The 20th Arab Summit took place in Damascus at the end of March. It was controversial because certain Arab nations wanted to show their disapproval of Syria’s links with radical Islamists. Lebanon did not send any representative. In fact, around half of the Arab leaders didn’t attend. It did, however, reaffirm the Arab Peace Initiative.
Peace talks continue between Olmert and Abbas and between Ahmed Qureia (chief Palestinian negotiator) and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. All the core issues, including Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the return of refugees are being discussed. On April 7th Olmert and Abbas stated they intended to reach agreement by the end of 2008, despite hindrances such as terrorism and settlements.
Olmert appears to be hoping their will be some signing ceremony during President Bush’s visit to Israel in May. He is well aware that the new American President will be pre-occupied with major problems such as Iraq, Iran and the current economic crisis.
There are, though, some concerns about the weakness of Abbas and Fatah although one hopeful sign is co-operation between Fatah and Jordan (which certainly does not want a Hamas takeover in the West Bank).
The Americans have pressed Israel to remove 50 roadblocks on the West Bank. Olmert urged the IDF to act sympathetically to Palestinians at roadblocks. “Take all the Palestinians who were stripped at the roadblocks, only because there was concern that some of them were terrorists. Take all those who stand at the roadblocks where there is concern that a car bomb will pass through. This can become a boiling pot that can explode and cause terrible burns, and it can also be something else, which only depends on your understanding and abilities to conduct yourselves with wisdom and determination.”
However Israel is expanding the settlement of Ariel and is building homes for Jewish people in East Jerusalem, which hinders the peace process.
The number of rockets fired from Gaza has reduced, although Islamic Jihad fired 22 on March 26th. Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas, stated that the organisation supports a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem. He also called for the return of Palestinian refugees. Hamas was ready for a ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank.
However Hamas is building up its weaponry in Gaza. It has 20,000 fighters and has held training sessions in Gaza as well as Syria and Iran. It now has more advanced rockets and anti-tank weapons and is highly organised and prepared. Hamas is also taking half of the fuel provided by Israel for military use and is thought to be intending to create a fuel crisis as a propaganda move against Israel.
A recent Israeli survey found that 84% of Palestinians support the Yeshiva attack, 64% support the rocket and suicide attacks. On the other hand, two thirds of Palestinians support the Arab peace plan, whereas 57% of Israelis reject it.
There is also extremism on the Israeli side. The senior rabbi in Safed called for the children of the yeshiva terrorist to be hanged from a tree. “It’s time to call a spade a spade name: Revenge, revenge, revenge. We mustn’t forget,” he said. Also, B’Tslelem,, the Israeli human rights organisation, published a report that the IDF had murdered four Palestinian activists in cold blood in Bethlehem.
There were heightened fears in Israel recently about an imminent war with Syria. But following this both sides made it quite clear that they have no intention of attacking each other. There are reports of numerous messages sent by Olmert to President Assad of Syria, but it appears that leading people in Syria reject any contact with Israel. The Americans also oppose peace talks between the two countries. Ehud Barak, Israeli Defence Minister, said: “Syria is a weak country with many problems, but under certain conditions Israel will be willing to open the door to it. Israel considers negotiations with Syria and removing Syria from the circle of extremists as central to its policy.”
Another factor causing concern in the Middle East is the prospect of regime-change in Egypt. President Mubarak is almost 80 so change must happen soon. Egypt has excluded the extreme Islamist Muslim Brotherhood from the political process but in 2005 many of their candidates stood as independents and won 88 out of 454 parliamentary seats. If Egypt changed its approach to issues like Hamas this could cause worrying changes in the region.
PRAYER TOPICS 1. For the continuation of Arab desires for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. 2. For the success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 3. For the curtailment of violence and the frustration of extremism. 4. For peace talks between Israeland Syria. 5. For stability in Egypt.