March 20, 2010

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Israel: No Building Restrictions in East Jerusalem

Associated Press
March 22, 2010

Israel will not restrict construction in east Jerusalem, Israel’s prime minister said Sunday hours before leaving for Washington, despite a clear U.S. demand that building there must stop and a crisis in relations between the two longtime allies.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline statement came just hours before he was scheduled to leave for Washington.

His meeting with President Barack Obama Tuesday will be the first high-level meeting since the crisis erupted 10 days ago, when Israel embarrassed visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden by announcing a plan for construction in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by the Palestinians.
“As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv” and there would be no restrictions, Netanyahu told his cabinet.
This tough stance on Jerusalem has run into stiff opposition in Washington, but there were signs that Israel was working to ease the crisis. Cabinet ministers said that while there would be no formal freeze, construction in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem would be restricted, like Netanyahu’s partial 10-month West Bank construction freeze.

At stake are the first peace contacts between Israel and the Palestinian government in more than a year.

The Palestinians agreed to mediated talks, but the Jerusalem construction flap has given them second thoughts. Israel said it prefers direct negotiations but would go along with the indirect format.

On Sunday, Netanyahu met with Obama’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who is set to mediate. He delivered the White House invitation to the prime minister.

At the meeting with Netanyahu, Mitchell said:
“Our shared goal ... is the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in an environment that can result in an agreement that ends the conflict and resolves all permanent status issues.”
U.S. officials have been dialing back the crisis rhetoric in recent days. The fact that a such a meeting was scheduled—even though the original purpose of Netanyahu’s trip was not to meet Obama but to address a convention of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby—is a likely indication that the U.S. and Israel are succeeding in ironing out their differences.

The diplomatic package Netanyahu is offering the U.S. to ease the bilateral crisis has not been made public, but officials say one element is agreement to discuss all the outstanding issues with the Palestinians in indirect peace talks Mitchell is set to mediate. Those would include the future of Jerusalem, as well as borders, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees.

Netanyahu has always opposed compromise over Jerusalem. Israel captured the city’s eastern sector from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it, a move not recognized by any other country. Over four decades, Israel has built a string of Jewish neighborhoods around the Arab section of the city.

Most Israelis consider them part of the Jewish state, but Palestinians equate them to West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law.

Previous rounds of unsuccessful peace talks have included a formula for Israel retaining the Jewish neighborhoods while Palestinians got sovereignty over the Arab sections, but Netanyahu pointedly took that off the table when he took office a year ago.

In Gaza Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to end its blockade on Gaza, imposed after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier in 2006 and tightened when the Islamic militant Hamas overran the territory the following year. Israel allows only basic humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

The blockade causes “unacceptable suffering” and “undercuts moderates and encourages extremists,” Ban said after visiting a housing project in the Khan Younis refugee camp.
“My message to the people of Gaza is this: The United Nations will stand with you, through this ordeal.”
Most of the 15,000 homes destroyed or damaged during Israel’s war in Gaza last winter have not been repaired because of the ban on importation of most building supplies. Israel launched the war after years of militant rocket fire from Gaza.

In West Bank violence Sunday, the Israeli military said troops in the West Bank shot dead two Palestinians carrying pitchforks and an ax who tried to attack a soldier.

Another Palestinian died of a head wound from a clash with Israeli soldier the day before. His brother was killed in the same protest.

Also Sunday, the Israeli military said it would build a checkpoint on lands of the Palestinian West Bank village of Betunia to search vehicles before they cross onto a major highway that links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the military to allow Palestinians to travel on parts of the road that were closed to them in 2002, after Palestinian militants shot at Israeli vehicles and killed several motorists.

UN Chief Says Israeli Settlements Must Be Stopped

UN chief says Israeli settlements must be stopped; Palestinian teen killed by Israelis troops

Associated Press
March 20, 2010

Visiting U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Saturday that Israeli settlement building anywhere on occupied land is illegal and must be stopped, while a Palestinian teenager was killed in clashes with Israeli troops elsewhere in the West Bank.

The death of 16-year-old Mohammed Qadus, who Palestinians say was shot in the chest by Israeli security forces, comes amid heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians after Israel announced plans last week for 1,600 new homes for Jews in disputed east Jerusalem.

The settlement announcement has sparked outrage and protests from Palestinians, as well as condemnation from Israel's closest ally — the United States — and the U.N. secretary general.

From a hilltop observation post on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Ban got a closer look Saturday at some of the Israeli enclaves scattered across Palestinian-claimed territories.

The panorama included the sprawling West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, home to 11,000 Israelis who live in rows of red-roofed houses, and Jewish neighborhoods in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, the Israeli-annexed sector of the city that Palestinians claim as a future capital.

The brief geography lesson came a day after Ban, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other major Mideast mediators — known as the Quartet — met in Moscow to try to find a way to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The mediators urged Israel to halt all settlement construction. Israel has agreed to curb settlement construction in the West Bank, but not in east Jerusalem, claiming the entire city as Israel's eternal capital.

On Saturday, Ban rejected Israel's distinction between east Jerusalem and the West Bank, noting that both are occupied lands.
"The world has condemned Israel's settlement plans in east Jerusalem," Ban told a news conference after his brief tour. "Let us be clear. All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must be stopped."
The U.N. chief also expressed concern about what he said was a worsening humanitarian situation in blockaded Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Speaking later Saturday in Jerusalem alongside Israeli President Shimon Peres, Ban repeated the Quartet's call for a resumption of talks and for the establishment of a Palestinian state within two years.

Earlier this month, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to indirect talks, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell to shuttle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the negotiations were put on hold after Israel announced its new settlement plans.

The announcement — which came during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden — prompted a major diplomatic row between Israel and the U.S., though Clinton suggested Friday that a way could be found to renew negotiations. Clinton has asked Netanyahu for specific gestures, including canceling the most recent housing plan, and is to hear from the Israeli leader in a meeting in Washington early next week.

Senior U.S. officials in Washington say Netanyahu apparently has put in writing the pledges he made to Clinton during their telephone conversation on Thursday.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe contents of a private diplomatic contact between Clinton and Netanyahu.

Clinton reportedly asked Israel to revoke its recent building decision, roll back on plans for new Jewish homes and make goodwill gestures such as releasing Palestinian prisoners and lifting some West Bank roadblocks.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is returning to the region over the weekend and is planning to brief Abbas on U.S. efforts. Abbas has said he will not negotiate with Israel directly unless it freezes all settlement construction, including in east Jerusalem.

Palestinians fear that expanding settlements will take up more and more of the land they want for their state.

Netanyahu has agreed to a 10-month curb in West Bank construction that ends in September, but the construction of some 3,000 homes in settlements, begun before Israel declared the partial freeze, is continuing.

Nearly half a million Israelis live on war-won land, including some 180,000 in east Jerusalem and nearly 300,000 in the West Bank.

Violent protests have erupted several times in the past week in east Jerusalem, where residents are angry over both the new Jewish housing plans and unsubstantiated rumors that Jewish extremists are plotting to take over an Old City shrine, holy to both Muslims and Jews.

The city was largely calm Saturday, although in a minor incident Palestinian youths lobbed some rocks at Israeli troops, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullet fire.

In the northern West Bank, a doctor at a Nablus hospital said Qadus died Saturday after being shot in the chest by Israeli security forces. Palestinians say a 17-year-old protester was also in serious condition after being shot in the head. The doctor spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Israel's military confirmed that it dispersed a group of masked, rock-throwing Palestinians near the town of Iraq Burin with tear gas and rubber bullets. It said the Palestinians were holding a violent, illegal riot and were approaching a nearby settlement in a threatening manner. The military insisted that its troops did not use live bullets and said it was investigating reports of the Palestinian death.

Clashes take place in the village on a near weekly basis over a water well that Palestinians claim Jewish settlers are trying to seize for their own use.

Israel Announces Plans for Additional Jewish Houses to be Built on Land Claimed by Palestians in East Jerusalem

Associated Press
March 18, 2010

Hoping to defuse a fight between friends, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed Thursday to meet next week in Washington to confront an embarrassing dispute over Israeli land claims.

The Obama administration's special envoy for Mideast peace, George Mitchell, prepared to return to the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Netanyahu called Clinton on Thursday. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to provide details of the conversation, which he described as the Israeli prime minister's response to Clinton's call last week in which she harshly criticized Israel's announcement of additional Jewish settlement housing in east Jerusalem.
"They discussed specific actions that might be taken to improve the atmosphere for progress toward peace," the department said in a statement released by Clinton's traveling party.
Crowley said U.S. officials will review Netanyahu's response and "continue our discussions with both sides to keep proximity talks moving forward."

Netanyahu's office said the prime minister clarified Israeli policy in the call with Clinton and suggested "mutual confidence-building measures" by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Netanyahu planned to be in Washington next week for the annual gathering of the premier pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Clinton was scheduled to speak to the group on Monday.

Crowley said Mitchell will fly to the Mideast this weekend and hold separate talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. wants Israel to roll back plans for new Jewish houses on land claimed by the Palestinians. Crowley would not say whether Netanyahu offered to take that action in his call to Clinton.

Announcement of the housing plan embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden while he was visiting Israel last week and led to an unusual breach in diplomatic relations.

In public comments Thursday while in Moscow for talks on a range of international issues, Clinton appeared to be seeking to calm U.S. relations with Israel, saying the U.S. has not changed its approach to championing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Last week Clinton denounced the Israeli housing announcement. The Israeli move was seen by the Obama administration as an insult and a repudiation of U.S. efforts to get Israel to halt construction of additional Jewish settlements.
"Our goals remain the same," Clinton said Thursday during a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "It is to relaunch negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians on a path that will lead to a two-state solution. Nothing has happened that in any way affects our commitment to pursuing that."
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