Having been away from this blog for a while, apart from moderating some fine comments on the perplexing Gaza prisoner situation of Gilad Shalit and his Hamas captors, I'm sure it is time to ramp up efforts again in light of increasing concerns.
I was impressed by the very recent video interview of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, by the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. It is wide ranging, both interviewer and interviewee handling the complexities well, but unraveling little.
According to Bowen:
"President Bashar al-Assad has the air of a man who thinks matters are going his way--even though he shares the common Middle Eastern view that the region is getting more dangerous.
Israel, the US and Britain are convinced that not only is Mr. Assad arming Hezbollah, but that he is also sending bigger, better and more accurate weapons than before.
And he seems in no mood to respond to US attempts to woo him away from Syria's long-term strategic alliance with Iran."
Israel refuses to open Gaza border crossings further until Shalit released
The Israeli security cabinet voted against further opening of Gaza border crossings today, tying the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to further progress. Hamas has said that Israel would have to agree to release as many as 1400 Palestinian prisoners in return. They include Fateh and Hamas members. Hamas has refused to link Shalit's release to any future truce, however.
Helena Cobban has written a lot over the years on the ME. In this link she has a very detailed run down on the latest Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over prisoner releases that could free key Hamas and Fateh militants from Israeli hands, and one Israeli soldier held in Gaza since 2006. All of this could be the precursor to declaration of another truce between Hamas and Israel on Wednesday. Reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh also seems to be on the cards. Meetings in Cairo indicate progress toward shared responsibilities and new elections.
B'Tselem, the human rights agency that reports on violations in the West Bank and Gaza, has released its 2007 year end report. While the number of Israelis and Palestinians killed has dropped, there is deterioration in other humanitarian sectors.
In a report from the Israel Project attention is directed to the plight of Palestinian Christians whose numbers have dwindled in recent years. The site of Jesus' birth has been hard hit. As the report notes, "Bethlehem in particular has seen a dramatic decline in its Christian population. Of Bethlehem’s 30,000 residents, less than 20 percent are Christian. In 1948 though, more than 85 percent of the town’s inhabitants were Christian." In the West Bank and Gaza the drop in numbers is even more dramatic. Once at 15% of the Palestinian population (1948), Christians now represent only 1½%. Muslim persecution is certainly one of the reasons for the decline as the report shows.
Though religious tolerance is usually relegated in discussions about the peace process, without mutual respect between Christians, Muslims and Jews, progress in the Middle East will remain a distant dream. The issue of Jerusalem's declining Christian population is a subject I treat inIdentity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem.
Today, Shimon Peres was elected Israel’s president in a second round of voting. His two challengers had withdrawn after winning many fewer votes in the first round.
Yesterday Peres’ former party, Labor, elected Ehud Barak as its new leader. These two former prime ministers find themselves in new roles at a crucial time in the ongoing Middle East
crisis. What it may mean for the Palestinian situation is hard to predict with the current fierce battles between Hamas and Fatah fighters in Gaza
and the West Bank. Though Peres’ role will be largely ceremonial, he will have a unique opportunity to meet world leaders and influence policy. In an interview with Vision a few years ago he made clear his overall feelings about the need for reconciliation with the Palestinian people.
David Hulme holds a Ph.D. in International Relations with an emphasis on the Middle East. As publisher of Vision and president of the Church of God, an International Community (COG AIC), Hulme's message is one of hope, restoration and peace.