Inside the Middle East
February 27, 2010
Posted: 806 GMT

A new public relations campaign ask Israelis if they are tired of seeing how they are portrayed globally. CNN's Kevin Flower reports.

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February 26, 2010
Posted: 513 GMT

By Paula Hancocks

The line of questioning has changed. It's no longer the speculation on whether Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad was behind the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room last month.

There are now 26 people suspected of involvement in the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in addition to two people in Dubai police custody.
There are now 26 people suspected of involvement in the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in addition to two people in Dubai police custody.

The question now, certainly on the lips of journalists, is why does it take at least 26 people to kill one man traveling without a bodyguard?

Fifteen more suspects named by Dubai police Wednesday, although the passports are fraudulent and the names "borrowed."

Dubai's police chief has said he is 99 percent sure Mossad is responsible and that seems good enough for most people. Let me caution though, while not revealing personal opinion, that an arms dealer would likely have enemies.

Trips to Dubai by some suspects for planning purposes started almost a year ago, according to police. They say suspects traveled through eight different countries, including two on Australian passports who left Dubai on a ship to Iran, according to police.

The diagram for the travel routes of the operation stage look like a complicated family tree. The suspects between them covered 10 countries, credit cards were used by 14 different suspects, identities stolen from five different nationalities… again according to Dubai police.

The target – one man who appeared to be in transit, who went shopping for shoes and who had no security.

That's not to make him sound harmless. Hamas has admitted he was behind the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and Israeli security sources tell me he was a key link between Hamas and Iran when it comes to smuggling arms into Gaza.

But such a huge team still seems excessive to a layman like me who is not privy to the usual etiquette of international assassinations.

This is one of the first times we have been given such an accessible peephole into the murky world of alleged hitmen and women. Maybe that’s why the appetite for details no matter how mundane or distasteful is so great.

A first but maybe also a last. This world of technology we live in as proved by Dubai police could deter the next old-fashioned hit squad picked up on security cameras every step of the way – no matter how good the disguises or how powerful the sponsor.

Filed under: Dubai •Hamas •Israel

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February 22, 2010
Posted: 1914 GMT

Jerusalem (CNN) - Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers broke out Monday, a day after Israel announced it would include two West Bank religious shrines as part of a larger list of 150 Zionist heritage sites.

The Hebron shrine known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Jews has been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Hebron shrine known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Jews has been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

About 100 protesters were throwing stones and burning tires in the West Bank city of Hebron, the Israeli military said. Palestinian eyewitnesses reported that several protesters had been injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.

The clashes come in the wake of a special Sunday Cabinet meeting held at one of the "national heritage" sites where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined a plan to invest more than $100 million on national heritage infrastructure.

"People must be familiar with their homeland and its cultural and historical vistas," he said. "This is what we will instill in this and coming generations, to the glory - if I may say - of the Jewish people."

Included in the list of sites are Rachel's Tomb in Palestinian city of Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron.

A top United Nations official said the inclusion of sites in the West Bank raised concerns because they were "in occupied Palestinian territory."

The Tomb of the Patriarchs - known to Palestinians as Ibrahimi mosque - is in Hebron, a West Bank city that houses about 500 Jews heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers, who live among about 170,000 Palestinians.

The tomb is revered by Jews and Muslims as holy and has been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians for years. In 1994, an Israeli settler entered the tomb and opened fire on the Muslim worshippers, killing 29 before he was beaten to death.

Rachel's Tomb is known to Palestinians as the mosque of Bilal.

The Palestinian reaction after the announcement was fast and furious. A statement by the Revolutionary Council of Fatah, the political faction in charge of the Palestinian Authority, called the Israeli plan a move to "consolidate the occupation" and an effort at "judaizing" Palestinian land.

Dr. Hamdan Taha, an official at the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Tourism, said the the two sites were "an integral part of Palestinian culture" and that if the Israeli government persisted in its efforts, "Palestinians will feel free to nominate sites inside the green line in their heritage list."

Green line refers to the border before Israel occupied the West Bank.

Nationalist and right wing parties in Israel praised the government move and called for the inclusion of more West Bank locations to the list of heritage sites.

Robert H. Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, also expressed concern.

"These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well," he said in a statement.

"I urge Israel not to take any steps on the ground which undermine trust or could prejudice negotiations, the resumption of which should be the highest shared priority of all who seek peace."

Nationalist and right-wing parties in Israel praised the government move and called for the inclusion of more West Bank locations to the list of heritage sites.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said no one could deny that the two West Bank locations were of historical and religious significance to the Jews. He said the danger of their inclusion on a list of sites to the peace process was overstated.

Filed under: Archaeology •Israel •Palestinians

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February 20, 2010
Posted: 1213 GMT

London, England (CNN) - The British Foreign Office denied a news report Friday that the British intelligence service was told in advance that Israeli agents planned to assassinate a senior Hamas militant.

Passport photos showing the 11 suspects wanted over the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
Passport photos showing the 11 suspects wanted over the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

Israel has brushed aside suggestions that it was involved in the January 20 death in a Dubai hotel of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founding member of Hamas' military wing. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said there is "no reason to think" that Israeli agents were involved in the killing.

The British Foreign Office reacted strongly Friday to a report in London's Daily Mail saying that that its spy agency, the MI6, "was tipped off that Israeli agents were planning to carry out an 'overseas operation' using fake British passports." The report cited an unnamed British security source.

"Any suggestion that we knew anything about the murder in Dubai before it happened, including about the misuse of British passports, is completely untrue," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Interpol has made public the photos and fraudulent names of 11 people it said were involved in the murder in Dubai last month. The "red notices" are not international arrest warrants, but are a way of alerting police forces around the world that the suspects are wanted by authorities in the United Arab Emirates.

The suspects had European passports - one from France, three from Ireland, six from Britain, and one from Germany, according to police.

Officials in the UAE have told CNN there are several other suspects, as well.

"As we have said already, the Dubai authorities told us about the role of British passports on 15 February," nearly a month after the killing and hours before Dubai investigators held a news conference about the case, the British Foreign Office said in its statement.

"We told them the following day that the passports used were fraudulent. The head of the Dubai police has also made clear that embassies were not contacted until shortly before the identity of the suspects was revealed."

The Austrian government, meanwhile, weighed in on news reports that Austrian mobile phone numbers may have been used in the plot.

The Austrian Counter Terrorism unit is involved in investigating that angle, said Rudolf Gollia, spokesman for Austria's Ministry of Interior.

"We have some information but we aren't allowed to communicate it," he said. "We have, however, no suspects and we believe that it was only the Austrian numbers involved, not anyone actually physically located in Austria."

Filed under: Hamas •Israel •U.K.

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February 17, 2010
Posted: 1052 GMT
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Posted: 1040 GMT

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) - Dubai authorities issued an international arrest warrant Tuesday for suspects in last month's slaying of a top Hamas official, according to a written statement.

Police Monday identified 11 people - 10 men and a woman - suspected in the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founding member of Hamas' military wing who had survived at least three other attempts on his life. Al-Mabhouh was killed in his hotel room January 19 hours after he arrived in Dubai from Syria.

Dubai Deputy Attorney General Issam Issa Homeidan said in a statement the warrant was issued "against all the killers of Mabhouh since they committed a premeditated murder on Dubai soil."

The warrant was issued based on United Arab Emirates law and treaties with the suspects' countries of origin, the statement said. "The UAE has an agreement with these nations to hand over any criminal once they are arrested."

Dubai police said Monday the 11 suspects had valid European passports - one from France, three from Ireland, six from Britain, and one from Germany.

But the British Foreign Office said in a statement Tuesday: "We believe the passports used were fraudulent and have begun our own investigation."

The office said it has offered its "assistance and support" to the investigatators in Dubai.

And the Irish Foreign Ministry said it "was unable to find any record of Irish passports having been issued with details corresponding to the details published today in a number of UAE newspapers.

"We are in ongoing contact with the UAE authorities to try to ascertain the exact facts of the case," ministry spokesman Derek Lambe said in a statement. "To date, we have received no evidence that any Irish nationals were involved."

The French Foreign Ministry said it "is not in position to confirm the authenticity of the French identity document that would be held by one of the suspects in this case."

According to police, the suspects arrived in Dubai the day before the killing. Five of them carried out the crime while the remaining six served as lookouts, police said.

Police identified a man from France as the logistical mastermind. Police allege the man stayed at a luxury hotel in Dubai, but also booked a room at the al Bustan Rotana hotel where al-Mabhouh was killed. The French suspect requested room 237 - directly across from where al-Mabhouh was staying in room 230, police say, but the suspect apparently never stayed there. Instead, police say the rest of the group used the room to plot the killing and the alleged mastermind left the country before it was carried out.

Footage on security cameras at Dubai International Airport show one of the suspects following al-Mabhouh after he landed, police said. Two others followed him once he arrived at the hotel, police said, taking the same elevator and ensuring al-Mabhouh was staying in room 230.

Police said they believe the suspects entered al-Mabhouh's room about 8 p.m. local time after the hotel cleaning crew finished their rotation on the floor, using an electronic device to gain entry.

Al-Mabhouh entered his room at 8:25 p.m., hotel security cameras and an electronic read-out of his room key show. Police say the killing took no more than ten minutes before the suspects left the room and headed immediately to the airport where they boarded flights to various cities in Europe and Asia, police said.

Before leaving, police said, the group took great care to make sure the room looked orderly, removing anything that might indicate a struggle. The suspects also deliberately turned the safety lock on the room door from the inside in order to suggest the death was normal, police said.

Police did not provide details about the nature of the killing in their statement Monday, but authorities have told al-Mabhouh's family that there were signs of five or six electric shocks on his legs, behind his ears, on his genitals and over his heart. Blood on a pillow led police to believe he was suffocated.

Dubai authorities started investigating immediately, Homeidan said in the statement Tuesday, and ordered an autopsy be conducted on al-Mabhouh. A number of witnesses have been interviewed. The investigation was ongoing, he said, and more details will be forthcoming.

On Monday, Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan said in a statement that, "The United Arab Emirates does not accept the notion that its land can be used as a battlefield for settling scores no matter what the causes or affiliations of these involved perpetrators can be."

He warned that anyone who tries to "tamper with the country's security or the safety of any resident or visitor of its community will be subject to prosecution and accountability."

At al-Mabhouh's funeral in January in Damascus, Syria, where he spent the last years of his life, mourners speculated that Israel's intelligence unit, Mossad, was behind the assassination. Al-Mabhouh was behind the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989, according to Hamas.

Israeli security sources have told CNN that al-Mabhouh was a key link between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and he was involved in smuggling arms to Gaza. The same sources also pointed out an arms dealer could have many enemies, not just Israel.

Israel has a stated policy on security matters of neither confirming nor denying involvement.

Just after al-Mabhouh died, Hamas said in a statement his death was an "assassination." Government officials in Israel declined to comment on that statement.

CNN's Saad Abedine contributed to this report.

Filed under: Dubai •Hamas

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February 14, 2010
Posted: 1035 GMT

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) – Thousands gathered in downtown Beirut on Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of former Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, a major event that altered the nation's political landscape.

Former Lebanon Prime Minister Hariri's assassination led to several political changes in the region
Former Lebanon Prime Minister Hariri's assassination led to several political changes in the region

The event at Liberty Square in downtown features music and statements by top leaders, including former President Amin Gemaye.

Saad Hariri, Hariri's son and current prime minister, will also attend the ceremony, according to a statement on his party's Web site.

The Lebanese army and internal forces will provide security at the ceremony, the Web site said.

Hariri died February 14, 2005, in a powerful explosion that left a 10-foot crater in a street in downtown Beirut. His death stunned the nation and prompted tens of thousands to take to the streets, blaming Syria for the killing.

Syria denied the accusations, but an investigation by the United Nations Special Tribunal found links between Syria's government and Hariri's assassination. The revelation led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Since then, the frosty relations between the two have thawed somehow. Hariri recently took a trip to Damascus and met President Bashar al-Assad, prompting critics to say his visit undermines the investigation.

Lebanon was engulfed in a sectarian civil war for 16 years from 1975, the longest of its kind in the Middle East. The conflict was among its Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Alawite populations.

Last week, President Obama called Hariri and expressed America's support as the Lebanese mark five years since the assassination.

Obama and Hariri affirmed their desire to work together to advance peace in the region and support the special tribunal's effort to prosecute those responsible for the assassination.

Filed under: Lebanon

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Posted: 822 GMT

Filed under: Culture •Iran •Video

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February 12, 2010
Posted: 549 GMT

By Joe Sterling, CNN

(CNN) – Despite the rise of the Web and its freewheeling second-by-second ferment, government efforts at control and censorship remain rife across the Middle East and North Africa, a new report said Thursday.

"In the Middle East and North Africa, the Internet has offered many people access to information and the outside world that would have been unimaginable a few years ago," according to the International Press Institute's latest report: the IPI Press Review 2009 Focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

Protests in Iran led to censorship and arrests of journalists, the report says.
Protests in Iran led to censorship and arrests of journalists, the report says.

"However, government control of the media remains tight in almost all [Middle East and North Africa] countries, and censorship and self-censorship are prevalent throughout the region."

The Internet has emerged as a challenge to officialdom and its pronouncements and reaction from activists. Journalists say government efforts to stem the flow of information are futile.

Communication on the popular social media sites, where people are attempting to elude the strictures of their governments, is playing a cat-and-mouse game with widespread independent reporting in places like Iran and Egypt.

But, said Anthony Mills, managing editor of the World Press Freedom Review based in Vienna, Austria, "Overall, things are getting worse."

In Iran, authorities cracked down on journalists after protests surfaced when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in the June 12 presidential election, a victory that many in Iran say was fixed.

"Dozens of journalists have been detained without trial, and several sentenced to long prison sentences," the report said. "As demonstrators took to the streets, a news blackout was imposed on the foreign media. And yet, through social media networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, news of a violent government crackdown seeped out."

With the rise of the Internet, censorship efforts have emerged in Iran and other places across the region.

Iran "also cracked down on online media following the disputed June elections, and arrested online activists in an effort to stop the spread of dissenting information and opinions," according to the report.

Egypt, for example, uses a law designed to combat terror for arresting and detaining bloggers.

But Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the TV network Al-Arabiya, said the resistance to the flood of Internet information from government and other sectors of society is like trying to stop the Nile River from flowing. They can't halt it.

"A lot of information is getting through to the average person, in Cairo, in Jeddah and Dubai. Censorship will not stop the free flow of information, in my opinion," he said.

Al-Rashed said the business needs of the telecommunications companies, the integral role the Internet plays in business, and the demand from citizens can't be thwarted. He said there might be remote regions where censorship can work because there isn't access to the Internet in such places.

Octavia Nasr, CNN senior editor for the Middle East who monitors social media sites, said young people are boldly circumventing the official media censorship across the Middle East with Twitter, Facebook and alternatives.

"People are taking matters into their own hands," Nasr said. "Traditional media is not necessarily a driving force."

Azza Matar, translator at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo, Egypt, said governments want the Arab world to use the Internet for fun and not interfere with government and serious issues, but people are circumventing the officials with new media.

"We're trying to express ourselves and expose the lies," she said.

People from different countries prefer different kinds of new media, she said. As for Iranians, who are gearing up for a day of protests Thursday against the regime on the Islamic Revolution's anniversary, she said Iranians prefer Twitter because it can't be blocked and "is faster than blogs in conveying messages for masses."

Neziha Rejiba, vice president of the Tunis-based Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation and editor at Kalima Radio, said that theoretically, the whole world is getting its information online, but in the Middle East, censorship remains a reality, with cyberpolice blocking sites or even, as in the case of Syria, the Internet itself.

There is a dynamic in the Middle East between censorship and self-censorship.

"When journalists sit down to write a piece, they have to keep in mind the reaction to what they're writing. They're either scared of sanctions or revenge."

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said the Internet "has revolutionized the world" and "has helped foster creativity, innovation and freedom."

There have been complaints there about the recent blocking of Web sites in Bahrain.

While Al Khalifa said regulating different kinds of censorship internationally is impractical, he said in the Middle East, censorship takes forms he has mixed feelings about.

"Censorship can be taken too far to silence dissent and opposing views, but it can also be used as a tool to prevent potentially destructive and damaging ideas and behavior. There is increasing concern about harmful content on the Internet from violence, inciting racial hatred and terrorist activity, to sexual content and pornography, which justifies censorship on moral grounds," Al Khalifa said.

As for other aspects of the Middle East and its media, the report reveals several relative silver linings when it comes to press freedom: the environment in Lebanon, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Lebanon has a "far and more diverse and vibrant media than any other Arab country," but the institute found that "most of Lebanon's media outlets are unduly influenced in their journalism content by powerful political figures to whom they are financially and politically beholden."

Mills said the media in Lebanon can be characterized as "partly free" because there's a lot they don't talk about, such as criticism of military intelligence and the head of state, for example.

According to the report, "Israel has one of the most open media environments in the Middle East" for Israeli journalists with a wide range of opinions and commentary.

At the same time, Israeli security policy prevents Israeli journalists from traveling into the Palestinian territories without special permission, and Palestinian journalists are prevented from entering Israel.

The report said both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security forces interfere with the work of Palestinian journalists, and that journalists in Gaza have to resort to self-censorship.

Freedom of speech and press in the United Arab Emirates gets "some of the highest marks in the Arab world," but it "still has a long way to go."

The report cited a "number of taboo topics that journalists in the United Arab Emirates are not supposed to touch and indeed, most of the media do not," such as criticism of the ruling family. Across the Middle East, criticism of royal families and words perceived as insults to Islam have been criminalized.

In Iraq, violence there has dropped and so has the number of journalists' deaths, but "the U.S. military continues to imprison journalists without charge" and local security forces have been responsible for beating journalists. There is concern about the rise of proposed legislation stifling media freedom.

In Syria, which has "one of the world's worst records on media freedom," the media outlets are owned or controlled by the government. Political unrest elsewhere, the report said, is accompanied by media crackdowns, such as in Yemen, where there has been an insurgency in the north and civil unrest in the south. Elections in Algeria and Tunisia have also led to press freedom violations.

Governments have controlled "moral content" as well, the report said.

"In Saudi Arabia, several people involved in the production of a television show about sexual attitudes were sentenced to flogging and jail terms. In Sudan, journalist Lubna Hussein was sentenced to a flogging for wearing trousers. Following international uproar, the punishment was reduced to a fine, which was then paid by a pro-government journalists' association."

Filed under: Bahrain •Egypt •Iran •Iraq •Israel •Lebanon •Media •Palestinians •Saudi Arabia •Tunisia •UAE

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Posted: 539 GMT

By CNN's Kevin Flower

Read more on the Inside the Middle East website.

Jerusalem (CNN) - Archaeologists working under the direction of the Israeli Antiquities Authority have uncovered a 1,500-year-old road running through the center of Jerusalem's Old City.

Excavation director Dr. Ofer Sion said the discovery lends further credence to the accuracy of what is known as the Madaba Map - a Byzantine period mosaic map of the Holy Land that depicts an entrance into Jerusalem that leads to a single central street.

Archaeologists working in Jerusalem have made various finds to suggest the Madaba map was geographically correct, but the road depicted in the mosaic had not been found.

"It is proof of this beautiful map and for this street from the Byzantine period," Sion told reporters at the dig location.

The ancient road was found near the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem's Old City 4.5 meters under current street level when municipality workers initiated an infrastructure improvement project. The road dates from the period when Jerusalem was under Christian control and was constructed with large flagstones of more than a meter in length.

The road connected the western wall of the city to the eastern side of Jerusalem, Sion said. When the street was in use according to Sion, "hundreds of thousands of people are reaching the city, pilgrims from all over the world, and they are coming to Jerusalem and entering through the gate and going down the center, to the market of the city. They are going down in this street."

Next to the road archaeologists also discovered a stone foundation which supported a sidewalk and a row of columns. "It is wonderful to see that David Street, which is teeming with so much life today, actually preserved the route of the noisy street from 1,500 years ago," Sion said.

Other artifacts discovered in the excavation included coins, pottery vessels, and five bronze weights that are believed to have been used by merchants for weighing precious metals.

The Madaba map, is a large 8 X 16 meter mosaic located in the apse of the church of Saint George in Madaba, Jordan. It is the oldest known cartographic representation of the Holy Land and at its center is a detailed depiction of Jerusalem in the sixth century AD.

The mosaic has served as a guide to historians and archaeologists to what Byzantine period Jerusalem may have looked like and depicts many landmarks that survive until this day including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Damascus Gate.

Filed under: Archaeology •Jerusalem

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