Egyptian protesters clash with police over lawlessness

AFP – Egyptian police clashed Sunday with thousands of demonstrators who attacked government buildings in North Sinai to protest the murder of a man by armed robbers, witnesses said.

Police fired tear gas on the swelling crowds, which one security official estimated at 7,000 people, after they stoned local government offices in the coastal town of El-Arish.

The demonstrators had gathered earlier to protest what they said was lawlessness in North Sinai after a 50-year-old man was shot dead by thieves who tried to commandeer a truck filled with food.

North Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, is an underdeveloped region where smuggling thrives.

Unlike South Sinai, which is dotted with tourist resorts, the north has seen relatively little development, leading to frustration among Bedouin inhabitants who complain of discrimination.

Residents have long complained of lawlessness in the area, which witnesses regular clashes between Bedouins and police.

In November 2008, Bedouins besieged police stations along the border with Israel and took hostage dozens of officers to protest the deaths of three Bedouins who were shot by police and left close to a rubbish dump.

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Israeli police clash with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque

AFP – Dozens of people were wounded on Sunday in clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, a flashpoint site holy to Muslims and Jews.

Palestinians hurled rocks from the rooftops of the Old City and set alight piles of rubbish, filling the narrow, centuries-old alleys with smoke as police manned barricades and used stun grenades to disperse the crowds.

A 20-year-old Palestinian woman also stabbed an Israeli border guard in the stomach at a main checkpoint north of Jerusalem, security officials said.

It was not clear whether this was linked to the Al-Aqsa clashes, which had mostly ended by late afternoon when the stabbing took place.

Earlier police twice entered the compound itself after Palestinian demonstrators threw stones at visitors to the holy site, known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The first time police entered they came under attack from stone-throwing youths and had to negotiate oil that Palestinians had spilled in an effort to make them slip and fall, public radio reported.

“More than one hundred youths are still inside the mosque,” Jerusalem police chief Dudi Cohen told reporters. “At this stage, we have no intention of entering the mosque and we call on all those inside to leave.”

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 18 people were arrested for attacking police and that Hatem Abdel Qader, the former Jerusalem affairs minister in the Palestinian Authority, was detained for “incitement to violence.”

Kamal Khatib, a spokesman for the Israeli Arab Islamic Movement, which has been at the forefront of recent demonstrations at the compound, blamed police for the violence.

“The police always excuse their attacks by saying that the worshippers threw stones,” he told AFP. “It is clear they just want to justify their crimes.”

Twenty-four Palestinians were wounded in the clashes, according to the Red Crescent emergency service. On the Israeli side nine police officers were injured and three were taken to the hospital, Rosenfeld said.

The office of Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned of “dangerous consequences” and called on Israel to “halt all provocative acts.”

“Jerusalem is a red line that cannot be crossed,” his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

The Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip blamed Israel for “this dangerous aggression, which violates every Muslim on the face of the earth.”

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, demanded that Israeli police stop entering the compound and warned that “dangerous provocations” by the Jewish state threaten Middle East peace efforts.

The Saudi-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) condemned the police action as a “violation of all Muslim sanctuaries,” and called an extraordinary meeting for November 1 in Jeddah of its executive committee.

Police deployed extra forces early on Sunday after calls for demonstrations around the holy site that has been the scene of clashes for several months.

The Palestinian calls for protests came amid rumours that right wing Jewish activists were planning to gather at the compound, site of the holiest place in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam, radio reports said.

The rumours began after an extreme right Jewish group, the Organisation for the Defence of Human Rights on the Temple Mount, urged Jews to gather at the mosque compound and the adjacent Western Wall, Judaism’s top pilgrimage site.

Sunday’s violence was the latest to rock the holy site, where perceived changes in the status quo have often sparked deadly clashes.

Two weeks of tensions over the compound exploded into violence on September 27, when Palestinians hurled rocks at visitors they suspected of being right wing Jewish extremists.

Police, who responded with stun grenades, said the group was made up of French tourists.

In September 2000, the second Palestinian uprising or intifada erupted after Ariel Sharon, a right wing politician who went on to become Israel’s prime minister, visited the site.

Mitchell leaves region with no breakthrough in US peace mission

AFP – US Middle East envoy George Mitchell met Israel’s prime minister again on Sunday after dashing to Egypt as part of an uphill task to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

The former US senator met for an hour in Jerusalem with Benjamin Netanyahu, officials said, after separate meetings on Friday with the hawkish premier and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Netanyahu’s office said at the end of the meeting, which was also joined by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, that two senior aides to the premier would travel this week to Washington for more talks.

Mitchell, who did not speak after the meeting, had earlier told reporters in Cairo that “everyone who truly believes in peace has to take responsibility to take actions to achieve that goal.”

Mitchell held talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman late on Saturday and with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit on Sunday before returning to Jerusalem for talks with Netanyahu as part of his latest regional trip.

The US envoy arrived in the region on Wednesday and is pushing to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to restart peace negotiations suspended in December after the start of the Gaza war.

He has said Washington was pushing for an “early relaunch” of negotiations and that the US administration was still deeply and fully committed to the vision of a “viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory.”

But hopes for a breakthrough were dim, with Israel dismissing Washington’s vision of a regional peace as unrealistic, and no compromise in sight on the thorny issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinians have backed US calls that Israel freeze all settlement activity before peace talks are resumed, but Netanyahu has refused to do so.

Abbas said late Sunday that he had no intention of backing down. “Yesterday we told the US envoy George Mitchell that we are determined to achieve peace,” Abbas said in a televised address.

“However we believe that achieving peace requires ensuring the prerequisites as defined by the international community… in order to resume the peace process and negotiations… first and foremost stopping all settlement activity in Jerusalem and the rest of Palestinian territory.”

Mitchell, who played a key role in the diplomacy that preceded the 1998 Good Friday peace deal in Northern Ireland, admitted he was facing a hard task in his latest mission.

“We do not underestimate the difficulty for us or the parties,” he said on Friday.

Washington is pushing for a global Middle East deal that would see Israel strike peace with the Palestinians while Syria and Lebanon and Arab countries normalise relations with the Jewish state.

Israel and the Palestinians relaunched their peace negotiations in November 2007 but the talks made little visible progress and were suspended in late December after the start of Israel’s war in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Khamenei slams Israel in Eid sermon

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted arch-foe Israel, Western powers and foreign media networks in a sermon on Sunday marking the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.

Khamenei, who has the final say in all Iran’s national issues, said a “Zionist cancer” was gnawing into the lives of Islamic nations.

The annual Quds (Jerusalem) Day rally held across Iran on Friday, he said, was a “day of loud and clear shouts” against this “deadly cancer of Zionism which is gnawing into the lives of the Islamic nations”.

The all-powerful cleric added that the “deadly cancer was spreading through the invading hands of the occupiers and arrogant powers.”

His anti-Israel remarks came two days after the Quds Day rally during which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had also slammed Israel and reiterated his controversial belief that the Holocaust was a “myth.”

Friday’s pro-Palestinian rally was marred by massive protests against Ahmadinejad launched by supporters of those who stood against him in June presidential elections and who claim his re-election was rigged.

Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel comments enraged the global community, including key ally Moscow, just days ahead of his planned visit to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

On Sunday, Khamenei said attempts by Israel, Western powers and foreign media networks to weaken Iran had failed.

“The enemies tried to undermine the Quds Day rally, but the rally showed that the schemes of the enemies were not effective,” the cleric said as worshippers attending his sermon at Tehran university chanted, “Leader, we offer our blood to you!”

He particularly lashed out foreign media networks, saying they were “poisoning the atmosphere in Iran.”

“In the past few months, Western leaders fell for their media, professional press analysts and radios and televisions and thought they could influence the Iranian nation. But you showed that they were chasing a mirage,” he told the crowds of worshippers.

“This year, more than before, they tried to weaken the Quds Day, but the glorious Quds Day in Tehran showed the whole world the direction in which the revolution and Iran was heading.

“It showed that their (Western politicians) tricks, spending money and political evilness does not influence the Iranian nation.”

Khamenei’s sermon marking Eid and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan was attended by Ahmadinejad and other top officials of Iran, including opposition supporter Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

Mohsen Rezai, former head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and one of the defeated candidates in the June 12 presidential election, was also present during the sermon.

UN denounces war crimes in Gaza

A damning report on last winter’s fighting in Gaza has accused both Israel and the Palestinians of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The United Nations investigator Richard Goldstone blamed the Israeli army for using disproportionate force, and Palestinian militants for firing rockets into Israel against non-military targets.

Goldstone said the UN Security Council should demand an Israeli investigation into its forces’ actions, which must meet the highest standards. If not, the matter should be sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Israel rejected the report as one-sided, saying it ignored Palestinian rocket attacks into southern Israel. 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, more than half of them civilians. 13 Israelis died.

Israeli F-16 warplane crashes in West Bank

An Israeli F-16 fighter jet crashed in the West Bank on Sunday, killing its pilot, the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster, officials said.

The single-seat warplane crashed in a remote hilly region south of the West Bank city of Hebron, the military said, adding that it was not immediately clear what caused the accident.

Military officials named the pilot as Lieutenant Assaf Ramon, the eldest son of Colonel Ilan Ramon, an Israeli fighter pilot who became the country’s first and only astronaut.

Ilan Ramon was killed along with six others when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over the US state of Texas six years ago.

In interviews after the Columbia disaster, Assaf Ramon said that he, too, hoped to become an astronaut. He graduated from the Israeli air force pilot’s course earlier this year.

The military said the aircraft crashed during a routine flight as part of the advanced pilot training course.

Israel approves 455 new West Bank homes

Israel has resumed settlement-building in the West Bank with today’s approval of a further 455 building permits for new homes. 89 of the permits are in the Maalé Adoumim settlement near Jerusalem.

It is the first new building approvals of the Netanyahu government, using the official argument of absorbing the “natural growth” of already-existing settlements.

The package includes 20 permits for the settlement of Maskiot, deep in the Jordan valley, citing the need to rehouse families uprooted from the Gaza strip. The Palestinians say the enclave is vital for their future state, as it is almost on the Jordanian border, and is blessed with rich soil. Were it to become part of Israel, it would virtually cut the West Bank in two.

At the moment Jewish settlements in the West Bank are home to some 300,000 Israelis, scattered around 100-odd settlements. To add to the 455 new building permits, 2,500 new homes are in the process of being built already. And in Arab East Jerusalem, 200,000 Isarelis have settled, and will most probably insist on staying.

The Israeli prime minister says these new authorisations are a prelude to a moratorium on new building that could last several months. In exchange he wants the Arab nations and Palestinians to commit to reopening peace talks.

Fatah’s Hanan Ashrawi is scathing in her response.
She said: “He thinks that he can deceive the rest of the world by saying that he wants to stop or suspend settlement activities, or contract settlements activities, but what he is doing under a variety of pretexts is the continuation of settlements and at the same time demanding a price in return.”

Israel’s main ally, the United States, demands a settlement freeze in the West Bank to allow talks to resume. However, the number of settlers has constantly grown. Since 1990, they have more than doubled.