempts to get rid of Jerusalem’s Arab residents, Muslims or Christians,” the king told Lady Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, according to a palace statement.
Ashton is visiting Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today before flying to Moscow to join a meeting of the Middle East Quartet: Hillary Clinton for the US, the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Tony Blair, the Quartet’s special representative.

Abdullah’s comments came a day after the worst clashes in months broke out across East Jerusalem during a “day of rage” announced by Hamas, as the Palestinian movement urged Muslims to reach the al-Aqsa mosque to protect it from an alleged Israeli takeover attempt.
Tensions soared over the rededication of the 17th century Hurva synagogue and Israel’s announcement that it was building 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. The al-Aqsa mosque compound was reopened and a closure of the West Bank lifted yesterday.
Top US administration officials have condemned the new homes plan, with one senior adviser, David Axelrod, calling the announcement an insult to the US.
• This article was amended on 18 March 2010. The original text described Hagai Ben-Artzi as the husband of Binyamin Netanyahu’s wife. He is her brother. This has been corrected.

Storm over Israeli settlements as unreal as the peace process: The Electronic Intifada,

Hasan Abu Nimah, 18 March 2010
Since Israel announced yet another new settlement in occupied East Jerusalem during the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden last week, Israel has been subjected to a storm of criticism from friend and foe alike. Biden was in Jerusalem to show US support for Israel and to launch “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Ramallah. Instead the Israeli announcement caused him and the US administration deep embarrassment, prompting several officials to term it an “insult” and an “affront” and to stir talk of the worst crisis in US-Israeli relations in decades.

This might be music to the ears of those long frustrated by American silence on Israel’s constant violations of international law, but it actually amounts to little.

Just before Biden’s visit, US envoy George Mitchell had been in the region to orchestrate the proximity talks. It seemed a final hurdle had been removed when the Arab League gave diplomatic cover to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to join the talks for a limited period of four months. Just then Israel dropped the latest settlement bombshell blowing the whole thing up.

The proximity talks device was highly controversial already. Skeptics pointed out that an additional few months of indirect talks would be of no use when almost two decades of direct negotiations — with ostensibly less hardline Israeli governments — had produced absolutely nothing. The talks were also perceived as blatant American and international capitulation to Israeli intransigence, and yet a desperately needed cover for the total US failure to get Israel to agree to a real settlement freeze as a condition for resuming direct talks. All the misgivings were confirmed by Israel’s announcement of the 1,600 settler homes.

Two friends laughing it all off...

It would have been scandalous for Palestinians — even as weak and compromised as Abbas’ authority — to engage under such conditions. The PA expressed strong objections, demanding that the Israeli plan be withdrawn before returning to the talks. So it seemed it was back to square one.
But this is only part of the story. If the proximity talks blew up, it was at least as much the fault of the US administration itself as it was that of Israel. Let’s recall the real sequence of events. On 8 March, just two days before Biden’s visit, Israel announced the construction of an additional 112 units in Beitar Illit settlement near Bethlehem — violating its own self-declared 10-month moratorium outside what it defines as Jerusalem. PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat issued one of his routine statements, but there were no threats by the PA to boycott the talks.
Even worse, the US seemed to provide cover for the Israeli move; State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters then that the Beitar Illit decision “does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced,” although he allowed that “this is the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of as we move ahead with these parallel talks.”

Netanyahu may have been — justifiably — surprised by the strength of the US rhetorical reaction later after the Jerusalem announcement (and that of EU, UN and other international officials who added their own “strong” criticism only after they got an American green light). None of these people ever bothered much about settlement expansion before. Why this one, why now? After all, Israel never told anyone it would freeze settlement construction in what it defines as “greater” Jerusalem!

Despite Netanyahu’s denial that he knew in advance of the announcement, it is clear Israel was sending a message to the peace process chorus. First, that renewed talks would not mean any slow down in colonization schemes on occupied lands. Second, that Israeli-defined Jerusalem is outside the scope of any negotiations. Third, Netanyahu does not need the talks — for him they are only a cover for colonization — so he could afford the risk that the talks would be jeopardized knowing full well that the US reaction would be limited at worst to words of criticism.

Netanyahu has nevertheless admitted that it was a miscalculation to announce a major new settlement when Biden was visiting precisely to emphasize US support for Israel. But for him the mistake was only in timing, not in substance. Indeed, despite all the strong American criticism over the weekend, Netanyahu announced on Monday that settlement-building in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank would continue as normal as it has for 43 years. Since 1967, settler roads and settlements, now home to half a million Israeli Jews, have eaten up more than 46 percent of the West Bank.

During the colonization years which have been constantly accompanied by Israeli aggression, confiscation of territory and additional ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians, the international community showed little or no anger at Israel, other than occasional empty statements of disapproval, and it kept up business as usual.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization and later the Palestinian Authority, also negotiated year after year with Israel and signed accords and agreements while the land was being openly colonized and the Palestinian people were constantly persecuted and viciously uprooted. Arab states for their part have negotiated and signed peace treaties while the occupation remained firmly in place and the process of settlement building went on.

So if for 43 years there has been continuous occupation accompanied with continuous settlement building while the international community was maintaining a deadly and a cowardly silence, why all the sudden noise over 1,600 additional housing units? It is neither the first project nor will it be the last. And notice that for all its complaints, the United States pointedly did not require Israel to cancel the project. It would never dare do that. Instead within a few days, the US will be pressuring the PA to return to futile negotiations while the settlement construction carries on.

Remember Jabal Abu Ghneim, the forested hill near Bethlehem that Netanyahu decided to build on in the 1990s against strenuous American and international objections that it would “destroy the peace process?” Today the trees are gone and in their place are only Israeli apartment buildings. But the fake, fraudulent “peace process” continues as if nothing happened. This theatrical storm will also slowly die down and the settlements construction will steadily keep up.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan Times and is republished with the author’s permission.

EDITOR: In a searing attack on PACBI, Mrs Said has unusually voiced her opinion on the BDS campaign, and on the organisation which directs the campaign from Palestine. It is painful to read this. Mariam Said has omitted to mention, for example, that Barenboim himself is an ardent Zionist, for example, and a strong supporter of Israel. Is the orchestra going to save lives in Gaza, one wonders, through some kind of co-existence project. It is very dobtful.

Barenboim-Said Foundation does not promote normalization: The Electronic Intifada,

Mariam Said, 17 March 2010
On 28 January 2010 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a statement to the Qatari government calling for a boycott of Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) and condemning the Qatari Ministry of Culture for hosting the orchestra in Doha. The statement goes so far as to accuse Daniel Barenboim of being an ardent Zionist. I would like to point out that the PACBI policy is “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel.” It does not call for a boycott against all Israelis, but those affiliated with institutions that support the Israeli state and its policies and who do not express support for the Palestinian struggle against occupation. Daniel Barenboim and WEDO do not meet any of those criteria.

WEDO is but one of the many educational programs of the Barenboim-Said Foundation (BSF) which was founded by Daniel Barenboim together with my late husband, Edward Said. It is registered in Spain and the regional government of Andalusia is the main partner in this project.

WEDO is not a project for normalization. The yearly workshops in Spain are advanced musical summer courses. When students from Arab countries and Israel attend the same courses at any university around the world where the professor’s competence is the reason for which they enroll, it is considered furthering their education, not normalization.

The only requirement to attend the workshop and become a member of the orchestra is musical competence and talent. The musicians have to pass rigorous auditions and the ultimate goal is musical education on the highest level. The BSF has been offering music education programs in the occupied West Bank in partnership with the al-Kamandjati Music Center. We are actively supporting the AM Qattan Foundation’s Music Center in Gaza, as well as pioneering projects in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. We also offer music education programs for Palestinians in the Galilee (we have a conservatory in Nazareth) and in Jaffa. The aim is to bring together all the Palestinians in Palestine through the language of music.

Most importantly, nowhere in PACBI statement is it mentioned that the WEDO was established by Edward Said as well as Daniel Barenboim.

By attacking the orchestra, PACBI is attacking the integrity of my late husband and his legacy. It is not the first time PACBI has used this skewed approach. The deliberate omission in the statement of any reference to Edward and his support for this project is a manipulation of the media and a conscious effort to mislead the Palestinian people. Edward passed away more than six years ago. I do not know what he would have said about all this today, but I know how he felt about this project and what he wrote about it. A couple of weeks before his death, when a Palestinian activist friend who had reservations about the project asked him about WEDO, Edward unhesitatingly replied in an email: “It is the most important thing I did in my life.”

Denial of the existence of the Palestinians has been the essence of the Zionist project. When this method is used by Palestinians to deny one of their own, their most vocal advocate, a champion of justice and universal human rights who never tired of demanding their right to self-determination, it is an outrage.

Edward was a visionary and constructive critic who spoke truth to power. He was a courageous and original thinker who was not afraid of taking risks and going against the grain, who always thought in alternative ways that led to opening roads and building bridges. The only thing he most abhorred was criticism that was destructive.

Daniel Barenboim has also been courageous and issued many statements condemning the occupation and the Israeli policy on Gaza. He was also a close friend of Edward. They wrote a book together entitled Parallels and Paradoxes in which they articulate many of the ideas that WEDO is based on. Daniel’s thinking has evolved over the years even though he and Edward did not agree on some issues. One does not have to agree on everything. The recent statement of PACBI indicates that the authors did not do their homework. Had they done so, they would have found more statements articulating Daniel’s support for the Palestinian cause.

Last year in an interview with Yussuf Shayeb in the Ramallah-based al-Ayyam newspaper, Daniel stated that the work of the BSF has nothing to do with normalization. It embodies solidarity and consolidates against injustice and occupation. In the summer of 2006 the orchestra issued a statement against the wars on Lebanon and Gaza. In January 2009 during the assault on Gaza, the orchestra again stated that it “deplores all actions that lead to civilian deaths” and that it “represents an alternative model based on equality, cooperation and justice for all.”  These statements were published in all the concert programs. When last summer a concert planned as part of the celebrations for “Jerusalem — Cultural Capital of the Arab World” was forbidden, the orchestra dedicated its concert in Geneva to “Jerusalem — Cultural Capital of the Arab World.”

The terrible irony is that by attacking the WEDO and the vision of Edward and Daniel, PACBI is doing exactly what Edward saw the western media doing to the Islamic world, as he wrote in his book Covering Islam. When former US President George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, Edward Said responded with a lecture on humanism in Beirut and Cairo. Bush told the world: “you are either with us or against us.” At a PACBI panel discussion held during Israeli Apartheid Week in New York City in March 2009, a Palestinian speaker said: “To those who profess to be our friends and talk only about humanism, we say ‘f… humanism’. You are either on board or not.” I wonder what is the difference between him and Bush?
Edward’s thinking about the conflict evolved over the years. In the end, no matter what the solution is, both peoples will have to live together. To do so we need to talk to the enemy and to break the wall that separates us. To him the WEDO was an experiment that broke down barriers of hatred and allowed the participants to get to know the other. It was also an educational project where music was taught on a sophisticated level to musicians who had talent. Today, it remains a humanistic endeavor whose results will bear fruit in the future.

Since Edward’s passing, I have been actively involved in this endeavor. I too was in Qatar this past January and when introducing the orchestra I made a strong statement demanding freedom for Palestine.
Edward always reminded the Palestinians that they must fight on many fronts simultaneously. The WEDO is fighting on the cultural front; PACBI is fighting the same fight on another track. Many of us actively support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and respect what it is doing. But equally, I have the right to ask that it acknowledge my involvement and the legacy of Edward Said in this project and respect the goals of the WEDO and the BSF.

Mariam Said is a retired banker and vice president of the Barenboim Said Foundation USA.

Palestinian anger fills the streets: The Electronic Intifada

Mel Frykberg,  18 March 2010
QALANDIA, occupied West Bank (IPS) – On Tuesday tens of hundreds of Palestinians of all political persuasions took to the streets, alleys and sidewalks as widespread rioting and protests spread across occupied East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, Gaza and into Israel proper.

Young Palestinians hurl stones and burn tires during clashes with Israeli police in Esawiyyah, East Jerusalem, 16 March 2010. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The mini intifada, or uprising, followed the Islamist movement Hamas calling for a “Day of Rage” to protest Israel’s continued Judaization of East Jerusalem and what Palestinians see as an attempt to take over Islamic holy sites.
The numbers rioting were kept relatively low by Israeli military roadblocks and a closure imposed on the West Bank to prevent Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem.
More than 100 Palestinians were wounded, 16 of them suffering broken bones and stomach and eye injuries, and about 80 arrested as the clashes and confrontations with Israeli security forces spread. A number of Israeli soldiers and police were also injured.
On Wednesday thousands of Israeli security forces remained on high alert as further riots were predicted.

Palestinian security forces were also placed on high alert amidst fears that protests could spread to Israeli checkpoints and settlements in the West Bank and further inflame an already volatile situation.
“We will be back tomorrow after school. This is not the end. We are going to come here every day and continue the protests for weeks and months,” one of the protestors told IPS.
“This is just the beginning. This is going to be an ongoing campaign against the Israeli occupation and the desecration of our holy sites,” Nasser Edwan (name changed), a local youth leader, told IPS.

At the Qalandiya refugee camp and checkpoint, situated between Jerusalem and Ramallah, hundreds of school boys and young men, continually approached the Israeli checkpoint in waves, hurling stones and bottles.
Elsewhere Molotov cocktails were thrown, garbage containers set alight and one Israeli policeman was shot by a Palestinian assailant.
The Israeli military tried to disperse the rioters with rubber-coated metal bullets and teargas. But just as soon as the protestors were driven back they would advance again on the checkpoint. Scores were injured and a number arrested.

Generally protests here have a set formula with both sides following unspoken rules. Hitherto clashes in various West Bank villages and in East Jerusalem normally last a few hours after which both sides — the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian protestors — tire and return to “base.”
Previous protests at Qalandiya witnessed by IPS generally dissipated after several hours.
However, Tuesday’s violence raged from early in the morning to well into the night. Similar scenarios unfolded in various locations of occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank while thousands of Palestinians in Gaza took to the streets.
There has been a palpable atmosphere of suppressed anger amongst Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank for the last few weeks due to Israel’s accelerated Judaization of East Jerusalem.

Tensions were exacerbated on Monday with the inauguration of a Jewish synagogue on a site where a mosque used to be in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Attempts by Jewish extremists to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine have also fueled Palestinian anger. These extremists have stated that they would like to build the third Jewish Temple on al-Aqsa’s remains.
The importance and significance of al-Aqsa even to moderate and secular Muslims is unappreciated in many Western quarters.
“I have only two sons and I love them dearly but I’m prepared to sacrifice both of them for al-Aqsa,” one IPS source, a secular and previously senior activist of the secular Fatah movement in Jerusalem’s Old City, said.

“When there were riots several weeks ago, I phoned my sons and told them to close our tourist shop and go to the mosque to defend it from the settlers. Do you think it is easy to lose my sons? Al-Aqsa is a red line which nobody must cross,” he told IPS.
This is the reasoning behind the common ground found by the leadership of both Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah, as they called for their respective followers to take to the streets.
Senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, affiliated with Fatah, met in the Ambassador Hotel in occupied East Jerusalem a couple of days ago before appealing to Palestinians to take action.

The leadership also met in the same hotel and called for defensive measures prior to the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 when then Israeli premier Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to the al-Aqsa mosque despite being warned against doing so by Israeli security.
Furthermore, the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades have called for the Palestinian Authority to allow them to rearm and defend al-Aqsa from the Israelis.
Israel recently pardoned over 70 former al-Aqsa members on the condition they give up their weapons and cease resistance. Hundreds of others have been pardoned by Israel over the last few years.

Hamas leader Ahmed Bahar called for a renewal of armed attacks against Israel and urged Arab states to support the resistance.
Meanwhile, Israeli settlers have warned that they will retaliate against any Palestinian rioting by mounting counter-riots.
They have also warned that they will attack “Arabs and their property” if they are prevented in the future from entering the al-Aqsa compound.
While a full-scale intifada does not appear imminent, further large-scale unrest appears highly possible with some Israeli analysts calling Tuesday’s events an “intifada-light.

Clinton: Israel rift a challenge: Ynet

Secretary of state avoids criticism of Israel while speaking in Moscow, calls for resumption of talks between Palestinians, Israelis; meanwhile, Obama Administration mulling introduction of American peace initiative

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described a rift with Israel over a Jerusalem construction project as a challenge, avoiding criticism of the Israeli government.

Clinton on Thursday called for a re-launch of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis in an effort to achieve a two-state solution. She said the US is still committed to brokering a peace deal.
The secretary of state is currently in Moscow for talks among the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Meanwhile, senior Obama Administration officials have been looking into the possibility of modifying the US conduct in respect to promoting the peace process, as result of the failure to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.

US wants Israeli unity government
One possibility being examined by senior officials in recent days is the introduction of an American peace initiative and the benefits and risks such move would entail.
This is not the first time the White House has looked into the option of presenting a peace plan that would express the US position regarding the ultimate outcome of negotiations. Discussion of this possibility seems to indicate that President Obama has not yet given up on his desire to advance the peace process.
One benefit seen by the US in respect to introducing a plan is that such initiative would force Prime Minister Netanyahu to choose between peace talks and his rightist coalition. The US Administration would like to see the PM forming a coalition with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, yet US officials have refrained from making public statements to that effect as not to appear to be interfering in domestic Israeli politics.

A Rabbi Reports from Rachel Corrie’s Day in Court: The Only Democracy?

March 18th, 2010
By Rabbi Brian Walt, reprinted from his blog with permission.

On Tuesday this week, exactly seven years ago, Rachel Corrie, an ideallistic young woman and human rights activist from Olympia, Washington, was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to protect the home of Dr. Nasrallah, a pharmacist, and his family in Rafah, Gaza, from demolition.  Yesterday, I spent the morning in a small courtroom in the District Court in Haifa, sitting next to the Corrie family, Cindy and Craig, Rachel’s parents, and her sister, Susan, in the hearing of their civil suit against the State of Israel.   First, we listened to the cross-examination by the State’s lawyers of one of Rachel’s fellow activists, who was with her on that day. Following this, Husein Abu Husein, the Corrie’s lawyer,  cross-examined Elad (a pseudonym to protect his identity), an Israeli man, one of the three people who conducted the Israeli military investigation into Rachel’s death.   What emerged from this cross-examination  was shocking.  It was a window into the whole process of Israeli military investigations which has been so fiercely debated over the past year in response to the Goldstone report.
Elad, currently a student at Bar Ilan University, was assigned to the military investigation unit during his regular army service and as a result he was asssigned to the military investigation into Rachel’s  death.  He described his training as an investigator as a one or two month course followed by a one to two-week “advanced course” in investigations.   His experience included some 30-40 investigations.
Elad hadn’t prepared for his testimony, he had not read the file of the investigation and repeatedly said he didn’t remember.  His lack of preparation indicated the lack of importance he ascribed to his appearance in court and to the proceedings.
Husein abu Husein, the Corrie’s lawyer, started with the issue of the autopsy.  Elad initially signed the request of the military to a court for an autopsy as he had heard that the family had objected to the autopsy.   After establishing that he had no documentation to prove that the family had objected to the autopsy, the lawyer produced a fax from the Corries sent a day or two after her death indicating that they would agree to an autopsy on condition that it was performed by a civilian doctor and that a representative of the American embassy was present.  A representative of the American embassy was not present. He pressed Elad as to why he hadn’t ensured the order of the court was fulfilled.
I felt a lot of sadness and anger sitting there next to Rachel’s parents as we hear that their wishes in regard to their daughter’s body were violated.  Their daughter’s body and the investigation of her death were being manipulated by the Israeli military that had every reason to hide or even distort the findings.   Cindy told me that it was only recently that she found out that an American representative was not present at the autopsy. Despite the fact that the Corrie’s request for the presence of a representative of the American government were included as part of the court order, not only didn’t the military make sure that these conditions were fulfilled,  the court didn’t either.  The court order specified that a copy of the autopsy report was to be sent to the court and this condition was also violated.   In testimony last week the doctor who performed the autopsy, testified that he didn’t agree to the presence of a representative of the American embassy and he also for the first time revealed that he had kept samples of her body, a fact never shared with the Corries.  The samples have since been discarded.
The lawyer then proceeded to other issues relating to the investigation all of which pointed to an investigation that lacks any credibility.  The lawyer asked Elad if he thought as an investigator it was important to visit the site where the death occurred  Elad if he had done so in this case.  He said he hadn’t and he didn’t think that other two investigators did either.  When pressed as to why they didn’t visit the site,  Elad retreated to the cover of “security” to which the lawyer asked whether they could not have gone in an armoured military vehicle.
This type of questioning about obvious steps an investigator would take that were not done continued for the rest of the hearing.  Some of the questions asked were:
Why the bulldozer and the military vehicles that were on the site were moved.
Why he never sat in the bulldozer to examine the sight lines.
Why despite the fact that the bulldozer regulations state that D9’s (the type of bulldozer) should not be operated in the proximity of civilians, he  failed to question the bulldozer driver about these regulations or make them part of the military police investigation file.
The judge got angry with the lawyer for pressing Elad for reasons as to why he hadn’t taken on various tasks as a military investigator.   Elad was a soldier in regular army service who worked in the military investigations unit.  He was not in charge and didn’t make the decisions.  He restricted the lawyer only to ask questions about documents Elad himself wrote or signed like the request for an autopsy.   What the judge didn’t take into account is that the Husein Abu Husein is at a huge disadvantage as the State has seen everything related to the event knows all the parties and the military response.  Husein doesn’t know the parties and only has access to a small portion of the documentation.  This was one opportunity he had to question someone involved in the investigation and I thought he did a superb job.  Moreover why did the army assign just a regular soldier with very limited training as an investigator to such an important case involving the death of a human being?  How much authority is given to soldiers in regular service in military investigations?  And, why shouldn’t the lawyer question Elad seeing that it is the prosecution that brought him as a witness?
There was a lot of tension in the room.  Here was a Palestinian Israeli lawyer cross-examining an Israeli soldier, demonstrating the lack of seriousness of the military investigation for which he along with two others, was responsible.   And this clash was being played out in front of a group of “zarim” foreigners, including the parents of the person whose death was being discussed.  In this little courtroom we were watching the enactment of the complex relationships between Americans and Israel, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and people of other faiths.
The lawyer continued to produce more evidence that the investigation was not credible.  After getting Elad to affirm that military investigations are independent and should not be subject to outside influence he produced a document that was in the file of talking points that they should use in the controversy about Rachel’s death.   There was a note on the top of the page to the military investigation unit telling them that this was a very sensitive issue, so sensitive that the President of the United States had raised it with the Israeli Prime Minister!  The note urged them to review the document carefully and to be careful in this matter.
I left the courtroom after the most effective lesson I could imagine on military investigations.  All the problems one would imagine could be part of a military investigation of an incident in which it is involved were so obvious in that courtroom.   When the military investigates itself – in any country – it has a vested interest in the outcome and the investigation will always be suspect.  In this case it had overwhelming interest in making sure the outcome didn’t point to any responsibility on the part of the I.D.F.  Rachel was an American young person who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she was trying to protect the human rights of a family.  Her death could have an impact on relations between America and Israel and could affect the way Americans see Israel. This is the reason there was a hasbara document in the file.
It has taken the Corrie family seven years to get into a courtroom where hopefully some of the truths about their daughter’s death can be uncovered.   I admire their profound commitment to their daughter, to the values she upheld, and to pursuing the truth about her death.   One could argue that there are more pressing current issues but at the heart of this hearing is the critical issue of accountability.   Jewish tradition teaches that every human life is of infinite value demands accountability for every life.   Israel has refused to be held accountable in this instance, as it has in many other egregious violations of human life, including the deaths of other foreigners and of many Palestinians.  Yesterday’s hearing was a powerful lesson that there must be independent non-military investigation into such violations.  I wish those who have argued so vociferously over the past year that there is no need for an independent public investigation into what happened during Operation Cast Lead had been there yesterday.  We will not know the truth and there will be no accountability until there is an impartial credible investigation into Rachel Corrie’s death and all other allegations about human rights violations and deaths caused by the I.D.F.
The Corries will be meeting with the American ambassador tonight. Following this meeting,  they will be participating in a conference call sponsored by Jewish fast for Gaza.  I invite you to join us.  If you are unable to join us, check our website next week for an audio recording of the call.
May the memory of Rachel Corrie, a principled and ideallistic young woman inspire us always to pursue justice, human rights and peace.  May her memory be a blessing.

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