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Diplomats Fear That Israel's Settlement Drive is Becoming Irreversible

By Reuters

In the hills east of Jerusalem, overlooking the Palestinian city of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, stands a religious Jewish settlement whose red-tile roofs, neat gardens and brightly colored playgrounds give the sense of permanence.

Mitzpe Yericho has stood on this escarpment close to the Dead Sea - the lowest point on earth - since 1978. It is one of more than 230 settlements Israelis have built on land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past half-century.

Diplomats and international monitors are increasingly concerned that the drive, which has seen Israel settle more than half a million of its people at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, may be reaching the point of irreversibility.

The ongoing expansion further diminishes the prospect of any significant progress being made when foreign ministers from 20 countries meet in Paris this week to discuss how to revive Middle East peace efforts, given the settlements have been a central obstacle for at least two decades.

If a peace deal were magically struck tomorrow, the Palestinians would expect the Israelis living in Mitzpe Yericho to leave. But its 3,000 residents, nearly all whom are religious nationalists, have no such intention. To them, the settlement enterprise is God-given and irreversible.

"If there's peace with the Palestinians we're staying and if there's no peace we're staying," said Yoel Mishael, 65, who has lived in Mitzpe Yericho since its founding. "It's part of Israel, according to the Bible. It's something from God." The foreign ministers will meet on Friday with the aim of paving the way for a summit later in the year that they hope the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will attend.

On Monday, in a sign that he is aware of the growing international pressure, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he was in favor of parts of the Arab peace initiative, a proposal put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 that would grant Israel recognition in exchange for withdrawing from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, among other steps. Yet while some momentum may be building, there is scant indication the settlement enterprise can be halted, let alone reversed, leaving a fundamental barrier in the path to peace.

The settlement project began after Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. In the 1970s, with the government's encouragement, large number of Jews began moving onto the occupied land. There are now 550,000 of them.

Many live in large blocs near Jerusalem or the 'green line' that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, while others live deep inside the West Bank, in highly protected enclaves or pre-fabricated 'outposts' perched on hill tops. All the constructions are considered illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, and plays down the term occupation.

Calculating the financial cost of settlements to Israel is difficult; as well as the capital required to build there are defense and infrastructure costs and the price of tax breaks for residents who move there. But the Macro Center for Political Economics, an Israeli think-tank, estimates building alone has cost around $30 billion over the past 40 years.

Barely a month goes by without a fresh announcement from the government or one of its ministries about West Bank territory being declared "state land," a precursor to settlement building, or a decision to allow new construction to proceed.

At the same time, Palestinians living in a part of the West Bank known as Area C, which accounts for 60% of the total and is where most settlements are located, are being uprooted from the land in increasing numbers.

During a visit to a sensitive part of the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Nablus, where settlements occupy almost every hilltop and are steadily expanding their footprint, U.N. diplomats studied maps and pointed out how the Israeli enclaves were spreading east toward the Jordan Valley. "It starts to look irreversible," said one official, a view separately supported by half a dozen foreign diplomats.

Under the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s, Israel retains full control over Area C, where large tracts have been declared closed military areas. As a result, Israeli courts tend to approve the removal of Palestinians from the area and the demolition of their homes, even though the accords did not change the illegal status of settlements there.

"Settlements are the vehicle for taking control of the land," said Catherine Cook, an official with the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian assistance and an authority on settlements, speaking last month. Asked whether she believed the settlement enterprise was irreversible, she replied: "Some of it has to be reversible."

If a peace deal were struck, many settlements would undoubtedly remain. While not openly acknowledged, Palestinian negotiators accept that land swaps, in which the Israelis would keep major settlement blocs along the green line and near Jerusalem, and the Palestinians would receive equivalent amounts of land from Israel in return, would be part of the deal.

But that would still leave vast areas of the West Bank, where 2.8 million Palestinians live in major cities such as Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah, dotted with more than a hundred settlements, many large and protected by the military.

Within Israel's right-wing government, there is little appetite to cede any ground to the Palestinians. Netanyahu says their failure to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is the biggest obstacle to peace, not the settlements.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett is an ardent supporter settlements and wants Israel to annex all of Area C rather than allowing a Palestinian state to emerge. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives in a settlement and is similarly wary of Palestinian statehood, even if like Netanyahu he has welcomed elements of the Arab peace initiative.

Hagit Ofran, a senior official at Peace Now, an Israeli NGO opposed to settlements, believes lines could be drawn that would allow a Palestinian state to emerge even if Israel kept many of its enclaves. But even then she estimates that as many as 150,000 settlers may have to be uprooted.

While some might leave willingly if offered the right compensation, many others would not. The removal of just 8,500 settlers from Gaza in 2005 caused violence and outrage. Many of the settlers in the heartland of the West Bank are religious nationalists who believe all the land, which they call Judea and Samaria, was gifted to Israel in the Bible. They are not interested in financial incentives to leave.

On the northern edge of Mitzpe Yericho, a lookout point provides sweeping views of Jericho and the Jordan Valley. An audio recording gives visitors a selective history of the region, with an English narration explaining how in the Bible God spoke to Joshua after the death of Moses, saying: "Prepare to cross the River Jordan together with all these people into the land which I am giving the Israelites. Every spot on which your foot treads, I will give to you."

At the end of the account, the narrator adds: "Today, more than 3,000 years later, Israeli settlements have once again renewed this Biblical landscape ... We wish you a pleasant visit."

Almost All of Israel's 32 Women in the Knesset Have Been Sexually Harassed or Assaulted

By The Washington Post

Out of 32 female members of Israel's parliament, called the Knesset, 28 say they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, and at least two say those experiences occurred in the Knesset itself, according to a new survey by an Israeli television channel.

The survey comes two weeks after 17 French members of parliament signed a column denouncing widespread sexual harassment and impunity in their workplace. In December, the Israeli interior minister and vice premier, Silvan Shalom, resigned after almost a dozen women, including one of his former employees, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault.

The survey gave the lawmakers a chance to speak publicly about the perils of being a woman in Israeli politics. "Even today, the fact that I'm a single woman in the Knesset puts me in unpleasant situations," said Merav Ben Ari, a Knesset member from the centrist Kulanu political party. "Sometimes people make comments. … I don't want to elaborate, but there was a situation recently in the Knesset, and I took care of it."

Other Knesset members spoke of harassment at different times in their careers or in their childhoods. Rachel Azaria, also of Kulanu, recounted experiences of her time as a Jerusalem City Council member.

"There was an incident that repeated itself in the planning and building committee, of which I was a member," Azaria said. "Another city counselor would make remarks of a sexual nature regarding things that I said, and the whole room would burst out laughing. I consulted with the legal adviser and other officials, and they all said there was nothing to be done. It interfered with my ability to function, and I was very distressed."

In 2007, then-Israeli President Moshe Katsav was charged with raping two women when he was a cabinet minister in the late 1990s, as well as sexual assault against two of his female staffers as president. The Israeli military, too, is plagued by allegations of sexual harassment. It has launched about 250 related investigations over the past two years.

Gaza 'Spiderboy' Seeks to Storm Guinness World Records

By AFP &

Mohammed al-Sheikh is only 12-years-old and feels trapped in Gaza but he dreams of a Guinness world record for a series of stunning backflips and his almost unbelievable body contortions. Mohammed, just four foot five inches tall and weighing 64 kilograms (141 pounds), can bend his body in seemingly impossible ways, throwing his feet over his shoulders with reckless abandon or jump into a spider-like pose. His antics earned this young Palestinian from the Gaza Strip the nickname of "Spiderman," a mantle which fills him with pride.

Mohammed found fame just after a devastating war in Gaza with Israel in 2014. Despite the 50-day conflict interrupting his training, he appeared on the TV show "Arabs Got Talent" in Lebanon, where his body-bending act won 14 million votes. Though he didn't win, he now hopes to writhe his way into the Guinness Book of Records from his home in the Tel al-Hawa area of southern Gaza City.

In an email seen by AFP, Guinness accepted his bid for a record entitled: "Most full body revolutions maintaining a chest stand in one minute." In the video submitted as evidence, Mohammed lies on the floor with his chest pressed into the ground.

His legs then spin around at 360 degrees -- his feet touching the ground at every angle in a feat of amazing dexterity. He achieves it 33 times in a minute, four more than the current record of 29, raising hopes he will be crowned in the coming weeks.

For his mother Hanan, he is already a "world champion," but now he must "show his extraordinary gift and exceptional strength in world competitions." At these words, Mohammed, perched on the coffee table, drags his back legs over his shoulders, picks up a glass with his toes and drinks from it. But for Mohammed, even more than records, he dreams of wriggling out of Gaza.

The hardest thing, he says, is not contorting his body into unbelievable shapes -- though Israel's 10-year blockade of the strip means he can only learn via YouTube videos. The hardest challenge for a boy who wants to travel the globe is to "get out of Gaza when all the borders are locked. Many Arabs and people across the world support me by clicking 'Like' on my videos on Facebook, and it makes me sad not being able to meet and interact with the world because of the blockade," Mohammed said.

His coach tried to channel the talents of young Gazans by opening a training center for unusual sports including parkour, the urban acrobatics in vogue in Gaza. But after a year, he ran out of money and had to close -- to the devastation of the young boys and girls who practiced there. "By leaving Mohammed in Gaza we bury a unique talent," said Lubbad.

After the final of "Arabs Got Talent", he was offered a training contract abroad including support for 10 years, with coaching to help him qualify for Arab and international competitions. But his family refused, saying Mohammed was too young to live abroad without them.

Today, even if he impresses his classmates, his mother, 48, insists it should not undermine the education of the youngest of her eight children. So he is left with escapism -- braving danger carrying out stunts on the back of a camel or a horse galloping on a Gaza beach, to the amazement of flabbergasted onlookers. There, he said, he feels "free. I'm in the air and there is no blockade."

New Israeli Ruling Allows Women to Legally Operate Brothels

By Israel Hayom

In a precedent-setting ruling Monday, Tel Aviv Magistrates' Court Judge Itai Hermelin determined that women who work as prostitutes may, under certain circumstances, run brothels. While prostitution in Israel is legal, organized prostitution via brothels and pimping is not. Hermelin's ruling is an effort to allow prostitutes a safe and dignified way to carry out their work.

The trial concerned a property in the heart of Tel Aviv that police are trying to shut down because of its use as a brothel, as the law bars the use of residential property for prostitution.

Fourteen of the women who work out of the building appeared in court claiming that they rent rooms in the building and that their business is legal. They added that the laws limiting the use of the property to exclude prostitution could leave them in the streets.

During the hearing, Hermelin outlined conditions agreed to by the state under which the law that prohibits holding a property for the purpose of prostitution will not be enforced: If the business operates out of the prostitute's home; if the property is rented out jointly by several prostitutes; or if the property is rented out by a prostitute for her business and she invites other prostitutes to share it with her.

Hermelin wrote in his ruling: "I do not believe that prostitution is necessarily slavery. I recognize a woman's autonomy to work in prostitution and allow men to pay money for sexual relations with women who work in this business."

Nevertheless, he ultimately granted the police motions for an order to close the premises due to concerns over pimping and prostitution. Hermelin's order will go into effect in three months time, allowing the women to make new arrangements for their work.

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