|Southwest Asia News Digest
Israel Re-Occupies Gaza 'Buffer Zone' With Bombing Campaign
Over Dec. 28 and 29, the Israeli Air Force launched a bombing campaign in a "buffer zone" in the Gaza Strip, amounting to a re-occupation from the air; the Sharon lameduck government threatened that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem (Al Quds) may not be allowed to vote in the Jan. 25 Palestinian national legislative elections; and the Israeli government demandedand wona move by the so-called "Quartet" (the U.S., European Union, Russia, and the UN) to outlaw all candidates from organizations that have not "renounced violence."
Less than a month before legislative electionsthe first for the Palestinians since the death of Yasser Arafatthe Israeli military has launched a bombing campaign in a unilaterally designated "buffer zone" in Gaza where the former Jewish settlements stood, under the code name "Operation Blue Skies." The Israeli Air Force has announced that the area will be subjected to massive bombings after sundown, if people are observed to be in the area. This "buffer zone" is being justified by the Israelis as the way to stop the firing of Palestinian Qassam rockets into Israeli towns near the Gaza border; these are attributed to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The bombing campaign, supported by U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, is collective punishment, affecting about 100,000 Palestinians living in Gaza. It is also a direct attack on Palestinian President Abu Mazen, who is involved in truce negotiations with the militants.
On Dec. 28, Abu Mazen gave a press conference in Gaza City at which he said, "We condemn this. Israel left the Gaza Strip and has no right to return under any pretext such as the firing of rockets, which I also condemn strongly." He also warned the Palestinian militants to cease attacks, and not "give pretexts to Israel."
But Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Army Radio that, "The operations will take as long as is needed to ensure that the fire against us will be curbed." Whether the air attacks are a prelude to reversing the Gaza withdrawal remains to be seen, since Sharon's illness is a wildcard.
The move by the Quartet, directed against Hamas and Islamic Jihad candidates, is like throwing a match on gasoline. It also reduces the Quartet to the status of a fig leaf for Dick Cheney's policy for the Palestinians, that is, elimination of the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian National Authoritythe policy spelled out in a 1996 policy paper written by Cheney's Middle East Advisor at the White House, David Wurmser, entitled, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for the Realm."
Sharon's Stroke: It Was Not 'Mild'
The doctors of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon revealed in a press conference that the characterization of his recent stroke as "mild" was incorrect, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz Dec. 20. In fact, he could not speak for almost 24 hours. They also revealed that they believe the stroke was caused by a hole in his heart, and that in a few weeks he will undergo a procedure to repair it.
Only diplomatic and political correspondents were allowed to attend the press conference. No medical correspondents and no tape recorders were allowed.
That Sharon was entirely unable to function for 24 hours has created an outcry as to who was running the government. At no time were his powers transferred to Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leading to fears that Sharon's son Omri, who has recently been convicted of serious crimes, and Sharon's crony attorney, Dov Weisglass, were running state, a point emphasized by Knesset (Parliament) member Michael Eitan of Sharon's former party, the Likud.
AIPAC Spies May Sue AIPAC
Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, former spies for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the top four U.S. lobby organizations, may sue the committee for defamation, and for failing to pay their legal costs in their upcoming spy trial, according to Forward Dec. 23. Rosen and Weissman, senior AIPAC operatives who ran its "research" division, are scheduled to go on trial in April 2006. Their co-conspirator, Larry Franklin, who worked in the Department of Defense as an analyst, and was a collaborator of the neo-con inner circle, has already pleaded guilty. Franklin admitted to passing secrets to Rosen and Weissman, and to officials of the Israeli Embassy, in dozens of meetings.
According to Forward, AIPAC sought to clear itself of Rosen's and Weissman's crimes by firing them and issuing a statement that their conduct was "unbecoming" employees of the committee. Even so, AIPAC promised to pay their legal fees, which have already mounted to almost $1 million. Rosen and Weissman plan to argue that what they did was standard "practice for AIPAC," that is, to get information from the U.S. government. AIPAC admits that it has promised to pay their legal costsbut not in advance.
Observers note that AIPAC wants to make sure that the two accused don't say anything damaging before they get their bills paid. One problem with this arrangement, is that AIPAC reportedly fired Rosen and Weissman as part of an arrangement with the Department of Justice to avoid indictment of the organization itself.
Lebanon at Crossroads of Southwest Asia Tensions
Sources in Lebanon and Washington reported an increased buildup of tensions in Southwest Asia in the last week of December, especially as a result of the Dec. 12 assassination of Lebanese publisher and noted journalist, Gebran Tueni. Factors feeding the tensions include:
* Wide coverage in the Arab press of rumors that Washington is planning the bombing of Iran.
* The walkout of Amal-Hezbollah ministers, representing the Shi'ites, marking the impasse over the Lebanese response to U.S. demands based on UN Resolution 1559. U.S. officials representing UN Ambassador John Bolton warned Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Saad Hariri, Gen. Michel Aoun, and others outside the government, that Lebanon's internal dialogue about Hezbollah does not fulfill the conditions of Resolution 1559 that all militias in Lebanon be disarmed.
* Increased pressure from the Bush-Cheney Administration on the Lebanese government to turn over convicted hijacker Mohammed Ali Hamadi to the United States. Hamadi served 19 years in a German prison for the killing of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem during a plane hijacking in 1985. The Germans, opposed to the death penalty, have for the last 20 years refused to send Hamadi to stand trial in the U.S., where he could be executed. Hamadi has now been freed from German prison and returned to his native Lebanon, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
Iran Considers Russian Offer for Joint Nuclear Enrichment
In a recent shift, Iran is considering a Russian offer for joint nuclear-enrichment facilities in Russia. Javad Vaeedi, the head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), "Iran can study the economic, technical, and scientific aspects of Moscow's new proposal, according to which Russia would supply the nuclear fuel required by the Bushehr nuclear power plant for an entire year and Iran would transfer the nuclear fuel waste to Russia." The Tehran Times reported the statement Dec. 29. "Obviously, the extent of Iran's participation in the project is a serious factor," he said.
"According to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), countries that possess nuclear technology should cooperate with countries that lack nuclear expertise in order to expand this technology. Since nuclear projects that are within the framework of the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Charter are of an economic, non-military, technical, and scientific nature, Iran will seriously and gladly study the Russian proposal if it is within this framework," Vaeedi added. He said that Iran believes the Russian proposal can lead to the expansion of the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and boost countries' indigenous technologies by presenting a practicable interpretation of the NPT and the IAEA Charter.
Israeli Chief of Staff Nixes Preemptive Attack on Iran
Israeli Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz has ruled out a preemptive strike against Iran in the near term. Halutz told Israeli Army radio Dec. 29, "I don't think that a military intervention against Iran's nuclear installations should be necessary in the short term," adding, "There is no threat to the existence of the state of Israel as long as Iran does not possess nuclear arms." Halutz said he did not believe Iran would actually perfect a bomb "before the start of the next decade.... If they manage to do so, we will not be the only ones targetted, and we should work out how to defend ourselves."
Halutz's comments contrast sharply with earlier statements by Mossad chief Meir Dagan to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, reported in Ha'aretz Dec. 27, that "There exists a strategic Iranian decision to reach nuclear independence and the capability to produce bombs" much sooner, unless "its plans [are] thwarted by other countries." Responding to Dagan, Committee Chairman Yuval Steinmitz said that, if unchecked, Iran will have the bomb in one or two years and the region will become "a black Middle East."