Archive for December, 2012

Israel to build 942 more homes in east Jerusalem

December 25, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has advanced the process of building 942 more settler homes in east Jerusalem under a new fast-track plan to tighten its grip on the territory, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.

A government planning committee on Monday moved the project to the advanced stage of asking contractors to submit bids to build them, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday. Once a bid is awarded, construction can begin on the project in the Gilo area, though it can take months, if not longer, to reach that point.

An additional 300 units can be built after further planning, said attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem construction who sees the building as an obstacle to peacemaking. About 40,000 Israelis live in Gilo.

“With God’s help, we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which will remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the campaign launch event of his Likud Party. “We will continue to strengthen the settlements.” Israeli elections are set for Jan. 22.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the new Israeli announcement was a “red line” that would block the chance for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which a Palestinian state would be established alongside Israel.

“The Palestinian Authority will take all the possible means available to respond to this,” said Abu Rdeneh. The statement was posted on the official Palestinian news agency Wafa. The newly-approved homes are among more than 5,000 new settler homes in east Jerusalem that Israel pressed ahead over the past week. Palestinians do not recognize Israel’s 1967 annexation of the territory and say any Israeli construction there undermines their claims to it. The international community has not recognized Israel’s 1967 annexation of east Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a settlement construction push to punish the Palestinians after the United Nations recognized a de facto Palestinian state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip last month. Israel says the Palestinians can achieve a state only through negotiations with the Israeli government, and regards the U.N. bid as a maneuver to sidestep talks.

The Palestinians have said they hope the upgraded status will allow them to return to the negotiating table with a stronger hand. Talks stalled four years ago, primarily over settlement construction. The construction push in east Jerusalem has drawn international condemnation, as have plans to build thousands of more settler homes in the adjacent West Bank.

Israel captured both areas and Gaza in 1967. It withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, but blocks most access to the territory and retains control over the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Also Tuesday, the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas announced that Palestinian journalists there have been banned from working for Israeli media outlets.

The official statement from the Hamas Cabinet called Israeli outlets “hostile entity media institutions.” Israeli media have no permanent correspondents in the Gaza Strip, but Israeli TV channels and newspapers often employ local Palestinian journalists as stringers. The Gaza journalists do not generally identify themselves to others as working for Israeli outlets because of a taboo against cooperating with Israel.

Israel bans Israeli journalists from entering the Gaza Strip, saying their presence in Gaza would pose a risk to their security.

Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

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Syrian rebels make more gains in north

December 25, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels fully captured a northern town near the Turkish border on Tuesday after weeks of heavy fighting and attacked a regime air base in a neighboring province, activists said.

The air base is in Aleppo province, where opposition fighters have already captured three other large military bases in recent months. Rebels have also laid siege to the international airport in the city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and launched an offensive on the police academy near the city.

With steady rebel gains across the north, President Bashar Assad’s regime is having increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province, especially after rebels cut a major thoroughfare from Damascus. It is just another sign that the opposition is consolidating its grip across large swathes of territory in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

In his traditional Christmas address, Pope Benedict XVI decried the slaughter of the “defenseless” in Syria, where anti-regime activists estimate more than 40,000 have died in fighting since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in March 2011.

In another blow to the regime, activists said that Mohammed Adnan Arabo, a member of Syria’s parliament has left the country and joined the opposition. Ahmad Ramadan, an executive council member of the opposition Syrian National Council group, and other activists said Arabo arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.

He said the regime’s hold on power is deteriorating and rebels are besieging military bases for weeks until they either take over or negotiate with local army commanders to surrender. He added that some regime forces are being diverted to the capital to fight there.

“The regime cannot protect its bases and also cannot send forces to support troops under siege,” he said. Over the weeks, rebels fighting to overthrow Assad have also been able to take the battles into the capital Damascus, Assad’s seat of power, where the southern neighborhoods are witnessing almost daily clashes between troops and rebels.

The big successes began in mid-November, when rebels captured Aleppo’s Regiment 46, a large military base, carting off tanks, armored vehicles and truck-loads of munitions. Three weeks later, they captured the Sheik Suleiman base near the provincial capital of Aleppo and days later they took an infantry base in the city.

Last week, they captured an army technical regiment near Damascus’ international airport but were pushed back in a counter attack. The army command said in a statement that the regiment’s commander was killed in the battle.

The rebels have also brought the battle to areas around Damascus international airport where some flights were cancelled earlier this month because of the intensity of the fighting. One of the biggest blows came in Damascus on Dec. 12 when a suicide attacker blew his vehicle outside the Interior Ministry, killing five and wounding many, including Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar. The government denied at first that al-Shaar had been wounded until it got out when he was brought last week to a Beirut hospital for treatment.

It was the second injury the minister suffered after being wounded in a July 17, bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus that killed four top regime officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law and the defense minister.

The rebel takeover of Harem, a town of 20,000 in northern Idlib province, was the latest in a string of recent rebel successes. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured Harem in the early hours of Tuesday. Mohammed Kanaan, an Idlib-based activist, said the last post to be taken was the historic citadel, which overlooked the town. The army had turned the citadel into a military post.

“Harem is fully liberated now,” Kanaan said via Skype. He added that as the rebels pounded army posts and checkpoints in Harem, the troops withdrew to the citadel that later fell in the hands of rebels.

Rami-Abdul-Rahman, who heads to Observatory, said nearly 30 soldiers and pro-government gunmen surrendered late Monday. He added that rebels set free all gunmen at the age of 16 or less and referred others to local tribunals.

“Harem was very important because it is one of the towns that was loyal to the regime,” Abdul-Rahman said by telephone about the town that is nearly a mile from the Turkish border. In Aleppo province, which neighbors Idlib, local activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels attacked the air base in the town of Mannagh near the Turkish border. He said it is one of four air bases in the province, adding that rebels also attacked the police academy near the city of Aleppo.

Regime forces have been using helicopters to carry supplies to besieged areas and to attack rebel positions. The regime has had increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province after rebels captured in October the strategic town Maaret al-Numan. The town is on the highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a major battleground in the civil war since July.

“Airplanes and helicopters are the only way to send supplies since the Free Syrian Army controls the land,” Saeed said. He added that rebels are also laying a siege to Aleppo’s international airport known as Nairab and threatening to shoot down military or civilians planes using it.

In the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, opposition gunmen ambushed the head of military intelligence in the area and seriously wounded him. He later died of his wounds, the Observatory said. Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory reported violence in areas including the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, the southern area of Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Height and the southern region of Daraa.

In Israel, top officials said they cannot corroborate Syrian activists’ claims that the regime has used chemical weapons against its citizens. Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon told Army Radio that Israel has “no confirmation or proof” the regime has employed such weapons in the civil war. He says Israel is “monitoring the situation with concern.”

Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Israel Radio that Syria was closely guarding its chemical weapons stockpiles. On Monday, the Observatory quoted activists in the central city of Homs as saying that six rebels died in two neighborhoods the day before after inhaling white smoke that came out of shells fired by government troops in the area. Amateur videos released by activists showed men in hospital beds suffering breathing problems as doctors placed oxygen masks over their faces.

US, Syria opposition disagree over terrorist label

December 12, 2012

MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — The U.S. and the head of the new Syrian opposition coalition being feted at a conference in Morocco Wednesday publicly disagreed over designating a rebel group as terrorist, highlighting a key dilemma in overthrowing President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Even as the U.S., Europe and its allies recognized the new opposition of the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people to succeed the Assad regime, they have to deal with the fact that some of the greatest battlefield successes are by extremist groups the West does not want to see running the country one day.

The Obama administration designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization Monday, a day before he recognized the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition has been under international pressure for months to form a more representative and organized coalition that could receive international assistance in the battle against Assad. The organization they formed in Doha last November was then formally recognized by 114 countries at the fourth Friends of Syria conference held in Marrakech.

Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East William Burns described the new coalition as the future for Syria that the U.S. wants — democratic, pluralist, inclusive and unified. “The step that we took with regard to the designation of the al-Nusra Front raises an alarm about a very different kind of future for Syria, about a direction that a group like al-Nusra will try to take in Syria to impose its will and threaten the social fabric,” he said, describing the group as a successor to al-Qaida in Iraq.

But the president of that coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, who Burns invited to Washington at the conference, disagreed publicly with blacklisting one of the most successful fighting groups in the war against Assad.

“I say in all transparency that labeling one of the factions fighting the regime as a terrorist organization should be reconsidered,” he said in his speech at the conference’s opening. “We love our country very much, though we may not agree with all factions.”

Jabhat al-Nusra has recently conquered a number of bases from the regime in the north and has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly effective bombings that have hit sensitive government institutions, like a blast near the Interior Ministry on Wednesday that took four lives.

According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, several ministers from the Arab states also disagreed with the U.S. move. In his speech, Khatib did condemn “all forms of extremism” and pledged to protect the countries many religious and sectarian minorities, including the Alawites, a Shiite offshoot from which the Assad family hails. He urged them to join the resistance against the regime.

“We call on them to accept our extended hand and work together against the violence of the regime,” he said. Violence in the 21-month civil war that has claimed 40,000 lives has taken on a sectarian tone in some cases, with the majority Sunnis arrayed against Alawites and other minorities remaining loyal to the regime — a stance encouraged by the Islamic militants among the rebels who consider Shiites heretic.

The conference did succeed in gaining international legitimacy for the new opposition coalition and has further isolated the Assad regime, making it, in the words of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “the most significant” of all the conferences held to support the Syrian people in the past year.

Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million in humanitarian aid, with the U.S. following up with another $14 million in emergency medical care and winter supplies, including medicine, blankets and insulation. The world’s recognition of the Libyan opposition gave it a huge boost in the battle against Moammar Gadhafi last year and paved the way for Western airstrikes. Military intervention does not appear to be an immediate option for Syria, however, where the government has the powerful backing of Russia, China and Iran — though the conference pledged a swift international response if Assad unleashes his chemical weapons stocks against his own people.

According to Jon Wilks, the British special representative to the rebels, the purpose of the conference was not so much about military intervention or even collecting donations, but making sure the new opposition was building institutions that would let them channel the aid and administer the increasing amounts of territory under its control.

“The key point is they are setting up institutions and money is coming, it’s a better situation than three months ago, they are happy, we are happy,” he said, adding that farther down the road for the Cairo-based group would be a provisional government.

Suheir Atassi, one of the vice presidents of the opposition, said in her speech that these structures for delivering aid, free of religious or political affiliations, were now in place across liberated areas, so the most needy during Syria’s cold winters get needed supplies.

The international recognition could also eventually pave the way for other sorts of aid, hinted Fabius, the French minister. “The fact that the coalition, which asks for the right to defend itself, now is being recognized by (many) countries … I think it is an important point,” he said, expressing confidence that “2013 will be the year of the democratic and united Syria.”

Despite the civil war grinding away in Syria, many of the delegates expressed confidence it would just be a matter of time before Assad’s regime fell and there was a need to start planning for an aftermath.

To that end, the conference pledged to set up a post-war reconstruction fund for the country to be administered by Germany and the United Arab Emirates. “With the fighting in Damascus, I believe we are coming close to the end, and there is a shift in the balance of power in Syria,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said at the closing news conference. “We are coming to the point of talking about the post-Assad era.”

According to a representative from Human Rights Watch, there is a strong chance the current human rights violations will pale in comparison to those when the regime falls, which might involve reprisals against former government supporters and wholesale sectarian massacres on the order of Iraq — especially if groups like the now blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra remain powerful.

The new Syrian opposition has to take into account how they are going to manage justice in the “new Iraq,” cautioned Tamara al-Rifai of the rights group. “We are calling on the Syrian delegation to include transitional justice in any political plan they are doing and calling on the international community to help support that,” she said.

US backs new Syrian opposition ahead of conference

December 12, 2012

MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — A Syrian opposition spokesman called for “real support” and not just recognition on Wednesday, hours after the U.S. declared that the new Syrian opposition coalition was the “legitimate representative” of its country’s people.

Speaking as the fourth meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” opened in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, Walid al-Bunni called on the more than a hundred delegates from Europe and the Gulf countries to provide something concrete to help in their battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“Recognition is nice, but we need real support,” said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the conference began. “I will be happy after the conference if we have something for the Syrian people.”

The U.S. move, announced by President Barack Obama late Tuesday, follows that of France and the U.K. The Syrian National Coalition, formed in November during a conference in Doha, Qatar, has been calling for increased international support, including military material for opposition forces battling the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria for nearly two years.

The U.S. and its British allies are not, however, expected to approve military aid, in part over fears of al-Qaida linked rebel units operating in the country. There are also no representatives of the Syrian rebel forces at the conference.

John Wilks, the British special representative to the Syrian opposition, explained that Wednesday’s event was neither a donor conference nor a military aid event but rather an effort to set up opposition institutions so that they could effectively use future aid in a credible manner to administer the areas they control.

“The key point is that they are setting up institutions and money is coming, so it’s a better situation than three months ago — they are happy, we are happy,” he said before the conference began. He said so far Britain had earmarked 50 million pounds ($80 million) of humanitarian aid and 7 million pounds ($11.2 million) non-humanitarian including communications equipment, training and office supplies — but no plans for now for military aid.

“There are big issues concerning legality — intervening in a civil war to overthrow a government is a difficult proposition, to put it mildly,” he said. Obama’s announcement follows his administration’s blacklisting of a militant Syrian rebel group with links to al-Qaida. That step is aimed at blunting the influence of extremists amid fears that the regime may use or lose control of its stockpile of chemical weapons.

The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would represent all of the country’s factions and religions. Yet it had held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrated that it could organize itself in credible fashion.

In particular, Washington had wanted to see the group set up smaller committees that could deal with specific immediate and short-term issues, such as governing parts of Syria under their control and putting in place institutions to address the needs of people once Assad is ousted. Some of those committees could form the basis of a transitional government.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to attend the conference, but cancelled following an illness and will be represented by Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East, William Burns.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday the recognition contradicted earlier international agreements that foresee the “commencement of an all-Syria dialogue” that would include all sides of the conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have died so far.

Jordan Prince Scorned For Participating In Jewish Event

by Adam Nicky

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anti-normalization groups up in arms over British fundraiser

AMMAN: Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan found himself in hot water this week after his participation in a Jewish charity event in the UK last month was exposed in local media.

Hassan, the uncle of King Abdullah II, was in headlines for the wrong reasons after he addressed a fundraising event on November 21 for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which Israeli figures also attended. The prince was pictured alongside the organization’s president, Vivian Wineman, and treasurer, Laurence Brass.

In a country where anti-Israeli sentiment runs high and most of the 7.5 million citizens are Palestinians, the move was viewed as a flagrant disregard for public sensitivities. What added insult to injury is the fact that the event was held less than a week after the end of hostilities between Israeli and Hamas in the Gaza Strip which claimed civilian lives on both sides.

In his speech, Hassan insisted that the Jordanian monarchy will remain in power despite the recent large demonstrations against recent price hikes that have rocked the nation.

“We are not in it for prestige,” Prince Hassan told the British guests. “I genuinely feel we are there for the sake of human dignity.”

King Abdullah was originally scheduled to attend the event, but cancelled without giving a reason.

Anti-Israel activists have called on the royal family to distance itself from the prince’s action. The National Anti-Normalization Committee, which lobbies against normal relations with Israel, blasted Hassan.

“We condemn Prince Hassan’s participation as it represents free service to the Zionist enemy and harms national causes as well as the prince himself and the royal family,” read the organization’s statement.

“This is a provocation of the feelings of all Jordanians,” added the statement, which was overlooked by most pro-government media.

It is rare for the organization to criticize a member of the royal family.

At least one editor at a major Arabic-language daily confirmed to The Media Line that it received instructions from security authorities to ignore the statement about the prince due to what he said was “sensitive times.”

Activist Dr. Anis Khasawneh vilified the prince and called for an apology.

“What I find astonishing is that the prince challenges the feelings of Jordanians by collecting donations for Israel. Why does he act in such an arrogant manner?” he asked.

Khasawneh said Hassan was poised to become leader of Jordan in the past and ended up helping the enemies of the entire Arab nation.

Government sources played down the significance of Hassan’s involvement in the event and tried to defend the prince’s action, insisting that his participation was designed to lobby for the resumption of peace talks and put pressure on Israel to commit to its political obligation, as part of a dialogue between religions.

The official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the prince left the meeting before Israeli officials took to the podium to address the audience, and had only “scorning words for Israel’s actions in the peace process.”

Although Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, dealing with Israeli officials remains a social and political taboo, with several lobby groups campaigning against improving ties between the two countries.

At least two major labor organizations also object to normalization with Israel. Opposition parties, including the Islamist movement, draw support from Jordanians who are against the peace treaty with Israel.

Hamzah Mansour, president of the National Anti-Normalization Committee and secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, expressed his disappointment over the prince’s actions.

“I urge all Jordanians – the honorable ones – to end dealing with this enemy. The Israelis have no interest in talking. They only understand the language of the sword,” he said in response to diplomatic ties between Jordan and Israel.

“We must scrap the peace treaty because Israel has no interest in making peace,” he told The Media Line.

Meanwhile, the National Anti-Normalization Committee has accused brokers of doing business with Israeli firms that buy Jordanian products and sell them under Israeli labels. Figures from the Jordanian Department of Statistics show that exports to Israel during the first eight months of 2012 stood at some $48 million, a drop from $54 million in 2011. Imports increased from $65 million to $69 million during the same period.

In Amman’s bustling central fruit and vegetable market, farmers and brokers had mixed views about dealing with Israel. Some said they would rather throw their produce into the garbage than sell it to Israelis. Others believe they have no choice due to limited markets.

Abu Emad, a 56-year-old broker, said he sells to whoever pays the most in his auction.

“The government did not find us new markets. The Syrian crisis was a disaster for us. Now we have to sell to anyone,” he said, before starting an auction of newly-arrived olives.

“The prince did what he had to do. He’s a politician and Jordan cannot survive if officials do not talk to all kinds of people, including Jews,” he concluded.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Extremists among Syrian rebels who seized base

December 11, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels including Islamic extremists took full control of a sprawling military base Tuesday after a bloody two-day battle that killed 35 soldiers, activists said. It was the latest gain by opposition forces bolstered by an al-Qaida-linked group that has provided skilled fighters but raised concerns in the West.

The Sheik Suleiman military base was the second major base captured in the north by the rebels, who also are making inroads farther south toward the capital, Damascus. In other violence, dozens of people were reported injured or killed in Aqrab, a village in central Hama province, in a series of explosions. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the bloodshed, citing activists in the area, but had no immediate death toll or details on who was to blame.

Fighters from jihadi groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, were among those doing battle in the rebel ranks as they took control of Sheik Suleiman base, near the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Observatory and other activists.

The presence of the jihadi groups has raised concerns in the U.S. and other nations that are supporting the opposition in Syria but do not want to see extremists gain power in the region. The U.S. this week blacklisted al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization and said the group was part of al-Qaida in Iraq.

But al-Nusra fighters appear to be among the most effective fighting forces on the rebel side, spearheading many of the recent gains. The U.S. terror designation freezes any assets members of al-Nusra may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bars Americans from providing the group with material support. It’s largely symbolic because the group is not thought to have holdings or support in the United States, but officials hope the penalties will encourage others to take similar action and discourage Syrians from joining.

The administration took further action Tuesday against extremists on both sides, with the Treasury Department setting separate sanctions against two senior al-Nusra leaders and two militant groups operating under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Two commanders of the pro-regime shabiha force also were targeted.

“We will target the pro-Assad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition,” said David S. Cohen, the department’s sanctions chief. The battle for Sheik Suleiman military base ended when the rebels took over the site’s main compound and warehouses that housed a military research center. They had first breached the base perimeter on Sunday afternoon, after weeks of fighting with soldiers loyal to Assad, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria. The Observatory said 35 soldiers were killed but did not give figures on rebel casualties.

Also Tuesday in Aleppo — the country’s largest city and commercial center — four mortar rounds hit the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Sheik Maksoud, killing 11, including three children and two women, and wounding a dozen other people, the Observatory said.

The reports of violence could not be confirmed as the government restricts independent reporting in the country. The conflict started nearly 21 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

Western officials have raised concerns that an increasingly desperate Assad might unleash his chemical weapons stockpiles against rebels in an act of desperation. Last week U.S. officials said there was evidence that Syrian forces had begun preparing sarin, a nerve agent, for possible use in bombs.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the possible use of chemical weapons against rebel targets. Speaking to reporters flying with him from Washington to Kuwait, Panetta suggested the threat was no longer escalating, although he was not specific about any Syrian military preparations.

“At this point the intelligence has really kind of leveled off,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way.” Asked whether he believed Assad was heeding Western warnings against using chemical weapons, Panetta said: “I like to believe he’s got the message. We’ve made it pretty clear. Others have as well.”

He noted that the Assad regime is coming under increasing pressure from rebel forces. “Our concern is that if they feel like the regime is threatened with collapse, they might resort to these kinds of weapons,” he said.

Syria is believed to have a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas, although its exact dimensions are not known. Syria is not a signatory to the 1997 Convention on Chemical Weapons and thus is not obliged to permit international inspection.

The government in Damascus has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people. “Syria doesn’t own any internationally banned weapons, whether chemical, nuclear or biological,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told Al-Manar TV, a station owned by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is a Syrian ally. “Even if Syria possessed such weapons, it will not use them for moral reasons.”

He said Western statements are similar to those that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq that accused Saddam Hussein of hiding weapons of mass destruction. After the U.S.-led invasion, no such weapons were found.

The Obama administration is getting ready to tighten its ties to Syria’s main opposition group, the newly formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, at an international conference on the crisis in Morocco this week. The move will pave the way for greater U.S. support for those seeking to oust Assad while the administration tries to blunt the influence of extremists.

Jabhat al-Nusra is a shadowy group with an al-Qaida-style ideology whose fighters come from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere. Many are veterans of previous wars who came to Syria for what they consider a new “jihad” or “holy war” against Assad.

But several hundred fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra — Arabic for “the Support Front” — have also been a valued addition to rebel ranks in the grueling battle for control of Aleppo. The group also has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings on Syrian government targets.

Jabhat al-Nusra is the largest grouping of foreign jihadis in Syria, and the rebels say they number about 300 fighters in Aleppo, as well as branches in neighboring Idlib province, the city of Homs and Damascus. U.S. and Iraqi officials also have said they believe members of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq have crossed the border to join the fight against Assad.

Also Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees registered by the United Nations in the Middle East and North Africa has surpassed half a million. The figure is climbing by more than 3,000 per day, UNHCR said. According to UNHCR’s latest figures from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and North Africa, more than 500,000 Syrians are either already registered or in the process of being registered.

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Kuwait City. AP writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report from Sidon, Lebanon.

Palestinian Artist Chips Away at the Wall

by Diana Atallah

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Khaled Jarrar performs art and activism from concrete pieces cut from Israel’s security barrier

In a small gallery in an ancient house in the village of Qalandiya, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Khaled Jarrar stands alongside his latest art project placed on a podium: a small soccer ball made of cement. But not just any cement – this cement had been cut out of the barrier built by Israel separating the West Bank from Israel.

For the Palestinian artist, a 36-year-old father of two, the Israeli-built structure – known to Israel’s critics by the ten-per cent portion of the 435-mile structure where it manifests as a 26-foot tall concrete wall — is simply an act of oppression that he wants to resist through art.

As adults and children stare at and touch the ball in amazement, a film called “Concrete” rolls in the background of Jarrar’s corner at the Qalandiya International Art Festival, a two-week series of events held in several West Bank cities during November.

The film shows Jarrar – a tall man – chipping away at the wall on a hot day using simple tools, then collecting the pieces. Finally, it shows a photo of the finished project. Some congratulate the artist on his idea while others approach him with questions about how, where and why he carried out his project.

Jarrar explained that he cut the pieces of concrete from the wall one hot August day in Bir Nabalah, a West Bank town northeast of Jerusalem, from an area of the structure alongside a drawing of a heart and the name, “Thaer.” “I found the heart and the name, and they looked interesting to me,” he says.

Jarrar worked quickly and cautiously as he harvested the material would become his work of art. “I looked for a section of the wall that doesn’t have high security towers or cameras.”

In 20 minutes, he had removed the wall parts as his friends documented the process by video.

CONTROVERSIAL BARRIER

Ten years ago, Israel started building the barrier at the height of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, for which the suicide bomber became the symbol following dozens of attacks carried out by Palestinians against Israeli targets.

Palestinians charge that the barrier has been used to annex Palestinian lands and isolate Palestinians from their relatives, neighbors and farm land. The route of the barrier holds mostly along the Green Line, the 1949 Armistice line that until the 1967 war marked the borders of Israeli and Arab lands. The Palestinians claim all of the land inside the pre-1967 borders and reject any alterations that confiscate chunks of territory east of the line. The Palestinians define their state-to-be as including the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, which they insist will serve as the Palestinian capital.

Among Israelis, even those who opposed the barrier in principle agree it has prevented infiltration by terrorists, pointing to an overwhelming reduction in bombings since construction of the fence began.

The 480-mile long barrier is technically still under construction, although the construction has almost stopped on the ground with fewer attackers and several court-ordered building halts.

“Around 13% of the barrier is a 8-12-meter [26-foot] high grey cement wall with military watchtowers that are built in inhabited areas with sizeable populations or in close proximity, preventing them from overseeing the areas behind the wall,” said Issa Zboun, director of Geo-Informatics unit at Arij Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem.

Zboun told The Media Line that 90% of the barrier is a double-layered structure reinforced with barbed wire, trenches, military roads and a 4-5 meter [2-3 feet] high electrified metal fence equipped with security surveillance cameras. Zboun added that Palestinians are prohibited from building within 200 meters of the barrier on the Palestinian side, and that some communities are left isolated from the West Bank and do not have access to Israel.

“The Wall Must Fall” has become a common slogan in demonstrations in the West Bank. Some Palestinian villages such as Bil’in, Na’alin and Ma’sara arrange weekly demonstrations against the barrier where confrontations with the Israeli army regularly occur. In 2009, residents of the village of Budrus on the outskirts of Ramallah succeeded in altering the barrier’s route as the villagers participated in almost daily protests to prevent the Israeli authorities from building it through their lands.

ARTISTIC PROTEST

Jarrar suggests that his project is the first attempt by a Palestinian to recycle the wall. “It’s actually ‘up-cycling’ because you elevate it into something better,” he says.

The first soccer ball he made was sold at the FIAC contemporary art fair in Paris in October, which Jarrar credits with planting the seed of his creativity: an invitation to participate in FIAC’s object-themed event. Jarrar was at home when the idea hit him. “My son was playing with his small soccer ball, and I asked him to give it to me.” In his studio near his house, he made the pieces smaller, added new cement, and then opened the soccer ball and poured the mixture into it.

“I was very anxious that night and couldn’t wait for the mixture to dry. I thought I might not make it because I only had three days before the travel time. But when I peeled the covers from the ball I knew I had succeeded. I covered the ball with newspapers and put it in my luggage on my way out of the country through the Allenby crossing to Jordan.”

“A source of separation can become a source of unity,” he said in explanation of his concept. “I thought I need to cut parts off the wall because it is an influential object in our lives, but cutting pieces from the wall wasn’t creative enough,” Jarrar told The Media Line.

“Maybe it’s dangerous”, he said, hesitantly. “I don’t know – I think it’s ok to be afraid, but danger is not far from our lives here,” he added gloomily.

In 2004, two years after the barrier’s construction began, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that it was illegal under international law, concluding that Israel must dismantle it and pay compensation for the losses and damages it caused.

Several artists, including the famous British graffiti artist Banksy, have painted on the wall. One of Banksy’s drawings is of a girl holding balloons and flying over the wall.

During the Qalandiya International Festival, 25-year-old artist Majd Abdul Hamid also used parts of the wall in his project. He grounded pieces from the wall and used them in an hour-glass. Abdul Hamid, who graduated from the International Academy of Art: Palestine; and the Swedish Art Academy of Malmo; told The Media Line that he worked on his idea with a creative art director from Jaba’ village near Jerusalem who lives near the wall.

“Sometimes the sand takes 20 minutes to pass, and sometimes 17 minutes,” he says. “It is not constant. Who knows how long the wait is going to be?”

“The wall looks nicer from the Israeli side, but nevertheless I don’t want to draw on the wall from the Palestinian side because I am against beautifying an ugly side of the occupation,” said Jarrar.

Jarrar was raised in the northern West Bank city of Jenin. He began his career as a carpenter in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, a craft he learned from his father and later received his formal art training at Palestinian institutions.

“I want to show the world that Palestinians can use occupation as an economic means,” he says. “We can sustain ourselves from the wall.”

Jarrar decided to open his first gallery near an Israeli checkpoint outside of Nablus. In 2007, he affixed his photos to a portable wall that he placed near the Hawara checkpoint and called the mobile exhibition, “At the Checkpoint.”

Jarrar has gained recognition among foreigners, many of whom know him as “the stamp granter,” asking visitors at the Jerusalem-Ramallah bus station if he could stamp their passports with a stamp of his design as they entered “Palestine.”

His documentary, four years in the making, will debut in December at the Dubai International Film Festival. Entitled, “Infiltrators,” the film depicts a woman’s journey from the West Bank to Jerusalem for prayer and work.

“I am close to the wall and know the problems people face because of it, and want to convey this message to the world,” he says.

However, cutting out concrete from the wall is illegal, and the video shot by his friends can potentially expose Jarrar to legal jeopardy and even danger as international requests for “wall art” continue to mount.

Jarrar rejects Israel’s justification of the barrier on security grounds. “I don’t think the wall was built for security but for racist separation,” he says.

But a spokesman for Israel’s Defense Ministry told The Media Line that, “During the Second Palestinian uprising, between the years of 2000 and 2005, Israel lost over 1,000 citizens in terror attacks, suicide bombings, shootings, stabbings and other forms of indiscriminate terror. Since the construction of the fence began, this number has dropped sharply. The fence is not impregnable. It is possible that some terrorists will manage to get past the barrier; nevertheless, the obstacle makes it far more difficult for incursions, and thereby minimizes the number of attacks.”  The spokesman emphasized the point with an illustration: “Before the construction of the fence, a suicide bomber could literally walk from Qalqilya [a Palestinian city] into Kfar Sava [in Israel], or drive for 20 minutes and be in the heart of Tel Aviv. For half a decade, buses and cafes were exploding on a regular basis; today that is not the case.”

Jarrar says that as an artist his message is to show the injustice through his art.

“The wall is a source of separation that I wish will fall down eventually, but the ball unites people.”

“I want to show how the wall is separating families, affecting the lives of Palestinians and harming the environment,” he says, adding that he hopes people will sell pieces of the wall one day, “just like the Germans did in Berlin.”

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