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The Murder of Yasser Arafat: "Powerful" - The Times of London

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Empathy in action

"I will not be a bystander"
Prof Mohammed Dajani Daoudi responds to critics who denounced his decision to take a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz-Birkenau

I will not be a bystander
Al-Quds University issued a statement to distance itself from the tour.
In a statement, Al-Quds University announced that it had nothing to do with the Auschwitz-Birkenau visit. The university said that this was a private visit by Professor Dajani and the students. "They do not represent the university," the statement said. "Professor Dajani is on leave and was not entrusted by the university [to arrange the visit]." Bir Zeit University issued a statement saying no students from the university participated in the trip.
A scathing attack on me and students filled the social media.
"I don't understand how the [Palestinian] students accept normalization [with Israel]," wrote a Palestinian journalist from Ramallah on his Facebook page. "This professor is the king of kings of normalization."
The leading Palestinian daily, Al-Quds, which reported about the visit, triggered a heated debate among readers about the visit.
The paper later had to delete some reader responses that accused me of treason and collaboration. When the inciting comments reached a peak the newspaper withdrew the article with all its comments. I received emails warning me not to go to Ramallah or the university. I was accused of of trying to change the Palestinians' mentality "by brainwashing generations and teaching them big lies and fabrications such as the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews so that they would accept the theft of their land."
Palestinian columnist Abdullah Dweikat expressed regret over the visit and called on Palestinian academics to stop the "pilgrimage" to Nazi death camps. "I felt pain over the visit by Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau," he wrote. "Yes we are human beings who reject genocide. But our humanity rejects any attempt to bypass the suffering of our people, who are being slaughtered every day at the hands of the occupiers. Wouldn't it have been better had our professors and students visited Yarmouk refugee camp [in Syria] or refugee camps in Lebanon to see the real suffering?" Others said this is not freedom of expression but treason.
My response to all this tirade is that my duty as a teacher is to teach, to have my students explore the unexplored, to open new horizons for my students, to guide my students out of the cave of perceptions and misperceptions to see the facts and the reality on the ground, to break the walls of silence, to demolish the fences of taboos, to swim against the tide in search of truth, in sum, to advance the knowledge and learning of my students in adhering to the verse in the Holy Quran, "{And say My God increase my knowledge.}.. If there are those who do not see or do not like that, it is their problem not mine. I will go to Ramallah, I will go to the university, I will put my photos of the visit on facebook, and I do not regret for one second what I did. As a matter of fact, I will do it again if given the opportunity. I will not hide, I will not deny. I will not be silent. I will not remain a bystander even if the victims of the suffering I show empathy for are my perpetrators and my occupiers. And this is my final statement on this issue..
(From the Hearts of Flesh - Not Stone Facebook page)

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The 7 Bogies of Moshe Ya’alon

"Bogie" Ya'alon. Never has a handle been more aptly applied

By Matthew Kalman

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is back in the news following his latest childish outbursts against the US administration. I have never failed to be impressed with the extent of his crushing stupidity. His nickname is “Bogie.” Never has a handle been more aptly applied. Here are 7 of Ya’alon’s most embarrassing gaffes:

1. As head of IDF Central Command, responsible for the West Bank, and then deputy chief of staff, he was one of the key Israeli generals responsible for the pitiful intelligence failure that missed the looming and very obvious signs that the Second Intifada was about to erupt in September 2000.

2. In November 2000, when he was the IDF deputy chief of staff, I asked Ya’alon why the Israel military was responding to the intifada with the clearly ineffectual and probably counter-productive tactic of bombing Palestinian prisons and police stations. His answer: “You want they should hit us and we don’t hit back?”

3. Ya’alon was one of the architects of the catastrophic IDF response to the Second Intifada, which not only failed to stem the violence but escalated it, prolonging the uprising by several years. He was one of the key generals whose adoption of the tactic of targeted assassinations in Bethlehem and Tulkarm led directly to the Palestinian deployment of suicide bombers.

4. As IDF chief of staff from 2002-2005, Ya’alon masterminded the redeployment of the IDF after Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. He so degraded the IDF’s military, logistical and intelligence capability that when the Lebanon War broke out in 2006 the army lacked training, basic equipment and clear lines of intelligence communication.

5. During a study break at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Ya’alon publicly called for the assassination of then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “We have to consider killing him. All options must be considered,” he wisely told the Sydney Morning Herald.

6. As vice-premier, Ya’alon publicly clashed with his prime minister over attacking Iran, describing military action as “a last resort.” “Iran's nuclear program could be stopped without military force,” he said in October 2012. This week he peformed a 180-degree flip-flop.

7. Since January, Defense Minister Ya’alon has described the US Secretary of State as “obsessive and messianic,” in his pursuit of a peace deal and this week publicly accused the White House of “demonstrating weakness.”

You just wonder what he’s going to do or say next.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Holy Writ



CCTV December 31, 2013

Karen Stern of Brooklyn College, CUNY, helps unlock the secrets of the divine graffiti left by pilgrims over the centuries at the birthplace of Jesus.

Twitter for twits

Danny Seaman: The Israeli official whose career died from foot-in-mouth disease

The former director of the Government Press Office never let Israeli policies get in the way of provocative propaganda.

By  | HAARETZ Jan. 2, 2014

I shall miss Danny Seaman, the former director of the Israel Government Press Office.

Seaman was suspended from his position as social media guru and deputy director-general for information at the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry last August after a series of flaming Facebook posts that insulted Muslims, Palestinians and Japanese in equal measure.

Seaman is no longer in government. I mistakenly placed him there this morning when I shared his latest wisdom – a measured response to the untimely death Wednesday in Prague of Palestinian Ambassador Jamal al-Jamal, killed when an old safe exploded in his home.

“Guess you can say that the Palestinian ‘Ambassador’ to the Czech Republic died of natural causes,” Seaman commented. Minutes after I shared it with my own Facebook followers, he removed it and, sadly, demoted me from his list of “friends.”


Friday, 27 December 2013

War of words and pictures

Israel Defence Forces deploy 'selfie squad' to improve image

Combat camera unit 'here to explain and to document for the entire world that we don't use force for bad'

 in Jerusalem, Friday 27 December 2013 13.12 GMT


Mustafa Tamimi 9/12/11
Palestinian protester Mustafa Tamimi lies fatally injured after IDF troops fired a teargas canister at him in 2011. Photograph: Haim Schwarczenberg/AP
Having suffered a PR battering from viral video clips showing its soldiers in an unflattering light, the Israel Defence Forces are firing back with a combat camera unit trained to show their side of the story.
The first round of graduates - all combat soldiers - have completed a seven-month training programme before joining front-line units. Private Ido H, one of the new "selfie squaddies", has trained for more than a year as a combat soldier and videographer. He can film, edit and broadcast from the battlefield.
"My main mission is to film. I think the job of anyone recording what happens is much more important than any fighter," he told the Guardian. "There are lots of cameras on the other side. They show us apparently acting in an unfair way to civilians, to our enemies. We are here to explain and to document for the entire world that we don't use force for bad."
In recent years, cameras wielded by human rights groups have focused unwelcome attention on the IDF. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has distributed cameras to Palestinians and collected hours of footage documenting life under occupation. Palestinians say they are sometimes the only effective weapon against an army equipped with tanks and fighter jets.
Last April, Lt Col Shalom Eisner was suspended after he was filmed striking a Danish protester in the face with his M16 rifle. Video showing Mustafa Tamimi apparently dying after being hit by a teargas canister during a West Bank demonstration in December 2011 has helped sustain pressure for an inquiry.
But the IDF says videos can be tendentious. In July, human rights groups assailed the army over film of a five-year-old boy and his father being arrested and blindfolded after he threw stones at Israeli cars in Hebron. The army argued the editing failed to show what they described as an hours-long effort to return the boy safely to his family via the Palestinian police.
Major Micha Ohana, the new unit's commander, denied his soldiers were being trained in disinformation. "If there are errors or other things we will present them and if necessary we will apologise or explain. But of course we won't blur, or lie or say they didn't happen," Ohana said.
B'Tselem welcomed the new unit. "More documentation is a very positive thing," said B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli. "There are a lot of arguments about the facts of various incidents. The problem is that the army doesn't release this footage and when it does, it releases very heavily edited sequences."
Haitham Katib, a Palestinian who has spent eight years filming protests against attempts to build Israel's security barrier through the middle of his village farmland in Bil'in, said cameras helped everyone.
"I feel that my camera can stop some of the violence," said Haitham Katib. "If the soldiers see you filming, they stop their violence. Sometimes they broke my camera. They stopped me filming many times. They shoot me sometimes with rubber bullets. But 70% I believe my camera has stopped the violence."
Katib said Israeli soldiers had started to film him while he was filming them.
"It's like we're fighting with cameras," he said. "I would like everyone to use a camera. It means we are searching for the truth."

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas Cracker

The Guardian home

Ancient burial box claimed to have earliest reference to Jesus

Limestone burial box is typical of first century Jerusalem and has chiselled on side "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"
Matthew Kalman in Tel Aviv

The Guardian, Wednesday 25 December 2013 16.41 GMT

Tel Aviv antiquities collector Oded Golan with the stone burial box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Photograph: Matthew Kalman/
For 2,000 years, pilgrims and archaeologists have hunted for physical evidence of Jesus and his family, without success. But now an ancient burial box claiming to contain the earliest reference to the Christian saviour is about to go on public display in Israel after its owner was cleared of forgery. It has not been seen in public since a single, brief exhibition in Toronto in 2002.
The modest limestone burial box, known as an ossuary, is typical of first century Jerusalem, and is owned by Oded Golan, an Israeli antiquities collector. Chiselled on the side are the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
James the Just was the first leader of the Christians in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. He was executed for apostasy by the local rabbinical court.
At that time, Jews were not buried but laid in a cave. The bones were collected after a year and placed in an ossuary. Thousands have been discovered, some of them inscribed with names to identify whose bones they contain. One other ossuary mentions a brother.
"This is the oldest evidence that mentions the name of Jesus Christ," said Golan, who bought the box in the 1970s but did not realise its significance until Sorbonne Professor Andre Lemaire noticed it in Golan's collection.
Lemaire published his findings in 2002 and the ossuary was briefly displayed at a Toronto museum, causing a worldwide sensation.
But sceptics questioned its authenticity. In 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority seized the ossuary and appointed an expert committee who dubbed it a fake. Golan was arrested and charged with forging the mention of Jesus.
After a 10-year investigation and criminal trial, Golan was found innocent of forgery in 2012. Despite the verdict, doubts remain.
"Because of the differences in the depth and the clarity and the kerning between the first half of the inscription that mentions James son of Joseph, and the second half, I'd be willing to wager that the second half was added in modern times," said Professor Christopher Rollston of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
But others disagree.
"The inscription is written in the Jewish script, it was done with a sharp instrument and I think it was done by the same hand. It is an authentic inscription," said Professor Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University.
Golan cites expert evidence from the trial showing the patina - a biological crust formed on ancient objects - inside the grooves of the inscription.
"There is no doubt that it's ancient, and the probability is that it belonged to the brother of Jesus Christ," said Golan.
Although Golan's trial ended last year, the ossuary was returned only a few weeks ago by the Israel authorities. Golan plans to put it on public display, together with the expert opinions from the trial, so that scholars and the public can decide for themselves whether this box did truly contain the bones of the brother of Christ – a unique piece of concrete evidence of the family of Jesus.

Holy Writ - Haaretz version

מריה וישו היו פה: סיפורו של הגרפיטי בכנסיית המולד

כתובות הקיר במקום שבו על פי האמונה נולד ישו, שופכות אור על זהות המבקרים בו, ובראשם צליינים שהותירו דיוקנאות של עצמם בשעת תפילה

  • מתיו קלמן, גרדיאן
  • 25.12.2013
  • 09:12

מרבית המבקרים בכנסיית המולד בבית לחם שמים פעמיהם ישר למערה שמתחת למזבח, שבה, על פי המסורת, נולד ישו לפני 2014 שנים. קארן סטרן, היסטוריונית מברוקלין קולג' שבניו יורק, שבאה השנה למקום בגל המבקרים שלפני חג המולד, נראית כעוף מוזר בכנסייה. בשונה מאחרים, היא מתעניינת יותר בעמודים שגובהם שישה מטרים, ותומכים בתקרה אותה בנה הקיסר יוסטיניאנוס במאה השישית לספירה.
הפנס של סטרן מאיר באפלולית מאות צלבים קטנטנים החרוטים על פני ארבעה טורי עמודים, אשר למרבה הפלא לא משכו את תשומת לבם של החוקרים עד לתחילת שנה זו. זוהי מלאכתם של צליינים, שביקשו להותיר את חותמם על מקדשי הנצרות שנים רבות לפני שאמן הרחוב בנקסי הפך את קירות בית לחם לרקע לאמנות רחוב ברמה בינלאומית. במבט מקרוב, שכן הסימנים כמעט בלתי נראים על רקע האבן האדומה זרועת הנימים הלבנים, ניתן לראות מאות כתובות דיו המכסות את העמודים מהקרקע ועד לגובה ניכר.
כתובות רבות מתאימות יותר לספסלים בפארק מאשר למקום הולדתו של ישו, ומשוות למקום מראה כשל לוח מודעות באכסניית תרמילאים עתיקה במיוחד. מאזן ומוסטפה פשוט ציינו שם את שמותיהם, חסן הותיר חתימה מסולסלת על כל אחד מ–44 העמודים, ו"MAH" חתם על העמוד ב–1940, בדיוק מעל "YM", שביקר במקום ב–1938. בין התפילות השונות ניתן למצוא שם גם קטעים מהתנ"ך ומהקוראן, והמלים "אלוהים זכור אותי" מופיעות במספר שפות. אברהים התפלל למען אשתו האהובה, סועאד, והביע תקווה שחייה יהיו מאושרים ושהם "יישארו לנצח יחד". בשארה איבן אל־וואפי, המתפלל להגנתם ולשגשוגם של 21 בני משפחתו, הצהיר כי "כאן, במקום המבורך הזה, אני כותב בידי שלי". לצד התפילה שלו לא מצוין תאריך, אבל השמות הארכאיים שפורטו בדקדקנות מצביעים על כך שהוא לא ביקר במקום הקדוש לו כל כך בעת האחרונה
"במערב רואים בכתובות קיר סוג של השחתה", אומרת סטרן, שחקרה כתובות במקדשים שונים במזרח התיכון. "הכתובות במקדשים ובאתרי הצליינים הן תופעה שונה לגמרי. אנשים מותירים סימנים ומסרים בתקווה שאלה יועברו לעיניהם של ישויות אלוהיות או קדושים, ולעיניהם של מאמינים אחרים", היא מסבירה. לדבריה, "זה מנהג מקובל ולגיטימי, ולא ונדליזם. אנשים כותבים 'זכור אותי' במקומות קדושים, כך שכתובות הקיר האלה מבטאות אמונה דתית", הוסיפה.
החלק העליון של העמודים מכוסה בציורים של ישו, של המשפחה הקדושה ושל קדושים שונים שצוירו בתקופה הצלבנית. מתחת לבתולה גליקופילוסה ולציור של מרים וישו העולל משנת 1130, הותירו צליינים מימי הביניים דיוקנאות של עצמם בשעת התפילה. הצלבן הצרפתי לורד דה קרוסי לא הסתפק בכך, ואף צייר את שלט האצולה של משפחתו על אחד העמודים במאה ה–12.
ליסה מאהוני, חוקרת אמנות ימי הביניים באוניברסיטת דה פול שבשיקגו, רואה קשר בין הציורים בני מאות השנים בחלקם העליון של העמודים לבין כתובות הקיר בנות זמננו. "המבקרים במקומות מעין אלה, בכנסיה המציינת אתר שבו התרחש אירוע קדוש, מוצאים משמעות מיוחדת בהותרת זכר לביקורם במקום", אומרת מאהוני. "זה המקום שבו האלוהי נכח בעולמנו, ולכן זה מקום מיוחד ליצירת קשר עם האלוהות. מקום שבו התקיים מפגש אמיתי בין הארצי לאלוהי".
למרות שיצירות הצלבנים על העמודים תועדו על ידי היסטוריונים, כתובות הקיר לא זכו עד כה להתייחסות. שטרן סבורה שהן מתעדות את חייהם ומנהגיהם של אנשים פשוטים, שזכרם לא נרשם בדפי ההיסטוריה. "נותרו כאן קולות קטנים מהעבר, שהיו נעלמים לגמרי לולא הכתובות הללו", היא ציינה.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Netanyahu's Pollard agenda

The Guardian home

Netanyahu 'to demand release of spy in return for peace talks concessions'

Israeli PM will demand release of Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel against US in 1987, reports say
Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem, Tuesday 24 December 2013 14.10 GMT
Binyamin Netanyahu
The reports said Binyamin Netanyahu (pictured) would either demand Pollard’s release when Israel signed a framework agreement, or as part of a prisoner exchange involving Arab citizens of Israel held for terrorist offences. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/AP
The Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will link the release of former US naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying against the US for Israel, to progress in the US-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians, Israeli media reported on Tuesday.
The reports said Netanyahu would either demand Pollard's release whenIsrael signed a framework agreement, or as part of a prisoner exchange involving Arab citizens of Israel held for terrorist offences, who have always been excluded from previous agreements.
Netanyahu's office declined to confirm or deny the story, which was reported by most of Israel's most well-informed diplomatic correspondents – a favoured method of leaking sensitive information.
Pollard was imprisoned in 1987 and has served longer than any other spy captured in the US. Repeated Israeli requests for his release have been ignored, although they have lately been joined by top US officials responsible for his prosecution, including Lawrence Kolb, deputy to then US defence secretary Caspar Weinberger.
"We ask that you seriously consider the requests that there have been from top current and former American officials and release Pollard on humanitarian grounds," said a letter to The US president, Barack Obama, signed by more than 100 Israeli MPs and ministers ahead of a special session in the Knesset on Wednesday.
"It's a matter of justice," said the deputy defence minister, Danny Danon. "The Americans can't come to us asking for more and more while Pollard remains in prison."
Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier released in a prisoner swap in 2011 after being held for five years by Hamas, added his moral weight to the campaign and called on "our American friends" to release him.
"After Israel released terrorists with blood on their hands as a gesture to the Palestinians – this is an appropriate reciprocal gesture," Shalit wrote in a national newspaper column.
However, some close observers of the tangled web of US-Israeli relations warned that the latest leaks might be designed more for domestic consumption as Netanyahu grapples with the fractious right wing of his party ahead of next week's planned prisoner release against a background of scattered but increasing Palestinian violence.
"There are so many difficult issues right now on the agenda between Obama and Netanyahu that to add Pollard to that with all of the baggage that it carries is not likely," said Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Holy Writ: A rare scoop

The Guardian home

Graffiti and selfies record pilgrims' progress at Bethlehem shrine

Academics are only now studying messages and paintings on the Church of the Nativity's columns dating back to the Crusades
Matthew Kalman in Bethlehem

The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013


Pilgrims light candles in the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
Pilgrims light candles in the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the supposed birthplace of Jesus. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA
Most visitors to the Church of the Nativity head straight for the grotto beneath the altar where, according to tradition, Jesus was born 2014 years ago. But among the throng of pre-Christmas pilgrims this year, Karen Stern, a historian at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, was more interested in the six-metre-high columns built to support the roof by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
In the gloom of the ancient nave, Stern's torch picks out hundreds of tiny crosses scratched into the four rows of columns – a common practice of ancient pilgrims who wanted to make their mark on the holiest shrines in Christendom – long before Banksy helped transform the walls of Bethlehem into a canvas for world-class street art.
Almost invisible against the white-veined red stone, close inspection reveals hundreds of messages scrawled in ink from floor level to high on the columns, which have only come to the attention of scholars this year.
Much of the graffiti is more suited to a park bench than the birthplace of Jesus. Mazen and Mustafa simply wrote their names. Hassan signed each of the 44 columns with an artistic flourish. MAH tagged a column in 1940, just above YM, who visited in 1938. GS Diek signed off in English and Arabic in 1930.
The prayers are interspersed with scribbled passages from the Bible and Qur'an. "God remember me," is written in the stonework in several scripts and tongues. Ibrahim offers a prayer for his beloved wife, Suad, hoping she will have a happy life and that they will be "together for ever".
"Here in this blessed place, I write this in my own hand," proclaims B'shara Ibn al-Wafi, praying to God for the protection and prosperity of 21 family members. His prayer is undated, but the archaic names painstakingly listed suggest it is not recent.
There are more messages on the marble facing of the Holy Nativity grotto beneath the altar. "God have mercy on me, I am a sinner, Deacon Suleiman, 1960," confessed a Lebanese priest near the exit from the grotto in the Armenian chapel dedicated to the Magi. "God remember your servant Yusef and have mercy on his parents," says a prayer chiselled into the marble.
More prosaically, a wall nearby is covered with names of foreign visitors like a noticeboard in a backpackers' hostel.
"In the west today people are used to seeing graffiti as a type of defacement," said Stern, who has studied religious graffiti in Middle Eastern shrines, including a third-century building from Dura Europos in Syria that may be the oldest-known church prototype. "When you see graffiti in these shrines and pilgrimage sites, you realise that it's actually something quite different. People are literally leaving their marks in these places to be somehow witnessed by the divine and other worshippers," she said.
"It appears to be a sanctioned practice – not vandalism. People are going to these specifically religious places to write 'remember me'. It's very poignant and simple. This is graffiti as a form of veneration."
High on the columns are Crusader-era paintings depicting Jesus, the holy family and the saints. Beneath the Virgin Glykophilousa, an 1130 painting of a tenderly mothering Mary and infant Jesus, medieval pilgrims commissioned the original selfies – freelance votive images of themselves at prayer. The medieval French Crusader Lord de Coucy painted his family crest on a column sometime in the 12th century. There is another medieval coat of arms etched on the wall of the Chapel of Joseph, beneath the Catholic section of the church.
Lisa Mahoney, a medieval art historian at DePaul University, says there is a link between the centuries-old paintings high on the columns and the modern graffiti below.
"When people visited a place like this, a church that marked the site of a sacred event, it was important to them that they left some physical trace of their visit behind," Mahoney said. "This is the place where the divine entered the world so it makes it a special place for communicating with the divine. It's a place where there's been a real meeting of the earthly and heavenly realms."
Historians have noted the Crusader artwork, but the graffiti has so far attracted scant attention. Stern said it illuminates the life and practices of ordinary souls discarded by history. "We  have these small voices from the past that otherwise would totally disappear," she said.

Up in the gods

The Guardian home

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity: saving the angels at Jesus's birthplace

Italian craftsmen have won the Palestinian Authority's tender to repair the fourth-century church and Unesco heritage site
 in Bethlehem

The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 14.53 GMT


Bethlehen Church of the Nativity
The sixth-century nave constructed by the Emperor Justinian is undergoing massive restoration work. Photograph: Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA
Italian craftsmen have begun urgent repairs to the centuries-old roof of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, first constructed in the fourth century over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.
"Water leaks, earthquakes and incidents that happened here in Bethlehem had a negative impact on the whole structure and especially on the roof of the church," said Ziad Bandak, head of the Palestinian committee overseeing the work. "The leakage of the water affected the structure, the wood, the walls and the frescoes and mosaics inside."
Marcello Piacenti, head of the family business that has been lovingly restoring the ancient shrines of Europe for six generations, said he was honoured to have won the international tender issued by the Palestinian Authority to repair crumbling pine and cedar timbers up to 800 years old and a lead roof donated by Edward IV of England in 1479.
Church of Nativity in BethlehemVisitors light candles in the church. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters
"It's very emotional to work here," Piacenti said as his experts applied protective gauze to a gold-leaf mosaic of an angel high in the rafters above the sixth-century nave constructed by the Emperor Justinian, and technicians probed deep into the thick wooden trusses to check for hidden damage. "This ancient structure has withstood the centuries and we hope to make our contribution to its continuing presence here."
The leaky roof has sparked regular clashes between mop-wielding monks from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches over who has authority to clean which parts of the shrine shared between the three denominations under a brittle arrangement known as the status quo. The water damage has also harmed many of the wall frescoes and mosaics that date back to Crusader times and beyond.
In 2009, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, fearful that the church might collapse, issued a decree to repair the building that the warring parties that run the church finally accepted.
Church of the Nativity, BethlehemA Greek Orthodox priest walks inside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas in Bethlehem. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters
But despite being declared a Unesco heritage site in 2012, the Palestinians were able to raise only €2m of the €15m (£12.5m) required for the full renovation of the building. In this first phase, expected to last until next September, Piacenti's men, together with five Palestinian colleagues, will repair or replace the roof lead and timbers and the church's 18 upper windows.
"After we have stopped all the water leakage I hope it will be possible to begin restoring the other materials," said Piacenti. "There are many angels up here. I hope we can save them."

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Israeli PM condemns US and UK spying on predecessor as 'unacceptable'

• NSA and GCHQ targeted email address of Ehud Olmert
• Binyamin Netanyahu demands explanation for US spying

 in Jerusalem, Monday 23 December 2013 16.26 GMT


Israeli prime minister Binyamin NetanyahuIsraeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu chairs a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/AP
The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has broken his silence over revelations that British and US spy agencies had targeted one of his predecessors, condemning the activities as “unacceptable”.
Papers leaked by Edward Snowden, and published by the Guardian on Friday, revealed that GCHQ in association with the National Security Agency had targeted an email address used by the Israeli prime minister when Ehud Olmert was in office.
Three further Israeli targets appeared on GCHQ documents, including another email address understood to have been used to send messages between the then Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, and his chief of staff, Yoni Koren.
“I have asked for an examination of the matter,” Netanyahu told members of his ruling Likud Party at a meeting of the parliamentary faction in the Knesset on Monday. “In the close relationship between Israel and the United States, there are things that are prohibited and that are unacceptable to us.”
Netanyahu had pointedly avoided addressing the growing storm at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet the previous day, prompting widespread media comment in Israel that he was attempting to stifle discussion on the embarrassing revelations about the behaviour of Israel’s closest strategic ally.
Israel has given undertakings not to spy on the United States since the arrest and life imprisonment of US naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard in 1987 for spying on behalf of Israel.
Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders across the political spectrum, as well as senior retired US security officials, have unsuccessfully petitioned successive presidents to release Pollard, who has served a longer sentence than any other spy in the US. Although Netanyahu repeated his claim on Monday that the two matters should not be connected, he pointedly met with Pollard’s wife Esther in Jerusalem and posted a video of their handshake on his YouTube channel in response to a new groundswell of protest demanding Pollard’s immediate release in light of the latest revelations.
“I have met with Esther Pollard and updated her on our ceaseless efforts to liberate Jonathan. He should have been released long ago. I think that’s understood by everyone here, and also understood by large and growing sectors in the United States,” said Netanyahu.
Israel and the US are locked in sensitive diplomatic manoeuvring around the peace talks with the Palestinians. This new issue could not have arisen at a worse time.
Several Israeli ministers had already broken ranks and protested publicly about NSA surveillance. Israeli anger at the US was exacerbated by a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s largest-selling newspaper, that a US marine rented an apartment in June 2009 directly opposite the private home of Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and military chief of staff who was then Israel’s defence minister.
“Israeli intelligence detected sizeable amounts of electronic equipment delivered to the US-rented apartment,” Yedioth reported, together with diagrams of the sophisticated laser spying devices that might have been used to eavesdrop on Barak’s private conversations via the vibrations of the windows of his home.
Strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz and other officials said the NSA and GCHQ would have learned little of value from the email addresses and phone lines they apparently intercepted, which were publicly listed contact points and not used for the transmission of sensitive information.
Oved Yehezkel, a former military intelligence officer who was cabinet secretary to then prime minister Olmert, said it was assumed that communications between Israeli leaders were being monitored by their closest friends in Washington. “Of course we knew. Anyone who thinks that friends and allies don't spy on each other should re-read John le Carré,” Yehezkel said.