Archive for January 4th, 2014

Israel frees Palestinian prisoners despite protest

December 31, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel released more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners convicted in deadly attacks against Israelis early Tuesday as part of a U.S.-brokered package to restart Mideast peace talks.

After departing on buses from Israeli jails overnight, the prisoners received hero’s welcomes upon their return to the West Bank and Gaza with officials and jubilant relatives lining up to greet them. At his headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waited to meet the men in the middle of the night. Speaking before thousands, he pledged to continue pressing for the release of long-serving and ill prisoners.

“We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released,” he said. In Israel, though, the release was accompanied by great anger and frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a public uproar from all directions over the move.

With Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements, the criticism came from some unlikely quarters. Dovish supporters of peace talks said the expected construction would destroy any goodwill created by the prisoner release, while hard-line allies criticized Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted in connection with killings, mostly of Israelis.

“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party on Monday. “We were not elected to make easy decisions.” Under a formula drawn up by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel agreed last summer to release a total of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their longstanding demand for Israel to halt construction of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 that they claim for their future state. The Palestinians say they have received vague assurances that Israel would show restraint while the talks continue until an April target date for an agreement.

The latest prisoner release is the third of four planned stages. The release was carried out by Israel overnight to avoid the larger spectacle of having to witness the celebrations over the killers’ freedom.

All 26 of the men have been convicted in deadly attacks, and have spent between 19 and 28 years in prison. They included 18 men from the West Bank, three Gazans, and in a concession by Israel, five men from east Jerusalem.

Israel considers east Jerusalem to be part of its capital and has previously balked at allowing the Palestinians to negotiate on behalf of prisoners living in what it considers to be Israeli territory. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized, and the vast majority of Arab residents in the area hold residency rights but are not Israeli citizens.

The coming releases generated excitement throughout Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as heroes and freedom fighters. Families decorated their homes and neighborhoods with posters of their loved ones who were returning home and planned large feasts.

The family of Ahmed Shihadeh was busy preparing a welcoming celebration in the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank. Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.

His mother Haseba, 75, said she has “spent my life” visiting her son, but hasn’t been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk. “I’ve visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit,” she said.

In the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal al-Mukaber, the sound of kettle drums and ululating women filled the air as residents braced for the return of Jamal Abu Jamal, who has spent nearly 20 years in prison for a stabbing attack.

Women holding Abu Jamal’s picture sang and danced in circles and praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for securing his release. His mother Rayouf, 77, who is unable to speak after suffering two strokes, sat in a chair with tears in her eyes.

“Since she heard the news, she’s getting better,” said Abu Jamal’s sister Huda. “I can’t express how happy she is.” Israeli opponents of the prisoner release have staged days of protests against the releases. A group representing the families appealed to the Supreme Court to block the release. It was rejected late Monday, allowing the releases to continue.

In an apparent attempt to blunt domestic criticism of such releases, Netanyahu is expected to approve plans to build 1,400 new homes in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the coming days. The Palestinians say such construction undermines peace efforts, and have appealed to the U.S. to block the expected announcement. The U.S. and the European Union have harshly criticized settlement announcements during the current round of negotiations, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at one point questioning Israel’s commitment to peace. Kerry is expected back in the region this week in another effort to breathe life into the negotiations.

But Netanyahu indicated he would not back down. “In these negotiations we are faced with our essential interests, including guaranteeing the settlements in the land of Israel,” he said. Netanyahu’s decision to press forward with settlement construction at such a sensitive time has drawn criticism from all directions.

Amir Peretz, a Cabinet minister with the dovish “Movement” party, said the painful site of watching convicted killers walk free could have been avoided had Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement construction.

“I would have preferred to freeze settlement building rather than releasing (Palestinian) prisoners but at this point we must allow this stage to move forward, we must not do anything to prevent it,” he said.

Settler leader Dani Dayan, on the other hand, said the timing of a new settlement announcement looked bad. “The linkage between the release of convicted terrorists and the construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria puts an unnecessary stain on the construction,” he said.

The “original sin,” he added, was agreeing to release any prisoners in the first place. “Israel should have rejected the notion that it has to pay a price for negotiations,” he said. In another move that could upset peace efforts, a committee of Israeli Cabinet ministers approved a bill Sunday that would annex a section of the West Bank near the Jordanian border to Israel. Netanyahu has said Israel must maintain a presence in the area, known as the Jordan Valley, as a security measure. Even so, it appears unlikely the bill, supported by hard-line lawmakers unhappy with peace efforts, will receive parliamentary approval.

Speaking in Ramallah, Abbas rejected the move. “This is Palestinian land and we will not let them do it,” he said. Israeli commentators questioned Netanyahu’s judgment in pushing forward with more settlements.

“If Netanyahu has already undertaken to make this goodwill gesture, it would be best if he were to enjoy the international dividend that comes with it and not ruin things with a populist announcement about new construction,” wrote Shimon Shiffer, a columnist with the Yediot Ahronot daily. “Netanyahu is like a cow that gives a bucket-full of milk, only to kick the bucket over.”

Mohammed Daraghmeh and Dalia Nammari contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.

Push to recruit Arab Christians into Israeli army

December 27, 2013

NAZARETH, Israel (AP) — Dozens of Israeli soldiers respectfully rose from their seats as the Israeli national anthem began playing. The tinny recording of “Hatikva,” an ode to the Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel, wrapped up a ceremony, held in Hebrew, during which speakers thanked the troops and handed out awards.

It looked like a typical motivational gathering for soldiers of the Jewish state — except that nearly all those in uniform weren’t Jews and Hebrew wasn’t their first language. They were Christian Arabs, a minority that has historically viewed itself as part of the Palestinian people and considered service in the army as taboo.

The gathering — a pre-Christmas nod to Christian soldiers, who nibbled on cookies and chocolate Santas — was part of a new push by Israel’s government and a Greek Orthodox priest to persuade more Christians to enlist.

The campaign has set off an emotional debate about identity among Christians, a tiny minority within Israel’s predominantly Muslim Arab minority. So far the numbers of Christian Arabs enlisting is negligible, but with the community’s fate possibly at stake, tempers have flared and each side has accused the other of using scare tactics and incitement.

Father Gabriel Nadaf, the priest promoting enlistment, said Christians must serve in the army if they want to integrate into Israeli society and win access to jobs. “I believe in the shared fate of the Christian minority and the Jewish state,” he told the conference, held at a local hotel.

His spokesman warned that unlike Israel, the rest of the Middle East is a dangerous place for Christians. “They are burning churches, they are slaughtering them (Christians), they are raping the girls,” said the aide, Shadi Khalloul, referring to the targeting of Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere by Islamic militants.

Arab Christians opposed to army service — the large majority in the community, according to its spokesmen — say the real goal is to divide and weaken Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs, made up of Muslims, Christians and Druze, who follow a secretive offshoot of Islam.

“It’s an old Zionist scheme,” said Basel Ghattas, a Christian Arab member of parliament. “Christians are an inseparable part of the Arab community, and they will not let this pass.” Israeli Arabs, who make up just over one-fifth of Israel’s 8 million people, are part of the patchwork of Palestinian identities created by conflict and displacement.

They are the descendants of those who stayed put during the war over Israel’s 1948 creation, at a time when hundreds of thousands of fellow Palestinians fled or were driven out. Roughly half of the world’s more than 10 million Palestinians now live in the diaspora, while the rest live in Israel and in the territories Israel captured in the 1967 war — the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, sought by Palestinians for a state.

Of Israel’s Arabs, about 128,000, or less than 10 percent, are Christians. Army service is mandatory for Jews, though not all are called up. Druze leaders signed up their community for army service in the 1950s, and Druze men have been conscripted ever since, while Muslims and Christians are not required to serve.

Currently, close to 1,500 non-Druze Arabs serve in the military, 70 percent of them Bedouins, a separate and impoverished community where the military is often the employer of last resort. But also among those serving are 208 Arab Muslims and 137 Arab Christians, said army Maj. Shadi Rahal. The numbers of Christians volunteering for the army has remained relatively steady, ticking up only slightly from about 40 year in the past to around 50-55 annually now, Rahal said.

One of the volunteers is Capt. Arin Shaabi, a 28-year-old Christian from Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ boyhood and the center of Arab Christian life in Israel. She enlisted in 2010, after completing her law studies. Since 2011, she’s been a prosecutor in a West Bank military court, in the thick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shaabi identifies as a Christian and an Israeli, and has a tattoo of a cross inked into her left hand. She said she helps defend the Holy Land and isn’t troubled by prosecuting Palestinians on security charges often linked to Palestinian nationalism.

“I stand by what I do, 100 percent,” said Shaabi. “I don’t have dilemmas.” She’s paid a personal price, including harassment in Nazareth, a city of 80,000 people, 70 percent of them Muslims. An assailant once threw a rock at her car. When leaving her father’s house for her military base, she’d wear civilian clothes over her uniform to avoid being targeted. She says fear of a community backlash is keeping down the number of recruits.

A few months after signing up, she joined her mother Dina in Upper Nazareth, a predominantly Jewish city of 50,000 built on a hill overlooking Nazareth. Dina, one of several thousand Arabs in Upper Nazareth, said she is proud of her daughter’s army service, but that it has hurt the family’s standing the community.

In the fall, Father Nadaf and several Christian army veterans set up the Forum for the Recruitment of Christians, with the aim of doubling the number of recruits over six months, said Khalloul, a lieutenant in the paratrooper reserves. The Forum received backing from Im Tirtzu, a neo-Zionist group.

Earlier this month, Khalloul told a parliament committee looking into the possible conscription of Christians that Israel should not view them as part of the Arab minority. “We are hostages” of that community, he said.

Such talk has riled up Arab community leaders. Pro-recruitment Arabs accuse community leaders of inciting their brethren against them, “What began with a blood-soaked rag that was placed at the entrance of my house continues with a YouTube clip that portrays me as a Zionist agent, a traitor,” Nadaf told Sunday’s conference at a hotel in Upper Nazareth.

Nadaf and the local communist movement have traded accusations, with each side saying the other started a brawl in which the priest’s 17-year-old son and a member of the rival camp were injured. Police are still investigating.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message of support to Nadaf and his supporters, promising to “bring to justice anyone who tries to prevent you from enlisting.” Azmi Hakim, who heads the Greek Orthodox council in Nazareth and opposes enlistment, denied that the anti-recruiting side uses inflammatory language. He said Israeli police have tried to intimidate him by summoning him for questioning three times.

Hakim said a majority of Christians oppose army service, but that he is worried the recruitment campaign will have staying power because it has government backing. Hakim dismissed the hopeful talk of integration, arguing that the Druze continue to suffer official discrimination just like other Israeli Arabs. “As Muslims, as Christians, as Druze, we are as a people suffering from the government,” he said.

Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem contributed to this report.