|Southwest Asia News Digest
Gaza Conditions Shock U.S. Lawmakers
Jan. 19 (EIRNS)Two U.S. Congressmen visited Gaza on Jan. 19, the first such visit since Hamas took power there after winning the 2006 legislative elections. In a joint statement reported today in Lebanon's Daily Star, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) said that "the amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering." Ellison is quoted: "People, innocent children, women and noncombatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in." Baird said that the situation he saw was "shocking and troubling beyond words." He added, "The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools, of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching."
According to the Daily Star, Ellison and Baird both stressed that their visit did not have the official sanction of the Obama Administration, and that they held talks with civilians and relief workers, while Palestinian officials stressed that they did not meet with any representatives of Hamas. They planned to also tour the Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, which are regularly targeted by the rocket attacks from Gaza.
Fatah and Hamas To Resume Unity Talks in Cairo
Feb. 22 (EIRNS)The Egyptian government has advised leaders of Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas that it is prepared to welcome them to Cairo for a resumption of unity talks, beginning on Feb. 25.
Fatah's spokesman Fahmi Az-Za'arir welcomed the announcement, and stressed that unity is essential, given the "huge challenges faced by the Palestinians." Hamas leader Ayaman Taha stated that Hamas is committed to successful dialogue, although he urged the Palestinian Authority (PA) to release Hamas political prisoners it currently holds in West Bank jails. Wires report that the PA announced it would release 80 Hamas prisoners.
A PA official told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend that the Obama Administration is playing a key role in getting the unity talks started again. "The new administration has a different policy than that of George W. Bush," he said. "The administration of President Barack Obama believes that a Hamas-Fatah government is good for stability."
Obama's special envoy to the Mideast, George Mitchell, will be returning to the region on Feb. 23. Hamas leaders also stated this weekend that the visit by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to the Gaza Strip last week signaled a real change in U.S. policy toward their movement. "The visit is in the right direction," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. "We consider the visit as an indirect step aimed at ending the boycott of Hamas by the Americans and the international community."
Prisoner Exchange: Israel Tries Last-Minute Sabotage
Feb. 18 (EIRNS)Israel imposed last-minute conditions on ceasefire talks with Hamas in Gaza, thus putting off a decision possibly for "weeks," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated. "Even if [captured Israeli soldier Gilad] Shalit's case cannot be resolved while I am in office, the foundations we built will facilitate his release," he said to the Security Cabinet, and repeated it in a tour of Jerusalem.
After meeting with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa in Damascus on Feb. 17, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told reporters, "There can be no truce unless the blockade is lifted and the crossings are opened. The truce issue should not be linked to the issue of prisoner Shalit."
Indeed, for more than a year, the Shalit prisoner exchange negotiations and the ceasefire negotiations have been carried out by completely different teams. There is Gen. Amos Gilad for the Israelis on the Gaza ceasefire, and Ofer Dekel on the prisoner exchange. But, according to Ma'an News Agency (independent Palestinian), Gilad and Olmert are at odds. Ma'an quotes Gilad that Olmert has pursued terms that humiliate the Egyptians, and that Dekel has not even been to Egypt in a long time.
On the Arab side, Meshaal said Hamas would not link Shalit's release with negotiations for a temporary lull. "The truce issue should not be linked to the issue of the Israeli prisoner Shalit," Mashaal said.
AFP quotes Meshaal: "Israel is responsible for blocking Egypt's efforts to broker a truce by adding a new condition at the last minute."
AFP also quotes Mubarak: "Egypt will not change its position on the truce." Shalit's release is "a separate issue that can in no way be linked to the continuous negotiations to reach a cease-fire to end the suffering of the residents of Gaza."
Syrian President: Obama Should Act Now on New Mideast Policy
Feb. 18 (EIRNS)Syrian President Bashar Assad has called on President Barack Obama to move immediately on a new policy for Southwest Asia. He said it is especially important to name an American ambassador to Damascus (there has been none since February 2005), to move on Israeli-Syrian peace efforts, and to begin a dialogue with Iran.
In an interview given to the London Guardian, Assad said, "There is no substitute for the United States" leading any peace effort. Although "betting on the Israeli government is a waste of time," he insisted peace talks will have to resume.
Referring to several Congressional delegations that will be visiting Damascus, he said, "Sending these delegations is important. This number of Congressman coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from themObama, Clinton, and othersis positive." But he added: "We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet." He said he hopes "in principle" to meet Obama.
Three Congressional delegations are visiting Syria this month: 1) a delegation led by Sen. Ben Cardin D-Md.), which met with Assad and other Syrian leaders Feb. 18; 2) a delegation led by Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who is expected to meet Assad later this week; and 3) a delegation led by Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, whose itinerary has not yet been announced.
Assad also said he would welcome a visit to Damascus by U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus, to discuss collaboration over Iraq and other issues.
He urged the U.S. not to wait for the June Presidential elections in Iran before starting a dialogue with that country. "In Iran, there is unity about the main national issues. Forget about the rhetoric. I would say to Obama and the Europeans: Don't waste your time on this. Go and make dialogue. The only way is to go for direct engagement."
Kerry: U.S.-Syria Cooperation Possible
Feb. 21 (EIRNS)Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) came out of his meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad very optimistic about the future of U.S.-Syrian relations. He told reporters at the U.S. Embassy that he was encouraged by his "very long, candid, open" discussion with Assad, and that he sees the possibility of progress ahead, reports the Associated Press. "While we will disagree on some issues, for sure, what I heard and what I will take back with me and hopefully what we could put in place to take advantage of it, is the possibility of real cooperation on a number of different issues beginning immediately, beginning soon."
Assad told Kerry that Syrian-American relations must be based on a correct understanding of the region's issues and common interests. He stressed the necessity of moving away from the policy of dictating that proved ineffective, and that dialogue is the only way to know the truth about the problems and put a comprehensive vision of the solutions based on the history of the region and the rights of its peoples," according to SANA, the official Syrian news agency.
In another signal of the thaw between Washington and Damascus, the State Department announced on Feb. 20 that it has scheduled a meeting with Imad Mustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States. Mustapha is to meet with Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Unemployment Soars in Israel and Turkey
Feb. 18 (EIRNS)In Israel there were a record number of layoffs in January, totalling 19,719, the highest one month total in Israel's history. According to Ha'aretz, there are 276,000 people seeking work. Unemployment for the last 19 months has averaged 12.9%. The demand for workers has also dropped 13.5%.
In Turkey, the daily Zaman reports that unemployment jumped to 12.3% in November 2008, 2.2 percentage points higher than the same month a year before. The situation now can only become more aggravated, following the sharp decline in Turkey's exports.