|Southwest Asia News Digest
Assad Speaks on Withdrawing Syrian Troops from Lebanon
Speaking before the Syrian Parliament on March 5, President Bashar al-Assad announced that he will soon meet with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to approve a plan to withdraw troops. A full official translation is not yet available, but wire reports immediately following the speech are summarized here.
"We will not stay one day if there was Lebanese consensus on the departure of Syria.... we don't want to stay in Lebanon," reported Ha'aretz March 5. "We will pull all our forces in Lebanon to the Bekaa area and from there to the Syrian-Lebanese border," Assad said, according to Reuters, and noted that this would fulfill the commitment under the Taif agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war, and also fulfills UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Assad also stressed that Syria "is ready to resume negotiations [with Israel] with preconditions," but that "peace in our region will never be achieved unless our land that is occupied is returned to us." Syria's Golan Heights has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war, as are the Palestinian territories.
Israel Launches Anti-Syria Propaganda Campaign
In close coordination with the Bush Administration's drive to use the Lebanese crisis for a war on Syria (see this week's InDepth) Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom launched an intense anti-Syria propaganda campaign on Feb. 28, targetting the U.S. and Europe. On Feb. 28, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Gen. Aharon Ze'evi Farkash and senior officials from the Foreign Ministry briefed European diplomats in Jerusalem, accusing Syria of involvement in the most recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
Syrian President Assad has categorically denied Syrian involvement in the Feb. 25 terrorist incident, but Yossi Kuperwasser, the head of Israeli military intelligence's research division, insists that Israel has proof. A team of Israeli Defense and Foreign Ministry officials were to travel to London, Paris, and Washington as part of this anti-Syria campaign.
As soon as Israeli intelligence made these assertions, which center around the presence of an office of Islamic Jihad in Damascus, top Bush Administration officials, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, began accusing Syria as well. In a March 2 interview with ABC news, Rice said that "we have firm evidence" that the Tel Aviv attack originated in Syria.
In denying that Syria was the source of the attack, Syrian officials have revealed that Syrian intelligence and security agencies block all communications between Damascus and Israel/Palestine, and monitor the presence of the militant Palestinians closely.
Top Israelis Arrested for Stealing Palestinian Properties
Israeli police have arrested five people accused of fraudulently selling Palestinian land on the occupied West Bank, reported Ha'aretz on Feb. 28. Those arrested are Haim Cohen, former chief executive of a company called Himnuta; Lt. Col. Yair Blumenthal, head of the Civil Administration's infrastructure department, the official Israeli occupying authority in the West Bank and part of the Israeli military; brothers Yosef and Yaakov Amram, who are Jersualem-based businessman; and their lawyer, Eitan Tzachi. The five are accused of forging documents, illegal land dealing, and aggravated fraud. They were selling land stolen from Palestinians worth $5 million to Himnuta, which is the private subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, which buys and sells land in Israel.
The JNF receives money from the government to buy land. It uses Himnuta, which is private, to buy land in the occupied territories because the JNF is forbidden to do so. The stolen lands were located near the Jewish settlements of Hebron, Gush Etzion, Jericho, Ma'aleh Adumim, and Givat Ze'ev, which are among the lands to be returned to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords.
Cohen is accused of buying the land for Himnuta, knowing that it was stolen. Blumenthal, in turn, approved the sales, also with the knowledge that the lands were stolen. He is suspected of having been bribed, as well as being an ally of the radical settlers, and he has used his professional position to set up illegal outposts and expansion of settlements. The Amrams are accused of buying the land from Palestinian accomplices, knowing the land was stolen, and selling it at inflated price to Himnuta.
Three Palestinian accomplices were arrested last week, and at least another 19 lawyers will be arrested soon, according to the police.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, the network that has just been arrested, is part of a decades-old Israeli land-grabbing infrastructure that was set up by Ariel Sharon and the Likud. This is the way the Israeli government organizes the land grab, in order to mask its own involvement. The source of the money is ultimately the government. Haim Cohen is a Likud member, and until two months ago, was deputy chairman of the Jewish National Fund. Just prior to his arrest, he had been named chairman of the European branch of the JNF.
The arrests also represent part of ongoing fight within the Israeli military-security establishment, between those who want Sharon's Berlin Wall of the Middle East to be built along the 1967 borders and not deep into Palestinian territory, against those who want to grab more of the Palestinian Authority land. These latest arrests, according to sources, were the result of a criminal investigation ordered by the Director of the Civil Administration Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz. Only two weeks ago Paz received a death-threat letter, threatening him with "death by the hand of God," and accusing him of being a "leftist." The settlers have been harassing Paz since he took command of the Civil Administration.
Mayor of London: 'Sharon Is a War Criminal'
Ken Livingston, the Mayor of London, penned a hard-hitting piece in the March 4 issue of the Guardian, calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal. The piece was written in response to a statement by the Board of Deputies, which represents the British Jewish community, demanding he publicly apologize for telling a journalist that Sharon was acting like a concentration camp guard. According to some at the Board of Deputies these statements where "insensitive," and somehow "anti-Jewish." Livingston, who is neither, strongly defends himself by declaring that the real issue is his criticism of the role of the current government of Israel.
"The fundamental issue on which we differ ... is not anti-semitisimwhich my administration has fought tooth and nailbut the policies of successive Israeli governments.
"To avoid manufactured misunderstandings: The policies of Israeli governments are not analogous to Naziism. They do not aim at the systematic extermination of the Palestinian people....
"Israel's expansion has included ethnic cleansing. Palestinians who had lived in that land for centuries were driven out by systematic violence and terror aimed at ethnically cleansing what became a large part of the Israeli state. The methods of groups like the Irgun and the Stern gang were the same as those of the Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic: to drive out people by terror.
"Today the Israeli government continues seizures of Palestinian land for settlements, military incursions into surrounding countries, and denial of the right of Palestinians expelled by terror to return. Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, is a war criminal who should be in prison, not in office. Israel's own Kahan commission found that Sharon shared responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Sharon continues to organize terror...."
Livingston added, "All racist and antisemitic attacks must be stamped out. However, the reality is that the great bulk of racist attacks in Europe today are on black people, Asians, and Muslimsand they are the primary targets of the extreme right. For 20 years the Israeli governments have attempted to portray anyone who forcefully criticizes the policies of Israel as anti-semitic."
Israeli Child Poverty Among Highest in Industrial Countries
In a dramatic account on March 1, the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz reported that poverty among Israeli children is among the highest in countries considered industrialized. Using data from the Israeli National Insurance Institute and the same methodology as that employed by UNICEF, poverty among Israeli children stands at 30.8%. This compares with a rate of 21.9% in the U.S., and 27.7% in Mexico, or 2.4% in Denmark.
The rate of the growth of child poverty in Israel is dramatic. Between 1990 and 2000, child poverty increased by 15%. This compares with Poland, whose growth in child poverty was among the highest in Europe, at 4.3% for the same period.
Yitzhak Kadman, the director of Israel's National Council for the Child, said that these figures demonstrate "how far Israel is from the advanced world and from economies that have managed, alongside a free and booming economy, to maintain an enlightened and progressive welfare policy that preserves a low rate of poor children." He went on to say that Israel "may not be worthy of being included among developed countries."
The figures are a direct reflection of the radical-liberal economic policies that have been introduced into Israel since the 1980s by George Shultz's economic hitmen: Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Stanley Fischer, recently named governor of the Bank of Israel.