In a sign that negotiations on an Isralei prisoner exchange for captive soldier Gilad Schalit
were moving forward, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh canceled a trip to Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrammage at the
last minute on Tuesday.
Anticipation that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners might soon be released in a deal with Israel was so high in Gaza that Hanieyh had been asked to remain in the Gaza Strip
to greet the prisoners, said a Hamas legislator in Gaza City.
Meanwhile, Hamas representatives flew to Damascus on Tuesday to consult with their leadership after holding talks in Cairo with German and Egyptian mediators.
The representatives, Mahmoud Zahar, Khalil al-Haya and Nizar Awadallah are scheduled to return to Cairo later this week for more meetings with the mediators.
In Damascus on Tuesday, Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal said Israel still had reservations over releasing some prisoners sought by Hamas who had "long prison terms."
"If Israel reacts with flexibility it will end soon, or it will be postponed indefinitely," he said. "During the next few days the picture will become clear."
Captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
A day before convening the security cabinet for its weekly meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued to tone down expectations that an agreement was immanent.
"There is no deal as of yet, and I do not know if there will be one," he told reporters Tuesday. "But one thing I can tell you is that it will first to go to the cabinet for approval."
From Cairo to Jerusalem, Arab, Israeli and foreign officials weighed in on the matter, with statements that both raised and dampened public hope that Schalit would be freed after 1,248 days in captivity.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said he hoped that Schalit would return home soon.
"As the commander of the military and as the one who sent Gilad Schalit, I will make every effort to complete our mission to return Gilad home," Ashkenazi said during a tour of the South.
"We do everything we can to return soldiers from their missions. Unfortunately, soldiers get wounded and killed but the IDF does not leave wounded behind."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told new recruits at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center that Israel is responsible for retrieving Schalit.
"We have a deep responsibility - ethical and as commanders - to bring Gilad home in every possible and appropriate way," he said.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) told Army Radio from Turkey, "I'm very happy that this deal is heading to its conclusion very soon. Are we closer than ever? My answer is definitely affirmative."
Egyptian officials said that a deal was close, but was unlikely to be sealed in the next few days, whereas Hamas spokesmen Ayman Taha and Sami Abu Zuhri expressed cautious optimism about the prospects of reaching a deal in the coming days.
However, the two said it was early to talk about a major breakthrough in the mediation efforts.
Hamas has instructed its leaders and spokesmen to refrain from making public comments about the secret negotiations.
As Hamas representatives headed to Damascus, the Egyptians and Germans have, meanwhile, briefed the Palestinian Authority leadership on the recent progress in their mediation efforts.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is visiting the region met in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and in Ramallah on Tuesday with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Westerwelle, whose countryman Ernst Urlau has played a key mediating role in the trying to put together an agreement, would not discuss the matter when he met with journalists.
He said that while he hoped an agreement would be soon in the offing, premature discussion could jeopardize any deal.
He did, however, talk privately with Fayyad about the deal.
Egyptian Intelligence Chief Gen. Suleiman phoned senior PA officials and also briefed them on the details of the agreement.
The PA leadership is worried that a prisoner exchange accord would bolster Hamas¹s standing among Palestinians.
PA officials have in the past few days stepped up their rhetorical attacks on Hamas, particularly in light of reports that the movement has agreed to stop firing rockets at Israel.
The officials, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas, have also accused Hamas of conducting clandestine talks with Israel.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official who also serves as an advisor to Abbas, said that Hamas was prepared to ally itself with the devil to achieve its goal of undermining the PA.
He accused Hamas of adopting a hypocritical approach by talking about the need to continue the resistance against Israel while, at the same time, it was holding secret talks with Israelis and agreeing to stop rocket and missile attacks.
A senior Fatah operative in Ramallah voiced concern that the release of several hundred Palestinians from Israeli jails would boost Hamas¹s popularity at the expense of the PA.
"It would be very embarrassing for the Palestinian leadership if Hamas manages to free a large number of prisoners in return for the soldier," the official told The Jerusalem Post
. "I'm not sure our leaders will be happy."
Fayyad described all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails as heroes and called for their immediate release.
Addressing a conference on Palestinian prisoners, Fayyad did not make any mention of the reports regarding an imminent prisoner swap deal.
"To our heroic prisoners I say, the day of freedom is near" he said. "Your freedom is part of the freedom of the homeland and people."
Fayyad also saluted Amneh Muna, a female prisoner from Fatah who is serving a life sentence for her role in the abduction and murder of 16-year-old Ofir Rahum at the beginning of the second intifada.
His government, Fayyad said, was now seeking to rally support for international recognition of the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails as prisoners of war.
He sent his greetings to Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison and Ahmed Sa'dat, Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was charged with masterminding the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001.
It's unclear if Barghouti and Sa'dat are on the list of prisoners due to be released.
Barghouti's wife on Tusday told Channel 2 she hoped her husband would be home by next week.
She added she wanted to see a "fair deal" which would also see imprisoned Palestinian women and children released.
On Tuesday, three bereaved parents filed a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that the government release the full name of the more than 1,000 prisoners that are due to be swapped for Schalit.
It expected that in the first stage of the deal, Schalit would be transferred from Gaza to Egypt, while Israel frees 450 prisoners including those who have killed Israelis.
In the second stage he would be brought back to Israel and more than 550 more prisoners, charged with low level offenses, would then be freed.
It expected that the cabinet would approve the deal, but some ministers have been cagy about their position.
At a joint press conference with Westerwelle, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
said needed to see all the details before taking a stand.
"I will be able to deal with the issue when I know what is on the table," he said.
Herb Keinon, AP and Jpost.com staff contributed to this report
Israel still wants own systems in F35
Israel will continue to demand that its own electronic-warfare systems be integrated into the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) fifth-generation stealth fighter jet
, senior defense officials said Tuesday, amid US news reports that the Pentagon would not allow the installation of an Israeli EW system in the plane.
On Tuesday, Jon Schreiber, the Pentagon official in charge of the JSF - also known as the F-35 - told Reuters that for now, the US did not plan on allowing Israel to put in its own EW system.
On the other hand, Schreiber, who met last week with an Israeli procurement team in New York, said that the US would allow the Israel Air Force
to integrate Israeli precision guidance bombs, such as the Spice - made by Rafael Systems Ltd. - into the jet.
"Sometime in the future, if policy changes, or things change, that could change as well," Schreiber said regarding the integration of Israeli EW systems.
The refusal to let Israel to integrate the systems into the plane would be a bad break for the IAF, which in previous purchases of aircraft, including the F-15 and F-16, had been allowed to incorporate such technology.
"Our demands have never changed - to be allowed to integrate special munitions, communications and radar and EW," a senior defense official said. "This is the same with regard to the JSF."
In January, the US will submit to Israel its offer and the final price of the plane, estimated to reach at least $130 million. Israel will need to respond by March and sign a contract within the year in order to begin receiving the plane by 2015.
The F-35 will be one of the most advanced fighter jets in the world and will enable Israel to phase out some of its older F-15 and F-16 models.
According to the IAF, the plane - manufactured by Lockheed Martin
- will significantly boost Israel's deterrence in the Middle East and provide it with an edge over adversaries that operate advanced anti-aircraft systems, since it cannot be detected by existing radars.
Egyptian banks sue Israel over King David Hotel
Two Egyptian banks have petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to hear a case in which they claim Israel stole their shares in a luxury
Jerusalem hotel after the founding of the Jewish state.
The King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimksi
Arab Land Bank and the National Bank of Egypt, owned by the Egyptian government, are seeking damages over shares they purchased during the 1930s in the King David, Jerusalem's most famous hotel.
The banks claim that their shares in the hotel, originally purchased during the 1930s, were taken from them following the 1948 War of Independence between the newly declared Israeli state and its Arab neighbors.
Beginning their lawsuit in 2007 after the Egyptian government returned the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria
, Egypt to its Jewish owners, the Egyptian banks are believed to be claiming $78 million, including decades of unpaid interest.
The story begins in 1929, when Jewish Egyptian banker Albert Mosseri, then the director of the National Bank of Egypt, financed almost half of the construction of Palestine Hotels, built on Julian's Way in Jerusalem. The bank claims to have purchased another 693 shares of Palestine Hotels between 1934 and 1943.
Following the 1948 war, Palestine Hotels was renamed the King David Hotel and Julian's Way became King David Street. Mosseri sold all his personal shares in the hotel but the bank held onto its shares until Israel's Absentee Property Custodian seized them in 1958 after the bank was declared an 'absentee' party.
The move took place in the context of a series of Israeli laws passed in the early 1950s to formalize state ownership over what was termed "absentee" land and property, mostly referring to somewhere between 500,000 and 4.1 million acres (2,000 to 16,500 square kilometers) of land abandoned or confiscated during the 1948 war.
Israel's Absentee Property Custodian sold the King David shares to private Israeli companies in 1993.
But the banks claim that according to international law the Israeli Absentee Property Custodian should have returned their shares in the King David.
"The shares were bought by the banks in 1929 and the 1930s before the State of Israel was established," Ahmad Al Arousi, the Palestine branch manager of Egyptian Arab Land Bank told The Media Line. "In 2007 they found the shares in one of the safes."
"Frankly speaking you can say that they didn't know they had it," he said. "When they found the stocks for the King David they got in touch with a lawyer in Israel and he took over the case."
Ran Rahav, a spokesperson for the Dan Hotel Corporation, which runs the King David, said the hotel itself was not involved in the case.
"Dan Hotels is not involved in this matter and takes no side," Rahav told The Media Line.
Israel's Finance Ministry also refused to comment on the petition.
"This case is being dealt with in the Justice system," Shlomi Shefer, spokesperson for the ministry told The Media Line. "Until the process is completed we are not going to comment on the case."
A spokesperson for the Israeli Justice Ministry said the case was civil and being handled by the Israeli Courts Administration.
Israeli Courts Administration officials claimed they could not find a record of the case, despite news of it appearing in Israeli press on Monday.
Officials involved in Israeli 'Absentee' property issues said the Egyptian banks were unlikely to see success.
"In some cases people claim that they are not supposed to be included in the absentee property laws and they sue the state," said Tuvi Peri, Director of Planning and Valuation at the Jewish National Fund, which was gifted large tracts of land by the Israeli government
following the 1948 war. "They never get the property back but they get some money."
"I think it's a really interesting case but I don't think they will get anything in the end," Peri told The Media Line. "Unless it becomes a political question and the State of Israel tries to avoid a conflict with Egypt, I imagine that it will be rejected."
"I don't think that the absentee property laws mention nationality," he added. "They speaks about people who were absent at the time of the war. I don't want to seem naive - of course it was all about Palestinians - but I don't think it says the word Palestinian or Arab."
But Dr. Emad Gad, Director of the Israel research unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt, argued that the choice of Egyptian banks to use an Israeli court is much more significant than the claim itself.
"The claim itself is huge and complicated, but I see all this as a positive sign in Egyptian - Israeli relations," Gad told The Media Line. "You have to remember that any contact with any Israeli institution is seen as part of a process of normalization, which is a bad word in Egypt."
"I know that they have received permission from the Egyptian government and they are using official channels to deal with a problem rather than launching a media campaign to pressure Israel," he said. "So what is significant here is not the claim, but the fact that they are approaching an Israeli institution. It's a sign that they respect the Israeli legal system and a positive step towards dealing with Israel as a normal state in the region."
Jordanian forces pitch in to help Saudis expel Yemeni rebels
From DEBKA-Net-Weekly 422 Exclusive
November 24, 2009, 11:17 PM (GMT+02:00)
Jordanian elite force faces Iran-backed Yemeni rebels
In response to an appeal from the Saudi King Abdullah, the Jordanian monarch this week dispatched his army's elite Royal Special Force of 2,000 commandoes to help the Saudis drive out the Yemeni Houthi rebels, who invaded the oil kingdom with Iranian support earlier this month. DEBKAfile's military sources report that the Jordanian troops are now battling the Yemeni invaders holding onto the Jebel Dukhan sector, which is split between the southern Saudi Jizan region and northern Yemen.
Day after day, Saudi troops backed by artillery, marines, tanks, engineers and air force F-15 and Tornado warplanes, together with the Yemeni army, have been fighting to dislodge the intruders from the rugged mountains which rise 6,600 ft high over a desolate landscape with no roads. They were repeatedly beaten off. The Yemeni rebels have sowed the narrow mountain passes with thousands of improved explosive devices.
In the early hours of their engagement, the Jordanian troops also took dead and wounded. It was their first experience of combat outside the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom since the 1960s, certainly the first time they had encountered Iranian-backed fighters.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly disclosed that Hashemite King Abdullah II sent this crack troops across in response to an urgent phone call Saudi King Abdullah put through on Nov. 16, appealing for Jordanian military back-up to support the Saudi effort to purge its southern border of the Yemeni rebel intrusion. An broader inter-Arab dimension was thus added to the Yemeni civil war.
Israeli ambulances need police escort in Jerusalem
Three local human rights groups were up in arms this week over a new directive preventing Israeli ambulances from entering Arab-dominated neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem without a police escort.
The three groups - Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights - sent a letter to Israel's Health Ministry and the Jerusalem Police Department insisting that the directive is a violation of human rights. They also claimed that patient privacy was being violated by having police officers accompany medical crew.
The letter cited several instances where ambulances waited on the outskirts of Arab neighborhoods for long periods of time, often resulting in the worsening of the patient's condition before a police escort arrived. In other cases, police refused to provide an escort at all, citing danger to their forces.
The new directive was put in place in response to regular Arab attacks on Jewish ambulance crews. Often ambulances are called to treat the wounded resulting from a family feud, which are common in Arab communities. Agitated combatants quickly bring the Israelis into the conflict. Other times, the ambulance crews are attacked simply for being Jews.
Abbas: Obama doing nothing for peace
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
on Tuesday accused US President Barack Obama of doing "nothing" to achieve peace in the Middle East. Speaking to Argentinian newspaper Clarin
, Abbas said he hoped that Obama would "take a more important role in the future."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez
He went on to say that the Palestinian people were awaiting US pressure on Israel, "so that it respects international law and takes up the Road Map," stressing that the peace process could not be restarted without a halt to settlement construction.
When asked what he was willing to concede for peace, Abbas told Clarin
that the Palestinian people had "already made concessions."
He opined that the current government, with Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister and Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, "is not seeking peace," though he said that 73 percent of Israelis were in favor of peace.
In terms of internal Palestinian rifts, Abbas said that elections were the best way to bring about unity.
During a press conference with Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, Abbas urged Obama and other Israeli allies to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction.
For her part, Fernandez said that Israel and the United States
should do more to push for peace in the Middle East.
AP contributed to this rep