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Posts tagged ‘West Bank’

Crowds Throng Bethlehem for Christmas Eve Celebrations.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Tuesday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.

Excited tourists milled about the town’s Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Will Green of New York City, along with his wife, Debbie, and their 2-year-old daughter Daphne were among the crowds of people who greeted Twal’s motorcade as he entered town from nearby Jerusalem.

Green said that being in Bethlehem for Christmas was a dream come true. “All the stories that we grew up with. It’s here. It’s part of our life. We heard them in the family, school and church. This is the birthplace,” he said.

Green slowly pushed a stroller and his wife held their daughter as they followed a crowd toward the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Palestinian dignitaries greeted Twal at the entrance of Bethlehem. His motorcade crawled through the town’s narrow streets as he stopped to shake hands and greet the throngs of visitors. It took him nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to the Church of the Nativity compound, where he celebrated Midnight Massachusetts.

Hundreds of people packed the compound for the service. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were among the dignitaries in attendance.

In his homily, Twal addressed Abbas, telling the president he prays for a “just and equitable solution” for the Palestinians. Twal, himself a Palestinian, also expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, particularly families with relatives imprisoned by Israel or those who have suffered as a result of the conflict with Israel.

“The world is living through a long night of wars, destruction, fear, hate, racism and, at the present time, cold and snow,” he said. Lamenting strife in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, he also urged worshippers “not to forget our own problems here: the prisoners and their families who hope for their release, the poor who have lost their land and their homes demolished, families waiting to be reunited, those out of work and all who suffer from the economic crisis.”

Yet Twal called on people not to despair. “We are invited to be optimistic and to renew our faith that this land, home of the three monotheistic religions, will one day become a haven of peace for all people,” he said.

“Oh Holy Child, God of goodness and mercy, look with kindness on the Holy Land and on our people who live in Palestine, in Israel, in Jordan and all the Middle East. Grant them the gift of reconciliation so that they may all be brothers — sons of one God,” he said.

The number of visitors to Bethlehem remained below the record levels of the late 1990s, when Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts were at their height.

Following a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, the numbers plunged. But thanks to a period of relative calm, they have been steadily climbing in recent years — and got an extra push this year thanks to the resumption of peace talks.

“Our message is a message of justice and peace,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We Palestinians are seeking peace and we deserve to have peace and our children deserve to live in peace.”

Maayah said the number of visitors to Bethlehem was expected to jump by about 14 percent from last year.

A spokesman said 10,000 foreign visitors had entered town by the early evening, slightly higher than last year. Israel’s Tourism Ministry, which coordinates the visits with the Palestinians, said the number could reach 25,000 during the holiday season.

Despite the Christmas cheer, Mideast politics loomed in the background. In order to enter Bethlehem, Twal’s motorcade had to cross through the hulking concrete separation barrier that Israel built during the uprising.

Israel says the barrier is needed to keep attackers from entering nearby Jerusalem, but Palestinians say the structure has stifled the town and stolen their land.

Maayah said that the barrier, along with nearby Israeli settlements and Israeli control of archaeological sites in the West Bank, has made it difficult to develop the tourism sector.

In addition, few Palestinians seem to think that the current round of peace talks will bear fruit. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry relaunched the talks last summer, but there have been no signs of progress.

Israel carried out a series of airstrikes and other attacks Tuesday in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the deadly shooting of an Israeli civilian who had been working along the border. The fighting, which left a 3-year-old Palestinian girl dead, was the heaviest in more than a year.

Christmas also serves as a reminder of the dwindling numbers of Christians who live in the Holy Land. Over the decades, tens of thousands of Christians have left, fleeing violence or in search of better opportunities overseas. Christians now make up a tiny percentage of the population.

Bethlehem is now only one-third Christian, with most residents Muslim. In an annual gesture, Israel permitted some 500 members of Gaza’s small Christian community to leave the Hamas-ruled territory and cross through Israel to attend the celebrations in Bethlehem.

But for one night at least, residents and visitors brushed aside their troubles to celebrate the holiday.

Nick Parker, a student from Georgia Tech University, said he was enjoying the food and making friends with local residents and fellow travelers.

“It’s special to be here where Jesus was born,” he said. “It’s a special opportunity, once in a lifetime.”

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Source: Newsmax.com

Pope Francis on Christmas Eve Notes Jesus’ Humble Start.


Image: Pope Francis on Christmas Eve Notes Jesus' Humble Start

Pope Francis lauded Jesus’ humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby as he celebrated his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff Tuesday in St. Peter’s Basilica.

“You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful, and you made yourself vulnerable,” Francis said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with faithful.

Francis has dedicated much of his nine-month-old papacy to drawing attention to the plight of the poor, of children, and of other vulnerable members of society.

He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus’ birth were shepherds, who in society were considered “among the last, the outcast.”

Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began Tuesday 2 ½ hours before midnight. Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his new papacy, Francis carried the statue instead of an aide, and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus.

The Argentine-born pope has also encouraged his flock to be a joyful church, and he called Jesus “the Light Who brightens the darkness.”

In the world’s history and our own personal history, Francis said, “there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. ” He added that “if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us.”

Francis has applied this same vision to the heart of the Vatican‘s own workings, saying in past remarks that there is no place for personal ambition in the clerical hierarchy. Rather, he has insisted, the Catholic Church must be one of service to those in need.

Earlier, in the Holy Land, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love, and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, said as he arrived in Bethlehem.

At the Vatican, the basilica ceremony is the pope’s only public Mass for Christmas. On Wednesday, Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his Christmas message, meant for the world, from the basilica’s central balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Source: Newsmax.com

Israel Police Blame Palestinian Militants for Bus Blast Near Tel Aviv.


Image: Israel Police Blame Palestinian Militants for Bus Blast Near Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM — A pipe bomb believed to have been planted by Palestinian militants exploded on board a bus in central Israel just moments after it had been evacuated, police said, in the most serious attack inside Israel in more than a year.

The explosion came at a sensitive time in Mideast peace efforts. Israel and the Palestinians resumed talks last summer for the first time in nearly five years, and the U.S.-brokered negotiations have made little visible progress. The explosion threatened to further poison what has become a tense and negative atmosphere.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were no injuries in the blast, which took place in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam. The explosion blew windows out of the bus and charred the sides of the vehicle.

“Based on the findings at the scene by bomb disposal experts, it was a terrorist attack,” Rosenfeld said. “We’re continuing to search the area for suspects.”

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Rosenfeld said the nature of the target and the nature of the device led authorities to determine that militants, not criminals, were behind the bombing. He declined to elaborate, and there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

He said the bomb was discovered in a bag on the bus. The driver quickly ordered passengers to get off, and the bomb exploded shortly after as a bomb squad expert was inspecting it. The police sapper was not injured but was taken to a hospital to be evaluated.

It was the most serious attack inside Israel since a bomb explosion wounded more than 20 people in Tel Aviv in November 2012. At the time, Israel was involved in heavy fighting with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

A decade ago, Israel experienced a rash of Palestinian suicide bombings on buses, in restaurants and in other public spaces. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis died in several years of fighting.

But tensions have subsided in recent years. The neighboring West Bank, however, has seen a recent uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence, thought senior Israeli officials believe the various incidents there have not been connected to each other.

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Source: Newsmax.com

Israelis Split Over Threat Posed by Calls For Jewish State Boycott.


JERUSALEM — Could Israel face a mounting global boycott of the type that ended apartheid in South Africa if it fails to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians by this spring?

Some liberal Israeli commentators have been sounding such warnings, and the outgoing European Union (EU) envoy to the Middle East said Thursday that support in Europe for sanctioning Israel over its settlement policies could gain steam if talks collapse.

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Israeli officials have been downplaying any potential repercussions, and this week the European Union dangled unprecedented incentives before Israelis and Palestinians to nudge them toward a deal.

But Palestinian grassroots activists and their foreign supporters say an international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions — or BDS — against Israel is gaining momentum.

They point to recent successes, such as a decision this week by the American Studies Association, a group representing more than 3,800 U.S. scholars, to boycott Israeli academic institutions, though not individual Israeli colleagues.

Some activists say the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela earlier this month also invited comparisons between international anti-apartheid boycotts two decades ago and similar efforts now to pressure Israel to end its occupation of lands the Palestinians want for their state.

The BDS successes have been largely symbolic, and their impact on Israel’s robust economy has so far been negligible.

Israeli government officials have either dismissed the BDS campaign as ineffective or portrayed it as an attempt with strong anti-Semitic overtones to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, denounced the boycott decision of the U.S. scholars as a “travesty,” saying this week that “singling out of the Jewish state for boycott is no different than the many attempts throughout history to single out Jews and hold them to a different standard.”

While talk of boycott has unleashed strong emotions in Israel, government officials have been watching Europe’s more strident stance on Israeli settlements with greater concern.

Some 550,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians want a state in those lands and say Israel’s settlement building which only accelerated during the negotiations is jeopardizing the talks and pre-empting their outcome.

The EU has reiterated in recent months that it considers all settlements illegal and has taken steps to bring its actions more in line with its stated positions.

Europe has imposed a funding ban on Israeli research projects in the occupied territories that goes into effect next month.

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Earlier this week, EU diplomats warned Israel against new settlement announcements, saying that if negotiations collapse as a result, Israel would be held accountable.

The U.S.-led negotiations resumed in late July, after a five-year diplomatic impasse, and are to last for at least nine months.

On Wednesday, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, for the first time raised the possibility of an extension. He said that if the two sides reach a framework agreement on all main issues by the end of April, the Palestinians would be prepared negotiate for up to a year to work out the details of a comprehensive deal.

Previously, the Palestinians had said they reserve the right to walk away from the negotiations after nine months and explore other options, such as seeking wider international recognition.

The outgoing EU envoy to the Middle East, Andreas Reinicke, said in a phone interview from Brussels on Thursday that he believes a deal is possible and that the two sides “are starting to bridge the first gaps.”

Before the resumption of talks, the EU was discussing possible EU-wide recommendations on labeling Israeli settlement products, he said. Labeling could enable consumers to decide if they want to boycott such goods.

Reinicke said that when he started in his post in February 2012, only two of 28 EU member states supported the idea of labeling. Now, 14 states are in favor, he said. “There is movement in this direction,” he added.

“I think there is a general understanding among all 28 states that settlements are illegal under international law as long as there is no agreement on the border” between Israel and a state of Palestine, he said.

The discussions on labeling have been put on hold for now because Europe is working closely with Secretary of State John Kerry to support the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said Reinicke, who leaves his post at the end of December.

Hoping to prod the sides, EU diplomats promised earlier this week that Israel and a future Palestine would win unprecedented access to the EU in new partnership agreements if they strike a peace deal.

In Israel, the aftermath of Mandela’s death and the recent BDS successes have sparked a domestic “boycott debate.”

Shmuel Inbar, a Middle East analyst, said Israel isn’t facing a serious threat.

“I don’t think that five months from now, the key issue on the international agenda is to start to go on a crusade for boycotting Israel,” he said. He said Europeans will realize “that they have much bigger problems to attend to.”

However, several liberal commentators said Israel must heed the warning signs.

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“For various reasons, the Western governments have turned a blind eye to the Israeli violation of human rights” in the occupied territories up to now, Aviad Kleinberg, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily this week. “They usually make do with feeble condemnations and voicing pious concern for the future of ‘the conflict’.

“It appears as though this policy of turning a blind eye is going to end,” he wrote.

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Source: Newsmax.com

Kerry: Israeli-Palestinian Deal Possible by End of April.


TEL AVIV, Israel — Shrugging off gloomy predictions of failure, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that Israelis and Palestinians remained committed to peace talks and were on course to wrap up a full deal by April.

Speaking at the end of his second visit to the region in just a week, Kerry said the two sides were discussing a framework for a final-status accord to resolve the core issues at the heart of the decades-old conflict.

“Both parties remain committed to fulfilling their obligations to stay at the table and negotiate hard during the nine-month period that we set for that,” Kerry told reporters after separate talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

“We’re not talking at this point about any shifts [in the schedule],” he said, dismissing bleak assessments from both sides on progress in the U.S.-brokered negotiations, which resumed in July after a three-year pause.

The U.S. top diplomat wants the two camps to accept a so-called framework accord that will touch on all the main issues, such as security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees, and serve as a broad outline for the final deal.

Palestinians fear such a preliminary agreement could serve to delay once again their hopes of establishing an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — land the Israelis seized in the 1967 war.

Kerry said his talks over the past two days, played out against a backdrop of fierce winter snow storms, had focused on security, with retired U.S. General John Allen joining him for the discussions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

GUARANTEES

Palestinian sources said Allen, a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, had drawn up plans to allow a continued Israeli military presence for the next 10 years in the Jordan Valley — along the eastern border of any new Palestinian state.

Israel says its troops have to remain there to prevent arms and militants from entering the West Bank and launching attacks. Abbas has rejected the idea, but said he would accept seeing U.S. troops deployed along the border.

“We are working on an approach that both guarantees Israel’s security and fully respects Palestinian sovereignty,” Kerry said, without giving further details.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after Kerry’s visit “we want to achieve a peace based on Israel’s withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967.”

“We won’t accept limiting Palestinian sovereignty over our land,” Erekat added, in comments to al Arabiya television.

Palestinians also question whether Israel will press ahead with the third tranche of a planned release of Palestinian prisoners.

Seen as a vital confidence-building measure, Israel has so far freed about half the 104 prisoners it had pledged to let out of its jails under a deal secured by Washington in July. Kerry said the third tranche would go ahead on Dec. 29.

Kerry has made nine visits to the region since taking office in February in a relentless campaign to gain momentum and bridge a vast gulf of mutual mistrust.

“We remain hopeful that we can achieve that final-status agreement. Why? Because we are absolutely confident . . . that for both sides, and the region at large, peace can bring enormous benefits,” Kerry said.

He left Israel later on Friday, bound for Vietnam and the Philippines.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.
Source: Newsmax.com

Kerry Meets Israel’s Netanyahu Again to Push Peace Talks.


Image: Kerry Meets Israel's Netanyahu Again to Push Peace Talks

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday in his latest push for an elusive Mideast peace deal.

On his ninth trip of the year to the region, Kerry continued his furious pace of shuttle diplomacy amid a rare snowstorm that blanketed Jerusalem.

“I have heard of making guests welcome and feeling at home. This is about as far as I’ve ever seen anything go . . . giving me a New England snowstorm,” said the former Massachusetts senator as he viewed a snow-covered Old City of Jerusalem with Netanyahu.

Kerry met Thursday in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and it took him more than two hours to get back to Jerusalem because of the wintry conditions, a trip that usually takes about 20 minutes. He departs later Friday for Vietnam.

Concerned that a final status agreement may not be possible by the May target date the two sides accepted when they resumed talks in August, U.S. officials say Kerry is hoping for a framework accord that would contain the principles of a comprehensive pact, but not specific details.

If an outline were achieved, the negotiations could be extended beyond the nine-month timeline originally set by Kerry.

The officials, who spoke to reporters aboard Kerry’s plane on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly, stressed that an agreement on all issues — including security, borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees — by May remains the goal.

But, should that prove unworkable, they said a framework agreement would buy time for additional negotiations. Netanyahu and Abbas agreed after numerous rounds of meetings with Kerry to negotiate for a minimum of nine months.

A framework accord, the officials said, would be a “logical step” on the path to a final status agreement.

In Ramallah and Jerusalem, he will also follow up on elements of a West Bank security plan, ideas for which he unveiled on his most recent visit to the region just last week, and other points of potential progress.

But his latest visit comes amid Palestinian unhappiness with the security plan and few, if any, tangible signs of progress.

Kerry, along with special U.S. Mideast peace envoy Martin Indyk, met separately and then together for about three hours Monday with chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, Psaki said.

Livni and Erekat were in Washington for a Mideast conference in which President Barack Obama, Netanyahu and Kerry participated. Kerry also spoke Wednesday by phone with Netanyahu.

On Monday, though, top Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said if Kerry finalized a framework accord, he would be breaking a promise to try to negotiate a final agreement in the current round of talks.

The Palestinians are concerned that a framework deal will accommodate very specific Israeli security demands while offering only vague promises to the Palestinians, Abed Rabbo said.

Security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestine would be central to such a framework. Kerry has argued that progress in negotiations is only possible if Israeli security concerns are addressed first.

The security proposals presented last week to Abbas and Netanyahu include arrangements for the border between Jordan and a state of Palestine.

U.S. officials have refused to discuss details, but Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details of the negotiations, say they would give Israel final say at that border for at least 10 years and would also have a military presence in the strip of land next to it, the West Bank’s Jordan Valley.

Israeli officials have said they fear militants and weapons could be smuggled into a future Palestine if Israel gives up control over the West Bank-Jordan border. Abbas has said he is willing to accept an international presence there, but not Israeli forces.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but are willing to accept minor land swaps in drawing the final border to accommodate some of the settlements Israel has built on war-won land.

Netanyahu has refused to commit to what the Palestinians and most of the international community considers a basic ground rule — that border negotiations use the 1967 lines as a starting point.

In all, Israel has agreed to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four stages during the current negotiations, which began in late July and are to conclude in April. Israel has so far released two groups of prisoners.

Kerry wants the last two releases to be combined and be carried out in late January, instead of being done in two installments, the Palestinian officials said.

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Source: Newsmax.com

Church of the Nativity Undergoes Facelift for Holidays.


Image: Church of the Nativity Undergoes Facelift for Holidays

A restoration expert works on a mosaic inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Dec. 10.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — As visitors descend upon Bethlehem this holiday season, they will notice a different look for the Church of the Nativity. Wrapped in scaffolding, the basilica located at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth is undergoing a much-needed facelift after 600 years.

Experts say that water is leaking from the rooftop and threatens to cause serious damage to mosaics and other priceless items.

Project manager Afif Tweme said the first stage of the project began in September and is addressing the most pressing issues: the rooftop and windows.

“The water also has a bad effect on the plastering surfaces, on the mosaics, on the floors, on the frescoes. It could damage any, any historical elements inside the church,” said Tweme, who works for the “Community Development Group,” a Palestinian engineering consulting firm.

The companies carrying out the works are obliged to minimize any disruptions to visitors and make sure that pilgrims can “pass freely inside the church and safely,” he added.

The church is one of Christianity‘s most visited and sacred shrines. Standing above the grotto where, according to tradition, Jesus was born, the church attracted more than 2 million visitors last year. But the building, with remnants up to 1,500 years old, has been neglected for decades.

Both the World Monuments Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting historic sites, and the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO have placed the church on their lists of endangered sites. And a high-tech survey by a consortium of Italian experts in 2011 called for urgent repairs.

The city of Bethlehem is situated in a part of the West Bank where the Palestinians have self-rule. The Western-backed Palestinian Authority has taken the lead and is financing a great portion of the works, said Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser on Christian affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

He said the government has provided $1 million, while an additional $800,000 is coming from the private sector. The rest is coming from European countries such as France, Hungary, Russia and Greece, contributing to the roughly $3 million in total needed for the first phase, al-Bandak said.

Beyond the painstaking process of preserving a delicate holy site, the work has been complicated by the sensitive relations among the three Christian denominations that share ownership of the church.

The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches have traditionally viewed each other with deep suspicion. They run the Nativity Church according to a 19th century codex, known as the Status Quo, which assigns responsibilities for upkeep that are jealously guarded by each denomination.

Relations are so fraught that these turf battles have occasionally escalated into fistfights between clergymen.

A senior church official said the three denominations would never have been able to reach an agreement on their own. But once the Palestinian Authority stepped in, all three churches accepted the decision. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with the media.

The first phase, expected to last one year, is being carried out by “Piacenti,” an Italian firm that specializes in the renovation of historical sites. One by one, experts will repair the hundreds of wooden beams in the roof.

Company president Giammarco Piacenti said the rooftop was masterfully restored by Venetian carpenters in 1478. He said the project would be conservative and seek to keep as many original pieces as possible.

“We’ll save as many parts, even those in bad conditions, as we can,” he said. “We’ll only replace pieces that are no longer functional and can no longer help hold the roof. They will be as few as possible and will be made of a compatible wood, of aged wood of the same type and quality.”

Aside from the roof and windows, other elements that will need repair in the future are the external facade, internal plastering, wall mosaics and paintings and wooden works, said Tweme. If funding is secured, the work could take four to five years, he said.

The church was built in the 4th century by Saint Helena over a cave where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth. What pilgrims mostly see today is the basilica church built by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565 AD.

The construction doesn’t include the area that is the main focus of the pilgrimage: the place located under the altar crypt that hosts the 14-pointed silver star marking the spot where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born.

In spite of large scaffolding lining the sides of the nave near the entrance, visitors don’t seem to mind, at least for the moment. Sister Aziza, an Eritrean nun who lives in Israel, welcomed what she says is much-needed repair.

“I’m very grateful and happy that they’re renovating it. Otherwise it will fall,” she said. “And it will be safer for people and also to worship. It is a nice step that they agreed to renovate it, because for so many years I’ve been waiting for this renovation.”

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Source: Newsmax.com

Palestinians: Kerry Appeasing Israel Over Iran — at Their Expense.


JERUSALEM — A senior Palestinian official said the United States was asking Palestinians to make security concessions in peace talks with Israel in order to silence the Jewish state’s criticism of world power diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.The accusations by Yasser Abed Rabbo, who joined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last week, further clouded hopes of achieving a negotiated accord by an April target date.

Kerry, who is expected to return to the region late this week, presented both sides with suggestions on Thursday about how Israel might fend off future threats from a Palestinian state envisaged in West Bank land it now occupies.

Israel has long demanded that under any eventual accord it retain swaths of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as military control of the territory’s eastern Jordan Valley — effectively, the prospective Palestine’s border with Jordan.

But Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine radio that Kerry had plunged the process into crisis by seeking to “appease Israel through agreeing to its expansion demands in the [Jordan] Valley under the pretext of security.”

U.S. acquiescence to Israel’s security demands was aimed at “silencing the Israelis over the deal with Iran and achieving a fake progress in the Palestinian-Israeli track at our expense,” he said.

Abed Rabbo was referring to the Nov. 24 interim accord reached in Geneva between world powers and Iran, whereby it agreed to some curbs on its disputed nuclear program in exchange for the easing of international sanctions.

Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on Monday there was no quid pro quo between the Iran and Palestine talks.

“These two issues concern both Israel’s security and our security and the interests of all the Middle East, that it be a more quiet and stable region. But we do not see any linkage in which we seek to give on one issue and receive on the other,” Shapiro told Israel’s Army Radio.

STRAINED TIES

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially condemned Geneva as an “historic mistake” that risked helping Iran’s limping economy, while leaving it with the means to make a nuclear bomb. Iran says its nuclear drive is peaceful.

The Geneva deal further strained the Netanyahu government’s ties with the Obama administration, which is mindful of support for the Jewish state in Congress, though Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone last week.

Israel has not commented on the U.S. proposals but Cabinet minister Yaakov Peri said on Sunday the government had not yet agreed to them.

He said deep Palestinian pessimism over prospects for a deal, many Israelis also question whether Abbas would be able to keep his armed Islamist Hamas rivals, who rule the Gaza Strip and spurn coexistence with the Jewish state, to an eventual accord.

Shapiro said Gaza’s government would have to change for Palestinian statehood to be fully realized.

“We are talking about two states for two peoples,” Shapiro said. “The Palestinian state will also include Gaza. But there has to be a change to the regime there. That is clear.”

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Source: Newsmax.com

Palestinians Spurn US Security Ideas for Peace with Israel.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinians rejected ideas raised by visiting Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday for security arrangements under a possible future peace accord with Israel, a Palestinian official said.There was no immediate response from the United States or Israel, which has long insisted on keeping swathes of its West Bank settlements, as well as a military presence on the territory’s eastern boundary with Jordan, under any peace deal.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to elaborate on the proposals, said Kerry presented them to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after discussing them separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The Palestinian side rejected them because they would only lead to prolonging and maintaining the occupation,” the official told Reuters, referring to Israel’s hold on the West Bank, where, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, Palestinians seek an independent state.

In remarks to reporters after his three-hour meeting with Abbas in the West Bank hub city of Ramallah, Kerry commended “his steadfast commitment to stay at the peace negotiations, despite the difficulties that he and the Palestinians have perceived in the process”.

Kerry said they had discussed “at great length issues of security in the region, security for the state of Israel, security for a future Palestine.”

PESSIMISM

“I think the interests are very similar, but there are questions of sovereignty, questions of respect and dignity which are obviously significant to the Palestinians, and for the Israelis very serious questions of security and also of longer-term issues of how we end this conflict once and for all,” Kerry added.

Abbas did not join Kerry at the Ramallah media appearance.

Disputes over proposed Israeli land handovers have bedevilled peace efforts for two decades, along with other issues like the status of Jerusalem and fate of Palestinian refugees. Kerry revived the talks in July and set a nine-month target for an accord, but both sides have signaled pessimism.

Palestinians worry that Israel’s settlements — deemed illegal by most world powers — will not leave room for a viable state. Israelis question whether Abbas could commit the rival, armed Palestinian Hamas Islamists who govern Gaza to coexistence with the Jewish state.

Kerry, who met Netanyahu earlier on Thursday and returned to Jerusalem in the evening to confer again with the Israeli leader, said “some progress” had been made in the peace talks.

Acknowledging Israel’s fear that ceding the West Bank could make it vulnerable to attack, Kerry said he offered Netanyahu “some thoughts about that particular security challenge.”

Neither he nor Netanyahu gave further details, citing the need to keep the diplomacy discreet. Both described Israeli security as paramount, something Netanyahu said would require that his country “be able to defend itself by itself.”

Israel quit Gaza unilaterally in 2005, after which Hamas came to power. The sides have repeatedly exchanged fire since.

Israeli media have reported that Kerry’s proposals included security arrangements for the Jordan Valley, between the West Bank and Jordan. An Israeli official said that in recent weeks U.S. officials had visited Jordan Valley crossing points.

Kerry was due to depart on Friday after a helicopter tour of the West Bank and other areas with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. In Ramallah, Kerry said he may return to the region for more talks next week “depending on where we are”.

“So the discussions will go on, the effort will continue, and our hopes with them for the possibilities of peace for the region,” he said.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Source: Newsmax.com

Al-Qaida Terror Cell Takes Foothold in West Bank, Members Killed.


RAMALLAH, West Bank  — An al-Qaida-linked group said three militants killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces last week were its members, and that their presence there showed that the Islamist network had taken root in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Al-Qaida has struggled to build up significant support in the West Bank, analysts say, and the Palestinian Authority that administers the area last week denied an Israeli report the men were linked to the organization.

“By the will of God Almighty, the global jihadi doctrine has reached the bank of pride, the West Bank, planting its foothold after all attempts to thwart its presence,” said a statement posted by Majles Shura al-Mujahideen, or Holy Warriors’ Assembly, on an Islamist web forum.

Such groups have some grassroots support in the other Palestinian territory of Gaza, which is governed by the Islamist faction Hamas.

Israeli officials had said the three Palestinians killed on Tuesday belonged to an al-Qaida-linked cell plotting attacks.

They said the men were shot after opening fire at Israeli troops who tried to arrest them. The West Bank is policed by Israel in often close cooperation with the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA).

On Sunday, PA security forces spokesman Adnan Damiri said he had no information about the presence of al-Qaida-linked groups in the West Bank but that Palestinian investigators were looking into Tuesday’s incident.

Many Palestinians chafe at security ties between the PA and Israel given the lack of clear progress in U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the sides. Those negotiations are billed as leading to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, a territory extensively settled by Israel, as well as in the Gaza Strip.

In its online statement, Majles Shura al-Mujahideen denounced the peacemaking efforts and threatened attacks on Israel and the PA.

“We call on every sincere person to cut off what is called ‘negotiations’, which causes one’s nose to turn away with its foul stench of collaboration,” the statement said. “We are serious about fighting the aggression against religion by the blaspheming Jews and the hypocritical collaborators.”

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.
Source: Newsmax.com

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