Archive for January 19th, 2012

Al-Jazeera reporter arrested in Israel

Aug 16, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel has arrested a Palestinian journalist who works for the Arabic language Al-Jazeera satellite network, and a journalists’ advocacy group says he is being held without charges.

Al-Jazeera said in a release issued Monday that Samer Allawi, its bureau chief in Afghanistan, was taken into custody on Aug. 10 as he tried to leave the West Bank to return to the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York said in a statement that Allawi has been detained without charges and called on Israel to clarify the legal basis for holding him.

The Israeli military, Shin Bet internal security service and police had no comment on the affair Tuesday.

Al-Jazeera said Allawi was in the West Bank spending his annual vacation with his family in his native village of Sebastia.

The lawyer sent to defend him said he was questioned about his work and personal relationships, dating back to his schooldays in the West Bank, the Al-Jazeera statement said.

Allawi was also interrogated about his personal finances and asked if he had any contact with American, Jordanian and Palestinian intelligence forces, Al-Jazeera said.

Investigators also took his password for his personal e-mail and work password, the statement added.

Source: Arab News.

Jordan: Rifts in the valley

WARNING: Article contains propaganda!

* * * * *

August 15, 2011
By Tobias Buck

King Abdullah held on to the brown leather folder for only the briefest of moments, as if grasping a hot stone, before passing it to his son. Crown Prince Hussein, too, wasted not a moment before handing the elegantly bound document, containing 42 proposed amendments to the Jordanian constitution, to the official at his side.

The monarch’s broad smile and effusive rhetoric at a palace ceremony in the capital Amman on Sunday told a different story, however: “The recommendations concerning provisions of our constitution that have been presented here today to me is solid proof of Jordan’s ability to revitalize itself,” he said. The country, he added with visible pride, was “heading confidently towards the future to build the new Jordan”.

The proposed changes to the 1952 constitution are the work of a panel of experts established this year by the palace. Though they fall short of dismantling the king’s sweeping powers, they have been welcomed by most reform activists as a step in the right direction. The changes include the creation of a constitutional court, independent election oversight, steps to curb the powers of the secretive security courts and making it harder to dissolve parliament – measures long demanded by the opposition.

Important as they are in themselves, the proposed reforms also serve a much larger purpose. They represent a crucial part of Jordan’s answer to the wave of political unrest that has swept the Arab world this year – and that has triggered street demonstrations and unusually frank calls for change in the kingdom itself.

Jordan’s pro-democracy protests might seem timid set against the bloody convulsions in neighboring Syria or faraway Libya. But even inside the royal palace, no one doubts that regional turmoil and domestic discontent have presented a searing challenge to the regime as it seeks to balance a desire to preserve stability with the public’s growing demands for economic and political reform.

It is a balancing act that has repercussions far beyond the borders of the Hashemite kingdom. For a start, Jordan is widely seen as a test case for the ability of Arab regimes to pursue democratic reforms from within the system. Unlike other Arab dynasties, King Abdullah’s can still draw on a reservoir of legitimacy and goodwill. Some believe this gives the country a chance of engineering a peaceful and incremental transition to democracy – if the right decisions are made now.

Jordan matters to governments in the region and beyond, furthermore, because it has long played a uniquely important strategic role in the Middle East. Amman is a staunch western ally, a significant US client and a reliable partner for both Israel and the Palestinians. It also enjoys excellent relations with the conservative monarchies and sheikhdoms of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia.

As one senior western diplomat in Amman points out: “The overriding interest of all these countries is the same: keeping Jordan stable.”

Indeed, the kingdom serves as an invaluable buffer for Israel and the Gulf states alike, shielding them from the chaos that so often torments the region. Israeli leaders, in particular, worry deeply about their eastern neighbor: the future of Israel’s alliance with Egypt is already in doubt, potentially leaving Jordan as its only partner in the Arab world.

Fear of turmoil is not confined to Jordan’s royal palace and allies abroad, however; it is deeply ingrained in society. “Nobody here wants a civil war or chaos or even instability,” says Oraib al-Rantawi, the director of the Al-Quds Center, a reformist think-tank in Amman.

Many analysts and diplomats point to Jordan’s societal make-up as a big factor. It is split between established East Bankers (Native Jordanians), or trans-Jordanians (Native Jordanians), and marginalized West Bankers (Palestinian Jordanians), Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The two groups each account for roughly half the population of about 6.5m, and frequently eye one another with suspicion. The events of Black September in 1970, when Palestinian militants challenged the rule of King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, sparking a brief but bloody civil war, are etched deeply into political consciousness.

“We don’t want to make a leap into the unknown,” says Nawaf Tell, a former Jordanian diplomat who now heads the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman. “Countries like Tunisia and Egypt can afford uncertainty – but Jordan can’t.”

The fear – shared by East Bankers and West Bankers alike – is that any challenge to the regime will unleash confrontation between the two sides. Indeed, the fledgling opposition movement was dealt a severe blow in March, when a protest camp in the center of Amman came under attack from East Bank “loyalists”. The clashes were sparked by rumors the protests were a Palestinian-led effort to weaken the monarchy. The charges had little grounding in reality (most opposition activists were themselves East Bankers (Native Jordanians)) but they forced protest leaders to back down all the same.

. . .

Last month, street protests returned to the capital: one took place outside the royal palace as King Abdullah was hailing the reform proposals. But even opposition activists admit they are a long way from leading a mass movement. The regime clearly has played its part in calming the situation. Since the start of the year, the king and his governments have taken care to show, through a well-publicized blizzard of measures and maneuvers, readiness to address popular discontent.

In January, the government announced it would raise public sector salaries and pensions, and bolster food and energy subsidies. In February, King Abdullah sacked the unpopular government and appointed a new prime minister. He went on to establish the constitutional reform panel and a separate national dialogue committee. The latter reported back in June, suggesting modest revisions to electoral and political party law. The king was quick to endorse the proposals, and promised speedy implementation. Now, in the most important step to date, he has signaled his readiness to rewrite the constitution.

Critics contend that nothing proposed so far is likely to make more than a modest dent in the king’s sweeping powers; he will still be able to appoint and sack prime ministers as he pleases. Nor would the proposals do much to address the under-representation of largely urban West Bank Jordanians (Palestinian Jordanians) in parliament, which is dominated by rural constituencies.

Skepticism lingers even after Sunday’s announcement on the constitution. “This is the classical pattern of reform from above,” says Mustafa Hamarneh, a political analyst. “I think they now see that they have to move forward, but the real test is how far they are ready to go on the ground. They have given the signal – now they must lead the charge.”

According to some observers, the reform process is complicated by a lack of consensus on what is needed – and how much reform the country can stomach. Fault lines are plentiful, and extend far beyond the rift between East Bankers (Native Jordanians) and West Bankers (Palestinian Jordanians). The reform debate pits economic liberalisers against insiders fearful of losing their privileges; and supporters of immediate democratic transition against backers of incremental constitutional reform.

“The king realizes that there is a need for reform, but people are screaming in all kinds of different directions,” says the senior western diplomat in Amman. What is more, some of the screaming is now directed at the palace itself: “People are much more openly critical, not to the point where they question the existence of the monarchy but where they question the choice of people around [the king],” the diplomat adds.

Though feted in the west, King Abdullah is not accorded the same respect and devotion at home as his father. He is said to lack King Hussein’s ability to charm and manipulate leaders of the East Bank tribes, the Hashemite dynasty’s traditional power base. Since the founding of the state in 1922, the tribes and the Hashemites have been bound by an implicit agreement, whereby the former offer unflinching loyalty in exchange for economic and political privileges.

“The East Bankers are now asking a question to the monarchy: ‘This deal that we agreed many decades ago – is it still on?’ So far, they have not heard an answer,” says one well-placed Jordanian observer. East Bankers grumble that the king has surrounded himself with a coterie of wealthy, westernized West Bank Jordanians (Palestinian Jordanians). The fact that his wife, Queen Rania, comes from a Palestinian family has provided further fuel for tribal mistrust.

Most analysts and diplomats caution against reading too much into such complaints. The idea of replacing the king or abandoning the monarchy, they say, remains anathema to the vast majority of Jordanians. He faces neither a strong opposition at home nor political pressure from abroad. Unlike so many rulers in the region, he has the time to make incremental changes.

. . .

One ticking clock the regime cannot ignore, however, is the economy. Jordan, which lacks both oil and water, has long lived beyond its means, making it dependent on the generosity of governments in the US, Europe and the Gulf. Money will almost certainly continue to flow, especially if the country fulfills its goal of joining the Gulf Co-operation Council, a Saudi-led grouping of oil-rich nations. Such transfers, however, may not be enough to cancel out the hit to Jordan’s budget from the rise in global commodity prices – and the corresponding need to boost subsidies for a restive population.

“The protesters raise a number of issues but all of them, if you examine them carefully, have to do with the same thing. Everything revolves around youth unemployment and the bad economic situation,” says Adnan Abu-Odeh, a former minister and ex-head of the royal court.

Economists argue that to boost growth and expand economic opportunities, Jordan will have to prune its bloated public sector and the privileges of regime supporters. Yet few believe such steps will be taken in the current climate. “You cannot take tough decisions without representation,” says a former Jordanian diplomat. “Economic reforms will hit many parts of society hard, and to do that without representation, without accountability and with corruption – that is a recipe for disaster.”

The problem of how to combine economic overhaul with democratic reform adds another layer of complexity. To progress down one track while ignoring the other will be hard. To move ahead on both simultaneously will take skill, determination and a reformist mindset few policymakers in Amman seem to have. “There are,” says Mr Hamarneh, “very few real democrats in the executive.”

Sunday’s announcement of a constitutional overhaul signals that the palace is aware of the risk of standing still. In Jordan, however, it rarely pays to bet against the status quo…

Source: Financial Times.

Assad targets Palestinian refugees

Aug 15, 2011

BEIRUT: More than 5,000 Palestinian refugees have fled a camp in the besieged Syrian city of Latakia after President Bashar Assad’s forces shelled the city during a broad military assault to root out dissent, the UN said Monday.

UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said the Palestinians fled after Latakia came under fire from gunboats cruising off the coast and ground troops attacking the city over the weekend. It was not immediately clear where the refugees were seeking shelter.

“We are calling for access to the camp to find out what is going on,” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. “There were 10,000 refugees in the camp and we need to find out what is happening to them.”

Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo denounced the attack on the Ramel camp and said such violence was “part of the crimes against humanity” targeting Palestinians and Syrians alike.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize protests in Syria, also confirmed troops fired at fleeing families. It said random gunfire erupted Monday in addition to a campaign of raids and house-to-house arrests.

Troops later entered small neighborhoods in the Ramel Palestinian refugee camp, warning people to leave or risk their houses being destroyed, the LCC said. A witness said security forces were rounding up young men in the area and detaining them in a sports stadium nearby.

Amateur videos posted online by activists showed smoke rising from Ramel, the crackle of heavy gunfire and people shouting, “Allah-o-Akbar!”

Assad has dramatically escalated the crackdown on a five-month-old uprising since the start of Ramadan. Despite blistering international outrage, the regime is trying to establish firm control in rebellious areas by unleashing tanks, snipers and — in a new tactic — gunships.

On Monday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on Syria to immediately end the bloodshed and threatened unspecified “steps” if it fails to do so.

“If the operations do not end, there would be nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken,” Davutoglu said, without elaborating.

Turkey, a former close ally of Syria, has been increasingly frustrated with Damascus’ brutal crackdown. Davutoglu traveled to Syria last week and urged Assad to end the bloodshed. But Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and an important trade partner, has not joined the US and Europe in imposing sanctions.

The military assault in Latakia was in its third day Monday after gunboats off the coast combined with ground troops Sunday for the first time in the uprising. Nearly 30 people, and possibly more, have been killed in the city since Saturday, activists say.

The London-based Observatory for human rights said troops opened fire Monday as a group of fleeing residents approached a checkpoint in the Ein Tamra district of Latakia. One person was shot dead and five wounded. A Latakia resident confirmed the account, saying troops fired as scores of people, many of them women and children, were fleeing.

Soldiers also stormed the area of Houla in the central city of Homs, which has seen massive protests in recent months. A sniper killed an elderly man, according to the Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria. The group said more than 700 people have been arrested in and around Homs since the beginning of August.

The attacks in Latakia, which began Saturday, were the latest wave of a brutal offensive that shows Assad has no intention of scaling back despite international outrage and new U.S. and European sanctions.

As the gunships blasted waterfront districts Sunday, ground troops and security forces backed by tanks and armored vehicles stormed several neighborhoods, sending terrified women and children fleeing…

Source: Arab News.

Jordan Islamists see proposed constitutional amendments inadequate

Aug 15, 2011

AMMAN: Jordan’s main opposition party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), said Monday the recommended amendments to the constitution included “positive aspects”, but fell short of meeting the people’s aspirations.

“We see that the amendments, despite their importance, do not respond completely to the demands of the Jordanian people, given the transformations currently experienced by the region,” the IAF said in a statement.

A royal committee that was set up three months ago by King Abdullah for the revision of the constitution submitted its recommendations to the monarch on Sunday.

The king described the proposed amendments as a “historical” achievement that put Jordan on the threshold of a new era of political reform.

The panel proposed, among other things, the setting up of a constitutional court, the supervision of general elections by an independent body, the trial of cabinet ministers by civil courts and strictly defining the need for the government to adopt temporary laws.

The IAF, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, described the proposed amendments as “positive aspects”, but demanded further revisions of the constitution in order to ensure “a promising transition to the future and to surmount the crisis we live”.

The further amendments proposed by Islamists included naming prime ministers from coalitions enjoying parliamentary majorities and the election of the upper house of Parliament.

“These amendments will prove that the nation is the source of powers and elevates Jordan to the rank of democratic states,” the IAF statement said.

So far, the king used to appoint prime ministers and to name members of the upper house, the senate, from citizens with outstanding records in the public life.

King Abdullah set up the royal committee for the revision of the constitution in May at the height of pro-reform protests that were inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Source: Arab News.

Israel to promote pro-abuse colonel

Tue Aug 16, 2011

The Israeli military plans to promote a colonel that has defended abusive measures against Palestinian detainees to the head commander of the infantry and paratrooper corps.

Colonel Itai Virov is to also become a brigadier-general as part of the promotion, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on Tuesday.

Testifying at the 2009 trial of an Israeli lieutenant, who was convicted of assaulting Palestinians, Virov proclaimed that “a slap, sometimes a blow to the neck or chest, or sometimes choking to calm down [a suspect], is reasonable.”

Under certain situations, he testified, “a blow…is an integral part of carrying out an assignment.”

Nearly 9,000 Palestinians are held in detention by the Tel Aviv regime. Their relatives have for long been calling on human rights organizations and groups to intervene in efforts to secure the release of their loved ones — many of whom have been incarcerated without charge, trial or sentencing.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees, nearly 200 Palestinian inmates have so far died in Israeli confinement, either due to medical negligence or under torture.

Haim Erlich, director general of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, said the decision to promote ‘someone who justified the beating-up of innocent civilians,’ showed that the military “has not come to terms with the importance of attitudes displayed toward a civilian Palestinian population.”

Source: PressTV.