Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap threatens to upend Middle East politics

Gilad Shalit salutes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after landing in IDF airbase in the center of Israel. Gilad Shalit was released today from Hamas captivity, after 5 and a half years. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

Israel and the Islamic militant organization Hamas commenceda series of complex and politically delicate prisoner swaps on Tuesday that threatened to inflame tensions in the region and marginalize the pro-Western Palestinian faction, Fatah, just as the government seeks recognition for a Palestinian state from the United Nations.

Gilad Shalit, the 25-year-old Israeli soldier who has been held prisoner by Hamas militants for five years, was released Tuesday and transferred to Egypt, which was acting as an intermediary in the exchanges. A brief video posted online by the Israeli Defense Forces showed a wan and visibly weakened Shalit shortly after his return to Israel where, after a brief medical check, he was greeted by a glowing Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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UN resolution on Syria fails after double veto

A view of the Security Council as Vitaly I. Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, on behalf of his Government, vetoes a draft resolution strongly condemning the violence perpetrated by Syrian authorities against civilian protesters on Tuesday, October 4, 2011. Photo: UN.

A United Nations resolution condemning Syrian government’s ongoing violent crackdown of anti-government protests failed to pass a Security Council vote Tuesday night, prompting outrage from the U.S. and European countries.

The resolution threatened “unspecified measures” against the regime after 30 days if the government failed to end the violence, hinting at the possibility of economic and diplomatic sanctions. It also called for states to “exercise vigilance and restraint” in supplying arms to Syria. China and Russia both vetoed the resolution, while nine countries voted in favor. Four countries – South Africa, India, Brazil and Lebanon – abstained.

Russia argued that the implication of sanctions in the resolution might be used to justify military intervention in the country, noting that the Security Council’s previous resolution to enact a “no-fly zone” over Libya resulted in NATO’s sustained campaign of air strikes against Gadhafi’s forces. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., stated that the resolution against Syria “could have provoked full-scale civil war” with the potential to be “destructive in the whole Middle East.”

Had it passed, the measure would have been the first legally binding resolution against the Syrian regime, led by President Bashar Al-Assad, since it began violently cracking down on protesters in March, leading to an estimated 2,700 deaths. Following the vote, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said that “the United States is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.”
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As Palestinians press their plan for a U.N. vote on statehood, stakes grow even higher

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat talks following his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Araby, at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 16, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

In late July, Israel’s president Shimon Peres held a series of secret meetings with the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the two pored over maps of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, discussing potential land swaps and compensation schemes that would end the impasse and allow the formation of an independent Palestinian state. After four meetings, the talks were scuttled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The clandestine negotiations were, apparently, a last-ditch attempt at staving off a potential crisis at the United Nations in September, when Palestinian officials plan to seek formal recognition of their state from the international community. That the talks were held in secret is a sign of just how much enmity and distrust has built up between the two sides. Officials seem to have concluded that only talks held out of public view had a chance of succeeding. And even then, they did not.

Now, with Israeli security forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza trading mortar rounds and missiles, and a tenuous ceasefire quickly collapsing after renewed attacks on both sides, the stakes for the U.N. vote have grown even higher. The turmoil engulfing the Middle East has already set Israelis on edge, and stoked fears that a democratic Egypt, or a Syria mired in civil war, could destabilize the region. Mass demonstrations and international recognition of a Palestinian state might only add a match to the tinderbox.

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Libya updates: Gadhafi vows ‘martyrdom’ as rebels storm his compound in Tripoli

Update | 10:15 p.m. | Gadhafi vows ‘martyrdom’

As opposition forces stormed Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli Tuesday, the Libyan autocrat released a radio message asserting that his desertion of the bunker in Bab al-Aziziya was a “tactical move,” and vowed “martyrdom” in the face of the rebel assault, according to Reuters.

The new message came amid sporadic fighting in Tripoli between loyalist holdouts and rebels, who had descended on the capital city with stunning speed and, by Tuesday evening, had penetrated the Gadhafi compound, where there was no sign of the colonel or his family. The mystery of his whereabouts continued to frustrate opposition leaders and complicated the Libyan conflict’s endgame.

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Clashes continue in Tripoli, as Western officials say Gadhafi regime is ‘crumbling’

This post is being updated as information becomes available.

Libyan rebels said Sunday that they had begun to converge on the capital of Tripoli, Moammar Gadhafi’s last remaining stronghold, in what opposition forces and Western officials said could be a last, decisive challenge to the autocrat’s four-decade-long rule. The International Criminal Court, meanwhile, confirmed that rebels had apprehended Gadhafi’s influential son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, who has been sought by the court for months on charges of war crimes.

Video from the streets of Tripoli, posted online by bloggers affiliated with the opposition movement, seemed to show residents gathering in celebration of the rebels’ advance and singing the Libyan national anthem, the first signs of anti-Gadhafi sentiment in the capital in months. But there were still reports of clashes throughout the city, including in the easternmost district of Tajoura. According to opposition bloggers who posted excerpts of his remarks, a rebel spokesman, Mahmoud Shammam, said late Sunday evening, “We are controlling most of Tripoli, but right now we cannot say we control everything.”

Rumors quickly began to spread that Gadhafi himself had been captured amid the clashes, or that he may have fled to a sympathetic country, such as Algeria. A vaguely worded statement from the ICC initially led some journalists and opposition leaders to believe that Gadhafi had been arrested along with his sons. That report was later discredited, but a spokesman for the Libyan opposition in Britain, Guma El-Gamaty, wrote on his Twitter account late Sunday evening that “Gadhafi himself may have been arrested in Alamiriya district outside Tripoli.” An opposition contact, meanwhile, told the @feb17voices Twitter feed, run by UCLA graduate student John Scott-Railston, that there were “many doubts that Gaddafi remains in Tripoli.”

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Study finds Mexican immigration to the U.S. on the decline

Photo: Ben Amstutz/Flickr

As election season nears, immigration will undoubtedly be cast into the national spotlight as a hot-button campaign issue for many candidates. But as public officials make broad statements about U.S. immigration policy — widely acknowledged to be a broken system — a new study shows that the reality of immigration may be far different from what the political rhetoric implies.

A new study from the Pew Hispanic Center and the RAND Corporation focusing on Mexican migration patterns into the U.S. (pdf) shows that immigration from Mexico has waned in recent years, and that fewer Mexicans are leaving for the U.S. “The number of Mexicans annually leaving Mexico for the U.S. declined from more than one million in 2006 to 404,000 in 2010 – a 60% reduction,” the report states.

However, while Mexican immigration to the U.S. declined over the past decade, the study also shows that the Mexican-American population grew rapidly. From 2000 to 2010, births increased the Mexican-American population by 7.2 million, while immigration increased it by 4.2 million. The decade marked a turnaround from the previous two decades, when the number of new immigrants outpaced the number of births in the Mexican-American community.

What’s the impetus for such a shift? The report explains:

On the U.S. side, declining job opportunities and increased border enforcement may have made the U.S. less attractive to potential Mexican immigrants. And in Mexico, recent strong economic growth may have reduced the “push” factors that often lead Mexicans to emigrate to the U.S.

Although the report focuses on all immigration from Mexico, the data has implications for undocumented immigrants in particular. More than half of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented, the data notes, and the majority of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico. However, the Immigration Policy Center, a DC-based research group, states that these new trends indicate that “immigrants from Mexico are parents to a new generation of Mexican-Americans who are U.S. citizens.” They also conclude that the deportation-centric approach favored by U.S. immigration policy may be a poor fit for the kind of immigration patterns currently in place.

Two sides of the Mubarak trial: Justice, or humiliation?

Photo: Hoda Osman

The Trial of Hosni Mubarak 

Photo: Hoda Osman

Photo: Hoda Osman

The Trial of Hosni Mubarak 

Photo: Hoda Osman

Photo: Hoda Osman

The Trial of Hosni Mubarak 

Photo: Hoda Osman

CAIRO, Egypt — I arrived here at the police academy, where the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is being held, early in the morning. Clashes had erupted between the pro- and anti-Mubarak crowds during his first appearance on August 3, and I wanted to speak to some of the protesters to understand how they felt.

Mubarak, who stepped down on February 11, has been charged with complicity in the killings of over 800 people during the 18 days of protests that toppled his regime earlier this year. His two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are being charged with corruption.

A large screen had been set up outside the court to broadcast the trial to the crowds that had gathered there to express their support for, or opposition to, Mubarak. As I found, the opinions of the protesters were sharply divided.

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Italy to vote on a burqa ban

Photo: MW-Paris/Flickr

This week, a parliamentary commission in Italy approved a draft law that would ban women from wearing burqas, niqabs or any other face-covering veil or garment.

The law, sponsored by Souad Sbai, a Moroccan-born member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative party, would issue a fine of 300 euro to women found wearing burqas or other types of veils in public. Those who force women to wear the veils would receive harsher fines (30,000 euro) and up to 12 months in jail. The bill would expand upon an existing Italian law that bans people from wearing masks or other items that cover their faces in public for security reasons.

If Italy ultimately approves the ban, it would follow in the footsteps of France, Belgium and Barcelona, which all passed similar bans in recent years.
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Cleaning up Nigeria’s oily mess

Kome Okwaghecha dries her tapioca near a gas flare belonging to Shell oil company in Warri, Nigeria, in 2006. Photo: AP/George Osodi

This morning, the United Nations released a long-awaited report, which claims that cleanup efforts in the Niger Delta could span 30 years and require a restoration fund of as much as $1 billion.

Nigeria, one of the world’s largest producers of oil, has suffered spills over the past half century that are 50 times the size that of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Yet, despite the enormity of the environmental destruction in the Niger Delta, the international community has paid scant attention to the growing devastation in the region in past years.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which carried out the study at the behest of the Nigerian government, concluded in a statement today that, “the oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines.”
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