Syrian Kurdish leader says Assad not to blame for attack

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with a Russian newspaper in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on August 26, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

(Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not be “so stupid” as to use chemical weapons close to Damascus, the leader of the country’s largest Kurdish group said.

Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said he doubted the Syrian president would resort to using such weapons when he felt he had the upper hand in the country’s civil war.

He suggested last Wednesday’s attack, which the opposition says was carried out by government forces and killed hundreds of people, was aimed at framing Assad and provoking an international reaction. Assad has denied his forces used chemical weapons.

“The regime in Syria … has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, 5 km from the (U.N.) committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so,” Muslim told Reuters.

At the time of the incident, U.N. experts were already in Syria to investigate three previous alleged chemical attacks dating from months ago.

Muslim’s PYD, which has well-armed and effective militias, has clashed with Assad’s forces as well as rebels, but has allowed both to move through its territories during the war.

Some rebels and rival Kurdish groups accuse it of having been close to the state, a position Muslim disputes. He said Kurdish areas the PYD controlled were under attack from al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Muslim suggested “some other sides who want to blame the Syrian regime, who want to show them as guilty and then see action” lay behind the chemical attack, which has led to speculation that Western countries will order a military response.

He said that if the U.N. inspectors found evidence Assad was not behind the gassing and the rebels were, “everybody would forget it”.

“Who is the side who would be punished? Are they are going to punish the Emir of Qatar or the King of Saudi Arabia, or Mr. Erdogan of Turkey?” Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all strongly condemned Assad and backed the rebels.

Kurdish militias have sought to consolidate their grip in northern Syria after exploiting the chaos of the civil war over the past year by seizing control of districts as Assad’s forces focused elsewhere.

The PYD said in July it aimed to set up a transitional council and their emerging self-rule is starting to echo the autonomy of Kurds in neighboring northern Iraq.

Muslim said he reassured officials during talks last month with Turkey’s intelligence agency that the council was not a move to divide Syria – which would alarm Ankara, which is wary of deepening sectarian violence on its border.

Nonetheless, it highlights Syria’s slow fragmentation into a Kurdish northeast, mainly government-held areas around Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean, and a rebel swathe leading from Aleppo along the Euphrates Valley to Iraq.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

Islamic Jihad Calls For End to Peace Talks

Islamic Jihad militants follow the convoy of freed Palestinian prisoner Ibrahim Baroud, on his arrival in the northern Gaza Strip, April 8, 2013.
Islamic Jihad militants ride on a pickup truck as they follow the convoy of freed Palestinian prisoner Baroud, upon his arrival in the northern Gaza Strip

Islamic Jihad
 has joined with Hamas to call on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to halt US-brokered peace talks with Israel, warning that resistance in the West Bank remains an option.

Supporters of the two factions held a demonstration on Friday, Aug. 23, urging the Fatah-led government in the West Bank to end the “absurd” ongoing negotiations.

Senior Islamic Jihad leader Khader Habib, who participated in the demonstration, said that while the initiative was called for by Islamic Jihad and Hamas, other Palestinian factions, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), took part.

“We will try all possible means to pressure the Palestinian Authority to stop negotiations with Israel and to withdraw its Palestinian negotiators from the talks,” Habib told Al-Monitor.

Asked if Islamic Jihad might carry out attacks against Israel to disrupt the peace talks, Habib referred to the cease-fire agreement signed between Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, and Israel after the mini-war in November 2012.

But Habib warned that the cease-fire agreement did not include Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, which he said can pursue a violent option if it so chooses.

“We are committed to the cease-fire for now, but Islamic Jihad in the West Bank can still resort to this option, despite being oppressed by both Israel and the PA forces there,” Habib said.

The threat of violence in the West Bank as a means to counter the negotiations has been a concern for Israel and the PA, as reported by Al-Monitor’s Adnan Abu Amer.

It is unclear what capabilities Hamas and Islamic Jihad have in the West Bank to create a security dilemma, but Amer’s report referred to Iranian and Syrian attempts to smuggle weapons into the Israeli-occupied territory via Jordan.

During the 1990s, both Islamist factions waged a suicide campaign against Israel to disrupt the Oslo Accords.

The Islamic Jihad leader acknowledged that their current efforts are unlikely to yield a positive response from Fatah, but stressed that Palestinian opposition forces should continue to speak up to prevent Palestinian land from being sold cheaply.

“Resistance is our way that we never changed. All Palestinian factions should adopt this option and nothing else,” he said.

Hamas is also vocal in its opposition to the PA’s talks with Israel, but some analysts argue this is an attempt to deflect attention from its own problems caused by the downfall of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt.

Ibrahim Arash, the former minister of culture in Salam Fayyad’s government and a known critic of Hamas, said the coalition between Hamas and Islamic Jihad is coincidental and not related to both parties being Islamist by nature.

“Islamic Jihad is opposing peace talks like it opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords before, but Hamas is trying to make noise in its opposition to negotiations as a means of self-defense after its huge loss in Egypt,” Arash, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor.

Ihab al-Ghussein, spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, justified his movement’s vociferous campaign against the talks, stating that there is a major concern that it may lead to an agreement worse than the Oslo Accords.

“Our attitudes were never connected to what is happening around us. We always react based on our beliefs and principles,” Ghussein told Al-Monitor, rejecting claims that Hamas is trying to divert attention from its woes. “In 2007, we were going through a worse time than now.”

A Fatah lawmaker in the West Bank, Abdullah Abdullah, said that while his faction respected people’s right to free speech, Hamas has yet to offer a viable alternative to peace talks.

“Let Hamas, which opposes negotiations, find an alternative. Resistance? Can anyone in Gaza fire a rocket toward Israel without being punished by Hamas’ security forces there?” Abdullah said to Al-Monitor in a phone interview.

Yahya Moussa, a moderate Hamas legislator in Gaza, rejected Abdullah’s narrow understanding of resistance, saying that resistance is not only about entering into violent conflict with Israel, but also rejecting Israel as an entity.

“Negotiations will not end up with good results for the Palestinians as it’s based on a balance of powers, but Palestinians are not strong enough now to negotiate with Israel. They will end up surrendering their principles instead,” Moussa said.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

UN has ‘valuable’ chemical evidence despite attack

UN inspectors in Damascus on Aug. 26, 2013, after inspecting a suspected chemical weapons attack in Moadamiyet al-Sham

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — UN experts in Syria gathered “valuable” evidence Monday on a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus despite coming under sniper fire, UN officials said.

Unidentified attackers fired at a UN convoy as it tried to approach Ghouta, east of Damascus, hitting the tires and front window of the lead vehicle, said a UN spokesman, Farhan Haq.

The team made a new attempt to reach the scene of last week’s attack, in which hundreds of people are said to have died, and visited two hospitals, Haq added.

“It was a very productive day and once (the team) has made its evaluations it does intend to continue its work tomorrow,” the spokesman told reporters.

The team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is “already gathering valuable evidence,” said the spokesman.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon said that despite the “very dangerous circumstances,” the investigators “visited two hospitals, they interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors, they also collected some samples.”

According to UN officials, the hospitals are in the Moadamiyet al-Sham district near Damascus.

The UN team was in a buffer zone between government and opposition-held areas when it came under attack.

Ban said the United Nations had made a “strong complaint” to the Syrian government and opposition forces, and demanded that the safety of the UN experts be guaranteed.

The rebels and President Bashar Assad’s government have blamed each other for the sniper assault as they have also traded accusations over the launch of the chemical attack.

Western nations have accused Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons, which are banned under international law. The Aug. 21 attack at Ghouta has led to heightened speculation that a military strike could be launched against government targets.

Diplomats said however that the presence of the UN inspectors in Syria could complicate any military plans.

The 13 UN inspectors and seven translators and backup staff arrived in Syria on Aug. 18 to start an investigation into whether chemical weapons have been used in the 29-month old conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead.

The inspectors’ mandate is only to find whether chemical weapons have been used in the war.

But Haq said the team “will complete a scientific analysis as soon as possible and the mission will seek to reconstruct an evidence-based narrative of alleged incidents and other information in accordance with these guidelines.”

Diplomats said the comments indicated that any report by Sellstrom could at least give a pointer as to who was behind the attacks.

The team was sent to Syria to investigate reports of a chemical weapons attack near Aleppo in March and at two other locations. But the Aug. 21 assault at Ghouta is now the “priority,” said the UN spokesman.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

Syria crisis: warplanes spotted in Cyprus as tensions rise in Damascus

Signs of advanced readiness at likely hub of air campaign as UN inspection team comes under fire near site of alleged chemical attack

UN chemical weapons experts visit people affected by the apparent gas attack in Damascus suburb

UN chemical weapons experts visit people affected by the apparent gas attack in Damascus suburb.

Warplanes and military transporters have begun arriving at Britain’s Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, less than 100 miles from the Syrian coast, in a sign of increasing preparations for a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria.

Two commercial pilots who regularly fly from Larnaca on Monday told the Guardian that they had seen C-130 transport planes from their cockpit windows as well as small formations of fighter jets on their radar screens, which they believe had flown from Europe.

Residents near the British airfield, a sovereign base since 1960, also say activity there has been much higher than normal over the past 48 hours.

If an order to attack targets in Syria is given, Cyprus is likely to be a hub of the air campaign. The arrival of warplanes suggests that advanced readiness – at the very least – has been ordered by Whitehall as David CameronBarack Obama and European leaders step up their rhetoric against Bashar al-Assad, whose armed forces they accuse of carrying out the chemical weapons attack last Wednesday that killed many hundreds in eastern Damascus.

The standoff between Syria and the west intensified when a UN inspection team came under sniper fire as it approached the site of the suspected chemical weapons attack.

A spokesman for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the vehicle was “deliberately shot at multiple times” by unidentified snipers while travelling in the buffer zone between rebel and government-controlled territory.

After replacing the vehicle, the team returned to the area, where they met and took samples from victims of the apparent poisoning. The attack on the inspectors came shortly after Ban said there could be “no impunity” for the use of chemical weapons, saying the international community owed it to the families of the victims to take action in Syria.

Speaking in Seoul, Ban said the UN inspection could not be delayed. “Every hour counts,” he said. “We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident.”

A Syrian doctor who runs a makeshift medical clinic in the Mouadamiya district of west Ghouta in Damascus, where the chemical weapons attack is said to have taken place, spoke to the Guardian by Skype after meeting the inspection team.

“The UN inspection committee was supposed to come at 10am today,” Dr Abu Akram said. “The route between the Four Seasons Hotel [where the inspectors were staying] and Mouadamiya is only 15 minutes. But UN convoy was targeted by gunfire and when they are arrived we could see bullet traces on their cars. They arrived at 2pm.”

He said there had been doctors with the UN team, who took blood and urine samples, as well as strands of hair, from the victims in the hospital. They also recorded statements on from the victims on video.

“They visited the hospital and talked to more than 20 victims,” he said. “They were supposed to stay for six hours but they stayed for an hour and a half only.”

Akram said he then accompanied the team to the site where a chemical rocket had fallen, where they collected samples from the soil and animals. “They took a chicken [but] they refused to take the chemical rocket,” Akram said, speculating that the Syrian regime had refused permission for the team to take military hardware.

After an a hour and a half, the inspectors received an order from the Syrians to leave immediately, he said. “The security forces told the committee if they do not leave now, they cannot guarantee their security. They could not visit the main six sites where the chemical rockets had fallen and lots of people were killed,” he added.

Akram said his clinic had received about 2,000 victims of the gas attack, about 500 of them in a critical condition. “Eighty people were pronounced dead at the hospital and I now have 20 victims in intensive care, he said.”

The UN team spoke to his patients and asked them where they had been when the rockets landed. “Most of the people were civilians, sleeping at their homes,” he said. “The committee did not visit any house in the district. We asked them if they could supply us with medical aid but they said that they do not have the authority to do so.”

Likely targets in SyriaLikely targets in SyriaThe US, Britain and their allies are likely to wait until the UN team has compiled its report and left Syria before carrying out any air strikes against the government. If the strikes go ahead, they are expected to focus on the strongest sinews of the Assad regime’s power.

Hitting stockpiles of chemical weapons could appear more proportionate but that would bring with it the risk of dispersing neurotoxins over a wide area, potentially causing even more harm than Wednesday’s gas attack.

For that reason, military experts think that if the western allies do decide to strike, they will aim to deliver a punishment and a deterrent against any further chemical weapons use.

To do so, they will probably concentrate their fire on the regime’s greatest strength – the elite units on which it relies militarily and which are most tied to its chemical weapons programme.

Foremost among these is the 4th armoured division, an overwhelmingly Alawite formation headed by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad. It has its headquarters in the Mazzeh military complex in the southern suburbs of Damascus.

Another likely target is the regime’s Republican Guard, another Allawite diehard unit, which is deployed around the presidential palace and in the Qasioun military complex to the north of the Syrian capital.

Much will depend on whether the chosen option is a strictly limited strike with a handful of cruise missiles, intended as demonstration of intent, or a more complex, further-reaching campaign involving waves of stealth bombers.

That would involve a huge amount of ordnance being targeted at Syria’s substantial air defences, which include multiple arrays of Russian-made missiles. Such a campaign would dramatically increase the risk of causing casualties among civilians and perhaps even Russian advisers, who western intelligence officials say are present in Syria helping the regime’s troops train on and maintain the anti-aircraft missiles.

Both options have shortcomings. The more limited version could be rejected by the regime’s friends and foes as “pin-prick strikes” with political rather than military significance. The longer, more complex option threatens to drag the US, Britain and their allies into a more open-ended conflict that would help Assad to define his role as a bulwark of resistance against western imperialism.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

U.N. inspectors spoke to alleged victims of Syrian chemical attack

U.N. inspectors (C) visiting a hospital in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyet al-Sham.

U.N. inspectors spoke on Monday to alleged victims of chemical weapons inspectors attack in the Damascus district of Ghouta despite coming under sniper fire, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

The United Nations has made “a strong complaint” to both the Syrian government and opposition rebels over the sniper attack, Ban said in a video statement from Seoul, AFP reported.

In videos posted online, with faint sound quality, the inspectors appeared in a makeshift hospital, wearing blue helmets and speaking English. A doctor translates for an inspector as a man speaks, next to someone in a surgical mask.

The inspectors can also be seen with a nurse near the bed where a man is lying. One inspector takes notes as the rest of the group looks on.

On Sunday, four days after the alleged attacks in which opposition groups say regime forces killed hundreds of civilians with chemical agents, Damascus gave the green light for a group of UN experts to visit the areas of Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham on the outskirts of Damascus to investigate.

This came amid mounting pressure and accusations of responsibility against President Bashar al-Assad for the strikes from Western countries, which are weighing military action in Syria.

The U.N. mission is aimed at determining if a chemical weapons attack actually took place, but will not investigate who was responsible for any attack. Syria has rejected responsibility, in turn accusing the rebels of using chemical arms.

If allegations of chemical attacks are proved to be right, Western powers will likely move ahead with plans to launch military attacks on the Syrian regime.

Geneva II off the table

An international peace conference on Syria, planned to be held in Geneva, is off the table for now following the alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus, a senior member of Syria’s opposition coalition said on Monday.

Members of the Syrian National Coalition met representatives of the “Friends of Syria,” a group of Western and Arab nations opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, in Istanbul on Monday in a meeting originally meant to discuss plans for the conference.

“It (the meeting) was for Geneva but we refused to speak about Geneva after what’s happened … We must punish this dictator, Bashar the Chemist we call him, and then we can discuss Geneva,” coalition Secretary General Badr Jamous told Reuters after the meeting.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

Holland urges companies not to work in occupied Palestinian territories


Royal Haskoning DHV logoRoyal Haskoning DHV may pull out of the sewage treatment project after warnings from the Dutch Foreign Ministry that it would be breaking international law

The Dutch government has asked local firms not to deal with Israeli companies working in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories because this violates international law. Israel fears that this move will become a trend among EU member states.According to a report in Haaretz, the Dutch government has asked the country’s largest engineering company to rethink its participation in a project with the Israeli-run Jerusalem Municipality because the project is based on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border. The newspaper affirmed that Royal Haskoning DHV may pull out of the sewage treatment project after warnings from the Foreign Ministry that it would be breaking international law.

The project was supposed to be carried out in cooperation with Mati Company and is intended to filter contaminated water in Kadron Wadi. The filtration plant was supposed to be built in “Area C”, which is under Israeli civil and security control even though it is on the Palestinian side of the 1949 Armistice Line.

Jerusalem Municipality, said Haaretz, informed the Israeli foreign ministry that it faced problems with implementing the project, mentioning the warnings from the Dutch foreign ministry regarding the legal consequences of implementing projects for Israel companies in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The municipality told the government that the Dutch firm is concerned about possible legal action against it and subsequent legal and economic costs.

Britain and Sweden have both issued similar guidelines to companies intending to do business in the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel’s foreign ministry sent letters to its embassies in the 28 EU member states to check whether Holland took an individual measure in this regard, or if it was a common move by all. Haaretz said that the foreign ministry has received “reassuring” replies.

However, the Israeli ambassador in Brussels said that the EU is working on a warning for European businessmen and companies regarding setting up economic relations with Israeli settlements. He said that an expert committee would discuss the issue next September. Sources close to the Israeli government described this as a “serious escalation” by the EU.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

Syria rebels take control of strategic town

Rebels cut off government troops’ supply route out of Aleppo, as President Assad warns US against military action.

Syrian rebel forces have taken control of a strategic town in northern Syria, cutting off government forces’ only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observator for Human Rights has said.

The Britain-based monitoring group said the fall of the town of Khanasir, between Aleppo and Hama, would leave forces of President Bashar al-Assad besieged in Aleppo province.

The rebel advance came amid reports that a prominent Alawite religious leader has been killed in the province of Latakia.

The Observatory said on Monday that it had obtained a photograph showing the execution of Badr Ghazal by hardline rebels.


Some Syrians were sceptical about the purported killing of Ghazal, saying there was still no definitive proof, but the Observatory said rebels from the Nusra Front shot Ghazal after he was kidnapped in the northern suburbs of Latakia earlier this month.

Meanwhile, residents in the central province of Homs said rebels also tried on Monday to retake the strategic town of Talkalakh, 4km from Lebanon’s northern border.

Its capture would allow rebels in the Homs countryside to replenish their supplies.

For weeks, Assad’s forces had been on the offensive in Homs, a province they consider vital to securing their hold from Damascus to the president’s coastal stronghold.

The coast is home to a large number of Assad’s Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, who are seen to be supportive of the president.

But the advance near Talkalakh and the purported assassination of an Alawite cleric suggest the rebels are tentatively trying to push back in central Syria.

Sectarian violence has increasingly overtaken a conflict that began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but has now become an all-out civil war.

The sectarian dimension of the conflict has drawn in foreign fighters from neighbouring countries. Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah has sent fighters to join Assad’s forces, angering Sunni Muslims in Lebanon and the region.

Assad warns against attack

Also on Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia that the US has never succeeded in achieving its political goals in all its previous wars.


“The US faces failure just like in all the previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to our days,” he said, claiming that any US military action against his country would fail.

He also attacked the West and the “great powers” saying, “Yes, it is true, the great powers can wage wars but can they win them?” he asked.

He also commented on allegations that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in al-Ghouta, in Damascus, the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack last Wednesday, saying that it was an “as “insult to common sense”.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

After Qalandia killings, shops close in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and Al Aqsa brigade members brandish AK-47s
Clashes in Qalandia refguee camp near Jerusalem continue hours after three Palestinians killed during early morning arrest.

Funerals for the three Palestinians killed earlier today in an Israeli incursion into Qalandia refugee camp were over by morning’ s end, but ten hours later the clashes continued. Robin Zayed, Younis Jahjouh and Jihad Aslan died from live-fire and another 19 were wounded.

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Road leading from Ramallah to Jerusalem, closed by Palestinians from Qalandia refugee camp. (Photo: Allison Deger)
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Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades marching in Qalandia.

Tensions remained high all day. By afternoon refugees strategically blocked driving access to the main road between Ramallah and Jerusalem, a road that runs through the center of the Qalandia refugee camp and is the only way to reach the main checkpoint out of the West Bank into Jerusalem.

Acting as traffic directors, youths from the neighborhood told drivers where to leave their cars, and sent those on their way to Jerusalem and Israel through a cramped back road. The street was cleared because an impromptu parade was forming behind two members of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who fired rounds from AK47s diagonally into the sky. The masked gunmen were within eye- and earshot of another armed group of young men, the Israeli military.

After the gun salute the youths quickly escaped into the narrow paths leading to Qalandia refugee camp. Once the armed duo re-entered the limited protection of their community in Area C of the West Bank, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have full security control, another set of youngsters linked arms and forbade outsiders from breaching the eastern part of the refugee camp.

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Palestinians youths duck behind mattress during clashes with the Israeli military.
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Palestinian youths clash with the Israeli military at Qalandia checkpoint.

Meanwhile, based at the checkpoint, the Israeli military fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Palestinians who threw stones. In the background, more rounds from Al-Aqsa Brigades could be heard. It was not a typical confrontation; normally the main artery between the West Bank and Jerusalem is chaotic sea of travelers, who continue even as clashes progress. But on this occasion the checkpoint was a landscape of pedestrians, the metal gates of closed shops, and columns of black smoke from burning tires. Elsewhere in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, the economic centers were shut down– a throwback to national mourning days from the time of the second Intifada.

Witnesses from Qalandia told Al-Quds that the three Palestinians killed were not involved in the morning clashes. Roused by the militarized commotion, they’d gone out to see what was going on and were felled by indiscriminate fire from Israeli forces.

Often incursions into West Bank localities take place between 2 and 4 am. Soldiers can infiltrate and exit a camp, or even a city, undetected, making arrests before sunrise. According to the IDF Spokesman’s office an initial group of eight border police accessed Qalandia in order to arrest one man, a recently-released prisoner.

However, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem offered a different version of the incursion: that the army did not enter the camp with Jeeps until 6 am, staying for at least one hour.

Witnesses said the first group of Israeli police wore civilian clothes. It wasn’t a quiet operation. “An undercover Israeli special forces unit stormed Qalandia Refugee Camp and blew the door of the family home of Yousf al-Khatib,” the man the police were seeking to arrest, reported Al-Quds. The blast awoke many in the camp who then pelted Israeli officers with furniture, stones and firebombs. At that time an army unit was deployed to “aid other security forces.” It was these supporting soldiers who “used live fire,” said a representative from the IDF spokesman’s office, adding “this was not a raid.”

“Large violent crowds,” said IDF Col. Peter Lerner, “which significantly outnumbered security forces leave no other choice but to resort to live fire in self-defense.” The spokesman’s office added that an investigation into the deaths has been ordered. “At this early stage,” said B’tselem, which is also conducting its own investigation, “it appears that the stone-throwing was more massive today as the security forces remained in the camp until around 6:45 am, a busy hour on the street.”

Qalandia 01
Shops closed in Ramallah for a day of mourning, after three Palestinians killed by Israeli forces.

Back in Ramallah, the heart of Palestinian political life, the stores are still closed as nightfall approaches. The de-facto capital is protesting, and so is the leadership. After the three from Qalandia were killed, the Palestinian Authority announced negotiations planned to take place today in Jericho with Israeli officials had been cancelled.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

Syria chemical attack undeniable, says John Kerry

Breaking news

US Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned what he termed the “moral obscenity” of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.

He said footage of the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus was “real and compelling” and “undeniable”.

He said President Barack Obama was considering a response.

It comes hours after UN chemical weapons inspectors came under attack near the Syrian capital.

The team was dispatched to five sites around Damascus where hundreds of people were reported to have been killed on Wednesday.

“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality,” Mr Kerry said in a televised statement on Monday.

The US administration had additional information about that attack that it would make public in the days ahead, he added.

He said the delay in allowing UN inspectors to the sites of the alleged chemical weapons attack were signs the Syrian government had something to hide.

“Attacking the area, shelling and systematically destroying evidence is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide. The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late… to be credible,” Mr Kerry said.

The Syrian government has denied launching any chemical attacks.

(Source / 26.08.2013)

Why is a BBC journalist on an expenses-paid propaganda junket to Israel?

Israeli army spokesperson Avital Leibovich speaks to MICS 2011 participants at IDC Herzliya.

Dozens of young journalists, including at least one working for the BBC, are in Israel this week for a government-backed junket designed to give them “a more positive attitude” toward Israel’s policies.

The journalists are attending the Media in Conflicts Seminar (MICS) at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya (IDC Herzliya).

Now in its fifth year, the seminar is the brainchild of the advocacy group StandWithUs.

The Media in Conflicts Seminar is “hasbara for foreign media personnel, diplomats and youth from all over the world,” according to the website of Israel’s Ministry for Public Diplomacy (which was recently absorbed into the prime minister’s office).

Hasbara is a Hebrew word that literally translates as “explaining” but is used specifically to describe government propaganda and outreach efforts to gain support for Israel’s policies.

According to the ministry, the Media in Conflicts Seminar specifically targets non-Jewish Europeans.


Those attending this year include Zahra Ullah, a broadcast journalist with BBC Wales; Indre Anskaityte, a radio journalist from Lithuania; Rachel Dzanashvili, a freelance contributor to Fox News; Tomas Halasz, a photographer from Slovakia; Joseph Shawyer, a staffer at the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency; and Mariana Granja, a reporter for Agence France Presse.

George Hale, a senior editor for Ma’an News Agency, confirmed that Shawyer was attending the seminar. However, Hale told The Electronic Intifada in an email that Shawyer was doing so “in a personal capacity, not on behalf of Ma’an.”

Hale added that Shawyer is “not a member of the news team.”

US journalist Anna Lekas Miller was accepted to attend, but announced on Twitter on Sunday that she was denied entry. Afghan journalist Mirwais Jalalzai reported on the MICS Facebook page that he was denied a visa as well.

Previous participants include Florence DaveyAttlee of CNN International, Carl Fridh Kleberg of Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, and Keith Demicoli of Television Malta.

MICS published lists of participants and speakers for 2009 and 2010 on the IDC Herzliya web site. Past participants can also be seen in videos posted to the MICS YouTube channel.

Winning friends


New York Times journalist Ethan Bronner speaks to MICS 2011 participants at IDC Herzliya.

“The purpose of the seminar is to find young journalists who will work in the world of media, as well as those who aspire to be ‘opinion makers’ in their countries, and to put them through workshops about media coverage of conflict zones,” organizersstated in a fundraising appeal.

According to its official website, the Media in Conflicts Seminar includes “A 5-day fully subsidized stay in Israel (Not including airfare)” and a “strategic tour of Jerusalem and the conflict areas.”

It also boasts that “participants develop skills to face the challenges of conflict reporting, create a priceless professional network and experience the world’s most covered conflict zone.”

In addition to seminars on “terrorism,” and military and political topics, the participants meet Israeli political leaders, academics and senior Israeli journalists.

Past speakers are a who’s who of Israeli political and military echelons, including Avital Leibovich, who became notorious as army spokesperson during the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza and former Minister of Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein.

In 2011, the seminar was addressed by Ethan Bronner, then the ethically-challenged New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. BBC Arabic journalist Ahmad Budeiri also addressed the seminar in 2012.

This year’s seminar will be addressed by Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Ilana Stein.

The organizers have touted the success of previous seminars, claiming, “The impact of MICS is evident in [the participants] subsequent media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Ties to the government

The Media in Conflicts Seminar bears the hallmarks of Israel’s strategy to fight “delegitimization,” laid out in 2010 by the Reut Institute, a think tank with military-intelligence ties.

In an influential report, Reut recommended that Israel “maintain thousands of personal relationships with political, cultural, media and security-related elites and influentials” around the world.

2009 press release says the project is “Approved by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora.”

2012 report by Molad, the center for the renewal of Israeli democracy, includes anappendix that identifies the Media in Conflicts Seminar as part of the government’s “hasbara apparatus.”

The Molad reports notes, referring to MICS, that “the Minsitry of Public Diplomacy organizes a yearly seminar, in cooperation with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzeliya, for members of the media and senior journalists from Europe to develop personal, intimate relationships that encourage a more positive attitude towards Israel’s foreign and domestic policies.”

Conceived by StandWithUs

The Media in Conflicts Seminar was conceived by the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship recipients in 2009.

StandWithUs is the multi-million dollar US-based anti-Palestinian advocacy group that works closely with the Israeli government.

A press release and an email newsletter published in 2009 by IDC Herzliya identify Taly Gerber, an artillery Instructor in the IDF Field Intelligence UnitNuphar Schwartz and Sharon Savariego as the main organizers of the first seminar.

While IDC Herzliya students have held online fundraisers and a vintage clothing sale for the Media in Conflicts Seminar, these have raised no more than a few hundred dollars.

The source of the considerable funding needed to host dozens of international journalists in the country is undisclosed.

IDC Herzliya: hotbed of government propaganda

The Media in Conflicts Seminar claims that it is a “student initiative” at IDC Herzliya, and the unsuccessful online fundraising campaigns can perhaps be seen as an effort to lend authenticity to this claim.

In fact, IDC Herzliya students are heavily involved in state propaganda efforts, and the seminar is only one example.

IDC Herzliya itself is an Israeli academic institution that has become synonymous with an annual conference attended by military and political leaders who have often used it as a platform for racist and belligerent statements.

One perk of attending the Media in Conflicts Seminar is access to the annual IDC Herzliya conference.

And as Yara Sa’di reported for The Electronic Intifada last month:

IDC Herzliya’s Ambassador Club is a year-long program for more than two hundred students from thirty countries run in partnership with StandWithUs. The program includes lectures on media, economy and history in order to “arm the students with the latest surveys and data and to teach them how to present the Israeli narrative” in North America and Europe. At the end of the course, each participant receives “an accreditation endorsed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” according to the StandWithUs website.

Last November, during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, students there set up a “war room” to “send out messages in support of the attack on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.”

IDC Herzliya would therefore appear to be the ideal model for the recently revealed “covert” effort to recruit students at all seven Israeli universities into a social media propaganda program run out of the prime minister’s office.

Media in Conflicts Seminar is no place for journalists

Given the clear government backing and propaganda goals of the Media in Conflicts Seminar, it is inappropriate for any media organization seeking to maintain its credibility reporting on Palestine and the Israelis to allow its staff to participate in this junket.

(Source / 26.08.2013)