Monday, January 24, 2011

Palestinian leaders fight back against peace talks leaks

Palestinian leaders have fought back against accusations that they had betrayed their own people, claiming that leaked minutes detailing secret concessions offered to Israel had been heavily distorted.

Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader, was forced to defend his record after Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, began to release nearly 1,700 classified documents purportedly provided by a source within the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Abbas has been left facing a crisis of credibility among many ordinary Palestinians after the papers suggested that his negotiators were prepared to surrender nearly all East Jerusalem’s Jewish settlements to Israel under a peace deal.

Speaking in Cairo, Mr Abbas insisted that the offer had been misrepresented by Al Jazeera, which had deliberately confused Palestinian and Israeli positions during secret talks.

“What is intended is a mix-up,” he said. “I have seen them yesterday present things as Palestinian but they are Israeli. This is therefore intentional.”

As Mr Abbas struggled to explain himself, Al Jazeera was preparing to release a second tranche of the “Palestine Papers” on Monday evening. It was expected to reveal further concessions on the sensitive subject of Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian leaders have insisted in public that they will never compromise on the “right of return” of the refugees, who fled or left their homes after wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967.

At the negotiating table, however, Palestinian representatives have struck a more conciliatory approach and it has long been understood that only a symbolic number of refugees would be allowed to return under a peace deal.

Senior Palestinian officials accused Al Jazeera of peddling a mixture of “fabrication and half-truths” by deliberately failing to understand the difference between public rhetoric and pragmatic diplomacy.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a leading Palestinian negotiator, said the broadcaster had tried to present concessions offered on East Jerusalem as dramatic revelations even though they were already widely known.

“It was pure theatre, accompanied by horror film-style music,” he said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“There is nothing that we hide now and there is nothing we have hidden in the past. We published (all this) before and gave copies to every single delegation that has visited us in the past two years at least.” But such explanations are unlikely to win over critics of Mr Abbas.

On the streets of Ramallah, residents expressed dismay that Mr Abbas seemed prepared to go much further than Yasser Arafat, his predecessor, in offering concessions while securing little from Israel in return.

Yet there was little to suggest that anything in the leaks so far could lead to street protests or the fall of Mr Abbas, analysts said.

The only sign of public discontent was, in fact, directed at Al Jazeera.

Supporters of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party broke into the building housing the station’s Ramallah bureau and smashed security cameras and door panels, until they were forced out by police.

Graffiti daubed on the walls outside the bureau read: “al-Jazeera are Israeli spies.”

“If the police had not arrived when they did, they would have destroyed the whole building,” said Mahmoud Marshoud, the security manager of a bank on a lower floor.

Despite signs of panic among Palestinian officials, some foreign observers said the papers suggested that Mr Abbas and his colleagues had been shown in a favourable light because they appeared more willing to compromise than Israel.

“Even the most sceptical reader must conclude that the papers blow a huge hole in Israel’s claims that, in the Palestinians, they don’t have a partner for peace,” said Richard Burden, chairman of the Britain-Palestine all party parliamentary group.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the leaks, but added that Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, had made major concessions that were rejected by Palestinian negotiators.

Iraq car bombings kill at least 22

Two car bombs exploded Monday as thousands of pilgrims marched into Karbala to mark Arbaeen, a religious holiday. At least 151 people have died in Iraq in bombings since Tuesday.

Two car bombs exploded Monday near Karbala as Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority visited the shrine city for a major religious holiday, according to security and medical officials. The blasts killed at least 22 people.

The bombs struck as thousands of pilgrims marched into Karbala to mark Arbaeen, the end of the 40-day mourning period for the Shiite religious figure Imam Hussein, whose 7th century death in battle cemented Islam's Shiite-Sunni schism. It was the second major attack in the religious city since Thursday, when a pair of bombs killed 56 people and wounded 189 people.

The first bomb went off in a car parked to the south of the city, close to one of the Thursday blast sites, killing at least eight people and wounding 35. The second car bomb went off east of the city, leaving at least 14 dead and another 40 wounded, security and medical officials said.

Mohammed Tnayish, a 45-year-old farmer, was walking with his wife when the second attack occurred.

"Many charred bodies were there, women, children and men. It was so sad and horrible. Blood was everywhere," Tnayish said. "It's so frustrating to have car bombs every few days against Imam Hussein pilgrims. Where are the security forces? They should have better measures and intelligence to prevent such terrorist acts."

At least 151 people have died in bombings since last Tuesday, when a suicide bomber struck a crowd of police recruits in the late Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, killing 60 people.

The recent violence brought an end to a relative lull in suicide attacks and car bombings since the second week of November, when Iraqi politicians struck a deal to form a new government after months of stalemate.

It was unclear whether the latest round of attacks meant armed groups had discovered a newfound ability to carry out major attacks on a near-daily basis or that groups were simply taking advantage of an easier and more visible target in the large number of Shiite faithful now marching to Karbala.

Turkey slams Israeli flotilla report, issues own

Turkey released details on Monday of its own report into the bloody seizure of a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship, a day after Israel published contradictory findings that reignited a furious dispute between the two.

Nine Turks were shot dead in the clash on May 31 last year when Israeli marines stormed a flotilla organized by a Turkish Islamist charity, which ignored orders to turn back as it tried to breach an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Turkey's report said two of the activists killed on the vessel, the Mavi Marmara, were shot from a military helicopter.

"The Israeli soldiers shot from the helicopter onto the Mavi Marmara using live ammunition and killing two passengers before any Israeli soldier descended on the deck," said the report, published by state-run news agency Anatolian.

"During the attack, excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate force was used by the Israeli soldiers against the civilians on board," it said.

Israel's Turkel Commission, whose report will form the core of Israel's submission to a U.N. investigation, cleared the Israeli government and military of wrongdoing and said the operation was legal and justified overall, to Ankara's outrage.

It concluded that the Israeli army did not fire any rounds from the helicopter and marines resorted to guns only after their "less lethal" primary weapons failed to drive back passengers who attacked them as they boarded the ferry.

Turkey responded by publishing for the first time details of its report submitted last September to the U.N. investigation.

"We expected the report to say that mistakes were made and disproportionate force was used, but instead the report's attitude almost renders the Israeli soldiers heroes," a Turkish foreign ministry official told reporters.

The report said Israeli forces had terrorized passengers, abusing them physically and psychologically. It said some passengers were strip-searched and sexually humiliated.

"Israel washed the corpses to avoid further examination of the bodies. They painted over bullet holes on the ship. Why would you try to distort or spoil the evidence if you did not feel guilty?" the Turkish foreign ministry official said.

APOLOGY SOUGHT

Turkish autopsies found that the nine men had been shot with 9mm bullets, short-range ammunition, though one also suffered a brain injury from a projectile that may have been from so-called "bean-bag" shotgun ammunition.

Both reports delivered contradictory conclusions on the methods used to intercept the flotilla.

"Israel could have tied a rope around the ship's propeller to make it stop, without firing bullets, or it could have used water on activists. It could have blocked the route with its own ships," the Turkish official said.

Police fire teargas at Tunis protesters

Police fired teargas canisters to disperse protesters in central Tunis on Monday as pressure grew for the removal of government ministers linked to ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The protesters, mostly from marginalized rural areas who had camped out overnight at the prime minister's office, broke windows at the nearby finance ministry building.

More than a week after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took the reins of an interim coalition following the overthrow of Ben Ali, he and other former loyalists of the feared ruling party face growing opposition despite a series of concessions.

What shape an eventual popular leadership might take is unclear. Opposition parties exist but are not well known after decades of oppression. A hitherto banned Islamist party has called for early elections and may find support.

Police put under house arrest Abdelwahhab Abdalla, the Ben Ali political adviser in charge of monitoring the media, state television said on Monday.

Authorities said on Sunday Abdalla, who managed government appointees to state media outlets, had vanished and was sought by police.

The interim government said last week 33 members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested. On Sunday, police arrested two confidantes of Ben Ali.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday that France, the former colonial power, would offer emergency aid to Tunisia as it grapples with a transition to a new government. He acknowledged criticism of Paris's past support for Ben Ali.

"There was a desperation, a suffering, a feeling of suffocation which, we have to admit, we did not properly assess," he said at a Paris news conference.

Sarkozy said France would hunt down wealth plundered during Ben Ali's time in power and return it to Tunisians, and the Paris prosecutor said later it had opened a preliminary investigation into his French assets.

French-educated Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after violent protests against high food prices, unemployment and his authoritarian rule. French authorities denied him entry but suspect he holds property in France.

"BREAK THE BARRIERS"

In Tunis on Monday, police and army blocked off around 500 protesters who were inside the government compound in the old city, or casbah. Around 1,000 other demonstrators filled the streets and a large square nearby, unable to approach the area.

"Why don't they let us break the barriers and join our brothers? Why do they say they will allow us the right to protest then stop us?," said Kamal Ashour. from Tunis.

"Are they afraid the government will really be shaken? It seems that Ben Ali's regime is back."