US President Barack Obama has called for direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians following a meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday. Both leaders used the summit to downplay recent tensions over middle east peace talks.
President Obama praised the Israeli government for easing some restrictions imposed on the Gaza Strip, though on Wednesday, Israel announced that its moves to ease the blockade of Gaza does not include relaxing regulations on Palestiians looking to travel out out of the enclave.
Netanyahu promised 'concrete steps that could be done now - in the coming days, in the coming weeks - to move the peace process further along in a very robust way', though he gave no indication on whether a settlement freeze would be conceded to kick-start peace talks. The Palestinians have cautiously welcomed the remarks but insist that the Israeli government must freeze settlement construction in Jerusalem in order for direct negotiations to resume.
Separately, in a rare high-level meeting earlier this week, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in which the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians in Jerusalem was discussed together with the lifting of the siege of Gaza.
The openSecurity verdict: Settlement construction is at the heart of the ongoing stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians. A 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank ushered in late last year by Netanyahu is set to expire at the end of September, and will no doubt rouse heated emotions and opinions on all sides. A New York Times report published earlier this week found that as the US administration seeks to end 'the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the American Treasury helps sustain the settlements through tax breaks on donations to support them.'
An investigation by the newspaper has identified at least forty American groups who have allegedly 'collected more than $200 million in tax deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.' The revelation will no doubt stoke tensions and alienate Arab public opinion about the role of the US as a neutral and independent mediator in the conflict.
On Monday, the Israeli human rights group B'TSelem published a report titled 'By Hook and By Crook: Israel's Settlement Policy in the West Bank' in which it says that Jewish settlers control more than 42 percent of the occupied West Bank, presenting a serious challenge to any prospect of a Palestinian state and peace in the region. The report alleges that large sections of land have been seized from private Palestinian landowners, in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling. It concludes that 'the settlement enterprise has been characterised, since its inception, by an instrumental, cynical, and even criminal approach to international law, local legislation, Israeli military orders, and Israeli law, which has enabled the continuous pilfering of land from Palestinians in the West Bank.'
In so far as talks between Netanyahu and Obama can facilitate peace, some commentators have said that the public show of confrontation which led to the dwindling of US-Israeli relations earlier this year have yielded little progress. Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank termed the meeting between the two leaders an 'Oil of Olay Summit' - an attempt by the Obama administration to save face. Others have postulated that Obama's reconciliatory tone is an attempt to shore up support from American voters for Democratic candidates in upcoming US Congressional elections.
Whatever the motive, the president downplayed the significance of settlements and, during a meeting with reporters, declined to press Israel in public for a moratorium on settlements. A White House press release defended Israeli policy against criticism, claiming 'that only Israel can determine its security needs'. Criticism was instead directed at Palestinians to not look for 'excuses for incitement' or 'opportunities to embarrass Israel.' This latest meeting has been dubbed an indulgence in empty theatrics, especially since Netanyahu appears to have gotten off easy in Washington, without having to make any real concessions.
British troops to pull out of Sangin
Britain's defence secretary, Liam Fox, announced today that British troops will be pulling out of Sangin, a remote district in Helmand that has been the scene of fierce fighting between NATO soldiers and insurgents. The ex-head of the army, Richard Dannatt, warned that British fatalities could reach 400 as troops begin withdrawing from the area and moving to other parts of Helmand.
Al Jazeera reports that 'most of Helmand province remains deeply insecure, according to a US defence department report released in April. The report also found that persistent insecurity and a lack of basic services have made the population ambivalent or even hostile towards the government in Kabul.' The new strategy in Afghanistan will likely see the US take control of Sangin later this year, allowing British troops to 'concentrate on securing central Afghanistan.'
In a separate development, dozens of Afghan parliamentary candidates have been disqualified from standing by a UN-backed elections watchdog over links to private militias. The Electoral Complaints Commission reportedly removed thirty six names from seventeen provinces over alleged links to armed militias. An estimated 2,500 candidates are standing for the lower house Wolesi Jirga's 249 seats.
US soldier charged with leaking Iraq war video
Bradley E. Manning, an army intelligence analyst who served in Iraq, has been charged with downloading more than 150,000 highly classified diplomatic cables and for leaking a classified video showing a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including a Reuters journalist. The video, which was made public in April by Wikileaks, shows an aerial view of a group of men who are subjected to an attack by a US Apache helicopter in a square in Baghdad.
Manning has been charged with eight violations of US federal criminal law, including unauthorised computer access and for transmitting classified information to unauthorized third parties. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to 52 years.
UK announces torture inquiry
British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled details of an inquiry into claims that UK security services were complicit in the torture of terror suspects yesterday. The decision, which has been welcomed by rights groups, could see the government pay millions of pounds in compensation to detainees who claim they were tortured with the knowledge and complicity of the security services.
The inquiry, led by retired judge Sir Peter Gibson, will look into rendition flights alleged to have been transporting suspects to countries where they were subject to torture and degrading treatment. The Guardian notes, however, that the probe will 'not summon witnesses from foreign countries, such as current or former CIA officers'.
Indian army deployed in Kashmir as violence soars
The Indian army has been deployed in Indian-administered Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, for the first time in nearly two decades on Wednesday. Reports suggest that 'anti-India protests have grown increasingly strident' over the last few weeks with residents accusing the authorities of killing fifteen people in street demonstrations over the course of the past month. A curfew is being enforced in parts of the Kashmir Valley by the army, who has been called in by the state government after three civilians were killed in a police firing yesterday.