Saturday, August 21, 2010

Israel and Palestinians agree to direct peace talks

Israel and the Palestinians accepted on Friday an invitation by the United States and other powers to restart direct talks on September 2 in a modest step toward forging a deal within 12 months to create a Palestinian state and peacefully end one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with President Barack Obama on September 1, before formally resuming direct negotiations the following day at the State Department in Washington.

"There have been difficulties in the past, there will be difficulties ahead," Clinton said in a statement.

Clinton added that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah also were invited to the talks, which will mark the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 20 months.

"I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region," Clinton said.

Clinton's announcement was echoed by the Quartet of Mideast peace mediators -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- which issued its own invitation to the talks and underscored that a deal could be reached within a year.

Netanyahu quickly accepted the U.S. invitation and said reaching a deal would be possible but difficult.

"We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel's national security interests, foremost of which is security," a statement from his office said.

After a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinian leadership announced its acceptance of the invitation for face-to-face peace talks with Israel.


But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned that the Palestinians would pull out of the new talks if the Israelis allow a return to settlement building on lands that the Palestinians seek for a future state.

Israel's 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank is due to end on September 26.

The invitation to the talks "contains the elements needed to provide for a peace agreement," Palestinian leaders said.

"It can be done in less than a year," Erekat said. "The most important thing now is to see to it that the Israeli government refrains from settlement activities, incursions, fait accomplis policies."

The two sides are coming together for talks after decades of hostility, mutual suspicion and a string of failed peace efforts.

The Quartet statement was aimed at the Palestinians, who believe that the group's repeated calls for Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and accept a Palestinian state within the borders of land occupied since the 1967 Middle East war are a guarantee of the parameters for the talks.

Clinton's invitation was aimed at Netanyahu, agreeing with his demand that the talks should take place "without preconditions" and giving little sense of any terms that the Israeli leader fears could box him in.

The Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza and refuses to renounce violence against Israel, said the proposed peace talks would do nothing to help the Palestinian cause. U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said Hamas would have no role in the peace talks.

Middle East analysts say the peace process, which began in the early 1990s, established the basic outlines of a deal acceptable to both sides and identified crunch issues remaining to be resolved -- though most say the task is daunting.

Clinton said the talks should include the "final status" issues such as the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. She urged both sides to refrain from provocative acts.

"As we move forward, it is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it," Clinton said.

Mitchell, who spent months working to persuade both sides to restart direct talks, said the onus was now on them to produce results. He said the United States could offer "bridging proposals" if necessary.


The Washington talks also signal a deeper personal involvement by Obama, who has repeatedly said that resolving the impasse between Palestinians and Israel is one of his chief diplomatic priorities.

"He is putting his political future into the process," said Middle East analyst Stephen Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.

"He has entered a process that is supposed to reach its conclusion just at the time when he is going to be running heavily for president again, so he will have a lot riding on this," Cohen said.

Others have just as much riding on the talks. In one year, the Palestinian Authority government plans to have established all the attributes of statehood, raising speculation that it might declare independence should talks fail to make progress on a "final status" treaty.

Abbas, whose Fatah party rules the West Bank, broke off talks with the previous Israeli prime minister in 2008. Contacts were frozen after Israel's massive offensive in the Gaza Strip in that same year against Hamas.

Mitchell, speaking after Clinton's announcement, said the climate of mistrust would have to be overcome.

"We don't expect all of those differences to disappear when talks begin. Indeed, we expect that they will be presented, debated, discussed, and that differences are not going to be resolved immediately," Mitchell said, adding that a final peace deal was in everyone's interest.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington said the real test would be how soon and how thoroughly the root causes of the conflict are addressed.

"If they simply have a set of episodic meetings, you know you haven't made progress ... but if they are followed by continuing talks at the working level, you know that something serious is going on," Cordesman said. "It is dangerous to assume that we are going to be able to rush forward."

Babies suffer in Pakistan flood disaster camps


They are so small that at first you may miss them. Their newborn cries are impossibly soft, asking for their mother's nourishment.

Seven-day-old Rida and Nida, twin girls, are among the youngest of the 900 refugees at a school-turned-refugee camp in Sukkur, Pakistan.

Born after the floods hit Pakistan, they may not be thriving, but they are surviving.

Their mother, Maryum, is grateful her daughters are still alive amid the chaos of Pakistan's worst floods in 80 years, but she does not feel the joy of new motherhood.

"I'm worried about them," said Maryum. "We don't have anything. No clothes, no home, nothing."

Maryum dipped her fingers into a bowl of water and touched Nida's lips. Nida, who is smaller and weaker than Rida, lapped up the water with her small mouth.

"This is the cleanest water we have," Maryum said.

Cleanest does not mean clean. The water at this refugee camp is still untreated, but the children are drinking it in the sweltering heat and humidity.

It's why 18-month-old Zabair is ill with a water-borne disease. A yellow IV remained attached to his small left hand as volunteer doctors tried to treat him.

With enough clean water, many children can recover. The problem in Pakistan's growing humanitarian crisis is access to that clean water.
The U.N. says 3.5 million children are at risk of contracting water-borne illnesses in the wake of these floods. Pakistan's government estimates 500,000 pregnant women are also at risk of falling ill.

Across the country about 20 million people need shelter, food and emergency care.

The United Nations has appealed for $460 million over the next three months. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that although donors delivered more than half, the available resources are not sufficient to meet the needs on the ground.

Mehraan, who delivered a baby girl three days ago, was unable to get access to a doctor and her two-month premature daughter died.

She says fear of the floods took her daughter away. She then clutched her stomach, moaning, "I'm sick, I'm sick."

One of the biggest problems at this refugee camp is sanitation.

Human feces dot the ground, just meters away from where children sleep.

Dr. Ismael Mako is a volunteer doctor trying to help the refugees at the numerous camps in Sukkur.

"Antibiotics, IV's," said Mako, "we need this."

What he's seen among the children and pregnant women are in many cases preventable, easily treated illnesses.

But in this unfolding crisis in Pakistan, he predicts that without more aid soon there will be wave after wave of medical crises.

In Afghanistan Brutality Against Women Stirs Fear

The Taliban has denied that its militants tortured, hanged and shot a widow in Afghanistan's western Baghdis province for adultery.
It's not the principle the Taliban disagrees with — in a lengthy press release, a Taliban spokesman said that the woman should have been stoned to death instead.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the stoning in a separate case of a couple put to death in Kunduz province. But he has also been careful in public statements to avoid mentioning topics like women's rights.
Human-rights advocates say the U.S.-supported government of Afghanistan has not done enough and that the government's reaction raises questions about plans to reconcile with the Taliban.

Pregnant, Shot And Killed In Afghanistan

Earlier this month, two brutal incidents caught the world’s attention. An Afghan woman appeared on the cover of Time magazine, her nose cut off because she fled an abusive marriage. The other was the pregnant widow in Baghdis province accused of adultery. The local Taliban commander ordered 200 lashes and then shot the woman to death. A Taliban spokesman denied responsibility in both cases.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location, said that genuine Taliban leaders would never mutilate a woman. As for the woman whipped and shot to death for adultery, Ahmadi said the proper sentence is death by stoning. Indeed, this week in the northern province of Kunduz, a Taliban judge ordered just that.
Across northern Afghanistan the resurgent Taliban has carried out several executions that raise questions about the radical movement's command and control over many loosely affiliated fighting groups.
According to another Taliban representative, Zaibullah Mujahid, a young couple eloped, but was then lured back to their village in Kunduz province where a Taliban judge pronounced them guilty of adultery. Taliban functionaries threw the first stones before a crowd of several hundred male villagers battered the couple to death.
'It's Revenge' And Not Justice
Sima Simar, head of the Afghan independent human-rights commission in Kabul, says that the Taliban encourages the worst in Afghan society when it sanctions honor killings and public executions.It's revenge. They're not going for justice; they're going to take revenge," Simar says.
She says the Taliban represents a current in Afghan society and thrives because the Karzai government isn't providing any justice at all.
The influential Afghan Council of Muslim Scholars released a statement last week appealing to Karzai to apply Islamic law instead of Afghanistan's legal code.
As Simar points out, the Afghan Constitution already says that all laws in the country must conform with Shariah, or Islamic law — just not such an extreme interpretation. The Afghan Constitution also guarantees the observance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other global human-rights conventions.
But Simar says the Afghan government is sending mixed signals. She fears that the government, in an effort to end the war, is trying to reconcile with Taliban insurgents at the moment, at the expense of human rights.

Hundreds of villages ravaged in Sindh

After devastating 500 villages of Sajawal, Junejo and Shahdadkot areas of upper Sindh, the flood wave is now heading to Kotri Barrage.

The cities including Shahdadkot, Qabu Saeed Khan, Mero Khan and Sajawal have been evacuated, as the surging floodwater has been diverted to Qabu Saeed Khan by making breaches on at least ten places in embankments.

The water level in Kotri Barrage has increased to 0.7 million cusecs. An emergency was declared and the army and Rangers personnel were deployed at the barrage.

The wave not only threatens nearby Hyderabad, it can also inundate low-lying areas of Sajawal, Shahdadkot and Thatta. According to the Flood Control Room, another flood wave is likely to pass through the Kotri Barrage on August 25.

However, water level in Sukkur and Guddu barrages has started to drop and water level on Friday was recorded at 945,000 and 955,000 cusecs respectively.

Twenty villages of Hyderabad district in katcha area have already been flooded. Several villages located in the outskirts of Jamshoro have been submerged in water, while katcha areas of Latifabad, Sehrishnagar, Qasimabad and Husainabad are also facing floods.

While in Thatta, three more villages were inundated by floodwater.

Water continues to seep through fissures in protective embankments near Nawabshah.

Balochistan: Meanwhile in Balochistan, hundreds of thousands of people have taken refuge on rooftops after the flood wave entered Gandakah area of Jaffarabad district.

Army helicopters and boats on Friday continued the rescue operation. However, a large number of people were still stranded in floodwaters.

The floods have wreaked havoc in areas located on the Balochistan-Sindh border. Goth Ghulam Muhammad Jamali, Goth Faisal Fakeer Lashari, Goth Mir Doda Khan, Goth Choki Jamali, Goth Mir Feroze Khan Jamali, Goth Janan Jamali, Goth Dur Muhammad Jamali and Goth Ibrahim Zehri have been severely affected by the floods.

Earlier, the Pakistan Army and the district administration had warned the locals to immediately evacuate their houses and shift to safer places. However, people had ignored the warning.

It's 'Critical' To Understand Instability Risk In Pakistan, Sen. John Kerry Tells NPR

On the heels of a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, acknowledged that the flooding in Pakistan could lead to instability there.

"I think it's critical for all of us to understand that potential, and try to head it off, which means an adequate response to the flood demands," he told NPR's Robert Siegel, adding that "the government is doing everything in its power, but they're going to need help."
Traveling with President Asif Ali Zardari, Kerry said he saw many frustrated, angry people, displaced from their homes, stranded outside in hot temperatures, without adequate food and water.

"Obviously, that's ripe for exploitation," he said. "So, it's important for us to take a lot fo measures to preclude that from happening."

Kerry, who has sponsored a major aid bill in the Senate, providing aid to Pakistan, said it is important to acknowledge how much progress the country has made, fighting against corruption.

"There have been improvements, and I think it would be a tragedy upon a tragedy for us to lose a lot of that progress because of what's happened here," he said.

Kerry spent three days with President Hamid Karzai, talking about military strategy and the political situation in Afghanistan.

Today, The Washington Post reported Karzai expressed support for "the independent work of two anti-corruption law enforcement units that had come under political pressure from his office following the arrest of one of his aids last month."

Kerry said that, in a statement he and Karzai co-signed, the president "made it clear that he intends to press forward with that case, and that the major crimes unit will be able to function as an independent entity, free from political influence."

Who cares about Pakistan?

Dr Marie Lall, Pakistan expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, says: "I think there is donor fatigue all around. The [2004] Indian Ocean tsunami, the Burmese Cyclone [Nargis, 2008], the [2005] Pakistan earthquake, and [this year's] Haiti earthquake. It is getting too much; we are in a recession and people are short of money."

Rebecca Wynn, Pakistan specialist for UK-based aid agency Oxfam, says: "Many donors have made substantial contributions in humanitarian assistance to Pakistan over the years, particularly in response to the conflict-related displacements over the last two years. Of course, the fact that the people of Pakistan have been hit time and again by disaster is even more reason to give."

Dr Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution, a foreign policy think tank, says: "It should also be noted that the international humanitarian system isn't set up to deal with more than one major crisis a year. USAID, for example, committed one-third of its annual budget to the Haitian earthquake response. And among the general public there may be a feeling of, 'Well, I donated to the victims of the Haitian earthquake and Haiti is a far needier country than Pakistan.'"Yale University economics professor Dean Karlan, an expert on charitable giving, says: "Corruption concerns may explain why giving is lower to developing countries than many would like it to be, but it does not explain why there is less money pouring into Pakistan now than does to disaster relief causes in other developing countries with similar governance issues."

Dr Marie Lall says: "People in Pakistan are sceptical the government will be transparent. But they are giving to philanthropic organisations. In the UK, I think people are sceptical of [non-governmental organisations'] overheads and costs. They don't know which ones are transparent and reliable, even though local organisations such as TCF [The Citizens' Foundation] are doing an incredible job."

Dr Elizabeth Ferris says: "People are always sceptical about their money reaching flood victims, particularly in countries with reputations for corruption. But Haiti didn't have a very good reputation in this regard. [Pakistan] President [Asif Ali] Zardari trip to Europe [during the floods] was not a good move. For a few days, that was the 'story' of the Pakistani floods, which doesn't inspire people to be generous, particularly in this economic climate."
Dr Marie Lall says: "British Prime Minister David Cameron's comments in India [when he said Islamabad promoted the export of terror] did not help."

Dr Elizabeth Ferris says: "People are less likely to donate to any country seen as a haven for terrorism. And more generally, the fact that so much Western news coverage in recent years about Pakistan has been negative, stressing its links with the conflict in Afghanistan. I think this is the major reason for the slow public response - the image of Pakistan in our media. There may also be a feeling, particularly in the US, that Islamic governments and charities should be stepping up to the plate to donate."

Rebecca Wynn says: "This disaster has come at a bad time, following the financial crisis and the Haiti earthquake. Many donors made huge commitments to Haiti, so may find it hard to fund another major disaster, particularly in the same year."

Dr Marie Lall says: "Timing may be a factor, but I think it's more to do with not realising the scale of the disaster, and the attitude by the British government; the UK should be leading the aid effort, given the Pakistani diaspora here and the fact that we need Pakistan for the war in Afghanistan."
'Wrong' disaster

Professor Dean Karlan says: "Sudden events seem to generate more funds. A flood (and droughts) happen gradually and build. There isn't any one single day in which news is huge. For the same reason, this pushes the story away from the media spotlight. But massive and sudden earthquakes or tsunamis draw our immediate attention and shock us."

Dr Elizabeth Ferris says: "It's important to note that in general people are likely to give more to emergencies occurring in countries geographically closer to them - although this didn't hold true for the tsunami. But when you trace contributions over time, you find that Americans and Canadians are more likely to respond to disasters in the Western hemisphere while Europeans tend to be more responsive to African countries (and their former colonies, in particular)."

Dr Marie Lall says: "This was not one cataclysmic event, but one which grew over three weeks. The fact that 25% of the country was or is under water is not understood. The low numbers of dead, relatively speaking, mask the disaster on the ground. The crisis has destroyed crops, dead livestock and damaged homes and infrastructure. Food prices are through the roof and there won't be a normal harvest. It will get worse. Farmers will starve."

Pakistan’s civilian rule tested

As Pakistan thanked the world Friday for opening its wallets, criticism of the already weak civilian government mounted. The growing discontent dealt a potential blow to U.S. and domestic hopes of fostering a strong Pakistani democracy after years of army rule.

Even before the crisis began nearly a month ago, the government faced discontent as power shortages, Islamist militant violence and economic mismanagement plagued the country.

As the dissatisfaction with the government grows, the image of the military has received a boost. A military coup is seen as unlikely, but the flooding is so large scale that some fear political instability in the nuclear-armed nation. Underscoring these fears are reports that the Pakistani Taliban have capitalized on the government’s ineptitude by providing aid to flood victims in an effort to boost their public image.

About 20 million people have been affected. And flood victims are far more likely to have seen a Pakistani soldier dropping off relief or picking them up than a member of the civilian government.

“The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis have always reposed confidence in the army as compared to elected governments,” said Mehdi Hasan, a Pakistani political analyst. “People feel the army can do better as it is well trained; it has time and the courage to handle any crisis. It gives an edge to the army over the civil administration.”

The civilians’ initial response appeared chaotic and confused as the flooding disaster unfolded. But symbolism seemed to matter more: President Asif Ali Zardari’s decision to visit France and England as people fled their water-filled homes infuriated many and tarnished the image of an out-of-touch political elite.

Making matters worse was the slow pace of international aid.

Wrapping up a hurriedly called two-day meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to spotlight the immediate need for aid — weeks after the flooding began July 28 — Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, Abdullah Haroon, said the initial outpouring from some 70 countries was “indeed heartening” and “a good beginning,” though he stressed that the country will need much more help in the months and years to come.

At the start of the meeting on Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said donors had given just half of the $460 million the U.N. asked for to provide food, shelter and clean water for up to 8 million flood victims over the next three months. He insisted all the money was needed now.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said at the end of Thursday’s session that he was assured the $460 million goal “is going to be easily met.”

But U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told The Associated Press after Friday’s session ended that the U.N. appeal wasn’t fully funded yet.

“At the moment, we’re about 70 percent funded, about $350 million,” he said. “The situation in the last few days has improved very significantly in terms of funding. … I think (the appeal) will be funded soon.”

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States, already the biggest donor, would contribute an additional $60 million, bringing its total to more than $150 million, with $92 million going to the U.N.

Among other donors, Pakistan has accepted an offer of $5 million of aid offered by archrival India, after several days of hesitation. Receiving assistance from India is politically delicate in Pakistan, and the government can expect criticism from some of the religious and nationalist parties.

But Pakistan is in no position to turn away assistance.

“This is not just Pakistan’s hour of need — Pakistan is facing weeks, months and years of need,” said Ban.