Israeli troops mistakenly kill Hamas operative on Gaza border

Palestinian Hamas militants take part in the funeral of their comrade Mahmoud Al-Adham, 28, in the northern Gaza Strip July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers mistakenly shot a Hamas operative on Thursday who had been trying to prevent Palestinians from approaching the Israel-Gaza border, the Israeli military said.

Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said the man had been killed. The health ministry in Gaza said the dead Palestinian man was aged 28 and had been shot near Beit Hanoun in the northern part of the territory.

“An initial inquiry suggests that a Hamas restraint operative arrived in the area of the security fence because of two Palestinians who were wandering in the area,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

“In retrospect, it appears that the IDF (Israel Defense Force) troops who arrived at the location misidentified the Hamas restraint operative to be an armed terrorist and fired as a result of this misunderstanding. The incident will be reviewed,” it said.

The last round of violence in the Gaza Strip and neighboring southern Israel was in May, with hundreds of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes over three days before a ceasefire was brokered.

With an eye to avoiding broader confrontation, Hamas has occasionally deployed its men at the border to keep Palestinians away from the fence, where often violent anti-Israeli demonstrations that began in March 2018 have drawn lethal Israeli fire.

“CRIMINAL ACT”

In its statement on Thursday, Hamas’s armed wing said Israeli forces had deliberately targeted a fighter “on duty” near the border.

“The occupation bears responsibility for the consequences of such a criminal act,” it said, referring to Israel.

After the fighting in May, a ceasefire was brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations.

But tensions have remained high, with Hamas accusing Israel of failing to abide by the terms – never publicly confirmed by Israeli leaders – of a truce deal to ease a blockade of Gaza.

Incendiary balloons launched from Gaza have continued to spark fires in southern Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is running in a September election – held out the prospect on Thursday of Israeli military action.

“We are preparing for a campaign that will be broad and also surprising,” he said in Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city that has been a target of Hamas rocket attacks.

On Sunday, an 89-year-old Israeli woman, hurt while running for shelter during the fighting in May, died of her injuries, Israeli health authorities said.

Rockets and missiles fired from Gaza killed four other Israelis during those hostilities. Gaza health officials put the number of Palestinian dead at 21, saying more than half of them were civilians.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Gareth Jones)

Israeli spymaster sees ‘one-time’ chance for peace with Arabs sharing Iran worries

FILE PHOTO: Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen gestures as he addresses a budgeting conference hosted by Israel's Finance Ministry in Jerusalem October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Dan Williams

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel and U.S.-aligned Arab countries have a unique chance to forge a regional peace deal given their shared worries about Iran, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy service said on Monday.

In a rare public appearance, Joseph (Yossi) Cohen said his agency had formed a task force designed to spot peacemaking opportunities in a region where only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The Mossad today espies a rare opportunity, perhaps for the first time in Middle East history, to arrive at a regional understanding that would lead to a comprehensive peace accord,” he told the Herzliya Conference, an annual international security forum near Tel Aviv.

“Common interests, the fight against rivals such as Iran and jihadist terrorism, the close relations with the White House, and channels of communication with the Kremlin all combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity,” he said.

The United States convened Arab and other dignitaries in Bahrain last week to encourage investment in the Palestinian economy that might help renew peace talks with Israel. 

The Palestinians, seeing a pro-Israel bias in the Trump administration and a ruse to deny them their goal of full statehood, boycotted the Manama meeting. Israel, which sent only a non-official delegation, saw in the event a chance to bolster its wider ties to the Arab world.

Cohen, whose speech alluded to the Palestinians only in the context of threats against Israel from the armed factions, said many Arab countries “cannot stand Iran’s thuggish behavior”.

He cited Iran’s nuclear program, assistance for guerrillas in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and alleged responsibility for a recent spate of sabotage strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf. Iran denies any role in those incidents.

RAPPROCHEMENT PUSH

Cohen said Israel’s warming of relations with Oman, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited last October, followed “a lengthy covert effort by the Mossad” to seek out closer ties.

He pointed to what he termed “an expanding group of responsible, serious countries” – which he did not name – in the region that have channels of communication with Israel despite no formal relations, and cooperate with it in various ways.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz made a rare visit to Abu Dhabi, which does not have officials ties with Israel, for a two-day U.N. climate meeting on Sunday and Monday. While there, he met with an unnamed Emirati official to discuss bilateral ties as well as the Iranian threat, his office said.

Iran announced on Monday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 deal with major powers, its first major step in violation of the deal since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.

Cohen reaffirmed Israel’s policy that it would not allow its arch-foe to get a bomb. ”The Mossad or the State of Israel did not sign the nuclear deal (and) will do everything to ensure that Iran will never have nuclear weaponry,” he said.

Iran denies ever seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb.

“Currently, it’s about uranium enrichment at a relatively low percentage, and in amounts that are not large. The threat is to step up enrichment and increase the amounts,” Cohen said, speaking before news of the enrichment breach.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military-enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb. The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)

U.S. seeks funds for Middle East peace plan but details are vague and Palestinians unhappy

Palestinians burn a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representations of Israeli flags during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Gaza City, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – The Trump administration prepared to launch its $50 billion economic formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace in Bahrain on Tuesday but the Palestinian leadership reiterated its disdain for the plan and Saudi Arabia, envisaged as one of its main bank-rollers, also indicated some reservations.

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the political details of the plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret. Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in Manama, which Lebanon and Iraq are staying away from.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important.”

Washington will be hoping that attendees in Manama such as wealthy Gulf states will show a concrete interest in the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia – a close U.S. ally which shares a common foe with Israel in Iran – voiced support on Tuesday for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.

But Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.

That plan calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

Kushner said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative. “It will be somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and between the Israeli position,” he told Al Jazeera TV in an interview to air on Tuesday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Kushner is “committed to the initiatives of Israel’s colonial settlement councils.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the plan. “We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” he said on Sunday.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama's Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama’s Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have reached peace with Israel, are sending deputy finance ministers. Kushner’s plan has hit a political nerve in Jordan, home to millions of citizens of Palestinian refugee origin.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to move on from a Palestinian conflict they believe has held back the Arab world. Other Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have not said who they are sending to the conference.

“If there is a one percent chance we do something good here, we should get together and try,” billionaire Mohamed Alabbar, one of Dubai’s most prominent businessmen, said after arriving at the venue in Manama and embracing two American rabbis.

POLITICAL PLAN?

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a secret.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the pursuit of “peace efforts to realize the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”.

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

In Gaza, businesses closed doors in a general strike called by the ruling Islamist Hamas group and other factions.

In the West Bank on the outskirts of Ramallah, where a small crowd of protesters was dispersed by Israeli troops firing tear gas, Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said: “There can be no economic solution as a substitute for our freedom.”

The workshop is being held in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, at a time of heightened tension between Tehran and Washington and its Gulf allies. Trump on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and other officials after Iran downed an U.S. drone last week.

Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with international convention, Trump in 2017 recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move that infuriated the Palestinians and other Arabs.

Seven Palestinian businessmen gathered in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, the conference venue. They estimated that 15 to 20 Palestinian business representatives would be present.

“The politicians will not bring us anywhere,” said conference attendee Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli entrepreneur. “We, the business people, should be able to show them there might be another way.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to unveil ‘economy first’ approach to Mideast peace at Bahrain conference

FILE PHOTO: A footbridge leads from the Western Wall to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

By Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell

MANAMA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first stage of President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be launched in Bahrain on Tuesday at a conference the White House touts as a bid to drum up $50 billion in investment but which Palestinians deride as an “economy first” approach doomed to fail.

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to be unveiled at a later date.

But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in the Bahraini capital Manama.

And there will be close scrutiny as to whether attendees such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states show any interest in making actual donations to a U.S. plan that has already elicited bitter criticism from Palestinians and many others in the Arab world.

Bahrain, a close American ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been making preparations for weeks.

Though the event is supposed to focus on economics, Gulf Arab states hope it will also be used to show their solidarity with the Trump administration over its hard line against Iran, a senior Gulf diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Under the plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50 billion to the region, with $28 billion going to the Palestinian territories – the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip – as well as $7.5 billion to Jordan, $9 billion to Egypt and $6 billion for Lebanon.

Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5 billion transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘deal of the century’,” Kushner told Reuters, referring to the lofty nickname that Trump’s peace plan has assumed over the last two years.

“This is going to be the ‘opportunity of the century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”

Kushner, a senior Trump adviser who like his father-in-law comes from the world of New York real estate, is presenting his plan in a pair of slick pamphlets filled with graphs and statistics that resemble an investment prospectus; in fact, he has repeatedly called it a “business plan.”

PEACE TO PROSPERITY

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes that the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

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

Hanging over the entire initiative are persistent questions about whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution” – the long-standing international formula to bring about peace by creating an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But the Trump team – led by Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a tightly guarded secret.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has his own domestic problems, facing an election, and possible corruption charges after a long-running police investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.

“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. Although no Israeli government ministers will attend, an Israeli business delegation is expected.

But Palestinian leaders have boycotted the workshop, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias after a series of recent Trump decisions. Kushner told Reuters “some” Palestinian businessmen would be present but declined to name them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” he said.

Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has found itself in rare agreement with its arch-rival Abbas.

“The Palestinian people only and no one else can represent the Palestinian cause,” Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said.

He said the Trump approach “seeks to turn our political cause into a humanitarian cause, and to merge the occupation into the region.”

Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli businessmen and journalists with their counterparts from the Arab world would be significant at a time of rising tensions with Iran.

“People realize that the real threat to that region is Iran and their aggression, and Israel and a lot of the other Arab states have a lot more in common today than they did before,” he said.

David Makovsky, a Washington-based Middle East expert, agreed that although the principal focus of the event was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Iran is higher on the chain of interest right now.”

But Makovsky, who the White House has invited as an observer, said the Trump/Kushner plan would ultimately succeed or fail on how it addressed the big underlying issues, not the money. “No one believes you can solve this thing economically without addressing the political issues.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell. Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah.)

Anti-Semitic attacks rise worldwide in 2018, led by U.S., west Europe: study

FILE PHOTO: A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Anti-Semitic attacks worldwide rose 13 percent in 2018 from the previous year, with the highest number of incidents reported in major Western democracies including the United States, France, Britain and Germany, an annual study showed on Wednesday.

The report, by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, said far-right and far-left activists and Islamists were behind many attacks but said there was also evidence of anti-Semitism going more mainstream.

“Anti-Semitism is no longer an issue confined to the activity of the far left, far right and radical Islamists triangle – it has mainstreamed and became an integral part of life,” the report said.

It cataloged 387 anti-Semitic attacks worldwide and cited among the causes growing fears in Europe and elsewhere linked to mass immigration, economic hardship and opposition to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

Physical attacks, with or without weapons, arson, vandalism and direct threats against Jews, synagogues and other Jewish institutions were included in the overall figure, with over 100 cases occurring in the United States.

“STATE OF EMERGENCY”

Those incidents included the deadliest attack ever against Jews on U.S. soil, in which a gunman who stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh yelling: “All Jews must die,” killed 11 Jewish worshippers on Oct. 27.

“The most disturbing development, that keeps continuing and intensifying since 2016, is that Jews in some countries feel they live in a state of emergency, because of the continuing rise, most notably in Western Europe and North America, in anti-Semitic manifestations,” the study said.

Last Saturday, a 19-year-old gunman opened fire on Sabbath worshippers in a Southern California synagogue, killing one woman and wounding three other people.

In the United States, the study noted among other factors, far-right groups and increasing hostility on campuses toward Jewish students who support Israel as fuelling anti-Semitism there.

While far-right supporters often see Jews as “a cosmopolitan foreign agent” threatening national identity, far-left groups sometimes blame Jews for economic uncertainties and tensions caused by globalization.

In Britain, where 68 anti-Semitic attacks took place, the study blamed the impact of Brexit – which has helped fuel a rise in xenophobic nationalism – and what it called “virulent anti-Semitic opinions, disguised as anti-Zionism” expressed by the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.

“For the first time in their long history British Jews, who feel they lost their political home, question their future in Britain,” it said.

Corbyn denies being anti-Semitic.

The report said France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, had seen a 74 percent rise in violent anti-Semitism and Germany a 70 percent increase.

The report said those increases were driven especially by the rise of far-right movements and anti-Semitic sentiment among those countries’ growing Muslim population.

More than a million migrants, mostly Muslims fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, have moved to Germany since 2015.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)

Israeli minister condemns Sanders’ remarks on ‘racist’ Netanyahu government

FILE PHOTO: U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders participates in a moderated discussion at the We the People Summit in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli cabinet minister condemned U.S. Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Tuesday for describing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as racist over its treatment of Palestinians.

While enjoying unprecedentedly strong backing from the Republican administration of President Donald Trump, some Israelis have been fretting about whether this comes at the cost of losing traditionally bipartisan support in Washington.

Addressing a televised CNN event alongside other Democratic candidates on Monday, Vermont senator Sanders said he was “100 percent pro-Israel” but proposed changing U.S. policy toward it.

“The goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing, dare I say, racist government,” Sanders said, adding that Netanyahu “is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly”.

Netanyahu was reelected to a fifth term on April 9 and appears likely to build a coalition government including religious ultranationalists opposed to Palestinian statehood.

“We condemn statements like that made by Sanders, which was really strange,” Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet and senior member of his conservative Likud party, told Israel’s Reshet 13 TV.

“The Israeli government is not a racist government, nor does it include a single racist minister,” the regional cooperation minister said.

“To be right wing is not illegitimate and it is odd that the Democratic Party allows one of its senior members to not respect the democratic choice of the State of Israel.”

Hanegbi cast his own remarks as specific to Sanders rather than any more generalized criticism of the Democratic Party.

Asked whether Israel risked being seen in the United States as a country championed by Republicans, he said: “We make every effort to avoid this danger because, indeed one of Israel’s greatest advantages over all the years was the ability not to get caught up in the political dispute between the parties.”

U.S. Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic, studies show, a trend that political analysts say has also contributed to a degree of grassroots disconnect between the allies since Trump’s rise. Sanders is himself Jewish and, in his CNN appearance, noted his past visits to, and relatives living in, Israel.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)

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)

Capturing 24 hours in Gaza, one hour at a time

Locals walk past graffiti in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. Political graffiti covers walls throughout Gaza. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

GAZA CITY (Reuters) – In the build-up to the one-year anniversary of the Gaza border protests that opened up a deadly new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez visited Gaza for the first time.

As someone who had never set eyes on Gaza, his assignment was to use those unfamiliar eyes to record life beyond the daily drumbeat of violence in the blockaded Palestinian territory.

The mood has become more tense in recent weeks as the March 30 anniversary nears, with trails of Palestinian rockets and Israeli missiles again appearing in the skies above.

Martinez did not know what to expect after he crossed through Israel’s fortified checkpoint and past a long caged walkway and parallel road leading to a dilapidated Palestinian checkpoint at the other end.

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

“We have a great team of photographers and journalists in Gaza whose main task, really, is to photograph the protest, the clashes between Israel and Gaza,” said Martinez, 49, a 28-year Reuters veteran who has covered Europe, Asia and the Americas and is currently based in London.

“My remit, I think, was to do pretty much anything but that. Because everyone has seen that side of Gaza.”

Gaza is a 139-square-mile (360-square-kilometre) coastal strip situated between Tel Aviv and Sinai and is home to around two million Palestinians, two thirds of them refugees.

It has been governed by the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas since shortly after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005.

With its armed brigades and thousands of police and security men on the streets, Hamas controls Gaza’s interior as tightly as Israeli soldiers, gunboats and warplanes control most of Gaza’s perimeter, with Egyptian walls and watchtowers along the eight-mile southern border.

Accompanied by a Reuters assistant photographer from Gaza City, Martinez traveled the strip, photographing it at every hour of the day and night over a 10-day period.

Children play a game of "Arabs and Jews" outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children play a game of “Arabs and Jews” outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

One of the most powerful scenes was a patch of wasteland between a school and a mosque where children were playing.

“These kids were burning some cardboard, they had trenches, they were throwing sandballs so they weren’t hurting each other. And I said, ‘Oh, what are you guys doing?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we are playing Jews and Arabs.'” The image, he said, “will probably stay with me forever”.

SUNSETS AND RUBBISH

Parts of Gaza, to his surprise, resembled an underdeveloped version of California’s famed Venice Beach – with glorious Mediterranean sunsets, bathers and skateboarders, but often with crumbling buildings and rubbish heaps as part of the backdrop.

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

In vehicle scrapyards in the north, he saw stacks of discarded cars. With 53 percent of Gazans living in poverty, according to a United Nations report in December, valuable items such as cars are cannibalized for every accessory.

The same “use everything” dynamic could be seen at the harbor, where even the smallest fish discarded from a catch were gathered to be sold to poorer families.

On Friday, while youths were protesting at the Gaza-Israel border, Martinez went to the beach to see what was going on.

“I really understood that not 2 million people had gone to the border to clash with the Israelis. What else were they doing?” he said.

“I found a bunch of skaters there with, I don’t know, I think they had one or two boards between them, some pretty ropey roller blades…They were just busy filming themselves trying to do flips, trying to do tricks, things like that.”

After the sun goes down and the streets empty, pool halls and bakeries continue to operate through the darkness imposed by night, and by Gaza’s constant power cuts.

Martinez was warned many times by officials and bystanders on the street, in a more cautionary than menacing manner, not to photograph Hamas checkpoints and military installations.

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Often, he did not realize what the buildings were because their exteriors gave no sign of what might have been within. Otherwise, Martinez encountered few problems.

“There’s a real sense of being enclosed. You can stand on the beach looking out toward the horizon and see this fantastic sun and crystal blue waters, a sense (that) you are part of the world and there is everything around you,” he said.

“You look to the right, you turn one way, and there is Israel and you can go down this road but in a car it was taking 20 minutes. You look the other way, there is Egypt. You go down the road there, there’s a blockade, you can’t go any further.

“You look inland, and there in the background as well is the horizon, is Israel. And you can’t go that way.”

“So there is always a feeling you can only go so far one way. And the other way. I did feel it. There is a sort of feeling of enclosure.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pompeo, in first, accompanies Israeli PM to Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visit the Western Wall Tunnels in Jerusalem's Old City March 21, 2019. Abir Sultan/ Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accompanied Israel’s prime minister on a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday in the first such gesture since Washington recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, angering Palestinians.

The ancient Western Wall, the most sacred prayer site in Judaism, is located in the eastern part of the city that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

Israel has long considered all of Jerusalem as its eternal, indivisible capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they seek in territory Israel took in the June 1967 war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman touch the stones of the Western Wall during a visit to the site in Jerusalem's Old City March 21, 2019. Abir Sultan/ Pool via REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman touch the stones of the Western Wall during a visit to the site in Jerusalem’s Old City March 21, 2019. Abir Sultan/ Pool via REUTERS

Shortly after entering office in January 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump visited the Western Wall, though without Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Later that year Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy and officially recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, though making clear that he was not prejudging a settlement on where the city’s borders should be.

Since that shift, the U.S. ambassador to Israel has paid visits to the Western Wall along with Netanyahu. Pompeo suggested that his own visit as the top U.S. diplomat in Netanyahu’s presence was significant.

“I think it’s symbolic that a senior American official goes there with the prime minister of Israel,” he told reporters prior to arriving in the walled Old City.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the compound of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The elevated plaza above it is the Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest site in Islam, containing the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Pompeo, Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman together approached the wall and each leaned against its massive stones with one hand. Pompeo then placed a prayer note in between the stones, as is customary.

Before going to the wall, he visited the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Pompeo, now on a Middle East tour, visited Kuwait before Israel and is due to proceed to Lebanon. His trip to Israel, three weeks before a closely contested election, was portrayed in local media as a Trump administration boost for the right-wing Netanyahu.

(Reporting by Rami Amichay; Writing by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Flag comes down on U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

An American flag flutters at the premises of the former United States Consulate General in Jerusalem March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States lowered the flag on Monday at the Jerusalem consulate that had served as its diplomatic channel to the Palestinians, merging the mission with the new U.S Embassy to Israel in the contested city.

The Palestinians, who have boycotted the Trump administration since it shifted long-standing U.S. policy in December 2017 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, voiced anger at what they see as Washington’s latest move against them.

Whereas previously the consulate reported on Palestinian matters directly to Washington, its staff have now been repurposed in the embassy as a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” under the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“This is the last nail in the coffin” of peacemaking, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Twitter.

Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed in 2014 and the White House says it intends to present a new peace plan after a national election in Israel in April.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as its undivided capital.

Washington has avoided such language, however, signaling that the final status of the city should be negotiated by the sides.

Palestinians want to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The European Union’s latest report on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, released last month, said continued expansion had made the chances of a two-state solution with Jerusalam as the capital of both “increasingly unattainable”.

Building of new houses had continued at an unprecedented rate in the second half of 2018, opening the way for more Israelis to move in, the report said.

LOW KEY

At the ornate consulate on Agron Street in downtown Jerusalem, the flag ceremony was kept low key under gray winter skies. Friedman, who helped spearhead May’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to a different converted consular building in south Jerusalem, was not present.

U.S. officials said the Stars and Stripes banner was taken down and presented to departing consul Karen Sasahara as a farewell gift, in keeping with foreign service custom, after which another U.S. flag was run up.

The U.S. State Department said the merger was driven by operational efficiency and did not signal any change in policy.

“Our work and our team will continue to work on reaching peace in this land,” Sasahara said on YouTube.

U.S. officials told Reuters last month that the Agron street building, immediately upon consulate operations ending, would serve as the ambassador’s official residence.

But that plan appeared to have slowed. On Monday, the consulate plaque had been removed from the building facade, leaving a blank space.

The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem had dated back 175 years, to when the city – holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims – was under Ottoman rule.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)