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Inside the Middle East
September 30, 2010
Posted: 901 GMT

The UK daily The Guardian is reporting today that it has exclusive access to secret documents indicating that the repeated jamming of Al-Jazeera Sports' satellite transmissions from the World Cup originated in Jordan.

In response, the Jordanian government issued a statement calling the allegations "absolutely baseless and unacceptable," saying "the government is ready to cooperate with any team of independent experts to examine the facts, and is certain that any such examination will prove these allegations false."

Back in June there was widespread anger among football fans around the region as up to seven matches being broadcast live from South Africa were disrupted by interference that the network referred to as "sabotage."

The Guardian is speculating that this interference, which it claims can be traced to a location near the Jordanian city of Al Salt, came in the wake of a last minute TV deal going sour that would have allowed viewers there to watch the games for free; an allegation that the Jordanian government rejects.

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Filed under: Jordan •Media •Science & Technology •Sports


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September 28, 2010
Posted: 1405 GMT

Driving out of Amman at first light is always an inspiring experience. This morning was no different.

The first flush of mellow amber light awakening fresh life in the sandstone hues of this ancient city. The early hazy dust taking the edge off the seemingly endless urban sprawl of low-cost concrete apartments.

But my focus was already beyond the steep hardscrabble hills flashing past the windows. My thoughts lay about two hundred kilometers further up the road, in Damascus.

Jordanian producer Ranya Khadri had connected me to Khaled Meshaal, the political chief of Hamas. I’d interviewed him three years ago, but now peace talks with Hamas excluded were underway seemed the right time to talk again.

Ranya called Meshaal’s office in Damascus. They wanted to know who would be coming, what we would ask. Two days later, we had a green light for the interview. That was Wednesday.

Now came the hard part, getting Syrian visas for camerawoman Mary Rogers and me. Typically they can take weeks, and, to be newsworthy, we needed the interview by Saturday at the latest.

As Mary and I sat nervously waiting in Ranya’s apartment Friday, the visas finally came through, almost literally at the eleventh hour. So close to midnight, we decided it would be better to grab a few hours sleep and set off early Saturday.

It was to prove the right decision. As I focused ahead, bumping down the highway out of Amman, imagining I’d soon be interviewing the man the United States and Israel call a terrorist leader, I had overlooked one not so small detail.

Crossing in to Syria by road is not like landing at Damascus airport. Sure, you get the same scrutiny and brief holdups at immigration while they search for the telex confirming your visa, but any sense of a speedy process, with new arrivals to be quickly turned loose in the country, seems lost.

Parked up by the border in the now baking sun, time was standing still. Hour upon hour we waited for our camera gear to be checked. We’d faxed the list ahead but it was making little difference. Time was ticking down, no officials seemed to share our sense of urgency, we couldn’t afford to be late.

(CNN's Nic Robertson with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal)


The only sign of change the years had brought to the stifling customs hall were layers of dust and bureaucracy and we were caught in the middle. Stuck between customs agents and a myriad of intelligence officials. It was a suffocating feeling. We’d come so far, but every hour pushed the interview potentially further out of our grasp.

Finally it came down to one man. An official from two-one-one, military intelligence. He would have to look at our gear and say it was safe to bring in to the country.

After hauling the equipment out for inspection and more than 4 hours at the border we were finally on our way. The man from two-one-one had told us he’d come to our hotel and check the gear once we arrived.

After all the lost time it seemed odd he’d let us drive across country before looking at it. But this was Syria and we were playing by their rules. Our goal was that one interview, nothing else.

The man from two-one-one had barely finished checking the gear and Meshaal’s men were knocking on Mary’s door. They wanted our gear too, only they were going to take it away, along with our passports.

I’ve been through less strict US presidential security before, they’ll let you bring your gear with you, check it out while you watch. Hamas it seemed were working to a higher standard. But at least now it felt that we would finally meet Meshaal.

Mary, who’s been doing this longer than me, was yet to be convinced. Two years ago she told me she’d been through the same drill, even set up her camera for the interview only to be told he couldn’t make it.

Meshaal has every reason to be cautious, a little more than a decade ago Israeli Mossad agents tried to kill him. The poison they used was so strong a backup team carried an antidote. The King of Jordan threatened Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu he’d break off relations if Meshaal, who was dying on a hospital gurney in Amman, was not saved.

Security was clearly on the minds of Meshaal’s men who picked us up from the hotel. It was dark but Damascus’s twisting thoroughfares still crowded with buses and post rush our traffic. They squeezed through impossible gaps at improbable speeds.

When a space tightened too far, they worked their siren. The Syrians only too happy to move from their careening path. On the final turn, I recognized the tree-lined street, it had been fast but I’d felt safe and now we were here.

As Meshaal strode in to the room, his staff all stood up. There is no question who is boss, no question whom they look to for leadership

Precisely 13 years to the day since the Israeli agents had tried to kill him, we were finally meeting Meshaal.

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Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Palestinians


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September 27, 2010
Posted: 1953 GMT

Hamas political leader vows to continue fight with Israel

CNN's Nic Robertson travelled to Damascus this past weekend  for a sit-down interview with Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal.  You can watch portions of the interview here and here or read the transcript after the jump.

Among other things Meshaal talks about why he believes why the current negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are a "trick" that will fail, why he thinks Hamas is justified staging attacks against Israelis,  and comments on the status of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas and other Gaza based militants groups in a 2006 cross-border raid.

Transcript starts here:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Jerusalem •Palestinians •U.S.


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September 26, 2010
Posted: 1148 GMT

Hanan Sufan welcomes us into her house with open arms. A resident of the West Bank village of Burin, she is accustomed to visitors. Over the years she has welcomed journalists, human rights groups, representatives from the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli military.

(Hanan Sufan)


All said they would help and all documented her plight. Yet ten years on, she still lives in daily fear of attacks from the nearby Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, a settlement considered radical by many mainstream Israelis.

Her home is nestled in the hills of the West Bank, away from the village. A spot which would have been envied before the settlement arrived. Now it makes her target number one for violent settlers who throw stones at her house and family and even set fire to the house in 2003.

Her daughter has captured many attacks on a video camera given to her by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

While sitting with the family, sipping the customary arabic coffee, it’s hard not to notice the iron gratings that cover every window – we’re told to prevent rocks and Molotov cocktails from flying inside the house. Barbed wire covers the top of the railings around the house to try and prevent people jumping over and there’s a bed on the roof. When I ask why, Sufan tells me it’s for her son who stays the night outside to listen out for an imminent attack.

(Hanan Sufan and her family)

Sufan tells me her husband died of a stroke in 2003 after seeing the house set on fire by settlers. Even now, she breaks down when she talks about him, saying she wishes she’d lost the house rather than her husband. She calls him the backbone of the family.

Without that backbone Sufan has taken over the role of head of the family and everyone looks to her for guidance. Her two year old grandson Wadee’ becomes distressed when she walks away, preferring to stay within a few meters.

We tried to speak to the settlement spokesman to ask what they are doing to try to stop this persistent violence against the family and the village as a whole, but he declined to comment, citing the Jewish holidays.

It’s no way for a family to live. Never leaving the house unattended for fear of settlers moving in. Never allowing the few sheep they have to roam the land for fear of them being poisoned – Sufan tells me 20 of her sheep were poisoned, now they are all kept in the backyard.

(Hanan Sufan showing her olive grove close to the border of the Yitzhar settlement)

Only walking up the hill towards the edge of the settlement to tend her olive trees when her son and many villagers are with her. She says she feels safe with us when we accompany her there as we have a camera and she thinks that will prevent any violence. Mourning 23 olive trees the settlers chopped down in January, she says she felt like she was losing a child as she had tended them so carefully for thirty or forty years.

And repeating her story time and time again to people who want to help but somehow fail to make a difference.

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Filed under: Israel •Palestinians


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September 24, 2010
Posted: 1457 GMT

Our team in Baghdad sent us these photos of the latest graduating class of Iraqi police cadets - over 500 of them, all set to become members of the  Iraqi Federal police.

The press corps along with American and Iraqi dignitaries were treated to a display of hostage rescue exercises, martial arts demonstrations, and crowd control techniques.

Iraqi federal police in riot gear

Our correspondent in Baghdad, Ben Wedeman, reports that while the multinational forces have put much  effort and resources into building up Iraqi's security apparatus, there is still real  concern about Iraqi force's human rights record.

A recent Amnesty International report estimated that more than thirty-thousand Iraqis are being held without trial and that torture is widespread.

Iraqi federal police showing off their martial arts skills

The Italian trainers of these Iraqi police say human rights awareness was a major component of the cadet's education and they think the formal training will make a difference.

"They taught us not to beat citizens" said newly minted officer Ali Abid.

A lesson that everyone hopes will not soon be forgotten.

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Filed under: Iraq •Pictures


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September 23, 2010
Posted: 1618 GMT

Former American President Bill Clinton and Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair (CNN IReport)

Suggesting that Russian immigrants in Israel pose an obstacle to a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, former U.S. president Bill Clinton stepped into the mire of Middle Eastern politics this week and prompted a wave criticism from Israeli politicians including the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.   

Clinton, speaking at a panel discussion of his Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday, told audience members "An increasing number of the young people in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem. It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."   

Referring to the over one million Russians immigrants who have come to the Jewish state since 1989 Clinton remarked "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there...they can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."   

The controversial comments, first reported by the website of Foreign Policy magazine,  come as the Obama administration, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mediates high-stake direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to reach a historic peace agreement within the next year.   

In Israel reaction to the Clinton's remarks has been extremely critical. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "regret" over the comments late Wednesday and said "As a friend of Israel, Bill Clinton definitely knows that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed a great deal to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel."   

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Filed under: Clinton •Israel •Palestinians •Peace Talks •U.S.


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September 22, 2010
Posted: 604 GMT

Former United States president Bill Clinton sat down with CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday and waxed optimistic about the prospect for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians calling a deal "imminently doable".

Clinton cited "real support" from the Arab states and genuine worry from both sides about passing up another opportunity as reasons a deal is "slightly more likely to happen than not."

The former president expressed confidence in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  and his ability to influence right-wing factions in Israel including the Yisrael Beiteinu party of his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman

"I know that Netanyahu can deliver" he told Blitzer "It may cost him his coalition. Lieberman and his crew will have a decision to make. But they trust him on security and they will vote with him in the end to ratify an agreement."

Clinton also laid  blame on the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for not making a peace deal in 2000...take a listen.

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Filed under: Clinton •CNN Coverage •Palestinians •U.S. •Video


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September 21, 2010
Posted: 2017 GMT

   

Israeli youth demonstrator holds a picture of Jonathan Pollard (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty)

Monday Israeli Army Radio aired a story that has created a minor stir in Jerusalem political circles.  

The report said  the Israeli  government had floated an informal proposal to the Obama administration offering an Israeli extension of  the West Bank settlement building freeze  in exchange for a U.S. release of Jonathan Pollard,  the former American intelligence analyst sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for the Jewish State.  

The story indicated that proponents of such a deal believe it would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition members the political cover they need to support a continuation of the settlement freeze – an issue that could derail the nascent direct talks between Israeli and Palestinians as soon as this Sunday when the freeze is set to expire.  

In a media briefing Monday Israel's Deputy Prime Minister and inner cabinet member, Dan Meridor, was coy when asked about the matter telling reporters "I don't want to touch on sensitive issues".

Another senior Israeli government official told CNN that "we routinely raise the issue with the Americans" and that bringing up the issue since the September 2nd start of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians "would not be out of the ordinary" though the source would not say if a linkage between a Pollard release and an extension of the settlement freeze had been articulated recently.  

The case, one that is often raised by the Israeli government, is one of several possibilities raised by the Israelis as an issue they want resolved, several American officials told CNN.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: General •Israel •Palestinians •U.S.


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Posted: 1050 GMT

 

Sarah Shourd speaks to the media in Muscat, Oman (Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images)

*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent,  Nic Robertson, filed this report describing  the frenzied mechanics of chasing a big Middle Eastern news story*

As we dashed to Abu Dhabi’s International Airport last Tuesday evening we knew we had only a slim chance of catching up with Sarah Shourd.

We were frantically booking flights to Muscat and she was already in the air on a two and a half hour flight to freedom from a Tehran jail.

Sarah had probably reached cruising altitude, Tehran fading beneath the Royal Oman jet the Sultan had sent for her and we’d just got our tickets. But the race wasn’t over. Just as we were heading for security we discovered an earlier flight, and after a crazy and slightly undignified dash to another terminal we took our seats on a BA 777 as the doors were closing.

It was exactly the kind of adrenalin pumping journalism that this profession pitches you in to without warning. We had one goal: talk to Sarah.

We touched down almost simultaneously with her flight. She was getting the Royal treatment, red carpet, VIP lounge, we were struggling to confirm she’d made it.

We hung around in international limbo, afraid to go through immigration for fear Sarah would take another flight to the US. By now we were booked on every flight leaving Muscat for the next five hours.

We stalked the transit halls and lounges scouring for a glimmer of her entourage. Our producer Raja Razek had worked her magic and found a source who was searching passenger manifests for us. But no sign of Sarah. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: CNN Coverage •Oman


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September 20, 2010
Posted: 1040 GMT

Cars intended for transfer into Gaza wait to enter the Gaza Strip from southern Israel at the Erez crossing (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time in over three years, the Israeli government has allowed the transfer of cars into the  Gaza Strip. 

The move, said Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel's office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories,  was another step in "the expansion of the civilian policy towards Gaza strip". 

About 20 cars loaded on trucks were to pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing Monday and  be handed over to Palestinian car dealers. Another 60 cars are to be transferred over the next few days according to Inbar. 

Israel decided to ease restrictions on the Gaza Strip in wake of  international condemnation following an Israeli commando raid against activists on-board an aid ship bound for Gaza.  The raid left nine Turkish and Turkish-American activist dead. 

Gaza has been subject to an Israeli and Egyptian economic blockade since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 though Israel has been allowing more goods to be imported recently except those it claims can be used for weapons manufacturing and building military fortifications.

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Filed under: Gaza •General •Hamas •Israel


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