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Zaki, who was quoted in the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry al Youm, did not make it clear whether this Egyptian position was coordinated with Israel. Nor was he clear on whether the emerging deal for Gilad Shalit is indeed a comprehensive one that would not only bring the abducted soldier home, but would also grant a normal life to Gaza's inhabitants. Perhaps this was one of the things Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discussed at their meeting Tuesday.

An Israeli government source insisted that "there is no connection between the issues," adding that he does not understand "on what basis the Egyptian Foreign Ministry says such things."

However, this is the first time Egypt has presented its two conditions for opening the border crossings and has linked the Shalit deal to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement. Though Israel has not publicly committed itself to lifting the blockade if Shalit is released, it appears that international pressure will not let it continue the closure. And practically speaking, there would no longer be any point to doing so: If Egypt decides to open its border with the Gaza Strip following the Shalit deal, Israel will not be able to prevent it.

Meanwhile, Egypt is suffering severe Arab criticism for having decided to put up a steel fence along its border with Gaza in order to prevent smuggling through the cross-border tunnels. Egyptian citizens in both parts of Rafah, a town that straddles the border, complain that fuel prices have already risen significantly and that without the tunnels, Gaza will suffer a serious shortage of fuel for heating during the winter. Some of the critics equate Egypt with Israel and accuse it of collaborating with "the Zionist state" against Gaza.

Last week, Egypt gave its critics additional cause for complaint by not allowing an aid convoy led by British MP George Galloway to enter Egypt through the Nuweiba port on the Gulf of Aqaba. The convoy, initially comprising about 70 trucks, went through Europe to Turkey, where it picked up several dozen more trucks, and thence to Syria and Jordan. From Jordan, the organizers wanted to cross into Sinai and continue to Gaza. But Egypt said the convoy could come in only through the Mediterranean port of Al Arish.

Galloway saw this as further Egyptian harassment of Gaza's residents and expressed his opinion of it in a letter to the Egyptian president. But Egypt was unmoved. Aid or no aid, "no convoy is going to dictate Egypt's decision on this matter," a Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted.

Turkey then stepped in and offered to mediate. The outcome is that while the convoy will indeed not enter via Nuweiba, it will be able to go back through Syria and from there to Al Arish, where Egypt has undertaken to allow it in without difficulties.

How to do investigative journalism

If the number of journalists killed in the line of duty is an index of the state of security in a given country, then 2009 was a relatively good year in Iraq. According to a report by the international Committee to Protect Journalists, the worst years were 2006 and 2007, during each of which 32 journalists were killed; that compares to four in 2009. In total, 140 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war began, of whom 117 were Iraqis.

Terror attacks continue to take the lives of scores of civilians in Iraq, but the number of fatalities is decreasing. An Internet site with the morbid name Iraqbodycount.org collects data on Iraqi fatalities since the war. It notes that in 2006, 56 civilians per day were killed in shooting attacks and executions and another 16 per day in explosive attacks; this compares to 12 civilians per day in 2009. These are macabre statistics, but they can at least give hope to those who focus on the graph of violence in Iraq.

However, this graph cannot tell about the difficulties Iraqi journalists still have doing their jobs. A new Internet site intended to serve as a meeting place for Iraqi journalists posts stories about journalists who have been persecuted by the security forces, about female journalists who cannot do their work without a man accompanying them, and about a law for the protection of journalists that has been rolled over from one session of the Iraqi parliament to the next. The parliament would rather not approve it, so that its members, who are constantly being criticized in the press, will be able to continue harassing journalists without fear.

"Iraqi journalists are defending their homeland better than the politicians are," wrote Dr. Catherine Mikhail on the Kul Iraq site. She meant that it is the journalists who are exposing the politicians' corruption and thereby trying to save state funds from the looters. "As compared to the politicians, who need cooperation from other countries, Iraqi journalists rely on their own resources and have no law that protects them," she added.

Mikhail, incidentally, has an amazing history. She was born in 1950 in Kirkuk and completed her academic studies in 1974 at the University of Mosul. After receiving her doctorate in petroleum engineering, she joined the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting Saddam Hussein. She was wounded in a chemical attack by Saddam's army and fled to Turkey, where she lived in a refugee camp for a year. In 2006, she testified at Saddam's trial in Baghdad. Since then, she has been traveling the world to inform people about what is happening in Iraq.