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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 December, 2003, 13:23 GMT
Mid-East media New Year hopes and fears

As the old year draws to a close and the new year beckons, media throughout the Middle East region reflect the uncertainties of a region beset by conflict, violence and natural disaster.

In the Arab world, the occupation of Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are to the fore, while in Iran, the press focuses on the repercussions of the devastating earthquake in Bam.

The Israeli plan to colonise the Golan Heights gets considerable coverage in that country's media, as does the rights and wrongs of Jewish settlement in the Palestinian territories.

For the influential London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, it has been a "year of disaster for Arabs and Palestinians".

The year to which we are bidding farewell has been painful
Al-Sharq al-Awsat

"The US administration backs Sharon's terrorist policies and considers the destruction of homes, plantations and the killing of women and children justified as a means for combating terrorism."

Year of woe

Another London-based daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, says the Arabs are partly to blame for their woes.

"The year to which we are bidding farewell has been painful, tiring and burdening. Last year's harvest with all its bitterness, harshness, blood and sadness was a result of what we sowed with our own hands.

"Terrorism did not fall on us from the sky, occupation did not come to Baghdad with the storm of the night," laments the daily, urging Arabs to "talk courageously and bravely about our mistakes".

The United Arab Emirates' Al-Bayan has a simple message: "Top of the Arab agenda for 2004 is how to keep resistance alive as a strategic option."

Egypt's leading daily Al-Ahram calls on the international community to ensure the effort to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction gathers momentum.

"This could be a step towards restoring peace, which will only succeed by clearing the WMD in all the states of the region, particularly Israel."

The Arab press also considers the effects of the Bam earthquake for the region, with Saudi Arabia's Al-Riyadh believing that it could lead to a narrowing of the differences between Tehran and Washington.

Political observers have interpreted the new trend in relations between America and Iran as earthquake diplomacy

"It could be a means of breaking down political barriers, and this could happen to Iran."

Oman's daily Oman notes that "This year whose sunset is approaching has not passed without new victims and destruction. The Iranian town of Bam was living in peace and harmony away from the world's eyes. But the earthquake shook it as it was sleeping one black morning, bringing death."

On the threshold?

In Iran itself, the reformist daily Sharq cautions against those "political observers and analysts, who have interpreted the new trend in relations between America and Iran as earthquake diplomacy, believing they are standing on the threshold of a new dispensation".

Sharq says President Khatami "speaks otherwise. Regarding [Colin] Powell's remarks, he said: Basically, you must not link the issue of the earthquake with deeply-rooted political issues. They talk a lot of nonsense."

Another reformist daily, Etemaad, compares the country's media unfavourably with international news coverage of the earthquake.

"It seems that foreign news agencies were more successful than Iranian media correspondents in covering and releasing news."

A commentary in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv urges the Sharon government to look favourably on Syria's offer of negotiations, which clearly came before the announcement of plans to expand Jewish settlement of the Golan Heights.

Israel should respond positively to the Syrian president's initiative. It is an opportune hour that should not be missed

"It is easy for any reasonable man to understand why the Syrian president repeats his offer of negotiations with Israel. It is not that the message of peace has filled his heart. Only the US threat propels his moves.

"And this is precisely why Israel should respond positively to the Syrian president's initiative. It is an opportune hour that should not be missed."

Golan gauntlet

However Voice of Israel radio subsequently broadcast remarks by Agriculture Minister Yisra'el Katz hardly designed as an encouraging response to the Syrian leader.

"There is no dialogue with the Syrians. There is an Israeli decision that the Golan Heights constitute an integral part of the State of Israel and we have no intention of relinquishing our hold. This is an important message. It is also the correct message and definitely has broad national support.

The Golan Heights are an integral part of the State of Israel and it is important for everyone in Israel- and elsewhere to understand that
Israeli minister on Voice of Israel

"The plan was finalised recently and the message it sends at this time is that the State of Israel will develop the Golan Heights and settlement in the Golan, and sees settlement of the Golan as of the greatest importance," the minister continues.

"I believe that the Golan Heights are an integral part of the State of Israel and it is important for everyone in Israel - and elsewhere - to understand that."

Tel Aviv Yedi'ot Aharonot reports that "a massive media campaign promoting settlement in the Golan will soon kick-off".

The liberal Ha'aretz takes the Sharon government to task over plans to evacuate what it says are four negligible outposts, while leaving intact important Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.

"The preparations can only be described as a mockery; and the country, groaning under the unnecessary and harmful burden of around a hundred illegal outposts, is the butt of a joke."

However, the rightist Hatzofe laments any move to remove Jewish settlers. "The unilateral withdrawal Ariel Sharon proposed includes the expulsion of Jewish settlers and the erasure of Jewish settlement."

"What it means to terrorists is surrender, flight, and reward for their deeds. It will encourage terror."

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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