Inside the Middle East
September 26, 2010
Posted: 1148 GMT

Hanan Sufan welcomes us into her house with open arms. A resident of the West Bank village of Burin, she is accustomed to visitors. Over the years she has welcomed journalists, human rights groups, representatives from the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli military.

(Hanan Sufan)

All said they would help and all documented her plight. Yet ten years on, she still lives in daily fear of attacks from the nearby Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, a settlement considered radical by many mainstream Israelis.

Her home is nestled in the hills of the West Bank, away from the village. A spot which would have been envied before the settlement arrived. Now it makes her target number one for violent settlers who throw stones at her house and family and even set fire to the house in 2003.

Her daughter has captured many attacks on a video camera given to her by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

While sitting with the family, sipping the customary arabic coffee, it’s hard not to notice the iron gratings that cover every window – we’re told to prevent rocks and Molotov cocktails from flying inside the house. Barbed wire covers the top of the railings around the house to try and prevent people jumping over and there’s a bed on the roof. When I ask why, Sufan tells me it’s for her son who stays the night outside to listen out for an imminent attack.

(Hanan Sufan and her family)

Sufan tells me her husband died of a stroke in 2003 after seeing the house set on fire by settlers. Even now, she breaks down when she talks about him, saying she wishes she’d lost the house rather than her husband. She calls him the backbone of the family.

Without that backbone Sufan has taken over the role of head of the family and everyone looks to her for guidance. Her two year old grandson Wadee’ becomes distressed when she walks away, preferring to stay within a few meters.

We tried to speak to the settlement spokesman to ask what they are doing to try to stop this persistent violence against the family and the village as a whole, but he declined to comment, citing the Jewish holidays.

It’s no way for a family to live. Never leaving the house unattended for fear of settlers moving in. Never allowing the few sheep they have to roam the land for fear of them being poisoned – Sufan tells me 20 of her sheep were poisoned, now they are all kept in the backyard.

(Hanan Sufan showing her olive grove close to the border of the Yitzhar settlement)

Only walking up the hill towards the edge of the settlement to tend her olive trees when her son and many villagers are with her. She says she feels safe with us when we accompany her there as we have a camera and she thinks that will prevent any violence. Mourning 23 olive trees the settlers chopped down in January, she says she felt like she was losing a child as she had tended them so carefully for thirty or forty years.

And repeating her story time and time again to people who want to help but somehow fail to make a difference.

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Filed under: Israel •Palestinians

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September 21, 2010
Posted: 1050 GMT


Sarah Shourd speaks to the media in Muscat, Oman (Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images)

*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent,  Nic Robertson, filed this report describing  the frenzied mechanics of chasing a big Middle Eastern news story*

As we dashed to Abu Dhabi’s International Airport last Tuesday evening we knew we had only a slim chance of catching up with Sarah Shourd.

We were frantically booking flights to Muscat and she was already in the air on a two and a half hour flight to freedom from a Tehran jail.

Sarah had probably reached cruising altitude, Tehran fading beneath the Royal Oman jet the Sultan had sent for her and we’d just got our tickets. But the race wasn’t over. Just as we were heading for security we discovered an earlier flight, and after a crazy and slightly undignified dash to another terminal we took our seats on a BA 777 as the doors were closing.

It was exactly the kind of adrenalin pumping journalism that this profession pitches you in to without warning. We had one goal: talk to Sarah.

We touched down almost simultaneously with her flight. She was getting the Royal treatment, red carpet, VIP lounge, we were struggling to confirm she’d made it.

We hung around in international limbo, afraid to go through immigration for fear Sarah would take another flight to the US. By now we were booked on every flight leaving Muscat for the next five hours.

We stalked the transit halls and lounges scouring for a glimmer of her entourage. Our producer Raja Razek had worked her magic and found a source who was searching passenger manifests for us. But no sign of Sarah. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: CNN Coverage •Oman

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September 17, 2010
Posted: 1618 GMT
The original photo showed U.S. President Barack Obama leading Middle East leaders during peace talks.
The original photo showed U.S. President Barack Obama leading Middle East leaders during peace talks.

Twitter alerted me to the doctored picture of President Hosni Mubarak leading the pack of Middle East peacemakers that appeared on page 6 of Al-Ahram’s 14 September edition.

Wael Khalil, a part-time blogger and full-time software engineer, noticed that the photo in Al-Ahram was an altered version of a picture first published after the meeting in the White House of President Barak Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordanian King Abdallah II and, of course, the Egyptian President.

In the original photo President Mubarak was in the back on the left, looking, many people in Egypt duly noted, his 82 years. The group was led by President Obama.

So when Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, Obama pushed back to the second row, and Netanyahu relegated to the rear, he knew something was wrong. Through Google he found the original photo and posted them on his blog, and posted that link on his Twitter account.

And then went out for lunch with his friends.

When Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, he knew something was wrong.
When Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, he knew something was wrong.

“We felt it’s going to be a ‘ha-ha,’” he told me, “a local joke, a ‘look-at-what-they’re-doing’ sort of thing.”

He’s taken aback by the interest in the doctored photo. “This is the Mubarak we know, this is the regime we know,” he says.

He posted his blog when I was busy covering the second round of direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Sharm Al-Shaikh. I looked at the two pictures, laughed at the obvious, fairly crude hanky-panky, and moved on. So Al-Ahram plays fast and dirty with Photoshop, I thought. No surprise there. They’re playing the same game they do with words on a daily basis: It’s called “praise the leader.”

Al-Ahram is one of Egypt’s oldest newspapers, founded in 1875. It’s a dull but reliable indicator of how the government views the world. It’s Cairo’s dusty gray lady, all the news the Egyptian government deems is fit for the people to read.

Al-Ahram’s senior editors are appointed directly by the Egyptian president, and, not surprisingly, they follow the official line without much deviation.

Friday Osama Saraya, the editor of Al-Ahram, wrote in the paper that the picture at the centre of the controversy was “expressive,” underscoring Egypt historic role in the peace process.

Hisham Qasim, himself an independent newspaper publisher and harsh critic of the 29-year-old Mubarak regime, is not impressed by the defence.

“The editors of Al-Ahram have gone over the top. They are making Mubarak look silly worldwide," he said. "It's amazing how much coverage Mubarak is getting. It has become the joke of journalism.”

In the meantime the Ahram photoflub is racing around the new media in Egypt across the Middle East, a lesson to the old media, perhaps, that the rules of the game of “praise the leader” have changed for good.

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Filed under: Egypt

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September 16, 2010
Posted: 1149 GMT

CNN correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom sent us the following photos of the CNN team at work in Yemen. Along with producer Gena Somra and photo-journalist Farhad Shadravan, Mohammed filed this report on the city of Shibam, aka "the Manhattan of the desert" where stories-high and centuries old mud skyscrapers create an urban skyline in a remote walled city. The site is one of Yemen's treasures, but since a 2009 attack on tourists, visitors have stopped coming and the residents of Shibam are finding it hard to get by. 

CNN crew shooting footage outside of Shibam (Dane Kenny/CNN)

CNN crew shooting outside doorway of a Shibam building (Dane Kenny/CNN)

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Filed under: Culture •General •Yemen

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September 15, 2010
Posted: 2158 GMT

Here a report from our Abu Dhabi based reporter Mohammed Jamjoom who reports from Tarim in Yemen's spiritual heartland. Steeped in history, the town is believed to have more descendants of the Prophet Mohammed than anywhere else in the world. Its also the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden's father. Tucked away in self-isolation from the watchful eye of the world, people come from all over the world to study an extremely conservative approach to the Islamic faith, but caution their conservatism should not be mistaken for extremism. Students say on the contrary, the draw of Tarim, is its purity of study, and the peaceful simplicity of life.

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Filed under: Culture •General •Islam •Religion •Video •Yemen

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Posted: 950 GMT


Ayman Khalil, the porter, and CNN Jerusalem cameraman David Hawley at the Erez Crossing


*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent Ben Wedeman filed this report from a recent reporting trip to the Gaza Strip*

"I am always walking in my dreams," Ayman Khalil tells me as we walk across no-man's land between Gaza and Israel in oppressive mid-day summer heat. "And when I wake up," he adds, "my feet hurt."

Ayman, and his other colleague, 'Antar, are the only two people authorized by both Hamas (which controls Gaza) and Israel to walk back and forth in no-man's land. They work as porters at the Erez Crossing, in the long, fenced in passageway set aside for the few people allowed to go back and forth between Israel and Gaza.

Ayman walks about 600 metres of ground in the kilometer-long passageway on the Gaza side. He then hands off to 'Antar, who, with his rickety trolley, takes luggage the rest of the way.

He estimates on average he goes back and forth about between 30 and 40 times a day, which means he walks 36 and 48 kilometers a day, or, by my rough calculation, taking into account slow days, holidays, etc. between 10,800 and 14,400 kilometers a year. He may be overstating the case, but I can attest that he's on his feet much of the day.

As one of the few precarious links between Gaza and Israel, both 'Antar and Ayman are acutely sensitive to the ups and downs of the unhappy relationship between the two. If tensions are high, if there is an incident that closes the border crossing, their livelihoods are put on hold. They both have large, extended families to support in their nearby town of Beit Hanoun, which often bears the brunt of the violence.

I've known Ayman and 'Antar for years, and watched as they walked, and walked, and walked a fine line between Israel and Gaza. Both have been wounded by shrapnel and gunfire, both have seen more combat than most battle-hardened veterans, both have a hard-headed disdain for the vagaries of war and politics.

"It's exhausting work," says Ayman, "but if I don't walk, we starve to death."

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Filed under: Gaza •General •Israel

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September 13, 2010
Posted: 2109 GMT

The 'David Hawley media pass' also changes Ben Wedeman's employer.
The 'David Hawley media pass' also changes Ben Wedeman's employer.
Breaking news! I no longer work for CNN, I'm no longer a reporter, in fact, I'm no longer Ben Wedeman. Well, at least that's according to the Egyptian Director of the Central Administration of Security at the Sharm el-Sheikh peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.

He (or she, I suppose, since I don't know the name) issued me credentials as David Hawley, changed me into a cameraman, and assigned me a new employer: Bahraini TV.

David Hawley is my good friend and colleague, CNN's Jerusalem good-natured Australian cameraman. David's or my affiliation with Bahraini television remains a mystery.

Anyone who has ever covered a summit or conference in Sharm Al-Shaikh knows they are disorganized affairs where no one really knows what is happening until the last moment, and that’s for the lucky ones.

Getting anywhere near the summit proceedings involves passing though a variety of over-staffed checkpoints manned by a crowd of conscripts and surly officers, followed by a cordon of over-sensitive metal detectors set off by the iron in your blood. One thing no one has paid attention to, however, is my dodgy press card.

The disorder and heavy handedness of Sharm summits often detract from the substance of the talks.

But it’s hard to tell at this stage whether there is any substance to speak of. On September 2, Israel and the Palestinians (well, part of them, since only the Ramallah regime is represented here) resumed direct negotiations in Washington, D.C. at the urging of the United States.

Skeptics far outnumber optimists, and the latter are not wildly so.

In the lobby of the hotel where the talks are due to begin Tuesday morning, I ran into Husam Zaki, the spokesmen for the Egyptian foreign minister.

"We have to be optimists," he told me with a wry grin. "But we know these talks are going to be long and hard."

There is plenty of ground Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will have to cover. The future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Borders. Security. Water resources. The nature of the nascent Palestinian state.

These are thorny subjects that have been discussed, and dodged, for almost 20 years, and no one is under any illusion that dramatic progress will be achieved here in this sunny Egyptian resort on the Red Sea.

They could start, however, by giving me back my name, my job and returning me to CNN.

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Filed under: Egypt •Israel •Palestinians

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August 30, 2010
Posted: 652 GMT

Shocking words have come from the spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-orthodox political party, Shas. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced the upcoming direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington this week and was quoted by Israel Army Radio as saying of the Palestinian President, "Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world... God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians."

Instant condemnation of his weekly sermon came from the Palestinian government. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called it incitement, saying in a statement: "The spirtual leader of Shas is literally calling for a genocide against Palestinians," adding that, "He is particularly calling for the assassination of President Abbas (Abu Mazen) who within a few days will be sitting face to face with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is this how the Israeli government prepares its public for a peace agreement?"

The Shas party is part of Netanyahu's coalition and has issued no official statement. Netanyahu's office issued this statement: "These things do not reflect PM Netanyahu's approach nor that of the Israeli government. Israel comes to the negotiations with a will to advance towards an agreement that would put an end to the conflict and guarantee peace, security and good neighboring relations between the two nations."

In his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he is aware of the difficulties of the upcoming direct talks, but the Israeli side is willing to advance towards peace.

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli and deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament says: "The Rabbi... has long been the leader of the unjust and evil, he speaks from hatred and calls for murder and death and this is a far cry from the values held by all heavenly religions."

This is not the first time the Shas spiritual leader has caused controversy with his sermons. Israeli media says in 2001 he called the Palestinians "evil and damnable" adding: "You must send missiles to them and annihilate them."

There's been widespread condemnation of the comments across the Arab media - coming just three days before the Israeli and Palestinian leaders meet to talk peace.

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Filed under: Israel •Palestinians

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January 11, 2009
Posted: 2236 GMT

RAFAH BORDER CROSSING, Egypt (CNN) - It's golden hour - those last few moments of warm sunlight before dusk . Two pairs of Israeli F-16 fighters are wheeling overhead on repeated bombing runs over southern Gaza.

CNN's Karl Penhaul talks with Jawad Harb via Skype.
CNN's Karl Penhaul talks with Jawad Harb via Skype.

With western media banned from Gaza, we're watching from a rooftop on the Egyptian side of the border. It looks like a movie.

But Jawad Harb brings me back to earth- thanks to his laptop and an internet connection that is remarkably still up.

Harb is a Palestinian aid worker for CARE International. He's hunkered down with his wife and six children at his home in Rafah on the Gaza side. My rooftop and his home are perhaps just one kilometer apart.

After a day of trying, I manage to raise him on Skype. He's fired up his generator for a few moments with the dribble of fuel he has left.

We Skype as the bombs rain down. The tools of civilization – voice and video over internet - propel me closer to the barbarity and fear of war - right into Jawad Harb's front room.

I hear the fighter-bombers first. At near-supersonic speeds, Harb hears them seconds later. He hears the bombs explode first at the end of his street. I hear the blast seconds later as the shock wave washes over the border.

I can see the flash and plume of smoke clearly through a camera lens. Harb and his family are too scared to go outside. He calculates the distance of the explosion from his home by how much his house shakes.

All you can hear is the horrible sound of bombing, the house is shaking and the panic and the screaming from the children," he tells me.

"Everybody fears these bombings will fall on our houses and they will die in the demolition of the houses. And then there's the sound of the children crying and asking if they're going to die," he explains.

It's a war that's stripping fathers of their ability to protect their families. Harb cannot honestly tell his kids they're not going to die. Instead he tries to distract them.

I get my six children in one room and they snuggle around me like birds and I tell them stories like my mother used to tell me when I was a child. I tell them this war will come to an end soon and there will be no more killing and peace," he says.

It's a time-honored trick. This is the "Arabian Nights" Gaza-style. Each night a new story to stave off the threat of death.

"It's exactly like the Arabian nights, just like you say. One of my children asked me ‘dad why can't Ali Baba come and say the war will end in Gaza'. All he hopes for is a magic way to put an end to this violent war going on in Gaza," Harb says.

But there's no "Open Sesame", no magic word to stop the fighting and stop the bombs. And Harb says his kids have stopped believing in make-believe.

"It's hard to convince them. Another tomorrow comes and they hear the bombings and about kids being killed and about homes being demolished," he says, his voice crackling electronically over the Skype internet connection.

Our videochat goes on. Harb explains he and his family sleep in their clothes. They haven't had heating for days. When the bombing starts they open their windows. They don't want the blast waves to shatter the glass.

He also tells me their food is running desperately low.

"We rushed out to try to buy some food. We managed to get some macaroni and rice and three or four boxes of cheese," he said. "We have enough for two days but I don't know what will happen on the third day."

When the outlook is so grim just how do you say good-bye? "Stay safe, say hi to the family," I offer up, before running out of commonplaces reserved for better days.

We hang up, as more explosions rock the night.

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Filed under: Gaza •Israel

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January 5, 2009
Posted: 013 GMT

RAFAH BORDER CROSSING – Mathematically, it's not a tricky equation. Politically, though, it's a complete conundrum. I'm talking about the scenes on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing Sunday.

Aid has been kept waiting on the Egyptian side of the border.
Aid has been kept waiting on the Egyptian side of the border.

It was the morning after the start of the Israeli ground assault on Gaza. In the dark, a few hours earlier, I'd been able to make out the sound of Israeli tank tracks grinding through southern Gaza; the whoosh of missiles fired by Apache attack helicopters into targets just a few hundred yards away and the rat-a-tat of assault guns as Hamas and Israeli fighters closed in on one another.

Now, it was light, and around 30 trucks lined up at the Rafah border gates. They were piled high with much needed medical supplies for the teeming hospitals of Gaza and the mounting casualties. The aid had come from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egyptian NGOs and even Scotland. There was even an eight-strong team of Greek trauma surgeons ready to go in and rescue the dying.

It would have been a heartening sight after the madness of the night except for one major detail - the border was closed, the gates firmly shut. That medicine was going nowhere.

And that's the simple equation. Three checkpoints and 300 yards separated life-giving supplies from the Palestinian wounded and dying. There was fuel in the trucks, drivers at the wheel and politics in the road.

Now the border has been open sporadically over the last few days for a few hours at a time to let aid in and a trickle of wounded Palestinians out (about 120 since the current hostilities began). But Sunday was not one of those days.

The Egyptian border police said they couldn't let the trucks through because the Palestinian border guards had fled during the night. Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships, I guess, can be expected to have that effect on employees of Gaza's Hamas government.

The Egyptians also warned it was dangerous and they couldn't guarantee anybody's safety. War does tend to be a risky business.

The Egyptian government, meanwhile, has said it can't fully normalize the border between Egypt and Gaza because that needs an agreement between Hamas and its rivals in the Fatah movement, as well as the presence of European Union monitors.

And as the apologies and public hand-wringing go on, the aid is blocked and the wounded are getting sicker; the dying expiring.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is no friend of Hamas. He did very strongly condemn the Israeli ground assault in a statement Sunday. But on the Egyptian street, especially here close to the border, many Egyptians see that as little more than public bravado.

They criticize him for not sending aid through and for not letting Palestinian refugees come across, at least temporarily. They also point to the fact that two days before Israeli airstrikes began, Mubarak was hosting Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and permitting her to issue threats against Hamas from his couch.

Now clearly I'm not a Middle Eastern expert, but as I mull the chain on the gate at the Rafah crossing, the scale of human need in Gaza seems crystal clear while political red tape is keeping the medicine from the wounded and dying.

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Filed under: CNN Coverage •Egypt •Gaza •Hamas •Israel

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