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BICOM Daily Briefing December 23 2003

Last updated: 2003-12-23

All of the British news outlets report on the attack by a Palestinian mob on Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, which took place in the Temple Mount area. The Independent harshly criticises such an attack inside one of Islam’s most sacred shrines.  The Times reports on the discovery of the gravesite of British suicide bomber Assif Hanif in a cemetery in Beersheva.  The Financial Times looks at the idea of unilateral disengagement and the effects it would have on the Palestinian Authority. The paper also has an editorial critical of the construction of Israel’s Security Fence. Writing in The Guardian, commentator David Hirst analyses the past year in the Middle East and assesses what might happen next year. Reuters reports on the latest flare up of violence in the Gaza Strip, in which two Israeli officers were killed yesterday. BBC Online has a feature detailing Iranian warnings of dire consequences should Israel move against its nuclear sites. A number of papers also reported on the release of Israeli and British hostages in Colombia.

In the Israeli press, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv all lead with the deaths of the two officers in the Gaza Strip. Other stories were the release of the hostages in Colombia, the visit by Egyptian FM Maher, and the incidents that took place on the Temple Mount in the course of the visit.

Quotes of the Day:

On the attack on Mr. Maher by Palestinians at the Temple Mount

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (Foreign Ministry press release, 23/12): ‘The attack was carried out by extremists, and demonstrates that unfortunately, extremists who oppose any and all expressions of peace between Israel and Arab countries still exist. This incident should serve to strengthen the forces working for peace and send a message that the path of extremists will not prevail.’

Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian President (Haaretz, 23/12): “[The attack] will not derail Egypt's efforts to achieve a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks, with the effective participation of other peace-loving partners.”

Behind the News:

Egyptian Foreign Minister attacked at al-Aqsa Mosque

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher was attacked by a Palestinian mob yesterday while visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque, at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Minister, who was on an official visit to Israel, was lightly injured. Eyewitnesses reported that the mob shoved and heckled the minister and his entourage, and attempted to choke Mr. Maher. Due to respect for Muslim sensibilities, the Israeli Police presence on the Temple Mount is generally kept to a minimum. In addition, according to Israel Channel One television news, Israeli security forces had agreed not to accompany Mr. Maher into the mosque yesterday. Nevertheless, within a few minutes Mr. Maher’s assailants were repelled, and the minister was escorted from the area. Having complained of shortness of breath, Mr. Maher was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital for tests. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom later visited his Egyptian counterpart at the hospital, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Egyptian President Mubarak’s office has condemned the attack. Several Arab residents of Jerusalem were detained last night in connection with the incident.

According to reports, the protesters, who numbered several dozen, were members of the Hizb al-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party). This extremist Islamist group is banned in much of the region. Its Palestinian activists have, however, generally not been involved in violence in the past. The organisation has branches and sympathisers throughout the Muslim world, and also in Western Europe and Britain.

PM Sharon, FM Shalom meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister

In a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher earlier yesterday, Prime Minister Sharon indicated would cease activity against Palestinian terrorists, in the event of a successfully maintained cease-fire, according to senior sources in the Prime Minister’s Office. Egyptian attempts to broker such an arrangement have so far run aground, and talks between all Palestinian armed factions in Cairo last month collapsed without result. Nevertheless, Mr. Maher told reporters that he believes that efforts to bring about a ceasefire would yet bear fruit. Egyptian officials confirmed that Mr. Maher will visit the Palestinian Authority area next week, accompanied by Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman.

Mr. Maher described himself as ‘encouraged’ by his meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. FM Shalom confirmed that he intends to accept his counterpart’s invitation to visit Cairo. Mr. Maher said he was confident, having met with Israeli leaders, that the Road Map could be revived. PM Sharon also raised the question of Azzam Azzam (the Israeli imprisoned in Egypt on charges of espionage) in his meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, and Mr. Maher undertook to convey the contents of the conversation to President Mubarak.

Raid into Rafah follows killings of officers

Two IDF officers were killed in a gun battle in the central Gaza Strip yesterday. Following the exchange of fire, IDF forces entered the Rafah refugee camp, and a fierce firefight ensued, in which two Palestinians were also killed. The slain IDF officers were Captain Hagai Bibi, 24, of Maaleh Adumim, and Lieutenant Alex Leonardo Weissman, 23, of Afula. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a terrorist group within Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organisation, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The two officers were the first Israeli fatalities in the conflict in the last month. Sources confirm that Israeli security services have foiled three major attempted suicide bombings in Israel over the last weeks, planned by Fatah and Islamic Jihad cells.

Poll reveals that 58% of Palestinians oppose the Geneva Initiative

A survey of the Palestinian public opinion, recently conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion (PCPO) and commissioned by Al-Quds daily newspaper in Jerusalem, reveals that 39.4% of Palestinians strongly oppose the Geneva Initiative, whilst 18.5% somewhat oppose it. Also according to the poll, 61.2% of those questioned believe that a truce between the Palestinians and the Israelis would last no more than 3 months.

The poll included a random sample of 1072 Palestinian adults, 18 years and older, from Gaza Strip and West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Comment and Opinion:

The Independent (23/12) “The assault on the foreign minister of Egypt, Ahmed Maher, during a visit to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem yesterday was a disgraceful episode that, alas, said much about the current state and complexity of Israeli-Arab relations. Mr Maher had gone to pray at the mosque after talks with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. He was jostled and beaten by Palestinians unhappy about the prospect of a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

That an assault should have taken place inside one of Islam's most sacred shrines testifies to the depth of suspicion harboured by some Palestinians towards fellow Arabs who are prepared to treat with the Israeli government. It is evidence, too, of the degree to which politics has overtaken religion as their prime motivating force. The absence of any overt Israeli security presence was also telling. Israeli police remained outside the vicinity of the mosque, reflecting Israel's new sensitivity towards Muslim holy places. This shows a laudable restraint on Israel's part which, on this occasion, regrettably backfired.

Yesterday's incident was all the more unfortunate because it came at a time of hopeful stirrings in Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations, the first such stirrings for almost two years. The Arab outcry over the US-led war on Iraq had died down. Intellectuals and elder statesmen from Israel and Palestine had concluded the so-called Geneva Accord, outlining realistic terms for a final peace. The US had renewed its interest in the "road-map" and appeared ready to exert real pressure on Israel over the fence it is erecting along its unilaterally demarcated border with Palestinian territory. Mr Maher's visit to Jerusalem, though, was the first tangible evidence that the climate was improving.”

Orna Angel (Yediot Ahronot, 23/12): “A letter to my ‘refuser’ friends: I read your letter to the Prime Minister, and despite my agreement with much of its content, I believe that you were mistaken to have written it. As one who served for three years in the Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconaissance Unit), and who sees the unit as an integral part of her identity, your use of the unit’s name infuriates me. You are all entitled to be against Israel’s presence in the territories. You can even refuse to serve in the IDF as a protest against government policy, and accept the consequences of this action. A healthy democracy is able to absorb a certain percentage of conscientous objectors.

The problem in your case is the use you make of the unit in which we served, as though your ‘refusal’ has some additional standing, beyond the purely personal. You could have written the same letter as ‘concerned citizens’, rather than arraigning yourself in the plumage of an army that you regard as a force of occupation.  If your refusal is based on a moral objection to Israel’s rule of the territories, then your particular military function is of no relevance. You could have been Border Policemen, Golani infantrymen or even just civilians. Many believe that the occupation corrupts. Many, including graduates of elite units, think otherwise. Your letter is no different in substance or significance from that of the pilots, or in fact from any of the many other ‘letters to the editor’ on this subject.”

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