Uri Avnery, who shocked Israel by meeting Yasser Arafat, dies aged 94

Yasser Arafat shakes hands with Uri Avneri in Ramallah in 2002 - 20 years after their famous meeting in Beirut. (Reuters)
Updated 20 August 2018
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Uri Avnery, who shocked Israel by meeting Yasser Arafat, dies aged 94

  • The peace activist dedicated his life to an agreement that included a Palestinian state alongside Israel
  • Tributes pour in for the former Knesset member , who was also an Arab News columnist

LONDON: Uri Avnery, a peace activist who became the first prominent Israeli to meet in public with Yasser Arafat, died on Monday aged 94.

Avnery, who was an Arab News columnist until 2016, met the Palestinian leader in 1982 during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

He crossed into west Beirut from the Israeli-held east to meet Arafat, sparking controversy back home. 

It was the first time Arafat had met with an Israeli, and from this perspective, it could be called a “historic meeting,” Avnery wrote in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in February.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday described Avnery was an “icon of real and permanent peace” in the region, the Palestinian WAFA news agency reported.

“He was one of the first to have strongly endorsed the establishment of the independent Palestinian state and called for ending the Israeli occupation,” Abbas said. 

A backbone of Israel’s peace movement, Avnery never lost hope an agreement could be reached with the Palestinians.

He pushed since the end of the first Arab-Israeli war, for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a means to bring peace.

Writing in Arab News in 2016 about the increasing levels of hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, Avnery said: “I am convinced that it is in the vital interest of Israel to make peace with the Palestinian people, and with the Arab world at large, before this dangerous infection engulfs the entire Arab, and Muslim world.”

Born in September 1923 in Beckum, Germany as Helmut Ostermann, Avnery emigrated to British-mandate Palestine with his family at the age of 10, fleeing Nazism.

Before becoming a prominent peace activist, he was a soldier and even part of a right-wing militia that fought both British and Arab forces.

He had no regrets about belonging to the group. “I fought for the freedom of my people against the British occupiers,” he said. “For the same reasons, I always thought that the Palestinians were entitled to their independence and freedom.”

In 1950, he founded an independent weekly magazine, Haolam Hazeh, which he edited for 40 years.

He started a political movement in 1965 and was elected to Israel’s parliament where he served eight years.

In 1979 he was voted in as part of a different movement and spent two more years in the Knesset before resigning.

His meeting with Arafat took place after he travelled to Lebanon at the invitation of the Israeli military as part of a reporting trip. It lasted about two hours and “dealt entirely with the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people,” he wrote.

It was broadcast the same night on Israeli television and Avnery was questioned by police but faced no charges.

In 2003, during the Palestinian uprising, Avnery traveled with other Israeli activists to Arafat's headquarters in the occupied West Bank, to act as a human shield against what they said were Israeli plans to assassinate Arafat after a Palestinian suicide bombing.

Avnery wrote that working to prevent such an act was “the most patriotic thing” to do at that time since killing Arafat would have been a disaster for Israel.

In Israel, politicians across the political spectrum paid tribute to his work. 

Arab politician Ayman Odeh called him “a dear man who dedicated his life to peace.”

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described him as “a courageous journalist and rare, trailblazing man.”

He maintained “his principles despite attacks and planted in the heart of Israelis ideas of peace and moderation, even when they weren't in the lexicon,” she said.

President Reuven Rivlin said that his fundamental disagreements with Avnery “were diminished in light of the ambition to build a free and strong society here.”

Avnery had been admitted to Ichilov more than a week ago after suffering from a stroke.


With new Egypt capital being built, what becomes of Cairo?

Updated 16 November 2018
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With new Egypt capital being built, what becomes of Cairo?

  • The new capital — a proper name has yet to be found — is the $45 billion brainchild of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi
  • ‘Historical Cairo must remain the political capital of Egypt’

CAIRO: Billboards across Cairo advertise luxury homes with “breathtaking” views in compounds with names like “La Verde” or “Vinci” in Egypt’s new capital that is under construction in the desert, miles from the Nile-side city which has been the seat of power for more than 1,000 years.
Often, what lies behind the billboards are Cairo’s most overcrowded neighborhoods, with shoddily built homes and dirt roads frequently inundated with sewage water.
A city of some 20 million people combining charm and squalor, Cairo may soon witness an exodus by well-heeled residents, state employees and foreign embassies to the New Administrative Capital, as the vast project in the desert is provisionally known. It will be the latest phase in the flight of the rich, many of whom have already moved to gated communities in new suburbs, leaving the old Cairo in neglect and decay.
The new capital — a proper name has yet to be found — is the $45 billion brainchild of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the biggest of the mega-projects he launched since taking office in 2014. He contends the projects, ranging from new roads and housing complexes to a Suez Canal expansion, attract investors and create jobs.
Senior officials boastfully compare what has been built under El-Sisi to monuments like the Giza Pyramids.
“History will do justice to this generation of Egyptians and our grandsons will remember its achievement, a wave of construction unprecedented in modern-day Egypt,” Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly, also the housing minister, proclaimed.
Critics call the new capital a vanity project, arguing its cost could have been better put to rebuilding the wrecked economy and refurbishing Cairo.
They also see it as evidence of El-Sisi’s authoritarianism, launching a multibillion-dollar plan with little debate. El-Sisi often lashes out at those who question him, telling Egyptians to listen only to him and saying he’s answerable to God alone. He often says Egypt’s resources are limited — leading some Egyptians, struggling amid skyrocketing prices, to wonder why so much is spent on questionable projects.
“There is something very wrong with the order of priorities,” said political analyst Hassan Nafaa. “Maybe El-Sisi wants to go down in history as the leader who built the new capital, but if Egyptians don’t see an improvement in their living conditions and services, he will be remembered as the president who destroyed what is left of the middle class.”
The government argues that Cairo is already bursting at the seams and will grow to 40 million by 2050.
The new city is being built on 170,000 acres about 28 miles east of Cairo and nearly twice its size. Construction began in 2016, and the first of its forecast 6.5 million residents are scheduled to move there next year.
The city will house the presidency, Cabinet, parliament and ministries. Planners promise a 21-mile-long public park, an airport, an opera house, a sports complex and 20 skyscrapers, including Africa’s highest, at 345 meters.
Madbouly denied the new city will only attract the well-off, saying it is “for all Egyptians.”
Prices tell a different story. The smallest apartment there — 120 square meters — is expected to cost 1.3 million Egyptian pounds ($73,000), out of reach for a mid-level bureaucrat, who may make the equivalent of about $4,800 a year.
“Those targeted to live in the new capital constitute a very, very limited segment of society,” said Nafaa.
Ironically, the new capital could one day be overwhelmed by the old, as illegal construction expands. That has often been the way Cairo has evolved, with the rich moving out, only to move again as the city swells, adding layer after layer.
“Throughout the history of Cairo, the ruling elite and the rich have failed to completely isolate themselves from the rest of the population,” said novelist Hamdy Abu Golayyel, who authored a book about the city called “Cairo, Streets and Stories.” It will take draconian laws to keep the new city distinct, he said.
No one knows how Cairo will be impacted by a new capital and the shift of the seat of power outside of the city for the first time since the Muslim conquest in the 7th Century.
Many government buildings in Cairo, for example, are palaces and mansions confiscated by the socialist government of the 1950s and 1960s. In theory, they could be renovated and turned into museums or hotels, proponents argue. But then, many such empty architectural treasures are already left to fall apart or even torn down.
The government is renovating some of Cairo’s illegally built neighborhoods. But in one case, it razed a run-down district and moved out residents after compensating them to make way for a high-end district.
Amar Ali Hassan, a sociopolitical expert, believes Cairo’s woes will only deepen.
“It could be neglected, become estranged and left to die a slow death,” he said.
Sameh Abdallah Alayli, an urban planning expert, wrote in the Al-Shorouk newspaper that the idea of a new capital was unacceptable, construction should be halted and the focus put back on overhauling the ancient city.
“Historical Cairo must remain the political capital of Egypt,” he wrote.