Palestinians decry Trump peace plan before he meets Israeli leaders

By Steve Holland and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to disclose details of his Middle East peace plan to Israeli leaders on Monday as Palestinian officials decried it as a bid “to finish off” the Palestinian cause.

Trump will meet separately with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz in Washington over his long-delayed proposals, which have been kept secret.

Palestinians fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington and that no peace plan can work without them. Ahead of the U.S.-Israeli meetings, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Trump and Netanyahu were using the plan as a distraction from their domestic troubles.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges. Netanyahu faces corruption charges and an national election on March 2, his third in less than a year. Both men deny wrongdoing.

“This plan is to protect Trump against being impeached and to protect Netanyahu from going to jail, and it is not a peace plan,” Shtayyeh said on Monday at a cabinet meeting in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“We reject it, and we demand the international community not be a partner to it because it contradicts the basics of international law and inalienable Palestinian rights,” he added.

“It is nothing but a plan to finish off the Palestinian cause.”

Neighboring Jordan, which along with Egypt is one of two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, said on Thursday that annexation of the occupied Jordan Valley – as Netanyahu has pledged to do – “will blow up the peace process”.

WASHINGTON MEETINGS

Trump’s initiative, whose principal author is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, follows a long line of efforts to resolve one of the world’s most intractable problems.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014. The United Nations and most governments around the world back a blueprint for a two-state solution – an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, the foundation of every peace plan for decades.

Trump hoped to release his own plan last year but was forced to delay as Netanyahu twice tried unsuccessfully to form a governing coalition after inconclusive elections.

After Monday’s meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz, Trump will on Tuesday deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House, where the president may reveal details of his proposal.

But whether it truly will jumpstart the long-stalled effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is far from certain.

Palestinians have refused to engage the Trump administration and denounced its first stage – a $50-billion economic revival plan announced last June.

The White House hope was that if Trump could get the support of both Netanyahu and Gantz for the plan, it would help provide some momentum. A U.S. official said Trump wants to know they are both on board with the plan before announcing it.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival, last week lifted his objection to having the plan published before Israel’s March election.

“I am looking forward to meeting the president – a president of utmost friendliness to the State of Israel – on a matter that is very important for the State of Israel – with national, strategic and security ramifications,” Gantz said as he landed in Washington on Sunday.

But Trump, preoccupied with November’s re-election bid, can ill afford to wait months for Israel to decide its next prime minister, a U.S. official said.

HONEST MEDIATOR?

Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water even before its publication.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Washington can no longer be regarded as an honest mediator, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. This followed a series of Trump decisions that delighted Israel but dismayed and infuriated Palestinians.

These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to

the Palestinians.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on the draft fear it seeks to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank including most of the Jordan Valley, the strategic and fertile easternmost strip of the territory.

Continuing obstacles to a peace settlement include the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington no longer regarded Israeli settlements on West Bank land as inconsistent with international law.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dan Williams; additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)

Gaza rocket sends Netanyahu to shelter during campaign rally: TV

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) – A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip at a southern Israeli city on Wednesday as it hosted a campaign rally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted him to take shelter briefly before resuming the event, Israeli TV stations reported.

The Israeli military confirmed the launch against Ashkelon, which is 12 km (7.5 miles) from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome air defense interceptor.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas Islamists and where a smaller armed faction, Islamic Jihad, exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence last month.

Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu, who is campaigning to keep the helm of the conservative Likud party in an internal election on Thursday, being escorted off a stage by bodyguards. The reports said he was taken to a shelter after sirens sounded.

It was the second such incident after a September appearance by Netanyahu in the nearby town of Ashdod was briefly disrupted by a rocket siren.

Israel sparked the November fighting in Gaza by assassinating Baha Abu Al-Atta, an Islamic Jihad commander it accused of ordering the launch against Ashdod.

“He (Al-Atta) is no longer around,” a video circulated on social media showed a smiling Netanyahu saying after he retook the stage in Ashkelon, to cheers from onlookers.

In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday’s attack, he added: “Whoever tried to make an impression just now should pack his bags.”

While Netanyahu is widely expected to retain Likud’s leadership, he faces a tough battle ahead of a March general election in Israel – its third in a year, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu’s standing has been dented by an indictment on corruption charges that he denies.

Netanyahu’s failure to stem attacks from Gaza has been invoked by his political rivals.

“The situation in which Israeli citizens live at the mercy of terrorists and the prime minister of Israel is unable to tour parts of his country is a badge of shame on the security policy in the south – and a loss of deterrence that no sovereign country can accept,” Gantz, a former military chief, said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Grebler)

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel declared a halt to hostilities across the Gaza Strip border on Thursday but a lasting ceasefire appeared tenuous as they differed on terms.

Islamic Jihad said an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect at 0330 GMT, about 48 hours after Israel triggered the exchange of fire by killing the Iranian-backed faction’s top Gaza commander in an air strike, deeming him an imminent threat.

Occasional rocket fire from Gaza broke the calm that ensued, but the ceasefire largely held as night fell.

Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women.

Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.

Hamas, Gaza’s dominant faction, appeared to have stayed out of this round of fighting. That may have helped stem escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military operation was drawing to a conclusion with its goals met. “Our enemies got the message – we can reach anyone,” Netanyahu said, as he visited soldiers at a missile interception battery.

Islamic Jihad said Israel had accepted its demand to stop both the targeted killing of militants and sometimes lethal army gunfire at weekly Palestinian protests on the Gaza border.

“The ceasefire began under Egyptian sponsorship after the Occupation (Israel) submitted to the conditions set by Islamic Jihad on behalf of Palestinian resistance factions,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab Al-Braim said.

But Israel said it would observe only a limited quid pro quo. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

MISSILE STRIKE

In the deadliest incident of the two-day hostilities, eight members of a Gaza family were killed by an Israeli missile strike shortly before the truce took hold, said medical officials and residents.

They said all were civilians. But Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee said the head of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was among the dead, was the commander of Islamic Jihad rocket crews in the central Gaza Strip.

Neighbors left their homes to help rescue workers pull out the bodies of the family, some of which were completely buried in sandy earth. Civilians tried to test the pulse of one body before pulling it out.

Israel’s allegation about Rasmi Abu Malhous could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters. Islamic Jihad did not claim him as a member.

Neither the hostilities nor efforts to halt them shifted the dynamics of the underlying core conflict.

While Hamas has been open to long-term truces, like Islamic Jihad it refuses to accept permanent co-existence with Israel.

Gazans are seeking to end years of an Israeli-led blockade. Refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendents make up most of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and want the right to return to their families’ former lands.

Israel rejects this as demographic suicide and sees no means of making peace as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are armed.

Katz said there would be no change to Israeli military policy in Gaza, contradicting the assertion of Islamic Jihad.

Targeted killings “will not cease”, he said, and “the open-fire policy for which the Israel Defence Forces is responsible (at the Gaza border) will not change”.

Markets in Gaza reopened as life returned to normal, though people expressed mixed feelings about the truce.

“We responded and made clear our blood was not shed in vain. Also a truce is good because we don’t want our people to suffer more under the blockade,” said one resident, Mohammad Al-Smairi.

U.N. mediator Nickolay Mladenov said the Gaza situation remained fragile, tweeting: “All must show maximum restraint and do their part to prevent bloodshed. The Middle East does not need more wars.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

Palestinians reject U.S. peace plan as Kushner keeps silent on political details

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner gives a speech at the opening of the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019 in this still image taken from a video. Peace And Prosperity conference pool/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – Palestinians poured scorn on the Trump administration’s much-touted peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wednesday, saying its framework for a trade and investment boost ignored their political aspirations for statehood.

Gulf states attending an international meeting in Bahrain, orchestrated by the plan’s architect, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, gave it qualified support.

But they also stressed that any peace settlement must be based on two-state solution.

Kushner told reporters his team would release the plan’s political details, which remain secret, “when we’re ready”, adding: “We’ll see what happens”.

He said a peace deal would happen when both sides are ready to say “yes”. He acknowledged that they may never get there.

Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments are attending the meeting, which takes place amid a years-long stalemate in other international efforts to resolve a conflict that has lasted more than 70 years.

Senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the Manama conference was “quite disingenuous”.

“It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the (Israeli) occupation itself,” she told a news conference.

Several thousand Palestinians demonstrated in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and burned posters of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame” read one banner.

The chief of the Islamist Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, criticized the plan as a ruse against the Palestinian people.

“This money must not come at the expense of our enduring rights, or at the expense of Jerusalem or the right of return or at the expense of sovereignty and resistance,” he said.

The foreign minister of Bahrain said the plan, nearly two years in the making, was an “opportunity not to be missed”.

He reiterated the need for a two-state solution, which has underpinned every peace plan for decades, but Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it.

“I think if we take this matter seriously it could be a very important game-changer,” Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told Israeli public broadcaster Kan in English.

Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has said Israel was open to the economic proposals.

But many Arab states, including Lebanon, stayed away from the event while others including Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have reached peace agreements with Israel, sent deputy ministers.

The Lebanese government and parliament both oppose the U.S. plan, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said on Wednesday.

 

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T is seen during the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T is seen during the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

HARD SELL

Washington hopes the wealthy Gulf states will bankroll the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said the kingdom would support whatever brings prosperity to the region but that it was important that it was driven by the private sector.

UAE Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid al-Tayer said: “We should give this initiative a chance”.

Riyadh said on the eve of the conference that any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war.

It also envisages a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the two-state solution, which is backed by the United Nations and most countries. Kushner has said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.

Any solution must settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, Israel’s security concerns, Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory where Palestinians want to build that state.

Palestinian leaders are refusing to engage with the White House, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with the international consensus, Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating the Palestinians and other Arabs.

SOUND POLITICS

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also emphasized the need for a two-state solution and said peace required both political and economic tracks.

“It’s absolutely foolish to believe you can have economics without sound politics, but it’s likewise completely futile to think politics will work without economics buttressing it,” he told the gathering.

International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, said generating economic growth in conflict-riven countries can be a struggle.

The IMF puts unemployment at 30% in the West Bank and 50% in Gaza, which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades and recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Gaza right now is feeling a lot of pain because of bad leadership and the sanctions that have been imposed on them because of it,” Kushner said.

“So the question that (Hamas)leadership has to ask themselves is…do they hate their neighbor in Israel more than they love their citizens and their people?”

The 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects in the plan include a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, which has been floated before and stalled for lack of underlying political or security agreements.

Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari, chairman of the Palestinian Business Network, told the gathering it was difficult to build an economy with a “siege and unstable situation”.

“Frankly, we demand an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967,” said the businessman from Hebron, who has co-founded a trade group to boost business between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

(Story was refiled to remove extraneous words from headline)

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Manama, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Rami Ayyub in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Davide Barbuscia, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nafisa Taher, Hadeel AlSayegh and Alexander Corwnwell in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Palestinians rally against Kushner’s economic peace plan

A Palestinian boy hurls stones at Israeli forces during clashes at a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. peace plan, near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinians burned portraits of President Donald Trump as they protested in both the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday against U.S.-led plans for a conference on their economy in Bahrain.

Many Palestinian business groups have said they will boycott the June 25-26 event, billed as part of Washington’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and spearheaded by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“Down with Bahrain, down with Trump, down with the Manama conference,” chanted crowds in Gaza, which is ruled by the armed Islamist group Hamas. Some burned large paintings of Trump marked with the words: “Deal of the devil”.

Leaders in both territories have accused Washington of pro-Israel bias and railed against the conference’s focus on economics, rather than their aspirations for an independent state.

Kushner told Reuters on Saturday the plan would create a million jobs, halve Palestinian poverty and double the Palestinians’ GDP.

In the West Bank, hundreds marched through Ramallah’s main squares, waving posters in support of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the territory.

Protesters there burned posters of both Trump and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The rallies marked a moment of political unity against the Bahrain conference, despite a 12-year political feud between Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas.

“A WEDDING WITHOUT THE BRIDE”

“The Manama conference is a comedy show, a wedding without the bride (the Palestinians) … it will not succeed,” said a protester who gave her name as Siham in Gaza City.

The Bahrain conference will be attended by Gulf Arab states as well as Jordan and Egypt. Israel is expected to send a business delegation but no government officials.

Mahmoud Barhoush, 25, said he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what he called Arab states’ “treasonous” participation.

“Enough of your running into the arms of Trump and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” he said at the Ramallah protest.

Other demonstrators criticized the lone Palestinian businessman named as an expected attendee in Bahrain, Ashraf Jabari. A U.S. official told Reuters that at least 15 Palestinians were expected to attend.

“Whoever attends is not a Palestinian and is not welcomed in Palestine. There should be measures taken against them,” said Maisoon Alqadoomi, 32, a Fatah activist from Ramallah.

Palestinian leaders on Monday renewed their calls for a boycott of the conference.

“This workshop is simply a political laundry for settlements and a legitimization of occupation,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told journalists ahead of a cabinet meeting.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said: “They (Palestinians) will not sell out their rights for all treasures on earth”.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Arab League head warns no Mideast peace deal without Palestinian state

FILE PHOTO - Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit attends the Arab League's foreign ministers meeting to discuss unannounced U.S. blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace, in Cairo, Egypt April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – The head of the Arab League warned on Monday that attempts to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be in vain without the establishment of a Palestinian state on all territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s comments appeared directed at a still unpublished peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump has dubbed the “deal of the century”. As part of the plan, a U.S.-led conference will be held next week in Bahrain on proposals for the Palestinian economy.

The Palestinian leadership is boycotting the conference, saying Trump’s peace plan is likely to be heavily weighted in favor of Israel and to quash their aspirations for statehood in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While the precise outlines of the draft plan have yet to be revealed, Palestinian and Arab sources who have been briefed on it say it jettisons the two-state solution.

“Whatever is rejected by the Palestinian or the Arab side is unacceptable,” Aboul Gheit said during an event at the Arab League.

“What is acceptable from our side as Arabs as a solution is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital,” he added.

Based in Egypt, the Arab League is often seen as a talking shop rendered ineffective by regional rivalries, but it remains the main forum for Arab opinion on international matters.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are its most influential members.

Aboul Gheit said that Israel’s acceptance of an Arab Peace Initiative drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, which offers Israel normal ties in return for withdrawal from territory captured in 1967, was the only acceptable solution for Arab states.

“If (Israel) chooses the only reasonable and accepted way from our side as Arabs, which is the establishment of a Palestinian state … it will be accepted in the region as a normal regional partner,” he said.

Last week, a White House official said Egypt, Jordan and Morocco planned to attend the Bahrain conference.

Palestinians urged Egypt and Jordan to reconsider their attendance at the U.S.-led conference in Bahrain, voicing concern it would weaken any Arab opposition to Washington’s coming peace plan.

(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Ahmed Tolba, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Toby Chopra)

Palestinians injured in protests at Gaza border ahead of anniversary rally

A Palestinian protester returns a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during clashes in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded seven Palestinians on the Gaza border on Friday, Gaza medical officials said, the day before a mass rally called to mark the first anniversary of weekly protests in which around 200 Palestinians have been killed.

Despite a decision by Gaza protest organizers not to hold a big demonstration on Friday some Palestinians turned out, although in smaller numbers than usual. Humanitarian officials urged restraint for Saturday’s anniversary to avoid any further bloodshed.

Palestinian sit near to the Israeli-Gaza border fence, ahead of the first anniversary of border protests, east of Gaza City March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The Israeli military said its troops faced around 800 demonstrators along the fortified frontier on Friday and that they had used riot dispersal measures to defend the border.

There were also sporadic clashes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian youths threw petrol bombs in Hebron, and 150 demonstrators hurled stones at Israeli troops, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israeli military says has begun striking Hamas in Gaza

An Israeli Apache helicopter releases flares as it flies over the Gaza Strip March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military said on Monday it had begun carrying out strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, hours after a Palestinian rocket hit a house near Tel Aviv.

Reuters witnesses heard explosions in Gaza.

The military said in a statement that it had “begun striking Hamas terror targets throughout the Gaza Strip.”

One position hit was a Hamas naval position west of Gaza City, and a another was a large Hamas training camp in northern Gaza, Palestinian security officials and Hamas media outlets said.

Both positions were likely to have been evacuated, as Hamas had hours of notice that Israeli strikes were coming.

Witnesses said three missiles hit the northern target.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised a strong response to the rocket attack earlier in the day that injured seven Israelis.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Divided by war, Israel and Gaza’s Instagrammers tell their own stories

Israeli teens, Meshy Elmkies (R), 16, Liam Yefet (C), 16 and Lee Cohen, 17, co-managers of Instagram account, Otef.Gaza, look at their mobile phones as they sit on a swing at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom which borders the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel November 11, 2018. Picture taken November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Rami Ayyub, Leah Angel and Nidal al-Mughrabi

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – In another part of the world they might have gone to the same schools or be sharing wifi in the same coffee shops.

Although these young women Instagrammers live just a few kilometers apart, they will likely never meet. One group are Gaza Palestinians and the other are Israeli schoolgirls living beside Gaza, with Israel’s concrete and razorwire border fortifications stretching between them.

But one thing they share is a desire to take control of their own stories. Both groups are convinced that their lives are misrepresented or misunderstood by the outside world.

The missiles have stopped flying – for the moment – and the world’s eyes have already moved on after a week which saw the fiercest rocket salvoes and air strikes since a 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which controls the Gaza Strip.

But the people of Gaza and Israel’s border communities remain, waiting for the next crisis, which is rarely long coming.

“Gaza is closed, not many have access here. With Instagram, you can show Gaza to the world through your own eyes” said Manar Alzraiy, project manager of “We Are Not Numbers”, a Gaza-based program for young writers, artists and photographers.

Her group runs commentary on destruction and conflict in the Gaza Strip but also seeks to broaden the war-focused narrative about Gaza by sharing stories of ordinary people.

“During attacks by the Israelis, we want to get our message out there. But we have to be mindful of what our group is experiencing – the stress, anxiety. We can’t always do it,” she said.

On the Israeli side, the Instagram account Otef Gaza, which means “Gaza Periphery” in Hebrew, was started by a group of teenage girls in and around Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz beside the border.

The group highlights photographs of farmland scorched by incendiary devices flown into Israel during Palestinian border protests and rockets fired by Gaza militants which send Israelis running to shelters.

“People are not aware that this is our reality, and they simply ignore us,” said Lee Cohen, 17, who co-manages the account.

“You can’t sleep because of the rocket sirens, the explosions, helicopters flying overhead and the fear of terrorists from Gaza coming in through a tunnel and trying to kill people.”

Members of 'We Are Not Numbers' team work on laptops in an office in Gaza City November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Members of ‘We Are Not Numbers’ team work on laptops in an office in Gaza City November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

HUMAN PROBLEMS

Inside the Gaza Strip, 225 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since border protests began on March 30, according to Palestinian health officials.

Israel says that many of those killed were militants and that its troops are defending the border. One Israeli soldier has been killed during the protests when he was hit by Hamas gunfire.

In Gaza City 27-year-old Alzraiy said the purpose of “We Are Not Numbers” was “to speak of the human problems” of Gaza.

“You get used to the feeling that at any moment, something could happen,” she said. “It’s like just for a second, you could lose your value as a human being.”

Another Gazan, Fatma Abu Musabbeh, 22, takes another approach. She insists on showing only positive images, so her account features manicured gardens and stonecraft buildings.

“When there is a war or difficult situation, I post a photo or two to tell my followers and the world that Gaza is beautiful, despite what is happening,” said Abu Musabbeh.

Across the border one of the Israeli Instagrammers, Meshy Elmkies, 16, said they use the app because it is easy to organize information, “and I personally think that teenagers have the power to make an impact.”

During a phone call with Reuters last week, the voice of her friend, Lee Cohen, suddenly became hushed.

“There’s a red alert siren,” she muttered. “Can we speak later?”

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

Netanyahu faces snap election calls after defense minister quits

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, at his gravesite in Sde Boker, Israel November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls on Thursday from his coalition partners to hold an early election, a day after the defense minister’s resignation left the government with a razor-thin majority.

Avigdor Lieberman quit on Wednesday over what he described as the government’s too-soft policy on cross-border violence with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The loss of the five seats of Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu faction leaves Netanyahu with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, raising the prospect that a scheduled November 2019 election would be brought forward.

Lieberman’s resignation takes effect 48 hours after being handed in, which he did early on Thursday. Each coalition partner will then have the power to bring down the government.

To avert a crisis, Netanyahu has been holding talks with ministers in an effort to stabilize the government.

Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, said he told Netanyahu in their meeting that the responsible step to take would be to establish a new and stable government.

“The best thing for Israel’s citizens and economy is to hold an election as soon as possible,” Kahlon said in a statement. His call was echoed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction.

Adding to the pressure, Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, has demanded the defense brief by given to him.

Both Lieberman and Bennett, who compete with Netanyahu’s Likud for right-wing voters, have spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

Israel has fought three wars in Gaza since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.

“I asked the prime minister yesterday to appoint me defense minister to fulfill one goal only – that Israel start winning again,” Bennett said at a conference near Tel Aviv.

Jewish Home said on Wednesday that without the defense brief, there would be no point in keeping the government together.

However Bennett did not repeat this in his remarks on Thursday nor did he render an explicit ultimatum to Netanyahu, with whom he is due to meet on Friday.

It was unclear whether Netanyahu would opt for an early election.

Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption, and speculation has been rife that he may bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before Israel’s attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

A poll published on Wednesday by Israel’s Hadashot television news showed Likud falling by one seat from 30 to 29 after months of surveys that have shown it gaining power. Only 17 percent of respondents were happy with Netanyahu’s Gaza policy.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)