Israeli, French leaders tangle over US Jerusalem decision

French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on Sunday. (REUTERS)
Updated 11 December 2017
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Israeli, French leaders tangle over US Jerusalem decision

JERUSALEM: The French and Israeli leaders sparred verbally Sunday over the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while new violence rippled across the region following the move by US President Donald Trump.
In Jerusalem, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard, seriously wounding him in the first attack in the volatile city since Trump’s pronouncement Wednesday. In Beirut, scores of Lebanese and Palestinian demonstrators clashed with security forces outside the heavily guarded US Embassy, and Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo demanded that the United States rescind the decision.
The move upended decades of US policy, and a longstanding international consensus, that the fate of Jerusalem be decided in negotiations. Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city’s eastern sector form the emotional core of their conflict, and Trump’s announcement was seen as siding with the Israelis and has drawn wide international criticism.
At a meeting in Paris with Israel’s visiting prime minister, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned recent violence against Israelis. But he also expressed “disapproval” of Trump’s decision, calling it “dangerous for peace.”
“It doesn’t seem to serve, in the short term, the cause of Israel’s security and the Israelis themselves,” Macron said.
He urged Israel to freeze its construction of settlements on occupied lands and called for other confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called Trump’s decision “historic,” said Israel has maintained its capital in the city for 70 years and the Jewish connection to Jerusalem goes back 3,000 years.
“Paris is the capital of France, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” he said. “We respect your history and your choices. And we know that as friends, you respect ours.”
“I think the sooner the Palestinians come to grips with this reality, the sooner we move toward peace,” he added.
The exchange between the two allies set the stage for what could be a tense meeting Monday for Netanyahu with European Union foreign ministers in Brussels. The Jerusalem issue and the moribund peace process are expected to be high on the agenda.
Last week, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that Trump’s decision “has the potential to send us backward to even darker times than the one we are already living in.”
She also warned that Trump’s “move could diminish the potential role that the United States could play in the region and create more confusion around this.”
The meeting could be a precursor for what seems to be an emerging rift between Israel and the US on one side, and Europe and the Palestinians on the other.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Trump’s decision has in effect disqualified the US from continuing in its role as the traditional mediator of peace talks. The Palestinians have spent recent days trying to rally Arab and broader international opposition to the decision.
After Abbas political adviser Majdi Khaldi said Saturday that the Palestinian leader won’t meet with Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the region this month, a spokeswoman for Pence said Sunday it was “unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region.”
EU leaders, including Macron, have reiterated support for establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Trump has said he would support the idea if both sides endorse it — effectively giving Israel a veto over any peace proposal. Netanyahu’s government is dominated by opponents to Palestinian independence. Trump’s Middle East team, headed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been working for months on a peace plan but has not yet released it.
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the area to its capital in a move that was not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
East Jerusalem is home to Judaism’s most sacred site, as well as key holy places for Christians and Muslims. These conflicting claims have erupted into deadly bloodshed in the past.
A senior US official appealed to world leaders, especially in the Middle East, to calm regional tensions.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield told Arab journalists that Trump’s pronouncement was merely a “recognition of simple reality” that Israel’s government already is in Jerusalem.
He said the US was not prejudging final-status negotiations about the city’s final borders and expressed hope that world leaders understand the US is committed to moving forward with a peace plan he expects to be unveiled in the new year.
“This is a question of choice: Do leaders choose to speak to their peoples, to their regions in terms that reflect reality or in terms that incite or inflame?” he said. “We hope it’s the former.”
The Palestinians staged three “days of rage” after Trump’s dramatic announcement, with clashes breaking out in flashpoints across the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and Gaza militants firing rockets into Israel. Four people in Gaza were killed. In the West Bank, there were dozens of injuries, but no deaths.
There were indications that Sunday’s stabbing at the Jerusalem bus station was motivated by Trump’s move, although police did not officially confirm it.
They said the attacker was a 24-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli media identified him as Yassin Abu Al-Qarah, who posted on his Facebook page in recent days about Jerusalem, saying “our blood is devoted” to the holy city. Comments on his profile called him a hero for the alleged attack.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the guard sustained a serious wound to his upper body and the attacker was apprehended.
Palestinian youths also clashed in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, hurling stones at Israeli soldiers, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas.
In Beirut, Lebanese security forces broke up the protest outside the US Embassy after demonstrators pelted them with stones. After a rowdy start, the protest drew several hundred people and became more peaceful, with demonstrators chanting and singing.
Clashes resumed in the afternoon, with security forces chasing and arresting a handful of protesters and lobbing tear gas. Lebanon is home to 450,000 Palestinian refugees, nearly 10 percent of the population.
In a resolution long on rhetoric but short on concrete actions, Arab foreign ministers demanded the recognition decision be rescinded and urged the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution condemning Trump’s decision. They acknowledged that Washington would most likely veto it.
If the US vetoes such a resolution, the Arabs would seek a similar resolution in the UN General Assembly, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki told a news conference in Cairo.
With few options for the Palestinians, and the Arab world preoccupied by other crises, Arab willingness to press the issue may be limited. In Paris, Netanyahu talked about his quiet but improving relations with Arab countries that look to Israel as an ally against Iran.
“There is in this a blessing, because this could help pave the way to an ultimate peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors and between us and the rest of the Arab world,” he said.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, defended Trump’s move.
“For those who want to say this is a bad idea, I’ll tell you: Ask us five or 10 years from now if you still think it’s a bad idea. Because I really do think this is going to move the ball in the peace process,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”


Normalcy restored in Egyptian Sinai city, but danger lurks

Updated 11 December 2018
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Normalcy restored in Egyptian Sinai city, but danger lurks

  • Authorities are building a wall around the city's airport after militants rocketed a helicopter used by the then defense and interior ministers
  • The pervasive security, and the great lengths to which the military went to protect the journalists, suggest danger may not be far away

EL-ARISH, Egypt: Mohammed Amer Shaaban stood over trays of fresh fish at his tiny store in the coastal Sinai Peninsula city of El-Arish, pointing to his right and left while recalling the tough days when Daesh militants operated with impunity.
"They killed a Christian who owns a knife shop there and an informant over there. They also killed one of my cousins," he said.
"We have enjoyed some stability and peace for the past six or seven months," added the 48-year-old father of five as some two dozen journalists descended on El-Arish's fish market as part of a rare, army-organized trip.
The trip was chiefly designed to show off signs of normalcy in El-Arish, northern Sinai's largest city, as evidence that the military's all-out offensive against militants launched nearly 10 months ago has succeeded.
But in the city and the surrounding deserts, the signs of war are difficult to miss, particularly the enormous security presence. The Associated Press was required to submit the photos and video accompanying this story to Egypt's military censor, which did not say two weeks after submission if or when the material would be released.
The carefully scripted trip included visits to an indoor arena packed with thousands of screaming schoolchildren, a new housing project, a school and a factory. No one is claiming the militants have been defeated, but there have been no major attacks for several months, save a recent ambush of buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a remote desert monastery south of Cairo that left seven dead.
The fight against militants in Sinai has gone on for years, but the insurgency gathered steam after the 2013 ouster by the military of a freely elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have since shut down almost all underground tunnels that they suspected militants used to smuggle fighters and weapons into Sinai from neighboring Gaza, ruled by the Islamist Hamas group since 2007.
They also razed to the ground much of the town of Rafah on the Gaza border in a bid to deny the militants a safe haven and stop its use as cover for tunnels. Elsewhere in northern Sinai, olive orchards have been bulldozed to deny the militants sanctuary.
A brutal militant attack on a Sinai mosque that killed more than 300 worshippers a year ago — the deadliest such attack in Egypt in living memory — prompted general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to order a major offensive.
The operation, with thousands of troops backed by tanks, jet-fighters and warships, got underway in February. Security forces almost completely sealed off northern Sinai, causing shortages of food and fuel. The siege was eased in May, allowing normalcy to gradually return to the mostly desert region, especially in El-Arish.
Barely a year ago, militants in El-Arish killed suspected informants in broad daylight, set up bogus checkpoints, shot Christians in their stores, snatched clerics and members of the security forces to later dump their bodies on the streets. Now traffic is heavy, families are out in public, stores are filled with goods, and school classes are packed with children.
The military is eager to tout the changes.
"Terrorism will be completely defeated in a matter of a few months," announced Mohammed Abdel-Fadeel Shoushah, a retired general who serves as the governor of northern Sinai. "Now we are focusing on development, which is the basis of security."
For now, though, El-Arish shows enduring signs of conflict.
A Pharaonic-style building across the road from the governor's heavily guarded office has almost every one of its windows shattered. Some streets are blocked by sand berms, while others are sealed off by concrete blocks. Unfinished buildings are everywhere in the city, parts of which look deserted. Many of the date palms in the city look like they have received little care for years.
Authorities are building a wall around the city's airport after militants last December rocketed a helicopter used by the then defense and interior ministers while parked on the tarmac. The ministers were unharmed, but one officer was killed in the attack.
Another wall with heavily fortified watch towers is being built on the southern reaches of the city to prevent militants from infiltrating through dense olive orchards.
The pervasive security, and the great lengths to which the military went to protect the journalists, suggest danger may not be far away. The reporters traveled in armored cars with gunners in full combat gear perched atop, and a signal-jamming vehicle tagged along as a precaution against roadside bombs. The top officials in the convoy were protected by heavily armed policemen in black fatigues and ski masks.
In late October, militants twice attacked workers employed by the company building the wall just south of El-Arish, killing at least six and wounding 16. Earlier in November, security forces killed 12 militants hiding in unused buildings in El-Arish.
"Stay put in the vehicle and don't come out and wander around," an armed plainclothes police officer sternly warned reporters during one stop. "It is not as safe as you might think," he said, pointing to the expanse of desert on one side of the road.
The magnitude of the counterterrorism task becomes apparent during the nearly 200-kilometer (125-mile) journey through the desert from the east bank of the Suez Canal to El-Arish.
All along the road are military positions. At some, tanks are buried in the sand for protection with only their turrets showing. Soldiers on watch towers in the middle of nowhere cut forlorn figures against a backdrop of desert. The checkpoints create long lines of vehicles. Helicopters occasionally hover above.
El-Arish resident Hassan Mahdi, a lawyer who came to Sinai from a Nile Delta province as a young boy nearly 30 years ago, said the restored security is a welcome change.
"To be honest, life was very, very difficult here," he said. "Businesses were relocating out of Sinai in search of security and many things were in short supply. Not anymore."