Archive for October 10th, 2014

Kurdish fighters head to Syria to face militants

September 21, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Kurdish fighters raced from Turkey and Iraq into neighboring Syria on Saturday to defend a Kurdish area under attack by Islamic State militants. As the fighting raged, more than 60,000 mostly Kurdish refugees streamed across the dusty and barren border into Turkey, some hobbling on crutches as others lugged bulging sacks of belongings on their backs.

The large-scale displacement of so many and the movement of the Kurdish fighters into Syria reflected the ferocity of the fighting in the northern Kobani area, which borders Turkey. Militants of the extremist Islamic State group have been barreling through the area for the past three days, prompting Kurdish leaders to plead for international help.

Civilians seeking safety began massing on the Turkish border on Thursday. Turkey did not let them in at first, saying it would provide them with aid on the Syrian side of the border instead. By Friday, it had changed its mind and started to let in several thousand.

The numbers grew quickly as more entry points opened, and by late Saturday afternoon, more than 60,000 had poured across the frontier, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said. Even by the standards of Syria’s bitter war, it was unusual for so many refugees to flee in such a short time. Their numbers add to the 2.8 million Syrians who have become refugees in the past three years, and another 6.4 million who have been displaced within their own country — nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million.

Many of those who came across Saturday cradled young children or carried them on their shoulders. Kurtulmus said some refugees were staying with relatives, while others took shelter in schools or tents.

“Kobani is facing the fiercest and most barbaric attack in its history,” said official Mohammed Saleh Muslim, head of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union. The groups’ members dominate the Syrian Kurdish group known as the YPK, which is fighting the Islamic State militants.

“Kobani calls on all those who defend humane and democratic values … to stand by Kobani and support it immediately. The coming hours are decisive,” he said. On Friday, the president of Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, warned that the militant group’s attacks on the Kobani area “threaten the whole entirety of the Kurdish nation.”

The battle over Kobani is part of a long-running fight between the Islamic State group and Syria’s Kurds that has raged across a band of Syrian territory stretching along the Turkish border from the north to the far northeast, where large numbers of Kurds live. The clashes are one aspect of Syria’s broader civil war — a multilayered conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 190,000,

The YPK is viewed with suspicion by many Syrian rebels and their Western supporters because of perceived links to President Bashar Assad’s government. That may be changing, however, as Kurdish fighters battle alongside some Syrian rebel groups against the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria.

NATO member Turkey is wary of the group, which it believes is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement, a Kurdish movement that has waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey. Several hundred Kurdish fighters streamed into the Kobani area from Turkey, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil also confirmed the movement of fighters into Syria.

At least some of the volunteers looked to be PKK fighters, while others appeared to be eager civilians, according to Kurdish officials who insisted on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to reporters.

Some 600 PKK fighters also crossed from Iraq into Syria, heading toward Kobani, said a military official in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. That official also spoke on condition his name not be used because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists. The PKK have a base in the Qandil mountains in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Ethnic Kurds dominate a mountainous region that straddles Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Syrian Kurdish fighters had been successfully fighting off the militants for the past two years. They even clashed with the Islamic State group’s fighters in northern Iraq, carving a safe passage for thousands of embattled Iraqis of the Yazidi minority, whom the militant group sees as apostates.

But the tide changed in September as Islamic State group fighters began employing more powerful weaponry they seized from Iraqi soldiers who fled the militants’ advance in June. The U.S. has yet to launch any airstrikes in Syria to stem advances by Islamic State fighters, but airstrikes in Iraq have helped Kurdish fighters there and the Iraqi army stem attacks by Islamic State forces.

U.S. Central Command reported five airstrikes against militants on Friday and Saturday, including one southwest of Baghdad that destroyed an Islamic State group boat carrying supplies across the Euphrates River. The four other strikes were northwest of Haditha, targeting armed vehicles, checkpoints and guard outposts.

The U.S. has now conducted 183 airstrikes across Iraq since the military action began in early August.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

UN’s flight marks new era on Israel-Syria front

September 18, 2014

CAMP ZIOUANI, Golan Heights (AP) — For four decades, a multinational United Nations mission has quietly monitored the sleepy Golan Heights — providing a symbol of stability between bitter enemies as it enforced a truce between Israel and Syria.

But as Syria has plunged into civil war and the peacekeepers themselves have become targets of al-Qaida-linked rebels, the U.N. observer force has begun to fall apart, leaving its future — and the prospects for ever establishing peace in this rugged area of the Middle East — in doubt.

Since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, a withdrawal from the strategic plateau was seen as the key to any peace agreement. But as Syria continues to disintegrate, the odds of Israel giving up the Golan — never a popular prospect among Israelis — appear to be dimming by the day.

The downfall of the international mission known as UNDOF is a vivid illustration of the uncertain situation across the border — and in the eyes of many Israelis, it underscores why they can never relinquish the Golan.

The force suffered its latest blow earlier this month when the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front seized the strategic Quneitra border crossing from UNDOF, sent a contingent of Filipino peacekeepers scrambling for safety in Israel and took 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage.

Although the Fijians were released unharmed two weeks later, it was the fourth abduction of peacekeepers since March 2013, and several countries have withdrawn their troops from the mission. The 1,200-strong U.N. force is now mostly huddled inside Camp Ziouani, a drab base just inside the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights. Its patrols along the de facto border have all but ceased, the road to the nearby Syrian town of Quneitra is blocked by barbed wire, and the fields opposite the base are blackened by fires set off from wayward mortar rounds launched from the Syrian side.

With Syria in tatters, UNDOF’s viability is now in question. “Their mandate is just not relevant anymore,” said Stephane Cohen, a former Israeli military liaison officer with UNDOF. “They are there to oversee an agreement between two countries — Israel and Syria — and in practice there is no Syria anymore.”

That endangers a status quo that — despite a formal state of war between Israel and Syria — is widely regarded as convenient. Since the aftermath of the 1973 Mideast war, the Golan has been the quietest of Israel’s front lines, a place of hiking trails, bird-watching and winery tours. Constantly looming in the background was the prospect of the Golan eventually returning to Syria as part of a peace accord.

A plateau that looms over northern Israel, the Golan is considered by Israelis to be vital to their security. Lush and verdant for much of the year, it boasts the snow-capped Hermon mountain and the country’s only ski resort. The attachment to the Golan is such that Israelis tend to hardly view it as occupied — and, indeed, the area, unlike the West Bank, has been formally annexed.

Despite this, the sides have been negotiating on and off for much of the past two decades, and even reportedly came close to a deal in 2000. Indirect talks between Israel and Syria took place as recently as six years ago.

Underpinning that ambition was the sense that peace with Syria would yield significant benefits in terms of Israel’s legitimacy in the region — and that President Bashar Assad’s government would be a strong partner capable of enforcing the peace.

That seems like ancient history now, with Assad’s forces bogged down in an intractable civil war that has already killed at least 190,000 people. Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of Syria’s conflict. But Israeli leaders appear increasingly nervous about the possibility of al-Qaida-affiliated rebels occupying the high ground over northern Israel.

That prospect has pushed the notion of a future Israeli withdrawal from everyone’s mind, said Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University. All Israel can do now is “sit quietly, keep our distance and hope,” he said.

The Israeli military would not comment about its deployment, but officials say it is the most robust since 1973. The most obvious manifestation is a new 6-meter (20-foot) tall border fence topped with barbed wire and bristling with sophisticated anti-infiltration devices.

The traditional flock of tourists has slowed considerably and one of the main draws these days is a front row seat to watch the fighting taking place inside Syria. Atop scenic Mount Bental, Israelis and foreigners gawked one recent day as the sound of a large explosion echoed across the way, sending up a large plume of smoke in the distance.

Having abandoned their vulnerable positions inside Syria, U.N. observers have also retreated to the mountaintop lookout. A pair of uniformed soldiers observed the situation from the Israeli side using a long-range scope. U.N. officials say they remain committed to maintaining the force.

The new reality is perhaps most jarring for the Golan’s 22,000 Druse residents, who have found themselves trapped in the middle. Followers of an offshoot of Islam, the Druse have mostly continued to identify as Syrian even after years of Israeli rule that has seen them become fluent in Hebrew.

They still have relatives in Syria, and the Quneitra crossing has served as a direct channel to Syria for students attending university in Damascus and for brides crossing over to marry fellow Druse. Those movements have slowed considerably as the fighting has increased.

The Druse have survived in a turbulent region by typically showing allegiance to their country of residence. Some 100,000 Druse from inside Israel are loyal citizens and have produced senior officers in its military.

Those on the Golan tread a fine line. Unlike their brethren in the rest of Israel, few have taken up citizenship — an option they were offered after Israel annexed the territory in 1981 — and at least in public have backed Assad’s regime as their one-day savior.

But over the past three years, opinions have begun to fluctuate, with anger over the high death toll in Syria mixing with concern over the fate of their Syrian relatives and a new realization that their future looks brightest with Israel.

“Most of the residents support the rebellion against the Assad regime but do not support the terrorist groups that have been riding its wave,” said Dolan Abu Saleh, the mayor of Majdal Shams, the largest of four Druse towns on the Israeli side of the disputed frontier.

“The truth is that people are happy to be living under Israeli rule and the Golan today is Israeli,” he said. “If somehow there is a situation where Syria becomes a democratic state then the residents here will think about being a part of that dream.”

Syrian women help traumatized children smile again

Mustafa al-Haj

August 27, 2014

ZABADANI, Syria — The city of Zabadani, 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Damascus, is still the scene of shelling by regime forces and clashes between these forces and rebels. Ten security and military checkpoints separate Damascus from rebel-held Zabadani, which was an important tourist destination before Syria’s civil war erupted. The city’s continued clashes have had a considerable impact on the children who live there, prompting a group of Zabadani women to form a civil society group called Damma, which is Arabic for hug. In March, the women established a center to provide psychological support to more than 50 boys and girls from the region.

Damma’s center is situated in a relatively quiet area in a southeastern suburb of Zabadani, near a Syrian army checkpoint. The area is packed with residential buildings and markets that have deterred the regime from targeting the area with explosive barrels. However, the silence is often interrupted by the sounds of barrel bombs being dropped over neighboring areas.

The three-room center is decorated with artificial flowers, as well as the children’s arts and crafts. This modest building has become, with the help of the Damma team and local residents, an escape for the children.

One mother said, “My daughter’s favorite place is now this center, where she can play and befriend other children. I have not seen her so happy in a long time, since [before] her father passed away. She is now more sociable and is getting much better with time.”

The Damma center’s director explained the meaning behind the name Damma to Al-Monitor. The group’s goal is to hug children in need and make them smile again. It aims to help the children of Zabadani overcome the war’s psychological effects and allow them to deal positively with their circumstances.

The director, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “The children have several activities, such as drawing and creating crafts out of clay and putty. They also have physical and mental activities, such as singing and different kinds of competitions, which help them with psychological release and to interact with other children. This is so they forget about the war for a few hours a day.”

During the summer, the center runs from 9 a.m. until noon. Before the children go to class, they exercise in the center’s front yard. A psychological support assistant at the center said, “The children’s interests differ. Some prefer drawing while others prefer team games and sports.”

The children’s fear of war manifests itself in classroom activities, as in the case of Omar, 5. “Omar is passionate about drawing, but he is antisocial. During the psychological release sessions, Omar turned out to be really scared of checkpoints. I asked him to draw what he was thinking about and he drew a shotgun. When I asked him to talk about autumn, he instead spoke about the military checkpoint near his home where he constantly hears gunshots,” said the assistant, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that she is trying to help Omar overcome his trauma.

Fear of gunshots and explosions is not the only cause of children’s psychological issues, according to a teacher at the center. Six-year-old Mariam’s house was robbed, and she has been terrified by theft ever since. “She is always afraid of losing her school things and starts crying whenever a friend asks to borrow her things. Today, after three months in the center, Mariam has learned that sharing some things with her friends is OK and it does not count as stealing,” the teacher said.

While Al-Monitor was at the center, children participated in a psychological release activity by drawing a sad face on one piece of paper and a happy face on another. The teacher gathered the sheets of paper with the sad faces and, with the children, tore them up. They then wrote wishes on the sheets of paper with the happy faces and put them in the wish box.

The women responsible for the center have taken intensive courses in providing psychological support for the children. “We took a course with a civil society organization called Jozour (Roots), where experts in education and children’s psychological support trained us,” the director said. “Although we have all dealt with children before, since we used to work as kindergarten teachers, we also gained some personal experience.”

During the summer, the women teach the children the basic concepts of nature and English, and also participate in activities like singing, playing instruments, drawing, painting with watercolors and reading stories, which all considerably help to reintegrate children into their environments.

The center received an initial donation from Jozour in Damascus to cover rent and salaries for three months, in addition to the center’s equipment, said the director. “We now take a small amount of money from the children’s parents to carry on with our work,” the director said.

However, the director could not hide the fear she felt when transporting the materials, like desks and toys, from Damascus, and passing through all the checkpoints to reach Zabadani.

Jozour is a Damascus-based civil society organization supporting civil society initiatives across Syria, especially in areas under opposition control.

With simple means and limited materials, Damma’s psychological support center in Zabadani can help put smiles on children’s faces. The center provides children with a “hug” to help make up for what they have lost.

Source: al-Monitor.


Palestinian unity Cabinet sets up Gaza operations

October 09, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The new Palestinian unity government toured Gaza and held a Cabinet meeting there for the first time Thursday, aiming to assure donor countries that absolute Hamas control has ended and that it can lead the rebuilding of the war-battered territory.

The visit by the ministers came three days before an international pledging conference for Gaza, to be held in Cairo. In establishing a foothold in Gaza, the new Cabinet, which reports to Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, was trying to signal that the Palestinians’ paralyzing political split has come to an end. Hamas had seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, leaving him with only parts of the West Bank.

Still, the situation remains volatile. Hamas refuses to disband its security forces, even though it promises to support the new government of independent experts. Those security forces were in full view Thursday as the ministers inspected neighborhoods that were badly damaged in this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas.

In the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyeh, Hamas troops linked arms at one point to try to shield the Cabinet ministers — largely unsuccessfully — from a crush of curious onlookers. The chaotic scene illustrated how fragile security arrangements are under a reconciliation deal reached by Abbas and Hamas earlier this year. Forces loyal to Abbas are to take up positions near Gaza’s border with Israel, including crossing points, to facilitate the import of construction materials, but Hamas troops would likely remain in control elsewhere in the territory.

Despite the uncertainty, the former political rivals said rebuilding is a shared priority. More than 60,000 homes and more than 5,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed during the war, according to estimates by the United Nations and the Palestinian government.

At the start of their visit, the Cabinet ministers, most from the West Bank, toured destroyed areas, including in the town of Beit Hanoun. “What we have seen today is horrible,” Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said at the start of the Cabinet meeting in Abbas’ former residence. “I cried in Beit Hanoun when I saw how the people live and sleep. The priority is reconstruction” and political unification, he said.

Later, Hamdallah and his ministers visited Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader in Gaza. Haniyeh’s house was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in the recent war and he received the group in a building next to the debris.

Haniyeh said that the Cabinet’s visit signaled “the end of the (political) split and sends a message to the Palestinian people and the world that we have one government and one political system.” Haniyeh had served as prime minister for both the West Bank and Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006. He was fired by Abbas a year later, after Hamas seized Gaza by force. The takeover triggered a border blockade of Gaza by neighboring Israel and Egypt, and over the years, repeated reconciliation attempts failed.

Hamas became increasingly unable to govern in Gaza as a result of new Egyptian border restrictions last year that drove it into its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987. Earlier this year, a desperate Hamas agreed to hand over some authority to an Abbas-led unity government. The new government was formed four months ago to replace rival administrations — one led by Hamas in Gaza and the other headed by Abbas in parts of the West Bank. However, it hadn’t operated in Gaza until now because of unresolved disputes between the long-time rivals and because of the war.

Palestinian unity is a consensus issue, with polls consistently showing a majority in favor of ending the political split. In Gaza, many hope the new government will be able to ease border restrictions and revive the crippled economy.

“We hope they open the crossings and create jobs for young people,” said Mahmoud Sharif, 28, who sells cigarettes by the piece from a tray in a Gaza park. Sharif said he used to make a decent wage in a sewing workshop producing for the Israeli market before the border closure.

Israel initially refused to deal with the unity government because it is backed by Hamas. Since the Gaza war, Israel has signaled readiness to work with the Palestinian Cabinet, particularly on Gaza reconstruction.

In a show of good will, Israel opened its Erez crossing into Gaza for the West Bank-based ministers on Thursday even though the crossing was meant to be closed for a Jewish holiday. The shift came after the international community, including the U.S., agreed to work with the new government on rebuilding Gaza.

“The only way to have a long-term sustainable solution for Gaza is for the Palestinian Authority to assume full authority in Gaza,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

“So we support this interim technocratic government in its efforts and we view this meeting as a positive step in that direction.” As part of the access restrictions on Gaza, Israel has prevented the import of construction materials, with the exception of shipments for projects supervised by international agencies, including the United Nations.

Israel fears Hamas will divert cement and steel for military use, including attack tunnels. Israel spotted and destroyed more than 30 such tunnels during the recent Gaza war. Under a U.N.-brokered reconstruction deal, Israel is to ease the import of building materials, while U.N. inspectors and forces loyal to Abbas are to monitor the shipments until their final destination.

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

1st Gaza meeting of Palestinian unity Cabinet

October 09, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The new Palestinian unity government held a Cabinet meeting in the war-battered Gaza Strip for the first time Thursday, marking the end of more than seven years of absolute Hamas control of the coastal territory.

In establishing a Gaza foothold, the Cabinet also tried to assure the international community that foreign aid for Gaza’s reconstruction will not reach the Islamic militant Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group.

The Cabinet meeting came three days before an international pledging conference where Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seeks $4 billion for Gaza reconstruction after a 50-day war there this summer between Israel and Hamas.

Still, it remains unclear how much authority the Cabinet will have on the ground. It is made up of independent experts, none of whom are declared members of the two main Palestinian movements: Hamas and Fatah.

Hamas has said it would allow the ministers, who report to Abbas, to operate freely in Gaza. However, Hamas has refused to disband its security forces, creating a potentially volatile situation. On Thursday, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and 11 ministers arrived in Gaza from the West Bank, joining five colleagues who were already present in Gaza.

After entering Gaza through an Israeli-controlled crossing, the ministers toured the town of Beit Hanoun and the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, both badly damaged during the war. Hamas security forces formed cordons, linking arms, as curious and unruly crowds thronged the ministers. Later, as the visitors drove through Shijaiyah in a convoy, hundreds of people lined the street to watch, some waving and a few holding the yellow flags of Abbas’ Fatah movement.

The Cabinet convened in Abbas’ former residence in Gaza City. “What we have seen today is horrible,” Hamdallah said at the start of the meeting. “I cried in Beit Hanoun when I saw how the people live and sleep. The priority is reconstruction” and political unification, he said.

Hamas said Thursday it would be supportive. “This unity government was the result of a reconciliation agreement that Hamas worked hard for,” said Izzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas official in Doha. “Therefore, we have a real and serious interest in enabling it (the new government) to work successfully in Gaza.”

Hamas had seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, prompting a border blockade by neighboring Israel and Egypt. Repeated attempts at reconciliation failed. However, Hamas became increasingly unable to govern after new Egyptian border restrictions last year drove it in its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.

Earlier this year, a desperate Hamas agreed to hand over some authority in Gaza to an Abbas-led unity government. The new government was formed four months ago to replace rival administrations — one led by Hamas in Gaza and the other headed by Abbas in autonomous areas of the West Bank.

However, it hadn’t been operating in Gaza until now because of unresolved disputes between the long-time rivals and because of the war. Israel initially refused to deal with the unity government because it is backed by Hamas. Since the Gaza war, Israel has signaled readiness to work with the Palestinian Cabinet, particularly on Gaza reconstruction.

In a show of good will, Israel opened its Erez crossing into Gaza for the West Bank-based ministers on Thursday even though the crossing was meant to be closed for a Jewish holiday. As part of the restrictions on Gaza, Israel has prevented the import of construction materials, with the exception of shipments intended for projects supervised by international agencies, including the United Nations.

Israel fears Hamas will divert cement and steel for military use, including attack tunnels. Israel spotted and destroyed more than 30 such tunnels during the recent Gaza war. Under a U.N.-brokered reconstruction deal, Israel is to ease the import of building materials, while U.N. inspectors and forces loyal to Abbas are to monitor the shipments until their final destination.

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

Palestinian unity Cabinet to meet 1st time in Gaza

October 09, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Members of the new Palestinian unity government assembled in Gaza on Thursday for their first Cabinet session in the war-battered territory — a largely symbolic meeting meant to mark the end of absolute Hamas control of the coastal strip.

The gathering, set for midday, comes three days ahead of an international pledging conference where Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will seek $4 billion for Gaza reconstruction following a 50-day war there this summer between Israel and Hamas. The war ended Aug. 26.

Several of the ministers arrived in the Gaza Strip after traveling from the West Bank on Thursday morning, including the new Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. He spoke hopefully of a new era between the militant Hamas movement and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

“We have put the years of split behind us and started the reconciliation process as a crucial step to alert the international community to its responsibilities in helping reconstruct Gaza and lift the blockade,” he said.

Israel has prevented the arrival in Gaza of many types of construction materials and other goods, fearing that Hamas could use them to manufacture rockets and other weapons. By meeting in Gaza for the first time, the unity government of independent experts hopes to reassure donors that it can lead reconstruction efforts and that funds pledged for Gaza will not reach Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group.

However, it remains unclear how much authority the unity government, which reports to Abbas, will have on the ground. Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, has said it will step aside, but has refused to disband its security forces.

Still, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri sounded conciliatory when he greeted Hamdallah upon his arrival. “We want to see the government carrying out its duties in Gaza and we are willing to help it as much as we can,” he said.

The unity government was formed four months ago to replace rival governments in separate territories — one led by Hamas in Gaza and the other headed by Abbas in autonomous areas of the West Bank. However, it hasn’t been operating in Gaza until now, both because of unresolved disputes between Abbas and Hamas and because of the recent summer war.

Ehab Bseiso, a government spokesman, said that 12 Cabinet ministers left the West Bank on Thursday morning, en route to Gaza. The trip takes the ministers through Israel, including two Israeli-run crossings.

Israel initially refused to deal with the unity government because it is backed by Hamas. Since the Gaza war, Israel has signaled readiness to work with the Palestinian Cabinet, particularly on Gaza reconstruction. And its willingness to accommodate the West Bank-based ministers’ passage to Gaza appeared to be a sign of goodwill, coming as it does on a Jewish holiday when Gaza-Israel crossings are normally closed.

In Gaza, the ministers were to be joined by five colleagues who are based in the territory or arrived here earlier. The group was to tour areas destroyed during the war before holding its Cabinet meeting at Abbas’ former residence in Gaza.

In preparation for the meeting, a sign reading “Prime Minister’s Office” was affixed to the entrance of the Abbas residence.

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

Palestinian unity Cabinet to meet in Gaza

October 06, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian unity government will hold its first Cabinet meeting in Gaza this week, a key step toward taking charge of reconstruction efforts in the war-battered territory, a senior official said Monday.

The Cabinet will convene Thursday, said Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa, three days before an international pledging conference where the Palestinian government will seek $4 billion in aid for Gaza, hit hard in a 50-day war this summer between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Donor countries view the unity government of independent experts, led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as key to any reconstruction plans. Hamas, which is shunned as a terrorist group by the international community, has governed Gaza for the past seven years.

The purpose of the Gaza meeting is to “see the situation on the ground and to send a message to the donors’ conference that the government is ready to start reconstruction soon,” Mustafa told The Associated Press.

Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, prompting a border closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, enforced to varying degrees over the past seven years. After Egypt tightened the closure last year and stepped up its destruction of cross-border smuggling tunnels, Hamas began experiencing severe financial difficulties that made it increasingly difficult for the group to govern.

Earlier this year, Hamas agreed to hand over authority to a temporary unity government reporting to the West Bank-based Abbas, though it refused to disband its security forces. Other key issues remained unresolved, including the fate of more than 40,000 employees hired by Hamas after 2007. The unity government has not yet started operating in Gaza.

Mustafa said that’s about to change. “The government is for both the West Bank and Gaza, and it’s time to start operating in Gaza despite the difficulties,” he said in a phone interview. In the West Bank, which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinians have limited self-rule in 38 percent of the territory.

The unity Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, will meet in Abbas’ former residence in Gaza, Mustafa said. Abbas has not set foot in Gaza since the Hamas takeover, and it remains unclear when he might return to the territory.

During the latest Israel-Hamas war, which ended in late August, Israel launched thousands of airstrikes at what it called Hamas-linked targets, while Hamas fired thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, the majority civilians, according to the U.N. Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians.

More than 60,000 homes and more than 5,000 businesses were destroyed or damaged, according to joint assessments by the Palestinian government and the United Nations. One of the key challenges will be to get construction materials into blockaded Gaza.

Under the closure, Israel has restricted imports of building materials to prevent cement and steel from being diverted by Hamas for the construction of bunkers and attack tunnels. During the war, Israel discovered and destroyed more than 30 such tunnels.

Mustafa said some construction materials would enter Gaza this week during what he described as a test phase, but did not elaborate. U.N. officials have said they have negotiated a deal with Israel under which imports would gradually increase, while U.N. inspectors and security forces loyal to Abbas will conduct spot checks in Gaza to ensure no shipments are diverted.

In another step, some 3,000 troops loyal to Abbas will take up positions in Gaza soon, Mustafa said, without elaborating.

Hamas, Fatah reach partial Gaza deal in Egypt

September 25, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The militant Palestinian Hamas group and its rival Fatah movement on Thursday reached a partial agreement on governing the Gaza Strip, signaling a major step forward in reducing their deep-seated enmity.

Meanwhile, a senior Palestinian official said President Mahmoud Abbas’ government, which runs the West Bank, will press forward with a United Nations bid to set a deadline for Israel to end its occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war, after efforts to enlist American support for the effort ran aground.

“Work with the Americans about the possibility of joint action in the Security Council has reached an impasse,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, adding that he expects the Palestinian delegation in New York to propose a U.N. resolution on the issue within three weeks.

The purpose of the resolution is to set the groundwork for the formal establishment of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, after days of discussions with Fatah leaders in Cairo, Hamas’ deputy leader Mussa Abu Marzouk seemed upbeat in describing the new Gaza deal.

“We and Fatah have reached a deal today on reconciliation,” he said. “The deal states that a (unity) government can officially assume control over government institutions in Gaza.” The deal struck behind closed doors in the Egyptian capital is the sixth official accord between the two groups, but with major issues not yet resolved — including salaries for Hamas employees in Gaza and control over the coastal territory’s security forces — concerns over possible new confrontations between the factions remain.

Outlining the deal’s provisions, Abu Marzouk said the new unity government will start making some payments to government officials in Gaza, though the question of full salaries has been left to future negotiation.

Also, he said, the government will jointly man border crossing points with Israel and Egypt and jointly administer a hoped-for Gaza reconstruction process, funded by donations from European and other western countries.

“We have set the reconstruction as high priority,” Abu Marzouk said. Hamas and Fatah have a long history of dashed hopes. They agreed in April to form a unity government in Gaza, now ruled by Hamas, but the government never really took hold amid longstanding tensions between the factions.

The tensions appear to have spiked in recent weeks over Fatah claims that Hamas’s conduct of the recent Hamas-Israel war led to unacceptably high losses of life and damage to property. The 50 day conflict in July and August in the Gaza Strip killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and left more than 18,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged.

In the spring, Abbas worked out a tentative agreement with Hamas under which he would head a temporary unity government of experts in both the West Bank and Gaza until elections could be held. However, major issues were left unresolved, including the fate of 40,000 government employees hired during the Hamas era and control over the Gaza security forces.

Hamas was mired in a severe financial crisis when it struck the deal, but has become emboldened since the end of the war because fighting with Israel boosted its popularity among Palestinians. The need to present a joint front ahead of planned donor talks for Gaza’s reconstruction may be pushing the rival factions together now, even if sustainable reconciliation remains to be achieved.

A failure to present a unified government led by Abbas is widely seen as being harmful to the reconstruction efforts. Egypt is hosting a pledging conference for Gaza on Oct. 12, but donor countries will likely hold back if Hamas — shunned by the West as a terror group — refuses to step aside as the undisputed Gaza power holder.

Azzam al-Ahmed, an Abbas aide, said Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions have now formed a committee to look into a number of pressing issues in Gaza, including the salary question. “The national committee will be able to sort this out,” he said.

Abu Marzouk said this week’s meetings yielded broad agreement on creating mechanisms to permit the import of construction materials into Gaza to let rebuilding efforts go ahead. Concerned that building materials like cement and some metals could be used by Hamas to manufacture weapons, Israel has demanded that foreign governments and international organizations involved in the reconstruction provide clear-cut safeguards against the materials’ diversion for weapons-making.

Abu Marzouk appeared to be sensitive to this concern. “What we did now is facilitating … and providing all mechanisms to help donors, and give them assurances about the process from the beginning to the end,” he said.

On the U.N. resolution aimed at establishing a deadline for Israel to withdraw from the lands captured in the 1967 war, Erekat said that a provisional draft would be ready on Friday, and that consultations with Arab and Islamic countries, the European Union, Russia, China and a number of non-aligned nations could probably be completed in two to three weeks.

Erekat said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had ruled out the possibility of American support for the U.N. route, insisting that the world body was not the proper forum for negotiating an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In light of of continued Israeli settlement in the West Bank, he said, the American position was not tenable. “Hiding behind the call for the resumption of negotiations … is no longer viable in front of an Israeli government that uses the peace process as a cover for the continuation of settlements and imposing facts on the ground to destroy the two-state solution,” Erekat said.

Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Mohammed Daraghmeh in New York contributed to this report.

Gaza children return to school after war

September 14, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Some half million Gaza children made a delayed return to school on Sunday after a devastating 50-day war with Israel that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and damaged hundreds of school buildings.

Gaza Education Ministry official Ziad Thabet said the opening is for 230,000 1st to 12th graders attending public schools, 200,000 going to United Nations-run schools and tens of thousands enrolled in private institutions.

The opening was delayed for two weeks because of damage to schools and the diversion of U.N. school buildings for use as temporary centers to house tens of thousands of displaced people. Some 50,000 people are still being housed in the U.N. schools, the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency said.

Early Sunday the Gaza City streets were crowded with children dressed in a broad array of school uniforms, many accompanied by parents or older siblings. In the Al-Zaitoun boys elementary school, students pasted stickers with the names of fellow students killed during the war, as teachers struggled to cope with the badly damaged facilities — a hole in a ceiling here, a partially collapsed wall there.

“I’m not as excited coming to school as I was in the past,” said student Tamar Toutah, 11. “I feel that something is missing. I asked about my fellow students, but some were killed or wounded.” Thabet said that unlike in previous years the first week of instruction in government schools will be given over to providing psychological counseling and recreational activities to help the war-weary children transition to learning.

“We gave special training to more than 11,000 teachers and 3,000 principals and administrators about how to address students after the war,” he said. Thabet said 26 Gaza schools were destroyed during the war, and another 232 sustained damage.

He said government funding for education remains spotty, with no money provided for operational expenses since the formation of a unity government earlier this year between Hamas, the Islamic militant group that runs Gaza, and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.

UNICEF official June Kunugi echoed his concerns. “Investing in education is an investment for the future,” she said. “Without increased support and commitment to their education and protection, an entire generation in Gaza could be lost.”

UNICEF says it is providing 130,000 school bags and teaching aids for government schools, and that it has carried out training programs for nearly 12,000 school counselors, teachers and supervisors. Despite the assistance, teacher Akram al-Fares, 45, said the mood among his colleagues was dour.

“We are in the same boat with the kids, we lived through the same very difficult days,” he said. “But we are here together to prove that life continues, and not only can we teach, but also our kids can learn.”

The war between Israel and Hamas-led militants stemmed from the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June. Israel blamed the attack on Hamas and carried out a wave of arrests, which was followed by an increase in rocket fire from Gaza that prompted Israeli airstrikes and then a ground invasion.

The fighting ended with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire on Aug. 26. The Gaza war — the third in just over five years — left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians, including hundreds of children, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials. Israel says the number of militants killed was much higher and accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians were killed.

After Gaza war, poll finds support for Hamas rises

September 02, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — The popularity of the Hamas militant group among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has spiked significantly following the 50-day war with Israel, according to an opinion poll released Tuesday.

The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and headed by leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, indicates that 61 percent of Palestinians would choose the Islamic militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, for president if Palestinian presidential elections were held today.

Only 32 percent would vote for current President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’ rival, the survey suggested. The support for Haniyeh marks a stark increase from a poll in June, conducted by the same pollster, which found only 41 percent of Palestinians backed the Hamas figure. At the time, Abbas had 53 percent support.

The poll also suggests a majority of Palestinians — 72 percent — support adopting Hamas’ armed approach in the West Bank. The research center said it is the first time in eight years that a majority of Palestinians has voiced such support for the Hamas leader. But, it said, Hamas’ popularity might fall in coming months, as it did following previous Israel-Hamas conflicts.

Polling started on the last day of the war, on Aug. 26, and continued during the first four days of the cease-fire, the research center said. The poll said 79 percent of respondents believe Hamas won the war, and 86 percent support the renewal of rocket fire on Israel if a blockade on Gaza is not lifted, one of Hamas’ main demands.

But 25 percent said armed groups in the Gaza Strip should give up their weapons after the blockade ends and elections are held. The latest poll, and the poll in June, both surveyed 1,270 Palestinians and had a margin of error of 3 percent.

Also Tuesday, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid criticized Israel’s expropriation of West Bank land announced this week, calling for “a more reasoned approach” in Israeli diplomacy following Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

The expropriation of about 1,000 acres of West Bank land could help clear the way for new Jewish settlement construction. Lapid said such moves create “redundant arguments with the United States and the world” and criticized the timing of the announcement following the Gaza war. Israel’s Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, also criticized the move this week.

Other leading Israeli Cabinet ministers have criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct in the recently concluded war, with many saying he did not go far enough to neutralize Hamas’s fighting ability.

The land announcement drew strong criticism from around the world, with the U.S., EU, Ireland, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — which represents 57 Muslim countries — and others condemning it.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued a strong rebuke to Israel on Tuesday over the decision and called for it to be revised. “The decision, should it remain, sends a wrong signal at the wrong time,” he said.

Netanyahu has spoken vaguely about a new “diplomatic horizon” that has emerged following the 50-day Israel-Hamas war. He has given few details on what he means. But Netanyahu has said that he is not willing to renew peace talks with Abbas unless the Palestinian leader distances himself from Hamas militants. Hamas and Abbas’ Palestinian Authority recently agreed to a unity deal that saw the formation of a government backed by both factions.

“He has to choose,” Netanyahu told Israeli Channel Two in a weekend interview. “It’s either yes to Hamas or no to Hamas.”