Archive for August 24th, 2013

Israel frees 26 Palestinian prisoners before talks

August 14, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel released 26 Palestinian inmates, including many convicted in grisly killings, on the eve of long-stalled Mideast peace talks, angering families of those slain by the prisoners, who were welcomed as heroes in the West Bank and Gaza.

Buses carrying the inmates departed the Ayalon prison in central Israel late Tuesday, a nighttime release that was aimed at preventing the spectacle of prisoners flashing victory signs as has happened in the past. Relatives of the victims, many with their hands painted red to symbolize what they say is the blood on the hands of the inmates, held protests throughout the day, and some protesters tried briefly to block the buses from leaving.

The decision to release the men stirred anguish in Israel, where many Israelis view them as terrorists. Most of the prisoners were convicted of killings, including Israeli civilians, soldiers and suspected Palestinian collaborators, while others were involved in attempted murder or kidnapping.

Celebrations erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinian well-wishers awaited the buses’ arrival. Palestinians generally view the prisoners as heroes regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

Fireworks lit the sky in Gaza, where rival Hamas and Fatah supporters, including several masked gunmen, celebrated to the beat of drums. Some danced while others flashed victory signs and waved flags of the Palestinian factions. Cars with loudspeakers blasted nationalistic songs.

“Today is a day of joy and happiness. I can’t wait until I hug my beloved son,” said Aicha Abu Setta, the 68-year-old mother of freed prisoner Alla Abu Setta. “I am so excited that he will be free and he will spend his first night among us after more than 20 years,” she said, clutching a picture of her 43-year-old son, who was arrested in 1994, charged, along with his cousin, of killing a soldier.

Palestinians hurled rocks at the Israeli military vehicles escorting the bus convoy as it reached the crossing to the West Bank after 1 a.m. About a thousand people took to the streets of Ramallah in celebration, singing and dancing. The released prisoners were met with hugs from well-wishers. They were greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas personally at the presidential compound and later laid a wreath at the grave of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Abbas delivered a short speech congratulating the prisoners and said he will “not rest until they are all released.” There are about 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails. “You are just the beginning and the rest will come,” Abbas said.

Tuesday’s release was part of an agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralyzed since 2008. In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four batches, although their freedom is contingent on progress in peace talks.

Israelis and Palestinians are to launch talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington. Among those released Tuesday was a Palestinian convicted in the 1994 slaying of Isaac Rotenberg, a 69-year-old Holocaust survivor who was attacked with an ax as he was working at a construction site where he was a contractor. Others were convicted in the slayings of Ian Feinberg, an Israeli lawyer killed in a European aid office in Gaza in 1993, and Frederick Rosenfeld, an American slain while hiking in the West Bank in 1989.

Thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons since Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967. They were jailed on charges ranging from throwing rocks to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks.

On Monday, Israel’s prison service posted the names online of the first 26 inmates to be released to allow for possible court appeals. Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by families of those killed by the prisoners earlier Tuesday.

The fate of the prisoners is extremely emotional in Palestinian society. After decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned and the release of prisoners has been a longstanding demand.

Most of the inmates already have served around 20 years, with the longest-held arrested in 1985. Fourteen of the prisoners were released to the Gaza Strip and 12 to the West Bank. Palestinians argue that the 104 prisoners slated for release carried out their acts at a time of conflict, before Israel and the Palestinians struck their first interim peace agreement in 1994. They say Israel should have released them long ago, as part of previous peace talks.

Earlier Tuesday, Israel angered Palestinians when it announced it was moving forward with building nearly 900 new settlement homes in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians had refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless it halted settlement construction in territory it wants for a future state. Israel has refused, insisting that settlements and other core issues be resolved through talks.

After six trips to the region, Kerry managed to persuade Abbas to drop the settlement issue as a condition for negotiations to start. In exchange, Israel agreed to the prisoner release. The Palestinians argue the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, are making it increasingly difficult to carve out their state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel’s settlement plans are a slap in the face of the Palestinians and Kerry. “It is not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome,” she said.

Ashrawi urged Kerry “to stand up to Israel” and deliver a tough response. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the Palestinian claim. “The Palestinians know that Israel rejected their demands of a settlement freeze as a precondition to these talks, they cannot say otherwise,” Regev said. “The construction that the Israeli government authorized is all in Jerusalem and the large blocs, in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible final status agreement and this construction that has been authorized in no way changes the final map of peace.”

Kerry said he spoke with Netanyahu Tuesday morning. “We had a very frank and open discussion on the issue of settlements,” he said. “Let me make it clear. The policy of the United States with respect to all settlements is that they are illegitimate and we oppose settlements taking place anytime.”

The latest construction is to take place in Gilo, an area in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, is not internationally recognized.

The housing plan, which received initial approval last year, would expand Gilo’s boundaries further toward a Palestinian neighborhood. The plans for 900 housing units in Gilo come in addition to an earlier announcement this week of some 1,200 other settlement homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in the Gaza Strip and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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Top Syria rebel visits fighters in Assad homeland

August 12, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — The military commander of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group visited rebels in the coastal province that is President Bashar Assad’s ancestral homeland following recent opposition advances in the area, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Over the past week, rebel fighters in Latakia province have swept through a string of villages that are populated by members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The advances have not shifted the strategic balance in the area, but they did embarrass the regime in a region that has been under tight government control since the Syrian revolt began more than two years ago.

Assad’s forces have launched a counteroffensive to try to dislodge the rebels, and activists say fighting is raging over several villages in the mountainous region. In a video posted on the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s Facebook page, rebel military chief Gen. Salim Idris walks with a small group of fighters through hilly terrain. Dressed in civilian clothes with a shoulder holster and a pistol, Idris tells them that he visited the front to see the “important achievements and great victories that were made by our brother rebels in the coast.”

“We are here to confirm that the command is fully coordinating with the coastal command,” he said. Coalition spokeswoman Sarah Karkour said the visit to Latakia took place Sunday. She did not specify whether he went to the newly captured territory.

Idris is the leader of the Coalition’s Supreme Military Council, a loose umbrella group of more secular-minded opposition brigades that serves as the main conduit for Western aid to rebels fighting to oust the Assad regime. He has little more than nominal control, however, over the hundreds of rebel factions that make up the constellation of opposition forces on the ground.

The most effective and efficient rebel groups — the Islamic extremist factions — don’t even recognize Idris’ authority. In recent months, there have been a rising number of clashes between al-Qaida-linked factions and more moderate opposition brigades. The infighting has undermined the opposition’s overall effort to topple the Assad regime.

Despite their ideological differences, Islamic extremist groups and more secular-minded rebels also frequently coordinate their efforts when its suits them and there is a mutual benefit. That has been the case in Latakia, activists say, where more moderate rebel groups fighting alongside al-Qaida-linked jihadi factions, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, captured 11 Alawite villages last week.

The offensive forced residents of the villages to flee their homes and left at least 60 civilians dead, activists say. Another 400 civilians, mostly Alawites, are missing and are presumed to be in rebel custody in the area, according to activists who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The gains in Latakia by anti-Assad fighters have provided a small boost to the opposition after weeks of government victories in central Syria and around the capital, Damascus.

Israeli pain, Palestinian joy over inmate release

August 13, 2013

BRUKIN, West Bank (AP) — Mustafa al-Haj expected to die in an Israeli prison for killing an American-born settler hiking in the West Bank in 1989. Now lights decorate his home to celebrate the planned release of the 45-year-old and more than 100 other Palestinian convicts in a deal that revived Mideast peace talks.

While the Palestinians are joyful, the decision to free the inmates has stirred anger in Israel where victims’ families say it is an insult to their loved ones. Israel published the names of 26 men, including al-Haj, to be freed before the first round of talks Wednesday. In all, 104 prisoners have been slated for release in four tranches over a period of nine months that the U.S. has set aside for negotiations. But their freedom is contingent on progress in the talks.

The Israelis have granted early release to Palestinian prisoners in the past, including in swaps. The upcoming round, however, has sparked particularly high-pitched debate because it was linked to resuming talks and many of those to be freed were involved in deadly attacks.

Gila Molcho said the release of one of three men involved in the stabbing death of her brother in 1993 was opening old wounds. Her brother, Ian Feinberg, was killed in the European aid office in Gaza City where he was working as a lawyer.

“My brother’s blood is being sold for nothing, as a gesture,” Molcho said. “On a very personal level, there is pain.” Palestinians argue that those slated for release were acting during a time of conflict, before the two sides struck their first interim peace agreement in 1994, and that Israel should have freed them in previous rounds of negotiations.

“We used violence and the Israelis used violence,” said Kadoura Fares, who heads an advocacy group for prisoners and, like many of those to be released, is a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.

Fares noted that the number of Palestinians, including civilians, who were killed by Israeli troops in wars and uprisings over the past two decades far outstrips the number of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks.

In the first and second Palestinian uprisings, more than 1,200 Israelis and just under 5,000 Palestinians were killed. The two sides are now making their third major attempt since 2000 to agree on the terms of the Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but are willing to make some adjustments.

The last round of substantive talks was held in 2008, but a dispute over settlements kept the two sides away from the table until now. The Palestinians are entering Wednesday’s talks with renewed distrust, after Israel promoted Jewish settlements on war-won lands the Palestinians want for their state in three major announcements over the course of a week.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Marie Harf praised Israel’s decision to release prisoners as a “positive step.” She said the Obama administration also raised serious concerns about the latest settlement plans with the Israeli government.

Abbas had insisted on a construction freeze in settlements, deemed illegal by most of the international community, before going back to negotiations. However, U.S. mediators failed to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to comply and Abbas relented.

As compensation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered the prisoner release and, according to Abbas aides, assured the Palestinians that the U.S. views Israel’s pre-1967 lines as a starting point for border talks, even if Netanyahu does not.

Kerry said Monday in Bogota that he didn’t think the settlements issue would create a large bump in the road to the talks, which are set to resume on Wednesday. “As the world, I hope knows, the U.S. views the settlements as illegitimate and we have communicated that policy very clearly to Israel,” he said.

“I think that what this underscores, actually, is the importance of getting to the table and getting to the table quickly and resolving the questions with respect to settlements, which are best resolved by solving the problems of security and borders. Once you have security and borders solved, you have resolved the question of settlements.”

Abbas is returning to talks amid widespread skepticism among Palestinians, but the prisoner release — an emotional consensus issue — could make up for that. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons since 1967, on charges ranging from throwing stones and membership in outlawed organizations to involvement in attacks. Palestinians tend to view prisoners as heroes, regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

In Israel, many consider those involved in the killings as terrorists, and some of the attacks are engraved in the nation’s collective memory. This includes the death of Amnon Pomerantz, a 46-year-old Israeli reserve sergeant who in 1990 made a wrong turn and ended up driving into Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp with his car marked by yellow Israeli license plates.

Pomerantz was stoned and tried to drive away in a panic, but his car rammed into a donkey cart and injured two youngsters. This was followed by another barrage of stones and gasoline-soaked rags that set his car on fire. Pomerantz burned to death.

Another victim is Isaac Rotenberg, who survived the Nazi death camp of Sobibor, fought alongside partisans and made it to Israel after World War II. In 1994, at age 69, the contractor was killed with an ax from behind while at a construction site, his son Pini said, adding he finds it difficult to fathom that one of his father’s killers is going free.

“It’s painful to pay such a heavy price just as a concession for talks,” he said. In the summer of 1989, al-Haj — who made the first list of those to be released — was with two friends when they encountered 48-year-old Frederick Rosenfeld, during a West Bank hike, chatted with him and even posed for pictures before stabbing him to death.

Rosenfeld had immigrated to Israel from Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s and eventually moved to the Jewish settlement of Ariel, near the West Bank town of Brukin. In Brukin, al-Haj’s family did not want to speak in detail about Rosenfeld as they decorated his West Bank home with chains of lights ahead of his anticipated homecoming.

“I wish he hadn’t killed that man and that he hadn’t gone to jail for those long years, but this is God’s will,” Hamza al-Haj, 55, said of his younger brother. “This was a war time, in which people kill each other. You can’t define one as a criminal and one as a victim.”

Hamza said his brother was an activist in the first Palestinian uprising, which lasted for six years and ended with a historic accord of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.

The family now hopes Mustafa, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in a correspondence course, can start a family and find a job. In Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, Fatima Nashabat, 48, said she is counting the hours until the release of her husband, Mohammed, 52, who has spent 23 years in prison as an accessory in the killing of Pomerantz, the reserve soldier.

“Last night, when they said he will be in the first group, our house turned into a big dance floor,” said the mother of four. “We were cheering and singing.”

Laub reported in Jericho, West Bank. Associated Press writers Ian Deitch and Max J. Rosenthal in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, and Deb Riechmann in Bogota contributed to this report.

Gunmen abduct 2 Turkish Airlines crew in Lebanon

August 09, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen ambushed a van Friday carrying a Turkish Airlines crew in the Lebanese capital, kidnapping a pilot and a co-pilot in an attack that appeared linked to the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria.

Six gunmen stopped the vehicle on an old airport road in Beirut, abducting the two Turkish nationals and letting the rest of the crew go, officials said. The van was travelling between Rafik Hariri International Airport and a Beirut hotel when the ambush took place, said the Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Lebanon’s state news agency said a group called the Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group, which was previously unknown, said in a statement carried by the National News Agency that the pilots “will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return.”

The civil war in neighboring Syria has deeply divided the Lebanese. The Syrian rebels, who are backed by Turkey, have been holding nine Lebanese Shiites hostage since last year. There have been other kidnappings on both sides since the war began.

A representative for the Lebanese hostages’ families said that there was “no relationship between the kidnapping of Turkish pilots and case of Lebanese hostages in Syria,” the NNA reported. However, Sheik Abbas Zougheib of the Higher Shiite Councils said if the abduction “is to settle the question of Lebanese abducted in Syria, we support it,” according to the news service.

The Turkish crew had landed a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul early Friday morning, the Lebanese officials told The Associated Press. Authorities were investigating and the road where the kidnapping occurred has been closed off with several police checkpoints, the officials said.

The NNA reported earlier that the driver of the van was being questioned and that eight gunmen were involved in the abduction. The difference in the number of the attackers in the report and the Lebanese officials’ account could not immediately be explained.

In Turkey, Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu confirmed the kidnapping. He said the rest of the crew was still in Beirut but were leaving to return to Turkey on Friday evening. “We don’t know who did this and for what purpose,” Gumrukcu said. He said the Turkish government was in close contact with Lebanese officials over the abduction.

Turkey supports the Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam. A spokesman for Turkish Airlines Ali Genc identified the two pilots as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca. Genc did not offer any other information.

The Lebanese are deeply divided over Syria’s civil war, with Shiites largely supporting the regime in Damascus and Sunnis backing the rebels. Both Sunni militants, and fighters from Lebanon’s dominant Shiite Hezbollah group, have been fighting on opposite sides in the conflict.

The conflict in Syria that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since it erupted in March 2011. The fighting frequently has spilled into Lebanon.

Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.

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