Inside the Middle East
November 18, 2010
Posted: 2041 GMT

It's late afternoon in Jerusalem and Moses Levi is making one of his frequent visits to the Western Wall.

"They say this is where the presence of God is," Levi says as he ambles across the plaza of Judaism's holiest site, a mere stone's throw away from Islam's sacred al-Aqsa Mosque.

"That's why you have Muslims here, Christians here, and obviously you have the Israelites here.  When everybody disagrees about everything, they agree about one thing:  that this is where they need to come to pray."

Like many of the worshippers there, he is dressed in traditional garb – a silver-striped silk robe, black knee-length pants, a white knit skullcap, and specially knotted fringes dangling from the sides of his legs.

In many ways, Levi is indistinguishable from the thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews who call Jerusalem home.  The only hint of something unusual is the Kurt Cobain T-shirt he wears under the robe, the black Ray-Ban sunglasses, and the signs of recognition on the faces of tourists passing by.

Levi is, in fact, far from your standard ultra-orthodox adherent to the Jewish faith.

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November 9, 2010
Posted: 1906 GMT

Following our post (see below) on a Fars News Agency report about Hamas extending an invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit the Gaza Strip, we were finally able to get in touch with Hamas official Dr. Ahmed Yousef.

Yousef told us that in fact no written invitation had been made to the Iranian leader and that his comments to the  news agency had been misunderstood.

Yousef said President Ahmadinejad was indeed welcome to come to the Gaza Strip as were all Arab and Muslim leaders to see the impact of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade.

He said this blanket invitation was made through the Arab League and the only leader who had responded thus far was the organization's secretary-general, Amr Moussa, who visited Gaza this past June.

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Posted: 1523 GMT
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a mass rally in the southern Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil (Getty Images)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a mass rally in the southern Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil (Getty Images)

Fresh off the success of his controversial visit to Lebanon, it appears that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will now be weighing whether or not to make another diplomatic visit – this time to the Gaza Strip.

According to semi-official Iranian news agency Fars,  the Hamas government in Gaza has extended an official invitation to the Iranian leader to visit the coastal strip in order to "boost resistance moral" of the territories 1.5 million Palestinian residents.

Hamas official Ahmed Yousef told Fars  “We invite (President) Ahmadinejad to pay a visit to the Gaza Strip, and we are confident that the visit will have extraordinary importance”

Yousef  told Fars he hoped that a trip by the Iranian leader would inspire Gazans in the same way it did for Lebanese.

Lacking the same enthusiasm would be Israel which has long accused the Iranian regime of providing weapons and cash to Hamas which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

"Perhaps he could be smuggled in through the tunnels with weapons" deadpanned Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor who said he did not expect an Ahmadinejad visit to take place, despite the invitation.

Israel and Egypt control the land, sea and air approaches to the territory and it would be unlikely that the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak , which has not enjoyed the friendliest of relations with Iran, would allow such a visit.

For his part Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who represents a rival Palestinian political faction,  will not be supporting a visit either.  He recently told CNN that both Iran and Hamas were impeding the peace talks with Israel.

"Hamas and whoever is standing behind Hamas – meaning Iran – is slowing the peace process. Yes, yes, Iran is pressuring Hamas not to be part of any agreement, so that they can use Hamas as a negotiations card in their talks with the international community and especially with the United States."

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Posted: 504 GMT

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November 4, 2010
Posted: 1956 GMT

Following up on our previous post about Israel's anger over the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) designation of  a West Bank religious shrine as a mosque,  the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decided to stop working with the UN agency.

In a statement Israel's Deputy foreign  minister, Danny Ayalon,  announced  "the suspension of Israel’s cooperation with the organization (UNESCO) in the implementation of the five resolutions until these outrageous pronouncements are rescinded"

Ayalon went on to say that the UNESCO recommendations were based on the "automatic Arab majority" in the agency and that it had become a "rubber stamp" of the Palestinian Authority.

An Israeli government official said the move was meant to "send a message" to the UN agency about Israel's "extreme displeasure" with the mosque designation which the official called a "negation" of not only Jewish and Christian tradition but of Islamic history as well.

The press office at UNESCO had no immediate comment about the latest criticism.

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October 25, 2010
Posted: 901 GMT
Pope Benedict XVI presides over the last day of the synod of bishops from the Middle East at the Vatican(OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images).
Pope Benedict XVI presides over the last day of the synod of bishops from the Middle East at the Vatican(OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images).


 A two-week conference of Catholic bishops to discuss the situation of Christians in the Middle East has stirred some controversy.

At the conclusion of the Vatican gathering, called a synod in church terminology,  bishops released a communique Saturday that among other things called for the international community "to put an end to the occupation"  and an exhortation that the bible should not be used by Israel as a pretext to justify injustices.

The communique and remarks in a closing press conference by Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros brought charges of "libel" from Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalaon on Sunday and a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Yigal Palmor, said the bishops were "committing a sin towards the truth"  by ignoring the fact  that "Israel is the one  country in the region that is welcoming to Christians"

Palmor cited statistics showing the Christian population in Israel had been growing steadily throughout the years due to natural growth and immigration. He said that Christians face pressure in many countries in the Middle East because of Islamic law and  Muslim extremism, but that Israel was not one of them.

Rabbi David Rosen who serves as the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish committee and spoke before the synod as special guest earlier in the month called the omissions of  the conference's  final statement "appalling".

"...the bishops did not have the courage to address challenges of intolerance and extremism in the Muslim countries in which they reside, and rather chose to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their first focus" Rosen said in a statement.

For its part the Palestinian Authority welcomed the conclusions from the Vatican gathering.

"Israel cannot use the biblical concept of a promised land or chosen people to justify new settlements in Jerusalem or Israeli territorial claims," Saeb Erakat, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a chief Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement Sunday.

Erakat said the synod sent "a clear a message to the government of Israel that it may not claim that Jerusalem is an exclusively Israeli city."

"(In) coming weeks we will engage in discussions with the Vatican on ways to further consolidate our fantastic relations," Erakat said. "

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October 20, 2010
Posted: 749 GMT
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October 15, 2010
Posted: 558 GMT
Avigdor Liberman, pictured in Jerusalem, is not known for his diplomatic style.
Avigdor Liberman, pictured in Jerusalem, is not known for his diplomatic style.

Solve your own problems before you lecture us about ours.

That was the blunt message Israel's combative and controversial foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, gave to counterparts visiting from France and Spain earlier this week in Jerusalem.

In comments widely publicized in the Israeli media Monday, Liberman told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that European countries needed to work on the conflicts in their own backyards before advising Israel on how to handle its decades-old dispute with Arab neighbors.

"I do expect you at least to solve problems in Europe before you come to teach us how to resolve conflicts. After you solve conflicts in the Caucasus, Cyprus, in Transnistria or the ongoing fight between Serbia and Kosovo - come to us and then I will be ready to accept your advice."

Liberman also wanted the visiting diplomats to know that Israel could not be pushed around like he said some European countries were on the eve of the Second World War.

"In 1938 the European community decided to appease (Adolf) Hitler instead of supporting its faithful ally Czechoslovakia and sacrificed it without receiving anything in return," Liberman told Moratinos and Kouchner, according to media reports. "I'm telling you: we will not be the 2010 version of Czechoslovakia. We will defend our essential interests."

And to make things crystal clear to the visiting diplomats, the Israeli foreign minister explained some of the faults of recent diplomatic efforts.

"It seems like the international community is trying to hide its failures to resolve conflicts in Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Sudan and other places by pushing for an Israel-Palestinian agreement in one year..."

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October 13, 2010
Posted: 1619 GMT

A top Palestinian negotiator distanced the Palestinian Authority government from comments made by a senior Palestinian Liberation Organization official inferring  Palestinians might recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a future Palestinian state based on 1967 borders that included all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

 "We are not going to do anything that would pre-empt or prejudge the rights of the Palestinians in Israel or Palestinian refugees" Nabil Sha'ath, an advisor to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, told CNN. "We are not going to do it – forget it"

Sha'ath's comments followed a  report by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoting PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo as saying "We want to receive a map of the State of Israel which Israel wants us to accept....If the map will be based on the 1967 borders and will not  include our land, our houses and East Jerusalem, we will be willing to recognize Israel according to the formulation of the government within the hour,"

He went on to tell the newspaper "It is important for us to know where are the borders of Israel and where are the borders of Palestine. Any formulation the Americans present – even asking us to call Israel the 'Chinese State' – we will agree to it, as long as we receive the 1967 borders. We have recognized Israel in the past, but Israel has not recognized the Palestinian state."

Sha'ath told CNN that Abed Rabbo's comments, as reported, did not represent  the position of the PLO or the Fatah political faction which dominates the Palestinian Authority.

On Monday Palestinians rejected an offer from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau to renew a freeze on new construction in the occupied West Bank in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Isarel as a Jewish state.

Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi,  told CNN that in a phone conversation Wednesday with Mahmoud Abbas the Palestinian president assured him there was no intention to recognize Israel a Jewish state.

CNN, despite repeated attempts, was unable to contact Abed Rabbo for comment.

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October 5, 2010
Posted: 1211 GMT

Screen shot of video posted on You Tube (AFP/Getty Images)

The Israeli military Tuesday denounced  a video that surfaced on YouTube that showed what appeared to be an Israeli soldier dancing around a blindfolded and bound Palestinian prisoner.

The video comes after a number of social media controversies have engulfed the Israeli military. This summer, a female former Israeli soldier posted photos of herself posing in front of blindfolded Palestinian prisoners. The photos and her subsequent defense of her actions sparked international criticism of the military.

It was not known when the latest video was shot, but it appears to have been posted in 2008.

The clip, which first aired Monday night on Israel's Channel 10, shows a man dressed in an Israeli army fatigues dancing next to a blindfolded female woman.

Contacted by CNN, the Israeli military said it in a statement that is was investigating the incident and that such examinations would now become "standard practice in cases in which similar behavior is alleged"

The statement went on to read:

"The IDF denounces actions such as those depicted in the videos, and continues to make every effort to eliminate such behavior through briefings to soldiers, directives to officers, military orders, and punishment when necessary. Our soldiers are held to the ethical standards set forth by the IDF Code of Ethics, which they are taught time and again, from basic training to the most senior command courses. The videos are isolated cases that do not represent the IDF as a whole. "

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