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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Livni to Cypriot FM: Confiscate weapons from Iranian ship

By Barak Ravid | Haaretz Correspondent | February 1, 2009

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke to her Cypriot counterpart Markos Kyprianou by phone and requested that he act toward confiscating weapons aboard the ship that were allegedly on their way from Iran to Syria.

Livni emphasized that the passage of the weapons is in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747 that prohibits trade in weapons with Iran because of its ongoing nuclear program.

The saga of a ship suspected of carrying arms from Iran to Gaza grew more complicated Saturday as Cypriot authorities searched the ship, then backed away from previous assertions that it was violating United Nations resolutions. Authorities will now conduct a second search, the Cypriot foreign minister said.

Suspicions that the Cypriot-flagged container ship Monchegorsk was ferrying arms from Iran to the militant Palestinian organization Hamas had been raised by the United States. The U.S. military stopped the vessel in the Red Sea last week but could not legally detain it or seize its cargo.

The ship continued on to Port Said, Egypt, then headed for Cyprus, where it arrived Thursday. It remains anchored off the island nation's southern port of Limassol under tight marine police security.

Kyprianou said Saturday that a first inspection of the Monchegorsk was complete. He said authorities were still trying to determine whether the ship's cargo contravened United Nations resolutions.

On Friday, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias had said without qualification that the ship had violated U.N. resolutions.

The foreign minister refused Saturday to divulge any details about the ship's cargo.

"This is a very serious matter concerning the Cyprus Republic's responsibilities as a member of the United Nations and the European Union, but also its relations with the international community," Kyprianou told state radio.

He urged patience for a few days, saying disclosure of information would
hinder the government's handling of the issue.

A European diplomatic source said Thursday that the Cypriot authorities had detained what he called an Iranian arms ship en route to Syria.

The move apparently came after Israel and the United States requested that Cyprus stop the ship, based on suspicion that the boat was carrying a large amount of weaponry, including artillery rounds and rockets that Israel believes are destined for either Hezbollah or Hamas.

The vessel left the Persian Gulf a few weeks ago and reached about 60 miles from Cyprus on Wednesday.

Israel launched a 22-day offensive late last month on Hamas-controlled Gaza to try to end rocket fire on Israeli civilians and halt arms smuggling that has enabled Hamas to threaten southern Israel.

Secret Israeli database reveals full extent of illegal settlement

By Uri Blau | Haaretz | Sat., January 31, 2009

The use of private lands to establish or expand them.

The painstakingly amassed data was labeled political dynamite.

The defense establishment, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, steadfastly refused to publicize the figures, arguing, for one thing, that publication could endanger state security or harm Israel's foreign relations. Someone who is liable to be particularly interested in the data collected by Spiegel is George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, who came to Israel this week for his first visit since his appointment. It was Mitchell who authored the 2001 report that led to the formulation of the road map, which established a parallel between halting terror and halting construction in the settlements.

The official database, the most comprehensive one of its kind ever compiled in Israel about the territories, was recently obtained by Haaretz. Here, for the first time, information the state has been hiding for years is revealed. An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements - about 75 percent - construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.

The data, it should be stressed, do not refer only to the illegal outposts (information about which was included in the well-known report authored by attorney Talia Sasson and published in March 2005), but to the very heart of the settlement enterprise. Among them are veteran ideological settlements like Alon Shvut (established in 1970 and currently home to 3,291 residents, including Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun); Ofra (established in 1975, home to 2,708 residents, including
former Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor Yosef and media personalities Uri Elitzur and Hagai Segal); and Beit El (established in 1977, population 5,308, including Hagai Ben-Artzi, brother of Sara Netanyahu). Also included are large settlements founded primarily for economic motives, such as the city of Modi'in Illit (established in 1990 and now home to 36,282 people), or Givat Ze'ev outside Jerusalem (founded in 1983, population 11,139), and smaller settlements such as Nokdim near Herodion (established in 1982, population 851, including MK Avigdor Lieberman).

The information contained in the database does not conform to the state's official position, as presented, for instance, on the Foreign Ministry Web site, which states: "Israel's actions relating to the use and allocation of land under its administration are all taken with strict regard to the rules and norms of international law - Israel does not requisition private land for the establishment of settlements." Since in many of the settlements, it was the government itself, primarily through the Ministry of Construction and Housing, that was responsible for construction, and since many of the building violations involve infrastructure, roads, public buildings and so on, the official data also demonstrate government responsibility for the unrestrained planning and lack of enforcement of regulations in the territories. The extent of building violations also attests to the poor functioning of the Civil Administration, the body in charge of permits and supervision of construction in the territories.

According to the 2008 data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 290,000 Jews live in the 120 official settlements and dozens of outposts established throughout the West Bank over the past 41 years.

"Nothing was done in hiding," says Pinchas Wallerstein, director-general of the Yesha Council of settlements and a leading figure in the settlement project. "I'm not familiar with any [building] plans that were not the initiative of the Israeli government." He says that if the owners of private land upon which settlements are built were to complain and the court were to accept their complaint, then the structures would have to be moved somewhere else. "This has been the Yesha Council's position for the past years," he says.

You'd never know it from touring several of the settlements in which massive construction has taken place on private Palestinian lands. Entire neighborhoods built without permits or on private lands are inseparable parts of the settlements. The sense of dissonance only intensifies when you find that municipal offices, police and fire stations were also built upon and currently operate on lands that belong to Palestinians.

On Misheknot Haro'im Street in the Kochav Yaakov settlement, a young mother is carrying her two children home. "I've lived here for six years," she says, sounding surprised when told that her entire neighborhood was built upon private Palestinian land. "I know that there's some small area in the community that is in dispute, but I never heard that this is private land." Would she have built her home on this land had she known this from the start? "No," she answers. "I wouldn't have kicked anyone out of his home."

Not far away, at the settlement's large and unkempt trailer site, which is also built on private land, a young newlywed couple is walking to the bus stop: 21-year-old Aharon and his 19-year-old wife, Elisheva. They speak nearly perfect Hebrew despite having grown up in the United States and having settled permanently in Israel just a few months ago, after Aharon completed his army service in the ultra-Orthodox Nahal unit. Now he is studying computers at Machon Lev in Jerusalem. Asked why they chose to live here of all places, they list three reasons: It's close to Jerusalem, it's cheap and it's in the territories. In that order.

The couple pay their rent, NIS 550 a month, to the settlement secretariat. As new immigrants, they are still exempt from having to pay the arnona municipal tax. Aharon doesn't look upset when he hears that his trailer sits on private land. It doesn't really interest him. "I don't care what the state says, the Torah says that the entire Land of Israel is ours." And what will happen if they're told to move to non-private land? "We'll move," he says without hesitation.

A complicated problem
Even today, more than two years after concluding his official role, Baruch Spiegel remains loyal to the establishment. In a conversation, he notes several times that he signed a confidentiality agreement and so is not willing to go into the details of the work for which he was responsible. He was appointed by Shaul Mofaz to handle several issues about which Israel had given a commitment to the United States, including improving conditions for Palestinians whose lives were adversely affected by the separation fence, and supervision of IDF soldiers at the checkpoints.

Two years ago, Haaretz reporter Amos Harel revealed that the main task given Spiegel was to establish and maintain an up-to-date database on the settlement enterprise. This was after it became apparent that the United States, as well as Peace Now's settlement monitoring team, was in possession of much more precise information about settlement construction than was the defense establishment, which up to then had relied mostly on information collected by Civil Administration inspectors. The old database had many gaps in it, which was largely a consequence of the establishment preferring not to know exactly what was going on in this area.

Spiegel's database contains written information backed up by aerial photos and layers of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) data that includes information on the status of the land and the official boundaries of each settlement. "The work took two and a half years," says Spiegel. "It was done in order to check the status of the settlements and the outposts and to achieve the greatest possible accuracy in terms of the database: the land status, the legal status, the sector boundaries, the city building plan, government decisions, lands whose ownership is unclear. It was full-time, professional work done with a professional team of legal experts, planning people, GIS experts. And I hope that this work continues, because it is very vital. One has to know what's going on there and make decisions accordingly."

Who is keeping track of all of this now?

"I suppose it's the Civil Administration."

Why was there no database like this before your appointment?

"I don't know how much of a focus there was on doing it."

Why do you think the state is not publicizing the data?

"It's a sensitive and complex subject and there are all kinds of considerations, political and security-related. There were questions about the public's right to know, the freedom of information law. You should ask the officials in charge."

What are the sensitive matters?

"It's no secret that there are violations, that there are problems having to do with land. It's a complicated problem."

Is there also a problem for the country's image?

"I didn't concern myself with image. I was engaged in Sisyphean work to ensure that, first of all, they'll know what exists and what's legal and what's not legal and what the degree of illegality is, whether it involves the takeover of private Palestinian land or something in the process of obtaining proper building permits. Our job was to do the meticulous work of going over all the settlements and outposts that existed then - We found what we found and passed it on."

Do you think that this information should be published?

"I think they've already decided to publish the simpler part, concerning areas of jurisdiction. There are things that are more sensitive. It's no secret that there are problems, and it's impossible to do something illegal and say that it's legal. I can't elaborate, because I'm still bound to maintain confidentiality."

Dror Etkes, formerly the coordinator of Peace Now's settlement monitoring project and currently director of the Land Advocacy Project for the Yesh Din organization, says, "The government's ongoing refusal to reveal this material on the pretext of security reasons is yet another striking example of the way in which the state exploits its authority to reduce the information at the citizens' disposal, when they wish to formulate intelligent positions based on facts rather than lies and half-truths."

Following the initial exposure of the material, the Movement for Freedom of Information and Peace Now requested that the Defense Ministry publish the database, in accordance with the Freedom of Information law. The Defense Ministry refused. "This is a computerized database that includes detailed information, in different cross-sections, regarding the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria," the Defense Ministry said in response. "The material was collected by the defense establishment for its purposes and includes sensitive information. The ministry was asked to allow a review of the material in accordance with the Freedom of Information law, and after consideration of the request, decided not to hand over the material. The matter is pending and is the subject of a petition before the Administrative Affairs Court in Tel Aviv."

Ofra, Elon Moreh, Beit El

The database surveys settlement after settlement alphabetically. For each entry, it notes the source of the settlement's name and the form of settlement there (urban community, local council, moshav, kibbutz, etc.); its organizational affiliation (Herut, Amana, Takam, etc.), the number of inhabitants, pertinent government decisions, the official bodies to which the land was given, the status of the land upon which the settlement was built (state land, private Palestinian or Jewish land, etc.), a survey of the illegal outposts built in proximity to the settlement and to what extent the valid building plans have been executed. Beneath each entry, highlighted in red, is information on the extent of construction that has been carried out without permission and its exact location in the settlement.

Among all the revelations in the official data, it's quite fascinating to see what was written about Ofra, a veteran Gush Emunim settlement. According to a recent B'tselem report, most of the settlement's developed area sits on private Palestinian land and therefore falls into the category of an illegal outpost that is supposed to be evacuated. The Yesha Council responded to the B'tselem report, saying that the "facts" in it are "completely baseless and designed to present a false picture. The inhabitants of Ofra are careful to respect the rights of the Arab landowners, with whom they reached an agreement regarding the construction of the neighborhoods as well as an agreement that enables the private landowners to continue to work their lands."

But the information in the database about Ofra leaves no room for doubt: "The settlement does not conform to valid building plans. A majority of the construction in the community is on registered private lands without any legal basis whatsoever and no possibility of [converting the land to non-private use]." The database also gives a detailed description of where construction was carried out in Ofra without permits: "The original part of the settlement: [this includes] more than 200 permanent residential structures, agricultural structures, public structures, lots, roads and orchards in the old section of the settlement (in regard to which Plan 221 was submitted, but not advanced due to a problem of ownership)." After mentioning 75 trailers and temporary shelters in two groups within the old settlement, the database mentions the Ramat Zvi neighborhood, south of the original settlement: "There are about 200 permanent structures as well as lots being developed for additional permanent construction, all trespassing on private lands." Yesha Council chairman Danny Dayan responds: "I am not familiar with that data."

Another place where the data reveals illegal construction is Elon Moreh, one of the most famous settlements in the territories. In June 1979, several residents of the village of Rujib, southeast of Nablus, petitioned the High Court, asking it to annul the appropriation order for 5,000 dunams of land in their possession, that had been designated for the construction of the settlement. In court, the government argued, as it did regularly at the time, that the construction of the settlement was required for military needs, and therefore the appropriation orders were legal. But in a statement on behalf of the petitioners, former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev asserted that, "In my best professional judgment, Elon Moreh does not contribute to Israel's security."

The High Court, relying on this statement and the statements of the original core group of settlers of Elon Moreh, who also argued that this was not a temporary settlement established for security purposes, but a permanent settlement, instructed the IDF to evacuate the settlement and return the lands to their owners. The immediate consequence of the ruling was to find an alternative site for construction of the settlement, on lands previously defined as "state lands." Following this ruling, Israel stopped officially using military injunctions in the territories for the purpose of establishing new settlements.

The lands that were originally taken for the purpose of building Elon Moreh were returned to their Palestinian owners, but according to the database, also in the new site where the settlement was built, called Har Kabir, "most of the construction was done without approved, detailed plans, and some of the construction involved trespassing on private lands. As for the state lands in the settlement, a detailed plan, no. 107/1, was prepared and published on 16/7/99, but has yet to go into effect."

The Shomron regional council, which includes Elon Moreh, said in response: "All the neighborhoods in the settlement were planned, and some were also built, by the State of Israel through the Housing Ministry. The residents of Elon Moreh did not trespass at all and any allegation of this kind is also false. The State of Israel is tasked with promoting and approving the building plans in the settlement, as everywhere else in the country, and as for the plans that supposedly have yet to receive final validity, just like many other communities throughout Israel, where the processes continue for decades, this does not delay the plans, even if the planning is not complete or being done in tandem."

Beit El, another veteran settlement, was also, according to the database, established "on private lands seized for military purposes (In fact, the settlement was expanded on private lands, by means of trespassing in the northern section of the settlement) and on state lands that were appropriated during the Jordanian period (the Maoz Tzur neighborhood in the south of the settlement)."

According to the official data, construction in Beit El in the absence of approved plans includes the council office buildings and the "northern neighborhood (Beit El Bet) that was built for the most part on private lands. The neighborhood comprises widespread construction, public buildings and new ring roads (about 80 permanent buildings and trailers); the northeastern neighborhood (between Jabal Artis and the old part of the settlement) includes about 20 permanent residential buildings, public buildings (including a school building), 40 trailers and an industrial zone (10 industrial buildings). The entire compound is located on private land and has no plan attached."

Moshe Rosenbaum, head of the Beit El local council, responds: "Unfortunately, you are cooperating with the worst of Israel's enemies and causing tremendous damage to the whole country."

'One giant bluff'

Ron Nahman, mayor of Ariel, was re-elected to a sixth term in the last elections. Nahman is a long-time resident of the territories and runs a fascinating heterogeneous city. Between a visit to the trailer site where evacuees from Netzarim are housed and a stop at a shop that sells pork and other non-kosher products, mostly to the city's large Russian population, Nahman complains about the halting of construction in his city and about his battles with the Civil Administration over every building permit.

Ariel College, Nahman's pride and joy, is also mentioned in the database: "The area upon which Ariel College was built was not regulated in terms of planning." It further explains that the institution sits on two separate plots and the new plan has not yet been discussed. Nahman confirms this, but says the planning issue was recently resolved.

When told that dozens of settlements include construction on private lands, he is not surprised. "That's possible," he says. The fact that in three-quarters of the settlements, there has been construction that deviates from the approved plans doesn't surprise him either. "All the complaints should be directed at the government, not at us," he says. "As for the small and communal settlements, they were planned by the Housing Ministry's Rural Building Administration. The larger communities are planned by the ministry's district offices. It's all the government. Sometimes the Housing Ministry is responsible for budgetary construction, which is construction out of the state budget. In the Build Your Own Home program, the state pays a share of the development costs and the rest is paid for by the individual. All of these things are one giant bluff. Am I the one who planned the settlements? It was Sharon, Peres, Rabin, Golda, Dayan."

The database provides information attesting to a failure to adhere to planning guidelines in the territories. For example, an attempt to determine the status of the land of the Argaman settlement in the Jordan Rift Valley found that "the community was apparently established on the basis of an appropriation order from 1968 that was not located." About Mevo Horon, the database says: "The settlement was built without a government decision on lands that are mostly private within a closed area in the Latrun enclave (Area Yod). There was an allocation
for the area to the WZO from 1995, which was issued as in a deviation from authority, apparently on the basis of a political directive." In the Tekoa settlement, trailers were leased to the IDF "and installed contrary to the area's designation according to a detailed plan? and some also deviate from the boundaries of the plan."

Most of the territories of the West Bank have not been annexed to Israel, and therefore regulations for the establishment and construction of communities there differ from those that apply within Israel proper. The Sasson report, which dealt with the illegal outposts, was based in part on data collected by Spiegel, and listed the criteria necessary for the establishment of a new settlement in the territories:
1. The Israeli government issued a decision to establish the settlement
2. The settlement has a defined jurisdictional area
3. The settlement has a detailed, approved outline plan
4. The settlement lies on state land or on land that was purchased by Israelis and registered under their name in the Land Registry.

According to the database, the state gave the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and/or the Construction and Housing Ministry authorization to plan and build on most of the territories upon which the settlements were constructed. These bodies allocated the land to those who eventually carried out the actual construction of the settlement: Sometimes it was the Settlement Division of the WZO and other times it was the Construction and Housing Ministry itself, sometimes through the Rural Building Administration. In several cases, settlements were built by Amana, the Gush Emunim settlement arm. Another body cited in the database as having received allocations and being responsible for construction in some of the settlements is Gush Emunim's Settler National Fund.

Talmud Torah
Regular schools and religious schools (Talmudei Torah) have also been built on Palestinian lands. According to the database, in the southern part of the Ateret settlement, "15 structures were built outside of state lands, which are used for the Kinor David yeshiva. There are also new ring roads and a special security area that is illegal." Kinor David is the name of a "yeshiva high school with a musical framework." The sign at the entrance says the yeshiva was built by the Amana settlement movement, the Mateh Binyamin local council and the WZO settlement division.

The data regarding Michmash also make it very clear that part of the settlement was built on "private lands via trespassing." For example, "In the center of the settlement (near the main entrance) is a trailer neighborhood that serves as a Talmud Torah and other buildings (30 trailers) on private land."

On a winter's afternoon, a bunch of young children were playing there, one of them wearing a shirt printed with the words "We won't forget and we won't forgive." There were no teachers in sight. A young woman in slacks, taking her baby to the doctor, stopped for a moment to chat. She moved here from Ashkelon because her husband's parents are among the settlement's founders. When her son is old enough for preschool, she won't send him to the Talmud Torah. Not because it sits on private land, but just because that's not the type of education she wants for him. "I don't think there's been construction on private land here," she said. "I don't think there ought to be, either."

In the Psagot settlement, where there has also been a lot of construction on private land, it's easy to discern the terracing style typical of Palestinian agriculture in the region. According to the database, in Psagot there are "agricultural structures (a winery and storehouses) to the east of the settlement, close to the grapevines cultivated by the settlement by trespassing." During a visit here, the winery was abandoned. Its owner, Yaakov Berg, acquired land from the Israel Lands Administration near the Migron outpost and a new winery and regional visitors' center is currently under construction there.

"The vineyards are located in Psagot," says Berg, who is busy with the preparations for the new site. From the unfinished observation deck one can see an enormous quarry in the mountains across the way. "If I built a bathroom here without permission from the Civil Administration, within 15 minutes, a helicopter would be here and I'd be told that it was prohibited," Berg complains. "And right here there's an illegal Palestinian quarry that continues to operate."

The politicians did it

Kobi Bleich, spokesperson for the Ministry of Construction and Housing: "The ministry participates in subsidizing the development costs of settlements in Priority Area A, in accordance with decisions of the Israeli government. Development works are carried out by the regional councils, and only after the ministry has ascertained that the new neighborhood is located within an approved city plan. This applies throughout Israel as well as in the areas over the Green Line. Let me emphasize that the ministry's employees are charged with implementing the policies of the Israeli government. All of the actions in the past were done solely in keeping with the decisions of the political echelon."

Danny Poleg, spokesperson for the Judea and Samaria district of the Israel Police: "The issue of the construction of police facilities is the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Security, so any questions should be addressed to them."

The Internal Security Ministry spokesman responds: "And for construction by the police is allocated by the Israel Lands Administration in coordination with the Internal Security Ministry. There is no police station in Modi'in Ilit, but a rapid response post for the local residents on land allocated by the local authority. The land in Givat Ze'ev was allocated by the local council and the police station is located within the municipality. The road to the police headquarters was built by the Housing and Construction ministry and is maintained by the local council."

Avi Roeh, head of the Mateh Binyamin regional council (whose jurisdiction includes the settlements of Ofra, Kochav Yaakov, Ateret, Ma'aleh Michmash and Psagot): "The Mateh Binyamin regional council, like the neighboring councils in Judea and Samaria, is coping with political decisions regarding the manner of the the communities' expansion. However, this does not remove the need for proper planning procedures in order to expand the settlements in an orderly manner and in accordance with the law."

For its response, the WZO sent a thick booklet, a copy of which was previously sent to attorney Talia Sasson in response to her report. "Settlement in Judea and Samaria, as in Israel, has been accompanied by the preparation of regional master plans," says the booklet. "Steering committees from various government ministries, the Civil Administration and the municipal authorities were involved in the preparation of these plans? The (settlement) department worked solely on lands that were given to it by contract from the authorities in the Civil Administration and all the lands that were allocated to it by contract were properly allocated."

The Civil Administration, which was first asked for a response regarding the database more than a month ago, has yet to reply.

Up to 150 US academics boycott Israel

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 14:33:28 GMT

Professor of English
at the University of
Southern California,
David Lloyd
An increasing number of American university professors have joined a US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Earlier in January, a group of American university professors launched a national campaign calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, as the regime began its deadly military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

As Operation Cast Lead dragged on - killing over 1,330 Palestinians and ended without any achievements on the Israeli side - the number of US academics who had joined their colleagues exceeded 150.

Although in the past, similar campaigns have been organized in Europe, such a movement has been quite unprecedented in the United States.

One of the academics who has joined the campaign, is English professor David Lloyd of the University of Southern California, USC's student newspaper, The Daily Trojan reported on Friday.

Lloyd has been involved in several other divestment movements, including one to end apartheid in South Africa. In the current campaign, he seeks to convince American colleges to avoid ties with Israeli universities, until scholars over there speak out against their government's policies.

"We are calling for the boycott because Israel has systematically denied the rights of Palestinians to get a full and proper access to education. It's not just that they have bombed several educational institutions ...," said Lloyd.

"Up until this point, it has been virtually unspeakable in public to talk about boycotting Israel, and it produces a very hostile response. In the end, what we're aiming at is a full boycott of Israel, both academic and economic ... To circulate this idea as a possibility is of major importance. It's part of a larger campaign to say Israel cannot be the exception. ... All that we are asking is that the United States treat Israel the way it treats all other countries," he added.

Lloyd said he and his colleagues had received hate mail as a result of their involvement in the campaign, criticism of Washington's steadfast support for Israel, and condemnation of Tel Aviv's failure to abide by international law.

The US professor said although the academic boycott may not directly impact the conflict in the Middle East, it may help alter the American people's view of the situation.

Iran produces smart anti-aircraft gun

Iran produces smart anti-aircraft gun

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 17:32:07
Gisoo Misha Ahmadi, Press TV, Tehran

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 09:16:05 GMT | PressTV

Defense Minister
Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar
Iran has successfully manufactured a smart 100mm anti-aircraft gun as part of a campaign to boost the country's defense capabilities.

"The Defense Industries Organization has completed the wholly domestic task of manufacturing the 100mm anti-aircraft gun and its necessary ammunition to counter aerial threats posed by enemy fighters, helicopters and cruise missiles," Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said during the system's Sunday inauguration ceremony.

"One of the most important features of this weapon is its smart system which can track down the target and fire at it automatically," he added.

Mohammad-Najjar pointed out that the shells used in the system are equipped with a fuze which enables them to explode and terminate the target from a close distance even if they fail to hit it directly.

The 100mm anti-aircraft gun is an artillery system that can create a missile shield against enemy aircraft at medium and low altitudes.

Tehran began upgrading its defense capabilities after the eight year war that Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein waged against Iran in the 80s.

Although Saddam's military was heavily armed by the West- particularly the US- he was unable to capture Iranian soil at the end of the war.

Western denial to sell Iran the weapons it needed to ward off a foreign aggressor prompted the government to establish a domestic military industry.

During the past years, Iranian experts have managed to design and manufacture various missiles, fighters, stealth aircraft, drones, submarines, radar systems, and military vessels.

News of the production of an anti-aircraft artillery system comes as Israel, the Middle East's sole nuclear power, continues to threaten Iran over the country's nuclear program.

In quite remarkable comments, the Israeli ambassador in Australia Yuval Rotem said on Friday that Tel Aviv's recent military offensives in Gaza was a 'preintroduction' to dealing with the 'threat posed by a nuclear-equipped Iran'.

This is while Iran's nuclear program is under the constant supervision of UN nuclear watchdog inspectors, who have confirmed that the country's atomic activities have not diverted toward weaponization.

Bolton: Iran defeated US

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 06:54:57 GMT | PressTV

Former US envoy to the UN John Bolton says
Washington has
lost its battle
with Iran.
Former US envoy to the UN John Bolton says Washington has suffered a humiliating defeat in its drive against Iran's nuclear activities.

In a Friday interview with BBC Persian, Bolton said Washington's efforts to curb Tehran's nuclear achievements have come to naught as Tehran has successfully managed to defend its national interests.

In my view, we lost the fight. Tehran has emerged the ultimate winner in maintaining its nuclear program, he added.

Bolton claimed that if Washington had settled on a military option against Iran's nuclear infrastructure beforehand, "the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons would not have existed in the world today".

The former US diplomat said that he seriously advises US President Barack Obama to opt for a military attack on Iran's uranium enrichment, should three months of direct negotiation with Iran prove to be a failure.

Then again, I doubt the new administration would pay heed to my advice and consider a military option against the Islamic Republic. Prospects of a US attack on Iran remain very bleak, he added.

While the UN nuclear watchdog, in its Sept. 15 report on Iran, declared that it could not find any "components of a nuclear weapon" or "related nuclear physics studies" in the country, some US officials continue to accuse Tehran of seeking nuclear weaponry.

Bolton, one of Washington's most articulate advocates of military action against Iran, however admitted that even the military option can not destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities and can only buy time for Washington.

Bolton suggested that only 'regime change' in Iran could resolve the standoff over Tehran's nuclear issue but added that the idea is not practical any more.

The former diplomat quit his UN job in 2006 after failing to win Senate confirmation and worked as a senior foreign policy adviser to former president George W. Bush.

Rocket hits Israel as Gaza still under siege

Israel continues Gaza stranglehold amid humanitarian crisis

Fri, 30 Jan 2009 21:50:30
Mike Mazzocco, Press TV, United Nations

Palestinians at Yarmouk Camp protest Gaza siege

Fri, 30 Jan 2009 23:01:12
Samer Dadaa, Press TV, Damascus

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 08:52:46 GMT | PressTV

A rocket fired from Gaza has struck near the Israeli city of Ashkelon amid protests to the continuous Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip.

Israeli army said that a Palestinian Grad rocket exploded in Ashkelon on Saturday morning.

The rocket fired from the north of the Gaza Strip and landed in a field near the city of Ashkelon, but there were no casualties or damage reported, the Israeli army said.

The Palestinian rocket hit Israel as all the crossings into the blockaded strip are still closed and the humanitarian situation in the impoverished strip with over 1.1 million residents is at its worst.

Hamas says that reaching a truce deal between Israel and the movement would depend on opening the crossings into the strip.

On December 27, Israel launched a large scale offensive against the besieged Gaza Strip, leaving at least 1,330 people mostly civilians dead and 5,450 others wounded.

After the 23-day war on Gazans Israel declared a unilateral truce and Hamas announced an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip on January 18 after the Israeli truce declaration.

The military operation on Gaza came at a time when Palestinians were already suffering from 18-month blockade, which stripped the area of vital goods, including food, fuel, medical supplies and construction materials.

The January18th ceasefire was broken January 27th after Israeli warplanes carried out a strike in retaliation for the death of an Israeli soldier killed in an explosion at the Kisufim crossing. The air raid killed a Palestinian farmer in the border region.

Eighteen more people, including 11 school children were also wounded Thursday, after the warplanes bombed several targets in southern Gaza. The Israeli military claimed the attacks targeted a weapon production site, in response to Wednesday's rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak threatened to launch a new strike on the besieged strip.

Gazans pour to streets to back Hamas

Gazans express support for Hamas

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 00:32:53
Tarek Al-Farra, Press TV, Khan Younis

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 07:28:33 GMT | PressTV

Palestinians wave red Turkish and green Hamas flags in a rally in support of Hamas and its call for democracy, Jan 31, Khan Younis, Gaza
Thousands of Palestinians have poured to the streets of Gaza to show their support for Hamas and its call for a new democratic authority.

Across the Gaza Strip, thousands took to the streets in support of Hamas and its leader Khalid Mashaal who called for the creation of an alternative representative authority to replace the Fatah-run Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Press TV's correspondent Tarek al-Farra reported from Khan Younis on Saturday.

The protesters, who were chanting slogans in support of the resistance movement, waved Turkey's red flag alongside green Hamas banners, after Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of the World Economic Forum in support of Gaza.

Erdogan walked out of the Davos forum on Friday in protest to a heated speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres in favor of the regime's bloody military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The Turkish premier, who had been cut short by an American mediator when trying to respond to Pres's remarks, received a warm welcome from the people of Turkey upon his arrival in Ankara.

In the last days of 2008 Israel started pounding the Gaza Strip and continued for 23 days, killing over 1330 Palestinians, injuring almost 5,500, and leaving up to 70 thousand homeless.

One of Israel's stated objectives was to topple Hamas and reduce its popularity among the Palestinian people.

Saturday demonstrators in Khan Younis, however, said that not only had Israel failed to bring down Hamas, but its military campaign had added to the democratically-elected government's popularity among Palestinians.

"The Israeli cowards failed in this war they thought that they would destroy the resistance and Hamas, but we must tell them that the popularity of Hamas has grown more than before," said one of the demonstrators.

"The resistance will continue to work toward achieving its goals, which are liberating all Palestinian prisoners, repatriating all Palestinian refugees and completely ending the siege," he added.

Hamas Spokesman Hamid al-Rakeb talking to Press TV, Khan Younis, Gaza, Jan. 31
Hamas Spokesman Hamid al-Rakeb, who took part in the rally, also said that Israel's offensive had increased Palestinians' confidence.

"The message coming out of Gaza after the war is a cry of rage against the Israeli occupation. Gazans are holding on more to their rights and the resistance is more confident of its ability to achieve bigger victories in the future," al-Rakeb said in the southern city.

Hamas announced that it no longer recognized Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian Authority Chief after his term expired on January 8.

US Envoy Warns of Setbacks Ahead in Mideast Talks

31/01/2009 | Al Manar

U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy said Friday that the new administration's push for ‘Israeli-Palestinian peace’ after the war in the Gaza Strip faced big hurdles and he warned of setbacks ahead.

The somber assessment by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell followed two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on shoring up a shaky ceasefire following Israel's 22-day war against Gaza.

In the talks, Israel has balked at fully reopening Gaza's border crossings to allow reconstruction.

Mitchell said consolidating the truce and "immediately" addressing the humanitarian needs of Gaza's 1.5 million residents were the U.S. administration's top priorities.

"Then we must move forward," he added, citing Obama's commitment to "aggressively" seek a peace deal.

U.S.-backed talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled last year in discord over illegal Jewish settlement expansion and the future of Jerusalem. Diplomats said reviving them after the war in Gaza would be very difficult and would take time.

In keeping with long-standing U.S. policy, Mitchell did not meet during his visit with Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian election but has been shunned as a "terrorist" group by Western powers for refusing to recognize Israel.

"The tragic violence in Gaza and in southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the very serious and difficult challenges and, unfortunately, the setbacks that will come," Mitchell told reporters after touring a U.N. warehouse in East Jerusalem packed with aid for Gaza's residents.

But he added: "The United States remains committed to actively and aggressively seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and its other Arab neighbors."

Voting Starts in Iraq's Landmark Election

Iraqis to head to polls to elect provincial councilors

Fri, 30 Jan 2009 22:40:55
Wisam Al-Bayati, Press TV, Baghdad

31/01/2009 | Al Manar

More than 14,400 candidates are vying for a seat in today's poll in Iraq including 3,900 women. There are 440 seats up for grabs, across 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. 300,000 local and international observers will monitor the poll in provincial elections on Saturday in a crucial test for the nation struggling to emerge from years of sectarian strife and strengthen its fledgling democracy.

About 15 million eligible Iraqis have been called to cast ballots at thousands of voting centers that opened at (0400 GMT) and will close at (1400 GMT).

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed what he said appeared to be a strong turnout in
Saturday's provincial election and called on his compatriots to vote in large numbers. "I am very happy today because all our information shows that we are going to see a large participation in the vote by Iraqis," he said after casting his ballot in the highly-fortified Green zone in Baghdad.

The level of turnout will be an indicator of "the Iraqi people's trust in their government and in the elections," which he said were "proof that the Iraqi people are now living in real security."

Security for the nation's first ballot since 2005 was extremely tight with Iraqi police and military deployed in strength as part of ramped-up measures aimed at preventing attacks.

In Tikrit, the hometown of executed president Saddam Hussein, four mortars exploded near several polling centers. Police said the bombs had missed their mark and there were no casualties.

Saturday's election is seen as a key test of Iraq's steadily improving stability and democratic political system as US President Barack Obama looks to redeploy American troops to Afghanistan.
"Obviously the president will watch the results, and believes that the provincial elections this weekend mark another significant milestone in Iraq's democratic development," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday.

Ahead of the voting authorities sealed Iraq's borders, shut down airports and imposed transport bans and night-time curfews as part of the massive security lockdown for the election.

State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington observers from the US embassy in Baghdad as well as reconstruction teams composed of US civilians will help monitor the elections.

The United Nations and Iraq's Independent High Election Commission is organizing the elections.

More than 14,400 candidates are standing for 440 seats in councils, which appoint the provincial governor and oversee finance and reconstruction, with a combined budget of 2.5 billion dollars.

The vote is also being seen as a quasi referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The premier has emerged in recent months as stronger-than-expected leader, promoting a secular national agenda in response to the sectarian strife that tore Iraq apart in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Although Maliki is not standing in the election, he has thrown his support behind a list of candidates that make up the State of Law Coalition.

The vote will not include the three autonomous Kurdish provinces -- Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, all in the north.

Elections have been postponed in the oil-rich Kirkuk province, which the Kurds want to incorporate despite fierce opposition by the central government.

“Attack on Gaza a ‘Pre-introduction’ to Attack Iran”

31/01/2009 | Al Manar

After ordering a cameraman to turn off his camera, Israeli Ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem engaged in a very frank discussion about the recent Israeli war in the Gaza Strip, calling it “a pre-introduction” to an attack on Iran that Israel apparently expects within the year.

Before the camera was turned off, Ambassador Rotem said “the best thing to do is to have a very open dialogue if there are no reporters or journalists here,” adding “I am far more reserved in the way I am saying my things on camera.” Unbeknownst to him however Sarah Cummings, a reporter for Australia’s Seven News service, was actually in attendance at the meeting after having been “accidentally” invited.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran, and while its officials have repeatedly attempted to tie the Iranian government to its war on the Gaza Strip this is the first time one of their officials has publicly (if inadvertently so) suggested that the attack on the strip was a warm-up to its long talked about attack on Iran.

Top U.S. Official Meets with Ahmadinejad Aide

31/01/2009 | Al Manar

Former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry held a series of previously undisclosed meetings with a senior aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to a report published on Friday in The Washington Times.

The Washington Times quoted an unnamed source as saying the talks took place with Ahmadinejad adviser Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi.

The report added that the meetings were "discussions, not negotiations" about Iran's nuclear program that aimed to clarify the two sides' positions.

It was not clear from the report whether Mr. Perry was acting at the behest of the Bush administration or others.

The British newspaper The Guardian reported earlier this week that officials from the Obama administration have drafted a letter to Iran aimed at thawing diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Diplomats told The Guardian that Obama's letter would be a gesture to mark a change in tone from that of the Bush administration, which portrayed Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

Meanwhile in Washington, an official White House spokesman said that US President Barack Obama is not ruling out military strikes against Iran to stop its nuclear program.

Asked if the military option was still on the table, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "The president hasn't changed his viewpoint that he should preserve all his options."
Gibbs told reporters that Obama believes "we must use all elements of our national power to protect our interests as it relates to Iran," he said. "That includes, as the president talked about in the (election) campaign, diplomacy, where possible, and that we have many issues to work through," he said.

Ahmadinejad called Wednesday for "profound changes" in US foreign policy - including an end to support for Israel and an apology to the Islamic Republic for past misdeeds. Ahmadinejad also urged Washington to withdraw its troops stationed around the world.

Opposition religious figure new Somalia president

Sat, 31 Jan 2009 03:21:40 GMT | PressTV

Somalia's new President
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad
Somali lawmakers have elected opposition leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad as the new president of their war-ravaged country.

During a run-off vote in neighboring Djibouti, Sheikh Sharif, 44, recevied the necessary majority of votes, 213, just before 4 AM local time (0100 GMT) Saturday 31, during an all-night session of parliament under a UN-brokered plan to forge a unity government in the Horn of Africa country.

This leaves him now in charge of a fragile peace process aimed at ending 18 years of civil conflict.

Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein had pulled out after the first round coming in third opening way for Sheikh Sharif.

Later the contenders, 16 in all, pulled out of the race with the exception of former Somalian president Mohammed Siad Barre's son, Maslah Mohamed Barre, who came in second in the first round with 60 votes.

He was the only contestant to contest the third round against Sharif.

Sharif took the first round with a big margin - 215 out of 420, our Press TV correspondent reported Friday.

As per law, all candidates run in the first round, the six most popular go to a second round and the final round is a runoff between the two leading contenders.

The new president faces the daunting task of delivering peace and stability to a country plagued by violence and lawlessness for nearly two decades.

Sharif is the former leader of Somalia's ousted Islamic Courts Union, which waged a bitter war against the country's weak transitional government.

In late 2006, he was forced to flee the country amid an Ethiopian invasion supporting the government.

Ahmed currently chairs a group of opposition leaders called the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) and is an influential religious leader in the country.

US Army Suicides Hit Record High

30/01/2009 | Al Manar

The rate of suicides among soldiers in the US army has risen to a record level for the second year in a row. The army said there were 128 confirmed suicides in 2008, with a further 15 deaths still under investigation.

Military officials said they did not know why the number has kept increasing but that the stress of conflicts overseas had had a significant impact. The army has said it is committed to addressing the issue and has introduced training to raise awareness.

"This is a challenge of the highest order for us," said US Army Secretary Pete Geren. "Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you. But we can tell you that across the army, we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem."

About 35% of the suicides were of soldiers who had never been deployed, while 30% were soldiers who were on active service - three quarters Justify Fullof them on their first tour of duty. Another 35% took place after deployment, mostly more than a year after the soldier had returned home.

The rise means that the military suicide rate is proportionally higher than the rate among American civilians for the first time. General Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of the army, said he had "no doubt" that the stress of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was a factor in the rising suicide rates.

He said that long tours of duty and the high pressure of being in combat zones was putting a strain on service personnel and their families. The US military said it has introduced training to make soldiers more aware of suicidal behavior in themselves and others, and to reduce the stigma of seeking help.

It has also launched a long-term research program into the issue, in conjunction with the National Institute of Mental Health.

Geagea: Sayyed Nasrallah Fighting "Others'" Electoral War

30/01/2009 | Al Manar

Less than 24 hours after the press conference held by Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in which his eminence called the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Forces to reveal the fate of the four Iranian missing diplomats, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea held a press conference, in which he sought to respond to Sayyed Nasrallah but failed to give firm answers to the questions raised.

"I don't know who kidnapped the four Iranian diplomats," Geagea said, adding that he wasn't part of the intelligence apparatus within the LF at the time. "Calling upon the LF to determine the fate of the four Iranian diplomats is rejected," he simply added, expressing at the same time "readiness" to help in any issue that security and judicial authorities inquire about. "Sayyed Nasrallah is trying to falsely link the file of Iranian diplomats to the LF party," Geagea claimed.

The four Iranian diplomats were abducted at a Lebanese Forces checkpoint north of Lebanon in the 1980's. Their fate was never known amid reports that Geagea had handed them to his Israeli allies during the war. Geagea is accused of handing Israel Lebanese and non-Lebanese prisoners he used to abduct on LF checkpoints.

During his press conference on Thursday, Sayyed Nasrallah called on the LF to assist the Lebanese government in disclosing the fate of the four diplomats. "The Israelis claimed, in their report, that the four Iranian diplomats were kidnapped and executed by the Lebanese Forces and buried," his eminence said, but noted that Hezbollah believes that the mentioned diplomats were still inside Israeli prisons. "They are only misleading us," Sayyed Nasrallah said. "Everyone knows that the four diplomats were kidnapped by the Lebanese Forces in 1982," Sayyed Nasrallah stressed.

Geagea, who "regretted" that Hezbollah Secretary General brought up the issue "now," sought to undermine it wondering about the "timing" of raising the topic. "Who could explain Sayyed Nasrallah's interest in Iranian diplomats who have disappeared 27 years ago?" the LF chief wondered, saying that there were 'many other important issues such as the demarcation of the Lebanese borders.' However, Geagea made sure to claim that he "admits" the humanitarian aspect of the case called on by Sayyed Nasrallah.

According to the Lebanese Forces chief, "Sayyed Nasrallah's speech is the beginning of an electoral war against the Lebanese Forces." He even went too far in his theory, saying that he "understands" accusing the LF of involvement ahead of the elections but stressed this was unacceptable. "I know that Hezbollah has strong popular support, but it was fighting the electoral battles of its allies," Geagea claimed, signaling MP Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. "I would have hoped that our foes would face us through political means and not accusations of being the enemy’s traitors," he added.

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