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Palestinian Flag Raised over UNESCO HQ December 14, 2011

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said he would continue to push for full United Nations membership after savoring one symbolic victory for his statehood bid, watching his flag fly over the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In a moment fraught with symbolism, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood under a pelting rain watching as his red, black, green and white flag slowly rose for the first time over the headquarters of a United Nations agency.

Abbas was greeted by thunderous applause by foreign dignitaries and journalists, gathered at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to celebrate the agency’s latest member. In a push for Mr. Abbas’ larger statehood bid, UNESCO’s general assembly voted in October to admit Palestine as its 195th member, over strong objections by Israel and the United States.

Israel temporarily froze the transfer of funds to the Palestinian territories. Washington has suspended its funding to the UN agency, arguing only a peace treaty can establish an internationally recognized Palestinian state.

But UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said she hoped the Palestinian membership would pave the way for peace in the Middle East.

“This new membership must be a chance for all to join together around shared values and renewed ambitions for peace. In this spirit, Ladies and Gentlemen, I welcome Palestine to UNESCO,” said Bokova.

Abbas offered similarly upbeat remarks.  Abbas described the day as an important marker in Palestinian history, one he hoped would usher in chances for greater freedom, justice and peace.

At a news conference later, the Palestinian leader said negotiations were continuing for full United Nations membership and to join more than a dozen other international organizations, but offered no time tables. Abbas applied for full UN recognition in September.

Washington contributes nearly a quarter of UNESCO’s annual budget, and its funding freeze has left the agency strapped for cash. Among other areas, UNESCO oversees world cultural heritage sites and educational and scientific exchanges.

Abbas also held talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is pushing for an upgrade of Palestine’s UN status to just short of full statehood.

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Arab League Considers Syria Sanctions November 26, 2011

Arab League diplomats are meeting in Egypt on Saturday to consider sanctions against Syria, after Damascus missed a deadline to agree on allowing international monitors to enter the country.

The Syrian government and diplomats say the 22-member league is considering penalties that include halting Arab flights into Syria and a freeze on trade and banking exchanges.

The league suspended Syria’s membership earlier this month after Damascus failed to implement a plan designed to end the government’s violent crackdown on dissent.

Activists say at least 27 people were killed in anti-government-related unrest on Friday, including at least 10 security force members who died in clashes with army deserters.

For months, protesters have been taking to the streets and demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.

The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed since March in connection to the opposition protests.

On Friday, the U.N. Committee against Torture said it had received reports of widespread abuses in Syria, including the torture of children detained by security forces.

The state-run SANA news agency says “mass crowds” of government supporters rallied in the city of Lattakia, on Saturday, to voice their rejection of Arab League resolutions against Syria.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

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Jordan’s King Abdullah Calls for Assad’s Resignation November 14, 2011

Jordan’s King Abdullah has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the first Arab leader to do so since the Syrian government started its deadly crackdown on an eight-month-long uprising.

King Abdullah said in an interview with the BBC Monday that he would step down if he were in Assad’s position and create a way for Syrians to start “a new phase of political life.”

Meanwhile, Syria has accused the Arab League of taking a “dangerous step” by voting to suspend its membership in the regional bloc.


Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem shows documents during a news conference in Damascus, November 14, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria’s national news agency SANA.

In a news conference Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Saturday’s vote is “illegitimate” because the motion to suspend Syria did not receive unanimous approval in the 22-member body. Eighteen nations led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar voted in favor of sanctioning Damascus, while Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the sanctioning. Iraq abstained.

The motion said Syria’s membership will be suspended beginning Wednesday if Damascus continues to violate an Arab League peace deal to end the violent crackdown. League foreign ministers are due to meet Wednesday in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, to discuss the situation.

Al-Moallem said Damascus has taken measures to implement the Arab League plan. He predicted that Russia and China will continue to block Western efforts to impose sanctions on Syria through the U.N. Security Council.

European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed Monday to extend existing EU sanctions against Syria to 18 more individuals suspected of links to the violent suppression of opposition protests. The 27-nation EU also decided to stop Syria from accessing funds from the European Investment Bank.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow’s support for the Syrian president’s government Monday, saying Russia opposes Syria’s suspension from the Arab League. But China’s foreign ministry said it is important for Syria to implement the Arab League peace plan as soon as possible.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday Ankara will take a “resolute stance” against any further attacks on its diplomatic missions in Syria. He also said Turkey will stand by the Syrian people in what he called their “rightful struggle” against the Assad government.

Syria continued its violent crackdown Sunday, with activists reporting at least nine people killed in shootings by security forces across the country.

The U.N. human rights agency says at least 3,500 people have been killed in Syria in connection with anti-Assad protests since March. Syria blames much of the violence on foreign-backed “terrorists and thugs.”

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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Opposition, Rights Group Urge Arab League to Suspend Syria November 11, 2011

Syrian opposition activists say they will use protests planned for Friday to call for a suspension of the country’s Arab League membership.

The move comes as the 22-member League prepares for an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the apparent breakdown of an agreement with Damascus to end the government’s brutal crackdown on dissent.

Earlier this month, Syria agreed to a plan that calls for the withdrawal of security forces from the streets and talks with the opposition. However, activists and witnesses have reported continued violence.

Human Rights Watch has echoed the call for Syria’s Arab League suspension. In a Friday report, the group said Damascus may be guilty of crimes against humanity for alleged tortures and unlawful killings.

Activists say at least 33 people were killed on Thursday. They say many of the deaths took place in the Homs region, a flashpoint where security forces have launched a series of raids in search of dissidents.  Activists also say Syrian soldiers were killed in an apparent ambush.  

The casualty figures could not be independently verified because Syria bars most foreign journalists from operating in the country.

On Thursday, the Amnesty International rights group called on the Arab League to press Syria to allow independent monitors to enter the country.

Earlier this week, the U.N. human rights office said at least 3,500 people had been killed in the country since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in March.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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Israeli Settlement Expansion Raises West Bank Tensions

After the United Nations’ cultural organization UNESCO voted to grant membership to the Palestinians, Israel announced it would accelerate construction of Jewish settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The move drew international outrage. One of them is Givat Hamatos, a settlement that was already in the scheduling phase.

It lies on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Twenty years ago, there was temporary housing here, for newly-arrived Ethiopian and Russian immigrants.

Only 40 families live here now. But Israel plans to change that.

Galia Cohen is a retired city worker. She has rented this house for 20 years. She would like to have a nicer home. “I heard about it many times. But nothing has happened here,” Cohen said.

Yaakov Baruchi moved to Givat Hamatos 20 years ago with his wife and two children.  Now he has nine kids and wants to expand.

“This housing is not appropriate for the 21st century.  Although it’s nice here, this is not a house.  This is what one calls a tin neighborhood,” Baruchi said.

Givat Hamatos lies between two districts that Israel built on West Bank land it captured in 1967 and later annexed to Jerusalem.

Palestinians say Israel wants to consolidate control over traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and undermine the demand that it be the Palestinian capital as part of any peace agreement.

Khalil Tufakji is a map specialist and member of the Palestinian delegation to peace talks.

“They want to reduce the Palestinians in this area. And at the same time they want to double the [number of Jewis] settlers in this area, [build] 2,610 housing units in this area — this is the first stage — and the final stage will be 4,000 [housing units],” Tufakji said.

Israel says these areas are integral parts of Jerusalem and will remain part of Israel under any peace agreement.  The Palestinians reject this.

The international community considers all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal.

Shaul Arieli, a map specialist for Israel’s negotiating team, says the Israeli government also wants to isolate East Jerusalem from Palestinian cities such as Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south.

“Givat Hamatos is part of the plan to build a Jewish urban buffer between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. It will be much harder to achieve peace or a final status agreement for Jerusalem with these neighborhoods,” Arieli said.

The Palestinians say Israeli settlement building in places like Givat Hamatos is keeping them from returning to the negotiating table.  The Israeli government cites the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate and their bid for U.N. membership as a reason to continue and even accelerate settlement construction. The deadlock has diminished hopes for a resumption of the peace talks any time soon.

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