oPt

OPT: Week in review - Settlers rampage through West Bank

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Jewish settlers in the West Bank have continued to attack Palestinian residents in what is being dubbed a "price tag" policy for their government's decision to freeze settlement construction for a period of 10 months. On December 11, a group of settlers entered the village of Yasouf in the northern West Bank and torched its local mosque. According to media reports and eyewitnesses, the settlers burned prayer rugs, copies of the Quran and a book stand with Islamic texts, leaving racist graffiti on the floor and walls. "Price tag - greetings from Effi" read one. "We will have our revenge" another scrawling read. "We will burn you all."

President Mahmoud Abbas strongly condemned the attack, saying Israel must rein in its settlers. "This is a despicable crime, and the settlers are behaving with brutality," Abbas said.

Israeli officials were quick to condemn the settlers' behavior. "This is an extremist act geared toward harming the government's efforts to advance the political process for the sake of Israel's future," said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Even some settlers themselves claim they are opposed to such acts of vandalism. Chief rabbi of Teqoa, Rabbi Menachem Froman an illegal West Bank settlement from which the settlers are believed to have come, condemned the torching of the mosque. "This is just insanity, blasphemy, an insult to Judaism before Islam," he told the Maan news agency.

The US State Department also denounced the attack. A statement read out that day said, "We condemn this attack in the strongest terms and call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice."

This act of violence comes on the heels of several more throughout the week, as settlers continue to take their anger mainly out on Palestinians. On December 6, settlers raided the village of Einabous and burned down a house, three cars, two tractors and a harvest of wheat and hay.

From the looks of it, settlers really don't have anything to worry about in terms of this so-called freeze. On December 10, Likud Minister Beni Begin said construction in the settlements would continue despite the decision to freeze new projects, explaining that the 10-month freeze period would see an increase of 10,000 settlers. According to a report issued by Peace Now that same day, 3,492 settlement units are expected to go up during the freeze period. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu intends to allocate $28 million to support the settlers in the West Bank settlements.

Netanyahu's settlement freeze doesn't include east Jerusalem, which was the scene of other clashes, this time with left-wing Israelis. On December 11, a group of left wing Israelis protested the settler takeover of Al Kurd family home in Sheikh Jarrah, resulting in clashes with Israeli police. According to Israeli sources, six police were injured and 21 activists were arrested. The left wingers came to protest the eviction of the Kurd family from their home by Jewish settlers earlier in the year upon an Israel high court order giving settlers the right to live in the house. The protesters tried to enter the house but were deterred by Israeli police.

In other news, the European Union's council of foreign ministers endorsed a modified statement on December 8 of the original draft position by the EU's rotating president, Sweden. The statement called for "the urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead, within an agreed time-frame, to a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." Among other points, the Council also reiterated that "it has never recognized the annexation of East Jerusalem. If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states."

While the position was fairly balanced, it was a watered down version of the Swedish proposal, which explicitly called for east Jerusalem to be named the capital of the future Palestinian state, thus endorsing a divided city. A barrage of pressure ensued on the EU from Israel mostly not to pass the statement. From Europe, France in particular, sided with Israel in saying that the status of Jerusalem should be negotiated between the parties with the Palestinians putting direct blame on its foreign minister Bernard Kouchner for the modified statement.

"Everyone knows that the Swedish draft was good because it clarified the position on east Jerusalem,' said President Abbas. "But the final document was vague. It is still important but it certainly is not at the level of the draft presented by Sweden."

The United States also chimed in about their position on the statement. "Our position on Jerusalem is clear. United States policy remains unaffected and unchanged: As has been stated by every previous administration which addressed this issue, the status of Jerusalem, and all other permanent status issues, must be resolved by the parties through negotiations," a state department statement read.

Meanwhile, on December 8, Egypt announced it had begun the construction of a steel wall on its border with the Gaza Strip, ostensibly to halt smuggling from the underground tunnels. The wall is expected to be nine to 10 kilometers long and will go 20 to 30 meters into the ground, according to Egyptian sources. The endeavor is reportedly being carried out with the help of American engineers, who designed the wall.

Also in Gaza, it looks as though captured Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit will not be going home for Hanukkah. While reports this week indicated that a prisoner swap was imminent, talks broke down once again, ostensibly because the two sides could not agree on the final handful of prisoners to be released. According to an unnamed Hamas official on December 11, Israel is still refusing to comply with Hamas' demands regarding 100 of the 450 prisoners slated for release.

Also in Gaza, swine flu seems to be spreading like wildfire. So far, in the span of two weeks, seven people have died of the virus and dozens more have been diagnosed with it. Also in Gaza, on December 12, 47-year old Sami Abu Khousa was shot and killed by Israeli artillery fire in the central Gaza Strip. An armed clash between Palestinian fighters and the Israeli army was reportedly taking place at the time of Abu Khousa's death.

Finally, on December 10, Israel expressed its outrage over a British government announcement to issue an official recommendation to its business owners to clearly mark Israeli products coming out of West Bank settlements so consumers can make an informed decision to boycott these products or not.

While the government pointed to the fact that the recommendation is not binding, Israeli officials were still outraged. "This is a capitulation of the British government to the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian organizations," said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yossi Levy. "This only harms the Middle East peace process, and will hinder Israel's and the world's efforts to renew the diplomatic process at such a critical stage, and that is doubly disappointing."