Sunday, August 31, 2008

Israeli Defence Chief Barak denies sleaze

It's not only that stateside Barack who's in the news with his lovely wife. Israeli's Barak has been getting coverage too, but not quite as adulatory. (The Baraks' back-story is quite unusual: they wed 40 years after they first met, and ditched their respective spouses to do so. The couple is pictured on their wedding day last summer, above.) The Independent's Matthew Bell recaps the latest twist in the tawdry tale:

Poll ratings for Israel's Labour Party are in freefall following a sleaze scandal involving cash-for-access, Nili Priel, the wife of Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, is alleged to have offered to set up meetings between decision-makers and foreign investors in exchange for cash.

The claim was made by the TV news station Channel 10, which showed a document issued by Mrs Priel's consultancy company, promoting her networking skills. It said: "There are 800-900 senior decision-makers in Israel. Mrs Priel knows most of them personally." The business was shut down immediately after the broadcast, but not before her husband suffered a significant slide in his ratings. According to one poll, if elections were held now, Labour would win only 12 seats in the Knesset. It currently has 20.

Mr Barak has denied the allegations , and claimed his wife's decision to close her company was "to prevent attempts, no matter how groundless, to delegitimise me." As Labour Party leader, he should be a contender to take over from Ehud Olmert, when he steps down as Prime Minister next month, after charges of corruption.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Peacenik Abie Nathan rests in Peace

Abie Nathan was a dove before his time. The quixotic Jewish fighter pilot pushed for peace in Egypt back in 1966 and launched the "Voice of Peace", (pictured above)-- a pirate radio station on a ship anchored in the middle of the Med, partly financed by Beatle John Lennon. Nathan, born in Iran and raised in Bombay, came to Israel in the country's infancy and was devoted to peaceful dialogue and humanitarian acts around the world. As an anti-war activist, he was in the minority in Israel and was twice sentenced to prison, including 122 days in jail for speaking with Yasser Arafat.

"I feel that I am following in his footsteps," said Jeff Halper, an Israeli professor who was on board one of the two boats that sailed into Gaza port last week to protest the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The ex-prof was arrested briefly on his return to Israel through Erez crossing, as the peace boats were permitted to leave Gaza and left a handful of humanitarian workers in the Strip while taking one Gazan boy to be fitted with a prosthetic leg in Cyprus, to replace one lost to an IDF tank shell.
"I don't compare myself to Nathan, but I certainly draw from him as an inspiration," Halper added.

Halper made two correlations between Nathan's efforts and his own, the first regarding Nathan's own sea voyage to Gaza in 1972.

"He sailed there in '72 to bring toys to kids in Gaza, and later he organized a summer camp in Ashdod for Israeli kids and kids from Gaza," Halper said. "The second thing is that he said in 1966 that Nasser wanted to talk peace with the Israelis, and no one listened to him. If they had, think of the countless lives that might have been saved and the terrible violence that might have been prevented."

Lawrence Joffe summed up his life in today's Guardian:

To rightwing fellow Israelis, Abie Nathan, who has died aged 81, was a figure of fun, or, worse, a traitor. Nathan did seem an unlikely warrior for peace in the Middle East, but he invariably had the last laugh. When, in 1968, he mooted the idea for an offshore pirate radio station that would spread regional goodwill, sceptics predicted that it would sink, metaphorically if not literally. Instead, the Voice of Peace blasted out pop, political commentaries and celebrity interviews for 21 years.

Many also thought Nathan mad when, in 1977, he sailed through the Suez Canal distributing chocolates and toys to Arab children. By the year's end, though, Nathan and fellow Israelis were negotiating directly with President Sadat. Their meeting presaged Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, and the 1979 bi-national peace treaty.

Israeli security chiefs regarded Nathan as dangerously naive for talking to the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Yasser Arafat in 1989, and he spent nine months in prison in 1991 for his contact with the PLO. Yet within four years, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shaking hands with Arafat at the White House. Nathan was an entrepreneur, a man with business acumen, an ability to exploit photo opportunities - and a hatred of injustice and suffering.

He was born the third child of observant Jewish parents, in Abadan, which is now in Iran. His Yemeni-born father worked for the Anglo-Iranian oil company (now BP) and later prospered as a linen-trader. At six, Nathan began at a Jesuit boarding school in Bombay. In 1939 his entire family moved to India. When his mother discovered that he adored Catholic icons, she enrolled him at the Jewish Sir Jacob Sassoon school - which imbued Nathan with a love of patriotic Hebrew songs.

Flying was a lifelong obsession. He took his wings with the Royal Air Force in 1945 and two years later had the traumatic experience of transporting Hindu and Muslim refugees between just-partitioned India and Pakistan.

In 1948, after ferrying planes and parts from Czechoslovakia for the nascent Israeli Air Force, Nathan bombarded Galilee villages and the Egyptian army from a converted DC3 transport plane. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the future Egyptian president, survived one of his raids. After later visiting several villages, Nathan was shocked at the damage he had caused. He befriended many civilians, including one Arab woman who regularly visited him after his 1996 stroke.

From 1950 to 1959 Nathan worked for Israel's national airline, El Al. He then managed the California, an American-style Tel Aviv restaurant credited with introducing the hamburger to Israel. It was soon a focus for bohemians and the intelligentsia.

Then, in 1966, aboard his 1927 Boeing-Steerman biplane, Shalom One, he flew into Egyptian airspace - and into a new career as a political maverick. He had hoped to present President Nasser with a 60,000-signature peace petition, but although courteously greeted, he was arrested and sent home.

Never short of chutzpah, he then contrived to meet Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Robert Kennedy and the Pope, and demanded their help to end Arab-Israeli hostilities. In 1967, he repeated his one-man invasion of Egypt, and was returned again. This time he spent 40 days in an Israeli prison for "unauthorised contact with the enemy".

Via the California, Nathan had grasped that most young Israelis in the 1960s hankered after a western lifestyle, rather than the austerities of the founding generation. Yet no Middle Eastern radio stations were broadcasting Anglo-American pop and rock. In 1969, Dutch supporters helped him buy a 188ft freighter for a radio station. Three years of further fund-raising culminated with Nathan going on hunger strike to raise the final $40,000.

By 1972 his Voice of Peace, which would be staffed by a mixture of Jewish and Arab Israelis, Filipinos, English, Dutch and Americans, began broadcasting to nearly 30 million listeners in English, French, Hebrew and Arabic. It even urged Israeli and Arab forces to lay down their arms during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In 1993 Nathan shut the Voice down, convinced that the signing of the Oslo Accords meant peace was on its way.

He was a deeply spiritual man, but not strictly Orthodox - rabbis berated him for broadcasting over the Sabbath and, in 1978, he went on hunger strike against nationalist religious Jews building West Bank and Gaza settlements. He carried a miniature Bible and used the scriptures to explain his leftwing views.

In 1996 he suffered the first of the strokes that ultimately deprived him of speech. He was confined to a residential home and forgotten by many former friends who thought he had died. In lucid moments, he would recall his early days in India, a place that held a special place in his heart. When healthy, he had often revisited the country and found solace in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. One of his proudest honours was being trustee of the Bangalore-based multi-faith Sarvodaya International Trust for peace.

Nathan never let ill-health or mounting debts curb his zeal. In the late 1960s he raised funds for starving Biafrans and was the first foreign pilot to fly sustenance into the Nigerian war zone; in 1972 he sailed to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua; in 1978 he donated toys and medicines to a Beirut refugee camp. He flew to a Northern Irish peace summit in 1982; visited Ethiopia to publicise the 1984 famine; and in 1991 airlifted aid to Kurdish war refugees in Iraq. Ten years later he spearheaded a team of 14 Israelis and four American Jews who helped alleviate conditions for 300,000 Rwandans stranded in a refugee camp in what was then Zaire. He made mercy dashes to Somalia, Guatemala, flood-stricken Bihar in India, and unsuccessful representations in Moscow for Jewish prisoners of conscience.

On hearing of his death, tributes were paid both by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres and the Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, Ahmad Tibi. His dreams and sacrifices inspired the Oslo process and Israel's treaties with Jordan and Egypt, say supporters.

Paradoxically, Nathan's example inspired rightwingers in 1978 to moor their own pirate station alongside the Voice of Peace. It was shut down by the government, prompting protests that Nathan had never suffered such ignominy. The Israeli Davar newspaper countered that Nathan had never spread racism, but "preached peace between nations and peoples". Perhaps that should be his epitaph.

In 1951 Nathan's shortlived first marriage ended in divorce, and he separated from his Colombian second wife. His daughter survives him.

· Abie Nathan, philanthropist, activist, pilot and broadcaster, born April 29 1927: died August 27 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mystery of France's Femme Fatale and the suicidal Druze Guard at Ben Gurion

She's drop dead gorgeous, without a doubt. Mighty men often have succumbed to the charms of Carla Bruni Sarkozy, the brainy First Lady of France, who happens to be Italian and irrepressible. Everyone from the Dalai Lama (snapped beside her this month in ersatz dunce cap, above) to Mick Jagger have been eager to interact with this model-cum-singer-cum-paramour. When Carla left Ben Gurion airport earlier this summer, scampering up the jet's steps "like a gazelle", in the words of an enraptured al Jazeera reporter, there'd been parting shots drowned out by the military band and one Israeli guard lay dead on the tarmac. This incident was duly investigated by the IDF, and almost immediately ruled a suicide. It was a very odd way to top oneself, as Dion Nissenbaum of Checkpoint Jerusalem has noted. The guard's family figures that he couldn't help sneaking a peek at her through his rifle's scope and his ogling made him look like a sniper. Read on for the naked truth:

But the family of the dead Israeli border guard, Raed Ghanem, challenged the [IDF cover] story from day one. And now they have come up with a counter-theory.

Call it The Carla Conspiracy.

Here's the theory as laid out by Samer Ali, the attorney representing the dead border guard's family.

Raed Ghanem was a happy father of two toddlers, a Druze border guard who had no reason to kill himself.

On the morning in question, Ghanem excitedly told his wife that he was going to get to see Carla Bruni, the sultry, alluring, model-turned-singer-turned-French First Lady.

Ghanem was stationed at least 100 yards from the farewell ceremony, on the outer edge of the security detail, according to Israeli police.

Ali's theory is this: In an attempt to sneak a peek at Carla, Ghanem raised his M-16 so he could check her out through his scope.

Then... blam! Ghanem was taken out by another member of the security team who thought the Druze border guard was raising his M-16 to take out one of the world leaders.

Considering the insatiable interest Carla creates wherever she goes, it's not an outlandish theory. (Any good conspiracy theory has to have a plausible starting point.)

Unfortunately for Ghanem's family, there isn't much evidence to back up the claims at this point.

The Israeli police investigation isn't done yet, but spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld restated there is no doubt that Ghanem killed himself.

Ali has pulled together all the kinds of threads one would collect to question the official version of events: Alleged eyewitnesses who say more than one shot was fired. Information from "insiders" that the police investigation has determined that Ghanem did not kill himself. Autopsy observers for the family who contend that there were no powder burns on Ghanem's hands. And a contention that Ghanem's fatal wound suggests that he was shot in the back of the head.

"The most likely theory is that he was looking at Carla Bruni through his telescope and someone shot him," Ali told Checkpoint Jerusalem. "We're certain that there's something being hidden. He had no reason to kill himself."

Israelity bites.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Gaza Peace Ships out at Sea again

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein reports that the SS Free Gaza, one of the Greek-registered boats that broke the Gaza siege on Saturday, today joined six Palestinian fishing boats 8 miles off the coast of Gaza. Though these ships were being circled by three Israeli Dabur naval vessels, no warning shots were fired across their bows, which ordinarily would happen if they ventured out so far. The fishing boats are exercising their right to fish up to 20 miles off the coast of the Gaza Strip, as stipulated by the Oslo Accords. Recently the Israeli Navy has enforced an arbitrary 6-mile limit for security reasons, so the Free Gaza Movement has breached that naval blockade, too. The Israeli authorities seem to be purposefully pussyfooting around the confrontational tactics of the peaceniks, mindful of the propaganda risks of manhandling publicity-seeking westerners, and reportedly intend to let them all leave port, as long as they do not attempt to smuggle out the Gazan engineering students who cleared US security checks but are stranded in Gaza because their exit permits were denied by the IDF.

Professor Jeff Halper, an Israeli peace activist, now is aboard one of the fishing boats.
His exuberant interview with Haaretz newspaper about landing in the Gaza Strip ran on the front page yesterday:

"We proved that ordinary people can do something and succeed," he said. "Even Tony Blair can't go to Gaza, but ordinary people with drive can. The welcome was amazing. There were tens of thousands of people. People came out in boats and on windsurfers to meet us. Children swam out to sea and flashed the victory sign. I feel like we're fresh air entering a prison where a million and half people are living.

"I tell myself: We're in the modern world, the 21st century, and yet such excitement - over what? Over something we take for granted, that two boats arrived. Here it's a national holiday. Their isolation is so complete," he said.

Halper said that Gazans were eager to speak Hebrew with him, and to reminisce about the years they spent working in Israel. "Our impression that Gaza is Hamas, that there is only hatred there, is mistaken," he said, adding that he learned that "we are more of an obstacle to peace than the Palestinians."

Professor Halper chose not to dine with the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyyeh, who does not recognize Israel's right to exist. However, it was widely reported that he did, because his doppelganger, a white-bearded lawyer from Zigzag, Oregon named Tom Nelson,
accepted a medal from Hamas and kissed Haniyyeh three times. Cheeky. Check out the two grisly activists below (Halper is on the left)

Cross-posted on Feral Beast

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Activists arrive by boat to Gaza; siege broken

Boats with pro-Palestinian activists have reached Gaza City's tiny port, the Associated Press says.

Two boats carrying dozens of international activists sailed into the Gaza Strip Saturday in defiance of an Israeli blockade, receiving a jubilant welcome from thousands of Palestinians.

The boats docked in Gaza City's tiny port after a two-day journey marred by communications troubles and rough seas. As they arrived, children swarmed around and leaped into the water in joy, while thousands of cheering residents looked on from the shore.

On one of the boats, "End Occupation" was written in large letters and Palestinian flags snapped in the wind. The activists waved to the crowd.

"It was a tough time, almost 36 hours. It was very hard for many of us," said one of the activists, Tom Nelson, a 64-year-old lawyer from Zigzag, Ore. "But the Gaza people are amazing," he added.

He said he hoped the group's arrival would draw attention in the West to the difficult conditions caused by the blockade in Gaza.

Under the closure imposed in June 2007 after Hamas violently seized power in Gaza, Israel has allowed little more than basic humanitarian supplies into the strip, causing widespread shortages of fuel, electricity and basic goods.

Since setting sail from Cyprus early Friday, the mission by the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement had been in question. Israel initially hinted it would prevent the vessels from reaching Gaza, and on Saturday, the group accused Israel of jamming its communications equipment.

But late Saturday, Israel said it would permit the boats to dock in Gaza after determining the activists did not pose a security threat. The group delivered a symbolic shipment of hearing aids and balloons.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel wanted "to avoid the media provocation" that the group was seeking. He dismissed the allegations that Israel damaged the communications system as "total lies."

When the two boats were first spotted off the Gaza coast, five Palestinian boats rushed out to sea to greet them, while dozens of smaller crafts waited closer to shore.

A boy scout band sat in one boat banging drums and blowing horns, while another carried Gazan activists waving Palestinian flags.

"They are very brave, they are very strong, I am proud of them," said Samira Ayash, a 65-year-old retired school teacher who came to watch.

Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, has closed its trade crossings with Gaza while neighboring Egypt sealed its passenger crossing, confining the strip's 1.4 million residents.

Only a trickle of people are allowed to leave for medical care, jobs abroad and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The 70-foot Free Gaza and 60-foot Liberty left Cyprus early Friday for the journey. The 46 activists from 14 countries include an 81-year-old Catholic nun and Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of international Mideast envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"In this media war, it was impossible for them (Israel) to win because they have no case for what they are doing to your port and to your borders," Booth said.

The activists were the first foreigners to break the blockade. Organizers said they would stay in Gaza for 24 hours, though it remained unclear how they planned to leave. Israel controls all movement in and out of Gaza.

Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh welcomed the activists.

"We call for more activities to break the unfair siege imposed on our people," Haniyeh said.

Mekel, the Israeli spokesman, said Israel's decision did not mean that future deliveries would necessarily be permitted.

"This decision was about these boats. We will see what happens with any future boats," he said.

Under a June truce deal which halted a deadly cycle of bruising Palestinian rocket attacks and deadly Israel airstrikes, Israel has pledged to ease the blockade. But Palestinians say the flow of goods into Gaza remains insufficient and there has been little improvement in the quality of life.

Israel has periodically closed the cargo crossings in response to sporadic Palestinian rocket fire that violated the truce.

Time Magazine joined a "ship of Fools", a chartered media boat for reporters and photographers, which was waylaid by a seasick wire reporter and radio jamming. Journalists were surprised that the Israeli navy did not rise to the provocation of the peaceniks. But there still is the question of how the two boats will leave the harbor.

Electronic Piracy off the coast of Gaza?

We have just received the latest bulletin from two boats who intend to break the Gaza siege in order to distribute hearing aid batteries inside the Gaza Strip. Sailing from Cyprus, the human rights activists want to challenge the Israeli stance that the enclave of 1.5m people is not under blockade and that the IDF are not occupiers.

10am, 23 August, 2008
A Statement from the International Human Rights Workers Aboard the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, Sailing to Gaza

At 10am this morning, the Cyprus team of the Free Gaza Movement was able to briefly speak with our people on board the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty. They are all fine, and they asked us to release the following statement:

"The electronic systems which guarantee our safety aboard the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty have been jammed and scrambled [by the Israeli navy?] Both ships are flying Greek flags, and are in international waters. We are the victims of electronic piracy. We are currently in GMS P area A2 and we are relying on our satellite communications equipment to make a distress call, if needed.

We are civilians from 17 nations and are on this project to break the siege of Gaza. We are not experienced sailors. As a result, there is concern about the health and safety of the people on board such an emergency develop.

We are currently experiencing rough sea conditions, and we call on the Greek government and the international community to meet their responsibilities and protect the civilians on board our two ships in international waters."

An earlier message, which came to Israelity Bites via activist Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, outlines the goals of this unusual Mediterranean voyage on the August seas:

Forty-six international human rights workers are now sailing to Gaza through international waters with one overriding goal: to break the Israeli siege that Israel has imposed on the civilian population of Gaza. Any action designed to harm civilians constitutes collective punishment (in the Palestinians’ case, for voting the “wrong” way) and is both illegal under international law and profoundly immoral. Our mission is to expose the illegality of Israel’s actions, and to break through the siege in order to express our solidarity with the suffering people of Gaza (and of the occupied Palestinian territory as a whole) and to create a free and regular channel between Gaza and the outside world.

Israel claims that since the “disengagement” in 2005 it no longer occupies Gaza. However, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international human rights organizations reject this claim since Israel still exerts effective control over Gaza. As an Occupying Power, Israel has a responsibility for the well-being of the people of Gaza under the provisions of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel has abused its control and responsibilities by wrongfully obstructing vital supplies and humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.

As Israel’s 41-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip defies international consensus, and because Israel has grossly violated its obligations, we do not recognize Israel’s right to stop us outside its own territorial waters, which we will not be approaching. To remove any “security” pretense that Israel may raise, we have had our boats inspected and certified by Cypriot authorities that they carry no arms or contraband of any kind. We have invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to join us on our voyage and, in fact, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has itself told us the Israeli government “assume[s] that your intentions are good.”

We are human rights activists, invited to visit Gaza by our Palestinian partners, and each of us has vowed to do no violence, in either word or deed. If Israel chooses to forcibly stop and search our ships, we will not forcibly resist. Such a search will be under duress and with our formal protest. After such a search, we fully expect the Israeli navy to stand aside, as we continue peacefully to Gaza. If we are arrested and brought to Israel, we will protest and prosecute our kidnapping in the appropriate forums. It is our purpose to show the power that ordinary citizens of the world have when they organize together to stand against injustice. Let there be no doubt: the policies of repression against the civilian population of Gaza represent gross violations of human rights, international humanitarian law, and constitute war crimes. The goal of our voyage is to break the illegal siege on the people of Gaza as a step toward ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Essential carry-on left behind: a 3 yr old girl!!

Oops. Tel Aviv airport staff are great at preventing dodgy items aboard the plane, but a little girl passenger got left behind, the AP reports.

Israeli airport police say a local couple embarked on an unlikely European vacation, remembering their duty-free shopping and their 18 suitcases but forgetting their three-year-old daughter at the airport.

The couple and their five children were late for their flight to Paris yesterday and made a dash to the gate. In the confusion, their daughter got lost. A policeman found her wandering around the terminal, crying for her mother.

Israeli media Monday reported that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents, whose names were not released, didn't notice the child was missing until they were told in the air that she had been found at Ben-Gurion airport. The child, accompanied by a member of airline staff, took the next flight to Paris where she was safely reunited with her parents.