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This Week in Palestine, a service of the international Middle East Media Center, IMEMC.org for December 22 through December 29, 2006.
The residents of the walled-in city of Bethlehem, joined by tourists and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, celebrated Christmas this week. Festivities included a candlelight procession for peace and justice. A Palestinian man from the Gaza Strip died of wounds he sustained last month. The Israeli government approved the release of a small fraction of Palestinian tax revenues to the Palestinian government, and a series of meetings were held to revive Middle East peace talks. These stories and more, coming up. Stay tuned.
Peaceful Resistance to the Wall Continues in West Bank
Let's begin our weekly report with this week’s peaceful actions against the annexation Wall in the West Bank.
Around 200 hundred people, including international and Israeli activists, joined together in Bil'in village near Ramallah city in the West Bank for the weekly demonstration against the illegal annexation of the village's land by Israeli wall construction. Nearly 60% of Bil'in has been lost as the route of the Wall cuts directly through the village. Soldiers awaited the procession at the gate west of the village, and did not immediately intervene when several Palestinians and activists crossed through the razor wire and began walking the length along the first fence.
Several sections of razor wire were pulled apart along the path of the Wall to allow other Palestinians passage through to the barrier's fence. Soldiers responded intermittently with sound bombs and used batons to strike the hands of Israeli activists attempting to untie sections of wire fastened to the fence. The demonstrators remained non-violent throughout.
On the walk back, residents noticed soldiers had occupied three Palestinian homes at the top of a hill. Soldiers were using these locations to fire tear gas at youths not participating in the main demonstration. Demonstrators chanted at the soldiers who retreated from one house but remained inside another and on the roof of the third.
Soldiers fired tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets and sound bombs while Palestinians entered the second home to force the four soldiers there to leave. In an ensuing scuffle, soldiers attempted to arrest one resident, Farhan Burnat, 26, though residents and activists prevented them from removing him into custody.
The military beat those attempting to free Burnat with clubs. Soldiers on the rooftop of an occupied home fired large quantities of gas toward the demonstrators and shot several residents with rubber coated bullets, including Abdullah Abu Rahme who talked to IMEMC:
The soldier who we stopped from arresting our friend pushed us, and after awhile while we were walking about 100m away from him, he fired at me. I was walking away from the scene carrying the Palestinian flag, not doing anything at that time. I got injured by two rubber bullets in my thigh. The guy being abducted was beaten up badly, also my colleague Mohamed al Khatep was beaten up by the soldiers.
On the other side of the illegal wall on Thursday afternoon, Israeli activists blocked the central downtown of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv with razor wire taken from the Wall.
The activists stretched the razor wire across Basel Street with a sign from the Wall that reads in Arabic, Hebrew and English: "Anyone who touches the fence endangers their life." The twenty activists from the Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall, who regularly attend the weekly Friday demonstrations against the illegal Wall in Bil'in, set up the blockade at around 2pm and started handing out flyers to passersby explaining the action.
The action was taken to protest the wall being built throughout the West Bank, said Yonaton Pollack an Israeli activist:
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Settlement Activity in the West Bank
The Israeli military authorities approved on Wednesday the construction of a new illegal settlement in the Jordan Valley north of the West Bank to house settlers who were removed from the Gaza Strip during the unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in September of 2005. The construction of this settlement, originally intended to be a military base, began earlier this year but was only approved as a settlement to house civilians this week.
The United States administration rejected this move and said that it violated the US-backed Road Map peace plan which calls for the Israeli government to halt all construction and expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Prior to the disengagement from Gaza, Israel had promised it would not move former Gaza settlers to the West Bank.
Christmastime in Bethlehem
Local scouting groups paraded through Nativity Square in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on the morning of Christmas Eve this year, playing drums and bagpipes to a crowd of a few thousand Palestinian and international tourists.
The Latin Patriarch of the Holy Lands, Michel Sabbah, reached the southern Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve day and listened to the songs of the scouts and then religious and national tidings as Palestinian flags waved in abundance.
Bethlehem's Mayor, Dr. Victor Batarsa, and the Bethlehem District Governor Salah Tamari, the Minister of Tourism and National Security Forces leader, in addition to the Chief of Police Issa Hijo, were all in attendance. The Patriarch presided over an all-night Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus there over 2000 years ago. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, was among the attendees of the Mass.
In the beginning of December the Palestinian Authority raised fifty thousand dollars to decorate the city of Bethlehem during Christmas in an attempt to attract more tourists to revive the fragile, declining economy of the city. But, despite sun and warmer temperatures, the turnout of both Palestinian and international people for the Christmas Eve celebration was low, local sources said.
Like the last four years of Christmas celebrations since the latest Intifada, few local people and even fewer tourists, pilgrims, and international activists came to celebrate, compared to Christmas Eve festivals in the past. Like past years, however, both Palestinian Christians and Muslims celebrated the day together. The shadows of the economic siege and financial hardship clouded the day. Issa, a Palestinian teacher and resident of Bethlehem commented:
“Because of the siege, there is no joy. We come here only because to allow our children to feel good. We are trapped in a big jail; you ca not feel Christmas as it should be.”
At least two thousand Palestinians, joined by many Internationals, participated in a candlelight procession in the town of Beit Sahour on Christmas Day.
The marchers lit candles demanding an end to the ongoing internal violence in Palestine and the lifting of the Blockade imposed on the Palestinian people.
This procession, which was organized this year under the title “Light a Candle for the End of Violence, Unity of the People and Lifting the Blockade” is an annual activity of the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People and was the first of its kind organized by a civil society organization. Beginning in 1991, the march has carried different slogans but has always carried a message of peace to the world from the Palestinian people. The first march was titled "Light a Candle for Peace and Justice" and was a joint Palestinian-Israeli demonstration after the first Intifada of 1987. George Rishmawi, director of the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People talked to IMEMC:
In the beginning of this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accompanied by a delegation that included senior negotiator Saeb Ereikat, Fatteh Legislator Mohamad Dahlan, and two of his aides, met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.
During the meeting Olmert agreed to release one hundred million US Dollars to the Palestinian Authority, a fraction of the six hundred million US Dollars of Palestinian tax revenues that Israel has withheld since last March, when Hamas was elected into the majority position in the Palestinian parliament. Olmert also approved the release of some thirty prisoners, of more than ten thousand Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli jails. He also agreed to remove 27 roadblocks, which now total over four hundred in and around the West Bank.
The two sides decided to form follow up committees that will meet soon.
The Israeli cabinet in its weekly meeting approved the release of the small part of Palestinian tax revenues, part of which will be used to service debt to some Israeli companies, and to help cover expenses at Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. Hamas rejected the outcome of this meeting, saying that such meetings have been held repeatedly in the past with no real positive results.
Fawzi Barhum, a Hamas spokesperson, expressed dissatisfaction of the meeting:
"The meeting was actually shameful. It has saddened every Palestinian especially those who suffered to protect the Palestinian national sovereignty. To leave the fate of Palestinian prisoners to Israeli goodwill gestures and to rush into meetings with the Israeli Prime Minster and the ministers of war for a handful of dollars or the removal of more than ten checkpoints is ridiculous. These were the results of this summit meeting that took ten months to prepare for."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al Ghait this week. They discussed details of a possible prisoner swap. It is expected that Olmert and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak will meet together at the Red Sea resort of Sharm Al Shiekh soon.
Furthermore, Israeli and Palestinian news sources also reported that Abbas and Fatah movement officials have been having secret "backdoor" meetings with the Israeli government to negotiate on major issues, including the Palestinian right of return, guaranteed by the Geneva Convention, and the removal of illegal settlements from Palestinian territory.
Haniyeh –Abbas meeting expected
During this week President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh received an invitation from King Abdullah of Jordan to meet in Amman in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two leaders of the rival political movements Fatah and Hamas, and to resume talks over a national unity government.
It is expected that this meeting will be held soon after the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha, during which Prime Minister Haniyeh will be on a tour of countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
In a one day visit to Egypt, President Abbas met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss Abbas' earlier meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and internal Palestinian issues. President Abbas said after this meeting that his door is open for talks on a national unity government.
Mustafa Barghouthi, head of the Palestinian national initiative:
Media reports state that a shipment of weapons was transferred through Egypt to the Palestinian Authority Security Forces in the Gaza Strip this week. The Israeli government approved the transfer through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, north of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials denied these reports. There has been no confirmation from either Israeli or Egyptian officials regarding this issue. Fatah has denied that there is a deal of this kind.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced that the Israeli government feels it is possible to hold peace talks with the Palestinians even during the continued exchange of fire.
This week, the Hamas movement denied media reports of an initiative presented by Haniyeh's Political Advisor, Ahmad Yousef, to European and Arab officials, which included a five year ceasefire agreement in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
Attacks on the Gaza strip
Two Palestinian residents of the Al Ziatoun neighborhood in central Gaza City were killed today when their house collapsed after an explosion. Sources identified the victims as Hasan Al Zimili, 23, and Mohmad Al Masri, 24. Three others were injured in this explosion.
Hamdan Barhoum, 24, from the al-Mawasi area in Khan Younis, died of wounds he sustained earlier this month. Barhoum was seriously wounded by shrapnel from live ammunition when Israeli gunboats positioned near the Rafah seashore opened fire at a fishing boat on which Barhoum and two other fishermen were sailing. All the three fishermen were wounded, with Barhoum in serious condition.
The Israeli army closed the Rafah border crossing on Thursday shortly after European monitors declared it would be open for two days. This move came after Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh crossed the border to the Egyptian side while still inside a vehicle instead of on foot, which Israeli authorities said was a violation of the border agreement.
This week the Israeli government approved limited retaliations against homemade shells fired by Palestinian resistance factions in the Gaza Strip on nearby Israeli targets. Two Israelis were injured, one seriously, by homemade shells fired on the Israeli town of Sderot earlier this week.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson, said Israel never respected the ceasefire:
"The resistance factions, including Hamas, reached a partial ceasefire with the Israeli occupation to stop all killings and invasions against our Palestinian people. Since the first day of the ceasefire we recorded more than 150 Israeli violations resulting in killing more than fifteen residents, more than thirty abducted, and at least fifteen demolished homes in addition to ongoing invasions, like in the city of Tulkarem"
Palestinian resistance factions and the Israeli government declared a ceasefire in late November after a five month-long Israeli invasion in the Gaza Strip in which at least four hundred Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians, were killed and thousands were injured.
The invasion occurred after resistance fighters from three Palestinian factions attacked an Israeli military base inside the Gaza Strip and captured an Israeli soldier.
Attacks on the West Bank
The Israeli army invaded several West Bank communities this week and abducted thirty-seven residents, including six children. Three other children were injured after the Israeli army invaded the West Bank town of Qabatiya, southeast of Jenin, and fired live ammunition at the residents of the town.
Despite promises given by the Israeli Prime Minister to President Abbas that a number of roadblocks in the West Bank would be removed, the Israeli army continued to impose restrictions on the movement of Palestinians between these areas. Three residents were abducted by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and roadblocks this week.
Two volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement, from South Africa and Spain, were abducted by the Israeli army while they were accompanying Palestinian schoolchildren from a local school in the old city of Hebron, to protect the children from attacks by Israeli settlers. Israeli soldiers have been deployed in the old city of Hebron to protect the few hundred settlers occupying Palestinian homes there.
Palestinian deaths from Israeli attacks triples
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem released a report on Thursday that said Palestinian deaths from Israeli attacks in the West Bank and Gaza have tripled since the year 2005.
Of these, over half were not participating in any hostile activity at all, says the report, which also condemns the Israeli army for using lethal force against non-combatants, among other human rights abuses. The number of Israeli civilians who died from Palestinian attacks this year dropped by half to only 17 people.
655 Palestinians died this year from Israeli attacks in Palestine. 1,169 Palestinians lost their homes to Israeli house demolitions, and, as of last month, 9,075 Palestinians, including 345 minors, remain in Israeli detention camps. Of these, 738 were being held without trial and without knowing the charges against them.
And that’s just some of the news this week in Palestine. For constant updates, check out our website, imemc.org. Thanks for joining us. From Occupied Bethlehem, this is Jane Smith, Jack Talhami and Ghassan Bannoura.