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US to boycott United Nations racism meeting

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration will boycott "with regret" a U.N. conference on racism next week over objectionable language in the meeting's final document that could single out Israel for criticism and restrict free speech, the State Department said Saturday.

The decision follows weeks of furious internal debate and will likely please Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against U.S. participation. But the move upset human rights advocates and some in the African-American community who had hoped that President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, would send an official delegation.

The administration had wanted to attend the April 20-25 meeting in Geneva, although it warned in late February it would not go unless significant changes were made to the draft text.

Some revisions — including the removal of specific critical references to Israel and problematic passages about the defamation of religion — were negotiated for which State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the administration was "deeply grateful."

But he said the text retains troubling elements that suggest support for restrictions on free speech and an affirmation of the findings of the first World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 that the U.S cannot endorse.

"Unfortunately, it now seems certain these remaining concerns will not be addressed in the document to be adopted by the conference next week," Wood said in a statement. "Therefore, with regret, the United States will not join the review conference."

Despite the decision, he stressed that the United States "is profoundly committed to ending racism and racial discrimination" and "will work with all people and nations to build greater resolve and enduring political will to halt racism and discrimination wherever it occurs."

Concern is high that the meeting may descend into heated debate over Israel that marred the last such gathering eight years ago, especially since Iran's hardline president — who has called for Israel's destruction — will attend.

The Durban meeting was dominated by quarrels over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery.

The United States, under the Bush administration, and Israel walked out over attempts to liken Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — to racism. The reference was later dropped, but concerns about anti-Semitism remained in the final text.

Plans to reaffirm the 2001 document were of particular concern to the Obama administration.

"(It) singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," Wood said.

Planning for the upcoming meeting, which is to review progress made in fighting racism since Durban, has been underway for months but was ignored by the Bush administration.

But once Obama took office, his team decided to engage in the process as part of its broader aim of reaching out to the international community. That has included overtures to Iran, Cuba and seeking a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body the Bush administration shunned.

After sending delegates to a preparatory meeting, the administration announced on Feb. 27 that it would not participate in further planning talks or the conference itself unless the changes were made.

In the weeks that followed, the U.S. pressed its European allies to lobby for an acceptable text and officials had held out hope until earlier this week that the negotiations would produce an acceptable document.

Possible participation by Washington remained on the table, pending the changes, even after it was learned that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would go.

Pro-Israel groups in the United States vehemently opposed U.S. participation while human rights advocates and organizations like TransAfrica and members of the Congressional Black Caucus thought it was important to attend.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded Obama's decision to boycott, saying it "underscores America's unstinting commitment to combating intolerance and racism in all its forms and in all settings."

But Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chair of the black caucus, said the group was "deeply dismayed."

"This decision is inconsistent with the administration's policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with," she said. "By boycotting Durban, the U.S. is making it more difficult for it to play a leadership role on U.N. Human Rights Council as it states it plans to do. This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple."

Hours earlier, Human Rights Watch appealed for the U.S. to go, saying it "should stand with the victims of racism."

ISRAEL...What really happened in the Middle East


Column One: Soldiers of Peace

Mar. 6, 2009

Compare and contrast the following three events: At the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors meeting on Wednesday, George Schulte, the US ambassador to the IAEA, pointed an accusatory finger at Syria. Damascus, Schulte said, has not come clean on its nuclear program. That program, of course, was exposed in September 2007 when Israel reportedly destroyed Syria's North Korean-built, Iranian-financed al-Kibar nuclear reactor.

In its report to its Board of Governors, the IAEA stated that in analyzing soil samples from the bombed installation, its inspectors discovered traces of uranium. The nuclear watchdog agency also noted that the Syrians have blocked UN nuclear inspectors from the site and from three other suspected nuclear sites.

Reacting to the IAEA report, Schulte said that it "contributes to the growing evidence of clandestine nuclear activities in Syria."

He added, "We must understand why such [uranium] material - material not previously declared to the IAEA - existed in Syria, and this can only happen if Syria provides the cooperation requested."

Complete Story


Palestinian Poll: Hamas Support Drops

Feb. 9, 2009

A Palestinian poll conducted after Operation Cast Lead has found that 56 percent of residents in the Gaza Strip and 48.3% of Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem believe Hamas is leading them in the wrong direction.

The poll, conducted by the Beit Sahour-based Palestinian Center for Public Opinion and published last week, also found that the popularity of Fatah among Palestinians now exceeds the popularity of Hamas, in contrast to a November 2008 poll conducted well before Israel's military operation.

Today, Hamas is supported by only 27.8% of the population in the Gaza Strip, compared to 51.5% in November, said Dr. Nabil Kukali, founder and general director of the PCPO.

Fatah's popularity in the Hamas-controlled coastal territory lies at 42.5%, compared to 31.4% in November.

"Many Palestinians suffered from the war in Gaza… They lost their homes and their families," Kukali said. "The situation is unpredictable, and maybe they feel that Hamas did not make the right decision" when it did not renew its six-month truce with Israel that expired in December.

In the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Fatah is now supported by 39.2%, while Hamas is supported by only 23.7%, according to the poll. In November, Fatah was supported by 68.6% in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and by 31.4% in Gaza, Kukali said.

But more than half of total respondents (54.4%) believe that Israel should be held responsible for the recent war in Gaza, while only 14.5% believe that Hamas should be held responsible.

Three weeks after the devastating military offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, it was clear that there was significant anger and fear on the streets of Gaza. But not all of it was directed at or because of Israel.

In a bustling downtown commercial district, a taxi driver named Emad agreed to talk to a Western reporter on the street about the lack of security he felt following Operation Cast Lead.

"Every day is a war here," he said last week. "Each day we hear threats from Israel about war."

But when asked whether he thought that Hamas or Fatah had been strengthened because of Operation Cast Lead, Emad shook his head and quickly walked away.

"If I talk about this, I'm afraid that Hamas will come and kill me," he told another taxi driver accompanying the reporter, before walking off.

Fadi, a 21-year-old Palestinian who lives in Gaza City, said there was a lot of frustration with Hamas in the coastal territory due to the difficult economic situation.

"Since Hamas took power, the crossings have been closed," said Fadi, who agreed to give only his first name. "Only those who benefit from Hamas do not blame Hamas."

Fadi's father used to be a supporter of Hamas, he said, but that changed after Fadi and his brother were arrested by Hamas officials and detained for several days.

Fadi said he had been arrested and jailed on two different occasions for unknown reasons since the Islamist movement took control of the Strip in June, 2007.

"We are neither Fatah [members] nor Hamas," he said.

After the war, Fadi said, one of his friends, a Palestinian Authority policeman, had been detained by Hamas officials, blindfolded and then "beaten until he couldn't move" for several days.

According to Fadi, Hamas officials had demanded to know where his friend had been during the war and why they hadn't seen him.

During and after Israel's military operation, many people in Gaza were accused of collaborating with either Israel or the PA, something that can translate into a death sentence, locals said.

The general atmosphere had Fadi on edge.

"When I go out, I'm afraid," he said. "When I walk [outside], I'm afraid."

Hamas officials, however, claim that they still have the popular support of the Palestinian people.

Hamas's "popularity has increased after the war," Hamas official Ahmed Yousef told The Jerusalem Post last week.

Some officials, including Yousef, have also dismissed at least some of the reported shootings or beatings of Palestinians in Gaza as violence between clans and not affiliated with politics.

But many other Palestinians in the Gaza Strip said they were disillusioned both with Hamas and with Fatah.

"Neither [the path of] peace nor of resistance has brought us results," said a medical professional in Gaza City named Hind. "Always we are under siege, an Israeli blockade. We don't know whom we support."

Another medical professional named Abdel Qader agreed, saying; "No one is looking out for the interests of the people."

The PCPO poll also found that 86.1% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and 89.6% in the West Bank supported a Palestinian-Israeli truce.

The polling company conducted face-to-face interviews with a random sample of 673 Palestinian adults in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem between January 25 and January 31, at least one week after a shaky cease-fire went into effect on January 18. It has a margin of error of 3.8%.


Gazans tell Israeli investigators of Hamas abuses

Feb. 1, 2009

Nuaf Atar spoke about the use of Gazan schools to shoot rockets at Israel. Zabhi Atar revealed that Hamas used food coupons to entice Palestinians to join its ranks and Hamad Zalah said Hamas took control of UNRWA food supplies transferred to Gaza and refused to distribute them to people affiliated with Fatah.

These are three examples of testimony from Hamas and Islamic Jihad men who were captured by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead. Details of their interrogations have been released for publication by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).

More than 100 Palestinians were captured during the three-week operation but most were released and only a few dozen - members of Hamas and other terrorist factions - are still being held by Israel, officials said. Some of them may be used as bargaining chips in negotiations for abducted soldier Gilad Schalit.

Nuaf Atar, 25, lives in Atatra, in the northwest Gaza Strip, and was captured by paratroopers on January 11. In his interrogation by the Shin Bet, Atar said Hamas government officials "took over" humanitarian aid Israel allowed in to the Strip and sold it, when it is supposed to be distributed for free.

Hamas set up rocket launchers and fired rockets into Israel from within school compounds since the operatives knew that the Israel Air Force would not bomb the schools, he said.

Palestinians who opposed Hamas's use of their land and homes as launch pads were shot in the legs, Atar added.

"Atar's testimony is evidence of Hamas's cynical use of public institutions, such as schools, to attack Israel," the Shin Bet said.

Another fascinating account was provided by Raji Abed Rabo, a 22-year-old member of Islamic Jihad and resident of the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Abed Rabo told interrogators he was recruited into the organization at the age of 17 and began by distributing anti-Israel propaganda.

In 2006, he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and underwent military training. In 2007 he returned to Islamic Jihad and was recruited to the Jabalya cell. His job was to conduct reconnaissance and gather intelligence on IDF movements along the Gaza border.

He stored weaponry in his house, including roadside bombs, and was knew of a number of tunnels that were to be used to kidnap and surprise IDF soldiers. He also told the Shin Bet about a large bunker that was built under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and was used as a hideout for a number of senior Hamas operatives during the recent Israeli offensive.

Hamad Zalah, 29, is also a resident of Jabalya and was captured by the IDF on January 12. During his interrogation, he revealed that together with his brother, he was tortured by Hamas at a headquarters in Jabalya for his affiliation with Fatah and his intention to light a memorial candle for Yasser Arafat.

He said that he was whipped and beaten with electrical cords. In 2007, Hamas operatives shot and killed his brother, who was a security guard at the home of a Palestinian Authority official in Gaza.

Since June 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza, the terror group, Zalah said, also took control of all humanitarian aid sent into the Strip and refused to distribute it to Palestinians affiliated with Fatah.

Amad Hamed, 35, resides in Beit Hanun, and was arrested by the IDF on January 5. In his interrogation he told the Shin Bet that in 2006 he started conducting surveillance for Hamas and training to perpetrate a suicide attack against Israel.

Two of Hamed's brothers were killed by the IDF in Gaza in 2006 and 2007. Hamed told his interrogators about a Hamas training camp in a sports club next to a mosque in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, and another camp opposite the Beit Hanun municipal building.

Three months ago, Hamed gave his approval to place barrels of explosives, rockets and launchers in land that belongs to his family in Beit Hanun.


Hamas-Israel Gaza Truce Expected to Hold-Official
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Jan 24, 2009

GAZA, (Reuters) - An unofficial truce between Israel and the Islamist Hamas group which controls the Gaza Strip will hold as long as Egyptian mediation continues, a Palestinian official close to Egyptian-sponsored talks said on Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a "unilateral" end to a devastating 22-day military attack on the coastal territory last Saturday, and Hamas and other Gaza Palestinian militant called their own halt hours later.

Nothing was signed and there is as yet no official ceasefire between them.

But the Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters he did not expect Hamas or any other faction to call off the truce, since Egyptian leaders were due to meet Hamas officials in Cairo on Sunday to discuss conditions for a durable ceasefire.

Hamas official Ayman Taha, a member of the Gaza three-man delegation, said officials from the group's exiled leadership in Syria were also due in Egypt later on Saturday for talks.

Hamas said any new deal with Israel must ensure the opening of all border crossings with the Jewish state, which maintains a tight bloackade of Gaza.

Hamas also demands the reopening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the Palestinians' only window to the outside world that does not go through Israel, and the lifting of the economic blockade.

"We are here to discuss how a ceasefire can become durable," Taha told Reuters by telephone from Cairo.

Israel on Friday dismissed international calls for a full reopening of border crossings with the Gaza Strip, leaving the shaky ceasefire in question and casting doubts on the viability of post-war reconstruction for Gaza's 1.5 million people.

Hamas leaders reject opening the Rafah crossing under conditions set by a 2005 U.S.-brokered agreement that would turn over control of security to their political rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, together with European monitors, to ensure no weapons are smuggled in.

Hamas insists on playing a significant role in the Rafah administration, but the official said it was willing to accept the presence of members of Abbas's presidential guards, with a special arrangement he did not disclose. Leaders of the group have in the past said they could also accept European monitors on certain conditions that does not allow the international observers to have a say over the operation of the crossing.

But Israel believes Abbas's men -- who were driven out of Gaza when Hamas took over the coastal enclave in a brief, bloody civil war in 2007 -- would again be intimidated by Hamas gunmen who would take effective control of the crossing.

Hamas officials also said that abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit whom militants captured in a cross-border raid in 2006 would only be released in exchange for prisoners being held in Israeli jails, a demand they have made since the abduction.

Although freeing Shalit was not a stated part of its Gaza operation, Israel believes the restrictions at the crossings could give it leverage in the Egyptian-mediated negotiations with Hamas to free the soldier. (Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Richard Balmforth)



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