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Palestinians – For some Palestinians, peace is a day at the beach

MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANS BEACH DAY

Palestinians – For some Palestinians, peace is a day at the beach

Palestinians, Giggling children built castles, drew pictures in the sand and splashed water on each other in a refreshing first for Palestinian youngsters from the landlocked West Bank: a day at the beach.

While Israelis and Palestinians are increasingly kept apart by distrust and a separation barrier, grass-roots organizations have been trying to bring them together like this, maintaining that peace is built one personal encounter at a time.

Two such groups, Combatants for Peace and Machsom Watch, have been arranging trips to Israeli beaches for Palestinian children and their parents. On Monday, about 75 Palestinians drove by bus from the West Bank’s Hebron area to a beach south of Tel Aviv, after crossing an Israeli checkpoint on foot. For many of the Palestinians, it was their first glimpse of the sea — and a moment of hope.

“We feel we have to live in peace and create an atmosphere for our kids to live a better life than the life we lived,” said Ziad Sabatein, a 37-year-old father of five. “We lived through the (Palestinian) uprising and the attacks on each other, we experienced these things together (with the Israelis). Why not experience this way of life?”

Palestinians have largely been barred from Israel since 2000, when they launched an uprising against Israeli occupation and bloody fighting erupted. Gaza, now ruled by Hamas, remains sealed off, and West Bank residents need to apply for special permits to enter Israel.

Peace talks remain frozen, in part because Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halts construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But the hawkish Israeli leader has lifted some West Bank checkpoints and pledged to boost the Palestinian economy.

With calm largely restored in the West Bank, Israel has relaxed some restrictions on movement and has made it somewhat easier for some West Bank Palestinians to obtain entry permits to Israel. The permits for the beach trips are arranged through the organizers, but some requests are turned down by the Israeli authorities on security grounds.

On Monday morning, the Palestinians from Hebron set out for the beach, holding their first permits in years. It took them about an hour to cross a checkpoint in the separation barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is to keep out militants, while Palestinians see it as an attempt to grab land.

After emerging from the checkpoint, the group boarded buses and cars. “We’re going to the sea,” some children happily cheered. Upon arrival in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, some of the younger girls were so excited they parted with their long robes and headscarves and leaped into the water wearing cotton shirts and pants.

Their mothers, equally thrilled, kept their veils in place while sitting on plastic chairs at the edge of the shore and dipping their toes in the water.

One of the women, Fahima Nabil, 45, had never been to the beach before. Her husband is barred from Israel on security grounds, and as a traditional housewife, she wasn’t allowed to make the trip alone.

The Israeli organizers made sure to remind the Palestinian women to rub sun block on those parts of their skin still exposed to the sun and gave floaties to the kids, who frolicked for hours in the water.

They also handed out bread with chocolate spread and slices of watermelon. Later, everyone boarded a boat for a 40-minute boat cruise along the coast. Tzvia Shappira, an Israeli peace activist, has been organizing outings like this for three years. She said the goal is to introduce Palestinians to a kinder Israel.

“These people now know that there are different Israelis because what they see in their villages are soldiers and guns and the checkpoints,” she said. “And now the children and women see that we are simple women and men of Israel who are not soldiers who are not with guns.”

“And they had a good time, which is also important,” she added. But not everyone was pleased with the festive atmosphere. Ahmad Salameen stayed out of the water and wasn’t happy about his daughters sharing the beach with Israeli girls in skimpy attire.

“If I knew this is how it was going to be, I wouldn’t have joined. Look at these views,” he said, pointing to girls in bikinis. “As a Muslim, I shouldn’t see this.”


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US envoy set for talks in Cairo

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US envoy set for talks in Cairo

The US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is due to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the stalled Middle East peace process.

He arrived in Cairo a day early at Mr Mubarak’s request, following talks in Syria and Israel. In Tel Aviv, Mr Mitchell reassured Israeli officials of Washington’s unshakeable commitment to its security. Relations had soured after US President Barack Obama demanded a halt to all Israeli settlement on Palestinian land.

In Damascus, Mr Mitchell met Syrian President Bashar Assad for what he called “very candid and positive” discussions on restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel, which have been stalled since 2000. Following talks with the Egyptian president, Mr Mitchell is due to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Diplomatic push

The visits are part of a week-long high-level diplomatic push by Washington to re-start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians which have been frozen for six months.

Palestinian leaders have refused to meet their Israeli counterparts until illegal settlement activity has stopped. Other senior US officials are also due to visit the region this week.

US defence secretary Robert Gates, National Security Advisor James Jones and US envoy to the Gulf states, Dennis Ross, are due in the region for talks. Mr Gates will first meet his Israeli counterpart in Jerusalem before travelling to Jordan for discussions with King Abdullah.

Iran and its nuclear programme are expected to be on the agenda in talks with Israel.

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Netanyahu says Israel-U.S. ties still steadfast

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Netanyahu says Israel-U.S. ties still steadfast

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played down sharp differences with the United States over Jewish settlements on Sunday before the arrival of two senior U.S. officials.

“It is only natural, that within a fabric of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t full agreement on all points,” Netanyahu said.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, former senator George Mitchell, will try in talks with Israeli leaders to end the most serious rift between Israel and its main ally in a decade. Mitchell was due to meet Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak later in the day, see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and hold discussions with Netanyahu on Tuesday.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates also plans talks in Israel. He was due to meet Netanyahu and Barak on Monday to discuss missile defence, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bilateral security issues, a senior U.S. defence official said.

“This relationship is important and steadfast,” Netanyahu, who has refused to meet Obama’s demand to freeze settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, told his cabinet about U.S.-Israeli ties.

“We are trying to reach understandings on various issues so that we can, together, advance our common goals: peace, security and prosperity for all of the Middle East.”

Mitchell and Barak have attempted in a series of meetings over the past several weeks in New York and London to forge a compromise on settlement expansion, an issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

PEACE TALKS

Palestinian leaders have said peace talks with Israel, frozen for the past six months, cannot resume unless all settlement activity ceases. Barak has raised the possibility of halting construction in settlements while allowing building projects already under way to continue, as part of a deal under which Arab countries would take initial steps to normalise relations with Israel.

Netanyahu has pledged not to build new settlements or expropriate additional territory in the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to build a state. But he has said construction in settlements to accommodate the “natural growth” of their populations must continue. Palestinians say they fear settlements, deemed illegal by the World Court, could deny them a viable and contiguous state.

In another sign of tensions between Netanyahu’s right-leaning government and the Obama administration, the Israeli leader has also rejected U.S. pressure to halt the planned construction of 20 new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, where 200,000 Israelis and 270,000 Palestinians now live, in a 1967 war and annexed it in a move that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestine.

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