Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
By DIAA HADID
The Associated Press
Friday, November 12, 2010; 4:31 AM
QALQILIYA, West Bank -- A mysterious blogger who set off an uproar in the Arab world by claiming he was God and hurling insults at the Prophet Muhammad is now behind bars - caught in a sting that used Facebook to track him down.
The case of the unlikely apostate, a shy barber from this backwater West Bank town, is highlighting the limits of tolerance in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority - and illustrating a new trend by authorities in the Arab world to mine social media for evidence.
Residents of Qalqiliya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin - the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar - was leading a double life.
Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father's barbershop, Husayin was secretly posting anti-religion rants on the Internet during his free time.
Now, he faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence." Many in this conservative Muslim town say he should be killed for renouncing Islam, and even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.
"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqiliya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.
Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favor of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a "primitive Bedouin." He called Islam a "blind faith that grows and takes over people's minds where there is irrationality and ignorance."
If that wasn't enough, he is also suspected of creating three Facebook groups in which he sarcastically declared himself God and ordered his followers, among other things, to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Quran. At its peak, Husayin's Arabic-language blog had more than 70,000 visitors, overwhelmingly from Arab countries.
His Facebook groups elicited hundreds of angry comments, detailed death threats and the formation of more than a dozen Facebook groups against him, including once called "Fight the blasphemer who said `I am God.'"
The outburst of anger reflects the feeling in the Muslim world that their faith is under mounting attack by the West. This sensitivity has periodically turned violent, such as the street protests that erupted in 2005 after cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad were published in Denmark or after Pope Benedict XVI suggested the Prophet Muhammad was evil the following year. The pope later retracted his comment.
Husayin is the first to be arrested in the West Bank for his religious views, said Tayseer Tamimi, the former chief Islamic judge in the area.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority is among the more religiously liberal Arab governments in the region. It is dominated by secular elites and has frequently cracked down on hardline Muslims and activists connected to its conservative Islamic rival, Hamas.
Husayin's high public profile and prickly style, however, left authorities no choice but to take action.
Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.
Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe - a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.
Officials monitored him for several weeks and then arrested him on Oct. 31 as he sat in the cafe, said Abu-Asal.
Husayin's family has been devastated by the arrest. On a recent day, his father stood sadly in the family barber shop, cluttered with colorful towels and posters of men in outdated haircuts. He requested that a reporter not write about his son to avoid being publicly shamed.
Two cousins attributed the writings to depression, saying Husayin was desperate to find better work. Requesting anonymity because of the shame the incident, they said Husayin's mother wants him to remain in prison for life - both to restore the family's honor and to protect him from vigilantes.
The case is the second high-profile arrest connected in the West Bank connected to Facebook activity. In late September, a reporter for a news station sympathetic to Hamas was arrested and detained for more than a month after he was tagged in a Facebook image that insulted the Palestinian president.
Gaza's Hamas rulers also stalk Facebook pages of suspected dissenters, said Palestinian rights activist Mustafa Ibrahim. He said Internet cafe owners are forced to monitor customers' online activity, and alert intelligence officials if they see anything critical of the militant group or that violates Hamas' stern interpretation of Islam.
Both governments also create fake Facebook profiles to befriend and monitor known dissidents, activists said. In September, a young Gaza man was detained after publishing an article critical of Hamas on his Facebook feed.
Such "stalking" on Facebook and other social media sites has become increasingly common in the Arab world. In Lebanon, four people were arrested over the summer and accused of slandering President Michel Suleiman on Facebook. All have been released on bail.
In neighboring Syria, Facebook is blocked altogether. And in Egypt, a blogger was charged with atheism in 2007 after intelligence officials monitored his posts.
Husayin has not been charged but remains in detention, said Palestinian security spokesman Adnan Damiri.
He could face a life sentence if he's found guilty, depending on how harshly the judge thinks he attacked Islam and how widely his views were broadcast, said Islamic scholar Tamimi.
Even so, a small minority has questioned whether the government went too far.
Zainab Rashid, a liberal Palestinian commentator, wrote in an online opinion piece that Husayin has made an important point: "that criticizing religious texts for their (intellectual) weakness can only be combatted by ... oppression, prison and execution."
The Associated Press
RAHAT, Israel — Israeli police demolished an illegally built mosque in this impoverished Arab town on Sunday, touching off rock-throwing protests by residents and fueling new grievances against the government by the country's Arab minority.
Before dawn, police armed with clubs and shields surrounded the area as a bulldozer knocked down the mosque in the southern desert town of Rahat.
Arab residents shouted in protest and prayed close to the site. Later some hurled rocks at police, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. There were no injuries and five people were arrested, he said.
Rosenfeld said the two-story mosque was knocked down under a court ruling.
Hours after it was demolished, residents began pouring cement to build the foundations for a new mosque on a nearby plot.
"They demolished it and we are rebuilding," said Rahat Mayor Fayiz Abu Sahiban. He said residents built the mosque illegally because Israeli authorities would take too long to approve it, though the municipality tried to retroactively obtain a building permit. He also said most of Rahat's 13 other mosques were built illegally.
The move is likely to further sour relations between Israel's Jews and minority Arab community, which makes up one-fifth of the country's seven million citizens. Although Israeli Arabs have full citizenship rights and participate actively in Israeli democracy, they have suffered pervasive discrimination and tend to identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Rahat is a fairly unique case of a town dominated by Bedouins — once nomadic Arab tribes who have their own dialects and customs. They once served in large numbers in Israel's military, but years of neglect over housing and employment have pushed many toward radical Muslim movements.
Relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have deteriorated as Jews increasingly question the loyalty of their Arab neighbors while jittery Arab residents fear they are being unfairly characterized as a threat from within.
A Muslim cleric from the northern Israeli Arab town of Nazareth was charged Sunday with "supporting a terror group, incitement to violence and spreading al-Qaida ideology," the court administration said. The cleric, Sheikh Nazem Abu Salim, preached in his Friday sermons in support of global jihad and killing Israelis, the indictment said. He was arrested last month.
Commenting on the destroyed mosque, a spokeswoman for the Israel Lands Administration said it had been built on state-owned land without a permit. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment on the matter.
Illegal building is a pervasive problem among Israel's Arab minority, who say officials do not free up enough land for them to build legally.
Authorities rarely demolish mosques, but this particular house of worship was financed by Israel's northern branch of the Islamic Movement, radical Muslim Israeli group that is frequently in conflict with authorities.
Critics note that Israeli authorities have not yet acted on a court ruling to evacuate Jewish settlers from a building in disputed east Jerusalem that was illegally expanded.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
By DIAA HADID
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 9:08 AM
UMM EL-FAHM, Israel -- Relations between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority have never been warm, but they appear to have hit a new low that has activists on both sides worried the troubled relationship is beyond repair.
In the past month alone, Israeli lawmakers have introduced a series of bills that aim to marginalize Arabs. Rabbis in a northern town have urged followers not to rent homes to Arabs. Extremist Jews marched through this town and set off a violent riot. And a prominent Arab activist has admitted in a plea bargain to spying for the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.
These repeated run-ins have threatened to turn what has long been an atmosphere of distrust into open hostilities as Jews increasingly question the loyalty of their Arab neighbors while jittery Arab residents fear they are being unfairly characterized as a threat from within.
"The Arab community is terrified. They see the legislation, they feel the atmosphere. They see the discourse and they feel insecure. They feel like they need to protect themselves," said Jafar Farah, head of "Musawa," an organization promoting equality for Arab residents. "And some of these people think they should fight back."
Arabs form about one-fifth of Israel's population of some 7.4 million. In contrast to their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli Arabs hold citizenship rights that give them access to Israeli social services and other benefits. For the most part, however, they identify with Palestinians. They also tend to be poorer and less educated than their Jewish compatriots and often suffer outright discrimination.
While relations have always been cool, the situation took a major turn for the worse a decade ago after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. At the time, thousands of Israeli Arabs rioted for days in solidarity with the Palestinians, and Israeli police killed 13 Arab citizens while trying to quell the unrest.
For Arabs, the 2000 unrest became a symbol of their grievances. For many Jews, the events instilled doubts that the Arab community could be loyal to Israel and raised fears the Arabs could actively try to help the country's enemies. Those fears have been compounded by events since.
Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, led his Yisrael Beitenu party to large gains in last year's parliamentary elections by questioning the loyalty of Israel's Arabs.
Last month, Lieberman managed to win Cabinet approval for his proposal to force non-Jewish immigrants to swear a loyalty oath to a "Jewish and democratic" state. The measure, which won support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was widely seen as a swipe against Arabs since it wouldn't apply to Jewish immigrants.
Another coalition partner proposed a bill that would allow small communities to exclude potential residents, bringing charges of racism from Israeli Arabs.
The deputy mayor of the northern Israeli town of Carmiel, Oren Milstein, meanwhile, urged residents not to rent or sell their homes to Arabs, according to local media reports. The politician's office did not return messages seeking comment.
In the nearby town of Safed, prominent rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu has warned Jews from doing the same. And last week, several dozen ultranationalist Jews marched through the hilly Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, chanting "death to terrorists," touching off clashes between rock-hurling residents and police firing tear gas.
"I'm scared for the future, and I'm scared for my children," said Saeb, a 37-year-old social worker who declined to give his last name, fearing he would get in trouble with his employer.
Many Jews, however, have real concerns that Israeli Arabs pose a potential threat, fueled by a series of high-profile cases involving Arab politicians.
Last week, Amir Makhoul, a leading community activist, pleaded guilty to handing sensitive information to Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that fought an intense monthlong war against Israel in 2006. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
In May, lawmaker Hanin Zoabi triggered harsh Jewish criticism by joining a Turkish flotilla trying to break Israel's blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Zoabi, an outspoken critic of Israel, was nearly attacked on the floor of parliament and called a traitor after the incident.
Another lawmaker, Azmi Bishara, fled the country three years ago to avoid facing similar espionage charges. Living in exile, he has since become a frequent participant in Arabic TV panels, heaping scorn and criticism on Israel and its policies toward Palestinians.
Ordinary Israeli-Arabs also have moved toward more extreme groups, like the radical northern Islamic Movement, which has close ideological ties to the militant group Hamas. It counts "tens of thousands" of followers, said its acting leader, Sheik Kamal Khatib.
Others have become fervent supporters of Bishara's and Zoabi's Balad Party, which emphasizes Palestinian identity. Many party members and supporters want Israel to be dissolved and ultimately merged with the Palestinian territories.
"We have never been Israeli, and we won't be. We are Palestinians," said actor Hasan Taha, 27.
Such views have fueled Jewish anxiety, which in turn has led to support for hard-line politicians like Lieberman, said Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, co-director of the Abraham Fund, a Jewish-Arab organization seeks to promote coexistence.
Beeri-Sulitzeanu said although violence is down from 10 years ago, the situation is far more dangerous because the push to isolate the community was being led by politicians, elected community officials and religious leaders - not by rabble rousers.
"What we are seeing is unprecedented," Beeri-Sulitzeanu said, adding there is "racism and alienation and a very coordinated attempt to marginalize and push the Arab community to the corner."