Archive for June, 2014

Israel arrests 51 former Palestinian prisoners

June 18, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli army has re-arrested 51 former Palestinian prisoners as part of a furious search for three missing Israeli teens believed to have been abducted in the West Bank.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said on Wednesday that the 51 were among more than 65 Palestinians detained overnight in the search for the teens. The 51 were part of a group of 1,027 Palestinians released in 2011 from Israeli prisons in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006.

Israel believes Hamas was behind the abduction of the teens, who disappeared last week on the way home from a religious seminary. Lerner says that since the disappearance, a total of 240 Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank.

Gaza cops trade bullets for laser-tech in training

Gaza City, Palestine (AFP)

April 14, 2014

Security forces in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip are using technology to practice shooting on laser simulators, saving money spent on ammunition in the cash-strapped Palestinian territory.

In a converted gym, four uniformed officers aim at targets with Kalashnikov assault rifles converted to fire beams of laser light, whose path is recorded on a computer in a control room and monitored by an instructor.

“Electronic shooting has great advantages,” said Colonel Mohammed al-Nakhala, head of training in Gaza’s National Security organization.

“This is a leap forward in training provided by the interior ministry which saves a great deal of ammunition, money and work,” he told AFP.

The ministry’s training director, Mahmud Shubaki, says the simulators allow trainees to practice extensively before graduating to use of live fire.

“On a real shooting range we are limited by the number of rounds we can fire,” he said.

Shubaki said four Kalashnikovs had been converted to fire electronically and fitted with an air-powered mechanism to simulate the recoil of shooting live rounds.

The 32-year-old Shubaki, who received military training in Algeria, said the new system had cut the cost of a firearms course from $20,000 to $1,000 (14,500 to 720 euros).

But trainee Omar al-Halabi, a 32-year-old lieutenant, said he prefers live fire exercises over the simulator which “feels like a video game”.

Hamas, shunned as a terrorist movement by Israel, the United States and the European Union, seized control of Gaza from the rival Fatah after a week of fierce fighting in 2007 but is undergoing a worsening budget crisis.

The Strip’s borders with Israel are tightly controlled by land, sea and air, and passage across the frontier with neighboring Egypt has been severely restricted since last July when its army deposed Hamas’ ally, president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last month a Cairo court barred the militant Islamic group from operating in Egypt and said it would seek to seize the movement’s assets there.

After Morsi’s overthrow, the army destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the border, reducing the flow of cash to Hamas coffers.

It is now struggling to pay the wages of 51,000 civil servants and budget cuts will no longer be able to spare the security services.

Hamas officials and security personnel, whose fuel bills were in the past paid in full by the government, are now being asked to pay half from their own pockets, security sources say.

And police are moving over more and more to using motorcycles rather than cars because of constant fuel shortages.

The destroyed tunnels were widely used for the import of fuel, food, construction materials and military supplies.

Source: Space War.


Gaza celebrates Erdogan’s victory

Tuesday, 01 April 2014

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip took to the streets yesterday evening to celebrate the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Palestinians described the resounding victory of Erdogan’s party as a kind of “landslide victory” for political Islam when it has a free democratic atmosphere.

Gaza residents respect Turkey because of its outspoken stances against the Israeli-Egyptian, internationally backed, siege on them.

Turkey has refused to restore diplomatic relations with Israel before the latter lifts the siege on Gaza and allows Turkish aid organizations access.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Women keep Jordan’s traditions alive

07 Jun 2014

Women in Jordan earn money by expertly crafting a traditional yogurt sauce called Jameed.

Karak, Jordan – Nouf al-Jarajreh, better known as Um Faisal, has become a national icon for making Jameed, a Jordanian specialty consisting of balls of salted and dried yogurt, made with sheep or goat milk.

The yogurt acts as a key ingredient in Jordan’s famous lamb-based dish, Mansaf, which symbolizes Bedouin hospitality. Jordanians say the country’s Bedouin citizens invented Jameed so that they would have something to offer their guests year-round.

“Our Bedouin ancestors are generous people and their main concern was to provide guests with something to eat,” said Um Faisal, as she sipped cardamom-flavored coffee beneath an arch of grapevines in her garden.

After her husband’s alleged death by gunshot in Iraq, where he worked as a truck driver, 20 years ago, she became the sole breadwinner for her eight children.

“If life turns against you, you have to turn to your skills,” she told Al Jazeera. “I began making Jameed to sell it.”

Now, the 70-year-old uses modern technology to make the traditional dish, and producing enough to meet orders from hundreds of clients.

Abu Mahmoud, a local farmer, delivers fresh sheep’s milk to Um Faisal every day during the early hours of the morning. Jameed’s busy season runs between March and May, and according to local folklore, the city of Karak is known as the best place to make it.

The secret lies in the quality of milk that sheep produce in Jordan’s southern governorate, Um Faisal explained. “Here, [Karak] herds get to eat some herbs like Artemisia and Achillea, which makes the milk taste better,” she said, as stirred the milk in steady circles with a big wooden spoon.

Once foam forms on top of the milk, Um Faisal switches the stove off and lets it cool. She then works on perfecting homemade yogurt – made by mixing the milk with active cultures and some ready-made yogurt – which she later leaves to ferment for 24 hours.

Meanwhile, she opens plastic buckets of already-made yogurt from the night before and pours them, with some ice, in a whirlpool washing machine for about 20 minutes. “Ice is crucial here as it picks up butter very well,” Um Faisal explained.

Decades ago, before washing machines existed, women would use a piece of goat leather, known as Sigaa, and hung it between two wooden sticks. “By moving Siqaa back and forth, butter would form from the mixture of yogurt and cool water brought from the well… It was really hard work for us,” Um Faisal said.

This year, Um Faisal has upgraded to a locally-designed washing machine, specifically used to produce Jameed in large quantities. As the machine swirls, butter begins to build in the middle, and the yogurt turns into a creamy liquid known as Shaneenah.

Um Faisal’s daughter, Lamya, brings out cotton sheets, which they fill with the liquid after it had cooled. During the busy season of Jameed, the 29-year-old beautician takes some time off from work to help her mother. “I can only help with simple things as I have not mastered the art of making Jameed yet,” Lamya said.

They fill several bags carefully and slowly without wasting a drop. After they filled each bag, they squeeze all the juice and then rope it. “This is important to drain all the whey,” Um Faisal said.

Finally, Um Faisal lines Jameed balls in rows on the table in her veranda, which is covered with a clear, cotton cloth. “I would leave them to dry here for a few days before taking them out,” she said. “Jameed is sensitive to heat and dust, especially during its first few days.”

During Jameed season, her terrace space functions as a drying and display space. She has trays of Jameed lined up to dry and to sell for clients, and says that she can make up to 100 balls of Jameed per hour.

Um Faisal has produced an average of 5,000kg of Jameed every year for the past 20 years, she says. She has regular clients who buy it every season, and who recommend her work to others.

An increasing number of women have begun producing the traditional food for extra income.

“In recent years, selling Jameed has become a major source of income for several families, especially those headed by women,” said Wesal Qsous, president of Women of Shihan Mountain Association.

“We have seen that women turn their basic knowledge and home kitchens into a workstation to survive financial hardships,” she said.

Fahmi Zubi, a member of the Jordanian anthropologists society, says changes to the economic situation of families have made certain social behavior acceptable.

“It used to be terribly shameful if a Bedouin sold Jameed and that is why families made enough to save for them and for their guests,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But economical systems have evolved from self sufficiency and bartering to capitalism, certain social norms and values have changed,” he added.

Despite increasing demand for Jameed, Um Faisal is concerned about keeping the tradition of making Jameed alive. “It has become commercialized as more people make it to live off it,” she said. “Maintaining good quality is the key challenge, as more elderly die without training youngsters to do that.”

Source: al-Jazeera.


Jordan expels Syrian envoy in diplomatic tussle

May 26, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan expelled Syria’s top envoy Monday, prompting Damascus to do the same in a diplomatic tussle that could signal the start of unraveling ties between the neighbors.

The move came a week before an election in Syria expected to keep President Bashar Assad in power. The highly contentious vote, being held amid a ferocious civil war, has been called a mockery by Western countries.

It was unclear what specifically caused Jordan to expel Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman. Jordan has hosted an envoy from Syria since the start of the 2011 uprising despite quietly supporting rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

Suleiman was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours in a humiliating public announcement first made on state-run media. He was declared persona non grata because of “continued offensive statements, through his personal contacts or writing in the media and the social media, against the kingdom,” Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sabah al-Rafie said in a statement carried by the state-run Petra news agency.

His statements were a “sheer departure from all diplomatic norms and conventions,” she said. Al-Rafie said Suleiman used Jordan as a platform to offend other Arab countries, likely referring to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both chief supporters of the Syrian rebels.

Syrian officials and diplomats regularly launch diatribes against the leaders of those countries and Turkey. Soon after the announcement from Amman about Suleiman, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it would expel the Jordanian charge d’affaires in retaliation, although he was not in the country. It said it requested the Jordanian Embassy in Damascus to inform the diplomat that he is banned from entering Syria.

“Jordan’s reprehensible and unjustifiable decision does not reflect the deep fraternal relations between the two peoples in Syria and Jordan,” it said. Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani said the ambassador to Syria retired a month ago and a replacement had not been assigned.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed Jordan’s move, calling it an “important step” in supporting the Syrian people. In a statement, the coalition urged other Arab states to follow Jordan’s lead to increase the Assad government’s isolation.

Experts expressed surprise at the Jordanian announcement, saying it was not in keeping with diplomatic protocol. “The dramatic way he was expelled was strange. It’s as if Jordan is cutting off its diplomatic relations with Syria,” said analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese military.

“The ambassador could have been summoned, and a complaint could have been lodged. But to say: ‘Get out’ — that’s very tough.” A Facebook page created by Suleiman’s supporters suggested his defiance and loyalty to Assad. The “Network of those who love Mr. Ambassador Dr. Bahjat Suleiman” posted what it said was his expulsion notice from Jordan. The page later contained a photo claiming to show Suleiman being carried on the shoulders of his backers. “Syria needs you more,” was emblazoned across it.

Suleiman had headed one of Syria’s most powerful internal intelligence branches and was sent to Jordan as ambassador in 2009, perhaps after a falling out with Assad’s inner circle, Jaber and Syria analyst Aron Lund said.

It was unclear if the diplomatic tussle will have any long-lasting repercussions, including on the two countries’ shared border. Rebels control Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey, leaving only the Lebanese and Jordanian border posts in the government’s hands. The corridor with Jordan allows Syrian products to reach wealthy Gulf markets, helping an economy shattered by three years of civil war.

Jordan also hosts nearly 600,000 registered Syrian refugees — although Jordanian officials say the number is far higher. In an interview with The Associated Press, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, said the upcoming election will be the resounding answer to those who doubt Assad’s government will prevail in the conflict. He said he expects a huge turnout for the vote, to be held abroad Wednesday and inside Syria on June 3.

He said Western leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande criticize and oppose the election because they fear the results.

“The Syrian people will say their word in these elections, and their word is the one that counts. Not Obama’s word, Cameron’s or Hollande’s,” Ali said. Assad is all but guaranteed victory because opposition groups are boycotting the vote, which will only be held in government-held areas of the fragmented country. Rebels control vast territory of Syria.

More than 160,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the uprising began in March 2011 and became a civil war.

Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.

Pope to see Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan

May 24, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — On the first leg of his three-day Mideast trip, Pope Francis will get a firsthand look at the plight of Syrian refugees and witness the toll the civil war next door is taking on Jordan.

Francis frequently has lamented the plight of refugees, denouncing the “globalization of indifference” that often greets them in their newly adopted homelands. At the same time, he and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the Holy Land, insisting recently: “We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!”

After meeting with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the royal palace, Francis is due to celebrate Mass on Saturday in Amman’s International Stadium. The Vatican expects some 25,000 people to attend, many of them Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Later, he will meet one-on-one with refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.

Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria’s population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad’s rule have fueled fears among the country’s religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt. Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Francis wants to offer comfort to all Christians who live in the region and encourage them to stay. “These Christians are living stones, and without their presence, the Holy Land and its holy sites risk becoming a museum,” Parolin told Vatican Television on the eve of the trip.

Jordan last month opened a third camp for Syrian refugees, a stark indication of the strains the civil war is creating for the country. The sprawling facility is designed to accommodate up to 130,000 people and potentially become the world’s second-largest refugee camp. Jordan is hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population. Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.

For the Syrian Christians who will greet Francis, his presence is a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the conflict drags on. “We are very happy because he will see Christians in the Arab world, he will see us and see our suffering,” said Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula who will be among the 600 or so people to greet the pope at Bethany beyond the Jordan. “We wish that peace will be restored in the whole world, and in Syria.”

Another Orthodox Christian from Maaloula, Yacoub Josef, said he couldn’t wait to leave. “We wish that the situation in Syria would be better, but we hope to immigrate because we have had enough of being homeless,” he said.

Francis will visit a Palestinian refugee camp on Sunday when he travels from Amman directly to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It’s the first time a pope has landed in the West Bank rather than Tel Aviv first, and Palestinian officials are eager to show Francis the limbo endured by generations of Palestinians forced or driven out in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation. Today, along with their descendants, these refugees make up more than 5 million people scattered across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Parolin, the Vatican No. 2, said Francis would emphasize the Vatican’s longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The right of Israel to exist and enjoy peace and security inside its internationally recognized borders, and the right of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign, independent homeland, freedom of movement and the right to live in dignity.”

Technically, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem by their predecessors which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That highlight will come on Sunday, when Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

Representatives of other churches also will be present, including Cardinal Bechara Rai, the first leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, the Maronite Catholic Church, to visit Jerusalem since Israel captured the city’s eastern sector. Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis.

Underscoring the sensitive political nature of the trip, Rai’s plans to visit Israel have drawn criticism. He angrily walked out of an interview with France 24 on Friday while in Amman, after the reporter pressed him on the motives for his visit.

“I don’t come to the Holy Land for political, economic or military goals. … Jerusalem is our city and we are in the Holy Land since hundreds of years, we cannot leave our land and our people,” he said.

Francis will spend Monday in Jerusalem, visiting the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel’s chief rabbis, albeit separately. He’ll also pray at the Western Wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and will become the first pope to lay a wreath of flowers on Mount Herzl, named for the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He returns to the Vatican Monday night.

Winfield reported from Rome.

Israel chooses veteran hard-liner as president

June 10, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s parliament on Tuesday chose Reuven Rivlin, a veteran nationalist politician and supporter of the Jewish settlement movement, as the country’s next president, putting a man opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state into the ceremonial but influential post.

Rivlin, a stalwart in the governing Likud Party, now faces the difficult task of succeeding Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate who became an all-star on the international stage. While the presidency is largely ceremonial, Rivlin’s political views could be a liability when he represents the country overseas. His opposition to Palestinian independence puts him at odds with the international community and Israel’s own prime minister.

Rivlin has been a longtime supporter of Jewish settlements in occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians. While rejecting Palestinian independence, he has proposed a special union with the Palestinians in which Jews and Arabs would hold common citizenship but vote for separate parliaments.

The president is meant to serve as a unifying figure and moral compass for the country, and Rivlin has said that in contrast to Peres, he would focus on domestic affairs if selected to the post. Speaking at a Knesset ceremony to celebrate his election, Rivlin said his new position “commits me to remove the robe of politics,” an indication that he may subdue his political beliefs as president.

“I am not a man of a (political) movement. I am a man of everyone. A man of the people,” said Rivlin, visibly moved as he made his acceptance speech. While most political power is held by the prime minister, the president plays several key roles in Israel, with the power to pardon prisoners and authority to choose the prime minister after national elections.

In this role, the president selects a member of parliament, or Knesset, to form a majority coalition after elections. This has usually been the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament. But with the rise of a number of midsize parties in parliament, Rivlin could theoretically have more influence over choosing the country’s prime minister.

Rivlin dismissed speculation that he might be upset at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Likud rival who tried to block his candidacy, saying he was “not angry at anyone.” In a bid to lay to rest the rivalry, Netanyahu congratulated Rivlin and said he would work with him.

“I know you will do all you can as president and I promise that I as prime minister … will do the same with you,” he said. Rivlin is to be sworn into office for a single, seven-year term on July 24. After Tuesday’s vote, Peres called to congratulate him. Rivlin said it would be tough to follow Peres.

Rivlin, 74, currently a lawmaker for the right-wing Likud, has previously served as speaker of parliament and as a Cabinet minister. He defeated Meir Sheetrit, another veteran politician, 63 to 53, in a secret runoff ballot. Three other candidates were eliminated in a first round of voting in the 120-member parliament earlier in the day.

Rivlin will have big shoes to fill, after Peres, 90, steps down. Peres, whose political career stretches back decades and who has been an outspoken proponent of peace with the Palestinians, brought the office international renown. He also restored honor to the position, which was tarnished after his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, was forced to step down by a sex scandal. Katsav is now in prison after being convicted of rape.

Although Rivlin will play no role in Israeli foreign policy, Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Palestinian official, said the election of a man with his views sent a bad message. “I don’t see how he will contribute anything to peacemaking in the region. He is opposed to the two-state solution,” he said.

A statement from the White House on Tuesday said, “President-elect Rivlin has a long and dedicated record of public service and we look forward to continued strong ties, to the benefit of both our nations.”

The vote capped a nasty presidential campaign that saw mudslinging, political intrigue and scandals that forced two hopefuls to pull out of the running. Netanyahu’s public standing also took a hit during the campaign due to his attempts to shape the race and block Rivlin’s candidacy. He and Rivlin are longtime rivals in the Likud.

Rivlin, a vegetarian, is married and has four children. He has built a reputation for congeniality and as speaker of parliament, lawmakers considered him respectful of all opinions, even those of his fiercest rivals.

The other candidates included Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge. Former parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik and Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Dan Shechtman also vied for the job.

Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed.