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Netanyahu’s ‘No-Palestinian-State’ Vow Raises Questions About Security Coordination

By Daniella Cheslow, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

JAMAIN, West Bank — Khawla Zeitawi is pregnant with twins, and her husband, Jasser Abu Omar, is not at her side.

He is in an Israeli prison, accused of being part of a terrorist cell that made explosives in a Nablus apartment. Zeitawi asserts that her husband is innocent, jailed on bad information from Palestinian law enforcement provided under security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Security coordination is treason,” Zeitawi said in her home in Jamain, a village near Nablus in the West Bank. “The Palestinian Authority is giving Israel a service for free.”

Since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, its security organizations have worked closely with Israel to share intelligence, arrest suspected militants, and limit demonstrations in the West Bank. That cooperation was suspended during a Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada, but has been a part of life in the West Bank since 2007. It has been a lightning rod for complaints among the Palestinian public for almost as long.

The Palestine Liberation Organization Central Council voted in March to suspend security coordination. That vote was to protest Israel’s withholding of tax revenue, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered this year to punish the Palestinians for applying for membership in the International Criminal Court.

On Friday, Netanyahu ordered the release of the tax money, which Israel collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf at a rate of $127 million a month. But that’s unlikely to silence Palestinian doubts about the security agreement, especially after Netanyahu won re-election in part by vowing never to allow a Palestinian state while he’s prime minister.

“Netanyahu’s recent actions and policies have caused the Palestinian Authority to review the last 20 years of negotiations with the Israelis,” said Akram Rajoub, the Nablus governor and former head of security in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered. “Is it worth it to continue with security coordination if we do not arrive at a state?”

Sixty percent of Palestinians say the answer is no, according to a poll published last week by Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. Yet nearly the same number doubt that their leadership would drop the agreement, even though the PLO vote authorized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to do so.

Retired Major Shaul Bartal, who participated in security coordination for the Israeli army in the late 1990s and remains involved, said shared work has already eroded. In December, Palestinian Settlement Minister Ziad Abu Ein died while protesting settlement encroachment on the land of a West Bank village. The Palestinians say Israeli soldiers caused his death; Israelis say he had a heart attack. Bartal said Abu Ein’s death was a watershed.

“The regular meetings stopped,” he said. “Before Abu Ein it was every week or twice a month in every big city.”

But Bartal said he can’t foresee the Palestinian Authority, run by the moderate Fatah faction, ending the agreement. The Palestinian Authority depends on security coordination to stifle the Islamist Hamas movement. He said the memory remains fresh of the Hamas election victory in 2006 and its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip the next year.

“The reason (for Palestinian security coordination) is not because they love Israel, but because they are afraid of themselves,” Bartal said. “Fatah knows if they stop coordination, then maybe eventually Hamas will make another takeover and it will be the end of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.”

In 2014, Bartal said, Israel arrested about 2,500 Palestinian security prisoners, mostly members of Hamas; the Palestinian Authority arrested 1,000 prisoners, also mostly Hamas.

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner doubted the Palestinians would follow through on ending security coordination, but if they did, the army could manage security in the West Bank without Palestinian assistance.

“We depend for security on ourselves,” Lerner said.

Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Israel directly ruled and patrolled the Palestinians. Lerner ruled out reoccupying Palestinian cities, although he said an end to coordination would probably result in using more force on the ground.

Others were slower to doubt the Palestinian threats. Retired Colonel Jonathan Fighel, who used to run Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Jenin, and Tulkarem, said access granted to Israel via security coordination is crucial.

He said the relative quiet of the past eight years owes far more to security coordination than to the separation barrier Israel built roughly on its border with the West Bank. Figel recalled that Palestinian Authority forces helped retrieve the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnaped and murdered by Hamas militants in June.

Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said he believes suspending security coordination is unlikely, even as Abbas has irritated Israel by seeking diplomatic recognition at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

“It’s very difficult to imagine a PA that exists in the absence of security coordination,” Thrall said.

Without security coordination, he said, the donations on which the Palestinians depend would dry up from the United States and Europe. More likely than ending the coordination, he said, would be a reduction in cooperation, such as refusing to arrest suspects wanted by Israel, or skipping meetings with Israeli commanders.

Public trust in Abbas’ tenure at the head of the Palestinian Authority is eroding. Abbas was elected to a five-year term and has missed multiple deadlines for holding new elections. He turned 80 on Thursday and has not cultivated a successor. Shikaki’s poll found that 77 percent of Palestinians believe the Palestinian Authority institutions are corrupt.

Last week, Randa Saqa, a nurse from Nablus, wheeled her son in a stroller along the main road of Balata refugee camp. She wove between burned bits of garbage and fist-size rocks, evidence of a protest against a Palestinian Authority crackdown on drug dealing and weapons trafficking.

Saqa said the Palestinian Authority used tear gas and live fire to conduct its arrests. “I never expected this to come from the PA,” she said. She lamented the protocol enshrined by security coordination, under which Palestinian forces stay away from Israeli raids in West Bank cities. “When we (Palestinians) are together, we attack each other. But when the Israelis come, the Palestinians disappear.”

Hosam Mostafa, 50, a cleaner from Nablus, said he is keeping his seven children at home for fear of them getting hurt in clashes with the government.

Rajoub, the Nablus governor, insisted that the crackdown was necessary to consolidate the power of the Palestinian Authority.

“For the Palestinian Authority…to consolidate its power, we have to stop all kinds of chaos,” he said. However, he added, now the Palestinian Authority “will give nothing for free. We will not be the service people for the Israelis.”

Photo: blhphotography via Flickr

What Happens To Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation After Gaza Conflict?

By Daniella Cheslow, McClatchy Foreign Staff

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who’s considered the architect of the April agreement that reunited Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement in a unity Palestinian government, paused as he contemplated his groundbreaking deal in the wake of Israel’s crushing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Then he acknowledged that the situation might be different had Hamas not taken the course it did.

“Why the hell spend all this money and effort just showing off?” Shaath asked during an interview with McClatchy. “Hamas did not want this war. . . . They just needed a promise that at the end of the cease-fire there would be a normal life for Gazans. But by not throwing rockets, maybe they could have avoided giving excuses to the Israelis.”

Shaath’s comments, made Sunday as the Palestinian death toll passed 1,000, underscore the deep differences that remain between the freshly reconciled Palestinian factions, even as Israel and Hamas fight. Fatah and Hamas split violently seven years ago when Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in fierce fighting. The movements remained bitter rivals until they signed the reconciliation pact in late April.

During the years they were split, Fatah and Hamas viewed each other with acrimony. Under Abbas, Fatah pledged “nonviolent resistance,” meaning diplomatic pressure on Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, is the flag bearer of forceful resistance, including firing rockets at Israel, mostly without effect, and burrowing tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border to enable attacks.

The current operation in Gaza is challenging the Fatah strategy, according to Alaa Rimawi, an expert on Islamic politics.

“The message of Hamas was always that Israel will never give you a state, and it seems the Hamas prediction was right,” Rimawi said. “Fatah is in crisis. . . . Fatah and Hamas are now presently on the same track.”

Shaath is intimately familiar with the tensions between Hamas and Fatah. During the long hostility between Hamas and Fatah, he was instrumental in shuttling from the West Bank to Gaza to hammer out an agreement. Under the unity deal signed in April, the two sides were to form an interim government within five weeks and hold parliamentary elections six months later. So far the interim government hasn’t been formed because of the campaign.

Shaath said some Fatah members still harbored bad feelings toward Hamas. “Yes, there are some of us who still think of the fraternal enemy more than they think of the real enemy,” he said. However, many of these Fatah members have been galvanized against Israel by the spiraling death toll in Gaza, he said.

A turning point came last week, when Abbas adopted the Hamas demands for a cease-fire with Israel, including opening border crossings with Israel and Egypt and building an airport and seaport.

Shaath didn’t endorse violence against Israel. In fact, he said, Palestinian police continue to check for weapons at rallies and to keep a tight lid on what could escalate into violent protest and lead to a third “intifada,” the term used to describe previous prolonged periods of anti-Israel violence.

However, he noted that “the word intifada does not mean violence. An intifada is an uprising, its people saying ‘no’ to the occupation. . . . If Israelis continue in Gaza, there will be an intifada, and my duty will be to steer that in a nonviolent direction.”

In Ramallah, Fatah seemed rejuvenated by its clearer line against Israel. Shaath squeezed in the interview after meeting with Russian diplomats and British dignitaries. His office director was one of the planners of a large protest at Qalandiya last week in which thousands took part.

Others in Ramallah were less sure. Abu Samaha, a worker in a sandwich shop, marched in last week’s demonstration that began in his neighborhood, the al Amari refugee camp.

“May God give power to Ismail Haniyeh and Gaza,” he said, speaking of the Hamas leader. “Abbas is a mayor, not a president. His decision-making is not in his hands.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

AFP Photo/Jack Guez

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From Front-Row Seat, Israeli Town Cheers Assault on Gaza

By Daniella Cheslow, McClatchy Foreign Staff

SDEROT, Israel — Dragging a sofa up a hill, residents of Sderot and other curious Israelis prepared for yet another night of watching their army bomb targets in Gaza during what the Israelis have dubbed Operation Protective Edge.

This town of 25,000 has borne the brunt of rockets fired from Gaza since 2001. Every bus stop is a concrete bomb shelter. Every school is built with reinforced concrete. During the current operation, residents have had to dash to bomb shelters throughout the day — sometimes 10 times, city council member Elad Kalimi said.

During this operation, there have been no civilian deaths in Sderot, but several close calls. One rocket hit a home Monday morning. Another had hit a home July 3. Residents avoided harm in both cases because they’d fled to bomb shelters. When they emerged, they found their ceilings collapsed, cracks in the walls, and shrapnel lodged in the sides of their homes.

The constant wail of sirens has pushed locals to enthusiastically back the Israeli military operation in Gaza. Signs outside Sderot urge cutting off electricity to Gaza. Other banners read, “The Home Front supports the Battle Front.” Military vehicles rumble by on the highway to Gaza, and tank fire from Israel to Gaza thuds throughout the night.

Elraz Azran, 37, said business had plunged at his restaurant in central Sderot, but he keeps it open to show a sense of routine. Nonetheless, every time he drives his scooter to the restaurant, the rockets are on his mind.

“When you drive in the road you always think about the next bomb shelter,” he said.

His younger son wets the bed with fear and has developed a blinking tic every time the rocket siren goes off.

That Israeli civilian deaths from Hamas rocket fire total two compared with hundreds killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza doesn’t make it any easier to live with the threat of rockets.

“It’s always on your mind,” Azran said.

Sderot was founded in 1951 as a tent camp for Kurdish and Iranian Jewish immigrants. It’s a relatively poor town, far from the economic center of Tel Aviv. It’s less than a mile from Gaza.
Rocket fire has degraded life in the city so much that in December 2007, then-Mayor Eli Moyal stepped down to protest what he said was the Israeli government’s failure to stop the firings. He returned to his post days later at the request of then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Sderot has become a site of pilgrimage for Israelis, both volunteers and voyeurs. On Monday, religious volunteers with the Chabad organization assembled care packages for Israeli soldiers just outside the town. Others clambered onto the hilltops outside the city for a better look at the bombing of Gaza.

Nationalist feelings in Sderot are running high, and with them anti-Arab sentiment. On Monday, a wall in Sderot was sprayed with “Death to the Arabs.” Someone etched in the dust of a van on the lookout hill, “Death to leftists” and “Kahane was right,” a reference to the late Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel. A convoy of cars flying the flags of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club honked through the streets. Beitar’s fans are notoriously anti-Arab, and some fans screamed anti-Arab epithets, encountering little resistance.

This atmosphere is making a few people in Sderot uncomfortable. Nomika Zion is a member of Other Voice, an organization that advances dialogue between Israelis and Gaza residents. She spoke on the hilltop outside Sderot. The tank fire made her jumpy, and she imagined a siren alerting to incoming rockets.

“We always use military force to resolve this problem, and we always end up in the same place, maybe more and more destructive,” Zion said. “But I think we have to be pragmatic. … We have to negotiate with Hamas, because any other alternative will be much worse.”

Other Israelis on the hill overheard her.

“We hope Hamas digs a tunnel and gets to your house,” one said.

“They should blow you and your children up,” another said.

“I am a victim of shock and anxiety, and I suffer a lot,” Zion responded. “But I can’t stop thinking about what we do in Gaza and what we are responsible for.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Photo: MCT/Daniella Cheslow

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Pope’s Plan To Say Mass In Jerusalem Spot Three Faiths Claim Roils Tensions

By Daniella Cheslow, McClatchy Foreign Staff

JERUSALEM — The Cenacle, named for the Latin word for dinner, is testament to the layers of religious history in Jerusalem — and the trouble that competing faiths can cause.

According to tradition, it was in the Cenacle that Jesus ate a Passover feast the night before his Crucifixion, instituting the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. But Christians aren’t the only ones who revere the site.

On the first floor is a Jewish shrine to King David, who’s said to be buried in a crypt below. The Cenacle’s stained-glass windows are filled with Arabic calligraphy, evidence that it once housed a mosque. A decommissioned minaret rises from the top floor to the sky.

When Pope Francis says Mass in the room Monday, the last day of a whirlwind tour of the Holy Land that will begin Saturday in Jordan, he’ll do it against a backdrop of recent protest rallies by observant Jews who are upset at what they fear is a Roman Catholic effort to assert control over the building. The norm has been for ritual Christian prayer to be held in the Cenacle only twice a year — on Pentecost and on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.

That tension has been fueled by discussions between Israel and the Vatican over allowing regular Christian prayer hours in what’s also known as the Upper Room, where Jesus is said to have intoned the words now enshrined in Christian ritual when he shared bread — “This is my body” — and wine — “This is my blood” — with his disciples on the night before his execution.

As a result, the area around the sacred building, which Jews call the Tomb of David, has become a religious minefield. Christian clergy say they face rising hostility in the neighborhood.

“I’ve been spat at. I’ve been cursed in the street,” the Rev. David Neuhaus, the Latin patriarch’s vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, told an Israeli radio station, TLV1. “I think most Christians who walk around in traditional Christian garb have met with this kind of behavior.”

Israeli officials scoff at the notion that the Vatican is about to take control of the Cenacle. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said talk of giving the Upper Room to the Vatican was “a crazy conspiracy theory.”

“We’ve been dealing with it for years and denying it time after time,” Palmor said. “We’ve been negotiating church prayers. … They want access for organized religious ritual, and it has nothing to do with property rights or ownership.”

AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro