Archive for October, 2014

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.”

Jordan acquits radical cleric of terrorism charges

September 24, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A Jordanian court on Wednesday acquitted radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada — known for his fiery pro-al-Qaida speeches — of involvement in a plot to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in Jordan more than a decade ago.

The ruling capped a lengthy legal odyssey for the 53-year-old cleric who has been described as a onetime lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, but in recent months emerged as a harsh critic of the Islamic State militant group. Abu Qatada was deported from Britain to Jordan last year, after years of fighting extradition.

About two hours after the ruling, Abu Qatada was released and given a hero’s welcome in the Nazzal neighborhood of the Jordanian capital Amman. Women ululated as he walked up several flights of an outdoor stairway to his family home, thronged by journalists and supporters trying to duck hard candy being thrown from above in celebration.

Abu Qatada refused to answer questions about religion and politics, asking for privacy. He briefly emerged from his home with his tearful mother, Aisha, holding her close. “This is my mother. I missed her,” he said.

The court session that set him free only lasted a few minutes. The gray-bearded Abu Qatada walked into a defendant’s cage in Jordan’s State Security Court and seven black-clad riot police then ringed the cage, largely blocking him from view.

Judge Ahmed Qattarneh said the three-judge panel acquitted Abu Qatada “because of the lack of convincing charges against him.” When the verdict was announced, Abu Qatada briefly punched his left fist in the air. Several family members jumped up from their seats, one calling out “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is greatest.”

Though tried in the security court, the case was heard by civilian judges. Abu Qatada was charged with involvement in plans to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in Jordan in 2000 — the so-called “millennium plot.”

He was acquitted in June in another case, a foiled 1999 plan to attack an American school in Amman. He had pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges in the proceedings against him. In Britain, Home Secretary Theresa May said that “due process of the law has taken place in Jordan,” adding that it’s “absolutely as it should be.”

May noted that Abu Qatada had been deported from Britain because courts there determined he posed a threat to national security. May had been instrumental in removing Abu Qatada from Britain. The cleric “will not be returning” to Britain because he is subject to a deportation order and a U.N. travel ban, she said.

The West Bank-born Abu Qatada fled a Jordanian crackdown on militants, arriving in Britain on a forged passport in 1993. He was granted asylum a year later, but eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities.

He had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison on both Jordanian charges. But on his extradition to Jordan last July, those sentences were suspended and he was ordered to stand a new trial.

Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, had questioned the impartiality of Jordan’s military court, an issue that delayed his deportation from Britain for years. But last June, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture, paving the way for his extradition.

While in custody in Jordan, Abu Qatada had emerged as an influential critic of the Islamic State, an al-Qaida splinter group that has killed thousands of people, beheaded Westerners — including two American journalists — and captured large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq in a blitz this summer.

In a court appearance earlier this month, Abu Qatada said he is certain the Islamic State group will be vanquished, adding that “they have the ability to kill and destroy, not to build.” His comments reflected the bitter rivalry between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, which has rejected al-Qaida’s central authority. The al-Qaida branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, has fought the Islamic State.

Abu Qatada’s criticism has given legitimacy to the struggle against the Islamic State group, said Fawaz Gerges, a Britain-based expert on Islamic militants, speaking before the verdict. “The fact that the Jordanian authorities are allowing him (Abu Qatada) to make statements shows the importance of his voice at this particular junction in the struggle against Daesh,” said Gerges, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Another renowned jihadi ideologue in Jordan, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, has also come out against the Islamic State group. Over the weekend, al-Maqdisi called on Islamic State militants to release British aid worker Alan Henning and said non-Muslims who aid needy Muslims should be protected.

Al-Maqdisi was released from prison in Jordan in June, after serving five years on terrorism charges. He was the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.

Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

Sweden to recognize Palestinian state

October 03, 2014

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden’s new prime minister said Friday that his government will recognize a Palestinian state, a move that drew praise from Palestinian officials.

In a declaration listing his government’s priorities, Social Democratic leader Stefan Lofven told lawmakers that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved through a two-state solution requiring “mutual recognition” and a will from both sides to co-exist peacefully.

“Therefore Sweden will recognize the state of Palestine,” Lofven said. He didn’t say when or how that would happen. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki welcomed Lofven’s announcement and called on other European Union countries to follow suit.

“In the name of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership, we thank and salute the Swedish position,” Malki said in a statement. He said the only other Western European countries that have recognized a Palestinian state are Malta and Cyprus. Some Eastern European countries did so during the Cold War.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psakia said the U.S. looks forward to working with the new government of Sweden — a close partner — but called international recognition of a Palestinian state “premature.”

“We believe that the process is one that has to be worked out through the parties to agree on the terms of how they’ll live in the future of two states living side-by-side,” she said. Lofven has built a left-leaning minority government of Social Democrats and Greens after winning Parliamentary elections last month.

He tapped former European Commissioner Margot Wallstrom to be foreign minister, while Magdalena Andersson becomes finance minister and Peter Hultqvist will head the Defense Ministry. All are Social Democrats.

Asa Romson, leader of the Greens, the junior coalition partner, became vice-prime minister and minister for climate and environment. The coalition is expected to struggle to push its agenda through Parliament.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Mathew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.