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Qatari tensions rise over press freedom

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Qatari tensions rise over press freedom

By Robin Wigglesworth in Doha

Published: April 7 2009 00:33 | Last updated: April 7 2009 00:33

Qatar is not known for political spats and controversy but a publicly aired argument between the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and its political sponsors has recently livened up the peninsula.

On the eve of last month’s opening of the Qatar Science and Technology Park – a flagship royally sponsored project – the centre sent an incendiary open letter to its sponsor, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the wife of the emir.

In the missive, the centre lambasted the authorities for failing to issue a visa to an Afghan journalist before he was killed in the war-torn country. It blamed “people close” to Sheikha Mozah for doing their utmost to “disrupt our efforts, trying by all possible means to restrict our independence and our freedom to speak and act, and therefore our credibility”.

The letter highlighted the escalating tension between the centre – founded by Robert Ménard, formerly of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders – and its paymasters over the state of the country’s media. Qatar’s perceived lethargy in reforming and modernising its 1979 press laws and improving conditions for its domestic journalists has been the main bone of contention.

Qatar has been praised for its financial and political support of al-Jazeera, the television news network that has covered controversial regional affairs, and the Doha Debates, a frank and uncensored discussion of Arab and Muslim affairs.

Yet the relative freedom of al-Jazeera and the Doha Debates stand in sharp contrast to the continued system of direct and indirect censorship of the domestic media industry, say local journalists.

“It’s right to distinguish between the local and international media,” says a senior journalist based in Doha. “They want to project Qatar to the world but the local press isn’t nearly as free as the international media.”

Qatari press laws stipulate prison sentences for a host of offences, including criticising religion, the army and the royal family. Most companies are directly or indirectly linked to the government, Qatari royalty or a powerful family, and can exert huge pressure on media outlets to stick to positive news.

On an individual level, journalists are pressured into self-censorship. Most are expatriates and their employers hold on to their passports, with many called in for questioning by the police when they displease the authorities or powerful private interests.

In sum, it amounts to an informal but effective form of censorship, says Mr Ménard. “It’s practically impossible to criticise government policy … The Qatari press law is both obsolete and repressive,” he says.

Qatari journalists are not the only ones in the Gulf labouring under archaic laws. The United Arab Emirates mandates prison sentences for “harming” the economy, and a new draft law, which has yet to be signed by the UAE president, abolishes prison terms but maintains stiff fines.

In Saudi Arabia, the threat of prison sentences and a tight leash on media proprietors ensures pervasive self-censorship by journalists.

With the exception of Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt, US-based think-tank Freedom House ranks the media in every country in the Middle East and north Africa as “not free”.

In Qatar, even al-Jazeera is not as free as it likes to portray it is, says Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, editor in chief of the Al-Arab newspaper and a former employee of the network. “Al-Jazeera doesn’t talk about local Qatari issues. If they did, they’d have the same issues as everyone else,” he says.

Sheikha Mozah’s office declined to comment on the centre’s allegations, but the authorities have indicated that they will allow the formation of a journalists’ trade union and will ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which deals with freedom of opinion, expression and information.

However, the centre is frustrated with the sluggishness of the authorities, and will leave if Qatar does not pass an improved press law, says Mr Ménard.

“There’s no way … we can criticise other countries in the region while letting Qatar lag behind on press freedom matters,” he says.

“We would have no credibility, and I can’t accept that.”

Trying to lift the veil on Qatar

BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | Trying to lift the veil on Qatar.

Trying to lift the veil on Qatar

This week Qatar hosted the annual Arab Summit in its capital Doha. It was dubbed the reconciliation summit after months of serious rifts in the Arab World. The tiny country had put the noses of some of the big players out of joint by trying to adopt the role of regional mediator, traditionally played by heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Our Middle East correspondent Katya Adler reported on the summit and set out to find out more about Qatar, one of the region’s richest nations.

Qatar Airways plane (Photo: ARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Foreigners outnumber locals by four to one in Qatar

This was my first visit to Qatar and I admit I failed in one of my main missions, to get under the skin of the country.

On Qatar Airways, I met Filipino cabin crew.

The airport ground staff were Pakistani, the hotel receptionist, Sri Lankan, the barista who made my cappuccino on the way to the Arab Summit, Nepali.

My hunt to meet Qataris in Qatar had begun.

Statistically, foreigners in Qatar outnumber Qataris by four to one.

Hidden society

“They get us to do all their hard work for them,” a Palestinian called Mazan Barakat told me. I met him in a lift.

“Asians do the menial jobs,” he went on, “other Arabs, Americans and Europeans work in the gas and oil industry. We don’t care. We earn a lot more working here than we ever would in our own countries.”

Mazan has worked in the gas business in Doha for 20 years. How many Qatari friends does he have, I wonder. “Erm, none, came the slightly reluctant reply.

Qatari capital Doha

Qatar’s GDP per capita is the second highest in the world

“Of course I know Qataris at work,” Mazan hastened to add. “We drink tea, they invite me to their wedding parties.”

But had he ever been invited in to a Qatari home?

“Never,” Mazan told me. “In two decades here I have never met the wives or children of my Qatari colleagues. Foreigners don’t, can’t rent properties in Qatari compounds. However long I live here, I can’t get Qatari citizenship.”

Qatar is very much a veiled society, physically and socially.

Qatari women dress head to toe in black. Most cover their faces, some even their eyes and hands.

Men also keep their heads covered. Public signs of Qatari life are limited to seemingly endless shopping malls and wide-laned dusty roads, lined with skyscrapers and packed with shiny tank-like cars.

This Bedouin nation has changed dramatically since discovering oil and huge natural gas reserves. GDP per capita here is the second highest in the world.

There are state hangings, more and more drug abuse, growing extremism preached in the mosques – but in public the emirate has to appear perfect
Naima, schoolteacher

“It’s wrong to say Qataris are born with a silver spoon in their mouths,” schoolteacher Naima told me. “It’s a gold spoon, encrusted with diamonds.”

Naima and her husband Jamil are Lebanese and have lived in Doha for 16 years.

They laughed at my determined efforts to get to know Qatar.

“Not even Qataris really know what’s happening here,” they said.

“They’re not allowed to. Unless they’re a member of the ruling family. Just look at the press here.

“There are state hangings, more and more drug abuse, growing extremism preached in the mosques. But in public the emirate has to appear perfect.”

No opinions

The Qatar-based satellite news channel al-Jazeera boasts it tells things like they are.

But not when it comes to Qatar. It is so close to the emir who rules the country that al-Jazeera staff were employed by the Qatari Foreign Ministry to look after the press centre at this Arab Summit.

Jovial, pot-bellied Faris joked with international journalists throughout, chain-smoking so hard that ash was permanently falling down his once-pristine galabia .

But he looked nervous when I asked him about Qatar, its character, its role in the world.

“Hey, I just work for TV,” he told me. “I have no opinions. Qatari, all Arabs. We just talk and talk, you know. But we never do anything. Give me football any day.”

Al-Jazeera headquarters

Not even TV station al-Jazeera can reveal Qatar’s secrets

I tried foreign ministry officials. Saud bin Ahmad Il Thani is a thin, moustached member of the ruling family.

He put me in mind of the Spanish saying used to describe enigmatic types, “If you met him on the stairs, you wouldn’t be quite sure if he were going up or coming down.”

“Qataris are the realists of the Arab world,” Saud told me with conviction.

“We accept everybody. We’ve worked with Israel in the past. Unlike a number of other Arab states we don’t fear Iran, we understand it,” he said.

“It’s our neighbour. Ours is a transparent society. We’re straightforward. Straight-talking.”

The straight talking did not last long at the Arab Summit. The meeting closed suddenly after only a day.

The official reason – everyone agreed with everything. The real reason, a Qatari official told me off the record, was that the longer the Arab states stayed in one room, the more they would bicker.

Qatar preferred things to go smoothly.

Mystery unresolved

My last-ditch attempt to get under Qatar’s surface was to book a Doha City tour.

The guide was Indian. I told him I was keen to understand Qatari culture. He suggested we go to the equestrian centre, Olympic sports complex, the main golf club, the biggest mall in the world oh, and the best bit, the Waqif market.

Two hundred years old but knocked down and recently rebuilt. Here you can buy so-called Qatari antiques from South Asian shopkeepers.

I hope to return to Qatar and renew my efforts to get to know the country.

As my Philippine-staffed Qatar Airways flight took off, Doha and the rest of the tiny country were soon shrouded. Swallowed up and hidden in the sandy dust.

In the News 1-17-2009

Israel Declares It Will Cease Fire; U.N. School Hit –

Israel Declares It Will Cease Fire; U.N. School Hit

Published: January 17, 2009

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel announced late Saturday night that the Israeli military would begin a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza within hours while negotiations continued on how to stop the resupply of Hamas through smuggling from Egypt.

Mr. Olmert, who said all Israeli objectives for the war had been reached, said Israel was responding positively to a call by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt earlier in the day for an immediate cease-fire, in a clearly orchestrated move by two countries that both see the Hamas movement in Gaza as a threat. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders outside Gaza have insisted that the group will fight on, regardless of any Israeli declaration.

The announcement came on a day in which Israel was again criticized by the United Nations over civilian deaths in Gaza — this time after a tank fired at a United Nations school, killing two young brothers taking shelter there.

United Nations aid officials raised questions about whether the attack, and others like it, should be investigated as war crimes. The Israeli Army said that it was investigating the reports at the highest level but that initial inquiries indicated that troops were returning fire from near or within the school.

The Israeli cease-fire, which becomes effective at 2 a.m. Sunday, could mean an effective end to a three-week-old war that has killed at least 1,200 Palestinians, with more buried under rubble, and 13 Israelis. But even then, the shape of any lasting peace was far from clear.

Israel has signaled that its troops will stay in Gaza until a formal truce is signed that meets Israeli goals of stopping rocket fire from Gaza and sharply hindering the smuggling of arms, weapons, cash and fighters into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. But the government says it will not sign any deal with Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and whose rule over Gaza Israel does not want to recognize.

Also, Israeli officials said that they reserved the right to attack again in the future if Hamas kept firing rockets into Israel. Hamas, battered but hardly broken, is expected to reassert its political control over Gaza and to resist any attempt to restore a presence for Fatah, the rival faction that runs the Palestinian Authority, within Gaza.

The announcement of the unilateral cease-fire came on the 22nd day of the war, after repeated calls by the United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an immediate halt to the fighting and the deaths of civilians.

The military said that it struck hundreds of targets overnight, including rocket-launching sites, weapons caches and 70 smuggling tunnels, and that its troops tightened the encirclement of Gaza City.

Though exiled Hamas figures vowed to keep fighting, it was unclear how the cease-fire will be received by leaders within Gaza. The group’s representatives were scheduled to meet Egyptian officials in Cairo who are trying to pull together a sustainable truce of at least a year that will end rocket fire into Israel, hinder Hamas resupply and reopen all the crossings into encircled Gaza from both Israel and Egypt.

Particularly concerned about limiting smuggling, the United States and Israel signed a “memorandum of understanding” on Friday in Washington that calls for expanded cooperation to prevent Hamas from rearming through Egypt. The agreement, which is vague, promises increased American technical assistance and international monitors, presumably to be based in Egypt, to crack down on the smuggling.

As important, the United States agreed to work with NATO partners to interdict arms smuggling into Gaza by land and sea from Syria and Iran, and in a letter, Britain, France and Germany also offered to help interdict the smuggling of arms to Hamas.

On Saturday, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced a summit meeting about Gaza for Sunday, of which Mr. Mubarak would be co-chairman. Mr. Sarkozy announced that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain would attend; Mr. Brown said later he was “considering” attending. Egypt has invited Italy, Spain, Turkey, Mr. Ban and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, whose Fatah party governs the West Bank. The meeting, to take place in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, is about bringing a halt to the fighting in a sustainable way and reconstruction aid for Gaza.

While Mr. Sarkozy initiated the process with Mr. Mubarak in the waning days of the Bush administration, it has been in the end a deal shaped by Egypt and Israel.

Mr. Mubarak’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that his country would not be bound by the memorandum of understanding agreed to by the United States and Israel and would not accept foreign troops on its soil. But officials of both Israel and the United States say Egypt has been showing a new seriousness about stopping the smuggling.

The Arab and Muslim world again appeared to be split into two camps. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been openly critical of Hamas, pressing it to agree to a cease-fire. Qatar, meanwhile, which is close to Iran, held a meeting with Syria, Iran, Mauritania and Hamas’s exiled political leader, Khaled Meshal, as the Palestinian representative. Mr. Abbas, who is supported by the United States and Egypt, had refused to go to Qatar.

In Beit Lahiya, some 1,600 displaced Gazans have taken shelter at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or Unrwa, which cares for Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 war and their descendants.

John Ging, the Gaza director of the agency, said that two brothers, ages 5 and 7, were killed about 7 a.m. by Israeli fire at the school. Their mother, who was among 14 others wounded, had her legs blown off.

“These two little boys are as innocent, indisputably, as they are dead,” Mr. Ging said. “The question now being asked is: is this and the killing of all other innocent civilians in Gaza a war crime?”

Christopher Gunness, the refugee agency’s spokesman, said: “Where you have a direct hit on an Unrwa school where about 1,600 people had taken refuge, where the Israeli Army knows the coordinates and knows who’s there, where this comes as the latest in a catalogue of direct and indirect attacks on Unrwa facilities, there have to be investigations to establish whether war crimes have been committed,” as well, he added “as violations of international humanitarian law.”

The strike was the fourth time Israel has hit an Unrwa school during the war on Hamas. On Jan. 6, Mr. Ging said, 43 people died when an Israeli shell hit the compound of a school in Jabaliya. Israel has disputed the death toll and said it was returning mortar fire from the school compound.

Four Israeli soldiers, two of them officers, were seriously hurt by mortar fire in fighting on Saturday morning, the army said, suggesting that they were victims of friendly fire. And it said that Hamas had fired 12 rockets at Israel on Saturday, a sharp reduction from daily totals since the start of the war.

While the details are debated and the dead are counted, a critical long-term issue is whether the Gaza operation restores Israel’s deterrent. Israel wants Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Arab world to view it as a nation too strong and powerful to seriously threaten or attack. That motivation is one reason, Israeli officials say privately, for going into Gaza so hard, using such firepower, and fighting Hamas as an enemy army.

The answer won’t be known for many months, but the key to the Muslim world’s reaction is actually that of the Israeli public, said Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem. “The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses,” he said. “Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they’ve won or lost.”

Mr. Halevi cited both the 1973 war — which Egyptians celebrate and Israelis mourn, though it ended with a spectacular Israel counterattack — and the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, apologized for the 2006 war on television, “but he quickly reversed himself to declare a wonderful victory when he saw the Israeli public declaring defeat,” Mr. Halevi said.

Even more important, perhaps, this Gazan war is a test case for any potential Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. If Israelis feel that the West Bank will turn into another kind of chaotic, Hamas-run Gaza, they will be unwilling to withdraw — especially if they believe that once they withdrew, and if they were attacked from the West Bank, they would not be allowed to respond with force.

“Gaza is an important test of whether we can defend ourselves within the 1967 boundaries,” Mr. Halevi said, noting that Hamas had been attacking Israel proper, not settlements. “Will we be able to defend ourselves if we need to from the West Bank? Will the international community let us?”

The Israeli public has stayed united behind the war as a necessary battle, despite serious misgivings about the death toll of Palestinian civilians and international condemnation. Even Meretz, a party on the left of Israeli politics, supported the air war.

Hamas has modeled itself on Hezbollah, calling on Iranian support. Mr. Nasrallah once spoke of Israeli power as a spider web — impressive from afar, but easily brushed aside. This war against Hamas, Mr. Halevi said, “is the revenge of the spider.”

In the News 1-17-2009

Qatar and Mauritania freeze ties with Israel

By Anwar Elshamy

Qatar and Mauritania froze ties with Israel yesterday in protest over the ongoing Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Addressing a press conference last night following the emergency summit held in Doha to tackle the worsening situation in the Gaza Strip, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minster HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani said the Israeli trade office in Doha would be closed down until the situation improved.

“We will tell them (the Israeli mission) that their presence is unwanted until the circumstances improve and the chances for peace get better. We will give them one week period to close the office and leave,” he said, while observing that the trade office was opened in Doha mainly to help peace efforts in the region.

“As you know, it (the trade office) was part of Madrid peace conference which initiated the peace process in the Middle East. We were considering the decision (to close it) since the Israelis started their aggression on Gaza,” the prime minister added.

Mauritania, which had full relation with Israel, also announced it was suspending diplomatic relations with the Zionist entity.

The name of the meeting was changed at the last moment to “Gaza Summit” after Qatar failed to meet the quorum required for hosting an Arab League meeting and invited non-Arab states such as Iran and Senegal to attend it.

“We completed the quorum for holding an Arab League summit five times, but it fell short as one of the countries had withdrawn,” the prime minister said.

To a question on the recent rivalry between some Arab sates over holding Arab summits to deal with the situation in Gaza, Sheikh Hamad said Qatar called for an Arab summit in the early days of the Israeli assault.

“Rivalry over summits is not a healthy thing. We were ready to attend an Arab summit anywhere. Our main concern was to take a united Arab stance and stop the bloodshed in Palestine. We are trying to be part of the Arab system, but I do know not why they are sensitive towards Qatar,” he said.

He blamed the split between the Palestinian factions on what he called “Inter-Arab states divisions”.

He dismissed the notion that the Doha meeting might affect the recently improved Qatari-Saudi relations as “untrue”, describing the bilateral relation as “excellent”.

“It is only a difference over how to deal with the situation in Gaza, but does not at all affect the relations. We are sure that King Abdullah of Saudi is as keen as us on the Palestinian issue or even more.”

The summit issued a communique urging all Arab nations to stop normalising all forms of relations with Israel and to reconsider their diplomatic and economic ties with it. Egypt and Jordan, which did not attend the summit, are the only Arab states which have signed peace treaties with Israel and maintain full diplomatic relations with the Zionist entity.

The Doha meeting was held amid deepening divisions between Arab states as both Egypt and Saudi Arabia rejected Qatar’s call for the summit.

The communique also called on Israel to halt its aggression on Gaza, and demanded immediate, unconditional and comprehensive withdrawal of its forces.

It also called upon the Arab states to suspend the Arab peace initiative which was adopted in Beirut in 2002, and halt all forms of normalisation of relations including the reconsideration of diplomatic and economic ties with Israel.

The summit also commended the stances taken both by Qatar and Mauritania regarding the freezing of their relations with the Zionist entity.

via Gulf Times – Qatar’s top-selling English daily newspaper – First Page.

In the News 1-17-2009

Summit aimed at halting offensive

HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani opened the emergency summit on Gaza at the Doha Sherton yesterday.

Welcoming the participants, HH the Emir expressed thanks and appreciation for accepting Qatar’s invitation at a time when the Palestinians in Gaza were facing the fiercest war machine and the Israeli occupation’s tyranny with determination and preparedness for a sacrifice surpassing the betrayal surrounding them.

HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said the presence of Arab leaders had not only expressed their awareness of such facts, but also underlined that there was no contradiction between Qatar’s call and any other summit.

“I attended the Riyadh summit yesterday and we all, God willing, will attend another summit in Kuwait on Monday,” the Emir said.

He hoped that other Arab brothers (leaders) had taken part, saying that they undoubtedly know what we know regarding the situation in Gaza and its impact on all of us at present and in the future.

He said it would have been better if they had held discussions with us around this table even if they had another viewpoint, because our ultimate objective was a collective discussion on means of halting aggression and alleviating the suffering of our people in Gaza at the summit.

The Emir also hoped that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had taken part to discuss the issue of his people in Gaza, but he preferred not to come.

He underlined the importance of halting the Israeli aggression, the withdrawal, the lifting of siege and the opening of crossings.

The meeting was attended by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, Comoros President Ahmed Abdullah Sambi, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Chairman of the Supreme State Council of Mauritania Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, Secretary of the People’s General Committee in Libyan al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, Omani Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs Youssuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation Al Tayeb al-Fassi al-Fahri and Djibouti’s Minister of Wakfs and Islamic Affairs Dr Hamid Abdi Sultan.

Also taking part were Senegalese President and Chairman of the Islamic Summit Abdoulaye Wade, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek, Head of Hamas Politburo Khalid Mishal, Secretary General of the Islamic Jihad Movement Ramadan Shalah and Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Ahmed Jibril are also taking part.

HH the Heir Apparent Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani led Qatar’s delegation to the summit. The summit was attended among others by HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani. – QNA

via Gulf Times – Qatar’s top-selling English daily newspaper – First Page.

In the News 1-16-2009

In case you’re wondering what kind of role Qatar is playing in the issues of this region….

Arab leaders arrive in Doha for summit

SEVERAL leaders started arriving in Doha yesterday to take part in an emergency Arab summit meeting called by Qatar today to discuss the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Among them were Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Abdul Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Ahmed Abdullah Sambi of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros and Chairman of the Supreme Council in the Islamic Republic of Mauritanian Gen Mohamed Ould Abdul Aziz.

The visiting leaders and their accompanying delegations were received at Doha International Airport by HH the Heir Apparent Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, and several senior officials.

On Wednesday, HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani pledged $250mn to help rebuild Gaza.

Earlier yesterday, the Emir joined other Gulf leaders in the Saudi capital Riyadh for an emergency meeting on the Gaza crisis.

Custodian of the two Holy Mosques King Abdullah called the summit due to escalating tensions “resulting from the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people,” according to the official SPA news agency.

Saudi Arabia has accused Israel of “racist extermination” and sweeping human rights abuses.

King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the issue would also be discussed at the Arab League economic summit in Kuwait on January 19.

The Kuwait summit would merge discussion of the Gaza issue with the previously scheduled economic agenda.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a regional tour to try to secure a Gaza ceasefire, is due to address the meeting on Monday.

The Arab League has been preparing for the Kuwait summit for months to discuss economic issues and added a special session on Gaza to take place at foreign minister level. – Agencies

via Gulf Times – Qatar’s top-selling English daily newspaper – First Page.

Interesting Article

Living over here in Doha, I have made a lot of friends with people from this region of the world.  Many of them have friends and family that are directly affected by the war in Gaza right now, and I’m forced to look at things from other angles than I did while I lived in the US.  This is a horrible situation right now, and both sides are at fault.

Here’s an article worth reading.

The True Story Behind This War is Not the One Israel is Telling

Johann Hari: The True Story Behind This War is Not the One Israel is Telling.

The world isn’t just watching the Israeli government commit a crime in Gaza; we are watching it self-harm. This morning, and tomorrow morning, and every morning until this punishment-beating ends, the young people of the Gaza Strip are going to be more filled with hate, and more determined to fight back, with stones or suicide-vests or rockets. Israel’s leaders have convinced themselves the harder you beat the Palestinians, the softer they will become. But when this is over, the rage against Israelis will have hardened, and the same old compromises will still be waiting by the roadside of history, untended and unmade.

To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight, but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other in vast sagging tower blocks, jobless and hungry. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean Sea, and the Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall — as they are doing now with more deadly force than on any day since 1967 — there is nowhere to hide.

There will now be a war over the story of this war. The Israeli government says: we withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and in return we got Hamas and Qassam rockets being rained on our cities. Some 16 civilians have been murdered. How many more are we supposed to sacrifice? It is a plausible narrative, and there are shards of truth in it – but it is also filled with holes. If we want to understand the reality and really stop the rockets, we need to rewind a few years, and view the runway to this war dispassionately.

The Israeli government did indeed withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – in order to be able to intensify control of the West Bank. Ariel Sharon’s senior advisor Dov Weisglass was unequivocal about this, explaining: “The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians… Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely.”

Ordinary Palestinians were horrified by this, and by the fetid corruption of their own Fatah leaders – so they voted for Hamas. It certainly wouldn’t have been my choice – an Islamist party is antithetical to all my convictions – but we have to be honest. It was a free and democratic election, and it was not a rejection of a two-state solution. The most detailed polling of Palestinians, by the University of Maryland, found that 72 percent want a two-state solution on the 1967 borders, while fewer than 20 percent want to reclaim the whole of historic Palestine. So, partly in response to this pressure, Hamas offered Israel a long ceasefire and a de facto acceptance of two states, if only Israel would return to its legal borders.

Rather than seize this opportunity and test their sincerity, the Israeli government reacted by punishing the entire civilian population. They announced they were blockading the Gaza Strip in order to “pressure” its people to reverse the democratic process. They surrounded the Strip and refused to let anyone or anything out. They let in a small trickle of food, fuel and medicine – but not enough for survival.

Weisglass quipped the Gazans were being “put on a diet.” According to Oxfam, this November only 137 trucks of food were allowed into Gaza this November – to feed 1.5 million people. The UN says poverty has reached an “unprecedented level.” When I was last in besieged Gaza, I saw hospitals turning away the sick because their machinery and medicine was running out. I met hungry children stumbling around the streets, scavenging for food.

It was in this context – under collective punishment designed to topple a democracy – that some forces within Gaza did something immoral: they fired Qassam rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities. These rockets have killed 16 ordinary Israeli citizens. This is abhorrent: targeting civilians is always murder. But it is hypocritical for the Israeli government to claim now to speak out for the safety of civilians when they have been terrorising civilians as a matter of state policy.

European and American governments are responding with a lop-sidedness that ignores these realities. They say that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate under rocket-fire, but they demand the Palestinians do so under siege in Gaza and violent military occupation in the West Bank.

Before it falls down the memory hole, we should remember that last week, Hamas offered a ceasefire in return for basic and achievable compromises. Don’t take my word for it. According to the Israeli press, Yuval Diskin, the current head of the Israeli security services Shin Bet, “told the Israeli cabinet [on the 23rd] that Hamas is interested in continuing the truce, but wants to improve its terms.” Diskin explained Hamas was requesting two things: an end to the blockade, and an Israeli ceasefire on the West Bank. The cabinet – high with election-fever, and eager to appear tough – rejected these terms.

The core of the situation has been starkly laid out by Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad. He says that while Hamas – like much of the Israeli right – dreams of driving their opponents away, “they have recognized this ideological goal is not attainable, and will not be in the foreseeable future.” Instead, “they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967.” They are aware this means they “will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals” – and towards a long-term peace based on compromise. The rejectionists on both sides – from Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh to Bibi Netanyahu – would then be marginalised. It is the only path that could yet end in peace – but it is the Israeli government who refused to choose it. Halevy explains: “Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas.”

Why would Israel act this way? The Israeli government wants peace, but only one imposed on its own terms, based on the acceptance of defeat by the Palestinians. It means they can keep the slabs of the West Bank on ‘their’ side of the wall. It means they keep the largest settlements, and control of the water supply. And it means a divided Palestine, with responsibility for Gaza hived off to Egypt, and the broken-up West Bank standing alone. Negotiations threaten this vision: they would require Israel to give up more than it wants to. But an imposed peace will be no peace at all: it will not stop the rockets or the rage. For real safety, Israel will have to talk to the people it is blockading and bombing today – and compromise with them.

The sound of Gaza burning should be drowned out by the words of the Israeli writer Larry Derfner. He says: “Israel’s war with Gaza has to be the most one-sided on earth…. If the point is to end it, or at least begin to end it, the ball is not in Hamas’ court – it’s in ours.”

In the News 01-05-2009

Israeli aggression in Gaza is a war crime, says Emir
Need for convening an Arab summit stressed

HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani last night described the heinous Israeli aggression on the people of Gaza as a war crime as per international charters and laws.
In an address to the Arab nation broadcast on Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, the Emir said even if there were no other issues concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause the woes of Gazans should move the Arab leaders.
He said the Gaza Strip had been under an unjust siege for three years which blockaded even food and medicines for no reason except that the Palestinian people have been dealing seriously with democracy and have decided on their options.
The Emir said the calming agreement had not prevented Israel from continuing assassinations and incursions, adding that in the shadow of the calming Israel clamped a suffocating siege on the Strip which turned it into a detention camp and when it failed to break the will of the Palestinian people, today came the military aggression as a continuation of that siege.
HH Sheikh Hamad underlined the need for halting the aggression and for a ceasefire to stop the bloodshed in a way guaranteeing an end to the siege which he described as inhumane and illegal.
He explained that Qatar had opted for just peace, saying this will not go in line with the continuation of the settlement policy, Judaisation of Jerusalem, siege and aggression on peaceful people.
The Emir added that we should pay any price to help our brethren in Gaza, stressing that it was not a grace but rather their right and our duty towards those who sacrifice their lives. “We should all co-operate so that the assistance will directly reach the people of Gaza to enhance their steadfastness and resistance, and to lift their morale.”
He said any ceasefire should be coupled with the lifting of siege and the opening of all crossings, stressing that all who call for a reciprocal ceasefire are equating culprit and the victim, and justifying the aggression retroactively.
He also underlined the need for the convening of an emergency Arab summit to adopt a position against the Israeli aggression on Gaza.
“We in Qatar, have called for the convening of an emergency Arab summit conference to take a decision vis-a-vis the Israeli aggression on Gaza,” the Emir said stressing that “moves by Arab peoples and a number of forces of peace in the world have proved that an emergency summit was the least things expected from us.”
“Our position was that we can do something but the problem does not lie in the summit but rather the will with which we come to the summit,” he said adding that “when we have that will, we can take decisions that would have an influence on the international arena and Israel.”
HH the Emir added that “some brothers have made efforts by going to the Security Council before the summit, but once again it has been proven that if we don’t have the will, the international community will not listen to us. We have to listen to our Arab community before the international community listen to us. Therefore I renew the call for an emergency Arab summit and I will leave this option to the Arab nation’s leaders.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks battled Hamas fighters in Gaza yesterday as the death toll from the offensive passed 510.
Israeli forces moved into the fringe of Gaza City while families fled or hid in cellars awaiting a second night of combat. The Israeli government fought off intense international pressure over its biggest military operation since its 2006 war in Lebanon.
At least 63 Palestinians were killed by tank shells or missiles fired from warplanes since the ground offensive was launched on Saturday night, Gaza medics said.
Columns of Israeli troops and tanks surrounded Gaza City and fighting was reported in outer districts. Fierce clashes were also reported around the northern towns of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanun and Jabaliya.
Explosions and machine gun fire rocked the territory of 1.5mn people. Hamas fighters fired mortar rounds and detonated roadside bombs in front of the advancing troops, witnesses said.
Moawiya Hassanein, head of Gaza medical emergency services, said the number of Palestinians killed since the Israeli operation was launched on December 27 was now 512, including 87 children.
Five members of the same family died when one tank shell hit their car near Gaza City, emergency services said.
Three ambulance workers were killed when they were hit by a missile as they helped wounded victims of the conflict, medics said.
Aid groups said the offensive had aggravated a humanitarian crisis for the population, who have no electricity, no water and now face dire food shortages. Hospitals were only running on backup generators.
International efforts to halt the conflict sought new impetus after the UN Security Council failed to agree a statement on the conflict, with the US giving strong backing to Israel.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a planned trip to China this week because of the Gaza crisis.
A Russian presidential envoy and an EU ministerial delegation headed to the Middle East to make pleas for a ceasefire.
President Nicolas Sarkozy was also to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders today.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to call off the offensive in telephone talks with Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and a host of other foreign leaders, his office said.
The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) yesterday blasted the UN Security Council for failing to agree on a resolution condemning Israel’s attack on Gaza.
GCC Secretary General he Abdulrahman al-Attiyah in a statement also called on incoming US president Barack Obama to give priority to the Palestinian cause.
“This aggression is the expected and usual result of international silence toward Israeli arrogance,” he said in the statement. – Agencies

In the News 1-2-2009

Couple gets three-year jail term

By Nour Abuzant

AN American man and a South African teenager were given three-year jail terms after being caught in a compromising position in a public lavatory.

According to court papers, the couple was spied entering a female cubicle within the Aspire sports academy on the morning of February 16 last year.

An Egyptian watchman told investigators that he first saw the two accused kissing and talking to each other in an “indecent position” near the academy’s mosque.

He revealed: “The woman went to the female toilet and the man went after her and I became suspicious.”

The police were called and they arrested the two at the scene – and confiscated their clothes.

The 25-year-old Muslim American first claimed the 16-year-old was his girlfriend. On the advice of his lawyer, he later retracted the claim. The South African was tried in absentia after failing to show for the court case.

As well as handing down three-year prison terms, the court ordered the pair be deported after serving sentence. An appeal against the court’s decision has been lodged.

via Gulf Times – Qatar’s top-selling English daily newspaper – First Page.

CIA sometimes uses Viagra to win over Afghan warlords

WASHINGTON – The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, reached in his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills: Viagra.

“Take one of these,” the officer said. “You’ll love it.”

The officer returned days later to an enthusiastic reception, he said. The chief offered information about Taliban movements – and asked for more pills.

For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are won. The growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials involved in such operations.

In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal touches. These include pocket knives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said.

“Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people – whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra,” said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Like other field officers interviewed for the story, he spoke on condition of anonymity when describing tactics and operations.

Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and Iranian agents.

The usual bribes of choice – cash and weapons – aren’t always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts such as money, jewelry and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.

“If you give an asset $1,000, he’ll go out and buy the shiniest junk he can find, and it will be apparent that he has suddenly come into a lot of money from someone,” said Jamie Smith, a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive officer of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company. “Even if he doesn’t get killed, he becomes ineffective as an informant because everyone knows where he got it.”

The key, Mr. Smith said, is to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little trace.

“You’re trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century,” he said, “so you look for those common things in the form of material aid that motivate people everywhere.”

Among the world’s intelligence agencies, there’s a long tradition of using sex as a motivator. Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence, noted that the Soviet spy service was notorious for using attractive women as bait when seeking to turn foreign diplomats into informants.

“The KGB has always used ‘honey traps,’ and it works,” Mr. Baer said.

For American officers, a more common practice was to offer medical care for potential informants and their loved ones, he said. For some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan, Western drugs such as Viagra are just one of a long list of enticements available for use in special cases. Two veteran officers familiar with such practices said Viagra is offered rarely, and only to older tribal officials for whom the drug would hold special appeal.

While such sexual performance drugs are generally unavailable in the remote areas where the agency’s teams have operated, they have been sold in some Kabul street markets since at least 2003, and are known by reputation elsewhere.

“You didn’t hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones,” said one retired operative familiar with the drug’s use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often have four wives – the maximum number allowed by the Quran – and some village patriarchs are easily sold on the pill.

But not everyone in Afghanistan’s hinterlands has heard of the drug, leading to some awkward encounters when Americans try to explain its effects.

Such was the case with the 60-something chieftain who received the four pills from a U.S. operative. The operative, now retired, said he talked to the clan leader for a long time through an interpreter, looking for ways to secure loyalty.

A discussion of the man’s family and wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted.

Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled.

“He came up to us beaming,” the official said. “He said, ‘You are a great man.’ ”

“And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area.”

Joby Warrick,

The Washington Post

via CIA sometimes uses Viagra to win over Afghan warlords | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Headline | International News.