Archive for the ‘ Palestine ’ Category

Why Palestine Won Big at the U.N.

As Reported by TIME

An instructive week after Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip tested Israel on the battlefield, the pacifist politicians who govern the West Bank notched a significant diplomatic win without much of a fight at all. Just before 5 p.m. New York time, the U.N. General Assembly voted 138 to 9 to bring Palestine aboard as a “nonmember state.” Another 41 nations abstained. Assured of passage by a whopping majority, Israel and the U.S. noted their objections mildly and mostly for the record, their effort to limit the fallout for the Jewish state itself limited in the wake of Gaza.

The status of “nonmember state” — emphasis on the “state” puts Palestine on the same level of diplomatic recognition as the Vatican, which is technically a sovereign entity. The Holy See has its own ambassadors but, for a few, may be better known for its busy post office off St. Peter’s Square, where tourists queue for what quiet thrills are afforded by a Vatican stamp canceled with the Pope’s postmark.

Palestine already has post offices. The particular marker of sovereignty it sought from the U.N. is even more bureaucratic: access to international organizations, especially the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Experts on international law say that, armed with the mass diplomatic recognition of the 150 or so nations it counts as supporters, Palestine will be in a position to bring cases against Israel, which has occupied the land defined as Palestine — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — since 1967.

The ICC, as it’s known, is on record as inclined to regard Israel’s more than 100 residential settlements on the West Bank as a crime of war. (The Jewish state pulled its settlers and soldiers out of Gaza in 2005 and argues that it no longer qualifies as its “occupier” under international law. Critics argue otherwise.) The physical presence of the settlements in other words would give Palestine a ready-made case to drag Israel before the court — or to threaten dragging it before the court. In the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the real power lies in the threat. But in his last U.N. address, in September, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began to lay the foundation for charges based not on the settlements but on the violent behavior of some individual settlers, who attack Palestinian neighbors and vandalize property and mosques. Settler attacks have skyrocketed in the past two years, according to U.N. monitors, and now account for the majority of the political violence on the West Bank, despite the lingering popular impression of Palestinian terrorism dating back decades. On the West Bank, at least, the reality has changed.

“If you were in my place, what would you do?” Abbas asked TIME in a recent interview. “We will not use force against the settlers. I can use the court, but it’s better for the Israelis not to push us to go to the court. They should put an end to these acts committed by the settlers.” His address to the General Assembly in advance of the vote on Thursday made the stakes plain enough: Abbas blasted Israel for “the perpetration of war crimes” and “its contention that it is above international law.”

Abbas’ effort actually got an unlikely boost from Israel’s eight-day offensive in Gaza. Operation Pillar of Defense focused on attacking Hamas, the militant Islamist group that has governed Gaza since 2007. Hamas, and more radical groups also operating in Gaza, lost scores of fighters and rocket launchers to Israeli air strikes. But by standing up to overwhelming Israeli military power for more than a week — and sending missiles toward major cities previously left untouched — the militants stirred a defiant pride and solidarity across the Palestinian community.

“The armed resistance of Hamas in Gaza gave the people hope and the impressions that this is the only way to fight against the ongoing occupation,” Majed Ladadwah, 46, told TIME 0n a Ramallah street, in the West Bank. “I can’t say they won,” said Ladadwah, speaking before Thursday’s balloting, “but they surely gained a lot of points for Hamas in the streets of Palestine.”

That logic was pointed out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visited Jerusalem to coax him toward a cease-fire. In the days that followed, Netanyahu’s government stopped threatening to punish Abbas for going to the U.N., a move Israel has called a threat to the peace process, which has been stalled for at least four years.

At the same time, European nations rallied around Abbas, intent on shoring up a leader who is secular, moderate — and already at political risk for cooperating with Israel to suppress armed resistance even before Gaza seized the world’s attention. Many of the “marquee” countries of Western Europe that Netanyahu had hoped to vote against Palestine statehood, like France, instead lined up behind Abbas. Others, including Britain, abstained, after seeking assurances that Palestine will not to go the ICC, or that negotiations with Israel will resume. Abbas has already promised the latter. Thursday morning brought news that Israel had lost Germany, a stalwart ally in the wake of the Holocaust, to the abstention column. “If there is a poor turnout, a poor vote, the radicals gain,” India’s U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters.

For their part, Palestinians overwhelmingly back the measure, despite an assortment of disappointments with Abbas — for wasting a year trying to get full U.N. membership in 2011 and for not visiting Gaza during the fighting, as foreign diplomats did. “We are for the U.N. bid because we anticipate this will help us legally to pursue our struggles and gain our rights,” said Ladadwah, the bank employee who spoke admiringly of Hamas’ stand in Gaza. Hamas itself said it backs the diplomatic effort, as do other factions.

“This is called resistance, whether armed resistance or peaceful resistance,” said Mahmoud Khames, 34, an unemployed West Bank resident, in advance of the vote. “It’s not a soccer match that someone has to win. Resistance is a matter of freeing one’s self and his people from the Israeli occupation.”

In downtown Ramallah, the crowd watching on an outdoor TV screen on Thursday night was large and festive despite the late November chill. Celebratory gunfire — fired by exultant uniformed police and soldiers — rent the night as the vote came in just before midnight local time. “I expect many things from this but the most important is the reconciliation of the two factions, Hamas and Fatah,” said Mohammad Abdel Moute, 40, a government employee who lives in a local refugee camp. “And now hopefully we’ll be able to address the world with our problems, and hopefully the world will be able to help us in obtaining our rights, to be able to live like normal human beings.” Nearby, Layla Jammal, 70, praised the strategy of putting the question of statehood to the General Assembly instead of to the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. routinely vetoes measures opposed by Israel.

“We heard threats from Netanyahu this evening before the voting, saying that a Palestinian state at the U.N. is unilateral, one-sided,” Jammal said. “And we laugh, because the wall that they built is one-sided! They didn’t ask us. From here it makes us it makes us a state against another state.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Rama

Israel keeps pounding Gaza by air, says it intercepted missile fired by Hamas at Tel Aviv

By Karin Brulliard and Abigail Hauslohner for The Washington Post

Israel’s four-day-old air offensive in the Gaza Strip expanded to target Hamas government buildings on Saturday and Palestinian militants continued firing a torrent of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel as both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts to win support.

Israeli airstrikes over Gaza accelerated to nearly 200 early in the day, including one hit that reduced the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to a smoldering concrete heap. That strike, along with others on a police headquarters and smuggling tunnels along the strip’s southern border with Egypt, raised questions about whether Israel had broadened its mission to including toppling the Hamas government that rules the coastal strip.

Just before sundown, Hamas said it had fired an Iranian-made Fajr-5 rocket at Tel Aviv, and air raid sirens sounded in that city for the third day in a row. The Israeli military said its newly deployed missile defense battery intercepted the rocket before it landed in the populous coastal city.

Even as airstrikes pounded the area Saturday morning, the foreign minister of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, Rafik Abdessalem, arrived in Gaza with a delegation, underscoring Hamas’s newfound credibility in a region dramatically altered by the Arab Spring. Abdessalem expressed outrage at what he called Israeli “aggression” and pledged to unite with other Arab countries to end the conflict.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whose prime minister visited Gaza on Friday, held meetings with Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani — both Hamas supporters — to discuss what Morsi and other regional leaders have promised will be a more robust response to Israel’s actions than during past conflicts. By Saturday night, rumors of Morsi, Erdogan and Hamas chairman Khaled Meshal hashing out a cease-fire plan were swirling but unconfirmed.

Also in Cairo, the Arab League held an emergency meeting of foreign ministers to discuss a response to the conflict. Many participants called for Arab assistance to the Palestinians and a “reconsideration” of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. But it was unclear if the usually ineffectual league would deliver decisive action by the end of its summit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, took his country’s case to European leaders. In conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, Netanyahu argued that “no country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat,” according to an Israeli government statement. The government announced that it was launching a special operations center for public diplomacy, centered on “the unified message that Israel is under fire.”

The White House reiterated its support for the Israeli operation, which the military says is intended to stop rocket fire that has escalated in the four years since Israel last invaded Gaza to stunt attacks by Hamas, an Islamist movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group.

“Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rockets for far too long,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy U.S. national security adviser, told reporters traveling with President Obama to Asia. Rhodes declined to comment on the Israelis’ choice of targets, but he said White House officials “always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.”

The death toll in Gaza rose to 45 by Saturday evening, Health Ministry officials said. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since the operation began. An Israeli military spokesman said about 130 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Saturday, 30 of which were intercepted by a missile defense system known as Iron Dome.

Israel made preparations this week for a possible ground invasion, but there were no further signs of one coming on Saturday.

Israel: No shift in mission

The Israeli airstrikes, which continued to target rocket-launching sites and weapons depots, slowed throughout the day, even as Israel appeared to be channeling new efforts toward Hamas civilian institutions. Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman, said the strikes were “part of our overarching goal of toppling Hamas’s command and control capabilities” and did not mark a shift in mission.

Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, was apparently not at his office when it was hit.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”

That is how it felt to Hossam and Sanaa al-Dadah, two teachers who had the misfortune of living next door to a house the Israeli military said belonged to a Hamas commander.

At 6 a.m., the family’s windows shattered and their walls burst open. The adjacent house, in the Jabaliya refugee camp, had been demolished in an airstrike, and suddenly theirs was ruined, too.

In the terrifying moments that followed, Hossam al-Dadah, 50, frantically dug his five children out of the rubble, and a few hours later, they had been taken away to their grandparents’ home. But a dust-caked Sanaa, 40, rushed from room to room, crying and gathering her children’s clothing, school bags and dolls and placing them on a sheet.

Israel says Hamas operates in populated areas to use civilians as human shields, and it has dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza warning civilians to stay away from Hamas operatives. Sanaa said she never got the message.

“Where are we going to go?” she said again and again. “The Israelis are responsible. They are the enemy of God. What did we do? Did we carry any missiles? Did we launch any rockets?”

Outside the house, children played insouciantly in rubble and scorched cars. Rami Mukayed, a 12-year-old in gray trousers, said he reserved his fear for darkness.

“At night, come see me, I’m panicked,” he said. “I play in the morning. I hide in the evening.”

Effect on peace process

In a speech in Cairo, Erdogan said the Gaza conflict called for a new era of Egyptian-Turkish cooperation.

“If Turkey and Egypt unite, everybody will be singing of peace in the region,” he said. “And if we stick together, the region will no longer be dominated by crying and weeping.”

Speakers at the Arab League meeting made the same argument.

“We can no longer accept empty meetings and meaningless resolutions,” said Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, addressing the assembly at the start of the meeting. He urged Arab states to adopt a “strict stance” on the conflict.

Issandr El Amrani, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who heads a blog called the Arabist, said the Gaza standoff has presented the new Arab Spring governments and other regional heavyweights an opportunity to reconsider their position on Israel and the peace process in a series of talks that could have long-term regional implications.

For years, the Arab League has floated a proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that Israel never took seriously, Amrani said. Arab states might now choose to drop that proposal and adopt more aggressive approaches — Egypt could revise the terms of its peace treaty with Israel; Arab states might consider providing covert aid to Hamas; and others will amplify the pressure on Israel through diplomatic corridors, he said.

By Saturday night, despite mounting rhetorical and symbolic support to Gaza’s Hamas leadership, the Arab ministers’ meeting had announced plans to send a delegation to Gaza but had stopped short of pledging immediate material support to Hamas.

“I’ve seen a lot of talk about doing something and how there’s a collective Arab responsibility to act,” Amrani said, “but no one has suggested anything concrete.”

How Hosni Mubarak Got Filthy Rich

By Rick Newman for US News Money

There are no Mubaraks on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, but there sure ought to be.

The mounting pressure from 18 days of historic protests finally drove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office, after three decades as his nation’s iron-fisted ruler. But over that time, Mubarak amassed a fortune that should finance a pretty comfortable retirement. The British Guardian newspaper cites Middle Eastern sources placing the wealth of Mubarak and his family at somewhere between $40 billion and $70 billion. That’s a pretty good pension for government work. The world’s richest man—Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim—is worth about $54 billion, by comparison. Bill Gates is close behind, with a net worth of about $53 billion.

Mubarak, of course, was a military man, not a businessman. But running a country with a suspended constitution for 30 years generates certain perks, and Mubarak was in a position to take a slice of virtually every significant business deal in the country, from development projects throughout the Nile basin to transit projects on the Suez Canal, which is a conduit for about 4 percent of the world’s oil shipments. “There was no accountability, no need for transparency,” says Prof. Amaney Jamal of Princeton University. “He was able to reach into the economic sphere and benefit from monopolies, bribery fees, red-tape fees, and nepotism. It was guaranteed profit.”

Had the typical Egyptian enjoyed a morsel of that, Mubarak might still be in power. But Egypt, despite a cadre of well-educated young people, has struggled as an economic backwater. The nation’s GDP per capita is just $6,200, according to the CIA—one-seventh what it is in the United States. That output ranks 136th in the world, even though Egypt ranks 16th in population. Mubarak had been working on a set of economic reforms, but they stalled during the global recession. The chronic lack of jobs and upward mobility was perhaps the biggest factor driving millions of enraged Egyptian youths into the streets, demanding change.

Estimates of Mubarak’s wealth will probably be hard to verify, if not impossible (one reason dictators tend not to make it onto Forbes’s annual list). His money is certainly not sitting in an Egyptian vault, waiting to be counted. And his delayed exit may have allowed Mubarak time to move money around and hide significant parts of his fortune. The Swiss government has said it is temporarily freezing any assets in Swiss banks that could be linked to Mubarak, an uncharacteristically aggressive move for the secretive banking nation. But that doesn’t mean the money will ever be returned to the Egyptian people, and it may even find its way to Mubarak eventually. Other Mubarak funds are reportedly sitting in British banks, and Mubarak was no doubt wily enough to squire away some cash in unlikely places. Plus, an eventual exile deal could allow Mubarak to retain some of his wealth, no questions asked, as long as he and his family leave Egypt and make no further bids for power.

Epic skimming is a common privilege of Middle Eastern despots, and Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were a bit less conspicuous than some of the Saudi princes and other Middle Eastern royals seen partying from time to time on the French Riviera or other hotspots. The family does reportedly own posh estates in London, New York, and Beverly Hills, plus a number of properties around the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, where Mubarak reportedly went after resigning the presidency.

Mubarak also spread the wealth far and wide in Egyptian power circles—another Middle Eastern tradition—one reason he incurred the kind of loyalty that allowed him to rule for a remarkable three decades. Top Army officials were almost certainly on his payroll, which might help explain why the Army eased him out in the end—allowing a kind of in-country exile—instead of hounding him out of Egypt or imprisoning him once it was clear the tide had turned against him for good.

That money trail, in fact, will help determine whether Egypt becomes a more prosperous, democratic country, or continues to muddle along as an economic basket case. Even though he’s out of power, Mubarak may still be able to influence the Army officials running the country, through the financial connections that made them all wealthy. And if not Mubarak, the next leader may be poised to start lining his pockets the same way Mubarak did. For Egypt to have a more effective, transparent economy, all of that will have to be cleaned up. There are probably a lot of people in Cairo who have been checking their bank balances lately.

Israel Fears Unrest in Egypt Could Jeopardize Peace Treaty

By Robert Berger for The Voice of America

The unrest in Egypt is sending shock waves throughout the Middle East, including in neighboring Israel.

Israel is extremely concerned about the situation in Egypt because President Hosni Mubarak has preserved the peace treaty between the two countries for 30 years. Israel considers the treaty a strategic asset, and it fears that a regime change in Egypt could put the peace agreement in danger.

Israeli analyst Yoni Ben-Menachem says an Egyptian government led by opposition groups or the Muslim Brotherhood would take a harder line on Israel.

“It might be a hostile regime to Israel that will not respect the peace treaty with Israel and will cancel it, abolish this agreement, and we will go back to a situation of hostility between Israel and Egypt,” said Ben-Menachem.

That would complicate Israel’s situation strategically, because it already shares two borders with hostile elements: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  And Ben-Menachem believes neighboring Jordan could be next.

“This can create the domino effect, and this fall of the regime in Egypt can also continue to Jordan, and also with Jordan we have another peace treaty,” added Ben-Menachem.  “And if this will happen, if there will be a strategic change in the Middle East, that will not be for the benefit of the State of Israel.”

While the treaty between Egypt and Israel is often described as a “cold peace,” Ben-Menachem says Israel values its relationship with President Mubarak and sees him as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world.

Thou Shalt not Mock or It May Cost You Your Life!

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

In the wake of the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab a couple weeks back, I did a great deal of contemplation about the situation in Pakistan and the current state of affairs of Pakistan and indeed in much of the Muslim world.

The current situation, especially in Pakistan and when it concerns the rights of the non-Muslims, is apparently the worst of anywhere in the Muslim world. Indeed, the plight of Asia Bibi, (also known as Aasia, Ayesa Noreen) Islam and Islamic Blasphemy laws have come under rightful scrutiny as of late.

One question that tugs at the heart of the debate for me is why is it that Muslims seem to get so very offended to the point they want to KILL you over a remark or something that comes out of your mouth? As Americans, we wonder to ourselves, “Haven’t they ever heard of sticks and stones may break my bones, but words don’t hurt me?!

Sadly, what the fundamentalist preachers at all the podiums of their Friday sermon or khutbah, nor any of their brethren on the run and in caves like the Taliban and Al Qaeda fail to realize that we are all God’s children. And God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, or whatever name you assign him, he is One and the same God of all religions. He is too big to fit into just one religion, concept, version or story of him.

And we all are his creations. Not one of us is superior over the other in his eyes and he judges us all equally. To him, the children of these three religions and its offspring’s are all related to each other. Adam being the first man, then Eve, and then all the Biblical figures and names such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, yes especially Jesus. He is their Messiah too!

Jesus, in fact is mentioned some 28 times in the Muslim holy book, Qu’ran whereas their own prophet Muhammad is mentioned only 4 times. And the fact that Jesus is also considered by Muslims to be the Messiah, it is sad that his followers should get such abject treatment in Pakistan and sadly, many Muslim countries.

If only the bad guys realized the connections between Christians and Jesus only then would a Pakistani Christian woman, suffering needlessly in a cell tonight going on 2 years away from her children in solitude, and constantly fearful for her life, would see her horrific ordeal come to an end.

These people are incapable of understanding basic rights, freedoms and even the unhindered concept of free will. No, they are primitive minded in their their spiritual and daily lives. They fail to see that a Christian’s God and a Muslim’s God are the one and the same. And he never would agree to laws like Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws at all. Why? Well because the Muslim God is known first and foremost as a Gracious, Merciful, Compassionate God.

In fact, the Arabic phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim is a beautifully poetic phrase which offers both deep insight and brilliant inspiration to the average Muslim who says it countless times as he or she starts each day and till they rest their head to sleep. “ It has often been said that the phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim contains the true essence of the entire Qur’an, as well as the true essence of all religions. Muslims often say this phrase when embarking on any significant endeavor and the phrase is considered by some to be a major pillar of Islam. This expression is so magnificent and so concise that all except one chapter of the Qur’an begins with the words Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.”

The common translation:”In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate” essentially is saying that God is compassionate, and full of grace. So how would this God punish Asia Bibi? What would he do if he is so full of compassion and mercy? Would he even punish her? And if he is such a gracious and a compassionate God, then wouldn’t he feel that nearly a two year jail sentence in solitary is already far more than her crime not to mention being away from husband and children and being worried about mob vengeance on her or the death penalty?

That God may act in a multitude of ways and we cannot ever know till said Judgment Day. That is what Judgment Day is all about after all. In fact, this is probably one day when the man upstairs works overtime judging all of us mankind, from the beginning with Adam to the last standing comes till Tribulation and the End of Days. It is only he, the Creator who will do the judging and this is something that the men with the loudspeakers who climb to the top of the minaret five times a day to call the faithful to prayers, just do not really understand, in my opinion. They apparently constantly seem to forget and pass judgment from the pulpit and this in turn helps set the “popular” opinion amongst the ultra-religious faithful of Pakistan’s society.

My only prayer to this Creator is that may he keep Asia Bibi safe tonight and continue to give her strength. And if God should call her home and have her die a death at the hands of the real savages those that not only kill but shockingly, in your name, then please Allah grant her heaven just as you should governor Salmaan Taseer, a man who was only defending the rights of all your children, including those of other faiths. He was being compassionate and gracious towards a fellow human being God, as he was only trying to emulate his creator, You Lord. Ameen.

And while you are at it Lord, will you also please let the imam at the microphone know that “Thou shall not mock, should not cost you your life.” Afterall, “Thou shall not kill is one of your top 10 commandments, whereas mocking prophets or religious figures does not make the list!

Manzer Munir, a proud Pakistani American and peace activist, is a Sufi Muslim who is also the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at www.PakistanisforPeace.com and at other websites such as www.DigitalJournal.com, www.Allvoices.com, www.Examiner.com and www.open.salon.com as a freelance journalist and writer. He asks that you like the Official Facebook Page of Pakistanis for Peace to get the latest articles as they publish here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Pakistanis-for-Peace/141071882613054

The Illiteracy of Hate

A News and Opinion Special Report by Manzer Munir for Paksitanis for Peace

Alleged Taliban Member pic courtsey of Boston Globe

The Taliban are not just simply a bunch of illiterate thugs and bullies for they too often prove to be even worse than animals and barbarians.

Nowhere else in the world has a country experienced a more tragic and callous attack as the one on Christmas day, the birth day of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, than the one Pakistan experienced. In an attack described by President Obama as an “affront on humanity”, the cowards attacked helpless women, children and men while they queued up in food and aid distribution site such as the WFP depot, people who mind you are already suffering from the ongoing war, once in a lifetime floods, and the poverty and radicalism of a generation of desperate, hopeless and increasingly uneducated young men brainwashed by the Taliban and other radical Muslim extremists.

I am still disturbed by the disdain for basic human life that this new attack proves about this radical and extreme enemy. I imagine another one of their brain washed ‘walking zombies’, this time purportedly a woman suicide bomber, a first, even for Pakistan, killed in excess of 43 people in Bajur Pakistan at a World Food Program rations and aid storage and distribution center.

The Pakistani authorities and several domestic and foreign NGO’s who provide food aid at various centers in the area are temporarily closing these centers in order to have increased security. This means that aid distribution will come to a crawl and up to several hundred thousand people will now have to suffer at the hands of the attacker and their backers, the Taliban who have claimed responsibility. The authorities will have to ensure the safety of aid organizations and their personnel for both Pakistani and non Pakistanis relief workers involved in getting food, water and medicine to many people who are either suffering from the war or from the floods.

This catastrophe, although not of near Biblical proportions, does present both a security and humanitarian problem to both the government of Pakistan as well the suffering citizens in the northwest areas of the country where; Taliban fighters take sanctuary from the war in Afghanistan to regroup and return to the fight in warmer weather after the winter months as we have seen in years past. In fact, the reach of the Taliban in Pakistan is now not only reputed to be in the headquartered areas such as in Quetta Pakistan among the restive Baluchi population, now they are so often found to be in major cities like Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and many points in between as they use their religious cover to endear themselves to certain impressionable, weakened or illiterate individuals that are so commonly found in throughout the country. 

Here are the some of the depressing facts. Pakistan, a nation approaching 180 million people at current estimates, perhaps only boasts to having about 60-65% of the male population at a literate level and at best, the females to be only at 40-45% of the total female population. Sadly, what this means is that 4 out of 10 Pakistani males are completely illiterate while up to as many as 6 out of 10 women are not able to read or write. Poverty breeds extremism since there is no support from any government programs or hope for any solution.

Time and time again throughout history and not just of Pakistan’s, we can see that the role of the church, synagogue or mosque in building the community is deeper than that of any government initiatives or other measures. The poverty for these young men along with the lack of jobs like for those individuals who are either very poorly paid construction site workers, household labor or servants, or beggars and sewer workers, a job sadly almost seems to have been reserved for Pakistan’s Christian community members as many can attest in Pakistan of their unfortunate and depressing state. One does not need to remind the reader of the plight of Asia Bibi (also Aasia and Ayesa), the Christian Pakistani woman who is still awaiting her fate in Pakistani courts after more than a year and a half since first being accused of a BS blasphemy charge and being in jail ever since. 

The medieval mentality of these radical extremists is not something that needs to be described as the evidence is here in this latest attack . Certainly anyone alive in any part of the world outside Pakistan and Afghanistan with eyes, TV, radio or newspaper within their reach can see plenty of near daily reminders of the carnage that many natives of these lands see, and to what they have painfully become accustomed.

 The Pakistani and Afghani Talibans have by all the various reports in newspapers and media sources over the last several years have pointed out to the fact that these groups all have too often similar goals. Not only that, these groups all share the same characteristics. The anti-Americanism, the pro-Wahaabi or Orthodox version of Islam, the need for justice for the ‘suffering of the Palestinian people’ , and the anti-colonial and often times anti western sentiment amongst these groups. The radicalization of certain Muslim groups be they Hamas and Hezbollah in the Mideast or Lashkar e taiba, or any other militant outfit operating in this part of the world as mentioned in this quote a few days before he passed, the late Richard Holbrooke of the US State department said that there are a range of militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and that “an expert could add another 30.” His exact words are in quotations. 

The radical Muslim groups who take prey of the weaker, cannot think for themselves because they are scions of those abjectly illiterate segments of the society who are only educated in the madrassahs of Pakistan. This is the de facto way of educating Pakistan’s poorer children in little mosque schools which consist of nothing but Qu’ranic surahs and words of ‘wisdom’ or ‘interpretation’ by the local mullah of the said mosque/school. Most probably these children in many Pakistani madrassahs, especially the ones who live near the border areas within the NWFP or North West Frontier Province of Pakistan as this is the part of the country most affected by its close proximity to Afghanistan.

The people in this area of Pakistan, as well as their cousins in Afghanistan have been fighting one enemy or another for the better part of 100 years now. Whether to them the enemy be the British, during the height of the British Raj rule in India, or to the Soviets and the Red army and the Cold War, then in chronological order came the infighting after the Russian withdrawal as various Tajik, Afghani, Uzbek, Pakistani warlords came in to try and consolidate power to now us Americans and the Pakistanis who are our allies in this war.

Granted we do often hear that the Pakistanis can be doing more. By all accounts, the Pakistani government can do more in terms of fighting this war on terror. Numerous western reports and articles in respected dailies have alleged that small elements within both Pakistan’s Army as well as the spy agency, the ISI, have sympathizers to either the Taliban’s cause or they want to be on favorable terms with a powerful entity that most in Pakistan’s establishment believes that Pakistan will be dealing with and not a weakened Karzai once the US begins to draw down troops and end the war by 2014. If this is indeed true, then these ‘officers’ and supposed ‘leaders’ of Pakistan should realize that the colluding with the enemy, which in this case is the Taliban, is tantamount to treason, and the members of the armed forces of Pakistan as well as the intelligence community should not be assisting the enemies of all concerned: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. 

Of course we must not kid ourselves and assume that only alleviating the illiteracy and poverty of the Pakistani youth will and bettering the education system of the Pakistani poor, particularly that of the refugees and residents of the northwest areas near the Afghan border. No there needs to be a study and introspection by the people of these two countries where this hatred breeds. To to get out of this darkness, the population needs be provided not only safety when delivering food aid and or medicine but aldo most importantly give them a book, a pen, and a paper. And teach them how to fish for knowledge with basic comprehension and deductive reasoning skills that can reject a radical and violent view of Islam too often manipulated by the clergy. This is the only way we can come to end this illiteracy of hate.

Manzer Munir, is a proud and patriotic Pakistani American, an author, who plans to write a book on Pakistan, who is also a blogger and journalist, and as the Founder of Pakistanis for Peace  can be found at www.PakistanisforPeace.com, www.DigitalJournal.com ,www.Open.Salon.com, www.Examiner.com, as well at other websites as a freelance journalist and writer.

Visiting Each Other’s Holy Places in North America

By Habeeb Ali for Common Ground News Service

I can see your stares! I get them every time I say we are twinning our mosques and synagogues this month. “Really?” people ask, jaws dropping.

For the third year, this exercise of interfaith exchange has progressed in good faith. Synagogues agree to twin with nearby mosques, with congregants visiting each other during Jewish Sabbath and Muslim Friday prayer services and, in some cases, inviting guest speakers or jointly carrying out a community service project like doing a Hanukkah and Eid party together.

I have personally taken students to the synagogue. One young Pakistani-born boy marveled at how cordial Jews were and how familiar the service is. One Palestinian girl at first refused to enter the synagogue but after meeting a warm female rabbi, left saying how different it was from what she’d thought.

Many people wonder about the term “Twinning” to describe the event. But the history of the Muslims genealogically is an ancestral path that leads to Ishmael, a son of Abraham, while that of the Bani Israel, the Quranic term for the Jewish people, leads to another of Abraham’s sons, Isaac.

So we’re children of two brothers – a good reminder actually – since around this time Muslims commemorate Abraham’s story during the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, on Eid al-Adha.

Twinning was initiated to encourage a better understanding between Muslims and Jews living in the West, regardless of political inclinations, with a more direct opportunity to have a dialogue about their faith traditions specifically.

In Toronto, in addition to Jewish visits to hear imams’ Friday sermons at mosques and Muslim visits to hear the Torah read in synagogues, the Noor Cultural Centre – which promotes cultural education and bridge-building in the Muslim Canadian community – has organized a weekend-long educational study conducted by Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone and Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub. The focus of the study is to reach out to students of both communities and discuss images of war and violence in Jews’ and Muslims’ scriptural texts.

According to Walter Ruby, the man behind the scenes at the New York-based Centre for Ethnic Understanding: “Twinning has brought together thousands of Muslims and Jews to jointly promote tolerance, understanding, education and goodwill in an effort to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”

It has grown from a mere 50 places joining hands last year in North America to more than 100 mosques and 100 synagogues in 22 countries on four continents.

Normally hosted the first weekend in November, Twinning events also take place throughout the month, providing meaningful exchanges for Muslims and Jews to understand each other’s faith – or participate in community initiatives, no matter how creative or how basic, like simply having a rabbi and an imam chat over coffee.

In Toronto, Dr. Barbara Landau plays a key role in promoting the Twinning and works to ensure such events are not limited only to November.

Landau is a friend and long-standing peace activist in Toronto among Jews and Muslims. She has participated in missions to conflict areas in the Middle East to share how Canadians can serve as role models. She has worked tirelessly with others, including her co-chair at the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, Shahid Akhtar, since 9/11 to see that young people in our communities understand each other and work on common projects for the goodness of humanity.

“The Weekend of Twinning has time and time again shown us that Jews and Muslims can not only live together peacefully as neighbors, but also partner together to build a better community at-large,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and lead organizer of the Weekend of Twinning.

And, with many more mosques and synagogues notifying her of their willingness to participate in the event, Landau is optimistic that next year’s Twinning weekend will be even bigger and better.

Arabs Must Recognize Israel’s Right to Exist

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

New York – President Obama delivered his speech to the United Nations General Assembly Thursday in New York and it focused largely on his desire to see the Middle East peace process proceed ahead despite all the difficulties. 

Mr. Obama stated that he wanted it to succeed in accomplishing the peace that has eluded the Arabs and the Israelis for over 60 years. Realizing that there are many obstacles and hurdles ahead during tough negotiations for diplomats from both sides, he stated his concerns and his hopes for the road ahead.

“I hear those voices of skepticism, but I ask you to consider the alternative,” Obama said. If no peace agreement is reached, he added, “then the hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity.”

“I refuse to accept that future,” he added. “And we all have a choice to make. Each of us must choose the path of peace. …We can say that this time will be different – that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way.”

“If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel,” Obama said to a loud applause by the delegates of all the countries at the United Nations.

In order for this to happen, the Arabs must first recognize Israel’s right to exist and the right of the Jewish people to claim specifically a part of the Holy Land as theirs. I know, it sounds so basic and a no- brainer. But surprisingly a large portion of the Arab world does not believe in Israel’s right to exist and specifically their right to exist in the southern Levant area which makes up the majority of the area for present day Israel. They want to ignore history and all the Biblical and historical evidence of Jewish settlement and claims to the land. They point to the migration of many Jews all over the world the last few hundred years as reason enough as to why they no longer can call Israel home.

Some Arabs demand that the Jewish homeland should be in Germany. After all, they claim, it is where so many of them were killed by Hitler and the main reason that precipitated the need to allow the Zionists of Europe and America, post World War II, to demand a home for the Jews. Why should the Palestinians pay for the crimes of the Europeans they argue?

Others have blamed the British and the Balfour Declaration when in 1917 the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, declared in a letter to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community for a need for a home for the Jews when he stated: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Quite simply, no other place makes any sense whatsoever. First of all, there is extensive mentioning of the land of Israel that is promised to the Jews in the Bible as well as the Hebrew texts, not to mention the Qur’an. All three identify geographic areas in present day Israel that has historically been identified as the homeland of the Jews. Jewish people do not even make up more than 1% of any country’s overall population other than in United States (2.2% of overall population), Canada (1.2% of population), France (1% of population) and Israel (75% of population). That means that for the rest of the world, each country’s Jewish population is not even one half of one percent of the overall population of that nation! Where else would the Arabs have them go? Certainly not Germany where many claim that they should be settled since that is where over 6 million of them were killed in the holocaust. The United States actually has more Jews in its boundaries than are currently residing in all of Israel. So they cannot very well say that they should go there as over half the population already lives here.

Most people do not realize that the Jewish population of the world is very small compared to Christianity or Islam. There are an estimated 15 million Jews around the world including in Israel. By comparison, there are over 2.1 billion Christians and nearly 1.5 billion Muslims. Nearly 105 countries of the world are majority Christian nations while there are perhaps at best 55 majority Muslim countries on the planet. Did you ever wonder how many majority Jewish countries of the world are there?  There is just one. Israel.

This is one of the great religions of the world and also one of the oldest monotheistic beliefs aside from Zoroastrianism, and came at a time when polytheistic beliefs were more prevalent as a human concept of divinity. No doubt, both Christianity and Islam owe a great deal of their religious thoughts and laws to the early Hebrew laws and traditions. In fact, large parts of both the Bible and the Qur’an constitute the Old Testament, also known as the Torah, the Jewish holy book and the scriptures revealed to Moses.

Jewish contributions to humanity have been disproportionate and staggering when one realizes that as less than one half of one percent of the world’s populations, the Jews have made immense advances in nearly every field that has benefitted the whole world. We can go from Albert Einstein’s advances in physics to Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, discuss Galileo’s contributions in astronomy to Freud’s understanding of the mind. We could illustrate how Baruch Spinoza’s rationalist ideas and philosophies laid the groundwork for The Enlightenment of the 18 century or marvel at the brilliant filmmaking of 21st century Jews like Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone. The list of Jewish contributions and the value of their culture to man’s history cannot be ignored.

What also cannot be ignored is that historically these are a persecuted people. The troubles that they faced in ancient Egypt as illustrated in the Bible as well as the deaths and expulsions during the Spanish Inquisition are part of their sad history. They faced persecution at the hands of both Christians and Muslims during the Crusades and at the time of the Papal States as well as during Muslim rule when they were subjected to the jizya (a per capita tax imposed on free adult non-Muslim males). The worst crimes nonetheless happened in the 20th century leading up to World War II when millions were killed in the Holocaust in Germany by Hitler’s Nazism and by Stalinist Russia.

So as the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the other Arab countries, sit down over the next couple of weeks to resolve once and for all the Middle East conflict, the Arab street and indeed the entire Muslim world, must come to a realization and acceptance of the fact that the state of Israel has a right to exist; and has a right to exist in this ancient land as much as the Palestinians, who also have the rights to parts of this holy soil that is so important to all three religions. No doubt, historically and Biblically, the Palestinians can make similar claims also. Except, in Israel’s case, there is no other nation for the Jews, whereas, there are 55 others for Muslims. It is only with this undeniable understanding that true and lasting peace will ever be achieved and it can clear the way for a two state solution that President Obama envisions and one that will allow the normalization of relations between Israel, the Arab and the entire Muslim world. 

As perhaps the most famous Jew of all time, Jesus, once said, “Greet ye one another with a kiss of charity and may peace be with you.” Indeed, Shalom and Salaam equal peace and that can finally be achieved once there is mutual respect and acceptance of the right of the other to exist.

Manzer Munir, a proud Pakistani American and peace activist, looks forward to a day when there will be peace between Israel and all the Muslim countries of the world, including Pakistan. He is the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at www.PakistanisforPeace.com as well at other websites as a free lance journalist and writer.

For Imam in Muslim Center Furor, a Hard Balancing Act

By Anne Barnard for The New York Times

Not everyone in the Cairo lecture hall last February was buying the imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s message. As he talked of reconciliation between America and Middle Eastern Muslims — his voice soft, almost New Agey — some questioners were so suspicious that he felt the need to declare that he was not an American agent.

Muslims need to understand and soothe Americans who fear them, the imam said; they should be conciliatory, not judgmental, toward the West and Israel.

But one young Egyptian asked: Wasn’t the United States financing the speaking tour that had brought the imam to Cairo because his message conveniently echoed United States interests?

“I’m not an agent from any government, even if some of you may not believe it,” the imam replied. “I’m not. I’m a peacemaker.”

That talk, recorded on video six months ago, was part of what now might be called Mr. Abdul Rauf’s prior life, before he became the center of an uproar over his proposal for a Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center. He watched his father, an Egyptian Muslim scholar, pioneer interfaith dialogue in 1960s New York; led a mystical Sufi mosque in Lower Manhattan; and, after the Sept. 11 attacks, became a spokesman for the notion that being American and Muslim is no contradiction — and that a truly American brand of Islam could modernize and moderate the faith worldwide.

In recent weeks, Mr. Abdul Rauf has barely been heard from as a national political debate explodes over his dream project, including, somewhere in its planned 15 stories, a mosque. Opponents have called his project an act of insensitivity, even a monument to terrorism.

In his absence — he is now on another Middle East speaking tour sponsored by the State Department — a host of allegations have been floated: that he supports terrorism; that his father, who worked at the behest of the Egyptian government, was a militant; that his publicly expressed views mask stealth extremism. Some charges, the available record suggests, are unsupported. Some are simplifications of his ideas. In any case, calling him a jihadist appears even less credible than calling him a United States agent.

Growing Up in America

Mr. Abdul Rauf, 61, grew up in multiple worlds. He was raised in a conservative religious home but arrived in America as a teenager in the turbulent 1960s; his father came to New York and later Washington to run growing Islamic centers. His parents were taken hostage not once, but twice, by American Muslim splinter groups. He attended Columbia University, where, during the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and Arab states like Egypt, he talked daily with a Jewish classmate, each seeking to understand the other’s perspective.

He consistently denounces violence. Some of his views on the interplay between terrorism and American foreign policy — or his search for commonalities between Islamic law and this country’s Constitution — have proved jarring to some American ears, but still place him as pro-American within the Muslim world. He devotes himself to befriending Christians and Jews — so much, some Muslim Americans say, that he has lost touch with their own concerns.

“To stereotype him as an extremist is just nuts,” said the Very Rev. James P. Morton, of the Church of St. John the Divine, in Manhattan, who has known the family for decades.

Since 9/11, Mr. Abdul Rauf, like almost any Muslim leader with a public profile, has had to navigate the fraught path between those suspicious of Muslims and eager to brand them as violent or disloyal and a Muslim constituency that believes itself more than ever in need of forceful leaders.

One critique of the imam, said Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, was that he had not been outspoken enough on issues “near and dear to many Muslims,” like United States policy on Israel and treatment of Muslims after 9/11, “because of the need that he has had — whether taken upon himself or thrust upon him — to be the ‘American imam,’ to be the ‘New York imam,’ to be the ‘accommodationist imam.’ ”

Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University, said Mr. Abdul Rauf’s holistic Sufi practices could make more orthodox Muslims uncomfortable, and his focus on like-minded interfaith leaders made him underestimate the uproar over his plans.

“He hurtles in, to the dead-center eye of the storm simmering around Muslims in America, expecting it to be like at his mosque — we all love each other, we all think happy thoughts,” Mr. Ahmed said.

“Now he has set up, unwittingly, a symbol of this growing tension between America and Muslims: this mosque that Muslims see as a symbol of Islam under attack and the opponents as an insult to America,” he added. “So this mild-mannered guy is in the eye of a storm for which he’s not suited at all. He’s not a political leader of Muslims, yet he now somehow represents the Muslim community.”

Andrew Sinanoglou, who was married by Mr. Abdul Rauf last fall, said he was surprised that the imam had become a contentious figure. His greatest knack, Mr. Sinanoglou said, was making disparate groups comfortable. At the wedding, he brought together Mr. Sinanoglou’s family, descended from Greek Christians thrown out of Asia Minor by Muslims, and his wife’s conservative Muslim father.

“He’s an excellent schmoozer,” Mr. Sinanoglou said of the imam.

Mr. Abdul Rauf was born in Kuwait. His father, Muhammad Abdul Rauf, graduated from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the foremost center of mainstream Sunni Muslim learning. He was one of many scholars Egypt sent abroad to staff universities and mosques, a government-approved effort unlikely to have tolerated a militant. He moved his family to England, studying at Cambridge and the University of London; then to Malaysia, where he eventually became the first rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

As a boy, Feisal absorbed his father’s talks with religious scholars from around the world, learning to respect theological debate, said his wife, Daisy Khan. He is also steeped in Malaysian culture, whose ethnic diversity has influenced an Islam different than that of his parents’ homeland.

In 1965, he came to New York. His father ran the Islamic Center of New York; the family lived over its small mosque in a brownstone on West 72nd Street, which served mainly Arabs and African-American converts. Like his son, the older imam announced plans for a community center for a growing Muslim population — the mosque eventually built on East 96th Street. It was financed by Muslim countries and controlled by Muslim diplomats at the United Nations — at the time a fairly noncontroversial proposition. Like his son, he joined interfaith groups, invited by Mr. Morton of St. John the Divine.

Hostage Crisis

Unlike his son, he was conservative in gender relations; he asked his wife, Buthayna, to not drive. But in 1977, he was heading the Islamic Center in Washington when he and Buthayna were taken hostage by a Muslim faction; it was his wife who challenged the gunmen on their lack of knowledge of Islam.

“My husband didn’t open his mouth, but I really gave it to them,” she told The New York Times then.

Meanwhile, the younger Mr. Abdul Rauf studied physics at Columbia. At first, he recalled in interviews last year, it was hard to adjust to American social mores. By 1967, he and a Yale student, Kurt Tolksdorf, had bonded at summer school over their shared taste in women and fast cars. But Mr. Tolksdorf said his friend never subscribed to the “free love” of the era.

When the 1967 war broke out in the Middle East, Mr. Tolksdorf said, Mr. Abdul Rauf reacted calmly when Israeli students tried to pick a fight. A classmate, Alan M. Silberstein, remembers debating each day’s news over lunch.

“He was genuinely trying to understand the interests of American Jews — what Israel’s importance was to me,” he said. “There was a genuine openness.”

In his 20s, Mr. Abdul Rauf dabbled in teaching and real estate, married an American-born woman and had three children. Studying Islam and searching for his place in it, he was asked to lead a Sufi mosque, Masjid al-Farah. It was one of few with a female prayer leader, where women and men sat together at some rituals and some women do not cover their hair. And it was 12 blocks from the World Trade Center.

Divorced, he met his second wife, Ms. Khan, when she came to the mosque looking for a gentler Islam than the politicized version she rejected after Iran’s revolution. Theirs is an equal partnership, whether Mr. Abdul Rauf is shopping and cooking a hearty soup, she said, or running organizations that promote an American-influenced Islam.

A similar idea comes up in the video of his visit to Cairo this year. Mr. Abdul Rauf, with Ms. Khan, unveiled as usual, beside him, tells a questioner not to worry so much about one issue of the moment — Switzerland’s ban on minarets — saying Islam has always adapted to and been influenced by places it spreads to. “Why not have a mosque that looks Swiss?” he joked. “Make a mosque that looks like Swiss cheese. Make a mosque that looks like a Rolex.”

In the 1990s, the couple became fixtures of the interfaith scene, even taking a cruise to Spain and Morocco with prominent rabbis and pastors.

Mr. Abdul Rauf also founded the Shariah Index Project — an effort to formally rate which governments best follow Islamic law. Critics see in it support for Taliban-style Shariah or imposing Islamic law in America.

Shariah, though, like Halakha, or Jewish law, has a spectrum of interpretations. The ratings, Ms. Kahn said, measure how well states uphold Shariah’s core principles like rights to life, dignity and education, not Taliban strong points. The imam has written that some Western states unwittingly apply Shariah better than self-styled Islamic states that kill wantonly, stone women and deny education — to him, violations of Shariah.

After 9/11, Mr. Abdul Rauf was all over the airwaves denouncing terrorism, urging Muslims to confront its presence among them, and saying that killing civilians violated Islam. He wrote a book, “What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America,” asserting the congruence of American democracy and Islam.

That ample public record — interviews, writings, sermons — is now being examined by opponents of the downtown center.

Those opponents repeat often that Mr. Abdul Rauf, in one radio interview, refused to describe the Palestinian group that pioneered suicide bombings against Israel, Hamas, as a terrorist organization. In the lengthy interview, Mr. Abdul Rauf clumsily tries to say that people around the globe define terrorism differently and labeling any group would sap his ability to build bridges. He also says: “Targeting civilians is wrong. It is a sin in our religion,” and, “I am a supporter of the state of Israel.”

“If I were an imam today I would be saying, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ ” said John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. “ ‘Can an imam be critical of any aspect of U.S. foreign policy? Can I weigh in on things that others could weigh in on?’ Or is someone going to say, ‘He’s got to be a radical!’ ”

Give White House Credit for Mideast Peace Efforts

By Peter A Joseph for The Huffington Post

Skeptics have had a field day criticizing the direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to be launched this week in Washington. To be sure, the obstacles to concluding an agreement are significant, the stakes are high and expectations are low.

But it is time to give the Obama Administration some credit. The White House is launching direct talks on Thursday with tools that previous administrations did not have or were unwilling to employ in past negotiation efforts. Despite the rampant skepticism, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful without being naïve.

The Obama Administration has come a long way to get to this point. The year-long tussle with Israel over West Bank settlement construction, a botched photo-op between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in New York one year ago, and painstaking attempts to bring the parties to direct talks in recent months have eroded the optimism and expectations that came with the election of President Obama.

However, there are a number of essential ingredients that the Administration has got right as it launches direct talks. Martin Indyk mentioned four of them last week in the New York Times: 1) there is very little violence between the parties today; 2) settlement activity has been limited; 3) the majority on both sides support a two-state solution; and 4) the contours of an agreement are largely already known. Here are four more:

First, violence is down because security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is at an all-time high. Palestinian security forces trained with the direct support and supervision of the United States, Israel and Jordan have significantly secured the West Bank and created an atmosphere conducive to economic growth. The success of the burgeoning Palestinian security force is providing Israelis with much needed confidence. Security is – and always has been – Israel’s number one concern. With such cooperation already in place, these talks will have a distinct advantage over all other previous efforts.

Second, the Arab states have endorsed President Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiating with Israel and pledged to be part of the effort. The inclusion of Egypt and Jordan in the launch next week is vital. As co-chairs of the Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative follow-up committee, Egypt and Jordan bring with them the promise of normal relations for Israel with 22 Arab states following a successfully negotiated agreement on the final status issues.

Regardless of whether Yasser Arafat truly intended to achieve peace with Israel, he never enjoyed the mobilized support of the Arab states, let alone the United States and Israel. Mahmoud Abbas does. The Arab states are providing Abbas with the kind of backing and legitimacy to negotiate with Israel on all of the sensitive final status issues that he will need in order to conclude a historic agreement. This is particularly significant given the political split of the Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.

Third, the Palestinians are invested in building the foundation for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have been plagued in previous negotiation efforts by poor governance and widespread corruption. While concerning issues remain, the progress of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to establish the infrastructure for a future state – like the aforementioned security advancements – distinguishes these negotiations from previous ones. The success of the state-building effort to this point and the growth of the West Bank economy lends credibility to the moderate leadership of Abbas and Fayyad and their ability to govern a viable, contiguous state, should the political process enable one to be established. Their efforts should also give Israelis added confidence that they would be establishing a conflict-ending agreement with a responsible neighbor.

Fourth, the Netanyahu government has been calling for negotiations for months, repeatedly stating that an agreement could be reached quickly if negotiated in good faith. The Administration now has a chance to test them on their word.

The make-up of the Israeli government presents both a challenge and an advantage to the renewed talks. The fact that this is a largely right-wing government intended to provide Israel with essential guarantees on security could bolster confidence among the Israeli public for an agreement, should one be achieved. This would remain true even if the government were at some point to replace Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party. Just as the Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin secured a peace agreement with Egypt, so too might the current Likud Prime Minister secure the elusive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Finally, the White House has pledged to be actively engaged and bridge the gaps when necessary. The failed Annapolis process proved that Israelis and Palestinians need the United States to be at the negotiating table in order to help the parties bridge the gaps.

Active engagement by the United States does not just require bridging proposals, but also reminding the parties of the interests at stake. To Israelis, concluding an agreement with the Palestinians would certainly help amplify efforts to mobilize the international community to counter the threat from Iran. To Palestinians, a viable and secure state can only come about through negotiations.

However, even with these various important ingredients in place, there remains a missing one that is vital to the success of direct talks: trust. Without trust between the parties – or in the United States’ leadership – the current effort will undoubtedly fail. Building this trust, beginning with navigating the parties past the September 26th deadline of Israel’s settlement moratorium, is clearly the United States’ most pressing challenge in the weeks ahead. But the foundation to succeed in doing so is beginning to be put into place. The Administration deserves some credit for laying it.

– Peter A Joseph is the president of the Israel Policy Forum

Arab Guilty of Rape After Consensual Sex with Jew

By Jo Adetunji and Harriet Sherwood for The Guardian

A Palestinian man has been convicted of rape after having consensual sex with a woman who had believed him to be a fellow Jew.

Sabbar Kashur, 30, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Monday after the court ruled that he was guilty of rape by deception. According to the complaint filed by the woman with the Jerusalem district court, the two met in downtown Jerusalem in September 2008 where Kashur, an Arab from East Jerusalem, introduced himself as a Jewish bachelor seeking a serious relationship. The two then had consensual sex in a nearby building before Kashur left.

When she later found out that he was not Jewish but an Arab, she filed a criminal complaint for rape and indecent assault.

Although Kashur was initially charged with rape and indecent assault, this was changed to a charge of rape by deception as part of a plea bargain arrangement.

Handing down the verdict, Tzvi Segal, one of three judges on the case, acknowledged that sex had been consensual but said that although not “a classical rape by force,” the woman would not have consented if she had not believed Kashur was Jewish.

The sex therefore was obtained under false pretences, the judges said. “If she hadn’t thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she would not have cooperated,” they added.

The court ruled that Kashur should receive a jail term and rejected the option of a six-month community service order. He was said to be seeking to appeal.

Segal said: “The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls. When the very basis of trust between human beings drops, especially when the matters at hand are so intimate, sensitive and fateful, the court is required to stand firmly at the side of the victims – actual and potential – to protect their wellbeing. Otherwise, they will be used, manipulated and misled, while paying only a tolerable and symbolic price.”

Gideon Levy, a liberal Israeli commentator, was quoted as saying: “I would like to raise only one question with the judge. What if this guy had been a Jew who pretended to be a Muslim and had sex with a Muslim woman?

“Would he have been convicted of rape? The answer is: of course not.”

Arabs constitute about 20% of Israel’s population, but relationships between Jews and Arabs are rare. There are few mixed neighbourhoods or towns, and Arabs suffer routine discrimination.

Israeli MPs are considering a law requiring prospective Israeli citizens to declare loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish, democratic state”. Many Arabs would balk at swearing allegiance to a state which they see as explicitly excluding or marginalising them.

Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister in Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, is opposed to the proposal. “Why does every bill need the word ‘Jewish’ in it – to show the Arab citizens that it doesn’t belong to them? Then we’re all shocked when they radicalise their stance.

“The majority doesn’t need to remind the minority that it is in fact a minority all the time,” he added.

Analysis: Turkey Looks East, Snarling Key US Goals

By Steven R Hurst for The Associated Press                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    President Barack Obama scored two key foreign policy victories this week _ a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran even as he kept Israeli-Palestinian talks on life support after the Israeli attack on Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza.  The unintended costs may be heavy.

Both issues threaten key alliances with Muslim Turkey. And both test the ability of the U.S. and Israeli to cope with Ankara’s move out of the Western and NATO orbit toward largely Islamic regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. That matters because the United States is losing sway with its longtime NATO anchor, a democracy that bridges Europe to Asia and the Middle East.

Israel too is struggling to avoid Turkey’s threatened estrangement _ a break that would cost the Jewish state its only Muslim military ally. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Israel after its establishment more than six decades ago. The widening fissures in both alliances likely carry heavier psychological than strategic implications for the time being, particularly for Israel.

Here’s why. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “suddenly is the most popular politician in the Arab world and he doesn’t speak a word of Arabic,” asserts Henri Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Erdogan’s popularity grew exponentially after the Israeli commando raid on a Turkish-sanction flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza. Muslims across the Middle East are holding him up as a hero for his tough talk against the Jewish state in their midst. That’s a stunning reversal. Turks, who migrated into modern day Turkey from Central Asia centuries ago, had always been seen in the Arab world as heirs to the Ottoman empire that had oppressed Arabs for 400 years.

Erdogan received a thunderous reception from fellow Muslim leaders Thursday at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum that opened with calls for an international investigation of the May 31 Israeli raid that killed eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American teenager. Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 in a landslide victory, a clear shift away from Turkey’s secular traditions that were established in the modern state, the post World War I and shrunken remnant of the Ottoman Empire.

The political shift was a clear precursor of Turkey’s move toward a more comfortable and powerful place in the Muslim world, despite continued efforts for membership in the European Union. Erdogan has since taken to championing the Palestinians’ cause, often more loudly than their fellow Arabs. That had badly strained Israeli-Turkish relations even before the crisis that blew up around the Gaza aid flotilla.

Then there was Turkey’s insertion of itself into the effort to move Iran away from uranium enrichment and its alleged program to build a nuclear weapon. After Iran rejected a deal to swap nuclear fuel last fall, the United States was determined to impose a fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Tehran. Washington had the backing of fellow U.N. Security Council members France and Britain all along and was on the verge of announcing that Russia and China also were on board.

Turkey, with help from Brazil, suddenly announced that it had revived the swap deal and that Iran had agreed. That agreement, more than a half year after initially rejected by Iran, was deeply flawed.

And the next day the United States said a new sanctions package had unanimous support from all five permanent Security Council members. It thanked Turkey for its efforts but said the train had already left the station. When the council voted earlier this week, only Turkey and Brazil cast no votes. Those did little but register protest since neither country holds a veto.

In spite of its rhetoric and obstructionism, Turkey does not appear ready any time soon the break fully from the West. It has vast interests intricately woven into NATO and the European Union. Turkey has a customs union agreement with its top trading partner, Europe, and wants to become part of the EU. But there is no doubt that the tone in Turkey’s foreign policy is changing.

Although the United States has been its chief ally since the Cold War, Turkey opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq through Turkish soil, triggering tensions with Washington. Until the late 1990s, Turkish relations with Iran were tense, with its secular, westernized government accusing Tehran of trying to export its radical Islamic regime to this predominantly Muslim but secular country. Today, Turkey wants to build deeper trade ties with Iran.

Erdogan also is building support for next year’s election by playing the Islam card _ one that appeals heavily to traditionalist, rural and Muslim voters who make up the vast majority of the electorate. “This is not being driven by foreign affairs,” said Jonathan Adelman, professor at the University of Denver. “Erdogan is winning points at home _ going back to the country’s Muslim roots.”

Deaths as Israeli Forces Storm Gaza Aid Ship

As reported on BBC

More than 10 people have been killed after Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army says. Armed forces boarded the largest vessel overnight, clashing with some of the 500 people on board. It happened about 40 miles (64 km) out to sea, in international waters.

Israel says its soldiers were shot at and attacked with weapons; the activists say Israeli troops came on board shooting. The activists were attempting to defy a blockade imposed by Israel after the Islamist movement Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007. There has been widespread condemnation of the violence, with several countries summoning the Israeli ambassadors serving there.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was “shocked by reports of killings and injuries” and called for a “full investigation” into what happened.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Canada, has cancelled a scheduled visit to Washington on Tuesday to return to Israel, officials said.

Earlier, he expressed his “full backing” for the military involved in the raid, his office said. The White House said the US “deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained” in the storming of the aid ship.

A spokesman said US officials were “currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy”.

‘Guns and knives’The six-ship flotilla, carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid, left the coast of Cyprus on Sunday and had been due to arrive in Gaza on Monday. Israel had repeatedly said the boats would not be allowed to reach Gaza.

Israel says its soldiers boarded the lead ship in the early hours but were attacked with axes, knives, bars and at least two guns.

“Unfortunately this group were dead-set on confrontation,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the BBC.

“Live fire was used against our forces. They initiated the violence, that’s 100% clear,” he said.

Organisers of the flotilla said at least 30 people were wounded in the incident. Israel says 10 of its soldiers were injured, one seriously. A leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement, Raed Salah, who was on board, was among those hurt.

Audrey Bomse, a spokesperson for the Free Gaza Movement, which is behind the convoy, told the BBC Israel’s actions were disproportionate.

“We were not going to pose any violent resistance. The only resistance that there might be would be passive resistance such as physically blocking the steering room, or blocking the engine room downstairs, so that they couldn’t get taken over. But that was just symbolic resistance.”

The footage showed a number of people, apparently injured, lying on the ground. A woman was seen holding a blood-stained stretcher.

Al-Jazeera TV reported from the same ship that Israeli navy forces had opened fire and boarded the vessel, wounding the captain. The Al-Jazeera broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, saying: “Everybody shut up!” Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said his country “regrets any loss of life and did everything to avoid this outcome”.

He accused the convoy of a “premeditated and outrageous provocation”, describing the flotilla as an “armada of hate”. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel’s actions, saying it had committed a massacre, while Hamas said Israel had committed a “great crime and a huge violation of international law”.

Turkey, whose nationals comprised the majority of those on board, accused Israel of “targeting innocent civilians”. “We strongly denounce Israel’s inhumane interception,” it said, warning of “irreparable consequences” to the two countries’ relations

She said there was “absolutely no evidence of live fire”. Israel is towing the boats to the port of Ashdod and says it will deport the passengers from there.

Turkish TV pictures taken on board the Turkish ship leading the flotilla appeared to show Israeli soldiers fighting to control passengers.

The footage showed a number of people, apparently injured, lying on the ground. A woman was seen holding a blood-stained stretcher.

Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said his country “regrets any loss of life and did everything to avoid this outcome”. He accused the convoy of a “premeditated and outrageous provocation”, describing the flotilla as an “armada of hate”.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel’s actions, saying it had committed a massacre, while Hamas said Israel had committed a “great crime and a huge violation of international law”.

“We strongly denounce Israel’s inhumane interception,” it said, warning of “irreparable consequences” to the two countries’ relations. Turkey was Israel’s closest Muslim ally but relations have deteriorated over the past few years.

In Turkey, thousands of protesters demonstrated against Israel in Istanbul, while several countries have summoned Israeli ambassadors to seek an explanation as to what happened.

Greece has withdrawn from joint military exercises with Israel in protest at the raid on the flotilla. Israel had repeatedly said it would stop the boats, calling the campaign a “provocation intended to delegitimise Israel”.

Israel says it allows about 15,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid into Gaza every week. But the UN says this is less than a quarter of what is needed.

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