Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered Israeli security forces to close down parts of the occupied West Bank on Friday, following reports that there would be further Palestinian protests at the Al-Aqsa mosque after prayers. Additional forces are likely to be deployed to the Temple Mount as an additional precaution. Last week, Israeli forces confronted dozens of Palestinian protesters around the site after they began to throwing stones. Tensions have been high since the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to classify two religious sites in the occupied West Bank as Israeli heritage sites.
The move came a day after Vice President Joe Biden called for a prompt resumption of talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. At this point it is uncertain whether Mahmoud Abbas, President of the PA, will participate in talks scheduled to be held next week. In the wake of Israel’s announcement that 1,600 new housing units are to be constructed in East Jerusalem, the secretary general of the Arab League, Amir Moussa, stated that Abbas had pulled out of the talks.
But both the Israelis and the Americans seem confident that the talks will go ahead, with PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US state department, saying that ‘we’ve heard nothing to indicate that they’ve pulled out’ and Netanyahu stating that ‘the crisis is behind us’. It was reported that late on Thursday, Abbas was urging the US to put more pressure on Israel to cease the construction of the proposed settler housing, while at the same time being strongly encouraged by both Biden and the US middle east envoy, George Mitchell, not to abandon the talks. Biden is reported to have told Abbas that Washington would disapprove of any delay in the talks.
The openSecurity verdict: US diplomacy in this latest debacle has been the subject of scathing criticism. Akiva Eldar, of Ha’aretz, highlighted the fact that a great deal of US anger over the decision to announce the increase in settlement housing relates to little more than its timing. Biden has lauded the fact that Netanyahu, in an apparent concession, said that the construction in Ramat Shlomo would not begin for several years. This constitutes nothing less than a green light for further settlement construction.
As to Netanyahu’s guarantees that there would be ‘no recurrence’ of the incident, it is difficult to avoid concluding that what he meant was that such announcements of settlement activity will continue, but that the Planning and Building Committee will have the common sense not to make them during a high profile visit of a senior US official. The emphasis remains on PR, on style over substance. Regarding next week’s talks, the US has supported Israeli demands that security tops the agenda, while the Palestinians wish to discuss borders, an issue that would include East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu is a seasoned political infighter who cannot afford to make concessions regarding settlement activity and long remain head of a coalition government that includes such ultra-right factions as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. He has calculated, seemingly astutely in light of Biden’s visit, that the US will do little more than verbally chastise Israel, appealing for concessions. Biden’s voyage has been torpedoed by the housing announcement, and he returns to Washington with the fate of the much feted ‘proximity talks’ hanging in the balance, after the Arab League withdrew its recommendation that Abbas attend. Nevertheless, in his Tel Aviv speech, the vice president dutifully announced that the US ‘has no closer friend than Israel.’
The PLO is left with an unenviable choice. If Abbas attends, it will further erode his already moribund credibility with Palestinians, as well as with the wider Arab world. It will leave him open to accusations from within his own party and from Hamas, the political party that controls the Gaza strip, that he is a collaborator with the US and Israel. If he does not, then Netanyahu’s claims that Israel has ‘no partner for peace’ will gain credibility and acceptance, and the US may further relinquish whatever constraints upon the Israeli cabinet it still exerts. With religious tensions rising around the al-Aqsa mosque, the place where the Second Intifada began, there is now a very real prospect of renewed conflict.
Security crackdown in Thailand ahead of mass protest
On Friday, the Thai government was bracing itself for potential clashes as protesters around the country began mobilising for a rally in Bangkok. The protesters are led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, popularly known as the ‘Red Shirts’. Their aim is to mobilise as many as 600,000 people in a protest, due to be held on Sunday, in the hope of forcing the government to hold fresh elections.
In response, the government has said that 30,000 security officials will be deployed with an additional 46,000 civilian defence ‘volunteers’ in reserve. The ‘Red Shirts’ comprise supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in the 2006 by the coup that brought Abhisit Vejjajiva to power.
UN Special Rapporteur calls for human rights investigation in Burma
On Thursday, Tomas Ojea Qintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, submitted a draft report to the UN human rights council in which he heavily criticised ‘a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses’ in the country. Noting that this abuse had been on-going for years, he claimed that violations of human rights might be so severe as to ‘entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes’. Qintana recommended that a commission be established by the security council to investigate whether international law had been breached.
The report was submitted on the same day that the Burmese military junta published a number of additional election laws. These restrict the ability of opposition parties to run in the forthcoming elections and establish as a government prerogative the ability to annul or prevent voting in any given geographical location for ‘security reasons.’ One impact of the new laws has been to effectively prevent imprisoned human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters from standing.
Although the report has been hailed by human rights organisations as a major step forward, there is little confidence that it will lead to increased pressure on the military regime from the United States. President Obama has pursued a policy of engagement with Burma since coming to power and it seems unlikely that he will alter this stance. Washington is motivated by concerns that pressure may lead to greater co-operation between Burma and North Korea, possibly resulting in the transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Burma.
Gambia detainees ‘do not know why they are being held’
A Gambian opposition leader has criticised a wave of arrests carried out in recent days, saying that the detainees, which include the former fisheries minister, do not know why they are being held. Haifa Sallah, a member of the national alliance for democracy and development, said that the detainees have been forbidden access to lawyers and members of their family.
This is the latest controversy in the career of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power following a coup in 1994. As well as curtailing press freedom and arresting opposition figures, Jammeh has threatened to kill homosexuals and has repeatedly expelled senior international development officials. The head of UNICEF was thrown out of the country last month and, in a 2007 incident, the head of the UNDP was asked to leave the Gambia for doubting Jammeh’s claim that he could cure HIV/AIDs with traditional herbal remedies.
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