(1) Bibi-v-Arik showdown today (2) The media, Hamas, and Rita

September 26, 2005

This dispatch, which has more short introductory notes than usual, explores the renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence of recent days, and the media’s reporting on it, and tonight’s crucial battle for control of Israel’s ruling Likud party between the present Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.



1. Sharon and Bibi in Likud leadership showdown
2. Palestinians fire missiles into Israel while Rita lashes Texas
3. Hamas explode missiles during military parade, killing 19 Palestinians
4. Believing Hamas on CNN International
5. Israel “to build $900m fence along Egyptian border”
6. Bahrain ends ban on Israeli goods
7. Afghanistan to recognize Israel?
8. Al Qaeda enters Gaza
9. Richard Jones, new U.S. ambassador to Israel, and his Saudi-named dog
10. Daniel Kurtzer: “Palestinian crybabies should be on Oprah”
11. Destroyed greenhouses
12. “Bahrain Ends Ban On Israeli Goods” (AP, Sept. 24, 2005)
13. “Israel sets international border with Gaza” (Reuters, Sept. 21, 2005)
14. “Palestinians Take Control of Gaza Border” (AP, Sept. 23, 2005)
15. “Sickening plunder of Gaza’s green gems” (New York Daily News, Sept. 22, 2005)


[Note by Tom Gross]


In what is being widely billed as a crucial vote that will shape the future of Israeli politics, the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee will vote this evening on whether to hold a contest for leadership of the party in November. If the vote fails, Ariel Sharon will continue to lead the party until at least April.

If the vote passes, Binyamin Netanyahu hopes to gain from the strong dissatisfaction within the Likud over the disengagement from Gaza. Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu has a slight lead over Sharon within the Likud party.

Outside the Likud, Sharon’s standing in Israel and abroad has never been higher than it is now. If he loses the Likud leadership contest, aides to the Prime Minister have suggested to the Israeli press that he may form his own political party.

Israel’s next election is not due until November 2006, but may well be held earlier as a result of the political turmoil following the decision to withdraw from Gaza without any security guarantees in return by the Palestinian Authority.


With Hurricane Rita feared to be worse than it actually was, it was not surprising that it dominated the headlines in recent days (“Houston you have a problem,” “Mass Texodus,” “New rain of fear in New Orleans,” etc).

Yet lost in the 24/7 coverage of the build up to Hurricane Rita, U.S. TV news networks (almost without exception) failed to report on the rockets fired from Gaza on Israeli civilians at dawn on Saturday.

Five Israeli civilians were wounded following the firing of more than 25 rockets toward the southern Israeli city of Sderot. Later in the weekend another 15 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza.


In response to Palestinian rockets, Israel launched “Operation First Rain” aimed at Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Air Force has been focusing on the cells that have been firing Qassam rockets into Israel. Most of the Israeli attacks were against empty buildings and roads used to transport missile launchers.

Early Sunday more than 200 terrorists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad were arrested.

An Israeli Air Force Strike that killed two Hamas members was denounced as a “treacherous crime”. The Damascus based, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed this was a “massacre”.


A truck filled with gunmen and packed with weapons accidentally exploded at a Hamas rally on Friday in the Jabalya refugee camp. The explosion killed 19 people and injured at least 120 people, including a large number of children that Hamas had invited to the parade. This was yet another rally claiming victory over Israel following Israel’s pullout from Gaza.

Hamas claimed Israeli aircraft were responsible for the explosion. Nazir Rayan, a Hamas leader said, “We will avenge the blood of our martyrs.” The Associated Press reported that even after the explosion “seven or eight gunmen stood in the back of another truck riding through Gaza, using their feet to stop a half-dozen rockets from bouncing around in the bed.”

Even though almost no one in Gaza took Hamas’ claim that Israel was responsible for the explosion seriously, and the Palestinian Authority denounced Hamas for carelessly parading around with weapons, and confirmed they had gone off accidentally, the international version of CNN muddied their reporting so that it appeared as if Israel might have been responsible for this accidental blast. And many other Arab media outlets reported as fact that Israel was responsible, even though Israel vehemently denied it.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas released the following statement. “The Fatah Central Committee holds the Hamas movement fully responsible for the victims of the military parade (that was held) among civilians.”


On CNN International, Jerusalem correspondent Guy Raz failed to tell viewers of the Palestinian Authority statement (above) in his on-air interviews and reports in the 24 hours after this report came out.

Thousands of Hamas supporters screamed for revenge on Israel at the funeral of the 19 people killed.

On Al-Jazeera, Israeli Major Eytan Arussi said it looked like the explosion had been caused by one of Hamas’s new Katyusha rockets and that Hamas had only itself to blame. The Hamas spokesman on the programme refused to reply to this claim and criticized Al-Jazeera for allowing a representative of the “Zionist enemy” on to the television station.

Whilst BBC world service was obsessed in Gaza over deaths that Israel wasn’t responsible for, it barely reported that over the weekend in Afghanistan 14 suspected Taliban fighters were killed by US-led forces.


Recently terrorist “work accidents” have caused great loss of life and led to many injuries in Gaza. For example, a Hamas weapons warehouse exploded in Gaza City earlier this month, and during an Islamic Jihad rally at an abandoned Jewish settlement last week, a Palestinian gunman accidentally shot himself in the head. Many media add these to their overall tolls of Palestinians and Israelis who have died in the Intifada and suggest Israel was responsible.


High schools and kindergartens in the southern Israeli town of Sderot were suspended on Sunday due to the security situation, whilst the town’s market was also not fully open. Sderot residents were confined to their homes throughout the weekend. This follows the firing of over 40 Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel over the last three days.


BBC World made a specific point of mentioning that the Israeli Air Force had hit a Hamas-run elementary school in airstrikes on Saturday (which Israel waited to be empty before striking it) but no mention was made of the Sderot schools being closed having been targeted by Hamas with kids inside. In recent days all BBC international radio and television networks have led with Israeli strikes in Gaza, while all-but-ignoring the Qassam missiles on Israel, suggesting Israel was attacking Gaza with no pretext.


Following the rocket barrage from Gaza, Israel ordered ground forces to the Gaza border. In the Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Ariel Sharon said, “there are no restrictions on the use of any measures in order to strike at the terrorists, their equipment and where they find shelter.”

Israeli officials made repeated warnings during the pullout from Gaza that any violence from the Strip would be harshly dealt with.


The Israeli Air Force killed a senior commander of Islamic Jihad in the southern Gaza Strip, Sheikh Muhammad Khalil. He was responsible for many attacks on Israelis including the murder of pregnant woman Tali Hatuel and her four daughters in Gush Katif in May 2004.

Khalil was also an explosives expert; his work was to improve the range and quality of mortars to be fired into Israel to ensure maximum loss of life of Israeli civilians.


The head of the Israeli Shin Bet security force, Yuval Diskin, told reporters last week that many weapons have been smuggled across the Egyptian border into Gaza and from there into the West Bank since Israel left the area. According to Diskin, 3,000 rifles, 1.5 million bullets, 150-200 rocket propelled grenades and hundreds of kilograms of explosives have been smuggled in.


Middle East Newsline, a generally reliable source, reports that Israel has been drawing up a plan to build a $900 million security system along the 200-kilometer border with Egypt. The security system will look to halt the infiltration of terrorists from the Sinai Peninsula into Israel.


After the recent overtures towards Israel from Pakistan, Qatar and Indonesia, Bahrain is the latest country to seek to improve relations with Israel.

On Friday, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa announced that the Gulf State has repealed the economic boycott of Israel, to comply with its free trade agreement with the U.S.


The President of Afghanistan was reported to have expressed readiness to recognize Israel, according to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. Hamid Karzai said “other Muslim states have relations with Israel, we are open to contact and we appreciate the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip: as soon as the Palestinian State is recognized, we will have no problem in resuming relations with Israel.”


The European Union has announced a fresh $612.5 million aid package to the Palestinian Authority. The money is intended to revitalize the Gaza Strip and improve the overall Palestinian economy. It comes on top of hundreds of millions of other European Union aid to the Palestinians, much of which was used to purchase weapons.


Last week Israel completed it’s pullout from a corner of the northern West Bank by withdrawing from and destroying the settlements of Sanur and Homesh. Unlike the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers will continue to patrol this part of the West Bank.


Hamas head Mahmoud al-Zahar told the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera last week that there is an Al Qaeda presence in Gaza. He told the paper, “Yes it is true what they say. A couple of men from Al Qaeda infiltrated into Gaza.” Zahar also said that Palestinian terror groups had also been in touch with Al Qaeda by phone.


Last week, Abbas al-Sayad was found guilty of 35 counts of murder including planning the 2002 suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya which killed 30 people. Al-Sayad was the head of Hamas’ military wing in Tulkarem. He will be sentenced in November.

The Park Hotel bombing on the eve of Passover is one of the most devastating terror attacks to hit Israel in recent years. The attack prompted the launch of Operation Defensive Shield shortly afterwards

At the time of his arrest Al-Sayad had already prepared two more suicide bombers’ explosive belts and a bottle of Cyanide to be used for a mass poison attack. The prosecution said Al-Sayad had been funded by Hamas’s Syrian leadership.


Last week Richard Jones took up his position as the new U.S. ambassador to Israel. The Washington Post reported that Jones has “roots in the Arab world so deep, that his beloved greyhound is named Kisa for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, his first posting in the Arab world.”

At his confirmation hearing Jones admitted that he is “a novice in dealing with Israel.” He also stated that he is “adamantly opposed to violence in all forms, especially extremist and terrorist violence.”

Jones has voiced support for Israel’s defensive measures in the last few days. He said “We all know that the terrorists are trying to provoke Israel at a very sensitive time, and we understand exactly what the government’s position is and the response it has taken.”


In off-the-cuff (and unconfirmed) remarks reported in Yediot Ahronoth, outgoing U.S. ambassador to Tel Aviv said “The Palestinian Authority has to learn to stop blaming everyone else for their problems. They have become such big crybabies they should appear on Oprah.”


I attach four articles below. The first is on the decision by Bahrain to repeal their economic boycott of Israel. The next two describe the situation on the Gaza-Israel border. The final article is from the New York Daily News on how the Palestinians have plundered the greenhouses left in Gaza to help the Palestinians sustain their own economy. Those greenhouses were donated at a cost of $14m. by American Jewish philanthropists last month and mostly destroyed by Palestinian mobs days later. Former world bank chief and now US envoy to Gaza, James Wolfensohn, demonstrated his naivety of the situation in the middle east by donating $500,000 of his own money to buy the soon to be pillaged greenhouses for the Palestinians and persuading other wealthy American Jews to do the same.

-- Tom Gross




Bahrain Ends Ban On Israeli Goods
The Associated Press
September 24, 2005

Bahrain has repealed its economic boycott of Israel to comply with its free trade agreement with the United States, the Gulf state’s foreign minister was quoted as saying Friday.

The move makes Bahrain the first of the six Arab states of the Gulf to abolish its trade boycott of Israel, although others, such as Qatar and Oman, have taken limited steps in that direction.

The repeal coincides with signs of a thaw in relations between Israel and Arab and Muslim states following its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Earlier this month, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in New York, and the Israeli foreign minister held talks with his Qatari and Tunisian counterparts on the margins of the U.N. summit there.

Only three Arab states have full diplomatic relations with Israel at present: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania.

“Bahrain took the decision to end the boycott of Israeli goods because this is one of the conditions of the free trade agreement” with the U.S., Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, told the independent Arabic newspaper, Alwasat, in an interview in New York.

The minister did not say when the boycott was repealed. Foreign Ministry officials could not be reached Friday, the Muslim weekend in the island kingdom.

Bahrain, which hosts the base of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, signed the free trade deal with the U.S. last year, becoming the first Gulf state to do so. Its parliament and king have endorsed the agreement, but it has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Congress.

The agreement calls for trade relations with all members of the World Trade Organization, which includes Israel.

Alwasat asked the foreign minister if Bahrain would forge diplomatic ties with Israel.

“That will depend on the general consensus of the Arab League,” Sheik Mohammed was quoted as replying. The League’s peace plan offers Israel full diplomatic relations in exchange for its withdrawal from all territories captured in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the establishment of a Palestinian state and a solution for Palestinian refugees.

The practical effects of the minister’s statement remain to be seen. Up to now, Bahrain has refused to admit Israeli goods. A consignment of Israeli-made fuel filters and automotive parts were confiscated and destroyed in 2003.

It is also unclear whether Israeli business executives would be allowed to enter the kingdom. Officially, Israeli passport holders cannot pass through immigration at the island’s airport.

Moreover, there have been many anti-Israeli demonstrations in Bahrain since its political system was liberalized in 2002.

The Arab embargo against Israel goes back to the 1960s when the Arab League declared a boycott of all Israeli companies and products. A blacklist was drawn up that featured Western companies which did business with Israel. However, the boycott was heavily eroded after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 signed peace treaties with Israel.



Israel sets international border with Gaza
September 21, 2005

Israel declared its frontier with the Gaza Strip an international border on Wednesday, formally setting part of a boundary for the first time with an eventual Palestinian state.

Israeli Interior Minister Ofer Pines-Paz called the measure, which he signed, “a first step to civilianise the passages and to turn them into borders” between Israel and Gaza after Israel completed a military pullout from the territory on September 12.

Sabine Haddad, a ministry spokeswoman, said Pines had turned four crossing points between Gaza and Israel into official border crossings. “For Israel this is now an international border,” he said.

Israelis and foreign nationals will now need a passport to move between Israel and all parts of Gaza, and will fill out border entry forms rather than military documents as they had before, Haddad said.

But she said the few Palestinians allowed into Israel for jobs or medical care would not need a passport to do so, and would still require security permits.

Palestinians, who dispute Israel’s efforts to retain control over Gaza’s key border crossings for now after declaring an end to 38 years of military rule there, dismissed the Israeli measure to set a border as premature.

“I don’t think we can classify it legally as an international border now because Gaza is not free of occupation,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

“I think international borders will be agreed once we finish permanent status negotiations on borders,” he said.

Palestinians are also unhappy that Israel, citing security needs, is keeping control over Gaza’s sea lanes and air space.

Israel has closed Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt for the next six months while discussions continue for possible international monitoring by a third party. Israel says it wants to prevent militants from smuggling weapons into the strip.

A U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, endorsed by Israel and the Palestinians, calls for eventual Palestinian statehood in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Some 1.4 million Palestinians live in Gaza and 2.4 million in the West Bank.

Israel says it will resume peace talks only if Palestinians disarm militant groups bent on its destruction. Palestinians accuse Israel of delaying tactics to strengthen its hold on Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Israel wants to keep.



Palestinians Take Control of Gaza Border
By Lara Sukhtian
The Associated Press
September 23, 2005

Palestinians took charge of a border for the first time ever on Friday, allowing thousands to cross between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in a temporary opening of the frontier.

Hours before Palestinians in Gaza began tentatively testing their border authority at the Rafah crossing, Israeli forces pursuing Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank killed three gunmen.

Israel shut down Rafah, Gaza’s only gateway to the outside world through Egypt, just before it concluded its troop pullout from the coastal strip last week after 38 years of occupation. Israel wants Rafah to remain sealed for months for a technological upgrade and to test the Palestinians’ ability to take control in Gaza.

In the meantime, Palestinians are to use an alternative, Israeli-controlled crossing a few miles away at the junction of the Israeli, Egyptian and Gaza borders. That crossing is to be opened next week though Palestinians object to this option.

Under these circumstances, Israel in effect retains control over Gaza’s borders. But it did not object when the Palestinians earlier this week announced plans to open Rafah for two days starting Friday, for the most part to allow for the passage of people seeking medical treatment, or studying or residing abroad.

Several thousand travelers were at Rafah on Friday morning to take advantage of that window, which is to remain open continuously until early Sunday morning.

Palestinians turned over travel documents to Palestinian border police at the gates of the once heavily guarded crossing, waiting for border officials to call them to board buses that would take them to the Rafah terminal, and from there, to Egypt. Some sat on suitcases napping as border officials called out names from the windows of the shuttle buses. Luggage was passed from hand to hand as the travelers and their bags started moving.

Inside the gate, new X-ray equipment was in place, and plastic still covered the new chairs in the air-conditioned waiting area.

Manal Hatem, 36, arrived at Rafah at 3 a.m. with her 11-month-old baby and a sister-in-law, en route to a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

“This is the first time we cross without the Israelis standing over our heads, and that indeed is a blessing,” Hatem said.

Aeronautical engineer Sufyan Al Ali, 28, an employee of the long-grounded Palestinian Airlines, was on his way to Jordan for a 10-day refresher course. More than two hours after arriving at the crossing, he still hadn’t boarded a bus.

“This place wouldn’t be so chaotic if they gave us more than two days,” he said. “But at least there are no Israelis, and two days are better than nothing, for now.”

Thousands of Palestinians busted through the Gaza-Egypt border last week after the last of the Israeli troops withdrew, and weapons and other contraband were smuggled into Gaza. The frontier was later sealed to stop the chaos, reinforcing Palestinians’ perceptions that they are still occupied by Israel.

Rafah, an internationally recognized border crossing, is key to the economic recovery of Gaza, which was devastated by nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Stable border arrangements there would encourage foreign investment in Gaza, and ensure the free flow of people, long cooped up under Israeli travel restrictions.

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz indicated Israel would speed up its plans to reopen the crucial crossing. Israel had originally said the crossing would be closed for six months to allow for new security and customs arrangements.

But Mofaz told military officers he intends to reopen it in January.

From next week, Palestinians will be able to use the new Kerem Shalom facility at the junction of the Israeli, Egyptian and Gaza borders, defense officials said. But Palestinians insist on free access in and out of Gaza through Rafah, with no Israeli presence, and object to the Kerem Shalom option.

Earlier Friday, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian gunmen in a West Bank raid.

Israeli forces went into the village of Ilar near Tulkarem after midnight, and surrounded a building to arrest senior Islamic Jihad militants holed up inside, the military said. Three gunmen fled in two separate directions, and were shot dead after opening fire on Israeli troops who pursued them, the military said.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Israeli incursion into Tulkarem, and the assassination of three Palestinians,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Despite a cease-fire declared in February that has drastically reduced violence after five years of conflict, Israel continues to target Islamic Jihad cells. Shortly after the truce was declared, Islamic Jihad carried out a suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis.



Sickening plunder of Gaza’s green gems
By Corky Siemaszko
New York Daily News
September 22, 2005

A week after they descended like locusts on the greenhouses that Jewish settlers nurtured in Gaza, looters continue to pillage what should be a prize asset for a fledgling Palestinian state.

And the Palestinian Authority, which took over Gaza after the Israelis evacuated the territory, appears powerless to stop them.

When a Daily News correspondent visited abandoned Jewish settlements in Gaza, he found brazen vandals dismantling farms that once produced some of the world’s finest tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

The now-gutted greenhouses were gifts to the Palestinian people from U.S. philanthropists, who raised $14 million to buy them from departing settlers.

“It was our work for a long time and it was supposed to help even more people now,” said heartbroken Zaki Karim, 51, a Palestinian who worked at greenhouses in what was the Gadid settlement. “But it’s a mess.”

Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Qusa insisted the damage was limited to 30% of the 4,000 or so greenhouses - and blamed most of the vandalism on spiteful Jewish settlers. “The Palestinians damaged so little you can’t even count it,” he said.

One of the philanthropists, Daily News Chairman and Publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman, called that assertion “ridiculous.”

“We thought it was a chance to show the Palestinians that there were more benefits from cooperation than confrontation,” Zuckerman said. “I’m just sad that they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. ... It’s almost inexplicable.”

The World Bank reported 90% of the greenhouses were intact when the Israelis left. Facts on the ground reveal that much of that bounty is now gone.

“All over Gush Katif the greenhouses have been damaged and a lot was stolen from them,” Karim said, referring to former Jewish settlements in southwest Gaza. In Gadid, much of the expensive equipment used to tend the crops was stolen. So were the water pumps, irrigation lines and all the fuse boxes.

At the former Katif settlement, a Palestinian soldier, Pvt. Mohamed Cidawi, said looters made off with most of the metal support beams and even stole the plastic and canvas coverings that protected the vegetables from the hot sun.

“Go away,” Cidawi shouted when he spied a boy with a sledge hammer preparing to smash a fuse box. “If I see you here another time, I’ll kick your ass!”

In the nearby Neveh Dekalim settlement, there were no soldiers to stop 29-year-old Samir Al-Najar and his eight-man crew from demolishing a half-acre greenhouse. Al-Najar insisted the land was his family’s before Israel occupied it in 1967 and that he was reclaiming it.

“I want to reorganize the land so we’re clearing it out for now,” Al-Najar said as two workers carried off a stack of tall metal support beams. Asked whether he intended to sell the materials, Al-Najar shook his head. “We’ll probably rebuild with them, but I want the greenhouses to be our own, not Jewish ones,” he said.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.