Inside the Middle East
January 30, 2009
Posted: 1541 GMT


(CNN) - Israeli President Shimon Peres said he had an amicable phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a day after Erdogan stormed offstage during an angry exchange with Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Peres said he and Erdogan did not take the spat personally.

"I called him up and said, yes, it's nothing against you, nothing against Turkey. We consider you as a friend," Peres said. He said Erdogan reciprocated.

Although there was no mention of an apology, Peres said there was a polite exchange between the two leaders.

"I didn't take it personally. I didn't go for a personal fight. I answered unfounded accusations. It was my duty. And they didn't change my mind," he said.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation, has long been the Jewish state's closest military and economic partner in the region, and Turkey recently mediated indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.

But many Turks have been incensed with Israel over its three-week military operation that ended there earlier this month.

And in Davos, Erdogan was angered after Peres said that Israel is committed to peace and blamed Hamas for the fighting in Gaza, where Israel staged a three-week military operation that ended earlier this month.

When Erdogan began responding, a moderator cut him off, saying the debate had run over its allotted time. Erdogan patted the moderator on the arm until he was granted one more minute to respond.

"I know the reason behind raising your voice is because of the guilty psychology," he said to Peres. "My voice will not be that loud. You must know that. When it comes to killing - you know killing very well. I know how you hit, kill children on the beaches."

He then left the stage, complaining that Peres was receiving preferential treatment.

"From now on, Davos is finished for me," Erdogan said. "I will not come back. You won't let people talk. You gave him 25 minutes, but you gave me 12 minutes. This is not right."

Filed under: Shimon Peres

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Posted: 1527 GMT

Well, that didn't last long.

According to CNN producer Mohammed Tawfeeq, an official with Salahedeen city Council told CNN the shoe sculpture was removed from the courtyard of the Tikrit orphanage.

The official said the removal of the giant shoe followed a request from the central government.

Iraqi police have reportedly visited the site to make sure the shoe, a bronze replica of the footwear hurled at forrmer President george W. Bush last month by an angry journalist, was indeed gone.

Where is the shoe now?

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Filed under: Iraq

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January 29, 2009
Posted: 1932 GMT


Whoever thought a shoe would get its own special sculpture?

In Iraq, a giant-sized golden replica of the shoes an irate Iraqi hurled at former American President George W. Bush was unveiled at a Tikrit orphanage today.

Assisted by kids at the home, sculptor Laith al-Amiri built the $5,000 structure in 15 days, according to the orphanage director.

Made of fiberglass and coated with copper, the monument consists of the shoe sitting on a concrete base. The entire monument is 3.5 meters high. The shoe is 2.5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

Is that a tree growing out of the shoe?

(Thanks to CNN Baghdad producer Mohammed Tawfeeq for sending this in from Tikrit!)

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Filed under: Iraq

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January 27, 2009
Posted: 1530 GMT


Listening to President barack Obama's interview on satellite news channel Al-Arabya, I was reminded of something Hisham Melhem – the man who conducted the one-on-one – told me a few weeks: "It is going to be very difficult for Mideast leaders to demonize someone whose full name is Barack Hussein Obama."

Indeed, the tone was conciliatory and President Obama made sure to mention the fact that he'd lived in a Muslim country and that members of his family are Muslim. A hand extended to the region. An "I understand you" from the Commander-in-Chief.

Though in recent polls, a majority of people in the Mideast do not believe anything will change with an Obama presidency, could a softer tone alone be a game-changer?

After eight years of a Bush presidency and an Iraq war that has made virulent anti-Americanism the norm in the Arab world, Barack Obama's statement that he has advised his Mideast envoy George Mitchell to "start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating" is a rhetorical leap that marks a clean break with the past.

But here is the wider question: how to achieve true, lasting peace, without involving all actors of the Mideast tragedy in the discussions?

Mister Obama's peace envoy is in the region right now speaking with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian and Israeli leaders, but will not stop in Syria and will not meet Hamas officials.

The issue here is not whether Hamas is legitimate or popular, but how any deal can hold as a result of negotiations conducted without them.

Since Egypt has acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas in past agreements, it's not inconceivable that messages will somehow be relayed to the group through Cairo.

Would this be like trying to achieve peace in Northern Ireland by not involving the IRA's political wing? It's a question worth asking.

Meanwhile, the process will be slow: president Obama himself has lowered expectations ("it's going to be difficult",) violence is flaring up again in gaza and nothing tangible is expected to happen before Israelis select a new Prime Minister as a result of elections next month.

What are your thoughts on President Obama's interview on Al Arabya?

Thanks to all for commenting!

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Filed under: George Mitchell •Hamas •Obama

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January 22, 2009
Posted: 1455 GMT


The Obama administration has named former American senator George Mitchell to be special envoy to the Middle East, sources told CNN.

Internationally, Mitchell is best known for his work as the man who helped broker an agreement between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, a dispute, at times,  just as bitter as the one between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mitchell served as a Mideast envoy for the Bush administration, authoring a 2001 report that called for a halt to Israeli settlements and greater Palestinian efforts to crack down on terror.

What do you think of the Mitchell nomination?

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Filed under: George Mitchell •Obama

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January 21, 2009
Posted: 1642 GMT

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama placed several calls to leaders across the Middle East Wednesday morning, a senior administration official said, hitting the ground running in an unstable region of the world that has consumed several past U.S. administrations.

In his first calls to world leaders since becoming president, Obama phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarack, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The president is expected by many political observers to appoint a special Middle East envoy within the next few days or weeks.

Filed under: Obama

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January 18, 2009
Posted: 1516 GMT

JERUSALEM (CNN) – Palestinian militants agreed Sunday to a one-week cease-fire against Israel, Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said.

The Hamas announcement came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a unilateral cease-fire in the country's assault on Hamas in Gaza.

"We in the Palestinian resistance movements announce a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip," Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official in Syria, said on Syrian TV. "And we demand that Israeli forces withdraw in one week and that they open all the border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods for our people in Gaza."

The agreement covers all Palestinian armed factions, not only Hamas, said CNN Jerusalem correspondent Paula Hancocks.

The two sides had continued to skirmish for several hours after Israel said it was stopping its 22-day offensive against Hamas. More than 1,200 people died in the fighting, all but 13 of them Palestinians.

Olmert said Sunday the Israeli offensive had achieved its goals but that the Israel Defense Forces reserved the right to respond to any Palestinian violence against Israelis.

"IDF forces are in the Gaza Strip and many other units, which are surrounding Gaza, from all sides, are closely observing every corner and listening to every whisper, ready for any response that they might receive from their commanders if and when the violations continue, as they have this morning," he said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, before the announcement of the Palestinian cease-fire.

Israel pulled some troops out of the Palestinian territory as it called a halt to its operation against Hamas, but others remain.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told CNN they would be there for a matter of days, not weeks.

Earlier Sunday, militants fired 16 rockets into southern Israel and exchanged gunfire with troops in northern Gaza, an Israeli spokesman said.

The Qassam rockets were fired into Sderot at 9 a.m. - seven hours after Israel's cease-fire went into effect. The rockets injured one person, and Israeli aircraft destroyed the rocket launcher soon afterward, an Israeli military spokesman said.

An hour or two before the rocket attacks, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli forces in northern Gaza, the Israeli military said. Troops returned fire.

"If Hamas chooses to still launch rockets, we'll answer back and we'll answer back harsh," said Avital Leibovich, spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces Sunday. "It's really up to Hamas. Hamas will be accountable for any launching and every terror activity from the Gaza strip."

Israel also announced Sunday it would open an emergency treatment center at the Erez crossing point from Israel to Gaza for civilians who have been injured in the fighting. It will be "fully equipped and staffed" and Palestinians requiring more involved treatment will be sent to hospitals in Israel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Filed under: Gaza •Hamas •Israel

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January 17, 2009
Posted: 1902 GMT


To all who've been asking when they can watch my hour-long special "The Middle East Challenge," the remaining air times on CNN International are:

Saturday: 10pm EST, 4am CET

Sunday: 1am EST, 7am CET and 6pm EST, midnight CET

More times to follow.

The full documentary should be streamed online in the next few weeks.

Check out the full show description here.

Thanks for watching!

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Filed under: General

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Posted: 1723 GMT

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to announce a unilateral ceasefire to end the current gaza offensive,  sources have told CNN.

Israel will retain the right to respond to Hamas rocket attacks, according to a senior Israeli offiicial.


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Filed under: Gaza •Hamas •Israel

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January 16, 2009
Posted: 1519 GMT


CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman is now in Gaza.  He crossed into the Palestinian territory through Egypt.

Here is his account from the conflict zone:

RAFAH, Gaza (CNN) - Bloodshed, fear, privation and anger were all clearly visible in Gaza as we finally managed to enter the territory. Unsurprisingly, there were also displays of fist-shaking defiance, but what I had not expected was the high morale.

We arrived in Gaza in darkness, so at first there was little to see - but plenty to hear. Israeli planes were passing overhead the whole time, and drones could be heard buzzing through the night.

Then there were the explosions. One impacted not far from where we were staying the night. There was a huge blast. You could feel the shockwave passing through the building, shaking the floors and rattling the windows.

The explosions continued after sunrise throughout the border area. At the Abu Yusuf Al Najjar hospital, the largest medical facility in the border town of Rafah, their horrendous effects were visible.

We saw one person who had been riding a bike down the road when a rocket landed nearby. He suffered bone fractures and shrapnel wounds all over his body. His right leg needed to be amputated at the upper thigh.

Doctors, more used to dealing with bullet wounds than the current array of weaponry being used by the Israelis, said 20 percent of the injuries they were dealing with were light, 30 percent were serious to critical, and another 30 percent die within the first 30 minutes of arriving at hospital.

At a U.N. school where people were seeking refuge because their neighborhoods were bombed or under threat, crowds mobbed handouts of blankets and rations. Classrooms in the building were each crammed with six or seven families (all large extended families).

We toured an area near the border with Egypt where tunnels had been dug to get supplies into Gaza. There we saw dozens and dozens of houses completely destroyed, huge craters everywhere.

Earlier, when we caught the last bus from Egypt into Gaza, we spoke to Palestinian passengers, most of whom said they had been arrested in Egypt and abused by police before being deported. Their bitterness toward Egypt, particularly its president, Hosni Mubarak, and other Arab leaders over their perceived failure to provide support was echoed among others we spoke to.

This was matched by anger toward the United States, because most people know it supplies Israel with the warplanes bombarding them.

The attacks have badly affected Gaza's electricity supply. The territory gets its power from Egypt, but lines have been knocked out by explosions, leaving connections intermittent in some areas. Water is also a problem, many areas now without any supply.

With the Israeli offensive effectively cutting the territory in half, there is now no way to pass from southern Gaza to the north, other than in an ambulance - and even the ambulance drivers say it not a sure thing.

But despite the problems, there are signs of normality, as many people go about their business in defiance of the conflict. Shops were trading, although only one-fifth were open, and people were on the streets.

I'm surprised at how buoyant people are given the circumstances. Talking to them, I find morale high and an overall sense of defiance.

At one point I saw a young boy on a donkey cart, unaware I was observing him. As an Israeli jet passed overhead, he shook a fist at the sky.

Filed under: CNN Coverage •Gaza

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