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Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories

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Desperately seeking… Madonna? Enlightenment?


U.S. pop singer Madonna (C), accompanied by Brazilian model Jesus Luz (R), visits the grave of Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria at a cemetery in the northern town of Safed September 4, 2009. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

“You’re so beautiful!” a middle-aged American woman in a modern Orthodox Jewish headscarf called out across the street to a complete stranger as I was walking through the northern Israeli town of Safed the other day. Anywhere but Safed – also known as Tzfat – and I might have been more startled. But in this mountain-top retreat for Jewish mystics, both of an Orthodox and of less conventional persuasion, the public outburst of peace, love and understanding seemed entirely natural.

Depending on your national cultural references, it’s hard to capture the spirit of Safed precisely – it is part hippie-haven, part devotional centre for hordes of black-clad Hassidic Jews; part Taos, New Mexico, part Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I have tried to sum it up in a story today. While the Orthodox who flock there in the hundreds of thousands every spring to pray at the graves of the founders of Kabbalah mysticism would doubtless take exception to the idea, for an international audience it is probably Madonna who has done most to put Safed on the map lately. The Queen of Pop, whose interest in Kabbalah has drawn many other non-Jewish celebrity emulators, paid a brief visit last year, while on tour in Israel.

The town originally came to prominence when a Roman-era Jewish sage, taking refuge nearby, penned what is viewed as the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. After a period when it was better known as the biggest Crusader fortress in the Middle East, Safed acquired new fame in the 16th-century when Ottoman rulers let Jews expelled from Spain settle there. They brought back to the Holy Land a Kabbalistic tradition that was substantially reinvigorated by rabbis in Safed. The town, where some believe the Messiah will appear, has since then been one of four holy cities for Jews, alongside Hebron, Tiberias and Jerusalem.

ISRAEL/As a town housing both Arabs and Jews, Safed saw violence in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In that year, Safed had a  substantial Muslim Arab majority, including the 13-year-old Mahmoud Abbas – now the Palestinian president. Most became refugees as Jewish forces swept through the Galilee. Aside from a mosque, turned into an art gallery, and some Israeli public monuments to the war, there are few reminders of their presence.

Mahmoud Abbas “on trial”


A youth group in the Gaza Strip held a mock trial for the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday. The Youth Parliament, a group under the media department of the Islamist group Hamas, prosecuted Abbas on charge of “betraying the blood of the martyrs and the injured”.

The charge was in reference to Abbas’s agreement to defer the vote on the Goldstone Report at the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month. Many human rights groups have been pressing nations to endorse the UN report critical of the Gaza War seeing it as a way to hold both Israel and Hamas accountable for the hundreds of civilian deaths in the devastating war. The vote on the Goldstone Report was delayed to next March, which looked like a victory for Israel, and some Palestinians charged his decision had raised serious questions about Abbas’s leadership. Abbas, doing some damage control, pledged to push for an exceptional UNHCR session, which is being held on Wednesday. (Read more here.)

Peace Without Hamas?



According to International Peace Institute’s (IPI) new poll conducted in both Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank administered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, Palestinians still offer substantial support for the Islamist Hamas group for being “the party of resistance”.

IPI said 55 percent of Palestinians favor a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which shows a shift in Palestinian public opinion towards greater willingness to accept “the overall package and of provisions for Israeli withdrawal, Palestinian demilitarization, and mutual recognition.”

The Iran question, again



It seems last week’s focus, settlement expansion, has given way to this week’s prime focus: Might Israel attack Iran?

Last week the Arab media found Israel’s refusal to cease settlement expansion unsurprising and affirmative of what they said was Israel’s unwillingness to pursue a peace settlement with the Palestinians. An op-ed in Al Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper in Egypt, questioned the Arabs’ ability to challenge Israel: “Will they have the courage to shift the focus back from the Israeli-instigated ‘Iranian threat’ to the clear and present Israeli danger to the region?”

Hopeless or Hopeful?



The trilateral summit tomorrow at the United Nations in New York will be the first time the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president will be meeting since the suspension of peace talks last December, but nobody’s waiting with bated breath. According to our latest article, the inability to reach an agreement on a settlement freeze and Israelis and Palestinians accusing each other for the lack of efforts to revive peace negotiations, continue to be the bumps in the road to peace. (Read our FACTBOX about Israel’s settlements.)

After the U.S. envoy George Mitchell’s week-long shuttle diplomacy ended last week without obvious result. He had attempted to break the negotiation deadlock between the two sides, any chance of bringing three leaders together for dialogue – albeit “without preconditions” and promise for resumption of negotiations – should seem to be an occasion worth anticipating. (Read more of our coverage here.) Israeli newspapers, however, were not encouraged, calling the summit “the flight to nowhere” and projecting it would be “solely symbolic”.

An ageing body politic


The ageing executive body of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction is trying to emerge from its current congress in Bethlehem with a “new look” and a “new image”  – not easy when the youngest member of the executive is 70-years-old and the oldest 87.

“I am sorry. I have Alzheimers,” joked one Fatah member during the congress when he realised he had forgotten to bring the list of candidates that he was supposed to vote for in the group’s first get-together in 20 years.

The Ghost of Fatah Past


PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL/FATAH (Driving from Ramallah to Bethlehem for the Fatah conference, you can’t miss the countless images and posters of deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah.The Fatah conference’s own publicity campaign has itself capitalized on Arafat imagery in its advertisements, from posters with the aging leader waving in the background, to TV advertisements with emotional music and Arafat’s image lightly transposed over footage of current leaders meeting. Old clips of Arafat and his followers, huddled together during the Israeli siege the Palestinian Authority headquarters, are being played now and then on the Palestinian TV station Al-Quds.

Arafat’s larger-than-life presence haunts the Palestinian street’s views on Fatah. Talk to Palestinians lingering in the square outside the closed conference proceedings, the conversation quickly turns to Arafat.

Poisonous Plans:Revealing the Truth? Or Taking Down Mahmoud Abbas?



This week, Farouq al-Qadoumi, general secretary of the Fatah party’s Central Committee, set off a firestorm in the Arab media. He released documents that he claims links Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a plot to poison Yasser Arafat. The episode not only stoked controversy among Palestinian political factions, it led to the shutting down of the Arabic news broadcaster Al-Jazeera in the West Bank.

Al-Qadoumi has only released some parts of the document in question. According to Al-Jazeera, Al-Qadoumi says that Arafat gave him a record of the secret meeting before his death, and that a plot existed in which Abbas and security adviser Mohammed Dahlan met with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and some US intelligence agents.

PA’s Latest Security Procedure: Hand Sanitizer


abbas-02Want to shake Mahmoud Abbas’s hand? Not so fast. Our correspondent Ali Sawafta was surprised by a change in protocol at a meeting with the Palestinian president:

“I went to the opening of the first public park in the West Bank. Standing in front of the tent where the opening festivities were being held and Abbas was to speak, was a guard carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer. Everyone who went in had to use some in order to get in the tent. No one was exempt from the procedure, whether they were ministers or businessmen.

In case you’ve missed it…

If you happened to miss Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu’s speech Sunday evening (June 14), or if you would just like to have another listen, we’ve uploaded it for you. The version below has simultaneous English translation.

Naturally, there was plenty of reaction from all quarters in the region. In the edit below, you can listen to comments from Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas); Judy Kramer, a resident of the Ofra settlement; Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri; and a number of residents of Gaza. Some of the soundbites are in Arabic. If you want to follow along with an English translation, click here.