As a nervy ceasefire comes and goes in the latest Israel-Gaza conflict, here is a selection of images from a more settled time in the Holy Land.
Including: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, the Dead Sea, Haifa and Akko
Pope Francis has completed a three-day tour of Israel, Jordan and the West Bank
This was the first visit of the pontiff to the Holy Land since he was voted into the bishopric of Rome last year. He began in Jordan, where he visited a Syrian refugee camp and the River Jordan itself, where many people believe Jesus was baptised.
He then crossed directly into the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, where he provoked uneasy reaction from Israeli leaders by praying at one of high concrete separation walls built across the area. Spiralling around Jewish settlements, the controversial barriers either protect historically Jewish lands or divide Palestinians from each other, depending on the views from the two sides of the ongoing regional rift.
The Holy Father then went on to hold an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I was there in the city a couple of days before and the video below shows preparations being made:
In the birthplace of Jesus Christ, along with the evocative notes of the Muslim call-to-prayer echoing out across Manger Square, you can see posters and banners celebrating the Catholic visit to the ‘State of Palestine’. In an interesting twist, the Palestinian Territories are one of only two entities to be afforded the diplomatic status at the United Nations of ‘non-member observer state’; the other is the Vatican City, or Holy See.
The Pope then moved on to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the video below highlights, he arrived in the region on Saturday 24 May and would go on to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he prayed jointly with the Orthodox Christian patriarch Bartholomew I.
The prayer that the pontiff offered at a section of the separation wall coated in anti-Israeli graffiti in Palestine was an unscheduled stop and lauded by Palestinians. However, for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, it was an awkward moment and one he was keen to equal by highlighting the price that many Israelis have also paid in the conflict. On Monday 26 May, the Pope eased tensions by agreeing to stop to pray at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl, where Yad Vashem, the country’s national Holocaust museum, is located.
In such an old region, a land of sacred Jewish walls, revered Muslim shrines and Christian holy rivers, where cultures and religions have risen and fallen, it was always going to be a tricky trip to make, and one that was full of symbolic gestures. The view across the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, was a fascinating shot to film, with the blue-and-white Star of David flags flying just below the gleaming golden Muslim Dome of the Rock, and the Islamic call-to-prayer gliding out from the Aqsa Mosque over hundreds of Jews praying at the wall below.
During a visit to the Middle East, I visited Haifa, a town on Israel’s northern coast.
As the sun drooped towards the Mediterranean, the Friday evening restaurants started to bustle with pre-Sabbath trade. In the shadow of the Shrine of the Báb temple of the Bahá’í faith, pro-Palestine chants broke out among a group of people bristling with flags and placards. After several minutes of stationary protest, the group of demonstrators marched off articulating their support for imprisoned Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia worries over changing US direction in the Middle East
Rapprochement with Iran. Watching Vladimir Putin do his own thing over Ukraine and Crimea. And – as Saudi Arabia sees it – forgetting the rebels in Syria. The US has been pursuing a controversial line of foreign policy over the past few months. Several countries have been glad to see Western noses bloodied but there are others who are getting cross with the American State Department’s actions, or lack of them. One of the angry allies is Saudi Arabia. And it has lambasted the global community’s lethargy over the civil war in Syria. As the major world Sunni Muslim power, a defeat for the Shia-allied government of Bashar al-Assad would suit Saudi Arabia well. One country who would rather see a regime victory is Iran, Riyadh’s foe across the Gulf. And the United States has been getting on pretty well with Tehran so far this year, after a landmark deal in January on Iran’s nuclear activities.
The House of Saud has been getting annoyed with all this cosying up to Shia Muslim actors. Last week, at an Arab League summit in Kuwait, the Crown Prince vocalised Riyadh’s annoyance that the Sunni-majority rebels in Syria and their political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, were being sidelined and forgotten in what has been the longest struggle of the ‘Arab Spring’. The war in Syria has been going on for more than three years, with the number of people killed estimated to be in excess of 100,000. But the war gains are becoming more marginal, and the front lines are remaining largely the same. The rebels still manage to shoot down the odd regime helicopter but with Lebanese Hezbollah man-power and Russian hardware, Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are still strong.
It was timely then that over the weekend US president Barack Obama paid a trip to Saudi Arabia for what was surely a testing head-to-head with King Abdullah. Riyadh was angered by the stalling uncertainty from Washington over the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August last year, when Congress ruled out a bombing raid on Assad regime posts in response to the Sarin nerve agent attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, Russia outflanked the US and brokered a deal with the Syrian president which would see him give up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In this weekend’s meetings in the Saudi desert, Riyadh would have wanted assurances that Washington was not going to give up finding a solution to the conflict.
Barack Obama, with two years left on his contract in the White House, will be focused on finding an issue to work on abroad in order to be able to secure some kind of international legacy. And although American officials in the Holy Land started work again yesterday to try to organise a framework to extend an April deadline for Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, it seems unlikely that the two-state solution will be achieved any time soon. Washington’s point-of-view on the war in Syria seems increasingly to be that the answer to the crisis must come from within the fracturing country. There are many other points of contention in the region (Egypt’s twisting and turning Army-led confusion, Yemen’s instability and Iraq’s continuing sectarian violence) but it appears to be Iran that whets Obama’s appetite the most. The White House sees the nuclear issue in the Middle East as one that it can get its teeth stuck into properly.
The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this means a focus from its US friends on spending more time in Geneva hotels with Iranian politicians. Yet Saudi Arabia wants a deal as well. A nuclear-armed rival in the region is anathema to Riyadh, who have talked up air strikes from Tel Aviv or Washington on Tehran’s dodgy installations before. But the crux is that in order for the Saudis’ American allies to nullify any nuclear threat from Iran, they have to speak to the Iranians, and spend time with them, and things are getting a bit too friendly for Riyadh’s liking. They don’t want any nuclear bombs being made in Iran, but nor do they want the West’s rapprochement to divert from support for the big Sunni power. It’s a hard choice, but as the US pivots towards Asia, and works on peace deals with Iran, Riyadh does not want to be left out in the cold.
Never one to shy away from the chance to promote Brazil on the world stage – and try to reaffirm the country’s growing global stature – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the outgoing Brazilian president, has angered the US once more.
The government in Brasilia has announced that the time has come for the country to recognise the Palestinian state, a move which has immediately drawn criticism from the US and Israel.
Lula has played this game before. In May, he refused to vote for energy sanctions to be placed on Iran. Only Turkey and Lebanon joined his call-to-arms. Many saw Lula’s decision as a signal of support for embattled Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he had welcomed to Brazil on a tour earlier.
However, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor who will replace her mentor as president next month, has attempted to scupper claims that she is nothing more than Lula’s puppet. She has admitted that the Brazilian position on Iran was unpopular and warned that there will be a more ‘cautious’ foreign policy on her watch.
But Brazil is not the only Latin American nation to recognise Palestine: Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela have all formalised relations with the disputed territories.
Last month Uruguay joined the list and on 6 December Argentina added its name to the group. Latin American nations have powerful backers (Colombia – US; Venezuela – Iran) but are seizing the mantle more and more now to become outspoken defendants of global causes themselves.
They are still learning the trade, though. On 30 November, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, Kintto Lucas, made a forthright decision to offer the since-arrested Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, the platform to speak publicly. President Rafael Correa then rubbished the idea that an offer of accommodation would be made (in all likelihood because Ecuador will not escape complicity in the compromising cables).
Ecuador’s confusion demonstrates its infancy on the vocal world stage. Lula is no such paddler; he has been swimming against the current for a while. It will be up to Dilma whether to maintain Lula’s defiant oratory or to change tack and go with the flow.
The BBC has reported that China is unhappy at the prospect of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu has called on China to account for its actions and has been a fierce human rights activist and is now in jail, serving a sentence for ‘incitement to subvert the state’. So will the plan by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (NNC) to award Mr Liu the Peace Prize upset China? Does this mean that the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming increasingly political?
In December 2009, US President Barack Obama became the 117th recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Global reaction to the announcement was mainly negative, arguing that as Mr Obama had not even been in power for a year and had only been nominated a fortnight after moving into the Oval Office, there were insufficient reasons to honour him. Mr Obama was widely criticised for accepting the award. At the time it seemed as though his political background influenced the decision and that Scandinavia had taken a dislike to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and assertive conservatism. In short, Obama’s election had signalled a change at the top of the US government, and this change was welcomed in Scandinavia. The NNC seemed to base its decision on Obama’s policies and plans for the future. Immense pressure has been placed on the president to live up to his billing as a laureate and demonstrate his worthiness of the award. So far his progress has been uneven. He missed his own deadline on closing Guantanamo Bay prison but succeeded in ending combat operations in Iraq. He convened Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu but no deal was reached on the Israel/Palestine Peace Process.
Now the Norwegians are making noises regarding honouring the human rights efforts of Liu Xiaobo. China is unhappy. Beijing jailed Mr Liu for subversion a few weeks after Obama picked up the prize and the US and the EU have both condemned the judgment. Both have called on China to relax its militant approach to political dissidents. So what does this news mean for the Committee itself? It certainly came under criticism for last year’s choice, so it would like to steer clear of an overtly-political ceremony this year. Awarding Liu the prize would do the opposite and result in diplomatic disagreement and argument between China and the West. There is no doubt that Liu is a brave and committed supporter of human rights but the Committee is treading on unsteady ground in the run-up to the announcement of the recipient on 8 October. Its decisions carry huge significance and it must think carefully. If the NNC goes with Liu, China will accuse it of pandering to the liberal democratic policies of Europe and North America whilst Beijing critics will champion Liu as a defender of the sanctity of human rights and highlight China’s repressive regime. If the prize goes elsewhere, China will surely claim a moral victory for political persuasion; the West will complain and be left bewildered by the unforeseen choice of a committee that it sees as a vehicle for its international political ambitions.
There are other ways in which politics is linked to the award. In 1976 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams received the prize for the work in establishing the Community of Peace People to try to work towards a peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Earlier this year Corrigan joined the flotilla which tried to breach the Israeli aid blockade and reach Gaza and which ended in a violent confrontation between activists and Israeli commandoes. She has become a staunch critic of the Israeli political position and spoken up for the Palestinians.
Of course the NNC could not foresee the way in which Corrigan’s activism would manifest itself 34 year after giving her the award but her actions do show that the Peace Prize has become inextricably linked with politics. For better or for worse, its nominations reflect the political attitude of Scandinavia. Such is the prestige and gravity of the award, the honouring of the laureates can represent a stumbling block on the diplomatic tables of the world powers. The global reaction to the decision next week will be intriguing.