Archive for January, 2014

Body of Israel’s Ariel Sharon lies in state

January 12, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of Israelis lined up outside Israel’s parliament building on Sunday to pay their last respects to Ariel Sharon, the hard-charging former prime minister and general who died over the weekend.

Sharon’s coffin was displayed in a plaza in front of the Knesset, where a stream of visitors passed by to snap photos and say farewell. A funeral service to be attended by dignitaries from around the world, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, is scheduled for Monday.

The 85-year-old Sharon, one of Israel’s most iconic and controversial figures, died Saturday, eight years after suffering a stroke that left him in a coma. “My heart is broken. Israel lost the King of David. There is no other word to describe this man, they don’t make people like this anymore,” said Uri Rottman, a mourner who said he once served in the military with Sharon.

“I feel committed to share the very last moment before they’re going to bury him,” said Eliav Aviram, another former army comrade. Sharon was a farmer-turned-soldier, a soldier-turned-politician, a politician-turned-statesman — a leader known for his exploits on the battlefield, masterminding Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, building Jewish settlements on war-won land and then, late in life, destroying some that he deemed no longer useful. To his supporters, he was a war hero. To his critics, he was a war criminal.

Israeli authorities closed off streets around the parliament in anticipation of huge crowds Sunday. Visitors were asked to park at lots in and around the city and were brought to the site by special buses.

President Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Sharon after the 2006 stroke, was among the visitors. Olmert crossed past a roped-off area to stand silently next to the flag-draped coffin.

A state memorial is planned Monday at the parliament building. In addition to Biden, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others were expected.

Afterward Sharon’s body will be taken by military convey for burial at his ranch in southern Israel. News of Sharon dominated Israeli newspapers and broadcast reports, and Israel’s three main TV stations all broadcast live from the memorial. Radio stations were filled with interviews with former officials and military men who shared stories of Sharon’s exploits.

Sharon’s career stretched across much of Israel’s 65-year existence, and his life was closely intertwined with the country’s history. Throughout his life, he was at the center of the most contentious episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting as a young soldier fighting in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.

In the 1950s, he led a commando unit that carried out reprisals for Arab attacks. In 1953, after the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon’s troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs, most or all of them civilians.

Residents in Qibya on Sunday remembered the village’s darkest hour. Qibya resident Hamed Ghethan was just 4 years old when the raid took place. He said he could remember older residents placing their hands over the children’s mouths so they wouldn’t make a sound.

“Sharon’s name reminds me of… martyrs from my village,” said Ghethan, 65, as he surveyed the ruins of buildings destroyed in the military action. As one of Israel’s most famous generals, he was known for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders.

Historians credit him with helping turn the tide of the 1973 Mideast war when Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on the solemn fasting day of Yom Kippur, causing heavy Israeli casualties.

Sharon became a minister in Menachem Begin’s government in the late 1970s, and voted against the historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. But when it fell to Sharon to remove Jewish settlements from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, he obediently ordered protesting settlers to be dragged away and their homes bulldozed to rubble.

As defense minister in 1982, Sharon launched the invasion of Lebanon, where he became complicit in one of bloodiest incidents of the Lebanese war, when Israeli-allied forces systematically slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in September 1982. An Israeli judicial inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings, and he was forced to step down as defense minister.

Yet over the years, he gradually rehabilitated himself by holding a number of Cabinet posts. As opposition leader in September 2000, Sharon demonstratively visited a contested Jewish-Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian protests that quickly lurched into an armed uprising that ultimately killed hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis.

Several months later, he was elected prime minister. While Sharon ordered a tough crackdown on the Palestinian uprising, he made a dramatic about-face in 2003 when he announced his plans for a unilateral withdrawal from occupied lands.

In 2005, he directed a unilateral pullout of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending a 38-year occupation. He later bolted from his hard-line Likud Party and established the centrist Kadima Party, with a platform promoting further territorial concessions and support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

It seemed he was on his way to an easy re-election when he suffered the stroke in January 2006.

Zarif to visit Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon: Source

Sun Jan 12, 2014

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is to set off on a three-nation tour of the Middle East for talks on bilateral ties as well as regional developments.

Zarif’s trips, next week, to Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon are in line with Iran’s active regional diplomacy and come on the heels of the top diplomat’s previous regional tours which took him to Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, IRNA quoted an informed source speaking on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Ambassador to Iran Fadi Haj Ali confirmed to IRNA on Saturday that Zarif is due in Beirut on Monday.

Among the key issues that Zarif is to discuss with Lebanese officials during his visit is the twin terrorist blasts outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut and the ensuing developments, including the apprehension of the mastermind behind the explosions Majed al-Majed, who died in Lebanese custody, and the probe into the terrorist incident, said the ambassador.

Zarif’s regional tours come as more countries are showing interest in boosting their relations with Iran.

Iran’s foreign minister had said earlier that recent visits to Tehran by European parliamentary delegations suggest the West is inclined to forge closer ties with Iran in “the current political atmosphere.”

He made the remark in a meeting with Chairman of the Oireachtas (Irish National Parliament) Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee Pat Breen, who is in Tehran at the head of a parliamentary delegation.

Prior to the Irish delegation’s trip, a four-member British parliamentary team headed by former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw paid a three-day visit to the Iranian capital.

On January 7, the Romanian ambassador to Iran said a parliamentary delegation from his country will pay an official visit to Tehran next week.

Zarif has also invited European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton to visit Iran.

Ashton has coordinated nuclear talks with Iran on behalf of the six world powers, comprised of Britain, China, France, Russia and United States, plus Germany.

Source: PressTV.
Link: http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/01/12/345087/iran-fm-to-begin-3nation-me-tour/.

Indonesia’s poor donate $15 million to build a hospital in Gaza

Thursday, 09 January 2014

An Indonesian non-governmental organization has collected nearly $15 million from Indonesia’s poor and rich alike to build the first Indonesian hospital in the Gaza Strip. The hospital, which will serve those Palestinians living in northern Gaza, is nearly finished and awaiting some equipment before it starts receiving patients. It is due for completion in May.

Southeast Asian countries are known for their strong support for Palestine, especially the Muslim communities who spend many efforts to visit and support Gaza. Fikri Fikri, a 24 year-old young man from Sumatra, is a volunteer at Indonesia’s Medical Emergency Rescue Committee, known as MER-C. He and 28 other Indonesians have been in Gaza for nearly four months to finalize building the hospital.

Fekri told Quds.net that: “We are nearly 30 people between workers, engineers, doctors and technicians. Many of us have already returned home because the work here is almost completed.” Fekri described how “Indonesian civil society groups in Jakarta collected donations from people who were happy to support Gaza, even though many of them suffered uneasy financial situations.”

When asked if they face any problems in Gaza, Fekri responded that: “The people like us here. We have only encountered a small problem with the local Ministry of Health because the organization wanted to have an office near the hospital but the ministry refused to allow this. But we will solve it.”

Fekri, who studies sharia at the Islamic University of Gaza, explained how: “We have taken risks to complete the hospital. It’s a nice feeling to help the wounded in Gaza who suffer from Israeli aggression. We have come here and we know that it’s not easy, but we are happy. I have learned Arabic in an acceptable way. However, I’m not married so I miss my home and my country.”

Abu Mohammed, a 42 year-old Indonesian engineer who joined the mission, said: “I feel sad sometimes because I have been here for so long. I feel lonely, but because I work for Palestine and Gaza, I am proud of what I do. We are nearly done. There are a few Indonesian workers here who take a symbolic wage. They all came to work for Palestine. We should finish our work and transfer the hospital’s administration to the Local Ministry of Health in May 2014. We work near the borders and it is unsafe. I do not know how to describe my feeling when I hear the explosions and Israeli airstrikes; however, I am ready to die for Palestine and for the weak and the just. I am going to be very happy when the hospital is completed and ready to serve the people of Gaza and when I return safely to my family in Jakarta.”

The Health Ministry of the Hamas-led government in Gaza and Indonesia’s MER-C signed a memorandum of understanding on 21 November 2011 stipulating the financing of the hospital.

Shadi Abu Herbein, the deputy director of the hospital, explained that the hospital is established on an area that is 3000 square meters and has 100 beds, eight of which are for the intensive care unit, ten for the reception, and four rooms for surgeries.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/48-asia/9146-indonesias-poor-donate-15-million-to-build-a-hospital-in-gaza.

Palestinians cheer death of Sharon, a bitter foe

January 11, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Ariel Sharon’s death Saturday elicited a wide range of responses from Palestinians, but sadness wasn’t one: Some cheered and distributed sweets while others prayed for divine punishment for the former Israeli leader or recalled his central role in some of the bloodiest episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians widely loathed Sharon as the mastermind of crushing military offensives against them in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza and as the architect of Israel’s biggest settlement campaign on lands they want for a state.

The intensity of those feelings appears to have faded a bit because Sharon left the public stage eight year ago, when he suffered a debilitating stroke and slipped into a coma. Sharon died Saturday afternoon at a Tel Aviv hospital.

The news traveled quickly in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut, where Israeli-allied forces systematically slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in September 1982, three months after Sharon engineered the invasion of Israel’s northern neighbor.

Sharon was later fired as defense minister over the massacre, with Israeli investigators rejecting his contention at the time that he didn’t know the attack was coming. “Sharon is dead!” a 63-year-old Palestinian woman in Sabra said, pointing to a text message from her daughter. “May God torture him,” said the woman who only gave her first name, Samia. “We should celebrate. We should be firing in the air.”

In the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, a few dozen supporters of two militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, gathered in the main street, chanting: “Sharon, go to hell.” Some burned Sharon pictures or stepped on them, while others distributed sweets to motorists and passers-by.

Throughout his life, Sharon was at the center of the most contentious episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting as a young soldier fighting in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. In the 1950s, he led a commando unit that carried out reprisals for Arab attacks. In 1953, after the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon’s troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs, most or all of them civilians.

He fought in the Israeli-Arab wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973. He launched the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as Israel’s defense minister. After his dismissal as defense minister, he gradually rehabilitated himself politically. By the early 1990s, as housing minister in a right-wing government, he oversaw a massive settlement drive in the West Bank.

As opposition leader in September 2000, Sharon visited a contested Jewish-Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into an armed uprising. Less than a year later, he was elected prime minister. In 2002, after a string of Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks, he reoccupied the West Bank towns that had been handed to Palestinian self-rule in previous interim peace deals.

Sharon also placed his longtime nemesis, then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under virtual house arrest in the West Bank town of Ramallah. A close Arafat aide at the time, then-intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, said Saturday that Sharon’s death was proof that the Palestinians will prevail.

Sharon “wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map,” Tirawi said. “He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refrained from commenting on the death of Sharon, whose decision in 2005 to withdraw from Gaza helped bring the Islamic militant group Hamas to power two years later.

Sharon pulled out of Gaza without consulting with Abbas, a step believed to have contributed to the rise of the Hamas forces that eventually defeated troops loyal to Abbas in Gaza. Khalil al-Haya of Hamas said Sharon had caused suffering to generations of Palestinians. “After eight years, he is going in the same direction as other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood,” he said.

Some Palestinians expressed disappointment that Sharon hadn’t been put on trial or had suffered a violent death. “I always wished he would be killed by a Palestinian child or a woman, like he killed children and women,” said Mohammed el-Srour, a Sabra resident who lost his father and five siblings in the massacre.

In Qibya, the village Sharon’s forces raided in 1953, residents stage a memorial march each year. Village resident Hamed Ghethan, 65, said earlier this week that he was sorry to see Sharon and the others involved in the attack escape punishment. “We were hoping the world would hear our voice and try them,” he said.

The international group Human Rights Watch expressed a similar sentiment, saying in a statement: “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Chatilla and other abuses.”

__ Hadid reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Hatem Moussa in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, and Dalia Nammari in Qibya, West Bank, contributed to this report.

Jordan considers importing extra water from Israel

Friday, 10 January 2014

The chairman of Jordan’s Joint Water Committee, Saad Abu Hammour, told Anadolu News Agency on Thursday that his country is considering importing additional water from Israel. The kingdom already purchases water from the Israelis under the terms of the Wadi Araba peace treaty.

Concluded in 1994, the treaty stipulates that Israel will provide Jordan with certain quantities of water and any additional quantities the Kingdom might need. Abu Hammour explained that thousands of Syrian refugees now in Jordan’s northern governorates, mainly Irbid, Ajloun, Jerash and Mafraq, will require the government to purchase between 10 and 15 million cubic meters of water extra in order to supply these areas. According to an agreement signed in 2010, said Abu Hammour, the cost will be 37.5 US cents per cubic meter. The water will be taken from Lake Tiberias and the Dajana water line. He denied Israeli media claims that the order has already been placed. “It is simply under consideration,” he insisted.

Jordan hosts nearly one million Syrians, almost half of whom are registered as refugees. Around 130,000 live in designated camps, according to official statistics. This makes Jordan the main host country for Syrian refugees who have fled their country since the violence erupted in 2011. They live mainly in four major refugee camps: Zaatari is the largest; Mrejeib Al-Fhood; the park camp in Ramtha; and the Cyber City refugee camp which also houses Palestinian “double” refugees who used to live in Syria.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/9163-jordan-considers-importing-extra-water-from-israel.

Leaders, others react to the death of Ariel Sharon

January 11, 2014

Here is a selection of reactions from world leaders and others to the death of former Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was both admired and despised for his bold style and hard-driving tactics.

“When it was necessary to fight, he stood at the forefront of the divisions in the most sensitive and painful places, but he was a smart and realistic person and understood well that there is a limit in our ability to conduct wars.” — Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s former deputy who took office after the 2006 stroke.

President Barack Obama expressed his condolences to Sharon’s family and to Israelis “on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel … We join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”

“He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map … He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive.” — Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister.

“After eight years, he is going in the same direction as other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood.” — Khalil al-Haya, a leader in the Islamic militant group Hamas.

“During his years in politics, it is no secret that there were times the United States had differences with him. But … you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish State.” — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” over Sharon’s passing hailing him as a “brave fighter” who continued to act for Israel as a politician and prime minister.

Sharon was “a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him.” — President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and rival.

“He was the most present and influential person in the country in the past two generations. — Yossi Sarid, a former opposition leader and rival of Sharon.

Sharon “realized the reality and went for a very brave move that recognizes the fact that there is no choice but to separate from the Palestinians.” — Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

“Ariel Sharon is one of the most significant figures in Israeli history and as prime minister he took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace … Israel has today lost an important leader.” — British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“What he did at the end of his path was extraordinary. … He took action in a way that is crucial to the future of the state of Israel, I mean the disengagement from Gaza.” — Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who lost a 2001 election to Sharon.

“I was honored to know this man of courage and call him friend. He was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”— Former President George W. Bush, who was president while Sharon was prime minister.

“I look forward to leading the U.S. delegation to his memorial service, to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel.” — Vice President Joe Biden

“Sharon will be remembered for his political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.” — Spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Before Sharon, the Likud and parties on the right would never have dreamed of land swapping. … That is a hugely important part of his legacy as it is still valid and active now in today’s negotiations.” — David Landau, author of “ARIK: The life of Ariel Sharon.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin “highly praised Ariel Sharon’s personal qualities and his activities to protect Israel’s interests.” — The Kremlin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel “is mourning with the Israeli people” for Sharon, who “took a historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.” — Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman.

“He was a man of strong conviction who had a clear idea of what the future of his country should be and who fought for it with determination.” — EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

“For those who believe in the ideal, he did a wonderful thing. … It is difficult to have peace without war.” — Gene Simmons, Israeli-born Kiss bassist.

Sharon, Israel’s bulldozer in politics, dies at 85

January 12, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — It was vintage Ariel Sharon: His hefty body bobbing behind a wall of security men, the ex-general led a march onto a Jerusalem holy site, staking a bold claim to a shrine that has been in contention from the dawn of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What followed was a Palestinian uprising that put Mideast peace efforts into deep-freeze. Five years later, Sharon, who died Saturday at 85, was again barreling headlong into controversy, bulldozing ahead with his plan to pull Israel out of the Gaza Strip and uproot all 8,500 Jewish settlers living there without regard to threats to his life from Jewish extremists.

His allies said the move was a revolutionary step in peacemaking; his detractors said it was a tactical sacrifice to strengthen Israel’s hold on much of the West Bank. Either way, the withdrawal and the barrier he was building between Israel and the West Bank permanently changed the face of the conflict and marked the final legacy of a man who shaped Israel as much as any other leader. He was a farmer-turned-soldier, a soldier-turned-politician, a politician-turned-statesman — a hard-charging Israeli who built Jewish settlements on war-won land, but didn’t shy away from destroying them when he deemed them no longer useful.

Sharon died eight years after a debilitating stroke put him into a coma. His body was to lie in state at the parliament on Sunday before he is laid to rest at his ranch in southern Israel on Monday, Israeli media reported. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation.

His death was greeted with the same strong feelings he evoked in life. Israelis called him a war hero. His enemies called him a war criminal. President Barack Obama remembered Sharon as “a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel.”

Former President George W. Bush, who was in the White House during Sharon’s tenure, called him a “warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a rival and harsh critic of Sharon, said: “His memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation.” President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and rival, said “he was an outstanding man and an exceptional commander who moved his people and loved them and the people loved him.”

The Palestinians, who loathed Sharon as their most bitter enemy, distributed candy, prayed for divine punishment and said they regretted he was never held accountable for his actions, including a massacre in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla by Christian militiamen allied with Israel during the 1982 invasion that was largely his brainchild.

“He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map … He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive,” said Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister.

The man Israel knew simply by his nickname “Arik” fought in most of Israel’s wars, gained a reputation as an adroit soldier and was the godfather of Israel’s massive settlement campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He detested Yasser Arafat, his lifelong adversary, as an “obstacle to peace” and was in turn detested in the Arab world.

His career spanned the Middle East conflict from its early skirmishes through five wars, one of which left him hailed as his nation’s savior, and another reviled as its disgrace. He was a lifelong opponent of concessions to the Arabs who ended up giving away land and offering the Palestinians a state of their own.

His was a life of surprises, none bigger than his election as prime minister in his twilight years, when he spent his first term crushing a Palestinian uprising and his second withdrawing from Gaza. The pullout in 2005 freed 1.3 million Palestinians from Israeli military rule and left his successors the vague outline of his proposal for a final peace settlement with Israel’s Arab foes.

After the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon shattered Israel’s long-standing political divisions by leaving Likud, the hard-line party he had helped found three decades earlier. He created a new centrist party, called Kadima, or Forward, to support his efforts to reach a deal with the Palestinians and draw Israel’s permanent borders. The party was cruising toward victory in upcoming elections when Sharon suffered his stroke.

The stroke and extended coma set off one of the strangest periods in Israel’s political history. While his deputy, Ehud Olmert, quickly assumed office and led Kadima to victory in a subsequent, Sharon remained a visible presence.

Over the years, every development in his medical condition became front-page news. His sons tried to revive him by showing him family photos or bringing Sharon, who often joked about his huge size, his favorite foods. At one point, doctors moved him back to his family farm, only to return him to the hospital several days later. His son Gilad later said that his father could wiggle his fingers and move his eyes.

Marina Lifshitz, a nurse who treated Sharon, said that when she showed Sharon a photo of his late wife, Lily, she saw a tear in his eye. “It is very difficult to forget that,” she said Saturday. Over the past week and a half, doctors reported a sharp decline in his condition as various bodily organs, including his kidneys, failed. On Saturday, Dr. Shlomo Noy of the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv said “his heart weakened and he peacefully departed” with relatives by his bedside.

“That’s it. He has gone. He went when he decided to go,” Gilad Sharon said afterward. As a soldier, Sharon was known for daring tactics and occasional refusal to obey orders. As a politician, he was known as “the bulldozer,” contemptuous of his critics, the man who could get things done.

This go-it-alone attitude also shaped his second term as prime minister. Expressing impatience with stalled peace efforts, Sharon opted for separating Israel from the Palestinians, whose birthrate was outpacing that of his own country. He gave up Gaza, with its 21 Jewish settlements, and four West Bank settlements, the first such Israeli pullback since it captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

He also began building a snaking barrier of fences, walls, razor wire and trenches to separate Israel from the West Bank, a project he initially rejected out of fear it would be seen as a tacit renunciation of Israel’s claim to the West Bank.

Sharon sold the pullout as a security move. The withdrawal and the barrier, which left large West Bank settlement blocs on Israel’s side, led many to suspect his real intention was to sidestep negotiations with the Palestinians and make it easier to hold onto what really mattered to him — chunks of the West Bank, with its biblical Jewish resonance and value as a buffer against attack from the east.

Sharon embodied the farmer-soldier image cherished by the pugnacious Jewish state that arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. Sharon was born to Russian immigrant parents on Feb. 26, 1928, in the farming community of Kfar Malal, 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Tel Aviv. He commanded an infantry platoon during the 1948 Mideast war over the creation of the state of Israel.

Leading a ragtag band of soldiers, some Holocaust survivors, Sharon took part in the unsuccessful May 1948 assault on the Jordanian Arab Legion stronghold at Latroun, a key spot on the road to Jerusalem whose Jewish district was blockaded by Arab forces. He was badly wounded in the leg and belly, and bled for hours while surrounded by enemy soldiers.

“I know it’s a terrible thing. Because people will read it and they will say, ‘Look, he drinks also blood,'” he said, laughing his trademark deep, hearty chuckle. In 1953, he commanded Unit 101, a force formed to carry out reprisals for Arab attacks. After the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, his troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs. Sharon later said he thought the houses were empty.

After Israel’s 1956 invasion of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Sharon was rebuked for engaging in what commanders regarded as an unnecessary battle with Egyptian forces. Some 30 Israeli soldiers died. The accolades mounted as well. Sharon received praise for his command of an armored division during the 1967 Mideast War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula.

His finest hour in uniform, as he described it, came in the 1973 Mideast war. Yanked out of retirement by an army desperate for leadership, he commanded 27,000 Israelis in a daring drive across Egypt’s Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of the war. A picture of a boyish-faced, 45-year-old Sharon, bloody bandage wrapped around his head, remains one of the most enduring images of the war.

Out of uniform, he used sheer force of personality to coerce a quarrelsome array of hawkish factions into forming the Likud, which four years later would be elected to power, ending 29 years of rule by the moderate Labor Party.

Sharon became a minister in Menachem Begin’s government, and clung to his hawkish views. When Begin negotiated the historic 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s first peace agreement with an Arab country, Sharon voted against it.

By the time Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula under the accord, Sharon was Begin’s defense minister. Begin quipped that he was reluctant to give Sharon the job lest he “encircle the prime minister’s office with tanks.”

But when it fell to Sharon to remove the Jewish settlements Israel had built in Sinai, he obediently ordered the protesting settlers to be dragged away and their homes bulldozed to rubble. Then came one of the most controversial chapters of his tumultuous life.

In 1982 he engineered the invasion of Lebanon. It was portrayed as a quick, limited strike to drive Palestinian fighters from Israel’s northern border. Later it emerged that Sharon had a larger plan: to install a pro-Israel regime in Lebanon — a design that typified boldness to his friends and dangerous megalomania to his critics. The conflict quickly escalated, and Israel remained in Lebanon for the next 18 years.

That September, the Israeli military, controlling parts of Beirut, allowed members of the Phalanges, a Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel, to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla in Beirut to root out “terrorists.” The militiamen systematically slaughtered hundreds of civilians, including women and children. The massacres sparked mass protests in Israel and abroad. An Israeli commission rejected Sharon’s contention that he didn’t know what was coming, saying: “It is impossible to justify the minister of defense’s disregard of the danger of a massacre.”

He was fired as defense minister. In his autobiography, Sharon said he was outraged by the findings. “It was a stigmatization I rejected utterly,” he wrote. Sharon stayed in the government as a minister without portfolio and pledged to remain in public life. “When I saw the weakness of the leadership, the hypocrisy, the hatred within Israel among Jews, when I saw the developments throughout the Middle East, I thought that I simply had to stay,” he wrote.

A journalist and friend, Uri Dan, predicted — famously and, as it turned out, accurately— “Those who didn’t want to see him as army chief got him as defense minister, and those who don’t want him as defense minister shall get him as prime minister.”

In 1983, Sharon filed a $50 million lawsuit against Time Magazine for alleging that Sharon, while defense minister, had discussed avenging the murder of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel with Lebanese Christian militia leaders. Time said the discussion was held the day before the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. A six-member jury in New York concluded that the Time report was false but acquitted the magazine of libel, saying it published the report in good faith.

Later, an Israeli court rejected a libel suit filed by Sharon against the Haaretz daily over a 1991 article that claimed he misled Begin about his military intentions in Lebanon. Israel would remain entangled in Lebanon until 2000.

Sharon gradually rehabilitated himself, serving in parliament and using various Cabinet posts to build dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza despite international protests. As foreign minister in 1998, Sharon called on Jewish settlers to grab as much land as possible before a permanent territorial agreement was reached with the Palestinians.

“Everyone there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands, everything that we don’t grab will be in their hands,” he said. He also played a leading role in the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Sharon’s demonstrative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram as-Sharif, soon followed. Palestinian riots escalated into a full-fledged uprising that would claim more than 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives.

In February 2001, with the fighting continuing and last-ditch peace talks collapsing, Israelis grew deeply disillusioned and inclined to lay all the blame on Arafat. Yearning for a strong leader, they elected Sharon prime minister in a landslide.

Fighting continued throughout Sharon’s first term in office and he was re-elected in 2003 to a second term. Later that year, with Israeli towns suffering a wave of suicide bombings originating in the nearby West Bank, the bulldozers once again went into action as Sharon began building a barrier of walls and fences.

In late 2003, he unveiled his “unilateral disengagement” plan — withdrawing from territory he no longer deemed essential to Israel’s security — without an agreement with the Palestinians. He also confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters in his final years before allowing the longtime Palestinian leader to fly to France in late 2004 shortly before his death. Arafat’s death gave him a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership with which to deal.

In an earlier speech he dropped what for Israelis was a bombshell. For the first time he called Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza an “occupation” and conceded that an independent Palestinian state was inevitable.

“Occupation is bad,” he said in front of cameras to his shocked Likud lawmakers. Still, the Gaza pullback fell far short of anything offered by his predecessor or acceptable to even moderate Palestinians. While supporters say Israel is better off without involvement in Gaza, the withdrawal is widely seen as a failure in Israel because the territory was subsequently overrun by Hamas militants who went on to launch rockets at Israel.

Speaking Saturday, Olmert said Sharon’s legacy was far more complicated than critics say. “Arik was not a warmonger. When it was necessary to fight, he stood at the forefront of the divisions in the most sensitive and painful places, but he was a smart and realistic person and understood well that there is a limit in our ability to conduct wars,” he said.

Domestically, Sharon became the latest in a long line of Israeli prime ministers whose terms were marred by corruption probes. He was accused of improper fundraising and accepting bribes, allegedly paid to one of his sons, from a prominent real-estate developer, but never charged. His oldest son, Omri, however, later served seven months in prison for fraud connected to campaign fundraising for his father.

Behind his gruff public demeanor lurked a dry wit, Old-World charm and a fondness for fine dining and classical music. Sharon was widowed twice — he married the sister of his first wife after she died in an auto accident — and had two sons, Gilad and Omri. A third son died in 1967 in a firearms accident.

David Landau, author of a new biography titled “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon,” said Sharon’s greatest legacy was turning the tide of the 1973 war and especially exiting Gaza — a momentous event that broke down key taboos for Israel’s hard-line right wing.

He said Sharon’s recognition of Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians, and his willingness to cede occupied territory, set the stage for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s current peace efforts in the region.

“That is a hugely important part of his legacy as it is still valid and active now in today’s negotiations and it harks back to Sharon,” Landau said.

Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon dies at 85

January 11, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — The son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says his father has died.

The 85-year-old Sharon had been in a coma since a debilitating stroke eight years ago. The Sheba Medical Center that has been treating Sharon said last week that his health has been declining. Sharon had been suffered from failure vital organs including his kidneys shortly before his death.

His son Gilad Sharon said: “He has gone. He went when he decided to go.”

Syrian opposition group on brink of collapse

January 09, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Two weeks ahead of an international peace conference on Syria, the country’s main Western-backed opposition group stands on the brink of collapse, dragged down by outside pressures, infighting and deep disagreements over the basic question of whether to talk to President Bashar Assad.

The crisis in the Syrian National Coalition raises further doubts about the so-called Geneva conference, which is set to open Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. The prospects for a successful outcome at the talks appear bleak at best: Assad has said he will not hand over power, and the opposition — if it decides to attend — is in no position to force concessions from him.

The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the government nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.

Now that a date has been set and invitations sent, the decision on whether to attend is placing immense strain on the Coalition. “Geneva is proving to be a road to ruin for the so-called moderate opposition, both the political and military aspects,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

The various competing factions that make up the Coalition are under intense international pressure to attend, Shaikh said, all the while knowing that “if they do, they may very well be entering into a very ill-defined and ill-prepared conference that may not produce anything that they can show to their brethren inside Syria, and further diminish their credibility.”

The issue of credibility has haunted the Coalition since its creation just over a year ago. The umbrella group was forged under international pressure for a stronger, more united body to serve as a counterweight to the extremist forces fighting the Assad government.

But the Coalition has never coalesced into the unified and effective leadership outside powers, including the United States and its Arab allies, envisioned, while the rebels and activists inside Syria have accused the opposition-in-exile of being ineffectual and out of touch.

Some of the Coalition’s struggles have not been entirely of its own making, and the decision of whether to attend the peace conference has laid bare the group’s internal contradictions. The Coalition was never an organic organization that enjoyed broad popular support inside Syria from activists and fighters. Its legitimacy has always flowed from its foreign patrons.

The group could have boosted its credibility with its detractors inside Syria by securing concrete international support — especially weapons — from its allies. But those sponsors routinely balked, fearful that any arms they provided might fall into the hands of the Islamic extremists who have become a dominant force among the armed opposition.

The failure to deliver sapped any goodwill the Coalition might have been able to curry with the fighters, activists and civilians inside Syria. It all began to publicly unravel in September when nearly a dozen of the most prominent rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council. Many more have since followed suit.

Those fighters flatly reject negotiations with the regime. In order to be credible with them, the Coalition must also reject peace talks, but doing so would mean shrugging off the demands of its international allies.

In a sign of how divisive the issue is, the Coalition held five days of meetings over the past week to decide whether to go to Geneva. The gathering descended into chaos, with members storming out in protest. Eventually, the Coalition postponed its decision until at least the middle of next week — less than a week before the peace conference is to begin.

Since then, the number of people who have at least temporarily suspended their membership now stands at 45, said the Coalition’s representative in Qatar, Nizar al-Hrakey. “The walkout was a culmination of many misgivings people have had … for a long time, which have led us to a dead end with the Coalition,” al-Hrakey said by telephone from Istanbul. “This includes its operations, its makeup and decision-making process. Last but not least were the disputes over Geneva.”

Coalition chief Ahmed al-Jarba sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying the group would go to Geneva without getting the OK from the Coalition’s general council, al-Hrakey said. “This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Veteran Syrian opposition figure Haitham Manna said he expected the Coalition to splinter ahead of the peace conference. “I always said the Geneva conference will be the end of the Coalition,” he said. “The group has an explosive makeup.”

Despite the existential threat to the Coalition, its patrons have kept up the pressure to go to Geneva. In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pushed for the Coalition to attend, saying the conference was the only hope for creating a transitional government and ultimately ending the fighting.

“We’re asking one and all to make an effort to participate,” Fabius said. “And then, if Geneva comes together, which we want, there will be a second difficulty, which is to achieve concrete results.” As diplomats have maneuvered to try to make Geneva happen, the violence of the war has continued unabated.

On Thursday, a car bomb exploded near a school in the village of al-Kaffat in the central province of Hama, killing at least 17 people, Syria’s state news agency said. The explosion occurred amid continuing infighting in northern Syria between rebel brigades and an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The extremist group has alienated other factions by using brutal tactics to implement its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and by kidnapping and killing of opponents.

A consortium of rebel groups began attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Friday, and weeklong clashes have killed hundreds of people in what has become a war within the war in Syria.

Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Syria rebels seize al-Qaida base in Aleppo

January 08, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday seized control of a hospital in the northern city of Aleppo that was used as a base for the area by their al-Qaida rivals, activists said.

The capture of the hospital was a boost for the rebels, who only the day before saw 20 of their fighters killed in an al-Qaida suicide car bombing in the northern city of Darkoush, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It also underscores the intensity of the rebel infighting that has raged for days between Syrian rebels and their one-time allies, fighters from the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Also in Aleppo, the Observatory said a series of government airstrikes in two rebel-held suburbs late on Tuesday night killed 19 people. There were no further details. The government in Damascus did not comment on the bombings.

The two main rebel camps in Syria fighting against President Bashar Assad’s troops — a chaotic array of rebel brigades and the al-Qaida-linked group — turned their guns on each other last Friday. The clashes have since become the most serious rebel infighting since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

The rebel-on-rebel fighting began after tensions, which had simmered for months, erupted into the open after reports that the al-Qaida fighters had tortured and killed a popular doctor. It has since spread from the northern province of Aleppo to nearby Idlib and to the province of Raqqa. At least 300 people have been killed in the infighting, said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Observatory.

The clashes add another layer of complexity to the Syrian conflict, less than three weeks ahead of a planned international peace conference to try to resolve the civil war. Syrian rebels seized the hospital in Aleppo’s Qadi Askar quarter that the al-Qaida fighters had overrun months ago and used as their main compound or base for the area, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.

The Observatory said there were reports, still unconfirmed, that dozens of detainees held by the extremists had been freed. One of the most pressing issues in the rebel infighting is the fate of dozens of Syrian and foreign reporters, media activists, aid workers and civilians abducted and held by the al-Qaida fighters since they fanned into the area in March.

There are fears for the fate of the detainees as the fighting rages and as the al-Qaida group seeks to extoll revenge on their rivals. On Tuesday, the Observatory and other groups reported that at least four activists detained in the Aleppo hospital had been killed.

As the rebel infighting continued, so did clashes between Assad’s forces and rebels. In Douma, a town close to the Syrian capital of Damascus, three people and a child were killed and several were wounded after a government airstrike targeted a house on Tuesday, reported the Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees.

Dramatic footage of the aftermath of the strike was uploaded to social media networks. It corresponded with the Associated Press’ reporting of the event. “Be patient, little one, be patient!” a man is seen in one video, calling out to a child who was heard wailing under the rubble of a smashed house. Other men are seen furiously digging to pull out the victims.

Minutes later, a toddler screams as he is seen being pulled out from under the rubble. Another man is seen carrying a dust-covered, lifeless small body to nearby medics who then try to resuscitate the child.